Tuesday 12 September 2017

Selim Özdogan: Wo noch Licht brennt

Having been thinking a lot about cronyism among critics, I have to start this review with a full disclosure: Selim Özdogan is a friend of mine and has been for about ten years. The friendship evolved through the first book in what became this three-part series, Die Tochter des Schmieds, when I was a pretty much unpublished translator trying hard to get a foot in the door. Next came Heimstrasse 52 and now we have the final part, Wo noch Licht brennt. Together, the three novels tell the life story of Gül, who grows up in 1950s Turkey in the first volume, comes to Germany to work in book two, and in the new novel grows old between the two countries.

In my past reviews (linked above) I wrote a lot about what these novels mean in political terms: finally giving a literary voice to the women of the Gastarbeiter generation who propped up the West German economy, emphasizing individual stories rather than religion, painting a three-dimensional portrait of a family. All that is still true of Wo noch Licht brennt but I found myself reading it differently. By now, I feel so familiar with Gül that the last part of her life story felt like a warm and welcoming chat, catching up with a friend after a long gap. There would be tea, and with Gül involved probably pastries. The TV might be on in the background but we'd ignore it, or maybe we'd end up talking about soaps.

At the start of the novel, Gül returns to Germany after attempting to retire to Turkey, only to find that her husband has been having an affair while she was away. The Turkish husband having an affair with a German woman is a bit of a trope in stories about Gastarbeiter, I presume because it happened a lot in real life. There are other things in the novel that ring true because we've heard about them before: Gül's difficulties with the German language, her feeling that the Germans are cold, her daughters' and grandchildren's lives being very different to her own. And then there are surprising individual moments: her friendship with a young criminal, her observations of drug use around her, the family back home suddenly arguing, a memorable dieting episode. Gül's husband Fuat is still around to provide wry comments and comic relief, and her daughters lead their own lives with their own ups and downs. We get a potted history of Turkish-German media habits, from five-mark pieces saved for telephone boxes to multiple mobile phones, from the one Turkish programme on German TV to satellite dishes to Facebook.

And of course the story is told from Gül's perspective, although not in the first person. It's the tone, perhaps, that makes the novel feel so personal. Gül reflects on life a great deal; she's not an educated woman and the language is simple and sometimes verging on kitsch, but the ideas are not. We follow Gül's moral dilemmas and feel with her; she feels destined to suffer because she lost her mother at a young age and became a kind of mother to her younger siblings. And she thinks about the nature of truth and how we all twist it. Özdogan uses a lot of sensual language and comparisons, and I was very pleased to find once again the repeated glimpses into the future that made the previous novels shine in terms of style. Like its predecessors, the book skips from one episode to the next, showing us small moments of tenderness, shock, pain and friendship. A life lived simply under complicated circumstances.

What Wo noch Licht brennt reminded me of, quite strongly at certain points, was Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. I hadn't read her work before the first two in the series, but I think they too fit the bill. Selim Özdogan tells the story of a woman's life in loving detail, revealing social changes as they affect her and showing us how she reacts to them. And he also draws us into that life, makes us almost part of the family, creates an addictive pull so that we have to find out what happens next to this woman, whose life is superficially unremarkable. I think this trilogy is a great achievement – as a fictional document of a group of people otherwise ignored by German writers, as a piece of fiction that calmly tells a gripping story, and as a warm and loving portrait of a strong woman, a great survivor.

I wish Anglophone readers will one day get an opportunity to read it. 

Wednesday 16 August 2017

German Book Prize Longlist: Some Musings

The list of twenty titles in the running for the German Book Prize was announced yesterday. In the past, I've shadowed the prize quite closely. It is, after all, the German-language equivalent to the Man Booker, with a large PR budget. The prize makes people sit up and notice books, and those people include editors at foreign publishing houses. The majority of the winning titles have since been published in English, most recently Lutz Seiler's amazing Kruso, translated by Tess Lewis. So it's important for my work.

But. Amit Chaudhuri has a piece in today's Guardian about why the Booker is bad for writers. The idea is not a new one: choosing a "book of the year" focuses attention on one book at the expense of others and there are some who suggest it encourages writers to produce a certain kind of book. Chaudhuri criticizes the Booker system and also those who criticize the judges' choices, saying they "ritually add to its allure". So here I am, about to join Chaudhuri in ritually adding to the German Book Prize's allure.

Allow me a quick caveat before I begin: having done my own "jury service" for the International DUBLIN Literary Award, I understand that choices are made within a complex dynamic, partly due to time pressure. I'm not in favour of imposing quotas on longlists or shortlists, but I do think judges should be aware of the messages they send with their lists. I was proud of our Dublin shortlist; it was beautifully international, covered a wide range of styles and subjects, and the gender ratio mirrored that of the nominations. Yes, I counted – after the fact.

Let me move on to the German Book Prize longlist now. The award website offers brief descriptions of the nominated books, which is good because I've only read part of one of them; eight of them aren't published until next month. There is, however, a definite theme: men (writers, professors, occasionally more down-to-earth characters) who have reached a crossroads in their lives. A writer friend and I picked apart the list yesterday, lying on towels at the outside pool. We ended up doubled over with laughter... We counted nine of these beauties. Admittedly, neither of us has read any of them, and we suspected a couple of them might be playing with the trope in an amusing way. But nine out of twenty books being riffs on a similar theme still seems... a little samey.

What I've decided, then, is to look only at the novels on the list that interest me. It's my party over here and I get to make the guest list. I am flat out nonplussed by books about white men over forty breaking out of the mould to make life-changing decisions. But there are a few books I definitely do like the look of.

In alphabetical order, with links to information in English where available (and German where not):

Franzobel: Das Floss der Medusawhat happened on board the raft of the Medusa, as depicted in Géricault's 1819 painting? Could be an examination of racism, human nature, survival instincts...

Jakob Nolte: Schreckliche Gewalten – werwolves, feminist terrorism, 20th century: "a black rainbow of horror". What's not to be very curious about?

Kerstin Preiwuß: Nach Onkalo – almost falling into the dull trope, but this one's about a forty-year-old man left stranded when his mother dies and how he finds ways to survive.

Sven Regener: Wiener Strasse – this is the one all my non-literary friends are looking forward to. I'm hoping it will stand alone because it's part of a whole series of books revolving around Frank Lehmann, a hapless charmer of a character who stumbles through life in West Germany, this time in 1980s Kreuzberg. I translated a sample and loved every minute of it. The first sentence is eight words long; the next two and a half pages. And it's funny. I am biased but I'd like a UK publisher to pick it up, even though Berlin Blues didn't make much of a splash in 2004. Times have changed, UK publishers!

Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Außer sich – English world rights have already sold to Text Publishing, so you'll get to read this at some point. I know I'm looking forward to it hugely. Antisemitism, Soviet Union, migration, family history, gender identity. By a writer whose plays and whose work at the Gorki Theater I really admire. A shining star on this list.

Christine Wunnicke: Katie – how could I resist a book inadvertently named after me and set in 1870s London? Except I've had it on my shelves since the spring and haven't got round to it. I will now, and I suppose that's part of the point of the prize.

Well, would you look at that? The love german books shortlist of six is gender balanced, all by itself. The German Book Prize longlist is not – but take a look at publishers' catalogues for an instant idea of why. They bring out significantly more men than women on their German literary fiction lists, and that's reflected in all award longlists. Thankfully, women and men have started to question conditions in the bottleneck of creative writing schools. You can read their texts on the Merkur Blog, and some of them are horrifying.
My hope is that this feeder, the programmes that take in a majority of female students and turn out a majority of male debut novelists, will change. And that editors at German houses will pay a little more attention to who they're publishing, perhaps shift the focus from the late works of accomplished white men to more innovative people and projects.

To some extent, it's a coincidence that the German Book Prize longlist was announced on the same day as President Trump applied the term "very fine people" to white supremacists. In other ways, it's not. The German Book Prize reflects the state of German literary publishing, which reflects the German-speaking countries as a whole. Some exciting things are happening, some progressive ideas are coming to the fore, but all in a culture in which the middle-aged, middle-class white male experience is considered the norm and worthy of more attention.   

In his Guardian article, Chaudhuri writes:
I’m not saying that the Booker shouldn’t exist. I’m saying that it requires an alternative, and the alternative isn’t another prize. It has to do instead with writers reclaiming agency. The meaning of a writer’s work must be created, and argued for, by writers themselves, and not by some extraneous source of endorsement (...). (A)s in other walks of life under capitalism, there has been a loss of initiative among writers: a readiness to let others decide why their work is significant while they busy themselves at literary festivals (...). Only rarely is silence a useful riposte.
I think that's a good conclusion, and I take from it the following tentative plan: as time and life allow, I'm going to follow the novels on the longlist that interest me, and also draw attention to other exciting German books coming out this autumn. I agree that a prize nomination is not the only measure of excellence we have, and nor are sales figures or numbers of reviews or many of the factors editors consider when commissioning translations. Defining excellence, meanwhile, is an impossible task, just like translation. The kind I relish most.

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Käthe Kruse: Lob des Imperfekts

Käthe Kruse has a book out, Lob des Imperfekts. Kunst, Musik und Wohnen im West-Berlin der 1980er Jahre. It's an ebook, actually, about music, art and squatting back in the day. Fittingly, it is not neat and tidy, not professional as we may have come to expect.*

Kruse was the drummer in the band Die Tödliche Doris. Wikipedia says the article I've linked to here relies too much on references to primary sources. What other sources would you want to rely on, I wonder? The band was part of the Geniale Dilletanten movement. They spelled it like that on purpose, unlike the Wikipedia article, where someone "corrected" the spelling in 2012 and it has stayed that way. Which has its own charm, I suppose. The idea, as I understand from Kruse's book, was to just get on and do things, make music and art and books with enthusiasm, ingenuity, rather than years of practice. Dilletantism like the herb and your favourite auntie. You're never going to achieve perfection, so why try? Kind of like art-school punk, to use an Anglophone comparison, only less angry, less a reaction to what came before, and more a simple creative urge? Maybe. I'm not an expert.

And that was kind of the point. Kruse writes of the movement:
Perfection can't be expected. Most of us couldn't play any instruments or couldn't repeat what we'd played once before. And that's where the basic premise of the Geniale Dilletanten comes to the fore: that anyone can make music who has ideas and energy (...). In any case, the Geniale Dilletanten stopped leaving the things they cared about to the experts, the self-appointed or otherwise responsible, and took charge of them in person.
So it's not exactly easy listening. My mum used to have an Einstürzende Neubauten CD and she'd play it really loud and hoover at the same when the downstairs neighbours had pissed her off.

But it was a thing, you know? You can hear their influence still now in some bands. Kruse writes about the music scene in 80s West Berlin, where everyone's surname seems to have been Müller and everyone worked in either a bar or a record store, and people ran shops that never sold anything, and it seems like an island where money wasn't necessary and they could make art out of embroidered cushions and get ripped off by a gallery owner and then get their revenge by mass-producing the cushions and selling them for much cheaper, and they'd get invited to art things all over the Western world and do a show or make a video and send that and it would be funny and fun and everything was an experiment and no one got up early in the morning.

And just as that might be getting a bit samey, with some other dude called Müller doing some other artsy thing, the book switches from music and art to something more tangible: how these people actually lived. This is the longest piece of the three that make up the book, followed by a more straight-forward interview with Käthe Kruse. Like the other two articles, it's been used before but is very recent, published in an architecture magazine. Because putting together old things to make new things is good. So Kruse writes – in an almost conversational style – about how she joined one of West Berlin's 164 squats in 1982 and how the squatters lived and worked and went about saving buildings that were slated for demolition, and with them whole swathes of Kreuzberg and Schöneberg.

The experiments extended beyond art, then, to the way people lived. In her building, they started out with forty people sharing space in which to cook, eat and sleep, allocating tasks like washing up, cooking, scavenging building material, repairs, construction. What began as a temporary solution to a lack of affordable living space became more permanent, with band practice rooms and then whole water processing and energy production plants set up in the basement, and smaller, more private spaces coming about as and when needed.

One of the reasons I was so fascinated is that I've known people over the years who have lived in these houses, and seen some of the conflicts that arose there, from a distance. But Kruse details how they were dealt with – new people moving in and bringing bursts of energy, employing a janitor to make sure someone's responsible for certain jobs, making sure the smaller living units are shared by people who get on well. About half of West Berlin's squats have since been legalized, and Kruse takes us through that process as well, and the compromises it entailed. But basically, the squats created the economic conditions for those who lived in them to lead those laid-back lives, experimenting with instruments and making new things. I'm glad the two aspects come together in one short book.

So here's the thing I've been thinking. What if some of us bloggers are our own breed of ingenious dilletants? Doing things our own way out of enthusiasm, writing differently to paid critics, the experts in our case, less for the fame than for the fun, having come across a space in which we can experiment. Sure, some literary bloggers go on to write professionally, and good for them. But at a time when monetizing is almost expected of us, maybe it's cool to just make something new for the love of it and not for the cash.

*The book is professionally produced, of course, by Mikrotext, with photos and all the features you'd expect from an ebook, plus samples from their other stuff. And there'll be a book launch somewhere in Kreuzberg, at some date in September, which is again nicely dilletantish.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Gedanken übers Außenseitersein und Sexismus

Sabine Scholl schrieb neulich so gut darüber, wie es sich anfühlt, im Literaturbetrieb Außenseiterin zu sein. Ich möchte darauf antworten, meine eigene Geschichte erzählen, auch mit den vielen guten Texten über Sexismus an Schreibschulen im Hinterkopf, besonders die von Martina Hefter und Stefan Mesch. Letzte Woche kam eine Anfrage von einer Zeitung, ein paar Zeilen zum Thema Sexismus im Literaturbetrieb zu schicken. Ich konnte nicht, weil ich mitten in einem Umzug steckte – aber auch weil ich dachte, ein paar Zeilen zu meinen Erfahrungen reichen nicht aus, die Sache ist komplizierter.

Für mein Gefühl bin ich mehrfache Außenseiterin im deutschen Literaturbetrieb. Ich bin nicht in Deutschland aufgewachsen, deutsch ist nicht meine Muttersprache. Ich bin Übersetzerin und keine Autorin oder Kritikerin. Ich bin atheistisch erzogen, in der dritten Generation. Ich bin Mutter, halbzeit-alleinerziehend, auch das in der dritten Generation. Ich habe Freunde, die keine Bücher lesen. Ich bin nicht verheiratet, war es nie, und habe gerade keinen Partner. Was ich auch nicht habe, um an Sabine Scholl anzuknüpfen, ist einen Bildungsbürgerhintergrund.

Ich komme aus London. Dort reden wir noch über Klasse, manchmal vereinfachend; dabei ist das Thema gar nicht so geradlinig. Meine Eltern sind typische Aufsteiger, haben die Klasse gewechselt als die Gesellschaft in den 60ern durchlässiger wurde. Die Mutter bekam mit elf ein Stipendium für begabte Arbeiterkinder, besuchte eine Internatsschule, fühlte sich sieben Jahre lang fehl am Platz. Zu Hause arbeitete ihr Vater als Lastwagenfahrer und die Mutter als Dienstmädchen und Putzfrau. Mit ihrer guten Schulbildung ausgestattet, fing meine Mutter ein Studium an – hörte aber schnell wieder auf, weil sie meinen Vater vermisste. Er hatte die Schule mit sechzehn abgebrochen, landete nach einer Weile dank Vollbeschäftigung auf den Füßen und lernte Tontechniker bei der BBC. Seine Mutter hatte ihre drei Söhne alleine aufgezogen, war Stenotypistin bei der Post, während ihr Exmann in Fabriken arbeitete und in der kommunistischen Partei aktiv war.

So waren meine Eltern nirgendwo ganz zugehörig. Seine Arbeit und ihre Bildung trennten sie von der Arbeiterklasse ab, schenkten ihnen aber nur oberflächliche, prekäre Bürgerlichkeit. Sie kauften sich ein Reihenhaus, lasen sich Wissen an, mein Vater brachte sich selbst Klavierspielen bei, meine Mutter machte Verwaltungsjobs und consciousness-building und studierte dann doch mit vierzig Sozialwissenschaften, nachdem die beiden sich getrennt hatten. Meine Schwester und ich wuchsen mit Büchern auf, aber auch mit Popmusik und Fernsehen. Wir machten Amateurtheater, Pantomimes in der Mehrzweckhalle, fuhren als Scheidungskinder nicht mehr ins Ausland in den Urlaub sondern immer in verregnete englische Kleinstädte. Wir hatten verschiedene Untermieterinnen, wie die Großeltern schon ihr Einkommen aufgebessert hatten. Alles war gut, das Geld reichte meist knapp.

Und dann waren wir dran: meine Schwester und ich studierten beide. Meine Mutter hatte gerade rechtzeitig verhindert, dass wir die ersten Familienmitglieder an der Uni waren. Meine Schwester wurde nicht fertig, ich schon. Sie arbeitet jetzt mit älteren Menschen als eine Art ungelernte Sozialarbeiterin, ist auch alleinerziehend, hat eine Behinderung und kommt damit klar. Alles ist gut, das Geld reicht meist knapp. Bei mir sieht’s ähnlich aus, nur dass ich meine Arbeit liebe und keinen Anspruch auf eine Sozialwohnung habe. Den Bachelorabschluss eingesackt, bin ich bloß schnell weg von der Uni, von England, ab nach Berlin. Ich zog mit einem Gartenbaulehrling zusammen, er hatte eine Einraumwohnung in Friedrichshain, mit Ofenheizung aber immerhin mit eigenem Badezimmer. Nachdem wir uns trennten fiel er durch die Gesellenprüfung durch.

Nach weiteren lebensbereichernden Brüchen begab ich mich nichtsahnend in deutsche Literaturkreisen. Ich finde es hier schwer, Klassenhintergründe einzuschätzen; ich kann die Zeichen immer noch schlecht lesen und die Deutschen reden auch nicht freiwillig darüber. Florian Kessler hatte aber vermutlich recht mit seiner Ärztesöhne-Theorie. Was ich gemerkt habe: man kennt sich mit klassischer Musik aus aber hört textbetonten Indie-Pop. Man trägt keine knalligen Farben. Männer machen Witze, Frauen lachen – aber nicht zu laut. Man reist viel und versteht was von Wein aber trinkt selten über den Durst. Man flirtet nicht, höchstens sehr subtil und am späteren Abend. Oder vielleicht steht man nur nicht auf mich, keine Ahnung. Jedenfalls mache ich einiges falsch und fühle mich oft fremd in der Szene, manchmal wie eine teilnehmende Beobachterin.

Und doch finde ich immer wieder Räume, in denen ich mich wohlfühle. Manchmal sind sie vorübergehend: Buchmessen, der ehemalige Salon von Adler und Söhne, bestimmte Lesungsreihen. Oft liegt es an den Gastgebern, die sich wie zum Beispiel im LCB darum bemühen, dass alle sich wohlfühlen. Das sind Orte, wo ich im pinken Kleid zu roten Schuhen tanzen und Witze reißen kann, wo ich betrunken die letzte Bahn verpassen kann und jemand nimmt mich im Taxi mit, wo ich zu viel von mir erzählen kann, immer schön in der verpönten ersten Person, wo es auch mal knallen darf. Manchmal erschaffe ich diese Räume selbst, in der Form eines Blogs oder einer Veranstaltung. Ich will weiterhin einiges falsch machen.

Und es gibt Leute, viele davon Frauen, die auch keine glatten Lebensläufe haben und die sich gegenseitig unterstützen. Ich erhalte von vielen Frauen im Literaturbetrieb Hilfe und Zuspruch: es sind andere Mütter, Alleinerziehende, Feministinnen, Ausländerinnen, Übersetzerinnen, andere lautlachende, spaßverstehende, talentierte Fettnäpfchentretende. Diese Frauen und Männer sind es, die mich in diesem komischen Betrieb bei der Stange halten. I hope you know who you are.

Denn ja, der deutsche Literaturbetrieb ist immer noch von bürgerlichen weißen Männern dominiert. Es reicht also schon, eine Frau zu sein, um sich hier als Außenseiterin zu empfinden. Der Betrieb ist immer noch ein Ort, wo Frauen nach ihrem Aussehen verurteilt werden und sich vielleicht deswegen selten trauen, Körperlichkeit in ihrem Schreiben zuzulassen. Wo sie sich auch selten trauen, Wut zu zeigen, radikal zu denken, reden und schreiben. Deswegen freue ich mich so sehr, dass ehemalige und jetzige Schreibschulstudierende über die Bedingungen dort klagen. Ich glaube, ich bin nicht die Richtige, um über Sexismus-Erfahrungen im Betrieb zu erzählen, denn ich stecke wie gesagt nicht richtig drin und möchte es auch nicht unbedingt. Ich bin nicht vom Wohlwollen der bürgerlichen weißen Männern abhängig, jedenfalls nicht der deutschen.

Aber ich beobachte vom Rande und wünsche mir, dass Frauen es leichter haben, erfolgreiche Schriftstellerinnen zu werden, damit ich ihre Bücher übersetzen kann. Bücher von Menschen ohne glatten Lebensläufe, wie einige der Autorinnen, die ich übersetzt habe und übersetzen werde: Inka Parei, Annett Gröschner, Christa Wolf, Helene Hegemann, Rusalka Reh, Olga Grjasnowa, Heike Geißler. Und denkt noch an diese anderen geilen Schreibbräute: Katja Lange-Müller, Herta Müller, Julia Franck, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Judith Hermann, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Antje Rávic Strubel... Ich wünsche mir mehr, noch mehr, ich möchte baden in Büchern von unangepassten Autorinnen.

Passt euch meinetwegen bloß nicht an. Schreibt nicht brav, schreibt mit Pathos oder Wut oder Witz oder Experimentierlust. Macht dasselbe im Leben. Helft euch gegenseitig, heißt andere Frauen willkommen. Seid eure eigene Seilschaft. Macht das Außenseitersein zur Tugend, erklärt euren Literaturbetrieb zur Außenseiterinnenrepublik. Seid geschmacklos und verhaltet euch falsch.

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Very Busy

I have been very busy, translating and parenting as usual but also judging the International Dublin Literary Award. That means reading 147 novels published in English during 2015, translations and original English writing nominated by libraries all over the world. I bought a special armchair for the purpose. It has been thrilling, enlightening and fascinating but time-consuming and of course I haven't been able to read many German books.

The two I've squeezed in and liked very much are Olga Grjasnowa's forthcoming Gott ist nicht schüchtern and Fatma Aydemir's Ellbogen, both novels.

I'll also try and update my statistics on newly published original German fiction by gender to cover this spring. I'd hoped that someone else might start working on stats in German publishing but nobody seems to have gone for it so far.

And I just read Ekkehard Knörer's rather delightful nostalgic sigh of an essay about early German blogs. In that spirit, a personal revelation of sorts: I've been thinking quite hard about book reviewing, about whether I could do my bit to tip the scales in terms of women writing criticism and reviews in German publications. Two hurdles, though: it takes me a long time to write in German and I have no wish to pretend to be an all-knowing general authority without a personality. I wrote a slightly po-faced personal "manifesto" about how I would like to write reviews for German publications; maybe I'll put that here too.

Still thinking.