Wednesday, 17 July 2013

On Writers' Writers and German Writers

There are writers' writers, as you'll no doubt be aware. The kind of writers namedropped by other writers. There are certain characteristics common to the writers' writer. Primarily, she will be no threat to the writers' own standing: unsuccessful in commercial terms, or if not precisely unsuccessful then at least dead. She will not suggest that writing is something that makes writers happy, thus making the writers look like emotional failures: she will have suffered for her art; suicide, madness, disease, loneliness or addiction will play a part. She will be sufficiently obscure to make the writers who drop her name look well-read. She will often be a he.

The obvious example right now is Ian McEwan's advocacy of John Williams. But see also Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada's fascinating appreciation of Paul Celan in The White Review (trans. Susan Bernofsky) - suggesting the phenomenon might be universal - and any number of those recommended in this recent Observer list.

Of course, German-language writers are high up in the writers' writers charts among English speakers: Sebald, Kafka, Bernhard, Celan, Roth, Koeppen, Walser, Kraus, perhaps Brecht. Skilled, all of them, with a bit of a narrative to their own lives. And firmly dead.

Teju Cole was recently awarded the International Literature Award in Berlin, along with his translator Christine Richter-Nilsson. If you've read Open City and are anything like me, you'll have guessed at one of his major influences (I enjoyed it nonetheless). But what made me think was something he said at the award ceremony, along the lines of: Whenever you read a book by a living writer, you're supporting literature.

Now, I found his statement a little too pithy, but we all exaggerate on adrenaline. Yet, what I would like to happen is this: for British and American writers to start reading and championing living writers in translation. This is happening to some extent with Krasznahorkai right now – but you could take it further, writers. And Other Stories has the clever ploy of asking English-language writers for introductions to their books, so that each of their translated writers has an advocate on home territory. But really, think of the benefits! The few who get translated are outstanding writers but they present no threat because they're competing on different terms; they're magnificently obscure and will give you an early-adopter bonus; and although they may not yet be quite open about their tortured souls, a good few of them are fucked up in exotic ways. Plus you get writer karma points (is that a thing?) for supporting a real live underdog rather than a dead and buried one, who won't be grateful and won't big up your books in their own country.

I chickened out a little bit with Teju Cole, and asked his German editor to pass on one of my translations to him: Inka Parei's What Darkness Was - a single life and fifty-odd years of German history summed up in a single day. His German editor might not have given it to him, or he might have left it on a train or put it on that big pile of other books or started it and abandoned it. Or he might be dropping Inka Parei's name in conversation this very minute.

If you're an English-language writer and would like to namedrop some living German writers, I'd be happy to recommend someone you might like whose work is available in translation. I also have spare copies of all the books I've translated (see the profile section for details). Just let me know.


Chantal said...

Can only second this. Another thing that would really help the living-writers-in-translation cause in the English-speaking world would be for bookshops to take more of an interest in translated writers and translators on a readings/events level. The London Review Bookshop is great at this, for example, but I wonder how many translators have had similar experiences to mine, where a flagship independent bookshop once told me they weren't sure how to do a translated book event, so preferred not to bother. Some cheerleading from English-language writers, as Katy suggests, would certainly be a great help here.

Peter Lewis said...

You mention finding Cole's line too pithy, but do you think readers (of literature) have *any* responsibility to read/support living writers?

I'm not sure about this myself, but as someone who usually prefers older fiction, it's something I wonder about.

kjd said...

Probably not, no. Reading when coupled with duty is not a good thing. But I have a headache.