Friday 31 December 2010


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

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

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Wikileaks Book Battle

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

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

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

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

Monday 27 December 2010

No More Vorleser

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

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

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

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

Friday 24 December 2010

Seasonal Delights

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

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

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

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

Three Wise Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 23 December 2010

Merry German Christmas

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

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

Friday 17 December 2010

Emerging Translators Programme

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

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

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

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

Further Details

The Sample Translations:

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

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

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

The Workshop:

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

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

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

How to Apply:

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

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

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

nbg(a)london dot goethe dot org

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

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Reading Recommendations

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

Saturday 11 December 2010

German Book Office Videos

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

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

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

Friday 10 December 2010

Anna Seghers - And Why Not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 9 December 2010

Crispin and Johnson Talk Böll

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Translation Prizes to Dollenmayer and Mitchell (Both Male)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 6 December 2010

German National Writers' Team Reading

Never mind nanowrimo - bring it on for the autonama.

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

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

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

Friday 3 December 2010

Mara Cassens Debut Prize to Sabrina Janesch

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

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

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

Congratulations, Sabrina!

Thursday 2 December 2010

Irish Times on German Books

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

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

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

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