Thursday, 30 April 2009

Karl May's Boots Are Made for Walking

I have another passion in life aside from German books, and that is walking. And now the German health ministry has got together with the country's libraries and booksellers to launch a "more walking" campaign by the name of "lesen bewegt" (reading moves you). As anyone who's tried it will know, though, it's very difficult to walk and read at the same time, especially in a busy city. So how does the whole thing work?

Bookstores and libraries are organising all sorts of weird and wonderful events, with nature walks to the library for children, walking tours on the trail of famous writers, and readings of famous literary walks. And booksellers are hoping to call attention to all those fitness books loitering inert on their shelves through the campaign too.

What I like best though is the posters and other advertising material showing literary legs. Check out Karl May's crotch-high leather boots and studded rifle, or Agatha Christie's matronly ankles and sensible shoes. Or even Thomas Mann's dapper slacks and spats in bookmark form.

I'm not sure whether the campaign will get readers walking - or walkers reading, for that matter - but it's certainly more appealing than one of the others on the same website: taking a brisk walk with the health minister herself under the pithy title Ulla Schmidt geht mit.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

German Literature's Problems with Homosexuality

Last night saw the final event in the Literaturwerkstatt's series "Das Fremde und das Eigene" (I wrote about the other two here). And seeing as I get in to all their events for free for the next year, having won this fantastic treat in their prize draw, I could hardly not go, could I?

While the past events focused on migration and migrants in mainstream literature (or at least intended to do so), last night was dedicated to sexual identities. The panel consisted of:

Michael Lentz, writer, heterosexual
Inge Stephan, literary scholar, no sexual preference stated
Claudia Klitschat, writer, lesbian
Christina von Braun, cultural studies scholar, no sexual preference stated
Joachim Helfer, writer, gay
Detlef Grumbach, publisher, gay.

As you may have observed, I wouldn't usually state every participant's sexuality. But the event rather put a spotlight on it, as it asked why heterosexual authors fail to include gay and lesbian characters in their writing. A question which Michael Lentz was forced to try and answer, particularly as he was accused of sidestepping the issue in his novel Pazifik Exil, in which he ventriloquises various German exiles in California. Specifically, as he told us, he deliberately kept homosexuality in the closet, allowing Thomas Mann merely a few sidelong glances at male bodies and Oskar Pastior (whom he transplanted to the USA and for whom he invented an early death) a close male companion.

A number of possible explanations were put on the table. Lentz started out with what seemed the most honest - echoing the reasons other German authors had given for ignoring migrants in their writing - that he was concerned about authenticity. Von Braun argued that men have been creating female characters and indeed first-person narrators for generations, so why the concern? She also suggested that German society is very normative, not just when it comes to sexuality, having been through two splits down the middle - the Reformation and post-WWII. I think she might well have something there, although the exceptions that prove the rule have always been fascinating. And Helfer, who later became entrenched in a testosterone-laden political debate with Lentz, suggested what he called "holy fear". But as Grumbach emphasised (while Helfer seemed to disagree), there is no way to impose subject matters upon writers.

In the end, the event left us wanting more. It did address the question of "das Fremde und das Eigene" in a more focused way than its predecessors and it was interesting to combine what came out of them all. I'd say the series has highlighted one issue about German society: that it's not just those labelled minorities who live in their own little bubbles or "parallel societies". But the subject of representations of minorities in majority literature needs closer attention than it can ever be given in a couple of hours' readings and discussions.

I was most impressed by Joachim Helfer's book (with Rashid al Daif), Die Verschwulung der Welt. I suppose you could translate the title very loosely as "The World's Going Gay". The two authors met as part of a German-Arab cultural exchange, and al Daif very openly wrote down his feelings about meeting an out homosexual in Europe for the first time. Helfer responded in kind, criticising his colleague's own ideas of gender roles. To which, unfortunately, al Daif didn't get to respond (at least not in writing).

Initially, I felt rather sorry for Michael Lentz, who ended up a bit of a scapegoat. But the man was so self-possessed - and put his arguments across so well - that he didn't need anyone's sympathy. Incidentally, he could also more than compete with Feridun Zaimoglu on the clunky jewellery front, something I always grudgingly admire in a man. Determined to get the last word, he pointed out that his students on the Leipzig creative writing programme have gradually begun to take a "so what?" approach to their own sexualities, after initially often making a big song and dance of their literary comings-out. So perhaps the youngest generation of German writers will find gay and lesbian characters a less scary prospect - now that homosexuals are at least more or less equal in the eyes of the law here.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Özdogan Gives Free Live Online Reading

For all Selim Özdogan's many fans out there, why not set aside Tuesday night (CET) to spend in front of the computer? He'll be reading live in Düsseldorf - and for a limited number of online listeners registered here.

Özdogan is a veteran literary entertainer, who really makes the most of his many readings to commune with his audience. I just hope he doesn't tell the story about his translator and her choice of genital nouns.

I can't make it, but watch this space for other opportunities to catch the man himself live.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Wolff Translator's Prize to John Hargraves

As the Chicago Goethe-Institut announced, this year's Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize goes to John Hargraves for his version of Michael Krüger's Turiner Komödie, in English The Executor. The Complete Review describes the book as a "fairly well-done writerly/publishing tragi-comedy".

Hargraves, who has taught German at various universities and authored, edited and translated various books, often with a music focus, receives $10,000 and gets to spend a month on the shore of the Wannsee at the Literary Colloquium in Berlin (where I believe last year's winner, David Dollenmayer, is currently sojourning as we speak). Interestingly, he is also a bit of an expert on Philip Roth and has edited a number of translations of his work into German. Roth has had seven different German translators over the years, so a consistent editor is probably an excellent idea. The jury chose Hargraves' book from over fifty fiction and non-fiction submissions.

There'll be an award ceremony in Chicago on 8 June. Congratulations!

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Franzen Translating Again

I've written about Jonathon Franzen's illustrious career as a translator from German before. And it seems he's back in Berlin, giving readings and interviews again. Various papers reported on his appearance at the Temporary Art Hall on the rubble of the Palace of the Republic, including the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Apparently, he charmed the whole audience by making an effort to speak in German - on the subject of "sex, literature and the German language".

The sex was sadly non-existent, with Franzen talking about how he never managed to get into any German knickers as a Fulbright student in Munich and Berlin. The literature was Kafka - hard - Mann - perfect formalism - and the low profile of German authors in the US. And the German language was the medium.

Beforehand, Franzen gave an interview to Gregor Dotzauer of the Tagesspiegel, revealing that he and Daniel Kehlmann have been working on a second translation after polishing up his first one of Wedekind's Spring Awakening together. Translation, he says, is fun (below are my re-translations):

I'm just working on essays by Karl Kraus. My friend Daniel Kehlmann is helping me. There's an almost finished version of "Heine und die Folgen" and a less finished one of "Nestroy und die Nachwelt", which I've had to put aside because I have to hand in a novel by the end of the year. Otherwise I'm a dead man. Every one of Kraus's sentences is like a new crossword puzzle for me. And there are some things that'll never be translated quite right. What is "Geist" in English? There's nothing you can do. And Nestroy plays with all the word's nuances of meaning.

Asked about more contemporary stuff, he answers:

My pile of unread German literature is growing and growing. But I've read half of Daniel Kehlmann's "Ruhm". And I'm surrounded by piles of American books. I could tell you more about Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke or Günter Grass. I read "Peeling the Onion" in English, but I found it was written from a strong inner need, which you can't necessarily say of many of his previous books. I think it was treated very unfairly here (in Germany).

I noted last time that he has a very dated view of German literature, and I find that confirmed here. Each to his own and all that, but I do wonder if he's not missing out on something.

Update: You can watch a short video with audience reactions via the Goethe-Institut's Current Writing blog.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

A Little Bit of Local Politics

This Sunday is polling day in Berlin. But the ballot papers won't feature a list of parties and candidates, but a simple "yes" or "no". Unfortunately, the issue at hand isn't all that simple, as Spiegel reports in English here.

It's a referendum over whether to make children aged 12 and up decide between "Ethics" and "Religion" as part of the curriculum. Ethics was introduced at Berlin's high schools as a compulsory subject in 2006, in response to an "honour killing" and what some saw as inter-ethnic violence at schools. Pupils can still choose to take Religion too, which is taught by the respective church or organisation - Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims are thus taught separately, provided there are enough of them at any one school to make up a class.

Don't get this "religious education" confused with what kids learn in Britain, though. They don't learn about the beliefs and customs of different faiths, tolerance and understanding. As a proud atheist in the fourth generation, I genuinely enjoyed RE at school, as it also gave us a chance to discuss ethics in a very inclusive and accepting way. But I often find Germans are rather ignorant about other religions, perhaps because they didn't have this privilege at school.

The "proReli" campaign behind the referendum is supported by the churches, the Jewish Community, one Muslim association and the CDU, and has a number of celebrities calling for "freedom of choice". They feel it is important for children to be taught ethics separately according to religion, and argue that fewer pupils are opting for Religion now, as it is usually offered after core teaching hours.

The "proEthik" campaign, on the other hand, is less glamorous, with not a celebrity to be seen. But way back in January, the writer Julia Franck chimed in with a very interesting essay in Spiegel magazine. Franck wrote the winner of the 2007 German Book Prize, set to be published in the UK as The Blind Side of the Heart. Which I'm sure I've mentioned before is a stonking good read and very thought-provoking.

Franck points out all the good sides of talking about ethics with children of all faiths together, and the possible consequences of splitting them all up again. She argues that Ethics lessons could be used to teach about all the religions, including visits to temples, mosques, churches and synagogues: "Competition between the state and religion is neither natural nor necessary. Particularly in a globalised and pluralist society, every German school pupil ought to learn about different religions, their history, ideas and practices."

What she doesn't mention is what for me is the larger issue. For the plebiscite to succeed, forcing the authorities to take action and make pupils choose between Ethics and Religion, the proReli campaign needs 610,000 "yes" votes. I personally doubt they'll reach this target, and as a parent, I also hope they won't. But who actually gets to vote? Is it all parents of school-aged children? Is it even perhaps school-aged children themselves?

Perish the thought. It's all German citizens registered in Berlin. Now if you know anything about German nationality law and demographics, the warning bells should start ringing about now. Because that excludes the 470,004 individuals in Berlin who don't hold a German passport. And, as the demographics show, these people are more likely to have more children than your old ethnic Germans, plagued as they are by stress and career pressure. And non-German nationals are also less likely to belong to the dominant Protestant church, which provides most religious education at Berlin's schools. So I for one, and many of the other parents at my daughter's school, won't have any say whatsoever over whether our children are taught ethics together or separately in the future. And that's the real scandal.

Update: proReli lost the referendum, with about 48.5% of votes, and failed to reach the required quorum. Berlin's protestant Bishop Wolfgang Huber expressed his disappointment but hoped that the churches would work more closely with Ethics classes in future - echoing Franck's suggestion, perhaps.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Free the Word!

I caught two events in the excellent Free the Word! festival in London, which Chad Post reports on too at Three Percent. In fact I saw him at one of them and introduced myself, then fawned embarrassingly and had to leave before making a complete and utter fool of myself. I did manage to use correct grammar and full sentences, though, which Post seems to assume is a characteristic of the British. He obviously didn't travel on many buses during his stay in London, then, where the cuss quotient is significantly higher than in the gorgeous Underglobe venue. My mum (not really in a position to criticise, having sported the world's silliest maiden name) took the piss out of "Pad Chost" on the way home - isn't that a Thai dish?

The first event I went to had great potential. Telling Secret Lives saw the writers Azar Nafisi and Lee Stringer and the translator Wen Huang talking about writing about lives we don't hear about - young women in Iran, black kids at a Jewish reform school and inmates in Chinese prisons. Unfortunately, the chair was so much on another planet that the discussion didn't come together, mainly because, you know, two of the people up there had little to say about Iranian film. But no doubt all the Persian film buffs in the audience were well pleased at this unexpected bonus.

That made the second discussion shine all the more. Entitled Hell on Earth, it brought together the journalists Lydia Cacho from Mexico, Carolin Emcke of Der Spiegel and the Danish novelist Christian Jungersen, all chaired by the excellent Peter Beaumont from the Observer. He really held tight onto the reins but let the speakers do their thing, and the resulting discussion was fascinating. Cacho exposed a child abuse ring in Mexico and was subsequently arrested and tortured - but is still writing about violence against women and children today. Emcke has reported from war zones and crisis regions around the world. And Jungersen based his novel The Exception, about bullying in the workplace, on personal experience.

All of them had obviously thought long and hard about how best to put hell into words on paper, and shared their ideas with us. But the discussion was also about the effect those words have on their readers, with the idea in the room that fiction is often better placed to touch our emotions than the flood of news writing and the accompanying images we see so much of. I'd say that while reporters on the ground are absolutely essential to gather the facts (and assess whether what they gather is true), fiction does have an important role to play. Think of how (German) novels have captured the public imagination, dealing with and interpreting anything from the bourgeoisie in the GDR to Jews in the Third Reich to the role of the West in the Rwandan genocide. Of course they can never be as immediate as news journalism, but perhaps they can also live longer lives for that very reason.

Interestingly, Carolin Emcke has experienced this issue at first hand. After every stint reporting abroad she sent letters to her friends, trying to bridge the gap between her experiences of war and human brutality and their everyday lives. And their response was often of shock and horror - how terrible that these things are happening! Yet, she said, they are all well-informed people who follow the news. It seems that by imagining someone they know in that situation, they could relate to it all the better, rather like following a character through the events of a novel. We all need that spark of human interest, it would appear, to feel with people on the ground.

The letters are published in the book Echoes of Violence, which I brought home with me and will no doubt review in more detail later. Emcke wrote them in English but they were translated into German for the original publication. Apparently this way a fairly painful process, as she initially found it strange to read her own words in someone else's language.

The festival has sprouted legs and will be striding over to various cities around the world, starting in the European cultural capital Linz, Austria, in October.

In other news, I met the wonderful people behind the City-Lit travel guides, Oxygen Books. Look forward to their book on Berlin, scheduled for October. And that's an order!

I also went to the magnificently appointed Daunt Books in Chelsea, which had a gorgeous display in the window revolving around Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone - but incorporating history books and related novels. By the way, did you know Fallada's novel is based on the actual case of Otto and Elise Hampel, who wrote and distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Berlin?

And waiting for me at home was a letter from the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin - I've won a year's free entry to all their events in a prize draw. What better surprise for a German book lover?

Friday, 17 April 2009


I'm off to lovverly London for a couple of days (no, not to the book fair). I hope to catch one or two events at the excellent Free the Word! festival run by international PEN. They've also been writing some very interesting translation-related stuff at the sister blog, Free the Blog! Well worth checking out...

Back in Berlin, Mr (or Ms) Karl-Marx-Straße (who buys their stamps at Alex, not next to Neukölln town hall) points out a prize ceremony that mere mortals can attend - and sustain themselves from the buffet: the service sector trade union is awarding its literature prize to the poets Eva Strittmatter and Richard Pietraß on 22 April. I can't go.

And as if to back me up on my last post, my favourite critic, Ina Hartwig, has a nice little English interview on the Goethe-Institut's website. Aside from making me wonder whether it's a tiny bit sad to have a favourite critic, she sings the praises of Clemens Meyer and Uwe Tellkamp, Marlene Streeruwitz and Lukas Bärfuss.

See you in a few days...

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Anthology Anthology (I)

I’ve mentioned the really rather good Das Magazin here before. It’s generally very active in promoting writers and literature, and this month the literary editor, Wiebke Poromba, has a wee rant. It’s not against a particularly difficult target though – she complains that young German-language writers don’t have much to say for themselves. Schluss mit dem ganzen Larifari, she proclaims – perhaps deliberately (mis-)quoting Berlin’s hot pop sensation, Peter Fox – enough of the folderol! All these clean-cut young men going straight from school to writing careers, so polite and sober and unexcited. Her two examples are Daniel Kehlmann and Benjamin Lebert, who she says were pressed into literary contracts at such an impressionable age that they didn’t have time to experience life proper before they started churning out novels. Her suggestion is vodka rations for young writers – and reading more women.

Aside from the cliché-ridden argumentation, I only agree with Poromba to a certain extent. I’ve just finished a mammoth young-writer-athon and I found plenty to get me excited, although there were also authors I too found rather soporific. In our recent interview, Claudius Nießen mentioned the anthology Turboprop – Beste Stories, which he edited along with Christoph Graeber last year. And this year I brought another anthology back with me from Leipzig, Zeit der Witze – Texte junger Autoren. And because they both feature young(ish) German-language writers, it made sense to me to review them together.

Starting with what I find the better of the two, just to rob you of any sense of tension, Turboprop. It’s a collection of stories by the editors’ favourite guests from the reading series of the same name.

And it kicks in with a piece by one of my favourites, Clemens Meyer. Never one to shy away from “real life” issues, Meyer has turned to prostitution. This is a slightly rambling monologue by a not-quite-so-young prostitute about her punters, how she got into it, and her secret dreams. I learnt a lot, so it may well be meticulously researched. I think he’s written better – but you can’t accuse him of wanting to please any mothers-in-law with this story. And the next piece too stands out a mile – Anke Stelling, a youngish woman writing about Claudia, who has two young kids with Heiner the rebel, thought she was doing everything differently – and hates her life. With an ironically distanced narrator who tells us, “Oh, you know what, just to make it simpler, I’LL be Claudia.” And gives us the classic line: “Heiner wanted to be cheated on, there was no other explanation for his absences, so Claudia went to bed with the midwife.” I think I may have shouted for joy when I read that.

Then we get Tobias Hülswitt regaling tales of drug-taking in the Middle East, which I did find slightly yawnsome but which you can hardly claim is clean-cut. Annette Mingels has a solid relationship story, followed by an absolutely awesome piece by Guy Helminger mingling friendship, dream and gritty realism. Paul Brodowsky I personally find slightly difficult, and here he experiments to the point of becoming just plain uninteresting, with little to say but unusual ways of putting it.

Selim Özdogan, another of my personal faves, has contributed what he does very well – a short short story about friends, which captures the essence of being a young man (poor things) with his characteristic melancholy. Philip Meinhold does the same, also very well, against a backdrop that seems suspiciously like 90s Friedrichshain. In between them, Jochen Schmidt, a consummate comedian, made me laugh with a childhood story I think I’ve heard him read live, which had us rolling in the aisles. And Sasa Stanisic closes the anthology with a false-bottomed box of a political story, as reflective as his novel How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone but firmly set in Germany. Excellent stuff.

Zeit der Witze is a little more patchy, I have to admit. Book-ended by two big names – Uwe Tellkamp and Clemens Meyer – are sixteen young authors, mainly from the Leipzig creative writing programme. And I’d have to say that some of them confirm Poromba’s prejudices against young writers’ “gepflegte Langeweile” – cultivated boredom. But some of them are surprisingly good – or at least surprising.

One of the exiting things about creative writing programmes, I guess, is that students have a sounding board for experiments. A few of the short stories in this compilation read rather like attempts to try something new at all cost, playing with perspectives, narratives and characters. In a sense, it’s worth having the book on the shelf in the same way as buying art by young talents may mean you later own something by a recognised genius. Or it may not.

I enjoyed Johanna Hemkentokrax’s confusing tale of suburban antifascism, Christopher Kloeble’s extreme slow-motion twenty seconds of mathematics, Sebastian Brock’s thoroughly dislikeable hero, Katharina Schwanbeck’s painful coming-of-age story, and Marie T. Martin’s dystopian vision.

Tellingly though, what stood out for me in Zeit der Witze was the slightly more established authors. Clemens Meyer, again with a prostitute’s monologue, adds the grit that the others do rather lack. Uwe Tellkamp adds wry humour and experience with an account of his first book and how it came about. And Finn-Ole Heinrich adds searing honesty, with a narrator explaining his guilt at no longer fancying his girlfriend after an emergency amputation, in a very strong story that rightly gives the book its title.

Read one after the other like this, Turboprop clearly trumps Zeit der Witze. But it’s an unfair competition, with experienced authors pitted up against newcomers. Given a few years, I suspect some of the younger writers just coming out of creative writing programmes will be producing outstanding work – provided they do manage to gather the odd experience or two outside of academia. For those in Berlin, you can catch a couple of representatives of the Leipzig programme at the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus on 24 April.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Berlin Publishing Goes London

This year there'll be a special area at the London Book Fair for publishers from Berlin, marking twenty years since the fall of the Wall (any excuse, eh?). Mere mortals can attend an event at the Goethe Institut on Wednesday, 22 April, with various people including Volker Weidermann of the FASZ discussing writing and publishing in Berlin. Weidermann has a head full of knowledge and very impressive hair, so it could well be worth going along from a purely piliary point of view. Oh and Wolfgang Hörner seems to be on the podium too, but he has fairly normal hair. Gosh, and I've met the agent Karin Graf, the third person up there, too. I can't remember what her hair was like but she had very, very good shoes.

I'm not going, as I cleverly planned my upcoming stay in London to leave approximately two hours before all the fun starts.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Old Books in German - A Rant

The latest issue of New Books in German is online and possibly in your letterbox now, in a jaunty silver to celebrate its 25th issue. As ever, it's full of good stuff - brief reviews of new books from Switzerland, Austria and Germany for publishers to snap up for translation.

But take a look at the section on recent and forthcoming publications. Wait, first get a big shot of alcohol ready to steady your nerves once you've read it. Ready now?

OK. Of the twelve titles listed, two are academic non-fiction, so we'll just leave them out of the equation, no matter how welcome they may be. So we're down to ten, a nice round figure for working out percentages.

And what are the percentages? 80% by dead white men (including Gerd Jonke, who died very recently, which is hardly his fault, but whose Homage to Czerny was first published in German as Schule der Geläufigkeit in 1977). 20% contemporary fiction (a psychological thriller and the winner of last year's German Book Prize). 60% translated by the same two people (the excellent Anthea Bell and HM Waidson, a professor of German literature). 100% published by presses with a strong translation focus (One World Classics, Dalkey Archive Press, Pushkin Press, Harvill Secker, Bitter Lemon Press).

I realise this isn't a definitive list of all the books translated from German and published in the UK this spring. I realise there may be a few that have slipped through nbg's net. I realise I'm a jumped-up oik who thinks the world owes me a living. But what the hell is going on here? Surely I'm entitled to live in a world where publishing people share my narrow-minded passion for contemporary German-language literature? Surely British people walk into airport bookshops on the way to a city break in Vienna, Munich or Berlin wanting to read something German? Surely there are readers out there who can't sleep for yearning for a spot of modern-day teutonic writing? Surely they're just waiting for big publishers they've actually heard of to pick up on some of the great literature being written over here?

And what do they get? Dead white men. Cheers.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Leipzig's Literary Godfather - Claudius Nießen

I once happened to stand next to the owner of a certain small chain of pizza restaurants here in Berlin, at the back of a punk gig. It was crowded so we were standing quite close together, and a whole series of people kept coming up to him to pay their respects. Every one of them gave me an obsequious nod as well, looking slightly confused as to who I might be. Walking into Leipzig’s Moritzbastei for the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht with Claudius Nießen was not dissimilar.

The man would appear to be somewhat of a living legend. He organises the Krautgarden festival in Leipzig and New York, the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht and a series of literary events by the name of Turboprop. He’s the managing director of the Leipzig School of Creative Writing and regional head of Saxony’s writers’ union. Oh, and he writes too when he finds the time. It’s hard to actually talk to him for more than 30 continuous seconds during the fair, as there’s always someone else wanting his attention. So I interviewed him after the fact.

Claudius, tell us about Krautgarden. How did it start back in 2006?

That was easy enough. We were students at the Leipzig School of Creative Writing and we had always dreamed of reading in New York. And after a long run-up, it worked out really well. We knew pretty quickly that we wanted to do it again and extend the event with young US authors – and hey presto! The idea of Krautgarden as a festival was born.

You had some pretty big names this year (Benjamin Lebert, TC Boyle...). How do you choose the authors for the project?

It’s always a stroke of luck when you have a big name on the bill. But we’re not interested in the big names as such, more in bringing young writing talents from the two countries together, both poets and prose writers. Obviously though, one or two more familiar names do help the project as a whole to get the attention every festival needs.

How did you go down in NY and Leipzig this year? Is the English-speaking world suddenly discovering young German-language literature? (Four of the prose writers who’ve appeared so far have been or are being translated into English - Benjamin Lebert, Thomas Glavinic, Kevin Vennemann and Thomas Pletzinger.)

We went down very well. Despite the big names, the readings by the less well-known young authors were well attended too. And in New York we didn’t just have German ex-pats in the audience, but a lot of young Americans as well, which I’m really pleased about. We want to reach out to the US publishing and literary scene more in future as well. That’s been working well so far but it could be more targeted. I’d be happy if Krautgarden could play some small role in shaking up the market for German-language writers in English translation, especially for younger authors.

Apart from Krautgarden, you also organise the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht at the book fair. Do you ever get to hear any of the readings?

I’m afraid I hardly have the time and energy during the fair. I try and take a quick look at everything, but really sitting down and listening is something I haven’t managed yet. Luckily, though, I read most of the authors’ books in advance – so I don’t end up buying a pig in a poke. And even if there’s the odd thing I can only flick through before the fair, afterwards I hide myself away and settle down on the sofa with a pile of books to catch up.

Krautgarden and LLL are almost what you call “water glass readings”, where writers sit behind a desk with a glass of water and read, read, read. But the Turboprop events are your and Christoph Graebel’s attempt to inject a little novelty into the format. How do you go about that?

Water glass readings aren’t necessarily a bad thing – but you can organise them well or badly. At Turboprop we just thought we’d like to make a real show out of literature. With little films, interview sections, short readings, quizzes, live editing and a writing exercise for the audience. We wanted to overcome the divide that often distances the audience from the writer, as far as possible. So we write our own short texts for the show, for instance, which our guest author then has to edit live – the less objective the better, of course. There’s always a document shredder on stage if need be. We want to banish all reverence for the text. Literature can have magnificent content and excellent style, and be entertaining at the same time – and that’s what Turboprop’s all about.

The list of authors who’ve read at Turboprop in the past reads almost like a literary wet dream to me. Do you have any special favourites or tips? Who do US and British publishers need to discover?

I’m never quite sure what criteria apply for translating books, so I’ll have to be a bit careful here. But we’ve published an anthology containing ten stories by our guests, Turboprop - Beste Stories. All the writers in the book are some of the most important German voices, for me. And at least one of the ten, Sasa Stanisic, has gone down pretty well in the States as well.

(The writers are: Paul Brodowsky, Guy Helminger, Tobias Hülswitt, Philip Meinhold, Clemens Meyer, Annette Mingels, Selim Özdogan, Jochen Schmidt, Sasa Stanisic and Anke Stelling.)

What can we read by Claudius Niessen?

The great thing about organising is that you have so many distractions from actually writing. But it hasn’t quite worked after all. It’s no secret that I have a huge soft spot for Leipzig, and then I got a call asking me to write a slim volume about the city, my Leipzig if you like. So I did. Heimatkunde Leipzig.

What’s next on your agenda? World domination?

Oh, that can wait. I’ve got enough books on my bedside table I’d have to finish reading first. But however much I read, the pile never seems to get smaller.

Many thanks again to Claudius Nießen. I have to say, his Leipzig book is most amusing and inspiring. If you’re planning a visit, don’t bother with a tourist guide – discover Leipzig the Nießen way. And watch this spot for more on that anthology.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Literary Philately (German)

I still send invoices out on paper, and I still prefer actually licking stamps to the new-fangled self-adhesive kind. And I like to choose stamps by the pictures on them, so I occasionally go to the special philately counter at my local post office. Today I bought 5 Franz Kafkas and 5 Klaus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg and Helmuth James Graf von Moltke. The man at the counter told me, incidentally, that someone asked for "the Tom Cruise stamp" the other day.

The Kafka stamp is illustrated with a sketch by the author, which seems to show someone in a state of despair at a desk. The writing is vertical, just to make you feel slightly unsure which way round to stick it. I stuck it vertically, which seemed appropriately incorrect.

There's nothing like an official Deutsche Post stamp to show a writer has entered the canon. Over the past few years, they've philatelised Adalbert Stifter, Hermann Hesse, Astrid Lindgren, Joachim Ringelnatz and now also Golo Mann. And the organisation Aktion Patenschaften für verbrannte Bücher has a list of authors whose books were burned by the Nazis, which also tells you which of them have been stampified. It seems Deutsche Post is trying to make amends for Goebbels' crimes by putting as many of these writers on stamps as possible: Brecht, Kafka (twice), Kästner, Kisch, Kolb, Lasker-Schüler, Thomas Mann (twice), Werfel and Zuckmayer.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Night Work and Gramophone Miss Out On Prize

The shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is out there - a completely German book free zone.

The nominees (copied out of the Guardian):

Voiceover by Céline Curiol, translated by Sam Richard from the French
Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew from the Chinese
The Siege by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the Albanian
The Armies by Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean from the Spanish
The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean from the Spanish
Friendly Fire by A B Yehoshua, translated by Stuart Schoffman from the Hebrew

I'm rooting for Kadare, as I very much enjoyed The Three-Arched Bridge.

Turbo-Review: Night Work

Today's the day the shortlist is announced for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I'd promised to review Thomas Glavinic's Night Work, one of two German titles on the longlist. So here's a very quick one.

Night Work is a post-apocalypse tale without the apocalypse. The sole remaining character, Jonas, wakes up one morning to find all humans and animals have disappeared, and we follow him as he gradually comes to terms with his situation and then spirals into confusion. It was recommended to me by a friend who works alone in a rather deserted place, often at night. I dread to think how he felt, reading it. I was certainly impressed by the book's atmosphere and imagination. Although it reminded me at times of a creative writing exercise - "How does it feel to be the last man alive?" the cover asks - it goes deeper than that, exploring Jonas' relationship with his past, his fears and longings, and his own self.

At first the feeling is almost elated. Jonas can walk into shops and pubs and help himself to whatever he wants. He can eat sweets and crisps at any time of the day. He can walk around strange people's homes. He can adjust the TV tower to rotate at turbo-speed. He can stop his new flash car on the middle of the motorway whenever her feels like it. But at some point Jonas turns inwards. There is no way for him to find out what has happened, so he starts to study himself. Using a battery of video cameras, he retraces past journeys and films himself driving cars - and sleeping. And he finds another human being, who may or may not be himself - the Sleeper.

The book builds up a tangible atmosphere of threat, with the sinister Sleeper, dreams of wild animals, and repeated double-takes. But after a while I found myself starting to sigh every time I read, "Something wasn't quite right, but Jonas couldn't put his finger on it." I found the tension starting to wane, only picking up again towards the end as Jonas battles with his other self to get what he wants. Perhaps the brushstrokes in this psychological portrait are a little too broad and repetitive. Perhaps it's simply more interesting to read about genuine relationships than about enforced introspection. But the message is clear - Hell is no other people.

If you read German, Glavinic's website offers a wealth of material on the book, including an extract, reviews and a series of podcasts exploring the book's settings in Vienna. And perhaps I would have preferred the original. I couldn't shake off the feeling that something wasn't quite right about the English - but I can't put my finger on it. Maybe John Brownjohn's translation is just too smooth and eloquent for my idea of Jonas, although a quick look at the German extract doesn't confirm that.

What I find fascinating is that this is one of two German books nominated for the prize, along with Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (see my more enthusiastic review here). And although I'll acknowledge it's a good book, I don't think it's one of the two best German books of the past few years. I suppose we have to look at it through the filter of published translations though...