Wednesday 30 December 2009

The Wall in my Head

Of the flood of publications marking the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, there is one you really ought to read, and that’s the Words Without Borders anthology The Wall in My Head. In fact it’s so good it has its own website.

The book is a collection of fiction, non-fiction and images from around the former Eastern Bloc. Those images include secret police documents, photos, official and opposition posters, letters and artworks, all carefully matched to suit each piece. And they really add another dimension to the book, although you’d probably need a magnifying glass to read some of those typed reports in Hungarian.

What the anthology almost instantly brought home to me is that East Germany was very much part of the Soviet empire. The writing describing life behind the Iron Curtain shows just how much the countries had in common – the queue being the social and cultural phenomenon that united people from Vladivostok to Rostock. Vladimir Sorokin’s “Farewell to the Queue” details its history in the Soviet Union and before, ending with a porcelain soup bowl full of black caviar and teenage romance.

The secret service too coloured life in all the various countries. Péter Esterházy reports on how he found out his father was an informer to the Hungarian State Security. Esterházy’s reluctance to get to the subject at hand is touching, cleverly preceded by brief reflections from his translator Judith Sollosy for some background material. And the German journalist Christhard Läpple tells the true story of a brother who spied on his sister, and why.

Then we come to escapes, and I particularly enjoyed the fanciful versions provided by Dmitri Savitski and Peter Schneider. The fiction extract that stands out most to me is from Romanian author Dan Sociu’s Urbancholia, as yet unpublished in English – “the obligatory chapter of memories from Communism” in letter form, complete with Bessarabians playing ukuleles and an illegal still. In fact, though, these were some of the few fiction pieces I found worked well alongside the factual reports. Certainly the extract from Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower is out of place here, a description of a tram ride that could have taken place almost anywhere and doesn’t offer any particular insight.

To focus on the rest of the German stuff: Annett Gröschner, a fine writer also featured in Lyn Marven’s Berlin Tales anthology, writes about experiencing the fall of the wall. Poet Durs Grünbein takes a broader look in a semi-fictional (I think) piece about an opposition activist. There’s a sprightly, silly story from Wladimir Kaminer about a fake Paris, a Soviet Potemkin village near Stavropol.

And I found Stefan Heym’s speech from the opening session of the German Bundestag in 1994 an inspired inclusion – except for the fact that the explanation of the East German writer’s complicated politics is much too brief. Heym may have been both an optimist and a realist and an “independent-minded socialist” who quoted Brecht and Abraham Lincoln in the same speech and reminded his listeners of the good sides of the GDR along with the bad, but he was pretty lonely in the German parliament as an independent candidate for the PDS, and resigned less than a year after his election. In fact, Heym was a fascinating character and a talented and intelligent writer who deserves more attention.

In general, the anthology asks a lot of its readers. There is no room for background material, few footnotes, and the biographies are very curt. But then why dumb things down? It’s not as if the book’s going to sell to people who’d otherwise be reading Dan Brown. I’m pleased to see the translators and writers given equal space together in the Contributors section, on an equal footing so to speak. Which of course should be no surprise, coming as it does from the people at Words Without Borders.

Instead of reading Western Europeans or Americans waxing lyrical on how they saw the Iron Curtain fall, then, do reach for The Wall in my Head, a fascinating collection of over 30 pieces of writing from those who really knew what was going on, generally well translated and opening the eyes, I hope, of the English-speaking world.

Friday 18 December 2009

Translate This German Book!

Impressed and inspired by The Quarterly Conversation's Translate This Book! list and prompted by David of Dialog International, I want to start the ball rolling on a list of German, Austrian and Swiss books simply begging to be translated.

Please feel free - no, feel obliged - to add your own suggestions in the comments section, and I'll write them up at a later date.

My number one (and I've said it before) is Selim Özdogan's tale of growing up in Turkey, Die Tochter des Schmieds. Part two of a possible trilogy is in the pipeline as we speak.

Also Clemens Meyer's debut novel Als wir träumten, more growing up but this time in Leipzig before and after 1989. A tad too long but oh, how it's worth it. His next book, a diary of the past year, comes out in March.

Sticking to that growing up thing, the world is missing out on Michael Wildenhain's Russisch Brot, an East-West Berlin story with mysterious things going on in the family.

A very obvious one but the rights haven't yet been sold as far as I'm aware: Kathrin Schmidt's Du stirbst nicht, which deservedly won the German Book Prize in October.

Plus I also loved Norbert Zähringer's fun-but-serious blockbuster literary adventure Einer von vielen.

More as and when they occur to me. And to you.

Thursday 17 December 2009

"Berlin" Publishing: Berlin University Press

Seeing as I've been trying to plug the woeful gap in my knowledge of non-fiction, I was interested to read that Berlin University Press, previously a publisher of "exceptional, academic non-fiction of wide appeal", is branching out into fiction this coming spring. According to the trade mag Börsenblatt (do I mention every time how much I hate this name?), the new titles will include Martin Walser's new novella Mein Jenseits, Mirja Leena Klein's debut novel Schonung and Hermann Wenning's report on a personal crisis by the name of Lauf zurück ins Leben.

And then I thought, hold on a moment, what an odd name. First of all, Germany doesn't do university presses. And second of all, there's no such thing as "Berlin University". Berlin has three large universities and all sorts of smaller ones. A few minutes' research turned up this rather brown-nosed Zeit article from 2007, singing the praises of publisher Gottfried Honnefelder for his august choice of name. Because of course it's all a big fat fib.

'I have nothing to do with the university presses,' says the Rhinelander, whose face has wrinkles only in the horizontal direction of his laughter lines. 'The name is a trick.' Under the upmarket mortar-boardesque title, Honnefelder wants to offer educated lay readers readable academic literature and at the same time transfer German-language academic writing across linguistic and national borders in parallel to the usual translations out of English. (...) And what has all that got to do with Berlin? Nothing at all. 'Berlin is a buzzword for German research,' says Honnefelder, who has a small office in Berlin, another in his home town of Cologne, and yet another in his technologically souped-up Audi, which he likes to use to travel between the two.

I presume the "office in the car" thing only works if you have a chauffeur, as even the German highway code requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel. Honnefelder is one of those giant figures of publishing, having spent 23 years at what is probably Germany's poshest publishing house, Suhrkamp, and is now also chairman of the trade organisation Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels - bringing us back full circle to their mag Börsenblatt. The most recent catalogue from bup (yup, that's what they call themselves) also looks eminently eminent: lots of ethics, philosophy, and ethics and philosophy of religion, with non-fiction titles by Martin Walser and Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's former CDU interior minister and current finance minister.

Perhaps one to watch for fans of conservative ideas and writing. Just don't fall for the fake title.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

More Tantalising Lists

If you haven't seen my top three untranslated German books of the decade, pop over to Podularity now. Funnily enough, George Miller has also asked German non-fiction editor Peter Sillem for his top three - and none of them are German...

You've probably also seen The Quarterly Conversation's incredibly impressive over 40-strong list entitled Translate this book! And now The Guardian has asked a glittering array of literary people for their favourite flops - the ones that really shouldn't have got away. Featuring a high percentage of translations, it is rather grist for the "translations don't sell" mill. But that's hardly surprising, seeing as they talked to translators and small publishers infamous for their outward-looking stance.

Tuesday 15 December 2009


Have you been looking for an online magazine all about women writers from around the world? Then go to Belletrista. Reviews, features, "holiday shopping tips", previews, it's all there, well presented and truly international. Issue 2 features Carolyn Kelly's Praise of Herta Müller (and a smidgen about Kathrin Schmidt's Du stirbst nicht too).

I think it's a great idea, but I'll be keeping my gender blinkers on here at love german books.

Monday 14 December 2009

Romanian-German Informer Scandal

Last week, as Hertha Müller was picking up her cheque in Sweden, other Romanian-German writers met up in Munich for a conference on German literature in Romania as seen through the fairground mirror of the Securitate files. And while they were there the Romanian-German poet, writer and translator Werner Söllner took the opportunity to confess to having reported to the Romanian secret police on his colleagues.

Twenty years is a long time to wait. It seems his fellow writers had known for some time - which may explain why their reactions have been remarkably calm and composed. Söllner has expressed deep regret over his actions during the 1970s and indicated that he was not aware he was being used as an informer. The Germanist Michael Markel defended him, saying his comments to the Securitate were of a favourable nature and did more good than harm. And Gerhardt Csejka, a Romanian-German translator and essayist, has written an interesting piece in the Tagesspiegel, the Berlin newspaper that more or less broke the story. Csejka writes:

Despite the necessity for clarity of distinction between perpetrators, victims and non-perpetrators, it would be an unbearable blurring of the actual moral texture of the landscape of those involved and an outrageous injustice if the worst rogues were to remain unrecognised and get away unpunished, while one man who exposes himself and his guilt to public judgement, albeit at a late date, had to pay penance for the greatest swines.

It seems the moral texture here is more complex than that of East Germany's literary Stasi informers, who have generally been blackballed out of published literature. The most infamous example was the Prenzlauer Berg poet Sascha Anderson, who provided a spectacular amount of information to the Stasi even after he moved to West Berlin. Yet as the East German writer Lutz Rathenow points out in a fascinating essay, in a good few cases Anderson's reports actually benefitted those he reported on, in career terms if not in any moral sense. Rathenow, who writes that his own Stasi files take up several square-metres of shelf space, feels that this explains the ambivalent feelings of many writers towards Anderson's activities. Indeed the poet Bert Papenfuß-Gorek still works very closely with Anderson, despite the fact that he would no doubt fall into the "victim" category.

I find this issue hard to deal with, never having experienced the huge-scale observation of the Stasi and Securitate. For many of those who lived through it, there seem to be moral shades of grey - from those who unwittingly collaborated to those who obtained privileges both material and immaterial. The writer Rayk Wieland recently took an only seemingly light-hearted look at the issue in the novel Ich schlage vor, dass wir uns küssen - in which a man discovers he was a dissident poet in the GDR and reads the meticulous misinterpretations of his fogotten poems in his Stasi file. Wieland's very own informer was a pimp and a gambler making a bit of money on the side. A man easy to label an arsehole, as Wolf Biermann famously renamed Anderson.

Update: Werner Söllner gave a five-hour interview summed up very briefly in the FAZ. Hubert Spiegel shows us a broken man:

Of all the fears he reveals, this is the greatest: that now it is finally out, since he stood before friends and colleagues in Munich as if wrapped in "black cotton wool", that now he feels something approaching internal liberation under the greatest external pressure, the impression might arise that he wanted to make light of or gloss over what happened back then.

Thursday 10 December 2009

2009: The Celebrities

Don't you feel sorry for the books that don't make it onto the "best of" lists? I always imagine writers scanning list after list for their names and descending into depression when they don't find them. But then I also used to feel sorry for peas left over on my plate when I ate the fish fingers first as a child. So rather than a list of best books of the year, I proudly present the top three famous literary celebrities I met this year and the earth-shattering things I said to them. Read it and weep, mere mortals.

1. Denis Scheck, über-critic: "But translators say 'du' to each other!"

2. Ilja Trojanow, writer: "Excuse me, my colleague wants to ask you something..."

3. Günter Grass, Nobel prizewinner: "I thought it was good that the translators got to read for a long time. Especially Danish."

Update: If you said something deep and meaningful to a literary celebrity this year (or in fact any year), do post in the comments. Isabo has made a fine start.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Kiepenheuer & Witsch: "Why Shouldn't We?"

Amanda DeMarco has a piece in today's Publishing Perspectives on the German publishing house Kiepenheuer & Witsch and their success with Ulrich Blumenbach's Infinite Jest translation. Apparently they've sold 50,000 copies. I like this bit:

When asked why KiWi felt it could successfully publish a book that posed so many challenges to translate, (publisher Helge) Malchow emphasized the house’s long history of successfully publishing difficult American writers: “Why shouldn’t we?”

Ha! An object lesson to all those cowardly US/UK publishers.

But I do object to this quote:

Malchow explained KiWi’s philosophy behind building its German literature list: “We are looking for narrative fiction. German fiction sometimes tends to be experimental. It tends to be very self-referential in terms of language, and there is a certain distance in German writing…from the narrative quality of fiction.”

Why? Because I disagree. Experimental stuff does exist out there in German-language writing, but it's not what gets published - and read - for the most part. What we're getting at the moment is excellent young storytellers like Julia Franck, Daniel Kehlmann, Tilmann Rammstedt, or the older generation like Siegfried Lenz and Günter Grass, who haven't run out of narratives either. Even the tiny independent publishers mainly do less earth-shattering experimentation than good honest stories like the work of Artur Becker, Alexander Schimmelbusch and Finn-Ole Heinrich.

The experiments are in the way writers tell these stories - just like KiWi's own Kathrin Schmidt plays with memory in her award-winning Du stirbst nicht. I think Malchow may not be being quite honest with himself here, claiming his house publishes daring English literature while acting as a pillar of conservative tradition on the German side.

Meanwhile, trade mag Buchreport (don't you love those innovative names?) has a wee interview with KiWi's internet guru Marco Verhülsdonk about marketing the German Infinite Jest via the "community" In case you were wondering, they won't be doing the same for every book. And no, Mr. V. doesn't think you always need "experts" on the case for these things.

Having watched the project from afar, I'd say it worked well but almost inevitably petered out towards the end of the 100 days of joint reading. I've spoken to a couple of people who were involved on the margins, and I think it was a lot to ask of them - hey, why don't we all read the same really long book and spend 100 days of our lives writing about it for free?! So it's great that one or two of them stuck with it rather than the project degenerating entirely into a full-frontal pedagogical exercise. And as Mr. V. points out, all that content is still out there, the perfect resource for anyone who gets Unendlicher Spass for Christmas.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Franzen and Kehlmann Do Kraus

I don't know what it is that fascinates me so much about it - maybe the fact that two very famous writers would enjoy the same nerdy pastime as myself. But the German press is also rather excited by the idea that Jonathan Franzen is translating the Austrian satirist and media critic Karl Kraus, with the aid of the Austrian literary poster boy Daniel Kehlmann.

The two of them gave a presentation on Karl Kraus the other day at Tübingen University, where Franzen is currently visiting eminent poet or something. According to the Schwäbisches Tagblatt, however, they didn't actually talk much about the translation process. It turns out Daniel Kehlmann had a job with the Karl Kraus dictionary project as a student (although presumably not the insults section, judging by Kehlmann's writing). And Franzen read Kraus at university too - trying but failing to translate him at the time. So when Kehlmann skipped watching Elke Heidenreich review his book on TV four years ago to meet Franzen, the two gelled.

As far as I can tell, they seem to be working on the essays "Heine und die Folgen" and "Nestroy und die Nachwelt". Where and when they may be published is a mystery to me. But the whole project is no doubt a boon on the sales front, perhaps making Jonathan Franzen a kind of literary David Hasselhoff who can do no wrong in Germany. His forthcoming novel Freedom allegedly has a German aspect to it too.

Friday 4 December 2009

My Books of the Decade

George Miller of did me the great honour of asking for my three books of the decade. It was rather a difficult task to whittle ten years' worth of reading down to three titles, but I did it. They're all German books - what a surprise. George is asking all manner of interesting people to do the same - and you can also listen to all manner of interesting literature-related podcasts on the site.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

German Non-Fiction Books to Love and Cherish

I wrote about failing miserably to come up with any non-fiction titles translated from Germany. So here's an attempt to make up for that with a small selection of recent titles. The list is fairly random, I'm afraid. It also consists mainly of books on German history and culture - which reflects what gets translated.

You could start with Stefan Aust's revised Baader-Meinhof. The inside story of the RAF, trans. Anthea Bell. It does what it say on the tin really. The book made a huge mark on German society when it first came out in the 1980s, and now includes new material from Stasi files, etc.

Aust knew some of those involved in the RAF through his work as a journalist, but for a more academic look at German history, you might look to Götz Aly. You can choose from Hitler's Beneficiaries (trans. Jefferson Chase), Fromms. How Julius Fromm's Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis (trans. Shelley Frisch), or how about Into the Tunnel. The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943 (trans. Ann Millin). Or wait for his highly controversial take on how the 68ers weren't as free from totalitarianism as they liked to think, Unser Kampf - although it could be a long wait...

On the subject of controversy, why not look out for Jörg Friedrich's The Fire. The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (trans. Allison Brown). Apparently it's very good for low blood pressure. To calm you down again, try a more light-hearted read: Hape Kerkeling's I'm Off Then, about his pilgrimage across the Pyrenees and translated again by the very busy and very delightful Shelley Frisch.

In a more literary vein, keep an eye out from January for Michael Maar's Speak, Nabokov (trans. Ross Benjamin), apparently "a vital new perspective". You can also get Maar's The Two Lolitas (trans. Perry Anderson) and Bluebeard's Chamber (trans. David Fernbach) on Thomas Mann.

Now if you happen to be a publisher thinking, hmmm, what a lot of fine non-fiction is coming out of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, there's a chance for you too to get a cut-price ticket for the bandwaggon. The initiative Geisteswissensachaften International provides funding for translations of humanities titles into English. Hooray!

Tuesday 1 December 2009

City-lit Berlin's Lovely London Launch

I have now officially recovered from Friday's London launch of city-lit Berlin at the Goethe-Institut. And I shall start this report with a confession: I had never been there before and felt a slight trepidation at entering the hallowed halls. But in fact the place was very welcoming and not at all as fusty and dusty as I'd imagined it. The event was held in the library, which I duly inspected. It passed muster very well in fact, with a lot of my favourite books on the shelves in the substantial "German contemporary writers since 1990" section, in German and in English translation. I also noted that the librarian Elisabeth Pyroth had a rather subtle sense of humour, which I appreciated.

But on to the meaty stuff: the place was full to bursting with chairs placed at every convenient juncture. Lots of huge celebrities were in the audience: writers, presenters, publishers, translators, parents of translators, best friends of translators, you get the picture. And only one person fell asleep during the event and had to be woken with a shake to put a stop to his rather disturbing snores.

On the panel were Rory MacLean (Stalin's Nose), Chloe Aridjis (Book of Clouds) and yours truly, chaired by the world's loveliest co-editor, Heather Reyes of Oxygen Books. We each read a short passage from the book and talked about our experiences of Berlin, German writing, etc. Heather was very good at keeping me reigned in - I've never been on a panel before and there was a definite danger that I'd talk too much. Then came questions from the floor, which were truly intelligent. To my great regret, someone asked about non-fiction writing in Germany, which is not my specialist subject, to put it mildly. I hope to rectify my rather lacklustre response at some point soon with a brief overview of available translations right here.

There followed much shmoozing and chatting with the remains of the wine from before the show. Stoked up by leftover adrenalin, I merrily handed out love german books badges - where better to get rid of the things than in the Goethe Institut library?

It may appear utterly decadent to launch a book twice over in two different countries. But there was certainly no repetition between the two events. In London, we were enthusing about the city we love, selling Berlin for all we were worth, although there was a feeling that the place is just on the cusp of becoming too sanitised. In Berlin, we couldn't do that. One of the things I love about it here is that relatively little self-laudation goes on. Berlin is a great place - yeah, we know that. So the Berlin event was more about celebrating the literature on the city - and plugging the book too.

You can admire a couple of photos of the panel and the audience at the city-lit café. Please ignore my gurning – I don't usually look like that.