The Alfred Döblin Prize was founded by Günter Grass after he came into a lot of money. It's awarded every two years for an as yet unpublished manuscript by a previously published writer. A jury makes a selection of six nominees (this year from over 400 submissions) and they're invited to a day-long workshop-like reading at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin. The audience, who are encouraged to participate in the discussion, is made up of critics, editors, publishers, agents, and a small number of translators. That means the discussion takes place on a very high level, but at the same time is very supportive. Let me say at this point that I was once again very grateful to the LCB for the invitation. There are times when I get a little jaded, when I've been reading and listening to writing that just tires me out and makes me feel cynical. Yesterday's event very effectively cured me of that feeling, by presenting simply excellent German writing.
Each nominee read for about twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes' discussion. You can tell by the headline who won, but I do want to tell you a little about the other texts because all of them were impressive in their own way.
Nora Bossong read from a novel in progress with the working title of Nino war hier - dealing in part with Italy's 1920s communist leader Antonio Gramsci. I was very taken by the piece, which mixed realism with fantastic elements and used some quite elaborate language. There were some in the audience who found it too elaborate, but I found if you're going to have ghosts of obscure communists wandering graveyards and insane, impoverished Italian landladies, you can afford to put a little more colour into the writing itself too. I look forward to the finished product.
Heinz Helle read from a post-apocalyptic manuscript called, I believe, Brixen. It came as a shock after Bossong's text but it would have done under any circumstances. In a good way. His language pared back to the bones, Helle described a group of young men roaming the land after something - a fire? - had wiped most people out. Brutal stuff, brutally done, with flashbacks intimating what had happened. My question, which others in the audience voiced, was what propelled the story. There was a suggestion that it might evolve into an And Then There Were None-type serial bumping-off scenario. Excellent but no doubt harrowing reading.
Svenja Leiber's working title is Porträt mit Knochenarm. This seemed to be one of the most developed manuscripts, as Leiber had quite set ideas about the novel's scope. To wit, it's a novel about music with a protagonist who becomes a violinist. She read from the beginning, set in a north German village in 1911. Again, the language was thrilling. My issue with it, however, was something Leiber touched on herself – the risk that it might become too bucolic. Interestingly, I think many of us now view German rural life at that time through a White Ribbon lens, and were expecting brutality. It was there, but then so was humour and affection. Although the author said the text's musicality decreases throughout the novel (which sounds like a shame), its subject matter – 20th-C German history channelled through a single family – is something that could make it a major success, if cleverly marketed. I know many British readers would be very into the idea.
Winner Sasa Stanisic presented an extract from a book called Anna, probably. English-speaking readers may be familiar with his novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, trans. Anthea Bell. Or you should be, at least. Again, Stanisic has put together stories upon stories, this time based around a village in the Uckermark in the former East Germany. There are local myths, fictionalised historical anecdotes, modern-day miniatures, all melding into one another. And humour, verging on silliness but sometimes drifting into scary. As I listened, the playful language made me translate it in my head, and I envied Anthea Bell the joy of one day putting it into English. This is going to be a very good book indeed.
Thomas von Steinaecker read from another post-apocalypse scenario, entitled 2045, this time more complex. It's planned in the form of four exercise books written by a young narrator who can't remember what the world was like before the disaster - although not actually separated into four short physical books in a slipcase, which I personally think would be a fun thing to do. And as he starts to understand the world better, his style apparently changes from the hard-going mix of faux-high register and deliberately disturbing anglicisms we heard yesterday. I think perhaps it was this style that raised a few hackles in the audience, and also perhaps the fact that post-apocalyptic writing isn't as established in German literature as it is elsewhere. Certainly, Steinaecker touched on some fascinating ideas and psychologies here, using his blank-canvas setting to explore human nature. An ambitious project, which I look forward to reading more of.
After hours of texts, Gabriele Weingartner had a harder time with her apparently autobiographical manuscript, Einübung in Ironie. It was a story of a woman looking back on her marriage, a relationship with her significantly older literature professor that seemed rather out of time for the heady late-60s West Berlin setting, no doubt a deliberate contrast. The jury vehemently defended the conventional style as perfectly suited to the material, and praised the wealth of literary references. Perhaps the irony was lost on the audience out of sheer exhaustion.
Sadly, the prize's founder and funder Grass was unwell and couldn't attend. He missed an inspiring day by the lake, and excellent soup. Stanisic gets €10,000 and the honour of being added to an impressive roll call of previous winners. Not that he'd ever use such a hackneyed phrase. He seemed very happy.