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In his birthplace, the Scotsman John Burnside, born in 1955, has long been considered one of the most important poets and narrators. And incidentally, Burnside, who teaches creative writing at the University of St. Andrews, first made a name for himself as a poet. In 2011, he was awarded the renowned T.S. Eliot Prize as well as the Forward Prize for his volume of poetry, “Black Cat Bone”. That his work was only made available to German audiences after a noticeable delay is, perhaps, most of all due to the perfidious combination of his novels, which consciously defy explicit categorization. On the one hand, the intoxicating beauty of their language impresses, since even as a prose writer Burnside is foremost a poet: each of his sentences, each of his images, reverberate with an alternative note, and, while never serving as the plot’s motor, they invariably possess a weight of their own. On the other hand, his novels are deeply disturbing, since Burnside oppressively comes to grips with primal human experiences: death and violence, spiritual and physical excesses, fears and obsessions come together in an unvarnished way. Even his prose debut, “The Dumb House”, published in 1997, triggered discomfort already. Here, a psychopath searches for where the soul resides and submits his children to horrific experiments. Yet Burnside – who first turned to prose after many long years of travel throughout England and the United States, and after returning to his Scottish birthplace, the County Fife, to put down roots there – by no means glorifies evil; nor does he include it merely for effect. Instead, Burnside is a gentle moralist, who explores the abysses of the soul with a finely-sharpened scalpel – because he knows the visible order of things, the seemingly well-ordered fabric of the world, is no more than a deceptive illusion. In “The Devil’s Footprints” (German edition, 2008) an adolescent is innocently guilty of causing the death of one of his schoolmates, who viciously tormented him. Decades later, though, he must own up to his guilt kept secret for so long, when he meets a girl who could easily be his daughter – a girl possibly conceived with the sister of the dead man, the woman he willfully seduced once. Aware that the world in the here and now is forming cracks, Burnside invariably structures it as a permeable world: ghosts pass through it; his characters are playfully named Moria (the Greek word for fate) or Maja (veil of the truth); people can vanish without a word; the past can overtake characters as it does in “The Devil’s Footprints”; and accepted truths prove to be lies. “A Lie About My Father” (German edition, 2011), the text which finally made Burnside known in the German-language region, is the merciless and mercilessly personal reappraisal of his own ruinous relationship with his father. This father was a drinker, gambler, and rapist. Most of all, this father proved to be a notorious liar – and had to forget that he was a foundling and therefore a nobody. Only later does the son realize that the excessive drug intact he resorts to in order to escape the father’s presence follows the same destructive “via negativa” the hated father chose. “A Lie About My Father” (and its worthy successor, “Waking Up In Toytown”) is most likely a pivotal piece of writing for those interested in understanding the human and psychological driving forces of this radically humanistic writer. On closer inspection, many of his novels are haunted by psychologically traumatized children – like the 18-year-old Liv in the novel “A Summer of Drowning” (German edition, 2012). Liv suffers under her emotionally-frigid mother, a famous landscape painter, who had moved with her daughter to the lonely island of Kvaløya. Left to her own devices, Liv develops into a girl who seems to neurotically spy on her own surroundings. Not until two brothers – schoolmates of hers – drown, and a shady summer guest and old screwball Kyrre Opdahl, the only person she trusts, seem to vanish into thin air, does Liv become sure of herself: The Huldra, an evil spirit in the form of a seductive woman, has taken possession of Maja, the neighbor’s girl. Only much later does one realize that the novel – told, in retrospect, by Liv – delivers a precise as well as iridescent, psychological study of its extremely unreliable chronicler. Burnside – who once referred to Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw” as the model for his novel – offers several ways of reading the events. Until the close of the book, the boundaries between reality and imagination, between visible signs and the meaning we grant them, are blurred for the reader. As early as in the novel “Glister” (German edition, 2010) Burnside uses a conscious blurring of facts in a masterly fashion – and not by chance does light, in all its variations, play a major role. The setting is a small town on the Scottish coast, where a chemical plant that formerly generated work and income brings only death and suffering now. People are dying of cancer, and the grounds of the plant are highly toxic. Then, one by one, teenagers begin vanishing – without the townspeople asking themselves why. Lodged between crime novel and ecological thriller, between end-time novel and horror story, the action ultimately reflects on a deadly sin: the sin of neglect, as an extraordinary form of human cruelty. In 2009, Felicitas von Lovenberg wrote in the FAZ newspaper: “Being a writer who shows as much concern for the souls of the living and the dead as he does for the environment and the future, Burnside points to wounds whose sense we fail to grasp, but whose pain we definitely feel. He creates characters who take their own suffering on themselves, who make sacrifices for us, and who seek forgiveness.” Lovenberg claims that telling all this serves to forgive those who appear in the stories – even Burnside himself. In this respect, his novels – translated by Bernhard Robben into an engaging German as elegant as light as a feather – are, in the best sense, evocations and exorcisms. According to Lovenberg, his novels welcome the possible transition into another state, the transformation through literature.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Karl Edward Johnson

Photo: Lucas Burnside


The Devil’s Footprints. Novel. Translated from English by Bernhard Robben. Knaus Verlag. Munich, 2008

Glister. Novel. Translated from English by Bernhard Robben. Knaus Verlag. Munich, 2009

A Lie About My Father. Non-fiction. Translated from English by Bernhard Robben. Knaus Verlag. Munich, 2011

The Light Trap. Poems. Bilingual edition. Translated from English and with an epilogue by Iain Galbraith. Hanser Verlag. Munich, 2011

A Summer of Drowning. Novel. Translated from English by Bernhard Robben. Knaus Verlag. Munich, 2012
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