Sunday, 11 September 2011

German Book Prize 2011 – My Take on the Longlist

And here it is, my long-awaited skim through all twenty novels longlisted for this year’s German Book Prize. Yes, I’ve read all the five-page extracts so you don’t have to. You’re welcome. My short comments are in a slightly random order – see my post on the longlist for links.

Themes this year include plenty of looking back at the GDR in various unusual ways, as well as bad mothers – a new take on the dysfunctional family trope traditionally strong on the list. And as you may have come to expect, there are lots of men writing about life in the provinces, plus a couple of sweeping historical epics. There’s also rather a large crop of debut novels, which I suspect puts them out of the running for the actual prize. I have the feeling the jury chose a few books simply to garner them a little more attention than they might otherwise have got – a noble undertaking.

We get a lot of very beautiful prose here – but few books that unite good writing with actual plotlines.

Volker Harry Altwasser: Letzte Fischer
I’m familiar with this extract already, because I translated it for last year’s Bachmann Prize, including rather a lot of tricky nautical and piscine terminology. Altwasser seems to have filed at his characters a little since then, so you get a nice macho novel about men and women at sea. A bit of an exception in this year’s pick – and in fact in German writing in general – in that it probably retired a lot of research.

Writer’s other/previous job: able seaman
Jury bonus point: gritty realism
Quote from my notes: That action movie tone…

Astrid Rosenfeld: Adams Erbe
There’s always a booksellers’ favourite, and this has to be it this year. I was surprised to find myself quite enjoying the extract for a while, as it actually made me laugh. Which I hadn’t expected, seeing as it’s a multi-generational novel about the Holocaust. Apparently first-time author Rosenfeld is quite a storyteller, hence the big love from the booksellers. And translation rights have already sold to eight countries – another sign of a good solid story. I found the writing a tad clichéd at points though.

Writer’s other/previous job: film casting agent
Jury bonus point: German history made personal
Quote from my notes: Ha ha, it’s actually funny!

Antje Rávic Strubel: Sturz der Tage in die Nacht
A GDR connection! Dark secrets! Remote islands! Ornithology! It may sound like it has all the ingredients of trash – albeit in a good way – but in the hands of Antje Rávic Strubel it can only be thoughtful and intelligent and downright good. The opening borders on melancholy pathos but then the narrator proves to have a subtle sense of humour. I like it. Hope it makes the shortlist.

Writer’s other/previous job: translator
Jury bonus point: time to reward a great writer
Quote from my notes: Wtf – tarot????

Klaus Modick: Sunset
There’s a genre of German writing we might call “Villa Aurora literature” – authors get to spend a few months in the former home of exiled German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta in L.A. Then they go back to Germany and write books set in L.A. Modick has gone one step further and written a whole novel about Feuchtwanger in L.A. – but wait, it’s really good stuff! Lion Feuchtwanger longing for a new doorbell that sounds more like home, or at least like sanctuary. Looking back on his life on the day he hears of Brecht’s death. I’m really impressed by the writing and very curious about the rest of the novel. One for my personal shortlist.

Writer’s other/previous job: translator
Jury bonus point: Lion Feuchtwanger
Quote from my notes: OMG it’s a tad poetic!

Thomas Melle: Sickster
Another one I thought I’d loathe, billed as a diagnostic snapshot of contemporary life and saddled with the kind of cover that ladies in their late forties think their nephews might like. But then I read the sample, and was bowled over by the writing. Intelligent, cynical and nicely put – OK, it presumably captures the essence of some generation or other, but if it’s well written and fulfils the signs of actual plot and structure the very promising opening hints at, I’m willing to forgive that. I’m guessing there’ll be a good few decadent/desolate clubbing scenes in it though, which seem to be required material for young German writers these days.

Writer’s other/previous job: translator
Jury bonus point: social diagnosis
Quote from my notes: cool

Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Blumenberg
I’m currently translating Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff, in which the philosopher Hans Blumenberg and his lion make a brief appearance. Here, the entire book seems to have been dedicated to the two of them. As ever, the beauty is in the language rather than the plot (lion appears to aged German philosopher but no one else can see it), featuring all sorts of fantastic neologisms and word combinations. Reviewers have been praising Lewitscharoff for making no attempt to pander to readers – so I suspect the book won’t win the big prize but will get the literary laurels from critics as “the one that ought to have won”.

Writer’s other/previous job: accountant
Jury bonus point: obscure German philosopher
Quote from my notes: Ummm… look up Hans Blumenberg again.

Ludwig Laher: Verfahren
This is a bit of an odd one, a worthy political novel from Austria that’s apparently more journalism than literature. About an asylum-seeker from Serbia, the passage I read was a great angry play on the bureaucratic language involved in the application process. Very psychologically astute with a good dash of cynical humour – but not easy to read.

Writer’s other/previous job: teacher, translator
Jury bonus point: politics
Quote from my notes: Quite curious about this one. Hope it doesn’t keep up that tone all the way through.

Peter Kurzeck: Vorabend
Kurzeck is very much a writer’s writer, and this is very writerly prose. Written in the second person, for goodness’ sake! The scene is instantly set, a provincial cinema foyer in the fifties, a young teenager, the social mores of the times. The language is warm and colloquial but not overdone – but the book is over 1000 pages long. It’s the fifth volume of Kurzeck’s autobiography, which I had assumed would just go on forever and ever at this rate, but it turns out he’s limiting himself to a single year in his life. He is planning to go all the way to twelve volumes though, which explains the devotion to detail.

Writer’s other/previous job: I really don’t know – presumably all will revealed somewhere between volumes six and twelve
Jury bonus point: rewarding sheer inventiveness
Quote from my notes: Quite impressive to spend five pages describing a cinema foyer so evocatively.

Doris Knecht: Gruber geht
An arsehole gets cancer and changes his life, from womanizer to wannabe daddy. Definitely not my cup of tea. Ah, I see from the author’s blog that she admires Charlotte Roche’s portrayal of a young mother. We probably wouldn’t see eye to eye then.

Writer’s other/previous job: journalist
Jury bonus point: social diagnosis
Quote from my notes: Terribly modern, terribly clichéd, probably terribly annoying after a few more pages.

Angelika Klüssendorf: Das Mädchen
Great opening for scatologically-minded iconoclasts like myself, powerful writing about a girl whose mother doesn’t give a shit (pardon the pun), set in the GDR. But very literary, really rather exciting, cleverly positioned in time and place and the characters nicely sketched out in the first five pages. And not a trace of pathos or patronising tone. I’m impressed. One for my reading list.

Writers’ other/previous job: milking technician
Jury bonus point: critical and angry
Quote from my notes: Intriguing – what’s it going to be about? I hope not a misery memoir or Rabenmutter II.

Alex Capus: Léon und Louise
A love triangle set in Paris, sweeping historical epic, etc. Quite palatable but nothing that’s never been done before, I suspect. Although it does seem quite clever, there were a few phrases so familiar they made me wince (particularly descriptions of Paris, probably one of those places that inspire insipid wording). Not necessarily my thing but probably well done.

Writer’s other/previous job: journalist
Jury bonus point: nice readable love story
Quote from my notes: Hello cliché my old friend.

Esther Kinsky: Banatzko
This is the poets’ favourite, I suspect, beloved among those who hold gorgeous language in high esteem. A man disappears up an apple tree in a remote Hungarian village, while we readers enjoy the literary ride. It’s really rather spooky, I’m not sure whether a parable or a very ominous opening, and nor am I sure quite what to make of it. But I certainly enjoyed reading it, and it appears to be less insular, if you like, than the other very literary novels on the list.

Writer’s previous/other job: translator
Jury bonus point: calling attention to overlooked writer
Quote from my notes: Beautiful, precise writing – and now something is actually happening too – sort of.

Navid Kermani: Dein Name
Another long-winded one, this time 1000+ pages of Kermani’s life. I enjoyed the rather bizarre opening where a writer has to go through a complicated procedure to download instructions for reciting prayers because his father is having an operation on his heart; nice to see a lapsed Muslim for a change. The extract is tense but there are early signs of rambling, which Kermani does tend to do, so I don’t think he’ll keep up the pace.

Writer’s previous/other job: Orientalist
Jury bonus point: interesting view of Germany
Quote from my notes: Woah, he set the scene very quickly!

Wilhelm Genazino: Wenn wir Tiere wären
A lot of people really love Wilhelm Genazino. I must admit I’m not one of them. Yet I did enjoy the playful language and ironic view of the fussy, stand-offish anti-hero in the extract, and there was even a laugh-out-loud moment. Am I slowly coming round or is Genazino good in small doses? I’m not sure there’s a plot, which would be a minus in my book, and apparently it’s pretty typical Genazino fare all the way through. Does that deserve a prize? Some would say yes…

Writer’s previous/other job: journalist
Jury bonus point: about time he won something
Quote from my notes: Another great word but it seems to be more navel-gazing.

Michael Buselmeier: Wunsiedel
More not even thinly veiled autobiography, this time about the author’s time as a young actor and assistant director at a small theatre. I’m not all that impressed by the writing and it all feels terribly German and specific and provincial – which of course appeals to a lot of German readers. The odd nice turn of phrase but otherwise rather soporific.

Writer’s previous/other job: actor and assistant director
Jury bonus point: nice and provincial
Quote from my notes: Doesn’t seem terribly promising. Insightful and ironic navel-gazing for a change.

Jan Brandt: Gegen die Welt
Ah, you know I do like a good book about adolescence. In fact it seems I liked this extract so much I almost forgot to take notes (the one below being the only one). The novel has been getting great reviews, and I’m hoping that’s not just because all the critics are friends of the author. It’s another long one though – over 1000 pages of pop culture and pubescent paranoia, with an alien abduction plotline that might well be a red herring. Could be tough going. But it’s on my To Be Read pile, very near the top.

Writer’s previous/other job: journalist, advertising
Jury bonus point: buzz book
Quote from my notes: Oh, how very promising. Humour and intelligence not only focused inwards. Characters who know how to hate. What fun – as long as it doesn’t get boring.

Eugen Ruge: In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts

I love this book. See my review. At this point I’d like it to win.

Writer’s previous/other job: translator, lecturer, mathematician
Jury bonus point: German history made personal
Quote from my notes: I didn’t make any, just enjoyed re-reading.

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe
Everybody else is terribly, terribly keen on this novel about a bitter and twisted biology teacher in the wilds of the rapidly depopulating former East Germany. And I can see that it’s well written but I also feel Schalansky works with a trowel, shovelling on the political comment rather unsubtly while hiding the human side of her eminently dislikeable protagonist. I’m told it’s there, though there was certainly no evidence in the extract – and I also find the nature descriptions long-winded. Presumably a matter of taste.

Writer’s previous/other job: typography lecturer
Jury bonus point: more attention for talented writer
Quote from my notes: Oho, a statement.

Jens Steiner: Hasenleben
I disliked this extract quite violently. The author starts by describing a mother locking her children in to go out gallivanting – but where Klüssendorf focuses on the child’s perspective in that same situation, Steiner has created a clichéd monster mummy. A woman who sticks her tongue out at the mirror like in the trashiest of chick-lit and picks up men in bars – what else? It all seems to be dripping with judgementalism – of course the children are lonely outsiders who can’t join in the other kids’ games. Really, ask someone else whether this book is any good – for me it simply presses all the wrong buttons.

Writer’s previous/other job: not revealed in official biography
Jury bonus point: “real” themes
Quote from my notes: Sounds like “refreshingly naïve” – i.e. what men want women to be like.

Marlene Streeruwitz: Die Schmerzmacherin
I do like Marlene Streeruwitz’s writing; she has some very interesting ideas and approaches. However, I can’t for the life of me tell what on earth this extract is about. Something to do with an ominous security service, apparently. Great staccato style though.

Writer’s previous/other job: theatre director
Jury bonus point: enigmatic
Quote from my notes: Wtf?! What is this lady doing drinking vodka first thing in the morning in a car in the snow?

My personal shortlist?

Strubel, Modick, Melle, Klüssendorf, Brandt and Ruge. The official version is announced on Wednesday.


Harvey Morrell said...

I'll tack on my 'thank you' for this overview. I've actually read one of the books on the list (Kurzeck's Vorabend), after seeing him on Denis Scheck's television show, Druckfisch (,411~cm.asp). I thought it was just okay, not great. I'm anxious to read Sunset to see what he does with Feuchtwanger, having recently reread Erfolg. If it does well with the critics, maybe I'll have a go writing a novel about Oskar Maria Graf in New York. :)

glenn said...

the Brandt sounds excellent. do you think it'll get picked up by an English publisher? and the Kurzeck....jesus.

kjd said...

Thanks Harvey! I have Sunset too - we shall see. I await your novel with bated breath.

@Glenn: Unlikely, as 1000-page translations are really expensive. But you never know...

Ruth Martin said...

Let's be fair, the Brandt is only 927 pages... :-) and if it wasn't too heavy to take on the bus I would have read a lot more of it by now, it's bloody brilliant.

kjd said...

Hey Ruth, looks like you're right! Brandt made the shortlist.

Harvey Morrell said...

Just thought I'd pop back in and let you know that I really, really, really liked Sunset. Best novel I've read all year. I owe you.