Wednesday, 13 April 2011

My First German Book

You remember the first single you ever bought, right? And your first kiss, and the first time you seduced a Mormon, and the first time you made popcorn and ruined a perfectly good saucepan. But can you remember your first German book?

Mine was Christine Nöstlinger's Conrad - the factory-made boy, translated by Anthea Bell and published by Anderson Press. In fact I met Klaus Flugge, the man behind Andersen Press, and he told me it was the first book they'd translated from German too. And last year I translated Learning to Scream by Beate Teresa Hanika for them, my first novel-length published translation. Isn't it beautiful how things come full circle?

But back to Nöstlinger and Conrad. We read the book at school and I remember it really capturing our imaginations. I can't remember the name of our teacher that year, which is a great shame because she chose a great book for us to read. But I do remember all sorts of plot details including the huge key to open the huge tin delivered by accident to Mrs Bartolotti. Inside the tin is Conrad, a perfect child made in a factory. Mrs Bartolotti grows very attached to goody-two-shoes Conrad and has to take action when the factory wants him back, with entertaining consequences.

What I remember most clearly was my confusion over one scene. Mrs Bartolotti communicates with the girl in the flat downstairs via some kind of heating vent in the bathroom. Now maybe you can imagine this if you've been to Vienna, or indeed Berlin, and seen the kind of nineteenth-century apartment buildings they have there. But at the age of about ten, I certainly hadn't ever seen anything of the sort. The only flats I was familiar with were on council estates near my house, and they were concrete and brick monstrosities where we'd go to ride our bikes and watch the occasional Bollywood film. All the flats had their own front doors reached via damp and dingy walkways, as if to persuade people they weren't completely nasty. And I'm pretty sure they didn't have heating vents running between the bathrooms, or at least I was back then, and I was throughly confused.

Now my daughter has an audiobook of Konrad oder Das Kind aus der Konservenbüchse, read in a delightful Austrian accent by Sissy Perlinger. Another full circle. And Christine Nöstlinger just won an award for lifetime achievement from Buchliebling in Austria. The judges said:

With this award, the jury recognizes the many years of creative work by this versatile, critical and sometimes uncomfortable Austrian writer, whose books, especially her children's books, have always championed freedom of the individual and who has fought in particular for children's and young people's independence and self-determination.

Well put. Conrad is about a boy's freedom not to be good. We followed that advice to the letter – and look where it's got me now.


manan said...

Can I just say that your google image of Ealing featuring hijabi mom/daughter made my day.

kjd said...

Thought they'd add a bit of flavour. But what I was really going for was the ugly bins and the pile of rubbish on the pavement. Look upwards to see the true beauty of the architecture.

Arrgh, now I've just spent another five minutes wandering up and down the road on google, trying to find the grumpy lady at the bus stop. But all I could find was the many spotless white vests (in the British sense) hanging on a washing line.

Daniel said...

This really puzzled me for a time, your question, because when I think about the books that I read in English growing up (before I learned to read German, which for me was late), I can't really recall reading any German books in translation. I mean, I came across a copy of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy (in Kauffmann's translation), and read through it at the age of 17, but I don't think I really understood anything about it. Then in college I was reading Kant and Hegel, but probably understood (on a first reading) very little.

In terms of literature, and excluding the Brothers Grimm, my years before college were very much taken up with American literature (Roth, O'Connor) and some British and European lit. (Waugh, Joyce, Flaubert, Greene) and a smattering of world lit. (Tanizaki, Endo, Maalouf). But was there one single German book in all that? I don't think there was.

It wasn't until I got to college, I think, and excluding the philosophy mentioned above, I think my actual first German book / story was an English translation of Thomas Mann's Wälsungenblut ... fun stuff, I know. ;¬)

As I recall, it was a part of a larger story collection that a friend (who had studied German all through high school) loaned me, so there were other stories in there, but I settled on that one. Lovely, right?

I think the subtle irony and poking fun at Wagner was lost on me (I was pretty into the Ring Cycle at the time and opera generally), but I recall enjoying the story.

So there is my first German book.

David said...

My first German book: Tonio Kroeger

I was eleven. What can I say? I was hooked for good.

kjd said...

Tonio Kroeger at eleven? Goodness me.

I do know I wasn't aware the book was a translation at the time. We also read Emil and the Detectives in class not much later, which was clearly set in a different time and place so maybe I figured that one out. But I have next to no memories of the book, funnily enough.

Thanks to both of you for sharing!