There are writer-in-residence programmes where you get to stay in remote villages and contribute to the local community. There's a new programme for a visiting German writer in New Zealand, where they give you a mobile home and tell you to bugger off for a couple of months. You could stay in a dead writer's Los Angeles villa and hire a car to get to the nearest supermarket. But what if you'd just like to, you know, stay at home and get on with things?
Well, lucky old you - there's also the Berlin Writers' Grant. Oh, there's a small drawback. You have to already live in Berlin, and I believe you have to write in German (although I have anecdotal evidence that at least one British writer wangled a grant back in the golden olden days of West Berlin). But that's pretty much all they ask. Thirteen writers each get €12,000 spread over six months, to do whatever they ruddy well like with. No need to write a blog, no need to feature the place in their next novel, no need to even leave the house for six months. In fact the lady from the art subsidies department said they don't even care if the writers spend the money on a fitted kitchen.
With an official tally of 1200 professional writers living in Berlin, there's a bit of competition for the grants. Which means the projects they support are of consistently high quality. A jury, changed every year, picks the lucky winners out of about 300 applications, and every November there's a public reading. This year's was yesterday, and I went along as I have in the past couple of years. It's near my house in the opulent mirrored salon at the Berliner Ensemble, it costs €3 for a whole stack of writers plus live music, and they serve free food and wine. I tell you this every year, to be honest, but you all forget again by the time the next November comes around and don't actually join me at what is possibly the world's best publicly subsidised Sunday lunchtime literary activity.
This year, as it turned out, I knew a good handful of the writers. We had Deniz Utlu reading rhythmic, slightly pathos-laden prose about a young outsider and Dagmara Kraus reading fun soundscape poems mixing Mary Poppins with Australian hunting implements. There was Steffen Popp, a man whose previous prose I have attempted to translate and felt woefully inadequate, with more flipped-out stuff on the boundaries. Thomas Pletzinger read from an entertaining project of interlinking short stories set in a village, or possibly he just read entertainingly and the project is deadly serious. Lucy Fricke gave us a frustrated Foley artist in Japan, which sounded intriguing. Hendrik Jackson shouted some Siberian post-Stalinist poetry, followed by Ulrich Schlotmann with a collection of apparently unconnected sentences that he said take a great deal of time to put together - one suspected a kind of anti-profit motif behind the whole undertaking.
Marion Poschmann read something beautiful but I've completely forgotten what it was about. Annika Scheffel had researched into villages that get flooded to make reservoirs (and sported by far the best outfit), and Bernd Cailloux shared some delightful prose about a sixty-year-old man with a new girlfriend. My favourite was Rainer Merkel, who took a year off writing in 2009 to work as a psychologist for an NGO in Liberia. I translated an extract from his last novel about a failing relationship, which I enjoyed in a slightly masochistic way, but his new project seemed very different. Written from the perspectives of a German child visiting Liberia and a blind Liberian child, it was humorous and touching and seemed to address some important issues, such as the psychology of NGO workers themselves. And he also managed to steer clear of the dangerous traps of the twee and the worthy.
I like to kid myself that attending the reading gives me a special insight into what writers are working on. The atmosphere is always very relaxed and it does feel rather honest - possibly because the event is during the daytime but also, I think, because the authors are talking about their projects for more or less the first time in public. So they haven't said it all five hundred times before, even if they do umm and ahh a little - especially when it comes to the question of when they'll be finished.
One writer did mention privately that he had in fact bought a kitchen during the grant period. But Bertolt Brecht, we were told, said it was perfectly alright for the arts to be subsidised as long as pork was too.* So here's to the artificially low-priced sausage.
*BB is Germany's equivalent of George Bernard Shaw in that he obviously never stopped talking and left a wealth of apocryphal witticisms for posterity. A very brief internet search certainly provided no evidence to support this anecdote, but it's still really cool and I'm going to quote it on every possible occasion.