Friday, 27 April 2012

Celebrating a Life Too Short: Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Wednesday night was a special one in Berlin-Neukölln, celebrating the life and writing of the Swiss journalist, novelist, antifascist, archaeologist and world traveller Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942). The event was organised by her English translators - and my friends - Isabel Cole and Lucy Renner-Jones, and featured Schwarzenbach's great-nephew, the historian Alexis Schwarzenbach. Who was totally fabulous – I think we all fell a tiny bit in love.

But back to Annemarie. She grew up in a wealthy family with four brothers and sisters – the youngest being Alexis S.'s grandfather – and a domineering mother who loved her husband, her children and her live-in ladyfriend. Annemarie loved women too – and published her first novel at the age of 23. Then she fell in love with Erika Mann, who politicized her but didn't return the favour, and then she moved to Berlin and discovered drugs, before travelling widely, working as a photographer, marrying a French diplomat, doing archaeology, writing more novels and a lot of travel journalism. She eventually kicked the drugs and died as the result of a cycling accident. So like a prototype Nico without Andy Warhol.

The event was framed by Alexis Schwarzenbach, who gave us a fascinating slideshow of pictures of and by Annemarie, while providing more details on her life. She was a striking androgynous beauty, standing out in all the family photos with the kind of face that tells you just what mood she was in at the time. Mostly sulking. My favourite was of her holding hands with another teenage girl, at a table with Winifred Wagner, who'd popped by to collect some money from her parents for the fascist cause.

Lucy read from Lyric Novella, a love story set in Weimar-era Berlin featuring a protagonist who's ostensibly a man but can just as easily be read as a woman. Apparently Schwarzenbach regretted not being more open about that aspect. Lucy told us she read Isherwood for inspiration on the narrative voice, but that Schwarzenbach's character was having a lot less fun. She's also translated the later novel, Death in Persia, apparently a "more open exploration of lesbian love and existential anguish against the background of 1930s Teheran", which will be out later this year.  

And Isabel read from Schwarzenbach's journalistic texts on Afghanistan, compiled in All the Roads Are Open. This was the more impressive extract, to be honest, as we got a taste of her more mature writing including some beautiful descriptions. As Alexis Schwarzenbach pointed out, however, she was as much a woman of her time as she was a rebel – her gaze is classic Orientalism, as some of the photos illustrated very clearly.

On the basis of the event you should obviously buy both translations, but also Alexis Schwarzenbach's illustrated biography Auf der Schwelle des Fremden. As he pointed out, previous biographers have tended to take her literary first-person without the requisite pinch of salt, interpreting all sorts of things into her life. I agreed on that, having read a rather vexing portrait of her at the hairdresser's a while ago. So I assume his version is a little more distanced. You can also view photos of and by Annemarie Schwarzenbach in a couple of Swiss archives. It's worth it.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Great Expectations

My friend, the delightful and dedicated Charlotte Ryland, is editor of New Books in German magazine and is interviewed (in German) in Die Zeit. Almost all of what she has to say is eminently sensible, but there's one tiny thing I'd like to question.

It's something that Germans love to ask of English speakers: What expectations do they have of German literature? And they expect a certain answer: oh yes, English speakers expect German literature to be heavy and philosophical. In a way they're fishing for compliments - a nation of poets and thinkers can only possibly be perceived as such. And it's also the cause of much brow-beating, the idea that German literature doesn't sell to the English-speaking world because it's seen as too highbrow and challenging. To be honest, some of it is. But that's not the reason why it doesn't get translated by the barrowload, and frankly I'm bored with the Germans claiming – in slightly patronising tones – that it is.

As Charlotte points out in the interview, the problem's actually at the other end – Anglophone literary culture is simply very isolated and uninterested in anything much but navel-gazing. That's something we have to work on, not the Germans. But she also refers to that alleged cliché about German literature being hard to read.

And here's my point: It's possible that about 1% of the British population, let's say, shares that idea. The serious literary types who've heard of Heinrich Böll, for example. And of course that 1% includes most people working in literary publishing. So the gatekeepers, if you will, may subconsciously fear German literature as "literary roughage". Part of Charlotte's role at NBG is breaking down that mental barrier, and she does an excellent job of it by including and promoting a very wide range of styles and genres in the magazine.

But - and this is a big BUT - the other 99% don't have a clue about German literature. They wouldn't know Günter Grass if he bashed them over the head with a rolled-up poem. The whole "Herta Who?" reaction to Müller's Nobel Prize was a case in point - even critics had never heard of her and the press even contacted ME, for goodness sake, for soundbites. And if that 99% walk into a bookshop and see a Judith Hermann book on a display table they may well take the author for an American. I'm convinced that the proverbial woman off the street walking into a bookshop is only interested in good stories or in fact good writing, rather than where the writer is from. But I've said that before, it's getting boring.

What I'm pleased about is that we're gradually making in-roads into the British literary consciousness with contemporary German writing of various different types, as Charlotte points out. And each new example does its bit to combat the Germans' favourite cliché about English clichés.   

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

T.C. Boyle, Signed

T.C. Boyle is coming to Germany to promote his new novel, When the Killing's Done (translated by Dirk van Gunsteren). And because one of his previous novels (Talk, Talk) had a deaf protagonist, the German Deaf Association has arranged for two of his readings to be signed.

I know nothing about T.C. Boyle except that I don't like his hair, and very little about German Sign Language except that it has its own grammar where, as far as I recall, if you list things you have to do it according to size going from large to small, for example. In other words there's a table, a plate, a glass, a salt shaker and a toothpick. But I like the idea of making readings accessible to deaf people, seeing as books already are. Apparently they're still looking for funding for the interpreter at the Berlin event, so if you're a wealthy patron of the arts and happen to read this, do get in touch with them.

I had a very brief look for German writing featuring deaf people - and found only this Amazon list of novels and films. As in the case of other minorities, young adult fiction and crime writing seem to have discovered deaf characters and thus reflect reality, whereas literary fiction is still in a world of its own without attempting to confront disability.

And another brief search revealed that while there are a good few events with sign language interpreters for children in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, adult events seem to be rare. Interestingly, I note that the Edinburgh International Book Festival does offer signing at some events. Perhaps its partner festival in Berlin might follow suit if the T.C. Boyle readings go well?

German Sign Language is officially recognised in Germany, and deaf people have the right to use interpreters when visiting doctors, in court, when communicating with official bodies, etc. I know a couple of GSL interpreters who are both very busy. In terms of funding access to mainstream culture, however, it seems there's some way to go yet for the German state.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Fantasy Marketing

I sometimes think I should work in book marketing, only I do love translation rather too much to give it up in the foreseeable future. But I have lots and lots of ideas about how to market my translations. When I suggest these things to the publishers their eyes glaze over as they mentally tot up the costs, then they look at their watches and ask me if I'm going anywhere nice on holiday.

So I'll just write them down here instead. My latest idea came to me just now - why not get Caitlin Moran to interview Helene Hegemann at a fantastic event full of balloons? I say this because I just read Moran's inspiring book and found that she went to something she refers to as a "sex club" in Berlin. With Lady Gaga. And seeing there are several sex clubs in Helene Hegemann's forthcoming book Axolotl Roadkill, translated by me, they'd get on like a house on fire. Also Helene's totally into Madonna and Patti Smith, just like Moran - and they're both really funny. And people would attend because they've actually heard of Caitlin Moran. Actually they should go on tour of the whole of the UK, maybe playing in Bingo halls or massage parlours or something a bit louche like that.

Right now I'm working on Simon Urban's Plan D, which is set in a modern-day GDR. For that one, there has to be a big flashy website like Urban's German one, only with more information about things Anglophone readers don't know, like German history. And there should be a launch party at the former East German embassy on Belgrave Square with mock-ups of Urban's imaginary products. And there should be Trabis, actually Simon - and I - should arrive in a Trabi and walk up a red carpet to the event, with a crowd waving East German flags at us. There should be nibbles, obviously, inspired by the novel: currywurst and scallops. And beer.

There's another one I can't talk about quite yet, for which there has to be a huge version of FSG's Nerd Jeopardy. Touring the UK and the US, and Germany for good measure. The prizes will be heavy metal T-shirts.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

AOS German-Language Reading Group

You may be aware of the new British publishing house And Other Stories, which works with reading groups to isolate excellent books for translation. They write:
And Other Stories reading groups have been instrumental in unearthing a number of great books to publish in English. Each recent group has thrown up one or two books we are seriously considering as titles we could publish. Call it a book club or reading group – it’s about the same thing: talking about books that a bunch of people have read.
My colleague Amanda Demarco and I are now setting up a group in Berlin to discuss three German-language novels:

Nino Haratischwili's Mein sanfter Zwilling

Katharina Faber's Fremde Signale

and Angelika Klüssendorf's Das Mädchen.

We'll be meeting up on the last Monday of every month to discuss one book per session. And there'll be a preliminary meeting on Monday, 30 April at 7 p.m. at Dialogue Books in Kreuzberg. Please come along if you're interested in joining in or have any questions. We have a number of reading copies to share out and look forward to seeing you. Anyone is welcome, whether English or German-speakers. And there'll also be an opportunity to read along with us elsewhere and comment on the books via the AOS website, plus one London meeting to discuss the same titles in August.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

London Book Fair Fun

I just got back from the London Book Fair. It's only the second time I've ever been, for some reason. Possibly because on my first visit, it felt a bit shoddy in comparison to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Much, much smaller, much, much scruffier, and I stay over at my mum's house which makes it infinitely less glamourous.

Now, however, they have a Literary Translation Centre. It says here it's "a hub for learning, debate and networking for all those passionate about the art and business of literary translation". And it so is! It's a little walled-in area for sitting around - with free sandwiches!! - and for attending excellent panel sessions. It's a place to go and relax and chat to awesome people and a place for inspiring input. Also they had a larger-than-lifesized photo of me on the wall because I won a translation prize - which was excellent in terms of giving a face to translators, etc. but also very freaky indeed, especially as complete strangers automatically thought I looked terribly familiar and kept smiling at me. All the time. The only bad thing about the LTC, as we in the know call it, is that it's too damn small.

So, these are some things I garnered from the discussions I saw:

- Publishers sort of appreciate sample translations to help them assess books' quality if they can't read the originals – but only if they're well done. If they're badly done by the writer's third-cousin who went to Wales on an exchange in 1993 they're worse than useless.

- When translators and writers work together closely (the lesson came from Maureen Freely, who translates Orhan Pamuk), they need to lay out the ground rules first. For me that would mean: the translator's in charge of the end product.

- Don't take the "villa in Tuscany" approach to marketing international literature, it's a big turn-off: "If you appreciate fine wines you'll like our vintage Serbian novel," said Boyd Tonkin, really gets on his tits. He didn't put it like that.

- Novels set in New York but not written by Americans are "not always horrible," said Barbara Epler of New Directions (NY). But they usually are, and she gets sent about a dozen of them every year.

The best comic moment was when a whole panel of people were slagging off AmazonCrossing for allegedly not editing and then one of the AmazonCrossing people stood up in the audience and said, "Thanks for mentioning us and by the way, we do use professional editors."

I had two other highlights: seeing Caitlin Moran, The UK's Coolest Woman, and attending a reception at the German Ambassador's Residence. It was exactly like this! Totally and utterly posh, with thick carpets (even in the ladies') and tapestries and oil paintings and drinks and nibbles brought round on shiny trays. My favourite nibble was the small frankfurters with a pot of mustard to dip them in - warm frankfurters, mind you. And at last a worthy excuse to be overdressed, with little birdies. For some reason the other ladies weren't quite as overdressed as I was, except for Meike Ziervogel from Peirene Press, of course, who gave me a run for my money in a gorgeous green number. Ah, and there was a reading and discussion beforehand by Meike's author Matthias Politycki, who seemed to have a lot in common with his interviewer Nicholas Lezard - most notably a love of pubs and black humour, which made for an entertaining event.

So after a while of everyone enjoying the schmoozing and free drinks and nibbles brought round on shiny trays, it got really quite good. Bonding was done, tipsy discussion of Helene Hegemann and absent publishing friends. They chucked us out at a respectable hour, sadly, with a bust of Willy Brandt frowning at us incongruously as we teetered down the carpeted stairs, apparently reprimanding us for not being able to take our free drink. And then we all went to the pub and got lost three times on the way, but it was worth it because I found out that all the foreign rights ladies from the German literary publishing houses are big buddies, which I found incredibly touching. Like translators, I pronounced drunkenly - we're sort of in competition but we all really love and appreciate each other.

In the end me and one of the foreign rights ladies left the pub by the back door, which felt incredibly louche, and headed for Knightsbridge station, at which point I reached the peak of my drunkenness and presumably regaled her with fascinating tales in my best drunken London accent. Sorry about that.

To sum up: if you're a British or indeed an American translator, you should go to the London Book Fair. And if you get invited round the ambassador's house, you should go.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Tamara Bach: Was vom Sommer übrig ist

This is going to be the world’s most biased review ever. Really, I shouldn’t write it at all. Most of it’s going to be devoted to the full disclosure. But the book’s so good I can’t not write about it.

So, what you need to know is that Tamara Bach’s one of my best friends. We talk a lot, we go out drinking and dancing and discuss hosiery and heterosexuality, poetry and prose. She’s one of the people I call when I’m down and when I’m up, and there aren’t all that many of that kind. Tamara Bach also happens to write books for young adults. Her fantastic debut novel Marsmädchen won two big fat prizes, the next one was nominated and the one after that won another one. We once went to a party where the DJ was called Marsmädchen, but sadly for Tamara’s ego she hadn’t named herself after the book – although she had read it. We danced a lot to make up for it, to Whitney Houston, and then Whitney Houston died the same night but we couldn’t quite summon up the gravitas to react appropriately.

On Thursday Tamara had a launch party for Was vom Sommer übrig ist (What's Left of the Summer). Tamara and I had coordinated our outfits to make the most of the occasion, with her stunning in red and me overdressed with little birdies. She read beautifully and chatted to Jakob Hein, who was witty and silly and impressed. Then we all cheered at the end and stood around drinking for hours. And to cure my hangover on Friday I read the book.

It’s the summer holidays, and it’s hot because that’s what the holidays are there for. Louise is seventeen and she’s planned everything out: dog-walking, paper round, job at the baker’s shop, driving lessons. Jana’s just turned thirteen but her parents haven’t noticed because her brother’s in a coma. Jana turns up to add a little chaos to Louise’s orderly life, and Tamara sends them on a small – and gorgeous – adventure just before everything collapses. Here’s the extract printed instead of a blurb on the back:
As if
So what are you doing in the holidays? Heading south? With your parents, with friends? Have you got a job? Are you doing work experience? Do you want to spend loads of time by the lake, at the swimming pool, with your best friend? Are you going to waste your days, have you laid plans, made plans, organised it all? Do something different. Steal your gran’s car, which isn’t even stealing because she won’t notice, because she’s in Tuscany and because stealing doesn’t count in the family, doesn’t exist. Skip your job and your other job and skip the visits to your brother in hospital. Forget the last year of school and forget that your parents don’t talk to each other any more. And if you want to, call yourself something different, give yourself a different name, don’t call yourself Louise, don’t call yourself Lou, Loulou, Louisa, you can be a squaw, the big chief’s daughter. In summer you can be anything you want, you can try out languages and invent your own. The summer has a thousand and one doors. And they’re all ajar, because it’s hot.
Can you tell from my inadequate translation that Tamara doesn’t write functional prose? Often she uses jagged, interrupted language, realistic dialogue and thoughts that wander or cut off in the middle. Or flights of fancy like the one above. Parts of the novel are laugh-out-loud funny, parts made me cry, but all of it’s concise and quirky and makes you fall in love with the characters. And what she’s captured is that endless, dragging summer holiday feeling, heat and boredom and relief and an absence of adults.

I was reminded at times of the adventurous sisters in another beautiful book, Dorothee Elmiger’s Invitation to the Bold of Heart, two girls I know well because I translated the novel. Jakob Hein was reminded of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick, in which two boys have a more spectacular adventure. I think the point he made was that Tamara’s books are marketed squarely at teenagers, while these other two examples aren’t – and why is that? Nobody was quite sure.

There’ve been a lot of changes in the YA fiction world since she and I – and probably you, dear reader – were raiding the teenage section at our respective local libraries, she told us. No more getting down with the kids, no more books about bulimia and only bulimia or drug abuse and only drug abuse. What Tamara does is graze issues – in this case bullying and what suicide does to those left behind, in Marsmädchen a teenage coming-out – without writing tiresome issue novels. She writes stories that become literature and she doesn’t write for parents and teachers, I suspect; she writes for teenagers. And if there’s a drop of teenager left in you, you’ll relate to her books.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


After the obligatory one-day sulk - and because it's the school holidays - here is the news:

Inka Parei's Shadow-Boxing Woman didn't make the Best Translated Book Award fiction shortlist, and nor did any other German titles. One of the ten is by a woman (but then the longlist was similarly skewed). But two books of translated German poetry are on the poetry shortlist (see link above), to wit: engulf – enkindle by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals (who I just met, he's staying in Berlin for a while), and False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky.

So congratulations ladies and gent and know that my fingers are crossed for you all.

On the prose front, the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has also been announced, and includes Alice by Judith Hermann, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo. Hooray!

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Amazon: Evil? Srsly?

There's been much hoo-ha recently over Amazon donating money to non-profit literary organisations. One of the more balanced articles was on, in which Alexander Zaitchik asked whether Amazon was "backing book culture or buying off critics". Chad Post, slightly misquoted in the piece, responded at Three Percent.

I'd like to weigh into the argument here, for two reasons. The first is that I'm one of the translators who has worked directly for Amazon's translation imprint. I have taken the devil's cheque, to paraphrase Zaitchik. But then I've also worked for Random House and for not-for-profit publishers, so I think I can safely say I've covered a range of bases on the publishing front.

Working for Amazon was mainly a pleasant professional experience. The people I dealt with there were very definitely book-lovers rather than fire-breathing devils. They cared about the books they worked on and did a good job of putting them out there. I'm still pleased that AmazonCrossing exists, because it has the guts (and the wherewithal) to translate books other publishers wouldn't even consider, especially genre fiction.

I say this because of reason two for speaking out in the first place. And that's the invective that pervades the argument. In Salon's piece, an anonymous veteran indie publisher is quoted as saying of Amazon that despite their donations, "(...) everything about them is still evil."

Evil. Evil? Have you thought about what that word means? Amazon is re-selling and delivering books and other commodities via the internet. It demands major discounts, which are disadvantageous to publishers, and questions have been raised about its tax payment practices. It is not, however, clubbing baby seals to death or indeed keeping life-saving medicines out of the price range of those who need them. To the extent that I understand Amazon's tax issues (which is pretty much zero), the corporation is acting within the law. OK, taxation is a moral issue, but it's one I'd place lower on the scale than manufacturing and selling weapons, for example.

Making money, as Chad Post points out however, is what corporations do. It's their raison d'être. They can't be judged as we'd judge individuals, because they're not individuals. So just as all the little drones at Random House no doubt love books in their own way, the CFO may or may not, and Random House itself, as an entity, doesn't give a shit. It's a corporation selling a commodity to make a profit. Its only theoretical restriction is the respective legislation in the countries where it operates.

If we leave aside the fetishisation of the book (see below) and simply treat Amazon as a corporation with a corporate donation scheme, we come up with a good few similar examples in the UK. How about the Galaxy National Book Awards? Should we boycott them because Mars Inc. make our kids obese while turning a profit? Or the MAN Booker Prize, which is sponsored by an asset management company of all things - another area that simplistic arguments see as a moral issue. I'm reminded of the recent scandal in Berlin, in which anti-gentrification activists allegedly threatened the safety of the temporary "BMW Guggenheim Lab" intended to focus on precisely their topic - because of the sponsor.

What I'm trying to get at here is that if you want to get on a moral high horse, it's not Amazon but the system within which it exists that's to blame. Amazon exploited a gap in the market - the fact that most books simply weren't available in most places. They changed that, and became very a powerful business in doing so. But in a deregulated market with no fixed book prices, they're perfectly entitled to undercut and buy up and deep discount as much as they like, and it's simply not a moral issue. I don't know enough about bookselling to compare, but I don't see many differences to Waterstones in the UK, for instance. And if you like, feel free to extend the term system beyond the market itself to capitalism as a whole.

So while I don't, as Chad Post suggests, literally love Amazon because I'm a translator - again, a little too much invective here - I certainly don't think they're buying off their critics with their support of literary projects. It's naive to tell non-profits they're wrong to take Amazon's money and to imply that individual recipients - as in the case of the Best Translated Book Award - will be morally tainted by accepting it.

I buy books and occasionally other things from Amazon. I don't think I know anyone who doesn't, just as I don't know many people who never go to supermarkets or never use Unilever products or boycott Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook. I also try to support independent booksellers, which is admittedly probably easier in Berlin than in many other places. If the all the energy and invective were focused on promoting a wide range of literature or indeed on promoting independent booksellers rather than bashing non-profits with a moral truncheon, that colourful literary landscape we all value so highly might do better.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Translation, Unrequited

Loving books is very much a one-way street. They may give us comfort and succour and inspiration, they may make us laugh or cry or reassess our lives. They tell us stories - but isn't the way we feel about those stories often projection, to a great extent? When I partly define myself as loving German books it feels very accurate - and I do find myself using the word love to describe the way I feel about certain books with a rather lazy frequency.

I suppose my bookish equivalence of limerence - near-obsessive attraction and desire for reciprocation - is translation. When I get a crush on a book, I want to translate it. I experience translation as a very intimate act. It's a truism that translators are the closest readers a book will ever have. We spot the inconsistencies that passed by the editor, we ask the niggly questions that some books struggle to answer, we get to know every last inch. And it's this closeness that I cherish, perhaps. The act of making a book mine, appropriating it for myself more than for other readers, at least in the moment of translation.

I get hugely possessive. If another translator expresses an innocent interest in my book I can fly into fits of private rage. On the other hand, if a writer already has a translator their books will be less interesting for me, as I assume the translator feels the same way and I wouldn't want to come between them. And I've fallen out of love with a book during the translation process, which was rather painful and guilt-inducing. The dragging end was like a dying relationship - things had to be got over and done with out of a sense of duty rather than the passion I'd once felt, which made them twice as hard.

But the appalling thing is that the translator's love is so far removed from an emancipated relationship. We ministrate to the book, we give it all we have and we carry it into our own languages on our own two hands. And what does it give us back? It just about keeps us in pin money, that's what, while we adore it and pander to its every whim - not changing a thing, accepting it as it is no matter how much it changes us.

At least I'm not the only one. What I'm seeing a lot of at the moment, beyond my own private bubble, is book fetishism. Those photos and so on that publishers and book people put on their blogs and their Facebook pages, where the generic book is the object of desire rather than a specific title - attractive individuals reading, chairs made of books, beautiful bookshelves, songs about reading. Book porn all about the physical form and not about what's inside. It was fun for a while but now I'm getting tired of it. I wonder if it's a backlash against the less tactile and perhaps therefore less fetishised act of reading electronically, or just harmless fun to fill virtual column inches.

How silly of us though to fall so hard for inanimate objects. They can't love us back.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Best European Fiction 2012

Have I mentioned that Dalkey Archive Press's latest edition of their Best European Fiction anthology includes a story by Clemens Meyer? Possibly in reaction to those accusations of being middle-class and irrelevant, they chose a rather upsetting piece about a murderer, which was no fun at all to translate, and apparently also no fun to write either.

But if it's not fun you're after - and you happen to be in London - then you can catch Clemens himself in conversation with Sanneke van Hassel (The Netherlands) and Duncan Bush (Wales) at the Southbank Centre this coming Monday. I assume the editor Aleksandar Hemon will be there too, who doesn't look quite as pouty and rebellious in real life as he does in the photo, sadly. I attended last year's event and was pleasantly surprised by the range of voices presented, and also by the free glass of wine afterwards.

And speaking of best fiction and London, the wonderful Charlotte Ryland has a guest piece on the Foyles blog. She writes about how German-language fiction isn't what people used to think it was, highlighting a few excellent examples. Foyles, in case you don't know, is an excellent bookshop in London, the kind where you can go to the information desk and ask, "Excuse me, who was it that wrote The Yiddish Policemen's... ummm... Thingy?" and the charming information person will reply at the drop of a hat, "Michael Chabon" - without making you feel like a total fool. And then they'll also have it on their incredibly long fiction shelves. If Foyles were a man, I'd take him home with me. He would no doubt peruse my personal bookshelves with interest and ask intelligent questions that didn't make me feel inadequate. And really, what more could a girl ask for?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Matthias Senkel, Frühe Vögel

Matthias Senkel's debut novel Frühe Vögel (Early Birds) tells the story of several generations of an aviation-obsessed family, starting with Theodor Wilhelm Leudoldt around the turn of the last century. Hailing from a modest background, he is fascinated by mathematics and chess and rebels against his grandfather’s love of the railways to take an interest in flying. Our hero works his way up through a job in an insurance company to running a pioneering aviation company to not entirely voluntary involvement in the Nazis’ V2 rocket programme, before being killed during an air raid in Berlin. We also find out about his three marriages, one of convenience and two for love, and his travels to Paris and London. During his stay in Paris, Theodor hears the story of Gökhan Çelebi, an aviation ace in 16th-century Ottoman Turkey. The tale is long and entertaining, sidestepping to a star-crossed love story, and warrants a whole chapter.
After Theodor’s death the perspective switches to his daughter, Ursula, who is sent to an uncle while her engineer mother Gerlind is working in the underground rocket factory. They are then whisked away to America to work on the US space programme. Gerlind marries an all-American engineer and she and Ursula fall pregnant at the same time. In one alternative ending, Ursula’s daughter Michelle becomes the first woman on the moon but dies in the rushed attempt to outrun the Soviets, while Ursula illustrates pulp science fiction and ends up in a mental asylum. In the other version, Michelle dies at birth and Ursula becomes a high-flying mathematician, returning to Germany for the funeral of the family’s loyal retainer but still harbouring a touch of Cold War paranoia. In both versions, Ursula and Michelle have to battle against sexism to achieve their progressive goals.
Matthias Senkel draws up a new world in which the Soviet Union wins the space race and a fictitious US senator becomes president. At the end point of his projected history – related in his prologue so I don't think I'm giving too much away – Gerlind is in a retirement home, watching a report on the new Gaia II biosphere being built in the form of the perfect spaceship.
The book closes with an exhaustive appendix detailing the death of every single character in the novel – and there are many of them. From uncles and aunts to passing ticket collectors and sultans, from train and plane accidents to cancers diagnosed and unknown, strokes, stray bullets, trenches and gulags, this section is over 100 pages long and presents a historical panorama of individuals, their lives and of course their deaths.

The chapter describing the Nazis’ attempt to recruit Theodor for their rocket programme takes the form of a comic, illustrated by Maryna Zhdanko. It's drawn in the style of the pulp science fiction that plays a role in other parts of the novel, playing on clichés of the fanatical Nazi and the refined, wealthy engineering genius. Yet it continues Senkel’s quirky style, scattering in obscure references to historical fact and fiction, such as the excellent tomato crop in German Southwest Africa, and maintaining Theodor’s strong character.

As befits a book about aerospace pioneers, the novel is highly experimental (in case you hadn’t noticed already). The first two chapters on Theodor are divided into episodes in alphabetical rather than chronological order. While this seems rather arbitrary and presents a challenge for the reader, it does make the whole experience rather fun. And patient readers will find out in the appendix that the tidy-minded Theodor wrote his own life story, aided by his retainer, on alphabetical index cards – hence the seemingly random order. For those of a more chronological bent, Senkel provides links to the next sections.
The language is equally playful, changing with each historical epoch. The chapter set in Ottoman times is a delight and pre-1914 Germany also comes across well, while 1950s America is a place of healthy teeth and rocking chairs on verandas. Senkel adds echoes across time, for example showing us rather risible arts clubs in both Theodor’s and Ursula’s very different youths. He deliberately skirts around politics, allowing us to guess at what is going on when Gerlind is invited to the USA through his child protagonist, for example, and only spelling out the use of slave labour in the V2 programme in an oblique way in the appendix.

Senkel studied on the Leipzig creative writing programme but this novel isn't a typical product of that course, in that it's anything but autobiographical. What is typical - in a very good way - is that it shows a wide range of influences, from science fiction to James Joyce to TS Elliot (with Madame Sosostris putting in a cameo appearance, among other things). The major characters are very strong and provide good impetus for the storyline. However, I found Senkel did lose sight of his story towards the end of the novel and it peters out with Ursula’s unspectacular return to Germany, despite an alluring promise of Cold War intrigue that is never fulfilled. Disappointed, I then found the appendix too long and uniform to make comfortable reading, despite its delicious black humour.

Nevertheless, the book was well worth reading with its sweeping historical panorama, dark humour and alternative futures. Certainly readers interested in fictional experiments will have a great deal of fun with it. 

This is a long version of a review written for New Books in German.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

New New Books in German

The latest issue of New Books in German magazine is now online, highlighting great titles suitable for translation and this time with a features focus on Berlin. I have two pieces in there - one on translating Helene Hegemann and one on the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin.