imageI have been collecting handsome Pushkin Press softback novellas for years, but 2015 saw exciting developments.  Firstly, selected titles have been given the hardback treatment  (and long may that continue, despite the objections of my bank manager).  Secondly Pushkin Press have just published a NEW Schnitzler in hardback.

A new Schnitzler?  How can that be when the man died in 1931?  Therein lies a tale involving the saving of his archive from the Nazis by the British government in 1938 and its subsequent storage at Cambridge University Library.  Thereafter,  Late Fame, which Schnitzler felt was ready for publication in 1895, lay indiscovered until its eventual publication in German as Später Ruhm in 2014.  Pushkin Press moved swiftly to publish this English translation by Alexander Starritt in 2015.

This is a delight for any literature lover and food for thought for any writer who hasn’t hit the bigtime.

In his youth, Eduard Saxberger wrote and published a collection of poems that sank without trace.  In his old age, a group of young Viennese writers, members of the “Enthusiasm” society, discover his genius and persuade him to join him in a literary recital.  At first, he is reluctant, but their flattery and yes, enthusiasm, finally elicit a promise from him to pen a new poem for the occasion.  At which point his troubles begin ….

He is no longer the poet he was;  Vienna no longer the city it was.

It was over. At heart it was simple and not even very sad – no sadder than age itself, hardly sadder than the thirty years in which no verse has ever occurred to him.

His muse has vanished. A new poem proves impossible. Much to the disappointment of the group, they must settle for the original poems, which become the centrepiece of the recital. It is the moment of Saxberger’s greatest triumph and yet ….

The ovation roared around him. He bowed several times, turned to the door and then, just as the clapping was getting weaker, he heard a voice: “Poor devil!”

There’s a comment guaranteed to take the gloss off the evening and much more besides.  As Saxberger’s new image of himself slowly unravels, Schnitzler’s tale comes into its own.  Which is only to be expected of the astute pyschologist.

At face value this is the story of man being given a second chance.  In reality, its subject is  a man at risk of losing  all that he has gained: community, contentment and self-respect.

In addition, Schnitzler depicts the Viennese café society of which he was an intrinsic part – including his own close circle.  These portraits are not always complimentary, although there is  a very sympathetic study of the young Hugo von Hofmannsthal.  And if the real people are identifiable these days –  the afterword in this edition names them – then perhaps it was for Schnitzler’s best that his novella took 120 years to find some late fame of its own.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2015

As the final week of GLM V dawns, it’s time for me to join Poppy’s Novella November. I will devote the whole of this week to the form, and I suspect much of it to Pushkin Press, who publish a rather fine line in German novellas.


imageLet’s start with Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W and my squeals of delight when I saw that Pushkin were to publish a new translation earlier in the year.  You bet I had pre-ordered it before I finished reading the Pushkin catalogue!  I first read and enjoyed this novel during my year in Munich (1980-1981), when it was only  8 years old.  Since then it has established itself as a modern East German classic  and was christened “The Catcher in the GDR-Rye” by Die Zeit.

Which tells much about the protagonist, Edgar Wibeau. Young, disaffected,  at odds with the petty rules of communist East Germany.  The title, with its nod to Goethe’s classic, tells us more.  He’s having a tough time in love, as in life, and it’s not going to end well.  In fact, it doesn’t even begin well.  The story starts with a series of obituaries. Edgar has been electrocuted while living in a Berlin summer house. The question is, given the Wertherian undertones, was it suicide?

The second surprise comes as soon as the story proper begins.  The police are questioning Edgar’s estranged father and Edgar himself is commenting on the scene – taking exception to his father’s sanitised history of his son.

Whoah, stop right there! Bollocks I didn’t! I had plenty to do with girls, if you want to know the truth.  Starting when I was fourteen.

Those are Edgar’s first words, and they set his tone for the piece:  Plain speaking, irreverent and funny.  No trace of Werther’s 18th century sentimentality about him, and he hasn’t run away full of angst and despair.  There’s been an unfortunate accident, and he doesn’t want to face the consequences.  Plus he is a bit sick of being heralded living proof that a child in a single-parent family can be raised successfully.  At this point, he isn’t even acquainted with Werther.  That happens when he finds a discarded copy of Goethe’s novel in the summer house.  His critique?

It just wasn’t real guys .. And the style. Hearts and souls and joy and tears all over the shop.  … The whole thing was made up of all these letters from this loon Werther to his mate back home.  It was probably meant to seem super-original or spontaneous or realistic or something.  That bloke that wrote it should have a read of Salinger.  That’s real, guys!

The irony is that his experiences over the summer render him and Werther inseparable. To survive, he finds work as a decorator, and his relationships with his colleagues are fraught due to his inexperience …. and his cockiness.  He soon takes to quoting Werther to everyone.  He keeps in touch with his best friend WIlli through a series of cassettes. Each message includes a Wertherism attuned to his mood. When he falls in love with the caring but unobtainable Charlie, who like her C18th counterpart Charlotte, is engaged to another man, he finally experiences Werther’s heartache for himself.

The tapes that Edgar sends to Willi are used by his father to piece together his son’s story after his death.  This earthly investigation is accompanied throughout by Edgar’s commentary, whose dry, ascerbic tone never falters, not even when the topic is his own death.

It was probably for the best. I probably wouldn’t have survived the failure of the  …

No, I’m not giving that away. It involves a whole comical subplot involving the invention of something we take very much for granted today.  That and the cassette tapes plant the novel firmly in the 1970s.  Nevertheless Edgar’s emotional journey is no doubt being repeated today, and, while I don’t have much patience with today’s adolescents with attitude or even Goethe’s Werther, I did become fond of Edgar. I closed the book with profound sadness at a) a life cut short and b) a read that passed by so quickly.  I would happily have continued reading for another 139 pages.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2015

Translated from German by Judith Pattinson.

Once upon a time a  certain someone was browsing the German literature shelves in the wonderful Daunt Books in Marylebone, when one particular book bullied its way into my bookbag. It was staring me down!  Go on, I dare you to read me …



Well, having made its way home to the TBR mountains, Erebos waited patiently for a couple of years.  Priya reviewed it during GLM III, and once again I thought I really must take up the challenge.  Eventually I chose it for my GLM V  readalong title.  I really hope someone joins me today, because this novel is absolutely fantastic!!! (My favourite read this #germanlitmonth.)

Although it is a young adult novel and winner of the 2011 German Jugendliteraturpreis, Erebos was also proclaimed the 2010 Summer Thriller of the Year by the very grown-up weekly paper Die Zeit. So it has broad appeal, though I suspect it would not be for you if you don’t like computer games.

Something mysterious in the form of a flat package begins to circulate around Nick’s high school, but Nick cannot find out what it is.  Until one day, a girl with a crush on him hands him a package with strict instructions to discuss it with no-one.  Arriving home, he inserts the CD into his computer and begins to play the game, Erebos.  The instructions are clear – he must play only when he is alone and he must speak to no-one about the game, not even mentioning his game alias.  The game is addictive amd competitive.  Players are fighting to become part of an inner circle.  Promotions are gained only through gaming prowess or fulfillment of tasks set for them in real life.

Yes. The game is uncanny and bleeds into the real world.  It seems to know the players and it knows if players carry out their instructions to the letter.  It also causes divisions – those not in favour are seen as enemies – and the game seems intent on eliminating them ruthlessly.  People do get hurt.  Nick, whose goal is to reach the inner circle, is eventually given a malevolent instruction that he cannot in good conscience carry out.  His disobedience is punished, and he is shut out of the game.  Nothing he can do will reactivate it.

By this time, events in real life have turned sinister, with game opponents sustaining life-threatening injuries.  Nick joins forces with some anti-gamers to find out what is going on.  The sense of threat is palpable and the tension at times unbearable.  Clues are deciphered through mythological and geographical references in the game.  Then the one person in the school, who has never had anything to do with the game,  becomes inextricably involved in solving the puzzle, and it becomes clear why only those displaying utmost and unquestioning loyalty to the game’s messenger are admitted to the inner circle.

Highly imaginative, original and psychologically authentic apropos the motivations of  and the pressures on an adolescent mind. Paced to perfection.  My reading of it as compulsive as Nick’s immersion in the game’s alternate reality. My reaction on reading the final sentence? WOW!

As far as segues go, this is as artificial as they come. Nevertheless ….

Last book reviewed for GLM V was August by Christa Wolf – translated by Katy Derbyshire.  Then there was a meet the translator interview with Katy Derbyshire.  The two books reviewed in this post are translated by guess who? You got it!

imageThe fact that I am now closer to the great 6-0 than not, does not mean that I am banned from reading kid lit or even YA lit.  I might even enjoy it – in fact, I really enjoyed The Secret of the Water Knight, finding an unexpected connection with its heroine.

…Move your arms and legs like a frog, keep your head low …

I wave wildly  with everything I can move, but I still go under, swallowing a huge mouthful of saltwater.  I come up again, coughing and sinking straight underwater again. And again!

Now  because this is kid’s lit, Kat not only has a happy ending and learns open her eyes under water and swim in the great blue sea, but experiences a fantastic adventure in so doing.  Perhaps I would have done so, had I met a talking dolphin (the water knight), a villainous toad, and been chosen to save the world!  (As it is, reality has restricted me to swimming within my depth, eyes firmly shut. Treading water remains a mystery.)

Another skill that has passed me by is that of being a traceuse.  In fact, I’d never ever heard of it until I’d read This Brave Balance. Can I explain it? No. watch this instead.

Parkour is a key element in these pages.  There’s no skill more important to survival than balance when executing some of these moves.  So too, in surviving the emotional landscape of adolescence: the struggle with school grades, disillusionment with imperfect parents, ravages inflicted by absent parents, raging hormones, competitive peers, the need for oneupmanship … how can the transition from adolescence to adulthood to be negotiated?

imageDipper has very little joy in his life.  He only feels alive when he is with his pals practicing parkour. These bonds are what hold him together, Yet life has a way of impinging on the little enjoyment he has.  There’s the emotional mess involving the ex-girlfriend of his mate, Corone, and there’s an even bigger mess involving Corone’s sister – one which more experienced eyes would have picked up on much quicker (and, which to my eyes, was an unnecessary plot device.)

Still life has tough lessons for the inexperienced and Dipper and his mates are no exception.  Quite a gritty little book in places and an eye-opener, not just for the protagonists,

even if it didn’t leave me with a desire to learn parkour.  I’d still like to become a swimmer though. Actually I’d settle for being a competent water-treader.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2015

Katy signingKaty Derbyshire’s name is not unfamiliar to those of us with Germanophile literary tastes. Her blog Love German Books is a treasure trove for those seeking their next German-lit read or those wondering what literary life would be like should sticks be uplifted to Berlin, where Katy has lived for – well, a long time – establishing her career as a literary translator. Having met her briefly at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2011 (pictured), I thought it was time to catch up with her to see how things are going.

1) How did you become a literary translator?
I didn’t fall into the career like the previous generation, and nor am I married to an editor. I genuinely wanted to become a literary translator. So after starting out as a commercial translator I built up a body of publications like an aspiring writer, submitting pieces to literary magazines and doing sample translations for German publishers. I went to the summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation and met other people like me. And gradually the hard work (and good practice) started to pay off and I began to get my first commissions.

2) Has your blog “Love German Books” been useful in establishing your career?
Not directly but it has meant that a few interested editors knew my name. I live in Berlin, which has a lot of professional advantages like being close to the writers I work with, but also means I can’t go to many literary and publishing events in London. So I suppose the blog has been an alternative to networking in a more traditional way. And of course it’s motivated me to read a lot of books and discover many that I love.

3) I do try to keep up with German literary fiction but, when I look at your catalogue, it’s full of new-to-me authors. How do you find your authors?
I go to a lot of readings here in Berlin and I keep up with German literary news, who’s winning prizes, that kind of thing. Some publishers send me their catalogues, which I put on the kitchen table for dull moments. A bit of browsing in bookshops I like, a bit of gossiping with friends and colleagues – it all adds up.

4) When you read a book you absolutely adore – I’m thinking of Clemens Meyer’s Im Stein – how do you set about persuading/cajoling/commissioning a translation?
Oh, that’s really hard. I write a review on my blog, for starters. Then I send out a translated sample chapter – or better still, I make sure a translated extract is available somewhere online, preferably in a literary magazine. That makes it look like someone else likes it too, I hope. And I send the chapter or a link directly to editors I think might be interested. Sometimes that involves worming their email addresses out of other translators (it’s a very supportive community). Once that’s fallen flat (as it usually does) I resort to telling everyone I ever meet from the publishing industry about how much I love the book. In the case of Im Stein, this was particularly ineffective for about a year. It’s a long book so it’s expensive to translate. At some point I wrote a short piece for New Books in German magazine about my two favourite untranslated books, and then in the end an editor read that, and had been told about the book by someone I told about it, or maybe someone else told him about it or he picked up on the excitement in Germany, I don’t know. Anyway, after all the propaganga I spread made its way to Fitzcarraldo Editions, they approached me and said they’d like to take the risk. I was very happy indeed.

5) When you gain a commission, do you have to work to deadlines? If so, can this sometimes affect the translation, or are you so disciplined that deadlines never loom?
Yes, deadlines are important for everyone in the process. I need a deadline to plan out my daily routine and I am quite disciplined, but of course they do loom. Sometimes publishers set a very tight deadline; I’m never sure why, because people are rarely gagging to read translated books in English. Presumably that does make for a rushed job that might have been better given more time. But equally, I often negotiate my own deadlines and set them too tight, underestimating how long I’ll take. So I’ll excuse the tight deadline phenomenon by saying it makes me work more intensely. And I hope that good editing makes up for it.

6) When do you decide a translation is finished?
When I’ve done at least four drafts and the deadline has arrived. There’s always the editing process…

7) As Christa Wolf Week is part of this year’s German Literature Month, let’s discuss August – short, thoughtful and moving. The material is nowhere near as edgy as some of your other translations. How did you come to translate Wolf’s final piece of fiction and did you enjoy doing so? Were you aware of the standard set by Wolf’s previous translators as you worked? Did this pressure you in any way?
I got the job by being in the right place at the right time – the Seagull editorial office in Calcutta, while on a reading tour of India with Inka Parei and Dorothee Elmiger. The publisher Naveen Kishore told us he’d obtained the rights to the book and I said, “Ooh, can I translate it?” He might have offered it to me anyway, though. I was more aware that readers would be potentially critical than of the standards of previous translations, at least before I started work on August. I suppose because Christa Wolf is a big name (although it’s a little book) and much read and discussed. So I asked an Anglophone writer friend to read my translation before I sent it to the editor, just for moral support. That helped me feel more secure about the quality of the end product. Then while I was working on the translation, I read both the original Kindheitsmuster and Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt’s Patterns of Childhood. I know that Wolf’s other recent translators have done an excellent job – I particularly admire Damion Searls’ City of Angels – but August is closely related to Kindheitsmuster. And I have to say that translation quality has improved enormously since Molinaro and Rappolt’s work in 1980. We have much easier access to resources and communication now, and we’ve also been thinking and talking about how to translate literature well for an extra 35 years. So that also reassured me. I wrote more about my translation process in The Quarterly Conversation. Since then I’ve also translated Wolf’s Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert – a diary that wasn’t really written for publication – and I’ll be working on Nachruf auf Lebende next year, an early piece of writing that evolved into Kindheitsmuster. All for Seagull Books.

8) I recently enjoyed your translations of Rusalka Reh – The Secret of the Water Knight (I’m still a kid at heart ….) and This Brave Balance (…. and a teenager with attitude). How did you come to translate these and were there any particular challenges? For example: American English and the specialisms of parkour – though no challenge at all if you are a closet American traceuse.
I was contacted by AmazonCrossing when they had just launched, when things there worked differently than they do now. They knew I’d previously translated a young adults’ novel (Learning to Scream by Beate Teresa Hanike) so they asked me to do these two books. I’m not a closet American traceuse, but American English wasn’t a huge problem – the editors had to get rid of any Britishisms that slipped through, and did so, I hope. Parkour was trickier, though. I watched a couple of movies and researched online, but the most useful thing was visiting Rusalka Reh in Leipzig. We’re still good friends from that very first meeting, where she explained a couple of the moves and how she’d found out about parkour in the first place. It’s often tricky to translate descriptions of body movements, be it sex scenes or martial arts or simply someone opening a door in a specific way. And I’ve found the best way to deal with it is to get together with the writers and ask them to show me (within reason).

9) Which of your translations gave you the greatest pleasure and why?
Right now that has to be Im Stein. I’d probably always say that the book I’m working on is the most pleasurable, though. I absolutely love immersing myself in Meyer’s streams of consciousness, I love the playful references and quotes.  I love researching obscure facts and terms and finding equivalents to some of the songs and citations he uses that will strike a chord with Anglophone readers. My desk is littered with reference works; an East German book of English songs, a dictionary of Marxist terms, a police dictionary, an encyclopedia of nursery rhymes… And there’s so much variety because every chapter is different. I love it.

10) And finally, which three works of German literature would you take with you to the proverbial desert island and why? Would you translate them?
That’s an impossible question to answer! I’m very committed to contemporary writers, so my answer will probably only apply on the day I write it. I’m just looking across the room at Frank Witzel’s Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen mannish-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969. It won this year’s German Book Prize and is dauntingly thick and apparently very good indeed. So that would give me plenty of distraction and also something heavy for cracking coconuts. Speaking of coconuts, another book I haven’t read is Christian Kracht’s Imperium (tr. Daniel Bowles). It’s set on a desert island of sorts and I heard Kracht reading from the English version recently and admired Bowles’ work. I suspect I might hate it because I have a lot of problems with the author’s persona and fascinations. But that might motivate me to get off the island. And thirdly, my edition of Goethe’s Faust from student days, including my annotations from the time. I re-read Kafka’s Die Verwandlung/Metamorphosis not long ago and had a good laugh at my old comments in the margins. Apparently it’s all about sexual frustration. Re-reading a classic with the benefit of life experience is a wonderful thing to do – you get all these different layers and you can reflect on yourself and the book in a new way. I suppose I might consider translating Frank Witzel, although I’m not sure how I’d go about an 800-page translation on a desert island. Goethe and Kracht, not so much

August – Christa Wolf

AugustTranslated from German by Katy Derbyshire

Written six months before her death, in a single sitting,  August was an anniversary gift from Wolf to her husband – a tender gift of thanksgiving, signified in the dedication.

What can I give you, my dear, if not a few pages of writing, into which a lot of memory has flowed from the time before we knew each other.  I can hardly tell you anything about the later times that you don’t already know.  That’s the thing – we grown together over the years.  I can hardly say ‘I’ – usually ‘we’.  Without you I’d be a different person.  But you know that too.  We’re not ones for great statements.  Only this much – I have been lucky.

This mindset carries through into that of her protagonist, August, who remembers his life as he drives from Prague, home to Berlin.  His memories start at the end of the Second World War, when as a refugee from the Russian troops, he loses his mother somewhere along the way.  He finds himself, like many others, diagnosed with TB and admitted to a sanatorium, where key relationships are formed, life mingles with death, happiness with sadness. As he matures, his expectations remain modest, and he marries a woman he truly loves.  As the drive to Berlin approaches home, we learn his wife died a few years previously, and he grieves still, knowing all that remains is loneliness and death.  And yet, knowing that his has been a quiet life, well lived,

He feels something like gratitude that there was something in his life that, if he could express it, he’d call happiness.

A reflection of the author’s feeling perhaps, who had been battling a long illness at the time of writing and surely had an inkling of what was to come?

imageAlthough published in a volume of its own, August is really a short story, but a rather exquisite one. For all its sorrowful ending, it left me feeling meditative and uplifted.  A keeper whch I will no doubt return to again and again.

imageThe 2016 longlist was announced this week.  There are 11 titles translated from German on this year’s list, and 9 have been reviewed, at one time or another by this year’s #germanlitmonth participants – proving what a well-read, clued-up bunch we are. :)

Rapids – Patrick Boltshauser

Tiger Milk – Stefanie de Velasco reviewed by Violet at Still Life with Books

The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck Reviewed by Tony at Tony’s Reading List

I Call Him Necktie – Milena Michiko Flasar reviewed by Melissa at The Book Binder’s Daughter

Who is Martha?– Marjana Gaponenko reviewed by TJ at My Book Strings

All Russians Love Birchtrees – Olga Grjasnowa

F – Daniel Kehlmann reviewed by myself

The Giraffe’s Neck – Judith Schalansky reviewed by Grant at 1streading

All Days Are Night – Peter Stamm reviewed Stu at Winston’s Dad

Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes reviewed by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Decompression – Juli Zeh reviewed by Guy at His Futile Preoccupations

Question: When the 160 strong longlist is whittled down to the 10 title shortlist do you think any of these will make the cut?


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