Friday 31 December 2010


If you have access to German newspapers and love short stories, you should go out and buy the Taz today. It comes with a separate magazine - Erzähl-Taz - of short stories by writers from far and near, including new stuff from Cees Nooteboom, Sofi Oksanen, Edo Popovic and Ann Cotten, plus other pieces from the likes of Henning Ahrens, Jochen Schmidt, Benjamin Stein, Kim Thuy, Tina Übel and Ulf Erdmann Ziegler.

I'll be saving mine for tomorrow. What better way to see in the new year? Have a good one!

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Wikileaks Book Battle

It seems that running a high-profile whistle-blowing website costs a lot of money, even if you aren't facing charges of sexual misconduct in Sweden on the side. And what better way to raise the funds than a nice book?

As The Bookseller reported on Christmas Eve, the former German spokesman for Wikileaks, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, is working away at a book for the German publishers Ullstein. Rights have been sold to all sorts of places, with the English release scheduled for 15 February. Which means a busy translator will have been working almost simultaneously, as the German version comes out on January 27. According to the report, the book will detail Domscheit-Berg's "disenchantment with the organisation’s lack of transparency, its abandonment of political neutrality, and the increasing concentration of power by Julian Assange". The former spokesman will also be launching a new platform by the name of Openleaks.

Meanwhile, the Guardian confirmed on Boxing Day that Julian Assange, the big bad former boss, will be earning over a million pounds for his own book, money he says he needs to keep the wikileaks site afloat and pay legal costs. I can't quite make out who got the memoir deal first, but I strongly suspect it wasn't Assange - mainly because I've got a feeling there was a top-secret buzz going around the Frankfurt Book Fair about the German title in October. Plus, Assange's manuscript is supposed to be finished in March.

So readers of German will get the first insight, and Domscheit-Berg's Inside Wikileaks will steal a march on Assange's take. Indirectly, then, the staid old world of book publishing will fund two different leak platforms. My favourite part of it all? The fact that the verb leaken is beginning to establish itself in German - surely almost as irritating to the country's notoriously anti-Anglicism CDU politicians as the leaks themselves.

Monday 27 December 2010

No More Vorleser

There has been much gleeful crowing elsewhere - but I feel I have to out myself as a fan. I suppose it was the guy's rapier wit and intelligence, or the way he wore his suit. Or that little hint of tubby tummy, no doubt resulting indirectly from his love of cookbooks. Or in fact the downright sexy way - there, I've said it - he just went ahead and enthused about certain books, and trashed others with out-and-out contempt. No pussyfooting around; you have to be cruel to be kind, but when he liked a book he really said so. And those eyebrows.

My friends haven't stopped taking the mickey since I came out last week - But he's so short! And so opinionated! So conservative! And he looks like a Chickaboo (no, we decided that wasn't racist; although there's room for misconstruction, there is actually a certain physical resemblance around the hairline). And he's really short, you know!

I know all that. But I shall still miss watching Die Vorleser. Cancelled! How could they? I blame the other presenter - I know he would have shone like a bright star had he not been hampered by her earthy charm, her vox-populi saccharinity. And of course the format - I mean, all the other book shows on German TV are crashing and burning too right now, aren't they? He just hasn't found the right vehicle yet.

I can envisage something a little more glamorous, maybe just with his name as the title. With interviews and location shoots, maybe a visit to the sauna with Philip Roth or the racetrack with Clemens Meyer, maybe looking through Christa Wolf's stamp collection or tea and cake with Mrs. Bolano. Big-budget stuff, a primetime slot. With a live cooking section. And lots and lots of intelligent opinion. I know I'd watch it.

Friday 24 December 2010

Seasonal Delights

Have I ever mentioned my passion for literary costume drama of the BBC Jane Austen type? Replete with heaving bosoms and wind-swept hair, rainy hills and bustling market squares filled with pigeons and shouty flower-vendors? Christmas time, of course, is the prime season for costume drama, because we are all glued to our familial sofas and forced to find some televisual compromise that offends as few relatives as possible.

The Germans aren't quite as keen on the old literary costume drama as the Brits, to my great dismay. But last night I thoroughly enjoyed Heinrich Breloer's film adaptation of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. What viewing joy! Big dresses, sibling rivalry, domineering fathers, adultery, failed relationships - surely all the ingredients of family life are here. And you don't even have to read the very long book!

While my friend and colleague Shelley Frisch is convinced Buddenbrooks is the prequel to The Corrections, the rather clever contemporary German writer Jan Böttcher has adapted the material in a shorter and more darkly amusing manner in a Christmas story published in Die Zeit, entitled "Die Jahresvollversammlung".

I certainly feel I have a deeper insight into the German soul after watching Buddenbrooks and reading Böttcher. Those poor, poor things. Although perhaps Thomas Mann's sensitive misogyny is preferable to modelling one's life on Sense and Sensibility, who knows.

Three Wise Women

The last three German books I read have a single tenuous link – they were all written by women. I wouldn’t like to say that means they’re all aimed at female readers, for various reasons. Firstly, I suspect very few writers worth their salt have a clear idea of their target readership, and these three women writers are all worth their salt in different ways. And secondly, I reject the idea that decent writing appeals more to women or men. OK, I know there are books out there clad in pink covers decorated with pictures of shoes, and I strongly suspect few men read them, just as few women probably read those books written by retired army captains with photos of helicopters on the front. But genuinely good writing, I like to think, appeals to readers regardless of gender. And here we have three prime examples.

I started with Mariana Leky’s Die Herrenausstatterin (The Gentleman's Outfitter) the most literary of the three titles. Four separate people had recommended it to me (two of each gender), but it took me a while to get to the book. Primarily because this has been a bumpy year for me personally, during which I feared for a time I would have to have an eye operation. The heroine of Leky’s novel is a translator who has an eye operation. She also loses her husband, first to another woman, and then he goes and dies. Whereupon she loses it entirely, only to find help from the kindly ghost of a former Latin teacher. And from a fireman with a passion for karate films.

A good few people have pronounced this their book of the year, including my friend and colleague Isabel Bogdan. And while there were books that impressed me more this year, I have to concur that Die Herrenausstatterin is a great read. A really great read, in fact. Leky combines offbeat humour with great depth of insight into a grieving woman’s mind. So you go from raising your eyebrows at the absurdity of it all to swallowing tears at the sadness. In one wonderful scene, Katja calls up Armin the fireman to help her watch from his extendable ladder while Herr Blank the ghost tries to talk to his widow, who can’t see or hear him and has a new lover anyway. Poignant and laugh-out-loud funny by turns, as they say.

I was slightly bothered by the rather crude division of brawn and brains between Armin and Blank (although I do realise it was deliberate), and I had an odd sense of déja lu about the ghost fading away gradually. What more than made up for that, however, was the comedy of an aging karate film star tracked down in Holland and my weeping buckets over the ending. And ladies, it’s the perfect read for getting over the end of a fling! Especially if you’ve recently thought you were going to have to have an eye operation. Serious publishing types – you can get funding for the translation via the German Book Office New York, as the book’s on their latest list of recommendations.

Next up was Hilal Sezgin’s Mihriban pfeift auf Gott (Mihriban Doesn't Give a Hoot about God). I sought out the novel because the writer was one of the few voices of sanity in this year’s appalling hysteria over Thilo Sarrazin’s appallingly racist book about how only dumb Muslim immigrants are having enough babies. Or something. To the country’s great shame, Deutschland schafft sich ab is this year’s best-selling non-fiction title in Germany. Hilal Sezgin is a Turkish German who raises sheep in the countryside and works as a journalist. This is her second novel, following a 19th-century crime story about a Jewish lawyer’s daughter back in 1999. She’s also put together a book I’m very much looking forward to next year, a collection of essays by different writers under the title Manifest der vielen, in answer to Sarrazin’s simplistic crap.

And again, Mihriban pfeift auf Gott might initially appear to be aimed at women. It’s very nearly chick-lit – only then again, it’s not. Because Sezgin is a writer with an agenda. And what I suspect she wanted to do here was write an accessible, entertaining novel about counter-terrorism and prejudices against Muslims in Germany. Which she’s done very well. Mihriban is a bit of a loser, a young Turkish-German woman who practically brought up her little brother Mesut and forgot to get a life of her own. When radical Islamists start a terror campaign in Germany, the strict Muslim Mesut falls under suspicion and Mihriban is drawn into the plot. And there’s romance in it too.

Sezgin touches on a whole load of subjects here – civil liberties, internet surveillance, freedom of religion, racism, love and baby blue trouser suits. Above all, her narrator is witty and down to earth, with her own philosophy in life. You don’t have to be a Muslim if you’re Turkish, is her message, but you can if you like and that shouldn’t land you on the terrorist suspect list. A tad too drawn-out and repetitive for my taste, the novel is nevertheless a fun read that will make you question your own prejudices, and probably change your email account password.

Book number three in the pile was Marlene Streeruwitz’s Das wird mir alles nicht passieren… Subtitled “How to stay a feminist”, it’s a collection of beginnings of stories. Men and women facing major decisions, all nicely structured to tie them together. Streeruwitz puts her characters in situations that show feminism’s influence over society – a house-husband longing for something a little more meaningful, a professor ousted by the young woman she once helped to build an academic career, a Kurdish woman wondering whether she can start a relationship with an American. And she continues their stories on the website – calling it a cross-media experiment.

Streeruwitz has a very characteristic style, which I admire. Slightly experimental language, but keeping it simple. The author questions how far feminism has come, what it has achieved and what it hasn’t. It hasn’t necessarily made us all happier all the time, she seems to be saying, but it has certainly given us a wider range of options. In this sense, the stories are fascinating, prompting all kinds of thoughts and ideas. Especially because of their open ends - almost like that awful essay you had to write at least once a year at school: “Imagine what happens next…” The website, however, I find disappointing. I simply don’t care enough about any of the characters to follow their progress on the site, perhaps because of the short form, perhaps because of their exemplary nature. So while the book and the site work as a feminist project, I personally feel they don’t work as stand-alone fiction. But perhaps that wasn’t the point.

Three very different books showing different women in different situations – all well worth reading.

Thursday 23 December 2010

Merry German Christmas

The Germans celebrate Christmas on the 24th December - in Berlin often with sausages and potato salad, curiously enough.

Rebecca K. Morrison explores the myth of the idyllic German Christmas in the Times Literary Supplement. Spoiler: don't believe what those Victorians tried to tell us.

Friday 17 December 2010

Emerging Translators Programme

I'm passing this information along - with a great big fat sloppy hooray from me, because I think it's such a fantastic idea. Your chance to emerge from that cocoon, caterpillar translators!

New Books in German invites applications for its Emerging Translators Programme.

Six emerging German-English translators will take part in the programme. Each translator will be commissioned to produce a sample translation of a book from the Spring 2011 issue of New Books in German. The translations will be commissioned at the beginning of February 2011, and completed by May 2011. Participants will be invited to a workshop in London in April, run by an experienced translator, where the group will work together on each sample translation.

Applicants are invited to send a short C.V. and a translation of the short story ‘Gran Partita’ from Andreas Neeser, Unsicherer Grund (reviewed in NBG 28), by January 14th.

Further Details

The Sample Translations:

The length of each sample is to be confirmed, but is likely to be in the region of 4,000 words.

Each translator will be paid a fee for the sample, agreed in advance with New Books in German.

An extract of each finished sample will be made available on the NBG website. English-language publishers will then be able to request the full sample translation.

The Workshop:

To apply for the project you must be able to attend the workshop in London on Saturday 2 April 2011.

Lunch and coffee/tea will be provided free of charge during the workshop.

Limited travel grants for the workshop will be available for participants from outside London (likely to be in the region of £50). We regret that accommodation cannot be provided.

How to Apply:

Applications are invited from UK and Ireland-based translators of German into English, who have not yet published (or been contracted to publish) a book-length literary translation.

Applications should include a short C.V. and a translation into English of Andreas Neeser’s short story ‘Gran Partita’. Please email nbg(a)london dot goethe dot org to request a copy of the story.

Both texts should be Microsoft Word documents, and emailed to:

nbg(a)london dot goethe dot org

The deadline for complete applications is 5pm on Friday 14 January.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Reading Recommendations

Following my Christmas shopping list of translated German books, a reader asked about tips still in German. And Simone Finkenwirth - aka Die Klappentexterin - has collected recommendations from various different people, myself included, for a short seasonal series. Enjoy.

Saturday 11 December 2010

German Book Office Videos

How cool is this? I mean, don't you just love it when people tell you about great books they've read, and they get all enthusiastic and then they have to go and get the book and read a bit out of it for you, just to convince you? You know?

The German Book Office in New York is an instrument of cultural imperialism, running a white propaganda operation in the USA on behalf of German literature. And now they've come up with a new, vicious weapon: videos! Of people talking about German books! And they're so insidious - every time I pick up Peter Wawerzinek's Rabenliebe now, I know I'll hear award-winning translator Ross Benjamin's voice intoning lovingly.

That's it, American publishers. You might as well throw in the towel right now. You know you can't keep up your resistance to Teutonic literature much longer. Make mine a Jägermeister, Herr Ober!

Friday 10 December 2010

Anna Seghers - And Why Not?

On the subject of dead German writers and puerile prejudices, and that conversation linked below in which Dennis Loy Johnson talks about all the different dead German writers people have been alerting him to since he re-discovered Hans Fallada - I can't help thinking of Anna Seghers.

Now while I was a rebellious proto-feminist student taught by a German faculty made up entirely of men (as opposed to the student body, which was 95% female and 50% bored), I discovered Anna Seghers. This was on my year abroad at Berlin's Humboldt University, four years after reunification. At that time, most of the German literature staff had taught in the GDR, and the libraries and reading lists reflected that to some extent, although it was actually an exciting time in retrospect because they were finally able to teach what they wanted.

And a number of them still wanted to teach Anna Seghers. Having been starved of female role models back in the UK, my main criteria for choosing courses in Berlin were whether they had the word "Frauen" in the title and whether they were taught by women. I ended up reading a heck of a lot of Anna Seghers during that year and writing two papers on her work (out of three - my home university didn't want to put us under too much strain).

Anna Seghers was a communist writer from a middle-class Jewish background. She fled to France and from there to Mexico (and was refused entry at Ellis Island - you can read her FBI files somewhere or other). It was while in exile that she wrote her most astounding stuff. Her 1942 resistance novel Das siebte Kreuz was actually first published in English translation, allegedly selling 319,000 copies in the first twelve days, spawning a comic version, a film with Spencer Tracy, etc. Later came Transit, an excellent look at the dreadful lives of German exiles in Marseilles, waiting and waiting and waiting for exit visas, entry visas and transit visas as their money dwindles away. Probably my favourite is her 1946 short story "Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen", a rare personal piece in which the narrator recalls her former schoolfriends and considers what became of them under the Nazis.

Seghers returned to Berlin a year later and became, essentially, an East German cultural apparatchik. Which was of course fantastic for annoying my British professors. Her writing became very propagandistic (the joys of tractor-driving and attending meetings stand out in my mind), although more recent studies have found hidden criticism of the system. And she played a rather ignominious role in the cases of her publisher Walter Janka and the singer Wolf Biermann, never actually speaking out in public against their persecution by the authorities.

Then she grew old gracefully in a flat in the East Berlin suburbs, which you can visit, and got rather experimental in her old age. Science fiction, Caribbean settings - she was plainly wishing she could be elsewhere.

Now if we're going to go digging up dead German writers, Anna Seghers really ought to be one of them. She had a heck of a lot to say about the rise of fascism and resistance against it, complicity in it, and so on. Die Toten bleiben jung (1949), for instance, which the East German authorities didn't really want her to publish - while very much of its time in the sense that the communists are all perfect - is a fascinating fictional analysis that spans various classes from 1918 to 1945. Great structure too. Or someone could put together a lovely anthology of her very good short stories.

Translated short stories by a dead German communist woman - bound to be a bestseller.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Crispin and Johnson Talk Böll

You know when they make you read books at school and you hate them for the rest of your life? The University of Birmingham did that with Heinrich Böll for me. His writing is like bread and butter pudding to me - something forced on me at an impressionable age that I can therefore no longer stomach. Also, it's been very liberating to just go ahead and say, "I can't stand Heinrich Böll" for all these years.

So reading Jessa Crispin's conversation about the writer with Melville House publisher Dennis Loy Johnson in Bookslut has been a bumpy ride, exposing my own puerile prejudice. How can it be that two sensible people, one of whom I actually know and like and respect, can find such inspiration in the work of Heinrich Böll? That unsexy guy who wrote about German guilt and hung out with the Gruppe 47, a group so ridiculously male that it really only tolerated Ingeborg Bachmann and Ilse Aichinger within its ranks? (There's a wonderful photo of a Gruppe 47 meeting up at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, which I find myself gazing at during readings. Rows and rows of chubby men in ill-fitting suits.)

But of course literature isn't a nursery pudding. To some extent it certainly is a matter of taste - but then there are times when one has to stand back and say, "Well, Böll certainly knew how to layer his bread with his raisins, and he never left his books in the oven too long until they were all black on top." And if Jessa Crispin says his female characters are strong, I may have to have another wee taste in case I do actually like his writing after all.

So here, for all to read, is my painful admission: while I find Böll's earlier writing uninspiring and no amount of money will ever make me read his Irish Journal, I do grudgingly admire both The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and Safety Net (Fürsorgliche Belagerung).

You lucky unfettered readers can now dip into Heinrich Böll at will, as Melville House are publishing eight of his books in English translation. First up: The Clown, Billiards at Half Past Nine and the Irish Journal.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Translation Prizes to Dollenmayer and Mitchell (Both Male)

Not overly new news, but the American translators David Dollenmayer and Breon Mitchell have both won prizes recently.

Dollenmayer took the Austrian Cultural Forum New York's (ACFNY) 2010 Translation Prize for his translation-in-progress of Michael Köhlmeier's Idyll With Drowning Dog (Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund), a short novel first published in 2008. This is an award of $3000 for translations of contemporary Austrian fiction, poetry, and drama which have not previously appeared in English. The translator gets the actual cash if and when they find a US publisher for their project. And Dollenmayer gets a sparkly trophy too. Congratulations!

And the American Modern Languages Association has awarded its Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a translation of a literary work to Breon Mitchell, for his astounding new translation of Günter Grass' The Tin Drum. Well done to him too - he gets an unspecified cash award, a certificate, and a one-year membership in the association.

Now without in any way questioning these choices, which seem mighty fine to me, I did notice something of an imbalance when I was looking at past winners of both the MLA award and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize. They have both mainly gone to men. Interestingly, this isn't the case for the British equivalent, the Schlegel-Tieck Prize - even if you discount the fact that Anthea Bell's won it six times over.

I was suprised at this imbalance, because I'm used to thinking that translation, and literary translation as a subset of that profession, is a female-dominated industry. That may be because I live in Germany, where so many books are translated that there are plenty of translators, and the profession is not particularly prestigious. So as with many other lowish-status language-related jobs, women dominate. My hypothesis is that because literary translation tends to be the preserve of academics in the USA, the gender make-up of the award winners thus reflects a gender imbalance in the upper echelons of academia.

I can't draw any conclusions about the British situation, other than a sneaking suspicion that literary translators without academic posts can survive there because there is greater call for non-literary translations. But that's just a wild guess - and as the pattern of multiple wins shows, there aren't a huge number of people in the industry in the UK either.

Monday 6 December 2010

German National Writers' Team Reading

Never mind nanowrimo - bring it on for the autonama.

You can catch three accomplished members of the German writers' team this coming Thursday at the me Collectors' Room in Berlin. It starts at 8, and promises Moritz Rinke reading from his debut novel Der Mann, der durch das Jahrhundert fiel. Florian Werner introducing his upcoming non-fiction book Dunkle Materie – Die Geschichte der Scheiße. And Jan Brandt proving in his short story "Der Blitz" that comic collectors have to decide on one publisher – after all, you can't support two football teams either, can you?

Apparently they'll then be presenting their very own set of Panini football stickers. It should be the start of a series of readings by team members, in a nice space overlooking their practice grounds.

Now I hate to complain (as you know), but they haven't done a huge amount of publicity for this event. And the last time they tried to run it, only me and two other lonely spinsters turned up, so they cancelled on us. Admittedly, that was during the World Cup, perhaps not the best date for a football-related reading. So maybe this time there'll be a few more WAGs, aging pop stars, Russian oligarchs and the like in attendance.

Friday 3 December 2010

Mara Cassens Debut Prize to Sabrina Janesch

The very lovely Sabrina Janesch has won a whopping great €10,000 for her debut novel Katzenberge, the Literaturhaus Hamburg has announced. Hooray!!

You can read my review here, and you should also read the book itself, which is about ghosts of the past in Poland and the Ukraine and Germany, and of course if you're a publisher you should buy the translation rights and I will be delighted to help you out by translating it. Oh, and you can read a sample in English here. And you should.

The Mara Cassens Prize goes to writers of debut novels and is awarded by a team of just plain readers, who this year worked their way through a record 87 titles. Whoever said German publishers don't do debuts? It's been awarded to all sorts of wonderful writers in the past, including Clemens Meyer, Thomas Lehr, Ralf Rothmann, Terézia Mora, Zsuzsa Bánk, and oh my goodness, just one big fat crème de la crème of German-language literature.

Congratulations, Sabrina!

Thursday 2 December 2010

Irish Times on German Books

In today's Irish Times, Derek Scally has a nice piece about Markus Feldenkirchen's novel Was zusammengehört and the affectionate feelings many Germans have for Ireland. Scally writes:

The original of this particular species of book is Ireland Journal , by German Nobel Prize laureate Heinrich Böll. This slim volume encouraged a wave of immigration to Ireland in the late 1960s of West Germans who felt alienated at home. At first Böll’s book, and his immigrants, were greeted in Ireland with baffled amusement and then, as the country hurried down the road to modernity, with increasing annoyance. If these blow-ins had their way, the natives complained, Ireland would be forced to retain its backward ways and become a rustic, open-air clinic for emotionally damaged Germans.

Which I find very amusing, seeing as I know a good few of these teutonic celtophiles myself. Feldenkirchen is younger and writes about today's Ireland, with an added love interest. The critics are loving it. In this case, the book has a nice modern cover and is clearly not being marketed specifically to the Guinness-loving crowd.

Compare and contrast Swiss writer Rolf Lappert's award-winning Nach Hause schwimmen (a couple of extracts translated by Donal McLaughlin are available on Donal's homepage), also set partly in Ireland. I haven't read this novel either, but the cover so obviously plays on the Böll-style rural idyll cliché it makes my teeth hurt.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

love german books German Publisher of the Year

Having moaned and groaned about lazy publishing below, I thought I'd make a better suggestion. My personal German Publisher of the Year is Wolfgang Hörner of Galiani Verlag.

Not purely because they're the only German publishers who send out newsletters expressly to translators around the world, recognising that we can actually push the odd lever in the publishing industry. Not just because they always name their German translators, even in their Facebook status updates. Not only because Wolfgang is a totally and utterly nice guy who puts a personal touch into everything he does. Not merely because Galiani is the nearest German publisher to my house.

It's also because they have a fantastic and eclectic and risk-taking programme of literature and non-fiction, with everything from debut novels to award-winning daring prose to intelligent crime writing to banned Soviet geniuses to butterflies. I'm looking forward to Karen Duve - usually wickedly funny - on how to eat in a morally acceptable manner. I'm already in love with the blurb, in which she assumes she can continue drinking Diet Coke while only eating organic, as it's made entirely of chemicals (Why do I love writers who love Diet Coke? She's the second one I've come across.). The book comes out in January - and oh look, she's going on a mini-tour with Jonathon Safran Foer. Yum.

Sadly, the love german books German Publisher of the Year award does not come with any cash.

German Publisher of the Year

I like this little newsflash - trade mag Buchmarkt crowns its publisher of the year every December, chosen by the previous winners. This year it's Ulrich Genzler of Heyne Verlag - a Random House imprint that publishes almost entirely translations. Stephen King, John Grisham, Keith Richards, Stieg Larsson, Tom Clancy - apparently he has an infallible instinct for bestsellers.

I was about to express wonderment at the differences between the German and English-speaking publishing worlds. You know, my usual tirade about bestsellers in translation. But then I realised that in fact, Heyne's catalogue could just as easily be a British commercial publisher's list, taking safe bets on the exact same big names. Oh, and they have a delightful line in "dumb books for women" too. Congratulations.

(I have to admit I like the look of Heyne Hardcore though, with a very obscure mix of hymns to heavy metal, original erotica and strange things translated out of Scandinavian, Italian and Japanese as well as English. And David Peace alongside Beth Ditto!)

Friday 26 November 2010

And Win a Trip to Berlin

The Goethe-Instituts across Europe want to know what you think about Germany. And they're giving away a trip to Berlin to everyone who responds to their online survey. Or something like that.

The love german books Christmas List

Don't you love those magazine features that tell you what gifts to buy for girls, boys and grandparents? If you're anything like me, though, those lists will be a little short on recent German books for your taste.

So I've put together the ultimate seasonal book-buying guide for bombarding your loved ones with books translated out of German. I haven't read all of them, admittedly, but I'd still say it's a good bet they're pretty hot stuff. So gather those friends and family around you, stock up on the lebkuchen, light the candles on your Germanic tree, and rejoice - 'tis the season to be Teutonic.

And so, in no particular order, the recommendations.

For political crime fans:
Hans Werner Kettenbach / Anthea Bell, David’s Revenge

For bad girls:
Charlotte Roche / Tim Mohr, Wetlands

For the slightly silly:
Walter Moers / John Brownjohn, The Alchemaster’s Apprentice

For teenage girls:
Beate Teresa Hanika / Katy Derbyshire, Learning to Scream

For imaginative kids:
Reinhardt Jung / Anthea Bell, Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories

For the long-sighted:
Robert Walser / Susan Bernofsky, The Microscripts

For people you really like:
Jenny Erpenbeck / Susan Bernofsky, Visitation

For people who really love Rome:
Friedrich Christian Delius / Jamie Bulloch, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman

For map freaks:
Judith Schalansky / Christine Lo, Atlas of Remote Islands

For historically interested safer sex lovers:
Götz Aly, Michael Sontheimer / Shelley Frisch, Fromms

For vodka-drinkers:
Alina Bronsky / Tim Mohr, Broken Glass Park

For quiet rebels:
Hans Fallada / Michael Hofmann, Alone in Berlin

For people who don’t really like getting presents:
Thomas Bernhard / Carol Janeway, My Prizes: an accounting

For star-crossed lovers:
Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann / Wieland Hoban, Correspondence

For Berlin fans:
Lyn Marven (ed.), Berlin Tales

For gullible romantics:
Siegfried Lenz / Anthea Bell, A Minute’s Silence

For delinquent physicists:
Juli Zeh / Christine Lo, Dark Matter

For closet Orientalists:
Rafik Schami / Anthea Bell, The Calligrapher’s Secret

For celebrities:
Daniel Kehlmann / Carol Brown Janeway, Fame

For crime fans with a sense of humour:
Jakob Arjouni / Anthea Bell, Kismet

For multiple fathers:
Günter Grass / Krishna Winston, The Box

For lovers of beautiful prose and/or mining towns:
Ralf Rothmann / Wieland Hoban, Young Light

For dead people:
David Safier / John Brownjohn, Bad Karma

For aged hippies:
Berhard Schlink / Shaun Whiteside, The Weekend

For prolific readers in the UK:
Peirene subscription

For prolific readers in the USA:
Open Letter subscription

I thought about linking to Amazon, but then I decided to let you choose where to buy them. So the links are to publishers' websites in the UK or the US, just to give you an idea of the books. Happy shopping!

Thursday 25 November 2010

Karen Duve: Weihnachten mit Thomas Müller

Here's another post by my daughter, this time about a children's book written by one of my favourite grown-up writers, Karen Duve. I'm waiting for adolescence to kick in, but until then I shall enjoy every minute of my daughter liking the same writer as me.

Weihnachten mit Thomas Müller is a couple of years old (2003) but hasn't dated. And it's written with Karen Duve's inimitable wry humour, which she uses to take all the characters in the story down a peg or two - and that makes them all the more loveable.

I first read it a month or so ago, drunk. And loved it, even sober. Here's what Elli has to say (I've translated her original post behind the link):

In this gorgeous picture book, "Thomas Müller" isn't a goalkeeper, he's a little teddy bear.
His family has left him behind, sadly. His owner Marc Wortmann dropped him. :(
Presumably when he saw the sneakers with integrated disco lights in the toys and sports store.

As he's sitting all alone by a fountain, a slim black cat comes along and they get talking.

The two of them decide to look for the Wortmann family; after all, Marc must be really missing him at Christmas, mustn't he?

A fun picture book with great illustrations.

Absolutely recommended!

no man's land issue 5 now online

Incredibly, amazingly, we can hardly believe it ourselves-ly, the fifth issue of no man's land is now online at

The only magazine devoted entirely to new German writing in English translation, it's chock-full of delights this time around. We have fiction by Volker Braun, Werner Bräunig, Dietmar Dath, Johanna Hemkentokrax, Kai Gero Lenke, Siegfried Lenz, PeterLicht, Milena Oda, Gerhard Roth and Lutz Seiler and poetry by Lars-Arvid Brischke, Ulrike Draesner, Jörg Fauser, Claudia Kohlus, Fitzgerald Kusz, Marcus Roloff, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Tzveta Sofronieva.

We were thrilled to receive an unprecedented number of submissions this year, and I'd like to say a big thank you to all the excellent translators who sent us the fruits of their hard work.

And now take the rest of the day off work and read the damn thing! You won't regret it.

Monday 22 November 2010

no man's land issue #5 launch - don't ask me...

The wonderful, amazing online magazine of contemporary German-language literature in translation no man's land (which I co-edit) launches its fifth issue on Wednesday! In Berlin! Come along! The new issue should go live at about the same time. Please don't ask me what to expect at the launch, as I have no idea whatsoever. Here's the announcement:

Launch of the 5th edition of no man’s land
- the online magazine for new German literature in English

November 24, 2010
8:30 p.m.
Rosenthaler Str. 71, Berlin
5 € / 3 € / 0 €

Founded in 2006, no man’s land ( is the only online magazine to publish exclusively new German literature in English translation. For many readers, it their first comprehensive introduction to contemporary German literature. And no man’s land’s vital culture of translation builds bridges between the local literary scene and English-language translators, writers and readers in Berlin and all around the world.

The 5th edition presents fiction by Volker Braun, Werner Bräunig, Dietmar Dath, Johanna Hemkentokrax, Kai Gero Lenke, Siegfried Lenz, PeterLicht, Milena Oda, Gerhard Roth and Lutz Seiler and poetry by Lars-Arvid Brischke, Ulrike Draesner, Jörg Fauser, Claudia Kohlus, Fitzgerald Kusz, Marcus Roloff, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Tzveta Sofronieva.

Instead of the usual launch reading with German writing and English translations, we’re celebrating with a special event. This time the two languages will be shaken and mixed in a bi- and interlingual edition of the infamous “analysis show” ROTTEN KINCK OHNE: “The Igel Flies Tonight” with star poets Ann Cotten and Monika Rinck, a performance that will also be documented in the issue.

Monika Rinck and Ann Cotten: For the launch of no man’s land # 5 we present ROTTEN KINCK OHNE, a reduced edition of the format known as the ROTTEN KINCK SCHOW, this time with Ann Cotten und Monika Rinck, unfortunately without Sabine Scho, who is in Sao Paolo at the moment.

Under the title "THE IGEL FLIES TONIGHT" the NOVEMBER RKO will enlighten the dark corridor of language. Language as in English and in German, corridor as in Buñuel. The whole drudgery of translation will come into play: Hypnosis-Cabin, Etym-Oubliette, Hackepeter-Hedgehog.

THE RKS and RKO try by all (epistemological) means possible to produce ANSCHAULICHKEIT. Associations are eo ipso arguments. Nothing is simplified - even though it can get rough sometimes. Things will be used.

We await the Igel in suspense… and hope to see you there!

Yours truly,

The Editors, no man’s land


GERMAN-English RKO – with Ann Cotten, Monika Rinck,

Hackepeterhedgehog – Too Important To Go Away
# DOOMSDAY for the TRANSLATOR (Exorcism or: BRIDGE of VOMIT)
# READING HORSE'S FACES (after Silvan S. Tomkins)
# GENERAL KNUSEMONG – en general que nous aimons

ENSUITE: .. The ERROR-stretch of imagination -- the dark shaft of details .. the psycho-physio analogy of vis inertiae .. work performance of natural beings … land ownership comme competence … expelled from the circle of juices .. pièce de resistance ..auri sacra fames .. exculpation par sameness of conditions .. The centripetal and the centrifugal tendency in schmantz .. the blessing of being with very close people the veiling nivellement of kludge. --- the rhythm in the rolling of indifference.. "On the Terminology of the Sales Tax in Switzerland"

Friday 19 November 2010

Translating Celan in London

London's fabulous Goethe-Institut is doing something fabulous: a one-day conference to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Paul Celan's birth on 23 November. Not just what you might expect (although my mind's a bit of a blank when thinking of ways one might expect people to celebrate Celan's 90th birthday) - there'll also be an impromptu workshop on translating Celan’s remarkable poem ‘Einkanter’ from Schneepart.

See the link above for full details, conference schedule, etc. I believe you can just go along, even if you're just a normal German book lover or a translation nerd.

Thomas Lehr: September

Very occasionally, I feel compelled to share my opinion on a particular book or subject with the wider world. Wider than the readers of love german books, that is. I know, you're already very wide, and I love you all, but still.

Thomas Lehr's September. Fata Morgana is one of those books. It was longlisted for the German Book Prize, which was when I first read an extract from it. Then it made the shortlist, and I had the honour of translating an extract from it - which was an absolute pleasure and very difficult. Thankfully, the writer was extremely helpful and friendly (Thomas Lehr even went as far as reworking my originally rather weak translations of the poems contained in the text).

Three things you need to know about the book:

1. It has no punctuation. That means the multiple voices flow and eddy around you and almost make you dizzy, especially at the beginning. But it takes a remarkably short time to get used to it.

2. It's about two fathers and two daughters, in the USA and Iraq. And about 9/11, and Orientalism, and families, and love, and literature, and loss.

3. You really ought to read it, because it's damn good.

In fact I loved it so much that I wrote a whole article about it - in German, which is a very, very hard thing to do. For me. You can read it at - in German and in English (my translation of myself, which is a very, very easy thing to do).

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Susan Bernofsky Is Translationista

I love that other translators blog. For two long, we've hovered in the background out of deference to our authors, but now we can voice our own thoughts and concerns without detracting from them. And people are even interested, sometimes.

My favourite blogging translators are Isabel Bogdan and Margaret Marks. And now you can follow the adventures of German-English translator extraordinaire Susan Bernofsky at Translationista. She's off to a fighting start already, with all sorts of tips for translators in the US in particular, but also stuff that should be of general interest to actual non-translators. And I have my own tag there already.

I do love the internet.

Monday 15 November 2010

Melinda Nadj Abonji Takes Swiss Book Prize Too

The winner of this year's German Book Prize, Melinda Nadj Abonji, has won the Swiss Book Prize as well for Tauben fliegen auf (see my review below). She also took the audience vote with 39%.

Great news for her and her publishers, the Austrian indie Jung & Jung. I wonder if this hail of awards means the novel will make it into English?

Open Mike 2010

Berlin's Open Mike has slightly more gravitas than the name would suggest - it's probably the most important literary contest for German-language writers under 35. Invented back in 1993, it has nursed all sorts of literary talents including Karen Duve, Julia Franck and Terézia Mora. Nowadays, the competition has various add-ons such as a reading tour, workshops for the finalists - and an audience prize.

The TAZ Audience Prize is awarded by a group of mere mortals - as opposed to the three judges, who are established writers (this year Hanns-Josef Ortheil, Ilija Trojanow and Anja Utler). You can simply apply in advance to be on the audience jury, and the people at the taz newspaper pick five people out of the no doubt thousands of applications. So I applied and they picked me, to my great delight! Along with Eyk Henze, Walter Langlott, Franziska Matthus and Barbara Stark. Not quite a jury of their peers for the contestants, seeing as all but one of us are over 35, but at least a disparate group of non-writers. I've invited my fellow audience judges to write something here, so watch this space for their perspectives.

I wrote about the Open Mike in general last year, and for excellent blow-by-blow accounts (in German), go to litaffin and goldmag. This year, though, was very different for me.

It began with the fact that we were supposed to be incognito. So that none of the contestants could buy our votes, we were told. Except they announced our names at the beginning of the two-day event, so anyone who knew me was perfectly aware of what I was up to, tucked away in a shady corner taking copious notes. Plus I might have boasted about it a teeny-weeny bit in advance. Sadly though, not one of the twenty contestants bothered to offer me bribes. Perhaps they were busy being nervous, or assumed I was incorruptible. Or perhaps they weren't all that keen on the prize, which consists of getting your story published in the paper. And eternal fame and fortune, of course.

The other difference was that I had a mission. That meant none of last year's hanging around gossiping and bitching in the breaks - we judges sneaked off to our own special room for intense discussions at every opportunity. It also meant not having to queue for hours to go to the toilet, as we also had our own special facilities with much nicer toilet paper, and not having to eat tired cake and packaged sandwiches, as we had our own special catering. And a bit of hanging with the proper judges and the organisers, a glass or two of wine at the very end, a taz goodie-bag, that kind of thing.

I also read the texts much differently. In fact, last year I didn't read them at all, preferring to let the readings wash over me. But because the anthology is published just in time for the competition you can actually read along, and a surprising number of people do. That gave me a clearer idea of the writing itself; I could (and did) underline furiously and add my own rude and admiring comments. On the other hand, I read each text separately on its own merit and had absolutely no overview of common themes, trends, etc. Apparently, though, there were a lot of bathtubs, sheep and snow.

But enough about me; let's talk about the writing. There was about a fifty-fifty balance between creative writing students and people with proper jobs, which prompted some internal discussion about whether the texts were too smooth. Some of us were perturbed that there weren't any really wild and crazy young things doing more experimental stuff - no live wrist-slitting, no shouting, barking or whistling, and only one whisperer. (The people at goldmag were also disappointed by the rather grey wardrobe; I couldn't really see the writers very well but I did note a proliferation of bad hair.) We also found the five poetry entrants rather much of a muchness, possibly because they were all selected by one editor, Christian Döring. But that was a very good muchness, for the most part.

We worked by eliminating texts none of us cared for and then arguing about the ones we did like. My main criteria for the trash pile were predictability, making the audience (and me) sigh and shuffle in our seats, and just plain annoyingness. Plus of course gratuitous use of English, which the professional judges also objected to - although last year was worse in that respect, with only three texts that didn't include random English words. That left seven excellent writers.

My personal favourites were: Judith Keller, who read a collection of miniatures that captured a great many contradictions in a very small space. Susan Kreller, with a text that soured very well from misplaced optimism to out-and-out despair. Tom Müller, whose Clemens Meyer-esque misadventure was set in Australia (but didn't quite gel). Jennifer de Negri, for her beautifully written playground story with multiple perspectives and an interesting , if not quite unpredictable, twist. Sebastian Polmans, who read a great piece about a boy and a nun at a bus stop. And Jan Skudlarek's poems, which held my attention throughout and evoked all sorts of emotions. I hope the others will tell you which texts they particularly liked as well, because opinions did range widely.

So, capably and tactfully aided by Dirk Knipphals, culture editor at the taz, we whittled the longlist down to a shortlist and took one final secret ballot. And our winner was Sebastian Polmans for the story "Über Peanuts, mich und andere Sachen". Attentive readers will note that Polmans committed the dire sin of English usage even in the title - but in this case it wasn't gratuitous. In fact his highly rhythmic text is riddled with English, particularly song titles. It's about a black kid who sits next to an absurd black nun at a bus stop, and about his crappy life and his dreams and refuges. I loved the narrator's very characteristic voice and the very sexy nun in her vanilla habit, talking to God on her mobile phone and listening to a walkman.

The official winners were Levin Westermann for his poems, Janko Marklein for a story of rural juveniles doing nasty things with fish, and Jan Snela for a daring piece that played with language and emotions. Deutschlandradio Kultur will broadcast a feature on the event at 0.05 CET on 21 November. You can listen online, and I might be in it.

Many thanks to the lovely people at the Literaturwerkstatt and the taz, and of course to all my delightful fellow audience judges. I had a ball, and it's a shame I can't do it again.

Friday 12 November 2010

Melinda Nadj Abonji: Tauben fliegen auf

Tauben fliegen auf is the title that won this year’s German Book Prize in early October, so my review comes rather late. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that the publishers, Austrian indie Jung und Jung, hadn’t anticipated demand and the book was pretty much sold out everywhere only hours after the award announcement. But it’s also a book that won’t be rushed – reading it was a slow process.

Melinda Nadj Abonji (the surname is a Serbian spelling of a Hungarian name, pronounced something like “nodge-abonyee”) comes from the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina, part of what is now Serbia. She has lived in Switzerland since her childhood and holds Swiss citizenship.

And that pretty much sets out the lie of the land in Tauben fliegen auf. The novel tells the story of a family from the Hungarian minority who leave the Vojvodina for a new life in Switzerland, and what faces them once they arrive and come to modest success, running a café. Contrasting scenes set in rural Yugoslavia and a wealthy Swiss village, Nadj Abonji narrates from the perspective of the older of the two daughters, Ildiko.

The author has stressed in interviews, such as this one in English for Deutsche Welle, that language is hugely important for her. And she also describes herself as interested in musical and political literature. Her novel has all these elements. Its language is lilting and musical, highly characteristic not just because of her Swiss-German linguistic background, I would say. Nadj Abonji’s sentences are often long and beautifully rhythmic, and she often addresses differences between Hungarian and German. Towards the end, Ildiko has a truncated relationship with a refugee – he speaks Serbian, she speaks Hungarian, and they communicate in English.

And yes, Tauben fliegen auf is very political. Extremely, unapologetically so. We learn about historical developments in Yugoslavia – in one very moving section, the girls’ grandmother tells them the story of how their grandfather was arrested by the Communists, having resisted advances from the Nazis, and the family farm was collectivized. Later we watch relations sour between the Bosnian Serb Dragana and the Croatian Glorija as they work in the family’s café.

But above all, Ildiko has a watchful eye for racism in Swiss society. She points out organized forms such as the Schwarzenbach Initiative to limit the number of foreign workers in the country, deliberate racism such as an aggressive incident when an unknown guest soils the gents’ toilet, and more subtle signs of prejudice as voiced by many of the cafés regulars.

This is a lovingly told story, with many of the Vojvodina scenes of childhood pleasures and fears and later visits to the family very moving. My favourite passage is in the middle of a sentence spanning several pages, describing the mother’s fiftieth birthday celebration. She holds a speech and tells her guests about the communion dress her mother made for her:

…I don’t want to bore you and describe how the dress looked, but I wore that dress until I was fifteen, my mother sewed it specially so that every time she loosened the seam a little, a new pattern appeared, and when there was no seam left she sewed a little strip of lace onto the dress (mother, illustrating the words with her hands, asking me to translate lace and seam into German), and when I really didn’t fit into the dress any more she made cushion covers out of the cloth…

The characters are affectionately drawn: a sensible mother, a hot-tempered father, Ildiko always worrying about something and her daring and more carefree sister Nomi, a warm grandmother and many, many minor figures in both settings. And Nadj Abonji manages to transport the fear, guilt and impotence the family feel when the war breaks out in Yugoslavia.

Yet the novel has two major flaws in my view. The passages set in Switzerland, while not uninteresting, don’t shine the way the Vojvodina scenes do. Perhaps I’m buying into the good old Balkan exoticism cliché, but I genuinely prefer reading about drunken celebrations and feuding neighbours than sitting through long drawn-out explanations of how to make good cappuccino with the right head of foam. And the whole “mother and father work hard to give us what they never had in life and then we don’t appreciate it” thing felt rather been there, read that to me. Perhaps it hasn’t been done quite so much to death in German-language literature as it has elsewhere, but that’s no great consolation if you’ve already read the same stuff fifty times over in English.

Secondly, and more importantly for my taste, Tauben fliegen auf is simply not plotted. There is no narrative tension – or where there is, such as when a cousin is called up to the army, it is never resolved. The Serbian lover simply disappears mid-relationship, one of a number of characters lost to oblivion. While we find out the family’s history in dribs and drabs, the author rather wastes an opportunity by using up this material about halfway through. The only major development is when Ildiko leaves home; yet far from a satisfying conclusion, this is a huge anti-climax to close the book. I can only assume that Nadj Abonji didn’t want to stray too far from the autobiographical material by writing a more rounded plot.

There are books that work very well in the German-language world but not everywhere else; this, I suspect, is one of them. For German-speaking readers, the lack of plot may well be only a minor irritation. And in contemporary German-language literature, fewer stories of emigration and arrival have been told so far. The political issues Melinda Nadj Abonji touches on are perhaps of more interest on the domestic market than elsewhere, too. It’s a shame, though, because the writing in Tauben fliegen auf really is incredibly beautiful, and would no doubt be a pleasure to read in any language.

You can read a sample, translated by Rafaël Newman, at sign and sight.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Young Translators' Prizes

Get a bunch of under-35s to translate the same text and choose the best version. What a wonderful idea - so wonderful in fact that all sorts of people are doing it.

The Goethe-Institut New York has just launched the Frederick and Grace Gutekunst Prize for Young Translators - to "identify outstanding young translators and assist them in establishing contact with the translation and publishing communities." You have to be under 35, live in the USA, and translate a particular German literary text available on request from the people at the Goethe Institut. You're not allowed to have published a book-length translation yet.

The UK equivalent for translators from German works in the same way but actually has no age limit - the German Embassy Award for Translators was launched this year and I hope will continue in the future.

Then there's the Rossica Young Translators Award for Russian, and the new Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize, which will focus on a different language every year.

Such a great way to encourage new talent, particularly in the UK, where language-learning is becoming a rather exotic pastime and university funding - should it continue to exist in future - simply won't stretch to this kind of thing.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Shadowboxing Berlin

I wrote last year about how much I loved Inka Parei's novel Die Schattenboxerin. And now I've gone and translated it. The English version by the name of The Shadowboxing Woman will be out next spring from Seagull Books.

Of course this is all incredibly exciting. And because I love the book so much and just can't wait for you all to read it, and because it's partly about Berlin and how the city changes during the early 1990s, and because I love Berlin as well, I've made the book its own little website:

Shadowboxing Berlin. It's not quite finished yet, but there's enough there for you to get a taste. Do go back to the "older entries", as the site looks at four of the locations in the novel and they won't all fit on one page. I hope it whets your appetite for the book.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Berlin Grant Recipients' Reading 2010

I discovered this fantastic event last year – a chance to hear what a selection of Berlin writers are working on. Not just any old selection though; these are the people the Berlin culture authorities choose to reward with a grant of €12,000. With no obligation to go and stay in a draughty castle, write an essay on civic relations or do anything except write and appear in public on this one occasion.

14 writers, three moderators, free sandwiches, drinks and wine, live music. The only drawback is that the whole thing starts at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Which meant a large part of the audience looked as rough as I did, and the writers had to work hard to hold our attention. But most of them managed it. In the interest of fairness, the lighting people at the venue – the magnificent mirrored hall in the Berliner Ensemble theatre – also managed to make everyone on stage look like they had a piercing beneath their lower lip. I was confused for a while until I realised it was just the stark shadows of their noses.

One of the things I like best about this event is that there’s little time for chit-chat. Each of the writers gets five to seven minutes to read, preceded by a very brief introduction and one or two questions. So only a bare minimum of pseud-y blathering on the nature of writing, the writer’s identity, and so on. What you do get is a taste of works-in-progress that’s just enough to tell you whether it’s worth looking forward to the books themselves. And a short and unadulterated impression of what the writers are actually like, before the PR machinery kicks in.

This year it was the women who did it for me. With the exception of Peter Wawerzinek, of course, but I’ve told you before how much I love his novel Rabenliebe, from which he read a wonderfully gory passage all about eels. And concentration camps. Otherwise I was thoroughly impressed by Svealena Kutschke’s actual reading, prose carried by a very strong rhythm about a girl growing up in Lübeck – beautifully detailed, dense and bristling with fairytale references. I’m intrigued as to how Kutschke will go from the passage she read to an alternative travellers’ camp outside the city.

Another impressive woman was Saskia Fischer. Otherwise a poet, she’s now working on her first novel, as I recall intertwining various stories (although that might have been someone else; this seems to be a popular strategy right now). A cynical, intelligently written piece from a teenage girl’s perspective, showered with jewellery by her stepfather; but as it turns out, the bracelets and earrings and necklaces are what we used to call “Cornish compliments” – gifts turned down by someone else.

I also liked Esther Kinsky’s tight, descriptive prose and Anne-Katrin Heier’s witty short story about an actor called upon to vomit on stage every night. Which was cleverer than it sounds, honest. Back on the male side of the scale, Falko Hennig and Robert Weber presented their project “Dokumente der Straße” – a collection of love letters and diary entries allegedly found abandoned on random pavements, bought up at flea markets, stuffed into pipes as lagging material, etc. Very poignant, very funny, and going all the way back to 1911. Allegedly.

My personal highlight, however, was Tamara Bach. Not just because she’s a good friend of mine, although no doubt that helped. Tamara writes novels for young adults, one of which - Girl from Mars - has even been translated into English, in a fantastically down-to-earth tone that hits your funny bone just as hard as your tear ducts. And what I didn’t even know, because she’s rather a modest kind of person, is that she’s won about a zillion awards for her books. Tamara was the most entertaining and least pretentious writer on stage (although Hennig and Weber came a close joint second). She played for laughs in her brief interview and nearly made me cry in her reading from the forthcoming Basta und Streusand. If you have teenagers, buy them a Tamara Bach book today. If you don’t, read one yourself.

And pencil next year’s Berliner Stipendiaten reading in right now, if you too want to feel all superior about what books will be coming up in the future.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Lovely Links

Apologies for my silence - there is a reason, but I'm not revealing it quite yet.

Here's a quick round-up of links to keep you going:

Lovely Harvill Secker editor Rebecca Carter in a podcast about "the joys of doing books in translation".

Last Saturday's Guardian has a rave review of Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation (trans: Susan Bernofsky) by Michel Faber. Then yesterday, John Hopkins asked on the Guardian books blog if there is such a thing as the Great European Novel - and would we ever see it in English?

Also in the Guardian - which is fast becoming the place to go for newspaper coverage of world fiction - Maya Jaggi interviews Günter Grass. Grass' book The Box (trans: Krishna Winston) is a milder sequel to the autobiographical Peeling the Onion, this time narrated in the voices of his eight children (poor kids) and is out in the UK now.

And the New York Times has a long article by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, attempting to explain the whole awful debate over Islam and leitkultur (neatly explained by translator Ciaran Cronin as "guiding national culture"):

That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur is defined not by “German culture” but by religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which distinguishes “us” from the foreigners.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Atlas of Remote Islands Wins All Sorts of Prizes

The German trade press informs us that Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands has won the German Design Prize 2011 for communication design, having taken the 2009 prize for the most beautiful German book.

And you can now get it in English, translated by Christine Lo. Schalansky spent weeks in Berlin's state library, pondering over the huge globe to find 50 islands she had never visited and never will. She found out their locations and researched their histories. And then she drew her own maps of them and wrote a short accompanying piece about each of them. It really is a gorgeous book, perfect for dipping into when your inner geographer needs a spot of pampering.

Go to the link above for a sample of the maps and Schalansky's beautiful, often wistful and witty writing. And I believe she's moving into fiction, so definitely one to watch.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Marlene Streeruwitz: Das wird mir alles nicht passieren.

Described by Ina Hartwig in the article I linked to below as an "Austrian virtuoso pessimist", Marlene Streeruwitz certainly doesn't rest on her laurels. She has a new book out, a collection of eleven short stories called Das wird mir alles nicht passieren. The title means "all that won't happen to me" - and there's an intruiging sub-title: How to stay a feminist.

I haven't read it yet - but I will, partly because I'm impressed by the accompanying website, a "cross media experiment". Streeruwitz explains what happens next to her eleven characters after they face tough decisions - do they do what's expected of them or determine their own lives? And readers are invited to join in the storytelling process. Sadly, there's not much discussion happening at the site yet, but there's still plenty to read, watch and listen to.

Friday 29 October 2010

Jenny Erpenbeck at Soho House

I'd been looking forward to Dialogue Berlin's event to launch Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck's latest novel translated by Susan Bernofsky. In fact last night's event was held kind of in conjunction with the British publishers Portobello Books, only I've had to link to the US publishers New Directions above, because I can't actually find the book on the Portobello site.

And it was a great event. Jenny Erpenbeck read a little of the German original, followed by a reading from the fantastic and wonderful translation, which I really savoured. You know when words jump out at you for their sheer beauty? Last night that word was "plashing". Followed by Q&As proving how good Erpenbeck's English is. And all expertly moderated by Sharmaine Lovegrove of Dialogue Berlin, with a warm and friendly audience.

The book tells the stories of various people who lived in a summer house outside Berlin, taking in a vista of twentieth-century German history along the way. An opportunist architect, a wealthy Jewish family, East German writers, etc. Each chapter has its own voice, but all of them are simply stunningly written. Read my interview with Susan Bernofsky for far deeper insights into the novel itself and the translation process.

So having got all the positive stuff out of the way, here comes the complaining. Because although everything was right with the reading, a good few things were wrong with the venue - in more ways than one.

Soho House is a private members' club in Berlin-Mitte, but graciously opened its doors to us mere literature-lovers last night. I was sceptical from the very beginning, seeing as this kind of exclusive rich-people-only culture is one of the reasons I'm very glad I don't live in London. The place operates a hotel, a fitness club and various bars and stuff. Basic membership costs €900 a year and you have to be recommended by an existing member. So it's not just out of the financial reach of the neighbours in the tower blocks all round it - they wouldn't let them in anyway either.

The people behind it have invested a huge amount of money to do up the place in a 1930s aesthetic. In fact the building dates back to 1928, when it was a department store (Kaufhaus Jonaß) where the area's poor population bought on credit. The Jewish owners went into exile, selling the building to the NSDAP in 1942. From then on, it was the headquarters of the Nazi Reich Youth Leadership, who ran the Hitler Youth. Nice, huh? From 1946 to 1959 the building housed the Socialist Unity Party headquarters, followed by the party's Institute of Marxist-Leninism. It had been empty since 1995.

Quoting German Wikipedia (see that link above):

The memorial tablets (of Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl) have been removed. As of summer 2010, a glass stele unveiled by Rainer Eppelmann on 5 June 2008 is no longer in place. This was part of a senate project making sites of Berlin history visible. It contained photos and text in four languages about the history of the former Kaufhaus Jonaß.

Strangely then, the building the event was held in reflects just as much German history as the house in Visitation - not that you'd notice. The Soho House website tells us you can in fact hire out Wilhelm Pieck's former office (including a recreation of the original wall-panelling), but there's no mention of Nazi war criminal Artur Axmann having come up with the idea there of sending 17-year-old Hitler Youth volunteers to war in their very own SS division. The phrasing on the website merely claims the building was "seized by the wartime government". So now, media people plash in the rooftop pool (tastefully lit in green) where the Hitler Youth leader may well have surveyed the ruins of Berlin.

The event itself was in the basement library, which the website says is "filled with an assortment of art and design books". I know one can't artfully drape books, but this is the closest I've ever seen. It certainly didn't look like anybody's ever read any of them, and many of them seemed to be duplicate copies. Lovely shelves, I must say, though if I were a shelf I would long for something more substantial to contain. The room is all brown leather sofas and crushed velvet seat covers, a warm and cosy place to partake of drinks if not to actually peruse the reading material. Unfortunately, the PA system gave off a faint scraping sound all through the event, which made me think someone was sharpening pencils just to the left of my head.

The staff also failed to meet the standards one might expect. Not that I've ever been to a private members' club in London, but I would expect a level of friendliness verging on the obsequious. Nothing doing in Berlin - the woman on reception failed to recognise my name when pronounced correctly and then ordered me to wait in a tone that brooked no argument, the bar staff practically threw us out at the end of the event, and there were difficulties over a table afterwards. OK, obsequiousness is an alien concept to Berliners, but if you're going to land a spaceship full of Anglo-American culture right in the middle of the city, you might as well go whole hog.

And speaking of hogs, the bar upstairs smelt pungently of bacon and was full of people I didn't like. I chose not to go on to a nearby event about gentrification, having been convinced in the flesh that it exists.

All in all, then, a strange evening. A great event, well planned and well executed. But in a location not really in keeping with the novel, I felt. And certainly not in keeping with its surroundings.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Schulze & Hartwig on Contemporary German Writing

Two great pieces on German books in English:

My number-one fave critic Ina Hartwig gets all enthusiastic about Lutz Seiler, Clemens Meyer, Herta Müller, David Wagner (one of those people I see literally almost everywhere I go), Ulrich Peltzer (whose Part of the Solution will be out in English next year, translated by Martin Chalmers) and Marlene Streeruwitz. At sign and sight.

Hartwig writes:

The post-ideological vacuum which, at the end of the old world order, seemed to have resulted in a certain paralysis, has now given way to powerful and fascinating diagnoses of our times. Contemporary literature has long been fulfilling its very real seismographic duties. It is delivering earnest, sarcastic, sceptical, lyrical, buoyant and enduring images, more bold that the most incisive editorials, which go straight to the heart of the unknown society in which we live.

And in the run-up to their Best European Fiction 2011 anthology, Dalkey Archive Press interview the German contributor, Ingo Schulze. Echoing almost every writer I know, Schulze says:

Someone like Wolfgang Hilbig, who died three years ago, should be read and translated far more than he is. The best writing of the last thirty years in German comes from him.

This is indeed a crying shame. You can read translations of three very short pieces and "The Abandoned Factory" by Isabel Cole online, but he hasn't been published in the US or UK so far.

Friday 22 October 2010

Nino Haratischwili: Juja

Juja was recommended to me at the independent publishers’ fair back in the summer. Albeit by the publishers themselves, which is a bit like asking Muhammad Ali if he’s the best boxer. But then it showed up on the longlist for the German Book Prize, so I decided I really did have to read it.

It’s not a book you can read quickly. Almost 300 pages in small type, with a complex plot and chapters focusing on a number of characters in different times and places. To wit: a book as a character, set in Paris in 1953, narrated by a certain Jeanne Saré, who may or may not have existed. A young writer who moves from the provinces to Paris and gets caught up on the margins of the 1968 revolts. An art historian in Amsterdam, in the present day. A mother of a teenage girl in Sydney, also in 2004. A student in 1980s Paris and her friend. And “ich” – perhaps Haratischwili herself, a quiet voice adding the occasional first-person comment to the mélange.

As I noted in my lowdown on the longlist, the book revolves around a fantastic and fascinating teenage girl, Saré, and her adventures in an imaginary 1950s Paris, all unheated garrets and cafés and fairgrounds, opium and blowjobs and self-inflicted wounds. You can almost smell the Gitanes and taste the warm croissants, served up with a generous dollop of cliché. The book is an Axolotl Roadkill of its day, ending in Saré throwing herself under a train at the Gare du Nord. Saré’s book triggered a rash of copycat suicides, rather like Goethe’s Werther, when it was rediscovered by the feminist movement in the 1970s.

Haratischwili sends her characters into the fray, describing their interactions with the book. Olga, the Parisian student, finds it on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop and descends the stairs to the dark dungeon of depression, her friend Nadine powerless to help her except by launching a campaign against the book after her death. Laura, the Amsterdam academic, is persuaded by a student to travel to Paris and research its origins. Francesca in Sydney escapes alcoholism after a family tragedy by fleeing to Paris, where she comes across the book and with it a way out. And Patrice, the writer – well, he may have had more to do with the book than just publishing it, or perhaps not.

Written in rather jagged, uncomfortable language – the author is a playwright and no friend of that whole jaded “show, don’t tell” philosophy – this is a novel that nonetheless draws you in. The secret we’re chasing, of course, is “Who was Saré?” Yet all the sub-plots are part of the draw, personal tragedies large and small that suggest Haratischwili has a deep understanding of human nature, despite being indecently young.

Towards the end as all the characters – even Saré – find some kind of closure, almost disappointingly so, the book becomes more of a novel of ideas. It raises fascinating questions about the nature of truth and authenticity. And it asks what stories do to us as readers, and what we as readers do to those stories. That automatic assumption of authenticity is disturbing; here, the characters interpret all kinds of things into Saré that are really only reflections of their own issues.

A literary character as a canvas for the imagination – the whole idea actually made me wake up in a cold sweat last night. Why are we - or why am I in particular - so enamoured of teenage protagonists? Are we trying to vicariously relive our own uneventful youths? Are we looking for someone to love in our reading matter – a Juja, a person particularly worthy of love, and if they love us back it’s even better? In their press material, the publishers Verbrecher Verlag kindly included a review from 1978 of the “original” book upon which Haratischwili based her novel. The reviewer had her own projections, just as today’s critics initially found Helene Hegemann’s writing a testament to a youth unhinged:

A daughter has spoken. Her poetry confuses, shifts and maddens our senses and sense. Her own senses did not survive this shifting; they were defeated in the struggle against prevailing resistances.

Haratischwili plays with this pathos – her text ranges from the out-and-out teenage angst of Saré’s mythology and pain-laden writing to Laura’s pragmatic conclusions. My favourite line of hers: “All this suffering – doesn’t it seem stupid to you now? I imagine it must be so strenuous having to live with it permanently…”

This is an extraordinary debut that deserves the attention it’s been getting. It could have been more smoothly plotted, but then that would have taken the edge off it. It could have been more smoothly written, but then who wants smooth? You can read the first couple of chapters at Book2Look.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

A View From This Bridge

Rebecca Carter is an editor at Harvill Secker, part of Random House and - correct me if I'm wrong - probably the only major publisher in Britain with a decent line in international fiction. And Rebecca also writes a fascinating weekly blog by the name of A View From This Bridge, revealing the ins and outs of an editor's working life. This week I've contributed a guest piece moaning about how all we ever get is German books with Nazis in them.

Monday 18 October 2010

Guest Blog on Cornelia Funke: Reckless

This post was written by my daughter, who is nine. I'm so proud I think I might burst. She wrote it in German for her blog, and I've translated it here (and removed the spelling mistakes). Please don't laugh at my daughter having a blog; this is her first proper post and we shall see if she keeps it up...

I'm reading

Cornelia Funke


Steinernes Fleisch

This is a great book about two brothers: Jacob and Will Reckless.

At the age of twelve, Jacob discovers a note in his missing father's room. It says:

The mirror only opens to him who does not see himself.

But when he looks at the mirror hanging next to the desk he sees himself. Of course - it's a mirror!!! It has a silver frame made of roses that look so real as if they were about to wilt. When he steps in front of it he still sees himself. Until he touches the reflection of his face and falls through the mirror...

It is a world in which fairytales are reality and a fairy's curse changes humans into a goyl.
Goyls are terrible human-like beings with skin made of stone, who fear the sun.

Twelve years later, after all the years of caution, Will follows Jacob into the mirror.
But when Jacob notices that a piece of jade is growing on Will's elbow, Jacob has only one goal:
to find a cure for his brother.
He doesn't want to lose anyone else. His father has disappeared, his mother has died.
The only person he has left is Will. And nobody else.

But Jacob knows that curses are incredibly hard to break, and this one was made by one of the most powerful fairies...

And a tip for the female readers: there's a girl in it later too :)

Aren't you totally impressed by my genius budding blogger of a daughter? I haven't read the book myself, but have been regaled with tales upon tales out of it, which is a good sign. It was released simultaneously in Germany and the States/UK, and the English version has a very touching dedication to Lionel Wigram at the front. German critics have been a bit snooty about the fact that Funke collaborated with Wigram, a film writer and producer. Here's what Funke has to say about it:

I still write in German, so my cousin Oliver (Latsch), who also translated The Thief Lord translated what I came up with for Lionel, as he is British and doesn't know a word of German (though he likes to make fun of it:). Then we met again to add things or take them apart – and off I went to write the next draft. I usually do four to five drafts of a book but Reckless was the first book that developed both in German and English, which was another adventure!

If my daughter is at all representative, the plan worked very well indeed.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Ken Loach's Inadvertent Point: A Call for Literary Jesters

The revered British film and television director Ken Loach has a slightly rambling comment piece in yesterday's Guardian about the sorry state of the film industry in the UK. He points out the dominance of Hollywood productions at British cinemas, writing:

Just imagine, if you went into the library and the bookshelves were stacked with 63% to 80% American fiction, 15% to 30% half-American, half-British fiction, and then all the other writers in the whole world just 3%. Imagine that in the art galleries, in terms of pictures; imagine it in the theatres. You can't, it is inconceivable – and yet this is what we do to the cinema, which we think is a most beautiful art.

Sadly, of course, Ken Loach is wrong. Because in terms of literary production, the figures are worse than this. It is not inconceivable that all the other writers in the world would take up 3% of shelf-space. Because fiction accounts for far less than the commonly quoted 3% figure for books published in translation - only nobody's counting, officially. But judging by Chad Post's statistics at Three Percent, 356 books of translated fiction and poetry were published in the United States last year, excluding retranslations of classics. There are no figures for the UK.

What does this tell us? That Britain and the United States are culturally insular, that it is not just foreign film that raises little interest but foreign writing as well. Loach blames television, which he says "has become the enemy of creativity," with "a pyramid of producers, executive producers, commissioning editors, heads of department, assistant heads of department, and so on, that sits on top of the group of people doing the work and stifles the life out of them." The obvious analogy for writing would have to be corporate publishing, an industry - like any other - looking for safe profits.

Thankfully, we still have people like Ken Loach to raise their voices on behalf of the creative little people. He suggests, for instance, putting cinemas in the public hand to make sure they are "programmed by people who care about films." A difficult task in today's cut-ridden Britain, where the recent axing of the UK Film Council suggests this is unlikely to happen. In terms of international literature, however, my own hope blooms eternal: the Arts Council is still struggling on, providing funding for small publishers releasing translations.

Ken Loach wouldn't be Ken Loach if he didn't have a combative message to end his piece. I'd like to adopt it wholeheartedly as a motto for all those working with and interested in world literature in the UK - translators, editors, small publishers, critics, booksellers, bloggers, and all of us readers:

Those of us who work in television and film have a role to be critical, to be challenging, to be rude, to be disturbing, not to be part of the establishment. We need to keep our independence. We need to be mischievous. We need to be challenging. We shouldn't take no for an answer. If we aren't there as the court jester or as the people with the questions they don't want asked who will be?