Monday 9 September 2013

German Book Prize 2013: My Take on the Longlist

The six-title shortlist for the German Book Prize is announced on Wednesday, and I have finally finished my traditional trawl through the longlist extracts. There are a number of excellent books on the list and a couple that simply puzzled me. I have a clear favourite but it wasn't hard to select five others for my personal shortlist, which you'll find at the bottom of the piece. I've also turbo-translated sample sentences from each extract and added a couple of pointers to what they have in common. For links to the books, please see my previous piece.

So here you are:

Mirko Bonné: Nie mehr Nacht

An artist and his nephew travel to France, dealing in parallel with the boy’s mother’s suicide and all the young men who died when the Allies landed in 1944. I admire Bonné’s prose a great deal and I think the novel is probably well-structured too. Thoughtful, reflective, well-written. This is one of my favourites; reviews have been good.

Sample sentence: “Ira called the house her fossilization.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, artist character, (mental) health issues, three-word title, writer also translates, writer also a poet, German-speakers abroad, family matters

Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt

A novel about the Jewish painter Chaim Soutine in occupied France, 1943. He is sick and remembering his life in a morphine-induced delirium. The subject feels a little specialised, but I suppose it explores art and exile and sickness via a single life. The extract felt to me rather bitty and pretentious, laying it on a little too thick for my taste. Too much mustard, if you get what I mean. Reviews have been very enthusiastic though.

Sample sentence: “A sharp click like from a gun, a dry snapping into the waiting lock.”

Non-USPs: (Mental) health issues, three-word title, writer also translates, writer also a poet, artist character, framing device

Thomas Glavinic: Das größere Wunder

I’m not a fan of Glavinic’s writing. I find it kind of middlebrow, exploring simple ideas in too long a format, and this seems to fall into the same category. A man climbs Mount Everest and remembers his life – perhaps I’m missing something but I found the extract slightly kitsch and not all that promising, personally. Reviews have been mixed; critics have been confirming the kitsch and clichés but liking it nevertheless.

Sample sentence: “For Jonas, time had its own smell, the way it had its own mood and a few characteristic images.”

Non-USPs: Three-word title, German-speakers abroad, love story, framing device, trilogy, family matters

Norbert Gstrein: Eine Ahnung vom Anfang

A teacher thinks he recognises an extremist with a bomb in the newspaper as his former favourite pupil. Cue confusing memories. Gstrein writes in a very ambitious style, and I appreciate that. There’s little explaining; the story seems to tell itself. The extract made me curious and reviews have been good.

Sample sentence: “The route disappears into the hill immediately after that, to protect the village from traffic noise, and one can watch for ever as the tunnel swallows up car after car like a giant maw.”

Non-USPs: Framing device, teacher character

Reinhard Jirgl: Nichts von euch auf Erden

In the 23rd century, humankind has settled Mars and the Earth has regressed, but then the Mars people come back to kick a bit of shape into the Earth people. Also some fun ideas about sex in the future, which I think I heard him read in Leipzig in the spring. A very odd book that, as with all of Jirgl’s writing, challenges the reader (although the extract doesn’t feature his special orthography). Big big stuff, I suspect too big for me, and too much for a number of reviewers as well. But you have to respect the guy for it.

Sample sentence: “These artificial membranes – called the imagospheres – consist of thin, extremely resistant, electrically conductive woven fibreglass.”

Non-USPs: Genre as high lit, German-speakers abroad

Daniel Kehlmann: F

I’m sorry, but I have an irrational dislike of Daniel Kehlmann; he’s just one of those writers. Three brothers, truth and lies, family, forgery, fiction and filosophy. All the Fs, you see. I can’t tell much from the extract other than it’s trying to build up tension, and reviews have been mixed. Some critics love it, others are harder on him for not going deeply enough into the issues he tries to raise. I won’t be reading it but it’ll no doubt be translated. Readers who like this book will also like… Jonathan Franzen.

Sample sentence: “Years later – they were all grown up and each entangled in his own misfortune – none of Arthur Friedland’s sons remembered whose idea it had been to visit the hypnotist that afternoon.”

Non-USPs: Family matters, one-word title

Judith Kuckart: Wünsche

A woman finds someone else’s stuff and escapes the German provinces to London with a stolen identity, while someone else opens up a department store called “Wishes”. I rather liked the extract, its jerky rhythm and special charm. There are a lot of contradictions in a small space, and critics have said it’s a clever, melancholy novel with the kind of flaws you can overlook, about how wishes don’t make anyone happy.

Sample sentence: “Or perhaps it’s the fault of the way Vera sits on the teacher’s desk during lessons and crosses her legs when she asks the hordes of eighteen-year-old painters and decorators, plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters how they imagine life at thirty.”

Non-USPs: Teacher character, provinces, German-speakers abroad, family matters, one-word title

Olaf Kühl: Der wahre Sohn

A sort of detective ends up in the Ukraine and gets drawn into a strange family, whose son is in a mental hospital and obsessed with his missing nanny and violent Ukrainian history. Gorgeous long and short sentences in the extract, very sharp prose. No reviews as the book’s not out for a couple of days, but I know I’m quite intrigued. Promisingly non-clichéd, especially as the writer really knows his stuff as a translator of some great Polish writers.

Sample sentence: “Reaching for the packed bag, not enough sleep but awake anyway and a little bit like hungover, even though not much was drunk the night before, slamming the front door and going down the stairs, through that smell of floor polish and indefinable stew, throwing the bag on the back seat of the car, one last look up at the windows on the third floor (…).”

Non-USPs: Genre as high lit, writer also a translator, German-speakers abroad, family matters, (mental) health issues, three-word title, place as character

Dagmar Leupold: Unter der Hand

Good grief. A rich Italian man pays a German lady writer to write, providing she brings people joy. So she tells her life story in a fairytale manner, apparently, and a neighbour finds the manuscript alongside her dead body. I disliked the style and found the premise too contrived. Also, I don’t think literature needs to make anyone happy in such a simplistic manner (although perhaps that’s the moral of the story, but I still don’t want to read a book to find that out). There haven’t been many reviews.

Sample sentence: “Minna is lying on her bed with a bedspread over it, wearing a white man’s shirt and tight black trousers.”

Non-USPs: Framing device, writer also a translator, three-word title, love story

Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren

A Swiss businessman witnesses London stockbrokers celebrating in Tunisia, and then comes the crash and brings them down with it, far from home. And tells the story inside a mental institution, I believe. I liked the extract a lot – it hints at complexity, intelligence and wit, in a strangely old-fashioned diction. And I like the idea of trying to tackle political and social issues in fiction. Reviews have been excellent; it’s another of my favourites.

Sample sentence: “Preising was still in demand as the face of the company, though, because Prodanovic knew if there was one thing Preising could do, it was giving an impression of consistency, the unshakable spirit of a family company in the fourth generation.”

Non-USPs: Debut novel, German-speakers abroad, three-word title, social/political issues, (mental) health issues, framing device, place as character

Clemens Meyer: Im Stein

This is the best novel on the list and ought to win. Reviews have been awe-struck.

Sample sentence: “And I stand by the window and push the slats of the blind apart with my fingers and look at the houses on the other side of the road, the sun behind them turning red now and the night coming up.”

Non-USPs: Social/political issues, dead character (briefly), genre as high-lit (sometimes), place as character

Joachim Meyerhoff: Wann wird es endlich wieder so, wie es nie war

The actor Joachim Meyerhoff is writing his life story with a twinkle in his eye, and this is the second part. He grew up inside a mental institution, which his father ran. The writing is fun, light and entertaining but raises some serious issues. It won’t win but it’s well worth reading. Reviews have said pretty much the same thing.

Sample sentence: “His feet and calves were on the grass, the rest of his body in the flowerbed.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, (mental) health issues, trilogy, family matters, provinces, autobiography

Terézia Mora: Das Ungeheuer

Darius Kopp’s Hungarian wife has died and he’s trying to dispose of her ashes illegally on a journey around Europe. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the pages, he reads her diary. I’ve heard Mora read from the novel twice now and have been very impressed. Great tone, marvellous structure, complex language, very sad. Only just out but great reviews. Another of my favourites.

Sample sentence: “What are you laughing at, hyenas, who are you anyway, what are you doing here, Juri, for God’s sake, you swine!”

Non-USPs: Dead character, place as character, German-speakers abroad, trilogy, love story, writer also a translator

Marion Poschmann: Die Sonnenposition

I’m reading this novel at the moment, and enjoying every sentence. A psychiatrist in a mental institution loses a friend and then loses grip on his own sanity. I suspect it’s much more complex than that, though. I love Poschmann’s language: so precise, and capturing so much in few words, sometimes previously non-existent ones. There are no clumsy explanations in here – everything’s subtly shared through the mood and the language. Early reviews are equally enthusiastic.

Sample sentence: “From the middle of the sun hangs the cable for the chandelier, an old East German model.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, writer also a poet, (mental) health issues, family matters, provinces

Thomas Stangl: Regeln des Tanzes

Three characters walking Vienna, several years apart. A retired academic finds two rolls of film, pictures of two sisters fifteen years previously. The women were heavily involved in demonstrations against Austria’s neo-fascists and hedonism, respectively. I enjoyed the extract’s dense prose and characterisation, its unorthodox style, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to read 280 pages of it. Not many reviews yet.

Sample sentence: “For the first time since her father’s death she has the feeling that something’s really at an end, and this time not only (do you think that, ‘not only’?) for her and the whole small area of her own life, but for the whole country and perhaps, regardless of how small and insignificant the country is, as a consequence for the whole continent and all the countries that call themselves democracies.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, social/political issues, place as character, family matters

Jens Steiner: Carambole

Social panorama of Swiss village life told from twelve different perspectives. The extract annoyed me (perhaps a poor choice?). I felt there were too many clumsy markers telling us about the character, a middle-aged mother with a less than fulfilling life. It’s hard to tell much about the novel as a whole as it’s only just come out and hasn’t been reviewed yet. But what I read didn’t seem promising.

Sample sentence: “I turned away and picked up an old Brigitte magazine from the telephone table.”

Non-USPs: Place as character, family matters, social/political issues, one-word title

Uwe Timm: Vogelweide

A man has failed at family and business life and is now looking after birds alone on an island. Only then his ex-affair comes to visit and he remembers what happened back in Berlin. With lots of references to older literature (including the title). I really like Timm’s prose, really. Beautiful sentences that must take either hours to get right or come out perfectly formed in the first place. Unfortunately, everyone who’s read the novel is disappointed, critics included.

Sample sentence: “Here, where he was standing now, had been only water and mud flats forty years ago.”

Non-USPs: Framing device, teacher character, love story, place as character

Nellja Veremej: Berlin liegt im Osten

A woman moves from the Caucasus to Berlin and works as a carer, weaving her clients’ stories with her own. I heard Veremej read from the autobiographically-shaped novel earlier this year and found it a tiny bit too flowery for my taste, and the extract confirmed that for me. But the critics love it: Döblin, Tolstoy, exile, expectations, disillusionment, they say. So maybe I’m wrong.

Sample sentence: “The contours and colours melted away until the memory of the little town consisted only of a few grey snapshots: the long, low house built of rough stones.”

Non-USPs: Place as character, social/political issues, (mental) health issues

Urs Widmer: Reise an den Rand des Universums

Every Swiss person’s favourite writer has started writing his autobiography, after writing his father’s and his mother’s stories and pretty much using his own life as material for ever anyway. So it may be a little tongue-in-cheek, as is his wont. The extract is about his childhood memories of the war, which he could literally see across the Swiss border. Charming, witty and skilfully told. Reviews have been good.

Sample sentence: “(The war) wasn’t visible in Basel, hardly, or at times it was, as even for a child – especially for a child – there were signs of it everywhere.”

Non-USPs: Autobiography

Monika Zeiner: Die Ordnung der Sterne über Como

A musician meets an ex-lover in Italy and they remember their affair and her partner’s death. I wasn’t convinced by the extract; there were a lot of style issues I was unhappy with and nothing yelled “new and interesting” at me. Reviews are few and far between and similarly unmoved.

Sample sentence: “Once again, she stood in her underwear in front of the darkness of her wardrobe, and her eyes alighted on the blue princess dress that Alfredo had bought her in a boutique on Via Chiaia many years ago, and its torn hem.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, German-speakers abroad, place as character, framing device, love story, debut


The Love German Books Shortlist:

Mirko Bonné
Olaf Kühl
Jonas Lüscher
Clemens Meyer
Terézia Mora
Marion Poschmann

And you won't be biting your nails to find out who'd win if I ruled the world, obviously.


German naati translator said...

Good to know this The six-title shortlist for the German Book Prize is announced.The German Book Prize 2013 App is available to download as of today! Find out all you need to know about the authors.

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