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.