I’ve mentioned the really rather good Das Magazin here before. It’s generally very active in promoting writers and literature, and this month the literary editor, Wiebke Poromba, has a wee rant. It’s not against a particularly difficult target though – she complains that young German-language writers don’t have much to say for themselves. Schluss mit dem ganzen Larifari, she proclaims – perhaps deliberately (mis-)quoting Berlin’s hot pop sensation, Peter Fox – enough of the folderol! All these clean-cut young men going straight from school to writing careers, so polite and sober and unexcited. Her two examples are Daniel Kehlmann and Benjamin Lebert, who she says were pressed into literary contracts at such an impressionable age that they didn’t have time to experience life proper before they started churning out novels. Her suggestion is vodka rations for young writers – and reading more women.
Aside from the cliché-ridden argumentation, I only agree with Poromba to a certain extent. I’ve just finished a mammoth young-writer-athon and I found plenty to get me excited, although there were also authors I too found rather soporific. In our recent interview, Claudius Nießen mentioned the anthology Turboprop – Beste Stories, which he edited along with Christoph Graeber last year. And this year I brought another anthology back with me from Leipzig, Zeit der Witze – Texte junger Autoren. And because they both feature young(ish) German-language writers, it made sense to me to review them together.
Starting with what I find the better of the two, just to rob you of any sense of tension, Turboprop. It’s a collection of stories by the editors’ favourite guests from the reading series of the same name.
And it kicks in with a piece by one of my favourites, Clemens Meyer. Never one to shy away from “real life” issues, Meyer has turned to prostitution. This is a slightly rambling monologue by a not-quite-so-young prostitute about her punters, how she got into it, and her secret dreams. I learnt a lot, so it may well be meticulously researched. I think he’s written better – but you can’t accuse him of wanting to please any mothers-in-law with this story. And the next piece too stands out a mile – Anke Stelling, a youngish woman writing about Claudia, who has two young kids with Heiner the rebel, thought she was doing everything differently – and hates her life. With an ironically distanced narrator who tells us, “Oh, you know what, just to make it simpler, I’LL be Claudia.” And gives us the classic line: “Heiner wanted to be cheated on, there was no other explanation for his absences, so Claudia went to bed with the midwife.” I think I may have shouted for joy when I read that.
Then we get Tobias Hülswitt regaling tales of drug-taking in the Middle East, which I did find slightly yawnsome but which you can hardly claim is clean-cut. Annette Mingels has a solid relationship story, followed by an absolutely awesome piece by Guy Helminger mingling friendship, dream and gritty realism. Paul Brodowsky I personally find slightly difficult, and here he experiments to the point of becoming just plain uninteresting, with little to say but unusual ways of putting it.
Selim Özdogan, another of my personal faves, has contributed what he does very well – a short short story about friends, which captures the essence of being a young man (poor things) with his characteristic melancholy. Philip Meinhold does the same, also very well, against a backdrop that seems suspiciously like 90s Friedrichshain. In between them, Jochen Schmidt, a consummate comedian, made me laugh with a childhood story I think I’ve heard him read live, which had us rolling in the aisles. And Sasa Stanisic closes the anthology with a false-bottomed box of a political story, as reflective as his novel How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone but firmly set in Germany. Excellent stuff.
Zeit der Witze is a little more patchy, I have to admit. Book-ended by two big names – Uwe Tellkamp and Clemens Meyer – are sixteen young authors, mainly from the Leipzig creative writing programme. And I’d have to say that some of them confirm Poromba’s prejudices against young writers’ “gepflegte Langeweile” – cultivated boredom. But some of them are surprisingly good – or at least surprising.
One of the exiting things about creative writing programmes, I guess, is that students have a sounding board for experiments. A few of the short stories in this compilation read rather like attempts to try something new at all cost, playing with perspectives, narratives and characters. In a sense, it’s worth having the book on the shelf in the same way as buying art by young talents may mean you later own something by a recognised genius. Or it may not.
I enjoyed Johanna Hemkentokrax’s confusing tale of suburban antifascism, Christopher Kloeble’s extreme slow-motion twenty seconds of mathematics, Sebastian Brock’s thoroughly dislikeable hero, Katharina Schwanbeck’s painful coming-of-age story, and Marie T. Martin’s dystopian vision.
Tellingly though, what stood out for me in Zeit der Witze was the slightly more established authors. Clemens Meyer, again with a prostitute’s monologue, adds the grit that the others do rather lack. Uwe Tellkamp adds wry humour and experience with an account of his first book and how it came about. And Finn-Ole Heinrich adds searing honesty, with a narrator explaining his guilt at no longer fancying his girlfriend after an emergency amputation, in a very strong story that rightly gives the book its title.
Read one after the other like this, Turboprop clearly trumps Zeit der Witze. But it’s an unfair competition, with experienced authors pitted up against newcomers. Given a few years, I suspect some of the younger writers just coming out of creative writing programmes will be producing outstanding work – provided they do manage to gather the odd experience or two outside of academia. For those in Berlin, you can catch a couple of representatives of the Leipzig programme at the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus on 24 April.