Friday 28 August 2009

Julia Franck, Lagerfeuer

This is one of the ones that got away, not making it into the City-Lit anthology. And it's in good company, believe me. Nor was that because of the quality of the writing.

Lagerfeuer is Julia Franck's third novel, the one before the award-winning The Blind Side of the Heart. And although both deal with historical subject matter, the two books are very different. Lagerfeuer (Campfire) is set largely in the Mariendorf reception camp for East German refugees, on the edge of West Berlin. A mother and her two children leave the East by pretending she is engaged to a West Berliner, a fairly common practice as far as I'm aware. Snatches of songs on the radio tell us we're in the late 1970s, when Franck herself left East Berlin under similar circumstances as a child.

But rather than the more conventional narration of her later novel, Franck switches perspective in alternating chapters between the mother Nelly, constantly concerned for her children, an older Polish woman come to the West to get medical treatment for her brother, an ambitious CIA man attracted to Nelly, and Hans Pischke, a former dissident incapable of starting a new life outside the camp. Other than that, the prose is of the smooth style Franck's fans know and love.

There is a tense opening chapter as the family escape, Nelly being subjected to all sorts of invasive treatment by the border guards, which I found the best in the book. And after that the characters settle down to wait, and the book does with them. Franck describes the oppressive atmosphere in the camp so well that it weighs down the narrative - rainy days, queues and bureaucracy are the rule, food handed out in small portions, strangers living at close quarters, illicit prostitution and bullying. Almost all the peripheral characters are thoroughly dislikeable, beating their wives and stealing from each other, deliberately negating the notion of victims fleeing from persecution. Many of them seem trapped in the limbo of camp life, arrived in the West but far from the streets of gold they imagined they would find there.

The campfire of the title ensues in the final chapter, and is far removed from a cosy evening of marshmallows on sticks. But despite this denouement of sorts, I personally found that the book sagged a little under its own weight. We don't always need closure, but a tighter plot would have done the book good. I know there are some who say the same of The Blind Side, but I don't agree with them there.

That said, I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it to any readers interested in this fascinating aspect of German history. The camp itself is now a museum, where Julia Franck once read from the novel. I'm told the people running the place didn't agree with her very negative depiction.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Guardian's Top Ten Books on the Berlin Wall

At the Guardian Books Blog, Suzanne Munshower has a nice commented list of books about, yup, the Berlin Wall. Obviously enough, they're all in English. Extracts from six of the ten will be included in City-Lit Berlin.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Uwe Tellkamp Meets His Translators

Twice a year, Germany's translators' centre in Straelen plays host to a German writer and his or her translators, meeting up to collaborate on their translations. This time around, it's the 2008 German Book Prize winner Uwe Tellkamp, with translators into Bulgarian, Danish, French, Italian, Catalan, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Czech and Hungarian.

Can you spot the missing language? Yes, we can assume there is no English-language publisher daring enough to translate the "German Booker-winner". Called "a monumental panorama of the declining East Germany" and "the great pre-89 novel", it won't be available to English readers. Could this be anything to do with the fact that it's over 900 pages long?

Interestingly enough, this confirms a bit of a trend. So far, the English-speaking world has only picked up the German Book Prize winners written by women. Perhaps we're scared of German (and Austrian) men? Perhaps the judges could kindly take this into account this time around, providing a nice unthreatening lady winner to woo British and American publishers.

More information on the book at The Complete Review and on the workshop at EUK Straelen.

Monday 24 August 2009

Election Season

There's something that makes Germany very different to Britain in my eyes, and that's the fact that it's OK to talk about politics on any and every occasion. Whereas families in England will often change the subject when Uncle Joe starts on about the immigrants again, your average German family will get stuck in with gusto. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and they're entitled to air it at great length as well. Don't get me wrong, there are advantages to this, and it's usually very interesting.

Being human beings like the rest of us, German writers are no exception - only their options for airing their political views are wider than the odd Christmas dinner and drunken wake. And when election time comes around, there's no stopping them. I've already posted about Julia Franck's public advocacy of the SPD, but there have been a number of other interesting authorly interventions over the past few weeks.

First up was Dietmar Dath, in an interview with Welt Online. Dath has written all sorts of genre-busting stuff somewhere between literary fiction, fantasy and science fiction, including a non-fiction book about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and was shortlisted for last year's German Book Prize with Die Abschaffung der Arten. From the extracts I've read of it, I'd say Dath wedded Arno Schmidt with Margaret Atwood and a healthy dose of his own ideas. Anyway, he's a very vocal Marxist-Leninist and at the same time an accepted member of the literary establishment. So the interview with one of Germany's most conservative newspapers is great reading. Asked who he'll be voting for, he plumps for the former PDS, now called Die Linke:

The fun boys and girls in Oskar's crew (Lafontaine). Why? Because if a tiny remnant of health insurance, rent control, affordable education, collective wage law, etc. rears its head out of the rubble anywhere, these people will tie themselves to it with daisy chains and hurl insults at the diggers come to clear the ground. (...) I don't want socialism because it's written in books, I want it because I don't have rich parents. If I can't work any more I'll be in trouble if nobody helps me out.

On the same day Ingo Schulze weighed in, another candidate on last year's shortlist with the rather lovely Adam und Evelyn. Schulze has a lot to say about the former East Germany and the chances that unification blew, but this time he's widened his radius, giving us a broad picture of the evils of the world in an FAZ essay on the future of capitalism. Again, it's fascinating stuff, if perhaps not all that new to many readers. Fortress Europe, corruption, global warming, falling wages and rising debt - we need to rethink the way our world works, he writes. He recalls a scene from Rokand Emmerich's Godzilla, in which a scientist is standing in a huge hole in the ground saying, I can't see any traces of a monster, then the camera pulls out and we see he's in a massive footprint:

The German government reminds me of that scientist. They're trying to use the old ideas and categories to find out what kind of monster we're dealing with. But the standpoint and the approach are all wrong. (...) The finance minister Steinbrück recently talked about "fighting fire with fire" in extraordinary situations. I can't remember any political move in the past twenty years that didn't try fighting fire with fire. It might be a good idea to have a go at combatting flames with water for once.

And now we get Thomas Brussig, in the Tagesspiegel, on people who don't vote. Brussig is another East German, and has written a lot of satire on the subject of the GDR, including Heroes Like Us. It's hard to tell if he's being serious here, but it wouldn't surprise me. He complains that elections mess up the business of running the country, and compares voting behaviour in the GDR and modern-day Germany - people were once forced to vote but had no actual influence over their own lives, and now they stay away from the polls in their droves:

Not voting can mean: I'm not scared of any of the options on offer, and I don't tie my life's happiness to any of them. Not voting means not feeling subjugated to political conditions. I think that's not a bad situation. It's even a state of being worth striving for. Not voting means expressing freedom from politics. That's something very, very valuable.

Of course, some of us in Germany are free from politics by way of being disenfranchised, which doesn't mean we're not subjugated to decisions made above our heads, just to bang my own drum here. Aside from that, Brussig doesn't go into how democracy might work out what people want without actually asking them, so to speak, at the polls.

But ultimately, all these people are writers, so perhaps it's legitimate for them to leave any possible solutions out of the equation. After all, Uncle Joe doesn't have all the answers either.

Friday 21 August 2009

InTranslation: Selim Özdogan, Taking Hold

The brand new issue of The Brooklyn Rail's online-only InTranslation section features ten different texts, translated from Arabic, French, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese - oh and German.

The editors have cannily wedded art and literature, perhaps in an attempt to capture New Yorkers' interest in German art, by running my translation of Selim Özdogan's short story "Taking Hold" along with some of the pictures that inspired it.

I love it.

Love Blumenbach

The German-speaking literary world's gone Blumenbach crazy! The translator of Infinite Jest is everywhere you look right now, as part of a kind of marketing-by-translator campaign for the book, retailing at a whopping €40.

You can read his thoughts on translating David Foster Wallace's language in the FAZ: "The translator is a blacksmith of Pegasus and has his work cut out before the muse steed can gallop across Mount Parnassus." And in Die Welt. And now you can admire photos of the man on the trade mag Börsenblatt's website.

This is an unusual way to sell a book, very possibly prompted by the fact that the author died before the six-year translation was quite finished. It's more usual, in Germany as elsewhere, for publishers to tacitly suggest books haven't even been translated at all, hiding the translators' names in the small print. And reviewers tend not to question that, perhaps out of mere thoughtlessness or because they don't feel qualified to comment on the quality of the translation. There's been some progress on this front in the past few years, with the media talking more notice of translators as we become more confident as a profession, standing up for our rights and recognition.

But hell, why not let the translator do the hard-sell? Who knows a book better than we do, after all? So now we have Ulrich Blumenbach, the double award-winning poster-boy of the translation world. He is at least easier on the eyes than Germany's other famous translator, Harry Rowohlt.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Hotlist 2009

Those independent publishers, eh? Never let a bandwagon pass by, and good on them.

A group of them seem to have put out a press release yesterday with an alternative top 20 to the German Book Prize longlist. Here they are, a slightly more off-the-wall selection:

1. Hans Adler: Das Städtchen. Roman (Lilienfeld Verlag)

2. Barbara Bongartz: Perlensamt. Roman (weissbooks)

3. Michel Butor: Der Zeitplan (Matthes & Seitz Berlin)

4. Gion Mathias Cavelty: Die Andouilllette. Roman (Echtzeit Verlag)

5. Leonid Dobycin: Die Stadt N. Roman (Friedenauer Presse)

6. Daniel Goetsch: Herz aus Sand. Roman (Bilger Verlag)

7. Germar Grimsen: Almatastr. Roman (Verbrecher Verlag)

8. Jan Kossdorf: Sunnyboys. Roman (Milena Verlag)

9. Margret Kreidls: Eine Schwalbe falten (Edition Korrespondenzen)

10.Martin Kubaczek: Sorge. Ein Traum Roman (Folio Verlag)

11. Jan Off: Unzucht (Ventil Verlag)

12. David Peace: Tokio im Jahr Null (Liebeskind)

13. Joel Rosenman: John Roberts und Robert Pilpel: Making Woodstook. Ein
legendäres Festival und seine Geschichte - erzählt von denen, die es bezahlt haben

(Orange Press)

14. Alexander Schimmelbusch: Blut im Wasser. Roman (Blumenbar Verlag)

15. Ulrich Schlotmann: Die Freuden der Jagd (Urs Engler)

16. Jochen Schmidt: Schmidt liest Proust (Verlag Voland & Quist)

17. Michael Weins: Delfinarium. Roman (mairisch Verlag)

18. Chantal Wicki: Gleissen (Salis Verlag)

19. Benjamin Tienti: Raubvogel. Roman (Luftschacht)

20. Uljana Wolf: falsche freunde (Kookbooks)

At least one of them's a translation, David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero, which bowled me over. The uncredited translator is Peter Torberg. And Jan Off regularly makes me spit out my beer.

Europa Editions in German

A secret agent pointed out to me that Deutschlandradio ran a feature on Europa Editions the other day, the publishers giving the lie to the idea that Americans won't read translations.

Here's my advice: download the programme (from Tuesday), put it on your music player, go out into the city and walk around admiring all the beautiful half-naked people out there today, listening to it all, including the droning review of Aravind Adiga's new book beforehand.

It's interesting to hear the German bemusement at the fact that the English-speaking world just doesn't publish many translations.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

German Book Prize Longlist

Is this the most exciting day of the year or what? Apart from 16 September when they announce the shortlist and 12 October when they announce the winner, perhaps.

The longlist is out:

Sibylle Berg: Der Mann schläft (Hanser, August 2009)

• Mirko Bonné: Wie wir verschwinden (Schöffling & Co., February 2009)

• Thomas Glavinic: Das Leben der Wünsche (Hanser, August 2009)

• Wolf Haas: Der Brenner und der liebe Gott (Hoffmann und Campe, August 2009)

• Ernst-Wilhelm Händler: Welt aus Glas (Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, September 2009)

• Anna-Katharina Hahn: Kürzere Tage (Suhrkamp, March 2009)

• Reinhard Jirgl: Die Stille (Hanser, March 2009)

• Brigitte Kronauer: Zwei schwarze Jäger (Klett-Cotta, August 2009)

• Rainer Merkel: Lichtjahre entfernt (S. Fischer, March 2009)

• Terézia Mora: Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent (Luchterhand, August 2009)

• Herta Müller: Atemschaukel (Hanser, August 2009)

• Angelika Overath: Flughafenfische (Luchterhand, May 2009)

• Norbert Scheuer: Überm Rauschen (C. H. Beck, June 2009)

• Kathrin Schmidt: Du stirbst nicht (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, February 2009)

• Clemens J. Setz: Die Frequenzen (Residenz, February 2009)

• Peter Stamm: Sieben Jahre (S. Fischer, August 2009)

• Thomas Stangl: Was kommt (Droschl, January 2009)

• Stephan Thome: Grenzgang (Suhrkamp, August 2009)

• David Wagner: Vier Äpfel (Rowohlt, September 2009)

• Norbert Zähringer: Einer von vielen (Rowohlt, July 2009)

I haven't read a single one of them, apart from an extract from Terézia Mora. But this year you can download extracts from all twenty novels via Libreka (as of tomorrow), as well as tracking down the print version at a few participating bookstores. Hooray for progress - there will no repeat performance of last year's exploits for me.

I'll report back with my impressions toot sweet.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

City-Lit Berlin: Inka Parei, Die Schattenboxerin

Many of the books that have made their way into City-Lit Berlin were recommended to me by all sorts of people; some of them I knew and loved already; and this one I found trawling the net and fell in love.

Die Schattenboxerin (The Shadow-Boxing Woman - see link for sample, trans. Mike Mitchell) is Inka Parei's debut novel, published in 1999. She's since written one more, Was Dunkelheit war, and is working on Die Kältezentrale. So it's quality over quantity with Parei.

And what quality! Translated into eleven languages (although not English), this slim novel really captures the atmosphere of 90s Berlin. My copy is riddled with sticky notes, marking passages I wanted to include in the anthology. Only two of them made it in though. A young woman by the name of Hell goes quietly mad in a run-down tenement building in Mitte. Or perhaps she's quietly recovering. A crime novel-type plot starts out structuring the novel, but as we read on we're increasingly thrown off the tracks. Who is the girl's missing neighbour? Who is the strange young man looking for her too? Who is Hell (light), who is Dunkel (dark), and why the shadow-boxing?

I most enjoyed Hell's excursions around the city to familiar places, easily identifiable but slightly alienated and always beautifully melancholy: the post-industrial wastelands of Oberschöneweide, the abandoned pleasure park at Plänterwald, the quasi-ghost town of North Neukölln before the fall of the Wall. And in one breathtakingly well-written passage Hell dreams of a map of Berlin, revealing her own subconscious topography of the city. Here and throughout the book, Berlin is a sick city, a place that reflects the narrator's own traumas.

It's a crying shame that this book has never made it into English. It paints a picture of Berlin far from the clichés of crime writers and image brochures, but is much more than a city portrait. The complex novel with its compelling narrator really draws you in, and spits you out emotionally exhausted at the end of it all. One of my absolute favourites.

Monday 17 August 2009

Vicarious Ecstasy

A hot Sunday evening and music and cheering drift in through the window. I follow the sound down the stairs, out into the street and westwards, where the world once ended. Here a wrong turn, a dead end, no music in this neat private garden. Back out again, pulled by the rhythm, on to the gates of the graveyard. Still open even though it's well past dusk. But this is where the music is coming from, and the place is strangely alive between the sparse gravestones - not with ghosts of the dead talking to one another as in a writer's imagination, but with real, live, young people. Their bikes beside them, they sit in groups where by day the Wall casts its long shadow, quietly listening.

A break in the older wall, dividing the cemetery from the canal since the soldiers and nuns were buried here, reveals the source. Across the water, the back of a stage and a huge crowd of people, making human waves with their movements. We can see their heads and their arms in the air as they celebrate the music. Lights chase across the audience, clouds of dust rising above tightly packed bodies. I imagine the heat and discomfort, the feel of other people's limbs pressing against mine, but the white happiness of rhythms shared, moving as one. A cheer goes up at the first few bars of a familiar song, and then I know who's playing too. The boys behind the mixing desk jump and dance for the joy of it all. A few small figures are wandering around backstage, perhaps looking for the cool of the water. From over here the sound is clear and pure but for the creaking of crickets in the undergrowth to our left.

I leave again, satisfied but not wanting to intrude. Back home the sound wafts over, two encores and then all is over by ten. I come in from the balcony and look for a book and a CD:

Halbschatten and The Whitest Boy Alive.

Friday 14 August 2009

Bad Traven Manuscript Unearthed

I love these stories about researchers coming across unknown early works. But coming across unknown early works of B. Traven - alias Ret Marut alias Otto Feige (?) - is just a tiny bit better.

The mysterious and influential anarchist author - who penned the novel on which Bogart's Treasure of the Sierra Madre was based - sent a detective story to his publishers, the trade-union owned Büchergilde Gutenberg, in about 1925. But they thought it was below standard so they sent it to the SPD publication Vorwärts, which printed fiction by writers such as Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig - and paid well. As it turns out, they didn't like it much either so it languished in their archives for years, even surviving the Nazis, until the Germanist Jan-Christoph Hauschild found it in the Berlin federal archive. He says it's not much cop too, in an interview with WDR:

Traven hadn't found his tone yet. He argues on an ideological basis and is simply in the wrong. He presents the case of a murderer in the USA in the style of a court reporter and tries to rehabilitate the killer by turning the facts upside down and saying: "Another example of how fast the American justice system pins the blame on people."

Thursday 13 August 2009

Unendlicher Spaß

Wanna read what Germany's coolest writers and editors have to say about David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest - in Ulrich Blumenbach's award-winning translation as Unendlicher Spaß?

Then pay a visit to the website by the same name to follow their crippling reading schedule, closely modelled on the US site Infinite Summer. Only without public participation. Well, if the publishers are going to pay for it, they don't want just any old riffraff involved, do they? But I do have to grudgingly admit, you get the absolute creme de la creme of youngish German writers and editors airing their views.

You're welcome, Herr Blumenbach and Kiepenheuer & Witsch, there's no need to thank me for passing on that link a couple of months back. You probably knew all about it already and just forgot to tell me.

Update: As a certain person has kindly pointed out in the comments, riffraff is actually welcome to post comments on the site. Gnnn. Maybe the world is a good place after all.

Gorgeous Galleys

For the impatient among us, Words Without Borders and Open Letter Books have made the galleys of their forthcoming title The Wall in My Head available online for a limited period.

I doubt this move will backfire: the book looks so absolutely gorgeous that I for one can't wait to hold it in my feverishly shivering hands.

Featuring older and newer German writing on - you guessed it - the Iron Curtain and its fall from Wladimir Kaminer, Uwe Tellkamp, Peter Schneider, Annett Gröschner, Durs Grünbein and Stefan Heym, along with "a stellar line-up of authors from across Europe", it really is a treat.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

City-Lit: Tobias Rüther, Helden

As I’ve mentioned before, I nobly sacrificed my time earlier this summer to read through piles and piles of books about Berlin for the forthcoming City-Lit Berlin anthology, from the lovely people at Oxygen Books. And what a joy that was! Now that the dust has settled and the presses are whirring I thought I’d share some of the titles that made it in – and perhaps a few that got away.

These will only be brief pieces, as it’s been a while since I read the books in question, and some of them I only skimmed for juicy snippets. I’ll start off with what I found the most remarkable book in our collection: Tobias Rüther’s Helden. David Bowie und Berlin.

We’d been looking for pieces on famous Berliners and David Bowie just had to be in there, being very much part of the West Berlin legend. But pop biographies can be rather, well, specialised, which can be a tad, well, dull. So I was delighted to discover Tobias Rüther’s book on Bowie’s Berlin years.

The author is a journalist for the heavyweight Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, so it need come as no surprise that Helden is marvellously intellectual. Rüther treats us to discourses on Berlin’s architecture, contemplations on the nature of Bowie’s fleeting fixation on Nazism, comparisons to the Brücke art movement, and much more. The book investigates how the man himself imagined Berlin would be before he arrived, based on his fascination with Isherwood and all things thirties. And it looks at his life once he was here – two very different kettles of fish, no matter how hard Bowie tried.

Of course Rüther has done his research. There’s a four-page bibliography, he’s interviewed people who worked with Bowie in Berlin, visited his old flat and his old studios, and so on. But he puts it all together to conjure up a truly tangible West Berlin in the late seventies – although he’s only as old as I am so he can’t have experienced it first-hand. And above all, the man knows his music but never drifts into NME-style pop nerdism.

Most important from the practical point of view was that Tobias Rüther is the translator’s dream of a writer. A quick email enquiring about the sources of some of the text’s many quotes was answered in split seconds. Rüther went above and beyond the call of authorly duty to dig out all his sources for my translation, even faxing me a copy of a CD booklet. Twice.

Publishers: Work with this man. Buy the translation rights to this book. Satisfy the hungry minds of Britain’s and America’s intellectual music fans. You can be Heroes.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Berlin Tales' Berlin Launch

Roll up, roll up, for the Berlin launch of the fantastic Berlin Tales anthology at the Berlin Story bookshop. Featuring Torsten Schulz, Jakob Arjouni, Annett Gröschner, Rory MacLean, Yadé Kara and the book's translator and editor Lyn Marven in conversation on translating the city.

Tuesday, 8 September, 6.30 pm, Unter den Linden 26. That's in Berlin.

Marginally more details on the bookshop's messy but enthusiastic blog.

Monday 10 August 2009

Katy Goes to a Publishing Party

You may be the kind of person who goes to swish publishing dos all the time. I'm not. But by dint of writing nice things about a publisher on my glittering and hugely popular blog - or at least the publisher thought they were nice and seems to be of the impression that my blog is glittering and hugely read-worthy - I was invited to one on Friday night. My First Publishing Party. Here's what it was like:

It was like a normal party. Only a normal party with shit-loads of people and a huge excess of women. The men were either huddled together or surrounded by clouds of attractive women in good shoes. A normal party in a lovely setting, with free food and drink, and readings instead of dancing. And a normal party where nobody got embarrassingly drunk. Presumably it's unwise to get bladdered when the whole of Berlin's publishing industry is watching - that kind of thing is reserved for translator get-togethers...

Unfortunately, I usually eat at about seven at the latest, so by eight my tummy is rumbling and by nine I'm close to fainting. Which meant I couldn't concentrate on the last reading very well, as the smell of the barbecue was distracting me big-time. But the first two were excellent - I'm now really looking forward to Tim Krohn's Ans Meer (subtle humour and excruciating relationship stuff) and newly convinced of Jenny Erpenbeck's talents.

And here are my top tips for other publishing party newbies:

1. Take a friend along so you can bitch about other people's shoes. This will make you feel better about not knowing anyone.

2. Take some business cards. This is a business occasion. Not having any business cards in your ridiculously small handbag will make you feel slightly stupid, especially when you are asked more than once if you have any with you.

3. Don't mouth off about the school the author standing in earshot sends their son to. You will find yourself back-pedalling embarrassingly.

4. Don't get too drunk before you talk to that guy who's pretending he doesn't remember you from three weeks ago. Otherwise you may find yourself flirting outrageously to make up for it, in the kind of way that makes everyone else leave the table.

5. Don't wear tango-dancing shoes on cobbled surfaces. Actually that goes for most occasions, but it's probably more embarrassing to stumble and sweep several bottles and glasses off a table when the whole of Berlin's publishing industry is watching. (To my great relief, this one is second-hand advice.)

I'm told the party went on until four in the morning, so maybe I just missed the debauchery. But I had fun anyway. Funnily enough, I ran into a publishing person on Saturday night too, most unexpectedly, and got a lot more gossip on the edge of the dancefloor than by the shores of the Wannsee. But that's another story.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Lyn Marven: Berlin Tales

I'm with The Beat here (or the English Beat, or in fact the Pioneers): What a joy, what a joy, what a joy, what a joy, what a joy tonight!

19 - nineteen! - short stories on Berlin, selected and translated by Lyn Marven. Plus 2 - two! - interesting and informative introductions, atmospheric black and white photos, a short extra reading list and a couple of maps. Who could ask for anything more?

The selection is pleasantly broad, reflecting Berlin's history and culture as any anthology has to do. I was particularly pleased to find my favourite Julia Franck story here, "Family Friend". I once made an attempt at translating it for fun and found it hard to render the surprising ending without explaining too much and spoiling the effect. Marven solves that dilemma with a judicious footnote. Doh! But there are also Döblin and Tucholsky, Özdamar and Maron, Kaminer and Gröschner. Different generations of writers of various origins, united by place.

Apparently it's organised by district, but I can't say I noticed. What I did notice was how well the stories capture the city's atmosphere. Often, they're more about mood than about particular places, something I very much appreciated. Some of the pieces are almost reportage, particularly Döblin and Johnson, while much of the newer writing is more daring or personal. But Wladimir Kaminer almost seems to echo his earlier colleague Tucholsky for irreverent humour.

I enjoyed Larissa Boehning's "Something for Nothing", in which a potential romance sputters out and the characters explore what looks like an abandoned factory but turns out to be a much more Berlinische affair. Inka Bach's "Squatters" is wonderfully confusing and atmospheric, contrasting the 80s and the 90s, two decades that couldn't have been much more different in Berlin. And I read Kathrin Röggla's "factions" with interest too, a blurry portrait of nightlife adventures.

Sometimes it's the tiny details that capture the place. Here's Röggla: "on the way home there's the lime blossom again, leaving a film on the street, on the car roofs, windscreens, covering the city with their pattern, a script that's hard to decipher, a secret language!" Or Uwe Johnson, in an older piece: "The S-Bahn, its cast iron posts, its greenhouse stairs, its out-of-date enamel, keeps the city's past in our memory."

The final picture of the city is one of contradictions, an ugly place where beauty is possible, a place with a past but which is still loveable. It's hard for me to judge how the book will come across to readers who don't know the city. But as I read it I was constantly exclaiming, bending down page corners as I found familiar feelings, and laughing out loud for sheer joy. The loudest was over the place where Monika Maron discovered her love for the city, somewhere I pass every day:
"I looked at Chausseestraße's filthy asphalt skin, and thought I wanted to embrace it, wanted to lie down flat on the street with my arms out wide and embrace the street, the city."

What a joy.

Push On Frank-Walter Steinmeier

There's a song by the Pace-Setters that always makes me smile: Push On Jesse Jackson. I suppose because the image of Jesse Jackson in my mind's eye is the older man, the paunchy politician rather than the sideburned civil rights man, and that just doesn't tie in with funk.

Germany's writers have always been very forward about their political views - in the past couple of months alone, I've heard Günter Grass' and Ingo Schulze's views on the upcoming election and what went wrong with reunification at their readings, for example. Now there's a new initiative out there, harnessing the power of (Berlin's) culture vultures to push on Frank-Walter Steinmeyer as the SPD's candidate for chancellor in the upcoming elections.

You can watch videos of the dramatist Moritz Rinke and top novelist Julia Franck talking about why good old Frank is the right man for the job - he gave Moritz a lift home, and he likes poems. As you can imagine, the press have poured scorn upon them. My favourite excruciatingly embarrassing contribution, though, comes from the country-punk band The Boss Hoss, who look uncomfortable, drink beer and display their tattoos while they talk about how you should vote for Steinmeyer because he's kinda cool. When one of them suggests that he could join them on stage - just for a couple of numbers - the rest of them start looking even more nervous.

No mention, strangely, of the accusations against good old Frank concerning Murat Kurnaz's prolonged imprisonment in Guantanamo. And no funky theme song as yet either. Perhaps they could get Grass to write the lyrics, and I'm sure Tim Renner would produce it.

Update: An announcement on Julia Franck's website tells us:

Various media have written that Julia Franck had expressed public support for the SPD's candidate for chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier during the election campaign. These reports are false - the author has neither been involved in party politics in the past, nor will she do so in future.

And the strange thing is, the video I linked to above is no longer available. It did exist, I promise, but it seems we all interpreted it wrongly. Franck was merely informing us that Steinmeier appreciates poetry, not advising us to vote for him. As I recall, she didn't in fact say "vote for him", more like "he's the right man". Which we then all took - in the context of the website - as meaning "the right man for the job of running Germany". Which just goes to show, doesn't it? So folks, next time you're doing an interview for a website named "Steinmeier for chancellor", remember to choose your words carefully in case anyone thinks you might be actually advocating him.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Stephan Wackwitz on NY, Berlin and Literature

...Sort of. The programme director of the New York Goethe Institut has given a rather interesting interview to Die Welt, Berlin's conservative broadsheet. He talks about the institute's move to the Wyoming Building and its cultural history in New York, the influence of The Tin Drum and German film on the city.

Then he tells us how

The Americans are actually very interested in Germany: German art and German electronic club music. And above all they have a burning interest in Berlin. What's true is that the Americans aren't interested in German literature whatsoever. They don't translate it and they don't read it.

Then he (or the interviewer) talks about how Berlin is still living off the image Christopher Isherwood gave it before the war - arty, erotic, cheap. He's not wrong there - even the mayor plays along with his "poor but sexy" slogan.

Wackwitz himself is an accomplished writer; you can read samples (in German of course) from his forthcoming book Fifth Avenue Spaziergänge durch das letzte Jahrhundert on the Wyoming Building blog. It sounds from the interview, though, as if he's succumbed to the common phenomenon of cultural pessimism when it comes to foreign literature in the States. Call me a dreamer, but is there any reason why people can't harness that existing enthusiasm and interest in Germany's art, music and capital city to promote its books too?

Why not sell writers on the back of their coolness? Half the younger generation does the odd spot of DJing - why not get the likes of Wladimir Kaminer or Thomas Meinecke to bring a few records along? Clemens Meyer has written about both techno and art - presumably a dream combination... (OK, he's been to NY twice already.) Or someone like Maike Wetzel, whose short stories are undeniably Berlin and who makes - gasp! - films too. And although nobody springs to mind immediately in what's rapidly turning into a rant here, there are bound to be plenty of German writers with links to the art world, of various generations.

Luckily, there is balm for my soul: the excellent work of Edna McCown and Katherine Lorimer at the Goethe Institut New York in promoting literature, as showcased on their beautiful Current Writing blog. For all I know from all the way over here, they're already doing all that stuff I naively suggest above.

I'm waiting to see how the Goethe Institut commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall around the world... plenty of scope for mega-budget literary events there! David Hare + Thomas Brussig, John Le Carré + Julia Franck, Margaret Thatcher + Helmut Kohl – aaah, the possibilities are endless.

Update: As an interested reader points out in the comments, you can read Wackwitz in English: his An Invisible Country is published by Paul Dry Books (trans: Wendy Lesser).