Author and Poet Franz Michael Felder was celebrated this year as part of a massive campaign, which took place mainly in Vorarlberg. While this is commendable, many questions remain unanswered: Why are mostly people in Vorarlberg familiar with the author? Why has he remained such an outsider beyond state borders? Why hasn’t he (deservedly) taken his place amongst Europe’s best writers?
Just five years ago, on the occasion of his 175th birthday, a grand Felder exhibition took place in the Landesmuseum. The exhibition catalogue, entitled “Ich, Felder. Dichter und Rebell (Felder: Poet and Rebel)” was simply extraordinary. Those who had the opportunity to read it were simply thrilled. At the time, I had wanted to write an article about Felder having even announced my intentions at an editorial meeting. Justifying the need for an article to editors is nothing new. One is confronted with a range of questions such as “Do we really need that much space for this?” (this is of course often put forth by those who need the space themselves for whatever they are working on) to “Is this topic really relevant?” (posed by people who want to write about something particularly irrelevant) or “Is an exhibition in far western Austria really a topic for a Viennese weekly newspaper? (from the very people who in the next moment show support for a special interest piece from East Tyrol for an Austrian weekly newspaper).
And yet no such objections came. On the contrary, colleagues were quite interested in Felder. Self-described literary experts spoke glowingly of Felder as a “nice surprise.” Many had heard the name before, but were not aware of the breadth of Felder’s body of work. This is unsurprising considering the many-sided nature of his work: Author Michael Köhlmeier once rightly noted that Felder has been adopted for a variety of propagandistic purposes in Vorarlberg. For local patriots, he is a celebrated local poet, for Christian socialists he’s a true believer, and for the social democrats he was a Lasallian and a founding father of their party (which he was not). Even the Nazis tried to capitalise of Felder’s popularity amongst farmers. Editorial colleagues were astounded, and so was I.
How can it be that even well-intentioned individuals with a keen interest in literature, such as those present at the editorial department of feuilleton, only know Franz Michael Felder by hearsay? So I began my text with the sentence “Franz Michael Felder is the least well known of Austria’s great poets.” In spite of my own good intentions, I fear that my essay failed to have the desired consequences. Felder remains an unknown beyond Vorarlberg’s borders. ‘No, that’s not true!’ protested Jürgen Thaler of the Vorarlberg Felder association, who had invited me to read from my new novel “Fähre nach Manhattan (Ferry to Manhattan)” in Bregenz. During the public debate in the Kuppelsaal hall of the Landesbibliothek state library, I claimed that there were no translations of Felders work. ‘Quite wrong!,’ Thaler shouted, insisting that a French translation does exist. Nothing could be more Austrian than for a poet to be first recognised abroad.
The very definition of an Austrian achievement is that one is not recognised within one’s own country. Felder is now thoroughly acknowledged, if not beloved, in Vorarlberg, but could it be that his unusual literary career continues to stand in the way of both national and international fame? That obscurity on the national stage is a consequence of being overly recognised, honoured and celebrated in his home state? Perhaps the national literary conscious is somehow safe in the knowledge that at least he’s beloved in Vorarlberg. But from this it follows that to achieve fame, Vorarlberg would have to forget about Felder for the time being. Would the Germans remain silent about Goethe, the British about Shakespeare? Would it not be preferable to celebrate the modest victory that Felder is at least well respected for his achievements in the German-speaking countries?
19th century audiences were obsessed with the romantic, fascinated by the figure of a peasant farmer who ascended to literary and social greatness. Without a doubt, praise for his works at the local level has sometimes been overzealous. But how does this explain why the editors of Felder’s multi-volume complete edition failed to obtain an ISBN number? This international standard book number helps the book to be bought and sold internationally. Felder’s fate, it seems, is to remain the hero of local lore, celebrated during the “Year of Felder” with countless events, beloved in Vorarlberg in a manner that exceeds the boundaries of local patriotism. He is celebrated for his greatness and his humanity, which are evident in his works.
According to Norbert Häfele, who coordinated the recent “Felder Year” activities, Felder has perhaps never been more topical than he is today. “In times of peace and tranquillity, we reflect on nature, tamed centuries ago only to grow back, and to be exploited time and again. An environment in great danger and yet never more attractive.” Such a sentence should give audiences everywhere great pause and reason for contemplation. I mean, try reading something other than Greta Thunberg for once! Felder should be of interest to anyone “responsible for his own future yet interested in ensuring the futures of others as well.”
Author: Armin Thurnher
Issue: Winter 2019-20 Travel Magazine