Sunday 27 September 2015

Some Thank Yous

I have been quiet; I was in New York. Have I mentioned before how kind and supportive the literary translation community is?

Before I even got to New York, I got a phone call to say that my accommodation with a friend of a friend had fallen through; a burst pipe and no water for the foreseeable. Within minutes, another translator had offered me her flat for the weekend – she needed a cat-sitter anyway. So many people said I was welcome to stay on their respective couches that I decided to see a few different parts of town, spending two nights each in Greenpoint, Kensington and Upper West Side (I think). And everyone looked after me beautifully. I had (half of) the most ridiculous ice cream sundae of my life, went up on a roof, drank sake in a basement establishment I'm sure I'd never find again, had pink iced tea, went to a Polish diner, bought Statue of Liberty biros, admired various views, got lots of advice, talked to strangers, gave away and was given lots and lots of books and generally had a very interesting time.

So this is to say thanks to the Goethe Institut New York and the German Book Office New York – and to all the translation people who calmed me down and made my stay in their city so full of love. You know who you are. For everyone else, here's a home-swapping website for translators. OK, not quite everybody else.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

German Book Prize Shortlist 2015

I was going to do a whole blog post on it but a) I'm the busiest I've ever been and b) the German Book Prize website is actually really good, even in English. So here's a link to the six-title shortlist. Go on, click on it. You know you're dying of curiosity. Three of my favourites are on it.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Clemens Setz: Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre

Natalie Reinegger gets her first job after training as a special needs carer. She works in an assisted living home for adults with learning and physical disabilities. She's also the star of Clemens Setz's new 1022-page novel, Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre. It's already a much-celebrated phenomenon, with its own Twitter account by the name of Tausend Seiten Setz and a special team of readers commenting in real reading time at frau-und-gitarre. If I wasn't super busy I would be totally joining in, if they'd have me, because I have a helluva lotta time for Clemens Setz. If there's one writer that makes me regret giving up my going Dutch with German writers blog, it's Clemens Setz.

One of Natalie's personal clients is Alexander Dorm, a wheelchair-bound, bad-tempered young man who is in love with a man called Christopher Hollberg. Dorm previously stalked Hollberg, Natalie’s workmates explain, putting so much pressure on his marriage that Hollberg’s wife committed suicide and Dorm was put into psychiatric prison. Years have now passed and he now has only one visitor: Christopher Hollberg. It is Natalie’s job to sit in on the meetings under their “arrangement” to keep an eye on Dorm. 

In Setz’s world – which is very similar to a small Austrian town but not quite the same – stalking is recognized as a cognitive disorder and the staff at the home treat him as fairly as the other residents. Alongside her beloved job, Natalie has a habit of “roaming” in dark corners at night to offer oral sex to strangers. She comes across a basement “open space”, a cooperative bar where people meet to talk, drink, hang out, play games and enjoy casual sex, and makes friends with people there, developing a crush on a boy called Mario, who she doesn't understand as well as the jaded reader does. She has an adopted cat that comes and goes as it pleases and a rather besotted ex-boyfriend, a writer. Another thing she doesn’t realize is that she may have a stalker of her own.

As the book goes on and on, Natalie does realize – very slowly – that Hollberg is exerting subtle mental torture on Dorm on his visits and trying to manipulate her as well. Gradually abandoning her friends, she begins to feel obliged to protect her client from his abuser and starts fearing Hollberg. She can’t distinguish whether the many stories he tells about Dorm’s stalking and its effects are true or just fictional “luminous detail”, as her ex-boyfriend puts it. Natalie decides to stand up to him, telling bizarre stories back and encouraging Dorm to be less submissive. 

Things come to a head after about 900 pages in a sudden burst of drama followed by a great epilogue, so as I've said before you really have to be into Setz's whole world to keep going. But it is worth it. Unusually for German-language fiction at least, he gives us a lot of detail about working life in a home for people with disabilities. There are many, many scenes in which the staff interact with their clients, making breakfast, playing darts, doing arts and crafts, solving personal hygiene problems. One of Natalie’s clients, Mike, for instance, sustained brain damage in an accident and is very anxious about seeing his wife and children. When Natalie arrives at work late one day after Mario has been brutally attacked – perhaps by Hollberg? – Mike’s wife has gained access to his apartment. She is appalled by what she sees there: the walls are covered in shocking drawings. Although we’re never told exactly what they depict, it becomes clear to us that the wife is part of them in some way. She demands he leaves the home, where he is stable and happy. Desperate, Natalie calls Hollberg for advice on how to deal with the wife. He tells her how to manipulate the woman, which works, but leaves Natalie in his debt. It’s a good solution for Mike but not for Natalie and her other client, Dorm, who is gradually going wild with jealousy over the relationship he imagines between his carer and the object of all his affections. 

Setz’s writing itself is fairly straightforward and very readable. What marks it out as his own is the wealth of thoughts and ideas he builds into his narrative. Natalie loves bizarre stories and facts and one reason the book is so long is because hundreds of them are included in the novel. From invisible mice as posture aids – watch this fabulous video narrated, I think, by Setz himself – to empty spots in computer game universes to the comfort of live TV broadcasts, Setz provides an almost constant stream of distraction throughout, similarly to Indigo (tr. Ross Benjamin) but actually more accessible, I found. He also manages to build tension, incredibly slowly but surely, over 1000 pages, until we readers become as obsessed as Natalie. I really enjoyed immersing myself in her world, and the slightly skewed world Setz has built around her. If you have enough time on your hands, I recommend you try it too.

Monday 14 September 2015

My Take on the 2015 Longlist

Welcome to the annual last-minute love german books overview of the German Book Prize longlist. As tradition dictates, this is written very shortly before the shortlist is released, based almost entirely on personal prejudice combined with an immersive reading of the extracts published by the prize committee. So join me on a confusing romp through slightly too little information on the twenty titles nominated for Germany’s biggest book prize.

As usual, reading twenty extracts makes me automatically seek out common factors. This year we have an abundance of generations or characters rooted in family pasts – measured here in the “grandparent factor” – and a lot of books that are either rather on the short side or incredibly long. While short is generally good in terms of getting translated, those great big bricks of books have a tough time finding publishers abroad. I keep telling writers this but they generally ignore me. For links, see my first post on the longlist.

Alina Bronsky: Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe

Bronsky is good at eminently readable books about quirky Russians, as evidenced by Broken Glass Park, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, and Just Call Me Superhero (all tr. Tim Mohr). She’s not the super-snooty critics’ favourite, however, so I don’t think she’s won any prizes so far. I’d guess she’s unlikely to win this one either, but the novel looks like a fun read: a babushka in nuclear-contaminated Chernovo with a great voice falls in love one last time. I’m intrigued.

Grandparent factor: positive, and Russian for double points
Overly long or ridiculously short: 160 pages
Sample sentence: I’m her nearest neighbour, only a fence divides our plots of land. And the fence might once have been a proper one. By now it’s more an idea of a fence.

Ralph Dutli: Die Liebenden von Mantua

This is one of those times when the extract tells the reader next to nothing, apart from that the writer was really enjoying himself. Fairly baroque writing, reminiscent of Sibylle Lewitscharoff perhaps. The language is playful but not indigestible, but the publisher’s plot summary seems pretty off the wall – a new religion based on the love between two Stone Age corpses founded by a dubious count in northern Italy, anyone?

Grandparent factor: if you count Stone Age lovers, then maybe.
Overly long or ridiculously short: not really – 276 pages
Sample sentence: Vergil was inescapable here, he is scattered across the peninsular between the three lakes, he looks down as bust, relief and statue upon the barely awakened Mantua, as though he were simultaneously ancestor, eternal ruler and very contemporary mayor.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, ging, gegangen

Everybody’s favourite contemporary German writer TM is back with another interesting-looking collage. The four-page sample contains East Germany, the Middle Ages and the present day and several different characters, combining history and politics in Erpenbeck’s signature style. And the subject matter: old professor meets refugees. I’d say this might be a more intellectual version of Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand/Little Bee, with a white middle-class character helping white middle-class readers to relate to asylum seekers’ lives. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s on my reading list. I’d be surprised if it didn’t make the shortlist too. Good luck to Susan Bernofsky with translating the title and its wordplay, though.

Grandparent factor: not really
Overly long or ridiculously short: neither – 352 pages
Sample sentence: Against expectations, however, the commissioner of the fountains, the socialist state, had suddenly gone astray after forty years, and with the state went the associated future; only the waterfalls in staircase formation bubbled on, bubbling even now summer after summer to spirited, almost unbelievable heights, happy, daring children continuing to balance along them, admired by proud, laughing parents.

Valerie Fritsch: Winters Garten

This is a popular one, I think. Very opulent descriptions in the extract, verging on kitsch. It made me wonder how she squeezed a story into the 154-page book, but apparently there is one, or the bare bones of one. Young man grows up in verdant garden with large extended family, later leaves and finds love in dystopian outside world, then returns to Eden facing uncertain future. I know one translator who really adores it and it’s already sold to two countries (although English-language rights are still available, it seems).

Grandparent factor: oh yes
Overly long or ridiculously short: 154 pages
Sample sentence: On the burial mounds grew raspberries, which they stuffed greedily in each others' mouths as though they wanted to grow very tall, and those who had already done so carried the great-grandmother effortlessly cradled in their arms into the house as though she were nothing but a log of wood.

Heinz Helle: Eigentlich müssten wir tanzen

This is the one I’m most excited about, I think. I heard Helle reading from the manuscript two years ago and still think it’s extremely good. Dystopia with boys returned from a weekend away to find the world destroyed without explanation. Cruelty, stupidity – the premise seems like a Thomas Glavinic novel only I much prefer the writing. So sinister! Serpent’s Tail are publishing his Ben Lerner-esque previous novel as Superabundance (tr. Kári Driscoll) next spring.

Grandparent factor: probably not
Overly long or ridiculously short: 174 pages
Sample sentence: A slight grey falls onto the bowling lanes though the light shafts, there’s no electricity, the pins are gone, dangling above, perhaps, we don’t see them.

Gertraud Klemm: Aberland

Dark humour, interesting idea contrasting an ageing woman and her daughter, top feminist bonus points, and won the audience vote at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. Nice long sentences but possibly low on plot. Real people are very keen, critics less so. I'm on the fence and not all that interested.

Grandparent factor: obviously
Overly long or ridiculously short: 184 pages
Sample sentence: The dress will support me in my new role; it cost 1,349 euro, but the designers from Vittorio Missoni have put together a magical dress – it lashes my body almost surgically into shape, and the subtly shimmering herringbone pattern makes up for at least ten years, for example the strange bulge of flesh that has grown out between my armpit and the top of my breast like a slug, which can be effortlessly stowed away beneath the wide straps, and at the knees and the back it pulls off the balancing act between showing off and concealing.

Steffen Kopetzky: Risiko

A rather nicely phrased piece of adventure writing, for people who like that kind of thing. I vaguely remember enjoying his previous yarn, Der letzte Dieb. Unpretentious and probably fun, I’d say, if it manages to avoid Orientalist clichés. Well-researched historical novel set in 1916 crossing Syria, Iraq and Persia but reviews have been too poor for it to make the shortlist, I suspect.

Grandparent factor: probably not, unless you happen to be Iranian
Overly long or ridiculously short: 732 pages
Sample sentence: As the emir only utters a sigh, however, he pushes the tip of the dagger so far in that Habibullah starts to bleed. He is suddenly crawling like a beetle to get up from the ground.

Rolf Lappert: Über den Winter

I found the extract rather unremarkable and unrevealing; sparse language describing an uneventful family excursion to a frozen Hamburg lake. I don’t like to generalize but to judge by the publisher’s blurb, that’s pretty much it – man returns to family life and discovers “the miracle of small details”. Not my cup of tea.

Grandparent factor: very possibly
Overly long or ridiculously short: nope – 384 pages
Sample sentence: On the grass of a park, someone had made a big snowman that was hugging a tree, furniture and crates fell out of the window of a house into an open rubbish skip, a black dog chased after a cyclist.

Inger-Maria Mahlke: Wie Ihr wollt

I so wanted to love this book. I’ve admired Mahlke’s writing for some time and I think she’s as cool as a Slush Puppy. Plus the subject matter: Lady Mary Grey, Tudor heir to the throne once described as “little, crook-backed and very ugly”. But you know how nobody finishes reading Hilary Mantel because those Tudors are so bloody complicated? That was exactly my problem here – too much assumed knowledge that I didn’t have. Loved the writing but simply could not follow the story.

Grandparent factor: Henry the Eighth!
Overly long or ridiculously short: not really – 272 pages
Sample sentence: Ellen wanted to dodge, bumped her head against the table top. So hard that the jug tipped over, all her own fault for not clearing it away after breakfast. Pale yellow, topped by greyish islands of foam, an extending tongue of ale shot over the table towards my documents.

Ulrich Peltzer: Das bessere Leben

Is this the counterpart to Peltzer’s previous novel Part of the Solution (tr. Martin Chalmers)? Hedge fund managers and an insurance salesman, former idealists, come together in some way in this apparently highly political novel. The characteristic detail-soaked writing makes me want to read more, at any rate, and reminds me of a reigned-in Will Self at times. 

Grandparent factor: probably not
Overly long or ridiculously short: a bearable 448 pages
Sample sentence: Conquered Khartoum and sealed Gordon Pasha’s un-pretty end, to be read of in school books and regimental chronicles, a boy in boarding-school uniform agonizing his memory in front of the bored class… his life was England’s glory, his death was England’s pride, but Fleming couldn’t remember more than the last lines of Kipling’s poem (although he really did try), wordy evocations that called no soul back to life. He drank and closed his eyes.

Peter Richter: 89/90

Here’s the thing about this one: although it claims to be a novel, it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like good journalism, with witty footnotes as an added extra. An autobiographical tale of rebellious young men in East Germany, not exactly something that hasn’t been done before. It might end up translated, though, because I expect the writer has good connections as a newspaper correspondent in New York.

Grandparent factor: probably somewhere, either a Nazi or a Stasi
Overly long or ridiculously short: 416 pages
Sample sentence: When the summer that was to change the world came along, I draped my bedding so that it looked like someone was lying in it, opened the window and jumped out into the night. That wasn’t a big deal; we lived on the upper ground floor.

Monique Schwitter: Eins im anderen

I thoroughly enjoyed this book once I gave it a chance (see my review) – a woman exploring ex-loves of all kinds, with a brave plotline that creeps up unexpectedly. Nicely done reckoning with female life today, without notching up the drama as a couple of the other titles on the list do.

Grandparent factor: positive
Overly long or ridiculously short: a pleasant 232 pages
Sample sentence: It was planned differently. The sentence I wanted to write here was: And then came Philipp. Actually it ought to be my husband’s turn, who incidentally suits the name very well. But the neat chronology of men is getting messed up; there’s a problem.

Clemens J. Setz: Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre

This one wins the prize for longest book on the list, and is stuffed full of odd stuff with a very drawn-out and scary storyline. I’ll post a review very soon but the short version is that a young woman gets a job at an assisted living facility and has to deal with a psycho – who isn’t one of her clients. Setz has his very own way of writing and seeing the world, and reading the book submerges you in it for a very long time. You have to be into it to stick it out, let’s say. I did. You can read his Indigo (tr. Ross Benjamin) in English and I hope this one will follow – although obviously don’t hold your breath.

Grandparent factor: negative (I checked)
Overly long or ridiculously short: 1022 pages
Sample sentence: The red and blue hot-air balloons were now so far away that they looked like vitreous haze. As a child, Natalie had once discovered a magic trick with which you could focus on all the far distant things that were interesting and mysterious – a man with a rabbit-ears hat in a ski-lift cabin, a peacock-ish wind-wheel on a neighbour’s balcony, a brightly coloured decoration in a hospital window, an advertising banner towed by a glider.

Anke Stelling: Bodentiefe Fenster

Hmm. How to explain why I’m not a fan of this novel when so many other book bloggers are? It was picked up on by a tabloid newspaper as another illustration of How Awful Mothers in Prenzlauer Berg are – an easy target if ever there was one. Actually, though, for all the protagonist’s negativity on the subject, she’s reporting from the inside, a kind of participatory anthropology, although of course the character is just another Prenzlauer Berg mother, albeit the kind with less money. Maybe I’m just tired of the conversation, but I don’t feel Stelling adds very much to it, hardly scratching the surface of all the injustices and just laying blame at individuals’ feet.

Grandmother factor: positive
Overly long or ridiculously short: a readable 248 pages
Sample sentence: I’m sitting here weeping because I can’t save my friend. Isa’s going to turn into a wreck, she’s going to end up in the funny farm, the children dead or in the funny farm as well or narrowly escaped, but only for the time being, only until they start families of their own and then it’ll start all over again.

Ilija Trojanow: Macht und Widerstand

A fabulous cantankerous Bulgarian in what may well be a return to form by Trojanow, loved by all for his Richard Burton novel The Collector of Worlds (tr. Will Hobson). It seems he has interwoven two characters on either side of the power divide in the formerly socialist country: an officer and a dissident. Based on a great deal of reading and interviews and including archive material, this will almost certainly make the shortlist. Comparisons have been made to Peter Weiss – but I still want to read it.

Grandparent factor: probably
Overly long or ridiculously short: 480 pages
Sample sentence: The others shake their heads conspicuously, typical Konstantin, always contrary, on principle, a real farce. Always has to question everything. I know I’m hard work. I let the others talk, I hold my tongue. When the first lunch guests dribble in we get complimented out of the café.

Vladimir Vertlib: Lucia Binar und die russische Seele

Vertlib has a gentle sense of humour that comes out nicely in the extract. It sounds like the story is a variation on the “grumpy old person meets idealistic young person” stock, featuring a Jewish grandmother (bing! double points!) and an anti-racism activist in Vienna. Nice that this writer is getting a little more attention.

Grandparent factor: clearly
Overly long or ridiculously short: 320 pages
Sample sentence: Those two boys know I can hardly walk now. Do they think I’m still young and dynamic like I was at sixty? Szymborska wrote a poem shortly before her death about an ancient tortoise that dreams of dancing. When it finally takes the risk of trying a few dance steps and twirls round on the spot, it rolls over on its back and can’t move any more. What was the name of that poem again?

Kai Weyand: Applaus für Bronikowski

An unambitious young man gets a job at a funeral parlour and tries to fulfil a dead woman’s last wish. I don’t think I could read a whole book in this naïve pedantic voice, but maybe that’s just me. Other people may find it funny and it’s mercifully short.

Grandparent factor: positive
Overly long or ridiculously short: 188 pages
Sample sentence: Assuming I decide on an almond crescent, but you know something about the almond crescent that I don’t know, for example that the almond flakes aren’t the best, then it wouldn’t be very friendly of you to keep that knowledge to yourself. I’m asking you because you’re a qualified bakery salesperson.

Frank Witzel: Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969

Long title, huh? Long book, too. This is one of those very specific West German sagas that can be rather unsexy for people from other countries. But I found the extract grotesque, scary and rather exciting, pretty much against my will. The critics love it and although I think it might be too difficult a read to win the prize, I’m glad to have got a sample of Witzel’s writing. It tastes like something Willy Wonka might have invented while in a bad mood.

Grandparent factor: probably
Overly long or ridiculously short: 818 pages!
Sample sentence: I immerse the rabbit corpses in a saucepan of water so that the worms come floating out. The factory-owner lumbers around in the corridor with a wooden wheelbarrow. He’s come from the slate cliff, where he collected up branches and beasts indiscriminately. Of course he doesn’t need to collect anything. That’s why he does it.

Christine Wunnicke: Der Fuchs und Dr. Shimamura

Based on a real historical character, this seems to be a novel about a Japanese neurologist who went to Europe and had a special interest in fox obsessions. Yes. While Wunnicke does sketch an interesting character in the extract, it all sounds rather pernickety to me. The language is nicely precise, at least.

Grandparent factor: who knows?
Overly long or ridiculously short: 144 pages
Sample sentence: Dr Shimamura had four carers: Sachiko, his wife, Yukiko, her mother, Hanako, his own mother, and a maid, whom he sometimes called Anna but more often Luise. He had taken the latter home with him from the Kyoto asylum on his retirement, as a souvenir, and because no one there quite knew whether she was a patient or a nurse and no one remembered her name either.

Feridun Zaimoglu: Siebentürmelviertel

More baroque language, this time more baroque and in a historical novel around German emigrants in 1940s Istanbul. I’m reading it now and enjoying that language, although I haven’t a clue whether anything is going to happen other than an endless string of childhood and domestic incidents. Critics have generally been enthusiastic about the sheer cheek of the thing.

Grandparent factor: yes, a Turkish grandmother for extra points
Overly long or ridiculously short: 800 pages
Sample sentence: I wait for the punch, for the children’s kicks. I wait until my bones ache from lying on the hard earth. This is the field of our first shame. Beak-clattering from the birds nesting on the cypress branches. Ashes in the sky, the wind-warped barn burning on the fallow land.

If I ruled the world, I’d have a shortlist consisting of Bronsky, Erpenbeck, Helle, Schwitter, Trojanow and Witzel. Because they’re too long to be realistic translation material, I’m not listing Setz and Zaimoglu, even though I think they’ll probably be on the real shortlist. After all, I don’t rule the world.

Friday 11 September 2015

Kirsten Fuchs: Mädchenmeute

Mädchenmeute is a book that should come with a torch attached. It's a book that will make you feel fifteen again, will get you utterly hooked, and will require reading under the covers until late at night. Hence the torch – preferably with batteries included.

The name means "pack of girls" because it's a novel about seven girls who run away from a creepy survival camp, steal a van that turns out to be full of dogs, and camp out with their new pets in a disused mine entrance in an Erzgebirge forest. Narrator Charlotte is fifteen and painfully shy but a bit of a Nancy Drew. Except that she gets distracted from the Scooby Doo-like goings on in the camp by all the running away business and doesn't solve the crime until pretty much the last pages.

Alongside the girl detective genre, Kirsten Fuchs plays on other literary precedents, and I prepared myself for the book by watching the 1963 film of Lord of the Flies with my fourteen-year-old daughter. After which we were both pretty shaken and disgusted with boys, let me tell you. Fuchs's gang of girls also spend much of the time in the forest arguing, understandably, having been complete strangers until a day previously. And one of the characters has a great dig at boys, a full-page monologue about how they always want to prove themselves but their brains aren't big enough so they end up breaking things. But, as Yvette points out, girls are much cleverer, so although they do get wilder and wilder no one gets killed in Mädchenmeute. Or do they?

Charlotte is a fabulous narrator. I bought the book on the strength of hearing Kirsten Fuchs read from it, and that voice accompanied me throughout the novel. I can't find a video of her reading the book, but if you put "Kirsten Fuchs" into YouTube you'll realize she's a very funny woman. I also went drinking with her once, which was pretty adventurous for two mums out for a night in Berlin. Anyway, we get a fifteen-year-old view of the world, cynical and naive at the same time, which is gorgeous. And also some stunning descriptions of the forest, but most of all a whole lot of very funny moments, wry observations, a first kiss that makes the kissee stupider afterwards, a bunch of great characters and an ending that made me think of The Breakfast Club. Maybe because I felt like I was fifteen again.

I told one friend I was reading it and she said a male friend of hers had said it was boring. This puzzled me for some time. How on earth could anyone find Mädchenmeute boring? My only conclusion was that this is a book proudly written for women – and girls; although published as an adult title, it's been reeling in accolades as a YA book as well. If you've never been a fifteen-year-old girl, maybe it would be boring. Poor you. The other thing I loved was Charlotte's developing relationship with her dog, Kajtek. Taking responsibility for him (and for the other girls) is what makes her grow up, as she remarks herself at one point. So yes, how could this avoid being a (yawn) coming-of-age novel, but it's done in a delightful way through the narrator's new-found feelings for others.

Oh, and did I mention that the setting is fabulous? It's all in East Germany but the girls don't really care about that because they're the wrong generation. And there are folk tales and ghost stories and natural phenomena and skinnydipping lakes and moss growing on everything and acidheads and weirdos and lovely made-up place names. 

I'll try and encourage my daughter to read it. She'll probably ignore me. It has been compared to Wolfgang Herrndorf's runaway hit Tschick, so maybe translation rights will sell and English-speakers will get a chance to read it under the covers. I hope so. I think even the sense of humour would work.

Monday 7 September 2015

Monique Schwitter: Eins im Anderen

Here's a book that grew and grew on me. At first glance it seems to be built around a rather anodyne premise: twelve chapters detailing twelve loves in the narrator's life, all with the names of apostles. Which raises the question of whose companions they might be, that whole "bigger than Jesus" thing all over again. But why not?

Gradually, though, Eins im Anderen becomes more complex and tangled of its own accord, the story taking hold of the narrator and giving her something of a shaking. It opens with the narrator, a writer and mother of two small boys, googling her first boyfriend. Now who hasn't done that? Mine is now in Canada, it seems; our narrator's killed himself four years previously. What starts out as an introspective project – always well written, giving us miniature stories to enjoy – gradually shifts to include the wider world. The narrator's husband, previously skulking in the background of the framework narrative, working late shifts and consulting his telephone obsessively as husbands do, butts in rather rudely before his turn to be described in the chronology of men. He's been doing something rather bad, you see, which comes as rather a surprise and upsets family life.

And from then on this ostensibly orderly list of love stories becomes a glorious mess, jumbled and chaotic and taking in other kinds of love – friendship, a kind of asexual cohabitation, an unsuitable infatuation, an affair strangely sanctioned by the man's wife, a fantasy – and our picture of the perfect mother is skewed. Things – men – she'd left out of her official life story start coming out of the woodwork, jolted back to mind by events, making the narrator look less and less saintly. And the final chapter is a reckoning with betrayal, I can only assume, an angry shout at a man who left her, emerging as the narrator finishes off her book.

Schwitter uses only one gimmick in her novel – the conceit of the book being written as we read it. Imagine all the awful clever things she could have done: different styles for different men, different tenses or voices, I don't know what else. Instead, she gives us consistently good writing as her character loses her consistency. There was one particular moment that made me smile, when the narrator reads the novel's first chapter at an event, about a third of the way in. It turns out to be a bad choice of text:
Because audiences tend to confuse a first-person narrator with the author, a tendency that grows when the author reads the first-person text aloud. (...) Possibly, my introverted, unhappy reading turns the audience's tendency to confuse the narrator with the author into a certainty that one, precisely one and only one person is standing here before them: the narrator. An woman unlucky in love. The whole reading a single drawn-out cry for love, a call for help to the men in the audience.
Isn't that great? So meta.

The book is longlisted for the German Book Prize but I don't know whether the Anglophone rule of thumb about literary prizes going to books about men will apply in this case. A very quick review of previous winners suggests the most popular focus is actually families rather than men or women on their own. That would work in Schwitter's favour – because ultimately, this is a novel about a family in which the mother has a past. Well worth reading.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Hotlist Hotlist 2015

God, lists make for such easy blogging. The "Hotlist" is a top ten of outstanding books produced by independent publishers in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Although there is a prize in the end, awarded at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the money goes to the publisher rather than the writer and/or translator. So it's about raising the profile of these books and rewarding excellence under difficult publishing conditions. Anyway, today they released the, erm, Hotlist. Here are some links and brief descriptions of this rather diverse list.

Merle Kröger: Havarie, Argument Verlag
A dinghy full of migrants, a container freighter and a cruise ship meet in the Mediterranean – a crime novel on the edge of Fortress Europe by an award-winning writer

Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki: Tumor linguae, Edition Korrespondenzen 
Bilingual edition of selected works by a cult poet, translated from Polish by Michael Zgodzay and Uljana Wolf 

Rauni Magga Lukkari / Inger-Mari Aikio-Arianaick: Erbmütter - Welttöchter, Eichenspinner Verlag
Two women Sami poets from different generations, in German translation by Christine Schlosser, in a really good-looking edition
Arno Camenisch: Die Kur, Engeler Verlag
Novel about an elderly couple in 47 "images", whatever that may mean, by a Swiss writer who this time writes in German, I think

Dinaw Mengestu: Unsere Namen, Kein & Aber Verlag
American novel set in the Midwest and Uganda, translated by Verena Kilchling

Monika Rinck: Risiko und Idiotie, kookbooks
Essay collection by a poet, on risk and idiocy and what comes after poetry – apparently revealing and hilarious

Sifiso Mzobe: Young Blood, Peter Hammer Verlag
South African novel about a teenage car thief, translated by Stephanie von Harrach

Heike Geißler: Saisonarbeit, Spector Books
I love this book and I feel no shame at declaring it my absolute favourite. Musings on the general crapness of paid labour, triggered by a seasonal job at the Leipzig Amazon warehouse. You may have a chance to read some of it in English soon, I hope. 

Anke Stelling: Bodentiefe Fenster, Verbrecher Verlag
I'm not that keen but everyone else loves this novel about a Prenzlauer Berg mum losing her marbles. Also nominated for the German Book Prize.

Kai Weyand: Applaus für Bronikowski, Wallstein Verlag
Comic novel about an unambitious man who gets a job at a funeral parlour. Also nominated for the German Book Prize.