Sunday, 10 May 2015

Alfred Döblin Prize to Natascha Wodin

The Döblin Prize is an award for as yet unpublished prose, launched by Günter Grass. It happens every two years in the form of a whole day of readings, each followed by discussions. In the past, this event has been by invitation only but this year – whether because Günter's not here to tell anyone off or for other reasons – it was open to the public. That was a good thing.

I was party to an invitation to the two previous competitions, so I can compare. Previously, there was a small audience of critics and editors, publishing people. There was lunch in the middle and a barbecue in the afternoon and there was stilted smalltalk during the breaks. This time the audience was slightly larger, although not huge because the train drivers were on strike, which made getting to the Literary Colloquium tricky. Plus, you really have to be keen to attend a day of readings from 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening. Another thing: there were far fewer critics this time. Maybe they were offended at having their privileges taken away.

The idea of the format is to re-create a workshop atmosphere, in a kind of homage to the Gruppe 47, with people asking questions of the writers and offering praise and criticism. So there were six finalists, four of whom I saw. Their manuscripts were at various stages, some unfinished and open-ended, others with looming publication dates. I was most impressed by Sascha Reh, who read from his forthcoming novel Gegen die Zeit. But then, I've actually read the whole of that manuscript and I really like it – set in 1973 Chile, it asks all sorts of questions about politics, national identity and computing. All the other finalists were female, which is a good thing considering that the award has only ever gone to three women since 1979, and made it look very far removed from a Gruppe 47 workshop.

The great thing about allowing the plebs public to attend was that, after a while at least, non-critics joined in the conversation. So that when one of the judges, Sigrid Löffler, commented that novels reflecting on history are patronizing and that everyone knows all about 1977 and 1973, the sparks really started flying and countless people pointed out that she was talking nonsense. Novels aren't written for critics, or at least I hope not, and why is the third German novel about the end of the Allende government or the second German novel to touch on East German women's relationship to the RAF less relevant than the six thousandth German novel about an old man falling for a younger woman? Who knows, maybe Löffler was getting bored and wanted to play devil's advocate; apparently that was what Grass liked to do too.

What she was fond of, however, was Natascha Wodin's manuscript; she even compared it to Sebald (prompting quite some confused murmuring in the audience – surely the all-powerful Sebald comparison should be used sparingly?). And Wodin did in fact win the €10,000 prize in the end. I wasn't quite as convinced; the book is a biographical project tracing the life of Wodin's mother. Now, I'm certain it will eventually become a fascinating piece of work because Wodin's mother had a fascinating and horrific life, as the daughter of a once-rich family in the Soviet Union, who was brought to Germany as an "Ostarbeiter" – a Nazi euphemism for forced labourers recruited either by violence or under false pretenses, exploited to the utmost in private homes and German industry. What Wodin read was essentially non-fiction with a personal touch; her mother committed suicide when she was only ten or eleven and never told her daughter her story, so we got a lot of general facts in the ten-page extract. And the author seemed almost immune to criticism, shrugging off every question and consideration from the audience. But I'd say that the nature of the book project also almost exempts it from literary criticism; how can anyone suggest changes to a text as highly charged and personal as a book about a real dead mother whose life was ruined by the Nazis? And comparing a text like this to five literary novels seems to me a rather bizarre thing to do.

Which underlines, of course, the absurd nature of literary prizes. Why on earth would anyone have the temerity to proclaim one unpublished manuscript every two years as the best one and give its author a large sum of money? If only it weren't for the fact that Eugen Ruge and Saša Stanišić won the Döblin Prize with two great novels in recent years, going on to pick up the German Book Prize and the Leipzig Book Prize respectively...

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