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?

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Franzen On Ornithology in Berlin

If you can't get enough of Jonathan Franzen and happen to be a bird-lover and live in Berlin, you could do worse than this really rather odd event: the Franz on bird-watching in Berlin's Natural History Museum this coming Sunday morning. I believe the excellent German writer Katja Lange-Müller will be moderating.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

European Union Prize for Literature to Iris Hanika

The European Union has its own literary prize, the winners of which were announced last Wednesday. Nobody much seems to have noticed.

The award goes to "emerging writers" from a different selection of countries every year, chosen by a small group of experts from each nation. This year Germany was included, and the German winner is Iris Hanika for Das Eigentliche (published by Droschl Verlag in Austria, another indie publisher doing great work). They say it's "a novel about Germany ailing with its Nazi past, and therefore by no means a historical novel but a very contemporary one." I haven't read it but I'm reliably assured that Hanika is a great writer. This is her second novel, with the previous longlisted for the German Book Prize a couple of years ago.

My problem with the prize is its lack of visibility. Although it's supported by all kinds of writerly associations, it has a strange reek of unsexiness about it, perhaps because of the "European Union" in the title. Here's what they say in the press release:

Federation of European Publishers President, Fergal Tobin, added: “Today's announcements highlight the fundamental role of all players in the book value chain and put the spotlight on new literary talents in Europe. I am particularly pleased that together with the Commission and our natural partners, the writers and the booksellers, we are organising this Prize which increases the visibility of writers from all over Europe and contributes to the diversified European cultural heritage.”

Except it's not really increasing that visibility, is it? Perhaps a larger PR budget would be a good idea. Or not announcing the winners at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where everything else is announced as well and battling for column inches. Or not using the term "book value chain" in the announcement. Because it's an interesting initiative that deserves more attention than it seems to be getting.

Monday 11 October 2010

What Katy Did in Frankfurt

Hell, if my parents went ahead and called me Katy, I can go ahead and milk the What Katy Did thing as much as I like. I might even make it a regular series.

So, you've been wondering what Katy did at the book fair? I know you have. I know you've been drooping in front of your computer screens with your tongues hanging out, waiting for all the juicy details. Well, here they come. Some of them.

This was my third visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair, but the first time I've really done it properly, in the actual having meetings and drinking heavily way. I'm not sure what I did the other times; probably just wandered the halls feeling lost and hung out in the Translators' Centre. Oh yeah, that was it.

This year, they made it more difficult for me to hide by abolishing the Translators' Centre. But in fact they replaced it with something else that was exactly the same; same chairs and tables, same place in Hall 5, same pointless registration desk, same neighbours, same hundreds of translators slurping coffee and gossiping, same events programme (with different events, obviously), same idea of translators doing their work on a big screen for all to see; different name, different carpet. So that was one good place to hide, as was the "young publishers' island" or whatever it's called, where I went to sit in a booth and look blank. Thanks for that, guys, it was very restful.

In between all this, I met some editors and publishers and foreign rights people and did actual business. I didn't go to any book presentations or readings or anything, but I did sort of check out what books were on display. Including the German Book Prize winner Tauben fliegen auf, which even the publishers Jung & Jung obviously hadn't expected to win - it's out of print already, they're waiting for 20,000 extra copies but you can't get the damn thing for love nor money. So I sat down and read it for half an hour just in case anyone asked me (and yes, two people did). I was underwhelmed, but what can you expect in half an hour? Let's hope the narrative is the hook, because although the writing is fine and subtle, it didn't get my boat rocking. I promise to read it when it's available in bookstores again.

And other than that, I did the whole book fair kit and caboodle. In the evenings, I mean. That means:

  1. I went to a posh hotel bar and had drinks on someone else's expense account while lounging on a sofa. Someone stole my friend's drink while we were there, which I suspect is not uncommon, and a man who looked like Jude Law gazed into space across the room, whereas a bigshot editor who didn't look like Jude Law ogled my legs. I think there should be a rule that only men who look like Jude Law get to ogle.
  2. I went to a reception in a publishing house where I hardly knew anybody, and of course the first person I did actually know didn't actually recognise me and the second person I knew got caught up in conversation with his editor. Luckily I had taken along some fellow liggers and changed into my best dress beforehand in a sort of dishwashing cubbyhole. I asked the man in there if it was OK and he didn't mind but said he couldn't close his eyes or his dishes wouldn't get clean. Anyway, the reception was very crowded indeed and there were free sarnies and wine, and complaints about the quality of said freebies. I think there should be a rule that people who get free food and drink should just shut up and enjoy it.
  3. I went to the indie publishers' party, which was by far the best because any old hoi polloi could go along provided they paid the small cover charge. So I knew shitloads of really cool people there and kept greeting them effusively in a "Hey, I actually know someone!" kind of way. I think there should be a rule that, ummm, loads of people I know go to parties? Am I labouring this one too much?
  4. I gatecrashed the same publisher's party twice. Turns out it's easier to get in if you're not on the list but accompanied by slightly drunk Germans who are on the list at about 1 a.m. than if you're not on the list but accompanied by very drunk Americans who are on the list at 3.30 a.m. Who'da thought it? Also at said party, I used the classic line: "I'd probably understand you better if I were sober." Always good for impressing important people. And I also let someone wind me up and prompt me to get all petulant and pathetic towards a seriously cool person, but I don't think many people noticed. Apart from said seriously cool person, and he may not remember it all that clearly.
  5. I had the world's most awesome dinner with more cool people on another expense account, during which we planned the world's most awesome publishing party to unite the nations in, ummm, exchanging clothing, as I recall. And something about oranges, the juicy kind. Damn, I knew we should have written it down.
  6. I discovered that good editors do not necessarily make good DJs. Sorry, but it's true. That's why they're editors and not internationally renowned disk jockeys jetsetting from Ibiza to New York to Berlin to Jakarta. But they do make good books.
  7. I discovered the joy of drunken text messaging. May I just take this opportunity to apologise to all those people who got misspelled and pointless missives in the middle of the night? Thanks.
During all this, you must know, I had moments of extreme, and I mean extreme paranoia. Because for some reason, other people seemed to think I knew what I was doing and not actually bluffing my way around the whole thing. And I certainly wasn't going to let on that I had no idea what I was doing whatsoever. I think there should be a rule that everyone just assumes everyone else knows what they're doing. In fact, I think there already is.

And before you write rude anonymous comments, please consider that my everyday life is about as far removed from all this as you can imagine. Well, OK, I'm not a fruit fly in Addis Abeba, but you know. I'm a translator and I love German books.

Indie Hotlist Prize to Ulrike Almut Sandig

Sometimes it's not who you know, it's who you're sitting behind. The German independent publishers' book prize, pithily titled "Hotlist" - which of course doesn't really work when you apply it to a single winning book, but hey, why find a sensible name when an Anglicism will do perfectly well? - was awarded in Frankfurt on Friday. And what a ceremony it was!

There's something so fantastically German about staging utterly cool events in run-down locations, and indie publishers are really the best at doing this. It's like saying, Hey, we may have no money for gilt chairs and free booze all night long, but we're still gonna throw the best book fair party - and have our own award while we're at it. So the ceremony was held up a broken escalator with the guests sitting on benches, having paid a modest €4 to get in, and the moderators perched on the edge of an impromptu stage while I really, really hoped there was no asbestos behind the crumbling plastic wall panelling of the former diamond-trading centre.

The evening started with Der Freitag publisher Jakob Augstein, indie publisher Axel von Ernst and writer and literary organiser extraordinaire Traudl Bünger staging a turbo-rundown of the fifteen titles on the Hotlist. Four minutes for each explanation. The prize is an odd compound of democratic processes and despotism by jury - about half of the contenders were chosen by internet vote and the other half were proposed by a panel of experts, who then chose the actual winner. Which meant there were some pretty strange books on the list.

And here's where that non-existent seating plan came in. Because during this part of the event, I was sitting behind a woman in her early sixties and a conspicuously overdressed younger couple (because of course there's a special unspoken dresscode for these übercool events, which requires that you look like you've made no effort). And when Jakob Augstein ripped the piss out of one of the contenders, an epistolary novel written by a woman in her early sixties who enjoys gardening, based on her mother's non-romance with an Indian and dedicated to her children, the woman in her early sixties in front of me flinched visibly and the conspicuously overdressed couple stage-whispered offended comments about how Jakob Augstein had no idea and had never written a book of his own. Which is not strictly true, but whatever. It was awkward.

Anyway, after the break the actual awards ceremony part began, wonderfully hosted by Traudl Bünger again and Monika Schärer. This time I was sitting behind the writer Ulrike Almut Sandig and her beautifully bearded publisher Klaus Schöffling, purely by chance. But someone had dropped a big hint to me just seconds beforehand, so I was watching them carefully. And didn't those hostesses draw out the agony! All sorts of people were officially thanked and invited up on stage, asked what the Argentinean Hotlist is called ("Hotlist"), asked what independent publishers ought to be doing better – while the poor writers in the audience quaked in their own private purgatories.

And then, at last, the non-golden envelope was opened and the winner announced: Ulrike Almut Sandig for her beautiful prose debut, the short stories Flamingos. Cheers, applause, happiness. What was the stunned winner going to spend the prize money on? A treat for herself in Finnland. Grins all round, followed by much standing around clutching beer bottles in crowded spaces. Hooray.

It still feels ever so slightly home-made, but the Hotlist is now, I think, well and truly established and a genuine honour for its well-deserved winner.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Quick Thoughts on Tauben fliegen auf

I have a very brief window so these will only be unstructured thoughts before I leave for Frankfurt.

Melinda Nadj Abonji has won the German Book Prize, surprising pretty much everyone on the planet (except maybe those few people who don't follow these matters). She's Swiss, born in the part of former Yugoslavia that is now Serbia and grew up speaking Hungarian. Tauben fliegen auf is her second novel - she's also a performer and musician. Apparently she's not quite as much of an insiders' tip in Switzerland as she is in Germany, where everyone's going: "Melinda who?" But in fact she's been around for about ten years, keeping a fairly low profile whether voluntarily or not. I haven't read anything she's written, apart from the sample from her novel (pdf) and the sample translation by Rafael Newman.

What I know about the book is this: a family with two teenage daughters visits Serbia from Switzerland, where they have now settled. They are part of the Hungarian-speaking minority and the two girls long for everything to have stayed the same in their former village. In Switzerland they face prejudice but run a cafeteria, the mother employing all sorts of nationalities who argue among themselves. The father has problems coming to terms and turns to the demon drink. I will read it, because I very much hope there's more to the novel than this.

One of the judges, Jobst-Ulrich Brandt of FOCUS magazine, has written a nice piece singing its praises, which gives some grounds for optimism. Apparently Abonji writes in a very musical style and keeps the narrative tension up throughout.

But this novel is not harmless. It's about war and violence, racism and disrust – and about what our roots mean to us, and how difficult it can cometimes be, despite all willingness, to "integrate" into an unfamiliar society. As such, Tauben fliegen auf is also a very contemporary book – not a bad thing when it comes to choosing the "novel of the year".

FOCUS, I have to add, is not exactly a spearhead of left-wing politics, so I think we can safely say that literature by people writing in their second languages has officially made it. The judges have made a political choice at a time when the German-speaking world is chattering a great deal about the down side of immigration. I'm pleased about that, even though there were books on the shortlist of greater literary sophistication - to wit: Thomas Lehr's September and Peter Wawerzinek's Rabenliebe.

I'm also very pleased indeed for Abonji's publishers Jung und Jung. Based in Salzburg, they're an independent publisher with an excellent list of outstanding literary titles, mainly German-language. This is also the first time a Swiss writer has won the award, which I can't say gets my heart racing either way. I'll read and review the book and try to catch Melinda Nadj Abonji live at the book fair.

Monday 4 October 2010

German Book Prize to Swiss-Serbian Novel

After a long, slightly annoying ceremony, they have now announced it.

The winner is (my heart is pounding):

Melinda Nadj Abonji for Tauben fliegen auf.

Goodness me. I hadn't been expecting that.

NYT Outdoes Itself

Amazingly, the New York Times managed to run two articles mentioning the word translation on one day. I know... I've heard the excuse (from a different media outlet) "Sorry, we've already had a piece about translation this week." But maybe my article was just crap.

First up there's a slightly rambling op-ed that everybody's loving: Michael Cunningham writes about being translated and the writing process.

And then they've done something very clever and asked a translator to review a translated book. And not just any old translator and any old book, oh no! It's Tim Mohr on Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway. And my, does he get his teeth into the translation. And into Daniel Kehlmann too. I enjoyed every word. The only thing is, I'm hideously envious of Tim Mohr for being able to write "Tim Mohr is a translator and a former Berlin club D.J." in his byline. Mine would have to say "Katy Derbyshire is a translator and hideously envious of Tim Mohr."

Thanks to David and Harvey (and Shelley and Isabel and Susan) for the links.

Anyway, these two articles will help to while away the time before the German Book Prize is announced today at nineteen-hundred hours CET (which you can listen to on a Deutschlandfunk livestream at I'm incredibly, terribly, knee-shakingly excited about it, and I'm just going to hide away my two favourites in this unrelated post:

Thomas Lehr's September and Peter Wawerzinek's Rabenmutter.

You'll hear more from me on this subject this evening.

Friday 1 October 2010

Literary Translation in the States and Britain

Anna Gielas has a cheerful (not) article about the dearth of translations in the USA in Die Zeit (in German). If you follow these things in English, you won't learn all that much, but it's interesting in that she talks to Riky Stock of the German Book Office, and the translators Esther Allen and Edith Grossmann.

I also like the way she doesn't bother brow-beating over why heavy German literature is to blame - because it's not, nothing much else gets translated either.

In fact, she points out:

But linguists and other experts see the lack of translations as a sign of a serious phenomenon: "English has become an invasive species," says Esther Allen from the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University in New York. The language does not work as a lingua franca, as many claim. "Instead of taking in literature from other languages, it drowns it out and overwrites it – both in the USA and the rest of the world," says Allen. The German situation confirms her statement: 87 percent of the total 4155 literary titles translated last year were originally written in English.

Which brings us back to that "International" Literature Prize I wrote about on Wednesday...

Thanks to Harvey Morell for sending me the link. I'll just go and drink some bleach now.

Except no! I won't! Because Stuart Evers has a cheerful (really) article in The Guardian about my friends at And Other Stories, a "radical and community-based initiative, focusing on promoting great writing in translation".

Evers writes:

But can it really work? I would say yes. The whole operation seems carefully planned, well thought-out and radical not so much because of the involvement of reading groups, but in its acceptance of the reality of literary publishing. And Other Stories fully accepts that what they do is not just niche – it's a niche within a niche within a niche. The size of the opportunity for sales is tiny; tiny that is unless you know who you are selling to.

Hooray!? I've put the Domestos back under the sink.