Friday, 3 September 2010

My Take On the Longlist - Take 3

So here comes my now traditional lowdown on the German Book Prize longlist. This year, the people at Libri made things easier for me by providing nice short extracts, all about the same length. That made the reading slightly less arduous and I found it gave a good taste of the respective books – but of course doesn’t tell you much of what they’re actually about.

Similarly to last year, I noticed a couple of repeated themes. Teenage girls seemed to crop up rather frequently, which I love because there’s nothing sexier to read about than teenage girls. I do wonder if it’s a reaction to Helene Hegemann’s success though. The other common thread is setting things abroad, preferably in Eastern Europe or Paris as opposed to the USA, which was all the rage last year. Or if it’s not set abroad, an oppressive village setting is a bit of a classic in contemporary German writing. Also, about half the book covers feature some variant of trains, planes and automobiles – it would seem the German readership longs to get away from it all.

The list is alphabetical and extremely partial. See my original posting on the longlist for links to publishers' pages.

Alina Bronsky, Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche

This is billed as “a delightfully spicy novel for women - emotionally charged, sensual, shocking and exotic - the story of the most passionate and astute grandmother of all time.” Which majorly pisses me off I’m afraid; because what do men get to read then – tales of golfing grandfathers?
Anyway, as with her first novel Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky just writes so entertainingly and convincingly that I can’t help jettisoning all my prejudices and simply enjoying the prose. This time it’s a quirky grandmother trying to abort her ugly daughter’s immaculately conceived foetus. Which is a hell of a lot funnier than it sounds. Very possibly a German version of that Ukrainian tractors book – fun, light post-Soviet reading matter with strong characters. Rights have already been sold to Europa Editions, so look out for an American version, probably translated by Tim Mohr. I know I’ll be reading it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting? Somewhere in the Soviet Union.
Sample Sentence: “Then one day I fried fish in oil (it was 1978, and anthrax spores had just escaped from a large laboratory in our town), and Sulfia held her hand over her nose and vomited in the toilet four times.”

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder Im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag

Jan Faktor is utterly cool – I’ve seen him live a couple of times and always gone home happy. According to the blurb, this is a book about a boy growing up in Prague: “Caught between war-traumatised aunts, a tyrannical uncle and a dazzlingly beautiful mother, all Georg wants is to escape to a new future.”
The extract is great stuff, detailing Georg’s concerns with his genitals and his obsession with his past. The language is delightful and intricate and witty but I suspect, from the extract, the length of the book – about 600 pages – and what I’ve heard him read, that it’s probably very, very rambling. The novel was also shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the spring and is on the longlist for oddest title. Too long for my weak wrists though, I’m afraid.

Teenage Girl Factor: 50% (teenage boy)
Foreign/Village Setting: Prague
Sample Sentence: “You also have to know: back then we – the children and the grown-ups – lived in Prague, without suffering particularly from it, in a totalitarian society.”

Nino Haratischwili, Juja

This is one of the indie titles on the list, also on the indie Hotlist, and the publishers Verbrecher Verlag told me about it at the independent book fair thing back in July. It’s apparently based on a true story, of a Parisian teenager who wrote a hit feminist book in the 70s and then committed suicide. Or did she? Now various people set out to find out more. The publishers say: “In a dizzying manner, Nino Haratischwili describes the significance stories can have in life.” So a pretty classic theme then.
The writing is dense and exciting, I think varying between extracts from the book within the book and imaginings of what the writer must have been like. It’s completely melodramatic and odd and the imagined heroine is a fantastic rebel. Actually, I know what happens in the end – but I still want to read it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 200% (because she’s so utterly cool)
Foreign/Village Setting: Paris
Sample Sentence: “But then she pressed her lips to Fanny’s lips, and Fanny, taken by surprise and fearful, poked her tongue out on impulse and licked the blood away.”

Thomas Hettche, Die Liebe der Väter

This is the book I don’t want to read about a father’s troubled relationship with his daughter – the separated father with no custody. The publishers say: “A New Year’s vacation on the island of Sylt becomes a test of love between the father and the 13-year-old daughter.”
The writing in the extract veers between skilled but sentimental nature descriptions and angry references to the mean, controlling, irrational mother. It’s certainly moving stuff. And although Hettche has repeatedly claimed it’s only a novel and not a piece of political pamphleteering, that title (The Love of the Fathers) certainly takes it beyond the single case. No, I still won’t be reading it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting: Sylt
Sample Sentence: (possibly the most provocative in the novel) “And as always I don’t know what to answer. How much I hate her mother? That I still lie awake at night, so many years after our separation, following an argument on the telephone, a letter from her lawyer, a broken arrangement, and still imagine how her facial features contort, initially out of surprise, then in pain, and how my blows throw her against a wall, how she falls, screaming, tears, all that?”

Michael Kleeberg, Das amerikanische Hospital

A Frenchwoman makes friends with an American soldier recovering from the Gulf War in the Parisian hospital of the title. I like the little I’ve read of Michael Kleeberg’s writing in the past – he seems to be uninterested in trendy subjects and chooses “real stuff” to write about. The publishers say: “Michael Kleeberg skilfully and movingly interweaves contemporary history and private lives, the mental horrors of war and the physical horrors of an unfulfilled wish for children with the dense atmosphere of Paris.”
The extract is like a puzzle, and possibly the novel as a whole unfolds this way, which is always fun. The soldier describes the Middle East in a beautiful, unrealistic, imagery-laden monologue, which gets very disturbing. My notes: Woah. Seems very good. I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: Paris and the Persian Gulf
Sample Sentence: “The gutters were flooded, and a grey-haired black man in the green uniform of the city cleaning authority placed his damming rags behind the manhole cover, from which the water was emanating, and then followed the tide of water with slow strokes of his broom along the kerb, walking past below her window up towards Rue de Charonne.”

Michael Köhlmeyer, Madalyn

One of those novels in which the narrator is a writer. And he befriends the neighbours’ daughter, who seems to be rather neglected by her parents. Through the writer, we learn about Madalyn’s first love, the young villain Moritz. The publishers say: “Michael Köhlmeier’s novel about Madalyn and Moritz is a heart-rending story about first love and great emotions.”
The extract is mildly intriguing, set in Vienna, told in a clear, well-written style with lots of everyday detail. Five-year-old Madalyn has an accident on her new bike and the narrator ends up taking her to hospital in place of her absent parents. But he’s so mild-mannered that he doesn’t manage to get even slightly worked up about it. It doesn’t really rock my boat and I shouldn’t think I’ll read it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting: no!
Sample Sentence: “Everyone has their own style of being shocked, I thought; that’s just the way it is with Frau Reis.”

Thomas Lehr, September

Two female protagonists, one an American who dies on 9/11, the other an Iraqi who dies in a bombing three years later. Lehr’s previous novel, 42, was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2005 and is a bizarre scenario in which time stands still for everyone but a small group of people. The publishers say: “In densely poetic language, September tells a story about Islam, about oil, terror and war and about two women who stand for the victims of this conflict.”
And people, it’s fantastic stuff! Even the pattern the words make on the page is beautiful. Lehr avoids the traps of Orientalism, sketching a Middle East rife with sin and sensuality, myth and bathos. Contrasted with Long Island, other private calamities. My notes are strewn with “OMG”s. Odd words, odd sentences, odd punctuation. I think he makes the two women sisters. Mentally. I think they watch each other and tell the other’s story. But maybe they don’t. I really need to read this book.

Teenage Girl Factor: 50% (I think)
Foreign/Village Setting: Baghdad and New York
Sample Sentence: “the King Death his stake in you I saw it only as a stone onyx of a god in a cabinet and as the flapping attachment of my brother before he went to school he rocks you (from inside) what does he know of your treasures sister what a groaning camel you two became in a desert night a camel with two opposed humps”

Mariana Leky, Die Herrenaustatterin

People keep recommending this book to me. I’ve got it already, it’s second from the top of my pile. It’s a love triangle between a woman, a fireman and a ghost. Unfortunately – and I’ve only just realised this – its premise is spookily close to what my life might be like in a worst-case scenario. But hey, I don’t believe in ghosts. The publishers say: “Mariana Leky’s novel seduces the reader into a world that is simultaneously more comic and more tragic is than our own – and also ghostly human.” (That’s their translation, incidentally. You know, DuMont, people can be very petty about spelling and grammatical mistakes.)
And the extract is good stuff. Funny – the story of how the heroine first met her dentist husband before life took a turn for the worse. You can see the bad times coming. Charming, intriguing, probably not as light as it seems – and I am going to read it. Quite soon, in fact.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: no!
Sample Sentence: “Jakob drilled away at my tooth and said several times that I should raise my hand straight away if it got painful, then he’d stop right there and then, he said it seriously and emphatically, as if we weren’t treating my teeth but on a particularly daring expedition that I was the first to undertake.”

Nicol Ljubic, Meeresstille

A love story hindered by a secret born out of the war in Yugoslavia. The publishers say: “Born in Germany, Robert has never been interested in his Croatian roots, until one day he meets Ana, a Serbian student. His love for her takes him into the past of his own family and that of an entire nation.”
I’m not sure what the fuss is about – I hope it’s based on the subject matter, because the prose in the extract is nothing to write home about. It reads like a typical German debut novel (although it’s actually Ljubic’s second), full of dull detail and people wondering about things. The male narrator comes across as naïve, annoyingly so. Perhaps a poor choice of extract? The only thing that interested me was the sudden change in perspective. But not enough to make me actually read the book.

Teenage Girl Factor: Not sure, I’ll give it 50% for the Serbian student
Foreign/Village Setting: Yugoslavia, Berlin, Den Haag
Sample Sentence: “I’d made us tea, put the cups on the table and taken the teabag out of your cup after a while, wrapped it round the spoon and wrung it out, which you ridiculed me for, just like you ridiculed me for the way I scrape out yoghurt pots.”

Kristof Magnusson, Das war ich nicht

I blooming love this book and reviewed it here. It’s about a translator, a banker and an aging writer, and it gives us a foretaste of the stock market crash. The publishers say: “Das war ich nicht (It wasn’t me) tells the story of three people whose lives are drawn by chance into a web of affinity and interdependence.” But take no notice of that – it’s a great fun read.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: Chicago/North German hamlet
Sample Sentence: “I’d have liked to tell someone that the time had come for me to release the handbrake on my career.”

Andreas Maier, Das Zimmer

A grown-up narrator recounts his childhood memories of his rather eccentric uncle. Maier’s second novel Klausen is out now in translation by Kenneth J. Northcott. I once saw Maier in the flesh and he had an unappealing Al Qaeda-style ginger beard. But don’t let that put you off. The publishers say: “Das Zimmer is both a portrait from memory and a novel, perhaps the beginning of a great family saga, a reflection on time and civilisation, on human dignity and how to maintain it.”
The language in the extract is a delight, smattered with great words that jump out at you. And it’s full of intelligent ideas and strange characters, primarily of course that uncle. It certainly made me want more – a real contender, at least for my reading pile.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: no
Sample Sentence: “In actual fact all he did was collect objects thrown away at the workshop, unscrewed them, stared inside them and understood nothing else, for he was for the most part, even if you couldn’t tell at the very first glance, an idiot.”

Olga Martynova, Sogar Papageien überleben uns

A Russian woman visits Germany to give a talk on something terribly literary and intellectual. The publishers say: “In her first novel, Olga Martynova, lyric poet and essayist, presents difficult situations with enchanting ease: the multiple facets of the past, the ‘patina of time’, the gliding of attitudes and opinions only literature is able to convey.”
The extract is confusing and may be witty, but perhaps not. Nice observations on Soviet life as a teenager, starting off with interesting objects that survived the ravages of time and progress. Unfortunately, it gets more and more pretentious as it goes along. And when I say pretentious, I mean pretentious. Until the narrator ends up recounting anecdotes about Nabokov and Russian dissidents. I shan’t be reading it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting: Leningrad
Sample Sentence: “I love you, Singer sewing machine, because you gave me (and not just me) a first, if crude, idea of the fin de siècle.”

Martin Mosebach, Was davor geschah

Mosebach won the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize a couple of years ago, a kind of lifetime achievement Oscar for German writers. In this novel, a man tells his lover what happened in his life before he met her, but not entirely truthfully. Apparently it’s also very erotic. The publishers say: “With the precision of a detective and the linguistic talent of a master storyteller, Martin Mosebach stages a wicked game of love and coincidence in Frankfurt.”
The extract is in fact beautifully written, featuring some of the most exquisite descriptions of light and sounds I’ve come across in some time. But I can’t help but be constantly irritated by the narrator’s superfluous arch-conservative opinions on the world. It’s like reading something written by Prince Charles – all criticism of modern architecture and passion for opera. Someone who knows a lot about these things told me off last year for not reading Martin Mosebach. Judging by the extract, he was right – but I’m still not going to read him.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0% (hardly surprising)
Foreign/Village Setting: Mainly Frankfurt, but also Cairo and Sicily
Sample Sentence: “Sounds of which one cannot believe that they are formed by human lips, tongues, teeth, palates and throats, but that reside in the human torso as polished, delicate bodies and seem to leave it at times along with the breath like a school of silver fish, while the singer herself is astounded at this aural miracle in enchanted immutability.”

Melinda Nadj Abonji, Tauben fliegen auf

A family moves from Serbia to Switzerland, and then goes back to visit. The publishers say: “A Hungarian family from Serbia in Switzerland. A fast-paced and witty novel from the heart of Europe.”
The start of the extract is neither fast-paced nor witty, but it does gather speed and the narrator – a teenage girl, hooray! – is fun to listen to. It does read slightly like creative writing school prose of the German variety though. Some nice turns of phrase, I found it “kinda cool”, according to my notes. I’m slightly suspicious it might be twee ethno-fiction made to make Germans happy. Not sure I’ll read it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 200% (two sisters)
Foreign/Village Setting: Serbia and a Swiss village
Sample Sentence: “The poor things, says my mother, as if we were watching TV, and instead of changing the channel we drive past, driving on in our coolbox that cost a packet, making us as wide as if the street belonged to us, and my father switches the radio on so that the music transforms the low into a dancing beat, instantly healing the clubfoot of reality.”

Doron Rabinovici, Andernorts

An Israeli academic in Vienna and his rival for a professorship get all tangled up. The publishers say: “Origin, identity, belonging –Doron Rabinovici swirls things around and around in a Jewish family in his new novel Andernorts, revealing their old secrets and watching them forming new ones.”
The extract describes the protagonist Ethan Rosen flying back from a funeral in Tel Aviv. I found it sweet at times but otherwise rather yawnsome. Subtle humour, unsubtle explanations of Jewish rituals, Ethan some kind of linguistic and intellectual superhero. And a lot of information imparted in a rather small space. Didn’t make me want more.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: Tel Aviv
Sample Sentence: “The short skirts, the little hats perched in their up hair, their dark panty hose, and little Ethanni at crackling height of the nylon legs staring at the exotic temple dance accompanied by the silky monotony of a female voice. Take-off.”

Hans Joachim Schädlich, Kokoschkins Reise

A story about a retired professor on a ship to the USA, remembering his eventful life in Central Europe. The publishers say: “The twists and turns in Kokoshkin’s story vividly summon up the first half of the twentieth century, depicted in Schädlich’s characteristic style, which emphasizes the simplicity of perfection.”
The extract is absolutely bizarre, frankly a very poor choice. A dinner conversation about Turks in Germany, dripping with prejudice from the Ottoman hordes to the sexist factory worker. Everybody nodding. My notes are one big “WTF”. I have no desire to read this kind of thing.

Teenage Girl Factor: ?
Foreign/Village Setting: St. Petersburg, Odessa, Prague, USA
Sample Sentence: “These guys are waging a religious war against us, they want to abolish our way of life, our culture, our civilisation.”

Andreas Schäfer, Wir vier

A family shaken to its foundations by the murder of a son. The publishers say: “Us four lucidly, sovereignly and movingly tells the story of a trauma and its consequences. The reader cannot get away from it.”
And yes, the extract is great stuff. Infused with threat and oppressive atmosphere from beginning to end, everyday life lived with an appalling memory at the back of everybody’s mind. Traces of violence popping up everywhere, and a strong-minded mother holding it all together, just about. Deceptively simple narration, so much going on below the surface. I liked it a lot, I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: German village
Sample Sentence: “She’d had to light four matches before the last printed remains had turned to whitish ash that stuck to her skin when she ran her finger through it.”

Peter Wawerzinek, Rabenliebe

Wawerzinek won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize with his extract from this novel. It’s an extremely literary autobiographical reckoning with his mother. The publishers say: “For fifty years, Peter Wawerzinek tortured himself with the question of why his mother left him behind as an orphan in the GDR. Then he found her and visited her. The result is a literary explosive, the likes of which German literature has never seen before.”
And yes, it’s so breathless and emotional and gorgeous and strewn with Romantic poetry and nursery rhymes, and it makes me laugh and cry and is absolutely stunning. I’m already reading it – and you should too. Yes, you.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: East German village
Sample Sentence: “The cook takes her sleeves to polish my cheeks, which shine like little apples to her words of persuasion.”

Judith Zander, Dinge, die wir heute sagten

Again, an extract from this book won a prize in Klagenfurt. This one’s also about broken families in rural East Germany. The publishers say: “Judith Zander gives three generations a voice. With incredibly powerful language, she tells a story of a secluded village in the northeast of Germany, of provincial everyday life, of friendship and betrayal, of life itself.” Ah, life itself. Popular subject matter, that one.
Anyway, the extract is very well written but hard to follow and rather heavy going. Multiple voices, one of them a teenage girl, some of them in the local dialect so I can’t read them. Very ambitious but perhaps not terribly enjoyable reading. One to watch, I’d say – this is Zander’s debut novel.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting: West Pomeranian village
Sample Sentence: “This is how they glare down from the shelf: the crumbling torsos at acute angles, the scissors the thighs, both slightly alist.”

Joachim Zelter, Der Ministerpräsident

A politician has a stroke and forgets how the world works; a satire. The publishers say: “Between loveable naivety and childlike amazement, between outside control and stubborn self-assertion, the novel is a book about a hero wrestling for memories and his self, finding himself in a world in which politics is merely empty performance and vacant façade.”
Unfortunately, the extract is very reminiscent of last year’s winner, Kathrin Schmidt’s Du stirbst nicht, in which a woman wakes up from a coma and has to regain her memories of her life and language. It’s nicely done and I presume the more political sections are fun, but it didn’t make my heart stand still.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: no
Sample Sentence: “She meant gaps in my mind. Missing names, missing friends, missing family, missing career, missing landscapes, missing memories, missing words and other gaps… She sat on a chair and found more and more gaps.”


Kerstin Klein said...

I my read Madalyn and Rabenliebe. I should read some other few hundred books first though. ;)
How many books are in your pile? I do have too many and stopped myself from buying too many new books by avoiding book stores.

kjd said...

Hi Kerstin! Actually I have a number of piles. The nearest one has two books on it, Die Herrenausstatterin and Einladung an die Waghalsigen. Then there's another few in the bedroom which add up to about twenty of the non-urgent variety. One more came in the post today, Rafael Horzon recommended by Helene Hegemann. Plus I'll be getting hold of Juja and September asap.

isabo said...

Wow, you've been busy and I'm adequately impressed. Seriously.
And guess what, people keep recommending Die Herrenausstatterin to me, too, and it's second on my pile, I think. We might actually get to read it "together". How romantic!

kjd said...

Isa, maybe we should try that. I might need some moral support to deal with the worrying similarities to my life.