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.


Unknown said...

OK, now I have to read something by one of these writers from Liechtenstein.

Just because ;)

kjd said...

Oh, good!