Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Heike Geißler: Saisonarbeit

I'm not sure but when I look Heike Geißler up on the internet I think I recognize her face. I certainly recognize her concerns, or the concerns she presents in her book Saisonarbeit. Heike Geißler is a writer and a translator and lives in Leipzig and has two children, and she also spent a short time working in the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig on a short-term contract.

Saisonarbeit is not, however, merely a long version of those "journalist gets a job at the Amazon warehouse" articles we all read with such ghoulish enthusiasm, Günter Wallraff-style undercover revelations for which the writer pretends to need a manual job and then finds it horrifying. If I were to classify it (and I'm reluctant to do so), I'd call Geißler's book an extended personal and literary essay on the shitty nature of labour itself under the present system, using the Amazon warehouse as an admittedly eye-catching example.

It is by no means an easy read. Heike Geißler grabs her readers by the shoulders and pulls us into the book, addressing us in the formal second-person form as Sie (a form of address that Amazon, incidentally, does not grant the employees in its German warehouses, where everyone is called the familiar du although the legend of "flat hierarchies", as Geißler shows us, is little more than bullshit). Geißler the narrator commands us, the readers, to be Geißler the Amazon warehouse employee for the duration of the temporary contract, or the book, whichever lasts longer. The book lasts longer. We are placed under a double constraint, forced as it were to take on the job that Heike Geißler applied for and forced to read about how the employer treats us, or her, and how it makes us, and her, feel. Except we can stop reading whenever we want to; I didn't want to.

And so we try out for the job, with a mixture of reluctance and misplaced pride in our small achievements, because we need the money. And we get the job and we hate almost everything about it – the early starts, the malfunctioning door that lets in the cold right by our workplace, the bogus pre-shift pep talks, the petty rules, but also and especially the nasty dynamics between the employees, the way people pick on each other and on us almost like in the school playground. And perhaps we remember our own shitty jobs, where we too took pride in fielding the most phone calls or stacking the most shelves for a while, or we think of people we've met who talk about "our team reaching its targets" and mean, if they were to think about it, a randomly configured group of employees reaching the employer's targets.

What happens? We manage for a while. We learn the terminology, the strange verbs and nouns and the way the employees communicate and function; we fall sick and get a few days off, we learn how to work the system, we start identifying, we stop identifying, we start objecting, we start dragging our heels and we have a sudden realization. Just like we can as readers, Geißler seems to be telling us, as employees we can stop whenever we want. I know – and she knows – that it's not always that simple, and she shows us people who don't feel that way, for objective reasons. As such, the book does have something in common, structurally, with those undercover journalism pieces, because the author does have another way of earning a living. But because she needs the job to begin with, at least, she never places herself above the other employees or pities them more than she pities herself. And that's what makes it work so well, for me.

The idea that some people having to work for others is a shitty thing is not a new idea, you'll notice, and Geißler knows that too, referring us to Paul Lafargue and a number of more recent theorists and writers (there is a bibliography at the back). But by making Saisonarbeit a work of art, something created to provoke emotions as well as to transmit information and ideas, she gives us a pair of scissors to cut our own door into the subject. There are things in here that made me almost crow with delight – when our narrator sends us to work in her place and goes on a trip to Munich instead or the way she, or we, takes strange comfort in processing books into the system rather than toys or tools. And there are others that made me fume, or sigh, or identify. This is an intelligent and challenging book that is rightly gaining a lot of attention. I'd love to translate it.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bettina Suleiman: Auswilderung

I've noticed a number of novels that look at human-animal interactions recently: Lukas Bärfuss's Koala (which I have yet to read), Ulrike Draesner's outstanding Sieben Sprünge vom Rand der Welt – and Bettina Suleiman's debut Auswilderung, which takes the relationship between a human woman and a gorilla man as its main focus. Or should I say a female human and a male gorilla? We have different ways of talking about people and animals, because we classify ourselves as different. Or we have done throughout history. So the question of whether gorillas, for example, ought to have something akin to human rights is an interesting and productive one.

Auswilderung is narrated by Marina, an academic specialized in sign language. She tells the story – not in linear form; that would be far less interesting – of various research projects she's been involved with in Leipzig, essentially investigating whether gorillas can live as humans and whether they have personalities that would entitle them to rights. One particular subject, as the animals are called by the researchers, is Yeh-teh, the male I mentioned above. Marina's first job is to communicate with the subjects during tests designed to measure the limits of their intelligence. The gorillas have grown up in human "families" in an enclosed village, wearing tailor-made clothes and shoes and sleeping in their own bedrooms. Yeh-teh, Marina soon notices, is very ambitious, more interested in solving the tasks he is set than in the potential rewards.

In a key scene, Yeh-teh is asked that patronizing question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Marina translates her boss's joking suggestion that he could be a "gorilla", a bodyguard, with "guardian angel". Yes, says Yeh-teh, that's what he wants. He wants to protect her.

Not all of the novel is about their relationship; there is a lot about the conditions of working in academia, too. The silly abbreviations, the almost random distribution of funding, the hierarchies and semi-voluntary sacrifice of private lives. The first study is abandoned and the next project is to return the gorillas to the wild. Not such an easy task, it turns out. So after several years, Marina is brought back on board to persuade Yeh-teh that moving to an island with a bunch of female gorillas he doesn't much like is a good idea. She manages, using lies and manipulation on both sides – by this point, none of the other humans involved in the project can understand what she and Yeh-teh sign, and the gorillas don't understand spoken language. Marina and a small team move to the island to get the subjects settled in.

The plot is great; edge-of-the-seat stuff at times, and things come to a head on the island. But the two things I find most exciting about Auswilderung are not the storyline, which might well be a vehicle to explore them. The first is the character, Marina, one of those people who has trouble with other human beings and works things out using theory and self-help books, and the second is the ideas the novel explores. I found myself aggravated by and sympathizing with Marina by turn, a tricky thing for a writer to achieve. And although I know little about animals in general or gorillas in particular, Suleiman's depiction of Yeh-teh proves – within its fictional universe at least – that he does indeed have a personality, and on a different level that a writer can create an animal character as believable to me as a human one. The act of creating an animal character (and I don't mean feline detectives or the like) is a statement in itself.

This is an unusual novel, one that is still raising questions in my mind as I write this. It has a lot of amusing moments and even more shocking scenes; the most memorable for me being the night when soldier-like figures round up the gorillas in the village, seen from Marina's perspective as she follows the action on screen, interpreting from a safe distance. Amazing tension and just plain clever structure and writing. Suleiman does us the favour of leaving her questions open but allowing her narrator to develop and find some answers of her own. I want my friends to read this book so we can talk about it afterwards. I think that's an excellent sign.  

Monday, 8 December 2014

no man's land #9

By the way, the ninth issue of our outstanding online magazine of contemporary German-language writing in English translation is now out there. no man's land #9 features fiction by Nina Jäckle, Anja Jardine, Angelika Klüssendorf, Ursula Krechel, Ralf Rothmann, Christian Schärf, Ronald M. Schernikau, Vladimir Vertlib and Feridun Zamoglu, and poetry by Marius Hulpe, Michael Krüger, Frederike Mayröcker, Peggy Neidel, Sabine Scho and Achim Wagner.

The Love German Books Incredibly Short Seasonal Poetry Book List

A commenter pointed out that I hadn't recommended anything for poetry lovers. I know next to nothing about poetry, but here is a tiny list of books of poetry translated from German to English and published in 2014:

Rainer Brambach: Collected Poems (trans. Esther Kinsky)

Volker Braun: Rubble Flora (trans. David Constantine and Karen Leeder)

Bertolt Brecht: Love Poems (trans. David Constantine and Tom Kuhn)

Ernst Meister: Wallless Space (trans. Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick)

Farhad Showghi: End of the City Map (trans. Rosemarie Waldrop)

During the summer I saw an amazing performance of some of the Brecht poems, and some of Margarete Steffin's poems to him. You can watch the video at Modern Poetry in Translation. I cried. In fact I was still rather sniffly for the following hour or so. They're good translations.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Love German Books Incredibly Long Seasonal Gift List

Yes, folks, it is once again time to shower your English-speaking friends and relatives with books translated out of German. You know they love you for it. To help you find the goodies, I have trawled the internet for suitable gifts. Think of me as a German book elf. All the books below were published in 2014. Links are to publishers' websites. I haven't read all of the titles personally, but neither have I included anything I think is likely to be crap. Incredibly, there are over thirty to choose from! You're welcome.

For artistic types or blackmailers: Herta Müller – Cristina and Her Double (trans. Geoffrey Mulligan)

For the whimsical: Jenny Erpenbeck – The End of Days (trans. Susan Bernofsky)

For diary writers: Walter Kempowski – Swansong 1945 (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

For starters-over: Julia Franck – West (trans. Anthea Bell)

For geniuses: Clemens J. Setz – Indigo (trans. Ross Benjamin)

For misshapen acolytes: Alina Bronsky – Just Call Me Superhero (trans. Tim Mohr)

For bird-lovers: Marjana Gaponenko – Who Is Martha? (trans. Arabella Spencer)

For the highly-educated: Joachim Fest – Not I (trans. Martin Chalmers)

For refusers-to-be-categorized: Olga Grjasnowa – All Russians Love Birch Trees (trans. Eva Bacon)

For ambulance-chasers: Wolf Haas – Come, Sweet Death! (trans. Annie Janusch)

For non-scaredy-cats: Zoran Drvenkar – You (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

For historical questioners: Malte Herwig – Post-War Lies. Germany and Hitler's Long Shadow (trans. Jamie Lee Searle and Shaun Whiteside)

For historical re-assessors: Bettina Stangneth – Eichmann Before Jerusalem (trans. Ruth Martin)

For the altruistic: Stefan Klein – Survival of the Nicest (trans. David Dollenmayer)

For adventurous teens and adults: Wolfgang Herrndorf – Why We Took the Car (trans. Tim Mohr)

For Susan fans and foes: Daniel Schreiber – Susan Sontag (trans. David Dollenmayer)

For those who don't mind laughing at Hitler: Timur Vermes – Look Who's Back (trans. Jamie Bulloch)

For dopeheads and beat fans: Jörg Fauser – Raw Material (trans. Jamie Bulloch)

For nasally sensitive e-readers: Andreas Maier – The Room (trans. Jamie Lee Searle)

For Depeche Mode fans: Dennis Burmeister & Sascha Lange – Depeche Mode: Monument (trans. Lucy Renner-Jones)

For the lost-for-words: Mario Giordano – 1000 Feelings for Which There Are No Names (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole)

For hoarders of dark secrets: Alois Hotschnig – Ludwig's Room (trans. Tess Lewis)

For fifties fans: Ingeborg Bachmann – The Radio Family (trans. Mike Mitchell)

For the young at heart: Christa Wolf – August (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For Sebald fans: Alexander Kluge – Air Raid (trans. Martin Chalmers)

For open-minded satirists: Herbert Rosendorfer – Letters Back to Ancient China (trans. Mike Mitchell)

For city bankers: Jonas Lüscher – Barbarian Spring (trans. Peter Lewis)

For America fans: Alex Capus – Skidoo (trans. John Brownjohn)

For brave kids: Otfried Preussler – Krabat and the Sorcerer's Mill (trans. Anthea Bell)

For Wes Anderson fans: Stefan Zweig – The Society of Crossed Keys (trans. Anthea Bell)

For young twins: Erich Kästner – The Parent Trap (trans. Anthea Bell)

For Finnish crime lovers: Jan Costin Wagner – Light in a Dark House (trans. Anthea Bell)

For boxing (and graphic novel) fans: Reinhard Kleist – The Boxer (trans. Michael Waaler)

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

No man's land Launch!!!!

We're launching the ninth issue of no man's land, the magazine featuring first-ever translations of fiction and poetry by some of the finest writers working in German today. This Friday! In Berlin!

This time we have some astoundingly good prose (I know because I helped to choose it) and some astoundingly good poetry (although I have nothing to do with that side of things). Please come and join us to celebrate the general astounding quality of German-language literature in excellent translation.

no man's land # 9
Launch Reading
December 5, 8:30 p.m.

Saint Georges Bookshop
Wörther Str. 27
Berlin - Prenzlauer Berg

German poet Sabine Scho with her translator, Bradley Schimidt
Vladimir Vertlib with his translator, David Burnett
Donna Stonecipher reading her translations of Frederike Mayröcker's poems
Joseph Given reading his translations of Michael Krüger's poems
Steph Morris reading his translation from Feridun Zaimoglu's novel "Artist for Rent"
Lucy Renner Jones reading her translation from Ronald Schernikau's "Small-Town Novella"

Monday, 1 December 2014

On Improving

My friend Michele Hutchison translates from Dutch to English and has written an excellent piece for English PEN about how experienced translators get better. If you haven't read it yet you should go and do so now, really. If you're a translator, at least.

There's a part two coming so I may be jumping the gun here, but there are two things I want to add from my point of view, having been an inexperienced translator not all that long ago (Michele talks to people with a lot more experience than me, though). The first is that practice makes you better. The mere act of having translated similar phrases or ideas before, having tackled similar challenges and found a passable solution, helps us to try again. This is something I say to people who ask about how to get into translation: practice! But the second thing is that practice alone isn't worth nearly as much as practice with feedback. Sometimes I find myself trying new things out, or indeed repeating old things, that I'm not sure work. Or sometimes I'm just unaware that something I'm doing in my translation only really works in my own mind and not for readers not as submerged in the text as I am. That's where feedback is painful but good. Because slipping into habits is possibly the downside of having experience and practice.

In Berlin and a couple of other cities, we have translation labs where people can get feedback. What I'd really recommend though is a more intensive workshop situation like those offered by the Vice Versa programme in Germany. It's the equivalent of taking a loofa to your translations – it smarts but they look much better afterwards. New Books in German now has a list of this and other opportunities for translators, incidentally.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Stephanie Bart: Deutscher Meister

I first came across Johann Rukelie Trollmann when translating the new exhibition at the German Resistance Memorial Center. He's a fascinating historical figure who stood up to the Nazis in his own way. Stephanie Bart's novel Deutscher Meister (her first with a major publisher) tells part of his story, wisely restricted to the time between March and July of 1933. 

The Nazis have come to power and are also asserting their presence in the sporting world, with boxing being made compulsory in schools. The story begins with the expulsion of all Jewish boxers, functionaries and managers from the boxing association, but Trollmann’s case is less clear-cut. Labelled “Gipsy” by the press, he comes from a Sinto family and has suffered discrimination in his career for years. At this point, however, Nazi ideologists have not yet decided whether to classify the Sinti as “Aryan” or not, and so Trollmann is reluctantly allowed to continue fighting. 

Using real-life characters in fiction is tricky – it can feel disrespectful when a writer assumes too much about what's going on inside their heads. Instead of focusing entirely on Trollmann, Bart also shows us a host of different characters around him, which I think dodges this dilemma rather cleverly. So as well as the individual story of how Trollmann was cheated out of the German Champion title in the light-heavyweight category and deliberately lost his last fight, we get a broader picture of Berlin in the summer after Hitler came to power. 

These characters are one of the novel's key strengths, for me. They come from all corners of society - boxing functionaries, SA brawlers, bakery sales girls, society gentlemen, workers and schoolgirls. And we see them either settling into life under the Nazis or beginning to suffer. We watch Berlin turning from an open, bohemian city to a place of danger for anyone who doesn't fit into the Nazis' bizarre understanding of how Germans ought to be. There's a lot of dialogue, making the most of the Berliners' sharp tongues but not using too much dialect – another thing that often backfires. And there's humour, which took me a while to pick up on but once it hit home I was chortling my way through until the laughter stuck in my throat, especially at the descriptions of historical events like the book-burning and the mass murders of Nazi opponents in Köpenick.
The other stand-out strength is the physical descriptions. It’s not easy to write about boxing without slowing the pace, but Bart uses all sorts of tricks to get around that problem. She varies sentence length, makes subtle use of metaphor (one round of boxing is compared to Trollmann playing a drum kit, for instance), sometimes dispenses with verbs to add speed, and generally shows a great deal of skill. So much so that I read the 100 pages devoted to the main fight in a single, breath-taking sitting. 

Although it may not be breaking any literary moulds, Deutscher Meister is an ambitious novel, and while I found I had to overcome a slow start I got hooked pretty quickly. I hope a British publisher will pick it up – New Books in German recommends! That would even reconcile me momentarily to the British obsession with the Nazis, because the book is less about Nazis as such and more about those whose lives they harmed, those who stood up to them in small ways. You can read a sample translation by Imogen Taylor at the NBG link just above here. I think you should.  

Monday, 24 November 2014

Hosts of Translated-from-German Books on Impac Longlist

The 142 books longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award include shit-loads of translations from German. To wit:

Julia Franck: Back to Back (tr. Anthea Bell)

Sabine Gruber: Roman Elegy (tr. Peter Lewis)

Daniela Krien: Someday We'll Tell Each Other Everything (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

Pedro Lenz: Naw Much of a Talker (tr. Donal McLaughlin)

Eugen Ruge: In Times of Fading Light (tr. Anthea Bell)

Simon Urban: Plan D (translated by me - thank you again, person at the zlb, for the patriotic nominations, ahem)

We all stand to win huge bags full of cash, although my money's on Eugen Ruge.

Translating the Untranslatable in Berlin

I love this idea and I'm looking forward to it immensely. Think of it as a reward for having stuck out a good chunk of the Berlin winter:

The "untranslatable" label is stuck on all sorts of things from puns and pop songs to poems in dialect and political polemic. In fact we translators disprove the concept every day. On 6 February 2015, Jake Schneider and Madame Zik will be hosting an evening of English translations of allegedly untranslatable German texts at the classy Villa Neukölln. This is where you come in. Each participant picks 5 minutes' worth of text (or another medium) that they would consider "untranslatable," and one of the others has to translate it anyway in the privacy of their own home, then present it onstage to an audience of friends and fellow translators. Cabaret act to follow. To participate, email Jake Schneider at jdschneider at gmail dot com. Deadline for signing up: December 20

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

BookSerf in Berlin

Oh my goodness, there's this amazing thing! BookSerf is a website out of Istanbul that connects people who want to lend and borrow books from each other. Go and look at it right now, because they're coming to Berlin - tomorrow! They're launching with an opening gala in Neukölln, which I'll probably try and go to after my event earlier on. Here's the Facebook event page for it. Go and look at that as well, please. You can just turn up and enjoy the live music and general partying with fellow book lovers, or you can choose eight non-German books you'd like to lend out to people for two weeks and take them along and photograph them and show them around. They say non-German books because they want people to buy German books. Isn't that adorable? So do I.

I'm definitely going to try and go along, although I don't think I can lug eight books from one event to another. Everybody come (after you come and watch me saying the F-word rather a lot at Schöneberg Town Hall with Deniz Utlu, obviously)!

See you there!

Don't forget!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

CrossKultur in Şöneberg

It'll be neither angry, angry, angry nor particularly crunchy, as the name might suggest – in fact, CrossKultur is an arts festival across cultures in Berlin's borough of Schöneberg (where I got German grammar drummed into me at the Hartnackschule). There's film, music, theatre, exhibitions, discussions, and all the stuff. Plus of course literature! That means readings by Emrah Serbes, Alina Bronsky – who you'll know from her English translations, no doubt, by Tim Mohr – and Urmila Goel.

And also me and Deniz Utlu, reading from his novel Die Ungehaltenen in German and English at Rathaus Schöneberg on Thursday. Exciting!

Alternative Top Ten

The usual bestseller lists in Germany are published by Der Spiegel and are often dominated by crime writing and translated (genre) fiction, which is not so much my bag. But look, I've found this alternative list compiled by the Berlin-Brandenburg station radioeins: die radioeins-Bücherliste. It comes out every Monday and consists of titles that sell well in bookshops around the region. This week it's topped by Sofi Oksanen and Robert Seethaler – two writers I approve of – and contains both fiction and non-fiction, including a diatribe against lazy teenagers translated from the Italian.

The Spiegel list is more accurate, compiled from electronic sales data from 500 bookshops around Germany as opposed to radioeins's vague "asking bookshops in Berlin, Potsdam, Cottbus, Frankfurt/Oder, Brandenburg and Rheinsberg". But the radioeins list is more personal, I suspect, reflecting what you might be advised if you asked a local bookseller for a tip. Sympatico.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Saving the ocelot

My favourite local bookshop has gone into insolvency. I've only written about the place once, which is odd because I go there a lot. It's an ambitious project – a smartly designed bricks-and-mortar store with an outstanding selection of titles, apparently excellent coffee, events, a blog, and an online store of its own. I'm talking about ocelot on Brunnenstraße, obviously. Owner Frithjof Klepp set out to make his shop stand out, and he bet big. That design didn't come cheap, and nor did the custom-made online shop. Unfortunately, it seems that extra costs for the website and unforeseen sickness pay blew the budget.

But this wouldn't be Berlin if insolvency were a genuine nail in the coffin of culture. Look at the Suhrkamp publishing house, which opened insolvency proceedings in May of last year and is still going strong. Even the city's new airport is bankrupt before the first plane has ever landed there. Unlike BER, Klepp does have a business plan. ocelot will continue trading and is looking for investors.

If you're in Berlin, the best way to support this excellent bookshop is to go in and buy books. This coming Saturday there are two special projects going on, though – this is a place with a lot of loyal fans. One plan is a flashmob: you can print out an ocelot mask and meet like-minded book-lovers across the road at 4 p.m. to descend on the shop and prowl around, before buying a book. If you're not the kind of person who likes to wear animal masks on public thoroughfares, you can also just turn up at any time on Saturday, get your picture taken and uploaded to this as-yet empty site in support of the place (and presumably buy a book). They explain it better on this Facebook event page.

If you're not in Berlin but you are in Germany and you like ordering books online, you can use their website to do so, with free delivery. And I believe they're planning to add international deliveries at some point – which would be an excellent way to get hold of German books when you live outside the German-speaking world, don't you agree?

It seems a little odd that so many people would rally around one particular bookshop when all of them have it tough. It feels like favouritism, in a way. But I have to say that ocelot is a very special bookshop and it would hurt if it had to close down. Maybe it's the enthusiasm the place radiates, the love it seems to give back. Pop in and buy a book, why don't you? Every little helps.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Swiss Book Prize to Lukas Bärfuss

They announced it on Sunday: The Swiss Book Prize for books written in German by Swiss people has gone to Lukas Bärfuss for Koala. As a friend pointed out, now I'm really going to have to read it. I was blown away by Bärfuss's previous novel, Hundert Tage, which is available in Tess Lewis's no doubt outstanding translation as One Hundred Days. The new one has now notched up three major prizes, plus nominations and shortlistings. It's about a writer guy whose brother commits suicide, and it's also about koalas and how humans interact with animals (a popular topos in German-language writing at the moment).

So I'll read it. I'll just squint when I catch sight of the author's photo, which doesn't make him look like a person you'd want to hang out with. But hey, I don't have to.

Bärfuss gets 30,000 Swiss Francs (about 20,000 pounds or 25,000 euros or 30,000 US dollars). The judges chose his novel because it "boldly links big subjects such as suicide, colonialism and performance ideology". I'll read it soon.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Open Mike Prize to Doris Anselm

The name Open Mike is a superb misnomer. This literary competition for unpublished under-35s writing in German involves no spontaneous performance whatsoever. Instead, eligible applicants submit prose and poetry anonymously to a panel of professional editors, who choose their 22 favourites. Then they all come together for a two-day reading extravaganza in Berlin, where three writers choose the winners. There's an audience prize but it's awarded by a secret committee of five average Joes (I was once one of them but I got all excited and told people in advance).

Life often gets in the way of me spending two full days in a row listening to readings, and this year I only saw a handful of the candidates in action. That might well be an advantage because it means I don't get jaded like the misery-puss at Die Zeit* seems to have done. Twenty-two texts is a lot and if you have a short turnover time to write about the experience, you probably need a hook of the "Where are all the authentic writers?" kind to overcome the inevitable brain-deadness afterwards. Complaining about professionalism in literary competitions, though, feels rather patronising to me.

So what happened? There were a good few writers in the pot from Germany's two creative writing schools. I saw one of them, with a text that spiralled around self-referentiality and was effective enough to make me feel bad about thoroughly enjoying the one that followed, which was about a young man who worked in a hospice. Not bad enough to think that latter one didn't genuinely deserve the audience prize it got, though, and to keep a close eye in future on its writer Gerasimos Bekas. Also, I was charmed by his son, who came and sat on his lap a couple of rows in front of me. You do get up close to the writers at the Open Mike, that's for sure. And I enjoyed Astrid Sozio's story too, scary stuff that took a sideways glance at poverty.

Then there was a break while the judges deliberated and then a couple of speeches, including Björn Kuhligk's American-style graduation address to the authors. Be Rilke or get a job, he told them, and keep writing, but make sure you write what you want to write and not what you think the market wants. Björn Kuhligk writes poetry and has a job as a bookseller. The judges gave €2000 each to Mareike Schneider and Robert Stripling for prose and poetry respectively, and then said the story they all loved the most was by Doris Anselm. And I read it later and I can see why: written in a mix of street-speak and museum language, it's a piece about kids who hang out in a shopping centre and where something is wrong that gave me a big long goose-pimple of "Woah, what's happening here?" And it gets the right balance, I think, doesn't read like a posh kid looking down her nose at the lumpen proletariat. Plus Anselm was so visibly elated to have won that I couldn't help liking her.

Those complaints about professionalism, I don't know. I find it awkward listening to unfinished texts read by people crippled with fear. The Open Mike's submission process is anonymous and the editors specifically stated that they enjoyed the opportunity to single out texts that weren't necessarily "marketable", unlike in their everyday work. Certainly, a whole novel in the style of Anselm's story would be hard to stomach - and I mean that in the most admiring way. The Open Mike is a discovery engine for the German-language publishing business, yes, but I don't think the people who enter and the people who win go on to produce palatable mush. They just present their work well, and what's wrong with that?

*I debated with myself and decided that misery-puss is gently pejorative but not sexist. Could be a grumpy tomcat.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Stephen Spender Prize to Iain Galbraith, Jan Wagner

The Stephen Spender Prize honours poetry translations, which anyone can submit with a brief commentary. There are three age categories, with this year's 14-and-under going to Alexia Sloane and the 18-and-under to Sam Norman. In the "open" category – for adults, in other words – this year's first prize has gone to my friend and teacher Iain Galbraith for a gorgeous rendering of Jan Wagner's poem Quittenpastete/Quince Jelly. Iain also has two poems in the "commended" section, another Wagner one and one by the Austrian poet Peter Waterhouse. German contemporary poetry did very well this year in general, with a Michael Krüger poem translated by Hans-Christian Oeser also commended. Plus one by Rilke, translated by last year's Schlegel-Tieck Prize winner Ian Crockatt.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I have problems with some German contemporary poetry. Read aloud, which is the main way I consume it, it often seems so cryptic to me – filtered through my language issues, perhaps – that I wonder what's the point of publishing it, if no one else in the world has the vaguest chance of understanding anything. The work of Jan Wagner (and indeed Peter Waterhouse and Michael Krüger) is different: when I hear it, or read it, I understand something of what it's about, to me at least. In fact with Wagner there's a lot of other stuff going on, playful trickery with metre and sound and authorship, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating it at first hearing, or first glance. And Iain's versions give a wonderful impression of that initial accessibility with complexity hiding underneath – the winning poem is written in Sapphic stanzas, for goodness' sake, but you still get a moment out of someone else's life and an appreciation of nature's bounty. Tangy. I assume that takes a very long time to get right.

I once stood very close to Jan Wagner at a crowded event – I don't know him personally – and admired his lovely skin. Next year Arc Publications will be publishing a collection of his poems in Iain Galbraith's translation, Self-portrait with a Swarm of Bees.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Martin Chalmers, 1948-2014

Martin Chalmers was buried today at the Alter Matthäus Cemetery in Berlin, in the same ground as the Brothers Grimm, the poet May Ayim, the musician Rio Reiser and many other Berliners ordinary and extraordinary in their own ways. It was his favourite cemetery. Martin's fellow translator and writer Iain Galbraith read Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" by the grave. 

I didn’t know Martin well but our paths crossed a few times here in Berlin, all of them memorable. The first was on a long evening of eating, drinking and talking with writers and translators at the Literary Colloquium, followed by a boozy train ride back into the city. It was a good way to meet someone I’d admired – anything but formal – and I remember him talking very knowledgably about Berlin history in a voice that was occasionally too quiet, and also about becoming a grandfather. The most recent occasion was in April of last year, when Martin had already been diagnosed with cancer but agreed to talk on a panel at a workshop for young translators. Although I cringe to ask people to do things for free, Martin was perfectly happy to pass on some of his experience and seemed to enjoy discovering an obscure corner of Neukölln; his bio states that he lived in Rixdorf, the old name for the borough or the lesser-known name of a very small part of it. That strikes me as typical of him – a winking eye for historical detail as expressed in words.

Martin was originally a historian but became a translator when he’d “run out of money”, as he said in an interview for New Books in German. He grew up in Glasgow; his mother was German and he spent a lot of time as a child with his German oma, who looked after him but had no English. At the funeral, his friend Robert Lumley said he’d gone to the pictures with her and whispered translations into her ear. I understand he recently found the place in East Prussia, now Poland, where she grew up. You can read some of Martin’s contemplative writing about his family, and other things, on his website.

Martin translated a whole swathe of German-language writers, mainly twentieth-century and contemporary, acting very much as a champion for them: Bertolt Brecht, Hubert Fichte, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Erich Fried, Herta Müller, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Joachim Fest, Sherko Fatah, Alexander Kluge, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard, Erich Hackl, and his partner Esther Kinsky. He was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck prize in 2004 for his translation of Viktor Klemperer’s I Shall Bear Witness – three volumes for which he also wrote the introductions. He taught at the British Centre for Literary Translation summer school; our mutual friend Stefan Tobler was one of his students, bitten by Martin’s bug several years before he set up And Other Stories

At the funeral, friends spoke of Martin Chalmers as a pacifist with a huge amount of empathy and a great walker, a man who loved exploring cities on foot and talking on the go. The Seagull Books publisher Naveen Kishore tells a story about Martin and Esther taking him on a very long walk in the Berlin snow; I think they ended up at the cemetery where he’s now buried. He loved music and poetry and the ceremony reflected that beautifully – anecdotes about punk gigs, a story of Martin’s after which we attempted to sing his favourite hymn, a song by the graveside, Brecht and Arnold and Johannes Bobrowski. I will miss his occasional kind emails correcting things I got wrong on my blog and proffering his own opinions, his dry sense of humour and his taste in German literature, which was different to mine. 

I will think of him, always an inspiring man, and I will try to be as good a translator and advocate as he was and as active a walker and a thinker.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Small Portions

Two things from Germany for lovers of things in small packages:

German publisher Voland & Quist has just launched an app that delivers A Story A Day, in German. You pay a monthly fee for thirty stories - with variable font size! I think it costs €3.59 for a month and I also think it would be ideal for people looking to brush up their German reading skills on their morning commute. The writers are initially people from the V&Q catalogues, so humorous stuff and Eastern Europeans: Kirsten Fuchs, Ahne, Marc-Uwe Kling, Volker Strübing, Jochen Schmidt, Julius Fischer, Edo Popovic, Olja Savicevic are the examples they give. When they've run out and the demand is there they'll explore new avenues, apparently.

If you'd prefer to read in English, there's a start-up round the corner from me called The Pigeonhole, which sells serialized books delivered to your device on a weekly basis, with an added conversation function including discussions with the author - unless it's Charles Dickens. They call this part "the coolest book club on the internet". Going by their "meet the team" page, the ideas behind the company are things like reacquainting people with the lost pleasures of reading, challenging traditional publishing models, reaching out to audiences, and "making reading and publishing more exciting". I find it exciting enough already, but there you go. This one costs 50p per, erm, stave, which I assume is a chapter. Again, this might be a useful way to brush up reading and digital conversation skills if English isn't your native language.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Teresa Präauer: Johnny und Jean

Imagine someone wrote a book in which they imagined they were a boy from the countryside who went to the second-biggest city to study art. And imagine that imagined boy met another boy there who he’d known in the countryside but who’d reinvented himself as Jean – not the kind of name people have in the countryside – and become a successful art student. Would the first boy get along with Jean or would he be forever in his shadow? There you have it: Teresa Präauer's Johnny and Jean.

Boy number one renames himself Johnny, “the quiet one”, and watches as Jean climbs the cliché ladder to art-world fame. At first he imagines a friendship between the two of them and after a while they really do become friends, or at least I think they do. But every now and then Teresa Präauer gives us a jab to remind us it’s all in someone’s imagination:
I say I have to brush my teeth, shave, trim the hair in my nostrils and between my legs. Careful, careful, call Marie and Valérie.
No, don’t forget, I’m a young man! A man never says between his legs of his penis or his testicles. That’s a phrase only girls use. I think I just leave the hair there as it is; it’s the late nineties after all, and people have a relaxed attitude to these matters.
And more and more as the book goes on, famous artists and fictional critics and even works of art walk into the room or stalk out of it, building on conversations with our imaginary narrator Johnny. Salvador Dalí tells him he’s a fool to dismiss his work just because it decorates a million provincial bedrooms, the New York art scholar Mary Schoenblum offers advice and Pippilotti Rist helps shy Johnny shed his virginity, although not in person.

There’s a lot of art and a lot of amusing pontificating and opinionating about art, as one might expect of a short novel about art students. There are some sweet side-stabs at practices and poses in the art world, from rich, bored wives opening galleries to poor, ambitious students working in them for free. Or white rooms with huge white lecterns at the entrance, at which ambitious art students’ heads hide behind open black laptops. Or performance art – performance art! – that fails to get videoed.

It’s hard, with Johnny telling the story, to dislike firebrand Jean with his mispronounced French and his gold tooth, the result of a punch-up between the two of them over a woman with two different names. When I was a teenager my neighbour told me never to trust a man with a gold tooth (and he should have known because he had one too and he styled himself a Trinidadian wide boy). I followed his advice here and sure enough, that Jean is not to be relied on, ultimately. But what fun there is to be had with him! Why not drink pastis in quayside bars, even if only in doubly imagined long nights? And why not let your art languish in a container while you tell stories in a New York pop-up exhibition space?

Präauer finishes her novel, which is not strictly plot-led but does have a plot, with a cryptic reference to a Cranach painting. It’s a delightful structural trick that made this already special book just that bit more special, to me. The writer is a visual artist herself, as you can judge by the cover, and I know the novel contains crumbs of authentic detail from her own time at art school. It also contains a great deal of fun with words and language, as did her debut Für den Herrscher aus Übersee. And it might just be a wonderful way of looking back at youth, that time of confusion, discovery and excitement, reinvention and imagination, with nostalgia but a good pinch of irony.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

A Lovely, Lovely Poetry Translation Film

I would have thought it might be impossible to make a film about something as intangible as poetry, and it might be boring to watch a film about something as desk-bound as translation. Luckily, Juliane Heinrich has proved me wrong and made a film of a poetry translation. It features the poets Odile Kennel and Anna Crowe, and me as supporting translator. And I've watched it about three times and it still makes me laugh. Such a pleasure!

Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize to Eleanor Collins

I must apologize – I've known this for ages and keep forgetting to share. The Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize goes to a translator under a certain age from a particular language who submits the most impressive version of a particular original. And this year it was awarded for a translation from German of a very tricky story by Julia Franck, and you can read winner Eleanor Collins' lovely version at the Granta website.

Collins receives a big fat cheque and a mentorship with top translator Shaun Whiteside and a pile of books. Belated congratulations!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

New Competition for Emerging Non-Fiction Translators

One of the hurdles for publishers wanting to bring out translated books in English, particularly in the non-fiction sector, is finding someone to translate them well. We now have a number of training programmes, networks and awards for budding translators of novels, but non-fiction has proved trickier. For me, translating non-fiction is a slightly different challenge to translating prose – and a whole different ball-game to translating poetry.

A non-fiction translator needs to get the right register and thoroughly understand the original, has to either know about or research the field in question and particularly its terminology, and must be familiar with the traditions and expectations around non-fiction writing in their target language. While you could say fiction translators do that too, non-fiction translators do it all to a much greater extent. So how can publishers find people to do that well?

Geisteswissenschaften International is a body set up to encourage non-fiction translations from German to English, providing funding for selected books partly so that academics can continue to write about complex ideas in their native language and still find a large readership. They've now teamed up with the German Book Office in New York to sponsor a competition for emerging non-fiction translators. The details are all in this leaflet – anyone can enter, as long as you haven't published more than one book-length translation before. There are cash prizes and one of the judges is my award-winning translator friend Shelley Frish, so you know the winners will be pretty darn good. Deadline is the first of December. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Book Fair Prize Roundup

Frankfurt has a whole lotta prizes going on, and here are a few of them:

The Hotlist 2014 prize for indie publishers went to Lars Müller Publishers for Menschen am Cern, which the publisher (Lars Müller) called a novel in photos. It's a book of pictures of people who work in the otherwise rather secret nuclear research facility near Geneva. The indie publishers had a really great party with a fabulous award ceremony, presented by the extremely good Claudia Cosmo. She had the best outfit and the best jokes of the week. It could have been a weeny bit shorter though.

The Virenschleuder PR prizes went to the Lessing & Kompanie bookshop for their wonderful, wonderful Tumblr page, the Pinakotheken im Kunstareal München (I have no idea what this is and what it has to do with books) and to the writer, translator, publisher and personality Zoe Beck.

The Young Excellence Award went to writer, publisher and general mover & shaker Nikola Richter.

The Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis went to Claude K. Dubois/Tobias Scheffel for Akim rennt, Martina Wildner for Königin des Sprungturms, Inés Garland/Ilse Layer for Wie ein unsichtbares Band, Heidi Trpak/Laura Momo Aufderhaar for Gerda Gelse – and the young people's jury went for Wunder by Raquel J. Palacio/André Mumot.

Translator, lexicographer and bookseller Regine Elsässer is Bücherfrau des Jahres.

Katrin Lange from the Literaturhaus in Munich got the honorary thanks for being good to translators award, the Übersetzerbarke.

And the culture minister Monika Grütters presented something that looks interesting: a new award from the government to support bookshops. According to the press release:
The "German Booksellers' Prize" has a total prize fund of one million euro and will be awarded by the culture minister from 2015. The prize will benefit smaller, owner-operated bookshops in Germany that excel through innovative business models, particularly programmes supporting reading and literature or cultural events. The main awards have a prize of 25,000 euro each, with other prizes worth 15,000 euro and 7,000 euro each.
Grütters has previously criticized Amazon and sided with German writers who wrote an open letter to the online retail giant, and this award was teasered back in August in that context. Asked about Amazon's tax practices at that time ("Does it annoy you?"), Grütters (CDU) responded:
We all know that many companies look for ways to optimize profit. It would be populist to castigate Amazon for its economic success and its ideas. The discount negotiations, which are carried out on the backs of authors if they really are removed from Amazon's catalogues, are more relevant in terms of cultural policy in my view and are unacceptable in this form, in my opinion. In addition, the discounted sums benefit neither the publishers, nor the writers, nor the readers. This is the point where we have to be careful not to endanger our cultural diversity by acting unconsciously or uncritically as consumers.
In other words, don't blame the government for letting Amazon pay "next to no tax" in Germany, as she put it – blame yourselves for buying from them. But hey, she's helping small booksellers.
There'll also be an extra million for special conservative literary projects, such as buying up manuscripts by dead white men. That'll show Amazon, huh?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Thing I Hated at the Book Fair

You're at the Frankfurter Hof. The entire front garden and lobby of this large hotel are seething with publishers, scouts, agents and editors. You're not a publisher or a scout or an agent or even an editor. You're there with friends who are also none of the above. Most importantly – or at least it begins to feel increasingly important as the evening goes on – you're a woman. Here are the things that happen:

First your friends take a photo of your shoes, which are hot. You are a complicit party to this embarrassment because yes, your shoes are hot and you're proud you can walk in them. Next you get a ridiculously overpriced drink, avoiding the main bar at the back of the overheated lobby because you remember it being kind of creepy last time you were here. You stand outside the door in a crush of people, some of whom you know and like. You spot an internet phenomenon looking awkward and decide it would be just plain embarrassing to say hello like some kind of fangirl. You wonder why the internet phenomenon has made such a public fuss in advance about being here and then you notice he is flanked by aggressive-looking men with name-tags proclaiming them to be agents. It appears to be some kind of industry meet 'n' greet in advance of a rights auction. You wonder whether the internet phenomenon is complicit in his own moral bankruptcy – although aren't we all? – and whether he is deliberately here so he can tell stories about how morally bankrupt he and the publishing industry are. You wonder why you are here. Your braver/drunker friend does go over and tells you later that the internet phenomenon seemed genuinely nice and actually listened to what she had to say, which makes you feel happy and sad for the internet phenomenon at the same time.

You wander inside to get another overpriced drink and refuse to tip the bartender because you object to the hideous price policy of making everything cost one euro short of a banknote in a transparent attempt to wash more cash into the coffers of the Steigenberger hotel chain. Although of course if you were working here you'd want to fleece the punters for all you could get and probably the Steigenberger hotel chain is not paying these people all that well, so you probably ought to tip them because it's hardly their fault. You spot someone else you know and she introduces you to someone and you don't catch the name of his publishing house but he asks you to recommend something and you do but it has to be the blandest book you can think of because of course you have no idea what he's looking for, but that seems OK because it's not like he notes it down or anything. You head outside again once your new acquaintance starts talking about "good schools", which is a subject that instantly raises your hackles and you really don't want to punch anyone.

On your way through the crowd you pick up several glances that seem – to you, at least – to be saying: "I am an important man and have looked your body up and down and am herewith granting my official approval. You should be grateful." It's not the first time this has happened in your life and not the first time it's happened at this fair. You ignore the glances. What would be the desired response? How would you like to respond? You don't even know.

Back outside, a man with a very loud voice and a whisky large enough to have been very expensive indeed is telling the assembled company that the bar at the back of the overheated lobby is "actual hell". It is crowded with old men and young women and guess which ones have the money, he says. An old man stretched his arm around the shoulders of the man with the very loud voice in order to paw a young woman and ask her what she wanted to drink, and that was what convinced him the place was "actual hell". You realize – and remember from the last time you were here – that the man with the very loud voice is absolutely right but you hate him for scoring points by saying it, especially because he is over thirty and this seems to be the first time he's been pawed by an old man.

People you have genuinely liked in other situations are now beginning to morph into apparently odious human beings. There is the usual abandonment in favour of more important conversation partners. There is a young man telling you that having a baby is easy, which freaks you out because your hackles are well and truly up now and you can't countenance the idea that it may be a joke, and you respond with passive aggression by telling a third party that men who say things like that can fucking fuck off and come back to you when they're tried it out themselves. There is a suggestion to call a publisher whom you and presumably everyone else knows to be a horrible person so that he can buy a round of drinks. He doesn't answer his phone though and people joke that he's having a party in his hotel room with his unpaid interns.

You're beginning to positively despise everyone here with their stinking hypocrisy. You wonder whether any of them are actually enjoying themselves and why they are here in the first place. You begin to hate your friends. You wonder whether you are actually enjoying yourself. You clearly aren't. You begin to hate yourself for being here. You go to the ladies' for a little mental space because by now you really do want to punch someone. There's no toilet paper. Fourteen euros for a bland gin and tonic and no toilet paper in the ladies'. You stalk back out through the crowd of braying jackals in dark blue suits to a taxi. You do tip the taxi driver because no, none of it is his fault and you can't very well walk home in your hot shoes.  

Things I Loved at the Book Fair

There are some things I hate with a passion about book fairs, particularly at Frankfurt, which is so planet-sized it draws all sorts of satellites into its orbit. More on one particular personal horribleness in a moment. But there are also things that make me smile for half an hour at a time. Here are some of those things:

Walking around the German halls and spotting translators and writers and editors and publishers and bloggers you know and saying hello! how are you? haven't seen you since the last book fair! got to run though! and then trying to remember their names but failing and it doesn't matter.

Running into people who have run into other people and then they tell you they were talking about you and you feel somewhere between awkward and totally and utterly flattered. Telling other people you were talking about them and watching their faces.

Finding like-minded nerds at tiny teeny panels attended by the twenty people in the world interested in German literature in the Anglophone world, for instance.

Getting hugs from tall attractive successful writers. Twice. Getting compliments from small attractive successful writers. On your personality. Yeah baby.

The opportunity to wear three different daytime dresses and, theoretically, three different nighttime dresses, except you're so enamoured of one particular nighttime dress that you wear it twice in the hope that no one notices, because the fair is so big that there's only one person you run into every night.

Running into one person every night and her joking about you being at all the parties. Which is not true because you only got invited to two three actual parties and you feel uncomfortable about gatecrashing parties because you'd actually really like to be invited to every single one like she seems to be.

Complaining to a publisher about not being invited to their party and said publisher scribbling "invitation to our party" on his business card, but you don't quite dare to test it out because really, anyone could scribble anything on a business card and you can't decide whether it would be more embarrassing to get into a party on that basis or to get turned away at the door for the sheer cheek of it.

Taking part in a semi-virtual petition-signing campaign to rescue a super-top fair and entertaining critic who got bumped out of her role in an Austrian literary competition in favour of a male critic to whom you have a personal aversion, who is however decent enough to sign the petition although he doesn't attend the actual real-life signing event. Probably busy elsewhere.

Spotting amazing books that make you think instantly of a particular American editor who you know would love them with all her heart.

Arriving with a bad case of cynicism in the morning (see next post) and then talking to a German indie publisher whose mother has baked biscuits stamped with the name of the publishing house. They are delicious because they taste of love rather than commodity. And because they're just delicious buttery biscuits.

German indie publishers.

German medium-sized publishers.

That feeling of being ever so slightly rebellious because you do something not many other people at the book fair do. And also the similar feeling when you get free drinks to which you're probably not entitled.

When book things you have wanted to happen for ages, literally a year and a half, do seem to be slipping into place unexpectedly. And then you get a free drink and go rocking round the German indie publishers and buy a CD of soul versions of country songs because you're in the best mood you've been in for a year and a half. The CD turning out, once you get home, to be pure gold, figuratively speaking, and knowing that every time you listen to it you'll remember that time when everything seemed to slip into place.

Meeting people you hardly ever see because they live on another continent and getting much, much more than the standard half-hour meeting with them, including hugs and gossip and exchange of opinion, and advice and support and something pretty darn close to love.

Introducing people to each other who you think would get on and ought to work together. Them getting on and "moving forward".

The perfect book fair crush, in which an attractive man catches your eye on the first day and you have no idea who he is but just vaguely think about him every now and then and spot him occasionally in various places and smile and then on the last night you find out from someone else that he's married and lives miles and miles away from you and does a job you're not really into, which makes everything all right because you can never have him but you wouldn't want him anyway, and you're just happy to have had someone attractive to exchange naughty smiles with.

Coming home again and catching up on sleep.

Monday, 6 October 2014

German Book Prize to Lutz Seiler

They just announced that my favourite won the big book prize, Lutz Seiler's first novel Kruso. Here's my review. Now buy the rights.

He's just giving a speech on the audio livestream. Sounds a bit tearful. Or maybe a bit sniffy.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

German Virus Slingers

Lovers of German words might take kindly to Virenschleuder, which denotes a kind of Typhoid Mary for computer viruses, literally a "virus catapult", people who merrily wend their way through the electronic world infecting others with all they pick up. I have no idea whether there's a word for this in English because I only know the term from the publishing world. The Virenschleuderpreis, you see, is an award for people and projects that spread the word about books online.

They've just announced their shortlists in three categories: strategy, idea and personality. I don't think you can win it exactly by being a nice person, but I do find the third section most interesting. This may be because I'm a bit funny about marketing, although I realize it makes sense. So the other categories include things like the gorgeous Tumblr from the Lessing & Kompanie bookshop and lots of things with new-fangled names like "content management", "OS" and "crowd-funded". Whereas the "most infectious personality" category, while perhaps inadvisably named – can you catch personality? – is a list of movers and shakers. OK, the list was drawn up by people sending in nominations followed by an online vote, so at this stage it's a popularity contest. But from this point on, the award has judges to pick the best online book-promoting person. And the judges are mainly women. Yes.

I'm a little bit troubled by the language in which the "personalities" are presented, because it's rather celebratory and not entirely cliché-free. But it's no great surprise that an award for PR would be couched in self-congratulatory marketing terms. What's interesting is the range of roles these "personalities" play: a writer who set up a publishing house to publish himself (and others), a writer who made it bigger with the aid of her fan community, e-publishers, self-publishers, an established publisher who finds a lot of time for the internet, a blogger, a bookseller, a writer who took an Afghan boy into her home so he could have an operation on his heart in Hamburg.

There's an awards ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair (where else?) but I think the reward for the winners is the huge amount of publicity generated by a prize for publicity, rather than financial. And they say you should go along for the networking opportunities and for the DJ, who also happens to run a promotion agency. I don't think I will, to be honest, because I don't feel overly comfortable with the PR side of publishing. But I'll be interested to find out who wins.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Teenage Kicks on Video

You may recall me making a big song and dance in advance of an event I co-hosted with Slow Travel Berlin. And then it went rather quite afterwards. I hope you didn't think it was a flop because it wasn't – I was elated by how well it went, almost everything went smoothly and I and my on-stage guests Brittani Sonnenberg and Christiane Neudecker all had a great evening. The lovely ACUD Club was packed to the rafters and ran out of chairs, the music was great and I think people had a good night all round.

It's just that it took ages for us to get this video sorted out, not least because it and the whole event involved six people donating their time and effort for free. I'm applying for funding to make it a regular fixture in 2015, so cross your fingers and toes that the people with the money would like to support a salon where German-speaking and English-speaking writers share a stage with me. If it works out it will be called Parallel Lines (so that I can channel Debbie Harry) – a name kindly suggested by someone in the audience.

In the meantime, enjoy. The video's not perfect because our budget was zero. But it should give you an idea of what happened – and just imagine what we could do if we had some money!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

A Women's Prize for Translated Books

Since the panel asking "Where are the women in translation?" at this spring's London Book Fair, I have been thinking about how to raise awareness of women writers in translation. Significantly more books by men get translated into English than books by women, and at International Translation Day we held a session to start doing something about that. You can read chair Sophie Mayer's excellent briefing about it on the Free Word website.

There are lots of things we can do. We can review books written by women to help redress the imbalance in review coverage; reviewing books by women in translation will also, ideally, improve translator visibility. We can address funding issues so that translation grants are more evenly distributed, and a working group was formed to do just that. We can look at best practice and acknowledge those publishers who are doing it right. We can address gatekeepers – many of whom, as another working group established, are women: teachers, booksellers, translators, readers, editors. There are already grassroots initiatives promoting writing by women on Twitter, for instance.

What I wanted to do was to establish a prize for women's books in translation. I'm pleased to say that the idea was popular and we formed a working group at the end of the session to try and make it a reality. So let me outline my idea in more detail here and share some of what we talked about on Friday.

I'll start with what Sophie Mayer points out in her briefing notes:
Since its inaugural award in 1996, the Orange Award (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize) has shown an unerring ability to celebrate and promote emerging writers who are now fixtures in the literary heavens. According to The Bookseller, the Orange Prize is a  proven driver of sales, and libraries that promote the prize reported a reader survey in which 48% of respondents said that they had tried new writers as a result of the promotion, and 42% said that they would try other books by the new authors they had read.
Yet, from its inception, the Award has been controversial, losing its first sponsor (Mitsubishi) and courting criticism from its own judges as well as reviewers and authors. AS Byatt called it ‘sexist… The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don't believe in’, although the award does not stipulate gendered subject matter, and has rewarded historical epics, crime thrillers and experimental writing, genres often associated with male writers.
With awards to Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and to Diane Evans and Irene Sabatini in the short-lived Orange Award for New Writers), Orange juries have also been more attentive to the multiethnic and transnational diversity of Anglophone writing than more established UK literary prizes.  That raises the intriguing possibility of replacing the Orange New Writers award with a Bailey’s Writing in Translation award that continues to extend the prize’s global awareness.
What I am interested in setting up is not a translation prize especially for women writers (or indeed translators); it would not be a sub-category of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which should continue to be awarded to the translated book judged to be the best of the year. The IFFP has never yet been awarded to a woman, almost certainly reflecting the imbalance in submissions. In my view, however, it must continue to consider quality above all other criteria while ensuring that the judges are a balanced mix.

What I want is a women's prize for translated fiction; a little sister to the Bailey's Prize, for instance. It would raise awareness for great women's writing from the non-Anglophone world rather than for great non-Anglophone writing by women. I know that's a subtle distinction but I think it's an important one.

The Bailey's Prize prompts debate every year through its mere existence, and every year people point out that women are still at a disadvantage in publishing. A women's prize for translated books would use exactly the same arguments – except that the translation stage actually amplifies this disadvantage, meaning that significantly fewer books by women are available in translation than books by men. In 2013, about 25-35% of new translated fiction published in the USA (the only figures we have) was written by women.

A women's prize for translated books would highlight those books that do make it through. It would give booksellers, journalists, reviewers, bloggers, tweeters and interested readers a hook and get them arguing and help them to discover diverse writing by women. It would celebrate the work of women writers and their translators. It would reward those publishers who do bring out books by women in translation. I suspect it would even be possible, at this point, to publish a preliminary list of all the books written by women published in translation in the UK in a particular year, before drawing up a longlist and a shortlist. Almost everyone loves a list these days, and book prizes are a useful way of exploiting that mental laziness we all share.

So it's a fairly simple idea because we have a precedent. Now all we have to do is put it into practice. We can do it. And the awards ceremony will be amazing.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Swiss Book Prize Shortlist

It's that time of year again, the day when I realize which German writers are actually Swiss. Nationalities are all nonsense anyway, surely?

Here's the list of five (pardon the bullet points, I seem to be incapable of deleting them):

  • Lukas Bärfuss: Koala - man reflects on brother's death and marsupials 
  • Dorothee Elmiger: Schlafgänger - group reflects on refugees and borders
  • Heinz Helle: Der beruhigende Klang von explodierendem Kerosin - man reflects on philosophy, unhappiness and sex in New York
  • Guy Krneta: Unger üs  - man reflects on family in Swiss German dialect
  • Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling - woman reflects on London and loss in London.
  • Jesus, I can't get rid of these bloody bullet points. Anyway,
  • (I've decided to embrace them)
  • the winner is announced on
  • 9 November and gets 
  • 40,000 Swiss Francs. 
  • That's € 33,000
  • or £ 26,000.
  • The Helle book and the Elmiger book will both be available in English translation at some point. Elmiger's my favourite, obviously, but I'm a fan of Helle too.   

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Olga Grjasnowa: Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe

Here is a novel written exactly and deliberately the way you’re not supposed to write a novel. And yet, or maybe for that very reason, it works, and it had me racing through it at breakneck speed, twice over. Which is why I wrote ages and ages ago that I couldn’t wait to review it and then made you wait all this time – because after first reading it I knew I wanted to read it again so I didn’t write any notes. And now I’ve read it again and yes, it still does everything wrong but there seems to be a little more system to it, and yes, it still works.

I’m most delighted, of course, by a scene very reminiscent of my evening out with Olga Grjasnowa while she was working on the novel. Chapter minus twenty-nine, in case you’re interested. But regardless of that, this is very possibly one of those books that you have to read if you’re interested in the future of writing or indeed non-heteronormative sexuality in Azerbaijan. Because as the title suggests (it translates as: the legal blurriness of a marriage) it’s about relationships, mainly between Leyla and her husband Altay but also between Leyla, Altay and Leyla’s girlfriend Jonoun in Berlin. And then a little bit between Altay and another man in Baku, Farid.

Now look at me avoiding certain words. Those words are: Muslim, Jewish, ex-Soviet, American, Israeli, Azerbaijani, gay, lesbian, bisexual, homosexual, love. The words are contained in the book but the characters don’t apply them to themselves.

Leyla is a ballet dancer from Baku. Altay is a psychologist from Baku. They get married in Moscow because they get along well and they want to get their parents off their backs. Then they move to Berlin to get Moscow off their backs – Leyla the pressure of the Bolshoi, Altay the pressure of his homophobic colleagues. Jonoun comes from all over the place, would like to be an artist, and works behind a bar in Berlin. Normally, it’s the reviewer’s task to compile this type of pithy plot and character descriptions, but in this book the author does it for us. Grjasnowa’s prose is swarming with short, sharp psychological characterizations and one-liners. She tells more than she shows, and her omniscient narrator has a dark, cynical sense of humour.

But she gets away with all that because there are things she shows, and those things are less about her characters than about the world around them. The novel is cleverly structured around a central episode, chapter zero, which is placed at the beginning of the book. Leyla has been arrested in Baku for illegal car racing and is tortured by the police. It’s a scary thing to start with, and the device of singling out that chapter rather than letting it stand for itself might seem heavy-handed if it weren’t for the fact that half of this book is about a thoroughly corrupt and oppressive regime. If you’re going to write a novel set partly in Azerbaijan there’s not much point in being delicate about it.

So before chapter zero, chronologically, comes the countdown to it, the story of Leyla growing up and to some extent Jonoun and Altay too, and the story of Leyla and Jonoun meeting and Jonoun moving in and moving out again, and Leyla going away on her own. We look at their messy lives from the relative stability of Berlin. And after that fulcrum comes the Baku half, which is just as messy and involves a road trip during which Leyla and Jonoun fall thoroughly out of love, leaving Altay to fall for a golden boy who’s built a nest for himself in the regime’s comfortable closet. And then comes the jaded fairytale ending, which Grjasnowa gives away rather with her choice of quote for the second half. And the best thing is: she does it deliberately, I’m sure of it, her narrator being cynical for so many understandable reasons. Really, the only possible reaction on closing the book is a tired laugh, a Woody Allen kind of laugh at how crap the world is. Allen, incidentally, delivers the novel’s first prefacing quote.

There are a few leitmotifs here that don’t quite come to the fore – more birds, some folklore elements that might be more prominent in a different novel or if Grjasnowa’s characters didn’t wave them off with amused disinterest. I almost didn’t notice them on my first reading, so I do wonder if they’re even necessary or don’t just muddy the waters. The way I read Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe, though, is that Grjasnowa is writing against norms and classifications. Her characters are neither bad nor good, neither fish nor flesh, not passionate about much at all, and not really classifiable in society’s preferred terms when it comes to sexuality either (neither Berlin’s preferred terms nor Baku’s, incidentally – there’s an amusing scene when Farid berates Altay for being gay in a Western way, interested in art and film and culture, and shudders at the thought of a gay pride parade).

And it seems to me that Olga Grjasnowa is trying to achieve the same effect with her writing, rebelling against much-repeated creative writing programme wisdoms like “show, don’t tell”. And if you read it like that then it’s funny, despite the depressing subject matter. Like Woody Allen. I assume he, too, is in there to make us feel slightly uncomfortable about sexuality and the family. It works for me.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Franz Friedrich: Die Meisen von Uusimaa singen nicht mehr

Another impressive first novel, this time with a complex structure. And more birds. Are birds as important in other literatures? I can think of four recent or forthcoming German books off the top of my head in which birds are essential to the plot. In this case, it’s the grey-headed chickadee, which debut author Franz Friedrich transfers to a Finnish island (a place I don't think exists in our world). The Uusimaa chickadees no longer sing, you see. And the authorities are concerned this means something has gone wrong, so they evacuate the island and turn it over to ornithologists. At which point a German filmmaker goes to visit in 1997 and makes a nature documentary. We also see a bumbling younger German man, a film student who accidentally destroys the last copy of that film and then leaves a future “Core Europe” in 2017 to travel to Uusimaa himself, and an American academic escaped to Berlin from the hell that is a bankrupt USA. In 2007.

The action skips to and fro like the documentary itself, which is screened, if you like, in the first chapter. Chronological order is for dullards. But we gradually get a patchy impression of what happens in the three characters’ lives and in the world around them. There’s a sense of threat that perhaps looms larger because we don’t quite know how to understand Franz Friedrich’s fictional world; a heavy police presence, accidents, freak weather conditions, strikes and riots, things going missing from archives, people who don’t quite get along. And there’s a lot of exquisite description. At times that slows the novel’s momentum, but I assume that’s deliberate. Taken together, all this does mean you have to concentrate quite hard.

Perhaps because I read it during the Scottish independence referendum campaign, one of the aspects that stood out most to me was the way Friedrich plays with politics and nationality. In the novel’s world, Berlin is expelling foreigners from poorer nations in 2007. That’s nothing new, but the scene in which a bureaucrat tells the American Monika that she’s going to be deported is all the more chilling because we don’t expect the USA to be one of those undesirable countries of origin:
The situation in your country’s bad, I know that, I can even understand you. Do you think I’d want to live in any other country than this one? But the boss is on my back, there are statistics. If I don’t tot up a certain number of returns I’ll lose my job. I have a son, my husband’s severely disabled due to an accident, and I’m supposed to put my existence on the line because your homeland lived above its means for decades?

Later in the book’s chronology, the Germans are the ones in a bad place by dint of their passports, because “Core Europe” has introduced something akin to a basic subsistence payment for all its citizens, who are then free to work voluntarily rather than for wages. And there are other utopias: a summer spent in a hut in a forest, an island that rises from the ocean, stories from the early days of the Soviet Union. But all of them are tainted in some way. Either they’re unsustainable over the winter or they require evacuating or heavy policing; “Core Europe” works because it keeps others out, as far as I understand.

Obliquely, then, Franz Friedrich tells tales that do come together at the last moment. We know from an early point that those birds will start singing again, and he leaves us with at least a moment of hope. I’m very impressed by this novel, which is experimental in all the ways I consider right, but also eminently readable and thought-provoking. And the judges at the Jürgen Ponto Foundation were also impressed, awarding him their €15,000 prize for debut novels.