Thursday, 18 September 2008

Berlin Publishing: From F'ing Berlin to Herzzeit

The second and final day of our tour of Berlin's publishers with the LCB summer academy for translators of German literature took us from one end of the publishing scale to the other. Although it wasn't as enjoyable as the first day, it was certainly very interesting.

The first stop was Ullstein Verlage - which was probably the most similar to a large British or US publishing house out of those we visited. By that, I mean they work on a strictly commercial basis, with a selection of imprints publishing a broad range of titles in all sorts of popular genres, especially crime fiction, business, politics, esoterica and "inspirational books for women". Claasen is their quality fiction imprint, with writers such as Emma Braslavsky, Joan Didion and the Turkish author Oya Baydar out now. The main difference to a British publisher, though, is a huge one: most of their books are translations. One reason is that they lost a lot of their German authors (for reasons that were not revealed) and another is that books in translation are a safe bet in Germany. If it's sold well in the USA or France, it'll probably do OK here too.

We were escorted to an absolutely gorgeous former school auditorium in their beautiful building on Friedrichstraße, where discussion ranged from the online pre-review platform run by the Bonnier group (which owns Ullstein), the Sony reader (they like it) to a rather unpleasant argument over why translators are badly paid. I know if I were facing a group of fifteen literary translators, I wouldn't attempt to defend poor pay by complaining that paper prices are so high.

The Ullstein people also told us about two big books. The first won't be out until February 2009, but is by my one of my favourites, Zoran Drvenkar. This will be his third novel for adults, a gory psychological thriller-cum-Berlin prankster adventure called Sorry. I'm looking forward to it and hope to get a review copy. The second was one of their top-sellers: Fucking Berlin.* At this point, most of our jaws dropped. It's "a no-holds-barred account of the sex industry". Sex sells, we were told. The most bizarre point was when the (female) editor told us the book was part of a wave of young women liberating themselves through their sexuality, in the wake of Charlotte Roche. Aha, prostitution = liberation. An interesting standpoint. The author, an Italian single mother working as a part-time prostitute to fund her studies in Berlin, is not, however, liberated enough to write under her own name. Perhaps she should go into translation. Or perhaps translators should go into prostitution - it would at least appear to be rather more lucrative.

From Berlin-Mitte we zipped over to posh Charlottenburg, to the Berlin office of Suhrkamp. Their managing director and his secretary treated us to tea and plum cake, before whizzing though an off-the-cuff presentation of Suhrkamp's history and authors. They're actually based in Frankfurt but have a small "representation" in Berlin, with immaculate interior design that transports you to a timeless place where the chairs are just that bit bigger than usual, very possibly intended to make you feel small as you sit swaying your legs five inches off the floor.

What can I say about Suhrkamp? Quality fiction. World-class writers. Nice towels. And as one of our number remarked afterwards, salon communism. They have two authors on the Book Prize shortlist, Tellkamp and Dath. And they sent us all a copy of the correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, Herzzeit. It really is beautiful, agonising stuff.

The highlight of the day, I have to admit, was an impromptu lunch in the Berliner Ensemble canteen, where we admired Klaus Maria Brandauer in the flesh.

*Blogger won't let me publish this posting with the full title in the headline. Sheesh.


Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Dath: salon communist. Couldn't have put it better myself. But still a joy to read, in a "but what was that all about" kind of way? But what do you expect when you read the writings of a some-kind-of-communist-in-his-youth/later F.A.Z. editorial board member/who still quotes Lenin/and Buffy?

When I told one of my (two) new workmates that I enjoy reading the kind of stuff Suhrkamp publish, her comment was Ah, was für eine linksintellektuelle Zecke haben wir hier ins Nest geholt. I promptly ordered some Stasiuk (when it comes to Dath's Dirac, I'll have to wait for the paperback, in February, I think), and some Sibylle Berg (who's actually published by Rowohlt, but you get the idea). Now I'll just have to try and sell the things to someone.

kjd said...

Sibylle Berg - you surprise me. Never read her, except for things in women's magazines. But your workmates seem to have got your measure pretty quickly.