There's one aspect of German literary culture that I particularly love, and that's all the amazing readings that take place. From just plain old writers at the front of a room, reading out loud with a glass of water at hand, to all-out literary performances with music and sound effects and art projected onto the walls and DJs and juggling clowns on stilts. And everything in between. A couple of weeks ago the literati got all hot under the collar about the best kind of readings. And surprise, surprise! In the end everyone agreed that it's fine to have a broad range of formats. So that's OK then. Most important of all, for me, is simply experiencing the writer at first hand, whether to get a taste of a book you don't know or to extend your understanding of one you do.
One of my favourite formats, and I've said this before, is the salon. An individual or a group of people invite a selection of writers every time, followed by drinks. And that social aspect is hugely important, forging friendships and getting us lonely bookworms out of the house and talking about books (and Angelina Jolie and knitwear and childcare and so on). Of course there's a danger that the same people will come every time and it'll turn into a terrible clique with bland, homogenous taste and opinions - but because most of these things are advertised in the press, I don't think that actually happens.
So Monday was a highlight for me, with two authors I wanted to see - Ulrike Almut Sandig and Benjamin Stein - reading at the Adler & Söhne salon. Unfortunately it was raining, so on this occasion it was indeed just the hardcore crowd in attendance - not even those two writers enjoying a rather public (fictional?) flirt seemed to be there (to my great disappointment, I have to add, as I'd have loved to see what she actually looks like, he being not much to my taste with such an oh, so apparently lecherous public persona).
But they all missed a treat.
Sandig is well known for her poetry but has now brought out a short story collection, Flamingos (click on "read an extract" for a translation by Susan Bernofsky). And what with my weakness for prose written by poets, I absolutely love it - eleven little gems of slightly strange fictions, playing consciously with the fact that they're stories on paper. They're loosely rooted in reality, she told us - mainly rural or smalltown East Germany - but that's not what interests her. She read two stories: the very strong first piece that describes a non-existent life backwards, hugely poignant, and what I find the weakest in the book but she said was the most personal, a meandering school bus ride redeemed by maritime metaphors. My favourite is a story about twins in one body, and not only because I once knew a boy who had to have a dead foetus removed from his abdomen. The stories are tricky, often with tiny details referring back to one another and mostly melancholy but never sentimental. A lot of deaths, a lot of fantastic portrayals of children and old people, who she told us are most interesting because their lives aren't set in stone. The book won the litCologne debut award and is getting rave reviews all over the shop, deservedly so. Oh, and Sandig herself comes across as someone quirky and funny who you'd love to be friends with - always a good sign.
Then came Benjamin Stein. I haven't read his new novel, Die Leinwand, but I'm going to have to now. It's printed so that you can start reading at either end, with the two strands meeting in the middle where you then have to flip the book over and start again. Loosely based around the case of Binjamin Wilkomirksi, the novel looks at that old evergreen, the nature of memory, from a slightly different standpoint - how memories and truths can be manipulated and faked. Stein read well, a pitch-perfect chapter about books and libraries and ownership and lies, featuring a down-to-earth wife who made me wonder all over again about fact and fiction. And then he surprised me by giving a slide show. He'd been on a research trip to Israel, where the book is partly set, in search of a mikveh where his two (!) showdowns take place. Germans aren't generally all that au fait with orthodox Judaism - and nor am I - so it was an unexpected lesson and gave us a great sense of Stein's love for his subject matter. The serious reader was suddenly transformed into a smiling enthusiast, showing us the people and places that inspired him.
And that's something you can't do on paper, one of the undisputed advantages of readings at their best, which make them so much more than mere PR events.