If, like me, you tend to read German literature only in English translation, it’s only fair and right to thank the wonderful translators, who make it possible. And with German Literature Month as an excuse, I thought I’d ask them for their personal recommendations. Perhaps we can expect some of these titles to be appearing in English very soon?
Katy Derbyshire is accountable for many books in my TBR. Her blog, Love German Books, is understandably one of my favourites. But I also have a number of her translations vying for my attention, namely All The Lights, Learning to Scream, and The Shadow-Boxing Woman. I met Katy at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival and surreptitously snapped the photo on the left as she co-signed my copy of All the Lights. She tells me it was the first copy she had ever been asked to sign! As for her recommendations:
For German fiction it has to be Eugen Ruge’s In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts. The novel just won the German Book Prize and will be translated into English, probably out next year. It’s a beautifully written story of four generations in East Germany – from the main character’s grandparents, passionate communists in exile in Mexistate, then his parents who met at a Siberian labour camp, the rebellious young man who escapes from the GDR – to his estranged son, who doesn’t believe in anything at all. It’s a really accessible book that’s a genuine pleasure to read, and based loosely on the author’s own family, so the portraits are very affectionate. Plus it has a wonderfully complicated structure, great humour and a couple of rather sexy cooking scenes. (Note from Lizzy – Read Katy’s Review at : http://lovegermanbooks.blogspot.com/2011/08/eugen-ruge-in-zeiten-des-abnehmenden.html)And for crime fiction week Simon Urban’s Plan D is a dystopian detective story set in the alternative reality of a contemporary East Germany. Imagine they built the Berlin Wall up again and carried on regardless – but the socialist state is collapsing under its own weight and it looks like the Stasi have committed a ritual murder. Cue DI Martin Wegener, who has to work with a detective from the West Berlin police force because the victim was a West German citizen. There’s a doomed love story, Cold War rivalry, and plenty of conspiracy theories to keep the pace up and running. And again, the writing is excellent and eminently readable. One for fans of Juli Zeh, by the way, who was Urban’s tutor at creative writing school. Translation rights have still to be sold.
It started for me at school with short stories by Heinrich Böll and Wolfgang Borchert, but also an abridged radio play version – by the BBC for learners of German – of an Alfred Andersch novel. I wouldn’t be the me I’ve become without Sansibar oder der letzte Grund (1957) – (un)known in English as Flight to Afar. In Rerik in 1938, various characters – a boy, an old fisherman, a young Communist, a Jewess – consider escaping from Germany to Sweden. And the local pastor hopes that the Barlach statue, Der lesende Klosterschüler, can be saved from the Nazis.
Joint top for me: almost a decade ago, I caught up with Die Entdeckung der Currywurst (1993) by Uwe Timm. (Aka The Invention of Curried Sausage,as translated by Leila Vennewitz.) LOVE, it was. Instantly. And it’s been love ever since. Roddy Doyle’s The Van once had me driving round Edinburgh at one in the morning looking for fish ‘n’ chips. Prepare to fly to Germany for curried sausage!
GERMANY: Am I the only person who prefers Bernhard Schlink’s crime fiction to Der Vorleser / The Reader? (Note from Lizzy – No, you’re not!) Don’t normally read crime – I make an exception for Caro Ramsay – but I read Schlink’s Self Trilogy on the beach once. Chris Dolan and I had done a stage version of The Reader at the time…
SWITZERLAND: The classic, everyone says, is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Richter und sein Henker (1952) – The Judge and his Hangman. Didn’t do it for me when I read it (for fun) as a student. Swiss writer friends tell me Friedrich Glauser (1986-1938) is the one to read. His Sergeant Studer novels. Have got them. Must get round to them! (Note from Lizzy – Indeed, you should. They’re grrrreat!)
Top book for me is actually poetry: Scherben sind endlicher Hort (1991) by Stella Rotenberg, which led to Shards (Edinburgh Review 2003). Stella, now 96, fled from Vienna as a student and has lived in England since 1939. Poems written in a language that she has had no daily contact with for over 70 years.
Fiction tip: Schöne Tage (1974) by Franz Innerhofer (1944-2002) – translated, in the States, as Beautiful Days. The stunning first part of an autobiographical trilogy. An illegitimate boy makes his way from a brutal childhood on a farm to being a writer. An Austrian once gave me this because I’d enthused at length to her about James Kelman’s work.
Honorary mentions: Peter Rosei’s great short novel Das große Töten (2009), still crying out to be translated. And wonderful short story writer Alois Hotschnig: see Maybe This Time, published in English thanks to Tess Lewis.
Translating over 100 Swiss writers for the New Swiss Writing anthologies in the past four years makes it hard to name just one! Authors (in alphabetical order) to look out for: Kurt Aebli, Melinda Nadj Abonji, Peter Bichsel, Arno Cemenisch, Franz Hohler, Rolf Lappert, Pedro Lenz, Beat Sterchi (The Cow), Franco Supino. Mainly recent discoveries – ie in recent years – for me. Max Frisch and I however, go back decades. Homo Faber, I’m not Stiller; the plays Andorra and Biedermann. But for me, the knock-out work is Gespräche im Alter. A 6-hour film based on 27 hours of footage.
The best book prize – by a mile – I ever got at uni was a volume of Kleist’s stories. In German, of course. Kleist knocks spots off the Old Firm of Goethe and Schiller. You read it here first.
Tess Lewis, interviewed here and pictured aboveduring her recent UK tour, specialises in translating Austrian fiction. I also have two translations of hers in the TBR: Maybe This Time and Splithead. Tess writes:
One of my all-time favorite Austrian writers is Peter Altenberg (1859-1919). He was a master of the vignette, a prose poet of the Viennese demi-monde. His short pieces in the weekly newspapers were delicate satires of his world: elegant, arch, and witty snapshots of life on the margins in the fin de siècle. But they are not at all dated. Altenberg captured not only surface brilliance of his time and place, but the real tragedies and joys beneath. He dove, as he said for “pearls of the soul that roll under the table and are picked up by no one.” There are a few selections of his feuilleton pieces available in English but the best by far is Telegrams of The Soul, translated by Peter Wortsman for Archipelago Books (2005). Wortsman beautifully captures Altenberg’s sly genius and the way it hovers on the edge of campy frivolity, but stings like a wasp.
Another Austrian favorite is Gert Jonke (1946-2009). Although Dalkey Archive has been trying to remedy the undeserved neglect Jonke suffers in the English speaking world, he has yet to get the attention he deserves. A great place to start is with A Distant Sound, translated by Jean Snook and published by Dalkey last year. Jonke has been called a ‘verbal acrobat’ for his infectious manic narratives, juggling storylines, points of view, allusions, and puns and it’s all on display here.
And also, for your Kleist week, Peter Wortsman translated and edited a Selected Prose of Heinrich Kleist for Archipelago Books (2010). Again Wortsman has pulled off a difficult translation feat. He has preserved or transformed Kleist’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, his labyrinthine clausal structures and the drastic shifts in his sentences’ pacing, into English that sounds natural even when it reproduces the jarring effects of the original.
Thank you, Katy, Donal and Tess for your recommendations. So many wonderful sounding books, something for crime week, plenty for the coming Austria/Switzerland week and a couple of ringing endorsements for Kleist. Plenty of new names for me. German Literature Month participants, has your wishlist reached mountainous proportions yet?