Thursday 27 February 2014

Love German Books' Top 10 Berlinerinnen

Top gent Rory MacLean has a top 10 of Berliners in literature at the Guardian. Hooray! So I'm jumping on the bandwagon and steering it headlong into the Year of Reading Women to give you my very own top 10 of Berlin women in books. You might notice that I've actually translated a couple of these books myself. That's partly down to shameless self-promotion and partly because, as a woman in Berlin, I love books about women in Berlin. I refuse to apologize. These women, it turns out, are tough survivors, mothers and daughters, and girls who wanna have fun.

1. Inge Deutschkron in her autobiography Outcast (trans. Jean Steinberg)
Subtitled "A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin", the book tells the story of how Inge and her mother survived the Nazis thanks to kind friends and strangers and their own quick wits. 

2. Gina Regina in Ulrike Draesner's story of the same name, in Berlin Tales (ed. Lyn Marven)
Gina has turned her talent into a job, and her talent is seduction – but her job's not what you might think it is.

3. Pola Negri in Daniela Droscher's novel Pola (not translated)
A fictionalized real movie star who fell down on her luck and went back to Nazi Germany from Hollywood. She constantly has her foot in her mouth and is constantly on the lookout for luxury and adventure.

4. Irina in Eugen Ruge's In Times of Fading Light (trans. Anthea Bell)
A fabulous mother character originally from Russia, who can't quite cope with the end of the GDR but manages the rest of her life swimmingly, just about.

5. Mifti in Helene Hegemann's Axolotl Roadkill (trans. Katy Derbyshire)
Mifti is totally fucked up by her dead mother and her life in Berlin. Teenage techno rampages in a precocious voice, but at least she doesn't take heroin. Much.

6. Hell in Inka Parei's The Shadow-Boxing Woman (trans. Katy Derbyshire)
Hell can do martial arts and she can find missing fathers, but finding her neighbour and coming to terms with a traumatic experience are more difficult.

7. Doris in Irmgard Keun's The Artificial Silk Girl (trans. Kathie von Ankum)
Roll over Sally Bowles, here comes Doris. Teetering around 1920s Berlin on the brink of all that, only with a voice of her own to die for.

8. Sugar, Cakes and Candy in Annett Gröschner's Walpurgistag (not translated)
Three outrageous Muslim girls who don't take life or themselves too seriously. And the ending when they run into the three old ladies? Your hearts will melt.

9. Helene in Julia Franck's The Blind Side of the Heart (trans. Anthea Bell)
She deals with one of Franck's obligatory crazy mothers, runs away to live with a louche cousin in Berlin, and ends up a faux-Aryan crazy mother herself, married to a Nazi. And then Helene takes a big decision most women would regret.

10. Flora in Terézia Mora's Das Ungeheuer (not translated)
Flora commits suicide before the novel starts, and her life was not a piece of cake. But her notes show us a sensitive and intelligent woman who kept her problems to herself.

Who are your favourite Berlinerinnen?

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Crazy Future Literature Thing

Fischer Verlag's lovely online magazine 114 is hosting a very odd discussion on the future of literature. Unlike most discussions on the future of literature, which tend to take place on panels between old fogeys in deep armchairs, it's happening live on a text editor thing, for 24 hours. I don't know whether they can keep it up, but right now the writers Jan Brandt, Hannes Bajohr, Nikola Richter, Annika Reich, Jörg Albrecht and Clemens J. Setz are pegging it pretty fast along the data highway. Have a scout about the website as a whole for background information. It's all part of a special edition of their Neue Rundschau magazine. Which I shall be buying, believe you me.

Friday 21 February 2014

Larissa Boehning: Nichts davon stimmt aber alles ist wahr

Let me start this review at the very end of the book. In the acknowledgements, Larissa Boehning writes:
After a long phase of working together, Marianne Reil gave me her short stories and notes on her childhood in the Engelwirt shortly before her death, asking me to make them into a novel. She wanted to call it Dosierte Liebe (love in small doses). I am still grateful to her for such a great and trusting gift.
In a way, Boehning’s book takes these luminous anecdotes of a childhood in a Bavarian family inn at the end of WWII as its centrepiece. And yet it is not a historical novel. It opens, in fact, with a false little affair between a woman and her neighbour in present-day Hamburg. Jule works in advertising and Matthias claims to run an online dating platform – so they’re both professional manipulators of the truth. As it turns out, Matthias actually works for an insurance company, but not for long. His last visit – after being sacked – is to a wealthy elderly widow, Annemarie. Annemarie needs someone to help her with things, including trips to the hospital, because she doesn’t have long to live. And Matthias worms his way into her affections in the hope of inheriting.

Boehning read an extract from the novel at the Ingeborg Bachmann competition in Klagenfurt last year. It was probably the book’s most shocking passage, and it was a good illustration of her skill at building up an extremely oppressive atmosphere between the would-be son and heir and his would-be mother. There were times when I felt Matthias was too simple a character, his motivations made overly clear – a domineering mother of his own, a wish to have something to show for himself in the form of status symbols. He’s certainly a love-to-hate figure, but the writer lets Annemarie get her fair share of manipulating done too. She seems to come back to life all of a sudden now that she has someone to take care of, and that adds extra tension. Standing alone, however, this strand of the plot wouldn’t be enough to make Nichts davon stimmt aber alles ist wahr a good novel.

Wisely, then, Boehning gives us Jule, who follows Matthias after he’s disappointed her, and finds out about Annemarie. In an unlikely but forgivable plot twist, the elderly woman ends up telling Jule about her childhood – the Bavarian passages. I love the fact that Annemarie’s whole character is built up around these wonderful anecdotes. The child has a tough mother – called “the general” – who runs the Engelwirt inn with a rule of steel and little but cruelty to spare for her daughter. But there is her father, a butcher, and her grandfather with his tall tales that help her learn the alphabet, and there is hard work. It feels as though Boehning has sat down and thought about how the adult version might be of this curious child who got love in small doses.

I suppose the novel might be all about love and truth. Matthias seems to make a fairly good living after being sacked by running fake dating profiles, paid for by the online platform. As Jule finds out, he sends standard responses to love-hungry ladies interested in his various personae. And Jule herself has occasion to ponder the inflationary use of the word love in advertising campaigns (something I’m guilty of myself here at love german books). In a way, Boehning seems to be telling us, all kinds of love can be manipulative. But the novel is not condemnatory; it ends on a surprisingly positive note.

And I was positively surprised, especially because I fell rather in love with the Bavarian sections but also because I was happy to leave them again for the contemporary plotline, which ticks along nicely. A good book.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Schirach and Lust Nominated for LA Times Book Prizes

I know nothing about the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes except that they're awarded on 11 April and come in lots of different categories. Among them are Graphic Novel/Comics and Mystery/Thriller, and two names looked oddly familiar: Ulli Lust for Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life (trans. Kim Thompson) and Ferdinand von Schirach for The Collini Case (trans. Anthea Bell).

How exciting! An Austrian graphic novelist and a German crime writer, nominated for American book prizes! On the one hand I'm very pleased that the awards don't discriminate between books written in English and books written in other languages, simply singling out good stuff. But then there's the fact that the LA Times website doesn't mention the translators' names, or indeed the fact that the books are translated. And that I had to spend a while searching for Schirach's translator, because neither does the Penguin website. Pretty poor show all round.

Lucas Klein foams at the mouth – justifiably so – about how reviewers need to toughen up and name the translator at Words Without Borders. Awards – and publishers! – need to do the same. The LA Times awards come with a small prize of $500 each, but even that ought to be shared between writer and translator. I've written them a friendly email.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Things My Friends and I Are Doing, Part II

Plus, my friend Bill Martin is offering a course on reading and translating Kafka, also in Berlin. Starting on 10 March – so you can do both, courtesy of The Reader Berlin.

Things My Friends and I Are Doing, Part I

Can you read that? It's the invitation to the launch of Readux series 2. The event will be in Berlin on 19 March. There'll be free vodka.

Monday 17 February 2014

Readux Announces New German Fiction Competition

Amanda DeMarco has announced an exciting new opportunity for German writers aged 30 and under – a competition with publication in German literary magazine Edit as a prize, and also publication in book form in English translation by Readux. And €500. And subscriptions to Edit and Readux. And events in Berlin and Leipzig.

It really is quite extraordinary.

Friday 14 February 2014

Schlegel-Tieck Prize to Ian Crockatt

The Schlegel Tieck Prize for a translation from German to English published in Britain has gone to Ian Crockatt for his selection of Rilke's poetry, Pure Contradiction. Crockatt is a poet and translator, focusing on Old Norse. The collection is from Arc Publications, who do a lot of poetry in translation. I really like this short piece on their blog about why they've done "another Rilke" and this interview with Crockatt.

The runner up was Jamie Bulloch for his translation of Richard Weihe's Sea of Ink. Congratulations to both of them!

I wonder whether anyone would like to set up a Dorothea Tieck Prize for translations of women's writing? 

Thursday 13 February 2014

Twenty-Five Years Yesterday

Yesterday was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Thomas Bernhard's death. I suppose he's not the kind of writer whose birth one would celebrate.

Anyway, people got excited. Someone wrote on Facebook that Thomas Bernhard once took him to the zoo as a child, prompting many oohs and ahs. There were articles in the papers. The German writer Joachim Lottmann visited Bernhard's favourite places in Vienna and more or less repeated what Bernhard said about them: old brown café = good, painting of old man = good, everything else appalling. A younger Austrian writer, Alexander Schimmelbusch, had a party in Berlin to celebrate his novel Die Murau Identität, in which Bernhard didn't die after all. I didn't go and I can't really be bothered to read it. There's a review at The Complete Review.  

I don't know. I've read his early stories in Martin Chalmers' translation, coming away nonplussed, and I read and was very, very keen on Alte Meister because I appreciated the style a great deal. But as that impression fades – I read it because someone said nothing happened in it, but that wasn't the case at all – all I'm left with is a grumpy man, to whom other grumpy men look up. I come across a fair amount of people who make it their business to be grumpy about everything, and I suspect that must make it hard to be enthusiastic about anything. Like Nein Quarterly, maybe. You can't imagine his persona just going home and enjoying a slice of cake. I remember there was a tiny spark of hope in Alte Meister, something to do with art being imperfect in a good way. Or that's how I remember reading it.  

Anyway, gloomily enough, someone stole the marble memorial plate from Bernhard's grave, and according to Lottmann his half-brother says he's not going to replace it. 

Thursday 6 February 2014

Leipzig Book Fair Prize Nominees

Today they announced the fifteen nominated titles for the three categories in the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, Germany's big springtime literary award.

Non-fiction ranges from pop theory to an analysis of changing fashions to a biography of Max Weber. Translations come from Norwegian, American English, Japanese, French and Romanian, and here are the fiction nominations:

Fabian Hirschmann: Am Ende schmeißen wir mit Gold

A debut novel that's being compared to Wolfgang Herrndorf's Tschick and Thomas Klupp's Paradiso, possibly because it's about a young man from a comfortable background going on a road trip, it would appear. I'd say it's closer to Klupp, but only because I hate the protagonist already, from the short sample I've read. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

Per Leo: Flut und Boden

The embarrassing pun in the title gives it away – a grandson named Per is fascinated by the story behind his Nazi grandfather and his Goethe-obsessed great-uncle, who grew up in a villa on the River Weser. It might be interesting, or it might be another personal reckoning with Germany's dark twentieth century history. Of course, it might also be both.

Martin Mosebach: Das Blutbuchenfest

Conservative Germany's favourite old man contrasts a garden party with the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia. I suspect there will be lots of deplorable wealthy people doing debauched things, while the Bosnian cleaning lady looks on in horror and enjoys the simple pleasures in life. Certainly, she gets innocently naked on page 10. But people do so love his style.

Katja Petrowskaya: Vielleicht Esther

I shall be reading this one, most definitely. Petrowskaya won the Bachmann Prize last year with an extract from the manuscript, and it was good, solid, touching writing. Rights have already sold to fourteen countries and everyone's talking about it. Her family history (Jewish, Ukraine) in short chapters or stories, with the first-person narrator reflecting on whether it's OK to write about them and whether the stories are true, as far as I recall. I think it might win.

Saša Stanišić: Vor dem Fest

Another personal must. I've heard the author read from the manuscript twice now and enjoyed it enormously. As did the Döblin Prize judges, who gave him the bi-annual award for unpublished manuscripts. Stories, myths, characters from a Brandenburg village, swooping between the centuries – with a quiet humour that Stanišić worked hard to get pitch-perfect.

The winners will be announced at the book fair in Leipzig on 13 March.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Tschick in English in Berlin

Please join us for a whole evening talking about the late Wolfgang Herrndorf's novel Tschick (Why We Took the Car), from 8 p.m. on Sunday, 16 February at Keule Berliner Mundart, Simon-Dach-Straße 22 in Berlin-Friedrichshain.   

It will be a discussion featuring Marcus Gärtner, Wolfgang Herrndorf's editor at Rowohlt Verlag; Tim Mohr, whose translation of "Tschick," entitled "Why We Took the Car," was just published in the US and UK; and moderated by Katy Derbyshire, Berlin-based translator and author of the blog love german books


Marcus Gärtner is the Editorial Director for fiction at Rowohlt Verlag. In addition to Wolfgang Herrndorf, Gärtner has also edited Rocko Schamoni and Heinz Strunk, among others. He studied history and German literature in Konstanz and Berlin, and worked at Stiftung Weimarer Klassik and Rowohlt before becoming editorial director there in 2006.

Tim Mohr is an award-winning translator of authors such as Charlotte Roche, Alina Bronsky, Stefanie de Velasco, and Dorothea Dieckmann. He has also collaborated on memoirs by musicians Duff McKagan, Gil Scott-Heron, and Paul Stanley. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, and the Daily Beast, among other publications. Prior to starting his writing career, he worked as DJ in Berlin.

Katy Derbyshire translates contemporary German writers including Inka Parei, Clemens Meyer, Dorothee Elmiger, Simon Urban and Sibylle Lewitscharoff. She is also known internationally for her blogs and


"With its car window on the German landscape and teen culture, the late Wolfgang Herrndorf’s novel (nimbly translated by Tim Mohr) fuels an especially expansive reading experience." - The Washington Post

"...funny, poignant, and intermittently profane and raunchy." - The Wall Street Journal

"By no means a wholesome story, 'Why We Took the Car' is exuberant and without a mean bone in its narrative." - The New York Times

"...this alternately wild, sad, hilarious, and tender tale chronicles the development of a strange and beautiful friendship." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"...sits squarely and triumphantly at the intersection of literary tall tale and coming-of-age picaresque." - Kirkus (starred review)

Monday 3 February 2014

Indie Book Day 2014

Last year, a German independent publisher invented Indie Book Day, or Indiebookday as it's called in German. This year, it's going international.

The idea is pleasantly simple. All you do is buy a book from an independent publisher on 22 March (preferably in an independent bookshop). Then you post a picture of the book, the cover or yourself with the book (or whatever you like) on a social network (like Facebook, Twitter, Google+) or on your blog, using the hashtag "#indiebookday".

The plan got off to a very good start in 2013, gaining plenty of attention within Germany. Newspapers reported in advance, bookshops made special displays, and there was a lot of Twitter action. And there's really no reason why it shouldn't work internationally, what with the cross-border reach of social networks. So do join me on 22 March for Indie Book Day. Or indeed Indiebookday.