Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Berlin Grant Recipients' Reading 2010

I discovered this fantastic event last year – a chance to hear what a selection of Berlin writers are working on. Not just any old selection though; these are the people the Berlin culture authorities choose to reward with a grant of €12,000. With no obligation to go and stay in a draughty castle, write an essay on civic relations or do anything except write and appear in public on this one occasion.

14 writers, three moderators, free sandwiches, drinks and wine, live music. The only drawback is that the whole thing starts at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Which meant a large part of the audience looked as rough as I did, and the writers had to work hard to hold our attention. But most of them managed it. In the interest of fairness, the lighting people at the venue – the magnificent mirrored hall in the Berliner Ensemble theatre – also managed to make everyone on stage look like they had a piercing beneath their lower lip. I was confused for a while until I realised it was just the stark shadows of their noses.

One of the things I like best about this event is that there’s little time for chit-chat. Each of the writers gets five to seven minutes to read, preceded by a very brief introduction and one or two questions. So only a bare minimum of pseud-y blathering on the nature of writing, the writer’s identity, and so on. What you do get is a taste of works-in-progress that’s just enough to tell you whether it’s worth looking forward to the books themselves. And a short and unadulterated impression of what the writers are actually like, before the PR machinery kicks in.

This year it was the women who did it for me. With the exception of Peter Wawerzinek, of course, but I’ve told you before how much I love his novel Rabenliebe, from which he read a wonderfully gory passage all about eels. And concentration camps. Otherwise I was thoroughly impressed by Svealena Kutschke’s actual reading, prose carried by a very strong rhythm about a girl growing up in Lübeck – beautifully detailed, dense and bristling with fairytale references. I’m intrigued as to how Kutschke will go from the passage she read to an alternative travellers’ camp outside the city.

Another impressive woman was Saskia Fischer. Otherwise a poet, she’s now working on her first novel, as I recall intertwining various stories (although that might have been someone else; this seems to be a popular strategy right now). A cynical, intelligently written piece from a teenage girl’s perspective, showered with jewellery by her stepfather; but as it turns out, the bracelets and earrings and necklaces are what we used to call “Cornish compliments” – gifts turned down by someone else.

I also liked Esther Kinsky’s tight, descriptive prose and Anne-Katrin Heier’s witty short story about an actor called upon to vomit on stage every night. Which was cleverer than it sounds, honest. Back on the male side of the scale, Falko Hennig and Robert Weber presented their project “Dokumente der Straße” – a collection of love letters and diary entries allegedly found abandoned on random pavements, bought up at flea markets, stuffed into pipes as lagging material, etc. Very poignant, very funny, and going all the way back to 1911. Allegedly.

My personal highlight, however, was Tamara Bach. Not just because she’s a good friend of mine, although no doubt that helped. Tamara writes novels for young adults, one of which - Girl from Mars - has even been translated into English, in a fantastically down-to-earth tone that hits your funny bone just as hard as your tear ducts. And what I didn’t even know, because she’s rather a modest kind of person, is that she’s won about a zillion awards for her books. Tamara was the most entertaining and least pretentious writer on stage (although Hennig and Weber came a close joint second). She played for laughs in her brief interview and nearly made me cry in her reading from the forthcoming Basta und Streusand. If you have teenagers, buy them a Tamara Bach book today. If you don’t, read one yourself.

And pencil next year’s Berliner Stipendiaten reading in right now, if you too want to feel all superior about what books will be coming up in the future.

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