Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Ideal Digital Reading Situation

The British Council runs an international programme supporting upcoming "cultural leaders", rather a big term for youngish movers and shakers in the arts. This year the participant from Germany is Nikola Richter. Nikola has a lot of energy and ideas and projects to do with writing in the here and now, and is also a great person. I'm toning my praise down a bit because I'm going to see her again this evening and there's nothing quite as embarrassing as meeting someone you've just gushed about.

So as part of the programme, Nikola organised a kind of mini conference with the above title, inviting a room full of people from Germany, the UK, Sweden, Holland and Argentina to talk about reading and publishing and bookselling in the digital age. It was fabulous and I'm still rather inspired and rather wish it could have gone on another day. By nature of the occasion, we didn't reach any conclusions at all, but we did (or I did) think a great deal about things like how to get books (digital and print) to people, how the Internet brings readers together and changes literary form, piracy and ownership, real and virtual discussion culture, and many other things.

I talked for five minutes about "collaborative reading" and thought it might be good to put my thoughts down in a more coherent form here, for the participants and for anyone else who might be interested. Our talks were kind of slo-mo pecha cucha, five minutes using five pictures, but I won't include my pictures here for various reasons.

1. (Picture of my dad reading sleeve notes in the early 1960s)
Collaborative reading is a term I made up, meaning joint social reading for a particular purpose beyond showing off sharing your library. Here, my dad is enjoying a lost multimedia experience, reading about music while listening to it, and he's already reading for a particular purpose - to enhance his enjoyment and understanding of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Of course he may also have been showing off his record collection - although he looks immersed in his reading material, we don't know how posed the photo was and he certainly looks quite the wannabe beatnik.

2. (Picture of an And Other Stories reading group meeting in Berlin)
The AOS reading groups project is an example of collaborative reading enabled by the internet. We read (in our case) German-language books with a view to recommending one of them for translation and publication by AOS. Of course the internet has brought together the otherwise isolated English-speaking freaks interested in and capable of reading foreign-language writing, and here we're trying to harness that by crowdsourcing the book selection process, if you like. You can read more about the nitty-gritty in Amanda DaMarco's article for PP. Essentially though, in a first attempt via LibraryThing we found that a purely digital discussion didn't work for us – no conversation ensued, people felt no pressure to read the books and so comparisons didn't work. What did work was a mix of real-life meetings in Berlin and London, partially linked via Skype, and internet comments on the individual titles via the website. And of course digital reading is ideal as pdfs or epubs remove the difficulties of distributing books to the ten to twenty people involved.

Other examples that fit my definition of collaborative reading are pepysdiary.com and tailoredtexts.com, where readers help each other to understand difficult (foreign-language) texts via virtual margin notes.

3. (Picture of 50 Shades cover)
The British Centre for Literary Translation is also now testing out a platform for collaborative translation via newwriting.net. And for me, translation is an act of reading, interpreting and re-rendering. It's difficult to do as a group, but it is possible and can be very rewarding. That formula of reading/watching, interpreting and re-rendering also applies to fan fiction à la 50 Shades.

4. (Picture of China Miéville)
At the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference, China Miéville picked up that fanfiction topic in his talk on the future of the novel. He spoke about books becoming less closed than ever, with readers being able to take an active approach to them. Two quotes: "Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will, in this age of distributed text, be able to do so without much difficulty, and some are already starting." ... and ... "The worst anxiety is not that the interfering public will ruin your work if they muck about with it, or that they'll write a terrible novel, but that they'll improve it, or write a great one. And once in a rare while, some of them will. How wonderful that will be."

5. (Picture of Star Trek communicator)
I think China Miéville's "fanfication of fiction" - besides being a tongue-twister that gets very embarrassing in a room full of German-speakers - is a phenomenon still very much in China Miéville's head, but I do hope that life will imitate fiction, rather in the way that mobile phones were developed and designed partly to help us imitate Captain Kirk. What I hope is that through collaborative reading, translation and writing processes, we as readers can get creatively involved with texts and arrive at even greater diversity in the literary world.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Thomas Meyer: Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse

As you know, I went to Switzerland. So obviously I had to read a Swiss book while I was there, if only out of mere respect. It turned out to be Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse by Thomas Meyer, which is nominated for the Swiss Book Prize. The winner's announced on 11 November, by the way. I bought the book in Switzerland, so I can report that the end of fixed book prices there hasn't made books cheaper. Unless they were incredibly expensive beforehand.

The novel is narrated by Motti Wolkenbruch, an orthodox Jewish student in Zurich. His mother is trying to find a wife for him, but unfortunately all the young ladies she introduces him to are rather like her. Whereas Motti's rather keener on his Goyish fellow student Laura. Adventures ensue.

What I loved about the book is Motti's voice, for two reasons. Firstly, he's a great character with a wry sense of humour, and secondly Thomas Meyer gives him a language that code-switches between German and Yiddish. Now I don't know Yiddish but you can figure it out as you go along, especially when you speak German. There's a glossary at the back of the book - a very nice edition, incidentally - but of course I only found that at the end.

So you get fantastic observations about other characters, my favourite being Herr Hagelschlag the insurance expert with his ever-present paper bag from the kosher bakery:
Herr Hagelschlag machte grojse ojgn in die Tüte hinein, rief: "Einer hot kejn apetit zim essn, der anderer hot kejn essn zim apetit!", erhob sich und verschwand, um mit neuem nasch zurikkzukehren.
(Meaning something like: Herr Hagelschlag made big eyes into the paper bag, exclaimed "One man has no appetite for his food, the other has no food for his appetite!" got to his feet and disappeared, only to return with new snacks. Only of course if you were going to translate it, you'd have to decide whether to leave all the Yiddish in the original or at least how much of it you could get away with.)
So the linguist in me was rubbing her little hands in glee, while the sense of humour representative was kept busy too. Also, later in the book, my libido enjoyed a couple of very charming sex scenes. But something was nagging away at me. I managed to ignore it while reading, no doubt a good sign. But sitting down to write this review*, I did think: Is it OK to write about orthodox Jews when you're not one yourself? Ah, my political conscience.

Thomas Meyer addresses the issue head-on in this interview:
Your book is a comedy that laughs at Jewish reality, to some extent. Aren't you afraid you might be accused of anti-Semitism?
I'm convinced that will happen, in fact. As soon as anyone deals with it (Jewish life) in any way that accusation comes from somewhere. The more religious people are, the less humour they have.
Could a non-Jew have written the same book?
No. The Jewish comedian Oliver Pollack says "I'm allowed, I'm Jewish" – the same goes for my novel. A Jew making jokes about Jews is funny. If a non-Jew starts playing with   clichés you instantly ask yourself whether he might think they're true.
So he's not orthodox but he seems to have done his homework. According to a Zurich-based translator acquaintance, all the details are true to life - the right make of car bought from the right car dealer, and so on. And he seems to take a respectful approach, although I might see that differently if I was a religious person. As it is, I know next to nothing about orthodox Judaism - which is not terribly visible in Berlin, for obvious reasons, although things are changing here with immigration from Russia, for the main part. I learned a great deal from Motti Wolkenbruch, which can't be a bad thing. I'm pleased to say, however, that that wasn't the reason I enjoyed the book.

Whatever. Read it and see for yourself. Apropos of nothing, Thomas Meyer seems like a fun guy. Here he is doing the punctuation police thing, and here's a startling collection of postcards he designed, which will come in handy for all your stalking needs ("Here's proof of me thinking about you all the time" made my fingers itch. A lot.).

*The term review is used loosely here.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Looren Post Mortem

So my first trip to Switzerland prompted a bit of a mindfuck, if you'll pardon me saying so. First of all - surprise! - Switzerland is totally different to Germany. I guess I'd thought it'd be like the difference between Ireland and England. Different state, sort of similar culture, some difficulties but you can more or less get by. But no! First of all they do things totally differently. They put coffee in their alcohol and not the other way around, for one thing. And then I got to Zurich airport and couldn't understand a word people said to me. Apparently I have a Berlin accent when I speak German, but I found Swiss German totally incomprehensible. Different vocabulary, different structures, totally different pronunciation. People did make an effort when speaking to me directly but there were plenty of moments when I just stood there looking blank, clutching at contextual straws to figure out what they might have said. And on public transport I just relaxed entirely, letting other people's dialect conversations - otherwise a tad annoying, you might agree - wash over me in ignorant bliss.

The occasion was a translation workshop at the Translation House at Looren. Five German-to-English translators, five English-to-German translators and two very experienced and lovely workshop leaders got together to work closely on our texts. That meant devoting two hours to the respective four pages or so each of us had submitted as part of the application. Pretty gut-wrenching stuff. I arrived thinking I was fairly alright at my job and was plunged into a pit of self-doubt as my colleagues and I picked vulture-like over the carcasses of our craft. You'd be amazed at how many things there are to talk about in four pages of literary translation.

Back at my desk, however, I'm very glad I took part. I learned, at least, that all of us are in a constant learning process. Just as there is no perfect piece of writing, so there is no perfect translation. As my friend Isabel Cole pointed out, if translation weren't impossible we wouldn't enjoy attempting it. It's important for us to question what we do - phrases like "I tend to..." are poison for our creativity. And especially for those of us working with editors who don't read the original language, it's incredibly useful to have native speakers look over our translations. One of the most fascinating things was that all of us accused writers in our "opposite" languages of exactly the same crimes: using sloppy tenses, long sentences, comma splices and too many nouns. I'm now collecting long sentences in English writing - Paul Auster has a great one about his mother in Granta 117. Just to stop me giving a shit about leaving sentences long in my translations - when I don't think they'd work better shorter, that is. Because maybe sometimes you come out of things with your mantras confirmed, no matter how much the things mess with your head. And I'd still say, the only rule I want to abide by for my translations is that there are no rules.

Between, during and around the workshop sessions we also talked about other stuff. How to help reviewers remember we exist, how to cope with flawed originals and old translations, what to read alongside our work, what to do about all different people having translated extracts from one book. All rather inspiring, and you'll hear more about some of it here in future, no doubt. We also had a visit from Swiss writer Urs Widmer, who was utterly charming and delightful. To my shame, I haven't yet read his books, but I will. In My Father's Book, he writes about his father's obsession with translation and about his acquaintance, the farmer-cum-publisher whose house was converted to the Translation House. It was wonderful to hear him reading about the man and his books in the beautiful building where he once lived.

Translators! If you get a chance to apply for one of these Vice Versa workshops, which are run in various language combinations with German in various places by the Deutscher Übersetzerfonds, please do. It will be painful but incredibly good for you. And the food - at least in Looren - is delicious.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Grüezi miteinand

I have escaped for a moment to reassure you of my existence. Our workshop leaders are pushing us hard and Switzerland has many charms to distract a person from her computer. But rest assured, there are twelve translatorly egos around our workshop table, and we won't stop until we've pulled apart every person's text. All we know is that we know nothing.

More later.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Swiss Treats

In honour of my first trip to Switzerland as an adult, the Swiss arts council Pro Helvetia have issued a stunning thing called 12 Swiss Books. It's a list of twelve Swiss books chosen by three clever people, plus an interview with Boyd Tonkin of the Independent, columns by Urs Widmer and the wonderful Tess Lewis, translator and knower of literature extraordinaire, and some other wee treats. A magazine, no less.

I shall be in Switzerland for the coming week, bizarrely enough meeting Tess Lewis and indeed also Urs Widmer at a workshop. I don't know whether I'll be blogging or not. Perhaps you can just read 12 Swiss Books instead. I shall report back from the Toblerone plantation in due course.*

*Actually you may think I'm being facetious, but last year I was at the Pro Helvetia booth at the book fair and they were very generous with the old Toblerone.

Translators: Promote!

At Translationista, Susan Bernofsky writes about a panel at the American literary translators' recent convention on "The Translator's Toolkit", something that the PEN Translation Committee there is currently working on. In the past, they have issued guidelines for reviewers on how to approach translations, but they're adjusting that position now. I'll be interested to find out exactly what comes out of the process. Bernofsky writes:
The "Translators Toolkit" will wind up containing suggestions for supplementary information about a book that can be distributed to potential reviewers along with the usual publicity materials a publisher tucks inside review copies before sending them out. The exact recommendations are still a work in progress, but I expect to see a list of suggestions including items like this: a description of the book's stylistic peculiarities in the original and how the translator sought to address them, status of the author in her original-language context, any particular anecdotes of interest surrounding the translation, etc. These are things likely to interest both reviewers and readers of reviews.
At the panel, a few publishing people also talked about getting translators actively involved in promoting their books. Which is something we talked about in Germany a couple of years ago, as I wrote here. There was some scepticism from some quarters, and in fact some of the experts' suggestions at the Rochester conference go a little further than even I would venture. Jeffrey Lependorf, for example, "encourages translators to record brief (3 mins or under) videos about the book to be added to a book's page on the publisher's website." OK, I would do that, in fact I have done it in the past, but the whole thing was organised by the wonderful German Book Office so I didn't have to find someone with a camera and/or someone to do the editing, put it online, etc. I'd hope that publishers would give translators a great deal of support for these kinds of activities, which are almost certainly going to be unpaid.

Anyway, do read about it at first hand.

Monday, 15 October 2012


I'm all Frankfurted out. It was lovely. Except when it was horrible and I'd had enough of seething masses of bodies and glossy displays and superficial conversation. But even then I ran into the perfect grumpy person with whom to indulge in a great moaning session.

I do love book fairs, and yes, I know I've told you that before. I love strolling around and meeting people and saying hello and getting chatting and exchanging compliments and swapping tips. Because it's the social aspect that counts most for me. I'm tempted to just write a long list of all the lovely people I met and all the lovely people I missed, but that might not be very interesting for anyone else. So here's what I did instead.

I hung out a little with Naveen Kishore and Sunandini Banerjee from Seagull Books, who publish many of my translations. Which is always a delight but suddenly got much more popular once they announced Mo Yan's Nobel win on Thursday lunchtime - because they have two of his books on their list. Lots of people kept popping by to congratulate them, total strangers included, who I suspect were pleased that a small (but perfectly formed) press based in Calcutta will benefit from the Nobel-imbued glory. Also I looked after their booth very briefly while they had an appointment elsewhere, which was the most fun ever. Did you ever go to furniture stores as a kid and play house? This was like that, only with real coffee. Would you like a catalogue, sir? They'll be right back in ten minutes, ma'am, do take a seat. Like being a housewife, I wouldn't want to do it all the time but short bursts are fine.

There were some other prizewinners too: Finn-Ole Heinrich won the German Children's Book Prize and Anna Kim won the European Union Prize for Literature. I'm terribly pleased for both of them. You can read one of Finn's short stories in my translation at Words Without Borders and you'll soon(ish) be able to read Anna's The Anatomy of a Night from Frisch & Co. The German Book Prize winner Ursula Krechel was very present in general at the fair but I don't feel quite ready to comment on her book yet.

I also moderated an expert panel about the German book trade and translation funding. It was called a "morning briefing" because it started at 8.15 a.m. Actually it went fine, there were actually a number of people in the audience and none of them actually fell asleep. Amazingly, they also asked lots of questions. We'll probably do it again next year but I suggested a later time-slot - although it was a surreal experience to walk through the halls of an empty book fair.

What it meant, however, was that I had to go to bed early on Thursday night, in order to be sufficiently gorgeous on Friday morning to calm my nerves. Which was a good thing, as somebody took my photo afterwards ("That looks great. I'll just take another one though."). But it was not helped by someone inviting me to a surprise reading on Thursday ("It'll be great. And then we'll go to the XY party, and then we'll go to the YX party, and then..."). I didn't go. A friend of mine has a wonderful motto for times like these: Willst du gelten, mach dich selten. It doesn't work when the fomo gets this acute though. And it doesn't help when the trade press publishes full-colour spreads of publishing people partying. Every day of the fair. But hey, I never get invited to those parties anyway and I'm not terribly good at gatecrashing.

So I had to make up for it on Friday night. My divine hosts treated me to home-cooked dinner and made me break the golden rule: First eye make-up, then schnapps. Doh! Nobody commented though. And then it was off to the Hotlist indie book award ceremony and party. After various rather out-there events in previous years (difficult locations, wacky moderators), this time was lower key and just plain better. The lovely Axel von Ernst and Thomas Böhm did the honours in a totally un-hysterical manner and the prize went to the excellent Droschl Literaturverlag of Vienna for Tor Ulven's Dunkelheit am Ende des Tunnels. It's a translation from the Norwegian, and I'd have forgiven the excited publisher for not thanking the translator in person if it hadn't just proved very difficult to find his name on their website. It's Bernhard Strobel, and I found it on Amazon in the end. The prize money goes straight to the publishers for their hard work, and I do understand the logic of that, but still. Congratulations, Bernhard Strobel. They couldn't have done it without you.

There followed a party. There were drinks (some of them cold), there was dancing, there was much standing around chatting and drinking, there was an apology to someone for un-friending them on Facebook but they hadn't even noticed - bizarrely, because I post way too much on Facebook - there was a whispered poem about fat, there was a numismatic exchange and an explanation of fomo to the main culprit, there were compliments from the kind of people who count (i.e. women with impeccable taste), there was a failed attempt to recruit a new DJ partner, there were sleepless Cubans, there were more drinks, there were embarrassing spillages from my purse, there was a fantastic staircase at the Literaturhaus that was unfortunately too crowded with bodies to recreate any Hollywood movies, there was totally tactless discussion of facial hair fashions, there was an apology to someone for having written he looked like a bum - he doesn't, he looks like an angel - there were some more drinks and not enough dancing, there were uncalled-for confessional moments.

Then it seemed like a good idea to go to the Hoff. Everybody talks about it at the fair, all the Americans are like, "You gotta go to the Hoff!" and I'm like, "Well..." Really it's the Frankfurter Hof incredibly posh hotel, where I was overwhelmed by the prices and the carpets but underwhelmed by the bathrooms and the people-watching. Nobody was lying across Alice Schwarzer's lap, in fact Alice Schwarzer wasn't even there, and nor was Arnold Schwarzenegger. There was a man with a bad wig coming on to a very young blonde woman and another man who was rude about Acton. I left before finding out what unspeakable thing my companion did there last year.

Life will seem so dull now.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


I shall be at the book fair. Have a nice week.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Celebrate Good Times

Actually this piece really ought to be entitled "German Book Prize to Ursula Krechel for Landgericht." But I've been out celebrating the birth of Frisch & Co. with top new publisher EJ Van Lanen! And will you look at that - Ursula Krechel's won the German Book Prize and EJ Van Lanen's gone and set up a publishing company - all on the same day! Some gin was involved.*

So while Ursula Krechel's part-documentary novel about a former judge returning to Germany after 1945 has bagged small Austrian publisher Jung und Jung their second German Book Prize in three years, Frisch & Co. Electronic Books have bagged two (other) top German novels, which they'll be publishing in English translation in (late) spring 2013. And hold your breath now, because they're former German Book Prize winner Uwe Tellkamp's Der Turm and Anna Kim's The Anatomy of a Night.

So everybody's very happy indeed. Congratulations all round. Let's celebrate - may there be ladies with tattooed faces and gin and cucumber all round.

*Slightly too much gin was involved for coherent blogging, but too little for all-out depravity. Hooray! If you feel like making EJ happy, do send him an email congratulating him on his new venture.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Youth Springs Eternal

How wonderful that these young whippersnappers keep on popping up and writing books, eh? I'm turning forty next year and am preparing myself mentally by pretending I'm already forty. It's fine, I'm totally relaxed about it.

Only they will keep putting large-format pictures of young people in the newspaper book sections. Smooth-skinned, wide-eyed, already achieved so much with their youthful, fast-flowing imaginations. Die Zeit has a cover shot of eight German-language writers around thirty in a hothouse. Because they're still growing, geddit? These ones are mainly photogenic young women - all talented, too, I'm sure: Stephanie Gleißner, Nora Bossong (see below), Marjana Gaponenko, Sabrina Janesch, Vea Kaiser, Kevin Kuhn (see below), Rebecca Martin, Teresa Präauer, Marie Pohl and Andreas Stichmann (see below). That's ten, so presumably some were too embarrassed to take part in the photo shoot. I'm in two minds - I'm glad to see young writers getting attention, but of the six pages they share, at least half the space is taken up by photos, while the rest of the literary supplement is devoted to old(er) people.

More excitement over at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, where they have Zwanzig unter vierzig on the literature special title page. Unapologetically lifted from the New Yorker, which they acknowledge with a huge double proofreading error as "Fourty under twenty". Actually, that's the main reason why I had to blog about this, because it made me spit out my false teeth. Much upset discussion on Facebook today, as more mature writers get upset about being ruled out and under-forties get upset about being left out. They do actually write, "These are the best young German-language writers of today. The contemporary canon". But critics do like to think of themselves as canon-builders, don't they?

So, whether ridiculous or not, what's interesting is that eight of the FAS's twenty are or will soon be available in English: Daniel Kehlmann, Alina Bronsky, Helene Hegemann, Thomas Pletzinger, Thomas Glavinic, Uljana Wolf, Judith Schalansky and Clemens Meyer. Two of them in, ahem, my translation. The others are: Antje Wagner, Clemens J. Setz (and it's only a matter of time before he ends up in English, what with translator Ross Benjamin gunning for him), Benjamin Maack, Lisa-Marie Dickreiter, Andreas Stichmann, Nora Bossong (who's having a good week!), Thomas Melle, Annika Scheffel (my best-dressed lady writer of 2011), Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre (who I was surprised isn't much, much older than me), Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlecker (best hair), Maxim Drüner (who's actually a rapper but once told Antonia Baum at a party that he writes stories, another great source of LOLz) and Kevin Kuhn. Note that seven out of these links are to New Books in German or Litrix, in case you happen to be a publishing person trawling the net in search of the next hot German star under forty.

Do I have to say it? It's silly, isn't it? Next issue they should portray twenty writers born under Sagittarius. Actually I'm a teeny bit upset myself, because the Open Mike competition is recruiting bloggers for its blog. And they have to be under thirty-five. I shall get my revenge by one day - one day! - putting together an anthology of my own, of seventeen German-language writers I like, regardless of any other factors whatsoever. There will be no photos. It will be called Love German Books - The Anthology. Publishers - you have my address.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Jenny Erpenbeck, Aller Tage Abend

Jenny Erpenbeck's new novel Aller Tage Abend was longlisted for the German Book Prize, upon which the judges surprised me and a good few other people by not hoisting it onto the shortlist. I'm not sure why but I do have two suspicions, one of which I'll come back to later. My other suspicion is that they've done like this year's Booker Prize judges and upped the intellectual ante by choosing mainly very, very literary titles. For which there was no great need, unlike in the UK, because the German prize now has a history of picking books that are both readable and challenging. The winner is announced on Monday, by the way, and I'm curious to see which of the six titles makes it – although I have no particular favourite other than Clemens Setz's Indigo, which I'm reading at the moment and finding a wee bit wacky.

Back to Erpenbeck, however. Aller Tage Abend is a novel about 20th-century history, following four generations of a family from a Galician village via New York, Vienna, Moscow, Siberia to East Berlin. Which has been done before, let's say. Only Erpenbeck does like to have a trick, and this time it's possible deaths of her main protagonist, from the first time as a baby and its consequences to the last time in a desolate care home, ravaged by Alzheimer's.

The novel is divided into five "books" detailing the unnamed characters' lives as influenced by a specific death in very distinct styles. The family is originally Jewish but the protagonist's mother has already been married off to a gentile, a very minor Austrian civil servant on the railways. In the first book, the girl dies at only a few months of age in the early years of the century, prompting her father to flee to America and her mother to slide down the rungs of society. In the second, she dies as a teenager after the Great War, in the third she becomes a communist writer and is arrested for Trotskyist tendencies, dying in Siberia, whereas the fourth sees her falling down the stairs in the young, still hopeful GDR. The fifth book ends with her death in reunited Berlin, old and confused, her life's work somehow ridiculed by the care home's phone call to her son: "We are all in God's hand."

Between the books, Erpenbeck places "intermezzos" playing on the theme of chance. Had her mother rubbed her tiny chest with snow, had she slipped on a frozen puddle, had the file been placed on the right-hand pile - the protagonist would have evaded death. And the separate stories too give chance a major role. Each death means an opportunity for someone else, to find out a truth for example, bitter though it may be. Yet some things are repeated in each version, historical factors beyond escape – poverty, the Holocaust – and character influences such as the protagonist's strong desire to write and her mother's strong will to survive. As we go through the novel, our picture of the family completes itself.

All these possible twists of fate might be a tiny bit gimmicky if Erpenbeck weren't such a good writer. There are some beautiful passages here (albeit interrupted too often for my taste by whimsical pondering). Yet what I especially appreciated was Erpenbeck's anger at things like pogroms, purges, and those who take advantage of them. The strongest section to my mind is the part set in Moscow. It's also the most difficult to read, flitting between a description of the protagonist awaiting her impending arrest and statements from nervous comrades, betraying others to protect their own backs. The communists who sought exile from the Nazis in the Soviet Union included a number of writers, and their story is fascinating. Erpenbeck gives us a devastating insight into those times of fear, sacrificing her protagonist to the whim of a series of bureaucrats while the character herself struggles for admittance into the very system that is about to dispose of her. 

If you've read last year's German Book Prize winner, Eugen Ruge's In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts, you'll remember the sections set among communist exiles in Mexico, where the situation is equally back-stabbing but less fatal, and the father's memories of a Siberian gulag. And here we come to my second suspicion about why the novel might not have made it onto the shortlist: on the face of it, there are too many similarities to Ruge's book. Sweeping family saga, East Germany, communists, the woes of the twentieth century - except that happens to be something German writers do very well, and which exports well too. 

As a whole, the book works on several levels. Fans of middlebrow novels (sorry, but you know what I mean) will enjoy the whole twists-of-fate scenario, historical fiction lovers will get into the documentary aspects and those who enjoy good writing will of course get their kicks too. You'll be pleased to hear that Portobello Books will be publishing the English translation - perhaps vindication for that shortlist setback. Is it twee and tasteless to say that as one door closes, another door opens? Very possibly.

Friday, 5 October 2012

He's Back!

I rarely look at the bestseller lists, but I did just now, and look! Amidst the crime and grime, number twelve - speaking of German comedians - is Timur Vermes' Er ist wieder da. A rare case of a book I enjoyed actually appealing to other people. It's also a comeback of sorts for publishers Eichborn, whose bluebottle has risen from the ashes of bankruptcy under new management. They've made a very good video to promote the book. Here's a quick rehash of what I wrote about the satirical novel for New Books in German - before I handed the book on to a friend, who absolutely loved it. (Apologies for formatting issues in advance!)

Hitler wakes up on an empty lot in Berlin, in the spring of 2011, with a bit of a headache. He can’t remember anything after showing Eva Braun his pistol in the bunker, so he’s pretty confused to find Berlin suddenly intact and not overrun with Russian soldiers. He wanders the streets until a newsagent takes pity on him and lets him sleep in his kiosk. Obviously, people recognize him but they all think he’s playing a role – as a comedian. And in fact a third-rate production company spots him at the kiosk and signs him up, thrilled by his unintentionally hilarious monologues and the way he never slips out of character while ad-libbing.

Hitler rises through the ranks of the German comedy scene and turns into a Youtube phenomenon. But the all-powerful BILD newspaper is suspicious – and pronounces Hitler the unwitting comedian officially out of order. Hitler himself rather admires the way the paper calls a spade a spade, but manages to trick the journalists with a spot of emotional blackmail until he finally has BILD’s full ingratiating support. 

From then on, the only way is up. Hitler takes to the streets and interviews innocent passers-by on topical subjects, whipping them up into a fury over dog poo on the pavement or speeding drivers. All of which makes for great TV. Out filming on location, he comes across the NPD’s headquarters in Köpenick. Hitler is of course horrified by the Neonazis’ lack of conviction and commitment to the cause and showers the new party leader with insults. 
The novel is narrated in the first person by the reawakened Adolf Hitler himself. So we get interior monologues looking back on historical incidents and characters, spontaneous speeches and a great deal of confusion over the details of modern-day life – women who collect up dog poo in small plastic bags, Turkish people running businesses, and why on earth do people want to drink dry white wine and eat so much meat? All in Hitleresque language based on close study of speeches, Mein Kampf and recorded private discussions, which was actually fun to translate - in a weird way - when I was asked to do a short sample.

I’ve certainly never read anything like it before. It really is funny – what would Hitler make of modern-day life, what innovations would he appreciate and what would he condemn? And how would people react to him? It reminded me of some of those great juvenile American comedies along the lines of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (remember that one?), in which historical figures are astounded by the present day. Only it’s Hitler, which Eichborn rightly point out is a touchy subject. Yet there's a long history of Hitler parodies, from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks to Walter Moers and Dani Levy, and even British antifascist magazine Searchlight has used humour in its work. If Prince Harry and Aidan Burley are anything to go by, Hitler is widely considered both funny and wrong – which is something the novel stresses throughout. Plus, Vermes brings in a great deal of biting critique of today's media and politics - which is what my friend liked best about the novel. 

The modern-day Adolf joke would wear a bit thin over 250 pages, though, if it weren’t for the rather clever psychological observations of all the nonsense people are prepared to get up to when faced with a “fake” Adolf Hitler. I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the book, which gave it an intelligent edge. Rights have sold to Spain, Norway and Italy - fans of edgy humour should keep their fingers crossed for a UK/US publisher. My alternative title/subtitle: Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mister Hitler?

Ending Translator Invisibility

The school holidays are eating my brain. There are so many things I ought to be blogging about!

First of all, the winners of CEATL's Spot the Translator video contest are here! Hurrah! An end to translator invisibility!

Secondly, 90% of almost 2000 respondents to a survey in German trade mag Börsenblatt said translators ought to be named on book covers! This may have something to do with there not being a lobby in favour of translator invisibility. The lovely Isabel Bogdan wrote a guest column in the mag about one reason why translators tend to be invisible - because our names are so rarely on book covers. Perhaps things will change in that respect in Germany, as they have for the most part in the USA. Oddly, British publishers are quite stubborn about these things - but on the other hand, they pay better.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Martin Walser's Lost Diary

Speaking of things publishers do for writers, Rowohlt has offered a €3000-reward for the finder of 85-year-old Martin Walser's diary. He left it on a train, he told press agency dpa.
He'd been travelling a great deal over the past twelve months, to Chicago, Paris, London, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Brussels, Luxemburg. "The mood in the Hancock Building in Chicago, November, five in the afternoon. Walking all the way across London again, the city where all the world's at home. In Helsinki, my God, the Finnish encounters alone." He wonders whether anyone can make sense or use of his notes. "Of my over 200 pages of novel plans, for example 'The Prisoner' or 'The Staging'? Or of the draft of an essay on 'Love without sex and sex without love'?" (My translation)
The book was bound in red linen and had no name or address written in it. We know more or less what was in there now - so surely those of us with time and imagination to spare could cash in by recreating the lost Walser notes. Here's a sample of his handwriting to get you started.

This service will no longer be offered by publishers in the near future.

Literatur: Martin Walser vermisst sein Reise-Tagebuch - weiter lesen auf FOCUS Online: http://www.focus.de/panorama/boulevard/literatur-martin-walser-vermisst-sein-reise-tagebuch_aid_831745.html

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


So the LitFlow people held this convention about "next literature" and called it a think tank. It went over two days and I made the mistake of only going on one. Because yes, it was very inspiring. You can read some of the stuff that went on there at their website or listen to the actual presentations plus interviews, etc. at Litradio. And you really should, if you're interested in possible futures of the reading and writing world.

It's a little late for me to give you any proper description of what went on - Sarah Erhardt has done so at litaffin, as has a cynical Katharina Teutsch at the FAZ and Jamal Tuschick at the Book Fair blog. So all you're getting from me are impressions and musings. They are also too long. That's the blessing and the curse of the blog form.

What I missed was a discussion of "next literature" - ways in which the media we write for will change how we write. Which I suppose is speculative anyway. I did find a little of it in Kenneth Goldsmith's talk when I listened to it online, although I was frightened off a little by statements like "Everybody's been to the Musée d'Orsay." Um, no, actually. Also he said he thought Helene Hegemann's act of appropriating authenticity was fantastic but he wasn't going to read it because the future of reading is not reading. And he said that 140 characters is better than long blog posts. Which made me sigh a little because it seemed symptomatic of a failure to embrace diversity of form - if I have something I want to share, I don't want to have to limit it to 140 characters. Maybe I do have a very succinct point to make (or indeed maybe I want to draw attention to a longer point someone else has made), but maybe I want to explore and develop an idea of my own over more space. What it did make me realise though is that blogs and twitter and whatever comes next are in fact forms of "next literature" themselves, influencing the way we write now and in the future. Look at the rise of first-person journalism as an example! Yes, I know that's been said before. But perhaps the act of various individuals repeating ideas is now a way for them to become established, if indeed it wasn't beforehand.

What I appreciated was the industry professionals' viewpoints, most notably Rita Bollig of Bastei Lübbe Entertainment and Elisabeth Ruge of Hanser Berlin. These two women were passionate about the benefits of digital options for publishing, and not just for marketing purposes. Do look up what they had to say. Probably my favourite eventlet was the non-discussion between Bollig and Mathias Gatza. Gatza is a former editor and publisher and now a writer, who flatly refused to be drawn into a discussion on what authors could do to make use of digital possibilities in an effort to market their work. He quite pointedly distanced himself from Bastei Lübbe, which he seemed to feel was miles away from him as a writer of "literature literature literature". Yet as far as I understand, he's planning to set up a digital-only publishing house for "courageous writing" of the type established publishers don't want to print. And he hasn't thought about the wider opportunities that would offer?

Apparently they want to publish in German and English simultaneously. Which was another thing that wound me up slightly, because - as another project that was introduced, namely the Libroid, suggested - there seemed to be little awareness of the practical aspects of translation issues. I know, it's a niche subject. Maybe I should have got over my antipathy towards the individuals in question and just gone and told them - that there aren't many people out there who can translate, that it takes quite a long time, and that defining a unit for translation has to be much more flexible than a sentence-by-sentence basis. Or perhaps the "next author" will have to write differently so as to be more easily translatable. Which would make Tim Parks happy, at least.

But back to the subject of author participation in digital extras. Gatza seemed to be implying that serious literature stands for itself and doesn't need any digital help other than perhaps the eBook as a cheaper distribution medium. Or perhaps that extras - participatory opportunities, sound and flashing lights, whatever - are only suitable for less serious writing. There are two examples I want to give to prove him wrong.

First is a tiny project that I made myself with the barest minimum of effort and (you'll have noticed) technical savvy. Shadow Boxing Berlin is a Wordpress site that accompanies my translation of Inka Parei's novel The Shadow-Boxing Woman. A friend and I took photos of some of the novel's locations as they are now, not illustrating the writing but raising the issue of change in the city, one of the book's themes. It took two days in total and was part of my research while going about the translation. I'd like to think that writers who do similar research for their novels - perhaps visiting certain places or looking up historical details - could easily put together some kind of digital accompaniment to their work. Especially if they have the support of a publishing house.

On the other end of the scale is Will Self's digital essay Kafka's Wound. I've rarely seen such an ambitious project, featuring musical compositions, archive photography, specially filmed material, a translation discussion, sub-essays and more. The work of many hands, mainly at Brunel University, but all grouped around Self's essay - which is clearly still under his own sole authorship. And it also happens to be one of the most "literary literary literary" things I've seen come out of Britain in a while. It's about Kafka, for God's sake, by a professor of contemporary thought.

Having made that point, I'd like to rewind a little and say - but actually. Because despite all the opportunities and possibilities now available, I do think we have to allow writers to concentrate on the business of writing if that's what they want to do. Jane Friedman shared a lot of ideas about writers, publishing and marketing. For example:
The biggest problem that authors must solve for themselves, year after year, is (1) staying competitive, current, and discoverable in a shifting digital landscape (2) having the right tools to be effective and in touch with their readers, and (3) having a strong network of connections that helps them better market and promote. All of these things are well within a publisher’s ability to assist with, only they haven’t been putting any resource into providing such assistance.
I would tend to disagree. The biggest problem that authors must solve for themselves is writing. There are some who will happily do all the other stuff, investing their time in communicating directly with readers via whatever channels. But as an editor friend pointed out, it's publishers' job, still and even more so in future I suspect, to help readers find those writers who are only good at writing and not at promoting themselves. Ewan Morrison made a similar point well in the Guardian during the Edinburgh festival, rejecting the idea of spending 80% of his time on marketing as a self-published author. As an aside, by the way, there's nothing I like less than writers befriending me on Facebook, only to post nothing but boring stuff about their books. It's like if a plumber invited me out for a drink in an attempt to persuade me to get a new bathroom fitted.

All in all, then, LitFlow left me feeling rather old-fashioned, not least for my fogeyish embracing of vinyl culture (which Kathrin Passig rejected as an analogy for the possible development of p-versus-eBooks). Yes, I still want to read, I still want to read long-form writing, and I still want to read some of it on paper. I still want there to be publishers because I still believe that a division of labour is beneficial to writers and readers (writers do the writing, PR people do the PR, and so on). I have never been to the Musée d'Orsay. Nevertheless, I admired many of the ideas presented at LitFlow, especially a few projects - like Self's essay, incidentally - that were so wonderfully ambitious as to be financially inviable for any kind of for-profit enterprise.

My hope would be that as digital opportunities multiply, so does diversity. That the "next literature" is available on paper and as an on-call satellite projection onto the inside of our eyelids, that robots write weather reports and romantic novels, that 140 characters and 950 pages are equally respected, perhaps by different people. That we still have authorial authority but we have collaborative writing (and translation) too. That writing is done to make a fast buck and at great expense, be that in terms of self-exploitation or investment skimmed off the fast bucks. That the "next literature" is not, in other words, uniform and boring.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

New Layout

My friend said the polka dots were distracting. Thank heavens for honest friends.

There will nevertheless be no pictures. Go look at kittens elsewhere if you need that kind of thing - I have no time to spare for such lowly matters. Or Twitter. I have no time for Twitter. I don't own a smartphone, I have a small vinyl collection, I like wearing the palest shade of flesh-coloured tights. So sue me.

Monday, 1 October 2012


The publishers And Other Stories have launched their new blog Ampersand - with a special treat made out of all eight of their books so far.

Leonardo Villa-Forte has made a mashup, including parts of Clemens Meyer's story "Riding the Rails", if I'm not mistaken. It speaks volumes about something I've been thinking about recently - what we can do with literature if we abandon the idea of reading as a passive process. Beautiful.