Friday, 30 September 2011

Aspekte Prize to Eugen Ruge

Last year's Aspekte Prize for best debut novel went to the wonderful Dorothee Elmiger for Einladung an die Waghalsigen. Which I promptly translated because I loved it so very, very much. So for a taste of dystopian debut fiction, do read Invitation to the Bold of Heart. You can also watch a toe-curlingly embarrassing video of Dorothee receiving the award from Germany's new self-crowned regent of TV literature, Wolfgang "The Yawn" Herles at ZDF. Who now has the top spot on a show called Das Blaue Sofa. I haven't watched it but reviews have not been good. I'm still waiting for someone to ask me and my office mate Rasha Khayat to host a literature show. For which I will wear a dress made of silver sequins that I saw at the shops yesterday but didn't buy. We will also refrain from using violin music in the background.

Anyway, enough of the plugs. This year's Aspekte Prize has gone to Eugen Ruge for his amazing novel In Zeiten des Abnehmenden Lichts. Huzzah! It too will be available in English at some point.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Join a Jury!

Are you in Berlin? Are you interested in young writing? Do you enjoy wielding power over literary hopefuls? Are you free on the first weekend in November?

Then why not join the taz-Publikumsjury at this year's Open Mike contest? All it takes is a very brief application and you too could be rubbing shoulders with the stars! I applied last year and they took me, so they can't be all that fussy. You don't get paid but you do get food and drink and separate toilet facilities, plus a taz goody-bag (although guys, the T-shirt was way too small).You can read about how exciting it all was here. I particularly valued the chance to talk about writing in a very focused way, including plenty of arguments and a little bit of exasperation. In fact I enjoyed it so much I might just apply again and hope nobody notices.

Here's what they say:

Bitte senden Sie uns ein kurzes Schreiben: Was interessiert Sie an junger deutschsprachiger Literatur? Sie bringen Zeit mit, am 5. und 6. November in der Wabe in Berlin den Vorträgen der WettbewerbsteilnehmerInnen zuzuhören und verleihen im Anschluss an die Vorträge den Preis. taz-Literatur-Redakteur Dirk Knipphals steht der Jury betreuend zur Seite.

Ihre Bewerbung senden Sie bitte bis 15. Oktober 2011 an oder per Post an taz-Werbung, Stichwort "open mike", Rudi-Dutschke-Str. 23, 10969 Berlin.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Handke Doesn't Get Prize (Again)

There are dangers inherent in getting companies to sponsor literary awards, just as there are in state-sponsored literature promotion. This time it's a firm that makes book-binding machines, which sponsors the Candide Prize.

A brief look at the prize's history shows it's been a tad turbulent. It started off as a writers' residency but then the town of Minden withdrew its funding. Then a local organisation was funded to award a plain old prize of €7500 from donations. In 2007 they got government funding, according to a rather gappy Wikipedia article at least, and doubled the prize money. And then in 2008 it was turned into a Franco-German award with French ministry funding and went to two different writers, but only for two years until 2010, when only one person got it and they switched to the sponsor. Their website kind of gives up the ghost after that announcement.

So this year they chose one winner again, at least as far as I can establish, and that was Peter Handke. And the prize money was to come from the book-binding machine makers. But no! It's not good for their image to be associated with Austrian writer Handke, because he's made a number of rather dodgy comments about Yugoslavia. They're particularly concerned, says the chairman of the jury Gerd Voswinkel on Deutschlandradio, about losing customers in the USA. No, don't laugh. All book-binders in the USA are perfectly up-to-date on Austrian writers' political positions and would, of course, cancel their orders if they found out about the whole thing. So the sponsor's not paying.

Of course it's not the first time. The mayor of Düsseldorf refused to award Handke the Heinrich-Heine Prize back in 2006, for the same reasons. Since then his biographer Malte Herwig has revealed that Handke actually visited the former commander of the Bosnian Serb armed forces Karadžić in Bosnia in 1996, shortly before the latter disappeared and spent twelve years disguised as a mystic, was then arrested and transferred to The Hague, where he is currently on trial for war crimes including the Srebrenica massacre. The two of them swapped books and Handke asked about the whereabouts of a number of Bosnian Muslims missing since said massacre. Karadžić said he would enquire but seems to have had other things on his mind; Handke never heard back from him. Which doesn't make giving the man money any easier, I can imagine. That and the old "holding speech at Milošević's funeral" incident.

It's a tricky one and I don't have any answers either. But in this case the contract stipulated that the award jury has a free hand to choose the prizewinner, and so Handke gets to keep the certificate but won't bag any cash. Voswinkel says they're now looking for a wealthy patron to keep the award afloat in future.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Swiss Book Prize Shortlist Announced

The Swiss Book Prize doesn't beat around the bush. None of this longlist business – the Swiss cut the crap and announce the shortlist:

Monica Cantieni: Grünschnabel (Schöffling & Co.) - experimental novel looking at a child adopted by Italian immigrants

Catalin Dorian Florescu: Jacob beschliesst zu lieben (Verlag C.H. Beck) - sweeping historical family epos focusing on the Germans in Rumanian Banat

Felix Philipp Ingold: Alias oder Das wahre Leben (Matthes & Seitz Berlin) - very literary and complex historical novel exploring the nature of storytelling

Charles Lewinsky: Gerron (Verlag Nagel & Kimche) - fictitious biography of a real actor who ends up in the Theresienstadt Ghetto

Peter Stamm: Seerücken (S. Fischer Verlag) - apparently masterful short stories by a much-translated favourite. A bit of an odd one out here.

This year extracts will be available in English translation, as with the German Book Prize. And the winner will be announced on 20 November.

Utterly OT: Dear Terry Hall

Dear Terry Hall,

I'm assuming you're not a regular reader of love german books, although you never know. But hey, I need to vent and this is as good a place as any.

I just got back from seeing The Specials live in Berlin. It wasn't the first time - I saw a slightly different line-up (without you) in 1994 and then I saw a combo calling themselves The Special Beat in 1995. OK, I was significantly younger then than now, and my capacity for unclouded enthusiasm was larger. Regular readers, however, will know that I'm still capable of getting excited about things I like.

The Specials are one of the things I like. Your records got me through sixth-form college - I remember Hey Little Rich Girl and Little Bitch being pretty important to me on an everyday coping with other people level. And you're probably the band I like best that non-music-nerd people have actually heard of. I always play you when I DJ, which I admit is only once a year for a bunch of other translators, but you always go down well.

So you can imagine I was looking forward to seeing The Specials in this line-up, with you at the front. And musically, as far as I could tell from the second row, you were on pretty good form. I noticed your dig at the sound guys at the beginning, but let me give you a wee tip: it's like when women think their hair looks shit - no one else can ever tell. And OK, I admit that once you pointed it out, I did notice your mic was too quiet. But they put it right after that, for God's sake.

So there was absolutely no discernible reason for you to emit your evil mood vibes all the way through the entire gig. Maybe no one else noticed, but that muttered "good question" after the line "What am I doing here?" in Nite Klub - that was cynical and disrespectful to your audience. The gig had to be rescheduled and moved to a larger venue because it sold so many tickets. The place was packed to the rafters with an extremely friendly and enthusiastic crowd, who sang along to everything except – strangely, one of my favourites – Friday Night and Saturday Morning.

Lynval Golding was hamming it up for all he was worth at the front, as was Neville Staple on the other side. But I saw Neville at a guest appearance last Easter in London, and even though he was putting on a brave face tonight you could tell your sulky performance was pulling him down, because in London he was a complete and utter star and stole the show. And it was him who saved tonight for me, because after your cursory one-song encore, after the disappointed crowd booed and threw their empty plastic glasses at the stage in the hundreds once the lights had gone up, it was Neville Staple who came back on and thanked us for coming and thanked our mums and dads for letting us come out and led us in a tuneless audience rendition of Guns of Navarone. Which may not have sounded like high art to you, but it was fun and we needed it.

So maybe you're not a natural performer. Maybe you're going through some kind of major psychological crisis and the world is a dark and lonely place for you. But we all paid for our tickets and our babysitters and our smart new outfits, and I'd say any other performer with a dash of respect for their fans would have made an effort to give us something back. None of us are getting any younger, but can I just say that when I last saw The Specials they played four encores. And let me add that I saw the incredible Susan Cadogan this summer, whose venue in Berlin was a hell of a step down from yours, and who's a good decade older than yourself, and who doesn't make a great deal of money out of royalties or merchandise. And the show she put on here was brimming over with a vitality and - dare I say it - love for her music that left us all reeling, and which I didn't spot a single ounce of in your lacklustre, grumpy performance.

You probably don't know how important The Specials were in the formation of an anti-racist ska scene in Berlin after the Wall came down, and maybe you don't care. You influenced a whole generation of bands and they influenced a whole generation of audiences. So perhaps the sight of all those fists in the air during Doesn't Make It Allright should have given you pause for thought. Because that wasn't necessarily a natural direction for things to take among young working-class East Berliners, and all too many of them chose a different path.

Anyway, enjoy your after-show party. The people from Fred Perry got all sorts of authentic-looking dancers in and plied them with drinks in one of Berlin's nicest venues, but I had to leave before the band got there. It's a school night and I have bills to pay. As do you, no doubt.

Monday, 19 September 2011

An Interview with Tess Lewis

I met the American translator Tess Lewis at a week of literary fun and frolics for translators at Berlin's Literary Colloquium last year. And since then she's been publishing translations left, right and centre, it would seem. We conducted an email interview while she was on tour with the writer Alois Hotschnig, whose Maybe Next Time is out now from Peirene Press.

It’s very unusual for short stories to get translated at all. And
Maybe This Time is a very unusual collection. Tell us about the book.

Maybe This Time is a short collection of eerie stories with open-ended plots by an author whose name English speakers don’t know how to spell, much less pronounce, so I knew that the prospects of finding a publisher were slim. However, when you read the stories they stay with you in a way few other stories do and it’s that haunting quality that convinced me I could find a publisher willing to defy the odds. Most editors I approached said, “We love this writer, but just can’t take on short stories, especially in translation.” It took several years, but when I saw Peirene Press’s motto “Contemporary European Literature: thought-provoking, well-designed, short,” I knew things were looking up.

I’m starting to see a lot of translators helping publishers to find books, although maybe that was always the way and I just didn’t know it was happening. To what extent is this one of those cases – did you “rediscover” Hotschnig? (The novel Leonardo’s Hands was previously translated by Peter Filkins for the University of Nebraska Press back in 1999.)

I think the burden of placing translated literature is falling more often on the translators these days. Given the state of the industry, most editors are overstretched and even more reluctant than in the past to take the risk of publishing translations. So an enthusiastic translator can sometimes convince an editor a work is worth publishing more easily than agents or foreign rights people who are pitching a dozen other books at the same time. In the end, though, it mostly comes down to personal contacts. I would say that at least half of the books I have translated or am in process of translating are books I brought to publishers and half were suggested to me.
I first read Alois Hotschnig’s work in 1994 when I reviewed the German edition for World Literature Today (back when they devoted most of each issue to literature that had not yet been translated). I was immediately hooked. I’ve read and reread all of his books since then. Alois writes very clear, rhythmic prose that contrasts intriguingly with his penchant for obsessive narrators. As a translator, I find that I feel my way into his style far more personally than I have for any other writer I’ve translated. Given the nature of the stories in Maybe This Time, that’s probably an admission I should think about seriously.

You’re on a bit of a reading tour with the writer as we type. How’s it going?

It’s a two-stage tour, set up with the help of Peter Mikl, the Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum London and his colleagues. We had two events in London this week, the launch at the ACF and an evening salon at Peirene Press, both of which had a good turn out. I’ve been pleased and a bit surprised at how engaged the audiences have been. These aren’t really ‘pleasant’ stories and they’ve been evoking some strong reactions. These stories get under people’s skin and some are more comfortable with that feeling than others, but so far, no one has said or written that they actively don’t like them or that they find them tedious.
In October we start with the Notes & Letters Festival at King’s Place on the 9th. Alois will be appearing with the composer Thomas Larcher who set some of his older texts to music. Then we’ll take the book on the road to Oxford, Bristol, Cheltenham, and Leeds.

You’ve written (in the forthcoming issue of New Books in German) about Hotschnig being a distinctly Austrian author. Does that come across in the language of your translation, which I found very elegant and slightly old-fashioned? Or is that my personal cliché about Austrian writers and the Austrian nature of the stories is entirely in the subject matter?

Just because something seems like a cliché, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Austria is a gorgeous country, highly civilized and gemütlich, but you don’t need to scratch the surface very deeply to find some very dark undercurrents. I find it refreshing to read Austrian writers who engage with the ambiguities and unsavoriness under their culture’s veneer. The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to accuse them of Nestbeschmützen, but the best and most nuanced Austrian writers willing to explore these less fortunate aspects of their culture and their history do so out of a very sincere, if sometimes disappointed, love for their country.
Austrian-German is to me more playful and, as you note, more elegant than German-German. Of course you can find plenty of Austrian and German writers who disprove my theory. But in my experience as a translator Austrian-German wears its irony more lightly and its humour is subtler and more biting.

Was it difficult, as an American, to translate for a British publisher? Certainly the book is now in immaculate British English. How did you manage that?

I’ve worked with several British editors. Some prefer a more mid-Atlantic, some a more British English. But with their help and some very thorough line-editors, my American versions have been turned into British ones. Occasionally there are changes that sound odd to me or that still startle me a bit when I reread them, but in the end it came down to having faith in the editor’s judgment and vice versa, hopefully.

I think I’m not alone in finding the stories rather disturbing. In some of them, Hotschnig seems to play with weaknesses we all have sometimes, like loneliness and obsession and narcissism, and exaggerate them into plainly bizarre behaviour. You’ve called them “intense psychological dramas” and I’d agree with that – are these Freudian stories or is that another photo-fit Austrian cliché?

I’ve called them horror stories of apprehension because there’s an ominous atmosphere, a vague sense of threat, to all of the stories. But also because the narrators’ distress (some of narrators aren’t distressed but really should be) comes not so much from the particular situation they’re in, but from the way they perceive and internalize the world around them. So I would say that Hotschnig’s characters should be so lucky as to have recognizable Freudian complexes. Instead we have, for example, the narrator who succumbs to an unhealthy fascination with his neighbours and is willing to subordinate his life and his sense of self to it, or the narrator who can only access his own past through the bizarre intervention of a witch-like figure, or the family that feeds on a myth of a benevolent but always absent uncle, or the narrator whose identity is dependent on how his neighbours see him. It’s almost as if these are characters whose sense of self isn’t even strong enough to start a Freudian process of development.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the story with the dolls made my skin crawl. It could be because I watched this very scary mini-series called Maelstrom in the mid-80s that prominently featured porcelain dolls. But given that they are so disturbing and oppressive – what did it do to you when you got down to translating them? Did you have a contrast programme of cute kitties and peanut butter sandwiches to calm down again?

I read P.G. Wodehouse. It’s very soothing.

You’ve been translating for some time, and often Austrian writers (Hotschnig of course, Julya Rabinowich, Peter Handke). How did you get into translating and why the Austrian thing?

While at university, I studied in Innsbruck for a year and that’s when I first fell in love with Austrian writers and the way they use German. But I didn’t have a plan to become a translator or to focus specifically on Austrian literature. While working as an editor at a small press, I had translated Peter Handke’s Once Again for Thucydides as a sort of finger exercise. The agent Jennifer Lyons somehow heard about this and very generously offered to help me publish it. I translated a few things off and on over the next ten years, mostly essays and interviews for magazines. Then in 2006, I read the stories in Maybe This Time and decided to try my hand seriously at translating. One project led to another, and it’s mostly by chance that I’ve translated more Austrian than German or French writers, though I’m sure my love of Austrian literature influenced my choices more than I realized.

What would be your dream translation project?

One dream translation project is Hotschnig’s second novel Ludwig’s Room and his play Absolution. The first part of this dream may well come true in the next year or two, the second is much more of a stretch. Another dream project would be to translate the essays of the Austrian writer Karl-Markus Gauss. Like Andrej Stasiuk, Gauss writes his own particular combination of memoir, travelogue, and essay about his encounters with the other Europe, the smaller countries, communities, and minority cultures on the outer edges of the EU.

And what are you working on at the moment?

A huge departure for me: I’m branching out to Swiss writers. I’ve almost finished translating Lukas Bärfuss’s novel One Hundred Days, about a Swiss development worker caught in Rwanda during the genocide. Then I’m on to the French Swiss writer Jean-Luc Benoziglio. But I’ve still got a few Austrian pots on the fire, including Doron Rabinovici’s novel Elsewhere.

With only a brief twinge of translation envy over One Hundred Days, I have to say a big thank you to Tess for her time, her enthusiasm and her insights. I look forward to reading much more of your excellent work in the future!

You can catch her and Alois Hotschnig in the UK on Mon, 10 Oct in Bristol, 18:30: book presentation at Foyles. Wed, 12 Oct in Cheltenham, 12:00: book presentation at Waterstones - 15:30: reading at the Afternoon Tea Book Club in The Daffodil - 19:00: reading in the Beehive Pub, and at Leeds and Oxford Universities.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Events and Blogs and Films and Stuff

A veritable Swedish buffet of delights for you today, dear readers:

First of all a film of the literary flashmob celebrating 50 years of Turks in Germany. Crazy-looking people saying clever things at Kotbusser Tor in Berlin, which is the place where lazy TV news editors go for footage to illustrate multicultural Germany. Betting shops, greengrocers, women in headscarves and in this case, people reading from a novel, a short essay and a longer reflection by three generations of Turkish writers working right here.

Bill Morris singing the praises of fixed book prices in Germany at The Millions.

Laura Watkinson on Discovering Cees Nooteboom's Berlin for MacLehose Press.

Blogs by other literary translators: Jamie Lee Searle, Lyn Marven, Nicky Harman and Rosalind Harvey (the first ever translators in residence at London's Free Word Centre). Have I forgotten anyone? Oh yes, Laura Watkinson.

An event today (if I'm not getting my time zones muddled) in New York, part of The Bridge series dedicated to promoting literature in translation and translators, etc. etc. at McNally Jackson Books. If you don't make this one with Sergio Chejfec (writer), Margaret Carson (translator), and EJ Van Lanen (editor) then do look out for more, because it's a Very Exciting Thing.

A full-day event by English PEN for International Translation Day on 30 September in London, looking at things like: How can we popularise literature in translation? Are we getting anywhere? What can we learn from the success of other art forms, such as world music?

A slew of events across Germany (and some in Vienna and one in Zurich), also for International Translation Day: workshops, Kerouac, Argentinian football, parties, public translation, cabaret - really a very broad palette, all put together by actual translators who you can see in the actual flesh.

Then in early October in London again, a weekend of interesting events under the title Notes & Letters, featuring translators Anthea Bell, Simon Rees (he does libretti and is very entertaining!), Ros Schwartz and Sarah Ardizzone, plus the eminently eminent Tess Lewis with her Austrian author Alois Hotschnig.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

German Book Prize Shortlist

Hooray! Three of my favourites made the shortlist for the German Book Prize! Here it is:

Jan Brandt, Gegen die Welt (DuMont, August 2011)

Michael Buselmeier, Wunsiedel (Das Wunderhorn, March 2011)

Angelika Klüssendorf, Das Mädchen (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, August 2011)

Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Blumenberg (Suhrkamp, September 2011)

Eugen Ruge, In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (Rowohlt, September 2011)

Marlene Streeruwitz, Die Schmerzmacherin (S. Fischer, September 2011)

The winner is announced at a big fancy ceremony at the Frankfurt book fair on 10 October.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Thunder-Stealing Shortlist

They announced the six-title shortlist for the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize today, just one day before the German Book Prize shortlist comes out. Here it is:

Angelika Klüssendorf: Das Mädchen (Kiepenheuer & Witsch)

Michael Kumpfmüller: Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens (Kiepenheuer & Witsch)

Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Blumenberg (Suhrkamp)

Klaus Modick: Sunset (Eichborn)

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (Suhrkamp)

Uwe Timm: Freitisch (Kiepenheuer & Witsch)

The winner will be announced on 7 October, just five days before the German Book Prize is awarded. And in fact they get a generous €30,000 (rather than €25,000 for the GBP, although all the shortlisted writers get €2500 there as well). You might notice that four of the six titles are also longlisted for the GBP. And several of the judges have done the GBP thing in the past too (although I'm guessing that the pool of people willing and able to judge literary prizes is limited). Pretty much the only difference is that the German Book Prize makes a heck of a lot more noise about itself, especially internationally.

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.

Friday, 9 September 2011

How They Did That Amazing Stamp Thing

Margaret Marks has revealed the secret of how the publishers did that Hans Fallada stamp thing! You can design your own stamps online! I just SO nearly got twenty "I <3 german books" stamps made up... until I saw the price.

But it remains my pipe dream. If you're ever stuck for a gift I'm sure almost anyone would be thrilled to receive lovingly designed legal tender German postage stamps. Or is that just me?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Hans Fallada Postage Stamp (Mark II)

I've posted about German writers on stamps before, so I was rather taken by a brief piece in the trade mag Börsenblatt about a new Hans Fallada stamp, which was in some mysterious way issued by his publishers, Aufbau Verlag. I'm not quite sure how publishers manage to issue postage stamps, but apparently it's worth 55c (enough to send a small letter inside Germany), it's being given away to selected booksellers and journalists – and you can actually use it. And they also wanted to encourage the finance minister to use the picture for an official stamp. But there's not much chance of that, I'm afraid, for despite having posthumously sold a whopping 150,000 copies of the new extended director's cut of Jeder stirbt für sich allein, Hans Fallada already had his own stamp back in 1993.

A shame, really, that the German post office won't be doing the publisher's advertising for them free of charge. Although it is about time they put another writer on a stamp - the last one was Borges back in October of last year, marking Argentina's spot as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Ah, literature meets philately - possibly one of the nerdiest combinations ever. Mind you, I did see a guy the other day wearing a "Star Wars Sucks" T-shirt. I think only a T-shirt printed with a fictitious Arno Schmidt postage stamp could possibly top that. And one day I'll get round to posting about German trains named after writers.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Upmarket True Crime Fever!

The news just in is that they're making a mini-series out of Ferdinand von Schirach's debut Verbrechen (published in English as Crime, trans. Carol Brown Janeway). The defence lawyer followed that up with another collection of fictionalised cases, Schuld (Guilt), and has just brought out a brand new novel by the name of Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). I wouldn't want to be his client, frankly, but then I probably couldn't afford it anyway. Dang, better not commit any heinous crimes this year then. His books are major sellers but critics seem to find them just kinda OK, although those who like their prose plain are generally more enthusiastic. I haven't read them.

Meanwhile, though, there's been a slight rash of other writers working a similar concept. The version being sold as sexier is by Jochen Rausch and is called Trieb (Drive). I don't think the sexy thing applies to the respective writers, though, because if you compare and contrast Schirach with Rausch it's pretty much out of the frying pan into the fire, if you ask me. Think ex-Young Conservative versus spectacularly bespectacled media type trapped in the eighties. Or am I falling into the cliché trap? Anyway, a brief flick through an online sample revealed staccato sentences and pop psychology.

Next up is a collection of craaaa-zy court cases with the title Es juckt so fürchterlich, Herr Richter! (It's So Terribly Itchy, Your Honour!), written by the crime reporter Uta Eisenhardt. Looks rather fun actually, if you like books with exclamation marks in their titles.

And then there's another one just out by the literary critic Ursula März, which just goes to show how terribly posh the whole phenomenon now is. Called Fast schon kriminell (Almost Criminal) - which sounds so utterly twee to me that I'm tempted to think it's all an elaborate hoax - the book's billed as a literary gem. I had a look at the sample from this collection too, and it does seem to be well written and rather clever.

Gone are the days of true crime = trash. I shall miss them as I pay just under €20 for a terribly literary hardback.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Bookish Hotlist Shortlist Published

The ten nominees for the German independent book prize Hotlist have been announced, chosen by an internet vote plus a panel of judges. And here they are, a bit of an odd bunch:

Naomi Schenck/Ulrich Rüdenauer (eds.): Archiv verworfener Möglichkeiten (belleville)
(Fascinating pictures of sets/scenarios for unmade films, accompanied by texts by some excellent German writers)

Joseph Mitchell: McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. New Yorker Geschichten (diaphanes)
(Pieces for the New Yorker, trans. Sven Koch and Andrea Stumpf)

Monique Schwitter: Goldfischgedächtnis (Literaturverlag Droschl)
(Short stories of absence, loss and death)

Nino Haratischwili: Mein sanfter Zwilling (Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt)
(Second novel by promising young thing, a love story that I suspect is probably a bit twisted)

John Ashbery: Ein weltgewandtes Land (luxbooks)
(Famous American poet translated by 27 not quite so famous German poets)

Lee Rourke: Der Kanal (mairisch Verlag)
(My secret favourite but I'm not allowed to say so because officially I only love German books; trans. Roberta Schneider)

Akos Doma: Die allgemeine Tauglichkeit (Rotbuch Verlag)
(Novel about a raggle-taggle band of losers by a translator from Hungarian; sounds quite good)

Steven Uhly: Adams Fuge (Secession Verlag)
(Second novel about a Turkish guy in Germany by a half-Bengali guy in Germany who translates from Spanish, Portuguese and English; I really want to read it)

Peter Kurzeck: Vorabend (Stroemfeld Verlag)
(Very poetic portrait of the author's childhood, presumably plot-free but very beautiful; longlisted for the big German Book Prize too)

Erich Mühsam: Tagebücher. Vol 1. Ed. Chris Hirte and Conrad Piens (Verbrecher Verlag)
(Diaries of Germany's favourite anarchist; they're planning another 13 volumes)