Friday, 28 September 2012

Talking Translation

If you're not a bookseller or librarian in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon or Washington, you may have missed out on this interview between George Carroll and myself at NW Book Lovers. And wouldn't that be a shame.

Also, don't forget International Translation Day on Sunday! I expect you to dress up as Saint Jerome of Stridonian, the patron saint of translators and beard-wearers. In London you can attend an event with Saint Anthea Bell and Saint Daniel Hahn - today! - at the London Review Bookshop. And the Free Word Centre is having a full-day extravaganza on 5 October. Plenty to choose from in Germany too, including - gosh! - Lucy Renner-Jones, Will Firth, Alistair Noon and myself reading translations from German, Russian and Montenegrin at Shakespeare and Sons on Sunday, 7 p.m. Beard-wearers get in free.*

*As does everybody else.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Spiegel's Casual Vacancy Ticker

Good morning campers! Today's the day JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy comes out in German. It's called Ein plötzlicher Todesfall - not the most imaginative title ever but even I had to look up what on earth a casual vacancy is. It is in fact a post on a committee which becomes free suddenly outside of the usual election period, which is a bit tricky to translate. Anyway, the German version has two translators, Susanne Aeckerle and Marion Balkenhol, who worked on it on Bloomsbury's London premises, with the aim of avoiding piracy. Lucky them - apart from the French edition, which comes out tomorrow, the rest of the translators are getting the manuscripts today as well. According to The Guardian, the Finnish translator has three weeks to work on it.

All at the instigation of Rowling's agency. Strangely, the writer seems to surround herself with people who don't give a shit about translators - remember the 800lb gorilla that trampled all over her Hebrew translator's rights? Publishers Weekly cites Slovenian publisher André Ilc as saying, “Her agent would like to establish her as a quality author for adults, but at the same time this is forcing publishers around the world to break all the rules of good translating and editing.” Actually, there's no need to read the Guardian article because it's cribbed almost entirely from the very interesting PW piece. 

Der Spiegel, meanwhile, is doing the world a favour and running a live ticker on the book, starting at 9 a.m. CET. That's any minute now! Someone else will read the book on our behalf and report back live. Here's the link.

Oh, and Stefan Mesch is live tweeting too, and is a bit ruder than Der Spiegel. Which is fairly rude but mostly a bit silly.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

New Books in German Features Shortlist!

It's time for the new issue of New Books in German! Go there to find out what's hot in German-language writing this season - fiction, non-fiction and children's books that the experts think will work on the English-language market.

As if that weren't enough, they've started a new collaboration with the German Book Prize, bringing you sample translations of all six shortlisted titles.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Stewart Lee Loves German Books (possibly)

After the last post, there has been some confusion about who Stewart Lee is. Which made me hyperventilate a bit because Stewart Lee is only a really great British comedian. He's written two books of his own, one of which I have read and unfortunately given away to a budding comedian who's no longer answering my emails, and here he is talking about books.

Stewart Lee studied German literature at Birmingham University and wrote his M.A. thesis on humour in the late work of Heinrich Böll. He's a regular visitor to literary events at the Goethe Institut and will be hosting this year's St. Nicholas comedy special at the Austrian Cultural Forum London. Here's the last thing I wrote about him.

Update: The second paragraph, except for the link, is entirely made up. But maybe the ACF should do a comedy special. I believe German comedian Michael Mittermeier is performing at London's Soho Theatre very soon. If you read this, Stewart Lee, I hope not as many excited people contacted you as they did me. 

Book Tips

I've got four exciting things for you to look at, if you get excited by the same kind of thing as I do.

First of all is Benjamin Stein's exciting book The Canvas, now available in Brian Zumhagen's English translation. A novel about truth and perception set mainly in Germany, Israel and America, it's a story with two beginnings and two endings, which is quite handy because that means it can be printed in a flip-over format. I read two chapters told by one narrator and then two by the other and then flipped over again, but it's up to you how you go about it. The book's been getting a lot of well-earned press attention, but just in case you hadn't noticed... I will also dine out forever on the story of how I recommended it to the publishers, who then commissioned another translator. But I was only mad for about ten minutes because I suspect Zumhagen did a better job than I could have done on all the religious aspects. And I know the author was very pleased with their collaboration. So hey - why not buy a copy?

And if you don't mind waiting a little while I'd also recommend Ann Morgan's forthcoming book Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf. It says here that Harvill Secker will be publishing it in Summer 2014. The book grew out of Ann's blog A year of reading the world, for which she's spent the past year finding and reading books from all the countries. Which must be a mammoth project - take this post about trying to identify a full-length work of prose by a Liechtenstein writer available in English, for example, and you'll see some of the difficulties immediately. And look - she even called me up on the phone for a chat and wrote about Clemens Meyer's short-story collection All the Lights as Germany's contribution! "The publisher said the book will appeal to Bill Bryson, Nick Hornby, Elif Batuman and Anne Fadiman readers." Well, perhaps they're not wrong, but I haven't read any of them and am still looking forward to seeing this fascinating blog on paper, preferably with a round-up of what the author learned in the course of her year-long adventure.

And while we're on the subject of adventurous blogs-turned-books, have I ever recommended my friend Isabel Bogdan's fun-packed volume Sachen machen? Isabel is a lovely lady, a translator with a wicked and slightly silly sense of humour, who has an online column by the same name, in which she just goes ahead and tries stuff out. Like going to a heavy metal festival, getting a Chinese massage, riding a Segway, spending all night in a bookshop or getting one of those fishy pedicures - the only vaguely daring thing on her list that I've ever done. So Isabel goes and does all this stuff and writes about it in a humorous and affirmative manner, and very well of course because that's what she's good at.

So ages and ages ago, back when I was very tired and on a bit of a laziness bender blogwise, Isabel did a lovely reading in Berlin. It was organised by this geezer called Hermann Bräuer - and OMG! it says on his website that Stewart Lee thinks he's talented! I knew I should have got round to friending him on Facebook. Sheesh. Anyway, after the actual reading part there was a rather long drinking part to the evening, during which said allegedly talented comedian revealed that he's co-written the antithesis to Isabel's book, namely 101 Dinge, die Sie sich sparen können. 101 things you don't need to bother with. The plan was - guys, if you read this I hope you remember to put it into action - for Isabel and Hermann to go on tour together. Isabel will be a shiny golden angel of positive thinking with her beautiful blonde tresses, and dark-haired Hermann will be the devil on your other shoulder, telling you not to bother trying things out. The book's out in December so they should definitely play on the whole religion thing. I shall come along in a nice dress and hand out Christmas crackers specially doctored to contain German jokes, provided Stewart Lee comes too.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Calling All Aspiring American Translators

The delightful people at the GBO are hosting a competition! And they sent me an email! Which I have copied and pasted below! With added links so it looks like I've done some work! Dig those groovy bullet points.

The German Book Office, in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut, is inviting all aspiring translators of German to participate in a competition and to attend a panel discussion at which the winner will be chosen.

Similar to the already established Gutekunst Prize of the Goethe-Institut, we are particularly interested in identifying and encouraging outstanding students of translation and of the German language and assisting them in establishing contact with the translation and publishing communities.

o   The GBO has chosen a short excerpt (705 words) from Nora Bossong’s new novel Gesellschaft mit beschraenkter Haftung that participants will have to translate by October 15.
o   Submitted entries will be sent to a jury consisting of the GBO as well as of up-and-coming American editors. Editors will comment on the different sample translations and will come up with a shortlist.
o   A jury of accomplished translators will add their opinions by comparing the English version with the German original to come up with three finalists.
o   The three chosen translations will be presented and discussed at an evening panel, where the winner will be announced. We invite all translators to participate in person, but can only offer a small stipend to the finalists which can be used for travel/lodging costs.
o   The winning translator will be paid $600 to translate the first 15 pages of the novel.

This is a great chance for all participating translators to establish a relationship with U.S. editors. The three finalists will receive important feedback from editors and experienced translators, which will help them to improve their work.

Deadline for submission is October 15.
Award ceremony/panel discussion on December 12th from 6–8 pm.

Translator requirements:
Translators need to be U.S.-based and should not have more than one translated book published in English. No age restrictions apply.


In order to participate, please email Grace Moss at for the German excerpt, and return your sample translation to Grace Moss at the same email address.
Deadline is October 15. In addition to the sample, please provide us with your name and address and, in case you have already published a translation, the title of that book.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Non-Future of the Novel

A month or so ago I wrote about China Miéville's exciting visions for the future of the novel and mentioned the upcoming continuation of the discussion in Berlin. You may remember I expressed some scepticism as to whether the German writer Georg Klein was really the right person to continue the job in his keynote speech.

Well, I attended the public event on Saturday evening, where Georg Klein gave this speech. If you read German you might notice that it's beautifully written but less about the future of the novel and more about how the novel relates to time in general, the past, the present and the future. You might also assume that Klein either hadn't bothered to read Miéville's thoughts on the matter or found them so wildly imaginative and upsetting that he preferred to ignore them.

So there was Klein giving an accomplished waffle about how old science fiction doesn't really reflect modern-day life and how people should find more time to read and write novels. And he was joined by my old favourite Tim Parks, who told us (again) that "I think we all agree" that writers now thought they were addressing an international audience and adjusted their output accordingly. On that subject, I held a one-sided argument in my head with him here. And then there was Sophie Cooke, who said in a not very convinced tone that "what we need" (as readers) is novels that address the big issues of today, the multis and the news. Which both men disagreed with but failed to say quite why, leaving it at passive-aggressive stabs in Cooke's direction. The word "dangerous" was bandied about quite a lot and Klein said that no writer knows who their readers are. Upon which someone I ended up eating pizza with afterwards commented that all he needed to do was open a twitter account and he'd soon find out.

It all left me feeling rather angry, frankly. I know that on a global scale of things, the future of the novel is not hugely important. But the British Council has thrown a fair amount of money at the whole thing, inviting various writers to an exclusive discussion session yesterday morning. You could have watched it via livestream but you were probably asleep like I was. I'm told no significant progress was made. And the whole event was billed as a continuation of the discussion in Edinburgh, which was itself billed as part of a present-day re-staging of the 1962 International Writers' Conference there. Yet while there was some continuity of participants in the closed discussion, what the public got to see in Berlin was simply a non-conversation in a vacuum, with no reference to what had gone before or to the recent German debates on intellectual property and so on. There was no utopian thinking, no reference to the opportunities and risks presented by new and future technologies – and no chance for the audience to ask questions, incidentally.

Which leads me back to my original supposition. While a very skilled writer, Georg Klein was a bizarre choice of keynote speaker on the subject of the future of the novel – especially in a place like Germany where there are plenty of writers doing much more experimental stuff and thinkers coming up with out-of-the-box ideas about authorship and literature. A wasted opportunity - go to Litflow instead.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

German Book Prize Shortlist

Here it is:

Ernst Augustin: Robinsons blaues Haus (C.H.Beck)

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (Rowohlt.Berlin)

Ursula Krechel: Landgericht (Jung und Jung)

Clemens J. Setz: Indigo (Suhrkamp)

Stephan Thome: Fliehkräfte (Suhrkamp)

Ulf Erdmann Ziegler: Nichts Weißes (Suhrkamp)

Almost all of my favourites eliminated, how sad! And all but one woman. Now I want Clemens J. Setz to win, I think, or perhaps Ernst Augustin.

The very exciting good news is that English sample translations from all six shortlisted titles will be online soonish at New Books in German. And the winner will be announced on 8 October at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

My Latest Take on the Longlist

In the nick of time before the shortlist is announced tomorrow (Wednesday), here is my now traditional take on the longlist for the German Book Prize for 2012, based almost entirely on the extracts provided in the free booklet and the publishers' websites. Just to be fair, you know. As usual, there are a couple of things that crop up on several occasions, but you'll spot them as you go along.

For links, please see my first post on the subject.

We start with Ernst Augustin's Robinsons blaues Haus, and the first book is also the first of many in which a man looks back on his past. And it's one of the more interesting from the retrospective category because Augustin seems to revel in lust for language, repetition and lists and playful descriptions, with a slight patina like an old-fashioned grocery or Kolonialwarenhändler. I have absolutely no idea what it's about - even after reading the publisher's blurb - but I loved reading it.
Sample: "There followed a list of goods for transport: rings, necklaces, bracelets as tender, gifts and gifts in return, wedding jewellery, large and small crowns, above all money, money and gold in every form in leather sacks, in sealed boxes, round, square, ribbon-shaped embossings, gold from the Maratha period, gold from the Benares period, bar gold, ceremony gold, golden elephants borne on poles – the latter called for particular skills."
Autobiographical elements: Oh yes.

Next is Bernd Cailloux with Gutgeschriebene Verluste. Another man looking back, and I have a soft spot for this one because it's a rebel doing the looking back and he writes like it. It's amusing, entertaining, and perhaps a serious reckoning with the radical left in 1968 and what came afterwards, etc.
Sample: "And what happened in the years after that? It was enough to make you cry. She turned - like the classic cliché - into a suburban dentist's wife with declining joie de vivre, and he recited poems at Old Germanic things in the Lüneburger Heide."
Autobiographical elements: Yes indeed.

And on to number three, Jenny Erpenbeck's Aller Tage Abend. The extract is puzzling - the story could be set at almost any time at all, this section dealing with a baby's death. Apparently there are other possible deaths at different stages in the character's life, looking at twentieth-century history in a similarly fractured way as Erpenbeck's wonderful Visitation did. What I read was very very sad and very very beautiful, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I hope it makes the shortlist.
Sample: "The same way as she tipped out all the water in the house last night, because they say the angel of death rinses his sword in it, as she covered the mirror and opened the window because she's seen others doing it that way, but also because then the child's soul wouldn't come back but would fly out for ever, that way she will sit there for seven days now because she's seen others sitting that way, but also because she doesn't know where else to be, while she no longer wants to set foot in that inhuman place that was the child's room the last night."
Autobiographical elements: I suspect not.

And so we come to Milena Michiko Flašar with Ich nannte ihn Krawatte. As I wrote a while back, this is a short but ambitious novel combining two slightly clichéd characters in a clichéd setting - the park bench - albeit a Japanese one. Nicely done but not quite enough unusualness to counteract the overly familiar plot devices for my taste.
Sample sample: "My collar turned up, I turned the corners and watched out that I didn't stumble into anyone. I shuddered at the idea that my trouser leg might brush against the edge of someone else's coat in passing. I pressed my arms to my sides and walked, walked, walked, not looking right, not looking left."
Autobiographical elements: Probably not.

Rainald Goetz's Johann Holtrop is up now. Rainald Goetz, as I've written in the past, is a German literary phenomenon which I fail to understand. Either I'm missing something or he has such a huge reputation that nobody dares to take him down. Whatever the case, this is another man looking back (at his heyday, perhaps?), in this case at the 1990s. I can't tell what it's really about but I suspect that's not the point. The writing is fun, still sort of iconoclastic, heavy on the irony - try counting the adjectives and adverbs below.
Sample: "When the winters were long and rich in snow and the summers hot and dry -
There stood the black-glass office monolith pointlessly huge in the night, on the edge of Krölpa, Krölpa on the Unstrut, behind it the forests that formed Krölpa's northern border to the Warthe, there shone the glowing red company logo of Arrow PC lonely, evil and red up on the roof above the grim giant, made of black steel and black glass, the red lettering above it, a new building as broken as Germany in those years, as hysterically cold and stupidly designed as the people who had their desks here imagined the world was, because that's how they were, steered by greed, the greed to permanently secure themselves advantages, preferably of course in the form of money, but in that very point, in their calculation for self-interest, they were themselves ultimately calculable, computable and exploitable, that was the basis of the abstract money machine that resided here: the phantasm of the total rule of CAPITAL over humankind."
Autobiographical elements: Who knows?

Olga Grasnjowa's Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt is a delight, a sad sad funny story about a young woman who refuses to categorise herself in terms of nationality and sexuality and has a tough time of it, what with post-traumatic syndrome after childhood events in Azerbaijan, a dead German boyfriend and a difficult trip to Israel. Rights have sold to the US and you should read it when it comes out. I reviewed it earlier this year and I know the writer and I'd love for it to make the shortlist – but I'm not sure the judges will choose a debut novel.
Sample: "My computer had been shot dead fifteen minutes ago and now I was waiting for the confirmation forms that would entitle me to place an application for compensation from the state of Israel."
Autobiographical elements: I'm told not really.

Wolfgang Herrndorf's Sand already won the big springtime prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. So it would be kind of odd if it got this one too. It's a sort of spy story set in North Africa in the 1970s, with some very literary writing and a fun convoluted plot. It's good. If you're one of the two people who haven't read it yet you're presumably not going to read it now though.
Sample: "On the adobe wall stood a man with a bare torso, his arms outstretched as if crucified. He had a rusted spanner in one hand and a blue plastic canister in the other. His eyes swept across tents and huts, rubbish heaps and plastic sheets and the endless desert to a point on the horizon above which the sun must be rising shortly."
Autobiographical elements: Let's hope not.

Bodo Kirchhoff's Die Liebe in groben Zügen falls firmly into the "man looking back" category. We seem to have two love stories, one between Francis of Assisi and a nun (which might not be as racy as it sounds) and one modern-day middle class. Apparently Kirchhoff is very good about writing about love, and here the language is certainly very appealing. I didn't really understand what it was about but that didn't seem to matter much.
Sample: "Go now, he says, but the sister stays, kneeling in her habit, her hands folded before her neck. No woman prays so gracefully, Altissimu omnipotente bon Signore, his words out of her mouth."
Autobiographical elements: Possibly
*Special Catholicism bonus!

 Next comes Germán Kratochwil with Scherbengericht. Apparently it's about Germans in Latin America, written by a German in Argentina. Apparently several generations come together at a garden party and there's an exciting climax, sparkling with black humour. I found the extract strangely uninspiring, the writing uneventful and the passage uninteresting. Perhaps they picked a boring bit or I missed the humour.
Sample: "When the food came Katha merely picked a few chicory leaves off her plate and didn't eat a bite of her coley. As she'd been in an agitated mood after the shower she'd insisted on a bottle of rosé when they ordered, and knocked back two glasses in a row. Martin felt compelled to empty his own quickly and hurriedly pour himself more of the sweet wine, which he didn't like."
Autobiographical elements: Yes.

I found Ursula Krechel's Landgericht more exciting. It's about a judge returning from exile to Germany and his wife in the late 1940s, but failing to feel at home again. A fascinating personal and political subject, to me at least, although I'm not sure the rest of the world is quite as interested. I enjoyed the descriptions and the emotions at play in the extract - it seemed very perceptive.
Sample: "The instinctive refinding of the beloved, familiar skin was a miracle that the Kornitzers later often talked about, later, later, to each other; they couldn't tell their children. Not the 'touched' part of the body (man or woman) sent the alarm around the whole body, it was the actively 'touching' part, and after half a second it was impossible to tell who had touched and who had been touched."
Autobiographical elements: I don't think so but it is partly based on fact.

I couldn't quite get to grips with Dea Loher's Bugatti taucht auf. It read like it was going to be a crime novel, with preparations going on and a big build-up happening. And apparently it is in one of its strands, while the other seems to deal with the act of fetching an old car up from the bottom of a lake. I'm still thoroughly confused but I can't say I found the writing in the extract particularly inspiring, despite some exciting costumes.
Sample: "They weren't actually cigarillos, they were the cigarettes they usually smoked; they just called them by a different name and pretended they were cigarillos, holding them between straightened fingers, inhaling more slowly and breathing out the smoke more pretentiously; that was part of their game."
Autobiographical elements: I doubt it.

I've been to a reading of Angelika Meier's Heimlich, heimlich mich vermiss and established that it wasn't my cup of tea. It's a bizarre book about a mountainside clinic on the margins of science fiction. What I didn't like about it is obvious in the extract too: the writer seems to be laughing at her characters, which is pretty mean when they're in a mental institution. Also, I felt the Thomas Mann meta-level and some of the philosophical stuff she deals with were asking a bit much of the reader for a broad (international) appeal - but that could just be me.
Sample sample: "Opium and rhubarb, that's all I can do for you right now. He suckles greedily at the rubber teat on the bottle while staring at me accusingly through the windowpanes of his glasses, and I notice that a further regiment of his hair has used yesterday's special treatment to make a retreat behind the enemy forehead line."
Autobiographical element: Now that would be mean.

Sten Nadolny's Weitlings Sommerfrische seems to be the ultimate old man looking back novel on this list, dealing as it does with an elderly man losing his memory. But what you can't tell from the extract is that the retired judge Wilhelm Weitling gets mysteriously catapulted into his own past. As you do. It sounds like a cheap plot trick worthy of Quantum Leap but I suspect this is actually a very good book, especially if you're of a certain generation yourself, let's say. Certainly I enjoyed the warm, affectionate writing and I was relieved to find out that there's more to the novel than there is to the extract.
Sample: "He felt his strength ebbing but he was grateful for every good moment in his life. There would be some more to come, no doubt about that. And they did come."
Autobiographical elements: I expect so.

I wrote about Christoph Peters' Wir in Kahlenbeck last week. I think Peters is the youngest of the men looking back on the list, but he's all the more thorough about it, fictionalising his own schooldays at some length. Beautiful writing, lots and lots of Catholicism.
Sample: "Carl thinks of God's wrath, of the Lord's second coming. The end is nigh, you have to recognise the signs. There's a fissure running around the world, at the base of which hell is opening up. It splits the families, the states, the earth. The arsenals are spilling over, enough nuclear bombs to destroy everything that exists a hundred times over. In Russia and China they drag believers before the court, throw them into prison, murder them."
Autobiographical elements: Yeah baby.
*Special Catholicism bonus!

Michael Roes's die Laute, very sadly, goes over my head - but I still enjoyed the extract. The novel is about a Yemeni boy who is determined to become a composer and manages to do so despite going deaf. I have a soft spot for writing about music, which is a difficult thing to get right because there are a lot of clichés to be avoided. Roes seems to have done it well here but I can't tell because it's not a kind of music I know anything about. Whatever the case, this is a brave and exciting book by a writer who deserves more attention for his work, which goes beyond the usual bounds of German writing.
Sample: "I can see very clearly what my competitors play, I hear with my eyes, their atonal clusters, their post-serial dissonances, a constant effort to burst the bounds of the instrument, without daring that bursting in the end. I'd feel sorry for the beautiful Blüthner too. So I follow their attempts with indulgence."
Autobiographical elements: Few, I expect.

Now to Patrick Roth's Sunrise. There has to be one book I can't stand on the list, and this is it. Starring Joseph of Nazareth, it's apparently an aesthetic experience, and also apparently rides the sublime and pathos like a starry steed. OK. But did it have to be written in barely readable pseudo-biblical language as well? For me this was the most reactionary, in terms of style, of the men looking back novels on this list. I'm aware, of course, that looking back is one of those things that literature is there for, and it's not that I object to it per se. More that I object to this backward-looking extract.
Sample: "And as he walks along there comes to him from the side: heat of the sun-warmed stone that was piled to form a wall. And it seemed to Joseph as if he smelt something of the meal, through the stones' gaps, as if there had just been bread baked upon them. And he hungered though he was barely hungry."
Autobiographical elements: Verily.
*Super extra Catholic bonus!!

Frank Schulz's Onno Viets und der Irre vom Kiez was a bit of a surprise on the list, to be honest. It's a humorous Hamburg novel about a lovable loser who turns detective for want of any better way to earn a living. Fun, choppy writing by a cult author, the extract sort of reminded me a bit of Sven Regener's Herr Lehmann (Berlin Blues in English) and I know a lot of people who really loved it. But I can't see a book quite this genre (adj.) winning the big prize of the year.
Sample: "Raimund gave a sardonic creak. 'He couldn't imagine the shortest route between two map coordinates to save his life. If Edda didn't sit next to him now and then he'd end up in Bremen or Flensburg every time he drove across town, not in Hoheluft-West.'"
Autobiographical elements: Interesting question.

Last but two is Clemens J. Setz with Indigo. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what this novel is about, to go by the extract. What we have here is a rather one-sided dialogue about rats and dogs. The publishers tell us it features a character called Clemens Setz, a maths teacher at an unusual Austrian school. They also tell us to ignore the plot summary, which is usually good advice with Clemens Setz, I believe. So whatever happens, the book is almost certain to be very strange and very good, judging by the writer's previous form.
Sample: "But look at the life they lead, I said and pointed at the small dog chasing around between the bushes. You live with big shapes that make unintelligible sounds and control your food, toys and exercise opportunities. You spend hours wandering around alone with them, and suddenly you spot someone at the end of an avenue or on the other side of the road who speaks your language, has a tail and ears, who even wants to come closer and present themself – and you're dragged back on the rope, not allowed to move a centimetre towards the other one."
Autobiographical elements: Unashamedly so - or maybe not?

Not quite finally, we come to Stefan Thome's Fliehkräfte. This is the one people keep telling me is going to win, so I was quite looking forward to reading it even though I was underwhelmed by his previously longlisted novel. And lo and behold, I am underwhelmed again. A professor seems to be visiting a former lover, perhaps, or at least a woman in France. You know, taking stock of his past life, looking back. The publishers tell us he will go on to examine his dark sides and failures, etc. etc. As with almost all the five Suhrkamp novels on this list (yes, that's a quarter), I just don't get the hype, which makes me feel stupid and I tend to resent that. The writing is decent in a plain way but no actual character comes across in the extract.
Sample: "Sandrine's father once met his lovers in the confined spaces of this attic flat. The wood-panelled sloping ceilings possess charm and the view from the high windows crosses roof crests, brick walls and slim chimneys into the open expanse of the city."
Autobiographical elements: I don't really care.

So finally we come to another Suhrkamp title, Ulf Erdmann Ziegler's Nichts Weißes. While I could tell this novel would be more to my taste than the previous one and I preferred the author's precise style too, I found the extract very specific. It's about a woman fascinated by fonts, who enters the media world in the 1980s. Looking back on the very first computer generation, if you like. Rather like with Michael Roes, I appreciate that Ziegler writes extremely well about visual phenomena - coming from a background of art and architecture journalism. But I can't relate to it myself and thus found the appeal limited.
Sample: "Convinced of himself, Passeraub had taken the opportunity to abolish terms like 'roman', 'semi-bold' and 'bold' and instead indicated font strength through numbers such as 55, 65, 75, for anyone who used his Kosmos font was no longer a craftsman, was in fact more of an engineer perhaps."
Autobiographical elements: Possibly

So there you have it. I'm very unsure what will make it to the shortlist but I can't wait to find out.

Monday, 10 September 2012


I almost forgot! The latest issue of Words Without Borders features two rather different German writers: Finn-Ole Heinrich and Herta Müller, translated by myself and Philip Boehm. Enjoy!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Daniela Dröscher: Pola

I go to a fantastic hairdressing salon where they don’t give you shabby gossip magazines to read, they give you books about Hollywood divas. So I’m now completely out of date on today’s celebrities but I know a fair bit about the stars of yesteryear. Pola Negri was one of them, a Polish-born dancer who became a silent movie star in Germany and then followed director Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood. Her career floundered after she upstaged Rudolf Valentino’s funeral by acting the grieving widow at his graveside and then married a Georgian “prince” six months later.

This is where Daniela Dröscher’s novel Pola picks up the thread. What on earth could make a Polish actress return to Germany in 1934, just when everyone else was getting out? But that’s just what Pola Negri did, making six films in Nazi Germany although living in France in between filming, before returning to the States after the Nazi invasion. Negri made only two more movies after that.

So the lovely Daniela Dröscher takes this character, a woman with a fascinating life story who was always economical with the truth (her autobiography, Memoirs of a Star, is notoriously unreliable) and fictionalizes her. The novel gives us an explanation of sorts – albeit a wonderfully unfeasible one – for why the thoroughly modern Pola Negri, a former lover of Charlie Chaplin, might have ended up starring in Mazurka, allegedly Hitler’s favourite movie.

I won’t tell you what that reason is in terms of the plot because that’s very much part of the fun. But Dröscher has created a delightful diva who refuses to look beyond the end of her nose, who drags her devoted German-Jewish secretary back to the Third Reich but then sacks her to force her to leave the country again, who shouts at Eva Braun and taunts Magda Goebbels with her husband’s infidelities. But who also sleeps with whoever she feels like sleeping with. You know that game on public transport where you choose which person in the carriage you’d have sex with if aliens were to land and demand that you demonstrate human procreation or they’ll wipe out Planet Earth? Dröscher’s Pola Negri puts that game into practice. Without the aliens. What, you never play that game? You should try it.

So here’s our Pola, drinking and shouting and rolling her Rs around Berlin, carrying a stolen model of King Kong in her handbag along with a pungent Chihuahua, contending with the hideous prospect of growing old and lonely and poor. And with a mother to be reckoned with and an absent father, and with the Gestapo and a much younger lover. The novel covers Pola Negri’s crisis period up to the premiere of Mazurka, with the occasional flashback to her childhood. And the action moves between Hollywood, Warsaw, Berlin and a French chateau. As befits our heroine, there are plenty of glamorous parties and real-life stars too.

While it’s rather sad at points and I did feel for the poor diva, it’s above all a comic novel and a celebration of its flawed and fascinating protagonist. I already adored Dröscher’s debut Die Lichter des George Psalmanazars for its fabulous language and imagination, and she’s done it again here. But sadly one thing that stood out vividly to me seems to have gone unnoticed by proper critics, and that’s Dröscher’s characteristically playful use of language. The narrator uses such heavy doses of pathos that the language itself becomes melodrama, but always with a comic touch. How about this fabulous moment as an example (in my quick translation):

She drew deeply, puffed sophisticatedly and tried to blow smoke rings as she breathed out. The circles, however, collapsed even before they’d taken shape, and she suffocated the fuming cigarette. She’d show the world she still knew how to snatch a spark of noblesse out of that pitiful, inadequate thing called life. She plucked the net in front of her face aloft and enticed the barkeeper over with a bat of her eyelashes.

So much affection for the character, so much insight and such a great voice! 

Daniela Dröscher researched the novel in Germany, America and Poland, watched Negri’s films and read her autobiography but stopped short of her diaries, which are preserved in Texas. At the book’s launch last week she told us she saw Pola Negri as a great actress and a strong woman, as the “Polish tornado” as she styles herself in the novel but also as a clown at times. I’d like to think she’s done her justice here – this book is a genuine delight.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Saints and Ninjas

Daniel Hahn and the people from the British Centre for Literary Translation are challenging the notion that nobody's interested in translation. Not just in a shouty way, but in practice too. At the English PEN website, Danny writes about a series of events they held at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival.
This series (...) isn’t just about shoving the translator onto a stage to sit next to their writer, a well-meant gesture but which is mostly about helping the original writer get by in English; rather it’s made up of events about literary translation. Typically, of course, a translator expects to be invisible (that is apparently the most desirable state of affairs) – certainly nobody’s heard of us in the way they might have heard of our authors; and English-speaking audiences, we’re always told, aren’t on the whole interested in, or perhaps just aren’t comfortable with, discussions of the subject. So if we were to programme a series of events about translation, featuring in most cases a line-up of translators nobody’s ever heard of, would anyone show up to hear what we had to say? We put it to the test.
They sold out, he tells us. I want everybody to take note of this - and when you organise your next literary festival, I want you to schedule translator events too. I want us to be on those stages in our own right, as simperingly modest and unattractive as we may be. Hell, if Franzen can lecture about bird-watching, we can thrill audiences with talk of our work. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Swiss Book Prize Shortlist Announced

The five titles nominated for the Swiss Book Prize have been announced, and they are:

Sibylle Berg, Vielen Dank für das Leben (Hanser Verlag) - an innocent of unclear gender looks upon East and West Germany

Ursula Fricker, Ausser sich (Rotpunktverlag) - husband in a coma, I know, I know, it's serious

Peter von Matt, Das Kalb vor der Gotthardpost (Hanser Verlag) - critical take on Swiss literature and politics

Thomas Meyer, Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse (Salis Verlag) - Jewish boy in Switzerland, apparently very funny

Alain Claude Sulzer, Aus den Fugen (Verlag Galiani Berlin) - admirably composed multi-strand tale of upper-middle class fates thrown out of joint in Berlin. Not my cup of tea.

If I have time before the winner is announced on 11 November I'd like to take a look at Sibylle Berg and Thomas Meyer's books. The lucky individual gets 30,000 Swiss francs - that's about 25,000 euros or 20,000 pounds or 31,000 dollars.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Hotlist Shortlist 2012

They've announced the ten titles in the running for the German-language independent book award by the name of Hotlist 2012. The name doesn't make sense, of course, but is presumably the result of the award originally being a kind of last-minute idea by twenty indie publishers who didn't spend hours and hours haggling over whether the name made sense. It's a hot list of books, and that's that.

The books are:

Jeffrey Yang: Ein Aquarium. Berenberg Verlag, tr. Beatrice Faßbender. American poems.

Miklós Vajda: Mutter im amerikanischen Rahmen. Braumüller Verlag, tr. Timea Tankó. Hungarian mother-son novel.

Angelika Meier: Heimlich, heimlich mich vergiss. Diaphenes Verlag. Rather bizarre German novel about a remote mountain psychiatric clinic, I believe. Ring any bells?

Tor Ulven: Dunkelheit am Ende des Tunnels. Droschl Verlag, tr. Bernhard Strobel. Dark Norwegian short stories.

Michèle Roten: Wie Frau sein. Echtzeit Verlag. I think this is non-fiction, looking at the state of feminism in real life.

Lukas Meschik. Luzidin oder die Stille. Jung und Jung Verlag. Austrian meta-novel.

Peter Gizzi. totsein ist gut in amerika. Luxbooks, tr. Sylvia Geist, Simone Kornappel, Christian Lux, Daniela Seel, Jan Skudlarek, Andreas Bülhoff. More American poems, this time lower-case.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Der Pirat und der Apotheker. Peter Hammer Verlag, tr./ill. Henning Wagenbreth. Illustrated Scottish ballads.

Tamta Melaschwili: Abzählen. Unionsverlag. Three days of three children in a war zone.

Helon Habila: Öl aufs Wasser. Verlag Das Wunderhorn, tr. Thomas Brückner. Nigerian thriller/love story/utopian/dystopian novel.

Is that an eclectic list or what? It certainly reflects the cornucopia that is German/Austrian/Swiss independent publishing. Lots of translation, lots of experimentation, lots of beautifully made books.

My concern, however, is that I can't find any information about the prize money and who it goes to on either of the two Hotlist websites. Perhaps I'm being particularly dense at the moment, but it's unclear to me whether the money (and how much of it) goes to the publishing houses, the writers and/or the translators. And I think that ought to be made clearer.

The prizewinning book will be selected by a jury and announced at a flashy awards ceremony on 12 October at the Frankfurt Literaturhaus. Which is a good venue - not like last year's fiasco. And it would appear we will be spared the honour of Jakob Augstein presenting the event, after three years of agony. To be followed by dancing. What larks.

Update: Many thanks to Beatrice Faßbender, who kindly cleared up my confusion over the prize money in the comments section. It's €5000 and goes to the publishers.