Tuesday, 30 November 2010

love german books German Publisher of the Year

Having moaned and groaned about lazy publishing below, I thought I'd make a better suggestion. My personal German Publisher of the Year is Wolfgang Hörner of Galiani Verlag.

Not purely because they're the only German publishers who send out newsletters expressly to translators around the world, recognising that we can actually push the odd lever in the publishing industry. Not just because they always name their German translators, even in their Facebook status updates. Not only because Wolfgang is a totally and utterly nice guy who puts a personal touch into everything he does. Not merely because Galiani is the nearest German publisher to my house.

It's also because they have a fantastic and eclectic and risk-taking programme of literature and non-fiction, with everything from debut novels to award-winning daring prose to intelligent crime writing to banned Soviet geniuses to butterflies. I'm looking forward to Karen Duve - usually wickedly funny - on how to eat in a morally acceptable manner. I'm already in love with the blurb, in which she assumes she can continue drinking Diet Coke while only eating organic, as it's made entirely of chemicals (Why do I love writers who love Diet Coke? She's the second one I've come across.). The book comes out in January - and oh look, she's going on a mini-tour with Jonathon Safran Foer. Yum.

Sadly, the love german books German Publisher of the Year award does not come with any cash.

German Publisher of the Year

I like this little newsflash - trade mag Buchmarkt crowns its publisher of the year every December, chosen by the previous winners. This year it's Ulrich Genzler of Heyne Verlag - a Random House imprint that publishes almost entirely translations. Stephen King, John Grisham, Keith Richards, Stieg Larsson, Tom Clancy - apparently he has an infallible instinct for bestsellers.

I was about to express wonderment at the differences between the German and English-speaking publishing worlds. You know, my usual tirade about bestsellers in translation. But then I realised that in fact, Heyne's catalogue could just as easily be a British commercial publisher's list, taking safe bets on the exact same big names. Oh, and they have a delightful line in "dumb books for women" too. Congratulations.

(I have to admit I like the look of Heyne Hardcore though, with a very obscure mix of hymns to heavy metal, original erotica and strange things translated out of Scandinavian, Italian and Japanese as well as English. And David Peace alongside Beth Ditto!)

Friday, 26 November 2010

And Win a Trip to Berlin

The Goethe-Instituts across Europe want to know what you think about Germany. And they're giving away a trip to Berlin to everyone who responds to their online survey. Or something like that.

The love german books Christmas List

Don't you love those magazine features that tell you what gifts to buy for girls, boys and grandparents? If you're anything like me, though, those lists will be a little short on recent German books for your taste.

So I've put together the ultimate seasonal book-buying guide for bombarding your loved ones with books translated out of German. I haven't read all of them, admittedly, but I'd still say it's a good bet they're pretty hot stuff. So gather those friends and family around you, stock up on the lebkuchen, light the candles on your Germanic tree, and rejoice - 'tis the season to be Teutonic.

And so, in no particular order, the recommendations.

For political crime fans:
Hans Werner Kettenbach / Anthea Bell, David’s Revenge

For bad girls:
Charlotte Roche / Tim Mohr, Wetlands

For the slightly silly:
Walter Moers / John Brownjohn, The Alchemaster’s Apprentice

For teenage girls:
Beate Teresa Hanika / Katy Derbyshire, Learning to Scream

For imaginative kids:
Reinhardt Jung / Anthea Bell, Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories

For the long-sighted:
Robert Walser / Susan Bernofsky, The Microscripts

For people you really like:
Jenny Erpenbeck / Susan Bernofsky, Visitation

For people who really love Rome:
Friedrich Christian Delius / Jamie Bulloch, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman

For map freaks:
Judith Schalansky / Christine Lo, Atlas of Remote Islands

For historically interested safer sex lovers:
Götz Aly, Michael Sontheimer / Shelley Frisch, Fromms

For vodka-drinkers:
Alina Bronsky / Tim Mohr, Broken Glass Park

For quiet rebels:
Hans Fallada / Michael Hofmann, Alone in Berlin

For people who don’t really like getting presents:
Thomas Bernhard / Carol Janeway, My Prizes: an accounting

For star-crossed lovers:
Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann / Wieland Hoban, Correspondence

For Berlin fans:
Lyn Marven (ed.), Berlin Tales

For gullible romantics:
Siegfried Lenz / Anthea Bell, A Minute’s Silence

For delinquent physicists:
Juli Zeh / Christine Lo, Dark Matter

For closet Orientalists:
Rafik Schami / Anthea Bell, The Calligrapher’s Secret

For celebrities:
Daniel Kehlmann / Carol Brown Janeway, Fame

For crime fans with a sense of humour:
Jakob Arjouni / Anthea Bell, Kismet

For multiple fathers:
Günter Grass / Krishna Winston, The Box

For lovers of beautiful prose and/or mining towns:
Ralf Rothmann / Wieland Hoban, Young Light

For dead people:
David Safier / John Brownjohn, Bad Karma

For aged hippies:
Berhard Schlink / Shaun Whiteside, The Weekend

For prolific readers in the UK:
Peirene subscription

For prolific readers in the USA:
Open Letter subscription

I thought about linking to Amazon, but then I decided to let you choose where to buy them. So the links are to publishers' websites in the UK or the US, just to give you an idea of the books. Happy shopping!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Karen Duve: Weihnachten mit Thomas Müller

Here's another post by my daughter, this time about a children's book written by one of my favourite grown-up writers, Karen Duve. I'm waiting for adolescence to kick in, but until then I shall enjoy every minute of my daughter liking the same writer as me.

Weihnachten mit Thomas Müller is a couple of years old (2003) but hasn't dated. And it's written with Karen Duve's inimitable wry humour, which she uses to take all the characters in the story down a peg or two - and that makes them all the more loveable.

I first read it a month or so ago, drunk. And loved it, even sober. Here's what Elli has to say (I've translated her original post behind the link):

In this gorgeous picture book, "Thomas Müller" isn't a goalkeeper, he's a little teddy bear.
His family has left him behind, sadly. His owner Marc Wortmann dropped him. :(
Presumably when he saw the sneakers with integrated disco lights in the toys and sports store.

As he's sitting all alone by a fountain, a slim black cat comes along and they get talking.

The two of them decide to look for the Wortmann family; after all, Marc must be really missing him at Christmas, mustn't he?

A fun picture book with great illustrations.

Absolutely recommended!

no man's land issue 5 now online

Incredibly, amazingly, we can hardly believe it ourselves-ly, the fifth issue of no man's land is now online at www.no-mans-land.org.

The only magazine devoted entirely to new German writing in English translation, it's chock-full of delights this time around. We have fiction by Volker Braun, Werner Bräunig, Dietmar Dath, Johanna Hemkentokrax, Kai Gero Lenke, Siegfried Lenz, PeterLicht, Milena Oda, Gerhard Roth and Lutz Seiler and poetry by Lars-Arvid Brischke, Ulrike Draesner, Jörg Fauser, Claudia Kohlus, Fitzgerald Kusz, Marcus Roloff, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Tzveta Sofronieva.

We were thrilled to receive an unprecedented number of submissions this year, and I'd like to say a big thank you to all the excellent translators who sent us the fruits of their hard work.

And now take the rest of the day off work and read the damn thing! You won't regret it.

Monday, 22 November 2010

no man's land issue #5 launch - don't ask me...

The wonderful, amazing online magazine of contemporary German-language literature in translation no man's land (which I co-edit) launches its fifth issue on Wednesday! In Berlin! Come along! The new issue should go live at about the same time. Please don't ask me what to expect at the launch, as I have no idea whatsoever. Here's the announcement:

Launch of the 5th edition of no man’s land
- the online magazine for new German literature in English

November 24, 2010
8:30 p.m.
Rosenthaler Str. 71, Berlin
5 € / 3 € / 0 €

Founded in 2006, no man’s land (www.no-mans-land.org) is the only online magazine to publish exclusively new German literature in English translation. For many readers, it their first comprehensive introduction to contemporary German literature. And no man’s land’s vital culture of translation builds bridges between the local literary scene and English-language translators, writers and readers in Berlin and all around the world.

The 5th edition presents fiction by Volker Braun, Werner Bräunig, Dietmar Dath, Johanna Hemkentokrax, Kai Gero Lenke, Siegfried Lenz, PeterLicht, Milena Oda, Gerhard Roth and Lutz Seiler and poetry by Lars-Arvid Brischke, Ulrike Draesner, Jörg Fauser, Claudia Kohlus, Fitzgerald Kusz, Marcus Roloff, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Tzveta Sofronieva.

Instead of the usual launch reading with German writing and English translations, we’re celebrating with a special event. This time the two languages will be shaken and mixed in a bi- and interlingual edition of the infamous “analysis show” ROTTEN KINCK OHNE: “The Igel Flies Tonight” with star poets Ann Cotten and Monika Rinck, a performance that will also be documented in the issue.

Monika Rinck and Ann Cotten: For the launch of no man’s land # 5 we present ROTTEN KINCK OHNE, a reduced edition of the format known as the ROTTEN KINCK SCHOW, this time with Ann Cotten und Monika Rinck, unfortunately without Sabine Scho, who is in Sao Paolo at the moment.

Under the title "THE IGEL FLIES TONIGHT" the NOVEMBER RKO will enlighten the dark corridor of language. Language as in English and in German, corridor as in Buñuel. The whole drudgery of translation will come into play: Hypnosis-Cabin, Etym-Oubliette, Hackepeter-Hedgehog.

THE RKS and RKO try by all (epistemological) means possible to produce ANSCHAULICHKEIT. Associations are eo ipso arguments. Nothing is simplified - even though it can get rough sometimes. Things will be used.

We await the Igel in suspense… and hope to see you there!

Yours truly,

The Editors, no man’s land


GERMAN-English RKO – with Ann Cotten, Monika Rinck,

Hackepeterhedgehog – Too Important To Go Away
# DOOMSDAY for the TRANSLATOR (Exorcism or: BRIDGE of VOMIT)
# READING HORSE'S FACES (after Silvan S. Tomkins)
# GENERAL KNUSEMONG – en general que nous aimons

ENSUITE: .. The ERROR-stretch of imagination -- the dark shaft of details .. the psycho-physio analogy of vis inertiae .. work performance of natural beings … land ownership comme competence … expelled from the circle of juices .. pièce de resistance ..auri sacra fames .. exculpation par sameness of conditions .. The centripetal and the centrifugal tendency in schmantz .. the blessing of being with very close people the veiling nivellement of kludge. --- the rhythm in the rolling of indifference.. "On the Terminology of the Sales Tax in Switzerland"

Friday, 19 November 2010

Translating Celan in London

London's fabulous Goethe-Institut is doing something fabulous: a one-day conference to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Paul Celan's birth on 23 November. Not just what you might expect (although my mind's a bit of a blank when thinking of ways one might expect people to celebrate Celan's 90th birthday) - there'll also be an impromptu workshop on translating Celan’s remarkable poem ‘Einkanter’ from Schneepart.

See the link above for full details, conference schedule, etc. I believe you can just go along, even if you're just a normal German book lover or a translation nerd.

Thomas Lehr: September

Very occasionally, I feel compelled to share my opinion on a particular book or subject with the wider world. Wider than the readers of love german books, that is. I know, you're already very wide, and I love you all, but still.

Thomas Lehr's September. Fata Morgana is one of those books. It was longlisted for the German Book Prize, which was when I first read an extract from it. Then it made the shortlist, and I had the honour of translating an extract from it - which was an absolute pleasure and very difficult. Thankfully, the writer was extremely helpful and friendly (Thomas Lehr even went as far as reworking my originally rather weak translations of the poems contained in the text).

Three things you need to know about the book:

1. It has no punctuation. That means the multiple voices flow and eddy around you and almost make you dizzy, especially at the beginning. But it takes a remarkably short time to get used to it.

2. It's about two fathers and two daughters, in the USA and Iraq. And about 9/11, and Orientalism, and families, and love, and literature, and loss.

3. You really ought to read it, because it's damn good.

In fact I loved it so much that I wrote a whole article about it - in German, which is a very, very hard thing to do. For me. You can read it at qantara.de - in German and in English (my translation of myself, which is a very, very easy thing to do).

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Susan Bernofsky Is Translationista

I love that other translators blog. For two long, we've hovered in the background out of deference to our authors, but now we can voice our own thoughts and concerns without detracting from them. And people are even interested, sometimes.

My favourite blogging translators are Isabel Bogdan and Margaret Marks. And now you can follow the adventures of German-English translator extraordinaire Susan Bernofsky at Translationista. She's off to a fighting start already, with all sorts of tips for translators in the US in particular, but also stuff that should be of general interest to actual non-translators. And I have my own tag there already.

I do love the internet.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Melinda Nadj Abonji Takes Swiss Book Prize Too

The winner of this year's German Book Prize, Melinda Nadj Abonji, has won the Swiss Book Prize as well for Tauben fliegen auf (see my review below). She also took the audience vote with 39%.

Great news for her and her publishers, the Austrian indie Jung & Jung. I wonder if this hail of awards means the novel will make it into English?

Open Mike 2010

Berlin's Open Mike has slightly more gravitas than the name would suggest - it's probably the most important literary contest for German-language writers under 35. Invented back in 1993, it has nursed all sorts of literary talents including Karen Duve, Julia Franck and Terézia Mora. Nowadays, the competition has various add-ons such as a reading tour, workshops for the finalists - and an audience prize.

The TAZ Audience Prize is awarded by a group of mere mortals - as opposed to the three judges, who are established writers (this year Hanns-Josef Ortheil, Ilija Trojanow and Anja Utler). You can simply apply in advance to be on the audience jury, and the people at the taz newspaper pick five people out of the no doubt thousands of applications. So I applied and they picked me, to my great delight! Along with Eyk Henze, Walter Langlott, Franziska Matthus and Barbara Stark. Not quite a jury of their peers for the contestants, seeing as all but one of us are over 35, but at least a disparate group of non-writers. I've invited my fellow audience judges to write something here, so watch this space for their perspectives.

I wrote about the Open Mike in general last year, and for excellent blow-by-blow accounts (in German), go to litaffin and goldmag. This year, though, was very different for me.

It began with the fact that we were supposed to be incognito. So that none of the contestants could buy our votes, we were told. Except they announced our names at the beginning of the two-day event, so anyone who knew me was perfectly aware of what I was up to, tucked away in a shady corner taking copious notes. Plus I might have boasted about it a teeny-weeny bit in advance. Sadly though, not one of the twenty contestants bothered to offer me bribes. Perhaps they were busy being nervous, or assumed I was incorruptible. Or perhaps they weren't all that keen on the prize, which consists of getting your story published in the paper. And eternal fame and fortune, of course.

The other difference was that I had a mission. That meant none of last year's hanging around gossiping and bitching in the breaks - we judges sneaked off to our own special room for intense discussions at every opportunity. It also meant not having to queue for hours to go to the toilet, as we also had our own special facilities with much nicer toilet paper, and not having to eat tired cake and packaged sandwiches, as we had our own special catering. And a bit of hanging with the proper judges and the organisers, a glass or two of wine at the very end, a taz goodie-bag, that kind of thing.

I also read the texts much differently. In fact, last year I didn't read them at all, preferring to let the readings wash over me. But because the anthology is published just in time for the competition you can actually read along, and a surprising number of people do. That gave me a clearer idea of the writing itself; I could (and did) underline furiously and add my own rude and admiring comments. On the other hand, I read each text separately on its own merit and had absolutely no overview of common themes, trends, etc. Apparently, though, there were a lot of bathtubs, sheep and snow.

But enough about me; let's talk about the writing. There was about a fifty-fifty balance between creative writing students and people with proper jobs, which prompted some internal discussion about whether the texts were too smooth. Some of us were perturbed that there weren't any really wild and crazy young things doing more experimental stuff - no live wrist-slitting, no shouting, barking or whistling, and only one whisperer. (The people at goldmag were also disappointed by the rather grey wardrobe; I couldn't really see the writers very well but I did note a proliferation of bad hair.) We also found the five poetry entrants rather much of a muchness, possibly because they were all selected by one editor, Christian Döring. But that was a very good muchness, for the most part.

We worked by eliminating texts none of us cared for and then arguing about the ones we did like. My main criteria for the trash pile were predictability, making the audience (and me) sigh and shuffle in our seats, and just plain annoyingness. Plus of course gratuitous use of English, which the professional judges also objected to - although last year was worse in that respect, with only three texts that didn't include random English words. That left seven excellent writers.

My personal favourites were: Judith Keller, who read a collection of miniatures that captured a great many contradictions in a very small space. Susan Kreller, with a text that soured very well from misplaced optimism to out-and-out despair. Tom Müller, whose Clemens Meyer-esque misadventure was set in Australia (but didn't quite gel). Jennifer de Negri, for her beautifully written playground story with multiple perspectives and an interesting , if not quite unpredictable, twist. Sebastian Polmans, who read a great piece about a boy and a nun at a bus stop. And Jan Skudlarek's poems, which held my attention throughout and evoked all sorts of emotions. I hope the others will tell you which texts they particularly liked as well, because opinions did range widely.

So, capably and tactfully aided by Dirk Knipphals, culture editor at the taz, we whittled the longlist down to a shortlist and took one final secret ballot. And our winner was Sebastian Polmans for the story "Über Peanuts, mich und andere Sachen". Attentive readers will note that Polmans committed the dire sin of English usage even in the title - but in this case it wasn't gratuitous. In fact his highly rhythmic text is riddled with English, particularly song titles. It's about a black kid who sits next to an absurd black nun at a bus stop, and about his crappy life and his dreams and refuges. I loved the narrator's very characteristic voice and the very sexy nun in her vanilla habit, talking to God on her mobile phone and listening to a walkman.

The official winners were Levin Westermann for his poems, Janko Marklein for a story of rural juveniles doing nasty things with fish, and Jan Snela for a daring piece that played with language and emotions. Deutschlandradio Kultur will broadcast a feature on the event at 0.05 CET on 21 November. You can listen online, and I might be in it.

Many thanks to the lovely people at the Literaturwerkstatt and the taz, and of course to all my delightful fellow audience judges. I had a ball, and it's a shame I can't do it again.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Melinda Nadj Abonji: Tauben fliegen auf

Tauben fliegen auf is the title that won this year’s German Book Prize in early October, so my review comes rather late. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that the publishers, Austrian indie Jung und Jung, hadn’t anticipated demand and the book was pretty much sold out everywhere only hours after the award announcement. But it’s also a book that won’t be rushed – reading it was a slow process.

Melinda Nadj Abonji (the surname is a Serbian spelling of a Hungarian name, pronounced something like “nodge-abonyee”) comes from the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina, part of what is now Serbia. She has lived in Switzerland since her childhood and holds Swiss citizenship.

And that pretty much sets out the lie of the land in Tauben fliegen auf. The novel tells the story of a family from the Hungarian minority who leave the Vojvodina for a new life in Switzerland, and what faces them once they arrive and come to modest success, running a café. Contrasting scenes set in rural Yugoslavia and a wealthy Swiss village, Nadj Abonji narrates from the perspective of the older of the two daughters, Ildiko.

The author has stressed in interviews, such as this one in English for Deutsche Welle, that language is hugely important for her. And she also describes herself as interested in musical and political literature. Her novel has all these elements. Its language is lilting and musical, highly characteristic not just because of her Swiss-German linguistic background, I would say. Nadj Abonji’s sentences are often long and beautifully rhythmic, and she often addresses differences between Hungarian and German. Towards the end, Ildiko has a truncated relationship with a refugee – he speaks Serbian, she speaks Hungarian, and they communicate in English.

And yes, Tauben fliegen auf is very political. Extremely, unapologetically so. We learn about historical developments in Yugoslavia – in one very moving section, the girls’ grandmother tells them the story of how their grandfather was arrested by the Communists, having resisted advances from the Nazis, and the family farm was collectivized. Later we watch relations sour between the Bosnian Serb Dragana and the Croatian Glorija as they work in the family’s café.

But above all, Ildiko has a watchful eye for racism in Swiss society. She points out organized forms such as the Schwarzenbach Initiative to limit the number of foreign workers in the country, deliberate racism such as an aggressive incident when an unknown guest soils the gents’ toilet, and more subtle signs of prejudice as voiced by many of the cafés regulars.

This is a lovingly told story, with many of the Vojvodina scenes of childhood pleasures and fears and later visits to the family very moving. My favourite passage is in the middle of a sentence spanning several pages, describing the mother’s fiftieth birthday celebration. She holds a speech and tells her guests about the communion dress her mother made for her:

…I don’t want to bore you and describe how the dress looked, but I wore that dress until I was fifteen, my mother sewed it specially so that every time she loosened the seam a little, a new pattern appeared, and when there was no seam left she sewed a little strip of lace onto the dress (mother, illustrating the words with her hands, asking me to translate lace and seam into German), and when I really didn’t fit into the dress any more she made cushion covers out of the cloth…

The characters are affectionately drawn: a sensible mother, a hot-tempered father, Ildiko always worrying about something and her daring and more carefree sister Nomi, a warm grandmother and many, many minor figures in both settings. And Nadj Abonji manages to transport the fear, guilt and impotence the family feel when the war breaks out in Yugoslavia.

Yet the novel has two major flaws in my view. The passages set in Switzerland, while not uninteresting, don’t shine the way the Vojvodina scenes do. Perhaps I’m buying into the good old Balkan exoticism cliché, but I genuinely prefer reading about drunken celebrations and feuding neighbours than sitting through long drawn-out explanations of how to make good cappuccino with the right head of foam. And the whole “mother and father work hard to give us what they never had in life and then we don’t appreciate it” thing felt rather been there, read that to me. Perhaps it hasn’t been done quite so much to death in German-language literature as it has elsewhere, but that’s no great consolation if you’ve already read the same stuff fifty times over in English.

Secondly, and more importantly for my taste, Tauben fliegen auf is simply not plotted. There is no narrative tension – or where there is, such as when a cousin is called up to the army, it is never resolved. The Serbian lover simply disappears mid-relationship, one of a number of characters lost to oblivion. While we find out the family’s history in dribs and drabs, the author rather wastes an opportunity by using up this material about halfway through. The only major development is when Ildiko leaves home; yet far from a satisfying conclusion, this is a huge anti-climax to close the book. I can only assume that Nadj Abonji didn’t want to stray too far from the autobiographical material by writing a more rounded plot.

There are books that work very well in the German-language world but not everywhere else; this, I suspect, is one of them. For German-speaking readers, the lack of plot may well be only a minor irritation. And in contemporary German-language literature, fewer stories of emigration and arrival have been told so far. The political issues Melinda Nadj Abonji touches on are perhaps of more interest on the domestic market than elsewhere, too. It’s a shame, though, because the writing in Tauben fliegen auf really is incredibly beautiful, and would no doubt be a pleasure to read in any language.

You can read a sample, translated by Rafaël Newman, at sign and sight.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Young Translators' Prizes

Get a bunch of under-35s to translate the same text and choose the best version. What a wonderful idea - so wonderful in fact that all sorts of people are doing it.

The Goethe-Institut New York has just launched the Frederick and Grace Gutekunst Prize for Young Translators - to "identify outstanding young translators and assist them in establishing contact with the translation and publishing communities." You have to be under 35, live in the USA, and translate a particular German literary text available on request from the people at the Goethe Institut. You're not allowed to have published a book-length translation yet.

The UK equivalent for translators from German works in the same way but actually has no age limit - the German Embassy Award for Translators was launched this year and I hope will continue in the future.

Then there's the Rossica Young Translators Award for Russian, and the new Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize, which will focus on a different language every year.

Such a great way to encourage new talent, particularly in the UK, where language-learning is becoming a rather exotic pastime and university funding - should it continue to exist in future - simply won't stretch to this kind of thing.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Shadowboxing Berlin

I wrote last year about how much I loved Inka Parei's novel Die Schattenboxerin. And now I've gone and translated it. The English version by the name of The Shadowboxing Woman will be out next spring from Seagull Books.

Of course this is all incredibly exciting. And because I love the book so much and just can't wait for you all to read it, and because it's partly about Berlin and how the city changes during the early 1990s, and because I love Berlin as well, I've made the book its own little website:

Shadowboxing Berlin. It's not quite finished yet, but there's enough there for you to get a taste. Do go back to the "older entries", as the site looks at four of the locations in the novel and they won't all fit on one page. I hope it whets your appetite for the book.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Berlin Grant Recipients' Reading 2010

I discovered this fantastic event last year – a chance to hear what a selection of Berlin writers are working on. Not just any old selection though; these are the people the Berlin culture authorities choose to reward with a grant of €12,000. With no obligation to go and stay in a draughty castle, write an essay on civic relations or do anything except write and appear in public on this one occasion.

14 writers, three moderators, free sandwiches, drinks and wine, live music. The only drawback is that the whole thing starts at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Which meant a large part of the audience looked as rough as I did, and the writers had to work hard to hold our attention. But most of them managed it. In the interest of fairness, the lighting people at the venue – the magnificent mirrored hall in the Berliner Ensemble theatre – also managed to make everyone on stage look like they had a piercing beneath their lower lip. I was confused for a while until I realised it was just the stark shadows of their noses.

One of the things I like best about this event is that there’s little time for chit-chat. Each of the writers gets five to seven minutes to read, preceded by a very brief introduction and one or two questions. So only a bare minimum of pseud-y blathering on the nature of writing, the writer’s identity, and so on. What you do get is a taste of works-in-progress that’s just enough to tell you whether it’s worth looking forward to the books themselves. And a short and unadulterated impression of what the writers are actually like, before the PR machinery kicks in.

This year it was the women who did it for me. With the exception of Peter Wawerzinek, of course, but I’ve told you before how much I love his novel Rabenliebe, from which he read a wonderfully gory passage all about eels. And concentration camps. Otherwise I was thoroughly impressed by Svealena Kutschke’s actual reading, prose carried by a very strong rhythm about a girl growing up in Lübeck – beautifully detailed, dense and bristling with fairytale references. I’m intrigued as to how Kutschke will go from the passage she read to an alternative travellers’ camp outside the city.

Another impressive woman was Saskia Fischer. Otherwise a poet, she’s now working on her first novel, as I recall intertwining various stories (although that might have been someone else; this seems to be a popular strategy right now). A cynical, intelligently written piece from a teenage girl’s perspective, showered with jewellery by her stepfather; but as it turns out, the bracelets and earrings and necklaces are what we used to call “Cornish compliments” – gifts turned down by someone else.

I also liked Esther Kinsky’s tight, descriptive prose and Anne-Katrin Heier’s witty short story about an actor called upon to vomit on stage every night. Which was cleverer than it sounds, honest. Back on the male side of the scale, Falko Hennig and Robert Weber presented their project “Dokumente der Straße” – a collection of love letters and diary entries allegedly found abandoned on random pavements, bought up at flea markets, stuffed into pipes as lagging material, etc. Very poignant, very funny, and going all the way back to 1911. Allegedly.

My personal highlight, however, was Tamara Bach. Not just because she’s a good friend of mine, although no doubt that helped. Tamara writes novels for young adults, one of which - Girl from Mars - has even been translated into English, in a fantastically down-to-earth tone that hits your funny bone just as hard as your tear ducts. And what I didn’t even know, because she’s rather a modest kind of person, is that she’s won about a zillion awards for her books. Tamara was the most entertaining and least pretentious writer on stage (although Hennig and Weber came a close joint second). She played for laughs in her brief interview and nearly made me cry in her reading from the forthcoming Basta und Streusand. If you have teenagers, buy them a Tamara Bach book today. If you don’t, read one yourself.

And pencil next year’s Berliner Stipendiaten reading in right now, if you too want to feel all superior about what books will be coming up in the future.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Lovely Links

Apologies for my silence - there is a reason, but I'm not revealing it quite yet.

Here's a quick round-up of links to keep you going:

Lovely Harvill Secker editor Rebecca Carter in a podcast about "the joys of doing books in translation".

Last Saturday's Guardian has a rave review of Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation (trans: Susan Bernofsky) by Michel Faber. Then yesterday, John Hopkins asked on the Guardian books blog if there is such a thing as the Great European Novel - and would we ever see it in English?

Also in the Guardian - which is fast becoming the place to go for newspaper coverage of world fiction - Maya Jaggi interviews Günter Grass. Grass' book The Box (trans: Krishna Winston) is a milder sequel to the autobiographical Peeling the Onion, this time narrated in the voices of his eight children (poor kids) and is out in the UK now.

And the New York Times has a long article by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, attempting to explain the whole awful debate over Islam and leitkultur (neatly explained by translator Ciaran Cronin as "guiding national culture"):

That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur is defined not by “German culture” but by religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which distinguishes “us” from the foreigners.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Atlas of Remote Islands Wins All Sorts of Prizes

The German trade press informs us that Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands has won the German Design Prize 2011 for communication design, having taken the 2009 prize for the most beautiful German book.

And you can now get it in English, translated by Christine Lo. Schalansky spent weeks in Berlin's state library, pondering over the huge globe to find 50 islands she had never visited and never will. She found out their locations and researched their histories. And then she drew her own maps of them and wrote a short accompanying piece about each of them. It really is a gorgeous book, perfect for dipping into when your inner geographer needs a spot of pampering.

Go to the link above for a sample of the maps and Schalansky's beautiful, often wistful and witty writing. And I believe she's moving into fiction, so definitely one to watch.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Marlene Streeruwitz: Das wird mir alles nicht passieren.

Described by Ina Hartwig in the article I linked to below as an "Austrian virtuoso pessimist", Marlene Streeruwitz certainly doesn't rest on her laurels. She has a new book out, a collection of eleven short stories called Das wird mir alles nicht passieren. The title means "all that won't happen to me" - and there's an intruiging sub-title: How to stay a feminist.

I haven't read it yet - but I will, partly because I'm impressed by the accompanying website, a "cross media experiment". Streeruwitz explains what happens next to her eleven characters after they face tough decisions - do they do what's expected of them or determine their own lives? And readers are invited to join in the storytelling process. Sadly, there's not much discussion happening at the site yet, but there's still plenty to read, watch and listen to.