Literature and Culture

The European spa is a literary topos in the double sense of the word, as locus and as motif. Classic novels of European literature are set in health resorts, just to mention Thomas Mann’s famous Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924) or Anton Chekhov’s no less prominent The Lady with the dog (Dama s sobachkoj, 1899). Taking the waters, spa romancing, gambling for one’s life - in the sanatorium as well as in the casino - are eminent topics. The specific attraction of the spa for literary ‘treatments’ stems from its nature as a meeting place, where people of different nationalities, religions and classes cross paths. Consequently, the spa in literature is often used as a social metaphor in a more general sense, as ‘paradise on earth’, a model of the perfect society, a hideaway from the impositions of everyday life, or even a dystopian place for controlling body and soul. Beyond such socio-literary observations the question arises, whether spa literature is characterized by a distinct aesthetic. One might consider modes of narration, the use of space, or of the specific temporality of spa life, shifting between strong medical regimes and superfluous free time. Moreover, spas are places of writing and reading themselves. Writers are avid visitors of health resorts, for reasons of health or of inspiration. And readers use the above-mentioned surplus of free time for no less avid consumption of reading matter.

Spa literature in our understanding thus comprises the following aspects and formats:

  • Fictional texts set in the environment of the health resort, describing and problematizing life and social encounters in the spas
  • Non- or semi-fictional texts such as travelogues and diaries by (predominantly) writers, documenting their travels to spa locations
  • Non-fictional materials such as spa guides, advertising materials (including websites), shaping popular discourses of spa culture
  • Literary texts (mainly novels) favoured by readers for the spa seasons (in so far as this reading canon can be reconstructed from memoirs and diaries)

Spa literature as such has of course attended due scholarly attention. Against this background and within the framework of our Joint Research Project, specifically tackling questions of spa culture as a transnational public space, our research interests are the following:

While most of the existing body of academic studies focuses on distinct national literatures or regions, we will map spa literature and spa reading across and between several European locations and cultures. Given the wealth of relevant texts, we will do that in exemplary form by way of integrated case studies.

We specifically focus on the nature and the potential of the spa as a transnational public space and the societal metaphors ascribed to it. In our work on a joint monograph we will structure our comparative readings around the following key concepts (drawing on the range of written materials mentioned above):

Metaphors

We test the hypothesis that the transnational spa narrative constructs the Kurort as a social metaphor for Europe as whole, positively as an ideal society of healthy and free living, or negatively as an elitist space fenced off from social and political inequalities. Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, for instance, portrays a European society hiding from political catastrophe in the seclusion of a mountain resort. Taking Mann's novel as a point of departure, we trace literary discussions of European society and identity linked to, and set in, health resorts across the continent, reaching from the Swiss Mountains (Davos) to the Baltic Sea (Zopot), from the French to the ‘Austrian’ (Opatija) and ‘Russian rivieras’ (the Crimea), with the latter being nationally and politically contested zones. Incorporating fictional and non-fictional texts, we analyse what the auto- and altero-presentations of spa towns tell us about the local, national and European contexts they arose in.

Networks

We trace the transnational literary itineraries of spa writers – and spa novels in the sense of a specific reading canon, shared by the visitors of the health resorts. Besides placing the bathing resort of Yalta on the European literary map, Anton Chekhov, for example, visited Opatija on the Austrian Riviera. Thomas Mann not only immortalized Davos but also sojourned in Brijuni. Therefore we also chart and visualize the literary itineraries of famous spa writers. We also reconstruct the longstanding intertextual ties between different national spa locations and traditions, and their incorporation into new stories. Thus, Konstantin Fedin’s socialist realist novel Sanatorium Arktur (1940) is a direct response to Mann’s Magic Mountain, staging the competition of capitalist and communist society and health systems within the scenic landscapes of famous Davos mountains.

Stages

We analyse the specific use of the spa settings for the depiction of various forms of social interaction. Because of their character, spas necessarily constitute a setting where people of different social backgrounds come together. Their association takes place in a context with a specific infrastructure (with the iconic spa-institutions offering public, semi-public and private spaces located in very close proximity and permeable to each other) – so the question of who sees/hears/communicates what plays an important role both in behaviour and in accounts of it. Such literary spa encounters often bear traits of theatrical performances: Milan Kundera’s novel The Last Waltz (Valčík na rozloučenou,1971), for instance, realizes the stage metaphor in a literal sense, often even including the natural environment (the mountains, springs).

Forms of public

We ask how national and European identities are presented and what public debates are mirrored or generated. What processes of, and criteria for in- and exclusion to and from the respective spa societies are presented? We also ask how do (and did) spa texts – from enduring iconic novels to more or less forgotten texts of various genres, – influence the public perception of these resorts and contribute to their reputations – just think of Wiesbaden’s reputation in the light of Fjodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel The Gambler (Igrok, 1866), or Marienbad in the light of Alain Resnais’ film Last Year in Marienbad (1961).

Transgressions / Trauma

Spa novels of the 20th century especially challenge the utopian presentation of the spa as a “paradise on earth” and de-colonize national or imperial representations. Hence we analyse which subaltern positions and perspectives (local, ethnic, gendered) are voiced in these novels. How do they relate to dominant fictional or non-fictional narratives? Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić in her novel Baba Yaga Laid An Egg (Baba Jaga je snijela jaje, 2008) for example challenges the predominantly male intertext of spa novels and presents a female / feminist view on life and work in the health resort.

Heritage / Memory

Famous people who attend, and especially those who write about spas become part of their heritage, a socio-cultural intertext that effects all subsequent experiences of these spas and in turn finds expression in new literary texts. Spas have also become spaces of cultural memory, most vividly perhaps in the 20th century. Writers such as Jan Koplowitz and WG Sebald address this quality, with regard to 1st and 2nd World War respectively, in their novels Bohemia, my fate (Bohemia, mein Schicksal, 1979) and Austerlitz (2001). Finally, contemporary dynamics inspire cultural narratives such as nostalgia for a golden past or, conversely, a fascination with decline, which manifests itself not only in literature, but also in visual accounts and popular practices such as “ruin and decay photography”.