Monday, 14 September 2015

My Take on the 2015 Longlist

Welcome to the annual last-minute love german books overview of the German Book Prize longlist. As tradition dictates, this is written very shortly before the shortlist is released, based almost entirely on personal prejudice combined with an immersive reading of the extracts published by the prize committee. So join me on a confusing romp through slightly too little information on the twenty titles nominated for Germany’s biggest book prize.

As usual, reading twenty extracts makes me automatically seek out common factors. This year we have an abundance of generations or characters rooted in family pasts – measured here in the “grandparent factor” – and a lot of books that are either rather on the short side or incredibly long. While short is generally good in terms of getting translated, those great big bricks of books have a tough time finding publishers abroad. I keep telling writers this but they generally ignore me. For links, see my first post on the longlist.

Alina Bronsky: Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe

Bronsky is good at eminently readable books about quirky Russians, as evidenced by Broken Glass Park, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, and Just Call Me Superhero (all tr. Tim Mohr). She’s not the super-snooty critics’ favourite, however, so I don’t think she’s won any prizes so far. I’d guess she’s unlikely to win this one either, but the novel looks like a fun read: a babushka in nuclear-contaminated Chernovo with a great voice falls in love one last time. I’m intrigued.

Grandparent factor: positive, and Russian for double points
Overly long or ridiculously short: 160 pages
Sample sentence: I’m her nearest neighbour, only a fence divides our plots of land. And the fence might once have been a proper one. By now it’s more an idea of a fence.

Ralph Dutli: Die Liebenden von Mantua

This is one of those times when the extract tells the reader next to nothing, apart from that the writer was really enjoying himself. Fairly baroque writing, reminiscent of Sibylle Lewitscharoff perhaps. The language is playful but not indigestible, but the publisher’s plot summary seems pretty off the wall – a new religion based on the love between two Stone Age corpses founded by a dubious count in northern Italy, anyone?

Grandparent factor: if you count Stone Age lovers, then maybe.
Overly long or ridiculously short: not really – 276 pages
Sample sentence: Vergil was inescapable here, he is scattered across the peninsular between the three lakes, he looks down as bust, relief and statue upon the barely awakened Mantua, as though he were simultaneously ancestor, eternal ruler and very contemporary mayor.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, ging, gegangen

Everybody’s favourite contemporary German writer TM is back with another interesting-looking collage. The four-page sample contains East Germany, the Middle Ages and the present day and several different characters, combining history and politics in Erpenbeck’s signature style. And the subject matter: old professor meets refugees. I’d say this might be a more intellectual version of Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand/Little Bee, with a white middle-class character helping white middle-class readers to relate to asylum seekers’ lives. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s on my reading list. I’d be surprised if it didn’t make the shortlist too. Good luck to Susan Bernofsky with translating the title and its wordplay, though.

Grandparent factor: not really
Overly long or ridiculously short: neither – 352 pages
Sample sentence: Against expectations, however, the commissioner of the fountains, the socialist state, had suddenly gone astray after forty years, and with the state went the associated future; only the waterfalls in staircase formation bubbled on, bubbling even now summer after summer to spirited, almost unbelievable heights, happy, daring children continuing to balance along them, admired by proud, laughing parents.

Valerie Fritsch: Winters Garten

This is a popular one, I think. Very opulent descriptions in the extract, verging on kitsch. It made me wonder how she squeezed a story into the 154-page book, but apparently there is one, or the bare bones of one. Young man grows up in verdant garden with large extended family, later leaves and finds love in dystopian outside world, then returns to Eden facing uncertain future. I know one translator who really adores it and it’s already sold to two countries (although English-language rights are still available, it seems).

Grandparent factor: oh yes
Overly long or ridiculously short: 154 pages
Sample sentence: On the burial mounds grew raspberries, which they stuffed greedily in each others' mouths as though they wanted to grow very tall, and those who had already done so carried the great-grandmother effortlessly cradled in their arms into the house as though she were nothing but a log of wood.

Heinz Helle: Eigentlich müssten wir tanzen

This is the one I’m most excited about, I think. I heard Helle reading from the manuscript two years ago and still think it’s extremely good. Dystopia with boys returned from a weekend away to find the world destroyed without explanation. Cruelty, stupidity – the premise seems like a Thomas Glavinic novel only I much prefer the writing. So sinister! Serpent’s Tail are publishing his Ben Lerner-esque previous novel as Superabundance (tr. Kári Driscoll) next spring.

Grandparent factor: probably not
Overly long or ridiculously short: 174 pages
Sample sentence: A slight grey falls onto the bowling lanes though the light shafts, there’s no electricity, the pins are gone, dangling above, perhaps, we don’t see them.

Gertraud Klemm: Aberland

Dark humour, interesting idea contrasting an ageing woman and her daughter, top feminist bonus points, and won the audience vote at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. Nice long sentences but possibly low on plot. Real people are very keen, critics less so. I'm on the fence and not all that interested.

Grandparent factor: obviously
Overly long or ridiculously short: 184 pages
Sample sentence: The dress will support me in my new role; it cost 1,349 euro, but the designers from Vittorio Missoni have put together a magical dress – it lashes my body almost surgically into shape, and the subtly shimmering herringbone pattern makes up for at least ten years, for example the strange bulge of flesh that has grown out between my armpit and the top of my breast like a slug, which can be effortlessly stowed away beneath the wide straps, and at the knees and the back it pulls off the balancing act between showing off and concealing.

Steffen Kopetzky: Risiko

A rather nicely phrased piece of adventure writing, for people who like that kind of thing. I vaguely remember enjoying his previous yarn, Der letzte Dieb. Unpretentious and probably fun, I’d say, if it manages to avoid Orientalist clichés. Well-researched historical novel set in 1916 crossing Syria, Iraq and Persia but reviews have been too poor for it to make the shortlist, I suspect.

Grandparent factor: probably not, unless you happen to be Iranian
Overly long or ridiculously short: 732 pages
Sample sentence: As the emir only utters a sigh, however, he pushes the tip of the dagger so far in that Habibullah starts to bleed. He is suddenly crawling like a beetle to get up from the ground.

Rolf Lappert: Über den Winter

I found the extract rather unremarkable and unrevealing; sparse language describing an uneventful family excursion to a frozen Hamburg lake. I don’t like to generalize but to judge by the publisher’s blurb, that’s pretty much it – man returns to family life and discovers “the miracle of small details”. Not my cup of tea.

Grandparent factor: very possibly
Overly long or ridiculously short: nope – 384 pages
Sample sentence: On the grass of a park, someone had made a big snowman that was hugging a tree, furniture and crates fell out of the window of a house into an open rubbish skip, a black dog chased after a cyclist.

Inger-Maria Mahlke: Wie Ihr wollt

I so wanted to love this book. I’ve admired Mahlke’s writing for some time and I think she’s as cool as a Slush Puppy. Plus the subject matter: Lady Mary Grey, Tudor heir to the throne once described as “little, crook-backed and very ugly”. But you know how nobody finishes reading Hilary Mantel because those Tudors are so bloody complicated? That was exactly my problem here – too much assumed knowledge that I didn’t have. Loved the writing but simply could not follow the story.

Grandparent factor: Henry the Eighth!
Overly long or ridiculously short: not really – 272 pages
Sample sentence: Ellen wanted to dodge, bumped her head against the table top. So hard that the jug tipped over, all her own fault for not clearing it away after breakfast. Pale yellow, topped by greyish islands of foam, an extending tongue of ale shot over the table towards my documents.

Ulrich Peltzer: Das bessere Leben

Is this the counterpart to Peltzer’s previous novel Part of the Solution (tr. Martin Chalmers)? Hedge fund managers and an insurance salesman, former idealists, come together in some way in this apparently highly political novel. The characteristic detail-soaked writing makes me want to read more, at any rate, and reminds me of a reigned-in Will Self at times. 

Grandparent factor: probably not
Overly long or ridiculously short: a bearable 448 pages
Sample sentence: Conquered Khartoum and sealed Gordon Pasha’s un-pretty end, to be read of in school books and regimental chronicles, a boy in boarding-school uniform agonizing his memory in front of the bored class… his life was England’s glory, his death was England’s pride, but Fleming couldn’t remember more than the last lines of Kipling’s poem (although he really did try), wordy evocations that called no soul back to life. He drank and closed his eyes.

Peter Richter: 89/90

Here’s the thing about this one: although it claims to be a novel, it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like good journalism, with witty footnotes as an added extra. An autobiographical tale of rebellious young men in East Germany, not exactly something that hasn’t been done before. It might end up translated, though, because I expect the writer has good connections as a newspaper correspondent in New York.

Grandparent factor: probably somewhere, either a Nazi or a Stasi
Overly long or ridiculously short: 416 pages
Sample sentence: When the summer that was to change the world came along, I draped my bedding so that it looked like someone was lying in it, opened the window and jumped out into the night. That wasn’t a big deal; we lived on the upper ground floor.

Monique Schwitter: Eins im anderen

I thoroughly enjoyed this book once I gave it a chance (see my review) – a woman exploring ex-loves of all kinds, with a brave plotline that creeps up unexpectedly. Nicely done reckoning with female life today, without notching up the drama as a couple of the other titles on the list do.

Grandparent factor: positive
Overly long or ridiculously short: a pleasant 232 pages
Sample sentence: It was planned differently. The sentence I wanted to write here was: And then came Philipp. Actually it ought to be my husband’s turn, who incidentally suits the name very well. But the neat chronology of men is getting messed up; there’s a problem.

Clemens J. Setz: Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre

This one wins the prize for longest book on the list, and is stuffed full of odd stuff with a very drawn-out and scary storyline. I’ll post a review very soon but the short version is that a young woman gets a job at an assisted living facility and has to deal with a psycho – who isn’t one of her clients. Setz has his very own way of writing and seeing the world, and reading the book submerges you in it for a very long time. You have to be into it to stick it out, let’s say. I did. You can read his Indigo (tr. Ross Benjamin) in English and I hope this one will follow – although obviously don’t hold your breath.

Grandparent factor: negative (I checked)
Overly long or ridiculously short: 1022 pages
Sample sentence: The red and blue hot-air balloons were now so far away that they looked like vitreous haze. As a child, Natalie had once discovered a magic trick with which you could focus on all the far distant things that were interesting and mysterious – a man with a rabbit-ears hat in a ski-lift cabin, a peacock-ish wind-wheel on a neighbour’s balcony, a brightly coloured decoration in a hospital window, an advertising banner towed by a glider.

Anke Stelling: Bodentiefe Fenster

Hmm. How to explain why I’m not a fan of this novel when so many other book bloggers are? It was picked up on by a tabloid newspaper as another illustration of How Awful Mothers in Prenzlauer Berg are – an easy target if ever there was one. Actually, though, for all the protagonist’s negativity on the subject, she’s reporting from the inside, a kind of participatory anthropology, although of course the character is just another Prenzlauer Berg mother, albeit the kind with less money. Maybe I’m just tired of the conversation, but I don’t feel Stelling adds very much to it, hardly scratching the surface of all the injustices and just laying blame at individuals’ feet.

Grandmother factor: positive
Overly long or ridiculously short: a readable 248 pages
Sample sentence: I’m sitting here weeping because I can’t save my friend. Isa’s going to turn into a wreck, she’s going to end up in the funny farm, the children dead or in the funny farm as well or narrowly escaped, but only for the time being, only until they start families of their own and then it’ll start all over again.

Ilija Trojanow: Macht und Widerstand

A fabulous cantankerous Bulgarian in what may well be a return to form by Trojanow, loved by all for his Richard Burton novel The Collector of Worlds (tr. Will Hobson). It seems he has interwoven two characters on either side of the power divide in the formerly socialist country: an officer and a dissident. Based on a great deal of reading and interviews and including archive material, this will almost certainly make the shortlist. Comparisons have been made to Peter Weiss – but I still want to read it.

Grandparent factor: probably
Overly long or ridiculously short: 480 pages
Sample sentence: The others shake their heads conspicuously, typical Konstantin, always contrary, on principle, a real farce. Always has to question everything. I know I’m hard work. I let the others talk, I hold my tongue. When the first lunch guests dribble in we get complimented out of the café.

Vladimir Vertlib: Lucia Binar und die russische Seele

Vertlib has a gentle sense of humour that comes out nicely in the extract. It sounds like the story is a variation on the “grumpy old person meets idealistic young person” stock, featuring a Jewish grandmother (bing! double points!) and an anti-racism activist in Vienna. Nice that this writer is getting a little more attention.

Grandparent factor: clearly
Overly long or ridiculously short: 320 pages
Sample sentence: Those two boys know I can hardly walk now. Do they think I’m still young and dynamic like I was at sixty? Szymborska wrote a poem shortly before her death about an ancient tortoise that dreams of dancing. When it finally takes the risk of trying a few dance steps and twirls round on the spot, it rolls over on its back and can’t move any more. What was the name of that poem again?

Kai Weyand: Applaus für Bronikowski

An unambitious young man gets a job at a funeral parlour and tries to fulfil a dead woman’s last wish. I don’t think I could read a whole book in this naïve pedantic voice, but maybe that’s just me. Other people may find it funny and it’s mercifully short.

Grandparent factor: positive
Overly long or ridiculously short: 188 pages
Sample sentence: Assuming I decide on an almond crescent, but you know something about the almond crescent that I don’t know, for example that the almond flakes aren’t the best, then it wouldn’t be very friendly of you to keep that knowledge to yourself. I’m asking you because you’re a qualified bakery salesperson.

Frank Witzel: Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969

Long title, huh? Long book, too. This is one of those very specific West German sagas that can be rather unsexy for people from other countries. But I found the extract grotesque, scary and rather exciting, pretty much against my will. The critics love it and although I think it might be too difficult a read to win the prize, I’m glad to have got a sample of Witzel’s writing. It tastes like something Willy Wonka might have invented while in a bad mood.

Grandparent factor: probably
Overly long or ridiculously short: 818 pages!
Sample sentence: I immerse the rabbit corpses in a saucepan of water so that the worms come floating out. The factory-owner lumbers around in the corridor with a wooden wheelbarrow. He’s come from the slate cliff, where he collected up branches and beasts indiscriminately. Of course he doesn’t need to collect anything. That’s why he does it.

Christine Wunnicke: Der Fuchs und Dr. Shimamura

Based on a real historical character, this seems to be a novel about a Japanese neurologist who went to Europe and had a special interest in fox obsessions. Yes. While Wunnicke does sketch an interesting character in the extract, it all sounds rather pernickety to me. The language is nicely precise, at least.

Grandparent factor: who knows?
Overly long or ridiculously short: 144 pages
Sample sentence: Dr Shimamura had four carers: Sachiko, his wife, Yukiko, her mother, Hanako, his own mother, and a maid, whom he sometimes called Anna but more often Luise. He had taken the latter home with him from the Kyoto asylum on his retirement, as a souvenir, and because no one there quite knew whether she was a patient or a nurse and no one remembered her name either.

Feridun Zaimoglu: Siebentürmelviertel

More baroque language, this time more baroque and in a historical novel around German emigrants in 1940s Istanbul. I’m reading it now and enjoying that language, although I haven’t a clue whether anything is going to happen other than an endless string of childhood and domestic incidents. Critics have generally been enthusiastic about the sheer cheek of the thing.

Grandparent factor: yes, a Turkish grandmother for extra points
Overly long or ridiculously short: 800 pages
Sample sentence: I wait for the punch, for the children’s kicks. I wait until my bones ache from lying on the hard earth. This is the field of our first shame. Beak-clattering from the birds nesting on the cypress branches. Ashes in the sky, the wind-warped barn burning on the fallow land.

If I ruled the world, I’d have a shortlist consisting of Bronsky, Erpenbeck, Helle, Schwitter, Trojanow and Witzel. Because they’re too long to be realistic translation material, I’m not listing Setz and Zaimoglu, even though I think they’ll probably be on the real shortlist. After all, I don’t rule the world.


Tony Malone said...

I have a copy of the Erpenbeck (which I'll be starting very soon), and I'm really hoping it's good. It's certainly topical, if nothing else ;)

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