Tuesday 23 December 2008

Looking Back, Looking Forward

This will no doubt be my last post this year, and I'm pretty pleased with the way the past months have gone here at Love German Books. I feel I've made a number of virtual friends and shared my biased and unprofessional opinions on German-language writing with the world.

There have been a couple of developments that show optimistic little me that the world isn't all a bad place, at least when it comes to interest in international literature: the World Literature Forum (if you haven't been there yet, take a week off work and dive in right now), Amazon's Literature in Translation store, and Chad Post's ongoing attempt to provide reliable statistics on translated literature, the Translation Database (for the USA). Plus, here in Berlin we held our own little celebration of the art of translation - Translation Idol. Watch this space for more news on the Return of Translation Idol in 2009.

I'll be spending Christmas and the New Year with my family and an old favourite that makes me feel all warm inside: Selim Özdogan's Die Tochter des Schmieds. And after that, I'm looking forward to three new German books in January/February:

Zoran Drvenkar, Sorry
Daniel Kehlmann, Ruhm
and Selim Özdogan, Zwischen zwei Träumen

Apart from the fact that they're all by men in their 30s, I don't think they'll have much in common. Plus, I'm sure 2009 will bring stocking-loads of events and books marking the twentieth anniversary of 1989. Here's a review of two old ones to be going along with in the NY Times, courtesy of David Vickrey again. And if you can receive NPR, the new year will see the dawning of a new era in radio with The Berlin Stories. I'm certainly looking forward to that.

So here's wishing all my fellow German book-lovers happy holidays and a good slide into the new year, with plenty of time and great books to read.

Sunday 21 December 2008


It’s short, it’s beautiful, and it was voted “book of the year” by Zeit readers: Siegfried Lenz’s Schweigeminute. David Vickrey at Dialog International enjoyed it too. Sadly, it didn’t rock my boat.

I can understand why people like it. It’s a touching and timeless love story, set in a coastal town with an air of perpetual summer holidays – all swimming and regattas and Blyton-esque islands and smiling photos on the beach. And it’s skilfully told; the Schweigeminute (moment of silence) of the title being a school memorial ceremony for the English teacher Stella Petersen, who died in a boating accident. The narrator, Christian, thinks back to the past summer, when he and his teacher had an affair. Or did they?

The narration is beautiful, switching to addressing Stella directly every now and then, with descriptions of all kinds of maritime goings-on and a very discreet love story. Being teacher and pupil, Stella and Christian are highly secretive about their affair. The encounter is sexual, but the poignant details we get are more of the intimacy of the situation: a shared pillow, hands entwined on a photograph, Christian’s plans for the two of them to move to an uninhabited island together.

Through the 18-year-old boy’s eyes, Stella is a heroine, forever diving into the water to save floundering children, telling him about Faulkner and Orwell, caring for her aged father. Christian himself seems to have little going for him. His pale personality consists almost solely of his obsession with his teacher. The couple come together without much ado, he following her to her hotel room with her tacit acceptance and simply staying the night. It is unclear what Stella’s motivation to start an affair with her pupil might be; she gives only tiny coded indications of her affection for him before her violent death.

And because there can be no witnesses to their love, its very existence is questionable. It could be just the product of Christian’s imagination. Many of the situations that arise could be quite innocent results of a schoolboy crush, albeit an intense one. Christian visits Stella at her home and she talks about Animal Farm, obviously embarrassed as his essay on the book has missed the mark by a long shot. He picks her up in his father’s car and they go to the beach and chat about literature until they are disturbed by some classmates. Stella’s reaction, which Christian interprets as embarrassment at being caught, could well be relief at being freed from his attentions. And most touchingly, Christian is not invited to Stella’s burial at sea, instead following at a distance in his own boat. He is excluded from mourning apart from at the official school assembly, where he steals her photograph for himself, prompting a telling-off from the headmaster. What we see through his eyes as concealed hints from others that they were aware of the illicit affair, but prefer not to mention it, could always be attempts to console him tactfully for the loss of his crush.

Throughout the novella, Christian is achingly naïve, hoarding provisions for the move to the island, suspecting a passenger on his boat of being Stella’s former lover. And the language he uses to describe their affair appears so deliberately vague that I wondered if the character knew anything about sex at all. All this is part of the appeal – that guessing game of did they, didn’t they? It is apparently Lenz's first attempt at a love story (at the age of 82, but why ever not?) and as such I suppose it's an interesting approach.

Perhaps I'm the world's greatest cynic, with a pinch of salaciousness thrown in. Perhaps I read it as too much of a puzzle and ought to have taken it at face value to enjoy it more. Perhaps one has to have experienced a crush on a teacher to appreciate the joy of its fulfilment, whether imagined or not. Perhaps the characters might have been fleshed out more in a full-length novel. But despite recognising its literary quality, I really can’t say I liked the book a great deal, and it comes nowhere near being my book of the year. But at least it didn’t take long to read.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

A Cold Berlin Love Story - Hitze

Sometimes writers pass you by, and then it feels wonderful to find someone with a whole shelf full of books to their name, just waiting to be discovered. My informer gave me a book for his birthday – and I’ve no idea how I can live up to it on mine.

The book in question is Ralf Rothmann’s Hitze. I had asked what felt like five thousand people for suggestions of books set in Berlin, and this was my informer’s tip-off. Rothmann is a poet and novelist – you can read one of his poems in English at AGNI online (trans. Elizabeth Oehlkers-Wright), a sample from another novel, Junges Licht, on Litrix (trans. Susan Bernofsky) – and his debut novel was translated into English as Knife Edge by Breon Mitchell.

I gather Rothmann grew up in working-class Oberhausen, moving to Berlin in the 1970s. Although he was never affiliated with any of the West German working-class writers’ organisations, he does consciously write about working life and proletarian characters, with Hitze being no exception. It’s rare to read a book where so much hard graft goes on – unless it’s a detective novel. But it’s not in the slightest bit didactic; there doesn’t seem to be any major political agenda behind the novel.

In fact it’s a love story. The enigmatic protagonist Simon DeLoo, tired of observing life as a cameraman, gets a job as a driver for a canteen that delivers meals all around Berlin. We see the cooks at work in the kitchen and at play in the pub, and all the people he delivers to on their lunch breaks – prostitutes, office workers, junkyard men and down-and-outs. He comes across a young woman who reminds him of whoever it is whose flat he still pays the rent for, now turned to dust. Lucilla is a Polish woman living on the streets, her only company and protection a dog.

In her hour of need, Lucilla turns to DeLoo for help and we next find them in an idyllic Polish summer by a lake, clearly in the throes of a passionate affair – the “heat” of the title, perhaps. But the veneer wears thin there too, with drugs, alcohol, property speculation and other complications rearing their heads and making the Polish countryside seem almost as grimy as Rothmann’s Berlin. Not before a breathtakingly erotic and very Catholic sex scene though.

The end of the novel, which has moved from winter to spring to summer and now to early winter again, sees DeLoo’s degeneration and death. Neatly biting its own tail, the book closes with the protagonist dying on the street opposite his former home, where he set out to get a new job early one morning on the first page. A woman leaning out of the window coldly refuses to call an ambulance. No heart-warming Bildungsroman this – in fact the little information we glean from taciturn Simon DeLoo indicates that his development moved very much in the other direction.

As the hero develops, so does his city. The area of Kreuzberg where he lives and works is gradually gentrified, a posh restaurant opening up and the buildings being sanitised (I choose that word with care). The catering company switches from hearty stews to exquisite finger food, and we get a glimpse of how the other half live when DeLoo delivers a party buffet to a divorcee in Dahlem. Rothmann doesn’t rail against this way of things – but nor does he spare us the sight of those who lose out en route.

Hitze may sound a tad dark. It is, of course. But it is shot through with beautiful and – doh! – poetic descriptions of Berlin, contrasted with rural Poland. And it’s these that make it a joy to read, expressing a love for the city that doesn’t need glass facades and clean pavements to feel at home. There are birds – pigeons and a heron, a hawk and magpies – and dogs and a cat. And there is a great deal of down-to-earth Berlin wit, from the cook who complains that a dog ate his dice to an aging prostitute who offers to take her teeth out. All set in authentic places mainly around Kreuzberg, from a Mehringdamm café to the Blaue Affe pub at Hermannplatz.

Read it! You know you want to.

Monday 15 December 2008

Hope for the German-Speaking World

As Buchreport points out, three quarters of people in Germany read books! That's more than the previous survey found in 2000, when 28% said they never pick up a book all year.

A constant three percent read more than fifty books a year - the same figure applies to the number of translations in the English-speaking world, coincidentally. And 36% of us "individuals with a background of migration" read once or more a week, 11% of us every day (compared to 36% and 8% on average). You can download the study by Stiftung Lesen here.

The British National Literacy Trust offers various statistics, indicating that 34% of respondents never read books, although spending on books in the UK is rising faster than elsewhere (but books are more expensive than in the US and Germany). That makes the Germans and the rest of us living here pretty damn literate if you ask me.

Well, with all the amazing German and international books available here, can you blame us?

Sunday 14 December 2008

The Reader Re-Readings

There has been a flurry of renewed interest in Bernhard Schlink's The Reader as reviews of the film adaptation start coming out. I like the one in TIME, where Richard Schickel writes that the book "pretends to high literary seriousness while offering its readers — millions upon millions of them in the 37 countries where it has been translated — plenty of lubriciously rendered romps in the hay".

But the Guardian promises a deeper look in an article by the screenplay author David Hare, on "the tortured journey from book to film". Sadly, we learn little about the actual process of translating the (translated) novel into a screenplay, which would have interested me and perhaps other readers. Nor does Hare mention the novel's "first translator", Carol Brown Janeway, who has translated a number of big-selling German novels such as Perfume (with John Woods) and Measuring the World. Despite these failings, the article makes interesting reading.

And as the literary saloon pointed out, the New Statesman felt prompted to review Schink's latest novel, Das Wochenende, about a former terrorist coming out of prison and confronting old friends who have moved on. Rick Jones posits the theory that the book, although not particularly good, is at least well-timed - to coincide with the film and the release of the ex-RAF terrorist Christian Klar after twenty-six years in prison. What the reviewer fails to note, however, is that the book was published back in February, when it looked extremely unlikely that Klar would be released - after the president had rejected an appeal for clemency out of hand following a secret meeting with the former terrorist in March 2007. It came as somewhat of a surprise then that the Stuttgart higher regional court granted his release at all at the end of November. But still, it's nice to see a review of what must seem a rather obscure title - even though Jones, too, fails to mention the translator of Homecoming, Michael Henry Heim.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Artur Becker Wins Chamisso Prize

I feel I've mouthed off enough about my quibbles with the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize "for exceptional literary achievements by authors writing in German, whose native language or cultural background is non-German". This year's main winner is Polish-born Artur Becker (see press release), and the prizes for up-and-coming writers go to Maria Cecilia Barbetta (see my review of her Änderungsschneiderei Los Milagros) and the poet Tzveta Sofronieva.

Becker, who cuts an impressive figure in person, walks away with a tasty €15,000 - and the Goethe Institut has posted a nice interview with him in English. He talks a lot about the emigrant/immigrant experience and about his love of writing, infectiously:

The greatest thing for me is when I can work on a book day after day, night after night. It’s as great as sex or a campfire by Lake Dadaj in Masuria. People who think literature and art are a kind of fiction don’t understand a thing. Literature is reality. Robinson Crusoe is really alive.

Having said that I wouldn't mouth off any more, I'm afraid I have to go back on my word. Because look at the jury's reasoning for awarding Becker the prize:

His texts have given the language of German literature new colours and new shades of colour, while strengthening the close ties between the Polish and German cultural realms in a poetically compelling way.

New shades of colour! These dear dear foreigners with their quirky customs, eh? A literary Karneval der Kulturen at which the Germans can marvel at their ethnic minorities like at Hagenbeck's human zoo while celebrating the country's diversity - kebabs! jerk chicken! curry(wurst)! Polish-style poetry! No matter that we only have one (stand-in) non-white newsreader, appalling educational statistics for children who speak other languages at home, and regular racist attacks.

Am I overreacting here?

Wednesday 10 December 2008

To Dub or Not to Dub

German culture is a dubbing culture. You can watch films from all over the world here, dubbed into German. Your average kid on the street is familiar with Danish gangs, Swedish rebels, Russian witches and French gendarmes from films - and that's all before they leave primary school. But as they get older and more pretentious, it becomes fashionable for Germans to reject dubbed films in favour of "watching the original" - either with or without subtitles. So Berlin's cinemas will show, for example, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in German, English with German subtitles and English without subtitles. You might even be able to watch it in Spanish as well, for all I know. I occasionally "watch the original" and am always amazed that everyone around me in the cinema is talking German.

I think there are so many advantages to watching a film dubbed into a language you understand very well. You don't have to read those annoying subtitles, distracting you from the action at the top of the screen. You don't involuntarily back-translate in your head (although this may be a translators' malade). You don't need your reading glasses. You can just sit back and enjoy Bruce Willis in his vest or whatever. And I think this is one reason why Germans are always incredibly knowledgeable about international cinema. They can just go along and watch the dang things, even before they get to reading age. Whereas in Britain, watching a foreign film is a chore for do-gooders and intellectuals.

Translating film and television dialogue has now become a real art form here. In the 1970s, it was seen as perfectly OK to pep up the rather dull scripts of The Persuaders, which ran as Die Zwei in German and had a huge following due to Rainer Brandt's unorthodox translations. Brandt added jokes of his own, coined neologisms (Tschüssikowski! - the stuff of a thousand school lunchbreaks) and generally ran wild with the material. I think there's still an argument for tackling dialogue in this way as a kind of cultural adaptation - if a joke just wouldn't work in the target language, why not replace it with one that does? But it's not done any more.

Nowadays, teams of professionals work on film and television dialogue. Babbel blog features a very informative interview with Frank Schröder on dubbing The Wire for German pay-TV, which gives a good impression of the process and some of the issues arising. Bear in mind that my knowledge here is all second-hand, please...

First off, a script translator (in this case the very talented Olaf Schröter) has a very short time to do a draft translation based on the film/show and a continuity sheet, not worrying overly about corresponding lip movements, etc. and perhaps providing a couple of different options for certain lines. The script translator has to have a good knowledge of the source culture and not only understand references but explain and transport them. Then the German dubbing authors take the draft and match it to the film, checking it makes sense and the lips aren't going "Oooh" when the German word is "Eeeh", or vice versa in fact, and making it sound as genuine as possible. As far as I understand, these editors don't necessarily speak the source language particularly well - rather like medieval translators from Arabic to Latin, who had Arabic-speaking dogsbodies to do the hard graft. Sometimes the authors also speak one of the roles too, as is the case with Frank Schröder.

But despite all that, the translation issues that come up are rather similar to those involved in translating literature: what to do with swearwords - tone them up or down, leave them in the original or take them out? Whether to use up-to-the-minute slang, which will date very quickly. How to deal with culturally specific terms. How to maintain a certain continuity of style across long stretches of text. And one very basic thing that I think probably troubles all translators - will it work in my language?

Tuesday 9 December 2008

A Kehlmann Front on the Approach

The German-speaking world is gearing up for the release of Daniel Kehlmann's new novel Ruhm (Fame). I might even try and attend the premiere at the Berliner Ensemble in January. The book certainly sounds intriguing: nine separate modern-day stories that interlock at the end to form a novel. I rather like these kind of clever literary games myself, really well done in Ali Smith's Hotel World for example. But Ruhm is miles away from Measuring the World in terms of subject matter, and there seems to have been some concern over whether Kehlmann can stand up to the pressure to top his runaway international bestseller.

Meanwhile, Me and Kaminski has reaped fairly lukewarm reviews in the UK - but it was published in German a good two years previously to Measuring the World and, I suspect, translated into English purely on the back of the better book's huge sales figures. Not that I begrudge any extra translations, you understand.

The Financial Times ran a cutesy little interview with Kehlmann on the weekend, fairly devoid of content. Asked what he is most proud of writing, the author answers:

My new novel Ruhm. It will be published in German in January. I know that many writers always think their most recent work is the best – but this is my best. I am very clear and confident about that.

Well, anyone willing to use a photo as silly as the one on the FT site must have a healthy ego...

Friday 5 December 2008

Top Five

I was asked whether I'm going to post a "top books of the year" list, and the answer is no. Because literature is not a competitive sport, don't you know.

Instead, I proudly present the top five loveliest German authors I have had dealings with this year, in no particular order:

Selim Özdogan - for all his support and for reminding me I'm not fifteen any more. I'm looking forward to Zwischen zwei Träumen early next year.

Antje Rávic Strubel - for the wine I didn't drink and a very entertaining evening.

Ingo Schulze - for asking an expert and understanding how one might be intimidated by sitting behind Volker Braun - and for the just plain enjoyable summer story Adam und Evelyn.

Ron Winkler - for providing the wonderful poem for our translation idols to get their teeth into, and for being the perfect guest.

And last but not least, because I'm a hypocrite at heart, Clemens Meyer, for my book of the year, Die Nacht, die Lichter.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Throw Away Your Telly!*

German book lovers! Make like the Stones and throw your telly out the window! For Germany's answer to Richard 'n' Judy, Elke Heidenreich, is now doing her show Lesen! on the internet.

I have to admit I'd never watched it while it was on telly. Tucked away on ZDF late at night once every two months, it wasn't exactly ever at the forefront of my mind. But now I've seen it on the web and it's utterly charming. There she is, all auntified and bespectacled, sitting in a pub with snow driving past the windows behind her. And she's funny. And she clearly loves books in a very unpretentious way. And... she invited the very attractive ex-punk Campino on the show, who raves about William Goldman's The Princess Bride. And who seems to be Heidenreich's nephew.

La Heidenreich, once crowned the most influential German-speaking woman, got chucked off the telly for being rude about all the other programmes after Marcel Reich-Ranicki got the ball rolling by refusing his TV award. "It's an embarrassment to be working for a channel like this at all. Why not just chuck me out right now, I'm fed up with fighting anyway," she wrote in the FAZ. So they did. And now she's gone and done the coolest thing and moved onto the rather excellent website litColony (lots and lots of other good stuff to explore here, by the way), which seems to be part of Cologne's literary festival litCologne. Which, judging by the website, is pretty dang good too. If only Cologne wasn't so incredibly far away from Berlin...

*Actually, don't. Because you'd miss Denis Scheck in Druckfrisch.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Every Book a Gamble: Ten Years of GBO

The Frankfurt Book Fair points out that its German Book Office is celebrating its tenth birthday. Hooray for subsidised translation promotion programmes!

Read all about it here; the most interesting soundbite from my point of view is from Grove Atlantic's Morgan Entrekin, with a titbit of sales information thrown in. I've highlighted my favourite part:

'We have had good success with Night Train to Lisbon and How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and anticipate success with the Charlotte Roche book Wetlands when we publish it next year', says publisher Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic. The publishing company is expecting net sales in hardcover of around 12,000 copies of Pascal Mercier’s book by the end of this year, and 20,000 of the paperback edition.

Other German authors whose books actually sell well include W.G. Sebald, Bernhard Schlink, Cornelia Funke, Frank Schätzing, Daniel Kehlman, Goetz Ali, and the anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin.