Winner of the 2008 German Book Prize

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Well, I certainly exercised my muscles reading this one!  My biceps have been toned by a 1004 page chunkster, published by Allen Lane, though for those who prefer e-books, it is also available from Frisch & Co.  

The Tower is an elaborate and intricate novel, requiring serious attention. It doesn’t read quickly and is as good a work out for the brain as for the biceps. I suspect it will spawn many a Ph. D.  I took six weeks to read it (with interruptions – I found I needed some light relief now and again) but I can’t think of a more appropriate book to review on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.

Tellkamp’s novel charts the last five year’s of the GDR, mainly through the experience of the Hoffmann family: Richard, the father, Christian, the son, and Meno, Christian’s uncle.  It starts in the run-up to Richard’s 50th birthday gathering, a set-piece which Germanists will recognise is a nod to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.  Further nods are evident in the long, complex sentences (which the translator Mike Mitchell has chosen to preserve) and the echo of the novel’s subtitle. Tellkamp’s scope is grander than Mann’s though.  This is not only a family going to ruin, but a whole society, and that without an iota of Ostalgie. 

Not that Tellkamp blasts with both barrels blazing. His is an intellectual dismantling of the state.  Richard is a surgeon; Meno a literary editor; Christian is at the start a high school pupil, wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps. They have as comfortable an existence as possible in the GDR.  They live in the Tower – a district, on the heights of Dresden, a kind of intellectual space, cushioned in some respects from the crass realities of life in the GDR.  This allows them to enjoy their social gatherings, their musical recitals, and the relative freedom to make the state the butt of their jokes.

Their ‘freedom’ is but an illusion. The state is everywhere and chinks in personal armour ruthlessly exploited. Richard has sired a second family and the Stasi uses that to exert pressure on him to become an informer. His refusal has repercussions on the whole family but most particularly on Christian, a Tonio Kröger figure (more allusions to Mann), who pays the price of his father’s missteps and his own youthful naivety. His story, which contains elements of the author’s own, is of a person who must be crushed.  Extended army service, it transpires, is an excellent vehicle for such uncompromising outcomes.

Of the three, Meno fairs best.  A zoologist by training, he now works as an editor for a prestigious publisher. While there is no doubting his love of literature, and his recognition of literary talent, he is not the man to disregard state policy and he continues to censor the works of those he publishes. Nor will he defend the talented female author, Judith Schevola,  even when she is threatened with expulsion from the Writer’s Union and the loss of her livelihood. 

The scientist in him makes Meno a keen observer, and parts of the novel take the form of his personal diary and notebooks.  I’ll be honest here.  I dreaded those italicised sections.  So much detail equalled too much detail for me.  Although I resisted the urge to skim, these sections often felt like a call to admire the author’s descriptive prowess. Instead they killed the pace …. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t some skillful writing to be enjoyed and admired. The stealing of the trees for the hospital’s inter-departmental Christmas tree contest is priceless; the visit to the Leipzig Book Fair illuminating. (Actually, a Meno entry, so they are not all tedious). Christian’s experiences are harrowing, as the state reduces him to the no-one indicated by his nickname, Nemo.  For those who love nothing better than layer upon layer of literary intertextuality, Tellkamp offers many, many more than I could register.

Behind it all, however, is life as it was lived in the GDR. The mundanity, the shortages, the farce, the corruption, the fear of the hidden informer. Lives made and broken at the whim of a faceless state.  It is only in the final 50 pages, or as holes in Iron Curtain appear in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, that dissenting voices find the courage for public protest. The army is deployed to control the masses.  This state is not about to surrender. 

But then, all at once …

The clocks struck, struck 9 November, ‘Germany, our Fatherland’, their chimes knocking on the Brandenburg Gate:

 The rest they say is history.


You may remember, back in the day of my very first meet the translator interview, I tried to persuade Sally-Ann Spencer to translate Uwe Tellkamp’s German Book Prize winning behemoth, Der Turm, an examination of the last years of the German Democratic Republic.  Two years later and the English translation has actually appeared!  Published today, in fact.  (Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0241004579). Now as chance and Monica Cantieni’s event in Glasgow would have it, the translator, Mike Mitchell, found himself in the same room as Lizzy, who, shall we say, pounced! (I’m not one to miss an exclusive.) Here are the results.  My review of the book will follow on Sunday, 9.11.2014, the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.

How did you become a literary translator?
Literature was one of my main interests at school and I enjoyed translating from then onwards (just for myself). I taught German at university for 30 years; one attempt to get a book translated in the early 70s brought such a discouraging response from John Calder that I and a colleague, who was to edit it, just dropped it. However, by chance a US professor I’d written articles and a couple of chapters for decided to set up a publishing house for Austrian literature, culture etc and asked if I’d like to do a translation for them (Ariadne). I jumped at the chance; just as that appeared I saw the Dedalus series in the university bookshop and one of my favourite postwar novels seemed to fit; it did, but not only that, they were actually looking for a translator from German! In 1995 there was the opportunity of early retirement; I grabbed it and have worked as a translator ever since. As I’ve since learnt, especially when I was editor of Dedalus’s Europena series, I was incredibly lucky; there are so many people out there who’d like to be translators

“The Tower” is a 1000+ page literary extravanga of a novel. What persuaded you to take it on?
I was commissioned to do it — as a freelancer one is hesitant to refuse commissions but, anyway, it sounded like a challenge and I like that.

How did you manage to fit it into your schedule? How how many hours did you spend on it? (It took me six weeks just to read your translation!)  Are you entirely happy with the published product or are there pieces you’d like to finesse?
When I’m asked to do something, I work out how long it’s likely to take from past experience, add a few months so I don’t put myself under pressure and give the publisher a date. I think I’m happy with the final result — though I’m sure I could find something I’d change if I were to read it with a fine tooth comb. I couldn’t say how many hours it took now.

There are many literary references in the Tower, perhaps most obviously to Thomas Mann in the opening family gathering and the long, complex sentences. You have chosen to retain these. It’s quite fashionable these days in English translation to break long German sentences down into shorter English structures. Why did you chose not to take this approach?
I did break them down slightly but I felt that Tellkamp was aiming at a Mann reference in the opening section and it seemed appropriate to the kind of social group he’s portraying as the ‘Tower-dwellers’.

Did you collaborate with the author on the translation?
I sent him questions — some in particular about those early complex sentences — another reason for trying to retain them in English was the parallel between those sentence structures and aspects of the architecture, furnishings of the ‘Tower’ district he’s describing.

Do you have a favourite section in the Tower? 
I did really enjoy the section about the East Germans at the Leipzig Book Fair.  It’s supposed to be written by Meno, who’s a publisher’s editor and a writer, but he trained as a zoologist and he describes the East Germans attending the Book Fair as giant insects about to descend on the Western stands like a plague of locusts; then the way it’s planned like a military exercise and the special clothing Barbara makes, with pockets the exact size to conceal the paperbacks of the Western publishers they like; I found it a brilliant and funny little sketch but it’s also an indirect way of showing the East Germans’ hunger for anything from the West, especially books and that kind of thing.

Another episode that is amusing in itself but also shows the togetherness there could be in East Germany is the scene in the communal bath house.

You’ve translated well over 60 works in all genres from German to English. Which of these gave you the most pleasure? (Am hoping you’ll mention my favourite – The Great Bagarozy)

I did really enjoy Bagarozy — I was disappointed it didn’t make a greater impact here. Among my favourites it the first one I recommended to Dedalus: Rosendorfer’s Architect of Ruins. Another more recent one if Roblès’ Where Tigers are at Home. I also particularly enjoyed translating a long poem by Helmut Krausser: ‘The Denotation of Babel'; I never managed to get the whole thing published, though I think someone put it on the web after it was commended for the Stephen Spender prize.

You can take 3 works of German(-language) literature with you to the proverbial desert island. Which would they be and why?

I suspect it would be something like Goethe’s poetry; a favourite book is likely to pall but you can read poetry again and again and get different things out of it. (That’s a cop-out really) (Editor – not really.  Stefan Tobler chose to do this too. Must be something in it.  :) )

You may take 1 more work to translate. Which would it be and why?

Again, that’s awkward to answer. One book I’ve tried to interest publishers in (so far without success; if I’m resting, as actors say, I’ll translate it and publish it myself) is Carl Amery’s fantasy about a Papal attempt to put the Catholic Stuarts back on the British throne: Das Königsprojekt. It would have been nice to do it for the Scottish referendum debate, but I had too much on to make much progress. As you’ll see, my tastes are more for the fantastic than for earnest realism.


Shortlisted for the 2011 Swiss Book Prize

Translated by Donal McLaughlin

At the heart of this quirky and good-natured novel is a serious political issue – that of immigration to Switzerland. Reading the wikipedia page on the subject, there appears to have been one referendum after the next in recent years, with the most recent narrowly voting for limitations and quotas on the numbers of immigrants from the European Union. The book is set in 1970, the year the Swiss narrowly rejected the popular initiative against foreign infiltration.

Enter a 5-year old narrator, who is in the process of being adopted. She’s not Swiss; she doesn’t even talk German. So not only does she have to grapple with new – and often very confusing circumstances – she doesn’t have the words to explain the intricacies of the situations she encounters. My father bought me from the council for 365 francs is her opening gambit, which is a little confusing until the context of the adoption asserts itself.

She is in every sense of the word the Grünschnabel (greenhorn or beginner) of the Swiss title, endearingly translated whippersnapper in the text by McLaughlin. She learns the new language by collecting and sorting German words into matchboxes. She has a strained relationship with her adoptive parents, particularly with her highly-strung mother, who is always swallowing her hellish misery pills. Happily she bonds well with her adoptive grandfather, Tat, the secret main character of the novel according to the author. Her world is populated by many immigrants, whose livelihoods are uncertain due to their temporary work permits. Her confidant is Snow White – a cuddly white rabbit.

Whippersnapper’s naivety injects comedy in the most unexpected places. Where else would you get political commentary like this?

The landlord sympathised with the foreigners …… He’d nothing against them wanting to increase in size.

“A pleasure shared is twice as great,” he said.

The foreigners understood him.

They called Eli (a Spanish bricklayer), and he erected a wall, made two flats out of one. Following which the landlord’s pleasure was twice as great and the foreigners’ was shared.

Monica Cantieni and Donal McLaughlin at the CCA, Glasgow 16.09.14

In other places the comedy is Kafkaesque. Tat is a double leg amputee, who, by a quirk of fate, has ended up with two artificial right legs. The insurance company has two legs on file, and so refuses to give Tat a third. Even the child can see the stupidity in this.

Underneath, however, are the serious issues. A child of one of the immigrant family friends is forced to live in a wardrobe, because she is not permitted to stay on her father’s permit. Whippersnapper must come to terms with life and death. It is obvious from the start that her beloved grandfather is fragile, on a downhill trajectory. There’s a funeral taking place as she arrives at her new home, resulting in an early philosophical conversation with her adoptive father about death. (Interestingly this was the first scene written, following the funeral of the author’s friend). The novel ends with her grandfather’s wake. The question to be answered is, did the man who together with Whippersnapper, created the eponymous Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons (or good arguments and reasonings), have enough time to ensure that his granddaughter could find her place in this strange new world without him?



Welcome all as the best day of the year dawns; the day heralding 30 days of undiluted reading/blogging pleasure.  Let German Literature Month commence!

I’m impressed with the reading plans that have been published over the last month or so.  If all those books are read, this will be the best GLM yet.  I haven’t published my plans because they’ve been changing on a almost daily basis.  Right now though my German Literature Month looks like this:

Week One (Award Winners Week)
The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons – Monica Cantieni (Swiss Book Prize Shortlistee)
The Tower – Uwe Tellkamp (German Book Prize Winner)

Week Two – Read As You Please (Crime)
Goetheruh – Bernd Köstering
Big Bad Wolf – Nele Neuhaus

Week Three – Read As You Please (Ladies on My Completist List)
Jenny Erpenbeck – The End of Days
Alina Bronsky – Call Me Superhero
Julia Franck – West

Week Four – Joseph Roth Week (or in my case Novelists of The Weimar Republic)
Berlin in the 1930’s: Hans Fallada – What Now,  Little Man? / Erich Kästner – Going to The Dogs
Vicki Baum – Grand Hotel
Joseph Roth – Flight Without End

It’s a selection that ticks almost all the boxes on the pick and mix challenge. (Rules here.) Although something that is not a novel is missing.  I’ll see if I can squeeze in some poetry somewhere along the line. The challenge won’t be in the reading, but in the reviewing. Thanks to a very busy October, I’m a little out of practice.

I’m adding one additional personal challenge  – I must not purchase any titles reviewed elsewhere during German Literature Month. Which means you must not seduce me into making my TBR larger, particularly as, given the bounteous harvest of new German literature releases this autumn, I will probably be reading German literature until the end of the year.  I am allowed to add to my wishlist – I’ll let you know how many that turns out to be at the end of the month.


A tiny piece of hostess admin before the fun begins in earnest.  The German Literature Month blog is once more up and running and all participants with blogs  (30+ – how terrific is that!) have been added to the blogroll.  If you’re joining in, and don’t see your name up in lights, so to speak, please leave a comment below and you will be added.

There are also prizes to be won by participating.  Whoever tallies the most pick and mix points will win a copy of both Berlin Tales and Vienna Tales, kindly donated by Oxford University Press.  Caroline and I will chose our favourite post and the writer will win 2 titles by Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of The Tartar Cuisine and Call Me Superhero, kindly donated by Europa Editions.  For your reviews to be in the running for these prizes, please link them into the Mr Linky on the German Literature Month blog.

All that remains is for Caroline and I to wish you a very enjoyable November.  :)





Thankfully German Literature Month (GLM) starts on Saturday and that will give me time to review some of the books I read in preparation. (4 completed and pictured with just 50 pages to go of a 1000-page extravaganza).  I kept myself reasonably up-to-date review-wise during September, but October whizzed by in a flurry of flu, a renovation project and an unrelated broken boiler that caused far more disruption than they should have, plus house guests from Canada. (Fortunately house was rendered habitable just-in-time for their arrival.) Given that I just wanted to read in downtime, I’m afraid reviews of October’s non-GLM books and activities shall be confined to the following summaries.

Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress, is all kinds of magnificence. I could tell she was enjoying herself writing these.  They are playful, exuberant, full of wicked wit and an absolute joy to read.  If you need more detail, see Victoria’s review at Shiny New Books.  I agree with every word. My only regret is that I read a library book. I now want my own copy. Five_Stars.GIF

Nathan Filer’s The Shock of The Fall, winner of the 2013 Costa Book of the Year is another reading highlight.  A dead cert to win my tearjerker award of the year.  I haven’t had such a cathartic sob for years!  Five_Stars.GIF

Oh yes, North Lanarkshire’s Encounters Festival was held during October also.  And Nathan Filer appeared at it!  Interesting questions and experiences from the audience who were more concerned with the mental health issues than the literary aspects of the novel. 

Then there was the 10th anniversary of my book group which was celebrated with cake, cava and a visit from the Scottish crime writer and co-founder of Bloody Scotland, Lin Anderson.   Don’t we look pre-cava pretty?

I’ll confess to not having read Anderson before the event but I was absolutely blown away by the opening chapter of Picture Her Dead.  Best 1st chapter of the year … and the rest of the novel is pretty darn good as well. It’s the 8th in her Rhona McCleod series – not that it matters.  I had to read it as a stand-alone, and it works as such. Who knew there were so many disused cinemas in Glasgow or that they would spawn such an intrigung premise for a crime novel!  The only downside is that I now want to start reading the series from the beginning.  But do I have the time to add another 7 novels to my 1000+ TBR?  Rhetorical question.  The answer is no but I will read number 9 sooner rather than later. 4_stars.GIF

So there you have it, proof that Murphy’s law does indeed exist. In a period when I had precious little time for blogging, I read three books which will doubtless appear in my best of year list. 

There is time for just one more pre-#germanlitmonth giveaway.  Actually this is also a pre-release date giveway!

Julia Franck won the German book Prize with The Blind Side of the Heart in 2007.  It remains my favourite translated German Book Prize winner to date.  I am, therefore, looking forward to her latest novel, West, which will be released in the UK, and Harvill Secker have kindly offered 5 copies to UK-based German Literature Month participants.

Here’s the blurb.

 Translated by Anthea Bell

Scientist Nelly Senff is desperate to escape her life in East Berlin. The father of her two children has supposedly committed suicide, and she wants to leave behind the prying eyes of the Stasi.

But the West is not all she hoped for. Nelly and her children are held in Marienfelde, a processing centre and no-man’s-land between East and West. There she meets Krystyna, a Polish woman who hopes that medical treatment in the West will save her dying brother; Hans, a troubled actor released from prison in the East; and John, a CIA man monitoring the refugees for possible Stasi spies. All lives cross here, and the cramped confines of the camp breed defamation and violence.

West is a devastating portrait of a mother in turmoil, trying to do the best for her children, as she attempts to escape her past and start a new life.


If you’re based in the UK and would like to read West, please leave a comment below. Let me know also if you’d like me to organise a #germanlitmonth book discussion sometime during the 3rd week of November.  Winners will be selected by some random process on Sunday 26th October.  

It’s become a bit of a joke at work.  Whenever I go into Edinburgh for a half-day conference, I take a half-day’s leave to go adventuring in the city afterwards. Edinburgh, City of Literature, never ceases to surprise me and last Tuesday was no exception.

As I disembarked at Waverley Station (the only rail station in the world to be named after a novel), who did I meet?  None other than Sir Walther Scott, author of said novel, in the middle of distributing 25,000 books! The book, produced by the City of Literature for the 10th anniversary of Edinburgh being proclaimed a Permanent City of Literature, celebrates Scott and his work.  As indeed did Waverley station that day which was decorated with the wit and wisdom of a man, who was so much more than a novelist.

Digital copies of the special release available here, if you’re interested.

I had to rush off to my conference, but I had time during my afternoon off to take some photos.  By the looks of Scott, his latest gifts to the nation were snapped up like hot cakes.

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Never has Waverley station been so endearing and the surprise served as a timely reminder that I’d best get my skates on, if I want to read Waverley in its bicentennial year.



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