Wednesday 30 May 2012

Jeffrey Lewis: Berlin Cantata

I was provoked into attending the Berlin launch of Berlin Cantata by the way the novel was billed as a polyphonic work centering on a house just outside Berlin, and some of the people whose hands it passed through during the twentieth century. My, my, I thought, that sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it? Has someone rewritten Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Visitation?

No, as it turns out. Jeffrey Lewis’s novel in fact centres around Holly Anholt, who comes to Berlin in 1991 to claim back her Jewish parents’ former property. Only she runs into a whole host of characters who make things more complicated for her and the reader. The thirteen voices make for a slippery experience, and the fact that it’s written by an American makes it very different to Erpenbeck’s work.

After nibbles and drinks (served by a friendly rabbi, bizarrely) at the launch, Lewis told us he’d come to Berlin himself in 1991 to research the novel and only written it much later. One scene – a party for the Day of Atonement – is based on his own experience of Jewish life returning to East Berlin in those days, when Russian Jews had begun moving to the city and the tiny East Berlin community was being bolstered by others who had rediscovered their Jewish identity for various reasons.

Berlin Cantata is strong where it deals with Americans. Holly and her mother (who dies before the action proper begins) have great voices, with Holly’s conflicting feelings about her parents’ former house and her new German boyfriend convincingly related. They’re both three-dimensional characters with interesting stories to tell.

However, from the moment Lewis tries to slip into German roles, the novel becomes less and less convincing. Many of the characters came across as caricatures so wooden they made me laugh – the guilt-ridden leftist boyfriend who asks Holly to let her anger out on him in bed, the former East German dissident now out for revenge on those who informed on her and a new cause on which to hang her flag, the Jewish journalist turned entrepreneur who seems to have been inserted for mere comic relief, with a poorly researched farce about training up skinheads to repair Western cars. One German character I did appreciate, though, was Franz Rosen, who has built up a fake legend for himself of how he survived the Nazis while aiding the resistance and now hopes for exposure and a kind of redemption.

Rosen, in his complexity and with his avid sexuality, reminded me of a character in one of Maxim Biller’s 1994 short stories, “Lurie damals und heute”. Lurie has survived the war and the pogroms and the ghetto and the marauding Poles in Lithuania in the only way he could, by looking out for himself and only himself, and is now a successful old man in Munich. But he wants no part in the German remembrance culture, something Rosen embraces under false – or at least exaggerated – pretences.

Lewis’s greatest injustice to his German characters, however, is reserved for those he plainly dislikes. There’s nothing wrong with disliking characters, particularly if they’re Nazi apologists or vindictive old women. But by giving a number of the German characters ridiculously stilted diction that makes reading their sections even more unpleasant, he makes them look idiotic. Their supposedly “German English” upset my suspension of disbelief – the novel’s vague premise is that all the characters are writing down their own passages, so I was suddenly forced to consider why on earth they would be doing so in English, and in fact whether an East German caretaker would speak any English at all in 1991 (highly unlikely). And while there’s little need to take their ideas seriously, I wish I could have read their statements with less irritation.

So what does Lewis do well enough to keep me reading all the way to the end? He tells a meandering story, jumping to and fro in time, while resisting the temptation to tie up all the loose ends. He ventriloquises delightfully, all his voices sounding genuinely different. And he attempts to address the complicated issue of ownership of place. Once Holly moves into the country house she meets the neighbours, a rather tight-lipped bunch who struggle to deal with her arrival. Yes, her parents once owned the house and only survived the war by hiding out in a bunker in the forest. But haven’t they got to live somewhere too, they ask themselves. Don’t they have memories of their own of the place that outweigh Holly’s merely celluloid remembrance? Holly seems to be affected by their confusion, and her search for her roots becomes more complex as her understanding of the issues broadens.

While I know few practising Jews in Berlin – let’s face it, there aren’t very many of them – I have heard dozens of stories about the Jews who are gone. Many of the stories are tied to buildings. The house I live in now belongs to a West German, who actually bought the claim from the descendants of its former Jewish owners in the USA once the Wall came down. I’ll soon be moving to a house from which over 100 Jews were deported to concentration camps. There is Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind, now a museum where Jews worked and hid for as long as possible. There are the Stolpersteine, brass cobblestones commemorating Jews who were deported and killed, embedded in the pavements outside their former homes. And the launch of Berlin Cantata was held in a former Jewish girls’ school, now an expensive art space and restaurant.

So Jeffrey Lewis has picked up on a great idea to explore Jewish life returning to Berlin. As I’ve mentioned above, he does so very convincingly from the American perspective, showing us the now outsiders who were once part of the city. Sadly, I found that wasn’t enough for me as an insider in Berlin. For a better insider’s perspective on houses changing hands, read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (trans. Susan Bernofsky) and for a better insider’s perspective on Jewish life in 90s Germany read Maxim Biller’s Land der Väter und Verräter. And don’t forget that things have changed a great deal here over the past twenty years. The latest outsiders are party people and jobseekers from the crashed margins of Europe, and Berlin is once again struggling to come to terms with them. My favourite quote from the novel in fact goes some way towards consoling me to the Jewish journalist character: “My rough reaction to all the Jews arriving from Russia was, get out of here, this is my turf. Go home, go to Israel, go to New York, what’s wrong with you?”

Tuesday 29 May 2012

A Titular Conundrum

So the news is Mr. Tim Mohr has finished his translation of the follow-up to Charlotte Roche's Wetlands and the English version will be out in spring of 2013. Hooray - a braver man than me. But this time the title's much trickier. Schoßgebete is a play on words (like Feuchtgebiete meaning, umm, moist areas and wetlands), and also echoes the previous title. The literal translation is something like lap or maybe crotch prayers but it's a pun on the word Stoßgebet, which – I kid you not – means a short prayer sent up to heaven, also referred to as an ejaculation.

Any bright ideas? You can read my disappointed, damning review here for inspiration. My best idea so far is Fifty Shades of Brown. Ha! Add your suggestions in the comments section.

Friday 25 May 2012

On Bad Reviews

Perlentaucher just alerted my attention to a piece in trade mag Buchreport drawing on an item in Harvard Business Manager, which seems to go back to a study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business released last year. They say that positive book reviews (in the New York Times) are good for sales but negative reviews are only bad for established writers' sales and in fact raise the profile of lesser-known authors, resulting in increased book sales:
For well-known books, negative publicity resulted in less likelihood of purchase, whether participants reported their preferences right away or after a delay. However, for unknown books, the negative publicity did not affect the likelihood of purchase after a delay.
"This suggests that whereas the negative impression fades over time, increased awareness may remain, which can actually boost the chances that a product will be purchased."
Hooray! That makes me feel much better. My problem was that I'd originally started this blog as a vehicle for my unbridled enthusiasm for German books. And what with it being about loving German books, I didn't much feel like slating titles. Also, not being much of a masochist, if I don't enjoy a book I usually stop reading it, so a sensible review is generally out of the question. Plus, like most people, I do want to be liked and my usual method is to be nice in general and hope people don't think I'm a total bitch. That kind of precludes being nasty about people's books - especially because I live in Berlin and do actually come across people whose books I read in the most unexpected situations.

But over time, I have actually totted up a few negative reviews here on love german books. Sometimes a novel is flavour of the month and I think people would like to know more about it, sometimes books win prizes or are particularly pertinent to my blog, sometimes I think books are almost good and deserve a bit of attention but the review comes out nastier than I'd planned. And sometimes I'm just feeling bitchy and some book has aroused my ire.

And I'd been feeling very, very bad about that for two reasons: firstly, there have been occasional indications getting back to me on the grapevine that publishers have taken my word and not bothered considering a book for translation based on a negative review here. OK, publishers rarely consider books for translation in the first place, so it's not like I bombed Hiroshima or anything. But, you know, I still feel like I killed someone's puppy. And secondly, it happens totally often that I meet writers at parties who I've written something negative about (and often forgotten all about it), and they either say to me, "Oh, you write that blog where you said my book was insipid and boring and I read really badly at an event," or they don't say anything and I spend the entire conversation worrying about what I might have written about their book. That's where a smartphone would come in handy, I guess, combined with an app to put authors' faces to books I've been rude about.

So now I have a new empirical weapon in my charm arsenal: increased sales. Because obviously love german books is totally the equivalent to the New York Times, right?
I'm raising your profiles here, writers I don't like! Be grateful.

Thursday 24 May 2012

David Wagner: Spricht das Kind

I sort of know David Wagner and sort of don’t. Certainly he’s one of those people I see at all sorts of literary events – he seems to go out a lot but then he’d probably say the same about me. Anyway, I sort of don’t know him well enough for him not to recognise me when we were both walking down the street with our respective daughters the other week. Now, I was very pleased to see that David Wagner has a very tall daughter, because most people I see at literary events don’t seem to have children, or they only have very small children because they only got around to having them slightly later in life than myself. And I sometimes think there’s an invisible dividing line between people with children and people without children, although people with children can be intensely irritating.

Anyway, shortly after the above non-incident I was in a bookshop looking for something else entirely and came across Wagner’s book Spricht das Kind. So I bought it because it’s obviously about the tall daughter, and I was curious. I’d read and admired some of his writing about Berlin, but that’s somehow much more abstract. How would a great stylist like Wagner approach the subject of his own child?

The answer is: beautifully, thoughtfully, intelligently, discreetly, originally. I’m struggling to think of other men who have written about children. Children do exist in German novels but they often seem to be props in the focus on the parents’ relationships. The most recent exception, I suppose, was Thomas Hettche’s Die Liebe der Väter, which I didn’t read because it was received in a very politicised way and came across as an angry reckoning with the child’s mother and the system. Oh, and Wolf Wondratschek’s Das Geschenk about a father and his teenage son, which I did read some of but soon tired of.

What men do write about, of course, is their own relationships to their fathers. And Wagner covers that ground here too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Spricht das Kind is billed as a novel but is actually a collection of miniatures, something the author has excelled in elsewhere. At just over 150 pages, it’s an afternoon’s read or something to dip into. The chapters, if I can call them that, vary from one paragraph to five or six pages, covering a period from 2002 to 2008 (the book was first published in 2009). The child of the title is never named but we know it’s a girl, and the sections don’t seem to be in strict chronological order. Wagner simply describes moments with his daughter, many of which prompt him to remember moments in his own childhood and reflect on his own mother and father. For instance, a game played with his daughter reminds our shaggy-dog-storyteller of how he played as a child, how he was not allowed to hang from his father’s neck at some point and how from then on his father seemed much smaller. And then the child lifts him up – a neat and melancholy full circle, ending with a childish act I presume all parents will recognise.

What’s so remarkable about the book is this: There are a number of ways in which parents tell stories about their children – out-and-out boasting, putting down other children and parents, anecdotes about embarrassing moments that are actually intended to make you think their children are wonderfully shrewd and honest. And Wagner knows that – hell, who hasn’t heard thousands of these stories? – and while the book’s not totally devoid of all those things, he’s always aware of what he’s telling us and what it tells us about his narrator or himself, and he thus miraculously avoids the "isn't she cute" trap. What we get instead is really quite deep reflection, suffused with really quite deep love.

Regular readers will know that love is an important and much-abused word for me. This book showed me a parent’s love that I recognised. The wonderment at the child’s world, the projection, the search for similarities to oneself, the laughter, the consolation. A child as an anchor and an inspiration, a mirror that often enough throws back an image not as positive as we’d like.

Wagner’s thoughts are punctuated by things the child says, as the title suggests, enjoying her wordplay and her ideas about the world. At times other voices come in too, friends telling stories about their own children or parents. It feels almost like a lazy afternoon on a blanket in the park, the children playing out of earshot while the parents talk, except they go into the kind of emotional depth you only reach quite late at night. There’s a languid narrative curve of sorts, surging in the middle as we learn more about the narrator’s parents and his relationship to them, falling again as the child helps him deal with life. Page 146 made me cry for quite a long time. But there’s no conclusion, because how can you put an end point on childhood?

Spricht das Kind is a beautiful book about being a child, a parent and a parent’s child. The back-cover blurb on the paperback pitches it slightly too low, presumably aiming for impulse buyers looking for a light, amusing read. While it has its light, amusing moments and is life-affirming on the whole, it’s much more than that. The publishers say Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood is never far away, but I can't say I noticed that. What I did notice was the sophisticated language on a level that might seem incompatible with the subject-matter, but never actually did. Ditch the parenting manuals and read it.

Monday 21 May 2012

Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize to Burton Pike

This year's $10,000 award from the Goethe Institut USA for an outstanding translation goes to Burton Pike for Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead, (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011). Pike is a revered Germanist who has also translated Musil and Goethe. Susan Bernofsky has much more information at Translationista. Congratulations!

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Bachmann Prize Announces Contestants and Cuts

This year's participants in the Austrian literary talent show by the name of the Bachmann Prize have been announced! Fourteen emerging Swiss, Austrian and German writers will battle it out in a trial by critical jury over three days this July. The prize is very prestigious and has often been a launching pad for literary talent, provided the poor writers don't collapse under the pressure.

The bad news, however, is that the "Bachmann-Preis goes Europe" translation programme has been cancelled for this year due to a lack of funding. I'm particularly upset about this because I was one of the translators who worked on the project in the previous two years. It was an invigorating experience and a great way to identify exciting writers, some of whom I'd ignored in the past and some of whom I'd simply never heard of. According to the organizers ORF, around thirty translated books came directly out of the project - including my translation of Dorothee Elmiger's Invitation to the Bold of Heart.

So you can put it down to sour grapes but I still feel this is an unfortunate decision that plunges the Bachmann Prize right back into provinciality. Making the competing texts available in seven European languages was both a sign of openness to other cultures and a genuine benefit to the writers themselves, who thus had an instant calling-card for the international stage. I know a number of them were invited to Britain, Ireland and the United States on the strength of that calling-card, and I'm sure many also travelled elsewhere too.

I wrote a live blog on the Bachmann Prize in the previous two years but I won't be doing so this year. Partly simply because I'm moving house around that time and will have enough on my plate, but also because I felt I had genuine insights to offer through my intimate knowledge of the texts and I wanted to share those thoughts. It was always very exhausting but rewarding, and I know that people actually followed it - even in Klagenfurt where the competition takes place.

I know you'll all write to your MEPs and stage a sit-in at Klagenfurt to fight for the reintroduction of the translation programme. And rest assured that if it is reinstated, I shall reinstate the love german books live blog.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Büchner Prize to Felicitas Hoppe

I'm rather jubilant that this year's Büchner Prize – Germany's premier award honouring established writers for their entire body of work – has gone to Felicitas Hoppe!

She's only the eighth woman to get it since 1951, following in the footsteps of Christa Wolf and Elfriede Jelinek, among others. Her playful writing has been translated into Dutch, French, Russian and Swedish, as trade mag Buchreport points out - but as yet not into English. I was recently bowled over by her thoroughly likeable reading from her utterly fictional autobiography at the LCB, and also enjoyed her Johanna, which is sort of about Joan of Arc but sort of not. Oh, and I shall now plunge right into her beautiful children's book Iwein Löwenritter to celebrate.

The Büchner Prize is a big grown-up pat on the back, the best German-language writers can get - I certainly hope this paves Felicitas Hoppe's way into English. The judges wrote:
In her laconic and lyrical, headstrong and unconceited prose, she has invented a narrative universe in which basic issues of a 'postmodern' existence are acted out with liberated and liberating imagination.
Isn't that lovely? Oh, and she gets 50,000 euros.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Keeping Up with the Germans

Subtitled “A History of Anglo-German Encounters”, Philip Oltermann’s Keeping Up with the Germans is a collection of encounters and near-misses between “the British” and “the German”, intermingled with a certain amount of autobiographical reflection. We learn about Kevin Keegan and Berti Vogts tackling each other on a football pitch and shaking hands later, Theodor Adorno not pleasing English philosopher A.J. Ayer, Heinrich Heine not approving of radical publisher William Cobbet, Margaret Thatcher not liking Helmut Kohl, and other examples of hackles raised including the VW Beetle overtaking the Mini. Which is one reason why I wrote “the German” rather than “the Germans”, incidentally.

Yet what would have worked well as a popular history of Anglo-German relations is overburdened by Oltermann’s attempts to categorize and define the nature of Britishness and Germanness – a feat which, I would argue, is not only impossible but also unhelpful.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a great read, however. Oltermann, who I met briefly in Berlin not long ago, moved to London at the age of 16 in 1996 – incidentally the same time I moved from London to Berlin (although I was older, needless to say). Endearingly, his parents didn’t take him to some hip part of town but to somewhere on the south-western margins. I say this because recently all the Germans I meet who’ve stayed in London for a while have lived in Dalston and Bethnal Green. Before that it was Stoke Newington and before that it was Camden. Nobody seems to want to live in the endless suburbs where I come from; I can’t imagine why.

The historical encounters are accompanied by an entertaining narrative on young Philip’s attempts to fit in by imitating the boys around him. We follow his faux pas and surprise footballing and academic successes, which are cleverly related to the less banal historical anecdotes and (unfortunately for my taste) used to make generalizations. Thus the chapter on Christopher Isherwood and Marlene Dietrich tackles differences in attitudes to sex. That shocking moment for all pre-internet-era British teenagers lucky enough to come across a copy of German teen magazine Bravo – there are naked photos in it! – is used in a roundabout way to illustrate Oltermann’s theory that segregating the sexes at school age just makes them all the more fascinated by each other. Well, no surprises there; my teenage memories would corroborate that theory. But to then offer this teenage obsession as grounds that there are, “to my knowledge, no other people on this planet who are so passionately and privately devoted to exploring the wondrous connectivities of the male and female organs” is surely over-stating his case, based as it is purely on his own experience.

There are many things that ring true, raising mental cries of “Oh yes” and “On no!” Oltermann observes false modesty and a propensity for gambling in the British, a love of slapstick humour in the Germans and a shared passion for football – which becomes a nifty leitmotif after a while. I thought he was spot on with his analyses of how the British and the Germans tend to see each other and the toxic influence of World War II on the British attitude rather than the Germans’. Yet by repeatedly contrasting individuals and returning to himself he narrows the focus too much to make so many inadvisable generalizations.

One stand-out example is the chapter on politics, comparing ex-RAF terrorist Astrid Proll to Joe Strummer. The “encounter” in question occurred when Proll went to a Rock against Racism gig in 1978, where Joe Strummer (of The Clash, but you knew that, right?) was sporting a T-shirt with the name of her terrorist organization on it. You can see it in this video, with lots and lots of swearing so maybe don’t watch it at work. Thus the German left is presented via the RAF as wanting to take on the whole system with “ruthless efficiency”, whereas the British left is seen to be a bunch of inconsequential single-issue posers. I certainly don’t share Oltermann’s analysis of Rock against Racism as flirting with the right – the involvement of streetpunk band Sham 69 was their belated attempt to position themselves after tolerating fascists in their audiences for too long, not a sign of political inconsequence on the part of the organizers, and the Clash’s “White Riot” is more complex than he gives it credit for.

Aside from the fact that the Proll-Strummer comparison doesn’t tally up in the slightest, the book wastes a fantastic opportunity to investigate class in Britain and Germany. Joe Strummer, for God’s sake! The son of a diplomat who became a proto-punk! And Astrid Proll, daughter of an architect who blew up buildings (kinda). Think of all the fun you could get out of that. On the whole, Oltermann is really rather evasive about class, particularly when it comes to himself. It’s such an important issue in Britain, as Kate Fox points out in her similar attempt to sum up the English using social anthropology and self-experimentation, Watching the English. And while it’s not that he never mentions it, class remains mainly under the surface. I found myself having to guess at it – hmm, he went to a boys’ school, surely that must have been private… and then Oxford… And that felt rather intrusive of me but I’m afraid it couldn’t be helped. There is the odd nod to the issue, like in the epilogue on Unity Mitford’s friendship with Hitler (which fails to mention Oswald Mosley), but sadly very little indeed on class in Germany other than an interesting excursus into the concept of the Bildungsbürger.

I feel it’s time to state the obvious: Britain and Germany are two different countries with two different histories. The people who live there are different. But they’re also very similar, no matter how they may see it themselves – and of course they’re incredibly diverse within their respective sub-sets of humanity. I feel that Oltermann’s approach means he loses sight of this diversity, although he does mention German multiculturalism in his final chapter. I can see the temptation to try and define national characters – it’s terribly prevalent among ex-pats, all that fun with “German toilets are like this so the Germans must have this particular hang-up, the British like Marmite so they must think in this particular way.” But over the years I’ve found it very restrictive. Rather like in current debates on post-identity politics reflected in Olga Grjasnowa’s novel Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt and a new anthology edited by Nicol Ljubic, Schluss mit der Deutschenfeindlichkeit, I’d rather be seen as Katy than as English Katy. And while Oltermann finds it unpleasant to be known at university as German Phil, that doesn’t seem to stop him from trying to define “the German spirit”. And although he isn’t in the least bit prescriptive, that can only ever be a conservative project – also in that it can only ever capture what has been in the past and not what is – if ever there was one.

But – and this is a big but – what Oltermann does very well indeed is explaining German culture to British readers. The book is impeccably researched on the basis of interviews and archive material, with a list of sources and an index. It’s intelligently written with subtle humour, my loudest laugh-out-loud moment coming when he described Liverpool football fans as feeling “at ease with continental ways, their cosmopolitan side expressing itself in the Italian-inspired dress of ‘casual’ fashion and the daring avant-garde modernism of the bubble perm.” If you live in Germany and have problems explaining things to your family back home the book would make an excellent gift. The author’s actually translating it for German publication, but as he pointed out he’s changing it heavily as he goes along because quite a lot of the explanations will be absolutely superfluous for a German readership. So expect a very different book in German.

Friday 11 May 2012

Three Things To Do

Here are three interesting things to do, wherever you are:

1. If you're in Berlin, you should obviously go to the Lange Buchnacht in der Oranienstraße tomorrow. Berlin's second-coolest street plays host to zillions of readings and literary events. There are 48 different venues, for goodness' sake! It starts with stuff for kids and teens in the afternoon (including love german books favourites Zoran Drvenkar and Tamara Bach). Then you can catch a myriad of other top writers, from Nicol Ljubic to Alistair Noon to Tanja Dückers to Edgar Rai to Jan Peter Bremer to Olga Grjasnowa to Bernd Cailloux to Jakob Hein to Jan Brandt to Thomas Melle. Then there's music and dancing and performance and multimedia and discussion and all sorts of shenanigans. Or you could visit my buddies at the Videodrom-Shop for a totally rock'n'roll fanzine geezer called Gary Flanell. Don't forget to spend lots of money on DVDs, books and vinyl while you're there.
The Lange Buchnacht is *always good*. You should go if you can, and you should get yourself a beer and wander from one event to the next, or maybe pick a focus area like postmigrant culture or music writing or crime or food and go hopping to the relevant events. It's very well curated if you ask me, or perhaps that's a by-product of the fact that Oranienstraße is Berlin's second-coolest street, chock-a-block full of passionate people who care about (sub)culture.

2. If you're in London, you should sign up for this intriguing night class on free speech and translation, run by English PEN. In six Monday-night sessions, they say
...we’ll consider the politics, economics and aesthetics of literary publishing and translation. Dour detectives will meet the Arab Spring, as images, slang, poetry, and shared identity are not lost in translation. All this will be explored, with translators, editors, critics, publishers, and booksellers as special guests. 
No previous knowledge required!

3. If you're not in either of these places (or indeed if you are in London or Berlin), you should watch this long video of an event at New York's PEN World Voices festival on the subject of reviewing translations. It's always a tricky subject because translators and critics don't seem to see eye to eye (and although I've met a few critics I do see eye to eye with, I have to admit I have the same general problem). Translators want to be at least mentioned and actually valued, treated like the star of the show or at least granted an adjective on the quality of our work. Whereas reviewers often face the problems of a lack of space and a lack of confidence in judging translation quality. Or that's the upshot of the debates that took place in Germany a year or so ago. I haven't actually watched the whole of the video yet but I shall do so now and possibly post some more information a little bit later.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Inka Parei in New Zealand

My favourite writer Inka Parei just got back from New Zealand. You can watch a video about her trip here (in German) and read her blog in three languages here. It's beautiful writing, really.

Monday 7 May 2012

Publishing Musical Chairs

Berlin has a fairly lively publishing landscape, and I have to say it never gets boring. I've been following a couple of developments for a couple of months and am now thoroughly confused.

To start with there was the announcement that the very highbrow Hanser Verlag in Munich was setting up an offshoot by the name of Hanser Berlin. And it looks like they opened their office with a big party last Friday, according to trade mag Börsenblatt. Hanser Berlin is being run by Elisabeth Ruge, who set up Berlin Verlag.

Berlin Verlag, meanwhile, was sold by Bloomsbury to the big fat Swedish publishing conglomerate Bonnier, which was approved by the monopoly commission in March, as you can read in trade mag Buchreport. At the time they also announced they'd be announcing a new initiative in April, called the "Bloomsbury Bonnier Institute". Bonnier told us that "like its counterpart, the Bloomsbury Institute in London, it will organize author events, readings, discussions and other literary offerings." No sign of that just yet, I have to say, which is disappointing because Berlin Verlag does have some fine authors (although a number of them have followed Ruge to Hanser Berlin).

The originally hip indie publishers Blumenbar also used to be sort of under Berlin Verlag's roof, where they did hold a couple of events mixing literature and music. I never got round to going but some friends of mine did and they told me they got drunk and shouted at people for not dancing. Anyway, back in March we learned that the rather more traditional Aufbau Verlag had taken over Blumenbar (see Buchmarkt). And in the cellar of the Aufbau building is the Prince Charles Bar (very bad name) - run by Wolfgang Farkas, one of the Blumenbar founders and now an "advisor" to Aufbau, and Nicolas Mönch from Vice Magazine (which I dislike quite a lot for its sneering attitude but they probably know how to run a good bar).

And then today came the announcement in Buchreport that Aufbau is founding a new, hip young publishing house called Metrolit (very bad name), uniting Walde+Graf from Switzerland with my actual favourite radio station FluxFM, and looking to publish "a mix of literature, society, pop culture and graphic novels". And there we have a couple of refugees from Eichborn in Frankfurt (but no, not the now defunct Eichborn Berlin, which more or less changed into Galiani Berlin, under the aegis of literary heavyweights Kiepenheuer & Witsch of Cologne!) - which was taken over by the family-run popular publishers Bastei Lübbe last year - most notably Lars Birken-Bertsch, the other Blumenbar founder.

Publishing: it's incestuous. I'm hoping that like when the champagne socialists at Suhrkamp moved to Berlin, all this innovation will mean lots of interesting literary events around the city.

Sunday 6 May 2012

On Falling Asleep at Readings

Here's what happened recently: I was at a reading and it was in an enclosed space and there'd been free wine just beforehand. And I was sitting next to a woman I didn't know. And after a while she started leaning on me and I thought, Blimey, she's a bit forward, isn't she? So I sort of leaned away in the other direction. And then I noticed her head start to tip forward as her shoulders hunched over, and her breath came regularly and I realized she was asleep. And then her breathing got louder and more throaty and I could tell she was going to start snoring at any moment.

What could I do? How mortifying! I tried shifting in my seat and joggling her slightly, but that had no major effect. I could just tell that snore was coming very, very soon. And the poor writer at the front - how awful to have someone snore during your reading!

And then I started to snigger. My shoulders heaved and tears came to my eyes at the absurdity of it all. It was just too funny. I exchanged glances with the woman on the other side of my neighbour, who shrugged helplessly. I tried looking at the ceiling and concentrating on the reading - but it was no use. I had the giggles and they had to come out. And out they came - in a fantastically loud, fantastically porcine snort at a fantastically inopportune moment. Sleeping Beauty woke with a start, looking confused, while everyone else turned around to me and tutted over how rude I was to disturb the event with such a ridiculous oink. I think the words epic fail might apply.

Blushing and chastened but still unable to concentrate, I pondered the problem of falling asleep at readings. I've never done it personally but it seems to be a fairly common phenomenon at literary events in Berlin. The end of a long working day, a nice calm voice from a distance, a little relaxation juice beforehand, a warm room full of carbon dioxide...

I've actually read at an event where someone fell asleep in the front row, which made me giggle as well. But I have a theory that it's more likely to happen at German readings, for two reasons: Firstly, German readings are long. As in: two hours of reading and talking, probably at about a 50:50 ratio. When I go to English-language events I sometimes feel a bit cheated, having failed to hear half of the book read out loud. It's no wonder German audiences start to flag after a while, and it's not considered overly rude to leave in the middle. And secondly, German children are conditioned to fall asleep to the sound of voices. Not as in: their parents talking in the next room or the TV on. Oh no, German children have audiobooks. I know German adults who can only get to sleep to the sound of their old detective-story cassettes. Honestly. If you ask me it's unhealthy.

Next time I shall simply ignore the snorer. I'd advise you to do the same.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Uhrmann, Frisch, Bernofsky

There's an online literary journal I wasn't aware of, which goes by the tongue-twisting name of fwriction : review. And now they have a piece of oppressive fiction set in Belgrade by the Austrian writer Erwin Uhrmann, translated by Shelley Frisch and taken from his novel Der lange Nachkrieg. Which would be lovely enough as it is, having come out of the recent Festival Neue Literatur in New York. But what makes me really very happy is that they also have two interviews on their accompanying blog, firstly with La Shelley herself - who is remarkably brief, not at all the loquacious Ms Frisch I know and love - and secondly with Susan Bernofsky, who curated the festival and is of course a translator in her own right.

The "Translator Trio" interview looks set to become a regular feature, tackling translator invisibility in a truly admirable way. And they also have a cute playlist, with Erwin Uhrmann suggesting Marlene Dietrich to go with the once-glamorous Aunt Helene in his piece.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

A Call to Arms

So last night was our preliminary meeting for the And Other Stories German-language reading group in Berlin. Check the link for information on the books and writers we'll be looking at over the coming months. The idea is to run it in Berlin as a regular reading group, looking at each book on its own merits at a separate session. Then at our final session we'll also be skyping from Berlin to the simultaneous one-off London meeting to discuss all three together. How amazing is that? I do love the internet.

Anyway, my excellent partner-in-crime Amanda DeMarco and I were extremely pleased with the turnout, a whole bunch of enthusiastic booklovers, especially as some of them we didn't even know personally! Random booklovers - how fantastic is that? But there was one tiny teeny thing that made us sad, and that was that there was only one German native-speaker among them.

Now I know you German native-speakers can be quite shy and retiring, and you might feel a bit put off about talking about German books in a room full of English speakers. But really, you still ought to come along. We'd value your input and you're welcome to speak German, we really don't mind as long as you don't mind us speaking English. And we promise not to be rude about German books. I know you're out there, and you know you want to come. As Holly Johnson said.

So feel free to turn up to our actual discussion sessions at Dialogue Books, starting on Monday, 28 May. Get in touch with AOS via the link above if you have any questions. You'll love it once you get started.