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The City and the Writer: In Ljubljana with Aleš Šteger

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Ljubljana as you feel/see it?

Ljubljana is a beehive. Everyone has their small project that they buzz around. A building, for example, may look neglected, but inside hides exciting studios with people working on their next art exhibition, futuristic installation, or poem. The city is not only charged by past stories. It is palpably fraught with some kind of electricity stemming from individuals that try to make it a place with a dynamic present and future. Ljubljana is also a meeting place—a crossroad of cultures and languages. If you drive two or three hours away you will find yourself in a dramatically different mental and physical landscape, in Venice, Zagreb, Vienna. I love this possibility of a near distance that is in the air, the feeling that the city is not only a place to stay but a space for permanent returns. I love it especially in early spring and late autumn when the high peaks of the Alps in the north whiten, and at the same time on can sense the not-too-far Adriatic Sea.  

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Memories of my deceased friends, many of them marvelous poets or writers who I used to meet. I can still sense their presence, still see them in various cafes we used to visit together—Dane Zajc in the Klub Nove revije, Tomaž Šalamun in Nebotičnik bar, Aleš Debeljak in Jazz klub Gajo.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

If you take a stroll along the river Ljubljanica toward the Botanical Garden, you arrive to Špica, where Ljubljanica and a side canal of the river meet. It is a great place to hang around. Most people don’t know that beneath the refurbished riverbanks there are remains of old crannogs, where presumably the first inhabitants of this area used to live some 5000 years ago. From there you look over the nearby marshes. It is a place made for imaginary journeys of the spirit, for travels without moving.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Drago Jančar, the great avant-garde poet Srečko Kosovel, and Lojze Kovačič, whose book Newcomers was published this year by Archipelago.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Ljubljana can be almost entirely traversed by walking through the woods. The Rožnik Hill, Tivoli Park, and Golovec Hill are great fun to hang around and are within minutes of the city center.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The rather ugly train station. Not only because it bears a strange small monument to James Joyce, who, on his way from Dublin to Trieste, stepped out with Nora by accident and had to spend one night on a bench in a nearby park. But mostly because in the 70s and 80s it was the place where punks, artists, students, and all other kinds of ethereal souls gathered in the late hours, a place full of unconventional memories and fatal histories. 

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Tourists usually go to the beautifully refurbished old part of the town and that’s it. It can easily be walked and it creates a small entity on its own. For me the true Ljubljana lies in the working-class suburbs, in Rakovnik or Šiška, where there is a feeling of socialist times and where local identities are strong—time passes much slower there than in the center.

Where does passion live here?

It lives in the art scene. I mean basically in each house you can find someone who plays, performs, paints, makes movies, or writes. This scene is very active, although it has a low public profile, which makes it hard for outsiders to recognize it instantly.

What is the title of one of your works about Ljubljana and what inspired it exactly?

My last novel, Absolution, is set in Maribor, the second biggest city in Slovenia. If one wants to see a contrast, common features of Slovenian towns and their frustrations, that would be the book to read. In a new project entitled “Written on Site,” I have a piece set in Ljubljana during the times of protest against the right-wing government.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Ljubljana does an outside exist?”

In Ljubljana there is only an outside and a desire for an outside. People crave it. Literally. On the weekends the majority of city dwellers leave the city to walk in the countryside. And those who remain in town, often by accident, go for a walk in the parks or grow food and flowers on their allotments. One can sense everywhere in Slovenia the wish and the need of people to spend time in the woods and in nature.

Aleš Šteger is a poet, essayist and novelist, writing in Slovenian. He belongs to a generation of writers who started to publish right after the fall of Yugoslavia. His first poetry collection, Šahovnice ur (1995), was sold out in three weeks and initiated a new generation of Slovenian artists and writers. His most recent books include Nad nebom pod zemljo (poetry, 2015), Odpusti (a novel, 2014), and Kurent (a novel for young adults, 2014). His most recent books in translation include Archiv der toten Seelen (Schöffling, Frankfurt, 2016), Berlin, Counterpath (Denver, 2015), Libro de las cosas y los cuerpos (Arlequin, Guadalajara, 2014), and Einsteinov stolp (IPPH, Beijing, 2014). Šteger’s books have been translated into sixteen languages and his poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Boston Review, Die Zeit, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, TLS, and many others. The English translation of Knjiga reči (The Book of Things) was published by BOA Editions in 2010, and won the BTBA and AATSEL. He has translated from German, English, and Spanish. He was the founder and program director of the International Poetry Festival Days of Poetry and Wine ( from 1995 to 2004, and he is currently the program director of Beletrina Academic Press. Šteger has received numerous national and international prizes and honors, including the Chevalier des Artes et Lettres from France. He is a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts.

Published Oct 17, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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