Saturday, 25 May 2013

Happy Fiftieth Birthday, LCB

The Literary Colloquium Berlin is fifty years old; you can read all about their history in English here. It is, on the outside, a villa by a lake on the western edge of Berlin. On the inside it's a guesthouse for writers and translators, a venue for literary events, a meeting place for those involved in literature in Berlin and the rest of the world. The LCB has a very welcoming atmosphere, something I've always found counter-intuitive, perhaps because of the dark, panelled downstairs rooms that look like it ought to be an elitist institution; it isn't, in the sense that what the LCB is interested in is good writing, no matter who happens to be behind it.

Last night the colloquium began celebrating its anniversary with a party. There were speeches, and drinks, and food, and later on there was dancing. They've made a book to remember it all by, S-Bahn nach Arkadien, isolated copies of which were floating around at the event. I was allowed to view one for a short while and was very taken by it. The light wasn't great but the photos still looked wonderful, all taken by the in-house team of Renate von Mangold and Tobias Bohm. The most delightful thing about it is that various writers and former guests (myself included) contributed very short pieces to make up an encyclopaedia of all things LCB. You can read eleven of the entries at the Tagesspiegel (one of mine included).

The speeches were genuinely interesting. I hadn't realised before last night just how much a product of the Cold War the LCB was. Founded in 1963 with a Ford Foundation grant by Walter Höllerer, the institution seems to have given writers a place to gather and talk and work in West Berlin; literary culture almost as an antidote to the leeching of commerce and industry following the Berlin Wall's construction. We heard a number of stories about how grey West Berlin was at the time and how the LCB then began to attract more and more writers to the city. We heard about how Höllerer apparently reformed the dull institution of the literary event, making readings less full-frontal barrages and more about dialogue. Above all, we heard Michael Krüger, just about to retire as head of the prestigious Hanser publishing house. Krüger gave us his version of events, having grown up just around the corner and hung out with all manner of local writers and poets as a young man. It was a subjective impression that masqueraded at times as objective truth, especially concerning what he felt the 1968 rebellion did to literary culture. It was certainly entertaining, and not at all wrong to have a man who represents the past fifty years of German letters speaking on this occasion.

However, all the looking back left no time to look forward. The encumbent managing director, Ulrich Janetzki, will be taking retirement at the same time as Krüger, at the end of this year. His successor was in the audience but kept a low profile: Walter Höllerer's son Florian Höllerer, who comes from the Stuttgart Literaturhaus. With all due respect to Ulrich Janetzki - and a great deal of respect is due to him for his outstanding work over the past 27 years - I'd have liked to hear from "Höllerer Junior", as he was patronisingly called a few times.

One thing I hope Florian Höllerer will manage is to break down the appearance of sexism within the LCB. It may have something to do with the all-male board of trustees, or perhaps time has rather stood still somewhere else in the colloquium's inner workings. Whatever the cause, the staff structure of the LCB appears to reflect the view of history with which Krüger presented us last night: one  entirely devoid of women in responsible positions. This is going to sound disrespectful; it isn't meant to be, because I know many of the wonderful women and men who work at the LCB, and I know they're open to honest criticism and willing to take it on board where they can. The men who make up the public face of the institution - Janetzki, the superb Jürgen Jakob Becker, Thomas Geiger and Thorsten Dönges (and of course the building's beating heart and reliable backbone, Olaf Rode) - do excellent work, supported by Inga Niemann, Nadja Grabsch, Claudia Schütze, Corinna Ziegler, Christine Wagner, Alexandra Küchner, Kerstin Lammers and Barbara Kopsch and various interns (usually female). I know none of them are chauvinists. Yet the structures are such that the LCB retains an air of powerful, visible men receiving the respect and credit, while women take on the smaller, supporting and administrative roles.

There is a photo on the wall of the LCB's auditorium, showing a meeting of the Gruppe 47 in the same room. Everyone in the picture is male - and the room is full. The first time I saw it there, almost all the portraits of other writers around it also showed men. That's changed now. Today Die Welt published a few statistics about gender imbalance in the German literary establishments. No great surprises: women are underrepresented among prizewinners, in responsible positions and in prestigious academies. Women read significantly more than men. The LCB is a small institution and it can't turn the wheel around all on its own. But I hope the coming fifty years see women becoming a more visible force at the LCB than they were during its first half-century. I hope that at the hundredth anniversary celebration - hell, even at the sixtieth! - one of the speeches is held by a woman, that women are named among the great writers the LCB has fostered, that women are celebrated as well as men. Women are producing excellent writing in Germany and the LCB has supported many of them. As I wrote above, it has never felt like an elitist place to me. It just needs to project that fact a little more effectively.


Anonymous said...

No big deal, but it should be mentioned that the LCB got started with money from the CIA. You can read about it in Hubert Fichte's "Die zweite Schuld" which was published as part of "Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit". Interesting read.

EP said...

Interesting history. I knew that the Ford Foundation had been involved with the FU here and there but that was news to me that they also helped fund the LCB.