Wednesday, 25 November 2009


Berlin has a long tradition of literary salons going back to the 18th century, when society ladies invited select circles to partake of discussion on literary, social and political matters. Many of these salonnières were Jewish, incidentally, a sign and a means of Jews entering bourgeois society.

The city has been experiencing somewhat of a salon renaissance in recent years. The most established is Britta Gansebohm's Literary Salon, which has been going since 1995. The hostess has invited poets, novelists and writers to read and talk at various venues over the years, often a proving ground for up-and-coming authors. She also organises the bizarre but very cosy winter readings in Mongolian yurts on Potsdamer Platz every January. In this case, Britta Gansebohm's name is like a seal of quality, guaranteeing good writing and a good evening's entertainment.

A couple of independent publishers have muscled in on the salon scene too. The KOOK label has been running monthly readings with music under the title KOOKread since 2001, mainly featuring young writers but not limited to their own authors. And now a new arrival in Berlin, Blumenbar Verlag, is continuing its Munich salon in Berlin. Although not yet up on their website, the first event is dedicated to Leonard Cohen.

Monday saw the first event for another new salon, light years away from gatherings of Goethe fans in upholstered drawing rooms. Adler & Söhne Literaturproduktion, a kind of incredibly sociable shared office space for writers, editors and translators, invited guests to listen to work in progress. In the back room of a scuzzy bar in Prenzlauer Berg, the mirror ball gyrated as Thomas Pletzinger convinced me that he is, after all, capable of reading and writing well, and Tilman Rammstedt convinced me that he really doesn't need to be as shy and modest as he seems - but perhaps that's all part of the show. Moving between humour and earnest in front of palmtree wallpaper, the event was great fun. Afterwards the young writerly folk gathered around the bar for a tad of namedropping and narcism - what bliss.

If you're feeling left out but live in or near London, you too could join salon society. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press has opened her own salon featuring British and European writers. The December event with Matthias Politycki is sold out, but there'll be more to come.

Update: Strike the stuff about Blumenbar's salon. It's actually a collaboration with Berlin Verlag and calls itself a "literary nightclub". Details at the Hardcover Club.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A Publishing Thing Is Happening

Earlier this year, the translator Stefan Tobler wrote a piece for the British translation journal In Other Words, presenting a few ideas for a translator-led non-profit publishing venture. Since then, interest has snowballed and we'll be meeting up in London this week to see how far things have come, discuss possible books, etc. Here's an extract from the original article - and see Stefan's blog for details of the meeting. I must admit I'm rather excited.

If you're interested in finding out more (or indeed a spot of busking), get in touch with Stefan Tobler.

Supply + Demand + Magic

‘In the British Isles, it must be said, Archimboldi remained a decidedly marginal writer.’ from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, and Natasha Wimmer (p. 38, Picador 2009 edition)

Would you agree that a lot of the best contemporary fiction gets passed over in favour of reasonably good books that present publishers with less of a risk?

A commercial publisher has to balance its books, whether it is one of the ‘big boys’ with shareholders or an independent. Sales figures are naturally the driving concern (survival concern), and the sales and marketing people have a larger say than ever in determining publishers’ book choices. Editors and freelance translators are often left to deal with the choices. [...]

My hunch is that translated fiction will, with some wonderful exceptions, become tamer than it already is. Of course, while people might agree that it’s difficult for publishers to take risks, it’s harder to agree on which great authors should be published. It is pretty clear, though, that they aren’t always the most financially viable ones. As Serpent’s Tail’s Pete Ayrton said, ‘Avant-garde fiction thrives where writers do not expect to live off their writing’ (Peter Ayrton in Boyd Tonkin's article ‘The best of times, the worst of times’ (The Independent, 9th January 2009). [...]

Perhaps volunteer-led, or co-op, or non-profit publishing could work on next to nothing? The printing is not the main cost: you can print quality hardbacks in very low print runs for around £3 a copy. People’s time and office overheads are much larger expenses.

Translators, editors, designers, and other publishing folk could meet up to share their great unpublished foreign books, and talk about the best ways to publish them here. Everyone would be able to get on with their task from their own computer/home/heated public library. And there would be plenty of opportunities to be involved: accounting, reading, editing, translating, selling and marketing, fundraising, advising on business or on the editorial committee, party-throwing, web or book design, etc . . . People in publishing could develop projects they have ownership of. Of course, a publisher relying on friendly co-operation would need to be very well organized, with everyone’s tasks and responsibilities absolutely clear, and there would need to be careful budgeting – dare we say it, a business plan. But all possible, and most of it someone or other’s idea of fun.

Of course, many small publishers work in effect as non-profits, and are real heroes of the publishing world. In particular, small poetry presses work like this, as labours of love, and some fiction publishing too, although less in the UK than elsewhere perhaps. Some presses, such as Dalkey Archive and Open Letter in the US, both linked to universities, are non-profits. The two founders of a small Czech publisher, Větrné Mlýny (meaning, appropriately enough: windmills), used to catch a train to Berlin whenever money was short, where busking Simon and Garfunkel songs brought in the Deutschmarks to publish the next book. [...]

Friday, 20 November 2009

city-lit Berlin Launch: The Post-Mortem

No doubt all my readers have organised hundreds of book launches in the past and will be thoroughly bored by what's to come. For me, though, last night was a first: My First Book Launch. The plan was to showcase a range of the writing in the city-lit Berlin anthology, including a couple of my favourite German books that made it in.

But of course we couldn't exactly fly authors in from around the globe or raise them from the grave, so a few of the writers in the book had to be represented by stand-ins. That meant the genuine articles who attended - Rory MacLean, Michael Wildenhain and Jakob Hein - had time to read a good chunk of their work, while the audience also got a taste of some of the other "perfect gems of city writing". And we also had a bonus track courtesy of the translator and historian Pam Selwyn, who read one of Johann Friedel's Briefe über die Galanterien von Berlin all about the depravities of Berlin's 18th-century male brothels.

At this point I have to thank all those involved, especially the writers and Lucy Renner-Jones who played the part of Kate Adie with aplomb, John Manning who swapped hats for a very convincing John Le Carré and Len Deighton - and Steph Morris who stole the show as Christopher Isherwood, plus-fours and all.

The other part of the fun was a quiz with copies of the book as prizes. Unfortunately, I made the questions rather hard, which meant that newcomers to Berlin had no chance of a free copy. But the answers are all in the book...

Anyone who wants to get hold of the anthology in Berlin should mosey over to Saint George's Bookshop, Wörtherstraße 27, Prenzlauer Berg. But wait a day or so first, as Paul has to replenish his stocks - they sold out last night.

Finally, my trade secret for anyone else planning their first book launch: make sure you feel a million dollars. I bought a new dress that made me think I was Shirley Bassey and Fiona Bruce all rolled into one - although Jakob Hein seemed to think I was more like Ann Robinson. I graciously allowed him to sing a song though, as well as his very entertaining reading.

Thanks again to all those who attended, practically spilling out the front door. You were a great audience!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Berliners: You Know You Want To

Tonight's the night of the city-lit Berlin Berlin launch. 8.30, Saint George's Bookshop, Wörterstraße 27, Prenzlauer Berg.

With Rory MacLean (Stalin's Nose), Anna Winger (This Must Be the Place), Michael Wildenhain (Russisch Brot), Jakob Hein (Gebrauchsanweisung für Berlin) and me. Plus drinks, prizes and surprise special guests.

See you all there then.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Ex-Berlin Publishing: Klett-Cotta/Tropen

Publishing Perspectives has a piece on Michael Zöllner of Klett-Cotta, whose indie press Tropen moved from Berlin to Stuttgart to join the larger house. The wild young men were put in charge of the whole place rather suddenly as I recall, and the piece talks about how they've rearranged the furniture: "This has meant building up a stable of younger German and foreign authors and cutting back on some 'German authors of a certain generation,' as well as being a bit more daring."

I'm wondering what that talk of "a certain generation" means. It doesn't sound good, does it? They certainly haven't rearranged the website, which is just as user-unfriendly as ever ("If you are interested in translation rights, please order our latest Foreign Rights Guide (pdf-file / print).") - although they do have a blog, which is fed a good, oooh, twice a week with promotional material.

According to the German trade mag Börsenblatt, Zöllner still uses his flat in Berlin to hold parties - with Vietnamese spring rolls warmed up in the kitchen.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Tim Krohn, ans Meer

Tim Krohn’s novel ans Meer (To the Sea) is part of the first crop of titles from Galiani Berlin, the new publishing house run by Esther Kormann and Wolfgang Hörner, previously of Eichborn Berlin fame. It’s a bit like the Brawn GP of German publishing, with Kiepenheuer & Witsch the Mercedes engine powering foreign rights, accounts and so on.

Which would presumably make Tim Krohn Galiani’s Jensen Button – only he’s billed as a Swiss Ian McEwan. Of course knowing that, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Atonement, and there really are a number of them. But don’t let that put you off; it’s a German book, so class plays only a very minor role. Guilt, on the other hand, is here aplenty. And when it comes to sheer quality, Krohn certainly matches up.

ans Meer is set in Zurich and on the northern coast of Germany, and tells the story of two families who grow together, apart and then together again. The Bergströms and the Paulsens share a house by the sea, where they spend their weekends together. The families’ two daughters are the best of friends, the mothers get on well, the men find a level too. Then the ostensible harmony is shattered – the hinge between the past and the present is Margot Bergström’s drowning.

Margot’s husband drinks himself to death, while her daughter Josepha runs away to Switzerland and gets herself pregnant. Meanwhile the Paulsens live a sedate life without them, with their daughter Anna becoming a psychology lecturer. In the opening chapter, she finds out her boyfriend is infertile and knew all along, throwing her off-kilter on the planned-out path to parental joy.

Anna is the book’s Elinor Dashwood, the sensible foil to Josepha’s Marianne – and here I’ll stop with the comparisons, OK? Josepha is living in Zurich with her son Jens, a single mother with an unorthodox attitude to gender roles in parenting. The action really starts when she decides to claim the house by the sea, which has been gathering dust for the past ten years or so. As events unfold, Anna gets a chance to atone for what she feels she did wrong as a teenager – and finds out that life wasn’t quite as simple back then as she thought, and certainly isn’t now either.

Told by an omniscient narrator but from changing perspectives, the story moves fluidly to and fro between past and present. The sections interlock with perfect continuity, and you know how I love that. The characters are beautifully crafted, even down to bit-parts like a policeman who is constantly losing his sunglasses. I was particularly impressed by Jens, a thoroughly three-dimensional ten-year-old besotted with his chaotic mother. Despite its earnest subject-matter, there are light moments of everyday humour throughout the novel.

The language is calm, precise and doesn’t distract from the intricate plot and the psychological insight as the book goes on. It’s a book, perhaps, about parenting, about growing up, about grief. It scrapes ingeniously past a groan-worthy happy ending of the worst kind. And it made me cry. Do check out Tim Krohn's website – the mixture of serious literature and playful devices reflects something of the novel itself.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Swiss Book Prize Goes to Ilma Rakusa

Ilma Rakusa has won the Swiss Book Prize for her book Mehr Meer, a memoir of kinds on growing up the child of a Slovenian father and a Hungarian mother, in smalltown Slovakia, Budapest, Ljubljana, Triest and Zürich – and moving on to the wider world.

I haven't read it but I do appreciate Rakusa's tight, atmospheric prose. She takes home 60,000 Swiss francs - that's about 40,000 euro, 35,000 pounds or 60,000 dollars.

Megan O'Grady on Berlin in Vogue

While Berlin seems very much in vogue right now, Berlin's also in Vogue. Sorry, I couldn't resist. Megan O'Grady, the US magazine's book editor, writes about the city and some of its literature - it gets interesting where the bold text kicks in.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

17th Open Mike

Last weekend I looked at state funding for more established writers. This weekend was Open Mike weekend, in which unpublished authors up to the age of 35 get a shot at stardom and cash. In Germany, 35 is a magical cut-off date after which you are old. Practically overnight, you're no longer entitled to enter young people's literary competitions and in return, you can get a free check-up from your doctor. But I digress.

Open Mike is a literary institution run by the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, propelling talented writers to genuine fame for the past 17 years. The list of previous winners includes Julia Franck, Karen Duve, Jochen Schmidt, Tim Krohn, Terézia Mora, Tilman Rammstedt, Zsuzsa Bánk... plenty of big names in what they call "young German literature". Now, the finalists don't just read their texts before a rather large and no doubt rather intimidating audience. They're also treated to a colloquium beforehand (on "what is contemporary about contemporary literature?" - I couldn't get a straight answer when I asked what the outcome was). Plus they meet previous winners, and afterwards they get to work on their texts with experienced editors, whether they win or not. The three winners get a fairly modest sum of money and an indecent amount of attention from publishers.

The finalists are chosen by a team of six editors, each of whom gets their own personal slush-pile of around 120 submissions. The idea is to simulate the actual publishing world, apparently - and the editors did a pretty good job of simulating all that familiar moaning and groaning about the quality of unsolicited manuscripts. But in the end, 20 finalists were selected, six poets and the rest prose writers.

And then the whole world gathers together in my least favourite Berlin venue, the Wabe, for two days. I went along on Saturday and then cheated by just turning up for the announcement ceremony on the second day. Because I felt I ought to spend some time with my family over the weekend – and because it was frankly exhausting. The audience seemed to be made up entirely out of editors, agents, journalists, people who had applied but weren't taken, and the contestants' friends - which meant there was a huge amount of bitching going on.

I'm not going to list who read what. If you're interested, see goldblog for an entertaining blow-by-blow description, or buy the book. One enduring impression though is that almost all young German-language writers feel compelled to include at least one poorly pronounced English phrase in their texts, mainly for no discernible reason. Another is that the young generation is not much better than their elders when it comes to ignoring anyone who isn't white*, beyond certain clichés (domestic staff, sexually available, criminal). And of course there were a hell of a lot of first-person narrators, who were often difficult to distinguish from the writers. The texts that stood out, for me, were those that ventured further afield - Jan Sprenger to China, Lutz Woellert to Ellis Island, Ondrej Cikán to a fantasy cowboy-inhabited New Mexico, to name a few.

The winners?

Matthias Senkel for a dizzying, funny piece about a family history that I too rather admired, Inger-Maria Mahlke for a confusing and well-written fragment culminating in an old man touching an unexpected pair of breasts, and Konstantin Ames for acrobatic poetry. As it turns out, all three of them have some connection to the DLL creative writing school in Leipzig...

It's probably safe to say you may well hear these names again in future. Matthias Senkel also won the audience prize, voted on by a handful of mere mortals rather than the three judges (Kathrin Röggla, Ursula Krechel, Jens Sparschuh). I'll post a link to his text when it appears in the taz as a result.

*By "white" I actually mean German or Western European or American. There are plenty of clichéd Eastern Europeans out there - research has shown that Germans have always loved people from countries to their west and hated everyone from eastwards. To put it rather simply.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Maar on Nabokov (via Benjamin)

n+1 has a preview from Ross Benjamin's translation of Speak, Nabokov by Michael Maar - about that manuscript, of which he heartily disapproves: "There was certainly nothing like this in Lolita."

I had the pleasure of admiring Maar from behind last weekend, and I must say he has a fine head of hair. He's also a very eloquent man of letters and an expert on Nabokov, Proust, Thomas Mann and JK Rowling.

Lists of the Month

There's the SWR-Bestenliste, for which thirty critics have been selecting ten top-quality reads a month since 1975. And then there's the "Literaturen"-Bestenliste, for which twelve other critics select ten great books a month.

While the SWR critics only have to suggest four titles each every month, those poor Literaturen people have to hand in a top ten of their own every month - which seems like a full-time job to me. The funny thing is though, there aren't that many overlaps. The only books on both lists for November are Bolano's 2666, David Grossman's Isha Borahat Mibesora ("Woman flees tidings", not available in English) - and a single German book, Brigitte Kronauer's wickedly funny Zwei schwarze Jäger.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Maurice à la Poule Takes French Prize

The Prix Femina Étranger for foreign novels has gone to the Swiss-born and Berlin-based German-language writer Matthias Zschokke for Maurice mit Huhn (in Patricia Zurcher's translation Maurice à la Poule).

I like the idea of the prize: an all-female jury chooses books by men or women. And I like the idea of the novel, of which Niels Höpfner writes in Titel-Magazin:

There are a lot of things that Zschokke's Maurice mit Huhn isn't: not one of the family sagas so popular with readers; not a Bildungsroman; not a psychological thriller; not a relationship crisis opus; not a 1989 concoction; not a generation report; not a corny coming to terms with the past. But what is it? At most, Maurice tries to come to terms with the present, and not without many a sigh.

The book is set in Berlin's Wedding district, a neighbourhood slowly decaying into abject poverty, and is apparently a wonderful, melancholy episodic novel, best read with a cello playing in the background. It has not been translated into English.

Zschokke has been writing since the early 1980s and is a bit of an insider's tip - but has won a whole 17 awards for his books, plays and films.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Berlin Manuscripts

Compared to Britain or the States, Germany’s writers live in the lap of luxury when it comes to state funding. While Britain’s Society of Authors states on its website that it awards 70,000 pounds in grants to writers every year, the closest German equivalent in terms of a national funding body, the Deutscher Literaturfonds, supports writers to the tune of €500,000 a year. That’s about six times as much – but it doesn’t stop there, as it’s the federal states that are actually responsible for providing grants to authors.

Berlin has an annual budget for individual writers of € 213,000. A good chunk of this year’s sum went to the lucky recipients of the Berliner Literaturstipendium – who presented their work in the opulent foyer of the Berliner Ensemble theatre on Sunday, at an event by the name of "Berliner Manuskripte".

Readers, the event was fabulous value for money. In the world of state literature funding, even the audience gets a free lunch: €3 to get in bought us twelve writers, two moderators, two musicians, plus sandwiches, fruit juice and sparkling wine! I’m definitely going again next year.

The writers were: Bruno Preisendörfer, Jan Groh, Ralph Hammerthaler, Katja Oskamp, Jan Böttcher, Jan Wagner, Luo Lingyuan, Michael Maar, Alexej Schipenko, Petra Kasch, Gisela von Wysocki and Thomas Weiss.

I went along with a mission: to see whether there is such a thing as “grant-maintained writing”. Does the fact that these writers had a chance to write and research without financial pressure produce a certain kind of end product? As you may have guessed, this thesis was utterly facile and proved wrong almost immediately. The range of genres was broad, from literary essay to poetry to children’s literature to historical fiction to strongly autobiographically tinted pop. The styles were equally diverse, with some writers sending me straight to dreamland with their long sentences on a Sunday morning and some waking me up with a bang.

I had anticipated they would all have locked themselves away from daylight to write, write, write until they could type the word FIN and then die, as Michael Maar read from his book on Proust. Yet even that didn’t seem to be the case, as Jan Böttcher was in London (represented by Alexander Gumz, who Facebook is always telling me to befriend, but I didn’t like to walk up to him and say so, poor guy) and Alexej Schipenko was off somewhere else.

I could only make out two overlaps, in fact. The first was a minor preoccupation with insanity in a number of texts, which is probably coincidence. The second was that all of the authors make their living writing: writing essays, journalism, plays, songs, all manner of things – but writing nonetheless. No teachers, doctors, waitresses, insurance salesmen: these were pretty much full-time word people who used the grant to clear their desks for long enough to work on their book projects. I wonder whether a group of twelve writers in any other country would be so professionally homogenous?

What did I like? I was totally blown away by Jan Groh’s Nachrichten aus einer einfachen Welt. It’s a work of herstory, a tale of a morphine-addicted doctor and an old anarchist whose life sums up twentieth-century history, from the Spanish civil war to the gulag and back to Germany. Shocking stuff, painstakingly told. I laughed with delight along with the rest of the audience at Jan Wagner’s poem about Evel Knievel. I thought Jan Böttcher’s chapter about a Blairite privatised school in the near future had promise but needed untangling – but it was announced as a work-in-progress. I laughed again at Luo Lingyuan’s tale of cultural confusions in a German-Chinese marriage. And I loved the idea of Thomas Weiss’ novel revolving around Sophie Scholl’s executioner – a man who was just doing his job, for the Weimar Republic, for the Nazis and the Americans.

As Ingrid Wagner from the Berlin authorities told us, the grant is about promoting the creative process. Some of the projects have already been published, but Berlin doesn’t seem to mind too much if the writers don’t quite get there. “Failure is included,” she told us – pointing out that no matter whether we liked the products or not, the writers have spent all their grants now and there’s no money-back guarantee.

Ah, and you can see some gorgeous photos, copyright Kathrin Sommer, on Flickr.

Monday, 9 November 2009

9th November

Can anyone explain to my why Bon Jovi are commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, playing live at the Brandenburg Gate tonight? Is this what thousands of people took to the streets for?

For literature lovers, I have two alternative suggestions. The first is Berlin-based poet Alistair Noon's entertaining and thoughtful long essay, November Notes, in Litter magazine (full disclosure: I know him). Alistair remembers the bathos of trying to watch the news in a student hall of residency on 9 November 1989, then goes on to explain the whole of Berlin, how it has changed since then and all about the public transport system, telling us how for many years, "it was as if for both sides the other was a kind of South London into which one ventured, in public transport terms, at one's peril."

The second is a German book with a slightly less common perspective of the Wende: Jan Böttcher's Nachglühen (Afterglow - see my review). Set in a village on the border to West Germany, it too looks at what has changed since the Wall - or in this case the fence - came down. You can listen to a radio play of the novel on NDR Kultur for a week from Wednesday.

All this reminiscing reminds me of my own excitement over the 9th of November. At the time I had fled my suburban high school for a sixth-form college in another, more affluent suburb. As I recall I had high hopes of becoming instantly cool and joining some mythical café society by going there, which didn't happen. But there was great euphoria within our modest German department over the fall of the Wall, and our teacher showed us taped footage from German TV - Sat1 was available via satellite and cable at the time and was always very popular at parties as it was the only channel available in Britain that ran soft-porn, but of course only German teachers had it. The whole thing really messed up our curriculum though, because it suddenly required new lesson materials on a grand scale. But the teacher rose to the occasion rather well with reams of photocopied collages.

The fall of the Wall will forever be entangled in my memory with the fall of Margaret Thatcher. At some point between the two events, our college hung TVs from the ceilings in the corridors, broadcasting their own teletext messages. Presumably this was some kind of Media Studies project harnessing the very latest technological progress. Anyway, the buzz over the teletext message "Margaret Thatcher resigns" was similar, for me, to the reactions a little over a year earlier. Like the Berlin Wall, Thatcher seemed to have been there forever. We'd grown up with her, she represented the antithesis of freedom, and we all longed to tear her down. There had been rising discontent and although in hindsight the end was on the cards, nobody ever imagined it would happen.

Both occasions warranted a celebratory baked potato from the college canteen and much teenage enthusiasm. Perhaps I'll celebrate tonight with an old-school baked potato for tea. Teenage enthusiasm is off, however.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Kathrin Schmidt: Du stirbst nicht

Kathrin Schmidt neatly picked up this year’s German Book Prize with Du stirbst nicht, a novel about a woman who wakes up from a coma and has to piece together her memory. The FAZ blogger Andrea Diener happened to sit in front of someone from the jury and overhear an impromptu discussion of why she won – hair-raising stuff. Apparently some of the other books on the shortlist were thought too clever for their own good, and some of them were set in villages. Kathrin Schmidt, on the other hand, gave us a book about a woman struggling with a blow of fate in Berlin – a sure winner. Not to forget that she’s a woman herself, which means the rights to her novel will sell to the US/UK, as I pointed out a while back. Good people of the jury – that advice I gave you to choose a nice unthreatening lady author was a joke.

I hope all this hasn’t put you off – because this is by no means a nice unthreatening lady of a book. It’s a zinger, a humdinger, a fabulous shock of a novel. It’s told in chapters, divided up into very short passages that submerge us in the writer Helene Wesendahl’s hospital routine from the very outset. As she has to rebuild her vocabulary, the language starts simple and becomes increasingly complex – Schmidt wrote poetry and prose before she herself suffered a ruptured aneurysm. She too has now regained her language but apparently doesn’t feel capable of writing poetry any more. I’d disagree – at times her prose crosses that boundary and slips almost inadvertently into poetry. And the sheer exhilaration Helene feels when she rediscovers a word is infectious.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, as that’s another side of the novel that makes it so impressive. As Helene remembers details of her past life, we feel her shock, joy and sadness. She mourns anew for people she has lost, has to befriend old familiars all over again, and relives moving moments – all the while going through therapy to repair her body and mind. As it turns out, all is not as rosy as she thought when she first woke up and encountered her devoted husband. Although in essence the novel could be set almost anywhere, Helene’s memories are of East Germany, and there are fascinating elements of political reflection on the events of 1989 and what came after them. All in all, Kathrin Schmidt does actually tell an inspiring life and love story as you might find in more conventional “women’s fiction” (how I hate that label) – but she does it so expertly that the book is much more than that.

I don’t know whether the translation rights really have been sold yet, but one thing’s for sure: the novel will be a wonderful challenge for some lucky translator. John Reddick’s English extract is from the simpler beginning of the book, but it’s excellent, dealing well with some of the wordplay puzzles Kathrin Schmidt builds in every now and then. Let’s hope he gets to do justice to the rest of the book.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Bargain Bucket ZEIT Classics

Looking to top up your supply of German classics on a tight budget? DIE ZEIT has just launched a new edition of twenty favourites as chosen by its readers, for a total price of €119.95.

Here are the titles, each with a special afterword by a ZEIT editor, should you value that kind of thing:

Sophie von La Roche: Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim
Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Leiden des jungen Werther
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Nathan der Weise
Friedrich Schiller: Die Räuber
Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil
Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas
Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm: Ausgewählte Kinder- und Hausmärchen
Joseph von Eichendorff: Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts
Annette von Droste Hülshoff: Die Judenbuche
Heinrich Heine: Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen
Wilhelm Busch: Ausgewählte Werke
Friedrich Nietzsche: Also sprach Zarathustra
Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter
Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest
Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks
Rainer Maria Rilke: Gedichte
Franz Kafka: Der Proceß
Heinrich Mann: Der Untertan
Max Frisch: Homo faber
Günter Grass: Die Blechtrommel
I must admit I'm tempted, tempted, very very tempted - even by the rather attractive cover design. If only they'd deliver a time machine along with them so I could get some work done once they arrived.

City-Lit Berlin: Inge Deutschkron, Outcast

Today's the day that you - yes, you! resident of the British isles - can wander into a bookshop and buy a copy of City-Lit Berlin. "This wonderful anthology" (The Guardian) contains all manner of writing about Berlin, edited by Heather Reyes and myself. The excerpts are from books written in English and in German, covering various historical eras and aspects of the city.

One of the most impressive books on the historical side, for me, was Inge Deutschkron's memoir Ich trug den gelben Stern, published in England as Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin, tr. Jean Steinberg. Unfortunately, although I have a copy, the English version is rather difficult to get hold of, as were the rights. So the extracts in City-Lit Berlin are my own translations.

As the name suggests, Deutschkron is a Jewish woman who survived the Nazis in Berlin. She worked as a secretary at Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind, recently helping to set the former premises up as a very moving museum. When the Jews began to be rounded up for "deportation" she and her mother assumed false identities, helped by Otto Weidt and other friends. Her book tells this story, presenting a girl's view of the persecution and the war in Berlin.

It is simply written, presenting young Inge's amazement at the horrors of the time in straightforward language that nevertheless cuts to the quick. The Deutschkrons were socialists and not religious, and in fact the book opens with Inge's mother telling her in 1933 that she is a Jew, something she fails to understand. The author presents a varied picture of Jewish life across Berlin's social classes before the persecution began in earnest, and the misery and fear once it set in. She is not uncritical of those who stuck their heads in the sand and those who initially profitted from Nazi persecution in small ways, yet she is never judgemental.

But this is a book of hope. Through her own story, Inge Deutschkron shows that there was such a thing as the "good German". From the police officers in Mitte who warned Jewish people of their impending arrest to the many people who helped her and her mother, and above all Otto Weidt, who saved countless lives.

The passages in the anthology are Deutschkron's memories of key events in Berlin: a child's eye view of the November 1938 pogrom known as Kristallnacht, and her later horror when all her "legal" Jewish workmates are arrested and sent to their death. In their honesty and simplicity - the book is often used as teaching material at German schools - they are both great pieces of writing from an unusual perspective.

Ich trug den gelben Stern has never gone out of print in German. Perhaps now would be the right moment to resurrect the English version, possibly in a slightly fresher translation.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Employee Translator Model

The German publishing house Lübbe has three translators among its permanent employees, and the Managing Director Klaus Kluge talks about the model in an interview in the trade mag Buchreport.

Aside from the wish to have particular translators who know their stuff in Lübbe's genres at their permanent disposal, Kluge says the decision was motivated by the possibility of spiralling royalties. The example he gives is Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol - if he had to pay the translators 0.8% of all sales income, he says, the end sum would be "breathtaking". In this case, though, his permanent people get a capped royalty plus their standard wages. There are advantages for both sides, he claims, as the translators have the security of a permanent job rather than working on a book-for-book freelance basis.

One thing I don't quite understand is the time pressure he cites to get (American) bestsellers out in translation. Why is it of advantage to Lübbe to have published The Lost Symbol before it came out in Sweden, for example? I can hardly see thousands of people in airport bookshops hovering between Das verlorene Symbol and Den förlorade symbolen. And certainly it has negative implications for translation quality when, as in this case, one book is translated by a team of six in an extremely short period.

Another issue for me is why Dan Brown is entitled to unbounded royalties but his translators are not. And with the publishing industry in its current state, that job security Kluge cites is presumably worth little in return.

Although freelance literary translators are in a very precarious position, they can at least (in theory) choose which books to translate, working on particular authors or genres for various different publishing houses. And they do at least have a chance of decent royalties that recognise their creative input, once the dispute on the issue is settled in Germany. I don't see that the permanent employee model - under these circumstances - offers them a genuine alternative.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Monday, 2 November 2009

Four German Titles on Incredibly Long Impac Longlist

They've announced the 156-strong longlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Titles are nominated by participating libraries, which I think is a fantastic idea. And there are four German books in the running for the €100,000 prize - which would be split 75:25 between the author and their translator, should a translated title win.

The books are:

Christoph Hein, Settlement, tr. Philip Boehm
Ingo Schulze, New Lives, tr. John E Woods
Sasa Stanisic, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, tr. Anthea Bell
Ilija Trojanov, The Collector of Worlds, tr. William Hobson

You can see which libraries participated and which books they nominated, and a brief look shows something interesting. This time around, the libraries in Germany almost all picked at least one German book, while the Austrian and Swiss libraries were completely unpatriotic. Of the thirteen nominations from England, one is a translated title. Irish libraries suggest two translations, Scottish none (although there were only two libraries participating). South African zero. USA four of around seventy suggestions. Australia none, New Zealand one. Barbados & Jamaica none, Canada one. (And sorry to have overlooked, like, half the English-speaking countries on the list. It's because I don't get out enough.)

In most cases, translated books were nominated solely by libraries in their countries of origin (which explains the lack of Austrian and Swiss titles on the list). But at least this is a good way to get greater attention for those books in the English-speaking world, however much it smacks of Eurovisionism. The actual judging is more traditional, so that also gives less popular titles a fair shot at the prize.