Thursday 30 September 2010

Happy International Translation Day!

Today is not only the fiftieth birthday of the Flintstone Family - it's also International Translation Day! Look out for events near you - London, Germany/Switzerland - and don't forget to give all the translators in your life a big hug/kiss/bunch of flowers/e-card/lucrative contract/bearded saint.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

International Literature Prize to Marie NDiaye and Claudia Kalscheuer

For the second time, Berlin's House of World Cultures has awarded its International Literature Prize, this time to Marie NDiaye and her translator Claudia Kalscheuer for Drei starke Frauen (Trois femmes puissantes).

The jury wrote of the translation:

Claudia Kalscheuer has succeeded in depicting this finely tared, half nightmarish, half surreal rhythm in German. She follows the movements of the original French sentences very precisely, yet at the decisive points chooses möbius loops, sets inversions, reduces the number of alliterations without abandoning their poetic moment even remotely, thus inscribing the German linguistic melody in her translation, charging it with exactly the same dense, disturbing rhythm that marks out the original. And that is a masterly achievement.

I have two things to say, by which I certainly don't mean to detract from the nominated books in any way.

As Michael Orthofer pointed out at the Literary Saloon, the award isn't really terribly international in terms of language: all the books were translated from either English or French. As so often (and it suprises me that the House of World Cultures is playing this game), "international" in Germany means where you or indeed your parents or grandparents were born, not where you are now and what language you work in.

Or is the narrow field a symptom of the fact that books originally written in other languages aren't making it into German? Because as the shortlist stands, this is an award for ethnic minority writers based in France or the United States (or in NDiaye's case, Berlin). I have nothing against that, but it's hardly the same as international.

Aspekte Debut Prize to Dorothee Elmiger

As trade mag Börsenblatt reports but not up on the actual website as yet, this year's Aspekte Literature Prize for debut novels has been awarded to Dorothee Elmiger for her exciting Einladung an die Waghalsigen.

You can read a sample in German behind the link, or read my sample translation for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, which was great fun to do. The book's also nominated for the Swiss Book Prize and Elmiger (who also happens to be very nice) came in a solid second for the Bachmann Prize. She gets a tasty €10,000.

I'll review the book soonish.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

And Other Stories Wins Funding

And more good news - not quite up on their website, but there's a press release out there somewhere.

The fantastic and fantastically different publishing/reading/general wonderfulness project And Other Stories has received the OK for Arts Council funding. That means they can publish four translated books in 2011! As Maureen Freely puts it:

Most reading groups tackle only the most middle of the middlebrow fiction out there – and publishers tend to follow - whereas this kind of network can and will tackle challenging and unusual literature from all kinds of writers.

I'm so, so pleased for them - I've been following And Other Stories very closely but at a distance imposed by geography, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the project develops now that it's finally "real".

Congratulations, Stefan!

New New Books in German

There's a brand spanking new edition of New Books in German online. Now, the magazine has always been a joy to read for nerdy German book lovers. But they just keep on making it better and better! This issue brings us the usual crop of recommendations for translation - children's books, new fiction and non-fiction and a "forgotten gem" by Remarque. And wait - there's more! Features upon features, from an interview with one of my translatorly heroes Sir John E. Woods to Donal McLaughlin on Swiss writing to a piece by one of my publishing heroes, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books. A brief quote to give you an idea:

I do not have a pre-plan, I simply make myself available ... like the blotting paper of old, I soak in conversations, listen to authors already on my list, converse with translators, listen some more to academic friends around the world, travel, talk to publishers and sometimes blindly agree to be led into a world of literature that they are familiar with.

And for those who don't read German, there's an interesting list of new and forthcoming translations. Is it just me, or are things looking up? All these exciting writers, projects and publishers, all these great books coming out of the German-speaking world. It's enough to make a German book lover's heart race.

Friday 24 September 2010

Oddest German Book Title Shortlist Translation Fun (?)

I'm sure I'm not the only one suffering from shortlist fatigue this week. So to spice up the zillionth shortlist announcement (on top translator Shelley Frisch's suggestion), this is your chance to try your hand at translating the six oddest German book titles officially voted for by the public.

All you have to do is post your English version of one or more of the titles in the comments section. If more than one person bothers to play along, I will select the winner and shower them with honour and praise, and possibly send them a random odd object I find lying around my flat (Kim Possible alarm clock, anyone?).

So here are the titles. Do your worst!

Nichtamtlicher Leitfaden zur Bewältigung von Projekten und zur Abweisung diesbezüglicher Irrtümer. Oder: Regeln für Hans-Peter
Frank Buddrus, Wiley

An dem Tag, als ich meine Friseuse küsste, sind viele Vögel gestorben
Josef Kleindienst, Sonderzahl

Der Tod auf der Schippe
Oder was Archäologen sonst so finden
Angelika Franz, Theiss

Zehn Tipps, das Morden zu beenden und den Abwasch zu beginnen
Hallgrímur Helgason, Tropen

Texas als Texttitel. Ein Rabiatkomödienroman
Max Höfler, Ritter

Die Frau, die allein ein ganzer Tisch war
Tor Åge Bringsværd, Onkel & Onkel

The winner of the official competition will be announced - can you guess? - at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 6 October. But the Champion Odd German Book Title Translator will be crowned beforehand, on 4 October.

Thursday 23 September 2010

AmazonCrossing Announces Spring 2011 List

I wrote with some excitement about the launch of AmazonCrossing, the retail giant's new venture into translation. And now they've announced which books they'll be publishing in the spring of next year.

They're a fairly eclectic selection, from groundbreaking Ukrainian women's writing to a Chinese family story. And there are two titles on the list translated from German: Oliver Pötzsch's historical novel The Hangman's Daughter (trans. Lee Chedayne) and Rusalka Reh's children's book Pizzicato: The Abduction of the Magic Violin (trans. David Henry Wilson).

Follow the links for interesting interviews with the writers and translators.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

More Shortlists, Anyone?

I swear I could just fill this blog up with shortlists for German book prizes every day.

Two more out today.

The Aspekte Literaturpreis goes to a prose debut written in German, and is worth €10,000. It's gone to all sorts of now terribly famous writers in the past.

This year the following are in the running. The winner will be announced at the book fair on 7 October.

Dorothee Elmiger: Einladung an die Waghalsigen (DuMont)
Nino Haratischwili: Juja (Verbrecher Verlag)
Mariam Kühsel-Hussaini: Gott im Reiskorn (Berlin University Press)
Olga Martynova: Sogar Papageien überleben uns (Literaturverlag Droschl)
Judith Zander: Dinge, die wir heute sagten (dtv)

And then there's the rather snazzy Best International Literary Movie, with €10,000 awarded on 8 October in Frankfurt.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy) Random House US
Das letzte Schweigen (Jan Costin Wagner) Eichborn Berlin
A Single Man (Christopher Isherwood) Harper Collins
Eat Pray Love (Elizabeth Gilbert) Harper Collins
The private lives of Pippa Lee (Rebecca Miller) Farrar Straus and Giroux
Small World (Martin Suter) Diogenes

You could pretty much go from one award ceremony to the next at Frankfurt, what with these two and the indie Hotlist and of course the big German Book Prize. Luckily, a hell of a lot of books are on several different shortlists, which makes life much easier for everyone, I'm sure.

I am going to the book fair, by the way. You may invite me to your glitzy parties via the comments section.

Shortlist Extracts Online (Now In Full!)

All six of the English excerpts from the titles on the German Book Prize shortlist are now online at sign and sight.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

How Many Shortlists? Swiss Book Prize and Wilhelm Raabe Prize

I missed this one a week or so ago, but there's a shortlist out for the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize, with a fat purse of €30,000 awaiting the winner:

Iris Hanika: Das Eigentliche (Literaturverlag Droschl)

Thomas Hettche: Die Liebe der Väter (Kiepenheuer & Witsch)

Paulus Hochgatterer: Das Matratzenhaus (Deuticke)

Georg Klein: Roman unserer Kindheit (Rowohlt)

Rolf Lappert: Auf den Inseln des letzten Lichts (Carl Hanser Verlag)

Thomas Lehr: September. Fata Morgana (Carl Hanser Verlag)

Andreas Maier: Das Zimmer (Suhrkamp)

Alain Claude Sulzer: Zur falschen Zeit (Galiani Berlin)

The prize is awarded by the city of Braunschweig and Deutschlandradio and goes out in November.

Then there's the Swiss Book Prize, with a shorter shortlist announced today:

Dorothee Elmiger: Einladung an die Waghalsigen (DuMont)

Urs Faes: Paarbildung (Suhrkamp)

Pedro Lenz: Der Goalie bin ig (Der gesunde Menschenversand)

Kurt Marti: Notizen und Details 1964 - 2007 (Theologischer Verlag Zürich)

Melinda Nadj Abonji: Tauben fliegen auf (Jung und Jung)

This time the winner will be announced on 14 November and get 5o,000 franks. The award is only open to Swiss authors writing in German.

I'm tempted to rant about how the same names crop up on all these shortlists. But actually I'm so enamoured of the seemingly random Swiss selection - from Elmiger's debut (see my translated extract for the Bachmann Prize, where she came sort of second) to Urs Faes' doctor's story for the highly literate to Pedro Lenz's "spoken word novel" in Swiss German to Kurt Marti, who's a theologian for God's sake, to the German Book Prize shortlisted Abonji - that it's cheered me up rather. And apparently you can vote on your favourite, but they're not telling us where yet.

Monday 20 September 2010

Advertising Books

I come from London, so I'm used to seeing ads for books plastered all over the tube and the odd bus stop. Usually not books I particularly want to read, but still.

And Dennis Loy Johnson wrote a ten-part series documenting how Melville House Press publicised their runaway bestseller by a dead German, Every Man Dies Alone. The game plan included T-shirts, TV, tube (or whatever it's called in NY) and word of mouth.

I'm just trying to summon up the usual ways the Germans promote books, apart from well-publicised stunts like kissing angels. And there's not all that much of it going on, or not much I personally notice in everyday life (bear in mind I'm a tad visually impaired, though). Basically there's your print ads in newspapers and magazines, your reviews in newspapers and magazines, your reviews on the TV and radio, and your reviews on blogs. Although German publishers, I'm told, are often a bit cagey about sending review copies to bloggers. Which might perhaps explain why there aren't really any longstanding literature blogs that write reviews - they all go bust.

But this morning I heard my first radio ad for a book - Lucy Fricke's Ich habe Freunde mitgebracht. I wasn't actually fully conscious at the time, but it made me sit up in bed and think: I must buy this book! How exciting...

Saturday 18 September 2010

Sascha Lobo: Strohfeuer

In general, there's one sure-fire way of ensuring I don't review your book, and that's saying you'll send me a copy and not doing so. Not only am I offended, I also still have a spark of hope that it might arrive in the post any day now - so I'm certainly not going to go to any effort to get hold of it myself. On the other hand, asking me to translate your book before it's even published is an extremely flattering trick, provided the book does actually get published at some stage. Any type of cheap flattery between these two poles will probably get me to read your book, if not necessarily review it.

In this case it was a vague smile in my direction at a party that prompted me to get hold of Sascha Lobo's Strohfeuer. Of course it wouldn't have worked had the smiler not been in possession of a highly characteristic red mohican and a rampant media habit. This is a guy with 46,000-odd followers on Twitter, who kindly provides a Google maps thing showing his current location on his website, just in case anyone wants to stalk him. So you know, it's kind of flattering to get a vague smile in your direction from someone like that - it makes you wonder if you're just looking particularly gorgeous or the smiler is particularly well-informed about people who blog about German books in English.

Last night was the launch of his debut novel in Berlin, where it's set. It's the story of a wannabe advertiser who jumps onto the dotcom bandwagon just before it goes off the rails in 2001. The event was top-banana: high audience attractiveness quotient, high laughter to confused frown ratio, high blogger factor. My friend Annina liked it too. I also experienced another incident to add to my collection of scintillating exchanges with literary celebrities, which I will now relate in full length, in the original German:

Mutual friend: Sascha, das ist Katy
Sascha Lobo: Hallo Katy, ich bin Sascha.
Katy: Hallo... Ja.

I was a tad star-struck. What I ought to have said was: Hi, I translated an excerpt (pdf) from your last book, I didn't like it all that much though because it was about how to get things done with minimal effort and you seemed to have put minimal effort into writing it. But of course why would anyone put maximum effort into something like that, that would be stupid. Although it was quite funny actually. Anyway, the translation was fairly labour-intensive I'm afraid so I'd appreciate you getting me a drink, I bet you have a tab at the bar, don't you?

But you know, you're not always on your best form. So anyway, Sascha Lobo entertained us all by reading from the novel and fielding questions. I'd actually read it all in one go yesterday, in a mammoth lazing-in-bed session that seemed a suitable way to enjoy the book. And enjoy it I did - unlike a number of other people, critics and literary laymen alike. I'm not entirely sure whether that's because Lobo's one of those people people love to hate, or because he doesn't impart any actual new information about the dotcom bubble, or because German critics can be a bit snooty about humour.

Strohfeuer is a funny book. A chuckle-raising, laugh-a-minute good fun read. Our horrible hero Stefan bluffs his way into the advertising industry - not known for its great morals and humanity in the first place - and makes large amounts of money with smoke and mirrors. Then it all goes wrong when other people's bluffs fall through. The internet streaming device that doesn't actually work, the 3D-glasses that don't actually exist, the small print added to the contract at the last moment. It's all fairly predictable, but then we know from the beginning that the bubble's going to burst, and part of the fun is in the schadenfreude of waiting for the house of cards to collapse.

The book's first strength is in its characters, from the out-and-out nasty Thorsten who turns out to have a reason for his misbehaviour to the scaredy-cat funny guy Phillip who surprises us at the end to the self-obsessed narrator Stefan who constantly manages to override his conscience and often common sense too. Plus lots of cameos by women who fancy him: the drunken divorcée who lands the agency its first major contract, the pregnant (?) designer who's just been fired, and so on. Mister Lobo claimed (after the above scintillating exchange) that you have to have sex scenes in a book about characters like his. Absolutely, but I agree with one critic that the sex scenes are lame. If you're going to give us a gratuitous drunken threesome in the first chapter, would it be asking too much for you to share a couple of details?

The second strength is the novel's language. It probably wouldn't come across quite as well in translation, but it's full of toe-curling anglicisms like the verb delivern, ad agency in-jokes like irony-free zone, buzzwords like Hitler (as an expletive) and the like. And all related in a deadpan tone with an eye for detail - like a project manager's liking for maritime metaphors.

And the third is the sense of timing. Because what might have been just a string of funny ad agency incidents is broken up by little extra scenes from the narrator's childhood, escapades in various cars and bars, and a couple of last-ditch slapstick attempts to save the company. All of which make the book much more - well, likeable.

It's not going to change the world, but if you fancy a quick and enjoyable read with characters you'll love to hate - and you weren't part of the New Economy at the time - I'd say go for it. Because you're not going to be able to ignore it this season.

Oskar Pastior

Oh, and Oskar Pastior was an informer for the Securitate.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Franzen's Freiheit: Critical Reactions

A little while ago I wrote about about the fact that Franzen's Freedom was translated by two people - Bettina Abarbanell and Eike Schönfeld - to make sure it hit the German market running before too many paying customers bought the original.

Now the reviews are out and everyone else is up in arms as well. Iris Radisch of Die Zeit gave a revealing interview to Deutschlandfunk, in which she pointed out that the critics have had to rush out their reviews as well, staying up all night to read the 800-page book:

So this book, which Jonathan Franzen spent nine years working on, is being read and reviewed within two or three days, by German reviewers at least - and it wasn't much better in the States.

Radisch hadn't actually read the book at this point - which makes you wonder why they actually interviewed her - and didn't comment on the quality of the translation beyond questioning the wisdom of using two translators. And nor did the reviewer in Die Zeit, Ursula März. In fact, the poor exhausted critics had been quietly working around the subject, possibly because the rush to get their reviews in meant there was no time to look at translation quality.

But then came Evelyn Roll in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The piece isn't online I'm afraid, but it's a humdinger. She points out that Franzen speaks German himself and once translated Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen (Michael Orthofer damns it as a "reasonable new translation"). And then:

Yet reading Freiheit in German is enough to put you in a very bad mood. Because two different translators worked on it, which is absurd enough in the first place. Because the two of them obviously didn't coordinate their translations sufficiently so the tone varies, even when the narrative perspective stays the same. Because the publishers Rowohlt felt so obliged to dock onto the American Franzen hype that they put the publication date forward again and made the two actually actually acclaimed translators work at high speed (...).

I'm feeling slightly guilty for pointing the whole thing out now. Because I can see both sides - I'm guessing it wasn't cheap for Rowohlt to buy the rights to the book, and they don't want to lose revenue to the original. Publishing is a business like any other, but there's no chance to launch a beta-version of a major translation because once it's out there the reviews come flooding in (or not, if it's in the English-speaking world). And I know those two translators worked their arses off to get it done on time. Oh, and the German editor Ulrike Schieder too. (Note to self: forgetting to credit the editor may result in anonymous comments.)

But then what else can we expect? In most cases translators can work faster than writers - after all, for most of us this is our day job and we don't have to worry about plot and characterisation and all the rest. But translating under too much time pressure is never going to produce a masterpiece, no matter how talented the practitioner.

What's interesting though, as an aside, is that German critics are gradually reacting to the Munich conference on reviewing translations that I wrote about here. And by that I mean making the effort to comment on translation quality in their reviews. I know this because I compile an overview of press reviews for the German translators' association VDÜ, which you can find under "Presse" on their website. In German, obviously.

Of course that has its good and bad sides - because I've noticed that, as in this case, critics are now slightly quicker to put the translation down, albeit while often assuming it's not all the translator's fault. Katharina Granzin, whose contentious article I picked up on in my original post about the conference, is a case in point. In a review of Petra Hulová's Endstation Taiga in the Frankfurter Rundschau, she devotes two paragraphs to the translation - very well argued, very tactful, almost friendly, but still pretty devastating for the translator Michael Stavaric.

Still, I for one prefer that to the standard single-adjective faint praise usually reserved for translators in reviews. I'll be keeping an eye on developments.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Juli Zeh Meets Her Translators

I've written before about the regular get-togethers between German writers and their international translators at the Straelen translation house. This time around it was Juli Zeh, who met up with eight translators of her sort-of science-fiction sort-of novel Corpus Delicti. English-speakers will be pleased to hear that unlike last time, when the book in question was Uwe Tellkamp's Der Turm, there was an English translator among them: Sally-Ann Spencer - hooray!

You can see them all looking gorgeous here. And the regional press also took an interest, with an informative article in the Rheinische Post and a fun one in Der Westen. What I find particularly interesting is Zeh's relaxed attitude to her translators changing things - particularly titles and characters' names - "to take the novel all the way to their own countries."

And although these events are obviously really fantastic for the translators involved - imagine the chance to spend a week working on a book with the writer herself at arm's reach - I like to think the authors get something out of them too. Not just the reassurance that the translators really will have understood the book, but also a lot of new knowledge about all the countries it'll be appearing in.

I'm certainly looking forward to reading Sally-Ann's translation - not least because I once met Juli Zeh and mistook her for someone else. She was very gracious about it all.


Well done to Mechthild Holzer, who won the Oliver Bottini audiobooks. Thanks to everyone else who participated - better luck next time...

Monday 13 September 2010

Friedrich Glauser Prize to Zoran Dvrenkar

This year's top German-language crime writing prize - the Friedrich Glauser Prize - goes to Zoran Drvenkar for his incredibly tough thriller Sorry. I reviewed it here; it made me feel a bit sick in a good way. Drvenkar gets €5000 in cash with non-consecutive serial numbers - but he has to go to the North Eifel to pick it up. Presumably in a transit van with tinted windows.

Sunday 12 September 2010

tausend worte tief / freitext

tausend worte tief is kind of what I'd been looking for. It's a regular readings series, and here's what they say about themselves:

And once we've arrived there, once we're a thousand words deep, then we'll have left our skin behind and climbed together into another. Perhaps then we'll manage, once we've climbed back, to see through our skins and skin colours, to hear through our different languages and to be reminded by a déjà-vu of the fact that we belong together.

Ummm, yeah. In other words, they combine literature, music and occasionally football – written by the postmigrant generation and the people who grew up alongside them. Last week they invited the writer Selim Özdogan to read some of his stories and share a handful of the songs that have influenced his work. I went along to the event at Neukölln's Werkstatt der Kulturen, suspecting it might turn out a little worthy.

But it didn't. First of all, the audience was utterly attractive. I was probably the oldest person there apart from the bar staff. Secondly, and you may have noticed this, Selim can do little wrong in my book. He's always good for an entertaining evening and he was on fine form this time, playing to a full house of appreciative people. And although I now know his work more or less inside out, this event was a little different to usual – it was actually fascinating to have someone up on stage talking about the links between music and literature.

And thirdly, curator Deniz Utlu conducted a nice wee interview in the middle that hit just the right spot. Utlu's obviously been thinking about writing in Germany from a postmigrant perspective for some time now, and congratulated Selim on maintaining his integrity – although he has a Turkish passport, he's not been co-opted as a spokesman for an imaginary Turkish-German/Muslim generation, or appointed "Minister of Turks" as Utlu put it. Can you guess who he was thinking of?

There are a number of overlaps between tausend worte tief and the literary magazine freitext, not least in the person of Deniz Utlu. The latest issue takes a stand against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in art, essays, poetry and prose:

Writers from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds, but also writers from the majority society focus on stigmatization and discrimination.

And it's fascinating stuff. I have to admit I prefer the essays to the prose, which seems at times slightly laboured - although I enjoyed Mutlu Ergün's extracts from Kara Günlük - Die geheimen Tagebücher des Sesperado. But the magazine – now in its 15th issue – explores some interesting and important issues, from the imaginings and realities of gang culture in Kreuzberg to what it must feel like to be confronted with one's own inert racism, to an interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah of the British magazine Wasafiri, which has obviously been a source of inspiration.

So here we have two interlinked projects doing that thing I've been looking for in German literature – promoting writing about minority stuff from a minority and a majority perspective. Sounds dull, I know. But it's actually very sexy if you do it right. And they're certainly doing it right most of the time. I shall be keeping a close eye on these people – you probably ought to as well.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

German Book Prize Shortlist

The jury just announced the shortlist for this year's German Book Prize:

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, März 2010)

Thomas Lehr, September. Fata Morgana (Carl Hanser Verlag, August 2010)

Melinda Nadj Abonji, Tauben fliegen auf (Jung und Jung Verlag, August 2010)

Doron Rabinovici, Andernorts (Suhrkamp Verlag, August 2010)

Peter Wawerzinek, Rabenliebe (Galiani Berlin, August 2010)

Judith Zander, Dinge, die wir heute sagten (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, September 2010)

My favourites, in case you hadn't guessed, are Thomas Lehr and Peter Wawerzinek. And I'm disappointed that Nino Haratischwili's Juja didn't make it through. So she's now my favourite for the Hotlist. Yeah.

Translated extracts from the six titles will be online at signandsight soonish.

Monday 6 September 2010

Interview with Susan Bernofsky

Susan Bernofsky is one of our best-known and best-loved translators out of German, a champion of great literature including the work of Robert Walser. I interviewed her by email about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck's wonderful novel Heimsuchung, now out as Visitation. As Susan points out, this could well be the book to make Erpenbeck a household name in the English-speaking world. My fingers are certainly well and truly crossed.

Susan, tell us about the book:

I think of Jenny's book as a sort of family saga, except that instead of an actual family line you have a house that's holding together the different "generations." Because of where the house is located (in the countryside outside Berlin), every political upheaval that hits Germany causes the people living there to have to flee - and so the book tells the story of constant departure and loss. It nonetheless manages to be full of happy, humorous moments, but definitely the overall tenor is one of wistful nostalgia and melancholy - the house is constantly being remembered by those who have left it, and that's where the haunting of the title comes in.

The house is being visited by the ghosts of its former inhabitants - a feeling made even stronger by the fact that the story is based on that of an actual house in which Jenny spent the summers of her youth. By telling the stories of all these other families, she is channeling her own feelings of loss at having had to say goodbye to this place that witnessed so much of her own personal history.

There is indeed a strong sense in the novel that places bear witness to human lives. I think that's what the character of the gardener is all about. This gardener is superhuman - or rather: mythical. He witnesses the lives of many many generations. He is older than the house itself, and while we do see him growing old near the end of the book, we never see him young. He is like the human incarnation of the memory of the place - that's why he's so knowledgeable too - his is a collective knowledge. I love how he's used in the novel, and the ambiguity surrounding him.

I loved that gardener too. Erpenbeck also seemed to be making a point with him - a continuity not only of natural processes in the garden - changing seasons, repetitive tasks - but also of power relations. The political systems may change, but the gardener always remains an employee, his working conditions remain pretty much unchanged. I especially liked the way he's introduced, with a lot of very sensual language. Did you manage to retain that sensuality and continuity?

Katy, I think you're going to have to be the one to answer that question! I sure hope so. In any case, I tried very hard. The first sections were particularly challenging, because Jenny used language that gave the text a very faintly archaic flair. So I wound up, for example, doing quite a lot of research for those few sections about grafting fruit trees - you know? So apparently if you want your apple trees to produce apples in a nice luxuriant way, you have to do all sorts of things to them, generally involving splicing bits of other trees onto or into them. So I used the word "inoculate," which isn't used for grafting any longer, but was still commonly used for this in the early 20th century. I thought it went well with "propagate," which is also being used in an old gardening sense. The point isn't to make a "fake old" text but to have the text gesture at oldness.

Although there's a single omniscient narrator, the tone varies a great deal from chapter to chapter. At times I felt you could tell which characters the narrator approved of and which not. How did you deal with that in your translation?

I'm so happy this came through! Yes, there's a sense of greater and lesser distance there. I didn't do anything conscious to achieve this, though I did want to achieve it. You must know how this goes - a lot of translation is about hearing the voices and feeling where they're coming from, and if you feel the distance - which has to do with tone, tonality, intonation - it will just automatically come through. That's not what I can tell my students though. I guess I'd say if pressed: the tone gets established because there are a few words and phrases slipped in that signal a sort of cold or coolish formality, and it's important to recognize them and then try to match them tonally.

You mention the strong sense of place in the novel. If I can, I like to see at least pictures of the settings I'm translating. Did you do a research trip for the translation - or is the house really now lost?

In fact I had the great blessing to be able to participate in a field trip to visit the actual house the novel is based on, led by the author herself! The book is a novel, not non-fiction, but Jenny did carefully research the histories of the families who lived in this house, which was also in her own family during her childhood.

And then I found myself at the wonderful Literarisches Colloquium Berlin (where Susan and I met - kjd) for their Internationale Übersetzerwerkstatt (that's international translation workshop), and they'd asked me and Jenny to do a workshop on the novel, and Jenny wound up offering to take the entire group of translators (several of whom were translating the book into their respective languages) on a trip to see the house. So the LCB hired a bus for the day and sent house photographer Tobias Bohm along with us, and it was a fascinating visit. Freezing cold, mind you - you know what Berlin is like in March. Not all the descriptions of the house in the book look exactly like what the house looked like to me that day, but getting a feel for what the house and its surroundings looked like was definitely a great help when I was revising those passages.

This is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck's books you've translated, right? What's your working relationship like?

Jenny is wonderful to work with. She's very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I'm not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables - for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.

Actually we had a little incident in that same book - she didn't think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 - thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she'd used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she's taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her - then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that's an exemplary author.

She's also a very lovely person, it's always huge fun spending time with her. She'll be over in New York for a literature festival in November, which I'm really looking forward to.

Does it get easier to translate a writer when you're very familiar with their work, or do new challenges keep cropping up with every book?

Yes and no. It definitely helps to have gained experience capturing an author's voice, but I've never seen a book that wasn't a minefield in its own right.

The title is tricky, huh? In German, Heimsuchung bears a lot of weight - the word home is hidden inside it, and a search for that home, but it's also very ominous with ideas of haunting and disaster attached to it. It's heavy with superstition and Catholicism (although that Catholic element isn't in the book, the superstition comes in at the very beginning and the end in a couple of very beautiful passages). But of course, as so often, you can't get all that into a single English word. Tell us how you came to Visitation.

Actually someone from Portobello Books in London suggested this (the title was already in the contract they sent me), and this anonymous title-giver really hit on something ingenious, even though the process they went through might have been as simple as looking up "Heimsuchung" in an on-line dictionary - I was immediately in agreement with the choice. Yes, it's very tricky and lovely, that German title. Its two important aspects are the notion of haunting and the notion of home. But all the English variants that included "home" seemed so heavy-handed and disappointing.

The wonderful thing about Visitation as a title is that it not only includes the idea of haunting, but it also takes an interpretive step that actually works for the novel. You can certainly say that all the characters in the novel are at home in the house - this is thematized throughout. But there's also a sense in which all of them are just passing through. This isn't stated explicitly anywhere in the novel, but it's the sense you get from reading it, especially since the book begins in the Ice Age and ends with the demolition of the house. So the English title picks up this thematic thread in what seems to me a delicate and appropriate way. I'm very happy with it.

Some translators wait for books to come to them, and others actively promote books for translation to publishers. Which camp are you in? How did Visitation come about?

I've never had very much success promoting new authors to publishers; New Directions came to me with their first Erpenbeck book, The Old Child and Other Stories, which had been Jenny's first big hit in Germany. I think it's really wonderful when a publisher decides to stick with an author and publish multiple books, even if the earlier ones aren't such a commercial success. A lot of people really loved the other Erpenbeck books, but she hasn't been a big seller so far. I think Visitation might be her breakthrough book in English.

How did you come to translation in the first place?

I started translating as a teenager. At first it was just a creative writing exercise - I was setting out to be a fiction writer, and translating seemed to me an intriguing way to study the craft, and I had teachers who encouraged me to try it. It was really about a decade before it turned into something I was really focussed on.

Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you'd love to translate but haven't yet had the chance?

Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven't been translated yet. Right now I'm rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner's short novel Bruno, but I couldn't find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.

What are you working on right now?

I've been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they're prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can't wait! It's one of the most frightening stories I've ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.

Many thanks again to Susan Bernofsky for finding the time for this fascinating interview - and for keeping on keeping on.

Friday 3 September 2010

My Take On the Longlist - Take 3

So here comes my now traditional lowdown on the German Book Prize longlist. This year, the people at Libri made things easier for me by providing nice short extracts, all about the same length. That made the reading slightly less arduous and I found it gave a good taste of the respective books – but of course doesn’t tell you much of what they’re actually about.

Similarly to last year, I noticed a couple of repeated themes. Teenage girls seemed to crop up rather frequently, which I love because there’s nothing sexier to read about than teenage girls. I do wonder if it’s a reaction to Helene Hegemann’s success though. The other common thread is setting things abroad, preferably in Eastern Europe or Paris as opposed to the USA, which was all the rage last year. Or if it’s not set abroad, an oppressive village setting is a bit of a classic in contemporary German writing. Also, about half the book covers feature some variant of trains, planes and automobiles – it would seem the German readership longs to get away from it all.

The list is alphabetical and extremely partial. See my original posting on the longlist for links to publishers' pages.

Alina Bronsky, Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche

This is billed as “a delightfully spicy novel for women - emotionally charged, sensual, shocking and exotic - the story of the most passionate and astute grandmother of all time.” Which majorly pisses me off I’m afraid; because what do men get to read then – tales of golfing grandfathers?
Anyway, as with her first novel Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky just writes so entertainingly and convincingly that I can’t help jettisoning all my prejudices and simply enjoying the prose. This time it’s a quirky grandmother trying to abort her ugly daughter’s immaculately conceived foetus. Which is a hell of a lot funnier than it sounds. Very possibly a German version of that Ukrainian tractors book – fun, light post-Soviet reading matter with strong characters. Rights have already been sold to Europa Editions, so look out for an American version, probably translated by Tim Mohr. I know I’ll be reading it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting? Somewhere in the Soviet Union.
Sample Sentence: “Then one day I fried fish in oil (it was 1978, and anthrax spores had just escaped from a large laboratory in our town), and Sulfia held her hand over her nose and vomited in the toilet four times.”

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder Im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag

Jan Faktor is utterly cool – I’ve seen him live a couple of times and always gone home happy. According to the blurb, this is a book about a boy growing up in Prague: “Caught between war-traumatised aunts, a tyrannical uncle and a dazzlingly beautiful mother, all Georg wants is to escape to a new future.”
The extract is great stuff, detailing Georg’s concerns with his genitals and his obsession with his past. The language is delightful and intricate and witty but I suspect, from the extract, the length of the book – about 600 pages – and what I’ve heard him read, that it’s probably very, very rambling. The novel was also shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the spring and is on the longlist for oddest title. Too long for my weak wrists though, I’m afraid.

Teenage Girl Factor: 50% (teenage boy)
Foreign/Village Setting: Prague
Sample Sentence: “You also have to know: back then we – the children and the grown-ups – lived in Prague, without suffering particularly from it, in a totalitarian society.”

Nino Haratischwili, Juja

This is one of the indie titles on the list, also on the indie Hotlist, and the publishers Verbrecher Verlag told me about it at the independent book fair thing back in July. It’s apparently based on a true story, of a Parisian teenager who wrote a hit feminist book in the 70s and then committed suicide. Or did she? Now various people set out to find out more. The publishers say: “In a dizzying manner, Nino Haratischwili describes the significance stories can have in life.” So a pretty classic theme then.
The writing is dense and exciting, I think varying between extracts from the book within the book and imaginings of what the writer must have been like. It’s completely melodramatic and odd and the imagined heroine is a fantastic rebel. Actually, I know what happens in the end – but I still want to read it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 200% (because she’s so utterly cool)
Foreign/Village Setting: Paris
Sample Sentence: “But then she pressed her lips to Fanny’s lips, and Fanny, taken by surprise and fearful, poked her tongue out on impulse and licked the blood away.”

Thomas Hettche, Die Liebe der Väter

This is the book I don’t want to read about a father’s troubled relationship with his daughter – the separated father with no custody. The publishers say: “A New Year’s vacation on the island of Sylt becomes a test of love between the father and the 13-year-old daughter.”
The writing in the extract veers between skilled but sentimental nature descriptions and angry references to the mean, controlling, irrational mother. It’s certainly moving stuff. And although Hettche has repeatedly claimed it’s only a novel and not a piece of political pamphleteering, that title (The Love of the Fathers) certainly takes it beyond the single case. No, I still won’t be reading it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting: Sylt
Sample Sentence: (possibly the most provocative in the novel) “And as always I don’t know what to answer. How much I hate her mother? That I still lie awake at night, so many years after our separation, following an argument on the telephone, a letter from her lawyer, a broken arrangement, and still imagine how her facial features contort, initially out of surprise, then in pain, and how my blows throw her against a wall, how she falls, screaming, tears, all that?”

Michael Kleeberg, Das amerikanische Hospital

A Frenchwoman makes friends with an American soldier recovering from the Gulf War in the Parisian hospital of the title. I like the little I’ve read of Michael Kleeberg’s writing in the past – he seems to be uninterested in trendy subjects and chooses “real stuff” to write about. The publishers say: “Michael Kleeberg skilfully and movingly interweaves contemporary history and private lives, the mental horrors of war and the physical horrors of an unfulfilled wish for children with the dense atmosphere of Paris.”
The extract is like a puzzle, and possibly the novel as a whole unfolds this way, which is always fun. The soldier describes the Middle East in a beautiful, unrealistic, imagery-laden monologue, which gets very disturbing. My notes: Woah. Seems very good. I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: Paris and the Persian Gulf
Sample Sentence: “The gutters were flooded, and a grey-haired black man in the green uniform of the city cleaning authority placed his damming rags behind the manhole cover, from which the water was emanating, and then followed the tide of water with slow strokes of his broom along the kerb, walking past below her window up towards Rue de Charonne.”

Michael Köhlmeyer, Madalyn

One of those novels in which the narrator is a writer. And he befriends the neighbours’ daughter, who seems to be rather neglected by her parents. Through the writer, we learn about Madalyn’s first love, the young villain Moritz. The publishers say: “Michael Köhlmeier’s novel about Madalyn and Moritz is a heart-rending story about first love and great emotions.”
The extract is mildly intriguing, set in Vienna, told in a clear, well-written style with lots of everyday detail. Five-year-old Madalyn has an accident on her new bike and the narrator ends up taking her to hospital in place of her absent parents. But he’s so mild-mannered that he doesn’t manage to get even slightly worked up about it. It doesn’t really rock my boat and I shouldn’t think I’ll read it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting: no!
Sample Sentence: “Everyone has their own style of being shocked, I thought; that’s just the way it is with Frau Reis.”

Thomas Lehr, September

Two female protagonists, one an American who dies on 9/11, the other an Iraqi who dies in a bombing three years later. Lehr’s previous novel, 42, was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2005 and is a bizarre scenario in which time stands still for everyone but a small group of people. The publishers say: “In densely poetic language, September tells a story about Islam, about oil, terror and war and about two women who stand for the victims of this conflict.”
And people, it’s fantastic stuff! Even the pattern the words make on the page is beautiful. Lehr avoids the traps of Orientalism, sketching a Middle East rife with sin and sensuality, myth and bathos. Contrasted with Long Island, other private calamities. My notes are strewn with “OMG”s. Odd words, odd sentences, odd punctuation. I think he makes the two women sisters. Mentally. I think they watch each other and tell the other’s story. But maybe they don’t. I really need to read this book.

Teenage Girl Factor: 50% (I think)
Foreign/Village Setting: Baghdad and New York
Sample Sentence: “the King Death his stake in you I saw it only as a stone onyx of a god in a cabinet and as the flapping attachment of my brother before he went to school he rocks you (from inside) what does he know of your treasures sister what a groaning camel you two became in a desert night a camel with two opposed humps”

Mariana Leky, Die Herrenaustatterin

People keep recommending this book to me. I’ve got it already, it’s second from the top of my pile. It’s a love triangle between a woman, a fireman and a ghost. Unfortunately – and I’ve only just realised this – its premise is spookily close to what my life might be like in a worst-case scenario. But hey, I don’t believe in ghosts. The publishers say: “Mariana Leky’s novel seduces the reader into a world that is simultaneously more comic and more tragic is than our own – and also ghostly human.” (That’s their translation, incidentally. You know, DuMont, people can be very petty about spelling and grammatical mistakes.)
And the extract is good stuff. Funny – the story of how the heroine first met her dentist husband before life took a turn for the worse. You can see the bad times coming. Charming, intriguing, probably not as light as it seems – and I am going to read it. Quite soon, in fact.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: no!
Sample Sentence: “Jakob drilled away at my tooth and said several times that I should raise my hand straight away if it got painful, then he’d stop right there and then, he said it seriously and emphatically, as if we weren’t treating my teeth but on a particularly daring expedition that I was the first to undertake.”

Nicol Ljubic, Meeresstille

A love story hindered by a secret born out of the war in Yugoslavia. The publishers say: “Born in Germany, Robert has never been interested in his Croatian roots, until one day he meets Ana, a Serbian student. His love for her takes him into the past of his own family and that of an entire nation.”
I’m not sure what the fuss is about – I hope it’s based on the subject matter, because the prose in the extract is nothing to write home about. It reads like a typical German debut novel (although it’s actually Ljubic’s second), full of dull detail and people wondering about things. The male narrator comes across as naïve, annoyingly so. Perhaps a poor choice of extract? The only thing that interested me was the sudden change in perspective. But not enough to make me actually read the book.

Teenage Girl Factor: Not sure, I’ll give it 50% for the Serbian student
Foreign/Village Setting: Yugoslavia, Berlin, Den Haag
Sample Sentence: “I’d made us tea, put the cups on the table and taken the teabag out of your cup after a while, wrapped it round the spoon and wrung it out, which you ridiculed me for, just like you ridiculed me for the way I scrape out yoghurt pots.”

Kristof Magnusson, Das war ich nicht

I blooming love this book and reviewed it here. It’s about a translator, a banker and an aging writer, and it gives us a foretaste of the stock market crash. The publishers say: “Das war ich nicht (It wasn’t me) tells the story of three people whose lives are drawn by chance into a web of affinity and interdependence.” But take no notice of that – it’s a great fun read.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: Chicago/North German hamlet
Sample Sentence: “I’d have liked to tell someone that the time had come for me to release the handbrake on my career.”

Andreas Maier, Das Zimmer

A grown-up narrator recounts his childhood memories of his rather eccentric uncle. Maier’s second novel Klausen is out now in translation by Kenneth J. Northcott. I once saw Maier in the flesh and he had an unappealing Al Qaeda-style ginger beard. But don’t let that put you off. The publishers say: “Das Zimmer is both a portrait from memory and a novel, perhaps the beginning of a great family saga, a reflection on time and civilisation, on human dignity and how to maintain it.”
The language in the extract is a delight, smattered with great words that jump out at you. And it’s full of intelligent ideas and strange characters, primarily of course that uncle. It certainly made me want more – a real contender, at least for my reading pile.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: no
Sample Sentence: “In actual fact all he did was collect objects thrown away at the workshop, unscrewed them, stared inside them and understood nothing else, for he was for the most part, even if you couldn’t tell at the very first glance, an idiot.”

Olga Martynova, Sogar Papageien überleben uns

A Russian woman visits Germany to give a talk on something terribly literary and intellectual. The publishers say: “In her first novel, Olga Martynova, lyric poet and essayist, presents difficult situations with enchanting ease: the multiple facets of the past, the ‘patina of time’, the gliding of attitudes and opinions only literature is able to convey.”
The extract is confusing and may be witty, but perhaps not. Nice observations on Soviet life as a teenager, starting off with interesting objects that survived the ravages of time and progress. Unfortunately, it gets more and more pretentious as it goes along. And when I say pretentious, I mean pretentious. Until the narrator ends up recounting anecdotes about Nabokov and Russian dissidents. I shan’t be reading it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting: Leningrad
Sample Sentence: “I love you, Singer sewing machine, because you gave me (and not just me) a first, if crude, idea of the fin de siècle.”

Martin Mosebach, Was davor geschah

Mosebach won the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize a couple of years ago, a kind of lifetime achievement Oscar for German writers. In this novel, a man tells his lover what happened in his life before he met her, but not entirely truthfully. Apparently it’s also very erotic. The publishers say: “With the precision of a detective and the linguistic talent of a master storyteller, Martin Mosebach stages a wicked game of love and coincidence in Frankfurt.”
The extract is in fact beautifully written, featuring some of the most exquisite descriptions of light and sounds I’ve come across in some time. But I can’t help but be constantly irritated by the narrator’s superfluous arch-conservative opinions on the world. It’s like reading something written by Prince Charles – all criticism of modern architecture and passion for opera. Someone who knows a lot about these things told me off last year for not reading Martin Mosebach. Judging by the extract, he was right – but I’m still not going to read him.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0% (hardly surprising)
Foreign/Village Setting: Mainly Frankfurt, but also Cairo and Sicily
Sample Sentence: “Sounds of which one cannot believe that they are formed by human lips, tongues, teeth, palates and throats, but that reside in the human torso as polished, delicate bodies and seem to leave it at times along with the breath like a school of silver fish, while the singer herself is astounded at this aural miracle in enchanted immutability.”

Melinda Nadj Abonji, Tauben fliegen auf

A family moves from Serbia to Switzerland, and then goes back to visit. The publishers say: “A Hungarian family from Serbia in Switzerland. A fast-paced and witty novel from the heart of Europe.”
The start of the extract is neither fast-paced nor witty, but it does gather speed and the narrator – a teenage girl, hooray! – is fun to listen to. It does read slightly like creative writing school prose of the German variety though. Some nice turns of phrase, I found it “kinda cool”, according to my notes. I’m slightly suspicious it might be twee ethno-fiction made to make Germans happy. Not sure I’ll read it.

Teenage Girl Factor: 200% (two sisters)
Foreign/Village Setting: Serbia and a Swiss village
Sample Sentence: “The poor things, says my mother, as if we were watching TV, and instead of changing the channel we drive past, driving on in our coolbox that cost a packet, making us as wide as if the street belonged to us, and my father switches the radio on so that the music transforms the low into a dancing beat, instantly healing the clubfoot of reality.”

Doron Rabinovici, Andernorts

An Israeli academic in Vienna and his rival for a professorship get all tangled up. The publishers say: “Origin, identity, belonging –Doron Rabinovici swirls things around and around in a Jewish family in his new novel Andernorts, revealing their old secrets and watching them forming new ones.”
The extract describes the protagonist Ethan Rosen flying back from a funeral in Tel Aviv. I found it sweet at times but otherwise rather yawnsome. Subtle humour, unsubtle explanations of Jewish rituals, Ethan some kind of linguistic and intellectual superhero. And a lot of information imparted in a rather small space. Didn’t make me want more.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: Tel Aviv
Sample Sentence: “The short skirts, the little hats perched in their up hair, their dark panty hose, and little Ethanni at crackling height of the nylon legs staring at the exotic temple dance accompanied by the silky monotony of a female voice. Take-off.”

Hans Joachim Schädlich, Kokoschkins Reise

A story about a retired professor on a ship to the USA, remembering his eventful life in Central Europe. The publishers say: “The twists and turns in Kokoshkin’s story vividly summon up the first half of the twentieth century, depicted in Schädlich’s characteristic style, which emphasizes the simplicity of perfection.”
The extract is absolutely bizarre, frankly a very poor choice. A dinner conversation about Turks in Germany, dripping with prejudice from the Ottoman hordes to the sexist factory worker. Everybody nodding. My notes are one big “WTF”. I have no desire to read this kind of thing.

Teenage Girl Factor: ?
Foreign/Village Setting: St. Petersburg, Odessa, Prague, USA
Sample Sentence: “These guys are waging a religious war against us, they want to abolish our way of life, our culture, our civilisation.”

Andreas Schäfer, Wir vier

A family shaken to its foundations by the murder of a son. The publishers say: “Us four lucidly, sovereignly and movingly tells the story of a trauma and its consequences. The reader cannot get away from it.”
And yes, the extract is great stuff. Infused with threat and oppressive atmosphere from beginning to end, everyday life lived with an appalling memory at the back of everybody’s mind. Traces of violence popping up everywhere, and a strong-minded mother holding it all together, just about. Deceptively simple narration, so much going on below the surface. I liked it a lot, I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: German village
Sample Sentence: “She’d had to light four matches before the last printed remains had turned to whitish ash that stuck to her skin when she ran her finger through it.”

Peter Wawerzinek, Rabenliebe

Wawerzinek won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize with his extract from this novel. It’s an extremely literary autobiographical reckoning with his mother. The publishers say: “For fifty years, Peter Wawerzinek tortured himself with the question of why his mother left him behind as an orphan in the GDR. Then he found her and visited her. The result is a literary explosive, the likes of which German literature has never seen before.”
And yes, it’s so breathless and emotional and gorgeous and strewn with Romantic poetry and nursery rhymes, and it makes me laugh and cry and is absolutely stunning. I’m already reading it – and you should too. Yes, you.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: East German village
Sample Sentence: “The cook takes her sleeves to polish my cheeks, which shine like little apples to her words of persuasion.”

Judith Zander, Dinge, die wir heute sagten

Again, an extract from this book won a prize in Klagenfurt. This one’s also about broken families in rural East Germany. The publishers say: “Judith Zander gives three generations a voice. With incredibly powerful language, she tells a story of a secluded village in the northeast of Germany, of provincial everyday life, of friendship and betrayal, of life itself.” Ah, life itself. Popular subject matter, that one.
Anyway, the extract is very well written but hard to follow and rather heavy going. Multiple voices, one of them a teenage girl, some of them in the local dialect so I can’t read them. Very ambitious but perhaps not terribly enjoyable reading. One to watch, I’d say – this is Zander’s debut novel.

Teenage Girl Factor: 100%
Foreign/Village Setting: West Pomeranian village
Sample Sentence: “This is how they glare down from the shelf: the crumbling torsos at acute angles, the scissors the thighs, both slightly alist.”

Joachim Zelter, Der Ministerpräsident

A politician has a stroke and forgets how the world works; a satire. The publishers say: “Between loveable naivety and childlike amazement, between outside control and stubborn self-assertion, the novel is a book about a hero wrestling for memories and his self, finding himself in a world in which politics is merely empty performance and vacant façade.”
Unfortunately, the extract is very reminiscent of last year’s winner, Kathrin Schmidt’s Du stirbst nicht, in which a woman wakes up from a coma and has to regain her memories of her life and language. It’s nicely done and I presume the more political sections are fun, but it didn’t make my heart stand still.

Teenage Girl Factor: 0%
Foreign/Village Setting: no
Sample Sentence: “She meant gaps in my mind. Missing names, missing friends, missing family, missing career, missing landscapes, missing memories, missing words and other gaps… She sat on a chair and found more and more gaps.”

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Win Oliver Bottini and Strike a Blow for Feminism

You may remember I was interviewed by Annina Luzie Schmid for GIRLS CAN BLOG a while back. And Annina's been thinking about how women bloggers can strengthen their networks and promote each other. Plus she also has access to several packages of audiobooks - not actually written by a woman, but narrated by one - the actress Martina Gedeck - and featuring a female detective.

So here's your chance to win three audiobooks by Oliver Bottini and in a slightly obscure way strengthen women bloggers' networks at the same time. The books are Mord im Zeichen des Zen, Im Sommer der Mörder, and Im Auftrag der Väter, all featuring the workaholic detective Louise Boni. They've won all sorts of prizes and I'm told they're fantastic reading. Bottini's new crime novel Das verborgene Netz comes out this October.

Just drop me a line in the comments section by 15 September, and I'll pick a name out of a hat and get back to you.

You can also win audiobooks at girls can blog, Klappentexterin, Janasworld and Tschautschüssi. All of which are blogs written by women, proving that yes, it is possible for women to concentrate for more than two minutes at a time and operate a computer. At the same time.

Good luck!

Christopher Al-Aswad Prize Shortlist

It's shortlist season - I hope you can stomach another one or two. This time it's slightly different though.

The Christopher Al-Aswad Prize is apparently "awarded annually for outstanding contribution to breaking down barriers in literature and between literature and other arts." It comes from eight cuts, a virtual literary gallery that exists to break down borders and has this fascinating manifesto. I've just discovered it, to be honest, and I still haven't quite got my head round it - in a good way.

Anyway, check out the shortlist to find out about six inspiring projects - including my friends at And Other Stories, who are doing all sorts of exciting things with international literature in the UK.

There's also an eight cuts gallery prize for "the best piece of literature in the past year. That can mean whatever we want it to mean. That’s the point." And one of the pieces of literature on that shortlist is Peirene Press, who published the F C Delius book I reviewed the other day along with other gorgeous short books in translation.

Both titles will be awarded on 1 October.