Friday 26 February 2010


You can now become an official fan of love german books on Facebook. Just in case you want to impress people.

Thursday 25 February 2010

German Embassy Translation Prize to Samuel Pakucs Willcocks

My informers had informed me already, but I just spent ten minutes digging around obscure websites to get the official version:

The Germanist Samuel Pakucs Willcocks has won the first ever German Embassy Translation Prize for his version of an extract from the novel Du bist zu schnell by Zoran Drvenkar. The lucky guy gets a month on the shores of the Wannsee at the LCB, 1000 euro spending money and a trip to the Leipzig Book Fair. Which is handy, because he's researching in a silent Berlin library as we speak. You can download his winning translation via that link above, by the way. Runner-up is my friend Jamie Lee Searle, who gets a big pat on the back and her name mentioned on the internet. Congratulations to both of you!

I like the idea of this prize a great deal, even if I'm not eligible to enter myself. Anyone can have a shot at it, provided they live in the UK. Let's hope it lures many more budding translators out of the woodwork in the years to come.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Get Into And Other Stories

I've mentioned in the past that a select group of British book lovers and translators is in the process of setting up a not-for-profit publishing house showcasing international fiction. The project now has a name - And Other Stories - and is already launching into discussion of what books to translate.

And you too can join in. Yes, you - provided you read German, Spanish and/or Portuguese. You don't even have to be in any particular country. They've set up three discussion groups on LibraryThing, for Portuguese books, Spanish books and of course German books, looking at titles by Anne Weber, Gabriele Petricek, Susann Pásztor and Katharina Hacker for the time being. The idea, I believe, is to single out the best ones to actually publish in English. Now how exciting is that?

Watch this space for more breaking news.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Eva Braun Redux

The international press have been swarming all over Heike B. Görtemaker's book taking a closer look at Eva Braun. See, for instance, Jessa Crispin at Foreign Policy, Kate Conolly in the Observer or the Guardian's take on Daily Mail readers' reactions (I haven't dirtied my eyeballs by reading the actual article they all commented on). German reviews, meanwhile, have been mixed. There just isn't enough source material to put a real portrait together on a serious academic basis, which is what Görtemaker has attempted.

But who cares about that in movieland? According to trade mag Börsenblatt, the publishers have sold film rights to the book to Michael Simon de Normier, the producer of The Reader. He says he plans to spend 20 million euro to make a film aimed at the international market. I imagine Madonna is already digging out her pubic wig for the sofa scene, having played another blonde Eva with Nazi pals in the past. But who will play Adolf in this ground-breaking new cinematic look at German culture?

Monday 22 February 2010

Happy Birthday Helene

I know I said it was my last word, but I'm obsessed, OK? Every single newspaper has run a story on Friday's big party for Helene Hegemann's eighteenth birthday and belated book launch, in the former technoland legend Tresor.

Cinderella here wasn't invited, despite having listened in on at least two excited conversations about it beforehand. But, you know, that's OK, I went to Tresor once in the 90s and it was kind of underwhelming. I probably would have just ignored the pink-and-black invitation proclaiming which movie stars and theatre directors were going to be DJing anyway. And who wants to stand in a queue in the rain with hundreds of journos and publishing folk? Let alone eat candyfloss under a giant papier-maché axolotl or try and make out what the writer and her friend read on stage over all the malicious gossip in the background.

At least I can revel in the illusion that I'm just too damn underground to get an invite.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Axolotl Roadkill: My Final Word

Yesterday the publishers Ullstein sent out a list of Helene Hegemann's sources for Axolotl Roadkill. And the magazine Bücher went and put them online (scroll down to pdf). So now's your chance to make up your mind. According to Ullstein the poached bits make up less than half a percent of the book. What's clear, though, is that much of the sections on Berghain and heroin consumption is closely inspired by and modified from reformed blogger Airen's book Strobo.

My final word is this:

There are two separate issues at stake here. The first is that Hegemann shouldn't have lifted from other people's work without crediting them. She got caught, she owned up, and now they're credited. I know I'm going to get more anonymous comments on this, but she didn't harm anyone. She didn't put a bomb under anyone's car, she didn't steal anyone's boyfriend, she didn't give anyone a Chinese burn in the playground. To put it bluntly, I don't understand why such a wave of hate has descended upon her. Unless, of course, people don't like seeing young women being successful in such a spectacular way.

The second issue is the quality of the book now that we know exactly which words are Hegemann's and which are other people's. Because I for one am not prepared to dismiss the novel out of hand because of the way it was written. And I stand by my opinion that Axolotl Roadkill is a good book, tackling much more than just heroin and Berghain, featuring genuine linguistic invention and capturing the spirit of Berlin as it is now. Above all, it paints a picture of a severely disturbed narrator who doesn't in fact come of age - instead refusing to do so like all those around her, living the lives of hedonistic teenagers well into their 40s.

And that, for all those clamouring for authenticity, is the real thing.

Two German-Language Titles on Best Translated Book Shortlist

The people behind the Best Translated Book Award have published the shortlist, including Robert Walser's The Tanners (trans. Susan Bernofsky) and Wolf Hass' The Weather Fifteen Years Ago (trans. Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen).

My fingers are well and truly crossed.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Another Night for German Lovers

All you London German lovers, hold onto your hats for the fifth night celebrating contemporary German literature at the Goethe Institut.

I've never been to one, but I like to imagine the illustrious guests – Sir Norman Rosenthal, Royal Academy transformer, Frederick Taylor, war writer, Iwona Blazwick OBE, art gallery director, Peter Florence, Hay Festival director and Chris Petit, film-maker, novelist and journalist – waxing lyrical over the delights of teutonic literature before an orgiastic informal drinks session replete with German wines and cheeses. No doubt they'll all be sporting their medals too, presided over by arts journalist Rosie Goldsmith in a golden dress and the honorary tiara of quadrilingualism. Couples will probably form in shady corners of the corridors, discussing the intimacies of intertextuality in young German writing. As the evening progresses, the atmosphere becomes more and more heady while translators and Germanists discover their common literary preferences. Alles kann, nichts muss.

It's on Thursday, 25 February. Make sure you take the next day off work to pamper the hangover.

Monday 15 February 2010

Volker Weidermann: Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher

A man sets out to read and write about every writer on the original list of books burned by the Nazis on 10 May 1933. Volker Weidermann is that man, the critic with the most impressive hair in Germany. His quest takes him to obscure second-hand bookshops, archives and the home of a passionate collector – reading great works and perhaps rightly forgotten literature. And then he shares their stories with us in this unexpectedly entertaining book.

Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher (The Book of Burned Books) provides portraits of every writer on the original list compiled by the librarian Wolfgang Herrmann. Himself a Nazi but not always true to the party line, Herrmann had originally drawn up his list of books by 131 writers of “un-German spirit” for removal from public libraries. It was the student organisation Deutsche Studentenschaft that organised the book burnings around Germany, using the list to select the titles. The writers in question were communists, Jews, anti-militarists and feminists – in a few cases all of the above.

As Weidermann shows, these authors were very different, and the book burning had different consequences for many of them. There were those who went into exile, many of them dying far from home, those who resorted to “inner emigration” of varying degrees of hypocrisy – and some who adapted to the regime, openly writing propaganda for the Nazis. Many of them are still household names in a certain kind of household today, while others died in poverty and obscurity.

Plenty of names would be familiar to English readers, what with the English-speaking world’s unceasing passion for exiled writers: Klaus Mann, Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. And Weidermann gives us some quirky details on these writers, such as the letters exchanged between Zweig and Roth and Heinrich Mann’s fading optimism in the USA.

But it’s the lesser-known writers that make the book a genuine jewel. Some are just plain odd – the fairytale collector Lisa Tetzner whose book about a flying hare showing little Hans the way to socialist happiness in Russia landed her on the list, and the anarchist Theodor Plievier whose night on the tiles with Gustav Kiepenheuer landed him a publishing contract. Some were no great writers, like Christa Anita Brück, whose poorly written novel about the awful lives of exploited secretaries fell foul of Nazi ideology. But then there are those who were forgotten for decades and rediscovered in the late 1970s when Stern magazine ran a feature on the survivors – Irmgard Keun, she of the still wonderful Artificial Silk Girl, being a case in point.

The risk inherent to this kind of book is formulaic writing. But that’s something Weidermann steers well clear off. All the tales he tells are different, ending in Nazi and Soviet camps, party functionary status or villas in Switzerland. And he goes to the trouble of telling them differently too – quoting from contemporary reviews and the books themselves, paying the writers their due respect but not shy of pointing out that certain books were very much of their time. There’s even the odd laugh-out-loud moment, for instance the cantankerous parodist Robert Neumann’s attack on the literary mover and shaker Walter Höllerer:

He is an everywhereman, chives on every literary soup, with nerves as fine as a dowser for divining subsidies.

I’m hereby redefining that chives remark as a compliment. My compliments, too, go to Volker Weidermann for this thoroughly researched and readable book. He set out, I believe, to rescue these writers from obscurity and show the barbarism of a regime that started off by burning books – and to my mind he has managed that. Now if only he hadn’t assumed his readers were perfectly familiar with the likes of Walter Höllerer throughout the text, it would be a great boon in translation as well.

Friday 12 February 2010

Harald Schmidt vs. Helene Hegemann, Rüther vs. Airen

I've never cared for Harald Schmidt. He's a talkshow guy not unlike a German Jonathan Ross, only he was never remotely attractive. I find him verging on the racist and well into smug territory - and he makes jokes I don't understand about football. But last night I sat through his show to catch Helene Hegemann's appearance, hoping for a little insight into the whole Axolotl Roadkill collage/sampling/plagiarism issue.

More fool me. What we got was Harald and Helene chatting about their good buddy "René" - presumably Pollesch - and how Helene has lost all faith in the media. And although the whole world has been mouthing off about how she can't possibly have been to techno club Berghain at her age, she explained the phenomenon adequately enough for the old fogies in front of their TV sets.

A brief aside: Since when have underage girls not been able to get into clubs? Bouncers aren't actually there to keep pretty girls out. Their job is stopping large groups of unattractive men and other uncool undesirables from getting in. Not that I've been anywhere with a bouncer in the past ten years, but I'm guessing this hasn't changed since my day.

I digress. Basically Schmidt kidded around a bit with Hegemann but skirted the issue everyone's talking about. At one point she couldn't remember a particular passage he referred to, and commented, "It's probably not by me, that's why." Sweet. Schmidt left that comment hanging like a worm on a hook and changed the subject to talk about her hair. There's nothing like taking the yoof seriously, eh?

Luckily, we have Tobias Rüther, my favourite intellectual heavyweight. He managed to get an interview with the "damaged party", blogger Airen, which is coupled with a decent list of the bits Hegemann lifted from his book. There are quite a number of them, although few of them are word for word and if you ask me, Hegemann has improved on his prose. Airen talks about authenticity in a rather pathos-laden manner and tells us he thinks Hegemann's book is cool.

Meanwhile, the chattering classes are fixating on her nomination for the Leipzig prize. She's not going to win, they say, and the jury couldn't back out on its choice. But chairwoman Verena Auffermann told Deutschlandradio Kultur they'd discussed the matter at length and taken a majority decision - and went on to defend the book for a lot of good reasons.

Otherwise, the discussion seems to have split into two camps: people who've read the book and can now appreciate it for what it is, a work of imagination drawing on other people's experiences at points; and people who haven't read the book and think it's all appalling. Now that Hegemann's apologised we've entered the reflective stage: what have the big bad media done to the poor wee lass, first hyping her like there was no tomorrow and then cussing her for providing them with all-too-easy opportunities for puff pieces. Nicholas Kulish sums it up nicely in the New York Times, in fact.

What's getting lost is the book. I'm more than relieved it was still nominated - because that gives me official sanction not to eat my words.

Axolotl Roadkill, people, is good.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair: Nominations

The shortlist is out for Germany's big spring book awards.

We have only five titles, one of which I've read so far.

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder Im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag - not out until March, but Faktor is a great writer who plays with language most impressively. The book is about growing up in socialist Prague and sounds like great stuff.

Helene Hegemann, Axolotl Roadkill - need I say more?

Georg Klein, Roman unserer Kindheit - this time a fantastic story of growing up in smalltown southern Germany.

Lutz Seiler, Die Zeitwaage - short stories from a hugely talented poet.

Anne Weber, Luft und Liebe - a twist on a love story by a novelist and translator who writes in French and German, highly recommended to me just the other day.

There are also prizes for non-fiction and translation - the nominees being Ulrich Blumenbach for DF Wallace's Infinite Jest, Christian Hansen for Bolano's 2666, Grete Osterwald for Hédi Kaddour's Waltenberg, Rosemarie Tietze for a new version of Anna Karenina, and Hubert Witt for Abraham Sutzkever's Wilner Getto 1941–1944 – Gesänge vom Meer des Todes.

Monday 8 February 2010


32 of the past 45 Google searches bringing people here featured the words "Helene Hegemann". It would appear people are interested in the whole Axolotl Roadkill plagiarism issue.

So here it is in a nutshell. 17-year-old Helene wrote a book (see my very brief review plus a couple of comments on the issue) set in Berlin. The 16-year-old narrator takes drugs and goes to clubs in Berlin, among other depraved activities. Over the weekend the blogger Deef Pirmasens pointed out the many similarities between Hegemann's portrayal of drug-taking at Berghain and the portrayal in a previously neglected book, Strobo, by another blogger called Airen. And yesterday Hegemann admitted she hadn't actually credited Airen as one of her many sources and inspirations, for a book that rather comes across as a collage of ideas, images and pop-cultural references. She talks about an online culture of sampling and remixing and comments:

Although I stand entirely behind my text and my principle, I apologise for not having mentioned all the people whose ideas and texts helped me from the very beginning.

According to a sympathetic Felicitas von Lovenberg in the FAZ, the novel was at least going to be shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair. We'll have to wait until Thursday for the dust to settle and the shortlist to come out. But of course everyone has an opinion right now.

Want to know mine? I don't care. I still think it's a good book, owing much more to Kathy Acker's techniques than to Airen's description of the Berghain toilets. Yes, it's downright disrespectful to credit David Foster Wallace and not "some blogger" as he's referred to in the text. Yes, even a 17-year-old should know better, especially one as apparently media-savvy as Helene Hegemann. But no, the publishers don't have a duty to check every word in every book for plagiarism. And no, there's so much more to Axolotl Roadkill than the few pages in question.

Whatever people wanted to believe about the book - and I'll admit I'm far from immune myself, with the intruiging narrator and the impossibly glam writer exerting a certain pull over me too - it is a work of fiction and should stand alone as such, not as a factual account of underage depravity in noughties Berlin.

I hope the HH phenomenon doesn't prove to be a house of cards. Because then I'd have to eat my words - but I don't think that's going to happen.

Update: According to Jürgen Kaube in the FAZ, Hegemann has compiled a list of sources:

There's now a list of writers whom Helene Hegemann hadn't thanked for using their works word for word or almost word for word. (...) The list ranges from Malcolm Lowry – for the book's first sentence – and David Foster Wallace through Rainald Goetz and the blogger Airen to Kathy Acker. It comes from Hegemann herself; the publishers Ullstein Verlag intend to make it available soon.

And yes, and yes, it's still a good book. It ought to have been clear from the beginning - had we cared to look! - that Hegemann was "sampling", as she puts it; all those snatches of lyrics ought to have been a bit of a giveaway. But I'm fascinated by the reactions, which vary from plain insults and abuse tainted with obvious envy to fierce defences of the poor little baby writer.

If you read German, that FAZ article is well worth a look, reflecting as many have been over the past few days on our expectations as readers of "young literature". We want it to be real, dripping with pathos, we want young writers to run straight home from the darkroom and spill their guts into their laptops. We want to live a vicarious wild youth - but it has to be genuine misery memoir to get our pulses racing.

I'm waiting for that list before I eat any words. And I can be very stubborn.

Update update: There's more evidence of Hegemann's, ummm, naive approach to other people's intellectual property at Viceland. In this case she wrote a short story dangerously close to a film, which was based on a short story, which of course is rather similar to her version. I'm still not eating those words yet though.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Bell & Hemon in Super Fantastic Podcast

Listen to Aleksander Hemon and Anthea Bell on European literature and translation at The Guardian. Fascinating stuff, especially the comment on "militant translators" jumping on journalists for forgetting to name them.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Hamburg's Finest: Ham.Lit & Die Vorleser

There's more than one way to skin a cat. You can go out into the world and listen to writers in cavernous bunkers, or you can listen to people talking about books from the comfort of your own sofa. Ham.Lit was the excruciating title of an impressive event in Hamburg on Thursday, "a concentrate of the most exciting young German-language literature and music of the moment - on one night, under one roof."

And what a roof. Hamburg had decided to veil itself in mist for my visit, with a huge five-storey WWII bunker rising like an icebreaker between the snowy pavements. In we ventured, then up to the fourth floor in a lift crowded with hip young things. There were three venues hosting 18 writers plus two bands. Which meant that inevitably, one was constantly torn between poetry and prose, slam and short stories.

The hugely talented, heavily bearded Finn-Ole Heinrich opened the show with a humdinger, his knockout story "Zeit der Witze" - best of the night, said my delightful hostess Isa, and I agree. Plus the guy sure knows how to read - I'd have given him a later slot myself. Then came Kristof Magnusson with a nice taste of his novel Das war ich nicht (see my review). I stayed put for Jan Wagner, who once again struck fear into my heart with his sheer intelligence and genuinely enjoyable poetry. In contrast to Daniel Falb, who struck fear of a different kind into my heart. Back to Clemens Meyer, with a nervous rendering from his forthcoming diary-like Gewalten. It looks like it'll be a personal, political, very strange look back at 2009.

By that point I was exhausted, so Tilmann Rammstedt and Monica Rinck sadly went in one ear and out the other. And that's the only disadvantage to these huge events: sheer input overload. There were a hell of a lot of people there, many of whom wandered in and out of the venues, which doesn't make for concentrated listening either. And the crowd thinned out rapidly as the last trains left before the second band - the impressive GUSTAV - came on stage (I missed the first musical act but was briefly serenaded in the corridor to make up for it). Despite that, the event was a huge success and a great opportunity for Hamburgers to pick up on some very happening and talented writers. My radical suggestion for next time: don't hold it on a week night.

Those Hamburgers, I noticed, are quite different to the Berliners: completely and utterly laid-back. Presumably it was the Hamburgers who inspired that song telling Aurélie that the Germans flirt very subtly. Or maybe it was just too dark. And it's Hamburgers who make up the studio audience for ZDF's televisual literary extravaganza, Die Vorleser - including my delightful hostess Isa and the lovely Axel in yesterday's episode. You too can watch it online via that link.

I've mentioned it in the past, but this was the first time I'd got round to watching it. And I'm undecided - does the information value outweigh the irritation factor? Or to put it another way - does Ijoma Mangold outweigh Amelie Fried and, in this case, a barely comprehensible Detlev Buck? Mangold, for me, is the opposite of his fellow critic Sigrid Löffler - in the former case I want not to like him but can never quite manage. He says such a lot of clever things that I just can't help respecting him. Unfortunately, the show is done in such an irritating way that whenever anyone else is on camera I start gnashing my teeth.

It's obviously scripted, but the makers expect us to suspend our disbelief and buy the idea of Ijoma and Amelie chatting informally on the sofa. "So you want me to explain the title now, don't you, Ijoma?" tweets Amelie, and Ijoma nods as if he really, genuinely does. "Oh, you critics!" twitters Amelie, and Ijoma smirks as if he hadn't seen it coming. "I have adolescent kids!" squeaks Amelie, and we all try hard not to imagine what they get up to behind mum's back, while sighing over her all-too obvious appeal to the female book-buying demographic.

In between, Ijoma gets to enthuse over a couple of books, while Amelie looks mature and disapproving. All padded out with shots of the laid-back Hanseatic audience frowning. I don't know, it's better than Richard and Judy - but great telly it ain't.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Tell Us Translators, Are You Underpaid?

Siobhan O'Leary sums up the translator pay/royalties issue nicely in Publishing Perspectives - and Edward Navotka asks the above question.

So the ball's in our court, fellow translators. Are we? I expect the poor man will be inundated.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Weather Too Shite to Blog

This blog is temporarily closed until it stops being cold and grey and snowy. If you were thinking of moving to Berlin, wait a couple of months.

Monday 1 February 2010

Non-Fiction Links from the Comments

How easy life is when people just post content in your comments box. I'm fetching it up here so everyone can see it.

First of all there's Trevor E. Brown, who is an academic publisher and would like to publish more translations, but not fiction. He writes:

My knowledge of Deutsch is rudimentary so it is a struggle hunting in bookshops and the usual suspect websites. Really I need a partnership with someone, not necessarily from a publishing background who has a good 'nose'.

And I want to have fun doing this!

Who can help me?

And then there's another of those anonymous tip-offs I love:

The Berlin Review of Books aims to publish high-quality reviews of, and insightful essays based on, important recent books published in any language, with a focus on non-fiction. While it will often approach contemporary debates from a European perspective, it is open to intelligent contributions from around the globe. Our goal is to promote honest and knowledgeable debate of issues of real significance; for this reason, we are committed to financial and editorial independence. The Berlin Review of Books does not normally publish fiction or poetry, except by invitation.