Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Prizes Prizes Prizes

I received an anonymous tip-off that three former East German writers are to share the €60,000 National Prize, awarded by the liberal-conservative Deutsche Nationalstiftung. According to big bod Kurt Biedenkopf, the three "promote our mutual awareness of history and a sympathetic feeling of being a single nation (Wir-Gefühl) in an exemplary way." The authors in question are Erich Loest, 83, Monika Maron, 68, and German Book Prize winner Uwe Tellkamp, 40 - thus showering money on three generations of writers who work towards the foundation's goal of "promoting the national identity of the Germans in a united Europe" by explaining the former East Germany for readers who never experienced it first hand.

Tonight also sees the awards ceremony for Berlin's Fontane Prize, worth €15,000, which goes to the lovely and very trinkfest Emine Sevgi Özdamar. Various other artists including Dietmar Dath also get € 5000 each. Berlin - poor but sexy, eh? According to the jury, "Emine Sevgi Özdamar is an example that the consequence of differences meeting up is not necessarily a levelling, but that a mixture of different ways of thinking, speaking and feeling can create something new that is of profit for both sides." You can read a number of her novels in English, most recently The Bridge of the Golden Horn (trans. Martin Chalmers, a man who knows a thousand songs and a good few pubs).

And then of course there was the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair last week. The three winners each get €15,000 too, and I was there to see the ceremony. The translation award went to Eike Schönfeld, looking very dapper as always, for his translation of Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. I was a bit nonplussed by the laudatory speech, in which a critic spent more time talking about Saul Bellow than the translation. Schönfeld has a lot of translations and re-translations under his belt and proclaimed loudly that he doesn't like to read books through before he starts work on them - that maintains the element of surprise and is a darn sight quicker too. The non-fiction award went to the beardy historian Herfried Münkler for Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen. And the fiction prize to Sibylle Lewitscharoff for Apostoloff, an apparently wickedly funny anti-Bulgaria novel that is at the top of my pile.

Interestingly enough, Daniel Kehlmann, who was also nominated for the prize and was one of the writers who complained about the terrible pressure of such occasions last year in the run-up to the German Book Prize, didn't attend the announcements ceremony. I also spotted a heavily bearded Andreas Maier slipping out just seconds after the fiction winner was announced. Ulrich Greiner, literary editor of DIE ZEIT, even referred to the criticism of pitting authors against each other for awards in his opening speech. He pointed out that these big prizes are a way to publicise good books independently of advertising budgets - although a look at the nominees shows that small publishers don't get a look-in either way. Having slipped into the VIP area after the deed was done thanks to an attractive friend and two sets of batted eyelashes, I can at least confirm that hanging with the big guns isn't as spectacular or interesting as it looks from the other side of the cordon. But at least you get to drown your sorrows for free if you don't win.

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