Work and lifestyle at the cutting edge: In our conversations with leading contemporary thinkers, we examine the claims, clichés and ideals surrounding our workplaces. This time we interview the young author and translator Clemens Setz. He spoke to Angelika Molk via email about idleness, his daily routine as a writer and the importance of an external hard drive.
Clemens Setz is a writer and translator who lives in Graz, Austria. Born in 1982, the author is considered a shooting star in contemporary German-language literature. He often plays with elements of the absurd or the mysterious in his novels, stories and poems, which have already received numerous awards. Setz, who studied mathematics and German, also practices overtone singing and magic tricks in addition to his writing.
The summer issue of our magazine focuses on "idleness". This concept has experienced a major shift in values - while idleness was venerated during antiquity and considered to be the "ideal state", Christian ideas and progressive industrialisation, among other factors, turned work into a sacred duty, a moral and social value that determines a person’s place in society. "The devil finds work for idle hands", so the saying goes. Artists often move on the fringes of these social customs, and given society’s expectation of the artist’s producing a grand work, one often allows them a certain right to indulge in idleness (and vices) - one could say that doing nothing is part of the artistic process. How do you feel about this? Do you also like doing nothing on occasion?Yes. "Nothing" usually refers to "nothing productive" here - taking walks, playing Tetris, lounging around, watching the cat, etc. I’m sure my life would be very dreary if I could no longer do these things.
In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin says something along the lines that an artist is often most immersed in his work and creativity when it appears to the outside world as if he were doing nothing. As an author, do you distinguish between free time and time spent working, or do the boundaries blur?
I would say that the boundaries blur. Writing is the activity that makes me feel most alive, so I don’t need any rest periods afterwards. On the other hand, during the more intense work phases, like when I finish a longer book, my workday becomes pretty traditional, which means that the work takes effort and I need discipline and patience to accomplish it. Afterwards I do actually need to recuperate from the effort.
There are many slothful characters in literature - my personal favourite is Oblomov, the estate owner in St. Petersburg, who barely leaves his bed for days. Are there ever any lazy characters in your work?
There are very few of those in my books. But I hadn’t really noticed that so far. That is strange, since I’m actually very interested in such characters.
I would assume that your work as a writer is very different from the "nine-to-five" office job that is typical today. As an author, do you still have something like a regular workday, a certain routine or consistency in your activities?
Yes, actually a lot of regularity, every day. But I usually don’t have to force myself to keep to this schedule; on the contrary, I tend to get sad and dissatisfied if I don’t get to it.
How and with what do you write? Are there specific objects that mean something to you for your work?
I write longer things on my laptop, but most of the drafts and shorter texts are done by hand, in A5-sized notebooks, always with a very fine point pen. My handwriting is tiny and I always write in capital letters that are very difficult for others to read. When I work on my laptop, the most important object is the external hard drive, which I immediately copy all of the backup files onto. Without this, there is no doubt that I would have permanently lost my last novel twice.
Where do you most like to work?
At home in my room with an open window.
Are there places that you consider beneficial to your creativity, where you would especially like to write? Or put the other way around, places where you could never write a decent line, but which you need as an inspiration?
I think most places in the world tend to fall into this second category. I can really only work well at home.
You also work as a translator - how do you approach translations? As a writer, don’t you have to restrain your own voice quite a bit for a translation?
The concern about your own voice is not so dramatic; one should probably get a good sense of the original text and then reproduce it in one’s own language. But there is certainly room for your own ideas in the translation, they just move on a different level as in a novel. I would like to translate something again. But in contrast to professional translators, I’m a little slower, which publishers are often not so happy about.
Many people think that idleness, recuperation and doing nothing belong to the summer months - how do you feel about holidays?
The German word "Urlaub" (holiday) is a Middle High German expression that basically means "permission". At the moment, I’m lucky enough not to need anyone’s permission to travel anywhere.
Thank you for the interview!