Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Last no man's land Event

The online magazine no man's land has been going for ten years now. It started as a side shoot to the Berlin literary magazine and writing lab lauter niemand, with the first issue basically showcasing young German-language writers picked by the team and translated into English. It launched with a bang – my friend Isabel Cole, editor-in-chief throughout, got funding for a print issue, a translation workshop and two readings. I translated one of the texts and attended the events and I remember being very impressed by the whole thing. Since then the magazine has gone online-only (international distribution was too complicated) and relied on submissions of contemporary German poetry and prose from translators. I've been co-editing on the prose side since 2009, alongside (variously) Liesel Tarquini, Alistair Noon and Catherine Hales.

In the meantime, Isabel, Steph Morris and I set up the no man's land translation lab, which is still going strong. It's not rocket science – we meet once a month in a room above a pub and workshop each others' translations – but it has helped forge a very strong literary translation community in Berlin and beyond. I can say it has prompted me to think about and articulate my work in a very clear way and has definitely made me a better translator. Our next lab is on 1 December at 8 p.m., as always in the "library" upstairs at Max & Moritz on Oranienstraße. The format has been adopted by translators in other cities, including Dublin and London. It costs next to nothing and makes me happy.

This Sunday we launch the final issue of no man's land. It will be a bumper issue with some killer pieces by German-language prose writers and poets, plus our first and obviously last literary essay. We also offered the translators a chance to share something about the translation process, which I'm very glad worked out. Ten years feels like a good point to stop and I think we're all proud of the body of work we've accumulated on the website. There are now so many more opportunities for publishing translations than there were ten years ago that we decided it would do no harm for us to stop.

So we're having a party on Sunday. There will be readings from issue #10 and then there will be dancing, with Steph Morris and myself reactivating our old DJ persona Lang 'n' Scheidt (he's very tall; I'm not very good). Retro translator-mafia music, all vinyl, for dancing to. Please come along to ACUD to help us go out with a bang as big as the one we came in with.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Swiss Book Prize to Monique Schwitter

The Schweizer Buchpreis – which goes to German-language books only – has been awarded to Monique Schwitter for her novel Eins im Anderen. I'm pleased because I really enjoyed it. And the judges called it "powerful, humorous and thoughtful". Hooray!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Angela Steidele: Rosenstengel

A novel entangling two stories of homosexual love between real-life historical figures! King Ludwig II of Bavaria and a young doctor charged with looking after his brother Otto at a mental asylum, and Catharina Linck, a.k.a. Anastasius Rosenstengel, and a young woman from 18th-century Halberstadt. Related in letters allegedly found in an archival file that hadn’t been opened since before the war…

This is Angela Steidele’s first novel; an early and unfinished version was nominated for the prestigious Döblin Prize, which is where I first came across it. On Thursday the writer presented the book at the same site, the Literary Colloquium Berlin, and recalled watching a Champions League match afterwards with her wife and Günter Grass. It may have been a true story, or it might even be another convincing fabrication along the lines of Rosenstengel.

As it happens, Dr Franz Carl Müller was the person who pulled Ludwig’s corpse out of Lake Starnberg after the king was certified insane, and he also researched court records on Linck for a study on the history of homosexuality. Ludwig is known to have had “a succession of close friendships with men” and Steidele uses some of his delightfully florid formulations from genuine letters in her imaginary royal missives to Müller.

A hundred and seventy-one years before Ludwig’s death, Catharina Linck was also drowned, in her case as a penalty for “sodomy”. She was raised in a Pietist orphanage, ran away, donned men’s clothing, joined the army and would have been hanged for desertion if she hadn’t revealed herself to be a woman. Under the assumed name of Rosenstengel, she had previously been a wandering prophet and later married a woman, converted to Catholicism and back to Protestantism, and was then shopped by her wife’s distrustful mother, who refused to believe her son-in-law was a man.

So the story is, Müller has collected letters concerning Rosenstengel and they’ve got muddled up with the letters he’s collected concerning Ludwig, including their private correspondence. So what we get is a blow-by-blow description (actually all pretty much safe for work) of the two romances and the surrounding political intrigues. All written in the language of the respective time in the voices of historical figures, which seems to have been a real labour of love.

At times it’s gruesome, particularly the details of nineteenth-century “treatments” for various issues considered illnesses at the time, including homosexuality. The early eighteenth century may still leave the mentally instable in comparative peace, but the accepted views on women are equally terrifying. All this is historically accurate, culled from writing of the time by the figures themselves and others.

It’s also funny. The characters really shine through, my favourite being a radical Pietist by the name of Dorothea Rosina Pott, based on a woman in Halberstadt alleged to have had contact with Linck. Pott is partial to a special herb mixture that keeps her awake longer for extra praying, and loves a good gossip and a spot of one-up-womanship with her correspondent. We also get a few amusing anecdotes (and original poems) from fag-hag extraordinaire Queen Sisi of Austria and a lot of contradicting versions of various events, related as they are by unreliable and untrustworthy witnesses with their own agendas. Plus, apparently, well-placed anachronisms to titillate the well-read reader (I didn’t spot them).

That humour gave me pause; it felt at certain points like it went too far, making the characters appear ridiculous. Part of the joke is that we see things the letter-writers simply don't get, out of naivety, bigotry or ignorance. It’s almost a cliché of creative writing teaching that fiction writers ought to be kind to their characters. And this is fiction, in its own way. Yet I imagine it must be hard to be kind to a character like Paul Julius Westphal, for example, a composite of two doctors. Prof. Carl Westphal, as we learn in the biographies at the back of the book, was the first to define homosexuality as a sickness and died of the after-effects of syphilis, and Dr Paul Julius Möbius “proved” women’s inferiority in numerous books and papers. Perhaps – if we even accept that there should be rules for writers, which is probably not a good idea anyway – we can make an exception here.

Whatever the case, Rosenstengel is a playful piece of literary fiction exploring two pretty fabulous stories. The cover is a delight in high-camp pink and gold and the physical book as a whole – maps, two-colour printing, index of persons – makes the experience even more fun. Those used to British writing might find it a harder prospect than, say, Jeanette Winterson or Sarah Waters' stories of historical gender and sexual issues. The eighteenth-century German in particular took me a while to get into, but once the code was cracked reading went smoothly enough. Translating it, though? That would take a specialist.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

On Amazon, and Translation, and Heike Geißler

This week AmazonCrossing – the translation publishing section of the online retailer – announced that it would be investing ten million dollars in publishing translations over the coming five years, and that it now has a submissions form for people to suggest foreign-language titles for consideration. Reactions from translators have been cautiously optimistic to neutral; you can read a few in Thu-Huong Ha's piece at Quartz.

I think most of us agree that AmazonCrossing is doing a good thing by bringing genre fiction and eminently readable literature into English, breaking down the irrational fear of translations among the reading public. This move will make it even more of a dominant force in the translation publishing world. And that, I think, is what I find troubling.

I've spoken to a number of early-career translators who are working with Amazon. It seems to be a good way to get experience or to supplement more difficult translation projects that take more time. What I'm not aware of is translators who have made the leap – should they want to – from translating entirely for Amazon to translating for other publishers.

I translated two children's books for AmazonCrossing, back when they launched five years ago. I can't remember exactly what was covered by the infamous non-disclosure agreement but I've forgotten how much they paid anyway; signing it was, however, an intimidating experience. The commissioning and editing process was fine, no more friction with the outsourced editing and copy-editing than usual. The people I dealt with were perfectly nice and in some cases seemed genuinely interested in international literature. That was before they introduced the bidding system, though, under which translators say how much money they'd like and how much time they'd need to translate a particular book, send a short sample, and then someone picks one of them for the job. I strongly believe this is not the best way to find the right translator for a book. Nor do I recommend translators submit suggestions for books to be translated, as I presume that these titles, if picked up, would then have to go through the bidding process. Meaning one translator puts a lot of effort into getting a book she loves published and another one may well undercut her for the actual job. That happens elsewhere, of course, too.

I still get royalty statements for my two books, which are now sent anonymously (I'm not exactly getting rich on them, and they've since scrapped their line in translated children's books). I can't be sure because that non-disclosure agreement means it's all conjecture – according to that Quartz article, Amazon are considering doing without the NDA – but I believe they pay lower up-front fees than other publishers, coupled with higher royalties. Which probably worked out great for Lee Chadeayne, translator of mega-selling Oliver Pötzsch, but in my case shifted much of the risk from a multinational online retailer (albeit one apparently only just making a profit) to a single parent only just making the rent (plus shoes, etc.). Obviously that was my choice, as it is every translator's choice to work with a particular publisher, provided they'll take them. But let's just say I'm not going to do it again.

If I'm to venture into the realm of conspiracy theory, might I suggest that Amazon doesn't actually want to make a profit, at least on paper? And publishing translations, while being an idealistic venture that brings light into a lot of people's lives, is an expensive thing to do. A ten-million-dollar investment means ten million less on the books. Is that very cynical of me?

The main thing that makes AmazonCrossing not my ideal client, however, is the sheer size of the enterprise. As Alex Zucker points out in that Quartz piece (again), the new investment could add up to 833 book translations over five years. That's a lot of work to be managed. I assume the scale of the program is already the reason behind the bidding process, and the reason why the emails I now receive seem to have been sent by a robot. Remember that New York Times article about working conditions at head office? Now imagine you have to get 833 translations commissioned, edited and published in that place. Even a hundred a year, which they're already heading for, is a mammoth task that can only really be dealt with using a kind of conveyor-belt method. When I read about one individual translating thirteen titles in eighteen months (eight of them in a two-person team) – in the comments to my friend Lucy Renner-Jones's excellent piece from 2013 – I can't help but feel that quality is not the top priority here.

Amazon has proved very effective at using algorithms to sell things and streamlining processes to sell those things cheaply. I just don't think that algorithms and streamlining are best applied to literature or translations, or human beings in general.

Why am I writing all this? Because my translation of the first chapter of Heike Geißler's Saisonarbeit (Season's Greetings from Fulfillment) is up at n+1 today! Heike got a job at the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, not as an undercover journalist but as a struggling writer who needed to pay off her overdraft. And then she wrote a book-length essay on how horrible it is that we have to perform paid labour at all, but especially how awful it is to perform paid labour at the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, and how the company attempts to squeeze the humanity out of its employees and some of them even start identifying with it. There'll be another chapter up there soon so you can get even more of a taste of it. And/or read my review. So I figured Heike and I probably don't have a lot to lose on the Amazon front any more.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Something Else I Can't Be Arsed with: Charlotte Roche: Ein Mädchen für Alles

Charlotte Roche, author of Wetlands and Wrecked (both tr. Tim Mohr), has a new book out. Mädchen für Alles (All-Round Girl) – it's about a frustrated woman, disturbed by her parents' divorce when she was a child, who seeks release through unconventional sex acts. In this case, a mother who gets it on with the babysitter.

I just thought I'd tell you, so you know. I don't want to read it. I read the first chapter via the link above, and I disliked the narrator and the style and the setting and the cynicism and the apparent misogyny posing as honesty (or perhaps it's just misanthropy posing as honesty). And I thought about writing a searing critique but then I'd really have to read it, and it might come out as misogyny (or misanthropy). And it felt like a rather easy target, because Charlotte Roche used to be famous for being a television presenter on yoof tv and now she's famous for writing scandalous novels about... see above. So I'm just going to say, hey, whatever pays the rent, Charlotte. Go for it.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Not at the Book Fair

I am not at the book fair. No, I can't meet you for a drink. Well yes, I was invited to that party but obviously I'm not going. No, we can't sit down and talk German books. I haven't gone because I was away in New York for ten days recently and I need to get work done. And then having decided that, I said my dad was very welcome to come and visit, so I can't possibly go now. Which is, incidentally, the answer to that suggestion that I just "pop down for the day" (not that an eight-hour round trip to Frankfurt doesn't sound enticing).

And I thought I'd be rather sad about it. I thought I'd be upset by all the Facebook postings of booths being built and torrid tweets from the Frankfurter Hof. I expected envy, my constant companion, to blow itself up to the size of the marshmallow monster at the end of Ghostbusters. But so far, I'm feeling quite calm about the whole thing. Envy is normal marshmallow size.

I do love book fairs, you see. I do love the very first day of striding around and smiling at vague acquaintances, or frowning at leery guys who think they're God's gift to publishing. I love picking up display copies and stroking the covers, noting things down in my special book fair notebook. I love talking to three people at once and then getting tapped on the shoulder by a fourth person I haven't seen since last year and getting all tangled up in between languages. I even love the slightly naff parties – although I hate the horrible Hof, and have vowed never to go there again because it puts me in an instant evil mood.

I think I may be becoming a calmer person. I actually forgot about the German Book Prize all day on Monday. In previous years I'd have been glued to the livestream, no kidding. This year I was cooking for my family at 7 o'clock and then we listened to music and watched some old Muppets episodes and then I checked Twitter before I went to bed and, oh boy, they went and awarded the prize while I wasn't looking!

You might have noticed I've calmed down with the blogging. It's partly because Twitter is simply a better venue for posting short things, news items and what have you. Another reason is that I've written about many things before, so the eighth repeat of "why I am excited about xyz" doesn't even interest me that much, let alone anyone else, presumably. Plus there are now lots of book bloggers focusing on German books, so I feel they've probably got things covered and I can relax. But to be honest, the main reason is that I just don't feel such a sense of urgency any more. Probably, people aren't drumming their fingers on the table, waiting for me to post about the winner of the German Book Prize before they can possibly go to sleep.

I was just thinking of writing that I haven't got any new hobbies or anything. That's not strictly true, though, because I am doing more moderating, which means I have to read certain books that don't necessarily fit here. But if I were to write a dating profile for myself it would still say "books, books, books".

Anyway, bear with me during this calm period. I might get all excitable and start posting every day again, or I might not. I'm fine. Just not at the book fair.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

German Book Prize to Frank Witzel

It's not just me, I suspect, who's rather surprised that the German Book Prize has gone to Frank Witzel for his 800-page experimental novel on a West German youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The title is Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager in Sommer 1969. Publishers Matthes & Seitz say it's unavailable right now, so I'm guessing they hadn't dashed off an extra print-run in anticipation. And yes, good on him, Mr Witzel – a writer of fiction, poetry and essays, translator, illustrator and musician living far from the maddening crowd in Offenbach. The kind of writer other writers are happy for, the kind of writer literary types love to love. I haven't read any of his writing other than the short sample, but those who have actually done so are very pleased today (with the award and with themselves). You can read Bradley Schmidt's sample translation via New Books in German.

The judges said of it:
Frank Witzel’s work is, in the best sense, a boundless novelistic construct. It tells the story of a youth from the Hessian provinces who, at the age of thirteen and a half, finds himself on the verge of adulthood. Woven into this story is the political awakening of the former Federal Republic of Germany, which is just beginning to shake off the fustiness of the immediate post-war years. This era of transformation is conjured up through disparate episodes that run through an incredibly wide range of literary forms, from internal monologue to action scene, from meeting minutes to philosophical treatise. In its blending of delusion and wit, formal audacity and historical panoramicity, the novel “Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969” (The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969) is unique in German-language literature. Frank Witzel ventures into the precarious terrain of speculative realism. The German Book Prize honours a brilliant linguistic work of art that is a vast quarry of words and ideas – a hybrid compendium of pop, politics and paranoia.
I shall buy a copy when one becomes available, and report back. All I can say right now is that Witzel's win continues a line of "difficult" novels taking the prize, following Lutz Seiler, Terézia Mora and Ursula Krechel. Of those, I believe English translation rights have only sold for the Seiler book (forthcoming from Scribe Publications in Tess Lewis's translation). We shall see if anyone is brave and rich enough to launch The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969 on an Anglophone readership.  

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Cornelia Funke Founds Breathing Books

This is not new news, I'm afraid – I'm working too hard at the moment to keep up – but I do find it interesting.

German writer and illustrator Cornelia Funke, asked to make significant changes to the the structure of the third Reckless book, The Golden Garn, by her US/UK publishers, said no. Her books are edited in the German original, she told the press (two different but similar interview pieces were published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Publishers Weekly has the full scoop in English).

So they gave her the rights back and she didn't even have to pay for the finished translation, and she has set up her own publishing house, Breathing Books, to bring out the book on her own terms. No one's really saying why the Americans and British wanted the changes, although Funke suspects they wanted to market the novel at younger readers – they didn't want it to open with a birth scene or close with an open ending. I'm impressed with Cornelia Funke. The internet would say Cornelia Funke gives zero fucks.

The plan now is to bring out the novel with a title closer to the German original than the planned "Heartless", as an e-book and a limited print edition to begin with in November, and see how things go. The new company will also do book-related apps and new editions of Funke's books with her own illustrations, plus re-releases of out-of-print titles like the fabulous Pirate Girl (tr. Chantal Wright) – which coined the phrase "you piratical nincompoop", much beloved in my household. The website looks exciting but doesn't credit Funke's usual translator Oliver Latsch, who is also her agent. And her cousin, I believe. So maybe he's OK with that.

I like the idea of a writer gaining greater command over her work in translation. I have to say I was surprised an editor would suggest structural changes to a translated and thus already edited book, but perhaps it really is the done thing in children's and young adult publishing, which seems to be rather concerned about putting readers off. And what makes me particularly happy about the whole story is the tiny spark of hope that Breathing Books might one day publish writers other than Cornelia Funke. Maybe they could offer a gateway to young Anglophone readers' hearts and devices for translated fiction. If they're reckless enough, maybe.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

You Too Can Translate Annett Gröschner!

A German-English translation competition! For anyone at all (aged 12 and above)! You don't have to live in the UK or Ireland! (But if you're planning to win the undergraduate category you probably better had, and actually benefitting from the prizes might prove expensive if you live a long way away.) YOU GET TO TRANSLATE A PASSAGE FROM ANNETT GRÖSCHNER'S fabulous novel Walpurgistag!

Here's the deets, kids! And me and Annett will be coming to the UK in December to personally shake the winners' hands, or something along those lines. Deadline is 6 November, so put your translating caps on now.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, ging, gegangen

We know what Jenny Erpenbeck does. I even met a woman who was enthusiastically reading her The End of Days on a train to Poland. Jenny Erpenbeck writes award-winning novels interweaving stories of lives in German history. And she writes about women. Now, though, Erpenbeck has written a book about men in the present day. Gehen, ging, gegangen is the story of Richard, a professor of Classics just retired and casting about for something to fill his time. He comes across a protest by refugees from various African states, who have occupied a Berlin square to try to obtain the right to stay in the city. As Tony Malone wrote in his recent review, Richard is initially motivated by little more than boredom and curiosity to find out about the men, once they’ve been moved into accommodation in his own suburb. But as the novel progresses, the protagonist’s interest becomes less academic and more personal. (Seeing as Tony’s review concentrates on Richard, I’m going to look at other aspects here.)

In between, however, Erpenbeck does build in her trusted technique of patching stories together – the stories of the men Richard gets to know, how they ended up in Berlin, where they came from, why they had to leave. There’s a lot of geopolitics here, but also individual details. The professor starts by interviewing one man at a time, approaching their lives laterally: what songs did they sing as children, what dishes did they eat on religious holidays, how long does it take to build a hut in the desert? But as they become friends, the men’s life stories flow more naturally and we learn about both the harrowing details and the good times.

The novel is based on real events, when a group of refugees from across Germany marched to Berlin to campaign for more rights, occupying Oranienplatz and a nearby school and eventually coming to an agreement with the city council that saw them moved to slightly more comfortable housing, with the promise that their cases would be reviewed. Which they were; only European law, as we’re probably all now aware, flatly denies asylum to individuals in countries other than those where they first set foot on EU soil. Meaning that almost all the men, having been unable to fly to Germany because that’s practically impossible in most cases, weren’t entitled to stay in the city where they wanted to live with their friends. The city council refused to offer the group of protesters any leeway and set about deporting them.

Erpenbeck takes that situation and reflects it back though Richard’s appalled point of view. Because yes, it is appalling. Rather like Chris Cleave in The Other Hand/Little Bee, she gives us a white middle-class European to help us relate to her refugee characters. I think anything else, for instance writing in the voices of the refugees, would be presumptuous.* And I think it works very well. Richard’s initial view gave me occasional cause to flinch; although he’s generally open-minded, he’s a man of his time and place – a man who grew up in East Germany (again true to Erpenbeck’s form). He’s not used to people of colour, and indeed the men’s skin colour is mentioned over and over, at least to begin with, in a way Anglophone readers might find disturbing. Yet as their relationships become closer, skin becomes less and less important to him.

He researches the difficult legal situation from scratch so that we readers can learn with him, accompanying friends to appointments with lawyers, officials and doctors. He finds small ways to help the men but is angry with himself for giving nothing but cheap charity. Eventually, though, Richard does more than that, taking a political stance. I’d see the book itself as a similar step further than charity. While it includes a call for donations in the final pages, Gehen, ging, gegangen is much more important in that it helps us to grasp a complex situation and feel something like understanding for the way refugees are treated in Europe.

With classicist Richard as its main protagonist, the novel also explores the idea that human nature and human emotional lives have changed little over many centuries, another of Erpenbeck’s literary premises and something reflected in the title. One critic objected to Richard’s comparisons of some refugees with mythological figures, from Apollo to Tristan, saying it detracted from their individuality. For me, though, this quirk underlined the book’s moral message. And yes, I think it’s fine for a novel to have a moral message. What came across for me was that flight, exile, escape from poverty, war and conflict, whatever you wish to call it, has happened throughout history and that Europeans should not presume it can’t happen to us again. As such, we are obliged to take in those it’s happening to now.

Gehen, ging, gegangen is less of a smooth read than The End of Days, for example, with less supportive structure. That does not make it any less of a novel, however. Its topicality has rather crept up on it, which some reviewers seem to find off-putting. I can’t imagine that was calculated – instead, it comes across as though Erpenbeck was moved to write by the people she met on Oranienplatz – whom she names in the back of the book – rather than by any desire to make a buck. It will come out in Susan Bernofsky’s translation in 2017 – and I will be disappointed if it doesn’t win the German Book Prize on 12 October.

*Although I’m curious about my friend Michaela Maria Müller’s novel about a Somali husband and wife, which mainly uses a closer narrative standpoint but isn’t yet published.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Some Thank Yous

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

German Book Prize Shortlist 2015

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

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Clemens Setz: Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 September 2015

My Take on the 2015 Longlist

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

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

Alina Bronsky: Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe

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

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

Ralph Dutli: Die Liebenden von Mantua

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

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

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, ging, gegangen

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

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

Valerie Fritsch: Winters Garten

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

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

Heinz Helle: Eigentlich müssten wir tanzen

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

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

Gertraud Klemm: Aberland

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

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

Steffen Kopetzky: Risiko

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

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

Rolf Lappert: Über den Winter

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

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

Inger-Maria Mahlke: Wie Ihr wollt

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

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

Ulrich Peltzer: Das bessere Leben

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

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

Peter Richter: 89/90

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

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

Monique Schwitter: Eins im anderen

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

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

Clemens J. Setz: Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre

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

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

Anke Stelling: Bodentiefe Fenster

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

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

Ilija Trojanow: Macht und Widerstand

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

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

Vladimir Vertlib: Lucia Binar und die russische Seele

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

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

Kai Weyand: Applaus für Bronikowski

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Wunnicke: Der Fuchs und Dr. Shimamura

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

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

Feridun Zaimoglu: Siebentürmelviertel

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

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

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

Friday, 11 September 2015

Kirsten Fuchs: Mädchenmeute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 September 2015

Monique Schwitter: Eins im Anderen

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Hotlist Hotlist 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 31 August 2015

Sascha Reh: Gegen die Zeit

Part of my work is translating samples from German novels, which are sent out by the publishers to other publishers around the world in the hope that the other publishers will buy the translation rights. Occasionally the books I get advanced access to by this route aren't to my taste but usually they're exciting, because German publishers only have a limited budget for these translations – so they choose their most promising titles.

Sascha Reh's latest novel Gegen die Zeit falls into the Very Exciting Indeed category. Unfortunately, it's been months and months since I read it. But to ease back out of my summer r e l a x a t i o n mode and into some kind of regular term-time blogging routine, I shall now attempt to tell you more about it anyway.

The book is set in Santiago in the early 1970s. Ears pricking up yet? Yes, it's about Allende and Pinochet, but the story is built around a German narrator. Hans Everding, disenchanted by the German left and its eternal discussion circles, has gone to Chile and starts work as an industrial designer for a government cybernetics programme. Ears pricking up more now? And the action kicks in on 11 September, the day of the putsch, with Everdings and a colleague attempting to save vital data from Pinochet's clutches and also not get killed.

It seems that Reh came across a real-life revolutionary cybernetics project in 1970s Santiago and built a novel around it; a literary novel with thriller-like aspects, let's say. The material is literary gold, I have to say: computer technology put to use for the sake of the national economy, attempting to steer production in real time with no commercial interests. A third way between the Soviet planned economy and Ikea (but smaller and more impromptu than both). The author has an article about Project Cybersyn in Der Spiegel, which you should read right now if you're interested in these things. If you don't read German, go there anyway and click through the photos, which are a fabulous treat for design lovers. Orange upholstery! Moulded plastic chairs with built-in ashtrays! Because why coordinate production without a cigar?

OK, so now imagine there's a novel closely based on the events of the time, bit of a love story, bit of adventure, bit of idealism, lots of tension building up, all written in the slightly stiff voice of a German engineer with an outsider's eye who gradually softens up and begins to identify with the project and the people behind it, eventually forced to ask himself where his loyalties lie. You'd want to read that, wouldn't you? Right now you have two options: learn German and buy the book, or read my sample translation via the top link, set up a publishing house and get the whole book translated. Or you're lucky enough to read German already, in which case the path to enlightenment is considerably shorter. I recommend taking it.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Letters from Berlin

Writers writing about Berlin in English is a tricky thing for me, something I'm gradually coming to terms with as the city changes around me. Two years ago I tried to put into words how I felt about the phenomenon, and I would say I've become slightly more accepting since then. Still, though, I wasn't overly enthusiastic to begin with about the idea of The Pigeonhole's Letters from Berlin, a series of English texts about twelve of Berlin's districts. Last night, though, I heard extracts from two of the twelve, on Wedding by Marcel Krüger and on Treptow-Köpenick – my favourite so far – by my friend Joseph Given.

Yes, the event was in a micro-brewery in Wedding, where ordering a drink became a two-way linguistic juggling session with me and the man behind the bar both throwing German balls at each other before giving up and communicating directly. And yes, I shall have to pay penance by attending three bottom-achingly long German readings in a row, perhaps including poetry. But this is just to say that – although I wish someone would simply commission German writers to write about Berlin and get the stuff translated into English (at a fair price) so that Anglophone readers would get a broader picture, and although some of the pieces so far tend to revisit certain themes a little too often for my taste, and although, once again, I don't always recognize the writers' personal versions of their areas – actually you could do worse than subscribing to the whole Letters to Berlin thing.

The pieces are quite varied, from subjective accounts of arrival and home-building to more objectively informative texts to Given's more literary approach, but they all feature sneaky little extras like photos, audio and video material. You can also comment directly in floating footnotes and read other people's notes. If you've lived in Berlin for a while you might not learn many hard and fast facts, but that's not why we read anyway, is it?    

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

German Book Prize 2015 Longlist

They've announced the twenty titles on the longlist for the German Book Prize (designed to emulate the Booker), from 167 submissions. Here they are, with links, in English where possible but mostly in German:

First impressions? There are a lot of big fat doorstoppers on this list, with Peltzer, Setz, Witzel, Kopetzky and Zaimoglu, but also a couple of nice bijou treats and two babushkas. Looks like this year's judges paid attention to the clamour for more women on the longlist in 2014 (although there are only two women judges this time around). I'm looking forward to reading Erpenbeck, as you can imagine, and Helle. I've read two titles in full (Setz and Stelling), dipped into the Mahlke but lost the plot, and am working on Zaimoglu. Plus I just started reading Schwitter yesterday!

I shall track down the booklet of extracts and post my traditional take on the longlist in due time. Until then, enjoy the fun with the Book Prize Bloggers (linked via Facebook), an interestingly disparate group of people and proof that both the industry and the bloggers themselves are taking German book blogs more seriously.