Love German Books is rocking my world today . . . In addition to the German Book Prize roundup we wrote about earlier, Katy also has an interview with Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that sounds really curious . . . Here’s the description from the New Directions website:
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who over the decades seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
Katy’s interview is really interesting (in part because she’s a translator and asks good questions, in part because Susan is great at giving interviews), such as this story about translating Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words:
Jenny is wonderful to work with. She’s very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I’m not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables – for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.
Actually we had a little incident in that same book – she didn’t think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 – thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she’d used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she’s taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her – then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that’s an exemplary author.
And for those interested in Susan’s upcoming projects:
KD: Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you’d love to translate but haven’t yet had the chance?
SB: Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven’t been translated yet. Right now I’m rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner’s short novel Bruno, but I couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.
KD: What are you working on right now?
I’ve been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they’re prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can’t wait! It’s one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.
Finally, for those of you in the Rochester area, Susan is going to be here on September 23rd to talk with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions. They’ll be primarily talking about Robert Walser, though I’m sure the conversation will spill over into other translations, including the Erpenbeck books Susan’s done for ND.
Over at Love German Books, the wonderful Katy Derbyshire has a fun and informative overview of all the titles on this year’s German Book Prize longlist. As with years past (this is the third year that Katy’s written this sort of overview) she noticed some common themes among the books:
Teenage girls seemed to crop up rather frequently, which I love because there’s nothing sexier to read about than teenage girls. I do wonder if it’s a reaction to Helene Hegemann’s success though. The other common thread is setting things abroad, preferably in Eastern Europe or Paris as opposed to the USA, which was all the rage last year. Or if it’s not set abroad, an oppressive village setting is a bit of a classic in contemporary German writing. Also, about half the book covers feature some variant of trains, planes and automobiles – it would seem the German readership longs to get away from it all.
As a result, each of the write-ups has a note about where the book is set, and “Teenage Girl Factor” . . . Check out the link above to read about all the titles, but here are the ones that piqued my interest based on her write-ups:
Alina Bronsky, Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche
This is billed as “a delightfully spicy novel for women – emotionally charged, sensual, shocking and exotic – the story of the most passionate and astute grandmother of all time.” Which majorly pisses me off I’m afraid; because what do men get to read then – tales of golfing grandfathers?
Anyway, as with her first novel Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky just writes so entertainingly and convincingly that I can’t help jettisoning all my prejudices and simply enjoying the prose. This time it’s a quirky grandmother trying to abort her ugly daughter’s immaculately conceived foetus. Which is a hell of a lot funnier than it sounds. Very possibly a German version of that Ukrainian tractors book – fun, light post-Soviet reading matter with strong characters. Rights have already been sold to Europa Editions, so look out for an American version, probably translated by Tim Mohr. I know I’ll be reading it.
Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder Im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag
Jan Faktor is utterly cool – I’ve seen him live a couple of times and always gone home happy. According to the blurb, this is a book about a boy growing up in Prague: “Caught between war-traumatised aunts, a tyrannical uncle and a dazzlingly beautiful mother, all Georg wants is to escape to a new future.”
The extract is great stuff, detailing Georg’s concerns with his genitals and his obsession with his past. The language is delightful and intricate and witty but I suspect, from the extract, the length of the book – about 600 pages – and what I’ve heard him read, that it’s probably very, very rambling. The novel was also shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the spring and is on the longlist for oddest title. Too long for my weak wrists though, I’m afraid.
Michael Kleeberg, Das amerikanische Hospital
A Frenchwoman makes friends with an American soldier recovering from the Gulf War in the Parisian hospital of the title. I like the little I’ve read of Michael Kleeberg’s writing in the past – he seems to be uninterested in trendy subjects and chooses “real stuff” to write about. The publishers say: “Michael Kleeberg skilfully and movingly interweaves contemporary history and private lives, the mental horrors of war and the physical horrors of an unfulfilled wish for children with the dense atmosphere of Paris.”
The extract is like a puzzle, and possibly the novel as a whole unfolds this way, which is always fun. The soldier describes the Middle East in a beautiful, unrealistic, imagery-laden monologue, which gets very disturbing. My notes: Woah. Seems very good. I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.
Thomas Lehr, September
Two female protagonists, one an American who dies on 9/11, the other an Iraqi who dies in a bombing three years later. Lehr’s previous novel, 42, was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2005 and is a bizarre scenario in which time stands still for everyone but a small group of people. The publishers say: “In densely poetic language, September tells a story about Islam, about oil, terror and war and about two women who stand for the victims of this conflict.”
And people, it’s fantastic stuff! Even the pattern the words make on the page is beautiful. Lehr avoids the traps of Orientalism, sketching a Middle East rife with sin and sensuality, myth and bathos. Contrasted with Long Island, other private calamities. My notes are strewn with “OMG”s. Odd words, odd sentences, odd punctuation. I think he makes the two women sisters. Mentally. I think they watch each other and tell the other’s story. But maybe they don’t. I really need to read this book.
Andreas Maier, Das Zimmer
A grown-up narrator recounts his childhood memories of his rather eccentric uncle. Maier’s second novel Klausen is out now in translation by Kenneth J. Northcott. I once saw Maier in the flesh and he had an unappealing Al Qaeda-style ginger beard. But don’t let that put you off. The publishers say: “Das Zimmer is both a portrait from memory and a novel, perhaps the beginning of a great family saga, a reflection on time and civilisation, on human dignity and how to maintain it.”
The language in the extract is a delight, smattered with great words that jump out at you. And it’s full of intelligent ideas and strange characters, primarily of course that uncle. It certainly made me want more – a real contender, at least for my reading pile.
Andreas Schäfer, Wir vier
A family shaken to its foundations by the murder of a son. The publishers say: “Us four lucidly, sovereignly and movingly tells the story of a trauma and its consequences. The reader cannot get away from it.”
And yes, the extract is great stuff. Infused with threat and oppressive atmosphere from beginning to end, everyday life lived with an appalling memory at the back of everybody’s mind. Traces of violence popping up everywhere, and a strong-minded mother holding it all together, just about. Deceptively simple narration, so much going on below the surface. I liked it a lot, I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.
Thanks for this overview, Katy, and we’ll be posting more about the award as soon as the shortlist is announced. (And yes, still pulling for Maier. . . . Klausen is a damn amazing accomplishment, and this new book sounds fascinating.)
Thanks to Ed Park (who wrote the amazing Personal Days, which everyone who has ever worked should definitely read) for bringing this to my attention—a novel which you can start on either end and which seemingly ends with a confrontation between the two main characters that happens literally at the middle of the book!
According to the brief description with this video, Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas is being translated into English . . . More on that when I feel like disclosing more. (A publisher has to keep some secrets, right? Otherwise he’s just a blogger.)
Katy Derbyshire — who runs the wonderful love german books — wrote about this a while back in relation to a reading she attended (and as Katy pointed out to me, you should check the comments—there’s a cute fight between the author and his wife):
Then came Benjamin Stein. I haven’t read his new novel, Die Leinwand, but I’m going to have to now. It’s printed so that you can start reading at either end, with the two strands meeting in the middle where you then have to flip the book over and start again. Loosely based around the case of Binjamin Wilkomirksi, the novel looks at that old evergreen, the nature of memory, from a slightly different standpoint – how memories and truths can be manipulated and faked. Stein read well, a pitch-perfect chapter about books and libraries and ownership and lies, featuring a down-to-earth wife who made me wonder all over again about fact and fiction. And then he surprised me by giving a slide show. He’d been on a research trip to Israel, where the book is partly set, in search of a mikveh where his two (!) showdowns take place. Germans aren’t generally all that au fait with orthodox Judaism – and nor am I – so it was an unexpected lesson and gave us a great sense of Stein’s love for his subject matter. The serious reader was suddenly transformed into a smiling enthusiast, showing us the people and places that inspired him.
Oh, and sorry Germany. I thought for sure you would dismantle Spain the way you did Argentina, England, et and cetera. But no! Thrilling! And uh, go Spain? (I’ve been rooting for WC teams based on which cities I love the most. Amsterdam vs. Barcelona is a tough, tough call. I do love the color orange . . . And Catalan literature . . .)
Ross, tell us about the book . . .
It’s an account of a pogrom against a Jewish family by their neighbors, who had been their longtime friends, in a fictitious village called Jedenew near the Polish-Lithuanian border during the German invasion. This horrific incident is recounted in the first-person plural — “we” — and the group of characters indicated by this pronoun expands and contracts at various points, but the point-of-view of these passages is aligned with a single female protagonist who remains nameless. During the onslaught, she and her sister Anna hide in their unfinished treehouse in the woods, where they witness the destruction of their home. Having lost their loved ones, they recall the events of their truncated childhood and especially stories that have been told to them by their father and their older brother. Different voices, tales, and memories interweave as the narrative moves forward and backward in time, the scenes and speakers often shifting unexpectedly in the middle of a sentence. The novel never departs from the present tense, even when this means violating grammatical convention. The effect is a sense of simultaneity that heightens the harrowing loss at the heart of the novel.
[. . .]
You’ve kept the very difficult grammatical structure (all present tense, confusing sentence structure) more or less untouched, as far as I can tell. Were you tempted to take a more interventionist approach? If not, why not?
I felt strongly that the exclusive use of the present tense was an essential feature of the novel, so I was never tempted to alter it. Even when German grammar would usually require another tense, whether past, future, or indirect discourse, the novelist stayed in the present, and if this was at times awkward in the original, the awkwardness was clearly a deliberate effect. So I reproduced this to the best of my abilities in the translation. Of course, this posed a challenge. Overall, I had the impression that the German language was more conducive to Vennemann’s technique than English, for both the historical present and the ability to refer to future events in the present tense are available, conventional options in German more often than in English. So at times something that was only somewhat jarring in the original would be more intensely jarring in English. But I thought this still reflected the author’s aesthetic better than to restore grammatical fluidity and familiarity would have. Though I tried to keep the level of estrangement close to that of the original, at times some degree of enhanced awkwardness in the English version was inescapable. But since the device was used as a grammatical Verfremdungseffekt in the German version, this felt justified. As for the complexity of the syntax, some degree of confusion is endemic to the novel. Again, such intricate, long sentences are less unusual in German than in English, but my rationale for retaining them was similar to my approach to tense. The labyrinthine nature of the sentences in the original was intentionally disorienting, and to efface this by composing more easily readable sentences would have been to dispense with a key aspect of the experience of this novel.
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