Sunday, 30 June 2013

Michael Althen Prize for Criticism

Here is a thing I think is wonderful: a prize for criticism not divorced from emotion, awarded by the otherwise often po-faced FAZ: the Michael Althen Prize (named for the newspaper's former film critic). Claudius Seidl writes:
It's not solely about film criticism. But it is about criticism that doesn't necessarily want to be right, about criticism that doesn't keep personal feelings off its back with watertight phrasing, about criticism that thrives on the awareness that analytical acuity and genuine emotion are not mutually exclusive.
I love that description; it's what I want from criticism. And the entry conditions:
Anyone can apply who has published a piece of criticism between 15 August 2012 and 15 August 2013 (or who considers a piece of criticism published in this period worthy of the award and would like to submit it) – whereby we hope you understand we find it easier to judge the quality of texts written in German.
I don't know quite what that means - I don't know how they define publication or whether they're just being polite about non-German-language writing. The judges are film people and the writer Daniel Kehlmann. Last year's inaugural award went to Sarah Khan; you can read her story "Séance with the Stasi" in Jane Yager's translation at Asymptote. The award-winning text about the TV series House was published in Cargo magazine.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Bachmann Twitter Party

People! It might be the last ever Ingeborg Bachmann Prize (but I wouldn't bet on it)! So we're having a party to dance on the volcano. Saturday 6 July, from 9.30 a.m. at Glas + Bild, Stresemannstraße 23. We'll be watching the third day of the competition on a huge screen and generally enjoying ourselves - do come along! All you need to do is contact info at and bring something to eat or drink.

I've taken the plunge and set up a Twitter account. The plan is, you see, to tweet about it at the same time. There's an official hashtag, as I believe these things are called: #tddl. So you can watch it on TV or via livestream and "join in the conversation" (how I hate that cliché) wherever you are! Although obviously if you're in Berlin you should pop round. We might also have the twitter stream projected onto the wall at the same time for added brain-exploding input. I'm a little bit scared of picking up a new addiction, so I might just delete my account afterwards.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

On Atheism and Literary Reception

I am an atheist. However, it's not quite as simple as that. My mother tells me she's agnostic, although she was raised as a Christian; my father, grandfather and great-grandfather define or defined themselves as atheists. That means I was brought up without God, albeit with respect for other people's beliefs. I never made a conscious decision to reject religion and the existence of God, but rather never believed there was a God in the first place. I think this is a fairly unusual experience in many places, although it may be becoming more common and I've met many people from the former GDR with a similar story. I've talked to people who say we need a new term because atheism is a negation in itself. I think it's perfectly adequate though.

What being a fourth-generation atheist means, though, is that I automatically take a fairly rational approach to life. I'm not the kind of person who believes in fate, or horoscopes, or even certain aspects of alternative medicine that rely on us believing they work (I don't want to convert anybody; please do me the courtesy of not trying to convert me back). If I don't like a situation I'm in, I'll try to get out of it or change it. Of course, I'm aware that I grew up in a country with a long history of Christianity, which has soaked into all aspects of its culture and can't have left me untouched either. Earlier this year, I read Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists, but it struck me that the author's apparent craving for organised ritual seemed like a way of replacing religion with something else, and that's not something I personally feel a need to do. I have attended about four religious rituals in my life, three Christian weddings and a Sufi Muslim shrine offering. So another thing I don't know how to do is worship – which, again, is not something I would consider rational.

However, there is at least one area of my life that isn't rational: emotions. Fear, sadness, guilt, and that one I'm prone to overusing the name of: love. I don't know whether I fear and love differently to someone who fears and loves God as well as other objects. But I do know I have these unruly forces in my life, no matter how hard I try to blame them on chemicals. I remember as a teenager reading a quote attributed to Fay Weldon, which I can't find online: Love is just your hormones trying to get you pregnant. It's nonsense, of course, at the very latest when we apply the word to objects other than persons (or to men, or to lesbians, or to post-menopausal women as subjects, all of whom feel love, right?).

As you know, I love German books. Obviously I don't love all of them, unconditionally or indeed exclusively. That would be akin to worship, and anyway I don't think anyone would be capable of such a thing, not even people who work for the Goethe Institut. I don't even love everything one particular writer has ever written. There are people who do that though, I believe: idolise particular writers. As the word suggests, it's a religious kind of behaviour. So perhaps an atheist book-lover loves books differently to a religious book-lover.

And here's another word I overuse: magic. I don't believe it exists in a literal sense. I don't believe a man in a sixth-floor flat can shake bones over you and help you find a husband, or contact the spirits (which, obviously, I don't believe exist either). But I find it's a useful term for describing the way a spark of enthusiasm leaps from one person to another – say from a writer to a reader. I'd say there's a pinch of magic in publishing. I recently used the word to describe what foreign rights people do: they second-guess which books will work in different countries, and it seems like more than good luck when it works. Of course, my rational mind insists, we only hear the success stories. But still, there are magical phenomena where pure enthusiasm – and yes, that's love too – spreads.

I've been talking to people about what happens when you read books for a living. In a way, of course, I'm a prime example, if we consider translation as extremely close reading involving interpretation and reproduction. But reading and analysing isn't my main occupation. The examples I've been thinking about are professional literary critics and literary scholars. Last night I spoke to a scholar who said she'd never want to write about the writer she adored (idolised) as a teenager. I know I don't even want to re-read the writer I put up on a pubescent pedestal – she can never be as good as I imagined she was. And a friend told me about meeting a bunch of critics at a party, who were very jaded and spent the evening moaning about books and literary events. Is it that being paid to take literature apart on a regular basis robs it of its (God-like) mystery and allure? Like finding out the Wizard of Oz is a small man with a smoke machine behind a curtain?

It seems to me, although I could be wrong, that professionals lose sight of the magic and the love that makes literature exciting. Scholars are expected to take a Mr Spock-like perspective of writing, at least in their professional lives. Mr Spock being the proto-atheist in popular culture, perhaps, unable to understand even emotions because they're not logical, captain. Love is out of the question under the circumstances, I assume. And some critics must become immune to the magic, I suppose, and the love fades and fades as they become more and more, well, critical. Except for those exceptional critics who can still feel it or at least express it convincingly. There are people who say love feels stronger when you're younger, first cut is the deepest and all that, although I don't agree.

Are you wondering how I'm going to tie this all up? So am I; this is one of those Kleistian ideas-in-progress posts. I suppose I take a non-religious approach towards books, often a blunt one, but not actually a rational one. I'm happy enough with that for the time being.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Bachmann on the Brink?

Regular readers - and anyone interested in literature who lives in a German-speaking country - will be familiar with the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. In a nutshell, it's Austria, Switzerland & Germany's Got Literary Talent. Four days of readings by mostly emerging writers and discussion by critics, broadcast live on Austrian TV. Only now Austrian TV seems to have got cold feet, after twenty-five years.

Various reports explain that the national Director General of ORF made a brash statement that they would no longer broadcast the competition next year, before actually informing the regional director in Carinthia, where the Bachmann Prize event takes place. ORF spends €350,000 on it, while the city of Klagenfurt donates €60,000. The mayor has said Klagenfurt can't afford to step in either. Apparently, the public broadcaster is having to implement major cuts because of a change to the funding process, and look what goes first - the arts.

There have been various enraged reactions. As previous winners point out in Focus magazine, the competition has made many a literary career. One of the critics judging in Klagenfurt for the past few years, Hubert Winkels, has written a hyperbolic defence of the competition in Volltext magazine. It's essential to broadcast it live, he says, because of the tension that creates and the attention it commands, spreading the prize's fame to all corners of the German-speaking world (you can watch ORF in Germany and Switzerland as well as Austria). What he doesn't mention is that it used to have an even further reach, with the entries and the website translated into seven European languages. When the sponsor jumped ship last year, the translation programme was abandoned. The longstanding organiser also moved on to a different position at ORF last year, although she was tight-lipped about the reasons. Winkels is a great one for exaggerating literature's importance; last year he claimed at an event that arts criticism is just as important to Western civilisation as representative democracy. Here again, he overstates his case: the competition should be put under United Nations protection, he says. I'm not at all sure he's joking.

I've never attended the competition in person, although many people do - giving the city a large influx of visitors and also showing a different side to a place rather tainted, let's say, by its association with right-wing populism. I'd also say this kind of culture tourism is a major boon for Klagenfurt and ought to be worth more than €60,000 (I wonder, for example, how much funding Berlin's international literary festival gets from the city). But of course the TV broadcast is nothing less than essential for the prize's prestige. Fourteen people reading in front of an audience of a couple of hundred is kind of lame in comparison. Over the past few years people have had a lot of fun with social media around the Bachmann Prize, commenting on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. But even if the competition were to continue with a livestream, not being on TV would lose it a huge audience.

Let's hope they get the situation sorted out somehow. As Winkels says, it is a unique event and it would be sad to see it fade into obscurity.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Women on Lists

I've recently been asked to come up with a couple of lists, first a list of recommended German books available in translation in the UK for Litro magazine, and then a list of "five books that mean so much to me I wouldn't part with them" for It's not all that easy coming up with these things, because in a way the categories are fairly random. Especially isolating five books I wouldn't part with, if you've ever been round my flat. I mean, like someone's going to come along and say, It's the end of the world as we know it, quick, choose five books to rescue! But OK, they're calling attention to reading and donating money to some good cause or other.

And then I got in an argument with a complete stranger on Facebook, as you do. I can't remember her name, but it was a woman. A friend flagged up Deborah Kogan's piece in The Nation about the humiliations women writers still suffer, which was recently translated in Die Welt. And the friend pointed out the usual statistical imbalances, making a particular example of fuenfbuecher. The people they ask for lists, she said, often name five men and not a single woman writer. In fact they have a list of frequently named writers, twenty of them, including only four women. But you can hardly blame the website people - they do ask plenty of women for their lists, and the choice is up to the individual. It was at this point that a couple of people said, What, we're supposed to introduce quotas in our own taste? And I said, essentially, yes.

Which is of course overly simplified. So I'd like to elaborate my thoughts here. I shall attempt not to generalise.

When people I draw up these lists, we are I am never entirely honest. There are a number of things at the back of my mind: what's the purpose of the list, who is the audience, what am I trying to achieve? And, always: how will it make me look? I would assert that most people asked to list five books that are important to them will choose books that make them look good, as they understand it. So the list of frequently named books includes Ulysses, the Bible, Wuthering Heights, that type of thing, interspersed with a number of children's books and "difficult" works of foreign literature (mostly American). I can imagine a person might want to create a rounded picture of herself by not actually listing what's on her bedside table right this minute.

And that's what I do too: I want any list I make to include women as well as men. Because women are at a disadvantage in the literary world, despite making up the bulk of the readership. It doesn't have to be absolute parity, partly because there are limits to what's available to choose from in some cases (I wrote about women in translation some time ago here). I would like professional critics to do the same - to have an eye, at least, on making sure books pages aren't entirely dominated by reviews of books by men, with the odd photo of a young woman writer. My blog is a kind of list, in a sense, and I try, but don't always manage, to write about books by women as much as about books by men. I don't think that's too much to ask. Do you?

The fuenfbuecher phenomenon is interesting. The only theory I can come up with is that the choices reflect the higher prestige that male writers still have, in the canon and in literary fiction. I think that explanation applies to the gender disparity in translation, too; at least into English.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Learn to Write this Summer in Berlin

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Summer in Berlin - it's hot and steamy and you'd only overheat if you just lounged around in the park, right? And you've always wanted to do a week's intensive writing course in a chilled location. The Reader are offering that in three different flavours. Like ice cream. Travel writing and memoir with the excellent Rory MacLean and Kimberly Bradley (whom I don't actually know) plus a reading by top talented writer Greg Baxter once it cools down in the evening. Imaginative writing with Tod "very good, also very funny" Wodicka and super fiction babe Clare Wigfall, with that mild evening event featuring Julian Gough, who's also pretty impressive. Or scriptwriting with Donna Sharpe and CJ Hopkins. I don't know either of them though, sorry.

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It's very hot here today and all of my flat gets full-on afternoon sun (apart from the bathroom). If I was interested in writing I would gladly pay €350 to spend a week elsewhere.

Berlin bei Nacht. Neue Geschichten - ed. Susanne Gretter

Berlin has a certain reputation as a city of vibrant nightlife. So when a friend recommended this anthology of Berlin stories, I was expecting tales of lost weekends in techno palaces, riding trains with Iggy Pop, and perhaps an imaginative dash of Josephine Baker. Actually, all three of those legends are present here, but in unexpected forms. And there's much more besides: foxes, hospitals, kitchens, taxi drivers, liars, and yes, bars, bars and more bars. Drinking with German writers - the fiction edition. In fact, the authors even include two of my previous drinking partners, Inka Parei and David Wagner.

Some of the stories seem to be straight-forward reports of a particular night: Klaus Bittermann darts amusingly from kindergarten to "discourse pop" to disappointing rock 'n' roll; Marc Fischer describes a group of Spanish tourists queuing up outside the inevitable Berghain in a text I'd read before. But ho hum, it worked just as well the second time. Critic Dirk Knipphals has a charming journalistic piece about patchwork nights then and now, and Bernd Cailloux has a wonderful, wonderful portrait of one night in the life of a taxi driver.

What stood out most for me, however, were the texts that were easier to classify as fiction. Anna Katharina Hahn opens the anthology with an astounding story about a man who pretends to come from Berlin and gets a spectacular comeuppance. Marica Bodrozic has a dreamlike night with William Blake behind a green door. Sarah Khan made me laugh with a story about clashing stereotypes and voodoo. Inka Parei does what she's so incredibly good at, writing a precise story that all ties together about ten minutes after you finish reading it. Kathrin Schmidt sends a missive from the very edge of town, where the lives might seem less gaudy but make for excellent fiction. Annett Gröschner's heroine trawls a Prenzlauer Berg bar for the gentrifying men she abhors, sharing a mini-history of the borough's past forty years as she goes along but never falling into the trap of spitting vitriol on the newcomers in general.

And then there's Christian Ruzicska's beautiful, confusing, breathless story, told at third hand and filtered through alcohol, of a Jewish woman who returns to Berlin. I'm not at all sure what happens here but I do know I love it.

Another thing I appreciated about the anthology was that it includes a wide range of voices, not just people who write fiction for a living. So we get a few slightly rough-and-ready texts, some of which were great fun, like Kerstin and Sandra Grether's account of an evening as DJs (although it does include a particular bugbear of mine: the German neologism DJane. There's no need, to my mind, to create a feminine version of Disk Jockey because a jockey can be male or female, as Elizabeth Taylor gamely proved in National Velvet. So we can abandon the unwieldy formulations "DJs und DJanes" or, as here, the pronounceable "DJ_anes" AND mentally celebrate a diva at the same time.)

The collection closes with a piece by indie publisher and unlikely-but-true man-about-town Jörg Sundermeier, which I suppose sums up what's good about these pieces. He begins with one of those familiar reminiscences of post-89 nightlife in Mitte - wasn't it great, and weren't we young and wild, and wasn't it all so alternative. And then the text slips, and we're not quite sure where we are, and at the very moment when the veteran's lament of "it's all different nowadays" might be due, Sundermeier takes a different tack.
And it's snowing and snowing, and snow falls, snow, upon the living and the dead.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Your Tucholsky Library Needs You - Today!

The Kurt-Tucholsky-Bibliothek in Esmarchstraße, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, is already an unusual project. The local authority closed this small local library down at the end of 2007 - to save money - and a group of volunteers opened it up again in July 2008. It's now run by about forty people in their spare time, still affiliated to the city's public library network but receiving far less public funding than other libraries.

Because of this affiliation, says this article in the Prenzlauer Berg Nachrichten, the library is obliged to keep its stock up to date. That involves culling a certain number of books every year (3600 – 15% of their 24,000 titles), which are supposed to be replaced by new books. Unfortunately, the budget for new books, which comes at least partly from donations, is lower than other libraries'. Five thousand euro, to be precise, which buys about 500 media, as the librarians state. You can imagine what will happen in the medium term: culling damaged books and media absolutely nobody uses is all fine and good, they say, but at this rate it'll only be a few years before they have none left.

So they have an idea. On Wednesday, 19 June, four borough librarians will be coming to "help" them carry out the cull. All you need to do is go to the library during their opening hours today - 3 to 7 p.m., Esmarchstraße 18, and take out some books. Like a literature protection flashmob. Because if the books aren't on the shelves they can't be taken away. Each borrower can take up to sixty media out at a time, and in case you can't actually carry sixty books at once, they've also kindly offered to store them for you.

It seems there is some confusion on the official front over how strictly this rule has to be applied. What the Tucholsky volunteers want is to be allowed to cull the same number of media as they replace. Perhaps a show of public solidarity will encourage the local authority to go a little easier on them. And if all else fails - or you're simply too far away and can't use the inter-library distance loaning service - you can always donate to their new purchases fund.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Michael Krüger Complains (Part XIV)

Ah, Michael Krüger. Such a grumpy old curmudgeon - you've gotta love him. My friend Amanda DeMarco interviewed him for Publishing Perspectives, where he exudes pessimism on all sorts of subjects: who should have won a Nobel prize, bad books, American publishing, and this little gem on his successor as head of the Hanser publishing house:
Jo Lendle was chosen by the board of Carl Hanser Verlag. He is a young, good-looking, educated and friendly person, so I hope that Hanser made the right choice.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Writers and Translators on Turkish Protests

I hesitated to write about this, not sure of whether posting about Turkish protests on love german books would be exploitative and tasteless. But then I decided it wouldn't.

Germany has strong links to Turkey on ground level, despite cool diplomatic relations. I probably don't need to explain why, right? So news of the Gezi Park protests spread very quickly here. I was confused by the flood of Facebook posts from friends and colleagues in the UK, saying "We need to know this is happening" when in fact, we did know over here. But then I worked out they were talking about effective media blackouts inside Turkey. There have been solidarity demonstrations in Berlin, where apparently Germans suddenly learned various catchy Turkish slogans. I don't know whether they also indulged in public drinking after 10 p.m.

And writers are involved too. First there was Moritz Rinke, who seems to have been in Istanbul to get married (I think his fiancée is from Turkey), and wrote a diary of events and gave a number of interviews. Interesting, if a little confused. Then there's Mely Kiyak, who's in Istanbul to research a new book and "will be reporting weekly on the situation and the protests". She's written about sleeping next door to Erdogan and about Turkish TV reporting.

I've also been following translator-in-residence at London's Free Word Centre Canan Marasligil, who's reporting from afar on how the events make her feel, fascinating linguistic phenomena, and more. What I like is that she feels the need to explain more, because British readers know less than Germans about Istanbul. Or I assume they do.

As Erdogan threatens to "clean" Gezi Park so the authorities can deal with the "fringe terrorist" groups he accuses of being there, we can watch tendentious language used in a very aggressive manner. I'm glad there are other people sharing their information and knowledge in a more considered way.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Music and Translation

I'm leaving for Wolfenbüttel for my annual DJ duty for the German literary translators (this time with Hank the DJ, who is charge of country and indie, while I shall stick to sort of soulful stuff). As you know, translators need a strong sense of rhythm to do their work well. They like a nice dance. In the never-ending list of translation analogies, the "musician interpreting a piece" is pretty common. I do wonder whether musicians ever compare themselves to translators - or are perhaps allowed to be simply musicians. "What's it like being a musician, Mister McCartney?" "It's a bit like being a translator actually."

Anyway, this is going somewhere else: take a look at this fascinating project all about translating music. They're looking at opera in particular, as there's a lot of translation in that field, but also other kinds of music. They ask:
Why is Schiller’s Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s ninth symphony translated into so many languages in international performances while a piece such as Haydn’s Creation is usually performed in German or English?

Why are so many songs and musical pieces not translated and how can we improve communication in this area, thus opening up culturally? What can music mediate in films and other artistic forms? How can we carry improving the access of music to those who have impairments and miss it, because they have lost their hearing for example?
They're planning events and workshops, sharing best practice, and so on. It's a fascinating area. All sorts of things spring to my mind. Stage (and film) musicals are frequently translated into German on a really high level, by professionals who don't necessarily consider themselves translators. My favourite is the German version of My Fair Lady, which totally hits the spot by transferring the Cockney fun into Berlin dialect. And I note that ABBA musical is now entirely in German too, including the songs. Or think of those dodgy Beatles recordings in German! I've translated pop songs for a German singer, which never got used, sadly, but were great fun to do. Recently at our translation lab in Berlin, we looked at a few astounding translations of songs from Der Blaue Engel: "Falling in Love Again"! The lyrics are miles away from "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt" - but they absolutely capture the spirit of the song. And look what they did for Marlene Dietrich in the USA. Listen to a 1939 broadcast via that link and especially the way she's announced as "one of us". Wonderful. We've also had fun translating lyrics in the past at Translation Idol - a song by the writer Jan Böttcher spawned all sorts of weird and wonderful versions.

Translating lyrics is a special challenge, but produces special solutions. Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Georg Büchner Prize to Sibylle Lewitscharoff

Various publications have reported that this year's Georg Büchner Prize, the most prestigious award for German writers' body of work, will be awarded to Sibylle Lewitscharoff.

She was born in Stuttgart in 1954, to a German mother and a Bulgarian father, and worked as an accountant for an advertising firm before dedicating herself to writing full time. According to Der Spiegel, she also invented a grammar boardgame. She has published seven novels, most recently Blumenberg about the philosopher Hans Blumenberg and the lion in his study. Apostoloff won the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair and will be out in my translation from Seagull Books this summer. I am rather excited by proxy.

The jury stated:
In her novels, Sibylle Lewitscharoff has applied inexhaustible observational energy, narrative imagination and linguistic invention to explore anew and question the boundaries of what we consider our everyday reality.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Schneckenmühle vs. Nilowsky

Is it particularly crass to write a joint review of two quite different novels, merely because their protagonists fall into the same sociocultural dynamic? Possibly, but I shall do so anyway.

Jochen Schmidt’s Schneckenmühle (emphasis on the third syllable) is narrated by fourteen-year-old Jens and set at a summer camp in the dying days of the GDR. The narrator of Torsten Schulz’s Nilowsky is another fourteen-year-old boy (to begin with) in East Berlin in 1976 ff. The characters themselves have little in common, as do the respective plots; and yet both novels slyly dose us with information on life in East Germany.

In Schneckenmühle, that underhand drip-feed is part of the novel’s concept, it seemed to me. Up until about halfway through, I’d been wondering when the plot was going to kick in before I noticed what Schmidt was up to. Off Jens goes to his last ever summer camp, his naïve voice sharing the joys and horrors of school holidays spent in a hut with his peers. Girls, bad jokes, nudity, illicit alcohol, bullying, not washing for weeks on end. On the surface, it’s all fairly standard stuff, even if you come from a country that doesn’t do summer camps. And enjoyable, of course, because Schmidt knows how to entertain his readers from his long experience as a Lesebühnen author (which I usually describe as slam prose, for want of a better analogy).

But two other things are happening in parallel. Firstly, Jens has a rather strange fixation with consumer goods. His mother writes him a letter and the most thrilling news is that she’s bought a pedal-bin for the kitchen. He can hardly wait to try it out. Or he buys a replacement glass liner for a vacuum flask as an exciting gift for his father. In fact, the highlight of every trip the kids go on is the shopping part. A jaunt across the border to Czechoslovakia starts with the lines:
Unfortunately, the shops aren’t right by the station; you have to walk a little way into the town and find them in the side streets. We storm the very first food shop, full of greed for the unknown sweeties in excitingly unfamiliar wrappers.

The main difference between the two countries in the kids’ eyes seems to be in their respective consumer goods: sherbet sweets, ketchup in tubes, rubber snakes, bendy erasers and rulers, table football sets – all the Czech excitement makes Jens ill.

And then there are the more subtle details: the people disappearing, Jens’ discomfort about openly displaying his Christianity, the kids singing Western songs at the disco, the Russian soldiers. And a rather strange night-time adventure kicks in to provide surface plot action. I don’t want to write a great deal about this aspect, because it’s one of the most interesting things about reading the book. Perhaps it’s enough to warn you to look a little deeper than Jens’s reading of events. In retrospect, I’m reminded of Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, in which another young narrator narrowly misses the historical point. Very clever indeed.

And so to Nilowsky. As I mentioned, the two books have little in common in terms of structure. Schulz’s narrator Markus ages in the course of the story, going from fourteen to about twenty, with a brief epilogue some years later, and his voice is more mature than Jens’s. He’s a conscious storyteller, perhaps, rather than an accidental one. His parents have moved from Prenzlauer Berg to a dire corner of East Berlin for work. It could be the area between Adlershof and Spindlersfeld, still not exactly Berlin’s sunny side today, but in Nilowsky a reeking triangle between a chemical plant, a forest and railway line.

And here Markus meets Reiner Nilowsky, an inveterate trainspotter a couple of years older than him. Especially in contrast to Markus’s dreary life, Nilowsky reminded me rather of Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson-on-the-roof – a mischief-maker extraordinaire with his own rules and theories of how the world works. In this book, though, the oddball character has a very dark side. We see him being beaten by his father very early on, followed by his despised father’s and beloved grandmother’s deaths. And we meet his love interest Carola, who has decided to remain thirteen even though she’s seventeen: anorexia.

Markus falls under the older boy’s spell but is equally drawn to Carola – again, nothing we haven’t read before. But Nilowsky is his gateway to an otherworld, a GDR populated by drunks, old ladies and guest workers from Mozambique. As in Schneckenmühle, Schulz gives us a rare insight into a particular aspect of life in East Germany, in this case racism. Fawned over by the old ladies, the Mozambicans live in barracks in the forest and are generally condemned by everyone else, including Markus’s father, who is in charge of them at the chemical works. They are expected to work hard, learn their trade and then return to the “brother country” to aid the revolution. As far as I’m aware this was standard practice in the GDR. I’ve met people who came over as students and were treated similarly, but managed to settle here after the Wall fell. In fact the SPD is now fielding its first black parliamentary candidate, Karamba Diaby, who originally came from Senegal to study in Leipzig. For our adventurous Markus, the Mozambicans are enticing as rebellious heroes, and one of the most bizarre things Nilowsky does involves some kind of voodoo ritual. I wondered at times whether the author hadn’t created rather two-dimensional stereotypes, but I decided the very fact that he portrays Africans in the GDR is pretty groundbreaking, and what he shows us is how people saw them. And that no doubt included a good pinch of racist clichés.

Torsten Schulz has a background in screenwriting, and as such his plotting is more robust than Schmidt’s. After crises in the family and his friendship, Markus moves away again and loses touch with Nilowsky for a while, marking the apex of the novel. But the rest of the book deals with his attempts to grow up and away from his strange friend. As he gets older, Carola becomes a more realistic prospect – except of course that would mean betraying Nilowsky. And Nilowsky’s life becomes darker and darker while Markus’s grows more and more conventional. The ending is melancholy with a tinge of iconoclasm. Throughout, Nilowsky's unconventional voice stands out, making for some excellent writing.

Two fascinating novels, both featuring stories well told. Go ahead and read them both.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Bucheli, Weidermann and the FAZ Comments Section: a Utopianist Rant

I've been thinking about literary criticism and blogging, sharing some of my ideas here as I go along. And I'm not the only one, as it turns out. On the day I was on that panel in Solothurn, Roman Bucheli had an article in the NZZ on the pressure of digital options on literary criticism (and then sat in the front row of the event, intimidating me slightly). To sum up my reading of the piece, he says that criticism is under pressure because of financial issues (with newspapers having to please advertisers). He also talks about the idea that digital publications can do a lot more because they have more space, and he says the idea of just putting the same reviews online as in print is a bit of a wasted opportunity. He closes:
Even (and perhaps especially) in the digital age, there will be space and need for such sophisticated texts. Digital is not necessarily the grave-digger of analogue critique; rather, it could become a platform for a critical and analytical competence that has  existed in various forms since Lessing. To enable this, open and free spaces for thinking must be created, where the art of reading is linked with enjoyment of argument and the will to interpret is linked with the Eros of writing.
I love this idea, although of course it's very abstract, as utopias often are. To my mind, those spaces would be open to both professional critics and mere amateur book-lovers. They would enable genuine conversations, perhaps in a similar way to the World Literature Forum or the Guardian's Tips, Links and Suggestions thread – only they'd incorporate professional criticism.

So then Volker Weidermann wrote a piece in response to Bucheli in the FAZ. Basically, he said that Bucheli was too pessimistic and critics should stick to writing excellent reviews. Bucheli's comment that readers of print editions are less impatient than digital readers, he points out, is nothing but an assumption - we can't know how many articles are read all the way through in a print newspaper. And he rejects Bucheli's call for new spaces:
The only response is that these "platforms for critical and analytical competence" and these "free spaces for thinking" already exist. They are the arts pages of the daily and weekly newspapers, and – particularly free, particularly open – the internet. All that's needed is to fill these spaces, in such a way that people want to read it.
Look to the past, says Weidermann, and lists a number of excellent literary critics of yesteryear. But for me, he's missed the point. I shall address his vague, blanket use of the concept of "the internet" in a moment. However, his insistence that the newspaper arts pages (in print or digital form) are a free space appears a little ridiculous, frankly. Professional critics can write there, but only if the editors accept their pieces. Readers now have an opportunity to react in a slightly more immediate way via the comments section, but in practice this opportunity is very limited indeed, particularly in the FAZ.

The FAZ comment field has 1000 characters. Try making a coherent point on a complex issue in 1000 characters. Yesterday I tried and failed. What I wanted to say took up three separate comments. It was probably also riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, and very possibly my argumentation was flawed. I can't tell, however, because the FAZ moderates comments before they go online and hasn't yet activated my serious points. Ah well, it's the weekend, I thought initially. It's rather nice that the moderators get the weekend off. Only to find my rather puerile comment about the gendered avatars had been waved through, much to my embarrassment. And then another comment posted by someone else today (Sunday). I'm a little bit upset now, because I'd been talking about the article with a couple of lit-bloggers on Facebook and we/I thought it'd be fun to have that conversation in public, via the comments section.

Obviously, part of my annoyance is sour grapes about what may well be a technical glitch. But on a less personal level, the structure of a comments section that limits the length of entries is a hierarchical one. The professional journalists have space to expand their ideas, while the rest of us are allowed to respond in brief. I think I wrote something to the effect that it's probably not the FAZ's function or indeed intention to democratise literary criticism. However, they did in fact have a more open approach at one point, with the FAZ Lesesaal (which died in 2008). A shame.

Because, given time, that digital space could have become something akin to what Bucheli wrote about and I imagined. A public platform rather than closed conversations like we have on Facebook; a central port of call rather than a thousand individuals' blogs.

Ah yes, the vague and blanket use of the term "the internet". Open, free, full of people expressing their individual opinions. True, this is something we can do on the internet. As Weidermann's probably aware, though, the multitude of voices expressing opinions makes it hard to develop a conversation. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a single critical, analytical space where anyone could join in? I suspect Weidermann's hair would probably stand on end in horror at the idea. Who's supposed to pay professional critics to argue with mere readers? Ach, that's the trouble with utopias, and with incomplete ideas. They fall at the hurdle of financial reality. Still, I suppose there's always Goodreads, for those who aren't boycotting it since Amazon bought it.

To round off this rant on a more optimistic note, I have a few more amateur critics to introduce you to – excellent blogs about literature by people with day jobs:

In German: We read Indie - a conglomerate of booksellers, editors and librarians (all women) blogging about independent books. In English: Helen Finch - a Germanist writing about her work issues, German-language literature and translation - and Vertigo - a museum director writing about art and literature, with a particular emphasis on W.G. Sebald.