Friday, 29 April 2011

Anna Blumbach: Kurze Nächte

The Anais imprint does literary jazz mags for girls. I looked at the Amazon reviews for Anna Blumbach’s Kurze Nächte and realised that nobody wants to admit that. They all talk about the character development and the language – which is very much a factor, and I’ll come to it, don’t get me wrong – but what they don’t say is: “This book turned me on.” So to get it over with, yes, this is an effective piece of erotica. It does what it says on the tin.

I was given the book by the author (Anna Blumbach is a pseudonym) because I’d been talking about translating sex scenes. It makes me feel awkward, and I’ve written about it before I think, because in order to translate sex you do have to visualise what’s going on very precisely. If it’s not well written that’s difficult, and if it is it’s titillating and distracts you from translating. I work in a large open office space, and always have to translate sex scenes at home. The sex scenes in Kurze Nächte – and there are many – mean you probably shouldn’t read it in public. I even felt slightly exposed reading it on my balcony. I wouldn't want to translate it.

What worried me to begin with was that the narrator Eva is in exactly the same position as me: what’s called a “semi-single parent” in her late 30s in Berlin. Reading about her life in between her sexual exploits was disturbing because I recognised so many of her emotions. The maternal guilt, the comfort and love a child can give, the frustration, missing your child when it’s not there and resenting it when it is. The fear of aging, the body-related insecurities, all that stuff about having had a child and what it does to you. And that made it hard not to identify with Eva to an extent I didn’t want to go to. On the other hand, it felt so true that the rest of the book seemed searingly honest too. I don’t know whether it is or not.

Plot? Yes, it has a plot, to go along with that cliché about women and porn. But it’s the kind of rambling Berlin-novel plot about bohemians and creative types getting drunk that I don’t particularly enjoy, as a rule. Only with more sex scenes to make up for it. Eva loves Wolf (poet) but he doesn’t love her back, or not properly, not the way she wants him to. So she leaves him but she’s heartbroken. She starts a thing with Tom (DJ), becoming a sort of permanent bit on the side. And then there’s Kolja (Russian artist), an infatuation and one-night-stand who keeps popping up again and rubbing her up the wrong way. In between, Eva struggles with the benefits office and philosophises about how crap life is when you’re expected to combine full-time work with bringing up a child but refuse to do so.

As the Amazon reviewers point out in their own sweet way, Kurze Nächte is a Bildungsroman of sorts. Eva starts off insecure and unhappy but by finding a passion of her own (a miniature architectural project), she grows more confident and finds it easier to deal with the men in her life too. It’s work, then, which ultimately sets her free, to put it cynically. Anna Blumbach seems to have tried to add a political dimension to the lit-jazz-mag format. The message appears to be that a self-determined work life makes for a fulfilling life all round, including sexually. But her narrator Eva veers between describing her own inadequacies and raging against the system – a credible enough character trait – which dilutes that message somewhat. And I’m not sure it doesn’t get lost entirely along the way.

It’s certainly literary enough. I loved the language. I loved the occasional Berlinerisms and sillinesses, interrupting what’s otherwise a plain enough style common to a lot of contemporary German writing. I loved the sex scenes, the feelings of inadequacy gradually making way for more relaxed encounters. I loved the laugh-out-loud “What the…?” moments when the narrator gets up to even more nonsense than usual. It’s very much a novel of now – Eva is not a put-upon ex-housewife or a young girl just discovering her sexuality, she knows very well what she’s doing. I loved the way Blumbach often uses the phrase “as best I can” in the saucier moments, summing up her Eva very nicely.

It made me think about how men and women write about sex in German literary fiction, actually. Maybe it’s just my choice of reading matter, but I’ve a feeling that women writers tend not to bother, or if they do venture an attempt it’s almost always about bad sex, traumatic experiences. In fact I’m struggling to come up with a single example of genuinely erotic writing by women in the genre. A while back I bought a women’s magazine solely because it claimed to feature erotica by biggish names, including Sibylle Berg and Alina Bronsky. It was a big disappointment. Whereas men seem happy to include explicit descriptions of good and bad sex and average sex and frustrating sex and just plain sex sex in their literary novels. Ralf Rothmann, Peter Stamm, Rainer Merkel, Thomas Pletzinger, Selim Özdogan, Finn-Ole Heinrich, Michael Lentz, Jan Böttcher, Helmut Krausser – they all get taken seriously nonetheless.

So are women writers shy about it? Would we… would we still really think they were sluts? Is that why the few exceptions cause such a fuss? Think Charlotte Roche of course, but also Helene Hegemann, although you could argue that in both cases the sex they describe has a traumatic edge to it. Anna Blumbach takes what seems like a more open and honest approach. Although the last sex bit (actually incredibly well done) would fit well into the traumatic category, her protagonist usually enjoys sex, but looks too at what she wants from it, often confirmation and comfort and – oh yes – love.

If there’s one thing I always find fascinating and infinitely puzzling, it’s how on earth other people in a similar situation to me lead their lives. You know the way everyone else seems to be having much, much more fun, no matter how much fun you yourself may or may not be having? I took this fictional example with a pinch of salt, but it was a genuine pleasure to read. And it does for Kaffee Burger what Axolotl Roadkill does for Berghain.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Berliners, Unite in Poetry!

The German verb dichten is rather tricky to translate in a pithy way. It means "to write poetry" but it also has a slight ring of plumbing about it, meaning "to seal" as well. Dictionaries will also offer you "versify" but it's not quite that pretentious, or at least it doesn't feel that way to me.

So it's hard to tell you the name of this exciting project being run by the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin: Berliner, dichtet Berlin! Celebrating twenty years of the institution, they've launched a great big jamboree of everyman versifying. Here's what they say:

Berlin, a city of many towns, is giving itself the gift of a poem. Written by the people for the people, a poetic saunter through the boroughs, from the margins all the way to the centre. The Literaturwerkstatt Berlin invites interested Berliners of any age and origin to take part in this project in their own borough. The participants have the opportunity to work on the poem with an experienced poet in a writing workshop. The focus should be on the borough itself, its history and unique characteristics.
The finished texts will be linked into one long poem at the end of June, with 100 lines per borough, twelve equal parts making up a single entity in many voices.

Now doesn't that sound fantastic? I was inspired to knock out a personal ode to my borough. No need to take it terribly seriously.

Mitte Mark II, three uncomfortable bedfellows.
One nondescript and drab,
What people call authentic.
One full of bling and arabesque,
Round the back grubby pubs and shoes five euro a pair.
One sprouting unsightly boils in the shape of private schools,
caused by fear and loathing of the other two.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

European Literature Night

I've been away over Easter doing mainly non-German-book-related things. But while I was at it I met the gregarious British journalist and fellow foreign literature missionary Rosie Goldsmith, who was wearing a lovely ring shaped like a big pink rose. We were at the London launch of Dalkey Archive Press's Best European Fiction 2011, where free wine was served in thimbles and I didn't say hello to editor Aleksandar Hemon, even though he seemed eminently approachable. That was partly because I'd cleverly invited more people to come along than I could actually talk to in one go. And also possibly because the thimbles of wine ran out very quickly.

Anyway, the gregarious British journalist with impeccable jewellery taste and a foreign literature mission Rosie Goldsmith was evangelising - as well she might - about European Literature Night. She's presenting the London event - one of 18 consecutive presentations across Europe on 11 May. Information is slightly sparing on the official website, but the British Library tells us the London night will feature "six superlative writers of fiction and poetry, both emerging and established: Emil Hakl (Czech Republic), Nora Ikstena (Latvia), Anna Kim (Austria), Peter Terrin (Flanders) and Bożena Umińska-Keff (Poland)."

Now I let out a little cry of delight at seeing Anna Kim's name on the bill (remember those thimbles - I wasn't sober). Because I've had dealings with the delightful Anna in the past and I didn't even know that her excellent novel Frozen Time had been translated! Ariadne Press, Austria specialists, brought it out last year in Mike Mitchell's translation. The book is beautifully written and shocking stuff, looking at war crimes in Kosovo and what they did to those involved and those on the periphery. As far as I can remember.

So please do go along and be delighted and stimulated by the readings and conversation, as they say. Or indeed attend one of the other seventeen events elsewhere. I'm a little skeptical about the actual benefit of holding readings in eighteen different places at once, but I suppose at the very least it raises a bit of a buzz and saves on separate websites.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Dear Selim Özdogan,

Dear Selim,

How can I possibly review this book? You know I've read it twice, first at the manuscript stage and now the finished, printed product: Heimstraße 52. Did I tell you, by the way, how truly honoured I felt when you sent me the manuscript? I read it through in one night, cold and uncomfortable at my computer, making notes to tell you what I liked and what I didn't. I've just checked my notes and seen that you ignored almost everything negative I said, apart from the thing about the ships being a bit of a corny metaphor. That makes me laugh - you know what you're doing and you just go ahead do it.

And here's what I still love about the book: I love Gül, a character almost like the women in all those nineteenth-century American novels I used to read as a child, led by her conscience and love for her family - a Turkish Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love her drunken husband Fuat, who rounds in the course of the book from an uncaring ne'er-do-well to a three-dimensional man with a wonderful sense of humour and way with words. I love the descriptions of working life in the book, the details like the wheels blocking in the wool factory - too many German writers pretend there's no such thing as work in their novels. I love the quirky character who predicts a dark future for Turks in Germany, and the literature student with his wonderful analysis of German society, even though he's never been there. I love the calm, collected pace and Gül's simple but wise thoughts, which sent tears to my eyes on many occasions as I read the book more slowly.

I've seen you read from the book twice now too, and I really do hear your voice as I read certain passages, especially Fuat's tirades. And those sad moments when you, the story-teller, look ahead and warn us that things won't go according to plan. Having fallen for Die Tochter des Schmieds all those years ago with its tantalising flashes of future tense, I was so pleased to find them again in What Gül Did Next (I'm guessing you've probably never read Susan Coolidge though).

Now I know you hate to be the token Turk and I know you hesitated to write the novel. Turkish family moves to Germany in the 1960s, the immigrant life, the perfect gift for every social worker, the perfect response to Sarrazin. But first of all I agree that it would be just as foolish not to have written the story, cutting off your nose to spite your face. And secondly, hey, nobody else has written it. I genuinely believe that stories can help people to understand the world, and if you can do that without being dragged kicking and screaming onto the "ethnic writer" bandwagon, then Selim, you've done a fantastic thing.

When it comes to the immigrant experience, you've parceled up so many key elements - without wagging a didactic finger. The German neighbour who explains the strange local rituals, the ignorant comments on public transport, the widening of horizons even in a fairly insular community, the envy back home. Even things as banal as language problems are in there, but what you've succeeded in doing is making them peripheral issues. The stories and the characters and the writing are what counts, and they're thoroughly convincing.

Here's what I wish for you (and for me): I wish that an English-language publisher will finally snap up both Die Tochter des Schmieds and Heimstrasse 52 - or 52 Factory Lane as we've christened it. I wish I get to translate them both (and the third part of the trilogy, whatever that may be called). I wish you crowded readings where you play your music and read your stories and the pretty girls in the front row laugh and twirl their hair, and you go home to Maria and all's right with the world. I wish people go out and buy your books and write you fan letters and tell all their friends to read your books too. I wish the kids in the schools where you read are inspired and write books of their own and ask you for a quote for the back cover. I wish everyone learns to pronounce your name, and mine, or at least that they ask beforehand and give it a try.

And thank you so much for putting my name at the back of your book. It's never happened to me before and it made me feel like a million dollars. It just means I can't possibly review it.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Zsuzsa Bánk: Die hellen Tage

This is a slightly adapted version of a report I wrote for New Books in German, just in case it sounds vaguely familiar to anyone. If you're interested in books written in German and don't read it, you're missing out. Basically, they send out dozens and dozens of books to a small army of readers and we tell them whether they're any good. Then they choose the best and publish reviews, news and features - the new issue includes interviews with my friend Lyn Marven, the British writer Michael Rosen and publisher Barbara Schwepke. The best thing for publishers is that if a book is reviewed in NBG, they can get a grant towards its translation costs.

Anyway, here goes.

Zsuzsa Bánk's Die hellen Tage is a magnificent novel about three children and their mothers, about childhood and how it affects us as adults, about women surviving and bringing up children under tough circumstances. Seri, Aja and Karl grow up in a small town in 1960s Germany. The best of friends, they experience the bright days of childhood hailed in the title at Aja’s Hungarian mother’s ramshackle wooden house by the edge of the fields. Endless summer evenings, birthday parties, swimming in the lake, climbing trees, ice skating, cartwheels, cakes, poppies and long grass.

Yet all is not quite as idyllic as it seems. All the children’s fathers are absent; Seri’s died shortly after her birth, Karl’s withdrew into his shell after his younger son disappeared, and Aja’s father Zigi is a trapeze artist who visits from afar every autumn.

In between her childhood descriptions Zsuzsa Bánk focuses on the mothers and their stories, showing the hardships each of them has suffered. The lynchpin of the novel is Aja’s mother Eví, a former tightrope walker who fled from Hungary in 1956 and chose to settle down with her daughter, while her husband boarded a ship bound for further shores. We watch her develop and form friendships with the other mothers, going out to work, learning to read, starting a business and helping the others to overcome their own problems. And always with a cartwheel at the ready to cheer up her daughter and her friends – a cake-baking, party-throwing, soul-soothing cross between Mary Poppins and Pippi Longstocking.

In the second half of the novel, the three young adults move to Rome, ostensibly for their studies but of course to escape the narrow confines of small-town life and to cut their mothers’ apron strings. There, their troika turns into a love triangle, and each of them learns or reveals a secret about their past that puts their bonds to the test. How have those bright days of childhood shaped their lives and personalities? And if what they grew up assuming is not actually true, are they still the individuals they thought they were? In the end, two of them return home and there is a resolution of sorts.

One of the most moving episodes is the way Eví gradually lures Karl’s father (who is never named) out of his shell. First dropping his son off at his shuttered house and greeting him on the street, she finds odd jobs for him and then asks him to deliver the cakes she bakes for sale. Painstakingly slowly, he rediscovers a reason for living and eventually starts to speak again, going back to work as an architect and recreating Eví’s little house all around the town. When Eví needs help towards the end of the novel, he repays the favour as best he can.

Zsuzsa Bánk has returned to the characteristic style that won her so many fans for her debut, The Swimmer - and she has a heck of a lot of very vocal, mainly female fans. Beautifully done, the narrative adds detail sparingly as the children get older. So while the early chapters are sketchy and dreamlike, the later sections reveal more and more. For instance, we only learn the mothers’ names when they finally make friends with Eví, and the fact that Zigi lives in New York only really becomes clear in the closing chapters. And as the narrator Seri gets older so Bánk's prose becomes more precise, with some beautiful descriptions of Rome and rural Italy in the second half.

Bánk subtly tackles immigration issues, from language problems to prejudice to Eví’s first German passport, yet they take a back seat to the touching family stories. As in The Swimmer, political realities give the book its factual framework and are not ignored – the novel couldn't be set in any other period, for example, with changing women’s roles playing a key part – but they're not its focus. Instead, Die hellen Tage is a deeply moving story of individual fates that will appeal to a broad audience. It’s absolute Hollywood material with its many gorgeous episodes and strong female characters – I can imagine Helena Bonham-Carter as Eví and Natalie Portman as Aja – except that it would have to be a mini-series at the very least, what with its absolute wealth of material.

Long awaited, this is a beautiful and heart-warming novel that touches on many universal issues, with characters to die for. My only problem with the book is that it scrapes very narrowly along the boundary of kitsch - not that that's a hurdle in the English-speaking world.

And it looks like it'll be translated as well, with Harcourt having bought the rights after publishing The Swimmer in Margot Bettauer Dembo's translation. And they do have a nifty little line of literature in translation - coupled with a very cute and enthusiastic blog. I do take umbrage at their witty tagline though: "We publish the best literature from around the world - so you don't have to." Because we're not letting other publishers off the hook that easily. And while I'm taking umbrage, well done for adding the translators' names to the catalogue - but you know they really should be on the covers. I know you do. Congratulations though for buying this fantastic book.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

My First German Book

You remember the first single you ever bought, right? And your first kiss, and the first time you seduced a Mormon, and the first time you made popcorn and ruined a perfectly good saucepan. But can you remember your first German book?

Mine was Christine Nöstlinger's Conrad - the factory-made boy, translated by Anthea Bell and published by Anderson Press. In fact I met Klaus Flugge, the man behind Andersen Press, and he told me it was the first book they'd translated from German too. And last year I translated Learning to Scream by Beate Teresa Hanika for them, my first novel-length published translation. Isn't it beautiful how things come full circle?

But back to Nöstlinger and Conrad. We read the book at school and I remember it really capturing our imaginations. I can't remember the name of our teacher that year, which is a great shame because she chose a great book for us to read. But I do remember all sorts of plot details including the huge key to open the huge tin delivered by accident to Mrs Bartolotti. Inside the tin is Conrad, a perfect child made in a factory. Mrs Bartolotti grows very attached to goody-two-shoes Conrad and has to take action when the factory wants him back, with entertaining consequences.

What I remember most clearly was my confusion over one scene. Mrs Bartolotti communicates with the girl in the flat downstairs via some kind of heating vent in the bathroom. Now maybe you can imagine this if you've been to Vienna, or indeed Berlin, and seen the kind of nineteenth-century apartment buildings they have there. But at the age of about ten, I certainly hadn't ever seen anything of the sort. The only flats I was familiar with were on council estates near my house, and they were concrete and brick monstrosities where we'd go to ride our bikes and watch the occasional Bollywood film. All the flats had their own front doors reached via damp and dingy walkways, as if to persuade people they weren't completely nasty. And I'm pretty sure they didn't have heating vents running between the bathrooms, or at least I was back then, and I was throughly confused.

Now my daughter has an audiobook of Konrad oder Das Kind aus der Konservenbüchse, read in a delightful Austrian accent by Sissy Perlinger. Another full circle. And Christine Nöstlinger just won an award for lifetime achievement from Buchliebling in Austria. The judges said:

With this award, the jury recognizes the many years of creative work by this versatile, critical and sometimes uncomfortable Austrian writer, whose books, especially her children's books, have always championed freedom of the individual and who has fought in particular for children's and young people's independence and self-determination.

Well put. Conrad is about a boy's freedom not to be good. We followed that advice to the letter – and look where it's got me now.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Erpenbeck/Bernofsky on Another Shortlist

That daring duo have done it again: Susan Bernofsky's translation of Jenny Erpenbeck's book Visitation is shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. My fingers will be well and truly crossed for them both on 26 May. As they will be on 29 April, when the winner of America's Best Translated Book Award is announced.

Thanks to my roving reporter at the London Book Fair, Jamie Lee Searle, for the bulletin.

Blogger privat

I was on the radio. I thought I'd be talking about love german books but it turned out it was all about me. My friends assure me I don't sound totally stupid, so here's the link to the podcast (in German).

Speaking of me, I have two major scary deadlines looming, so things may be rather quiet around here for a while.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Dial B for Book

There are books you get through once and know you don't want to read them again. Not necessarily because they're no good, although I suppose you hang on to the ones you love dearly. I often find books I think must belong to me on friends' bookshelves, only to discover I liked them so much I bought another copy to give away. But what do you do with those books you don't want to keep?

The Berliners tend to be very generous with their books. You'll often see little shelves in the hallways of apartment buildings, where the residents deposit books for people to help themselves. Or a similar set-up in pubs and cafés, or recently a wave of Facebook giveaways by private individuals weeding out their bookshelves. And there are plenty of used bookstores all around the city that buy and sell or just exchange. I tend to dump mine on Oxfam (but not very often). And then there's always Book Crossing, where you release books into the wild and see where they end up.

On his always entertaining Meet the Germans blog, Rory Maclean introduces the BücherboXX - a converted phone box with added shelves and benches, stocked by the neighbours and apparently very popular wherever it wanders - right now it's on Mierendorffstraße in Charlottenburg. Your chance to pick up a random-ish book right now and enjoy a spot of reading in the sunshine.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Seagull Books

Deutschlandradio has a short feature in German on Seagull Books, the Calcutta publishers who are shaking up the book world. They interview founder Naveen Kishore (who I personally pronounce differently than they do, but maybe I'm the one who's wrong) about how their unusual venture came about.

In 2005, Naveen says, major English-language publishers started opening dependencies in New-Delhi. So he decided to play at their game in the other direction, gradually persuading European publishers to sell him world English-language rights to their books. It took him a while, but now Seagull has an incredibly impressive list of international titles, including a German and an upcoming Swiss list. One of the things they do differently is asking their translators for wish-lists of books to publish in English. And here comes my full disclosure: I'm one of those translators.

You very possibly can't imagine how it feels to be asked straight out by a very charming and dapper publisher which books he should buy the rights to for you to work on. So let's just pretend you're a Jehovah's Witness and have been turned away at two hundred front doors, unable to spread the news of the thing you really and truly love and believe in. Now and then someone has grudgingly allowed you in but not offered you tea and biscuits, and then deigned to take your Watchtower magazine – but you're pretty sure it's going to end up lining the cat-litter tray.

And then one friendly person stops you on the street and says, Hey, don't you want to tell me about God? And I'll buy you a slap-up meal while you're at it, and then I'll give you your own evangelist TV station to help share your passion with other people. And it'll be broadcast around the whole entire world, not just in Texas.

This is what Seagull Books do. As Deutschlandradio point out, they may well be a tad crazy and megalomaniac, but they're publishing and selling international literature on an international basis. They're making beautifully designed books with the translators' names on the covers. And they're trusting us translators to recommend titles we absolutely adore. That means fantastic writers such as Esther Kinsky, Thomas Bernhard, Ralf Rothmann, Max Frisch, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and many more.

May sees the release of the book on the top of my wish-list, Inka Parei's The Shadow-Boxing Woman. And Naveen once took me out to dinner at the Savoy.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Translate Sabrina Janesch at the BCLT Summer School

This is your big chance to translate the delightful and very talented Sabrina Janesch, author of Katzenberge. Just sign up for the British Centre of Literary Translation's summer school at the end of July, and you get to spend a whole week translating her in a workshop led by the equally talented and almost as delightful Shaun Whiteside.

I attended one of these amazin events a few years ago, and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone fluent enough in German (or indeed Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Spanish) to want to translate literature. It's a pretty once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work closely with a particular writer - only in fact, it comes around once a year! Plus, you meet other translation freaks and professional translators and the food is incredible. I swear I came away several pounds heavier than I arrived.

The only drawback is the whopping pricetag, which I can't afford any more. There are, however, a number of 50% bursaries available.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

(Spiritual) Mother of All Translators

Not only is today the 119th anniversary of the first documented ice cream sundae (I suspect Google has a deal going with the ice cream industry, you know) - it's Mother's Day in the UK too!

And what better way to mark this day than reading a piece by Britain's spiritual mother of all translators, Anthea Bell OBE? A mother in the more traditional sense too, Bell dispenses maternal advice on how to get into literary translation at Essential Writers.

I love the way she dismisses that old adage about faithfulness and women. To her advice, I would add that another way to get your name known nowadays (or at least pad out your CV) is to submit translations to magazines, especially online. We have some useful hints at no man's land too (click on Translators' Tips on the left).