Sunday, 13 September 2009

My Take on the Longlist (Again)

I’m taking a deep breath, ready to share my biased opinions on all twenty extracts from the German Book Prize longlist. It was a long hard slog, but someone had to do it.

First of all, there were a couple of things that jumped out at me. A lot of the books had some kind of US connection, as if the judges thought that might help sell translation rights. And a good number of them featured dysfunctional or collapsing relationships, as if the judges were having a hard time themselves. Plus there were a couple of “desperate housewives” – in the conventional sense – women stranded in godawful situations with their kids. Maybe that’s to do with the book-buying demographic. And there's a good handful of murders.

But I’ll just start off with

Sibylle Berg – Der Mann schläft
This is the one everyone was surprised about, as Sibylle Berg is a tad chick-litty at times. The extract reads like a cross between slam prose – first-person narrator, witty, open – and a catastrophe account. But you really want to find out what happened to the forty-something narrator whose man goes missing in China. I loved the searing in-between account of a single woman realising her collateral is rapidly dwindling – but it might not be a good gift for your single girlfriends…
US link? No, but China – nice and topical.
Dysfunctional relationship? Oh, yes.
Murder? Perhaps.
Sample sentence: “Men are not masters of civil courage, and I often had the impression they’d prefer it if an older woman with whom they had begun a relationship without thinking would just die with as little upheaval as possible, as then they could let themselves be consoled.”

Mirko Bonné – Wie wir verschwinden
I know Bonné as a poet, and you can tell. His prose is really drenched in detail and seems excellent. The novel is about an old man looking back at his youth in a French village in the 1950s, with the death of Albert Camus playing a pivotal role. Reflective, precise, building up to a climax – I like it.
US link? No, but France.
Dysfunctional relationship? Not sure.
Murder? Possibly.
Sample sentence: “Roger Patache grimaced every now and then – the song playing on the transistor radio reminded him of Yves Montand in Wages of Fear, and even though he was only transporting tree trunks he could identify with the nitro-glycerine driver in the film.”

Thomas Glavinic – Das Leben der Wünsche
I’m a little ambivalent about this one. Like in Night Work, Glavinic starts with a simple “What if…?” and develops a fantastic story. This time a man is granted his every wish but lives to regret it. The protagonist is similarly dull to the previous one, with a suspicious amount in common. I fear it’s another short story drawn out to novel length. Nicely written though.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yup.
Murder? Sort of.
Sample sentence: “I wish all my wishes come true. That’s my first wish, and the other two don’t matter any more, you can have them.”

Wolf Haas – Der Brenner und der liebe Gott
The extract is short but very sweet. An ultra-charismatic detective (making his seventh appearance – he died in the last book…) with a motormouth to match. Great stuff!
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Oh, yes.
Murder? Yes.
Sample sentence: “My grandmother used to tell me, when you die they’ll have to club your gob to death separately.”

Ernst-Wilhelm Händler – Welt aus Glas
What on earth is this all about? Is Händler playing with clichés? Is this Ian Fleming meets Stephenie Meyer? It’s certainly very more-ish, with a kidnapping in Mexico and art dealing in Milan. I assume there is some kind of outlandish plot behind it too. I liked the writing and found a lot of good observations. Plus cover design by Neo Rauch, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Very probably.
Murder? Anything's possible.
Sample sentence: “Jillian felt comfortable next to the gaping jaws of hell.” / “His skin was rather dark but his face had nothing of an Indio about it, it was the face of a Spaniard.”

Anna Katharina Hahn – Kürzere Tage
I’d been resisting reading this book. The critics love it but I had enough of being a stay-at-home mother some time ago and I didn’t want to read a whole book about it, thank you very much. It turns out I was wrong. Oh my God: fantastic writing, really angry and painful, sometimes prompting a wry laugh. Don’t give it to anyone who sends their kids to Steiner schools. Or actually, maybe you should.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? Probably not.
Sample sentence: “She’d had a poster of her on her wardrobe in Hackstraße, in a bright red dress with her breasts and pubes shining through like a slap in the face.”

Reinhard Jirgl – Die Stille
I found this hard-going but worth persevering. The language puts up a few hurdles with its strange shorthand. A sardonic old man recounts his family history, based around 100 photographs. Witty, opinionated, rambling, good solid stuff. Perhaps one of those epics of German history the judges tend to like so much.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? Nazis, I expect.
Sample sentence: “She uttered the latter, almost like a triumf, with the expertise with which old=l-only women are present at every must-attend funeral in the ceremonial hall at the cemetery, prefer-ably at Catholic burials (as they promise the most complicated ceremony) & take part in the rituals of this act routinely with downright sporting ambition, by always being the 1st on the margins of the motley congregation to perform the sittingup&down, the headbowing&handfolding and all other bodily crochet during the ritual grief like a mistress of ceremonies every ½-hour.”

Brigitte Kronauer – Zwei schwarze Jäger
The extract is very, very funny. An author reads at a disastrous event in a small town known only as W. Such great characterisation! Apparently it’s a complicated story with a murderer hidden away somewhere inside it. I thought it was a bit like Kehlmann’s Ruhm – for grown-ups.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Very possibly.
Murder? Yes.
Sample sentence: “It’s my reading group tonight. They’re talking about my favourite writer, Carlos Heller. Now that’s a really wonderful author! And who can’t go because her husband failed to coordinate the dates? Me!”

Rainer Merkel – Lichtjahre entfernt
In this case, I read the whole book. I hated it all the way through, then woke up in the middle of the night, had an epiphany, and loved it. Complex psychological stuff set mainly in the USA. The kind of confusing writing I really enjoy, an incredibly dysfunctional relationship and the world’s most irritating man. Really worth reading to the last page.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? No, but you can't have everything.
Sample sentence: “The uniformly browned skin of the actresses in the porno I watch with Judith makes the woman look like desert women to me, inhabitants of the desert who have somehow ended up in the film, the sun’s rays distributed uniformly over their short, supple bodies.”

Terézia Mora – Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent
Probably the one I was most looking forward to, and I wasn’t disappointed. A loveable, happy-go-lucky IT man in his mid-forties gradually loses control. You’re not quite sure his company even exists, at times. A beautifully captured snapshot of business and personal life in a time of crisis – very now. What a hero - and it’s scarily good.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? Don't think so.
Sample sentence: “By the time that was over, the cappuccino drunk – a sweet layer of foam always lines the bottom of the cup, you could just leave it but Kopp doesn’t leave it, he spoons it up, if he’s got a spoon, this time he hasn’t, he’d forgotten to take one, he made do with his index finger, holding the cup upside down over his mouth until there was nothing more to be had – when the laptop was then booted up and the email program opened, by the time it was finally clear that no news of interest had come about during the past two hours, so he could have started work, Kopp’s good mood had evaporated.”

Herta Müller – Atemschaukel
Beautiful writing, moving material, incredibly impressive. The life of an ethnic German man in Romania, where Müller herself comes from, based on conversations with the recently deceased poet Oskar Pastior, among others. Some critics are upset that she’s been too poetic in her descriptions of Stalinist repression and persecution. But then why bother writing fiction in the first place?
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? No.
Murder? Stalin. Romania.
Sample sentence: “We arrived separately; the box office woman in the lead-glass of her box, the mirroring stone floor, the round central column, the wall tiles with their water lily pattern, the carved wooden stairs weren’t to suspect that we had arranged to meet.”

Angelika Overath – Flughafenfische
The sample is rather like a character study, in which very little happens. Well written of course but rather odd and didn’t really work up my appetite. Strangers meet at an airport and tell their stories, not listening to each other.
US link? Well, it’s set in an airport.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yup.
Murder? Don't think so.
Sample sentence: “(Whenever the manta clung to the glass like that some child or other soon started screaming.)”

Norbert Scheuer – Überm Rauschen
This is a book about fishing. I can’t possibly like it. A man looks back on his childhood, while fishing. The sample doesn’t seem particularly distinguished, or at least has few distinguishing characteristics – but the language is nice.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Possibly.
Murder? No. Unless you're a vegetarian.
Sample sentence: “and over and over, cassettes labelled: Bar – the only sounds a muddle of voices and the murmurs of bank notes, mumblings of drunkards, sounds of table football, the creaking toilet door, throat-clearing, coughing, whispering, yelling, jukebox songs;”

Kathrin Schmidt – Du stirbst nicht
I found this very impressive. A woman wakes up in hospital and we follow her struggle to remember – first words, then people, then her life. The writing is marvellously disjointed, the character wonderfully intelligent – a writer, what else? Absolutely heart-tugging stuff.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? No.
Sample sentence: “When Helene closes her eyes she sees a little face with slits for eyes and a mischievous grin. Does she love it? Yes she does! Now her heart tugs. She has to ask Matthes, she mustn’t forget.”

Clemens J. Setz – Die Frequenzen
Adjectives. Clemens J. Setz is not afraid of adjectives. This is “young Austrian literature”, but I can’t say I cared a jot about the characters. Apparently it’s a complicated relationship story that comes to a head, you know the kind of thing.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? No.
Sample sentence: “Nothing happened for a few seconds, then a roaring, dirt-encrusted hole opened up in the bowl and enabled a brief glimpse of the sleepers flicking darkly past under the train; at least it seemed so to Walter.”

Peter Stamm – Sieben Jahre
Very possibly another “man’s book”. A man is caught between a beautiful, intelligent woman who leaves him cold and a weird, dumb Polish woman who ends up pregnant. I personally have had enough of “dumm fickt gut” plain-talking macho intellectual literature, which is what this seems to be from the sample. And Rainer Merkel dealt with the whole subject better too.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Oh yes.
Murder? No.
Sample sentence: “The woman put her glass down on the table and laid the paper tissues and the book next to it, a romance with a brightly coloured cover showing a man and a woman on a horse before a stormy sky.”

Thomas Stangl – Was kommt
This one ticks a lot of boxes, but it’s genuinely good. An old woman remembers her privileged life in 1937 Vienna. And a teenage boy also lives with his grandmother in the late 1970s. Beautiful language, playing with tenses and time, ghosts and repetitions, eroticism. I like it. I don’t get it but I like it.
US link? No. But it’s set in pre-Nazi Vienna, for God’s sake.
Dysfunctional relationship? No idea.
Murder? No, apart from what you might expect.
Sample sentence: “Emilia Degen emerges on a spring day in 1937, the smell in her room differs from the smells of the city; the objects announce their scent, you can enjoy being a stranger in your own body.”

Stephan Thome – Grenzgang
A sad depiction of the hell of village life for a divorced woman chained to her senile mother and troublesome teenage son. And a failed teacher too. Probably very insightful, and it seems the plot might be quite interesting too.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? Don't think so.
Sample sentence: “Mrs. Preiss’ gaze has lost something of its smile at the edges and indicates to Kerstin that the wife of the owner of Preiss Ladies’ Underwear & Lingerie does not ask for a reduction at the supermarket till.”

David Wagner – Vier Äpfel
This is all rather odd, and rather charming. I know David Wagner for his solid prose and observations, and here he goes very much into detail – about a trip to the supermarket. It seems almost like a playful attempt to document the present day for future historians – with entertainingly rambling footnotes. It’s fun, and I have no idea whether a plot emerges at any point.
US link? Shouldn’t think so.
Dysfunctional relationship? Probably.
Murder? Doubt it.
Sample sentence: “7. Frozen raspberries, which L. sometimes used to buy to heat up and pour over ice cream, often come out of their cardboard packaging in crumbs, which then looks as if they had been stuck together out of globules. They are reminiscent of the models of complex molecules, also mounted together out of globules, that gathered dust on top of the cupboards in the chemistry lab during my schooldays.”

Norbert Zähringer – Einer von vielen
Now this looks promising. It looks like an American-style novel where strands and characters come together across continents. Two boys are born on the same day, one in the Mojave desert, one in Berlin. And a crime is committed, which I suspect we’ll have to wait a while to have solved. Lots and lots and lots of characters - Nazis, Schwarzenegger, war veterans: nice.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Several.
Murder? Yes.
Sample sentence: “That was how Edison Frimm came into the world: one morning in September 1923 under a German oak table, during an earthquake with a magnitude of four point five, just under a hundred miles north of Los Angeles and about two miles west of the San Andreas Fault, which divided the North American Plate from the Pacific Plate here in the Mojave desert.”

If it was the lovegermanbooks German Book Prize? I’d shortlist Anna Katharina Hahn, Brigitte Kronauer, Rainer Merkel, Terézia Mora, Herta Müller and Thomas Stangl. But then again…

5 comments:

David said...

Dunno. Your mini-review of Merkel didn't make me want to go out and buy the book. Kind of like taking Castor Oil?

kjd said...

You're a man, David, you'll like it. I, on the other hand, liked it despite not being a man. (I'm so proud of myself.)

Britta said...

Wow, you've been so productive! I'll definitely read the other half of your take on the longlist as soon as I can make time for it.

shigekuni said...

Wow I SO didn't like the Hahn book (review here http://shigekuni.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/kaputtgart-anna-katharina-hahns-kurzere-tage/) I completely fail to see what's fantastic about her writing.

kjd said...

S. - you can't tell from your review that you SO didn't like it. More like mild disappointment. And I appreciate all the Stuttgart explanation. Apostoloff makes it sound awful too.

I think what impressed me in the extract was that Hahn seems to be really incisive in her criticism. I've come across people like the non-working mother character, and it really tickled my schadenfreude to imagine them suffering like she does. But that didn't last long because the suffering was so real.

Anyway I like your feminist reading and I might get hold of the whole book.