Friday 29 February 2008

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

No surprises here then, at least not for German readers. The shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is out, accompanied by a rousing article by Boyd Tonkin, who I think has done more for translated literature in the British public eye than almost anyone else. The prize celebrates writing in translation and the people behind it, with the 10,000 pounds prize money shared between the authors and translators. And of course stickers on the books.

Tonkin writes:

Yes, the British book trade should translate more; yes, translators deserve a better deal; and yes, fiction from outside the Anglosphere can meet too much of the sort of prejudice that would outrage young Castorp {a character in another shortlisted book- kjd}. Still, a little celebration might be in order too. The dedicated translators and publishers (often from independent firms) who bring the best of the world's fiction to these shores have helped contribute to another golden age of cross-cultural interchange.

And guess what, Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World is on the shortlist. Now I have to say right away that I haven't read it. Unlike everyone else in the German-speaking world, it would seem. It just didn't really appeal to me I'm afraid. But I did attend a seminar at the VdÜ summer get-together, in which we looked at Carol Brown Janeway's translation. Strangely enough, the German natives liked it and the English-speakers didn't. I felt it was rather dull, replacing Kehlmann's colourful verbs with things like "put" and "do". But there you go. The prize isn't about comparing the original and the translation, and the book seems to have enough merits of its own to leap this slight hurdle nonetheless. I wish Kehlmann and Janeway luck.

Wednesday 27 February 2008


Sometimes, meeting the author isn't such a pleasant experience. Yesterday's escapade sent me reeling out into the night, swearing all the way home.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

The Crime Shoe Horn

As Lawrence Venuti points out in an interview on Words without Borders, English-language publishing has embraced foreign crime writing. So monolingual readers can enjoy the delights of Henning Mankell, Fred Vargas and numerous others I can't think of the names of - thus proving people wrong who claim nobody wants to read translations...

Venuti writes:

"This genre is especially fascinating because anglophone readers are likely to regard it as originating in English literary traditions (although there’s a concurrent French tradition as well). As a result, what happens to it abroad can make a difference when it comes back home, can signal a cultural difference for anglophone readers (something that is not amiss in a translation, but crucial, insofar as translation traffics in the foreign). And the fact is that readers are appreciating foreign crime novels against the native ones, partly because they know little or nothing about possible traditions of the genre in the foreign cultures..."

So, if I understand him rightly, Venuti is saying that crime fiction might be a shoe-horn for slipping foreignness into English-language reading habits. We all know what to expect from a detective story and that makes them comforting to read, so we swallow the bitter pill of the book being set in Stockholm or Bogotá and written slightly differently down with the sugar of the genre. At least I think that's what he's saying.

German crime fiction hasn't made all that much of a dent in the British consciousness yet, I suspect. Ingrid Noll and Friedrich Glauser are both high-ranking German crime writers available in English. And the top bestseller Tannöd will be out under the title
The Murder Village in June of this year (Quercus). I didn't enjoy it but it's very good. And it won tons of awards, as has the writer's second book. And she's sold half a million copies and knocked Harry Potter off the top of the pops.

Instead of that, I'm going to tell you about a German crime book I
did like. It's called Aussortiert by Titus Keller, and you can find a really negative review of it here. Someone really didn't like it. But I did. I'm a sucker for anything set in Berlin, and this is set in Berlin. I loved the attention to detail in the settings - the grungy bits of Berlin with drug dealers and prostitutes. And they get bumped off, and the fucked-up detective has to find out whodunnit. But you probably guessed that - that's because you're familiar with the genre you know.

Anyway, I liked the overtly moralising contrasts between rich and poor, I liked the characters, I even enjoyed the allegedly wooden dialogue. And I liked the end that turns the genre on its head. I liked the fact that the publisher didn't reveal who Titus Keller really is - apparently it's a pseudonym for the writer Helmut Krausser, who I haven't read. But I do appreciate the criticism that a lot of people wouldn't have read it if it weren't for the tagline "famous author writing incognito". Because that's probably what made me buy it, too. I don't regret it though.

But I'm no expert on crime writing, although I enjoy reading it. For excellent reviews go to International Noir.

So here's to translated crime fiction as the shoe-horn for foreignising our reading habits. Long may she reign!

Monday 25 February 2008

True Stories

Imagine you're a writer, and you just happen to be bilingual. You've written a book and the rights have been sold to the country whose language you also speak. Let's just say it's what we call a "smaller" language. Being a generally helpful type of person and, of course, interested in making sure your book works well in the other language, you offer to help the translator if he or she has any questions. The publisher umms and ahs and turns your offer down. Would you be surprised?

Then imagine you are a little concerned about the whole situation, and of course, the book is your creation, so you lean on the foreign publisher to get a look at the proofs once the translation is done. And then you read it and discover that the translation is full of mistakes. Not just things you would write differently, but genuine misunderstandings that alter the meaning. What would you do then?

Well, imagine you talk to your original publisher and tell them there is at least one mistake every three pages, and lean on them to threaten the foreign publisher with legal action unless they withdraw the translation. And then they commission someone else with the job, who wisely enough contacts you to start with. And imagine you talk to that translator about the whole story and he or she sympathises and agrees with you, but tries to console you with the fact that translations in their country are always like that, and the Nobel prize winners writing in your language are no better off either. They just can't read the translations.

Living in Germany spoils a person, in many ways. But one of them is that one comes to expect good translations. Over the past thirty years or so, German literary translators have become incredibly professional. They have their own institutions and foundations funding and organising further training, there are degree courses in literary translation, they can apply for grants to visit countries where their books are set, spend weeks or months beavering away at literary translation centres, and so on and so forth. Of course, they're still badly paid and there are still mavericks and beginners out there. And there are still people who think any old graduate in American Studies they meet at a party can translate quality fiction - and give them a contract to do so. But in general, German translators are excellent.

But part of the reason for this is that they've got together and applied for funding, lobbied the culture ministry, set up committees and all those other thankless tasks. Literary translation was once the domain of well-educated housewives and professors during the holidays (and is still paid accordingly). Now, it is a field peopled by experts. Only that's not the case in every country. The Robert Bosch Foundation runs an admirable programme promoting literary translation and translators out of German in specific countries, but that can't reach everyone and will never achieve the level of content offered to learning-hungry translators into German.

Perhaps it's just a question of time until translators around the world reach a high level of professionalism. But as long as literary translation is badly paid, it won't attract as many talented people as it might do, and those talented people it does attract won't be able to devote enough time to it for their work to be as good as it might be. And if you think literary translators are badly paid in Germany or Britain, talk to someone from Albania or Slovenia for a bit of an eye-opener.

But all that is no great consolation for our poor bilingual author, is it?

Being British in Berlin

Just like most Brits seem to think the Germans dream about Adolf every night, the Germans have a good few clichés and prejudices about the British. Here's my top eleven - I had to add the last one because it's such a classic - favourite questions asked of me as a gen-u-ine London lass:

1. I expect you'd like a nice cup of tea, eh?
No, I don't drink tea.

2. What's your favourite food, fish and chips or boiled boar with peppermint sauce?
I am not a character out of a comic. I'll just stick with normal food, thanks.

3. Can you help my son with his English homework?
No, I can't. Or maybe I could, but I don't want to.

4. Why on earth did you move here? London is sooo cool!
Because I prefer to enjoy a decent standard of living with functioning public transport and affordable rents.

5. Did you go back to England to have your baby?
No. I savoured the German hospital system with its clean wards and relatively plentiful staffing.

6. Can you bring me back the English-language DVD of Barbarella when you go back for Christmas?
No. I do not spend all my potential time with my family out shopping for obscure films.

7. Did you have a nanny when you were a kid?

8. Don't you think school uniforms are a great idea? They stop kids from comparing their clothes all the time.
No. Because you can buy navy blue V-necks from Woolworths or Adidas and kids will still always compare the prices of their clothes.

9. Isn't four years old terribly young to start school? I think kids should stay kids as long as possible.
No. Because going to school doesn't make you an instant adult, does it?

10. How's the good old Queen doing?
How the hell should I know? Do I look like a wax-jacketed corgi-owner to you?

11. Were your parents mods or were they rockers?

But looking on the bright side, the Berliners have at least read two books to gain this broad knowledge of British culture. And watched one film. Answers on a postcard please.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Update Update

Just ignore any "factual" information you may find here. Apparently, Biller's book was on sale for a while, and about 3000 copies sold. So the ex gets € 16.66 per book.

Sadly, most of my ex-boyfriends are only really semi-literate.

Friday 22 February 2008

Being Translated and Being the Translator

Once again, the good old Guardian books blog provides me with fodder: an article by a writer about reading the Russian translation of his own book. Daniel Kalder writes:

"It's an eerie feeling - I can't quite trust this other Daniel Kalder. His eyes are a different colour; I think he has a flick-knife in his pocket. He doesn't always say exactly what I'd like him to. But we're close enough that I'm happy for him to slouch off, provoke, intrigue and entertain that other group of readers I was secretly writing for in his own peculiar way. And also, of course, to annoy and offend the ones I wasn't writing for."

The writer feels alienated from his own writing, because the words have passed through the medium of the translator. He doesn't name the translator, perhaps afraid to offend him or her because some of the article is quite critical of aspects of the translation. But I found it a fairly balanced account of what it must feel like to be translated. I think the moral of the story is that translators need to have some form of communication with the author during the translation process, if only to deepen their understanding of the text. And of course to reassure the writer that you're not just tinkering amateurishly with his or her work of art.

Which brings me to last night. Selim Özdogan's reading in the beautifully decayed Festsaal Kreuzberg was packed! I was lucky my friend had saved me a seat. It was unlike any other reading I've been to, as Selim alternated between reading from the amazing novel Die Tochter des Schmieds, as yet unpublished short stories and short texts, and just talking in what seemed a very self-assured way about himself, the rest of the world and how he sees it. A kind of Selim Özdogan show, and a very entertaining one. You may be relieved to find out that there was no DJ session after all, despite what it said in the listings magazine.

The novel came out a few years ago now, but has been given an unexpected push by its inclusion in the film The Edge of Heaven. Oh, and I just happen to love it. I've translated an extract and am hoping to place it in an online magazine at some point in the near future - more as and when. It's about a father bringing up his children in 1950s Turkey, and his daughter, who leaves Turkey for a future in Germany in the penultimate chapter. It's told in a slightly dreamy style - but without "orientalising" - with what I'd have to call "flash-forwards" for want of a better word - moments when the narrator reveals the future of the protagonist Gül:

"But she will often think back to this first day. She will remember it when she sits at an electric sewing machine in Germany, sewing bras in piecework. Four hundred to four hundred and fifty a day, while her workmates rarely manage more than three hundred and fifty."

In a lot of his short prose, I felt the author reveals a hell of a lot about himself, probably compounded by the chatty bits in between. And translating a text makes you feel even closer to its writer than just reading it. I, at least, feel I have to think about every choice the author has taken, why this word in particular, which rhythm has she chosen, what is he trying to say here? My Özdogan translation is one of the first where I've had proper contact to the author without some middle-man in between, and that was very rewarding. For instance, the book plays a lot with terms of endearment, and it was hard for me to judge whether they were "translations" of things Turkish parents call their children or were originally "thought" in German. So it was very helpful to be able to ask the author directly. And he looked over my translation in the end and made a couple of very useful suggestions.

But despite this communication, the process of translation is still fairly one-way. It's the translator who has to crawl into the writer's head and make herself comfortable in there, after all. Part of what we do is to step into the writer's narrative persona and imitate that in our own language. And in general, the author has little or nothing to do with that process. Add to that the fact that authors are generally fairly high-profile in the media whereas translators lead a shadowy life, rarely venturing from behind our desks into the limelight, and the level of knowledge the two parties have of each other becomes extremely tilted.

So the moment of actually meeting the author is very odd indeed. I often feel like a kind of stalker, having followed someone's often quite intimate thoughts and of course taken a close interest in what they get up to in general. Selim summed it up - unknowingly - for me when he said, "It's strange to put a face to someone you've only spoken to by email." And I had to kind of shrug and say, well, I knew what you looked like...

Thursday 21 February 2008

Literary DJs

German writers are cetainly not immune to that fashion for demanding money for sharing their record collections with the general public known as DJ'ing. The most famous is no doubt Wladimir Kaminer, whose first book is even called Russian Disco. He DJ'ed at a party at the Leipzig Book Fair two years ago, and a crazed fan shouted at us (sat at the table next to him before he started his set), "Do you know who that is? It's the master himself!" I once also stood next to him at a bizarre event run by the post-communist newspaper Neues Deutschland, more by coincidence than anything else (my standing next to him, not the event). I think I must be in about 100 photos taken by near-hysterical fans, still wondering no doubt who on earth I am that I got to stand so close to him. The friend I was with hadn't recognised him, and asked me slightly too loudly "Who is that guy? Why are they all taking photos?" to which I was forced for reasons of coolness to shrug nonchalantly.

Then there's my actual genuine mate Andreas Gläser, whose second book DJ Baufresse should have done a lot better than it seems to have done so far. His website lists his readings and his DJ sessions under the same heading: Gigs. He has a very well looked after and eclectic record collection that he airs at irregular intervals. And he wrote a story about how record shops should be more like Thalia bookshops - think Waterstones in a slightly tasteless blue and green look.

There are plenty more of them. Nowadays, it seems, any male writer under the age of 45 feels obliged to impose his musical taste on the rest of us. Which can be a fairly insightful experience. Imagine you love a writer's work but absolutely hate their record collection. Would it make you feel less warm inside about the whole thing? Is it going too far? Do we want that level of intimacy? Total Wladimir Kaminer? Not just the cookbook by his wife and the audio travel guide, but the Russian soul compilation CD and the matching shapka?

Tonight is a kind of a litmus test for me. One of my fave authors, Selim Özdogan, is giving a rare reading in Kreuzberg, followed by a DJ session. We shall see if I survive the experience with my love of his writing intact.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Communist Manifesto by English Copywriter?

The Guardian books blog features an interesting article by Nigel Beale, contesting that Marx was really a great advertising copywriter. What he forgets is that every time he quotes from the Communist Manifesto, he's quoting from the 1888 translation. See if you can spot my nit-picking alter ego in the comments...

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Our Favourite German Children's Writer

Statistically and for sheer strength of passion, our favourite German children's author is Zoran Drvenkar. My lovely little girl has a lot of Cornelia Funke's picture books (including in English translation with the immortal insult "You piratical nincompoops!") and a few by Gudrun Mebs. But there's just no topping the tongue-twisting ex-Yugoslavian Berliner, who apparently lives in a disused corn mill - how cool is that?

The first success was Zarah. To be honest, it was the illustrations that sucked us in. They're amazingly scary, all dark woods and spooky shadows, with the delightfully kooky Zarah and her awful, prissy, horribly realistic so-called friends, no doubt cheerleaders in the making. The illustrations alone make the book worth having, just because it makes you cool to prove you have the stomach for such a darkly scary book. But the story is just as finely crafted, a psychological study of those awful "I won't be your friend any more" type of girls and Zarah, who wants to be their friend but doesn't quite get what they're making all the fuss about. And the plot and the writing and the illustrations (by Martin Baltscheid) are so cleverly interwoven that you laugh out loud at the macabre joy of it all.

Next we read Eddie im Finale. I'm not quite sure how the book ended up on our shelves, because it looks like it's about a girl who likes football, but it's not - it's about a girl who can't stand football but ends up being a hero. I was very cautious about this, as it's done up as an "early readers book". Bad sign. The way the German language works - basically it's logical and easy to pronounce apart from the very long words - means children can learn to read fairly quickly. There's no need for the Janet and John school of writing with only a handful of words in each book, repeated until boredom makes your jaw fall off. But unfortunately, parents need reassuring and that means they like to buy books marked "easy-to-read". I know, I'm not immune. And that in turn often means utter dross. Lacklustre storylines, unimaginitive illustrations (or sometimes none at all), just plain too long to remember the beginning when your reading speed is not exactly herculean. But Eddie im Finale falls right out of that mould, I can tell you. Charming, a quirky story in an enjoyable style. A surprise!

But the number-one hit is Paula. It doesn't look as out-and-out crazy as Zarah, with more subdued, subtly humorous illustrations and fewer of them (Peter Schössow). But that just gives the story more room to unfold. It starts slowly and sadly, describing how Paula got fat. Not just chubby but properly fat, in a family of very thin people. But then something happens - Paula floats. What seems like it might be rather dry and moralising suddenly takes off into the realms of the bizarre, again making you laugh out loud and empowering the little girl inside of you. This was the second ever book that made my daughter switch the light back on after I'd read to her at bedtime - the first being Asterix. She came into the front room and proudly announced "I've finished the whole book!" Then I had to hear a rather long-winded précis, and she insisted on taking it to school the next day. Apparently Sylvie said it was stupid. But Sylvie's the kind of girl who gets lost in the woods - and once went to school dressed as a cheerleader.

Drvenkar has also written two adult novels, one of which I've read - Du bist zu schnell. It was a long time ago but I remember it was excellent in an extremely disturbing way, one of those books that makes you question reality around you. And he co-wrote the screenplay to Knallhart/Tough Enough - possibly the first ever film to premiere in Berlin's down-at-heel borough of Neukölln, about a posh boy who gets bullied after moving there. A couple of friends of mine happened to be passing and were eyed warily by smart cinema-goers spilling out of the Neukölln Arkaden, obviously fearing they'd be beaten up for crossing over into underclass territory. So it must have hit home.

And I know Drvenkar's very talented translator, Chantal Wright. Speaking of whom, the latest issue of Transcript is all about children's books, featuring translations from Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia and Catalonia.

The Dinner Lady

Ha ha. I found this on the Bookseller blog. A German book trade expert with scary eyebrows points out the raging success of Julia Franck's Die Mittagsfrau, suggesting it's symptomatic of a wider optimism in German publishing. She calls the book The Lunch Lady - presumably as in "ladies who lunch", or perhaps she's envisioning a dinner lady dolloping ladles of school food onto plastic plates.
Actually, had she read the book, she'd realise it refers to a mythical Sorb figure who makes women lose their minds if they don't spend an hour telling her how to spin flax: Lady Midday. I admit that information is buried fairly deeply in the novel, but perhaps a brief look at the publishers' website might have helped her with the title.
The book is as good as you'd expect of the "German Booker" winner, and is being translated into English. I think it might do quite well, given it's partly about the Nazis and has a strong character-led plot. You can read a translation of the first chapter on signandsight. Enjoy.


Oops. Maxim Biller, it turns out, has even tougher luck than I thought. He and his publishers were sentenced to pay € 50,000 compensation to his ex-girlfriend last week. Ouch. For a book that never hit the shelves, I hasten to add.

Monday 18 February 2008

Private Book Bans and pdf Literature

There have been two prominent banned books in Germany over the past couple of years. The first is Maxim Biller's Esra, where the highest court confirmed the ban in October last year, as it was all too clear that it was about the writer's ex-girlfiend, an actress and thus a clearly identifiable person. She felt, apparently, that the book was intended to be insulting. The judges found she should "not have to accept that readers would ask themselves the question arising from the novel of whether the events it depicts actually happened in reality." Tough luck for Maxim 'MySpace' Biller, who I've never read, other than the short story linked above. He presumably has a fairly hefty loss of earnings to deal with now. Of course one always wonders "is this true?" and I know there are some readers who always think characters in books are real people - asking "but why did she kill herself at the end?" when the answer is plainly - "because the author wanted her to." But you know, perhaps the best reaction would be to try and counter the fictional(ised) version - being an actress, surely any publicity is good publicity? And what are the boundaries of fiction? But the book allegedly also deals with her relationship with her terminally ill child, where I can imagine anyone might draw a line.
The second is a non-fiction title: Florian Havemann's Havemann. I haven't read that either, but it's an account of his family history, stretching from his Nazi-Party member grandfather to his East German dissident father down to himself, who left the GDR for West Germany in the early 70s and inspired a rather hateful song by Wolf Biermann. The book was taken off the market in December last year, after an unnamed party applied for a ban. According to Wikipedia, Havemann contends that the bearded bard Biermann had sexual relations with Margot Honecker, wife of the GDR's boss Erich Honecker and famous for her pre-Thatcherite iron hairdo and Stalinist education policies. As bizarre and aesthetically unappealing as that may be, it is not, apparently, the reason for the ban.
Havemann's publishers have now launched a pdf version of the book on a special website, retailing at € 24 and featuring backed-out passages. This is pure advertising, cleverly recalling censored Stasi files and enabling any readers with one of the 7000 previously sold copies to compare and contrast and work out exactly what it was that caused offence in the first place. So in one of the free samples - which of course I immediately downloaded because I am a loathesome nosey parker and am now incredibly interested in gossiping about the whole thing with my hairdresser - you get something like: I asked my sister about our great-grandfather (...) just to see if she knew his first name (...) and she said: five lines of blacked out text - interesting. Intruiging, eh? I bet they'll make an absolute killing.
Of course, as anyone who has ever tried to read a whole book in pdf knows, any buyer who wants to actually enjoy reading will have to pay double the price - € 24 for the download and € xx for getting it printed out and bound. At 1100 pages, that's pretty steep just for a good gossip.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Die Nacht, die Lichter

I've done it. I've read the new book by Clemens Meyer. In fact I finished it last weekend but it took me a while to recover.

First things first - it's more polished than his novel. I mean that in a good way. I think you can tell he's more confident about his writing, more willing to stray outside his usual parameters, and happier to experiment. So while the first story is very much in the confusing, whirligig tradition of Als wir träumten, almost an atmosphere study of a male protagonist failing to get a grip on his life in a Leipzig ground-floor flat, some of the others stand out for their different subject matter or techniques. There are girls, rich people, but of course the inevitable boxers - all of them in moments of confusion, crisis or death and descent.

And then there is what the reviewer in the link calls "a typical American short story" depicting everyday working life in a cash-n-carry. I suppose, like the novel, it's about a fairly well-adjusted guy looking on as those around him fall apart. But it's intruiging, especially as one or two characters crop up later who seem to come from this world too. Other critics have trashed it as "early work" but I still enjoyed it.

Meyer has given a very revealing interview, bizarrely, to the business magazine Wirtschaftswoche, talking about victims of the canon. He talks about his admiration for Ernest Hemingway, among other writers of the "fodder for wild young men in the GDR" variety - Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson... And he says he lifted whole sentences from Hemingway's A Pursuit Race. Now, being in a state of unhealthy obsession, I felt obliged to get hold of and read the story. I'm very glad I did, not least because it's in a whole 650-page book. I'd never read Hemingway for one reason or another (not that I'm strictly blaming my school English teachers - London comprehensives just didn't really stretch to American literature in the 1980s). And now I'm enthralled by his skill and the down-and-dirty themes. Not unlike Meyer really.

So I read the Pursuit Race story - of a man "hopped to the eyes" and enjoying hiding under a sheet in a Kansas City hotel room. And I found it difficult to work out which sentences were lifted in Meyer's book - no doubt because he lifted them from the German translation - doh! - and because rather a lot of the stories have sheets in them.

But then I read the first story in the big fat Hemingway collection, entitled The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. This is an excellent story that changes pace and uses incredibly long sentences and connects all the clauses with ands so that when you get to the action on safari you're reading so fast you might trip up and fall but you don't and you're picked up and carried along and your pulse quickens and your face goes red and it's so exciting you start holding your breath and then boom. Ding ding ding! It went in my head. So I picked up Die Nacht, die Lichter again and there it was: Das kurze und glückliche Leben des Johannes Vettermann. And if the title's not a big fat clue then I don't know what is. Johannes Vettermann is an ageing and ailing wholesale greengrocer-com-artist, pissing the last of his family fortune up the wall in a (Leipzig?) hotel room, off his face on drugs. "Er lag plötzlich unter einem Laken, das er bis über die Nase gezogen hatte..." I don't know if the animals he hallucinates are pointing back at Francis Macomber's failed safari or not. But it works. Unlike in the Pusuit Race, there is no concerned friend to come by, just two prostitutes who can't get it up for him.

He doesn't rip Hemingway off - it's more like tipping his hat at his inspiration. The man who showed him how to write these excellent short stories.

My favourite in the whole book is Von Hunden und Pferden, taking a feather out of Hemingway's cap when it comes to those "ands". It starts at the limping pace of an injured dog, gradually gathering velocity until it reaches the break-neck speed of a horse race, told with the jangling perspectives of a man drunk on adrenaline and joy - only to fall flat on its face in the last two lines. This is, for me, beautiful storytelling, it made me feel dizzy and left my head reeling, gasping for breath like I'd been slapped round the face. The way Meyer puts all that speed into his writing is truly impressive.

Friday 15 February 2008

Book Prize Judges in Male Shock

They've announced the judges for next year's German Book Prize. And look, they're six men and one woman. Oh no, I can hear you groaning, she's going to bang on about quotas and participation now. Too right I am!

The book business is a female industry. It doesn't pay all that well, it's "creative", you don't usually earn much recognition, and it's mostly a hard slog. Women make up the mass of the readership and the junior ranks in the publishing world. Women write a lot of books, and women translate a lot of books. According to HJ, women also get more toilets than men at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which must mean something.

But it seems that information hasn't quite filtered through to the German Book Prize. Now I'm not expecting them to select pop songstresses for the panel like the Orange Prize. Nor do I want women on there merely for the sake of shutting young harridans like me up. I'm not sure whether women and men have different reading tastes and writing styles, nor whether that actually matters. But I am sure that an industry that sells mainly to women should embrace women at the top (not literally) - if only for barefaced economic reasons.

But the people choosing the judges seem to be mostly men too. So no surprises there then.

Madonna in Kaffee Burger Shock!

Read all about it! Madonna pisses off fans by spending the night at the "Burger Bar". I think this is hilarious news. Who'd expect to find Madonna in the rancid old Kaffee Burger front room, eh? I don't think there were any German books involved, but you never know... The venue is a hotbed of literary activity, after all. Just think, I've used the same toilet as Madonna now. In fact I probably haven't, because there's always a queue so I tend to go to the disabled one, but maybe La Ciccone did too. Or do people let you go first if you're famous?

Anyway, I'm posting a recycled report of my most recent visit to the Kaff - which afficionados pronounce "Kaffe Burger" in the good old East Berlin way - back in April of last year. Enjoy.

Accidental Poetry

Doh! Why does this happen to me? I gone and done it again - a darned poetry reading, yikes!
It really was an accident this time. My lovely little girl's best friend's mum's sister-in-law's old friend from art college was "reading" at Kaffee Burger down the road. There was no indication of what he would be reading, but I naively assumed it would be mildly amusing prose. Ooops!
I arrived to find a bevy of attractive ladies in their mid-to-late 30s doubling the percentage of women in the place (that was us - a girls' night out as it transpired). The rest of the meagre audience was male and over 40, wearing black. This man introduced the first two readers and my heart sank: he uttered the p-word. But he did also utter the c-word, as in "critical of society" - which sounds much better in German. Try it for size: GESELLSCHAFTSKRITISCH. Nice, eh?
Anyway the first part passed fairly quickly and harmlessly. I did try to listen but was distracted by, well, by almost everything actually. I know one of the poets said something about sticking some modern gadget up your arse though, as that captured my attention again. And then it was over.
But then this man mounted the stage, in his trademark leather waistcoat and camouflage trews, with flowing greasy hair. He proceeded to talk about some anthropologist's book from 1922 listing words from a purported "astral" language, which he and his "comrade" and former Stasi informer Sascha had made into poetry. He added that it might be a bit of a "strenuous experience", at which my mate said loudly "Yeah, but for who?" prompting titters and admiring glances from the black-clad over-40s. He then launched into the first of 5 "poems" made up of unintelligible rows of syllables, entirely devoid of meaning. It went something like this:
Hoobeddy doobeddy troobeddy har
Vargasa stargasa jargasa tree
Doala troala koala beding
and so on for about 2 minutes - for each poem.
You have to realise that the guy is a big famous poet who can afford to wear leather waistcoats in public. What you also need to know is that he is co-owner of the venue. So for most of the time, the audience put on a collective "hmmmm, interesting" face until we ladies collapsed into giggles. I admit I was the first to crack. It was so incredibly pseud-y that I couldn't work out whether he was having a laugh or not. I'm still not sure to be honest. I think he might have got a bit peeved towards the end, when one of our number (not me!) started talking loudly about the price of babysitters.
But we hadn't paid to get in so it was just about bearable. I'm still laughing at the utter cheek of it all, and at the way everyone was trying to explain it to each other afterwards. Someone once told me a friend of theirs regularly placed small ads looking for "scabs" - as in that crusty stuff you get on wounds, not strike-breakers. I think this was in that same league of craziness for the sake of it, or schoolboyish pranks as an excuse to drink beer afterwards or whatever. So next week you'll catch me reading the ingredients lists from my bathroom cabinet at Wembley Stadium, for one night only.

Thursday 14 February 2008

My Only Poem

This is a poem I wrote in October 2006. I think I was feeling a bit upset at the time. I haven't written any more. No offence intended to any thin women with hair-slides.

Poetry is the new black

When I
go to a
are the girls so prissy
like they haven't yet got over
being the class swot?
Fat is a feminist issue.
Thin is a literary credo.

Translators Reveal All

Last night was the second event this year in the Übersetzer Packen Aus series. I haven't got the hang of links yet, so you'll have to go to the one on the left-hand side to find the website. Anyway, the point is, they're readings where not the authors but the translators read their work, and talk about it.

Last night the stars were Frank Günther and Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel. They both translate for the stage and that was the theme of the evening.

Frank Günther also happens to be the first ever Guest Professor for the Poetics of Translation at the FU Berlin. I've seen him in action before at his inaugural lecture, which was incredible fun. Part of the point of the post is to raise translators' profiles in the public eye, and he's certainly the right man for that job. He came across as thoroughly convinced of his own talents, and rather dismissive of everybody else's (apart from August Schlegel - or was it Dorothea?). Because what I've forgotten to mention is that he's translating all 39 of Shakespeare's plays into German. He should be finished by 2010. And he is a player, a born performer who can entertain an audience for two hours non-stop, seemingly off the cuff. So the ideal candidate, one might think, to battle against translator invisibility.

But last night he seemed strangely subdued. Maybe it was a male thing - he was up against the incredibly tall, stylish and self-possessed Schmidt-Henkel, after all. And Schmidt-Henkel was very eloquent - using amazing words like Verzopftheit - the state of having cute plaits - for the twee Pippi Longstocking quality of many translations from the Scandinavian languages. It was interesting to hear what the two of them had to say about loyalty to the original rather than the performance, and being the advocate of the author rather than the director. But I'm always slightly irritated by translators who say "Oh no, translators aren't allowed to do this that and the other..." Why not? If a director wants to stage a version of Woyzeck with everyone wearing Nazi uniforms (yes, I've seen one) then they can. And if a translator wants to adapt Shakespeare or Ibsen into ghetto slang or Yorkshire dialect, why can't they do that?

Günther came into his own at the end of the show, though, reading from his translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He compared the different rhyme styles of the fairies, the lovers and the players, and put on about 20 different silly voices, with the body language to match. It was truly impressive - both the translation and the performance - and I'm very glad I was there.

Of course, I was doing the bar so I didn't have much choice. But I would definitely have gone anyway. I have to say, the Polish translators from the last event drank more though...

Recycled: Der bewaffnete Freund

Here's another good'un. Book, that is. It got me all tense and uncommunicative - that's a good thing in a book, I find, if not in a prescription drug.

It's about a young man who ends up driving a wanted Basque terrorist/freedom fighter across Spain - not something you'd really want to do. It starts out like one of those German books where nothing much happens in a foreign country (unlike the standard not much happening in Germany). The guy is an academic (not a promising characteristic in a novel) working on some research project in a place referred to as X throughout. In fact, although it's obvious, we are never told that the book is about ETA - a nice device that heightens the air of conspiracy. You get lots of descriptions of his rather lukewarm relationships with his daughter, his ex-girlfriend and his new not-quite boyfriend. The best bits at this stage are the surpressed arguments with his German and Spanish professors and his thoughts on European border policy. He's torn between supporting the Basque separatists on an emotional level and rejecting the way they define their aims and use murder to make their point.

Then suddenly, an old friend sends a messenger to ask him to drive him from France to Spain. Unfortunately, that old friend is a wanted man and the price for supporting terrorists is 5 years in prison, often accompanied by torture. Tough decision.
But the guy decides to do it, for all sorts of strange reasons. Ultimately, it's something you'd almost wish for - the chance to argue it out with someone whose cause you support, but whose methods you abhor. But the second half of the book is far less intellectual than the first, where all the arguments are basically set out. In fact, it has a quite racy tempo and you almost expect car chases and sirens. While you read the first half with your brain, the second half is for your heart. And that's kind of the whole premise of the book, with the "hero" gradually becoming more and more human.

Raul Zelik is an overtly and unapologetically political writer. But he manages to put across his message in such a way that reading him is not some kind of worthy activity for politniks alone. It's genuinely fun or entertaining or nerve-wracking or, at times, carpet-biting and shoe-on-the-lectern-banging.
I reccommend you try it.

Recycled: No Sleep Till Leipzig

I can't sleep. I'm so excited. The Leipzig Book Fair Prize nominations have been announced. Woah. Just look at that fiction.

First off, I've read Ulrich Peltzer's 'Teil der Lösung' (Part of the Solution) and it's an absolute cracker, really captures my Berlin, although I found the pace a little stolid at times.

Then there's the excellent and *very* charming Feridun Zaimoglu with a love story revolving around a man who ends up in a coach crash in Turkey. Strangely, Zaimoglu himself was involved in a coach crash in Turkey last year. Haven't read it but it's up near the top of my list.

I don't know much about Jenny Erpenbeck or Sherko Fatah, except that the latter is also very charming and I've briefly met the former's translator, Susan Bernofsky, and found her very down to earth and likeable. This is good news for her.

But the number-one heart-stopping moment for me was reading the name Clemens Meyer on the list, with his new book of short stories. I think he's the most exciting writer in Germany at the moment. I think the whole world should read his books. I think if there were more like him the literary world wouldn't be such a pretentious and at times downright boring place. He reaches the parts other authors cannot reach. He writes about things other authors cannot touch. We're talking wild young men and fucked-up old women, drugs and alcohol and loneliness and friendship. He has lots of tattoos. And a dog, apparently. And his style is so very much his own, lurching through time and place like a lost weekend.

I haven't read the new book yet. I know it will make me even less capable of sleep, but I'll try and give you a blow-by-blow report. And I'm definitely going to the awards ceremony.

What's it all about?

I've decided to grow up and have a proper blog rather than lining Richard Murdoch's pockets. So this will be where I post my thoughts on German books I love, translation issues in Germany and the UK/US, and living in Berlin. I won't bother writing about German books I don't love because if I haven't got anything good to say, I won't say anything at all.

I might well recycle some old posts from elsewhere if they're relevant...