In the nick of time before the shortlist is announced tomorrow (Wednesday), here is my now traditional take on the longlist for the German Book Prize for 2012, based almost entirely on the extracts provided in the free booklet and the publishers' websites. Just to be fair, you know. As usual, there are a couple of things that crop up on several occasions, but you'll spot them as you go along.
For links, please see my first post on the subject.
We start with Ernst Augustin's Robinsons blaues Haus, and the first book is also the first of many in which a man looks back on his past. And it's one of the more interesting from the retrospective category because Augustin seems to revel in lust for language, repetition and lists and playful descriptions, with a slight patina like an old-fashioned grocery or Kolonialwarenhändler. I have absolutely no idea what it's about - even after reading the publisher's blurb - but I loved reading it.
Sample: "There followed a list of goods for transport: rings, necklaces, bracelets as tender, gifts and gifts in return, wedding jewellery, large and small crowns, above all money, money and gold in every form in leather sacks, in sealed boxes, round, square, ribbon-shaped embossings, gold from the Maratha period, gold from the Benares period, bar gold, ceremony gold, golden elephants borne on poles – the latter called for particular skills."
Autobiographical elements: Oh yes.
Next is Bernd Cailloux with Gutgeschriebene Verluste. Another man looking back, and I have a soft spot for this one because it's a rebel doing the looking back and he writes like it. It's amusing, entertaining, and perhaps a serious reckoning with the radical left in 1968 and what came afterwards, etc.
Sample: "And what happened in the years after that? It was enough to make you cry. She turned - like the classic cliché - into a suburban dentist's wife with declining joie de vivre, and he recited poems at Old Germanic things in the Lüneburger Heide."
Autobiographical elements: Yes indeed.
And on to number three, Jenny Erpenbeck's Aller Tage Abend. The extract is puzzling - the story could be set at almost any time at all, this section dealing with a baby's death. Apparently there are other possible deaths at different stages in the character's life, looking at twentieth-century history in a similarly fractured way as Erpenbeck's wonderful Visitation did. What I read was very very sad and very very beautiful, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I hope it makes the shortlist.
Sample: "The same way as she tipped out all the water in the house last night, because they say the angel of death rinses his sword in it, as she covered the mirror and opened the window because she's seen others doing it that way, but also because then the child's soul wouldn't come back but would fly out for ever, that way she will sit there for seven days now because she's seen others sitting that way, but also because she doesn't know where else to be, while she no longer wants to set foot in that inhuman place that was the child's room the last night."
Autobiographical elements: I suspect not.
And so we come to Milena Michiko Flašar with Ich nannte ihn Krawatte. As I wrote a while back, this is a short but ambitious novel combining two slightly clichéd characters in a clichéd setting - the park bench - albeit a Japanese one. Nicely done but not quite enough unusualness to counteract the overly familiar plot devices for my taste.
Sample sample: "My collar turned up, I turned the corners and watched out that I didn't stumble into anyone. I shuddered at the idea that my trouser leg might brush against the edge of someone else's coat in passing. I pressed my arms to my sides and walked, walked, walked, not looking right, not looking left."
Autobiographical elements: Probably not.
Rainald Goetz's Johann Holtrop is up now. Rainald Goetz, as I've written in the past, is a German literary phenomenon which I fail to understand. Either I'm missing something or he has such a huge reputation that nobody dares to take him down. Whatever the case, this is another man looking back (at his heyday, perhaps?), in this case at the 1990s. I can't tell what it's really about but I suspect that's not the point. The writing is fun, still sort of iconoclastic, heavy on the irony - try counting the adjectives and adverbs below.
Sample: "When the winters were long and rich in snow and the summers hot and dry -
There stood the black-glass office monolith pointlessly huge in the night, on the edge of Krölpa, Krölpa on the Unstrut, behind it the forests that formed Krölpa's northern border to the Warthe, there shone the glowing red company logo of Arrow PC lonely, evil and red up on the roof above the grim giant, made of black steel and black glass, the red lettering above it, a new building as broken as Germany in those years, as hysterically cold and stupidly designed as the people who had their desks here imagined the world was, because that's how they were, steered by greed, the greed to permanently secure themselves advantages, preferably of course in the form of money, but in that very point, in their calculation for self-interest, they were themselves ultimately calculable, computable and exploitable, that was the basis of the abstract money machine that resided here: the phantasm of the total rule of CAPITAL over humankind."
Autobiographical elements: Who knows?
Olga Grasnjowa's Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt is a delight, a sad sad funny story about a young woman who refuses to categorise herself in terms of nationality and sexuality and has a tough time of it, what with post-traumatic syndrome after childhood events in Azerbaijan, a dead German boyfriend and a difficult trip to Israel. Rights have sold to the US and you should read it when it comes out. I reviewed it earlier this year and I know the writer and I'd love for it to make the shortlist – but I'm not sure the judges will choose a debut novel.
Sample: "My computer had been shot dead fifteen minutes ago and now I was waiting for the confirmation forms that would entitle me to place an application for compensation from the state of Israel."
Autobiographical elements: I'm told not really.
Wolfgang Herrndorf's Sand already won the big springtime prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. So it would be kind of odd if it got this one too. It's a sort of spy story set in North Africa in the 1970s, with some very literary writing and a fun convoluted plot. It's good. If you're one of the two people who haven't read it yet you're presumably not going to read it now though.
Sample: "On the adobe wall stood a man with a bare torso, his arms outstretched as if crucified. He had a rusted spanner in one hand and a blue plastic canister in the other. His eyes swept across tents and huts, rubbish heaps and plastic sheets and the endless desert to a point on the horizon above which the sun must be rising shortly."
Autobiographical elements: Let's hope not.
Bodo Kirchhoff's Die Liebe in groben Zügen falls firmly into the "man looking back" category. We seem to have two love stories, one between Francis of Assisi and a nun (which might not be as racy as it sounds) and one modern-day middle class. Apparently Kirchhoff is very good about writing about love, and here the language is certainly very appealing. I didn't really understand what it was about but that didn't seem to matter much.
Sample: "Go now, he says, but the sister stays, kneeling in her habit, her hands folded before her neck. No woman prays so gracefully, Altissimu omnipotente bon Signore, his words out of her mouth."
Autobiographical elements: Possibly
*Special Catholicism bonus!
Next comes Germán Kratochwil with Scherbengericht. Apparently it's about Germans in Latin America, written by a German in Argentina. Apparently several generations come together at a garden party and there's an exciting climax, sparkling with black humour. I found the extract strangely uninspiring, the writing uneventful and the passage uninteresting. Perhaps they picked a boring bit or I missed the humour.
Sample: "When the food came Katha merely picked a few chicory leaves off her plate and didn't eat a bite of her coley. As she'd been in an agitated mood after the shower she'd insisted on a bottle of rosé when they ordered, and knocked back two glasses in a row. Martin felt compelled to empty his own quickly and hurriedly pour himself more of the sweet wine, which he didn't like."
Autobiographical elements: Yes.
I found Ursula Krechel's Landgericht more exciting. It's about a judge returning from exile to Germany and his wife in the late 1940s, but failing to feel at home again. A fascinating personal and political subject, to me at least, although I'm not sure the rest of the world is quite as interested. I enjoyed the descriptions and the emotions at play in the extract - it seemed very perceptive.
Sample: "The instinctive refinding of the beloved, familiar skin was a miracle that the Kornitzers later often talked about, later, later, to each other; they couldn't tell their children. Not the 'touched' part of the body (man or woman) sent the alarm around the whole body, it was the actively 'touching' part, and after half a second it was impossible to tell who had touched and who had been touched."
Autobiographical elements: I don't think so but it is partly based on fact.
I couldn't quite get to grips with Dea Loher's Bugatti taucht auf. It read like it was going to be a crime novel, with preparations going on and a big build-up happening. And apparently it is in one of its strands, while the other seems to deal with the act of fetching an old car up from the bottom of a lake. I'm still thoroughly confused but I can't say I found the writing in the extract particularly inspiring, despite some exciting costumes.
Sample: "They weren't actually cigarillos, they were the cigarettes they usually smoked; they just called them by a different name and pretended they were cigarillos, holding them between straightened fingers, inhaling more slowly and breathing out the smoke more pretentiously; that was part of their game."
Autobiographical elements: I doubt it.
I've been to a reading of Angelika Meier's Heimlich, heimlich mich vermiss and established that it wasn't my cup of tea. It's a bizarre book about a mountainside clinic on the margins of science fiction. What I didn't like about it is obvious in the extract too: the writer seems to be laughing at her characters, which is pretty mean when they're in a mental institution. Also, I felt the Thomas Mann meta-level and some of the philosophical stuff she deals with were asking a bit much of the reader for a broad (international) appeal - but that could just be me.
Sample sample: "Opium and rhubarb, that's all I can do for you right now. He suckles greedily at the rubber teat on the bottle while staring at me accusingly through the windowpanes of his glasses, and I notice that a further regiment of his hair has used yesterday's special treatment to make a retreat behind the enemy forehead line."
Autobiographical element: Now that would be mean.
Sten Nadolny's Weitlings Sommerfrische seems to be the ultimate old man looking back novel on this list, dealing as it does with an elderly man losing his memory. But what you can't tell from the extract is that the retired judge Wilhelm Weitling gets mysteriously catapulted into his own past. As you do. It sounds like a cheap plot trick worthy of Quantum Leap but I suspect this is actually a very good book, especially if you're of a certain generation yourself, let's say. Certainly I enjoyed the warm, affectionate writing and I was relieved to find out that there's more to the novel than there is to the extract.
Sample: "He felt his strength ebbing but he was grateful for every good moment in his life. There would be some more to come, no doubt about that. And they did come."
Autobiographical elements: I expect so.
I wrote about Christoph Peters' Wir in Kahlenbeck last week. I think Peters is the youngest of the men looking back on the list, but he's all the more thorough about it, fictionalising his own schooldays at some length. Beautiful writing, lots and lots of Catholicism.
Sample: "Carl thinks of God's wrath, of the Lord's second coming. The end is nigh, you have to recognise the signs. There's a fissure running around the world, at the base of which hell is opening up. It splits the families, the states, the earth. The arsenals are spilling over, enough nuclear bombs to destroy everything that exists a hundred times over. In Russia and China they drag believers before the court, throw them into prison, murder them."
Autobiographical elements: Yeah baby.
*Special Catholicism bonus!
Michael Roes's die Laute, very sadly, goes over my head - but I still enjoyed the extract. The novel is about a Yemeni boy who is determined to become a composer and manages to do so despite going deaf. I have a soft spot for writing about music, which is a difficult thing to get right because there are a lot of clichés to be avoided. Roes seems to have done it well here but I can't tell because it's not a kind of music I know anything about. Whatever the case, this is a brave and exciting book by a writer who deserves more attention for his work, which goes beyond the usual bounds of German writing.
Sample: "I can see very clearly what my competitors play, I hear with my eyes, their atonal clusters, their post-serial dissonances, a constant effort to burst the bounds of the instrument, without daring that bursting in the end. I'd feel sorry for the beautiful Blüthner too. So I follow their attempts with indulgence."
Autobiographical elements: Few, I expect.
Now to Patrick Roth's Sunrise. There has to be one book I can't stand on the list, and this is it. Starring Joseph of Nazareth, it's apparently an aesthetic experience, and also apparently rides the sublime and pathos like a starry steed. OK. But did it have to be written in barely readable pseudo-biblical language as well? For me this was the most reactionary, in terms of style, of the men looking back novels on this list. I'm aware, of course, that looking back is one of those things that literature is there for, and it's not that I object to it per se. More that I object to this backward-looking extract.
Sample: "And as he walks along there comes to him from the side: heat of the sun-warmed stone that was piled to form a wall. And it seemed to Joseph as if he smelt something of the meal, through the stones' gaps, as if there had just been bread baked upon them. And he hungered though he was barely hungry."
Autobiographical elements: Verily.
*Super extra Catholic bonus!!
Frank Schulz's Onno Viets und der Irre vom Kiez was a bit of a surprise on the list, to be honest. It's a humorous Hamburg novel about a lovable loser who turns detective for want of any better way to earn a living. Fun, choppy writing by a cult author, the extract sort of reminded me a bit of Sven Regener's Herr Lehmann (Berlin Blues in English) and I know a lot of people who really loved it. But I can't see a book quite this genre (adj.) winning the big prize of the year.
Sample: "Raimund gave a sardonic creak. 'He couldn't imagine the shortest route between two map coordinates to save his life. If Edda didn't sit next to him now and then he'd end up in Bremen or Flensburg every time he drove across town, not in Hoheluft-West.'"
Autobiographical elements: Interesting question.
Last but two is Clemens J. Setz with Indigo. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what this novel is about, to go by the extract. What we have here is a rather one-sided dialogue about rats and dogs. The publishers tell us it features a character called Clemens Setz, a maths teacher at an unusual Austrian school. They also tell us to ignore the plot summary, which is usually good advice with Clemens Setz, I believe. So whatever happens, the book is almost certain to be very strange and very good, judging by the writer's previous form.
Sample: "But look at the life they lead, I said and pointed at the small dog chasing around between the bushes. You live with big shapes that make unintelligible sounds and control your food, toys and exercise opportunities. You spend hours wandering around alone with them, and suddenly you spot someone at the end of an avenue or on the other side of the road who speaks your language, has a tail and ears, who even wants to come closer and present themself – and you're dragged back on the rope, not allowed to move a centimetre towards the other one."
Autobiographical elements: Unashamedly so - or maybe not?
Not quite finally, we come to Stefan Thome's Fliehkräfte. This is the one people keep telling me is going to win, so I was quite looking forward to reading it even though I was underwhelmed by his previously longlisted novel. And lo and behold, I am underwhelmed again. A professor seems to be visiting a former lover, perhaps, or at least a woman in France. You know, taking stock of his past life, looking back. The publishers tell us he will go on to examine his dark sides and failures, etc. etc. As with almost all the five Suhrkamp novels on this list (yes, that's a quarter), I just don't get the hype, which makes me feel stupid and I tend to resent that. The writing is decent in a plain way but no actual character comes across in the extract.
Sample: "Sandrine's father once met his lovers in the confined spaces of this attic flat. The wood-panelled sloping ceilings possess charm and the view from the high windows crosses roof crests, brick walls and slim chimneys into the open expanse of the city."
Autobiographical elements: I don't really care.
So finally we come to another Suhrkamp title, Ulf Erdmann Ziegler's Nichts Weißes. While I could tell this novel would be more to my taste than the previous one and I preferred the author's precise style too, I found the extract very specific. It's about a woman fascinated by fonts, who enters the media world in the 1980s. Looking back on the very first computer generation, if you like. Rather like with Michael Roes, I appreciate that Ziegler writes extremely well about visual phenomena - coming from a background of art and architecture journalism. But I can't relate to it myself and thus found the appeal limited.
Sample: "Convinced of himself, Passeraub had taken the opportunity to abolish terms like 'roman', 'semi-bold' and 'bold' and instead indicated font strength through numbers such as 55, 65, 75, for anyone who used his Kosmos font was no longer a craftsman, was in fact more of an engineer perhaps."
Autobiographical elements: Possibly
So there you have it. I'm very unsure what will make it to the shortlist but I can't wait to find out.