Saturday, 19 March 2011

Blagging in Leipzig

Here I am, back from the blagathon that is the Leipzig Book Fair. While hordes of people amble through the halls collecting freebies in oversized paper bags that poke into other people's legs on the tram back, no doubt to be tipped out on the kitchen table at home and sifted through with 90% of the stickers, catalogues, sample chapters, bookmarks, flyers and general crap landing (at best) in the recycling, I perfected the art this year of blagging free food, drink and preferential seating.

It all started in Berlin with the Internationales Übersetzertreffen at the Literary Colloquium. Twenty-odd translators of German literature, including the very talented Shelley Frisch and Lyn Marven, were invited to Berlin and Leipzig for an intense taste of contemporary writing. I was invited to talk to them along with Cristina Vezarro, the founder of the brand new in-German literary translation blog Gemischtes Doppel. Hence free lunch, preceded by a reading by Benjamin Stein (whose excellent The Canvas is being translated into English as we speak by Brian Zumhagen for Open Letter Books), followed by sneaking in to an evening event without paying where the critic Richard Kämmerlings talked about his interesting-looking book on contemporary German writing, Das kurze Glück der Gegenwart and Ulrich Peltzer (whose excellent Part of the Solution is coming out from Seagull Books in July, trans. Martin Chalmers) talked about writing German fiction.

Then on Thursday I went to the award ceremony for the Alfred Kerr Prize for literary criticism. It was just part of the book fair, you didn't need an invitation, and there were free drinks afterwards, rather delicious sparkling wine. The prize went to my actual favourite German critic, Ina Hartwig, who is incredibly clever and has impeccable taste. The speech was held by the writer Clemens Meyer (whose excellent short stories All the Lights I am translating as we speak for And Other Stories). And it was really rather moving, sitting in an enclosure with lots of other literary critics hearing a writer's self-proclaimed declaration of love to a critic. Not something I'll forget for some time to come.

Now while I was sitting there I mentioned to an acquaintance that I wanted to go to the announcement of the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair not long afterwards, and expressed my envy for all those people who get to sit in front of the cordon while the ceremony takes place, rather than standing up and jostling for a good view at the back. And lo and behold, it's not what you know, it's who - he whipped out a spare ticket! Then it turned out that the entire hierarchy is actually three-tiered: there are the book-buying plebs standing at the back, the bourgeoisie seated in the middle, and a literary aristocracy made up of publishers and the like at the front, who have seats reserved in their names. And I happened to run into a very friendly member of said aristocracy, who invited me to be his +1 (the only item of useless paper I brought back with me is the label from my seat). I probably ought to say something virtuous like It makes no difference where you sit. It's all about the literature. But in fact I spent the entire time feeling very pleased with myself and savouring the close-up view of the judges, candidates and prize winners, imagining my face on the evening news and soaking up the rather tense atmosphere with all the people who had a stake in the outcome. I'll post the winners in a separate entry.

Thursday evening is always the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht, zillions of young-ish writers reading in a medieval dungeon-type affair. I enjoyed Selim Özdogan, Rabea Edel and Susanne Heinrich, then I got a free drink token from one of the above. I would have liked them anyway though. Other than that, the combinations were rather odd - the oldest author reading with the youngest, YA literature paired with very literary fiction, fairly experimental writing with a plainly autobiographical (but not uninteresting) report on a psychiatric clinic posing as a novel. Challenging.

Friday kicked off (more or less) with free drinks for translators. Fuelled up on more sparkling wine, I then wandered around aimlessly looking at books and getting lost and meeting friends and acquaintances and generally not achieving anything. Much the best way to cope with the hectic fair - all hazy and friendly and no inhibitions about physical contact. Ahhh. I shall do that again.

Dinner was on the Goethe Institut, in Auerbach's Keller of Faust fame. Which was full of other literary types eating dinner on expense accounts, rather than poodles turning into devils and the like. Later on to the reading by the German writers' football team, Autonama, who have an anthology out soon by the cringeworthy name of Fußball ist unser Lieben. To prove my loyalty to the team, I actually skipped out on an opportunity for more free drinks to attend. Which was amply rewarded by the discovery of Jörg Schieke, who read a story so awesome that it made everyone else look pale in comparison - even the collected odes to the members of the German women's football team.

And on to the Young Publishers' Party, which cost €5 to get in but was worth it. Dancing, star-spotting, small-talking, putting names to faces in the dark and slightly too much drinking. Ahhh. I shall do that again. My friend didn't want our photo taken, but you can see other gorgeous drunk publishing people here.

If you get a chance, you'd be foolish not to go next year. See you there!

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