Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Stephan Wackwitz on NY, Berlin and Literature

...Sort of. The programme director of the New York Goethe Institut has given a rather interesting interview to Die Welt, Berlin's conservative broadsheet. He talks about the institute's move to the Wyoming Building and its cultural history in New York, the influence of The Tin Drum and German film on the city.

Then he tells us how

The Americans are actually very interested in Germany: German art and German electronic club music. And above all they have a burning interest in Berlin. What's true is that the Americans aren't interested in German literature whatsoever. They don't translate it and they don't read it.

Then he (or the interviewer) talks about how Berlin is still living off the image Christopher Isherwood gave it before the war - arty, erotic, cheap. He's not wrong there - even the mayor plays along with his "poor but sexy" slogan.

Wackwitz himself is an accomplished writer; you can read samples (in German of course) from his forthcoming book Fifth Avenue Spaziergänge durch das letzte Jahrhundert on the Wyoming Building blog. It sounds from the interview, though, as if he's succumbed to the common phenomenon of cultural pessimism when it comes to foreign literature in the States. Call me a dreamer, but is there any reason why people can't harness that existing enthusiasm and interest in Germany's art, music and capital city to promote its books too?

Why not sell writers on the back of their coolness? Half the younger generation does the odd spot of DJing - why not get the likes of Wladimir Kaminer or Thomas Meinecke to bring a few records along? Clemens Meyer has written about both techno and art - presumably a dream combination... (OK, he's been to NY twice already.) Or someone like Maike Wetzel, whose short stories are undeniably Berlin and who makes - gasp! - films too. And although nobody springs to mind immediately in what's rapidly turning into a rant here, there are bound to be plenty of German writers with links to the art world, of various generations.

Luckily, there is balm for my soul: the excellent work of Edna McCown and Katherine Lorimer at the Goethe Institut New York in promoting literature, as showcased on their beautiful Current Writing blog. For all I know from all the way over here, they're already doing all that stuff I naively suggest above.

I'm waiting to see how the Goethe Institut commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall around the world... plenty of scope for mega-budget literary events there! David Hare + Thomas Brussig, John Le Carré + Julia Franck, Margaret Thatcher + Helmut Kohl – aaah, the possibilities are endless.

Update: As an interested reader points out in the comments, you can read Wackwitz in English: his An Invisible Country is published by Paul Dry Books (trans: Wendy Lesser).


Will said...

Katy, I will check out those writers! I think plenty of Americans read Mann/Hesse/Kafka/Grass, but getting new work translated and read is a hard slog. I keep trying to make the German Romantics cool on my blog, but that is clearly not going to happen any time soon.

I lost a good Philadelphia friend to Berlin -- he lives there being sexy and djing/creating as Duran Duran Duran. I might join him some day.

This is one of the few times my blogging and publishing activities have collided, so let me plug Wackwitz's An Invisible Country.

kjd said...

Maybe you need something like the BBC's "Desperate Romantics", Will? Emphasise the whole sex 'n' drugs 'n' poetry angle...

Keep up the good fight!

Eva C. Schweitzer said...

I not sure whether it's the readers, or the publishers, or maybe even the reviewers, but in any case, all translated literature is facing an uphill battle in the USA, not only German literature. American accept literature about foreign countries, but not so much by foreigners.

I have a stake in this since I have a small publishing company myself that sells Berlin books in America, and I have lined up two books for The Wall anniversary this year. Let me plug one of them, the other one is still in preparations.


I'm really looking forward to what the Goethe Institute will do this year. There will be a new boss in May who will hopefully bring new energy to the place.