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.