Wednesday 27 August 2014

Not Drinking with Daniel Schreiber

Ta-daa! The last ever Going Dutch with German Writers is online at the terrific top Tagesspiegel! I'd like to thank everyone there, especially brand new daddy Johannes Schneider, who made it all possible. And all my readers, and my mum and dad, and my sister, and my daughter, and Daniel Schreiber for being the perfect partner to round it all off, and my liver for putting up with me.

Johannes assures me that all twenty episodes will be online until the end of the internet, or the end of the Tagesspiegel server, whichever comes first.

Monday 25 August 2014

Hone Your Translation Craft in Berlin

The nice people at The Reader Berlin are again running a translation-related course. This time it's a workshop led by EJ Van Lanen. Here's what they say about it:
Are you interested in becoming a translator, or already translating but missing a collaborative, supportive environment to discuss and improve your work? EJ Van Lanen, publisher of literary translation imprint Frisch & Co. and editor of more than fifty translations, will be running a 7-week course for translators who would like to hone their craft. Designed for both beginning and more established translators, this series of workshops and discussions will provide you with detailed feedback on your sample translation, touch on theories of translation (and how they might apply to your process), and explore ways to reach out to publishers and jump-start your translation career.
It costs €130 for seven Thursday-night sessions.

You could also do worse than coming along to our no man's land translation lab, every first Tuesday of the month at 8 p.m., upstairs and to the right in the Max & Moritz restaurant. 

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Sorry To Bang On About David Wagner*

I feel like I'm banging my own drum rather a lot right now, but in this case it's also David Wagner's drum, so maybe it's OK. There are three new David-Wagner-in-English things to share:

Kate Müser did an interview with him for Deutsche Welle about his relationship to Berlin, and also recommends Berlin Triptych and three other great German books in English translation.

Monocle 24 Radio is airing a piece by Susan Stone about David (and Berlin, and me, and Readux Books) at 8 p.m. CET on Monday 25 August on their Culture programme. They'll repeat it a couple of times after that (find it in their schedule).

And if you're in Berlin, you lucky person you, you can catch David and me live in person at a reading on Saturday, 13 September, with Eliot Weinberger and Maren Kames, at the Circus Hostel. Here's the pretty flyer. See you there, then.

*I've just capitalized every word in the headline. Everything else looked odd and required too much consideration of grammar. I know it's not correct but I'm very tired today.

Monday 18 August 2014

That Other Thing

So as I was saying, I want to start something new. I want to host people writing in German and people writing in English on one stage. I want to talk to them about their books and what they have in common and how they write and all those things people who write talk about on stages. And I want to bring together audiences for these two groups of writers, who I suspect are only millimetres apart. I started thinking about the way audiences in Berlin never meet when I moderated a reading by the awesome and very famous British writer David Peace at a German bookstore. The event was in English; the reading was in English and German; the audience was almost entirely German apart from a couple of my friends. We had advertised it in all the right places to let English-speakers know, and David Peace is a huge star, for fuck's sake. But for some reason, the Anglophones didn't come. It didn't matter in the end because there was a big crowd anyway. But still. And then I thought about how I rarely see English-speakers at events at the Internationales Literaturfestival, when Anglophone writers are talking but having their texts read in German translation. And then I thought about how I never see English-speakers at all-German literary events, apart from a couple of my friends. So I thought I'd like to do something to try and bring these never-the-twain-shall-meet audiences together.

Obviously my idea of an excellent literary event is modelled very closely on the old Adler & Söhne Salon, where everything was relaxed but intelligent, with shortish eclectic readings and conversations followed by longish chats between the relaxed, intelligent audience members. A kind of reach-out-and-touch atmosphere rather than the writers being whisked away afterwards and the chairs being put away to encourage the pesky audience to go home too. And because I like music, there kind of has to be a DJ for that part.

So I'm having a trial run on the 9th of September, at the very-Berlin ACUD Club on Veteranenstraße. I have two talented writers, Brittani Sonnenberg and Christiane Neudecker, and a guy called DJ Döner Summer, and I have a will to succeed. And if it works out I'll apply for funding so it can all be a little bit more professional, i.e. so people get paid. If you're in Berlin, please come. I think it'll be relaxed and intelligent and fun, and I promise not to hand out feedback forms. It's officially presented by love german books and Slow Travel Berlin, and here is our flyer and our Facebook event page. I hope to see you all there.


Sunday 17 August 2014

Last Going Dutch with German Writers Coming Soon

Last night I went on my last night on the tiles with a German writer, for the time being at least. I went out bar-hopping with Daniel Schreiber, the charming, intelligent and good-looking author of the forthcoming Nüchtern, a non-fiction book about going sober. The book comes out in a week or so, after which my text will be available online at the Tagesspiegel website. It's scary and informative and personal, and a little bit like taking the red pill – prompting me to examine my drinking habits and other people's in a possibly life-changing way. You can read an advance extract here.

But that's not main the reason why I'm putting Going Dutch to bed. My favourite reason is that I want to concentrate on something else – more on that tomorrow – which I hope will occupy about the same amount of time every month or so. The last piece will be my twentieth, which is a beautiful round number and feels like the perfect cut-off point. Also, the switch to the newspaper meant more readers, I assume, but less feedback. As far as I know, no one has ever commented beneath one of the Tagesspiegel pieces, and I can't check the statistics like I obsessively do with my blogs. It turns out I am much more of a blogger than a journalist, not only because I can't take photos for toffee but also because I love the sense of community, if I can call it that, which you just don't get when you contribute the occasional article to a newspaper.

There are content-related reasons, too. Most importantly, I began to feel like I was repeating myself. The pieces are based on conversations between myself and German writers, so inevitably my own concerns surface. How many times do people want to read about shared parenting, time management issues and gentrification? Presumably not another twenty times. And then there were the reactions. After the Tagesspiegel ran a double-page spread in its Saturday print issue, made up of a best-of translated into German, I was briefly famous in certain circles. My daughter's teacher read it. My ex-step-mother-in-law read it. My favourite DJ read it. A lot of literary people read it. Some of the reactions were entirely positive – about fifty percent, to go by the sample above. Others were more complicated. People project their ideas onto other people, of course, and I'm no exception. But ideas about women who write about drinking are pretty dank and dark. I'm not sure how much people think they know about my drinking habits, which are none of their business, but a lot of people thought they knew a hell of a lot. Some people also drew conclusions, from the fact that I was writing about drinking, as to my sexual habits. Which are equally none of their business. More than one person semi-jokingly suggested I could go a step further than merely drinking with German writers. I hope they felt as awkward after saying that as I did after they said it, but I suspect they didn't.

Plus, of course – and I almost didn't write this because I don't want to start moralizing – there's my liver to think of.

So, the end is nigh. I've hugely enjoyed all my evenings and mornings and afternoons out drinking, walking and talking with German writers. I will miss them – when will I ever get another chance to legitimately invite semi-strangers out for stimulating conversation? Oh, wait – there's dating. I'd like to thank all the German writers with whom I've gone Dutch over the past year and a half, or whatever it is. I feel like I've made some wonderful new friends in many cases, and every occasion was a treat. You can find all the pieces here. And if you happen to run an English-language publication and would like to commission biased and unprofessional interviews with German writers, do get in touch.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Judith Hermann: Aller Liebe Anfang

The sentences are one of the things I love most about Judith Hermann’s long-awaited first novel. The way they exude calm, their apparently simple structure. As I was re-reading it today – Aller Liebe Anfang is a short novel, only 224 pages – I thought about how difficult it would be to translate, because the sentences are so delicate that I wouldn’t want to change them at all, afraid that even breathing on them would destroy something. But Hermann makes heavy use of the comma splice, something we can’t employ as easily in English, I think. And then she’s very sparing with question marks, although there are many questions in her book, and that makes the occasions when she does use one all the more remarkable. Both of those quirks, or qualities, are things I’d want to retain in translation. Judith Hermann already has a translator, Margot Bettauer Dembo, and I think she does retain those linguistic markers, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Hermann’s style is much copied by younger writers, in my experience, and not all of them have the confidence or ability to pull it off.

What else? The book is about a woman, Stella. She’s married to Jason and has a small daughter, Ava. They live in a residential area in a place that’s a non-place, and on first reading I found that prickly, I wanted to know where it was, was it Ireland or England or Germany? But it doesn’t matter; they live in an ordinary place with family homes lined up along a road. Stella has a friend who used to look after her but then married, and now she has Jason, who she met on a plane. And she’s a carer, she looks after sick people in their homes and she tries to be patient and understand people. She's often scared of life, apart from when she's working.

And in all this ordinary life, between taking Ava to kindergarten and going to work and sitting in the garden and writing letters and waiting for Jason to come home from working away, in the middle of all this, a man rings at the garden gate and wants to talk to her. The plot will always sound more dramatic than Hermann ever lets it become; although there’s an escalation, although the word stalker is printed somewhere around page 120, it’s a calm one. We see so much of Stella’s everyday life, hear her thinking her not-quite questions and trying to understand the stranger who has become fixated on her – Mister Pfister, scratchily close to Mephisto, someone as devoid of character as he renders Stella herself – that Aller Liebe Anfang is something very far removed from a thriller.

That title, literally ‘the beginning of all love, all love’s onset’, is another itch that wants scratching. Because Hermann is reflecting on the nature of love here, both on the surface when Stella compares her stalker’s possible feelings with a coup de foudre, and more subtly when this reader, at least, is given cause to think about the coincidental onset of Stella’s relationship with Jason. I almost dislike the title because it’s a much more direct gesture than the writing itself.

I’m not sure what happens at the end of the story. On my first reading I understood it differently to the second one. That seems like a good thing for a novel to achieve, even though my first reading may have been wishful thinking. But I do know that Judith Hermann has constructed her novel extremely cleverly, giving us occasional glances into Stella’s future and past, using letters and odd little slips in the narration. As we move through the novel, Stella's clients all end up saying goodbye to her, so we know she's probably going somewhere. And then there's a kind of climax by proxy, which I enjoyed.

I’ve just been reading reviews of the novel in the major papers, partly to tone down my emotional reaction to the book – I found it profoundly unsettling, especially where it touches on things I’ve been through myself. And the reviews are strange because the critics (all male) can’t seem to tap into any emotions of their own; they seem so cynical. There is criticism that the characters are clichéd where I found them believable from first-hand experience (a class issue?), and one man even suggested on the radio that Hermann’s clear and simple sentences are a sign of a lack of intelligence. I was shocked. I wonder whether the coldness of the reviews is because German newspapers wouldn’t print anything more personal or because Aller Liebe Anfang might be a book that speaks to women more than men. Certainly, it made me think about all sorts of issues that might be more pertinent to women: men’s projections of our characters, possessiveness, absent partners, the need for a protector, a child as an anchor – although I’d like to believe that those are universal matters. Oh, I’m still so shaken up by the book that it’s hard to think straight. But yes, it – and the peculiar male reaction to it – have switched on my gender antennae.

Well. Judith Hermann has been getting a lot of coverage and giving a lot of interviews, so perhaps the reviews were just assigned to the wrong critics – Aller Liebe Anfang is very much the book of the moment, a literary event after Hermann’s very successful short story collections, and people do so like to take other people down. I’m pleased to see that Clerkenwell Books will be publishing it in English. I’m convinced it will work just as well in the UK, as long as Hermann’s translator Margot Dembo continues to handle her sentences with kid gloves. I'd recommend it to readers who don't always need rollercoasters, and especially to women who've been at home alone a lot with a small child.

Thursday 14 August 2014

And the 2014 Indie Hotlist Longlist

Alongside the German Book Prize there's also the independent publishers' Hotlist, which is perhaps slightly more transparent. As in: they show you all the submissions (143 of them - one per publisher) and then they choose thirty of those, and then you can vote on your favourite. The three books/publishers with the most votes get a spot on the final hotlist, along with seven books/publishers selected by a jury. And then that jury announces the actual winner at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. At a party that anyone can go to, not like the German Book Prize announcement (although to be fair, that one is broadcast on the radio).

Voting's open until 18 August, so you can still join in if you like. To be honest, though, how can anyone possibly decide between thirty books they've never read? Seeing as the €5000 prize goes to the publisher rather than the writer/translator anyway, I've just picked my favourite publisher out of the thirty in the running. Because, hey, everyone else is voting on equally dubious premises, I assume.

The hotlist will be announced at the beginning of September, at which point I'll report back.

I've been thinking, arguing, trying to form an opinion, by the way, about women on prize lists and women on prize juries. Because a lot of people said yesterday, Jeez, the German Book Prize longlist only has five women on it! And I think, yes, OK, that's a pretty crummy percentage. In fact, clever translator and writer Clemens J. Setz worked out that over the past ten years (?) of the prize's existence, women have occupied 5.77 out of the 20 longlist spots on average. On the other hand, women have won the prize itself more often than men. What we don't know, however, as clever translator and writer Isabel F. Cole pointed out, is the gender ratio of the writers whose books were submitted by their publishers, 176 of them. So we don't know whether the jury had fewer books by women to choose from or just happened to prefer the ones written by men.

Part of the reaction, if you ask me, comes from critics needing to find a hook for their speedily written news items and being convinced they could do better than the respective jury. But whatever the case, the German Book Prize is doing one thing really well: its seven-person jury is made up of four women and three men and is chaired by a woman*. That, for me, is where quotas make sense – for individuals, not for works of art. Because I think what I ultimately think is that in this kind of competition – which will only ever be subjective, of course, because how could there ever be a "best book of the year"? – it has to be the quality of the novels that counts, not the identity of the people who wrote them.

*The Hotlist has five men and two women, but hey, we don't know how that happened either.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

German Book Prize Longlist 2014

They just announced the twenty titles nominated for the big, big German book prize, the aptly named German Book Prize. Here they are with links:

Lukas Bärfuss: Koala (Wallstein, March 2014) 

Ulrike Draesner: Sieben Sprünge vom Rand der Welt (Luchterhand, March 2014)

Antonio Fian: Das Polykrates-Syndrom (Droschl, February 2014)

Franz Friedrich: Die Meisen von Uusimaa singen nicht mehr (S. Fischer, August 2014)

Thomas Hettche: Pfaueninsel (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, September 2014)

Esther Kinsky: Am Fluß (Matthes & Seitz Berlin, August 2014)

Angelika Klüssendorf: April (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, February 2014)

Michael Köhlmeier: Zwei Herren am Strand (Hanser, August 2014)

Martin Lechner: Kleine Kassa (Residenz, February 2014)

Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling (Suhrkamp, March 2014)

Charles Lewinsky: Kastelau (Nagel & Kimche, July 2014)

Thomas Melle: 3000 Euro (Rowohlt.Berlin, August 2014)

Matthias Nawrat: Unternehmer (Rowohlt, March 2014)

Christoph Poschenrieder: Das Sandkorn (Diogenes, February 2014)

Lutz Seiler: Kruso (Suhrkamp, September 2014)

Saša Stanišić: Vor dem Fest (Luchterhand, March 2014)

Heinrich Steinfest: Der Allesforscher (Piper, March 2014)

Marlene Streeruwitz: Nachkommen. (S. Fischer, June 2014)

Feridun Zaimoglu: Isabel (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, February 2014)

Michael Ziegelwagner: Der aufblasbare Kaiser (Rowohlt.Berlin, March 2014)

There are a couple I was hoping and expecting to see, most notably Lutz Seiler's amazing Kruso, and I'm currently reading Draesner's Sieben Sprünge... I like that they have Stanišić on the list even though he won the Leipzig prize in the spring – because it's a genuinely excellent book. I read Klüssendorf's previous novel Das Mädchen, which is part of the same series, and found it gruellingly good, so I shall read this new one too. And I'll definitely pick up the two books set in London – very excited about Esther Kinsky's contemplation of the River Lea, because I know her writing is exquisite, and I've heard good things about Leutenegger too. I've heard Hettche reading from his manuscript, a historical piece set on Berlin's Peacock Island, but I'm afraid I tuned out. And I've already ordered a copy of the Franz Friedrich book, another birdy one, for when it comes out. He's already won some other prize with it, for young writers or debut novels or something.

And the rest seems to be a mixture of old men still plodding away (forgive me, no doubt I will regret writing this if I ever get old), wacky plot-led fun, and making a point of including books about working-class people. Not to detract from any of the books, but you know, when I start looking for patterns that's what comes out at first glance. If I were ever to be part of the jury (forgive me, etc.) I would make sure not to have any very long books on the list, because they don't sell abroad. But I know that's not the sole point of the exercise.

Good German, Austrian and Swiss bookshops should have copies of the reader very soon, containing extracts from all twenty titles. I know the lovely people at Ocelot in Berlin have ordered it. I will trot along and get one and present my now customary biased and unprofessional overview before the shortlist comes out, on the 10th of September.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Robert Seethaler: Ein ganzes Leben

Sometimes I have the good fortune and privilege to follow a book from an early point, and Robert Seethaler's Ein ganzes Leben is one of them. Earlier this year I was helping a literary scout with her enquiries and Hanser Berlin sent me the manuscript, their top title for this coming autumn. They also asked me to translate a sample from the book to send out to foreign publishers. I'm pleased to say that translation rights have sold to various countries including the UK, although sadly for me I won't be translating the whole thing. Then last month I spent a couple of hours with Seethaler himself for my Tagesspiegel column, which is now online.

Since about April, then, I've been raving about this gentle, beautifully written and constructed story, and now I'm allowed to broadcast my enthusiasm publicly. It's simple, really: a lonely man’s life in the mountains from the turn of the century to the 1970s. The short novel captures an entire life in the form of its memorable scenes – some are major events, some are tiny fragments of memory. Unusually for German-language books, history happens between the lines and the focus is on how the protagonist copes with what life throws at him.
It opens with a dramatic scene in which Andreas Egger tries to carry a reclusive goatherd down the mountains to the village in driving snow. The old man is close to dying and talks about death as the ‘Cold Lady’ but he frees himself from Egger’s back and runs off into the snow. Egger can’t follow him because he has a limp and can’t move fast. When he gets to the village, though, the new maid at the inn brushes against his arm with her sleeve – one of the moments he will never forget. The date is February 1933 – days after Hitler took power in Germany, but the rest of the world seems far away and unimportant.

We learn that Eggers has always been a man of few words. He arrived in the village in 1902 at the age of around four, sent to an uncle with a few banknotes in a purse after his mother died elsewhere. Heidi it ain’t, though, because the uncle is a brutal farmer who whips Eggers at the slightest provocation. His loveless childhood progresses, with a couple of years learning to read at school between hard work on the farm, until the time when he stands up to his uncle and is thrown out, a day after his 18th birthday. From then on he lives here and there around the village and works as a labourer. By 29 he has saved enough to buy a small plot of land, and then he meets Marie, the maid. Theirs is a touching, tongue-tied romance, and Eggers gets a job with the new cable-car company so that he can offer her a home.
Things aren't that simple, of course, and Eggers loses Marie. Life goes on. In 1942 he is drafted and sent to the Caucasus. After a few weeks abandoned by his superiors in a freezing tent, he surrenders to the Russians and spends eight years in a POW camp. On one occasion he finds a piece of paper and a pencil and spends all night writing a letter to Marie, which he then buries in the ground. Back in the village, he finds a makeshift home. Progress has moved on significantly while he was away, and we see Eggers – who doesn’t own a television – entranced by the sight of Grace Kelly and later the moon landing. Tiny events in his life make a lasting impression. He starts working as a mountain guide for tourists, and suddenly finds himself confronted with people whose lives are very different from his own. 

As he grows older, Eggers moves out of the village again and into the mountains. He has stopped working and lives frugally in a former stable, washing in the nearby stream and using candles for light. We are easily reminded of the old goatherd from the beginning of the book. Shortly before he dies, he sees the ‘Cold Lady’ – and she has Marie’s face. 

The joy of the story is in the telling, in its intricate presentation of tiny details. There are wonderful naturalistic descriptions of the mountain landscape that reminded me of D.H. Lawrence, and which I could imagine on the big screen. Seethaler captures his protagonist’s sentiments without wasting words. But the narrative is also punctuated by death stories. For many of the characters, we find out little about their lives but all about their deaths and their funerals. The first sets a disturbing pattern – the only woman who showed young Egger affection, his great-aunt, falls over forward while making bread and suffocates in the dough. At her funeral, a mad dog makes the horses pulling the coffin rear and kick out, and the dog has to be killed with a spade. 

I also very much admire the structure, with occasional glances into the future and the two framing episodes at beginning and end. Seethaler has a very light hand and has captured a simple life in a fairly simple format, but his book has a great deal to offer for literary readers. 
It’s quite an ambitious feat to capture a whole life in less than 160 pages, and Seethaler has managed it admirably. This is the kind of book that makes you quietly fall in love with it. If you don't read German you'll be pleased to hear that his previous novel Der Trafikant, set in 1930s Vienna and featuring a certain Dr. Freud as a minor character, will also be available in English at some point soonish. If you do read German, please go out and buy this book today.