Sunday, 31 August 2008

Scrumping Brochures

There's nothing like being part of a group being herded around town by a responsible adult to make you gleefully regress to adolescence. The LCB's summer academy was one of those wonderful opportunities. On top of informative presentations by critics on various subjects (to come), we also visited five Berlin-based publishers, which I'll report on in due course. Naturally enough, that meant quite a bit of traipsing around in the capable hands of Jürgen Jakob Becker (not literally, don't worry).

Now I'm the first to moan about groups of tourists blocking up the pavements, but I found myself doing just that on numerous occasions. I also did quite a lot of straggling behind the others in a huge expanding crocodile, talking loudly and excitedly, and not looking where I was going. There were two readings at the LCB while we were there and our prescence was announced with great pride - almost like saying, "Now children, as you may have noticed, we are playing host to a group of pupils from our twin school in Monteaudio, so I hope you'll all be on your best behaviour and help them to find their feet." Which gave us a licence to act like proper foreigners, waving our arms at each other in public and loafing around demanding alcoholic drinks. So general adolescent school exchange-type behaviour.

The high point, however, was on route from one publisher to the next. Remember the whole German Book Prize Longlist Reader saga? Well, it turned out one of the people sharing his wisdom and judgement with us, Wolfgang Schneider, had been involved in said brochure's production. Being a nice kinda guy, he went out of his way to let me know where on earth I could get hold of the bloody thing. And the one bookshop in the remote vicinity to have ordered it happened to be round the corner from one of our publishers.

I did a quick recce beforehand, casing the joint and sussing out the owner. She pointed to a meagre pile of brochures, unwisely placed right by the door. Now these things are free, but she obviously expected anyone who took one to buy something as well. Eyeing the pile, I asked if all my twelve mates standing around outside could have one too - but Ms Bookscrooge was having none of it. "I've only got a few left," she mewled, squaring her shoulders. Well, we translators were not impressed - it was a free brochure and we were going to get one each, come what may. After all, it was vital for the spread of German literature that each of us could read extracts from the books longlisted for the German Book Prize, for goodness sake. And this measly-minded bookseller was not going to stand in our way. As she reached for her shotgun, twelve hands sneaked in the doorway one by one, each removing a copy in lightning succession. The clack as she finished loading her slugs rang out just as we escaped around the corner. Two shots grazed our hats and one of us dropped a brochure, the pages scattering across the pavement in our wake. Our adrenalin-fuelled laughter masked the bookseller's screams of rage as she gathered up the remains of her pile of brochures, now dusty and betrodden. We beat a hasty retreat to the station and jumped on the caboose of the departing train, swinging our hats in a trimphant farewell gesture.

I haven't had so much fun in years.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Outside my Remit...

...but what an undertaking! David at Dialog International has compiled a list of 50 near-perfect books of German poetry. Since 1900.

We are not worthy.

Hot German Publishing Infos

We have the afternoon off from our whirlygig schedule at the Literary Colloquium, so I'm sharing today's content now before I forget it. This morning saw Oliver Vogel from S. Fischer Verlag and Volker Weidermann from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung talking about the publishing/reviewing/bookselling bizz. There was a slightly charged atmosphere - I don't think they knew each other beforehand, and there may have been some strange primate-level male rivalry going on between them that they were unaware of, lecturing to a group with a high percentage of gorgeously beautiful and intelligent female translators as they were. A fair amount of digs from the publishing side at the papers and the papers side at the publishers... But maybe I'm interpreting too much into it.

In general, they agreed, there are more books and fewer review-readers now than ten years ago, although Sunday papers are getting more successful. They're actually a newish invention here, as there used to be hardly any shops open on Sundays where one could buy them. If you live outside of a major city, that's probably still a problem. And they also agreed that the book market is becoming more densely concentrated, with 60-70% of sales coming from just three large booksellers, which means they can basically determine the terms they want and need a great deal of wooing and special attention. Because getting books on shelves is THE most important thing. I suspect the buyers at the big chains have very large waistlines, what with all the wining and dining that seems to be done.

Today's big hits are BIG - selling more than anyone could ever have imagined ten years ago. That means, though, that the other titles don't do quite as well, sometimes struggling to make the 50-60,000-mark that counts as a success for an established author. On the other hand, big-gun titles can pull up the rest of the catalogue. The goal for the publishers is to bring out a book that sells well in hardback and then sells steadily over several years in paperback. Foreign rights, on the other hand, don't make a great deal of money but are very good for massaging authors' egos. And once you've sold translation rights to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Croatia, Taiwan, Hungary, Belarus, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Belgium, you can write that the author has been translated into ten languages. Plus it makes publishers feel good - and it's not as if they have anything to lose by having their books translated. There was some gossip flying around about the price paid by a publisher in a, ahem, small country for Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World - suffice to say the sum was less than my monthly rent. And rents in Berlin aren't exactly high.

The big book prizes awarded in Leipzig and Frankfurt have pushed the market concentration even more, as one might expect, with titles vying to pass through the longlist/shortlist funnels - and the ones that don't make it can then fall by the wayside. And attempting to make the lists is hard work for publishers, with all the emotional aftercare to be done if that all-important book doesn't scrape on. But the big prizes can be a boon for lesser-known authors, and are very useful for journalists, especially as the judges often choose rather unexpected titles.

Asked how he chooses the books he covers in the FAS, Weidermann said he gets sent about 2000 a year. There are some big guns that you just can't ignore without appearing overly arrogant, apparently. With the rest, he asks: Is there a story behind it? Does it look interesting? And finally: is it good - or unexpectedly bad? He was also visibly annoyed about us readers going online and thus escaping paying good money for his hard work, although the German papers aren't yet as hard hit as those in the USA, for example. The FAZ now has value-added book stuff online in its reading room Lesesaal - not unlike the Words Without Borders book club but much, much glossier. Basically, the idea is to give readers extra information on certain hot-topic books for free in the hope that they'll carry on buying the paper, and I suspect it probably works - but I'm surprised it's the FAZ that's doing it rather than the publishers themselves.

That's all for now, but there's a lot more to be transcribed straight from my trusty notebook during the next free moment. That may not be until next week, though...

Monday, 25 August 2008

Pause - Break - Playtime

This week I'll be taking part in the LCB's summer academy for translators of German-language literature. So I probably won't have a great deal of time or energy left over to blog, I'm afraid. I will try to share some of the promised insights at some point, though - Hitler and the Consequences in Literature, the Latest Trends in Contemporary German Literature, German Literature in the Public Arena. Plus a million readings and visits to publishers.

Saturday, by the way, is Indies Day on Lake Wannsee, with 18 small publishers plying their wares in the beautiful lakeside garden at the LCB. I'll be making my way there after celebrating my favourite aunt-in-law's 70th birthday in Altglienicke, which is about as far away from Wannsee as you can get without leaving Berlin's city limits.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

From Pillar to Post

Remember all that talk of the free brochure containing extracts from all twenty titles longlisted for the German Book Prize? Remember me blithely commenting it would be available in bookshops from Saturday? Did you think at the time that I was too naive for this world?

I spent about three hours of my precious time today searching for this mythical publication. I asked in two small independent bookshops, one huge megastore bookshop, one large branch of a chain of bookshops, one book department in a department store and one station book and magazine outlet. The responses varied from a rude "No!" to "Gosh, someone else asked me that earlier on but they haven't sent us any, sorry..." to a very nicely meant suggestion that I just print out the list of titles and go and sit in a bookshop and read a little bit of each one. I assume the problem is that booksellers are reluctant to pay for something they then have to give away for free.

The whole experience made me feel like a complete freak, especially as some of the booksellers treated me like one. Either they thought the German Book Prize was too plebeian an institution to sully their shelves, or they were embarrassed to admit they didn't know what on earth I was talking about. Plus it was a tortuous exercise in self-retraint, as I was determined not to actually buy any books until I had found the fabled reader. The idea was that I would reward the marvellous bookshop that produced the bounty by investing in some paid-for reading material on the side. So I merely lingered by the hardbacks, fondly stroking their covers but unable to splash any cash in case the next shop could deliver the goods.

In the end I settled for a paper in the station newsagents. I still have one potential ace up my sleeve, but if anyone reading this has managed to get their hands on this penny black of the publishing world, please do let me know where you found it.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Germans Invade Britain

At last, proof that the pen is mightier than the sword - if Rebecca Morrison at Beyond Hall 8 is to be believed, the UK has been swamped by German-language writers this summer.

Envious, moi?

Officer Pembry

Was it just me, or do all bookbound children wonder at some point whether they are actually just a character in a book someone else is reading?

In Officer Pembry, Giwi Margwelaschwili (or Givi Margvelasvili if you prefer) takes that idea and expands upon it. In fact, he probably doesn’t. He probably takes a much more complicated philosophical idea by the name of ontotextology, and puts it into the form of a novel. Only I am incapable of understanding his theory of ontotextology, so it’s very kind of him to come down to my level in the book.

The idea is fairly simple. A hundred or so years from now, the FBI has a special section – the Prospective Criminal Police – for preventing crimes that are predicted in old books. So not unlike Minority Report, you might think. You’d be wrong though, because the book is unlike anything else you’ve ever even thought of.

The plots of the thrillers and murder mysteries take over the actions and personalities of people with the same names and backstories as the books’ characters. In this case, Agent Meinleser has the job of preventing Hannibal Lecter from killing Officers Pembry and Doyle to escape from high-security imprisonment in Memphis. Ring any bells? Yup, it’s The Silence of the Lambs.

This is a stroke of absolute genius. I for one have read the book and seen the film about a dozen times, so there is a movie rolling before my mind’s eye the instant I read the words “Officer Pembry”. (Actually, in the film, Hannibal says “Ready when your are, Sergeant Pembry” just before he cuffs him.) I’m sure I’m not the only one, which eliminates the need to tell the whole parallel story of the book, and allows Margwelaschwili to concentrate on his own plot.

Mainly through rather long-winded dialogues, we get a picture of three characters: Meinleser, a bureaucrat through and through but passionate about his job, Officer Pembry in real life, usually a brave prison officer but now terrified by having to face his potential murderer, and Officer Pembry in the thriller, who takes on a life of his own later in the story, throwing up even more philosophical questions. What if the characters we read about can read our minds too, in those moments when we lose concentration and the reading flow is inverted?

The first-person narrator (Meinleser) uses a whole new and very German vocabulary to describe the bibliocriminological phenomena he works with. It reads, at times, like a dry legal or philosophical text, but that’s all part of the fun – and the characters. Bibliopersonification, real and irreal persons, bibliochronology, biblioparallel situations – in fact, to translate it well, much of the book would have to be put into pseudo-scientific terms, which might spoil the ease of access. After all, these words are easy enough to understand in German, which helps you to get your head around the ideas.

Although I’m not sure the logic is entirely stringent and there are times when the plot gets bogged down in all this terminology and explanation, the pace really picks up from about the middle, and the final chapter is a match for any more conventional thriller. I wouldn’t label it as science fiction, as although it’s ostensibly set in the future the action could take place today (provided we’d all forgotten about the bibliocosmic existence of Hannibal Lecter). I must say, right now I feel like Officer Pembry (and Officer Pembry and Officer Pembry) have hit me over the head with a blunt object. I’m seeing stars, my head is spinning, I feel like I’m standing between two mirrors – reading about a character in a book who protects other characters in that book from characters in other books within the book who take over other characters in the book has made me feel rather dizzy.

The Complete Review had obviously recovered sufficiently to write a more cogent report on the book. Enjoy.

More Wetlands Kerfuffle

Just when you thought the whole Wetlands buzz had died down a bit - although it's still holding on strong at the top of the hardback fiction charts over here - the Guardian books blog has a new fluffy little piece about bestsellers and the state of the nation.

You know the score - the Japanese want Marxist classics, the Americans want spiritual guidance, the Brits want Americans or celebs, and the Germans want anal sex. Harrumph. But considering the book has been top of the pops for the past five months and is now in its eighteenth edition (since March!), there just might be something in it. And it seems to have leaped the generation gap now too - a friend told me about her father-in-law, a retired dentist, reading it, and there have been documented sightings of old bids purchasing the pink monstrosity. Although I think the idea that that's shocking says more about how we see older women than anything else...

The Guardian's Philip Stone also links to a rather explicit Wikipedia entry on Wetlands. All I can say is, if you're thinking of reading the book at some point you might want to avoid this link. It's one huge spoiler-fest of an entry.

The problem with the logic of Stone's argument, of course, is that the rights have been sold to 24 countries, which would indicate that interest in anal sex and anti-hygiene is pretty uinversal - or at least that publishers the world over hope it is.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Germanist in Gangsta Rappa Shocka

What's the opposite of a Bavarian student of German literature (10th semester)? That's right, a ganster rapper!

Germany's trashiest channelTM, RTL2, has a new reality format - der Bluff. That's German for "the bluff". Unfortunately, it's a bit of a false friend pronounciation-wise, as it kind of rhymes with the French word "boeuf". The show takes someone out of their usual environment and trains them up to pretend to be something else in four weeks - burger-bar cook to Michelin-starred chef, binman to dressman, you get the picture. At the end they have to pass a test and get picked out (or ideally, not get picked out) by a panel of experts. There is a slight possibility that the format might be "borrowed" from the US or the UK.

The first episode ran on Monday night, and literally had me pinned to the sofa. They took Christian, a student of modern German literature in Munich, a fan of Goethe and opera, a wearer of grey flannel ties and a carrier of a shapeless leather satchel, and put him in the capable hands of three hiphoppers. But first we saw him chatting to his professor and his old friend Sister Gertraude (a nun), and singing German folk songs over red wine with his mates.

The transformation itself was slightly tortuous. Christian's morph into CrissGO took a lot of effort - after all, he had to learn the sexist, homophobic lyrics of his rap, practice swearing and posturing, and get his hair cut and proper pimp-style facial hair going. They whisked him around Cologne and Bonn from clubs to brothels to recording studios, before making him move into a scuzzy Kreuzberg flat with two genuine rappers. (The charming official Berlin tourism site says of Kreuzberg: "The coexistence of a variegated palette of cultures is this quarter's distinguishing characteristic.")

Once in Berlin, they really rolled out the telegenic deutsch-rap stars - Samy Deluxe (rather sheepish), Lady Bitch Ray (who had trouble hiding her intelligence), and the head of the local gang, the 36 Boys. CrissGO even got a nice 36 Boys hoodie - my young man warned him from the sofa not to venture into Neukölln with it on. In the end everyone loved and respected him and he even managed to sort of pass the bluff test - the experts picked him out but said he was no worse than most of the other wannabes in the hiphop battle they staged.

As you might expect, this was all hugely entertaining. CrissGO kept a video diary, in which he compared his hiphop tutors to characters in German literature, secretly quaffing red wine and "good whisky" in his scuzzy bedroom. There were quite a few gratuitous Goethe quotes thrown in here and there too. On the other side, the gangsta world was incredibly sanitised; not a single drug in sight, no violence, just a modicum of scuzz. The wannabe hiphoppers I used to know certainly lived in much greater self-imposed squalor than the RTL2 version. We speculated on how much everyone had been paid, but it was clear that all concerned had done much more than scoot round with the hoover before the camera team arrived.

My only concern is the damage the show may do to German Studies. After the recent news that only 610 students signed up for German degrees at UK universities last year, I can't help but think that the subject needs a bit of a boost in the public eye. Christian just didn't make it look sexy - although his professor did appear to cop a feel of Lady Bitch Ray at one point. German literature is now firmly established in the minds of thousands of viewers as the benign antithesis of dark, dangerous ghetto rap. Just take a look at the before and after photos for visual proof. Talk about irresponsible programming - RTL2 has no doubt scared off a whole generation of would-be Germanists. I shall be launching a complaint forthwith - as soon as I've finished reading my annotated Urfaust and indulged in a quick round of fencing and hot mead with the rest of the Burschenschaft.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008


Here's the link to the longlist. Twenty titles, nine of which aren't available in the shops quite yet. I've only read three of them, two of which I vehemently disliked. So my fave so far is easily Karen Duve's Taxi - which I absolutely loved.

The brochure with extracts from all the longlisted titles is available for free in bookshops from Saturday. The shortlist will be announced on 17 September, and translations of those extracts will no doubt be available online somewhere or other. The winner is announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 13 October.

Reading Grant for German Book Lovers

Ever wanted to spend three weeks just reading German books? With no distractions, no work to be done, no cleaning and tidying, no friends coming round to bother you?

Now you can get a grant from the Austrian city of Graz to do just that this November. According to the FAZ, one of the city's culture magazines is sponsoring one lucky reader to spend three weeks in a holiday apartment there, reading ten books of their choice. Three have to come from small German-language publishers and five have to be written by German-language writers who are still alive. Plus you get €1,100 spending money. See Schreibkraft for more details. I suspect you have to pay your own fares there though, so it might be less lucrative if you live in Japan or Alaska.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Tense, Nervous Headache?

That'll be because they're announcing the longlist for the German Book Prize tomorrow.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - this prize is an absolute gift for the German-language publishing industry. Before 2005, there was no "book of the year" here - a book was a hit if Marcel Reich-Ranicki said it was good. Or Brigitte magazine. But now, we ignoramuses have a higher authority to sanction stickers on books.

And it's not just readers that snap up the shortlisted titles - famously, they are also sold to foreign publishers. Take a look at the 2006 shortlist: Stanisic's ubiquitous Gramophone, Hacker's Have-Nots, Trojanow's Collector of Worlds, Ingo Schulze's New Lives and Thomas Hettche's What We Are Made Of have all made it into English. Martin Walser is such a controversial character that I'm not surprised he hasn't. But Paulus Hochgatterer did slip from the longlist into translation with The Sweetness of Life.

A list like this simply makes it easy to pick out solid fiction without knowing a great deal about German books in general. The prize was partly designed to raise the profile of contemporary German fiction abroad - God knows something had to be done. And it's working. Of course, the German critics are disgruntled at its success - Christoph Schrödinger has an article in today's taz bemoaning the shift in power from one TV show (the now defunct Literarisches Quartett) to a hand-picked panel. But, really, so what?

I for one will be biting my nails in anticipation of the latest lovely longlist.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Free Reading Material

Being a bit of a miser, I'm always pleased to come across bits of books for free on the net. Today there are two different lots for your delectation, both in English and German.

Let's start with the beginner of the two writers, Alina Bronsky. She was one of the competitors for this year's Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, and I quite liked her entry at the time - an extract from her forthcoming debut novel Scherbenpark (lovely cover). That extract is still up on the Bachmann website in Stefan Tobler's translation - and now you can read another chunk of the book in German, courtesy of Perlentaucher. A Russian family in Germany, drama, music, coming of age. I'm starting to think it might be very good indeed...

The other writer up for grabs is Jakob Hein. He's one of the commercial success stories to emerge from (East) Berlin's prose slammers scene. This may or may not be related to the fact that his father is Christoph Hein, himself an excellent and very respected writer, rather than a former GDR border guard or a printer, let's say. But Hein junior is actually very erudite and entertaining, excellent live with a rather self-effacing wit. His previous, lighter books were the kind of thing people I don't know all that well gave me as birthday presents. Now he's written his second "serious" novel - Vor mir den Tag und hinter mir die Nacht. The publishing group Ullstein has launched a platform showcasing new books, and this week's offering is Jakob Hein. You can download chapter two, which I found quite intruiging. Sam Spade meets, erm, The Great Egg Race, for want of a better comparison. Odd, funny, fun.

For all those non-German-speakers out there (you know who you are!), you can download an extract from his 2006 novel, Mr Jensen Quits (trans. Isabel Cole) on Litrix.

Sunday, 17 August 2008


Although you might think I've given up reading German books, judging by the number of reviews up here recently, that's not actually the case. Obviously, I would never do such a thing voluntarily. There are two reasons for this occasional dearth:

a) Very rarely, I read German books that turn out to be not very good. As my life's purpose consists in persuading people that all German books are wonderful, it would make little sense for me to post a review that goes: "Well, I made it to the end but it left me feeling strangely empty and wishing I hadn't bothered after all." Even I have to admit there are a few duds out there.

b) Sometimes I have to read other German books for work. For various reasons, I don't tend to post about them here either.

So please don't worry. Following an unfortunate spate of reason a), I am now in the middle of a bizarre but - I think - very good German book, but have had to interrupt my reading on account of reason b). Normal service will be resumed as soon as humanly possible.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Actually Yummy German Cookbook

I hope I didn't offend any vegetarian sensibilities with that last posting - I tried to leave out the most unsavoury raw meat dishes. To make up for it, I'd like to recommend two absolutely gorgeous cookbooks from Berlin.

You'll laugh actually, because they're books about American-style cooking. The first, which I have tested liberally, is Cynthia Barcomi's Backbuch. It's about cake. If you're feeling a bit peckish, follow the link and flick through the sample pages on the publisher's website. Mmmmm. Full of mouth-watering photos (although rather heavy on the "this is me in my café, this is me buying fruit, this is me baking with my daughter" shots), even fuller of mouth-watering recipes.

I have personally made various cakes of assorted sizes out of the book, one of which (cherry almond bread) was officially approved by a large group of Americans at an end-of-year get-together. The carrot cake is also a legend in its own very short lifetime. My only practical advice is, ignore her frosting instructions unless your teeth are made of asbestos. There is no actual need to use a kilo of icing sugar for twelve cupcakes.

The second book, I've just realised, isn't out just yet. It's Cynthia Barcomi's Kochbuch für Feste. You'll notice Ms Barcomi is dolled up a bit more on the cover of this one, because it's party food. I just know I'm going to have to order it. It may even save my social life.

Cynthia Barcomi, by the way, is an American who runs a couple of cafés in Berlin and a catering business. Ooh, look, there's a live webcam from one of them here. It all looks a bit dark right now, but it's rather scary to think that millions of people can watch you pick alfalfa sprouts out of your teeth on a Friday morning. I'll wave next time I'm there.

But why am I plugging a German book about American cooking? Well sadly, the Germans are only gradually starting to get good at cookbooks. Many of them are translated out of English or other languages, and the market seems to be led by UK trends. Even Germany's top young celebrity chef trained under Jamie Oliver. And then there's the problem that a lot of German cooking, at least here in the East of the country, is rather stodgy (see below). So I don't really keep an eye out for great German cookbooks. Cynthia Barcomi's smasher simply caught my eye because I was already familiar with her food... and I didn't regret it.

Handwritten Missives

My first encounter was as an exchange student. I was doing a course on German women writers in exile (ah, those were the days!) and the lecturer had chosen Ruth Werner's autobiographical Sonja's Rapport as one of the set texts. This was the 1977 official version of her life story as a "spy for peace", although she had fictionalised it in the 1966 novel Ein ungewöhnliches Mädchen. An English edition published in 1991 (trans. Renate Simpson) included information on how she passed on Britain's atomic bomb secrets and her thoughts on looking back at 40 years of the GDR. And that version was put back into German, with an added interview with Werner's three children, and republished in 2006.

The course was small enough, being a rather marginal subject, and we had all got hold of the book second-hand, as it was out of print. So it only bordered on mass psychosis when we all discovered that our antiquarian "treasures" were nothing of the sort. Each one of us had exactly the same "personal" dedication in the front of our book:

Every author has difficulties writing their memoirs: selection, compression and telling the truth were the way I found.
With a clear conscience,
Ruth Werner
14 April 1977

What a swizz! It was a printed dedication! Twelve heartbroken Germanists instantly fell back out of love with daring Ruth Werner and her socialist realist prose.

So you'd think I'd be more careful nowadays, wouldn't you? But no, I went and fell for it all over again this week. My father-in-law has a habit of giving me books I don't particularly want - as if I didn't have enough already. This Monday's offering was Fritz Becker's Cookbook from Berlin, "printed especially for the International University of Presidents" in 1988. Whatever that may be. It looks rather battered and well-loved, with lots of grease spots, which may be a good sign in a cookbook. As I was flicking half-heartedly through it by candlelight (well, OK, it was just dim light on the sofa), I stumbled across occasional little comments in blue ink on the recipes. Things like:

Fresh Blood Sausage and Liverwurst Love it!
Fried Pike with Potato Salad Good for company.
Green Eel with Cucumber Salad and Buttered Potatoes Serve with a dry white wine!
Fried Herring I could eat this everyday

and my favourite:

Berliner Schusterjungen Mikey loves it!

Now apart from the fact that the comments seemed to be next to some of the least appetizing-sounding recipes in the book, I was completely puzzled. Why would someone write this stuff in their own cookbook? Were they really, really absent-minded and likely to forget how much they love fried herring and fresh blood sausage? Were they the equivalent to post-it notes to self that the green eel tasted good with dry white wine last time around? Who the hell was Mikey? And why did the writer think Schusterjungen was a singular?

Gradually, I started to work it out. They had to be comments from the chef himself, Fritz Becker. And he had obviously written them in the book in order to present it to someone really, really important. Someone who attended the International University of Presidents in 1988. Now who was a president in 1988 and spoke English? Well, it could only have been Ronald Reagan! Fritz Becker must have given this very special cookbook to Nancy Reagan, annotated specially for her! And those grease spots were genuine US of A presidential lard! Dripped onto the pages as Nancy prepared Ronny a good old portion of puréed peas or boiled eggs with mustard sauce! (Please excuse my punctuation. I was excited.)

But that still didn't quite explain how my father-in-law had got hold of it. Nor indeed who Mikey was. Achingly slowly, the penny dropped. Those darned printers had caught me out again. A closer inspection the next morning revealed the sordid truth - those idiosyncratic comments were printed into the book to make complete idiots like me think this was some kind of family notebook-style thing, passed down from father to son and containing all the most genuine Ye Olde Berlin recipes. I suspect even the grease spots are fake, as they are on every single page. Mega-doh!

I'm keeping it anyway. Just to show people how delightful Berlin's traditional cuisine is.

Translator on Translation ... in Translation?

The Secret Informer, let's just call him IM King, has been at it again. He has - unwittingly, I suspect - something to add to Brave New Words' interesting post on Books with Translators. In fact IM King recommends not just a book with a translator in it, but a book about the relationship between an author and his literary translator, written by a literary translator. It's Hans-Ulrich Möhring's Vom Schweigen meines Übersetzers. My informer tells me it's a "brilliant novel" - I personally started it and got bored almost instantly, but don't let that put you off. Dorothea Dieckmann, author of Guantanamo, is very impressed in her review in the NZZ. Two very different personalities clash and the (patient) reader apparently learns a great deal about their cultures, their languages and their work. Note the interesting style, not entirely atypical of German reviews:

Between the wealth of stations through which the narration passes – the material and technical plains of the work of translation, the mountains of linguistic theory from the German romantic tradition and the wilds of European modernism to Tibetan lotsawas, the low valleys of history – wends the river of language, on which the translator conducts his business as a ferryman between the two banks.

Arggh! It's foreign rights catalogue translation season for me right now, so that quote is a bit of a busman's holiday I'm afraid. Anyway, it would be interesting to see a book written by a translator about a translator in translation, don't you think? Quite a challenge...

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Pointless Website, Interesting Insight

Cornelia Funke is not our favourite German children's writer, but she's up there somewhere. And one of my Secret Informers has sent me an interesting link concerning her choice of reading matter.

It's tucked away on one of the most pointless websites I've ever come across - bar this one, perhaps, which is a lot more satisfying. The site in question is the FAZ Leseinsel. All manner of writers and the like share inanities on their reading habits in a completely annoying "hand-written" format, overlaid on an eerily shifting map of the world. It seems to be for adults - kids would probably spurn such a stupid format right away.

Anyway, in this case, Cornelia Funke does say something pretty interesting after all (albeit not until you've clicked through a three-page description of her garden). I'll just rip it off and hope they don't sue me, shall I?

Q: What book would you most like to read right now?
A: ...If you want a title, it'd have to be The Undiscovered Chekhov. Thirty-Eight New Stories
translated by Peter Constantine. The translator gave me a copy after taking part in a translation workshop with me and my brilliant translator Anthea Bell, organised by the Goethe-Institut in Chicago. I've already read two stories, and they were hard to top for exquisiteness...

Now isn't that nice? She mentions two translators in one fell swoop. No need to introduce you to Anthea "Queen of German translation" Bell, I suspect. But I have to add something about the amazing polyglott Peter Constantine. He's translated from German, Russian, French, Modern Greek, Ancient Greek, Italian, Albanian, Dutch, Slovene and Friesian, ranging from Thomas Mann to the young upstart Benjamin Lebert - the book that netted him the Wolff Translation Prize last year. That's not the only prize weighing down his shelves, mind you - he's won four or five others too. And he's such a huge honey that he was even prepared to appear in one of our Translators Reveal All events just out of the sweetness of his heart, but unfortunately he was prevented by force majeure.

I wonder if he just plucked a random book of his off the shelves before setting off to the workshop, or really thought long and hard about what to give to Cornelia Funke. Seems like it was a good choice, however it came about.

Monday, 11 August 2008


Tom of A Common Reader is very enthusiastic about Google Earth for intensive book-reading purposes. My lily-livered computer can't deal with it, but there is a "Google Book Layer" available on your bog-standard Google Maps. You can look at maps of the world with pop-ups of book extracts mentioning the places on your screen. I have to admit though, it doesn't get my tail wagging. Too slow at my end and not much to show for it, as few of the English-language books in the system mention German locations. And although there's a distinct purple blob above Berlin, I can't actually click on it.

But never fear, for those enterprising Germans have got the GPS-books thing all sussed out for themselves. I'll tell you all about it in a moment, but first a minor digression.

I'm a closet (well, not so closet now) William Gibson fan but I was a bit nonplussed by Spook Country. That may have been because I didn't understand the technology in question, actually, in contrast to Pattern Recognition. But there was this tumblr thing called node that provided kind of bizarre cross-referenced pictures and text snippets on the book (here's a fairly random sample). And that struck me as rather similar to the way translators have to read as we work on texts. Get to description of place/person/thing, attempt to visualise, research if visualisation not possible, search own memory/dictionary/web for appropriate translation, insert into text. Continue.

And now you can do just that the easy way with Berlin references in certain books. OK, only ten books right now, but there's room for more if they get the funding. is a website that combines Google Maps with videos of authors talking about the places where their Berlin books are set, with extracts and downloads and actual GPS-based tours that you can hire out if you happen to have a spare afternoon in Berlin. Apparently there are five concrete blocks around town too that start off the videos automatically when you walk past them. I wouldn't know, as I don't get out much. My favourite, of course, is Ulrich Peltzer, who talks about his surveillance/resistance novel Teil der Lösung and some of the places around Kreuzberg where it's set. Very caustic.

On a slightly lower-tech note, you could also go on a Literatour around Berlin courtesy of the excellent website Literaturport. Also using Google Maps, here you can download authors giving you a tour of their Berlin as an mp3 file and follow in their footsteps, or just read the texts and look at the photos. Enjoy that Julia Franck tour I mentioned a while ago, for instance, or explore historic Brandenburg with Günther de Bruyn. I might well get round to the one by Katja Lange-Müller, which ends in a pub. They also have a kind of Google Earth/Google Books-style option that won't make your computer overheat - under Literatur zum Ort you can choose a part of Berlin and Brandenburg (the bit of Germany around Berlin) and they'll give you not just little quotes but page-long pieces of out-of-copyright literature referencing that place. Someone must have spent years finding it all. With all sorts of other weird and wonderful things to discover, this is another gem of a German-language site.

And the Winners Are...

Ever catch yourself wondering "Now who was it that won the Anton Wildgans Prize last year again?" Ever forgotten the name of the Friedrich Glauser prizewinner for German-language crime fiction? Know that "it's on the tip of my tongue" feeling when you just can't quite remember the latest Pulitzer Prize laureate?

Well look no further, as you can find all the prizewinners from 2007/2008 in a slightly out-of-date downloadable brochure presented by Focus magazine. From the Prix Fémina to the Johann Heinrich Voss Prize for Translators, they're all in there. It's actually for booksellers, but who says they get to have all the fun?

Thursday, 7 August 2008

We Are Sailing - or My First Koeppen

My mum once told me she used to like Rod Stewart’s music until she found out what a dodgy character he was. I have the opposite problem – I’ve just found out what a dodgy character Wolfgang Koeppen was and am put off reading any more of his books.

David, a Reader of My Blog, had suggested that in order to live up to my name, I really ought to read Koeppen. That’s actually easier said than done, in German at least (Michael Hofmann has translated four of his novels into English though). I wanted to leave the choice of book to coincidence, and kept looking out and asking for him in small bookshops. The response was always, "No, sorry – such a shame, but there’s not much demand these days." So when I came across a novel entitled Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch by Wolfgang Koeppen, I snapped it up, knowing absolutely nothing about it.

Really, it wasn’t a good start. In fact, it could hardly have been a worse start. My edition consists of 126 small pages narrated in a journal-like format in the first person, plus a brief foreword by Koeppen and an afterword by Alfred Estermann. It is the story of Jakob Littner, a German Jew, and how he survived the Holocaust in the small town of Zbaracz, now in the Ukraine. Reading it was a hard slog. It gave me nightmares. It occupied my waking mind wondering whether and how to write about it here. I found it difficult to judge such a horrifying testimony, especially the part that takes place in the eponymous hole in the ground, as a novel.

Usually, memoirs like these are written in a sober, near-objective tone. German-speaking culture has reached a consensus that this is how these things are done, avoiding any excess emotion and presenting the bare facts, which are shocking enough as it is. But in this case, the book claims to be a novel. In his very literary foreword dated 1991, Koeppen provides his explanation of how the book came about. A “man from a German hell” came to a publisher. He was “once a respected citizen of his city … then a Jew who was … tortured in ghettos and extermination camps…” According to Koeppen, the man told the publisher a few places and dates and wanted an author to write his story – and that author was Koeppen. “I … wrote the story of a German Jew’s suffering. Then it became my story.”

As it turns out, though, that wasn’t quite the case. The very revealing afterword tells the story of the book. First published under Jakob Littner’s name in 1948, it sold only a couple of hundred copies. But then Wolfgang Koeppen got famous, and it was rediscovered and republished under his name in 1992. Contrary to Koeppen’s version, Littner had actually written an entire manuscript, which Koeppen had edited liberally, polishing the style. Ten years after the second publication, this original version was published in English translation under the title Journey Through the Night. A new edition of the Aufzeichnungen was published the same year, with the addition of the afterword. Koppen, meanwhile, never had to face the music, as he died in 1996.

I found two excellent essays on the whole subject online, one by Arnold Heidsieck (pdfs in German and a shorter English version) and one comparing the two texts (in German) by Marcel Atze. It seems that Koeppen did make wide-ranging changes, adding and taking away certain elements but also leaving some of the text unaltered. Probably the most significant addition is the closing passage, in which the narrator (or Koeppen?) suggests that only God can judge the perpetrators, “and may he show clemency in his judgements where all human mercy would be out of place.”

Can you imagine why the whole experience has put me off? Koeppen repeatedly alluded to Littner as a “stamp dealer” (he was in fact a very successful wholesale philatelist), revealing yet more arrogance in his condemnation of his writing style. So the first time around, the young author was strapped for cash and pretty much butchered the guy’s manuscript, at which Littner was not amused – but it was published under his name anyway. And then, an ageing writer with a reputation to protect, Koeppen passed it off as all his own work – claiming he had been paid in food parcels and imagined up a novel out of three pages of notes. He obviously never bothered to reread the thing, though, or he wouldn’t have written that Littner had been in extermination camps – as he wasn’t. Koeppen even claimed to have spent time hiding out in a cellar himself towards the end of the war – a gross misrepresentation to say the very least.

So, like Atze, I’m not all that bothered about whether the Aufzeichnungen are a new piece of literature or “bordering on plagiarism” (nice euphemism there, don’t you think?). However I choose to see the book, its history gives me the impression of a thoroughly dislikeable, arrogant and dishonest author. And while that’s nothing unusual in itself (insert all manner of examples here), in this case I think bolstering one’s personal legend on the back of a Holocaust survivor does cross a certain moral line.

That’s not to say nobody else should read Koeppen… there are plenty of people who still enjoy Rod Stewart’s tunes, despite my mum’s antipathy for the tartan-clad father of seven and model railway enthusiast. But I for one have inherited that inability to uncouple artists’ lives and morals from their work. I doubt I’ll be troubling booksellers for Wolfgang Koeppen in future, despite many glowing recommendations.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Literary Diaries Project

I can't find a proper press release, but it appears that the Rinke Foundation has started up an annual diary project, TAGEWERK, to be written by authors with their finger on the linguistic pulse of the moment. The current diarist is Benjamin Stuckrad-Barre (not my favourite author), and you can read a transcript of a radio interview on the subject with him here. He talks about the chronicler Walter Kempowski, whom he greatly admires, and the way he influenced him to write diaries people will actually want to read. But don't hold your breath on this one, as he says it's unlikely that the diary will be ready for publication before 2011.

Next year is Clemens Meyer's turn. Apparently, he's a "master of authentic language" - whatever that may be - and thus an ideal candidate for the project. You can watch a little video of an award ceremony where they praise the non-fiction book Wohin mit Vater? - this year's Rinke Prizewinner - and Meyer gives a little taste of what's to come. Playing the boyish charm for all it's worth, he promises the 2009 diary will be "really where the action is": "There's a lot going on in my life, and there's a lot going on in the world. All I have to do now is write it down well."

Nine Days to Go

Are you all busily working on your submissions for no man's land? I hear they're short of prose...
Call for Submissions – no man’s land # 3
Contemporary German-language fiction and poetry in English translation.
Deadline: August 15, 2008.

no man’s land, the world’s only online journal for contemporary German literature in English translation, is seeking submissions for its 2008 issue. We are especially interested in work by interesting, important yet under- (or never!) translated writers.

For prose, send up to 3 submissions by one or different writers: a submission is considered as one story or self-contained novel excerpt, max. 4,000 words. For poetry, send translations of work by up to 3 poets, each to a maximum of 5 poems. No simultaneous submissions, please, and no previously-published translations.

The deadline is August 15, 2008 (postmark date), and we will inform contributors by mid-September 2008; the issue will go online in November. We regret that we are unable to offer honoraria. Please include your contact information, biographical and publication information (for both translator and author) and a copy of the original. Also, please clarify rights issues beforehand with the original publisher and/or author; in the event of publication, proof of permission will be required.

If you can include the original text in file format (PDF or other), submissions can be sent electronically to Isabel Cole at Otherwise, send them by post to no man’s land, PO Box 02 13 04, 10125 Berlin, Germany.

If you have any questions, please consult the “Translators’ FAQs” on our website and/or feel free to contact Isabel Cole at the address above.

We look forward to reading your work!

Ernesto Castillo, Isabel Fargo Cole, Clemens Kuhnert, Alistair Noon
Editors, no man’s land

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

This One's Not for the Beach

Whereas the Sainsbury's Magazine recommends a spot of ethnic cleansing fun for the sun-lounger, the Independent is a little more concerned about where its readers read its recommendations. Jonathon Gibbs reviews Paulus Hochgatterer's unconventional crime novel The Sweetness of Life (trans. Jamie Bulloch), and sums up: "His rather abstruse approach makes this a fascinating but demanding read: a truly stimulating find, but perhaps not one for the beach."

Good job Maclehose Press put that scary snow picture on the front then, isn't it, as the title could be ever so slightly misleading. And I like the offensive strategy of plonking a quote from the Berliner Zeitung on the cover too. None of that coy "I'm not really a translation, honest guv" business here. Heck, the guy they quote even has an umlaut in his name. Now that's going out on a limb for an industry that prefers authors with easy-to-pronounce names, it really is.

But no great surprise really from Maclehose Press, a Quercus imprint run by Christopher Maclehose. That's the man who has championed international crime fiction, putting it firmly on the map in the English-speaking world. And it was Quercus who published Measuring the World in the UK too - a book so unashamedly German (or Austrian?) it would make you blush. If you were embarrassed by things being German, that is.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Back Again

I'm back after two weeks of fun in the sun. I left my thinking cap firmly at my desk and didn't read a single German book. But even my secret vice, that most magnificent bastion of housewifely brain-fodder that is the Sainsbury's Magazine, didn't let me forget about German-language literature. For tucked in among Jamie Oliver's Take on Tapas, Mind and Body Secrets from Olympic Athletes and Sarah's Top Tips for Tomatoes was this little gem of an unexpected review:

Best Beach Reads. Lie back and relax - we've found thrillers, mysteries, family sagas and feel-good fiction that will keep you enthralled throughout those lazy days of summer...

An imaginative boy's life changes when war comes to town in the wonderful debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, §12.99) by Bosnian-born Sasa Stanisic (translated by Anthea Bell). First he and the other town children are herded into a cellar; then his parents whisk him away in the middle of the night.

Wahey! This is the future of fiction in translation! Reviewed in supermarket magazines! With the translator named! Deemed perfect summer reading rather than difficult and intellectual! Read by housewives in between a session of Olympic sit-ups and preparing Rick Stein's meze-style menu! Just think, folks, in ten years' time this will be normal - the lollipop lady will dip into Elfriede Jelinek's latest eBook whenever there's a lull in traffic, the man down the greengrocer's will discuss Faustian motifs with you while you squeeze his peaches, and Katie Price will have a PhD in comparative literature by then too. Or maybe twenty years, tops.