Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Ingo Schulze on the Terrace

Before everyone in Berlin switches their attention to the terraces as the World Cup kicks off, Ingo Schulze last night had the honour of opening the outdoor season at the Literary Colloquium. Now if you've never been to the Literary Colloquium in Berlin, you must right this wrong as soon as possible. Even if you live in Michigan or Montevideo. I've said it before but I'll say it again: it is the world's most beautiful literary venue, a lakeside villa on the edge of Berlin where writers and translators can stay. And despite the opulent surroundings, everyone who works there is very friendly and welcoming.

It's fine and dandy in the winter, but in the summer the LCB comes into its own. Imagine a balmy evening on the terrace, sipping wine and listening to a talented writer as the sun sets over the Wannsee. There may be few pleasures more innocent. Ahh.

Anyway, Ingo Schulze has written a new book of short stories, Orangen und Engel. Allow me to insult your intelligence by translating that - it means Oranges and Angels. And it's all about Italy, where such things grow on trees. I forgot to look at the book, but it's illustrated with photos by Matthias Hoch. Incidentally, Schulze's previous short story collection is just out in English, no doubt expertly translated by John E. Woods, under the title One More Story. Click on that link to make your way to an excerpt. His gorgeous novel set in the heady summer of 1989, Adam and Evelyn, is also coming up in English at some point.

The thing about Schulze's prose is that it appears deceptively simple. But as you delve deeper, you find nuances of meaning and humour that make you realise just how clever the man is. He's also very nice, and very political, and was recently made president of the Berlin Academy of Arts. So his book on Italy is rather an orange to be peeled and dissected, discovering the sweetness inside. Oh, I do so love a laboured metaphor.

To start the evening, Schulze talked to the critic Ursula März about the German and his own relationship to Italy. Ever since Goethe, the Germans have had the hots for the place. And this year the Villa Massimo in Rome celebrates its hundredth anniversary as a state-owned hangout for German writers and artists. Ingo Schulze and his family spent 2007 there, working very hard apparently. And strangely enough, the narrator in Orangen und Engel is also a writer staying at the Villa Massimo with his family. As so often, Ingo Schulze plays his game of pretending the narrator is Ingo Schulze. Which is always fun.

Schulze read a long piece from the collection, featuring a Romanian man who tells the narrator a story every writer wants to hear. The political undertones were very clear but never overwhelmed the story, which had me transfixed from about a third of the way in. This is far from a romanticised view of Italy, despite featuring Latin lovers and car accidents. Afterwards, I talked to a jet-setting professional hair colorist about whether the story was feasible. No, even the apparently realistic parts aren't overly likely to have ever happened to anyone. But surely that's the joy of telling stories - and of being told them? Because in stories, anything can happen. And in Ingo Schulze's stories, it often does.


ghost said...

haha have you read my rant about Schulze's work yet?

It's also up (with a few changes) on the QC


from you post, I ther you wouldn't agree. =)

kjd said...

Marcel, I had. And I don't agree, mainly because I reject the idea that anyone could possibly define "great writing". I think there are writers who will stand the test of time and writers who are very much of the moment - but that doesn't make them any less readable.

I'm not Schulze's greatest ever fan but I wouldn't advise people against reading him either. And he's a hell of a lot more political than many other German writers, who seem to exist in some kind of grant-maintained bubble. Not that being political makes someone a "great writer" either.

You seem to assume the existence of a parallel "great reader" - one who has read and digested Mann and Döblin, one with a firm sense of style and grasp of historical fact and fiction. Perhaps I'm drawing conclusions from my own very narrow horizons, but I'm not sure how many of those people actually exist.

I liked your recommendations though, even though your definition of contemporary doesn't overlap with mine. But I think in a profit-oriented publishing industry, there's a lot of room to translate literature that works on all different levels and caters to all different readers, from the throwaway thriller to the modern classic. Theoretically, at least.

And even though I share your dislike of Glavinic (possibly for different reasons), I wouldn't begrudge him his translations - because I like to hope that even middlebrow* (translated) literature can be the soft drug that lures people onto the Class-A stuff.

But otherwise, a great piece and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and disagreeing with it.

*I know, I'm contradicting myself. It's Friday afternoon, give me a break.

kjd said...

And I don't think anyone can tell *which* writing will stand the test of time.