Friday, 4 July 2008

Fifty-Dollar Franzen

The newspaper Die Welt features an interview today with Jonathon Franzen, in which he talks about his love for Berlin and German literature. It's well worth reading - just don't let your eyes drift right to the celebrity bosom links if you want to get through the whole article.

Franzen studied German, including as an exchange student in Munich, and lived in Berlin in 1981/82. He comments:

I like to quote Karl Kraus, who said the difference between French and German was that between a pretty face and a face that can be transformed to true beauty.* The attraction of the German culture is in the language. It is capable of terrible and wonderful things - incredibly ugly in the wong people's mouths, but unbeatably beautiful in the mouths of others. It was pure luck that I stumbled into this culture. I felt at home straight away in its uneasiness.

And he talks about how he came to translate Frank Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen. Apparently his old lecturer rang him up and offered him $50 for the pleasure. It took him two months and the play was staged once in 1987. Then he managed to get it published last year, fuelled by rage at a Broadway musical version that "Wedekind would have loathed" (as his psychic told him, presumably). I hope he squeezed a bit more out of the publishers for it though.

It's nice to see a big-name US author cheering for German literature, even if he does have that typical Germanist fixation on all the usual "dead white men". And of course it's manna for the Berliners' collective soul when a New Yorker praises their city as highly as Franzen does here. Let's hope the quiet corners of Berlin he bigs up aren't soon overrun by literary tourists...

*The nearest I've found in a very brief search is this: "The French language surrenders to every filou. Faced with the German language a fellow has to be a real man to make her come around…. With French everything is easy…." That old chauvinist Karl Kraus, eh? What a card.

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