Thursday, 26 February 2015

Michael Wildenhain: Das Lächeln der Alligatoren

I’d been reading things that didn’t impress me, that didn’t excite me, that frustrated me, and feeling annoyed with German publishers for saving all their good titles up for the autumn season. And then came this, Michael Wildenhain’s new novel Das Lächeln der Alligatoren. Like the other two of his books I’ve read, this one is set mainly in West Berlin, mainly in the seventies.

It starts, however, on the island of Sylt. Matthias and his mother are visiting his brother in a home for the disabled where he lives. Fifteen-year-old Matthias falls hard for a young woman who cares for his brother, Marta. Three years his senior, she seems relaxed about his obvious attempts to play peeping Tom and even kisses him, always in control of every situation. This opening section is vibrant with teenage promise and threat, laying out the blueprint for Matthias’s story as a whole, one of sordid shocks, guilty conscience and confusion over Marta and her motivations. Wildenhain employs his usual accomplished prose here to create a piece that would stand alone as great, evocative writing.

Part two, however, comes crashing down on us with the weight of lost innocence. Five years on, Matthias’s mother is dead and he rejects his absent father to move in with his uncle, a successful surgeon and professor. Now a student, he meets Marta again in a lecture. These are the heady days when students stood up against their teachers, questioning authority and reading and writing political flyers. We get a palpable sense of what it must have been like at West Berlin’s Technical University at the time, close to the zoo with its wafting scents of wild animals on the air.

Matthias and Marta spend more and more time together, but it’s not quite clear who’s pursuing whom and to what end. What does become obvious to both us and narrator Matthias is that she’s heavily involved in militant left-wing politics, Wildenhain’s specialist subject, if you like. And then comes the novel’s pivoting moment, something we’ve been half-dreading from the very beginning, and it seems that Matthias has been used all along for political ends.

His uncle is murdered in a botched political kidnapping attempt, and Matthias finds out more about his past – not the kind of things you’d want to find out about a man you idolized. Does that change the way he feels about Marta? He’s unsure.

A third section takes place at some point after 9/11. Matthias is now a celebrated professor himself, exploring the similarities and differences between artificial intelligence and autism. Once again, Marta appears out of the blue and things get complicated. She is wanted by the authorities, but encourages Matthias to visit his brother. I’m very impressed by the grey zone Wildenhain creates around Marta – is she a caring figure who brings the brothers together, or is she nothing but a force of destruction? It’s impossible to say, and that’s what makes this a great novel.

That subtlety above all, but there are other factors (and other equivocal characters). Wildenhain’s construction is amazing, with seeds sown from page one, gradually, gradually pulling back to reveal the big moral picture. And there’s the writing, the rhythmic sentences, the expert changes of pace, the sex scenes, the philosophical questions, the animal metaphor sparingly applied, the light repetition, the binoculars as leifmotif, the shots fired in each section, Matthias and his doubt in himself, something he never escapes even as a more cynical older man capable of falling asleep in the theatre during plays about left-wing terrorism.

I read the book with a growing sense of horror, that wonderful and terrifying feeling that life must go on hold for the duration and that anything else is banal. It’s not a thriller as such but it has a similar undertow, certainly building tension as the plot unfolds. My nitpick would be that I don’t like the title – it seems to answer the question of where to place Marta on the moral spectrum a little too unequivocally. Ignore it and read this book for its philosophically sophisticated take on German twentieth-century history and one character’s unusual family.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Show's the Thing

So there I was, thinking about writers and the theatre in Germany, and a big old scandal comes up and slaps me in the face. Brecht's heirs against director Frank Castorf. Castorf put on a very personal interpretation of Baal, with lots of stuff more Castorf than Brecht, and Barbara Brecht-Schall objected and the publisher Suhrkamp, whose lawyer is obviously kept busy, went to court on her behalf. Deutsche Welle has a good explanation of the situation in English, including clearing up what on earth Regietheater means - a very German word if ever there was one. If you're even vaguely interested, do read this article, which also goes into differences between theatre in Germany and the rest of the world. The court ruled that Munich's Residenztheater can only stage the play two more times (plus at the Berliner Theatertreffen, where tickets are presumably very sold out).

And then another director, Leander Haußmann, got all uppity about these damned writers meddling with things they don't understand. Over the weekend, the Deutscher Bühnenverein ("a politico-cultural organisation that represents the interests of its members, namely theatres and orchestras") issued a statement calling for a reform of copyright law to give directors more freedom:
It is unrealistic to demand that a director does not use additional text in a staging of a play, so as to protect a copyright-holder like Brecht who has been dead for almost sixty years. The aim of the performance of a work that has been in existence for decades must be to confront it with a director's present view of the world. If additional text is needed to do so, the heirs should not be able to demand the play be cancelled for copyright reasons.
Woah. It's like a giant battle of the egos, only one of the egos is dead. Original genius director versus original genius writer, represented by offspring of original genius writer. How odd that the dead one would win. I suppose that's what you get for being canonized (in the literary sense) – extra weight in courtroom wrestling matches.

I have two approaches for looking at this, one as a lapsed Marxist atheist and one as a translator. I'll tell you the first one first.

So, the lapsed Marxist atheist in me is saying, What's the big deal, the guy's dead. He's been dead for sixty years and if his kids can't manage to support themselves financially yet they probably have bigger problems than whether Daddy would have liked this particular version of his play or not. Daddy certainly isn't looking down from heaven between mouthfuls of divine Kaiserschmarren and tearing his non-existent hair out. Isn't it enough respect for the dead that someone still wants to put on his play and still sees it as relevant ninety-two years after it premiered?

While the translator in me, as she often does, is drawing parallels to translation. The director is interpreting the words on the page and adding extra ones for context, the way translators sometimes have to do when we think our readers won't get the point for cultural or historical reasons. OK, we rarely add whole swathes of extra words like Castorf does, and our presence in the final text is expected to be minimal. But someone like Michael Hofmann seems to feel comfortable adding here and there, and there's certainly been a tradition of omission in translation, although we're getting more careful about that. In this case, of course, the context is Frank Castorf's present view of the world, or his comparison of Baal's bad behaviour to America in Vietnam, or whatever. I'm almost envious of theatre directors for having that freedom to interpret more wildly than translators.

Yesterday I cyber-eavesdropped on a long and interesting Facebook discussion in response to Haußmann's really rather clumsy opinion piece. Most of the people commenting were writers, and were concerned about the possibility of their work being misappropriated, the extreme example being a play performed within some kind of dictatorship. I can understand that, but at the same time – as someone who tinkers and tampers with writers' work for a living – I think writers have to let go of their products to some extent, let others interpret their books or their scripts publicly rather than in private. Like painters who have to sell their actual pictures to make a living, rather than keeping them on the wall in their kitchen. I won't say, like Haußmann does, that writers should keep away from the theatre and directors should keep away from writing. But I think he has a point when he says that the written word remains on the page, whereas the spoken word is ephemeral. Which, I suppose, is one reason why we translators are expected to be truer to our originals than directors are. At least most of us have smaller egos than Frank Castorf though, dear writers. 

P.S. Does this totally contradict what I wrote about stage adaptations of novels? Not entirely, I feel. But who says I have to be consistent?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

So, So Sad about Ocelot

I'm really, really sad. My favourite ever bookshop is closing down in mid-March. Ocelot on Brunnenstraße is a beautiful big space full of well chosen books. They also sell coffee and really good cake. They host events and cooperate with a radio station and they run a blog and sell print and e-books online. They have quirky things like a sofa by the YA titles and a weird Japanese cube made of glass and electricity. Like all German bookshops, they will order any book you like and it will be there the next day. They will be really helpful and friendly about it too, and if you're me they'll ask you your name and you'll start spelling it and then they'll say, "Oh, right, I know!" If you're not on first-name terms already, that is.

You can go in with a friend and wander around for a very long time, recommending books for his dad's birthday present. And there'll be lots of good ones to choose from, of course. You can go in after two generous Mai Thais on their long night of book shopping before Christmas, and be too drunk to buy anything but have a really nice time just admiring the really expensive titles. Or you can go there to sit at the long table and drink a Diet Coke and talk to a journalist who's writing your friend's obituary. If your book happens to be mentioned in the London Review of Books you can tell them and they'll lend you their copy, because they're just sweet like that. You can pop in on a Saturday and run into a friend and tell her what a stinking bad mood you're in and feel instantly slightly better. Or you might run into a local writer looking at the recommendations, who will discourage you from buying anything because it's all rubbish, apparently, not like his books. You might go in there once with a friend and then find they're stocking her book in the YA section at a later date, and when you tell her she'll be really pleased. They might even ask you to moderate a reading by a top British writer, and then either they or the publisher will buy you a Wiener Schnitzel afterwards.

I wasn't sure whether to write anything; it feels a little tactless after their campaign to Save the Ocelot. And I know all us Ocelot fans had been hoping the Christmas season would pull them back out of insolvency. I think it went well; just not well enough. I think there was a miscalculation somewhere along the line, as there will almost inevitably be when you do something big and brave like opening a gorgeous bookshop in a large space. And it makes me sad that this ambitious project, which has captured hearts and minds and launched a million style pieces, hasn't managed to stay afloat. I know that's not for lack of enthusiasm.

I feel sort of pleased to have experienced this place, a book shop the way I think book shops ought to be, never patronising to its customers, always welcoming and involved with the publishing and literary world, a place to feel comfortable about loving books but never anonymous. I can't imagine there'll be anything to match up with it any time soon. The insolvency administrator is hopeful someone will buy the place outright and continue to run it. I sincerely hope so. If you happen to be rich, you should really think about it. If I was rich I know I would.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015


Two new and exciting announcements from your favourite publisher of teeny books, Readux:

Series Five will be on sale from March 2, with four teeny books all about urban voids in Paris and Berlin. They all look fascinating but the one I know best is the one I translated and can recommend most wholeheartedly, Annett Gröschner's City Spaces. I'm really pleased that a taste of her work will soon be available in English. There'll be a launch event in early March – watch this space.

And they're also running their writing competition again, this time with no age limit. Hooray for New German Fiction! You just have to write in German and not have previously published anything; in other words, you have to be a new writer of German fiction. The winners get their teeny book published in e-book format and in English translation.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Indie Book Day Goes GB

If you're a bookish type in Germany, you'll be familiar with Indie Book Day already. This year it's on Saturday, 21 March, and the idea is that you walk into an independent book shop of your choice and purchase a book from an independent publishing house. Thereby giving you good publishing karma for the rest of the year. If you like that kind of thing you can post a picture of the book, or yourself with the book, or your cat with the book, on social media with the appropriate hashtag. I did last year.

And now, The Bookseller says, Indie Book Day is being backed by UK bookshops and publishers. So Brits in Britain can join in without feeling all continental about themselves. I'm pleased that an idea thought up by a couple of people in Hamburg, with no budget whatsoever, has spread to other parts of the world. See you then!

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Two Titillating (Translation) Treats

I know you're stuck for something to do right now. It's February, the fuggiest month, and you're just sitting at home watching DVDs every night, and a good few of the days as well, right? Lucky for you if you live in Berlin or New York, then (although that probably already makes you kind of lucky). Because there are two things to look forward to very soon indeed.

Number one, in Berlin, is the Untranslatable event this coming Friday. I have often said that the notion of untranslatability is a narrow-minded one, and this is an attempt to show that yes, we can render tricky things into another language. Mostly we have to bend and break them slightly to fit them into the new box, but hey. Come along – it'll be fun and frolics all night long.

Number two, in New York, is the Festival Neue Literatur. Eight writers from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the USA, in various combinations, reading and talking about love and money – hey, that's two very important things right there. If you're spoilt for choice, might I recommend the event For the Love of Translation at the Bowery Poetry Club? The name kind of says it all, but in case you need further persuading, you get four editors talking to four translators – including out-of-German diamond geezers Tim Mohr and Susan Bernofsky – about their work. The whole shebang is curated by the fantabulous Tess Lewis and managed by the supertastic Brittany Hazelwood. So you know it'll be good. They have postcards.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

German Writers on Stage and Screen

This post is going to be one long caveat – I know next to nothing about German theatre. But I recently read this piece by Holger Syme about the Theatertreffen, a festival that invites productions in German to Berlin in the hope of showcasing what's going on in the theatre right now. Syme is troubled that there are four brand new plays in the festival, three book or film adaptations and only three older plays. It took me a while to grasp his point – which is that there has traditionally been a strand of German theatre that uses the classics "to speak to the present" and that this strand is missing from the festival. Because my immediate reaction was, great, new plays getting recognition! Perhaps this is because I'm still annoyed by the British habit of putting Nazi uniforms into productions of German classics – Woyzeck, for goodness' sake! Think harder! I wanted to shout. But I didn't, and it was a very long time ago. At any rate, I'm not sure I share Syme's concerns (after all, this is just one year of one festival) but I'm glad someone's writing about German theatre in English.

I was particularly glad that there are four new plays on the programme and only one novel adaptation. I'm not the only person to feel uncomfortable about these, which are common on German stages. When I've seen them I've come away feeling disgruntled – my readings of novels are so personal that a director's version feels to me rather like a violation, and the brutal abbreviation that's necessary to squeeze a slow-moving novel into a couple of hours' entertainment doesn't help. People who know more about this than me seem to agree that a good book-to-stage adaptation has to go a long way away from the original – embracing that act of appropriation, perhaps, as something creative rather than violent. I think that makes sense. I can only imagine that the book adaptation on the Theatertreffen programme falls into this category, because Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands is not a traditional narrative work.

There are reasons for these novel adaptations, though, and they're partly economic – audiences will be familiar with the books' names, at least, and publishers are getting better and better at selling rights for film and stage adaptations. What makes me sad is that a lot of German-language novelists also write for the stage, and have traditionally done so. Off the top of my head: Elfriede Jelinek, Lukas Bärfuss, Kristof Magnusson, Daniela Dröscher, Julya Rabinowich, Max Frisch, Thomas Bernhard, Nino Haratischwili, Feridun Zaimoglu, Kathrin Röggla. And they write plays that don't need adapting, they're made-to-measure pieces for the stage written by astoundingly talented people, and yet the novel adaptations often seem to be a bigger deal. Sheesh, I wish I knew enough about theatre to say that they're actually better quality. I wish I knew enough about theatre to define quality.

Films, I can do a bit better. But there's little point writing the five millionth piece about how page-to-screen adaptations fall short, right? So here, two fabulous things to do with the writer Clemens Meyer, one of my translatees. He's just been awarded a big sparkly prize for best (unfilmed) screenplay, along with co-writer Thomas Stuber, for an adaptation of his short story "In den Gängen". You can read the original story in English in All the Lights. And director Andreas Dresen's adaptation of his debut novel Als wir träumten is competing in the Berlinale as we speak, then on general release in Germany from 26 February.