Wednesday, 31 August 2011
The novel is structured into twenty chapters, each focusing on a different character’s experiences and jumping to and fro in time. One particular day (1 October 1989) is told several times over from different perspectives. The book opens with Alexander (Sascha) visiting his now senile father, the former historian Kurt, at the family home in 2001. Having learned he has inoperable cancer, Alexander steals money his father has forgotten even exists and decides to go to Mexico, where his grandparents survived the war in exile. This present-day strand also accompanies us throughout the novel, with Alexander becoming the character with whom we most identify – and clearly the closest character to the writer himself.
The family consists of Alexander’s grandmother Charlotte, an ambitious self-made woman who leaves behind an unhappy petty bourgeois childhood and loveless marriage when she joins the communist party. She meets Wilhelm, a working-class man utterly loyal to the party with a slightly comical craving for espionage. While the two of them end up in Mexican exile, Charlotte’s two sons Werner and Kurt arrive in the Soviet Union as teenagers. They fall victim to Stalin’s purges, Werner killed and Kurt sent to a gulag. Eventually released, he spends several years banished to a remote Siberian town where he meets his future wife Irina. Alexander’s mother Irina is the liveliest character, sexy, always stylish, a born survivor and a fantastic cook. We also meet the Russian grandmother Baba Nadja, a simple woman who grew up in abject poverty and later moves to the relative luxury of the GDR to live with her daughter. Finally, Alexander’s son Markus grows up with his hippy mother, is estranged from his father and rejects any and all ideologies beyond hedonism.
The earlier history is told in narrative flashbacks and memories, the actual action starting in 1952, with Charlotte longing to get out of the oppressive circle of political exiles in Mexico to the new German Democratic Republic. At the same time, she has to suppress fears of Stalinist bloodletting that come to a head when she and Wilhelm do arrive in Germany. We then follow the family history from different members' perspectives – young Sascha easily dominated by his grandmother, who by 1961 is installed in a responsible position but still plagued by envy and annoyance at Wilhelm’s natural authority, although he only has a minor position in the local party hierarchy of their village outside Potsdam.
His father Kurt struggles to find a morally acceptable way to deal with a colleague’s political denunciation, while indulging in one of many brief flings and coming up against his rebellious son. He is a man of great mental discipline who rarely allows himself to think of his time in the gulag. In one beautifully orchestrated scene, Kurt emerges from his memories of the camp to the bathos of an anonymous couple making love in a Trabbi in the woods.
My favourite chapter is set on Christmas Eve of 1976. Irina lovingly prepares a goose with all the trimmings, having gone to great lengths to procure all the ingredients. We get a great deal of very sensuous descriptions of the cooking mingled with her memories of her awful childhood, her terrible relationship with Charlotte and her extensive renovations to the house. Over an excruciating Christmas dinner with all the associated tensions, we find out that not only is Sascha’s girlfriend Melitta a vegetarian – she’s also pregnant. And Irina’s not even fifty yet!
And then in 1991, Irina cooks another Christmas dinner. Beautifully echoing the partner chapter, this time everything goes wrong. The ingredients are much too easy to get hold of, Irina can’t stand Sascha’s new girlfriend and is scared the house will be taken away from them and they won’t have enough to live on, Kurt and Sascha argue about politics – and Irina gets drunk as a skunk on the single malt she thought was cognac for the dried fruit stuffing. On to 1995, when Irina’s grandson Markus receives an invitation to her funeral. His mother Melitta has married a pastor from the East German opposition, who is now a conservative politician. Markus has as little interest in the church as he has in his estranged family’s politics, and this is a bleak and angry chapter. In the end he attends the funeral and remembers Irina fondly, but his father doesn’t recognise him.
In a third strand that holds the novel together wonderfully, we see one particular day through all the main characters’ eyes (although the narration sticks to the third person throughout the novel). It is the day of Wilhelm’s ninetieth birthday party and he's due to receive yet another medal. Irina spends the morning annoyed, plagued by nervous calls from Charlotte and waiting for her beloved Sascha to arrive from Berlin. But Sascha calls instead – he's escaped to West Germany. Irina is devastated. Her mother Nadyeshda Ivanova sees events through a veil of confusion, as she has never learned German. She confuses West Germany with America, hearing a familiar word of Russian in the buzz of conversation – Gorbachev. She rounds off the party by singing a folk song and deciding to go back to Siberia.
Wilhelm, now a respected figure in the village, is on the verge of dementia. Still capable of lucid thoughts, he has trouble expressing them. Naturally enough, the inveterate hardliner is horrified by the political developments of 1989. He too sings at the celebration – a hymn to the party, in the later abandoned Stalinist version, of course. Twelve-year-old Markus doesn’t understand much that goes on either, focusing more on waiting for his absent father and admiring Charlotte and Wilhelm’s collection of Mexican artefacts.
Kurt’s version of events is the most cynical and revealing. He provides explanations of all the characters we haven’t quite grasped in the previous narrations, capturing the petty tedium of life in the closing days of the GDR. He feels schadenfreude about Sascha’s escape from the country but his mother doesn’t listen when he tries to tell her. Despite a strict ban imposed by Charlotte (a woman fond of prohibitions), the drunken guests start talking politics. Kurt clears us up on Wilhelm’s official and unofficial biographies, hating the hypocrisy that has wiped the slate clean of communist cooperation with the Nazis in the early 1930s. He considers the party hymn fundamentally wrong and knows the song his mother-in-law sings – what the forcedly jolly guests take for a drinking song is a cautionary tale about goats getting gobbled up by wolves. While a minor official holds a formulaic speech, Kurt gets caught up in sexual fantasies about Melitta – another masterful and very funny piece of writing. He tells her the news of Sascha’s flight to the West, whereupon the buffet table collapses and an upset Melitta leaves. Kurt rounds off the evening with a spot of infidelity, finally deciding to write his memoirs about his entire time in the Soviet Union.
The final chapter on the day of the party is written from Charlotte’s perspective and set in the evening. Still a very angry woman, she now thoroughly despises Wilhelm. He gets all the recognition and she gets all the work, he breaks things all around the house but the doctor refuses to put him into a home. She is permanently embarrassed by his boorish behaviour, which everyone else seems to lap up. What is to be done?
The book closes with Alexander in Mexico. Having tried throughout this strand to re-connect with his grandmother by visiting her former home in Mexico City and other sites she told him about, he has been robbed and cheated and is thoroughly disgusted with the place. The hotels are bad, the water dirty, and he feels like a rich gringo who deserves nothing better. Beset by fear over his cancer, he finally takes a bus to a random town on the Pacific, which is where we find him at the end of the book. What he doesn’t know is that this is where Charlotte and Wilhelm spent a brief holiday described at the beginning of the novel. This is where they bought the conch shell that stood in their hall for years and where they were horrified by locals slaughtering turtles on the beach. In this more relaxed atmosphere, Alexander finds enough peace to read the personal notes he stole from his father along with his chess set carved in the gulag. The turtle soup factory is now a museum, which gives him some hope in humanity. Yet he is surrounded by poverty and inequality, and he reads a week-old newspaper over and over – 9/11, falling share prices, people whose bodies have adapted to living on Latin America’s rubbish tips.
Despite the very rich plot, the novel really is incredibly accessible. Ruge weaves in countless details of life in the GDR without ever expecting too much of his readers. What comes across wonderfully is the sense of making do, trading objects several times over to get hold of what’s really needed. And the oppressive in-fighting, the way the party and its rigid structures control all areas of life. Both Kurt and to some extent Charlotte feel fear of the state, but for both of them capitalism is worse. While for Alexander, all the GDR has to offer is hypocrisy and constraints. Yet Ruge hardly offers easy solutions with his bleak open ending.
The humour is very subtle at times but it does lighten the subject matter, which might otherwise be terribly depressing. And the writing is absolutely gorgeous. Each character has a very distinct voice, which adds to the amusement as they experience the same events differently. There are many beautiful descriptions of the two houses where the family members live, which are slightly reminiscent of Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Visitation, although the novels have little else in common than their Brandenburg setting.
Ruge tackles a lot of very rewarding themes, especially family relationships – there’s a nice big Oedipus complex in there, for example. He also looks at political loyalty and personal infidelity, aging, changing gender relations, the need for conviction or faith. This really is a novel that lives up to its ambitions. It's longlisted for the German Book Prize and English language rights have been sold - so you can look forward to it even if you don't speak German. There's been a lot of industry hype over this book, with Ruge winning the Alfred Döblin Prize for his manuscript two years ago, and I have to say this is one time it's justified.
Monday, 29 August 2011
Plus there'll be a literary flashmob this coming Wednesday - turn up at Café Kotti (up the stairs in the NKZ) at 3 pm to participate - the first 100 get two free tickets to a reading of their choice, I think.
Here's what they say about the festival:
"What if the production factor labour, ordered in from Turkey, starts to speak? About as much of a shock as if the conveyor belt were suddenly to throw off its sprockets and cogs and sit itself down at the typewriter. The first generation of Turkish writers from Germany wrote in Turkish. Their works were translated and published for a German market. All that is fifty years ago now.
The production factors could not only speak, but also procreate. Among their offspring are German-language writers. What does a speaker have to say if her parents were not just simple production factors but foreign production factors? How does this speaker deal with an art that's administered by elites? How does she change the art and its administrators? And in this case the language and society?
Literature is also always a recollection and a fracturing and altering update of all that came before the act of writing. In hardly any other sector are such apparently contradictory ideas, once considered unchangeable, negotiated and renewed. The production factors for car components and washing machines have grown into the producers of today's Germany. Some find that frightening, others celebrate it – writers with vibration backgrounds tell their stories, including: Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Hatice Akyün, Dilek Güngör, Imran Ayata, Selim Özdogan, Feridun Zaimoglu, Zafer Senocak, Hakan Savas Mican, Mutlu Ergün, Mely Kiyak, Hilal Sezgin."
Obviously, you have to go to as many of these readings as you can. I'll be on a panel with Oliver Kontny of Ballhaus Naunynstraße and Deniz Göktürk from Berkeley, talking about the usefulness of categories and the representation of the Other in German literature. It says here. To make a premature start, I'd like to make a plea to just go ahead use that epithet above (*) - Turkish-German writers. Because as the title of the festival, based on this short piece by Selim Özdogan, points out - all the labels and categories for "migrant writing" are often little less than tongue-twisters that don't get us anywhere, when we could be talking about the literature itself and indeed what it's doing to German society.
Thursday, 25 August 2011
I swear I've never enjoyed saying a sentence as much as that one. Actually, Clemens Meyer has a part-share in a horse by the name of Proust. It was called that before he got it, he assures me. But the receptionist in the extremely classy hotel didn't need to know that. He'd arrived a bit early and the room wasn't quite ready, could we perhaps...?
No, we couldn't. So it was off to the nearest bookmaker's. Women don't tend to go to bookies very often, and it was certainly my first time. Heads turned as we strode in and pleaded with a perplexed employee to show us the 2.30 at Munich on one of his screens. No can do. Next bookie: no, sorry, and no, I don't know where there's an internet café round here. D'you know, Doug? No idea love, sorry.
But the seasoned racing veteran has a nose for an internet connection, and Clemens soon sniffed out the Hilton Hotel. It was 2.25 in Munich and he was getting a wee bit jumpy. Excuse me, this gentleman here needs to use a computer, could we possibly...? Why of course madam, just up the stairs to your left, in the business centre. Five pounds for half an hour or three pounds for fifteen minutes? 2:28. Five pounds, you never know. Logged in, online racing channel, selected the right race, and they were off. Proust with the white saddle pad, the jockey in white silks with a green cross. Picture too small and pixelated, no sound, Spanish gentleman looking irritated at the next computer, where is he? Is that him on the inside? No, the silks are green with a white cross. Can't see him anywhere, is that him...? Not among the winners, when do they put the results up, when's the replay coming, good job we paid a fiver, why don't you try this other computer with a sound card, thanks ma'am, ah, here's the replay, oh. That's him near the back, not a bad start but... hmmm, losing speed in the curve, no, the ground's too soft, it's been raining for days, he's no good on soft ground, well the jockey won't push him if he knows he can't make it, hmmm. Well, never mind, at least I only put fifty on him.
Off to the pub for a commiseratory Guinness. Or two. Where we were assailed – or was it wassailed? – by an old Navy man with tales of ladyboys in Singapore and pantaloon-wearing homosexuals in Indonesia. Clemens could tell he was a smoker by his fingers, I could tell by the smell. Lots of nodding and smiling, but no, he didn't know if Robert Louis Stevenson was actually born in Edinburgh, no. A shame. On to Juan Pablo's reading with his lovely and very talented translator Rosalind Harvey and young British writer David Whitehouse. To her shame, the chair negelected to introduce Rosalind properly. So I shall neglect to tell you the chair's name.
There followed drinks and food at a nice pub. I had sausages and mash with onion gravy, which Clemens agreed was very good and not like German sausages at all, and our publisher had haggis pie with whisky cream sauce. I left before the others started sampling their way through the whiskies, but I'm told it was very educational.
The next day was Clemens' own reading with Stuart Evers, chaired by Stuart Kelly. See, I've mentioned his name because he was absolutely brilliant. Great questions about the art of writing short stories and the art of translating them. We came off stage buzzing and things only got better, because while Clemens was signing books two lovely local-ish bloggers came to say hello - Lizzy Siddal and Rob from Rob Around Books. I've been a bit cheeky and linked to their pieces about the event, because they both have actual photos and say nice things about me. And you two - I felt all warm and fuzzy meeting you as well. Plus they started a trend for getting the book signed by me, which made me nearly explode with pride and necessitated a slightly impolite trip to the ladies' (although I used the swanky "Authors Toilet" - have I mentioned that this is a book festival with style?).
There followed drinks and book talk with some lovely people from the reading group at Glasgow's Goethe Institut. And then there was haggis all round but still nobody knew if RL Stevenson was born in Edinburgh. We rounded off the evening in the library of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, where I learned to love whisky and we left a suitable gift on the shelves.
Down to London on the train bright and early next morning, and yes, after two days of rain it really was bright and certainly was early, with Clemens keeping his promise to make it to the train in the nick of time. I was berated all round for reading Schoßgebete, but I did want to form my own opinion, thank you very much. And in the evening was a joint event to launch Clemens and Juan Pablo's books at the European Bookshop on Warwick Street, well attended and very friendly, followed by free drinks. This time our publisher Stefan Tobler introduced both translators with sufficient gravitas, and we were nearly professionals by this point anyway.
Thursday was our busiest day, starting with an informal reading-come-drinking session at Ritter/Zamet gallery in Whitechapel. There was a request for the saddest story, "All the Lights" - so we got everyone suitably depressed in front of Rigo Schmidt's paintings. A quick dash from Whitechapel (not the classiest part of London - think sari shops and halal fried chicken) to the opulent surrounds of the former East German embassy on Belgrave Square (possibly the classiest place in London - think leafy park surrounded by Edwardian villas with flags flying from them). Where we held our final, triumphant reading to a packed house and used extra swearwords just for the puerile pleasure of saying shit in front of junior diplomats. Then there were more drinks and more signing of books (although this time for my dad and for two lovely young translators whose names escape me because by this point in the proceedings I was having trouble seeing straight).
I'd like to thank the very well organised Edinburgh International Book Festival for inviting us, the European Bookshop, Ritter/Zamet and the German Embassy, and Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rosalind Harvey and Stefan Tobler for the great company on the road. And thanks to And Other Stories and everyone who came along to the readings for making me feel like a star. Thanks too to Clemens Meyer for putting up with me bossing him around and hogging the limelight.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh.
Wednesday, 24 August 2011
This time around, Charlotte Roche has advertised the book as a "real emotional rollercoaster", advising us to fasten our seatbelts. It's much closer to her own life as a mother in her mid-thirties than Feuchtgebiete, she's told us, and deals with her own real trauma of losing three brothers in a car accident the day before her wedding. Plus with her feelings about maintaining a loving relationship, mainly through fulfilling all her partner's wishes on the sex front. It feels uncomfortably close to Roche's real life, as far as I can judge. Which makes it hard to trash the book - it feels like trashing an individual. But trashed it must be.
Because where Feuchtgebiete was provocative and genuinely shocking, likeable and funny and created a great anti-heroine, Schoßgebete is none of that. It deals with three days in the life of Elizabeth Kiehl, an English woman living in Germany and trying to be the perfect mother and lover. So nothing all that new there then. There are a few parallels to Feuchtgebiete, especially the scatalogical elements - here we're treated to a nice description of mother and daughter's worms infestation, some details on Elizabeth's nervous stomach and an unpleasant anal sex accident.
My main problem as a reader was that the narrator is perhaps one of the most irritating characters I've ever come across, and I suspect that's not deliberate. Roche puts us through the agonies of what reads like several verbatim therapy sessions clumsily condensed into one, in which Elizabeth spouts various theories and ideas about abandoning her parents, having to visit brothels with her husband to keep him happy and thereby maintain their relationship for eternity, what her awful mother did to harm her with her changing partners, and all her fears and phobias. Meanwhile her beloved therapist - who she calls Agnetha in a rare burst of Rochian humour - nods patiently and approves of everything she does.
In between we get a lot of preaching and proselytising about how we ought to be bringing up our children, running our households and generally leading our lives. Being human, of course, Elizabeth is a terrible hypocrite, using organic washing powder but going everywhere by car, repeating the mistakes she criticises in others, and so on. That doesn't make it easier to accept her prescriptions - we should all be in therapy or at least read parenting books (in my eyes one of the most foolish things parents can ever do), we should never dye our hair, we should never buy the BILD, we should go vegetarian, we should try and make our relationships last for ever.
Much of the book seems to be about Charlotte Roche killing her darlings, and I wouldn't like to be her mother or her ex-best friend and have to read this. Which is what Alice Schwarzer seems to be reacting to - one of her ex-darlings being feminism itself. An all-new recipe: sex will set us free, she seems to be telling us, and relying on a strong older man with plenty of money. But as various commentators have pointed out, sex-positive feminism is hardly a new phenomenon, and as Schwarzer's pointed out, our grandmothers too relied on strong older men with money. Only they had little choice in economic terms. Roche's recipe comes across as merely reactionary, in both the literal and figurative sense.
Three things make the book just about readable: the sex scenes, the open descriptions of life in a patchwork family, and the strand that deals with the car crash and its aftermath. Not strictly erotic for the most part, Roche's sex scenes are, however, terribly useful in the vein of a Cosmopolitan How To Pleasure Your Man feature. And of course they will shift units, what with taking up the first few pages in the book for potential buyers to blush at in bookshops. I found the descriptions of dealing with sharing a child with its father accurate - the strange contrast between absolute discipline when she's at home and a complete lack of structure when she's not, the sudden boredom, etc.
And then there's the car crash. This was the compelling thing about the novel, the raw emotions it reveals, the light it sheds on the functioning or non-functioning of a family, and Roche/Kiehl's anger at the tabloid press for exploiting her misery to sell newspapers. But while the narrator rightly rails at journalists for putting her suffering on the front page, I felt very uncomfortable about reading her own story of the events. It raised a moral dilemma I'm not sure she's aware of - because as readers, we too are voyeuristically wallowing in her pain in the same way as people watching a gossip piece on TV, where her severely injured and confused mother was tricked into giving an interview after the accident. Perhaps it's less objectionable for someone to make money out of their own account, but what with the less than flattering portrayal of the estranged mother, I can't help thinking the book may upset a number of people in a rather similar way.
At any rate, the car crash strand broke off at an unsatisfactory point, with the mother still under strong drugs and not yet realising her three sons had been killed. Possibly it was an attempt to uphold some dignity for the mother, although with this self-centred narrator it might just have been because that extremely emotional moment of realisation - which I'd have found fascinating - was not of so much interest for Elizabeth Kiehl as her enjoyment of the limelight as sympathy-recipient number one. And although I hadn't been expecting a literary masterpiece, the novel also peters out harmlessly over 70s porn where it could have gone out with a bang.
So, a daring emotional striptease that falls absolutely flat. If you really want to read MILF eroticism from a feminist perspective, go for Anna Blumberg's excellent Kurze Nächte (see my review).
I do realise, by the way, that this is more of an emotional response than a good review. But it's that kind of book, and I found reading it genuinely infuriating. To add a very minor literary criticism that explains why I read it all the way to the end - I had hoped the heroine might develop as a character. She didn't.
Monday, 22 August 2011
There's a reason why there seems to be an article missing in the title. The book opens with a short and clever prologue explaining the historical context behind the massacre of Muslims in the ex-Yugoslavian town of Višegrad, related in the voice of a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. But it kicks in proper with a very short scene between two lovers by the sea, in which a young woman tells her boyfriend about a word that only seems to exist in her language - bonaca means literally "sea stillness".
Robert is in love with Ana, very much in love. He's a young historian in Berlin, where he meets a literature student and is instantly bowled over. But all along, he defines her by her national identity - Ana is Serbian, while Robert has a Croatian father but only speaks German and has no strong connection to the country. He tries to cook regional dishes for her, gets hold of a pebble from her favourite beach as a gift, and asks her all sorts of questions about her former home. She had to leave Višegrad as a young girl and later experienced the bombing of Belgrade, but remains tantalisingly vague on certain subjects. In a sense, Robert seems to be trying to create his own Yugoslavian identity through Ana, despite her obvious reluctance. And it is the secrets Ana keeps from him that ultimately mean the end of their relationship.
But Ljubić intersperses scenes from his love story with others describing Robert watching a court case in the Hague. It soon becomes clear that the defendant is Ana's father, a man she adores. He's accused of luring 42 Muslims to a house and locking them in, only for them to later be burned to death by a relative of his. A sole witness survived and is now testifying against him.
The book, Nicol told us in Edinburgh, was his attempt to address a complex moral question: what would happen if you fell in love with the child of a war criminal? The father character is closely based on a real-life professor of English literature and Shakespeare expert, who also wrote ultra-nationalist political tracts. Like his character Robert, the writer himself went to Bosnia and met people who knew him in an attempt to understand what might make a man of letters turn war criminal.
Ljubić has clearly put much of himself into his protagonist, as emerged at the event in the capable hands of chair Serena Field. Half-Croatian, he doesn't speak Serbo-Croat either and had never been particularly concerned by the wars in the Balkans beyond watching the news. I have to admit I found the court scenes more convincing than the love side of things, which became a little insipid after a while. The structure is well done though, and a close reading turns up hints at a possible motivation for the crime. Plus Ljubić - and the court - fails to clear up the issue of innocence or guilt, making the novel a very intelligent and though-provoking read.
It was interesting that Ljubic was partnered with the British writer Penny Simpson, whose novel The Deer Wedding is set in Croatia. Where Ljubić focuses on one individual case through the eyes of a very specific individual, Simpson's book apparently spans several families and generations to take a very broad look at the historical context. I'm wondering whether that's a particularly British approach to take, converting even relatively recent events into sweeping historical fiction, but not having read the book I don't think I can really comment. Interestingly, the subject of authenticity was raised, and Simpson had to defend herself by referring to her involvement in human rights work, research trips, etc.
Now while one reviewer in the Scottish Review of Books seemed to think Stillness of the Sea had been translated from Serbo-Croat, Ljubić too comes at the subject slightly obliquely, as a German rather than as someone directly involved. Yet he clearly got bonus points in the authenticity stakes at the event, because he put so much of his own experience into the book. Another German-language writer, Saša Stanišić, comes from Višegrad and reworked some of his experiences into the novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, which also went down terribly well in the UK. So it seems a shame to me - as you might expect - that British readers don't have access to more authentic writing in the form of translated fiction.
Thursday, 18 August 2011
So here they are in all their glory:
• Volker Harry Altwasser, Letzte Fischer (Matthes und Seitz Berlin, September 2011)
• Jan Brandt, Gegen die Welt (DuMont, August 2011)
• Michael Buselmeier, Wunsiedel (Das Wunderhorn, March 2011)
• Alex Capus, Léon und Louise (Hanser, February 2011)
• Wilhelm Genazino, Wenn wir Tiere wären (Hanser, July 2011)
• Navid Kermani, Dein Name (Hanser, August 2011)
• Esther Kinsky, Banatsko (Matthes und Seitz Berlin, January 2011)
• Angelika Klüssendorf, Das Mädchen (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, August 2011)
• Doris Knecht, Gruber geht (Rowohlt.Berlin, March 2011)
• Peter Kurzeck, Vorabend (Stroemfeld, March 2011)
• Ludwig Laher, Verfahren (Haymon, February 2011)
• Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Blumenberg (Suhrkamp, September 2011)
• Thomas Melle, Sickster (Rowohlt.Berlin, September 2011)
• Klaus Modick, Sunset (Eichborn, February 2011)
• Astrid Rosenfeld, Adams Erbe (Diogenes, February 2011)
• Eugen Ruge, In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (Rowohlt, September 2011)
• Judith Schalansky, Der Hals der Giraffe (Suhrkamp, September 2011)
• Jens Steiner, Hasenleben (Dörlemann, February 2011)
• Marlene Streeruwitz, Die Schmerzmacherin (S. Fischer, September 2011)
• Antje Rávic Strubel, Sturz der Tage in die Nacht (S. Fischer, August 2011)
Friday, 12 August 2011
Jan Peter Bremer's book Der amerikanische Investor also describes a writer's afternoon, and there's also a walk involved, albeit a rather short and chaotic one with a disobedient dog. Again, most of the action takes place in the writer's head, but this time he hasn't achieved his day's creative quota in the manner of Handke's exemplary writer - he can't actually manage to put any words down on paper.
Because Bremer, not content with bearing a striking resemblance to aged British comedian Ken Dodd, has written a fine piece of anti-Handke here. Instead of considering aesthetics and other literary matters (or at least until towards the end of the book), his anti-heroic writer is occupied with worries about his home and family. Their apartment building in Berlin has been bought up by the American investor of the title. Who has started renovating it, causing subsidence in the writer's flat. So he decides that instead of agonising over that opening sentence he wanted to write for his book today, he'll write a letter to the American investor. But how to start...?
As the day goes on we make the acquaintance of the writer's dog, his wife, his son and daughter, and various neighbours including the building's previous janitor and an up-and-coming young writer with a thirst for beer. All in a kind of slip-sliding third-person monologue that doubles back on itself so often you might get dizzy. Because although he's suffering from severe writer's block, this guy has no lack of imagination. So there's the moment of panic in which he imagines his daughter's been run over by a car but his capable son sorts out the coffin so as not to bother him, or the idea of his hard-working wife getting an aid job in Africa and the family moving to a mud-hut where he'll tell the local children stories and mop their feverish brows. Or the many scenes in which the American investor is jetting around the world in his private plane, talking down to his manservant and passing judgement on the writer. In fact, for a German book in which nothing whatsoever happens, a hell of a lot happens in this book.
What's most marvellous about it is Bremer's self-deprecating humour. His writer could be a photofit of himself - lives in Kreuzberg, wife and two kids, rather silly children's book about a dog - but is utterly self-absorbed and unreflective. All his wonderful excuses for not getting anything done, all his fantastically clichéd ideas about the people around him - the nearly 100-year-old lady next door, little Ali in his son's class, and above all the American investor - show him in such a bad light that I spent much of my time laughing out loud and folding down pages. And with only about 150 of them (pages, that is), there isn't time for it to get tedious. In fact with all the emotional ups and downs the poor writer goes through in the course of his day, it's pretty much the opposite.
I don't have a great deal more to say, except that you really ought to read this short novel if you enjoy humourous writing. Being a German book, it does of course have a serious and timely point to make, about property speculators and the Berlin housing market. But it does so with such a lack of pomp that Jan Peter Bremer pretty much walked away with the Alfred Döblin Prize for it (see my report here). I'm impressed.
Wednesday, 10 August 2011
Let's take a look at one country with which I'm familiar that doesn't have fixed book prices - the UK. Looters have been avoiding Waterstones like the plague, but over the last couple of decades the bookstore chain has become pretty much the last place on the high street you can buy literature. Why? Because they do cheap deals, for which they charge publishers zillions of pounds. Which means everyone ends up reading the same stuff in a scary literary world run by people with MBAs. And that independent bookstores go bust and small publishers have less of a chance on the market. And then in an oh-so-ironic way, the supermarkets have got in on the bookselling game and begun undercutting the chain bookstores in terms of both price and taste. Glittery pink books about flying ponies "written" by glamour models, anyone? Waterstones' latest reaction? Reintroduce centralised buying. Yay. Even less choice and variety.
Not being an economist, I have no idea whether it's a bizarre contradiction that a lack of state regulation (since Britain abolished fixed book prices) has not led to greater competition and greater choice for the consumer but to a near-monopoly. Maybe it's just me who finds that odd.
So now let's take a look at Germany, a land of evil state intervention. While the largest chain, Thalia, is present on most high streets, there are still plenty of independent bookstores on the ground. It's hard to find statistics but this 2007 NY Times piece on the subject quotes a figure of 2600. Independent publishers are, if not exactly flourishing, then at least holding their ground. And Katie Price's books have not been translated.
Now, books are not an expensive commodity in Germany. It's not in publishers' interests to set their prices too high, and there's still a subjective pain-barrier at around €20 for a hardback. Because they don't have to discount their bestsellers, publishers can keep prices for smaller print-runs low. But the best argument against the anti-fixed-pricers is libraries. If you can't afford to buy new books, buy them used or borrow them for free.
This is a bit of a rant, I admit, what with the lack of facts to back it up. So I won't attempt to suggest that the high quality and wide variety of German-language writing is due to fixed book prices. But on the other hand, nor can I see any evidence to uphold the argument behind the Swiss referendum - that fixed prices ultimately harm books.
Friday, 5 August 2011
So look! here! in German Vogue! A warm, fuzzy fluff piece about a German editor, Friederike Schilbach, who is indeed very nice. Apparently, she tends to "sit in the M. Wells diner in Long Island City with a mint lemonade or in Café Gitane on Mott Street with a cup of earl grey," wearing "a Rachel Comey blouse, an À Detacher dress or apricot-coloured summer jeans."
I would appear to be in the wrong profession. No doubt you're feeling that way too right now, dear reader, unless of course you happen to be a literary editor. In which case, enjoy your aniseed and coriander loaf, wherever you may be.
Thursday, 4 August 2011
Much of what Parks tells us in his TLS article is true. From his perspective as a translator, he has a special insight into the workings of international publishing. He is right to criticize what he calls an ‘industrialized translation process’ in which English-language books are split between several translators working under time pressure, in order to hasten publication in other territories. The findings of his study at ILUM University in Milan, showing that the space given to American writers in Italian newspapers is disproportionate to that for other nationalities, might well be reflected in Germany and elsewhere. Yes, translation into English is often regarded as a badge of quality, as he points out, and it is something many writers seem to yearn for. And his anecdotes from editors in the Netherlands and Italy on what books they manage to sell abroad are telling – titles for translation do indeed often have to conform to particular national and political expectations. Hence the proliferation of German novels featuring Nazis in English translation, incidentally.
There are certainly plenty of examples of translators being overlooked, yet Parks begins his series of exaggerations here. Translators are becoming less rather than more visible, he writes – without offering us any basis for comparison. In fact, as translators have become more professional, so we have been raising our profile. Nobody goes into translation for the fame, but it is becoming standard practice in the USA to print the translator’s name on the book cover and in Germany to credit them in promotional material, with some publishers including translator biographies below the author’s own blurb.
Parks states that translators only receive awards for translating major authors. A glance at the recipients of the Helene and Kurt Wolff Prize for translation from German to English proves how wrong he is – or are Gert Jonke, Michael Maar, Moses Rosenkranz suddenly household names? Not that their translators Jean M. Snook, Ross Benjamin and David Dollenmayer are any more famous, but still.
It is in his criticism of the Nobel Prize that Parks enters the realm of the ridiculous, however. Readers, he tells us, are not interested in hearing about translators, so they ‘must be reduced to an industrial process’ and disappear in the reaction to such prizes. May I recall Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize not too long ago, when one of the first of those to comment in the British press was her former translator Martin Chalmers? We can hardly expect the Nobel committee to honour all of a writer’s translators (Müller has been translated into English alone by at least six people), or even in fact to single out their Swedish translator for praise, for instance, despite presumably reading their works in translation, as Parks points out. Yet translators and academics – in the English-speaking world often one and the same individual – are often the first port of call for journalists unfamiliar with writers of the ‘Herta Who?’ ilk. Despite being notorious whingers, we translators should acknowledge what we have achieved. The picture is not quite as black as Parks paints it, and we do ourselves no favours by denying that any progress has been made.
The next of Parks’ contentious theories is the idea of a rivalry between nations to establish literary prestige, with governments promoting national literatures as ‘expressing the genius of a people’. In the case of Germany, that would be the Goethe-Institut, which does indeed do an excellent job of getting German literature into English and many other languages. Yet it is hardly the bastion of cultural imperialism as which Parks presents it and its equivalents. Certainly, it is open about promoting translations as an aspect of cultural policy, which the German Foreign Office defines in this context as ‘presenting Germany as a country with an internationally renowned and diverse cultural scene’.
But its employees are hardly badmouthing other literary cultures or kicking the people from the Institut Français under the dinner table. Nor do they live and breathe Herder’s romantic nationalism, as Parks seems to be suggesting. In fact the various national cultural institutes often work together on promoting international literature in New York, London or Prague, running European Literature Nights and European Book Clubs. Yes, there are editors who’ll say, ‘Oh, but we already have one translated book in our catalogue this season.’ But no, the nations are not in any real sense vying for literary recognition. Individual books, of course, are – regardless of their country of origin.
It is when it comes to what he defines as the paradoxical aspect of the ‘international space’ of literature that Parks takes off into pure conjecture. Writers, he claims, are seeking to escape this imagined national literary culture by writing outside of its narrow boundaries and expectations. This we can accept; also, today’s writers are as strongly influenced by David Foster Wallace, Kathy Acker and Valérie Valère – to take the rather obvious example of Helene Hegemann – as by their national forbears, at least in countries with lively cultures of literary translation. What Parks adds is that authors are now aware of ‘the harvest of celebrity to be reaped in terms of international recognition by doing so.’ This is the scandal of the entire piece – the author is accusing his peers of abandoning any realistic details of their own countries and any linguistic ingenuity in favour of a bland global form of writing, for the sake of world fame. He refers to this kind of writing – that does not employ linguistic deviance or cultural specifics – as a ‘strategy’ and a ‘recipe’, as if it were deliberate rather than a matter of influences, taste or fashion.
While Parks doesn’t name names in his TLS piece, his blogs for the NYRB go further. In the first on this topic, entitled ‘The Dull New Global Novel’ and dating from February 2010, he quotes several examples: the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, to whom we shall return in a moment; ‘Scandinavian writers I know’ who ‘avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader’; and bizarrely, Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk. Here, if I understand rightly, he is claiming that the writers maintain their political positions as a similar form of strategy for literary success: ‘So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.’
In the next of his NYRB pieces (‘Franzen’s Ugly Americans Abroad’, May 2011), Parks has the unusual idea of comparing two individual writers to buoy up his theory. And who does he take? Jonathan Franzen and Peter Stamm. In contrast to Franzen’s long lists of Americana, he tells us that Stamm ‘never tells you anything about Switzerland, or the other countries where his books are set,’ allegedly making his work easier to translate. His conclusion: ‘We might say that if the Swiss Stamm, to attract an international public, has been obliged to write about everyman for everyone everywhere, Franzen, thanks to the size of America’s internal market, but also to the huge pull the country exercises on the world’s imagination, can write about Americans for Americans (which is no doubt as it should be) and nevertheless expect to be read worldwide.’
A month later, in ‘Your English Is Showing’, Parks admits it may not have been a good idea to back up his theory with reference to only two writers, and goes on to claim with a little more caution that Peter Stamm, Siegfried Lenz and ‘many other French and Italian authors’ appear to him to have ‘a skeleton lingua franca beneath the flesh of these vernaculars, (…) basically an English skeleton’. He is researching the matter; we await his findings with bated breath.
But back to the idea of homogenized writing with translation in mind. This theory has been doing the rounds of academia since about the mid-1990s, and Parks cites one of the very few examples ever given: Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro has in fact made statements on the subject in the past. Following the release of Never Let Me Go in Britain in February 2005, he told Tim Adams of The Observer that he’d always written with a sense of translation in mind, initially because his narrators were Japanese but speaking English. But now: ‘I want my words to survive translation. I know when I write a book now I will have to go and spend three days being intensely interrogated by journalists in Denmark or wherever. That fact, I believe, informs the way I write – with those Danish journalists leaning over my shoulder.’
Three months later, he talked to Michael Scott Moore and Michael Sontheimer for Der Spiegel about what it means to be an international writer. Ishiguro: ‘Well, one important aspect is that if I spend time here in Germany or somewhere else explaining why I've written certain passages, when I go home and try to write my next book, somewhere in the back of my mind I have this idea that I'm going to be translated. Something that looks great in English may not work in other languages because it relies too much on puns, brand names, cultural references. And I feel a pressure to remove these things from my writing. This can be very dangerous.’ (My italics)
So we have a single writer who has spoken about being affected by this phenomenon. Ishiguro is aware of the issue and realizes it presents a risk to the quality of his writing. When it comes to Stamm, on the other hand – another much-translated writer – Parks may well be confusing cause and effect. Could it be that Stamm has been so widely translated, with his debut novel Agnes available in twenty languages, because his style is so sparse and his subjects so universal? Could it be that he is not obliged to write in the way he does but chooses to do so for reasons of personal taste? Rather than Stamm being a cold, calculating egomaniac chasing the international literary limelight by avoiding mentioning too many details of Switzerland in his work. We can’t know – but then again, neither can Parks. One thing at least is for sure: we’re not dealing with a chicken/egg scenario here. Agnes came first, the translations followed.
By implication, what Parks is looking for is a restoration of distinct national literary cultures; his ‘genius of a people’. The Chinese should write like the Chinese, for the Chinese, and about the Chinese. A vain hope no doubt, and rather a patronising one at that. As writers gain access to more and more literature in translation, so they take on new influences and adjust their writing, consciously or unconsciously.
Happily, there are plenty of counterexamples to Parks’ theory of the dull global novel in German-language fiction. While we’re on the subject of the Nobel Prize, let’s take a brief look at Herta Müller, known for her difficult language riddled with neologisms and her very specific focus on German-speakers in Romania. Certainly this blatant contravention of Parks’ ‘recipe’ for international success has done her little harm; she was another widely translated (if not widely read) author even before 2009. I’m currently enjoying the conundrums of translating Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff – a novel about Bulgaria, for God’s sake, that revels in its use of original language. For just as some publishers are happy to commission translations that are less culturally specific and linguistically challenging, there are others – and many translators – who relish the challenge of more ‘difficult’ texts.
Let us hope, then, that German writers do not swallow Tim Parks’ recipe for international success and turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. That for every young man imitating Raymond Carver there is a Thomas Lehr, a Steffen Popp, a Peter Wawerzinek, a Dietmar Dath, and for every piece of pared-down Prenzlauer Berg realism there is an Emine Sevgi Özdamar, a Maja Haderlap, a Kathrin Röggla and an Elfriede Jelinek waiting in the wings. With around thirty German-language novels translated into English a year on average, it hardly seems worth the effort to write Parks’ mythical dull global prose in the hope of international fame.
Wednesday, 3 August 2011
In this case I saw Simon Urban's Plan D in a shop window and was reminded of its existence. I also saw a review of it in a magazine but instantly forgot the release date printed beneath it. Seeing as it was obviously on sale, I thought I might as well post my review. Oops!
I've now accidentally torpedoed an entire marketing strategy, according to which, ideally, hundreds of reviews will appear in the same short period, suggesting to readers that this is THE big book of the season. Obviously my thousands of readers will also be frustrated, having been so enthused by my review that they rushed out to their local bookshops, only to be told that Plan D isn't actually on sale yet (unless of course they went to my local bookshop, which seems to be being rather naughty too). My sincerest apologies. I shall attempt to maintain the impression of magical review simultaneity in future. If you rushed out to your local bookshop, I do hope you simply placed an advance order. Because your really ought to read the book. Once it's come out.
Tuesday, 2 August 2011
Martin Wegener is a detective with the Köpenick branch of the People’s Police, called in to investigate the death of a mystery man found hanging from a gas pipeline in the forest. All the initial clues point to the Stasi, which is still in operation although less powerful than before the ‘Revitalisation’ in the early 1990s. With important economic consultations between the new West German chancellor Oskar Lafontaine and the East German party chairman Egon Krenz coming up, a West German police officer is called in to assist after the news is leaked to Spiegel magazine.
The two men start their investigations, more hindered than helped by the Stasi, uncovering a terrorist opposition organisation and a separate conspiracy to introduce a ‘third way’ in the GDR – the Plan D of the title (D standing for Deutschland, right?). Bombs go off, spirits are drunk, sausages eaten, there are shady trips to secret prisons and conspiratorial meetings in an abandoned fairground.
Meanwhile, Wegener yearns after his ex-girlfriend, now embarking on a career in East Berlin’s key energy export and transit industry ministry, and has imaginary conversations with his former boss, a stubborn non-conformist who disappeared without a trace a few years ago. The plot twists and turns beautifully, with more deaths occurring and plenty of tensions arising between the East and West German detectives. Wegener is betrayed on both the professional and the personal level and the novel ends with a personal defeat for him. We do find out who the mysterious victim is and who killed him, but the whys and wherefores are much more important.
The detective novel – amazingly done in the manner of a modern-day Raymond Chandler – would stand alone just fine, but Simon Urban has combined it with an ingeniously imagined modern-day East Germany. He obviously had great fun coming up with ideas about what might have been – from brand names for electronic devices more advanced than those in the West to oil-powered cars and blockbuster movies titles. And there are laugh-out-loud moments in which we come across genuine people in unusual situations – for instance a senile Margot Honecker singing along to Wolf Biermann records or the politician Sarah Wagenknecht as an action-movie heroine.
In one brilliantly written scene, Wegener stumbles around the labyrinthine underground ‘Molotov’ bar, looking for his workmates but growing increasingly confused and emotional. The place is a den of iniquity that serves rhubarb organic lemonade – the flavour that’s always sold out at the shops – with a shot of vodka, and scallops and chestnut puree and bacon and chutney and the best brand of East German sparkling wine, Rotkäppchen Superb, and offers darkrooms and boudoirs and bathtubs and willing waitresses, all in the name of a corrupt socialism on its last legs. As he wanders the dingy corridors catching sight of opulent scenes, he remembers the last time he was there – and the Russian waitress Magdalena with whom he was caught in flagrante in his cramped Wartburg car afterwards. The entire remembered episode is told in incredibly sexy, breathless long sentences, only for Wegener to wake up from his melancholy reverie and spot his West German colleague apparently flirting with Magdalena. Of course he instantly imagines the two of them stretched out in the other detective’s roomy Mercedes, but can’t find his way into the room they are in and ends up spewed out of the bar and onto the hard pavement.
The whole novel is beautifully written in impeccable and imaginative language. The protagonist Wegener is an impressively painted character, an aging cynic on the surface who is actually powered by love and idealism. But what makes the book so very special is the exuberantly portrayed vision of East Berlin under a collapsing socialist system – pockets of luxury for visitors and functionaries, surrounded by grime and decay and decorated with laughable political slogans. Urban raises questions about German history and about the integrity of our political systems, combining them with a real page-turner of a plot.
The only tricky thing about Plan D is the humour of spotting modern-day celebrities in odd what-might-have-been situations. Obviously it would be difficult to recapture those moments of recognition in translation – perhaps a glossary might be the solution? But actually, Urban doesn’t assume that his readers know a lot about the GDR itself so the book is very accessible.
I eavesdropped on conversations about the novel as long ago as last summer – this is the kind of book people get excited about, and rightly so. Unsurprisingly, it's nominated for the Hotlist indie book prize, which you too can vote on until 15 August. Urban’s mentor is Juli Zeh, already a success with her literary crime fiction in English translation (see my review of Dark Matter/In Free Fall). And I was lucky enough to translate a sample for the publishers Schöffling Verlag, an absolute pleasure. Publishers: please give me a chance to really get my teeth into the novel after that first tempting taste – you know you want to…
Note: this is an adapted version of a report for New Books in German.
Monday, 1 August 2011
Then there are the fascinating results of a Goethe Institut survey on how the rest of Europe sees Germany. The British statistics are here; explore the site for other countries. Best book in German? Faust.
And thirdly, an interesting attempt at linking places and prose: the project Streetview Literatur. Various German writers have contributed short stories about people going places in four cities (Berlin, Leipzig, Munich and Nuremberg), whose journeys you can follow on Google Maps, get the app or ebook (which don't yet exist), or whatever. Unfortunately I found the site a little lacking: there's no list of the authors involved and the quality of the pieces varies, let's say. Creator Marion Schwer has accompanied the project with a blog, again interesting reading - particularly the piece on whether and how to actually pay the writers for their contributions (under Teilnahme). That's always going to be a problem with exciting no-budget projects like these, I suppose.