Wednesday 29 July 2015

Ralf Rothmann: Im Frühling sterben

A caveat to begin with: it has been a while since I finished reading Ralf Rothmann's latest novel, Im Frühling sterben. I wasn't sure what to write about it and so I didn't write anything. Now, though, I've noticed the book has stayed in my mind and I want to get it off my chest (where is it, then, mind or chest? Certainly somewhere I'd rather it wasn't).

The novel is possibly the story of Rothmann's own father; certainly, some critics seem to think so. Teenagers in 1944 but nominally protected from conscription by their apprenticeships as milkers – essential to the war effort – Walter Urban and his friend Fiete Caroli are pressed into signing up "voluntarily" to the Waffen-SS. They leave bucolic northern Germany and are sent first on a truncated training programme and then to the eastern front, which by then is in Hungary. While Walter is put into the supplies service as a driver, rebellious Fiete has to fight. His attempt at desertion falls flat and the two boys find themselves at opposite ends of a firing squad.

After the war dissolves into chaos, Walter makes his way back to the farm but there is no job waiting for him there. He tracks down his old romance, now a cynical waitress, to start a new life. The action is bookended by a description of the narrator's taciturn miner father before his death and a scene in which the narrator, a writer, fails to find his parents' grave site in a snow-covered cemetery.

Walter, too, had made an abortive attempt to locate the place where his father was buried. This unknown grandfather figure is portrayed as utterly despicable; he was a violent husband and a sexually abusive father who joined the SS and became a concentration camp guard. We learn through a letter Walter receives on the front that he was dismissed, apparently for passing on cigarettes to prisoners, and put into a penal division as canon fodder. Duly killed, he was presumably buried close to where Walter is stationed. Having rescued a commander's son, Walter is granted leave to seek out his father's burial site, but instead of finding it he witnesses the horrors of the end of the war, the brutish SS dancing on the volcano. Our naive protagonist refuses to participate – but is he guilty by association?

I have two problems with the novel. The first is its aesthetic. Rothmann is a great favourite among translators; he writes with precision and beauty about working people and their lives, and Im Frühling sterben is no exception. His language is no doubt a joy to translate, and here too we are treated to some gorgeous passages. They describe, as ever in Rothmann's work, darkness and light; the delights of a cowshed with its smells, sounds and muted colours or a seething mass of inebriated, copulating SS men. But at some point that aesthetic tipped over, for me, and became reminiscent of an instagrammed photo with its sharp focus on one detail to the detriment of its surroundings, with all the triviality that look has now assumed. I think that moment was the book's description of an American POW camp, where soldiers have cast off their dog-tags by hanging them on the fence and the metal tags jingle in the wind like an aeolian harp. It's a very pretty image but it reminded me of the cliché of children's hands clutching at mesh used to illustrate refugee camps, where everything but the emotive – i.e. the political, the causes of the situation – fades into soft-focus.

My second issue is the "good German" trope. Walter Urban is a character so virtuous that he borders on the ridiculous. He fires only one shot during the war, and maybe not even that one. He refuses to kill innocent locals, although they die anyway. He gives food to a dying concentration camp inmate on a forced march westwards. His war crime, if you like, is not deserting, not rebelling, fighting only for his own survival and no one else's, aware of the concentration camps' existence but naive about their reality. Yes, Rothmann does raise this issue by comparing Walter and Fiete. He does gently accuse his father figure of complicity through lack of resistance, as his generation famously did. And yet by creating a character with hands so clean it's almost outlandish, he perpetuates what I see as his generation's inability to go that step further and recognize their fathers as war criminals.

Let's think a little about the German family myth. The anecdotes vary between East and West. In West German family narratives, people's parents and grandparents simply didn't know the extent of the Nazis' crimes; they were allegedly unaware of the camps and kept ignorant of the atrocities on the front. In East Germany, so the narrative goes, fathers and grandfathers were in some way active in the resistance. It takes a brave person, and a brave writer, to imagine their father or grandfather as a swine or a convinced fascist, and I've been told countless stories that people – understandably – use to deal with the burden of possible familial guilt: a grandmother may have been raped, meaning they aren't the biological descendants of their SS grandfathers; their fathers were called up late in the war and were practically children at the time (see Günter Grass); their grandfathers were conscripted but had previously been socialists or even put into concentration camps at the beginning of the Nazi regime (this did happen but it doesn't mean those soldiers were necessarily paragons of virtue once they got to the front). Opa war kein Nazi. No one wants to be descended from a war criminal, and perhaps that's what makes the "good German" such an enduringly popular trope in fiction and film.

Rothmann appears to be no exception. I'm not sure how far he reflects on this himself. It might be that Walter's sudden sympathy for his dead bastard of a father is a nod to the writer's own desire to paint his protagonist in such glowing colours, comparatively speaking; as a coward but a virtuous one. The narrator's stumbling around the snowy graveyard might be pointing us in that very direction. And yet, and yet. If a father refuses to talk about his war experiences, as was common and is the case within the narrative, a child can choose what to imagine. I would say Inka Parei's What Darkness Was is a braver confrontation of possible parental guilt, although less obvious about doing so. But I would say that because I translated it.

English-language rights have sold to Picador in the UK and FSG in the US/Canada, so you'll have a chance to make your own mind up even if you don't speak German. The book is doing very well in Germany, so much so that there were howls of frustration when it emerged that Rothmann asked for it not to be submitted for the German Book Prize. I'm sure Anglophone readers will go for it too; perhaps this will be the book that makes a name for Rothmann in English. If you'd like to read his beautiful writing without the sour aftertaste, I recommend seeking out Young Light (tr. Wieland Hoban) or Fire Doesn't Burn (tr. Mike Mitchell).

Tuesday 14 July 2015

2015 Hotlist Longlist

You can now vote for one of 30 titles nominated for the German-language independent publishers' award, the excruciatingly named Hotlist. Independents submit one book each and a committee or something chooses the top 30, then there's this online vote, then a jury of German, Swiss and Austrian literary types picks a shortlist of seven plus three from the online vote, then the jury picks one of those ten as best indie book of the year. The results are often surprising; last year it was a photo essay about employees at CERN. The € 5000 prize money goes to the publishing house and there's a second prize consisting of a € 4000 printing voucher. Then there's a big party in Frankfurt.

I've already voted.

Monday 13 July 2015

German Criticism, Poetry and Prose (Not) on the Internet

Things have slowed down for summer (apart from Greece), which gives people time to debate the future of literary criticism. Perlentaucher has run and linked a number of articles bemoaning the decrease in book reviews on German newspaper pages and suggesting we move professional criticism online, in one form or another. I really like Jan Drees' piece on the subject; it seems to me the perfect combination of personal anecdote and more abstract ideas, and argues that criticism is already happening online and we don't need an online-only criticism "newspaper" behind a paywall to solve the problem of critics being too closely entangled with the publishing world. He writes that it's great that professional critics are working in the press and on radio and TV, but:
At the same time, we need islands far from power and untouched by capitalism, nooks, oases, ivory towers and private marketplaces that remind us that literature (and literary criticism) is more than work, making a living, competing for the next prize, the upcoming press trip, the legitimation to stand next to this or that VIP at the LCB summer party. We need more of these places.
And yes, I'd forgotten that passion is something that makes a lot of criticism, whether amateur or professional, worth reading. I'm glad to be reminded.

Thinking about where literary criticism is read in Germany brings me on to where literature itself is read. When I was putting together the Emerging German Writers issue of Words Without Borders, I spent a lot of time looking for short stories, essays and poetry. Poetry and essays were easy enough to find online, although that didn't make it easy to choose just a couple of examples. Prose, though: not so much. Few German literary magazines make any of their content available online; I'm not aware of any that are online-only. There were some in earlier, more utopian times and I'm told some magazines are re-thinking their policy at the moment. But as far as I'm aware, almost all German literary magazines are run essentially as print editions.

What we do have is blogs or literary sites run by specific publishers, which presumably come under the marketing and PR budget and often read like it. Their content comes largely from their own writers and editors; to me, they come across as the younger cousins of the revered but ponderous print journals run by the publishing houses as prestige projects by senior editors, with names like Art & Meaning or Journal of Letters.* I rarely go out of my way to buy German literary magazines in print; they're difficult to find in bookshops and I assume their readership is rather limited.

What I feel is missing, compared to the Anglophone model, is online literary magazines featuring a wide range of prose and other stuff, be it as electronic sidekicks to print journals like Granta, Gorse or the White Review, or as online-only or mainly online projects like 3:AM, The Offing, Five Dials or indeed Asymptote, Words Without Borders or no man's land.  (In fact, I'm not aware of any German-language literary magazines at all concentrating on translation, but maybe that's a healthy situation.) I'm not talking hi-falutin' critical essays; what I feel is missing is places to read short stories on the internet.

It's patronising and chauvinistic to want everything to be like in the UK/US, so let me compare to the world of German poetry. When I asked on Facebook if anyone knew journals publishing work online, the poet and publisher Daniela Seel kindly sent me a whole barrage of links: Signaturen, Fixpoetry, Poetenladen, Babelsprech, Kleine Axt (great title!), These, people, are the poets' equivalent of Jan Drees' islands and oases far from the pressures of earning money and notching up shelf space. It seems that poets are resigned to or aware of not making a living out of their work, and thus less bothered about making it available for free. Hooray!

I can't decide whether the lack of German prose available online, i.e. the fact that you can only read it if you pay money for it, is a good thing or not. On the one hand, yes, absolutely, writing is hard work and that work ought to be paid for. On the other hand – and this is a big but – I know a number of literary journals and even some other magazines don't actually pay their contributors because their print and distribution costs are so high that they sop up the entire budget. So if writers aren't getting paid anyway, why should we spend money to read them?

Can we develop a prose equivalent to that sharing** culture in the poetry world, in which (some) writers merely want to reach an audience and get their work read? I'd love to see some of the innovative literary journals leading the way here and moving at least some of their content online. And I'd be thrilled if somebody wanted to sit down and make a decent online-only literary magazine for German writing, using all the beautiful design possibilities we now have, giving many more readers access to short stories in German than currently get to read them, and also opening up a way for as yet unpublished writers who don't have links to the creative writing programmes or publishing houses to get a foot in the door. It might even be a way to bring a little more diversity into the literary world, who knows. 

*Not actual names.
** I mean actual sharing, in which you let people have things for free.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Georg Büchner Prize to Rainald Goetz

Sue me – I have never read Rainald Goetz and I'm not even planning to. I think he's like Marmite; you have to have grown up with him to appreciate him. But a hell of a lot of Germans do appreciate him, and now he's won the mega-prestigious Georg Büchner Prize for his life's work. It comes with €50,000 and eternal glory. The judges said:
Rainald Goetz has described Germany's present of the past thirty years, let it come to perception and speak for itself, he has celebrated it and condemned it and analyzed it over and over by means of theory. Behind his nervous, tense willingness to gain experiences are a broad education and a sensitive awareness of history, which enable his language a balance between passionate expression, observational coolness and satirical clarity.
They're really into him, huh? But I know a lot of people (men?) who worship the guy. I once went to a reading he did where he was like, I'm going to read for ten minutes and then go out and smoke a fag on the doorstep (it was raining, I think) and then I'm going to have a rest for a while and then at half past I'll read for five minutes and then I'll have a bit of a sit down and then on the next full hour I'll read for another ten minutes, but first here's the list of ingredients on my cigarette packet. Those may not have been his exact words; it was about five years ago. But instead of totally losing patience and leaving, like I did, everyone else was hanging on his every word and had nothing they wanted to do more than spend all day waiting for the guy to read in between his extended cigarette breaks. Also I used to see him in my local supermarket before I moved house. He's quite short and likes white bread rolls.

He's written lots of novels and plays about contemporary phenomena. I think the only thing available in English is the play Jeff Koons, translated by David Tushingham.

Lost in Translation*

So here's what's up. First it's been really hot and I've been spending too much time on my own, two things I'm not all that good at.

But the big thing is – and notice I'm not calling it a problem – that I've started translating Clemens Meyer's novel Im Stein. And I genuinely think it's the best novel to come out of Germany for years, which makes every new book I read seem pale and unimpressive. I don't think it's fair to review those books here under the circumstances, so I haven't been. I've read a couple that will be coming out at the end of the summer, which I do think are good (although not as good as Im Stein) and I'll try and write about them later on. But at the moment I think many publishers are holding back the good stuff for the autumn. So that's one side to it.

The other is that this translation is incredibly intense. The book contains all sorts of snippets of knowledge and quotes, from Karl Marx to the Brothers Grimm to geology to forensic medicine and, especially, the sex industry. On my desk I have a dictionary of Marxist thought, a dictionary of nursery rhymes, a dictionary of police terminology, an East German book of English songs, an anthology of writing by sex workers, plus the usual thesaurus and a website I hate but have to call up several times a day, explaining abbreviations used in online forums for rating prostitutes' services. I'm reading background material and chasing after quotes and absolutely tied up in this project.

Meyer writes like a dervish, creating a cynical psychedelic rock opera, rarely coming up for air. And I'm right in there, in my translation tunnel, in the flow, typing in tongues to channel the characters' voices and Meyer's crazed tone. I'm doing it quickly, intensely, because that's the way I understand it best. So I'll spend eight hours at a time in this world of pimps and prostitutes, bikers, managers, punters, detectives, florists, heartbroken fathers and resigned daughters, and if someone speaks to me I can't always answer because my mind isn't really in the room. I'm loving it and it's making me a little bit disturbed. I think it will get worse before it gets better.

This is something I've worked towards for two years, or in fact more since I first heard Clemens Meyer reading extracts from the work in progress. It took a long time to find a publisher brave enough to take on the novel and the writer, neither of them easy to work with but both incredibly rewarding. Fitzcarraldo Editions are a new publishing house with some extremely exciting books out already, and I think the novel fits perfectly with their catalogue. And then it took a long time for the publisher to find the money to pay for my work, which is expensive because the book is long. I wanted to do this so badly and I knew it would affect me very intensely, and it is. There's one chapter that I know will make me sick to translate, and I'm hoping I can find a place to work on that chapter where I never have to go again, so that my everyday environment doesn't get poisoned. I'm not sure when that's coming up though.

My translation should be out in the autumn of 2016, and then you will tremble and maybe understand why I'm feeling so strange. I dread to think what the inside of Clemens Meyer's head must have looked like while he wrote it. I dread to think what the inside of my head will look like by the time I finish translating it. I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. But it's so gargantuan that it's making a lot of other things seem small and insignificant. At the risk of laying on the pathos (I don't care though because if Meyer's not scared of pathos then I can't be either), I need to take care of my daughter and myself during my precious hours of sanity, and if that means my blog suffers, so be it.

*Great title, huh? I felt it was my turn to use it.

Monday 6 July 2015

Ingeborg Bachmann Prize to Nora Gomringer

The weltschmerz doesn't seem to be going away. So while the German-language Literaturbetrieb* had four days of fun at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt – albeit no longer drinking a right-wing populist's faux-champagne at the mayor's reception but the faux-champagne of the new Social Democratic mayor, who's had enough of her previous coalition with the FPÖ – I was sweating in tropical Berlin and working and not watching the spectacle ("Germany's Got Talent for swots" – Stefanie Sargnagel) on TV because how can I take so many days off work and Greece and Syria and Nigeria and also I've kind of had enough of a lot of German literary critics. I mean, they're only talking about literature, it's not like they deserve a medal for it, and I didn't want to spend four days watching jumped-up egos talk about literature, even though I've thoroughly enjoyed watching it in the past. I hope I'll get over this cynical phase I'm going through.

So the prize went to Nora Gomringer for her piece "Recherche". And here's the thing about this piece ("porn for Germanists" – Nora Gomringer): it's a magnificent story, a real humdinger of clever wit and good writing and light and dark ideas under the surface, as long as you know who her protagonist Nora Bossong is. Now, I happen to know who Nora Bossong is because she's a German writer and I've even had a drink with her and some other German publishing people on one occasion, and heard her reading a couple of times, although I don't think I've ever read one of her novels or any of her poetry. And she's a striking woman and one of those people a lot of publishing types know. But she's not, you know, famous. There's a bit in Gomringer's story where another character asks the Bossong character to sign a book, which is amusing because it's unexpected for the Bossong character, which makes us smile if we know who Nora Bossong is but doesn't come across as cruel; Gomringer doesn't seem to be taking the mickey (because we can probably assume Nora Gomringer would react the same way?). And there's another bit in the story where that same character sets her alarm clock to watch the Bachmann Prize on TV, which is also amusing if we know what the Bachmann Prize is because what kind of psycho would spend four days of her life watching a literary competition on TV, and again that self-deprecating humour is delightful. But Gomringer doesn't actually name the literary competition on TV, so it's a kind of double in-joke.

So what I think about "Recherche" is that it's the perfect story to win the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize right now, but it's not a story that works in any other context. From my point of view, there'd be no point in translating it, for instance, because no one would pick up on its big joke. Or you could add footnotes, but jokes with footnotes are a bit crap.

And I can't shake the impression that a story consisting partly of in-jokes for the German-language Literaturbetrieb* winning the prize is a bit of a swizz for people who don't get the in-jokes. OK, the competition has drawn attention to lots of talented writers who wouldn't have got on TV otherwise, and will be good for all of them, and I've no doubt Nora Gomringer has other texts that will appeal to a broader audience. But doesn't it seem a little provincial, dare I say it, for a prize that used to translate all its finalists' texts into seven languages to be awarded to a story that works only for a very limited readership?

Or, ach, maybe a literary prize's purpose isn't to provide a service to the maximum number of readers, a kind of capitalist efficiency logic by which the best story is the one that the largest number of people appreciate. Like Dire Straights on paper or something. I don't know. At least it goes towards disproving Tim Parks's theory that writers are pandering to international audiences by making their work more bland. That's a cheering thought. And at least Nora Gomringer gets a bit of fame and fortune for a while.

The weltschmerz is telling me it doesn't matter anyway, what with nothing mattering anyway. Maybe I shouldn't have started reading Camus. Here's a witty response to the story by the actual Nora Bossong, possibly. It's a fun game of pingpong for a summer afternoon.

*Literaturbetrieb, I nearly forgot. It translates as literary industry and means the sum of publishers, editors, writers, critics, etc. making a living out of literature, or trying to. And although a lot of books are published in German, the Literaturbetrieb feels very small and incestuous and tends to suffer a lot of storms in teacups. So you can use it as a term of abuse if you fancy raising yourself above it for any reason.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Emerging German Writers at Words without Borders

They asked me to guest-edit an issue of Words without Borders showcasing emerging German writers. I nearly burst, I was so proud and excited. For years I'd been fantasizing about putting together an equivalent to Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, only with Germans. The power! The influence! The delights of including certain favourites and excluding writers who've blanked me at parties!

And then: Jesus, it was hard. Try choosing only ten writers, of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. As in, only ten writers you want the whole world to read. Also, try choosing ten pieces of writing that are varied and reflect different aspects of a "national literature" (let's not go there) and are also serious and fun to read and outstandingly good and grab you by the throat and shake you and work on their own and in combination. Thankfully, they let me choose only German writing rather than German-language writing from Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Luxemburg, and wherever. So only about half the total volume to sieve through.

I define the nebulous "emerging" as not yet world famous and with a maximum of two book-length publications. Some of the writers haven't put any books out yet. For poets I was looking for people who haven't yet been translated. I define "German writers" as people who write in German in Germany, possibly coming from elsewhere, or come from Germany and write in German elsewhere. There's a fair amount of moving around the world among the authors in the issue – I didn't check anyone's passports.

One thing very quickly went out the window: an age limit. Because an age limit is a ridiculous restriction that punishes writers who've been doing other things with their lives before getting published and rewards writers who take the straight path. Another thing was that I sought help and advice on poetry, because I know very little indeed about poetry.

Anyway, look upon their works ye mighty, and despair. Maybe no one will remember them in ten years' time or maybe they'll be famous the world over. These are my emerging German writers:

Finn-Ole Heinrich
Olga Grjasnowa
Stephanie Bart
Marianna Salzmann
Bettina Suleiman
Simone Kornappel
Isabelle Lehn
Francis Nenik
Noemi Schneider
Deniz Utlu

Thanks to my fellow translators Amanda DeMarco, Jake Schneider and Julie Winter, and to the lovely editors at Words without Borders. The issue also features a special on writers from Burundi, which you should also read. Also I wrote an introduction. Enjoy. I am available for interviews.