Saturday, 6 September 2014

My Take on the 2014 Longlist

So here comes the 2014 love german books take on the German Book Prize longlist. It’s based mainly on the reader containing short samples from all the listed titles, plus the publishers’ information and various other snippets of gossip, etc. As ever, there are a few things the novels have in common, or perhaps categories that reflect the judges’ taste. There’s a lot of crime and film and German history, plus a sprinkling of big cities and nature writing. Plus I’ve given you a tiny sample translation from each one.

Lukas Bärfuss: Koala
A very personal novel exploring the narrator’s reactions to his brother’s suicide. The dead brother’s nickname was Koala, so the narrator (a writer) also looks into marsupials and how humans treat them. The sample is quite sharp, peppered with humorous self-hate, and I assume the pretentious-seeming opening will give way to something more searing, as we say, later on.
Sample sentences: “In any case, Daisy hung on my every word and was amused by my interest in masturbating mothers, and by the time I was standing in the empty road at four in the morning, I mourned less the speaker’s fee splashed in the space of a few hours than the loss of Daisy, who had bid a speedy farewell as soon as last orders were called and left me behind with my literary explanations and the unpaid bill.”
Themes: family, first-person, life and death, nature

I’ve read all of this one and it’s very impressive indeed. Six perspectives on migration, flight and relocation (plus one from an ape on the book’s website), looking at how enforced relocation ripples through generations, particularly in Germany and Poland. Distinctive voices raising all sorts of issues, life stories, love stories, stories of quick escapes and slow arrivals. A tricky read in often beautiful prose that adds up to an excellent book.
Sample sentences: “When other people heard “got rid of” they thought of their teenage years, abortion discussions, protests. I always envisaged my grandparents’ ground-floor flat, armchairs and settee upholstered with flowered cord, that too grey and brown.”
Themes: German history, family, first-person, multiple narrators, nature

Antonio Fian: Das Polykrates-Syndrom
A married man’s unexciting life is turned on its head by a girl called Alice. What starts out extremely funny apparently turns dark and gruesome. The sample made me write exclamation marks in the margins – genuinely very funny stuff.
Sample sentences: “‘We’ll light a big candle for my father,’ I said as I held the door open for my mother. ‘He was a nice Nazi.’”
Themes: Vienna, family, first-person, crime, humour

Now this one is utterly intriguing. I have the whole book here on my desk because I can tell nothing at all from the sample except that I want to read more. A description of a documentary about birds; it seems rather meta. After Fian’s light-hearted thrills this is quite hard to read, but I suspect it contains all sorts of exciting ideas that will pay the reader back for their effort.
Sample sentences: “Dust on the instruments, the smell of dried-out beer, a focused light that warmed his hand, when he raised it against the beam, like a fire. He had no idea of what he was doing here, and yet he sensed this excitement as though he were someone from the nineteenth century watching a film for the first time.”
Themes: film, nature, who knows?

Thomas Hettche: Pfaueninsel
One of the more conventional novels of the list, this one is set on Peacock Island outside Berlin and features early-19th-century dwarves, for want of a better word, and landscape gardeners. It’s not to my taste, not only because I’m not interested in royal menageries, but also because I find the writing deliberately twee. I hope it gets less saccharine as the book goes on but I doubt I will ever find out.
Sample sentences: “When the boy noticed how very much the answer he had tried to give to his queen in a friendly and benevolent manner shocked the latter, and how disgustedly her eyes felt him up and down, he emitted a terrible wail, turned around and disappeared into the undergrowth.”
Themes: nature, German history

Esther Kinsky: Am Fluss
I spent actual money on this book because I love the idea and the style of it so much. Beautiful writing about the outskirts of London and the River Lea, presumably concealing a story that will worm its way out slowly as we go along. It might be about loneliness or a failed relationship, or it might not. I don’t really care because Kinsky’s prose is so focused and impressive. The book has occasional photos in it but no one’s mentioned Sebald so far.
Sample sentences: “The king wore a magnificent headdress made of stiff brocade with a feather-adorned clasp that held the fabric together. Both the golden threads in the brocade material and the clasp were still shining in the decreasing light.”
Themes: nature, London, first-person, loneliness

Angelika Klüssendorf: April
Part two of a series based around the writer’s own younger days in East Germany, this is more sobering stuff. Klüssendorf’s style is stripped bare, which makes her protagonist’s life seem all the more stark. Having got free from her awful mother, the nameless girl of the first book calls herself April and starts her adult life. I find the content hard to deal with because I find myself constantly pitying the protagonist and wanting to congratulate the writer on dragging herself out of her pit. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. I do notice, however, that it’s hard to write about the book without dredging up clichés.
Sample sentences: “They go into the kitchen with the old woman. She’s never seen such a dark kitchen; even the man looks astounded. The floor is tiled pitch black, the walls are covered in dark, shiny emulsion, the kitchen cupboard and even the sink lined with black linoleum.”
Themes: implicit first-person, family, loneliness, German history

Michael Köhlmeier: Zwei Herren am Strand
The two gentlemen in question are Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, great buddies in 1931. I am reminded of an exercise in a creative writing workshop for translators, in which we had write down two characters and were then told to think up a story about them falling in love. I picked Homer Simpson and Charlie Chaplin and then cursed my choice. My story was funnier but would not have filled 256 pages. The sample from Köhlmeier’s story reads like well researched but rather dry non-fiction with a tiny dash of meta-narrative.
Sample sentences: “It was only when Chaplin, his hands forming a cone around his mouth, called as loudly as he could – he couldn’t speak loudly – through the gap in the door into which he had jammed his knee, ‘Winston, Winston, it’s me, Charlie. I’m here, Winston. I’ve come!’ and Churchill, whose room was fortunately on the ground floor, called back for his own part, as loudly as he could – he couldn’t speak loudly either in those days – ‘Glad tidings you bring!’ that they let him enter.”
Themes: British history, New York, film

Martin Lechner: Kleine Kassa
This would appear to be a fast-paced adventure novel with a crime-induced plot. I quite enjoyed the prose in the sample, which seems to revel in detail, and there’s humour here too.
Sample sentence: “He rushed on, clambered over moss-coated giants felled by lightning, grabbed accidentally at blue-pimpled mushrooms, shook the mush off his hand so hard that it splashed, kicked out at ivy fronds wrapped around his ankles as though they wanted to tear his legs from his rump, sunk into the ground again, an unappetizingly slurping bog, shouted in rage over the second dung-brown trouser leg, polished it wildly across his shoe and stamped on through the gradually smothering light.”
Themes: humour, crime, nature

Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling
I’m puzzled by this one. The sample feels rather similar to Esther Kinsky’s book, except relating to the Thames rather than the Lea. Again there’s a shadowy first-person narrator looking for something or other in London, finding traces of her own stories around the city. The publishers insist there is a plot, though, involving a missing person. I think it’s unfortunate that it’s going head to head with Kinsky because if I had to choose which has the more exciting style, it would not be Leutenegger. I suppose that’s the tragic and ridiculous thing about book prizes.
Sample sentences: “It was no longer the oak islands circling on the river but that lime green room with its forest, and with it the whole parsonage, the red reception room, the blue cabinet, the bower, July’s heat and bright nights.”
Themes: London, first-person, nature

Charles Lewinsky: Kastelau
Well, the sample surprised me and made me laugh. It’s another film story, with another meta-narrative, about people making a movie in the Alps in 1944, except they’re not really. I enjoyed the pretend archive material and am rather interested to know how the author takes us from present-day Hollywood to Nazi-era Bavaria. Oddly compelling, I wrote in my notes.
Sample sentence: “I hate him. I hate him. I hate him. He’s even taking the mickey out of me from his grave, grinning at my disappointment and then turning away with a shrug, just like he turns away in Real Men after he’s shot the cattle thief. Turns his back on the loser and never looks back.”
Themes: film, German history

Thomas Melle: 3000 Euro
A love story between two apparent losers in life: a single mum waiting to get paid the titular 3000 euros for making a porn film, and a broke and homeless ex-law student. The sample did awaken my interest but I can’t say what makes it special – maybe the subject matter: people at the bottom of the pyramid, the kind of characters middle-class writers often neglect, as critics keep pointing out. There certainly seems to be plenty of real-life grit and misery here.
Sample sentence: “Anton is dreaming a thin dream in which there are no arseholes any more. Jana enters his room, or is it an industrial grotto; Anton has to operate a machine that punches something out, banknotes out of metal, perhaps.”
Themes: hard times, love, film

Matthias Nawrat: Unternehmer
Ah, I remember really admiring the part of this novel that Nawrat read for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize last year. It’s a dystopian story where children forage for recyclable material with their father. I love the confusion and the slightly skewed language, that sense of a family gone wrong that could in fact just be a society gone wrong. Reading the sample made me want to translate it, and that’s always an exciting impulse.
Sample sentence: “In the evening we sit in the cellar with Father and do the extra-hot wash, top secret. It’s not easy to free the hearts from the casings. In the sulphuric acid, the copper coils and circuit boards sweat bubble-armour.”
Themes: hard times, family

Christoph Poschenrieder: Das Sandkorn
Set in 1914, the novel tells the story of a man afraid of being exposed as a homosexual. It opens with him sprinkling Italian sand around Berlin and getting picked up by the police. Love, taboos and detectives. It’s not to my taste but I can imagine readers who like straight-forward historical fiction and romance would really go for it.
Sample sentence: “‘Art historian. What does an art historian actually do then?’ Well, what, thinks Tolmeyn. He tries to understand people through the beautiful things they created, and to understand beauty through what the people thought, did and wrote.”
Themes: German history, love, crime, multiple narrators

Lutz Seiler: Kruso
Really, this is the one that blows my mind the most on the list. I read it ages ago but I still have some of the astounding images and writing in my head. A community of dropouts and poets on an island in the Baltic experiences the end of the GDR, while a remarkable friendship develops. Extremely intricate prose from one of Germany’s most respected poets, containing allusions to Robinson Crusoe but not slavishly loyal. Almost intimidatingly good.
Sample sentences: “The light of the setting sun projected shapes into the woods, wishful images and voices. Ed tried to concentrate on his trousers: trousers, belt, shirt. An all-inundating joy had begun to pulse inside him and made his hands tremble. There was nothing he could do about it.”
Themes: German history, love, life and death

Saša Stanišić: Vor dem Fest
Now, I wasn’t going to say anything but actually it seems a tiny bit silly to put this book on the list, seeing as it won the big Spring book prize in Leipzig. But OK, it is indeed a very fine book. What feels like a hundred people tell the stories of one village in East Germany, and the readers get to revel in Saša Stanišić’s love of words.
Sample sentences: “Silent Suzi cast the line out again. He’d taken a short break due to Lada’s accident. Suzi loves angling more than anything. If you’re born dumb you’re kind of predestined for angling. Mind you, dumb’s not the right word. The politically correct version would be: voice box kaput.”
Themes: hard times, multiple narrators, family, German history

Heinrich Steinfest: Der Allesforscher
This is a fun, plot-led novel with more film description in the sample. A man’s life goes off the rails when he gets hit by part of an exploding whale. And why not? I think it might have a crime element to it but it’s hard to tell.
Sample sentences: “There are two films and their musical scores that have influenced modern man’s relationship to water: Jaws and Psycho. One the sea, one the shower.”
Themes: family, humour, film

Marlene Streeruwitz: Nachkommen.
I like this. I like the author’s short sentences. I like the anger in the sample. It’s a bit of a provocation to write a novel about a young woman nominated for the German Book Prize but why the hell not. I think it’s more about the difficulties of family life but I shall be reading more of it and can’t wait to find out. Streeruwitz has been kicking up a stink over inherent sexism behind the book prize – not calling for quotas, as far as I remember, but calling out the organizers on non-representative language. The whole thing has made the conversation more interesting.
Sample sentences: “She looked into the coffin. Looked down at the face. At the head. She looked into the face. Leaned over the face and kissed the face on the forehead. The forehead. Waxily sweaty. The refrigerated corpse doused in condensation.”
Themes: Vienna, family

Feridun Zaimoglu: Isabel
A too-old actress leaves her partner and then meets a veteran from the war in Kosovo. Traumas ensue. Again, I can’t tell from the sample what’s so special about the novel and the writing itself is unexciting. The publishers imply it may be gritty realism.
Sample sentences: “Outside: dripping moon. She let Ruby off the leash, whistled her back – her barking scared the women. Dog and mistress walked to the club in the subway. The doorman waved her through, he knew her ex, he knew about their separation, he didn’t care.”
Themes: Berlin, hard times, love

Michael Ziegelwagner: Der aufblasbare Kaiser
Funny! A young woman with a messy life happens upon a society of monarchists in Vienna. I enjoyed reading the sample and also the author’s tongue-in-cheek contribution to the “book prizes are unfair” discussion. Stuff like this makes literary life more interesting.
Sample sentences: “You’re sitting in a Scottish strip club where you don’t feel comfortable, there to accompany a girlfriend of whom you’re no longer sure why you like her; taking part in a rally against the Viennese parking-space policy as a covert monarchist agitator, or feeling strangely satisfied at having slipped in the bathtub. ‘It turned out that way’ – but how?”
Themes: Vienna, humour

It’s tricky to pick favourites but my personal shortlist might be Seiler, Nawrat, Draesner, Kinsky, Streeruwitz, and… oh, either Lewinsky or Melle or Ziegelwagner. The actual shortlist is announced on Wednesday, 10 September.


Anonymous said...

Ad Zaimoglu: Having not read this latest book, I nevertheless have a problem with with what's being said here, when it comes from you, Katy. Why? You keep up political correctness - and I respect that - very consequently when it comes to women. Even to the degree that you suggest people should read books just because they were written by women. So would it be asking too much to develop some empathy for the author who- with books like 'Kanak Sprak' or Abschaum' - put German migrant literature on the map? To say that Zaimoglu's "writing itself is unexciting", shows a lack of respect in the given context, imo.

kjd said...

The writing in the short extract has nothing to mark it out, is what I mean. Doesn't matter where the writer's from or what gender they are when it comes to a matter-of-fact statement like this, I think. Writing is writing.

Anonymous said...

Yet still --- ain't you applying double standards here? If we - in your book! - were morally obliged to read women, it would be ethnocentric not to make a similar claim for what has been called migrant literature. "Writing is writing" is not really what you say when it comes to gender. How could it be your view in terms of --- 'race'?

kjd said...

Dear anonymous commenter,

I don't think anyone is morally obliged to read anything. Read whatever you like.

I will continue to judge the quality of writing itself, i.e. the language used in a particular book, its structures and rhythms, its sentences and words, on its own terms rather than by who wrote it.

When I have a five-page passage in front of me, as in this case, that's pretty much all I have to go on. In a novel or similar, there are other factors like plot and pace and subject matter, which is where the writer's identity might come into the equation.

But I'd like to stress once again – read whatever you like. There is no moral obligation to read books of any kind, and there can be no obligation to read books by writers who once broke boundaries or who come from elsewhere or who have ovaries. Reading their books will no doubt often be rewarding for many reasons, if you want to do so. Having to read a book, as millions of schoolkids will confirm, does that book no favours.


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