Thursday, 19 July 2012

Bachmann Prize Retrospective

So obviously I missed one of the highlights of the German-language literary year, because they cleverly arranged to hold the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition while I had no internet access. Sheesh. Yet I have spared no effort to familiarise myself with - OK, not all 14 entries, but all the texts that won a prize in Klagenfurt. And you too can download them from the competition website and read them at the hairdresser's. Be prepared to hope she's not reading over your shoulder though...

Deutsche Welle wrote amusingly about the competition a little while ago, but if I were you I wouldn't believe the hype about how everyone's "waiting for someone to at least eat their manuscript again". Did I ever mention, by the way, how I used to see Rainald Goetz at my old local supermarket? We both used to finger the bread rolls because we're such rebels. But I've moved house now, did I mention that? Anyway, if the wackiest Rainald Goetz gets nowadays is fingering the bread rolls rather than slitting his forehead on live TV, what's the point of today's young writers trying to out-scandalise him?   

Whatever. So I read the five prizewinning texts at the hairdresser's and here's my take.

The audience award went to the Austrian Cornelia Travnicek for Junge Hunde, an extract from a novel. It's a nice slice of pop literature featuring teenage memories and dead animals, which didn't exactly make me sit up and beg for more. Maybe one to watch if you like teenage tales.

Then there's the Ernst Willner Prize, which is like coming fourth, and that went to Inger-Maria Mahlke. Does her text have a title? It doesn't in my printout. I know Mahlke's work because she won the Open Mike in 2009 and I read her debut novel, which I liked well enough. I also like that she's not writing about teenage girls or boys but about the seamy sides of life. This is the one that made me blush at the hairdresser's because it's about a mother out of her depth who gives up her crap job to work as a dominatrix. But it's very precisely written with some great observations and was the text that had the greatest emotional effect on me - and that's a very good thing.

Next up is the 3Sat Prize, which went to Lisa Kränzler's Willste abhauen. It's about a (pre)pubescent girl and her friend from the other side of the tracks, and is thoughtful and sensual and overtly political but didn't rock my boat so much, especially when compared to Mahlke's strong evocations of discomfort. Kränzler's debut novel is just out I believe, and is about a teenage girl who goes off the rails on an exchange to Canada. I dunno, I suppose you have to write about something, but in the course of this post it will emerge that I feel too many people write about teenagers, especially in connection with awkward sexuality.

The second prize is called the kelag Prize and went to the Swiss writer Matthias Nawrat for his Unternehmer. Which kind of blew me away, to be honest. I have no idea quite what it's about but I love that. Two kids don't go to school but seem to be scavenging for junk with their dad, a modern-day rag-and-bone-man with permanent rose-coloured spectacles. The obscure words and objects! And that crazy rhythm! Is it part of a future novel? I hope so, I really do. I have his debut Wir zwei allein on my shelf and will read it. He's also won all sorts of other promising accolades that make me think he must be a very good writer. My enthusiasm even overrides the awkward teenage sexuality incident.

Anyway the top prize went to Olga Martynova for Ich werde sagen: "Hi!". Not a text I warmed to. Siberian-born Martynova is another writer well on her way to the big-time, having recently garnered the emerging writers' part of the Chamisso Prize for non-native German-speakers and been longlisted for the German Book Prize in 2010 (back when teenage girls featured in about 80% of the nominated books). I recall not liking the extract I read from that novel either. Here, she portrays some small town or other through the eyes of a teenage boy just discovering his love of writing and his awkward sexuality. The judges said it captured major history in small stories. I was a little alienated that writers (including one of the other award-winners, incidentally) still feel the need to equate "Oriental" characters with 1001 Nights in their white characters' minds, and I found the historical references rather pat. Oh well.

Last year I advanced the theory that the judges like to choose the hardest text to translate as their winner. This year the translation programme didn't take place, sadly, but the winning text wouldn't have been the most difficult. Instead, the pattern I'm seeing now is that the winner isn't a young thing who studied creative writing, but someone more mature who's been through the university of life like Maja Haderlap and Peter Wawerzinek in the past two years. In fact, as far as I'm aware, no one with a degree in creative writing has ever won the Bachmann Prize, although a great deal of them have entered it. It makes you wonder whether the format - with significantly older judges passing verdict on the texts and their writers in the TV studio - is biased against the people so many critics love to hate: creative writing graduates. For Berlin's Open Mike competition, in contrast, the initial entries are read in anonymous form and current or former creative writing students tend to win.

Next year I hope to be back on track for more up-to-date Klagenfurt comments. I also intend never to move house again.  

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