Monday, 31 October 2011

German Literature Month

November is German Literature Month!

Not here, obviously, where every month is German literature month. I mean at Lizzy's Literary Life and Beauty is A Sleeping Cat. They've also given away loads of German/Austrian/Swiss books to other British bloggers, so look forward to a rash of reviews all over the shop. Here's their schedule:
Week 1 (Nov 1 -7) German Literature
Maybe you like Thomas Mann or you are a fan of Genazino.  Perhaps you prefer contemporary German literature. Erpenbeck or Kehlmann perhaps?  Who is your favourite German author?  Now’s the time to share with us.
Week 2  (Nov 8-14) Crime Fiction
There are a lot of German crime novels. Whether you like it gritty or prefer psychological suspense, you are sure to find something to suit.
Week 3  (Nov 15 – 21) From Austria and Switzerland 
You could read some of the 19th century Swiss classics like Gotthelf, Keller or Meyer or finally read those Roths and Zweigs that have been sitting in your TBR for years.
Week 4 (Nov 22-28) Kleist and Other German Classics
November 21 marks the bicentennial of Kleist’s death.  We will read some of his novellas and I may read a play (something I haven’t done since university).  This is also the time to (re-)acquaint ourselves with other German classics – Goethe anyone?
Week 5  (Nov 29-30) Read As You Please and Wrap Up
Here’s your chance to read and review whatever you like.
I shall just carry on regardless I'm afraid.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Feridun Zaimoglu on Fifty Years of Turks in Germany, and Jewellery

You gotta love him, eh? Kiel's most famous literary type Feridun Zaimoglu gets all hot under the collar at Zeit Online - he loves Germany, he can't stand Germany, he loves Turks, he can't stand Turks. And then there's this:
I was angry back then (when he wrote Kanak Sprak). I still am. I don't want that anger to go away, that furore that I've ruined a lot of things with. I mean, I could say: Feridun, take off all that metal, all the tasteless oversized rings on your fingers. It's bad style. I do know the rules in the German culture business, all I'd have to do is take off my rings. I'm not considered a serious writer. (...) I love these rings. When they touch each other while I'm typing it sounds like the cows coming down from the pastures.
Please, Feridun, don't take off the rings. I may be the only person reminded of Guy Ritchie-style lovable London lads' signet rings, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who loves all that metal. And we have plenty of sensible writers already.

On a more serious note, Zaimoglu laments the lack of respect for what the first generation of Turkish immigrants achieved in Germany, while not holding back on young lads who can't spell the word "respect". All this comes after fifty years of immigration from Turkey - once the Berlin Wall was built it was a matter of months before West Germany needed extra labour and signed an agreement with Ankara.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Michael Krüger versus Womankind?

The publisher, poet, novelist, friend-of-the-Nobel-prizewinners and all-round old-school literary superhero Michael Krüger is smoking a cigarette on the front page of yesterday's arts section in Die Zeit, and talking to Iris Radisch. About what a superhero he is and how he can't retire from running the Hanser publishing house because who could possibly do such a good job as he does?

There's some interesting banter about the new imprint Hanser Berlin - to be run by Elisabeth Ruge, who stepped down at Berlin Verlag after Bloomsbury reined in its subsidiaries. She seems to be taking a few writers with her, including Richard Ford, Jeanette Winterson and Péter Esterházy, and Krüger says he wants a foot in the door in Berlin and its "so-called intellectual life".

Then comes the best bit though – perhaps, Radisch speculates, Elisabeth Ruge might take over from him when he does retire in 2014? At which point Krüger seems to get rather flustered. "I can say that quite clearly. She absolutely won't." And why? The wrong type of person, too much for her, and she has two children.

At which the (German literary) world is up in arms. Richard Kämmerlings wrote in Die Welt at 6:37 this morning: "Why are we even discussing quotas for women executives in DAX companies if a proven expert is considered unsuitable to run even a medium-sized family firm as a mother of two?"

Here's what I think: what we should really be discussing is not whether Michael Krüger's statement is sexist. Maybe it is - what a surprise. What's really important though is whether working models in publishing are compatible with parenting per se. By 2014, according to my calculations, Elisabeth Ruge's children will be 17 and 19, so not quite as demanding as a pair of toddlers. But if we look at Michael Krüger's work schedule as laid out in the article at hand - first meeting at 8.30 a.m. every day, off home at 8 p.m. every day, "with a pile of papers under his arm" - it's hardly a family-friendly model. Anyone with children - whether a man or a woman - would be crazy to take on a job with that kind of expectations attached to it. Even many of the editors I know work ridiculous hours for ridiculous wages, and I know of one foreign rights woman who said she wanted to work in publishing but also wanted children, so editing was out of the question.

Incidentally, I met Michael Krüger in Frankfurt. I was eating sushi using splintery wooden chopsticks while balancing the plastic container on my knees at the time and may not have made a particularly good impression. Certainly, he didn't offer me a job as his successor. But then who'd want it?

Update: So a lot of people think Krüger's statement definitely is sexist. And worth talking about sexism in publishing (where, yes, like so many other industries with not terribly high pay, women do most of the work and gain few of the prestigious positions). They're probably right but I'm giving the guy the benefit of the doubt in this particular instance because I really don't know whether he'd have said the same thing about a man or not. The thing is, I would say the same thing about a man, and I think that's where we ought to be heading. 

Thursday, 27 October 2011

articulate in New York

My friend Jan Valk is curating a series of events featuring young German-language writers at the Goethe Institut in New York, called "articulate". I'm not quite sure whether that's a verb or an adjective here. Anyway, instead of constructing some kind of artificial link between the writers - writers from the former East, writers with a background in physics, writers with Polish grandfathers, whatever - the series just presents people who are doing interesting stuff. I like the idea.
articulate—a series about new tendencies in contemporary German literature. The event series articulate spotlights the young German-language literature scene. By trying not to construct a generation consisting of these highly varied exponents, the series purposely focuses on its diversity. The guests of articulate traverse borders in the biographical and stylistic sense, and are connected only by the hybrid forms of their career paths and their joy in experimenting with different medial forms of expression. They are narrators, lyricists or dramatists, filmmakers, translators, journalists, and literary mediators. Above all, they always take on more than one role at once—sharing this polymorphism in their ways of life, work, and expression. On five nights in 2011, the authors will meet John Wray and—after a short reading—start a conversation with the host. They will talk about their diverse and multi-faceted involvement in the literary and artistic world as a principle career strategy, and their work and survival in the current cultural scene.
If you're quick and I'm not getting my time zones muddled, you can catch Peggy Mädler there tonight. Sadly, you may have missed Thomas Pletzinger and Daniela Dröscher, but you can still make it to Katharina Adler on November 8 and Milo Rau on December 8.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Clemens Meyer Occupies Wall Street

German writer Clemens Meyer, always a guy with an eye for the underdog, has a fellowship in New York and visited Liberty Square last week. You can read his description at Die Welt - very well written, it's a collage of truth and fiction and helped me at least to understand what on earth is going on there. In his usual - how can I put this? - not terribly tactful style.

"I don't want you not to be rich, I don't want you to be rich in a poor country!" Before you can enter the square, which is slightly lower than the sidewalk, a sea of placards. "Don't feed the greed!", "I love you", further back "Jesus loves you", a black boy holding a small sign saying "I am Joe". Next to the park, two young men push a young woman carefully but determinedly aside, because her cardboard sign only says she's into guys who smoke cannabis. An older man directly in front of me is holding a placard "Stop bombing Afghanistan", several people are holding a loud and agitated discussion with him, and I try to understand the details: he seems to have been born in Kabul and lived here for decades, and now he wants to support his old and his new country. People spot my dictaphone and get suspicious, but I have my press ID with me. "Ah German Press! I will tell you a story!"

Thursday, 20 October 2011

ALMA highlights German illustrators

The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) is the world's largest prize for children's and young adult literature. The award, which amounts to SEK 5 million, is awarded annually to a single recipient or to several. Authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and those active in reading promotion may be rewarded. The award is designed to promote interest in children's and young adult literature, and in children's rights, globally. An expert jury selects the winners from candidates nominated by institutions and organisations worldwide. The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is administered by the Swedish Arts Council.
The award has a wonderfully long list of nominated candidates, and this year they include a number of German-speaking writers and especially illustrators: Jutta Bauer, Rotraut Susanne Berner, Aljoscha Blau, Wolf Erlbruch, Nikolaus Heidelbach, Binette Schroeder, Austrian Lisbeth Zwerger and the writers Paul Maar and Jutta Richter along with the Austrian Renate Welsh-Rabady.

I must say I do find many German children's books beautifully illustrated, even though my taste tends to the British because, well, that's what I grew up with. I've tried to find links that take you to some of their work, so do have a look. What I particularly like about German children's books is that most of them avoid the pink and sparkly trap you often see in British bookshops. So even books about fairies won't give you what the Germans charmingly term "eye cancer".

Although the award is international, it's quite telling that it comes from Sweden, where they have a tradition of children's literature that's hugely, hugely popular in Germany. And probably not only because you can buy the books at Ikea. I'm sure there are at least five Pippi Longstockings at every fancy dress party across the country, with more recently arrived characters boasting their own musicals and the like. My favourite is probably Astrid Lindren's rib-ticklingly naughty Karlsson-on-the-Roof. If anyone has a badge like the one shown on the Wikipedia page, by the way, you know what to give me for Christmas.

Anyway, like certain other countries with their own strong literary traditions, Sweden is not all that forward about importing books. A recent article in the trade mag Börsenblatt mentions 20 literary titles sold from Germany to Sweden last year, compared to 144 in the other direction. Interestingly - and here we do see a difference to the English-speaking world, 33 children's books sold to Sweden in 2010 (although again, a more weighty 150 went from Sweden to Germany).

But never mind. At least there's reason to celebrate with all these illustrators singled out for attention. Why not give them a little bit of yours too?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Hotlist 2011 to Nino Haratischwili

So this year was the third time the German independent publishers got together to crown their best book under the slightly absurd title of Hotlist, once again with an awards ceremony embedded within the indie party at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

It was a very strong, eclectic shortlist and the prize went to Nino Haratischwili for her novel Mein sanfter Zwilling. I really enjoyed her debut Juja (see my review) and am looking forward to this one. Her new publishers Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, however, aren't doing her any favours with this blurb: "Nino Haratischwili presents a novel that combines both her dramatic and narrative skills with a language that is pervaded by Georgian passion und images." Presumably they suppose Georgian passion to be different to common or garden passion, but whatever. Congratulations are definitely in order for this very talented writer.

And now for word or two on the event itself. I go to a lot of literary events, and this was one of the piss-poorest in a long time. One problem was the venue - Frankfurt's Sinkkasten was plainly too small for the number of people who wanted to come, which resulted in a block-long queue at around 11 pm. Quite a lot of people gave up and went away again. Also, there was only one large room (rather reminiscent of a 1980s suburban disco, but I mean that in an affectionate way) unless you wanted to stand like a sardine in the smoking lounge, so there was no escaping problem two: the Icelandic techno DJ combined with the space's appalling acoustics. Which meant that we were treated to teeth-juddering bass all around the edges of the space and every track sounded exactly the same as the one before and after it. And also, as the evening progressed the room emptied of literary folk and filled up slightly with club regulars in brown leather jackets, busily attempting to hit on the ladies. Who didn't really appreciate their efforts.

Before that, however, came the awards ceremony. I'd throughly enjoyed last year's and had been looking forward to the 2011 version - until I heard that Charlotte Roche would be doing the honours with Jakob Augstein. Gosh - two of my least favourite persons from the margins of German literary life - on one stage! So it was no great shame that my friends and I were unable to see or hear anything at all of the ceremony from our distant vantage point. I did have a brief peek as things got exciting, only to see them both sitting down at a table, transmitting an air of bored irony and mispronouncing authors' names. There was none of last year's playful tension and reverence - in fact a friend I caught leaving in disgust said their ironic show had been unworthy and disrespectful to the excellent books they were supposed to be showcasing. And that was a great, great shame.

I did manage to have a rather rollicking evening despite all this, however, by dint of imbibing a great deal of gin and perching on a raised seat right by the entrance, where my friends and I pounced on people we knew coming in and going out. The effect was that at the end of the night I felt like an absolute diva, what with everybody filing past and being forced to pay their respects to the drunken queens of literary translation. And we also had a lot of fun critiquing everyone else's outfits, as you might expect. May I just say one thing on this topic: red jackets may be cool, but elbow patches just scream "English teacher". Not a good look, especially for the follically challenged.

Plenty of room for improvement next year, let's say.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Why I Love Book Fairs

I've decided I absolutely love book fairs. Quite a lot of book people I know don't, you see. They find them too crowded and hectic, not enough fresh air and too many annoying people. But I'm an official fan.

I was wondering why, and I realized I do love small-talk with other book people. I think that just about sums it up. I love wandering around and meeting people I vaguely know by chance, and the serendipity of what you end up talking about. This year, apart from the obvious "me, me, me" I had conversations about ending relationships, living in buses, going to New York, the Happy Mondays, graphic novels, evading the binarity of atheism vs. faith, jewellery, young German writers, rent levels in Berlin, getting spotted by modelling talent scouts ("You're never too old!"), those awful elbow-patches on jackets, and sushi. And books.

That's probably the best part. In normal small-talk, one might be embarrassed to reveal one's slavish passion for German-language literature. But at a book fair, people seem to genuinely admire that in a person. Great, huh? Also, the level of acquaintance with the people you meet rarely goes beyond vague or professional. So you don't know people well enough to find each other anything but absolutely delightful and charming.

I'm sure the shine would pall if life was one long book fair. But as it is, I think I need that fix of mutual appreciation to bolster my ego at least twice a year.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Off to Frankfurt

I shall be away schmoozing doing business at the Frankfurt Book Fair until the weekend. Normal service will be resumed once I have recovered my wits.

I'm sure book fairs are overwhelming experiences for everyone involved - the publishing people, the mere mortals who shove their way along the aisles, the teenagers dressed up as Japanese porn stars manga characters, and so on. But for translators, I suspect, they are even more of a departure from everyday normality. That's because we spend most of our working hours alone. OK, writers do too, but if they're the lucky kind who end up going to book fairs, they probably hold readings and go on research outings and that kind of thing as well. Translators? Only extremely rarely, and only over the last couple of years since the profession has begun shouting about promoting itself.

So many of us turn into strange, unkempt beings with no antiquated social skills. Which is why we have had our own fenced-in area at the Frankfurt Book Fair - no one wanted to shock the general public by encouraging us to roam freely. As of last year, that area has been shared with the international literature folks. Which makes sense in a way - why artificially separate the literature from the translators? - but of course detracts from the time available for translators to bang our own drums present ourselves in public.

Nevertheless, last year showed that the Weltempfang is still the place to go if you want to see translators drinking coffee and bitching chatting furiously amongst themselves. Strangely, though, it seems to have been robbed of even its own web presence - the link above is to a page where you can download the programme of events as a PDF. Which is quite broad but still includes a few translators' centre classics such as the "Gläserne Übersetzer" - masochistic talented translators doing their job in public, abetted by crowds of wannabe colleagues, or indeed established translators who are so addicted they can't help joining in.

So I'm looking forward to a friendly fair, meeting plenty of unkempt colleagues and partying with publishing people. Shockingly, the Hotlist gala with the announcement of the best indie book will be co-hosted by Charlotte Roche. I have to go, obviously, but I might have to hold my fingers in front of my face out of sheer embarrassment that a group of independent publishers trying to call attention to the wonderful books they do would want this writer TV presenter (published by a major label) to award their prize.

In other news: I've discovered the crossed-out font button.

Monday, 10 October 2011

German Book Prize 2011 to Eugen Ruge

Congratulations to Eugen Ruge, who has just been awarded the German Book Prize for In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts. You can read my review here, and you'll guess that I'm pleased with the choice. He's just giving a rather shy speech, telling us he was too superstitious to prepare anything.

Rebecca Morrison writes of the novel in the most recent TLS (not available online): "In straight-forward, satisfying prose, this novel of belief in, and disillusionment with, Communism illuminates and packs a punch of authenticity."

English world rights have been sold and a translator found, as there was a great deal of justified buzz about the book before it even came out. No surprise, perhaps, after Ruge won the very prestigious Döblin Prize for the manuscript two years ago. And yet the novel is probably the most accessible of those on the shortlist. Booksellers were very concerned that the jury had gone all literary since there was no bookseller among the judges this year. I don't know why that was; all I do know is that the Goethe Institut's Clemens-Peter Haase, Head of Literary and Translation Promotion, sadly died in July and the jury was reduced to six members. You can read an obituary here.

I'd like to add that although it's always sad that not every book can win the award, the shortlisted authors do all get a bit of pocket money and a major boost to sales through the publicity.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Wilhelm Raabe Prize to Sibylle Lewitscharoff

Congratulations to Sibylle Lewitscharoff, who has won the lovely fat purse of the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize for her novel Blumenberg. €30,000 from the city of Braunschweig and the Deutschlandfunk radio station. The judges commented:

In her novel Blumenberg, Sibylle Lewitscharoff creates a biographical fantasy of the famous German philosopher of the title, leaving the well trodden paths of realistic narration with wanton provocation. The appearance of a lion, invisible to others, which becomes Blumenberg's mute companion, leads the scholar and thus the reader to the boundaries of a purely rational approach to the world.
With powerful and inventive language and subtle humour, the way of life of a withdrawn thinker is contrasted with the inadequacies and threats of human existence, which are revealed in the lives of his students as they all fail in different ways. Sibylle Lewitscharoff weaves the movements of the intellectual central star and his satellites into a narrative cosmos unique in contemporary German literature, ultimately extending it into the hereafter in a manner as liberating as it is disturbing. 


I have nearly finished translating her previous novel, Apostoloff, in which Blumenberg and his lion put in a guest appearance alongside a good many Bulgarians and Swabians.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Jan Brandt: Gegen die Welt

927 pages. 927 pages. I for one do not usually read books this long, because I tend to get bored. So it’s quite an achievement for a book of 927 pages if I even pick it up in the first place. Let alone read it all the way through.

But here comes the full disclosure: I met the author Jan Brandt at a drunken party the year before last. And I remember being quite impressed because after I spouted off high-octane vitriol on some subject or other, he had a similarly vitriolic tale to tell. This, I thought, is a man who knows how to hate, and to package that passion in an entertaining form. Actually I didn’t think that at the time, but I do now. Which is probably like meeting aged ska legend Laurel Aitken still in his cardigan in the ladies’ toilets before a gig and assuming he’s a pervert rather than just not having his glasses on. But that’s another story.

Anyway, to get back to the main pre-strand to this piece, a number of people subsequently told me how amazing Jan Brandt’s book Gegen die Welt was going to be, including the author himself. On which occasion he also predicted that I would end up translating it. We shall see about that. I would certainly relish the challenge, but first a publisher must be found who would relish the financial challenge of getting 927 pages translated. For the time being, I’m very pleased to have translated a sample from the book for your delectation.

So, we have 927 pages and they’re about the inhabitants of a village in East Frisia. I know! It sounds like the world’s dullest book. But it’s so totally not dull, I assure you. Because Brandt has injected his very long narrative with a number of vitalising ingredients. First of all there’s his obvious love for the region’s geography. It’s not there in the form of overly long nature descriptions of the D H Lawrence variety, more in the details of fog or sudden snow, bike rides between fields or the marks the railway has left on the land. Then there’s his contempt for some of his characters, mostly the minor ones like the local businessmen busily undermining each other to the ultimate detriment of the village. And his affection for others such as the main character’s mother and his friend Volker, an obese underage smoker with a pessimistic outlook on life.

And of course the plot. Because far from being an autobiographically based ramble through Daniel Kuper’s youth as one might expect, the novel is held together by a fairly complex storyline. Or several, to be precise. But mainly the one about Daniel, whom we meet on the day he meets Volker, aged about six. A fairly confident little boy, he later falls victim to bullies and is then apparently abducted by aliens. The entire village, indeed the entire world, seems to believe that the Plutonians have landed in a corn circle and kidnapped young Daniel, leaving him semi-naked, bruised and unable to explain what has happened. From then on he’s the village outsider and becomes a scapegoat for all manner of things.

At grammar school he makes new friends and ends up getting drawn into a bullying incident himself, with dire consequences. The boys involved never talk about what happened, but in the course of the book every one of them dies young. These deaths are announced in advance by our omniscient narrator, so I’m not giving too much away here, and yet that just makes for even more compelling reading. The grammar school section is told in a remarkable way, in two parallel strands juxtaposing the boys’ rather banal lives with the more tragic tale of a local train driver – separated by two parallel lines just like a train track. For me, this was writing that doesn’t just play with form for art’s sake – there is a point at which the two strands do meet, and that apparent impossibility is a moment of shock, just like arriving at infinity would be.

The locals’ stories are peppered with pop cultural references, and I particularly enjoyed the ironic references to Dallas. Daniel’s father is the philandering J.R. who runs the village drugstore, constantly competing with his rivals the chemist and the supermarket manager. Then there are the biblical references, the village going by the name of Jericho and rather a lot of religion going on there. Plus the closeness to the work of Uwe Johnson, particularly Mutmassungen über Jakob, which I haven’t actually read but is set in a place called Jerichow. Lots of heavy metal music, and I also fancied a spot of David Foster Wallace in there too, what with the complexity and rather a lot of Jeopardy! – including as a metaphor. And illustrations of adverts and posters. And smatterings of Greek and Latin. And paranoid letters to the chancellor. And long lists of people or groceries that are actually a joy to read. And every time a car appears we’re told its make and vintage. And I’m sure I’ve missed a great many more references. Manic realism, the author seems to call it. In fact the literary world that is Jericho is so saturated that he’s provided a useful reference work online.

It’s not a novel that makes you want to move to the countryside. The atmosphere in oppressive and aggressive, especially as Daniel gets older and the swastika raises its ugly head. As the details settled in my mind, I thought I made out a political message about what people in Germany are willing to believe in order to shift the blame for their own extremism. But maybe I didn’t. It could just be an attempt to document very ordinary lives in an un-boring way. Strangely though, while I normally can’t relate to less ambitious novels about growing up in obscure corners of West Germany – not having grown up in any corner of Germany myself – I found Gegen die Welt had a broader appeal.

Masterfully, the novel closes with a section told from Volker’s perspective as an adult. But rather than coyly tying up all the loose strands – which it does to some extent – it throws a whole new light on other aspects. And it ends suddenly with

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Read Extracts from the Shortlist

As ever, translated extracts from the six novels shortlisted for the German Book Prize are now online at Sign and Sight. Enjoy.