Friday, 8 July 2011

Ingeborg Bachmann Prize 2011 Day 2

Start at the bottom and scroll up!

3:15: See you tomorrow, when I have some people coming round again and things may get a bit hectic.

3:07: That's it for today! Ooh, except that now an Austrian translator is talking about our work on a text like Steffen Popp's. A good literary translator has to be creative, he says, and enjoy the challenge. Oh God, I feel like a fake now. Hey, and the lucky Bachmann Prize writers get their texts translated by Stefan and myself and many other translators into the other six languages, and that's a badge of honour and opens doors into the rest of the world. Now he's saying - correctly - that translating is really great fun but really badly paid. What a very clever man. Unfortunately I forgot to notice what his name was. Herr Haffner, says the lady. Ah, Fabjan Hafner. Well, what a funny feeling to have someone on TV apparently talking about me, myself and I.

3:05: It was Meike Fessmann who invited Popp, and Daniela Strigl is grateful. It's fine to make readers work for their pleasure, she says. Gosh, they're very keen, even Hubert Winkels. Even when he's picking holes.

3:02: Some argument over whether beauty is enough, I think, and whether we need finished texts or not. Paul Jandl says it's an aesthetic pleasure to read, the images throw up a lot of questions for the reader. And that's a good thing. Interesting question, huh?

3:00: Spinnen seems to admire this highly rhythmic text as well. But, he says, his banal question is: so what? He says it's a tightrope walk and he was impressed for a long time but wants more than just form.

2:54: Keller says the text lacks a supportive structure for the village, the travellers, the hunt for traces. She says it's picturesque but baffling. Fessmann says it's not called Trace of a Village Story for nothing (bullshit bingo). She's explaining what the piece is about, which is kind of the writer's job in the piece itself, if you ask me.

2:52: And Sulzer also just pointed out that it's actually a very long poem and he can't judge the quality, being a prose writer. He finds the characters confusing and undefined.

2:50: Winkels says it's an unfinished text that leaves it up to us to complete it, intellectually. The light is playing on his nose in an unflattering way. Sulzer is complaining - and I agree - about the way Popp read, as if it was a litany.

2:47: It's about hunting for traces and clues, says Daniela Strigl. It's like a film, she says, in that it's a long series of still images, and she finds it very rich. She's very impressed by the poetry of it all.

2:40: Odd creatures in odd places. The text does make the village in question look like a strange, cold junkshop full of oddballs, cacti and broken things. Like Emily's shop in Bagpuss.

2:35: Oops, I've just noticed that the page numbers have accidentally made their way into my translation. Please ignore them entirely. It's not quite that avant-garde.

2:32: There are lots of cameo appearances by earthy, meat-eating East German individuals. Our heroes, of course, are healthy middle-class vegetarians. Snow.

2:23: It does seem to work slightly better when read aloud. It feels a bit like cheating, because he can use intonation to define his characters. Not that the intonation is any great shakes - Popp is applying the male version of the serious literary reading style. Not so much depressing pronouncements as a very long list. Possibly because he doesn't bother with verbs or personal pronouns, alternately.

2:21: Steffen Popp is a poet who’s recently branched out into prose. Kind of. Because this is really a whole short story written as prose poetry, and it really does stretch the reader. It seems to be about a group of friends on a trip to a village somewhere in the former East Germany, some time in winter. But it’s not a story as such – there are a few characters but they’re terribly opaque because they don’t get developed for all the poeticising that goes on. And there’s certainly no plot or any of that banal story development one does tend to expect of a short story.

I translated it, which was difficult. Eventually I found my way in to the rhythm, but not until about a third of the way in. You can probably tell from my translation. To be honest I disliked it quite violently to start with, but after a while I made my peace with the piece and relaxed slightly. It’s sort of enjoyable in its own way, but I wouldn’t want to read a whole novel like this.

2:19: Video portrait Steffen Popp. A white plastic chair jumping around on its own. Sigh.

2:16: Oh gosh, they do all seem to genuinely like it. How strange. Paul Jandl invited Nina Bußmann, I believe, and says her text is very intelligent, the juxtaposition of the social and the natural. Defending the clichéd mother with - pardon me - a clichéd argument: clichés do exist. The highly precise language is what does it for him. Spinnen says it's a very confident text. Rather like an unemotional scientist carrying out an experiment with rats, he says. Jandl is positively ecstatic.

2:09: Strigl likes the combination of two mirrored intelligent individuals, the victim as perpetrator, the teacher fighting weeds and slugs and children. Ah! She says it's deliberately sallow. I agree. I wouldn't use that as a compliment though.

2:05: Burkhard Spinnen is saying something I don't quite understand about the young generation nowadays. Keller says the language is very strong - a micro-world in the garden, snails or slugs as metaphor.

2:02: Sulzer: something or other must have happened. But he does have a problem with the clichéd mother-son relationship. Not convinced by the speed of OAP's home -> dementia. Sulzer's jacket is hurting my eyes. Sulzer and Fessmann are arguing about whether the character is gay or whether we don't know either way.

1:59: Meike Fessmann says it's very precise, and she's telling us what it's about. Philosophical idea: we can't find the truth. Winkels says weeding the garden is neurotic (bullshit bingo) and he likes the text. Ah, the text is too subtle for me. I've missed all this hidden eroticism he's talking about.

1:56: Just spotted someone in the audience who I once talked to on a station platform. Smiling.

1:52: I wonder whether the jury will use the word Mephisto. There should be a kind of critics' bullshit bingo. Thomas Bernhard, Mephisto, fundamental conflicts, The Big Picture, poetology...

1:46: I'm resisting the temptation to be rude.

1:38: So here we have your archetypal young, serious literary woman reading at Klagenfurt. Short hair, no intonation whatsoever, other than a slight disinclination towards the end of every sentence. Sort of like anti-Australian pronounciation. You know? Those young people whose every sentence is a question? Well, here we have the opposite. Every sentence is a depressing pronouncement. It's very widespread among young women writers in Germany.

1:33: Nina Bußmann. Hmmm. I’d entirely forgotten this text and just had to re-read it. Not a terribly good sign, huh? It’s about an old teacher who’s had to resign. And Bußmann takes her time hinting at why that was. Competent prose, an unusual teacher-pupil relationship, but Clemens Meyer does it better in one of his short stories. I don’t have much to say – Stefan’s translation is here.

1:30: Hello! Video portrait Nina Bußmann. Water and green plants. Something about beavers. It's making me say rude words out loud.

12:55: Lunch break! See you at 1:30.

12:53: I think they quite like it but find it too busy, too much material in it. Spinnen loves that dart bit too, loves the basic set-up. Strigl says she loves that smorgasbord, Fessmann likes the disgust our narrator feels.

12:50: Paul Jandl's comparing it to Steven King's Misery. Only of course he's forgotten that it's by Steven King (or is pretending to have forgotten) and talks about the film. Spinnen: Arthur Schnitzler comparison (Winkels compared it to Ulla Hahn's Mann im Haus).

12:48: They've obviously all understood the text differently. Meike Fessmann likes the strong physical images, says the narrator is an eastern European woman, former prostitute, paid to look after the sick man. Daniela Strigl chose the text and says it's also about a real character and a strange love story, love and work in one and aggression. The narrator wants to control the sick Leo, feels no self-pity. The family history is a legitimate element, she says, and the narrator longs to disappear into the earth. Does this make any sense?

12:44: Winkels goes first, what a surprise. He's spotted lots of mythological women, spiders, etc. But he says it hasn't worked because the child left behind doesn't go with the sick man in his room - too many elements. Sulzer says it's hard to understand because it's hard. Interested.

12:39: Camera operator getting bored = close-ups of attractive individuals in the audience.

12:33: Oh, but Winkels has put down his script and taken off his glasses. Get ready for a huge bitching session. You can see him in the background thinking up nasty comments. Or perhaps he just needs the bathroom.

12:31: Rabinowich is getting more and more jolly as the reading goes on. What fun!

12:26: Hmm, the audience is looking bored. Paul Jandl looks unhappy. It is a teeny bit messy, I have to admit. They may be wondering where it's going. I think this was my fourth favourite.

12:20: Can you spot the Paul Celan quote? It's quite well hidden. I do like this text in her reading. So mischievous and slightly silly and a tad pretentious, not trying to make any political points, beautifully sordid scenes, self-hate and cynicism.

12:16: Strange, she seems to be actually enjoying herself. Nice accent, Austrian I assume. Lovely shiny black hair.

12:13: Ah, Julya Rabinowich! Now here’s a text I enjoyed translating. I’m not sure if that was because my friend Tess Lewis has already translated one of her books (Splithead), so it felt like a privilege to “borrow” her for a while. But perhaps I just genuinely liked the thing. A strong female narrator who sleeps on beaches and makes friends with dogs and has a child who she has to send money back home for. And now she’s living with and caring for a dying man in Vienna and may or may not be a casual prostitute on the side. In fact there’s quite a bit of “may or may not” going on in the text, but that didn’t bother me.

Whatever, rather enthralling language that nicely evades cliché, an oppressive setting and situation and none of all that neuroticism we had yesterday, just plain and simple (Austrian? Russian?) oddballs. There’s a plot of sorts, or at least a narrative arc, in which the narrator gets annoyed with the neighbours for having exhibitionist sex and hunts through the dying man’s flat for a dart which she then throws at the stupid cow across the road. It’s strange, but it’s great fun to read and that’s pretty much what counts.

12:10: Video portrait Julya Rabinowich. Aha, she's a painter! Red and black and she reminds me of my quasi-stepmother. She doesn't write when she's happy. And she writes plays. More red, and another blooming café. She doesn't want labels. Really rather cool.

12:08: And of course the Slovenian thing in modern-day Carinthia. Oh, sometimes I do dislike myself.

12:07: Winkels has something or other to say and claims he'll keep it short. Picking a few holes, not all that plausible in the narration, doesn't like the ending (rather sudden fear that we hadn't encountered before). Spinnen: the end comes too suddenly. Ahhhhh, here we have it: they don't seem to feel confortable criticising a text about Yugoslav partisans who fought against the Nazis while their parents and grandparents didn't. Could that be it? Is that a terribly cynical thing to say?

12:02: Meike Fessmann doesn't like it! Hoorah! She's not happy with the child's perspective without sufficient distance. She enjoyed it well enough but doesn't think it's anything special. Daniela Strigl says you can't compare Haderlap with Peter Handke. She chose the text and is defending the strange sentence about the "resounding name of Dachau". I see in retrospect that I've smoothed that out with an interpretive translation. Ooops. Defending the father character - he's not nice and trustworthy at all! He gets drunk and falls down a hill, hooray. It seems to be the subject matter that interested her most.

11:57: They all seem to like it. You can tell by the way they're just retelling the "story", even Paul Jandl. Maybe it's that forest thing that's uniting the German-speaking souls across national borders. Still, for me as an English-speaking reader it's not exciting.

11:54: Lots of clapping. Maybe she has a local bonus. Keller likes the rhythm and the forests. Praising the slow pace and lack of spectacular narration. Sulzer hasn't got much to add - "faultless text" - nostalgic, strong language, starts with a landscape but they didn't like that yesterday when Geltinger did it. Likes the nostalgia for Dachau. How odd.

11:46: Ha! The live-chatters at sopranisse don't know the lovely word tschentschen either (I'm lurking). I left it in German, which is cheating, but it's such a beautifully onomatopoeic word for complaining and none of the Germans I asked (OK, neither of the Germans I asked) had ever heard it either. So I went for the equivalent effect by just writing, "Don't tschentsch like your mother." That's my favourite part.

11:42: Let's see if honey-roasted peanuts and fizzy water are less headache-inducing. Oh, I missed the funny bit. Damn.

11:34: It's funny, I think I can tell it's quite good writing, she uses quite original language - being a bilingual poet and academic - but I just can't bring myself to admire the text.

11:31: I also had problems with the blooming rucksacks. I always worry that Americans don't know that word, and I get really paranoid about what to call the dang things in English. In this case, there are a number of rucksacks and one of them even seems large enough to contain a dead dear. I called them backpacks.

11:23: There’s always one text that’s a complete bugger to translate (she says as if she’s been doing this for years). Last time around I had deep-sea fishing terminology to cope with. This time it was Maja Haderlap with her text about foresters in the Slovenian-speaking region of Carinthia. And how they go hunting and talk about the old days when they were partisans. So that’s four different kinds of specialist terminology in one text. Plus she uses wordplay between the contexts, to wit the title: Im Kessel. That’s German for a badger’s den, a geological formation, a hunting practice where the hunters encircle an animal, and also what the army does to the partisans.

I hope I’ve managed to rescue as much of the specific terminology as possible, because that’s pretty much what gives this text it colour and makes it worth reading. Otherwise it’s a rather muddled story of a child and her Slovenian father, who seems to cross the border to communist Yugoslavia at will and talks about the war at every opportunity, when he’s not talking about hunting and tree-felling. Oh, and another problem: the writing veers between direct and indirect speech at random, sometimes within a single sentence. Difficult to deal with. I don’t know if Maja Haderlap will get special ethnic minority bonus points or the jury will find it folkloristic. Sometimes I find translating a difficult text is a genuine pleasure. That wasn’t the case here. My translation is here, such as it is.

11:20: Video portrait Maja Haderlap. Lots of trees. There's a reason for that. Oh, haha, they've scattered books and stuff on the forest floor. How terribly witty. Now there are pieces of paper pegged onto branches. Slovenia. She's very earnest and tells us the stories in her novel have been accompanying her for many years. Two pencils = bilinguality. Hmm.

11:18: Spinnen says Catch-22 does the same, but Fessmann says the unique thing is that the soldier's not allowed to kill. Great point. Sulzer's standing up for Fessmann, which may be a liability because he's the unpopular kid in the playground. Great discussion.

11:16: Fessmann's fighting for her text, she's had enough of monologues yesterday and has finally arrived in real life. She says there are fantastic sentences and great writing here. She doesn't understand the criticism that the reader is shown very clearly what happens and what the character's thinking. Jandl says that spoils the tension - why not write non-fiction about the subject? Oh, this is a great argument! The patronising men against Meike Fantastic Fessmann. This is good TV.

11:10 Hildegard Keller's overdone the pale blue today, I must say. Doesn't like the characters. Oh no, Frau Keller - please don't ask if it's realistic what the guy's thinking under the circumstances. For goodness' sake, have you ever been in a tank in Afghanistan? What a redundant criticism. Burkhard Spinnen gives her a tap on the wrist for it. Before launching into a bit more autobiographical detail. Yawn. The Burkhard Spinnen Show, day 2.

11:08: Daniela Strigl contradicts Jandl - it's not Kolportage - allow me to look that up - oh, trashy writing! What's new about the piece? She's comparing it to Hemingway's A Call to Arms - Reichlin hasn't made progress since then, hasn't taken any narrative risks.

11:05: Paul Jandl's sceptical. No arguing about the moral issues the text raises, obviously irritated by the Greek tragedy elements (which I didn't spot). But he's not impressed by the aesthetic means. Meike Fessmann chose the text and is powering into the argument: no pathos, strong characters, strong dialogues, a new kind of conflict - the soldier who's not supposed to kill. She's defending the shoe device that annoyed Winkels.

11:01: Winkels says it's too simple. Of course he says that in a very long-winded way. Sulzer (whose stripy jacket doesn't work on TV): it's about guilt, about responsibility. Sulzer and Reichlin are both with Galiani. He doesn't find it too simple, he finds it clear.

10:58: Winkels has to get the first word in, and that first noun is "courage" - and he mentions Kämmerlings right away. He says the wealth and intensity of material that the war in Afghanistan offers isn't reflected in the text. Too efficient for him. This guy's such a bitch. Kammerspiel, he says. I hate sharing this man's thoughts.

10:50: He calls the Germans "die Eigenen" - our people - and the unnamed enemy (Afghanistan's never named) "die Anderen" - the others. Which is one of the few literary devices he uses. But you wouldn't want to get all literary on war.

10:45: Much of the action takes place inside a tank, which is an impressive variation on the Kammerspiel. Now comes the denouement - he really has shot a woman. Actually that realisation would have been a good point to stop. But hey.

10:41: And you can tell there's a bit of a love story in the background. I'm wondering if the jury will find the text too efficient, if you see what I mean. Because I think sometimes critics don't want books to be too smooth, too professional. And there might be a touch of that here.

10:35: Another thing I like about the content is that Reichlin's showing men thrown together who'd never usually know each other, "an interpreter from Kreuzberg" and a doctor are now close friends. Actually, I'm starting to find his reading slightly too tame. I want more drama! OK, now he's waving his arms a bit to make me happier.

10:26: So he's reading the first three chapters of a novel. I once attended a party that Linus Reichlin was at too, but he came across as rather arrogant and also seemed to have a very attentive girlfriend watching his every move, so I’ve never actually spoken to him. Nevertheless, his is pretty much our favourite text (although I have a two others that I like a lot too). A doctor is with the German army in Afghanistan, a bomb goes off, he seems to have shot a woman by accident. The text deals with how he deals with it, shell-shocked as he is (literally).

It’s a text of the kind that the critic Richard Kämmerlings has been calling for recently: German writing about war – today rather than in a historical context. There’s only been one book on the subject so far (Deutscher Sohn by Ingo Niermann and Alexander Wallasch), and that didn’t go down terribly well. This text is well written (I liked the brain as “one big cocktail shaker”) but the form doesn’t overshadow the content and it hits home hard. Reichlin has written left-field crime fiction so far and is published by Galiani Berlin, who fielded last year’s winner Peter Wawerzinek. Stefan Tobler’s translation is here.

Reading very well, which is no surprise. Strange remains of a Swiss accent, unfortunate spectacles.

10:23: Linus Reichlin's video portrait. Steering a boat, looking a wee bit psycho. Quite funny actually. He's moving away from crime writing, which he's won prizes for. Everything he says seems to make actual sense. What a professional...

10:21: Last night they had a reception with the mayor. You can tell by looking at the jury - they all look a wee bit tired.

10:19: The presenter lady is wearing a better top today and surrounded by the nice frog-green shoulder bags. Oh look, she's talking about Bachmann Goes Europe, the project I'm involved in - the idea being to raise interest from foreign publishers. And yes, I ended up translating Dorothee Elmiger's Einladung an die Waghalsigen, from which she read an extract of sorts last year and won the Kelag Prize. Hooray!

10:00: Morning! Welcome to day 2 of the love german books coverage of the Bachmann Prize. I'm going to do things slightly differently today, because I had a bit of an existential crisis yesterday afternoon. I found myself wondering, why am I doing this? Surely I ought to be earning a living or saving the world? And I also had a bit of a headache from concentrating so hard while eating licorice allsorts and tortilla chips. But then I realised two things: first of all, this is actually part of my job as a translator. I translated half the texts for this competition and it'd be foolish of me not to watch it. So why not write about it while I'm at it? And secondly, I came across a radio interview with Keith Oakley, a psychologist in Toronto who has looked into what reading fiction does to us. His conclusion? It helps us to understand the social world around us. So in my own modest way, I too am helping to save the world.

What I'm doing differently today is this: aside from eating healthier food, I've prepared some of my comments on the texts in advance, and I'll try to concentrate on explaining what's going on (with comments...) rather than assuming my readers are watching the show at the same time as me. We shall see.

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