Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Wall in my Head

Of the flood of publications marking the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, there is one you really ought to read, and that’s the Words Without Borders anthology The Wall in My Head. In fact it’s so good it has its own website.

The book is a collection of fiction, non-fiction and images from around the former Eastern Bloc. Those images include secret police documents, photos, official and opposition posters, letters and artworks, all carefully matched to suit each piece. And they really add another dimension to the book, although you’d probably need a magnifying glass to read some of those typed reports in Hungarian.

What the anthology almost instantly brought home to me is that East Germany was very much part of the Soviet empire. The writing describing life behind the Iron Curtain shows just how much the countries had in common – the queue being the social and cultural phenomenon that united people from Vladivostok to Rostock. Vladimir Sorokin’s “Farewell to the Queue” details its history in the Soviet Union and before, ending with a porcelain soup bowl full of black caviar and teenage romance.

The secret service too coloured life in all the various countries. Péter Esterházy reports on how he found out his father was an informer to the Hungarian State Security. Esterházy’s reluctance to get to the subject at hand is touching, cleverly preceded by brief reflections from his translator Judith Sollosy for some background material. And the German journalist Christhard Läpple tells the true story of a brother who spied on his sister, and why.

Then we come to escapes, and I particularly enjoyed the fanciful versions provided by Dmitri Savitski and Peter Schneider. The fiction extract that stands out most to me is from Romanian author Dan Sociu’s Urbancholia, as yet unpublished in English – “the obligatory chapter of memories from Communism” in letter form, complete with Bessarabians playing ukuleles and an illegal still. In fact, though, these were some of the few fiction pieces I found worked well alongside the factual reports. Certainly the extract from Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower is out of place here, a description of a tram ride that could have taken place almost anywhere and doesn’t offer any particular insight.

To focus on the rest of the German stuff: Annett Gröschner, a fine writer also featured in Lyn Marven’s Berlin Tales anthology, writes about experiencing the fall of the wall. Poet Durs Grünbein takes a broader look in a semi-fictional (I think) piece about an opposition activist. There’s a sprightly, silly story from Wladimir Kaminer about a fake Paris, a Soviet Potemkin village near Stavropol.

And I found Stefan Heym’s speech from the opening session of the German Bundestag in 1994 an inspired inclusion – except for the fact that the explanation of the East German writer’s complicated politics is much too brief. Heym may have been both an optimist and a realist and an “independent-minded socialist” who quoted Brecht and Abraham Lincoln in the same speech and reminded his listeners of the good sides of the GDR along with the bad, but he was pretty lonely in the German parliament as an independent candidate for the PDS, and resigned less than a year after his election. In fact, Heym was a fascinating character and a talented and intelligent writer who deserves more attention.

In general, the anthology asks a lot of its readers. There is no room for background material, few footnotes, and the biographies are very curt. But then why dumb things down? It’s not as if the book’s going to sell to people who’d otherwise be reading Dan Brown. I’m pleased to see the translators and writers given equal space together in the Contributors section, on an equal footing so to speak. Which of course should be no surprise, coming as it does from the people at Words Without Borders.

Instead of reading Western Europeans or Americans waxing lyrical on how they saw the Iron Curtain fall, then, do reach for The Wall in my Head, a fascinating collection of over 30 pieces of writing from those who really knew what was going on, generally well translated and opening the eyes, I hope, of the English-speaking world.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Translate This German Book!

Impressed and inspired by The Quarterly Conversation's Translate This Book! list and prompted by David of Dialog International, I want to start the ball rolling on a list of German, Austrian and Swiss books simply begging to be translated.

Please feel free - no, feel obliged - to add your own suggestions in the comments section, and I'll write them up at a later date.

My number one (and I've said it before) is Selim Özdogan's tale of growing up in Turkey, Die Tochter des Schmieds. Part two of a possible trilogy is in the pipeline as we speak.

Also Clemens Meyer's debut novel Als wir träumten, more growing up but this time in Leipzig before and after 1989. A tad too long but oh, how it's worth it. His next book, a diary of the past year, comes out in March.

Sticking to that growing up thing, the world is missing out on Michael Wildenhain's Russisch Brot, an East-West Berlin story with mysterious things going on in the family.

A very obvious one but the rights haven't yet been sold as far as I'm aware: Kathrin Schmidt's Du stirbst nicht, which deservedly won the German Book Prize in October.

Plus I also loved Norbert Zähringer's fun-but-serious blockbuster literary adventure Einer von vielen.

More as and when they occur to me. And to you.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

"Berlin" Publishing: Berlin University Press

Seeing as I've been trying to plug the woeful gap in my knowledge of non-fiction, I was interested to read that Berlin University Press, previously a publisher of "exceptional, academic non-fiction of wide appeal", is branching out into fiction this coming spring. According to the trade mag Börsenblatt (do I mention every time how much I hate this name?), the new titles will include Martin Walser's new novella Mein Jenseits, Mirja Leena Klein's debut novel Schonung and Hermann Wenning's report on a personal crisis by the name of Lauf zurück ins Leben.

And then I thought, hold on a moment, what an odd name. First of all, Germany doesn't do university presses. And second of all, there's no such thing as "Berlin University". Berlin has three large universities and all sorts of smaller ones. A few minutes' research turned up this rather brown-nosed Zeit article from 2007, singing the praises of publisher Gottfried Honnefelder for his august choice of name. Because of course it's all a big fat fib.

'I have nothing to do with the university presses,' says the Rhinelander, whose face has wrinkles only in the horizontal direction of his laughter lines. 'The name is a trick.' Under the upmarket mortar-boardesque title, Honnefelder wants to offer educated lay readers readable academic literature and at the same time transfer German-language academic writing across linguistic and national borders in parallel to the usual translations out of English. (...) And what has all that got to do with Berlin? Nothing at all. 'Berlin is a buzzword for German research,' says Honnefelder, who has a small office in Berlin, another in his home town of Cologne, and yet another in his technologically souped-up Audi, which he likes to use to travel between the two.

I presume the "office in the car" thing only works if you have a chauffeur, as even the German highway code requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel. Honnefelder is one of those giant figures of publishing, having spent 23 years at what is probably Germany's poshest publishing house, Suhrkamp, and is now also chairman of the trade organisation Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels - bringing us back full circle to their mag Börsenblatt. The most recent catalogue from bup (yup, that's what they call themselves) also looks eminently eminent: lots of ethics, philosophy, and ethics and philosophy of religion, with non-fiction titles by Martin Walser and Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's former CDU interior minister and current finance minister.

Perhaps one to watch for fans of conservative ideas and writing. Just don't fall for the fake title.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

More Tantalising Lists

If you haven't seen my top three untranslated German books of the decade, pop over to Podularity now. Funnily enough, George Miller has also asked German non-fiction editor Peter Sillem for his top three - and none of them are German...

You've probably also seen The Quarterly Conversation's incredibly impressive over 40-strong list entitled Translate this book! And now The Guardian has asked a glittering array of literary people for their favourite flops - the ones that really shouldn't have got away. Featuring a high percentage of translations, it is rather grist for the "translations don't sell" mill. But that's hardly surprising, seeing as they talked to translators and small publishers infamous for their outward-looking stance.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Have you been looking for an online magazine all about women writers from around the world? Then go to Belletrista. Reviews, features, "holiday shopping tips", previews, it's all there, well presented and truly international. Issue 2 features Carolyn Kelly's Praise of Herta Müller (and a smidgen about Kathrin Schmidt's Du stirbst nicht too).

I think it's a great idea, but I'll be keeping my gender blinkers on here at love german books.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Romanian-German Informer Scandal

Last week, as Hertha Müller was picking up her cheque in Sweden, other Romanian-German writers met up in Munich for a conference on German literature in Romania as seen through the fairground mirror of the Securitate files. And while they were there the Romanian-German poet, writer and translator Werner Söllner took the opportunity to confess to having reported to the Romanian secret police on his colleagues.

Twenty years is a long time to wait. It seems his fellow writers had known for some time - which may explain why their reactions have been remarkably calm and composed. Söllner has expressed deep regret over his actions during the 1970s and indicated that he was not aware he was being used as an informer. The Germanist Michael Markel defended him, saying his comments to the Securitate were of a favourable nature and did more good than harm. And Gerhardt Csejka, a Romanian-German translator and essayist, has written an interesting piece in the Tagesspiegel, the Berlin newspaper that more or less broke the story. Csejka writes:

Despite the necessity for clarity of distinction between perpetrators, victims and non-perpetrators, it would be an unbearable blurring of the actual moral texture of the landscape of those involved and an outrageous injustice if the worst rogues were to remain unrecognised and get away unpunished, while one man who exposes himself and his guilt to public judgement, albeit at a late date, had to pay penance for the greatest swines.

It seems the moral texture here is more complex than that of East Germany's literary Stasi informers, who have generally been blackballed out of published literature. The most infamous example was the Prenzlauer Berg poet Sascha Anderson, who provided a spectacular amount of information to the Stasi even after he moved to West Berlin. Yet as the East German writer Lutz Rathenow points out in a fascinating essay, in a good few cases Anderson's reports actually benefitted those he reported on, in career terms if not in any moral sense. Rathenow, who writes that his own Stasi files take up several square-metres of shelf space, feels that this explains the ambivalent feelings of many writers towards Anderson's activities. Indeed the poet Bert Papenfuß-Gorek still works very closely with Anderson, despite the fact that he would no doubt fall into the "victim" category.

I find this issue hard to deal with, never having experienced the huge-scale observation of the Stasi and Securitate. For many of those who lived through it, there seem to be moral shades of grey - from those who unwittingly collaborated to those who obtained privileges both material and immaterial. The writer Rayk Wieland recently took an only seemingly light-hearted look at the issue in the novel Ich schlage vor, dass wir uns küssen - in which a man discovers he was a dissident poet in the GDR and reads the meticulous misinterpretations of his fogotten poems in his Stasi file. Wieland's very own informer was a pimp and a gambler making a bit of money on the side. A man easy to label an arsehole, as Wolf Biermann famously renamed Anderson.

Update: Werner Söllner gave a five-hour interview summed up very briefly in the FAZ. Hubert Spiegel shows us a broken man:

Of all the fears he reveals, this is the greatest: that now it is finally out, since he stood before friends and colleagues in Munich as if wrapped in "black cotton wool", that now he feels something approaching internal liberation under the greatest external pressure, the impression might arise that he wanted to make light of or gloss over what happened back then.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

2009: The Celebrities

Don't you feel sorry for the books that don't make it onto the "best of" lists? I always imagine writers scanning list after list for their names and descending into depression when they don't find them. But then I also used to feel sorry for peas left over on my plate when I ate the fish fingers first as a child. So rather than a list of best books of the year, I proudly present the top three famous literary celebrities I met this year and the earth-shattering things I said to them. Read it and weep, mere mortals.

1. Denis Scheck, über-critic: "But translators say 'du' to each other!"

2. Ilja Trojanow, writer: "Excuse me, my colleague wants to ask you something..."

3. Günter Grass, Nobel prizewinner: "I thought it was good that the translators got to read for a long time. Especially Danish."

Update: If you said something deep and meaningful to a literary celebrity this year (or in fact any year), do post in the comments. Isabo has made a fine start.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Kiepenheuer & Witsch: "Why Shouldn't We?"

Amanda DeMarco has a piece in today's Publishing Perspectives on the German publishing house Kiepenheuer & Witsch and their success with Ulrich Blumenbach's Infinite Jest translation. Apparently they've sold 50,000 copies. I like this bit:

When asked why KiWi felt it could successfully publish a book that posed so many challenges to translate, (publisher Helge) Malchow emphasized the house’s long history of successfully publishing difficult American writers: “Why shouldn’t we?”

Ha! An object lesson to all those cowardly US/UK publishers.

But I do object to this quote:

Malchow explained KiWi’s philosophy behind building its German literature list: “We are looking for narrative fiction. German fiction sometimes tends to be experimental. It tends to be very self-referential in terms of language, and there is a certain distance in German writing…from the narrative quality of fiction.”

Why? Because I disagree. Experimental stuff does exist out there in German-language writing, but it's not what gets published - and read - for the most part. What we're getting at the moment is excellent young storytellers like Julia Franck, Daniel Kehlmann, Tilmann Rammstedt, or the older generation like Siegfried Lenz and Günter Grass, who haven't run out of narratives either. Even the tiny independent publishers mainly do less earth-shattering experimentation than good honest stories like the work of Artur Becker, Alexander Schimmelbusch and Finn-Ole Heinrich.

The experiments are in the way writers tell these stories - just like KiWi's own Kathrin Schmidt plays with memory in her award-winning Du stirbst nicht. I think Malchow may not be being quite honest with himself here, claiming his house publishes daring English literature while acting as a pillar of conservative tradition on the German side.

Meanwhile, trade mag Buchreport (don't you love those innovative names?) has a wee interview with KiWi's internet guru Marco Verhülsdonk about marketing the German Infinite Jest via the "community" In case you were wondering, they won't be doing the same for every book. And no, Mr. V. doesn't think you always need "experts" on the case for these things.

Having watched the project from afar, I'd say it worked well but almost inevitably petered out towards the end of the 100 days of joint reading. I've spoken to a couple of people who were involved on the margins, and I think it was a lot to ask of them - hey, why don't we all read the same really long book and spend 100 days of our lives writing about it for free?! So it's great that one or two of them stuck with it rather than the project degenerating entirely into a full-frontal pedagogical exercise. And as Mr. V. points out, all that content is still out there, the perfect resource for anyone who gets Unendlicher Spass for Christmas.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Franzen and Kehlmann Do Kraus

I don't know what it is that fascinates me so much about it - maybe the fact that two very famous writers would enjoy the same nerdy pastime as myself. But the German press is also rather excited by the idea that Jonathan Franzen is translating the Austrian satirist and media critic Karl Kraus, with the aid of the Austrian literary poster boy Daniel Kehlmann.

The two of them gave a presentation on Karl Kraus the other day at Tübingen University, where Franzen is currently visiting eminent poet or something. According to the Schwäbisches Tagblatt, however, they didn't actually talk much about the translation process. It turns out Daniel Kehlmann had a job with the Karl Kraus dictionary project as a student (although presumably not the insults section, judging by Kehlmann's writing). And Franzen read Kraus at university too - trying but failing to translate him at the time. So when Kehlmann skipped watching Elke Heidenreich review his book on TV four years ago to meet Franzen, the two gelled.

As far as I can tell, they seem to be working on the essays "Heine und die Folgen" and "Nestroy und die Nachwelt". Where and when they may be published is a mystery to me. But the whole project is no doubt a boon on the sales front, perhaps making Jonathan Franzen a kind of literary David Hasselhoff who can do no wrong in Germany. His forthcoming novel Freedom allegedly has a German aspect to it too.

Friday, 4 December 2009

My Books of the Decade

George Miller of did me the great honour of asking for my three books of the decade. It was rather a difficult task to whittle ten years' worth of reading down to three titles, but I did it. They're all German books - what a surprise. George is asking all manner of interesting people to do the same - and you can also listen to all manner of interesting literature-related podcasts on the site.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

German Non-Fiction Books to Love and Cherish

I wrote about failing miserably to come up with any non-fiction titles translated from Germany. So here's an attempt to make up for that with a small selection of recent titles. The list is fairly random, I'm afraid. It also consists mainly of books on German history and culture - which reflects what gets translated.

You could start with Stefan Aust's revised Baader-Meinhof. The inside story of the RAF, trans. Anthea Bell. It does what it say on the tin really. The book made a huge mark on German society when it first came out in the 1980s, and now includes new material from Stasi files, etc.

Aust knew some of those involved in the RAF through his work as a journalist, but for a more academic look at German history, you might look to Götz Aly. You can choose from Hitler's Beneficiaries (trans. Jefferson Chase), Fromms. How Julius Fromm's Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis (trans. Shelley Frisch), or how about Into the Tunnel. The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943 (trans. Ann Millin). Or wait for his highly controversial take on how the 68ers weren't as free from totalitarianism as they liked to think, Unser Kampf - although it could be a long wait...

On the subject of controversy, why not look out for Jörg Friedrich's The Fire. The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (trans. Allison Brown). Apparently it's very good for low blood pressure. To calm you down again, try a more light-hearted read: Hape Kerkeling's I'm Off Then, about his pilgrimage across the Pyrenees and translated again by the very busy and very delightful Shelley Frisch.

In a more literary vein, keep an eye out from January for Michael Maar's Speak, Nabokov (trans. Ross Benjamin), apparently "a vital new perspective". You can also get Maar's The Two Lolitas (trans. Perry Anderson) and Bluebeard's Chamber (trans. David Fernbach) on Thomas Mann.

Now if you happen to be a publisher thinking, hmmm, what a lot of fine non-fiction is coming out of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, there's a chance for you too to get a cut-price ticket for the bandwaggon. The initiative Geisteswissensachaften International provides funding for translations of humanities titles into English. Hooray!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

City-lit Berlin's Lovely London Launch

I have now officially recovered from Friday's London launch of city-lit Berlin at the Goethe-Institut. And I shall start this report with a confession: I had never been there before and felt a slight trepidation at entering the hallowed halls. But in fact the place was very welcoming and not at all as fusty and dusty as I'd imagined it. The event was held in the library, which I duly inspected. It passed muster very well in fact, with a lot of my favourite books on the shelves in the substantial "German contemporary writers since 1990" section, in German and in English translation. I also noted that the librarian Elisabeth Pyroth had a rather subtle sense of humour, which I appreciated.

But on to the meaty stuff: the place was full to bursting with chairs placed at every convenient juncture. Lots of huge celebrities were in the audience: writers, presenters, publishers, translators, parents of translators, best friends of translators, you get the picture. And only one person fell asleep during the event and had to be woken with a shake to put a stop to his rather disturbing snores.

On the panel were Rory MacLean (Stalin's Nose), Chloe Aridjis (Book of Clouds) and yours truly, chaired by the world's loveliest co-editor, Heather Reyes of Oxygen Books. We each read a short passage from the book and talked about our experiences of Berlin, German writing, etc. Heather was very good at keeping me reigned in - I've never been on a panel before and there was a definite danger that I'd talk too much. Then came questions from the floor, which were truly intelligent. To my great regret, someone asked about non-fiction writing in Germany, which is not my specialist subject, to put it mildly. I hope to rectify my rather lacklustre response at some point soon with a brief overview of available translations right here.

There followed much shmoozing and chatting with the remains of the wine from before the show. Stoked up by leftover adrenalin, I merrily handed out love german books badges - where better to get rid of the things than in the Goethe Institut library?

It may appear utterly decadent to launch a book twice over in two different countries. But there was certainly no repetition between the two events. In London, we were enthusing about the city we love, selling Berlin for all we were worth, although there was a feeling that the place is just on the cusp of becoming too sanitised. In Berlin, we couldn't do that. One of the things I love about it here is that relatively little self-laudation goes on. Berlin is a great place - yeah, we know that. So the Berlin event was more about celebrating the literature on the city - and plugging the book too.

You can admire a couple of photos of the panel and the audience at the city-lit café. Please ignore my gurning – I don't usually look like that.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


Berlin has a long tradition of literary salons going back to the 18th century, when society ladies invited select circles to partake of discussion on literary, social and political matters. Many of these salonnières were Jewish, incidentally, a sign and a means of Jews entering bourgeois society.

The city has been experiencing somewhat of a salon renaissance in recent years. The most established is Britta Gansebohm's Literary Salon, which has been going since 1995. The hostess has invited poets, novelists and writers to read and talk at various venues over the years, often a proving ground for up-and-coming authors. She also organises the bizarre but very cosy winter readings in Mongolian yurts on Potsdamer Platz every January. In this case, Britta Gansebohm's name is like a seal of quality, guaranteeing good writing and a good evening's entertainment.

A couple of independent publishers have muscled in on the salon scene too. The KOOK label has been running monthly readings with music under the title KOOKread since 2001, mainly featuring young writers but not limited to their own authors. And now a new arrival in Berlin, Blumenbar Verlag, is continuing its Munich salon in Berlin. Although not yet up on their website, the first event is dedicated to Leonard Cohen.

Monday saw the first event for another new salon, light years away from gatherings of Goethe fans in upholstered drawing rooms. Adler & Söhne Literaturproduktion, a kind of incredibly sociable shared office space for writers, editors and translators, invited guests to listen to work in progress. In the back room of a scuzzy bar in Prenzlauer Berg, the mirror ball gyrated as Thomas Pletzinger convinced me that he is, after all, capable of reading and writing well, and Tilman Rammstedt convinced me that he really doesn't need to be as shy and modest as he seems - but perhaps that's all part of the show. Moving between humour and earnest in front of palmtree wallpaper, the event was great fun. Afterwards the young writerly folk gathered around the bar for a tad of namedropping and narcism - what bliss.

If you're feeling left out but live in or near London, you too could join salon society. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press has opened her own salon featuring British and European writers. The December event with Matthias Politycki is sold out, but there'll be more to come.

Update: Strike the stuff about Blumenbar's salon. It's actually a collaboration with Berlin Verlag and calls itself a "literary nightclub". Details at the Hardcover Club.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A Publishing Thing Is Happening

Earlier this year, the translator Stefan Tobler wrote a piece for the British translation journal In Other Words, presenting a few ideas for a translator-led non-profit publishing venture. Since then, interest has snowballed and we'll be meeting up in London this week to see how far things have come, discuss possible books, etc. Here's an extract from the original article - and see Stefan's blog for details of the meeting. I must admit I'm rather excited.

If you're interested in finding out more (or indeed a spot of busking), get in touch with Stefan Tobler.

Supply + Demand + Magic

‘In the British Isles, it must be said, Archimboldi remained a decidedly marginal writer.’ from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, and Natasha Wimmer (p. 38, Picador 2009 edition)

Would you agree that a lot of the best contemporary fiction gets passed over in favour of reasonably good books that present publishers with less of a risk?

A commercial publisher has to balance its books, whether it is one of the ‘big boys’ with shareholders or an independent. Sales figures are naturally the driving concern (survival concern), and the sales and marketing people have a larger say than ever in determining publishers’ book choices. Editors and freelance translators are often left to deal with the choices. [...]

My hunch is that translated fiction will, with some wonderful exceptions, become tamer than it already is. Of course, while people might agree that it’s difficult for publishers to take risks, it’s harder to agree on which great authors should be published. It is pretty clear, though, that they aren’t always the most financially viable ones. As Serpent’s Tail’s Pete Ayrton said, ‘Avant-garde fiction thrives where writers do not expect to live off their writing’ (Peter Ayrton in Boyd Tonkin's article ‘The best of times, the worst of times’ (The Independent, 9th January 2009). [...]

Perhaps volunteer-led, or co-op, or non-profit publishing could work on next to nothing? The printing is not the main cost: you can print quality hardbacks in very low print runs for around £3 a copy. People’s time and office overheads are much larger expenses.

Translators, editors, designers, and other publishing folk could meet up to share their great unpublished foreign books, and talk about the best ways to publish them here. Everyone would be able to get on with their task from their own computer/home/heated public library. And there would be plenty of opportunities to be involved: accounting, reading, editing, translating, selling and marketing, fundraising, advising on business or on the editorial committee, party-throwing, web or book design, etc . . . People in publishing could develop projects they have ownership of. Of course, a publisher relying on friendly co-operation would need to be very well organized, with everyone’s tasks and responsibilities absolutely clear, and there would need to be careful budgeting – dare we say it, a business plan. But all possible, and most of it someone or other’s idea of fun.

Of course, many small publishers work in effect as non-profits, and are real heroes of the publishing world. In particular, small poetry presses work like this, as labours of love, and some fiction publishing too, although less in the UK than elsewhere perhaps. Some presses, such as Dalkey Archive and Open Letter in the US, both linked to universities, are non-profits. The two founders of a small Czech publisher, Větrné Mlýny (meaning, appropriately enough: windmills), used to catch a train to Berlin whenever money was short, where busking Simon and Garfunkel songs brought in the Deutschmarks to publish the next book. [...]

Friday, 20 November 2009

city-lit Berlin Launch: The Post-Mortem

No doubt all my readers have organised hundreds of book launches in the past and will be thoroughly bored by what's to come. For me, though, last night was a first: My First Book Launch. The plan was to showcase a range of the writing in the city-lit Berlin anthology, including a couple of my favourite German books that made it in.

But of course we couldn't exactly fly authors in from around the globe or raise them from the grave, so a few of the writers in the book had to be represented by stand-ins. That meant the genuine articles who attended - Rory MacLean, Michael Wildenhain and Jakob Hein - had time to read a good chunk of their work, while the audience also got a taste of some of the other "perfect gems of city writing". And we also had a bonus track courtesy of the translator and historian Pam Selwyn, who read one of Johann Friedel's Briefe über die Galanterien von Berlin all about the depravities of Berlin's 18th-century male brothels.

At this point I have to thank all those involved, especially the writers and Lucy Renner-Jones who played the part of Kate Adie with aplomb, John Manning who swapped hats for a very convincing John Le Carré and Len Deighton - and Steph Morris who stole the show as Christopher Isherwood, plus-fours and all.

The other part of the fun was a quiz with copies of the book as prizes. Unfortunately, I made the questions rather hard, which meant that newcomers to Berlin had no chance of a free copy. But the answers are all in the book...

Anyone who wants to get hold of the anthology in Berlin should mosey over to Saint George's Bookshop, Wörtherstraße 27, Prenzlauer Berg. But wait a day or so first, as Paul has to replenish his stocks - they sold out last night.

Finally, my trade secret for anyone else planning their first book launch: make sure you feel a million dollars. I bought a new dress that made me think I was Shirley Bassey and Fiona Bruce all rolled into one - although Jakob Hein seemed to think I was more like Ann Robinson. I graciously allowed him to sing a song though, as well as his very entertaining reading.

Thanks again to all those who attended, practically spilling out the front door. You were a great audience!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Berliners: You Know You Want To

Tonight's the night of the city-lit Berlin Berlin launch. 8.30, Saint George's Bookshop, Wörterstraße 27, Prenzlauer Berg.

With Rory MacLean (Stalin's Nose), Anna Winger (This Must Be the Place), Michael Wildenhain (Russisch Brot), Jakob Hein (Gebrauchsanweisung für Berlin) and me. Plus drinks, prizes and surprise special guests.

See you all there then.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Ex-Berlin Publishing: Klett-Cotta/Tropen

Publishing Perspectives has a piece on Michael Zöllner of Klett-Cotta, whose indie press Tropen moved from Berlin to Stuttgart to join the larger house. The wild young men were put in charge of the whole place rather suddenly as I recall, and the piece talks about how they've rearranged the furniture: "This has meant building up a stable of younger German and foreign authors and cutting back on some 'German authors of a certain generation,' as well as being a bit more daring."

I'm wondering what that talk of "a certain generation" means. It doesn't sound good, does it? They certainly haven't rearranged the website, which is just as user-unfriendly as ever ("If you are interested in translation rights, please order our latest Foreign Rights Guide (pdf-file / print).") - although they do have a blog, which is fed a good, oooh, twice a week with promotional material.

According to the German trade mag Börsenblatt, Zöllner still uses his flat in Berlin to hold parties - with Vietnamese spring rolls warmed up in the kitchen.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Tim Krohn, ans Meer

Tim Krohn’s novel ans Meer (To the Sea) is part of the first crop of titles from Galiani Berlin, the new publishing house run by Esther Kormann and Wolfgang Hörner, previously of Eichborn Berlin fame. It’s a bit like the Brawn GP of German publishing, with Kiepenheuer & Witsch the Mercedes engine powering foreign rights, accounts and so on.

Which would presumably make Tim Krohn Galiani’s Jensen Button – only he’s billed as a Swiss Ian McEwan. Of course knowing that, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Atonement, and there really are a number of them. But don’t let that put you off; it’s a German book, so class plays only a very minor role. Guilt, on the other hand, is here aplenty. And when it comes to sheer quality, Krohn certainly matches up.

ans Meer is set in Zurich and on the northern coast of Germany, and tells the story of two families who grow together, apart and then together again. The Bergströms and the Paulsens share a house by the sea, where they spend their weekends together. The families’ two daughters are the best of friends, the mothers get on well, the men find a level too. Then the ostensible harmony is shattered – the hinge between the past and the present is Margot Bergström’s drowning.

Margot’s husband drinks himself to death, while her daughter Josepha runs away to Switzerland and gets herself pregnant. Meanwhile the Paulsens live a sedate life without them, with their daughter Anna becoming a psychology lecturer. In the opening chapter, she finds out her boyfriend is infertile and knew all along, throwing her off-kilter on the planned-out path to parental joy.

Anna is the book’s Elinor Dashwood, the sensible foil to Josepha’s Marianne – and here I’ll stop with the comparisons, OK? Josepha is living in Zurich with her son Jens, a single mother with an unorthodox attitude to gender roles in parenting. The action really starts when she decides to claim the house by the sea, which has been gathering dust for the past ten years or so. As events unfold, Anna gets a chance to atone for what she feels she did wrong as a teenager – and finds out that life wasn’t quite as simple back then as she thought, and certainly isn’t now either.

Told by an omniscient narrator but from changing perspectives, the story moves fluidly to and fro between past and present. The sections interlock with perfect continuity, and you know how I love that. The characters are beautifully crafted, even down to bit-parts like a policeman who is constantly losing his sunglasses. I was particularly impressed by Jens, a thoroughly three-dimensional ten-year-old besotted with his chaotic mother. Despite its earnest subject-matter, there are light moments of everyday humour throughout the novel.

The language is calm, precise and doesn’t distract from the intricate plot and the psychological insight as the book goes on. It’s a book, perhaps, about parenting, about growing up, about grief. It scrapes ingeniously past a groan-worthy happy ending of the worst kind. And it made me cry. Do check out Tim Krohn's website – the mixture of serious literature and playful devices reflects something of the novel itself.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Swiss Book Prize Goes to Ilma Rakusa

Ilma Rakusa has won the Swiss Book Prize for her book Mehr Meer, a memoir of kinds on growing up the child of a Slovenian father and a Hungarian mother, in smalltown Slovakia, Budapest, Ljubljana, Triest and Zürich – and moving on to the wider world.

I haven't read it but I do appreciate Rakusa's tight, atmospheric prose. She takes home 60,000 Swiss francs - that's about 40,000 euro, 35,000 pounds or 60,000 dollars.

Megan O'Grady on Berlin in Vogue

While Berlin seems very much in vogue right now, Berlin's also in Vogue. Sorry, I couldn't resist. Megan O'Grady, the US magazine's book editor, writes about the city and some of its literature - it gets interesting where the bold text kicks in.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

17th Open Mike

Last weekend I looked at state funding for more established writers. This weekend was Open Mike weekend, in which unpublished authors up to the age of 35 get a shot at stardom and cash. In Germany, 35 is a magical cut-off date after which you are old. Practically overnight, you're no longer entitled to enter young people's literary competitions and in return, you can get a free check-up from your doctor. But I digress.

Open Mike is a literary institution run by the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, propelling talented writers to genuine fame for the past 17 years. The list of previous winners includes Julia Franck, Karen Duve, Jochen Schmidt, Tim Krohn, Terézia Mora, Tilman Rammstedt, Zsuzsa Bánk... plenty of big names in what they call "young German literature". Now, the finalists don't just read their texts before a rather large and no doubt rather intimidating audience. They're also treated to a colloquium beforehand (on "what is contemporary about contemporary literature?" - I couldn't get a straight answer when I asked what the outcome was). Plus they meet previous winners, and afterwards they get to work on their texts with experienced editors, whether they win or not. The three winners get a fairly modest sum of money and an indecent amount of attention from publishers.

The finalists are chosen by a team of six editors, each of whom gets their own personal slush-pile of around 120 submissions. The idea is to simulate the actual publishing world, apparently - and the editors did a pretty good job of simulating all that familiar moaning and groaning about the quality of unsolicited manuscripts. But in the end, 20 finalists were selected, six poets and the rest prose writers.

And then the whole world gathers together in my least favourite Berlin venue, the Wabe, for two days. I went along on Saturday and then cheated by just turning up for the announcement ceremony on the second day. Because I felt I ought to spend some time with my family over the weekend – and because it was frankly exhausting. The audience seemed to be made up entirely out of editors, agents, journalists, people who had applied but weren't taken, and the contestants' friends - which meant there was a huge amount of bitching going on.

I'm not going to list who read what. If you're interested, see goldblog for an entertaining blow-by-blow description, or buy the book. One enduring impression though is that almost all young German-language writers feel compelled to include at least one poorly pronounced English phrase in their texts, mainly for no discernible reason. Another is that the young generation is not much better than their elders when it comes to ignoring anyone who isn't white*, beyond certain clichés (domestic staff, sexually available, criminal). And of course there were a hell of a lot of first-person narrators, who were often difficult to distinguish from the writers. The texts that stood out, for me, were those that ventured further afield - Jan Sprenger to China, Lutz Woellert to Ellis Island, Ondrej Cikán to a fantasy cowboy-inhabited New Mexico, to name a few.

The winners?

Matthias Senkel for a dizzying, funny piece about a family history that I too rather admired, Inger-Maria Mahlke for a confusing and well-written fragment culminating in an old man touching an unexpected pair of breasts, and Konstantin Ames for acrobatic poetry. As it turns out, all three of them have some connection to the DLL creative writing school in Leipzig...

It's probably safe to say you may well hear these names again in future. Matthias Senkel also won the audience prize, voted on by a handful of mere mortals rather than the three judges (Kathrin Röggla, Ursula Krechel, Jens Sparschuh). I'll post a link to his text when it appears in the taz as a result.

*By "white" I actually mean German or Western European or American. There are plenty of clichéd Eastern Europeans out there - research has shown that Germans have always loved people from countries to their west and hated everyone from eastwards. To put it rather simply.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Maar on Nabokov (via Benjamin)

n+1 has a preview from Ross Benjamin's translation of Speak, Nabokov by Michael Maar - about that manuscript, of which he heartily disapproves: "There was certainly nothing like this in Lolita."

I had the pleasure of admiring Maar from behind last weekend, and I must say he has a fine head of hair. He's also a very eloquent man of letters and an expert on Nabokov, Proust, Thomas Mann and JK Rowling.

Lists of the Month

There's the SWR-Bestenliste, for which thirty critics have been selecting ten top-quality reads a month since 1975. And then there's the "Literaturen"-Bestenliste, for which twelve other critics select ten great books a month.

While the SWR critics only have to suggest four titles each every month, those poor Literaturen people have to hand in a top ten of their own every month - which seems like a full-time job to me. The funny thing is though, there aren't that many overlaps. The only books on both lists for November are Bolano's 2666, David Grossman's Isha Borahat Mibesora ("Woman flees tidings", not available in English) - and a single German book, Brigitte Kronauer's wickedly funny Zwei schwarze Jäger.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Maurice à la Poule Takes French Prize

The Prix Femina Étranger for foreign novels has gone to the Swiss-born and Berlin-based German-language writer Matthias Zschokke for Maurice mit Huhn (in Patricia Zurcher's translation Maurice à la Poule).

I like the idea of the prize: an all-female jury chooses books by men or women. And I like the idea of the novel, of which Niels Höpfner writes in Titel-Magazin:

There are a lot of things that Zschokke's Maurice mit Huhn isn't: not one of the family sagas so popular with readers; not a Bildungsroman; not a psychological thriller; not a relationship crisis opus; not a 1989 concoction; not a generation report; not a corny coming to terms with the past. But what is it? At most, Maurice tries to come to terms with the present, and not without many a sigh.

The book is set in Berlin's Wedding district, a neighbourhood slowly decaying into abject poverty, and is apparently a wonderful, melancholy episodic novel, best read with a cello playing in the background. It has not been translated into English.

Zschokke has been writing since the early 1980s and is a bit of an insider's tip - but has won a whole 17 awards for his books, plays and films.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Berlin Manuscripts

Compared to Britain or the States, Germany’s writers live in the lap of luxury when it comes to state funding. While Britain’s Society of Authors states on its website that it awards 70,000 pounds in grants to writers every year, the closest German equivalent in terms of a national funding body, the Deutscher Literaturfonds, supports writers to the tune of €500,000 a year. That’s about six times as much – but it doesn’t stop there, as it’s the federal states that are actually responsible for providing grants to authors.

Berlin has an annual budget for individual writers of € 213,000. A good chunk of this year’s sum went to the lucky recipients of the Berliner Literaturstipendium – who presented their work in the opulent foyer of the Berliner Ensemble theatre on Sunday, at an event by the name of "Berliner Manuskripte".

Readers, the event was fabulous value for money. In the world of state literature funding, even the audience gets a free lunch: €3 to get in bought us twelve writers, two moderators, two musicians, plus sandwiches, fruit juice and sparkling wine! I’m definitely going again next year.

The writers were: Bruno Preisendörfer, Jan Groh, Ralph Hammerthaler, Katja Oskamp, Jan Böttcher, Jan Wagner, Luo Lingyuan, Michael Maar, Alexej Schipenko, Petra Kasch, Gisela von Wysocki and Thomas Weiss.

I went along with a mission: to see whether there is such a thing as “grant-maintained writing”. Does the fact that these writers had a chance to write and research without financial pressure produce a certain kind of end product? As you may have guessed, this thesis was utterly facile and proved wrong almost immediately. The range of genres was broad, from literary essay to poetry to children’s literature to historical fiction to strongly autobiographically tinted pop. The styles were equally diverse, with some writers sending me straight to dreamland with their long sentences on a Sunday morning and some waking me up with a bang.

I had anticipated they would all have locked themselves away from daylight to write, write, write until they could type the word FIN and then die, as Michael Maar read from his book on Proust. Yet even that didn’t seem to be the case, as Jan Böttcher was in London (represented by Alexander Gumz, who Facebook is always telling me to befriend, but I didn’t like to walk up to him and say so, poor guy) and Alexej Schipenko was off somewhere else.

I could only make out two overlaps, in fact. The first was a minor preoccupation with insanity in a number of texts, which is probably coincidence. The second was that all of the authors make their living writing: writing essays, journalism, plays, songs, all manner of things – but writing nonetheless. No teachers, doctors, waitresses, insurance salesmen: these were pretty much full-time word people who used the grant to clear their desks for long enough to work on their book projects. I wonder whether a group of twelve writers in any other country would be so professionally homogenous?

What did I like? I was totally blown away by Jan Groh’s Nachrichten aus einer einfachen Welt. It’s a work of herstory, a tale of a morphine-addicted doctor and an old anarchist whose life sums up twentieth-century history, from the Spanish civil war to the gulag and back to Germany. Shocking stuff, painstakingly told. I laughed with delight along with the rest of the audience at Jan Wagner’s poem about Evel Knievel. I thought Jan Böttcher’s chapter about a Blairite privatised school in the near future had promise but needed untangling – but it was announced as a work-in-progress. I laughed again at Luo Lingyuan’s tale of cultural confusions in a German-Chinese marriage. And I loved the idea of Thomas Weiss’ novel revolving around Sophie Scholl’s executioner – a man who was just doing his job, for the Weimar Republic, for the Nazis and the Americans.

As Ingrid Wagner from the Berlin authorities told us, the grant is about promoting the creative process. Some of the projects have already been published, but Berlin doesn’t seem to mind too much if the writers don’t quite get there. “Failure is included,” she told us – pointing out that no matter whether we liked the products or not, the writers have spent all their grants now and there’s no money-back guarantee.

Ah, and you can see some gorgeous photos, copyright Kathrin Sommer, on Flickr.

Monday, 9 November 2009

9th November

Can anyone explain to my why Bon Jovi are commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, playing live at the Brandenburg Gate tonight? Is this what thousands of people took to the streets for?

For literature lovers, I have two alternative suggestions. The first is Berlin-based poet Alistair Noon's entertaining and thoughtful long essay, November Notes, in Litter magazine (full disclosure: I know him). Alistair remembers the bathos of trying to watch the news in a student hall of residency on 9 November 1989, then goes on to explain the whole of Berlin, how it has changed since then and all about the public transport system, telling us how for many years, "it was as if for both sides the other was a kind of South London into which one ventured, in public transport terms, at one's peril."

The second is a German book with a slightly less common perspective of the Wende: Jan Böttcher's Nachglühen (Afterglow - see my review). Set in a village on the border to West Germany, it too looks at what has changed since the Wall - or in this case the fence - came down. You can listen to a radio play of the novel on NDR Kultur for a week from Wednesday.

All this reminiscing reminds me of my own excitement over the 9th of November. At the time I had fled my suburban high school for a sixth-form college in another, more affluent suburb. As I recall I had high hopes of becoming instantly cool and joining some mythical café society by going there, which didn't happen. But there was great euphoria within our modest German department over the fall of the Wall, and our teacher showed us taped footage from German TV - Sat1 was available via satellite and cable at the time and was always very popular at parties as it was the only channel available in Britain that ran soft-porn, but of course only German teachers had it. The whole thing really messed up our curriculum though, because it suddenly required new lesson materials on a grand scale. But the teacher rose to the occasion rather well with reams of photocopied collages.

The fall of the Wall will forever be entangled in my memory with the fall of Margaret Thatcher. At some point between the two events, our college hung TVs from the ceilings in the corridors, broadcasting their own teletext messages. Presumably this was some kind of Media Studies project harnessing the very latest technological progress. Anyway, the buzz over the teletext message "Margaret Thatcher resigns" was similar, for me, to the reactions a little over a year earlier. Like the Berlin Wall, Thatcher seemed to have been there forever. We'd grown up with her, she represented the antithesis of freedom, and we all longed to tear her down. There had been rising discontent and although in hindsight the end was on the cards, nobody ever imagined it would happen.

Both occasions warranted a celebratory baked potato from the college canteen and much teenage enthusiasm. Perhaps I'll celebrate tonight with an old-school baked potato for tea. Teenage enthusiasm is off, however.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Kathrin Schmidt: Du stirbst nicht

Kathrin Schmidt neatly picked up this year’s German Book Prize with Du stirbst nicht, a novel about a woman who wakes up from a coma and has to piece together her memory. The FAZ blogger Andrea Diener happened to sit in front of someone from the jury and overhear an impromptu discussion of why she won – hair-raising stuff. Apparently some of the other books on the shortlist were thought too clever for their own good, and some of them were set in villages. Kathrin Schmidt, on the other hand, gave us a book about a woman struggling with a blow of fate in Berlin – a sure winner. Not to forget that she’s a woman herself, which means the rights to her novel will sell to the US/UK, as I pointed out a while back. Good people of the jury – that advice I gave you to choose a nice unthreatening lady author was a joke.

I hope all this hasn’t put you off – because this is by no means a nice unthreatening lady of a book. It’s a zinger, a humdinger, a fabulous shock of a novel. It’s told in chapters, divided up into very short passages that submerge us in the writer Helene Wesendahl’s hospital routine from the very outset. As she has to rebuild her vocabulary, the language starts simple and becomes increasingly complex – Schmidt wrote poetry and prose before she herself suffered a ruptured aneurysm. She too has now regained her language but apparently doesn’t feel capable of writing poetry any more. I’d disagree – at times her prose crosses that boundary and slips almost inadvertently into poetry. And the sheer exhilaration Helene feels when she rediscovers a word is infectious.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, as that’s another side of the novel that makes it so impressive. As Helene remembers details of her past life, we feel her shock, joy and sadness. She mourns anew for people she has lost, has to befriend old familiars all over again, and relives moving moments – all the while going through therapy to repair her body and mind. As it turns out, all is not as rosy as she thought when she first woke up and encountered her devoted husband. Although in essence the novel could be set almost anywhere, Helene’s memories are of East Germany, and there are fascinating elements of political reflection on the events of 1989 and what came after them. All in all, Kathrin Schmidt does actually tell an inspiring life and love story as you might find in more conventional “women’s fiction” (how I hate that label) – but she does it so expertly that the book is much more than that.

I don’t know whether the translation rights really have been sold yet, but one thing’s for sure: the novel will be a wonderful challenge for some lucky translator. John Reddick’s English extract is from the simpler beginning of the book, but it’s excellent, dealing well with some of the wordplay puzzles Kathrin Schmidt builds in every now and then. Let’s hope he gets to do justice to the rest of the book.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Bargain Bucket ZEIT Classics

Looking to top up your supply of German classics on a tight budget? DIE ZEIT has just launched a new edition of twenty favourites as chosen by its readers, for a total price of €119.95.

Here are the titles, each with a special afterword by a ZEIT editor, should you value that kind of thing:

Sophie von La Roche: Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim
Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Leiden des jungen Werther
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Nathan der Weise
Friedrich Schiller: Die Räuber
Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil
Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas
Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm: Ausgewählte Kinder- und Hausmärchen
Joseph von Eichendorff: Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts
Annette von Droste Hülshoff: Die Judenbuche
Heinrich Heine: Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen
Wilhelm Busch: Ausgewählte Werke
Friedrich Nietzsche: Also sprach Zarathustra
Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter
Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest
Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks
Rainer Maria Rilke: Gedichte
Franz Kafka: Der Proceß
Heinrich Mann: Der Untertan
Max Frisch: Homo faber
Günter Grass: Die Blechtrommel
I must admit I'm tempted, tempted, very very tempted - even by the rather attractive cover design. If only they'd deliver a time machine along with them so I could get some work done once they arrived.

City-Lit Berlin: Inge Deutschkron, Outcast

Today's the day that you - yes, you! resident of the British isles - can wander into a bookshop and buy a copy of City-Lit Berlin. "This wonderful anthology" (The Guardian) contains all manner of writing about Berlin, edited by Heather Reyes and myself. The excerpts are from books written in English and in German, covering various historical eras and aspects of the city.

One of the most impressive books on the historical side, for me, was Inge Deutschkron's memoir Ich trug den gelben Stern, published in England as Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin, tr. Jean Steinberg. Unfortunately, although I have a copy, the English version is rather difficult to get hold of, as were the rights. So the extracts in City-Lit Berlin are my own translations.

As the name suggests, Deutschkron is a Jewish woman who survived the Nazis in Berlin. She worked as a secretary at Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind, recently helping to set the former premises up as a very moving museum. When the Jews began to be rounded up for "deportation" she and her mother assumed false identities, helped by Otto Weidt and other friends. Her book tells this story, presenting a girl's view of the persecution and the war in Berlin.

It is simply written, presenting young Inge's amazement at the horrors of the time in straightforward language that nevertheless cuts to the quick. The Deutschkrons were socialists and not religious, and in fact the book opens with Inge's mother telling her in 1933 that she is a Jew, something she fails to understand. The author presents a varied picture of Jewish life across Berlin's social classes before the persecution began in earnest, and the misery and fear once it set in. She is not uncritical of those who stuck their heads in the sand and those who initially profitted from Nazi persecution in small ways, yet she is never judgemental.

But this is a book of hope. Through her own story, Inge Deutschkron shows that there was such a thing as the "good German". From the police officers in Mitte who warned Jewish people of their impending arrest to the many people who helped her and her mother, and above all Otto Weidt, who saved countless lives.

The passages in the anthology are Deutschkron's memories of key events in Berlin: a child's eye view of the November 1938 pogrom known as Kristallnacht, and her later horror when all her "legal" Jewish workmates are arrested and sent to their death. In their honesty and simplicity - the book is often used as teaching material at German schools - they are both great pieces of writing from an unusual perspective.

Ich trug den gelben Stern has never gone out of print in German. Perhaps now would be the right moment to resurrect the English version, possibly in a slightly fresher translation.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Employee Translator Model

The German publishing house Lübbe has three translators among its permanent employees, and the Managing Director Klaus Kluge talks about the model in an interview in the trade mag Buchreport.

Aside from the wish to have particular translators who know their stuff in Lübbe's genres at their permanent disposal, Kluge says the decision was motivated by the possibility of spiralling royalties. The example he gives is Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol - if he had to pay the translators 0.8% of all sales income, he says, the end sum would be "breathtaking". In this case, though, his permanent people get a capped royalty plus their standard wages. There are advantages for both sides, he claims, as the translators have the security of a permanent job rather than working on a book-for-book freelance basis.

One thing I don't quite understand is the time pressure he cites to get (American) bestsellers out in translation. Why is it of advantage to Lübbe to have published The Lost Symbol before it came out in Sweden, for example? I can hardly see thousands of people in airport bookshops hovering between Das verlorene Symbol and Den förlorade symbolen. And certainly it has negative implications for translation quality when, as in this case, one book is translated by a team of six in an extremely short period.

Another issue for me is why Dan Brown is entitled to unbounded royalties but his translators are not. And with the publishing industry in its current state, that job security Kluge cites is presumably worth little in return.

Although freelance literary translators are in a very precarious position, they can at least (in theory) choose which books to translate, working on particular authors or genres for various different publishing houses. And they do at least have a chance of decent royalties that recognise their creative input, once the dispute on the issue is settled in Germany. I don't see that the permanent employee model - under these circumstances - offers them a genuine alternative.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Monday, 2 November 2009

Four German Titles on Incredibly Long Impac Longlist

They've announced the 156-strong longlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Titles are nominated by participating libraries, which I think is a fantastic idea. And there are four German books in the running for the €100,000 prize - which would be split 75:25 between the author and their translator, should a translated title win.

The books are:

Christoph Hein, Settlement, tr. Philip Boehm
Ingo Schulze, New Lives, tr. John E Woods
Sasa Stanisic, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, tr. Anthea Bell
Ilija Trojanov, The Collector of Worlds, tr. William Hobson

You can see which libraries participated and which books they nominated, and a brief look shows something interesting. This time around, the libraries in Germany almost all picked at least one German book, while the Austrian and Swiss libraries were completely unpatriotic. Of the thirteen nominations from England, one is a translated title. Irish libraries suggest two translations, Scottish none (although there were only two libraries participating). South African zero. USA four of around seventy suggestions. Australia none, New Zealand one. Barbados & Jamaica none, Canada one. (And sorry to have overlooked, like, half the English-speaking countries on the list. It's because I don't get out enough.)

In most cases, translated books were nominated solely by libraries in their countries of origin (which explains the lack of Austrian and Swiss titles on the list). But at least this is a good way to get greater attention for those books in the English-speaking world, however much it smacks of Eurovisionism. The actual judging is more traditional, so that also gives less popular titles a fair shot at the prize.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

November Thrills and Spills

November is not quite the cruelest month in Berlin, as February is worse - the dull winter seems to have been going on forever, the pavements are encrusted with grit and brown snow, and since coal heating has gone out of fashion even the comforting smell has all but disappeared. But November's pretty bad as months go - you still feel inclined to shrug off those pre-Christmas displays as humbug, it rains non-stop and there's nothing on the telly.

To counteract this depressing atmosphere, the Germans invented the 9th of November. Or rather, they reinvented it, as it already existed as the date of their last major pogrom in 1938, before murdering Jews was rationalised. Of course commemorating that was kind of a cheerless enterprise, so instead they knocked down the big wall they'd built through the middle of the capital - and Bob's your uncle, a nice new occasion for fireworks and speeches. Not unlike Guy Fawkes' Day, in fact, but without burning effigies of Catholics.

But as the literary industry loves nothing more than an anniversary, we can in fact rejoice along with the Germans at the fall of the Iron Curtain twenty years ago. For November sees a veritable feast of publications marking the date - or just plain taking the opportunity to shower us with German writing while a few more people might be interested than otherwise.

Already out there is gangway #39, with original English pieces and a sprinkling of translations marking twenty years since the Berlin Wall collapsed. Then November's Words Without Borders will be a special on contemporary German writing. no man's land issue #4 should be up there any day now too, our annual extravaganza of fine German writing not strictly marking the anniversary but not dodging the issue either.

And two fantastic books come out in early November, starting with my personal baby City-Lit Berlin - a "wonderful anthology" according to The Guardian. A couple of days later comes Words Without Borders' The Wall in My Head, a collection of writing and art with a slightly broader remit which I'm eagerly awaiting too.

So although it's not quite the right time of year to get snowed in with a book and an attractive member of the opposite sex - at least not in Berlin - you could always plead a rain allergy and barricade the doors for a few days of undisturbed reading.

Update: Should you feel inclined to leave the house after all, there are a good few events coming up too. The no man's land launch (see below) next Tuesday, City-Lit Berlin launches on the 19th in Berlin and the 27th in London - and see trade mag Buchreport for a list of November literary festivals around Germany and Austria.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

no man's land #4 launch reading

no man’s land # 4 launch reading
with fiction by Emma Braslavsky, Claudius Hagemeister and Julia Schoch
November 3, 2009
8 p.m.
Saint Georges Bookshop
Wörther Str. 27, Prenzlauer Berg
Free admission

no man’s land is proud to launch Issue # 4 with a bilingual reading of fiction by three very different young writers. Just in time for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Emma Braslavsky traces the crisscrossing arcs of pre- and post-Wall friendship, while Julia Schoch’s “Capturing in Passing” evokes the GDR as brutal summer camp. And Claudius Hagemeister’s Grim Reaper escorts us unceremoniously from post-Wall to posthumous reality.

Emma Braslavsky will read with her translator Andrew Boreham, Claudius Hagemeister will read with translator Nicholas Grindell, and Zaia Alexander will read her translation of Julia Schoch.

After the reading, we hope you’ll stick around for a celebratory beer from Saint Georges’ reasonably-priced bar! We look forward to seeing you.

no man’s land # 4 will appear on November 1, 2009 with translations of fiction by Emma Braslavsky, Claudius Hagemeister, Sudabeh Mohafez, Julia Schoch and Keto von Waberer and poetry by Carl-Christian Elze, Hendrik Jackson, Adrian Kasnitz, Nicolai Kobus, Birgit Kreipe, Christoph Wenzel and Harald Weinrich at

The Editors, no man’s land

Monday, 26 October 2009

City-Lit Berlin: Michael Wildenhain - Russisch Brot

Having been rather distracted by all these prizes, book fairs and the like, I'm now going to make a mad dash to cover a few more of the titles that made it into the City-Lit Berlin anthology. Starting with another fiction favourite, Michael Wildenhain's Russisch Brot. The title, incidentally, is a kind of rather dull biscuit in the shape of letters of the alphabet, combining childhood nostalgia with political reference.

I chose the book because I find Wildenhain writes very well on everyday life in Cold-War West Berlin. I particularly enjoyed his Träumer des Absoluten (review here) on the squatters' movement and what came out of it. Russisch Brot is a very different book but just as well done - one reviewer even compared Wildenhain to Alfred Döblin, that master of observation whose Berlin Alexanderplatz has branded itself onto collective literary memory. It's the story of a family divided by the Berlin Wall, a very common fate. The narrator Joachim is a young boy, an only child growing up in the West. But his most exciting experiences take place in a run-down Kleingartenkolonie in the East, where he visits the rest of his family at their weekend garden home. This is where Wildenhain excels, describing the heat, the scent and the emotions his narrator feels up in the dusty loft with his female cousin.

We learn forgotten facts about the divided Berlin - how pensioners were allowed out of the East, how people in the West had to queue for a day pass - the cruel passage we used in City-Lit Berlin. And we learn how families nevertheless managed to stay together. There is a secret lurking in this family's past, one that plays on Joachim's mind until the final page and propels the novel along at a sturdy pace. A photo of a strange boy, a strange man his mother seems to know. In the background glowers the war, casting its long shadow over the family's history just as it does over the city itself.

But what I loved was the sensual details from the child's point of view:

...Every visit was more than just an outing, it was a little adventure. Only the presents my relatives from East Berlin gave me for my birthday or Christmas were a disappointment. I threw away the sweets that tasted of colouring or too much sugar and made lumps on the roof of my mouth when I chewed them. I felt sorry for the toy Indians I often unwrapped. The Indians in the East were made of carefully painted clay. Their arms or legs often broke off, a calf or a hand dangling down and slightly moveable on a wire that emerged beneath the coloured clay tubes.

A beautifully written portrait of Berlin in the 1960s, told from an unusual perspective.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Breon Mitchell on The Tin Drum

At Two Words, Scott Esposito talks to Breon Mitchell about retranslating Günter Grass' Tin Drum. He pretty much covers all the bases, except for asking whether Breon is a cat person or a dog person. Maybe I should try and get an interview with him too.

I'm currently immersed in the new translation, savouring every page. I'm using the Charlie Bucket reading method, which I'm sure you're familiar with: nibbling a tiny bit at a time, then shutting the book again, closing my eyes and enjoying the taste for as long as possible. I am so impressed. There's so much rhythm and texture in there all of a sudden!

In fact, this would be the perfect book to run one of those online joint reading ventures on like with Infinite Jest, don't you think?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Günter Wallraff Blacks Up

The German investigative reporter Günter Wallraff is known beyond national borders, predominantly for his groundbreaking 1985 book and film Lowest of the Low, for which he disguised himself as a Turkish "guest worker". And now he's been out and about exposing injustice in Germany again for a new book, Aus der schönen neuen Welt - and a film by the name of Schwarz auf Weiß (black on white). And yes, the film does what it says on the tin: Wallraff blacks up, dons an afro wig and travels around Germany as a Somalian, predictably enough encountering shocking examples of racism, near-violence and unfairness.

So far, so good. That's what Wallraff does - he disguises himself as a homeless man, a call centre agent, an alcoholic, and exposes the grimy sides of life in Germany. But it seems it's not just me who finds the guy's gone a step too far in this day and age by creating Kwami Ogonno. As Der Spiegel points out in its photo gallery:

Black Germans are on the fence about the film. "We find the mindset behind Mr. Wallraff's film very problematic," says Tahir Della, a spokeswoman from the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD). "As is so often the case, someone is speaking for rather than with us."

Della's being rather diplomatic there. The blog Black NRW puts it more directly:

Just what we needed: an almost 70-year-old white man, "camouflaged as black" using carnival face-paint, hops and skips around Germany and then, his make up off and white again, makes a sensational announcement via book, film, tour and talk show, naturally only for money: "Yes, it's really true, racism exists. Believe me, I'm white. You should behave in a friendly and humane manner towards all black people – they could be me."

The blogger goes on to recommend that people read a book written by a genuine black author, such as Noah Sow's Deutschland Schwarz Weiß (which I found revealing if irritatingly written). And the woman herself has given a stonking-good angry interview to the news programme Tagesspiegel, pointing out that it seems to take a white man to make the Germans sit up and listen to what she and many others have been saying for decades. Asked to list common prejudices against black people, she replies:

If you're interested try reading a good book on the subject. There are plenty of them. It's not okay or "normal" to have such a huge blind spot on a subject as important as this, that's present everywhere and affects us all. And otherwise I'd like to turn that ethnological gaze around: racism isn't a black tradition, it's a white tradition.

What amazes me is that Wallraff hasn't learned his lesson. As Tom Cheesman writes in his Novels of Turkish German Settlement, there were very mixed reactions to Lowest of the Low within the Turkish community. The book is often experienced as "unwittingly condescending" and playing on a stereotype of Turks as ignorant, unskilled, pitiful - and male, and has been subject to a fair amount of literary parody. Cheesman quotes Petra Fachinger, who relates an episode from the 1980s when the Turkish feminist novelist Aysel Özakin came to Germany:

Özakin "wanted to leave the Federal Republic when she first saw Ganz unten displayed in a bookstore window." The "sullen, despondent dirty face" of Wallraff as Ali "drove her into an identity crisis," as it seemed to force her into a position of ethnic identification "with each and every Turk she saw in the street."

So now we have Wallraff championing black people in Germany – not black Germans, but once again a hapless and pitiable foreigner, as if nothing had changed since 1985. The unwitting message? Black people are victims - and it takes a blacked-up Günter Wallraff in a ridiculous shirt to attract any attention to racism.

Update: See Noah Sow's blog for photos of her dressed up as a white male journalist for Halloween. Apparently she's also willing to spill the beans on her sociological experiences during the evening - for a large sum of money.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Literary Leprechaun

I go to a lot of readings - not a difficult thing to do in Berlin, what with its combination of the German reading culture and a huge number of excellent venues. Most of the time this is a wonderful pastime, with fantastic writers talking and reading their great literature out loud, the chance of (gasp!) eye contact, snaffling a few titbits of information which at least seem intimate and exclusive, although I've no doubt true professionals say the same things over and over in Bielefeld, Birmingham, Bangkok and Berlin. I'm always in seventh heaven when there are informal drinks afterwards, occasionally actually speaking in person to that writer I've just been gawping at for an hour and a half.

But there's one part I always, always hate: questions from the audience. Last night I was sitting in an overheated, overcrowded room, longing to go home, when the moderator said the dreaded words: Any questions from the floor? And then it descended - that collective need to make ourselves look incredibly clever, even at the cost of making ourselves look incredibly stupid. Your previous work has mainly been set in the city - why have you now chosen the locus of the Syrian village? How much of the spiritual do you allow to flow into your work? Why do Spanish intellectuals find it so difficult to speak about the post-Franco period? What is your assessment of the Namada dam project?

Is it just me, or does anyone else have a literary leprechaun squatting on their shoulder at this point? Last night I was overcome by a barely repressible urge to ask dumb questions, the kind you might really ask at the end of a long evening:

What's your favourite colour?
Are you a cat person or a dog person?
What's your star sign?
If you woke up as a woman/man one morning, would you try to change back?
Do you prefer long walks in the fresh air or curling up with a good book?
Where's the best place you've ever been on holiday?

I'll let you know if I ever give in to that leprechaun. And any further suggestions gratefully received in the comments section...

Monday, 19 October 2009

Window Cleaners, Rich Kids, Dwarves - Prizes

Three big awards have gone out over the past few days. Number one, the Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt Prize for translation of English literature, went to Ulrich Blumenbach for David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. According to Börsenblatt, Blumenbach compared the work of the translator to that of a window cleaner in his acceptance speech for the €15,000 award - because books are "windows on the world". I don't know, I can't help thinking of George Formby... "for a nosy parker it's an inter-estin' job."

The exciting new would-be independent award, the Hotlist 2009, went to Alexander Schimmelbusch for Blut im Wasser, a novel about rich kids coming to terms with the finite nature of life. I missed the slightly scary-looking author's reading by a whisker in Frankfurt, but I'm sure he'll be glad of the €5000 prize money.

And then there's the Deutscher Phantastik Prize for fantasy fiction, like the Hotlist voted for by actual readers. Best German-language novel went to Markus Heitz for Das Schicksal der Zwerge, best international to Patrick Rothfuss for Der Name des Windes (trans. Jochen Schwarzer). I don't think they get any money though, just eternal glory.

Herta Müller: Atemschaukel/Everything I Own...

I had the presence of mind to buy a copy of Atemschaukel before Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize and it sold out, as it was originally my favourite for the German Book Prize. I didn’t start reading it, however, until the international press started Herta Who-ing. Peter Englund described it as “absolutely breathtaking” – and I would tend to agree.

The novel is narrated by Leopold Auberg, a young homosexual from the German minority in Romania, and opens early in 1944. Müller kindly provides the bare facts in an afterword, telling us that all Romanian-Germans between the age of 17 and 45 were deported to Soviet labour camps after the Red Army arrived in fascist Romania, which capitulated and declared war on Germany. The poet Oskar Pastior and Müller’s own mother were among these deportees, but their experiences remained taboo in Romanian society. Pastior and Müller had planned to write the novel together, based on his memories and interviews with ex-prisoners from Müller’s village in Romania. His sudden death in 2006 threw her off course for a year before she could settle down to translate her copious notes into the novel. Atemschaukel details five years in the camp and a short period afterwards, finally relating Leo’s escape from a loveless marriage in Romania to Austria.

I’ve recently read a few comments to the tune that Herta Müller was only awarded the prize because a) she’s a German revisionist or b) she’s a rabid anti-communist beloved of conservative politicians. I shall dismiss b) outright as ridiculous – as if anyone would expect her to stand up for Ceausescu’s regime, and as if she had any sway over who reads her books (or instructs their aides to read her books, as I find it difficult to imagine Merkel and Couchner curling up with Herztier). Stupid accusation a), however, that Müller is in some way making Germans into innocent victims in Atemschaukel, is refuted in the very first pages of the novel.

The narrator, as yet incognito as we learn of his first illicit sexual encounters, tells us how the prisoners travelled to the Soviet camp: in cattle trucks, instantly evoking the fate of the Jews under the Nazis. Yet these cattle trucks are equipped with makeshift benches and toilets, and the Romanians give them food to eat on the journey – a frozen goat, which they initially mistake for firewood and laughingly burn. As we learn later, the Germans in Romania led a kind of charmed life during the war, a time of cucumber salad in the garden, porcelain and fur coats, largely unaffected by world events. Indeed, for the narrator, the Soviet camp initially seems like a route to escape from his petit-bourgeois, nationalist family. These are not innocents but Nazis or at least turners of blind eyes, and Müller treats the family itself with little love, just as they give little love to their lost son.

Given this situation, it would be almost impossible to create a sober account of life in the gulag, as we are familiar with from Solzhenitsyn or Margarete Buber-Neumann. And this is anything but a sober account. It is a dizzying, poetic, punch-drunk account that sent me reeling, shocked at what was being told but constantly marvelling at the writing.

The narrator’s voice is strangely naïve, and the language has a slight patina – this is the 1940s after all, but I imagined I heard the old-fashioned German of the Banat Swabians and the Siebenbürger Saxons too, dialects frozen in time since German settlers moved to Romania centuries ago. And he describes the camp as a budding poet, a young man who packs Faust and poetry in his suitcase but never reads them, instead trading them page by page as cigarette paper for salt and sugar, flour and a lice comb.

Yet as Leo tells us about this place of grim survival where the words on the paper count for nothing, Müller’s language creates images of extraordinary beauty. There are nature poems here, odes to Ukrainian weeds, there are poems dedicated to hunger and release. Leo finds escape and comfort in words, unfamiliar Russian sounds that take on new meaning to German ears – a device Müller has played with in the past. A particular type of coal is referred to as “hasoweh”, which reminds the narrator of a wounded hare in German. This poor creature crops up at various points, its effect gradually becoming more and more cynical as Leo loses his capacity for compassion.

Another device familiar from Müller’s earlier work is her use of curious compound nouns, such as the Atemschaukel of the title (breath-swing). I have to admit I found this aspect rather opaque and certainly can’t attempt to explain why the book has this title. As such, I don’t share the criticism of the deviating titles of Müller’s English translations – I find they make the books more accessible at first glance. Everything I Own I Carry With Me is a key sentence in the novel, occurring at the beginning and the end and summing up both Leo’s life and the itinerancy present – I’m told – in much of Müller’s previous writing. Here and elsewhere, suitcases are packed and unpacked, playing a major and symbolic role.

As the suffering reaches its peak in the “skin-and-bone time” towards the middle of Atemschaukel, the narration becomes increasingly erratic. Leo introduces us to a world ruled by hunger angels, where everyday objects take on extreme significance: crusts of bread, lumps of coal, combs, shovels, scarves, photographs – many of the chapters bear the names of these objects. Life revolves around them, losing all sense of time, just as the novel’s structure is only loosely chronological. By a certain point, all human relations have broken down and survival depends solely upon insentient objects.

This is, there are no two ways about it, a great novel. I think Herta Müller made a wise decision to move further away from her previous writing, which was mainly autobiographically tinged. I get the impression people were starting to write her off as the woman who only ever writes about Germans under Ceausescu. In Atemschaukel, she has more than proved that her range is wider, and that her curious linguistic slant can be just as well applied to matters further afield.