The new issue of New Books in German has been out for a little while, but it’s pretty loaded and deserving of a mention for anyone who might have missed it.
I am delighted to introduce issue 33 of New Books in German: spring is finally springing here in London and our bright yellow plumage captures the vernal mood. After the focus on Berlin and Zurich in our previous issues, we now head to Vienna, Austria’s capital, to savour the diverse literary life of the city on the Danube. Mary Penman’s article on Vienna’s Book Fair and ‘Festival of Reading’, Lesefestwoche, captures the variety of literary offerings throughout the city during one of Austria’s newest and most imaginative literary festivals. Samuel Willcocks’ piece on Vienna’s independent publishing scene showcases some of the forward-thinking and innovative publishers who are a vital force behind Austria’s new literary talent. And we hear about last summer’s inspirational gathering at the European Literature Days, set amid the breathtaking scenery of Spitz an der Donau.
This issue is chock-full of reviews of new work by gifted Austrian writers. The first four novels profiled in these pages, by Eva Menasse, Barbara Frischmuth, Robert Schindel and Michael Köhlmeier, demonstrate the breadth of high quality writing in contemporary Austria. We also feature an interview with Ross Benjamin, the US translator of Austrian literary superstar Clemens J. Setz, revealing fascinating insights into the unique style and composition of his latest novel, Indigo. As a testament to the vibrancy of Austrian literary life, the authors of two of our four debut novels – Anita Augustin and Isabella Straub – were born in Austria, while the remaining two – Hannes Stein and Pyotr Magnus Nedov – were raised there.
The first piece that caught my eye is this conversation between Lucy Renner Jones and Ross Benjamin about Ross’s translation of Clemens Setz’s Indigo.
Lucy Renner Jones: Setz comes across as a collector of oddities – photographs, scraps, bizarre newspaper stories – a geek, as it were, and it seems as if Indigo has grown from this love of the bizarre. You have the feeling that if he hadn’t become a writer, he might have become a professional ladybug torturer or a director for an asylum for the insane . . . is that what you feel too or do you think he’s just brilliantly funny?
Ross Benjamin: Yes, Setz is indeed a collector or curator of unusual anecdotes, neglected footnotes to historical or current events, cultural and pop cultural marginalia, which he incorporates into his fiction as well as his public appearances and interviews. In its role in his work, however, all this is more than just bric-a-brac. On one level, it has something of the encyclopedic abundance of someone like David Foster Wallace in his impulse to do justice to the mushrooming information environment of contemporary life. It’s at least a similarly expansive sense of what literature can be and what can be literature – which does not exclude all the random bits that currently constitute our media-saturated perception of the world.
LRJ: I don’t think there’s anything to compare to this novel. Perhaps Bret Easton Ellis was called to mind in Setz’s meticulous attention to detail and the unempathetic, ‘autistic’ character of Robert. Are there any US writers who do what Setz does?
RB: Well, I mentioned David Foster Wallace, but only in reference to one aspect of Setz’s writing. Certain elements of the novel remind me of the films of Terry Gilliam – its mix of the imaginative, the comic and the paranoid, the uncanny atmosphere and the characters’ disorienting confrontations with the absurd and unmasterable. There’s no doubt Setz has read his DeLillo and Pynchon, though he is confident enough not to ape their voices; he merely takes for granted the far-reaching terrain they’ve claimed for fiction. But I’ve never understood, at least from a literary standpoint, why the Englishspeaking publishing world seems to require a foreign author to be comparable to some native one, or at least someone already in English. What makes Clemens Setz so fascinating is that he is Clemens Setz. Setz is that rare thing, an original.
For anyone who’s intrigued—which I’m sure all of you are, now—Norton is going to publish this book in the near future. (We’ll definitely review it as soon as possible.)
Another house experimenting with rewrites and remakes is Bernhard Salomon’s Labor Verlag, just around the corner from St Stephen’s Cathedral. I left the tourist crowds behind, climbing worn stone steps into the palace of a nineteenth-century merchant prince, and heard the colourful story of how Salomon ‘founded a publishing house by accident,’ as he puts it. The author of six novels, Salomon felt that Austrian publishing had lost sight of the narrative drive. When a brothel owner gave him €3,000 seed funding, he published two successful short story anthologies, and then a breakthrough title – Elfriede Vavrik’s autobiographical Nacktbadestrand (‘Nudist Beach’), about an octogenarian’s sex life, which stayed on the bestseller lists for weeks on end in both Germany and Austria. Salomon then entered into a joint venture with a major German house so that he could split the Labor list off as a dedicated venue for new novels. [. . .]
Indeed, Vienna has long been a city for writers from all over Central and Eastern Europe, and the city’s Exilliteratur Preis is the equivalent of Germany’s Chamisso Prize for immigrant authors. Two of these young newcomers publish with Edition Atelier: Ilir Ferra with Rauchschatten (‘Shadows of Smoke’), set in Albania in the totalitarian 1980s, and Melica Bešlija with Sarajevo in der Geliebten (‘Sarajevo in the Woman She Loves’), a story of same-sex love in Bosnia after the war. Atelier’s Jorghi Poll told me that ‘the kind of authors who could never get noticed in Germany have that chance in Austria.’
For all of you lucky people living in the great city of New York, here are two fantastic upcoming events that you should try and attend.
First off, next Thursday, February 21st at 7pm at McNally Jackson, Stephen Snyder and Allison Markin Powell (both of whom make me swoon) will be talking about Japanese literature in translation as part of the always excellent Bridge Series.
Here’s a bit about both Stephen and Allison:
Stephen Snyder is Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent translation is Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (Picador, January 2013). He has translated works by Ogawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, and Miri Yu, among others. His translation of Kunio Tsuji’s Azuchi Okanki (The Signore) won the 1990 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission translation prize. His translation of Natsuo Kirino’s Out was a finalist for the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 2004. His translation of Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. He is the author of Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu and co-editor of Oe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan, and he is currently working on a study of publishing practices in Japan and the United States and their effects on the globalization of Japanese literature.
Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator and editor. She has translated works by Motoyuki Shibata, Osamu Dazai (Schoolgirl, published by One Peace Books in 2011), and Hiromi Kawakami, among others, and was the guest editor for Words Without Borders’ first Japan issue. Her translation of Kawakami’s novel The Briefcase (Counterpoint, 2012) has been shortlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Prize.
I’ll bet this will be fantastic . . . really bummed that I’m only staying in NY through Wednesday night. And we’ll have a review of The Briefcase soon. I quite liked Hiromi Kawakami’s earlier novel, Manazuru, so I’m psyched to check this out. And Ogawa’s Revenge is top of my to read pile thanks to Will’s review.
Also next weekend, the Fourth Annual Festival Neue Literature celebrating German-language literature will be taking place across Manhattan and Brooklyn. This year’s festival is curated by Susan Bernofsky and will feature Clemens Setz (Austria), Cornelia Travnicek (Austria), Leif Randt (Germany), Silke Scheuermann (Germany), Ulrike Ulrich (Switzerland), and Tim Krohn (Switzerland), as well as U.S. authors Joshua Ferris and Justin Taylor.
There are two “signature discussion panels” taking place this year: “Closed Circuits: Shrunken Dystopias” and “Breaking Away: Contemporary Travelogues.” Here’s all the info about both of those:
Closed Circuits: Shrunken Dystopias
Saturday, February 23rd.
6:30-8:30pm @ powerHouse Arena
37 Main Street, Brooklyn
With authors Leif Randt, Silke Scheuermann, Clemens Setz, and Justin Taylor
Dystopias used to be grand affairs, encompassing entire planets, but now you can find one contained in a suburban block on the outskirts of Frankfurt, an uncannily odd resort town in a mysterious locale, or a home for children suffering the world’s strangest disorder. Dysfunction is the new dystopia, and these subtly wry to bitingly ironic commentaries uniquely encapsulate the post-modern condition.
Moderated by Susan Bernofsky
Breaking Away: Contemporary Travelogues
Sunday, February 24th
McNally Jackson Bookstore
52 Prince Street, Manhattan
With authors Tim Krohn, Cornelia Travnicek, Ulrike Ulrich, Joshua Ferris
Here today, there tomorrow. Old-style travel stories seemed always to be about characters in search of themselves as inscribed in foreign landscapes. But what if the point of the travel is more escapist than exploratory? In these novels of discovery-avoidance – an avoidance not always successful – the journey is both more and less than a destination.
Moderated by Claudia Steinberg
You can find the complete schedule of events here.
The German Book Prize announced their shortlist a few weeks ago, and signandsight.com now has English excerpts available. Here’s the list:
The winner will be announced in 10 days, on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .
While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.
Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .
The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .
Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.
It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .