Wednesday 21 December 2011

EU Prize Success Story

So having mouthed off about the unsexiness of those European Union book awards, I got a message from a Macedonian translator, my friend Elizabeta Lindner. She pointed out that there has been one massive success story to come out of the 2010 awards. The Macedonian writer Goce Smilevski got one of the twelve sub-prizes for emerging writers, and his winning novel has now sold into at least twenty languages. Twenty! It does indeed look like fascinating stuff: Sigmund Freud's Sister imagines the titular heroine making friends with Franz Kafka's sister in a concentration camp, and will be published in English by Penguin US/UK.

Also, I have to admit that the author interviews on the award website from last year are a nice personal touch. So, yes, they're still obscure and have a whiff of bureaucracy about them, but for what we call "smaller" languages these awards may have more significance, as Elizabeta pointed out. Then again, an extract from the novel was also featured in Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction 2010 anthology and his previous book, Conversation with Spinoza, made it into English too. So who knows what weighed the scales in his favour.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Heinrich Böll: Irish Journal

Some time ago, I wrote that I’d rather eat my hat than read this book, or some such nonsense. As a British person, I have always been slightly envious of the Irish for occupying the number-one spot in all Germans’ mental charts of their favourite foreigners. And this particular book seemed to be the reason for – or at the least the main symptom of – that affection. Add to that a pointless truculence towards reading any author on my university syllabus, and it seemed unlikely that I would ever dip into Böll’s Irish Journal.

But Melville House has been re-releasing much of Böll’s work in English translation, and it seemed to make sense for me to review something I hadn’t previously read. So why not dive in at the deep end and go for a book I felt had been niggling at me for about twenty years?

In fact it was a revealing experience. Firstly because it reminded me that Böll was simply an excellent craftsman. He could be an angry polemicist making a point through fiction, something he did very well – and that is what we read as undergraduates. But what was obscured at the time, very possibly by my undergraduate-level German skills, was that he also wrote beautifully. Leila Vennewitz’s translation is genuinely pretty, bringing out all the sublime sentimentality of Böll’s language. One of many stand-out examples:

…this clear, cold light does not penetrate the sea: it merely clings to its surface, as water clings to glass, gives the beach a soft rust color, lies on the bog like mildew…

 And the other reason I found it revealing was that it does seem to have had a formative influence on several generations of Germans. I even found things in the book that people have been telling me for years:

…here on this island, then, live the only people in Europe that never set out to conquer, although they were conquered several times, by Danes, Normans, Englishmen – all they sent out was priests, monks, missionaries who, by way of this strange detour via Ireland, brought the spirit of Thebaic asceticism to Europe…

- something that the Germans find particularly fun to rub in English faces while still savouring their own sense of national guilt.

The journal consists of a variety of short pieces on Ireland that Böll wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine. His first visit to Ireland was in 1954, staying on Achill Island off County Mayo, and this is the time and place he describes – a country of extreme poverty, strict Catholicism and much rain. We see the place through the eyes of a 40-year-old paterfamilias, so there is a good deal of celebration of whiskey and cigarettes by the fireside. But he also appreciates the Irish sense of humour and the pretty women, and being a German he marvels at the way things run without the slightest bit of efficiency but still get done.

One aspect I found particularly interesting was the way Böll dwells on Ireland’s mass emigration. By the mid-1950s, the West German economy was in the midst of its miracle. Böll seems fascinated by the poverty he sees in Dublin and the rest of the country, focusing on details such as safety pins and then string used to hold clothes together. But that poverty seems to be an honourable one to him, resulting from overcrowding and a lack of resources. He sees the direct link to the widespread emigration, which he describes in very emotional terms, evoking many tearful farewells and abandoned houses. I was tempted to contrast it to emigration from Germany under the Nazis, although Böll never does so directly.

I would have found the book a fascinating and eminently readable outsider’s portrait, were it not for the epilogue that Heinrich Böll added in 1967. As Hugo Hamilton points out in his beautifully written introduction – in which he neatly balances interesting stuff about himself with interesting stuff about the book itself – he “records the grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society” in the journal itself. Yet he does so entirely uncritically. And it was his epilogue that really opened my eyes to that complacent view, because here Böll comments with horror on the arrival of the birth-control pill in Ireland. While even admitting that it might free the women from having quite so many babies and the country from over-population, he writes, “…this something absolutely paralyzes me: the prospect that fewer children might be born in Ireland fills me with dismay.” How sad that a writer capable of such critical faculty when it came to his own country failed to apply that to Ireland.

So, read the Irish Journal to find out what clichés the Germans still hold dear about Ireland, and to some extent what Ireland was like in the mid-1950s. But do bear in mind that it’s all rather reminiscent of a BBC costume drama featuring craggy character actors as The Priest, The Doctor’s Wife, The Drinker, The Post-Office Girl and The Bus Driver. Delightfully nostalgic stuff, very well done, but perhaps not exactly educational.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Maxim Who? On EU Literary Awards

The European Union has two book awards. And nobody has ever heard of either of them. One - the European Union Prize for Literature is for emerging talents and goes to twelve authors from different countries every year. This year one of them writes in German, Iren Nigg. I have to admit I don't know her work, although she is mentioned in this interview with her fellow Liechtenstein writer Stefan Sprenger. I am slightly embarrassed at knowing absolutely nothing about the principality's literature, despite having once met a nice (but Berlin-based) Liechtenstein writer at a party. My excuse is that nobody else does either. Nigg received €5000 at a ceremony held on 28 November in Brussels.

Then there is the European Book Prize, which I have only just heard of. And only because Julian Barnes was chair of the judges and wrote about it in The Guardian. Apparently there was an awards ceremony in Brussels, just over a week after the first one. This prize goes to two writers, one writing what I'm just going to call non-fiction, in this case the Polish author Anna Bikont. And the other goes to a fiction writer, in this case Maxim Leo. Who is a German writer and journalist who wrote Haltet euer Herz bereit, published in Germany in 2009 and in France last autumn. It seems to have gone down like a lead balloon over here, getting a whole one press review as far as I can tell (although it was a favourable one).

According to Euronews (the only other English-language source I could find):
Maxim Leo said: “I tried to write a book about how I remembered the former German Democratic Republic. Most books and movies about this subject deal with people in the Stasi or in the opposition movement for civil rights. There is nothing between these two subjects. Apparently one has to be a fighter for civil rights or a traitor. I tried to write about the fact that there was also normal life, family life, I wrote about people who were sad, happy, in love or not in love, about the fact that everything was possible. Because I do know myself very well and I know my family, I told a story about my family.” 
So on the one hand, I'm glad this award has raised the profile of what sounds like an interesting book, and that the judges have not opted for the easy, popular choice. On the other hand, despite the boon of €10,000 in prize money and the undoubted boost to the writer's ego, the European Book Prize is hardly going to raise Maxim Leo's profile significantly. It, and indeed its sister prize too, are the Liechtenstein of literary awards - well funded, obscure and strangely unsexy, involving lavish banquets with swing quintets. 

I very much doubt that anything run by the European Union is going to get much love from the UK right now. So kudos to Julian Barnes for raising the subject in the face of a tide of anti-European sabre-rattling. In the same Guardian issue, incidentally, Jonathan Jones touches very briefly on the short shrift given to "foreign writers" in a rising tide of British patriotism, citing - and this made me laugh out loud - Philip Roth. Because those writing in actual foreign languages seem to get such short shrift that Jonathan Jones has never heard of them.

I shall go to bed now and hope I wake up in a better literary world. Perhaps one in which award-winners get translated into English.

Thursday 15 December 2011

German Book Office Buzz Videos

In a terribly, terribly exciting development, the lovely people at the German Book Office NY have made a series of videos celebrating the other lovely people at New Books in German and presenting a selection of, umm, recommended new books in German. They had a glamorous launch party with a screening on Monday, where the world's literati rubbed shoulders over canapés and champagne. And truffles. And Salman Rushdie brought some brownies he'd made, which were very good apparently but brought out Philip Roth's nut allergy because he forgot to mention the secret ingredient (pistachios!). Anyway, by the time the videos were screened I hear all was well again because Jeannette Winterson had her epi-pen with her and administered a quick emergency injection.

So the world was almost as wowed as I was by the amazing videos you can now watch on the GBO's Youtube channel. I'm in one of them too, talking about Simon Urban's Plan D. Please contact my agent if you want to offer me a film contract. Contact the GBO or NBG if you're a publisher and feel inspired to buy the translation rights to any of the books. And many, many thanks to Brittany Hazelwood for doing such an excellent job.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Subscribe Subscribe Subscribe

Ten shopping days to Christmas and you can't be bothered to leave the comfort of your home ever again? Lower back pain from lugging heavy shopping bags? Panic rising as you remember you've forgotten to get your dad anything? I know that feeling. Instead of stuffing cash in an envelope, why not go for classy gifts that don't require you getting rained on?

A book subscription! Translated fiction sent to your loved ones' door at regular intervals - reminding them all through the year of what a wonderful person you are and what sophisticated taste you have. At least three fantastic options are open to you:

An And Other Stories subscription offers four books a year for 35 pounds in Europe or 45 in the rest of the world (including one crazy Swiss title, Zbinden's Progress by Christoph Simon, trans. Donal McLaughlin). Top choice.

A Peirene Press subscription offers six books a year for 45 pounds or three for 24. This one includes another Swiss title, Richard Weihe's illustrated novella Sea of Ink, trans. Jamie Bulloch, which I don't know at all yet.

Or if you're stuck in the States go for an Open Letter Books subscription, which is terribly confusing but I think buys you twelve books for 100 dollars or six for 60. I believe that would include Benjamin Stein's excellent The Canvas, trans. Brian Zumhagen.

As well as making an excellent present for any sentient being - or indeed yourself - a subscription helps support small publishers who are championing translated fiction. And you know you want to do that.

Monday 12 December 2011

Reading Group? Ask the Translator.

The Germans don't tend to be early adopters (see also: e-readers, tasty sandwiches). Whereas a whole slew of books in the UK and the US have made it big via reading-group word-of-mouth and major publishers often include a list of discussion points at the back of likely novels, Germany hasn't quite caught on yet. On the other hand, of course, the Germans are already a nation of readers and may not need as much encouragement.

But still, there is a book-group book out there - Das Lesekreisbuch - authored by Thomas Böhm, a man who wears elbow patches in public. Apparently he even provides tips for the right kind of nibbles to serve. He bigged up the idea in the NZZ earlier this year, mostly with reference to UK/US examples. Most of the reading groups I'm aware of in Berlin do in fact focus on English literature - I used to attend one initiated by the British Council a few years ago and the bookshop Dialogue Berlin runs another excellent one. BUT some of the cleverest German literary types I know also happen to have a reading group on a less formal basis. In fact, I believe I lent one of them a book and never got it back - I assume that's a good sign. In New York, Boston, London and Glasgow, however, you can read books in German and discuss them in English. Or you could even set up your own German reading group if you're that way inclined.

All of which brings me back to the title of this post. I recently came up with a list of questions and discussion points for one of the books I translated (more later, as and when anything comes out of it). And I found it really easy, not just because I'm a chatty kind of person but because having translated the book, I knew it inside out. But at the same time, I had the distance necessary to step back and look for overarching themes, weaknesses, and issues in the book. Which I think can be difficult for some writers to do themselves.

Anyway, my idea is this: if you already have a reading group in Germany or elsewhere and you happen to read the odd translation, why not choose a book done by a local translator and get a bit of added value by inviting the translator along? How cool would that be? I bet they'd be thrilled to bits and have loads of great anecdotes to tell you, as well as understanding the book really well. Plus they're more likely to attend than, let's say, W.G. Sebald or John Steinbeck. Just don't say you prefer to read the original.

Friday 9 December 2011

Fair Play for Literary Translators

CEATL is the European Council of Literary Translators' Associations, and has just published a "hexalogue" of six simple demands. Here they are:

Hexalogue or Code of Good Practice

The Six Commandments of ‘fair-play’ in literary translation, adopted by CEATL’s General Assembly on 14 May, 2011. 
1. Licensing of rights
The licensing of rights for the use of the translation shall be limited in time to a maximum of five years. It shall be subject to the restrictions and duration of the licensed rights of the original work. Each licensed right shall be mentioned in the contract.
2. Fees
The fee for the commissioned work shall be equitable, enabling the translator to make a decent living and to produce a translation of good literary quality.
3. Payment terms
On signature of the contract, the translator shall receive an advance payment of at least one third of the fee. The remainder shall be paid on delivery of the translation at the latest.
4. Obligation to publish
The publisher shall publish the translation within the period stipulated in the contract, and no later than two years after the delivery of the manuscript.
5. Share in profit
The translator shall receive a fair share of the profits from the exploitation of his/her work, in whatsoever form it may take, starting from the first copy.
6. Translator’s name
As author of the translation, the translator shall be named wherever the original author is named.
In my modest experience, we are still some way from achieving point 5 in the UK, point 2 in Germany and point 6 pretty much anywhere in the world. 

Thursday 8 December 2011

The Amazing Love German Books Awards 2011!

 A few of my favourite things for 2011

I don’t much care for best book lists, partly because I don’t ever feel like singling out five or ten books from one particular year. But I’m feeling rather pressurised by the fact that everyone else in the whole world is writing them. So I’ve found a way out, which is a slightly random list of things I thought were extremely good in 2011. In the world of German books, I mean. So here I am in my sparkly dress, slightly tipsy on champagne and teetering down the runway in my highest of heels to present to you - the Amazing Love German Books Awards 2011!

Best New Publisher
That has to be the fantabulous And Other Stories. 2011 was their launch year and they published four books, including (ahem) my translation of Clemens Meyer’s short stories, All The Lights. They took Clemens and me on tour of the UK along with the lovely Juan Pablo Villalobos and his talented translator Rosalind Harvey. And Juan Pablo’s short novel Down The Rabbit Hole was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award – the only translation on the shortlist. Check out their website to see how you could get involved too.

Best Old Publisher
Seagull Books for continuing their German and Swiss lists with a plethora of beautifully designed books. They’re also setting up a publishing school in Calcutta, they run a gallery and events series, and are all-round lovely people. The booth to be at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.

Best German Publisher
This is a tough one because there are quite a few German publishers I think do really great stuff. But at the end of the day it has to be Schöffling & Co. – because they publish only good fiction and poetry and no bumpf to keep the quality stuff afloat. And also because if there’s one beard I approve of (apart from my father’s) then it’s Klaus Schöffling’s beard. If you want to grow a beard, grow a three-foot-long flowing white one.

Best Publishing Party
I did actually attend a couple of publishing parties this year, the kind with free food and drink and standing around making small-talk until everyone feels drunk enough to crack a smile, by which time I usually have to go home. Best though was the Party der Jungen Verlage at the Leipzig Book Fair. Easily the best party in German publishing because all the cool people go there and actually dance. And the location is a disused post office with all sorts of dark and dingy corners. Plus you don’t need an invite so I can go along. Also I was a bit mean about the rather less good indie publishers’ party at the Frankfurt Book Fair, so this is to remind everyone that they can do it really well sometimes.

Best Publicity Campaign
Has to be for Simon Urban’s Plan D. OK, the writer works in advertising so he has a head start, but the novel has its own cheesy pop song, its own car model and its own brand of lemonade. Go to the beautifully designed website to check it all out – hours of fun:

Best-Dressed German Writers
Tough, particularly among the ladies. But not that tough actually, because two outfits stole the show – Annika Scheffel for a gorgeous black (wool?) dress with a thin red belt and nice shoes, and Jan Brandt for a Mark Ronson-style not quite Butlin's-red suit combined with a thin black tie. I can see a pattern emerging here.

Best Blog Initiative
How can I not bow down in awe to the glory that was German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy? An astounding 121 German-language books reviewed on a whole host of different blogs during November. Ladies, I salute you!

Best Translation Initiative
The new translators-in-residence programme at London's Free Word Centre, where the lovely Rosalind Harvey (see above) and Nicky Harman thought up all sorts of off-the-wall-out-of-the-box activities to bring translation out of its ghetto. More please!

Best love german books Post
Because hey, no one else is going to give me a prize – my favourite blog post of my own for 2011 was my investigative report on the relative merits of the e-book and print versions for capturing male attention on public transport.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

The Great Love German Books Seasonal Gift List

You know what it's like - you're a complete German book freak and you just long to spread the love, bringing the joy of Teutonic writing to all your nearest and dearest. But your average book store doesn't cater to your taste, perhaps considering it strange or idiosyncratic for some unfathomable reason. So you're left wallowing in a mire of confusion over what books to buy for all those friends and relatives sadly incapable of reading German.

But never fear, for the Great Love German Books Seasonal Gift List is here! With recommendations of German-language books published mostly this year in English translation. Loosen your purse-strings, Germanic literature evangelists, and go shopping.

Small print: I must add that I haven't test-driven every single one of these books personally, but I'm sure any German book that passes the translation hurdle must be of above-average standard. The list does, however, reflect love german books' personal taste in that it is almost entirely devoid of dead writers. Sorry.

For intelligent sports fans – Ronald Reng: A Life Too Short. The Tragedy of Robert Enke (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

For true crime fans – Ferdinand von Schirach: Crime (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

For Russian food fans – Alina Bronsky: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (trans. Tim Mohr)

For poetry fans with a sense of humour – Monika Rinck: To Refrain from Embracing (trans. Nick Grindell)

For people who long for summer – Ingo Schulze: Adam and Evelyn (trans. John E. Woods)

For the modern woman – Annemarie Schwarzenbach: Lyric Novella (trans. Lucy Renner-Jones)

For the modern woman traveller – Annemarie Schwarzenbach: All the Roads are Open (trans. Isabel Cole)

For romantics – Daniel Glattauer: Love Virtually (trans. Katharina Bielenberg/Jamie Bulloch)

For romantic anthropologists – Thomas Pletzinger: Funeral for a Dog (trans. Ross Benjamin)

For gender anthropologists – Thomas Meinecke: Tomboy (trans. Danny Boyle)

For thriller fans with a strong stomach – Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

For Ireland fans – Heinrich Böll: Irish Journal (trans. Leila Vennewitz)

For witty crime fans – Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk! (trans. Anselm Hollo)

For historical graphic novel fans – Hannes Binder/Lisa Tetzner: The Black Brothers (trans. Peter F. Neumeyer)

For musical graphic novel fans – Arne Bellstorf: Baby's in Black (trans. Michael Waaler)

For Kafka fans – Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time (trans. Tess Lewis)

For European literature fans – Aleksandar Hemon (ed.): Best European Fiction 2012 (trans. various artists)

For Berlin fans – Inka Parei: The Shadow-Boxing Woman (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For working-class heroes – Clemens Meyer: All The Lights (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For traceurs – Rusalka Reh: This Brave Balance (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For anyone who thinks outside of even the obscurest categories – Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation to the Bold of Heart (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

Thursday 1 December 2011

Tim Parks in Sensible Comment Shock!

Regular readers will know I'm not a great admirer of Tim Parks' theories on how the fact books get translated is making literature dull and globalised. I summed up my objections here. The man himself has been in Germany recently and even took part in an event about his ideas in Berlin, which I sadly couldn't attend. Or maybe not sadly, because I'm sure it would have made me all angry and incoherent and given me wrinkles. He also gave an interview to Deutschlandradio Kultur, reiterating his ideas and giving one single example (Peter Stamm).

So imagine my surprise when I read Parks' latest missive in the New York Review of Books - and actually found myself nodding in agreement. Here, Parks writes about the translation of poetry and how it really helps to have an excellent knowledge of the original language. In many cases poetry is translated by poets, who often don't understand the source language at all or have only a rudimentary grasp. They do so with what we call an interlinear translation - an absolutely literal translation done by a non-poet.

I'm not going to make myself many friends by saying this, but that's a bit of a roundabout way of doing things. What I often find comes out of the procedure is more a new poem than a classic translation. (Oh, by the way, I'm reading David Bellos' Is That a Fish in Your Ear? so when I use the words "classic translation" you'll just have to think up your own idea about what that might mean, because of course there's no such thing. But more on that some other time - let's just assume we have reached an agreement about what a translation is, and it is a close approximation of the original text in another language.) Now there's nothing wrong with writing a new poem based upon one written in a language that's foreign to you and your audience. The book Buch der Sehnsüchte, for example, is a collection of Leonard Cohen translations by various German writers, some of them rather a long way from the originals. And there's a similar anthology of translations by German poets out there that I shall add in this spot as soon as I can remember the title. In fact, I've been told (by a translating poet) that only poets can translate poetry.

I disagree, and so does Tim Parks. He writes:
(W)hat often frees the student to offer better translations is a deeper knowledge of the language he is working from: a better grasp of the original allows the translator to detach from formal structures and find a new expression for the tone he is learning to feel: in this case, however, every departure from strict transposition is inspired by an intimate and direct experience of the original.
All this to arrive at the obvious conclusion that while expression and creativity in one’s own language is crucial, a long experience in the language we are working from can only improve the translations we make.
Interpreting is a key aspect of translation, and I feel a good translation has to be based on the translator's personal interpretation of the text. We have to feel the implications and hints, the flavour and allusions, we have to hear when a poem is leaning towards an advertising jingle or a Christmas carol just as when it's playing on a previous work. And while there are of course annotated editions of poetry that has entered the canon, most poems just have to stand on their own to be interpreted freely. To capture all those nuances calls for intimate knowledge of the original language and to re-render it, great skill in the target language.

The ideal translator for the purpose of rendering a close approximation of poetry, then, might be a poet or might not be, but would be a voracious reader of poetry in both languages.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Steven Uhly: Adams Fuge

The writer Steven Uhly has been in the German press rather a lot recently - firstly for winning the Tukan literary prize with his novel Adams Fuge (Adam's Fugue) and secondly for taking part in a feature on the TV magazine Aspekte, in which he went to Jena and talked about how uncomfortable he feels in the former East Germany, prompting much indignation in said university town. I will mention only briefly that I find the feature's format dubious and superficial, especially bearing in mind that the very same team already used it during the summer to rush racist ex-politician Thilo Sarrazin through multi-ethnic Kreuzberg, enraging the locals there too. But I assume it's good for viewing figures and cheap to make.

Why Jena, and why Uhly? Because Jena is where the three neo-Nazi terrorists ("NSU") originated from who murdered ten people over the past 13 years before two of them were found dead in a caravan. And because Uhly's novel touches on one of the most scandalous aspects of this already extremely scandalous case: the V-Leute in neo-Nazi organisations.

I'm not sure how other inland security agencies work, but the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution uses long-term informants within groups it investigates, called V-Leute. They were originally called V-Männer (and Hitler was one too, according to Wikipedia) but they obviously thought up a gender-neutral term. They're not members of the security services themselves but they are paid for their involvement in the organisations in question, be they illegal or merely suspected of endangering the constitution. In 2003 the constitutional court found there was no case for banning the extreme right NPD party because its organisation and its policies were propped up by paid informers. About 15 percent of the top officials were secretly being paid by the government, as The Guardian reported at the time. Let's say it's a grey area as to how active these informers are. In the case of the terrorist cell from Jena, very grey: the three terrorists were considered members of the "Thüringer Heimatschutz" - a network masterminded by the V-Mann Thilo Brandt that forged links between neo-Nazis groups. There has also been speculation about a former security agent who was present at the scene of one of the murders. And certainly, the large amounts of money thrown at the V-Leute in neo-Nazi organisations didn't prevent ten people from being murdered and didn't lead to the terrorists' arrest.

Ulrich Peltzer looked at an informant within a left-wing group in his excellent novel Part of the Solution (trans. Martin Chalmers). Here, the V-Mann is the one who steps up the intensity of the group's activities, acting as an agent provocateur.

In Uhly's novel, the V-Mann is a neo-Nazi who creates a computer game in which players have to kill as many Turks as possible. He also seems to be double-dealing with all sorts of agencies and forces, from Mossad to Kurdish nationalists. But back to the beginning.

Adams Fuge is a very eccentric book. To attempt to sum up the plot: a boy is born to a German mother and Turkish father in Mannheim, the mother leaves her violent husband and he moves to Turkey with his three children. The boy joins the army and happens to kill a Kurdish rebel leader, more or less by chance. He is given a medal and sent back to Germany under a false name as a reluctant secret agent. His task is to get rid of the neo-Nazi but before that he finds his long-lost mother and her new family. There follows much bizarreness. More agents and double-agents crop up than in a Mission Impossible double-bill, but Adam/Adem is haunted by the people he kills on his rather clumsy trip around Germany, who help him to survive. His father is kidnapped by the Kurds, who demand a mysterious file which is embedded in the racist computer game and Adam/Adem and the whole reunited family set out to rescue him, evading the police as they do so.

Family secrets are flushed to the surface and, as one might expect, Adam's mother has the odd issue with her son committing rape and murder all around the country. And there's an extended family discourse on anti-Semitism prompted by the involvement of a Mossad agent. Having suffered a shot through the head, Adam begins to lose his eyesight under pressure, during which he comes across his childhood first love. A spot of romanticism between the sheets soon puts that right though and rids him of all those ghosts, just in time for him to save the day. If only it weren't for his bungling Turkish brothers...

The outlandish plot is a pastiche lightly camouflaging some deep-ish ideas about identities. Adam's official nationality wavers in the course of the novel as he is given one passport after another: from Turkish to German to Israeli to American. Like Adam/Adem himself, the other agents he encounters have rather fluid motivations (like the aforementioned V-Mann, who does of course come to a satisfyingly sticky end). All of them lead dual lives with multiple names, and almost all of them are double-dealing somewhere along the line, whether for pecuniary or personal reasons. As the narrator cack-handedly bumps off enemy agents (usually to his own great regret), their identities pass over into his own and they carry out dialogues inside his head – at times he's unsure who he really is. And of course he's half-German and half-Turkish, which prompts some thoughts on the issue of multinational origins. The Tukan Prize jury wrote:

The secret services play a double game and impose identities on their agents to replace their humanity. Only when Adam refuses to define himself via national or religious affiliations can he stop the killing. (...) In Adams Fuge Steven Uhly plays provocatively with our prejudices, only to demolish them in the end.
I'm not entirely sure that second part is true, although it may have been his intention. The characters do indeed seem like caricatures - the liberal German grandfather, the wife-beating Turk, the wandering Jew, and so on. But he doesn't have time to demolish our prejudices about them individually because he's too caught up in his fast-moving plot. So all the work of demolishing is done by means of rather clumsy inner monologues or discussions within the family. And perhaps I'm missing something, but there are times when these sections just read like bad writing and made me want to skip a page.

What attracted me to the book in the first place is that it's a rare example (in German-language literature) of a phenomenon that the scholar Katrin Sieg calls "ethnic drag". That is, donning a different ethnic identity on stage such as the Jew or the Native American. Another recent example would be Astrid Rosenfeld's strikingly similarly titled Adams Erbe, featuring a Jewish narrator. In this case, Uhly is of German-Bengali origin, "with partial roots in the Spanish culture" as it says at the back of the book, whereas his narrator is a Turkish German. I can well imagine he gave him this national identity both in the belief that national identities are bunkum and in the assumption that a book about a Bangladeshi secret agent wouldn't work terribly well. But because the characters are so two-dimensional I got the impression that he hadn't gone to much trouble to research that particular identity other than giving his narrator an affinity to minarets and an unhealthy respect for his superiors. Add to that the fact that he pronounced his name wrong when I saw him reading from the novel, and the whole effort seems to fall slightly flat.

Nevertheless, it's worth reading for the sheer fun of it all.

Friday 25 November 2011

Axolotl Blockbuster

So as various newspapers reported yesterday, Helene Hegemann is making a film of her fantastic and wonderful novel Axolotl Roadkill. Regular readers will know that I loved the book so much I bought the company translated it. The English version should be out next year from Constable & Robinson in the UK. Actually, I've known for some time about the film project, but being a very discreet kind of person I didn't let on. One reason I knew about it is that a less discreet person, the critic and chair of the jury for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair Verena Auffermann, announced the fact on stage at the awards ceremony last spring. But obviously no one else was listening.

Anyway, another thing I know is that it's going to be an excellent film, slightly less dark than the novel, and again playing on Hegemann's collage technique inspired by Kathy Acker. And it's going to have an amazing soundtrack. According to the press, the production company Vandertastic Productions have received a public funding injection of €50,000.

Little Miss Hegemann (19) has just staged her first play as well, by the name of Lyrics. I'm not quite sure exactly what it's about (except that it's entirely unrelated to Axolotl Roadkill and she was mentored by René Pollesch and it's what they call "anti-narrative") but it premiered in Düsseldorf and it's coming to Berlin in January. You can also watch her debut film Torpedo, which she made when she was about eight and which you could see as a kind of prequel to Axolotl Blockbuster. And I believe there was a puppet show version of the novel too, but that went too far even for me.

I'm taking a deep breath and reminding myself that I was having a great time at the age of 19 myself. Just in a different way.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Stay in Sweden, Support Poetry Publisher

Publishing poetry is not likely to get anyone rich. So how to finance it? Already slightly unusual, the Sweden-based German poetry imprint Edition Rugerup has come up with a novel way to subsidise its books, which are mainly international poetry translated into German.

As trade mag Börsenblatt reports, you can now book a stay in the small village of Rugerup itself, in the home of the publisher (and translator) Margitt Lehbert. They say:
The house, built in 1866, has a large library but also German TV and – for those who like that kind of thing – a Spiegel subscription. There's an Internet connection to keep you in touch with the world. The household includes two lively children, aged 13 and 11,  sheepdog Laika and two cats.
Photos on the Rugerup Facebook page.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Swiss Book Prize to Catalin Dorian Florescu

Oops, I blinked and missed the announcement of the Swiss Book Prize. It went to Catalin Dorian Florescu, a Romanian-born writer, for his novel Jacob beschliesst zu lieben. 

Apparently it's a 300-year epos of a Swabian family that settles in Rumania, mainly focusing on the Jacob of the title in the 1920s to 50s. Love, friendship, betrayal, dictatorship, deportation, survival - European history.

Reviews have been mixed. A lot of critics loved the sweeping epic and colourful folklore, while Jörg Magenau pointed out that unlike Herta Müller, Florescu seems unwilling to place any blame or find any explanations for hunger, mistreatment and war, and got rather upset about it.

Florescu is reading at February's exciting Festival Neue Literatur in New York - and you can read an English sample from the novel (translated by John Hargraves) on their website.

Monday 21 November 2011

no man's land Events

no man’s land in Hamburg: sailing on The Story Boat
8 pm – 11pm,  Friday, 25th November
Centro Sociale, Sternstraße 2, Hamburg-Sternschanze (U-Bahn: Feldstraße)

In a Hamburg first, The Story Boat is hosting no man’s land, the online magazine for new German literature in translation. With translators Mark Terrill and Henry Holland and work by Jörg Fauser, Peter Rühmkorf, Christine Marendon and Mirko Bonné.

no man's land # 6 launch reading
November 28, 8 p.m.
Saint Georges Bookshop
Wörther Str. 27, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg
with Zehra Çirak, Michael Roes and Daniela Seel.
no man's land launches Issue # 6 with a bilingual reading featuring authors Zehra Çirak, Michael Roes and Daniela Seel. Zehra Çirak holds the prestigious Chamisso Prize for writing in German as a second language, along with numerous other awards. One of Germany's leading "poets of the foreign", Michael Roes is a novelist, poet, anthropologist and filmmaker. Daniela Seel, publisher of Berlin's legendary KookBooks, is also an accomplished experimental poet.

Tonight's authors reflect the range of an issue that also includes poetry by Lars-Arvid Brischke, Dieter M. Gräf, Christine Marendon, Monika Rinck, Peter Rühmkorf, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Donna Stonecipher and Jan Wagner and fiction by Eleonore Frey, Michael Lentz, Eva Menasse, Lutz Seiler and Keto von Waberer, and a documentation of Ann Cotten's and Monika Rinck's performance "The Igel Flies Tonight". Issue # 6 will appear November 28 at

As usual, drinks will be available from the Saint Georges bar, and you are welcome to linger, chat and celebrate with us after the reading!

Friday 18 November 2011

Celebrate/Commemorate Kleist

On Monday, 21 November it will be 200 years to the day since the German writer Heinrich von Kleist killed the salonnière Henriette Vogel and himself on the shore of what is now Berlin's Kleiner Wannsee. All sorts of commemorations have been taking place in Berlin and the rest of Germany for "Kleist Year". Theatre, as you might imagine, but also exhibitions visual and acoustic and a new gravestone for the two of them at the spot where they died, as suicides were not buried in churchyards. I rather like the look of this docu-drama screened on TV in March, which of course I missed: die Akte Kleist.

Anyway, if like me you've missed out on everything already - or in fact are not actually physically present in Berlin - you still have a chance to join in the fun and frolics. Because Monday sees an amazing number of Kleist readings all day long, all around the world. From Togo to Kazakhstan, there are literally way too many for me to list here, so please go to the list of readings. The ones in the English-speaking world are in Oxford, Cambridge (UK), Galway (Ire), Sydney (Aus), Auckland, Wellington (NZ), and Albuquerque, Williamstown,  Long Beach, Fayetteville, Washington DC, New York and Pittsburgh (USA). I may have missed some. The one in Berlin is at the gravesite.

Thursday 17 November 2011

A Few Links to My Buddies

First off an interesting interview with Robert Walser translator Susan Bernofsky at Bookforum. Among other things, she talks about her excellent blog Translationista:
People send me books to review on the blog and I would love do more of that; to have a review where the reviewer is required to talk at length about the translation as part of the review. Not enough book reviews do that in significant way because there’s limited space and it’s not a priority to discuss the translation. But from my point of view it is a priority, so I’m going to create a space where that priority can be honored.
I'm looking forward to that.

Then we have a piece on Indian publishers Seagull Books, with sound bites from my friend Donal McLaughlin and myself on what exactly they do with translators, in trade mag Publishing Perspectives. I really must watch my use of exclamations marks.

And another dear friend, Jamie Lee Searle, writes about a great new mentoring scheme for emerging translators in the UK at her blog between the lines.

Monday 14 November 2011

World's Best Writers' Grant?

There are writer-in-residence programmes where you get to stay in remote villages and contribute to the local community. There's a new programme for a visiting German writer in New Zealand, where they give you a mobile home and tell you to bugger off for a couple of months. You could stay in a dead writer's Los Angeles villa and hire a car to get to the nearest supermarket. But what if you'd just like to, you know, stay at home and get on with things?

Well, lucky old you - there's also the Berlin Writers' Grant. Oh, there's a small drawback. You have to already live in Berlin, and I believe you have to write in German (although I have anecdotal evidence that at least one British writer wangled a grant back in the golden olden days of West Berlin). But that's pretty much all they ask. Thirteen writers each get €12,000 spread over six months, to do whatever they ruddy well like with. No need to write a blog, no need to feature the place in their next novel, no need to even leave the house for six months. In fact the lady from the art subsidies department said they don't even care if the writers spend the money on a fitted kitchen.

With an official tally of 1200 professional writers living in Berlin, there's a bit of competition for the grants. Which means the projects they support are of consistently high quality. A jury, changed every year, picks the lucky winners out of about 300 applications, and every November there's a public reading. This year's was yesterday, and I went along as I have in the past couple of years. It's near my house in the opulent mirrored salon at the Berliner Ensemble, it costs €3 for a whole stack of writers plus live music, and they serve free food and wine. I tell you this every year, to be honest, but you all forget again by the time the next November comes around and don't actually join me at what is possibly the world's best publicly subsidised Sunday lunchtime literary activity.

This year, as it turned out, I knew a good handful of the writers. We had Deniz Utlu reading rhythmic, slightly pathos-laden prose about a young outsider and Dagmara Kraus reading fun soundscape poems mixing Mary Poppins with Australian hunting implements. There was Steffen Popp, a man whose previous prose I have attempted to translate and felt woefully inadequate, with more flipped-out stuff on the boundaries. Thomas Pletzinger read from an entertaining project of interlinking short stories set in a village, or possibly he just read entertainingly and the project is deadly serious. Lucy Fricke gave us a frustrated Foley artist in Japan, which sounded intriguing. Hendrik Jackson shouted some Siberian post-Stalinist poetry, followed by Ulrich Schlotmann with a collection of apparently unconnected sentences that he said take a great deal of time to put together - one suspected a kind of anti-profit motif behind the whole undertaking.

Marion Poschmann read something beautiful but I've completely forgotten what it was about. Annika Scheffel had researched into villages that get flooded to make reservoirs (and sported by far the best outfit), and Bernd Cailloux shared some delightful prose about a sixty-year-old man with a new girlfriend. My favourite was Rainer Merkel, who took a year off writing in 2009 to work as a psychologist for an NGO in Liberia. I translated an extract from his last novel about a failing relationship, which I enjoyed in a slightly masochistic way, but his new project seemed very different. Written from the perspectives of a German child visiting Liberia and a blind Liberian child, it was humorous and touching and seemed to address some important issues, such as the psychology of NGO workers themselves. And he also managed to steer clear of the dangerous traps of the twee and the worthy.

I like to kid myself that attending the reading gives me a special insight into what writers are working on. The atmosphere is always very relaxed and it does feel rather honest - possibly because the event is during the daytime but also, I think, because the authors are talking about their projects for more or less the first time in public. So they haven't said it all five hundred times before, even if they do umm and ahh a little - especially when it comes to the question of when they'll be finished.

One writer did mention privately that he had in fact bought a kitchen during the grant period. But Bertolt Brecht, we were told, said it was perfectly alright for the arts to be subsidised as long as pork was too.* So here's to the artificially low-priced sausage.

*BB is Germany's equivalent of George Bernard Shaw in that he obviously never stopped talking and left a wealth of apocryphal witticisms for posterity. A very brief internet search certainly provided no evidence to support this anecdote, but it's still really cool and I'm going to quote it on every possible occasion.

Friday 11 November 2011

All the Lights Playlist Part 3

Here's the third and final installment of the playlist to go with Clemens Meyer's short story collection All the Lights. Do go out and buy a copy, why don't you?

Story Eleven: Riding the Rails – two men who form a bond in prison meet up again on the outside and travel around Germany pulling petty crimes. The song: KD Lang’s Ridin’ the Rails – because this is how the two imagine themselves, a romantic couple of hobos. The title (which is a long way from the original “Wir reisen”) wasn’t inspired by the song, but it could have been.

Story Twelve: Your Hair Is Beautiful – a man abandons his wife, having fallen for a prostitute he believes to be Lithuanian. The song: Joe Cocker, You Are So Beautiful – because it’s ridiculous and obsessive and OTT and imagine someone saying something like that to you. You’d want to do something nasty to them too.

Story Thirteen: A Ship Will Come – a young asylum-seeker boxes her way up through life. The song: Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life – because it’s punchy and go-getting and there’s no resisting it. And it's in Trainspotting, which a few people have compared Clemens' writing to.

Story Fourteen: Carriage 29 – a wine salesman finds himself on a train and can’t quite work out what on earth he’s doing there. The song: The Beatles’ Helter Skelter – because this is one of those Clemens Meyer stories that whirls you round and makes you dizzy and brash with confusion, just like the protagonist.

Story fifteen: The Old Man Buries His Beasts – an old man kills his animals and says goodbye to his neighbours in a dying village. I have to admit I was stumped to find a song to go with this very precisely told, melancholy story. To I crowdsourced it and my colleague Shaun Whiteside came up with Randy Newman’s Old Man – the perfect match.

Anyway, thanks for your patience, and do excuse the rather strange link choices. It's partly because a lot of material isn't available for viewing in Germany due to Youtube restrictions.

Thursday 10 November 2011

All the Lights Playlist Part 2: Guest Post by Jamie Lee Searle

Following on from yesterday’s Part 1 of the playlist, I jumped at the chance when Katy asked if I’d like to write a guest post and choose the next five tracks. I was lucky enough to edit her translations of Clemens Meyer’s All the Lights, and fell for many of the stories in the process. Here are my picks:

Story Six: I’m Still Here – a journeyman boxer from Rotterdam on the road in Germany, who gets knocked down time and time again, but keeps on trying to make money to support his wife and future child. The song: Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer, not just because of the title, but the lyrics: ‘In the company of strangers/In the quiet of the railway station running scared.’ And, because he gives into temptation on occasion too: ‘I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome/I took some comfort there.’

Story Seven: All the Lights – A man meets up with an old flame. Perhaps my favourite in the collection; the simple but powerful prose highlights everything they don’t say to each other. The song: Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. Because, for me, it fits the mood – that wistful awareness of what you could have had, but moving on all the same…

Story Eight: The Short Happy Life of Johannes Vettermann – a disturbing tale of a man holed up in an opulent hotel suite with drugs and hookers and memories. The song: Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze. Because the tense, hallucinogenic atmosphere of the song matches how I felt when I was reading and editing it.

Story Nine: A Trip to the River – a guy gets let out of prison and goes to visit his cellmate’s daughter to pass on some money to her, only to find she’s working as a hooker. The song: Johnny Cash’s San Quentin. ‘And I walk out a wiser, weaker man’. Because both the story and the song tell of difficult lives, bad things happen and repeat through the generations – but there’s an element of gritty determination to keep going too. And also because I love Johnny Cash and was determined to fit him in somewhere.

Story Ten: In the Aisles - about a shelf-stacker who spends his nights working in the aisles of a cash'n'carry and forms a tentative bond with two co-workers, an old man and a young, fragile married woman. The song: Barbara Jones' I Can't Help it, Darling. Katy actually suggested this one and I agreed as soon as I listened to it - because it has a bitter-sweet feeling that reminds me of the prose.

Thanks, Katy, for letting me join in!

Jamie Lee Searle is a German to English translator and blogs at
Many thanks from me too, for the editing and the playlist. Come back tomorrow for more musical fun, pop-pickers!

Wednesday 9 November 2011

All the Lights Playlist Part 1

Earlier this year I translated Clemens Meyer’s short story collection All the Lights, which you can get in good bookshops all over the UK right now, brought to you by the publishers And Other Stories. There are fifteen stories in All the Lights, and I just thought it might be fun to think up a playlist of one song to go with each story. Sort of like a translator’s soundtrack to the collection. It may not make a lot of sense to anyone else, but here it is (part 1):

Story One: Little Death – a man’s on the dole and missing his ex-girlfriend, losing his grip on life in general. The song: Richmond Fontaine’s Let Me Dream of the High Country – because of the first lines, “It’s time for him to get up, but he won’t / until he’s late." And because I met singer Willy Vlautin through Clemens. Although he’s not actually singing on this version:

Story Two: Waiting for South America – a man receives a series of postcards from a friend who says he’s come into money and gone travelling. The song: Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, The Girl from Ipanema – because the story’s not really about Latin America, more about what we imagine it to be (among other things).

Story Three: The Shotgun, The Streetlamp and Mary Monroe – a man’s trying to go cold turkey and his girlfriend’s in bed. The song: Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender – because the first time I really met Clemens he sang this song (he was practicing for an upcoming karaoke session) and because this is a story about love and needing other people.

Story Four: Fatty Loves – a teacher doesn’t quite give into temptation, but he can’t control his physical appetite. The song: Boomtown Rats, I Don’t Like Mondays – because school can be hell for all concerned.

Story Five: Of Dogs and Horses – a man bets all he has at the races to save his dog’s life. The song: The Pioneers’ Long Shot Kick De Bucket – because it’s a song about how a horse can spoil your day.

More over the next couple of days...

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Translators Recommend...

Ah, translators! Where would you be without us? You'd be stuck on a gloomy little island reading books about tea and biscuits with the vicar*, that's where. In the interests of world peace and eternal literary harmony, Donal McLaughlin, Tess Lewis and myself (three venerable translators) have recommended some books for German Literature Month for Lizzy and her literary life. And Lizzy, being all-round lovely and more appreciative than most, kindly writes: "If, like me, you tend to read German literature only in English translation, it’s only fair and right to thank the wonderful translators, who make it possible."

I'm feeling all warm inside now.

*Insert cliché about your country and its national literature here.

Erpenbeck, Kehlmann, Schlink Longlisted

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the largest and most international prize of its kind. Libraries from all round the world nominate books written in any language (but available in English) to form a whopping great longlist. The nominees for 2012 are all books first published in English during 2010. And this year's longlist includes three German books: Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, trans. Susan Bernofsky,  Daniel Kehlmann's Fame, trans. Carol Brown Janeway, and Bernhard Schlink's The Weekend, trans. Shaun Whiteside.

Let's keep our fingers crossed that one or other of them makes it onto April's shortlist of ten. Certainly the lovely Visitation has been shortlisted for all sorts of things - wouldn't it be nice if it won something?

Sunday 6 November 2011

Open Mike 2011

The Open Mike is probably - no, not probably, absolutely - the most important competition for young writers in German. It takes place across an entire weekend in November in Berlin, and has launched many a career. The idea is to take 22 writers under the age of 36, I believe, whittled down from over 700 entries this year, and get them to read for 15 minutes each, under the misleading title of "Open Mike". It's presumably the English title that encourages these young writers to sprinkle their texts with English phrases - or I'm just over 36 and don't understand the youth of today. Anyway, and then three writers choose their favourites and they get a bunch of flowers and are whisked away, Miss World-style, on a whistlestop tour of appearances in other cities.

There's also the taz-Audience Prize, where mere mortals choose their favourites and they just get a bunch of flowers and a nice taz mug and their story in the paper but not all the Miss World treatment. Regular readers may remember that I myself was one of the mere mortals allowed to choose the audience prize last year. This year, unfortunately, I couldn't actually attend the main competition - but I did go to the pre-event reading by past winners and also managed to catch the awards ceremony.

I'd been looking forward to the reading on Friday night because I was interested to find out what had become of our audience winner from last year, Sebastian Polmans. In fact I do know what's become of him; he's just published his first novel with Suhrkamp. I also know he had the contract in his pocket before we gave him the prize, but my vain ego wanted to hear grateful words from Polman's own lips for my personal part in building his legend. It was not to be - Polmans was sick and couldn't attend the event. Instead, we had Ondřej Cikán, who isn't a past winner in the strictest sense, not having actually won, but who did read some great cowboy poems in 2009. Alongside Konstantin Ames, who did win with his poems in 2009, and Rabea Edel, who won with prose in 2004.

German critics have been arguing recently about whether the autobiographically influenced first-person narrative has passed its zenith. Certainly, Friday evening was evidence of German writers who couldn't be much further away from that first-person model. Ames was not my cup of tea. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was nerves that made him react so rudely to the moderator. And also that he is capable of thinking beyond national clichés à la: the British are better at irony. Whatever the case, however, he stated that poetry is not there to be understood, and his poems were indeed magnificently impenetrable. We learned nothing whatsoever about Konstantin Ames from his poems, except perhaps that he speaks English and French and reads Jandl.

The pattern continued with Cikán, who read from a glorious novel by the name of Menandros und Thaïs. It's set in ancient Greece! Sort of! With gruesome battles and abductions! And cups of tea! I was truly impressed and enjoyed the reading enormously, partly because it was such fun to see a writer go ahead and write about ancient Greek warriors and their soap-opera adventures. Ah! And then came Rabea Edel, who for me is the epitome of beautiful artifice. I mean that in a good way, Rabea. I know her vaguely, and like her, and yet I know absolutely nothing whatsoever about her because she seems to be a very private person. She read from her second novel Ein dunkler Moment, which again couldn't be more distinct from me, me, me literature. It's based very loosely around the Amanda Knox case, and I found it extremely chilling and extremely well-written, with a plot that is extremely unlikely and so all the more fascinating. There are writers, then, who prefer to keep themselves to themselves when it comes to their literature, despite the benefits or the ease of marketing oneself even through one's writing - I was going to call it banking in on the autobiographical, but that sounds too judgemental. Because of course it's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and it's really the critics who need to stop discovering imaginary trends every ten minutes.

So then today I arrived at the venue just in time to catch precisely 30 seconds of the very last reading. This, I decided while talking to everyone else who'd just sat through two days solid of readings, was a great strategy. I bought the anthology to read later and appeared astoundingly witty and cheerful in comparison to the rest of the audience. It helped that my friend and I had a portion-sized bottle of fizzy wine each, which we drank through straws like the supermodels do, apparently. Just for that Miss World feeling. The drawback was that I couldn't enjoy the usual bitching sessions about the pretentious/talentless/bad-haired writers, but a few stock phrases got me by well enough: I can never concentrate on poetry, I hate it when they put English words into all their texts, They're just not adventurous enough these days, Why all the adjectives? and the classic: Didn't like her outfit much.

Eventually the juries had made their decisions and the press conference had been held, and we all took our seats for the ceremony. But what was this? Last year when I was on the audience jury - did I mention that already? - we had to go on stage and introduce ourselves personally in front of hundreds of people. And I died a million deaths and looked really shite. I know that because I saw a photo of myself later, so even if you were there and you saw me there's no point denying it. This year there was none of that, just a very brief list of the names and a wee speech from one of the jury members, none of whom looked shite. They chose Christina Böhm for her story "Platzanweisung", which was a bitter reflection on the culture industry from its margins, dripping with black humour. It also featured Kleist and Wyatt Earp. I wonder if Böhm would appreciate that it reminded me of Helene Hegemann? My quibble would be the ending: And then I woke up.

The jury jury (Felicitas Hoppe, Tilman Rammstedt and Kathrin Schmidt) also chose Christina Böhm, along with Joseph Felix Ernst for "Dora Diamant", which I found great fun, a fragmentary text about Dora and Kafka in the last few months of his life, and featuring a chess match rendered entirely in algebraic notation and a scientific lecture about moths and also several mentions of Kleist. I rather wish I'd seen Ernst reading it, although my favourite of Kafka's ladyfriends is of course Milena Jesenská. The designated poetry prize went to Sebastian Unger, who I'm assured is very good. Certainly his poems appear to be highly intertextual and semantically inventive.

Next year I'm sure I'll enjoy myself all the more for not having attended this time around.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Annett Gröschner: Walpurgistag

So there I was complaining that German writers tend to leave the exotic and what they endearingly term the “underclass” to exotic and “underclass” writers – more on that on another occasion – when along comes Annett Gröschner’s Walpurgistag. I discovered Gröschner through my colleague and now friend Lyn Marven, who included one of her short stories in the outstanding anthology Berlin Tales. Her 2000 debut novel Moskauer Eis (which I haven’t read) is also in critic Richard Kämmerlings’ top ten of contemporary German-language novels. Two rather persuasive referees, I must say.

But Walpurgistag doesn’t need them. The novel’s a firecracker, a sparkly, loud, wonderful advertisement for itself. Set on one day in 2003, the book follows a ragbag (almost literally) of characters around Berlin as they go about their business, either banal or bizarre but mostly the latter. We open with Alex, a tramp who lives on Alexanderplatz but may have some kind of shady Stasi past. And as Alex closes the novel as well and is one of two characters narrating in the first person, he shall be our hero of sorts, and he does indeed intervene in the other characters’ lives in various ways that I shan’t tell you about. Suffice to say he’s a magnificent character who has made me look at homeless people rather differently.

Then there’s Annja, who is storing her father in a large freezer and needs Alex’s help to move house. Yes, you read that right, it’s that quirky kind of book, but the dad doesn’t seem to be 100% dead. Or young Paul, who pacifies his alcoholic artist mother with stolen schnapps after a day of fare-dodging on high-speed trains. There’s Gerda, who moves into a retirement home on Kollwitzplatz after a lifetime down the road in the Bötzowviertel and is swiftly integrated into a band of three daredevil drunken old ladies. Andreas drives a taxi and gets a blow round the head. Micha cuts off people’s gas when they haven’t paid the bill, Katrin delivers pizzas and is looking forward to a hot blind date, Heike’s unexpectedly pregnant, Helga’s lost her memory, Viola finds her son’s long-lost father, and Sugar, Cakes and Candy don’t quite succeed in combating sexism and racism, but not for want of trying. And there are more – all criss-crossing the city on foot, by car, by public transport and on a skateboard. That multiple motion keeps the pace skipping along throughout.

As the day proceeds, most of the characters gradually convene on the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. It’s not just any day, you see, it’s 30 April – Walpurgis Night. Germanists will know all about it from Goethe’s Faust, which features a wonderful witching scene that Thomas Mann plays on in his Magic Mountain. And Gröschner gives us three sets of three witches from three generations – virgins, whores and hags, as my charming university tutor would no doubt have put it. They all come together to leap over the witches’ fire in the park before the story folds in on itself most satisfactorily.

There are things I love about the book in a formal way – primarily the fact that it shows us a cross-section of Berlin’s population, or perhaps a cross-section of the people who don’t usually feature in bright, sparkly Berlin novels: first-generation Turkish immigrants and their children, single mothers, homeless people, policemen, circus artistes, funeral musicians, special needs teachers, dog-owners, people who mend broken coffee makers rather than throwing them away. And Gröschner’s strong, sensuous female characters make my jaded feminist heart skip a beat.

And then there are things that I love about the book in a purely personal way – the way objects occasionally tell stories, to wit that coffee machine or Gerda’s removal boxes. The way the knowing literary references (Döblin is never terribly far away) all seem to come with a tongue firmly in cheek. The way Gröschner uses obscure locations like graveyards and bars and the only job centre I’ve ever been to here, the one that used to be the Stasi headquarters, adding local colour but not for colour’s sake – they all have something to contribute to the plot. The way she tells us so many life stories from East and West Berlin and raises so many issues in only 440 pages. The way her characters all have unique voices, from old-fashioned Berlin dialect to Sugar, Cakes and Candy:
Sugar’s picking her nose. ‘Would you stop doing that? Eat crisps if you need more salt.’ (…) Sugar grins and moves on to the other nostril. ‘I’ll chop off your index finger,’ hisses Cakes. ‘No point, Sugar would squish her thumb up her nose.’ Candy’s the only one who laughs at her joke.
What all this suggests is that Walpurgistag is an example of a novel that just happens to be a bit right-on on the anti-racist and feminist fronts but is first and foremost really good literature. A joy for fans of a well-spun plot, for Berlin-lovers, for documentary filmmakers, for aficionados of magic realism, for historians, for taxi drivers, for people who can’t sit still, for you, and definitely for me.

For a taste, follow the link above to read a nice long sample in German.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Readings Online

The lovely people at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin have a lovely new project. As you may know, the Germans do like a good reading. Aside from being more plentiful, the readings in the German-speaking world are often much, much longer than anywhere else. Which calls for a great deal of patience and comfortable seating. But of course you can't always make it to every reading that might interest you, or you might be there but possibly sort of drift off and start admiring the architecture or playing that "who would I procreate with if the end of the world were nigh" game in your head and so rather miss out on some of the content.

Or maybe you don't happen to live in Berlin (shame on you!). Or your time machine is out of order. What you need is 134 readings (so far) dating back to 1990. Featuring big names and award-winners, obscure poets, wordy moderators, bearded publishers, and all manner of people in between. How about this rather interesting one for a start: Günter Grass reading and talking to the now Büchner Prize recipient FC Delius back in 1992 about The Call of The Toad, among other things.

Oh, and if you only have a small amount of time, I find rather good for short, plain readings by German writers.

So put on your intellectual hat and relax with a nice German reading.

Monday 31 October 2011

German Literature Month

November is German Literature Month!

Not here, obviously, where every month is German literature month. I mean at Lizzy's Literary Life and Beauty is A Sleeping Cat. They've also given away loads of German/Austrian/Swiss books to other British bloggers, so look forward to a rash of reviews all over the shop. Here's their schedule:
Week 1 (Nov 1 -7) German Literature
Maybe you like Thomas Mann or you are a fan of Genazino.  Perhaps you prefer contemporary German literature. Erpenbeck or Kehlmann perhaps?  Who is your favourite German author?  Now’s the time to share with us.
Week 2  (Nov 8-14) Crime Fiction
There are a lot of German crime novels. Whether you like it gritty or prefer psychological suspense, you are sure to find something to suit.
Week 3  (Nov 15 – 21) From Austria and Switzerland 
You could read some of the 19th century Swiss classics like Gotthelf, Keller or Meyer or finally read those Roths and Zweigs that have been sitting in your TBR for years.
Week 4 (Nov 22-28) Kleist and Other German Classics
November 21 marks the bicentennial of Kleist’s death.  We will read some of his novellas and I may read a play (something I haven’t done since university).  This is also the time to (re-)acquaint ourselves with other German classics – Goethe anyone?
Week 5  (Nov 29-30) Read As You Please and Wrap Up
Here’s your chance to read and review whatever you like.
I shall just carry on regardless I'm afraid.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Feridun Zaimoglu on Fifty Years of Turks in Germany, and Jewellery

You gotta love him, eh? Kiel's most famous literary type Feridun Zaimoglu gets all hot under the collar at Zeit Online - he loves Germany, he can't stand Germany, he loves Turks, he can't stand Turks. And then there's this:
I was angry back then (when he wrote Kanak Sprak). I still am. I don't want that anger to go away, that furore that I've ruined a lot of things with. I mean, I could say: Feridun, take off all that metal, all the tasteless oversized rings on your fingers. It's bad style. I do know the rules in the German culture business, all I'd have to do is take off my rings. I'm not considered a serious writer. (...) I love these rings. When they touch each other while I'm typing it sounds like the cows coming down from the pastures.
Please, Feridun, don't take off the rings. I may be the only person reminded of Guy Ritchie-style lovable London lads' signet rings, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who loves all that metal. And we have plenty of sensible writers already.

On a more serious note, Zaimoglu laments the lack of respect for what the first generation of Turkish immigrants achieved in Germany, while not holding back on young lads who can't spell the word "respect". All this comes after fifty years of immigration from Turkey - once the Berlin Wall was built it was a matter of months before West Germany needed extra labour and signed an agreement with Ankara.

Friday 28 October 2011

Michael Krüger versus Womankind?

The publisher, poet, novelist, friend-of-the-Nobel-prizewinners and all-round old-school literary superhero Michael Krüger is smoking a cigarette on the front page of yesterday's arts section in Die Zeit, and talking to Iris Radisch. About what a superhero he is and how he can't retire from running the Hanser publishing house because who could possibly do such a good job as he does?

There's some interesting banter about the new imprint Hanser Berlin - to be run by Elisabeth Ruge, who stepped down at Berlin Verlag after Bloomsbury reined in its subsidiaries. She seems to be taking a few writers with her, including Richard Ford, Jeanette Winterson and Péter Esterházy, and Krüger says he wants a foot in the door in Berlin and its "so-called intellectual life".

Then comes the best bit though – perhaps, Radisch speculates, Elisabeth Ruge might take over from him when he does retire in 2014? At which point Krüger seems to get rather flustered. "I can say that quite clearly. She absolutely won't." And why? The wrong type of person, too much for her, and she has two children.

At which the (German literary) world is up in arms. Richard Kämmerlings wrote in Die Welt at 6:37 this morning: "Why are we even discussing quotas for women executives in DAX companies if a proven expert is considered unsuitable to run even a medium-sized family firm as a mother of two?"

Here's what I think: what we should really be discussing is not whether Michael Krüger's statement is sexist. Maybe it is - what a surprise. What's really important though is whether working models in publishing are compatible with parenting per se. By 2014, according to my calculations, Elisabeth Ruge's children will be 17 and 19, so not quite as demanding as a pair of toddlers. But if we look at Michael Krüger's work schedule as laid out in the article at hand - first meeting at 8.30 a.m. every day, off home at 8 p.m. every day, "with a pile of papers under his arm" - it's hardly a family-friendly model. Anyone with children - whether a man or a woman - would be crazy to take on a job with that kind of expectations attached to it. Even many of the editors I know work ridiculous hours for ridiculous wages, and I know of one foreign rights woman who said she wanted to work in publishing but also wanted children, so editing was out of the question.

Incidentally, I met Michael Krüger in Frankfurt. I was eating sushi using splintery wooden chopsticks while balancing the plastic container on my knees at the time and may not have made a particularly good impression. Certainly, he didn't offer me a job as his successor. But then who'd want it?

Update: So a lot of people think Krüger's statement definitely is sexist. And worth talking about sexism in publishing (where, yes, like so many other industries with not terribly high pay, women do most of the work and gain few of the prestigious positions). They're probably right but I'm giving the guy the benefit of the doubt in this particular instance because I really don't know whether he'd have said the same thing about a man or not. The thing is, I would say the same thing about a man, and I think that's where we ought to be heading. 

Thursday 27 October 2011

articulate in New York

My friend Jan Valk is curating a series of events featuring young German-language writers at the Goethe Institut in New York, called "articulate". I'm not quite sure whether that's a verb or an adjective here. Anyway, instead of constructing some kind of artificial link between the writers - writers from the former East, writers with a background in physics, writers with Polish grandfathers, whatever - the series just presents people who are doing interesting stuff. I like the idea.
articulate—a series about new tendencies in contemporary German literature. The event series articulate spotlights the young German-language literature scene. By trying not to construct a generation consisting of these highly varied exponents, the series purposely focuses on its diversity. The guests of articulate traverse borders in the biographical and stylistic sense, and are connected only by the hybrid forms of their career paths and their joy in experimenting with different medial forms of expression. They are narrators, lyricists or dramatists, filmmakers, translators, journalists, and literary mediators. Above all, they always take on more than one role at once—sharing this polymorphism in their ways of life, work, and expression. On five nights in 2011, the authors will meet John Wray and—after a short reading—start a conversation with the host. They will talk about their diverse and multi-faceted involvement in the literary and artistic world as a principle career strategy, and their work and survival in the current cultural scene.
If you're quick and I'm not getting my time zones muddled, you can catch Peggy Mädler there tonight. Sadly, you may have missed Thomas Pletzinger and Daniela Dröscher, but you can still make it to Katharina Adler on November 8 and Milo Rau on December 8.

Monday 24 October 2011

Clemens Meyer Occupies Wall Street

German writer Clemens Meyer, always a guy with an eye for the underdog, has a fellowship in New York and visited Liberty Square last week. You can read his description at Die Welt - very well written, it's a collage of truth and fiction and helped me at least to understand what on earth is going on there. In his usual - how can I put this? - not terribly tactful style.

"I don't want you not to be rich, I don't want you to be rich in a poor country!" Before you can enter the square, which is slightly lower than the sidewalk, a sea of placards. "Don't feed the greed!", "I love you", further back "Jesus loves you", a black boy holding a small sign saying "I am Joe". Next to the park, two young men push a young woman carefully but determinedly aside, because her cardboard sign only says she's into guys who smoke cannabis. An older man directly in front of me is holding a placard "Stop bombing Afghanistan", several people are holding a loud and agitated discussion with him, and I try to understand the details: he seems to have been born in Kabul and lived here for decades, and now he wants to support his old and his new country. People spot my dictaphone and get suspicious, but I have my press ID with me. "Ah German Press! I will tell you a story!"

Thursday 20 October 2011

ALMA highlights German illustrators

The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) is the world's largest prize for children's and young adult literature. The award, which amounts to SEK 5 million, is awarded annually to a single recipient or to several. Authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and those active in reading promotion may be rewarded. The award is designed to promote interest in children's and young adult literature, and in children's rights, globally. An expert jury selects the winners from candidates nominated by institutions and organisations worldwide. The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is administered by the Swedish Arts Council.
The award has a wonderfully long list of nominated candidates, and this year they include a number of German-speaking writers and especially illustrators: Jutta Bauer, Rotraut Susanne Berner, Aljoscha Blau, Wolf Erlbruch, Nikolaus Heidelbach, Binette Schroeder, Austrian Lisbeth Zwerger and the writers Paul Maar and Jutta Richter along with the Austrian Renate Welsh-Rabady.

I must say I do find many German children's books beautifully illustrated, even though my taste tends to the British because, well, that's what I grew up with. I've tried to find links that take you to some of their work, so do have a look. What I particularly like about German children's books is that most of them avoid the pink and sparkly trap you often see in British bookshops. So even books about fairies won't give you what the Germans charmingly term "eye cancer".

Although the award is international, it's quite telling that it comes from Sweden, where they have a tradition of children's literature that's hugely, hugely popular in Germany. And probably not only because you can buy the books at Ikea. I'm sure there are at least five Pippi Longstockings at every fancy dress party across the country, with more recently arrived characters boasting their own musicals and the like. My favourite is probably Astrid Lindren's rib-ticklingly naughty Karlsson-on-the-Roof. If anyone has a badge like the one shown on the Wikipedia page, by the way, you know what to give me for Christmas.

Anyway, like certain other countries with their own strong literary traditions, Sweden is not all that forward about importing books. A recent article in the trade mag Börsenblatt mentions 20 literary titles sold from Germany to Sweden last year, compared to 144 in the other direction. Interestingly - and here we do see a difference to the English-speaking world, 33 children's books sold to Sweden in 2010 (although again, a more weighty 150 went from Sweden to Germany).

But never mind. At least there's reason to celebrate with all these illustrators singled out for attention. Why not give them a little bit of yours too?

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Hotlist 2011 to Nino Haratischwili

So this year was the third time the German independent publishers got together to crown their best book under the slightly absurd title of Hotlist, once again with an awards ceremony embedded within the indie party at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

It was a very strong, eclectic shortlist and the prize went to Nino Haratischwili for her novel Mein sanfter Zwilling. I really enjoyed her debut Juja (see my review) and am looking forward to this one. Her new publishers Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, however, aren't doing her any favours with this blurb: "Nino Haratischwili presents a novel that combines both her dramatic and narrative skills with a language that is pervaded by Georgian passion und images." Presumably they suppose Georgian passion to be different to common or garden passion, but whatever. Congratulations are definitely in order for this very talented writer.

And now for word or two on the event itself. I go to a lot of literary events, and this was one of the piss-poorest in a long time. One problem was the venue - Frankfurt's Sinkkasten was plainly too small for the number of people who wanted to come, which resulted in a block-long queue at around 11 pm. Quite a lot of people gave up and went away again. Also, there was only one large room (rather reminiscent of a 1980s suburban disco, but I mean that in an affectionate way) unless you wanted to stand like a sardine in the smoking lounge, so there was no escaping problem two: the Icelandic techno DJ combined with the space's appalling acoustics. Which meant that we were treated to teeth-juddering bass all around the edges of the space and every track sounded exactly the same as the one before and after it. And also, as the evening progressed the room emptied of literary folk and filled up slightly with club regulars in brown leather jackets, busily attempting to hit on the ladies. Who didn't really appreciate their efforts.

Before that, however, came the awards ceremony. I'd throughly enjoyed last year's and had been looking forward to the 2011 version - until I heard that Charlotte Roche would be doing the honours with Jakob Augstein. Gosh - two of my least favourite persons from the margins of German literary life - on one stage! So it was no great shame that my friends and I were unable to see or hear anything at all of the ceremony from our distant vantage point. I did have a brief peek as things got exciting, only to see them both sitting down at a table, transmitting an air of bored irony and mispronouncing authors' names. There was none of last year's playful tension and reverence - in fact a friend I caught leaving in disgust said their ironic show had been unworthy and disrespectful to the excellent books they were supposed to be showcasing. And that was a great, great shame.

I did manage to have a rather rollicking evening despite all this, however, by dint of imbibing a great deal of gin and perching on a raised seat right by the entrance, where my friends and I pounced on people we knew coming in and going out. The effect was that at the end of the night I felt like an absolute diva, what with everybody filing past and being forced to pay their respects to the drunken queens of literary translation. And we also had a lot of fun critiquing everyone else's outfits, as you might expect. May I just say one thing on this topic: red jackets may be cool, but elbow patches just scream "English teacher". Not a good look, especially for the follically challenged.

Plenty of room for improvement next year, let's say.