10 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: W.W. Norton

Why This Book Should Win: Two reasons: 1) during Thomas’s reading tour, three consecutive events were disrupted by a streaker, a woman passing out and smashing a glass table, and a massive pillow fight amid a Biblical thunderstorm; 2) the phone number.

The following piece is written by Erin Edmison who is a partner at Edmison/Harper Literary Scouting and worked on Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which beat out Eugenides & Co. for the NBCC award in fiction.

Thomas Pletzinger is a romantic. He’s not a Romantic; the language of his 2011 debut novel Funeral for a Dog is more observational than emotional, or maybe it’s observational about emotion, in the way of that midcentury German master, Max Frisch (ripples of Montauk lap at this novel’s edge). Then again, Pletzinger’s book feels totally modern (if not Modern). The characters’ central drama has to do with The Way Some of Us Live Now: over-educated, burdened by choice, willing to throw out the cultural roadmaps, but unsure how to draw new ones.

Daniel Mandelkern (his surname translates to “almond seed,” and is also the German word for the amygdala, the part of the brain most responsible for processing memory and emotion) is at a crossroads. He’s left his doctorate in the German-sounding field of ethnography (we would call him a cultural anthropologist) to write feature pieces for the Arts & Culture section of the Hamburg newspaper. His wife Elisabeth is his editor at the paper, and it’s starting to chafe: “(since I started working for Elisabeth’s department, our marriage has become more professional).” When she sends him on what he considers to be a ridiculous assignment— fly down to Italy’s Lake Lugano to interview Dirk Svensson, a mega-bestselling but reclusive children’s book author, and fly back that night—Daniel knows exactly what she’s punishing him for. She wants a child; Daniel’s resistant.

The specter of that phantom trio (Daniel, Elisabeth, Baby Mandelkern) is only one of a series of threesomes—both romantic and situational— that occur throughout the book, down to Svensson’s three-legged dog. The three-part arithmetic of one person choosing between two options leads to several of the book’s dilemmas, and they’re ones many of us face: I could live here, or there; I could love this woman, or that one; I could have this kind of life, or one completely different. All is not possible; one must choose. When Mandelkern arrives on the shores of Lake Lugano, he’s surprised to find he’s not the only person coming for a visit: a fetching Finnish doctor named Tuuli and her young son also clamber into the boat when Svensson comes to pick them up. And contrary to the dossier given to him by his wife before the trip, Svensson doesn’t live alone, but with a curly-haired American photographer named Kiki. But it’s when Mandelkern unlocks a trunk in the bedroom to discover reams of unpublished stories that he realizes who is really the guest in this house on the Italian lake, more present because of his absence: the departed Felix, who seems to have been the glue holding this motley crew together. What was meant to be a reporting trip of a few hours stretches to days as Mandelkern pieces together the relationship between Svensson, Tuuli, and Felix, a series of tales that starts in Brazil, continues in New York, and finishes in Italy.

But they don’t really finish in Italy, do they? Mandelkern must go home; Tulli, too. And despite having an ending that wraps around to the beginning, Funeral for a Dog, left me feeling unfinished, too, in the best of ways. But aren’t we all? We get fuller and fuller of stories and memories in this life, but we’re never finished, until we are.

Click here for an interview with Pletzinger and Ross Benjamin conducted by Diana Thow.

And watch the reading interrupted by the pillow fight by clicking below:

16 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Jennifer Bratovich’s piece on Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, available from W. W. Norton in Ross Benjamin’s translation.

I’ve been holding onto this review for months, waiting first for the book to come out, then for Ross and Thomas to come here, then . . . I simply forgot about it. Better late than never though, especially since Jennifer Bratovich—a former student—really, really dug this book.

Anyway, for more Three Percent love for Funeral and Thomas and Ross, you can read this interview from the Iowa Review or check out this video of their event on campus.

Or, you can read Jennifer’s review:

Thomas Pletzinger doesn’t waste any time. In the first paragraph of his stunning debut novel Funeral for a Dog, his central character Daniel Mandelkern tells exactly what to expect: “I’m sending you seven postcards and a stack of paper, XXX pages. This stack is about me. And about memory and the future.” Sure enough, the “stack of paper”—which includes interview transcripts, drawings, and facsimiles a la Johnathan Safran Foer minus some of the schmaltz—is a fresh, vigorous read that nimbly weaves together the anxieties of the (real and reconstructed) past and the unknown, dubious future.

Mandelkern is an ethnologist/journalist whose professional and personal life are under increasing strain (his wife Elisabeth is also his editor, and they have been arguing). The novel finds him leaving Hamburg on assignment to interview Dirk Svensson, a peculiar author of children’s books who lives on a lake with his three legged dog. During his stay, Mandelkern stumbles upon a manuscript of Svensson’s revealing a complicated mix of people, events, and circumstances.

Click here to read the full piece.

16 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thomas Pletzinger doesn’t waste any time. In the first paragraph of his stunning debut novel Funeral for a Dog, his central character Daniel Mandelkern tells exactly what to expect: “I’m sending you seven postcards and a stack of paper, XXX pages. This stack is about me. And about memory and the future.” Sure enough, the “stack of paper”—which includes interview transcripts, drawings, and facsimiles a la Johnathan Safran Foer minus some of the schmaltz—is a fresh, vigorous read that nimbly weaves together the anxieties of the (real and reconstructed) past and the unknown, dubious future.

Mandelkern is an ethnologist/journalist whose professional and personal life are under increasing strain (his wife Elisabeth is also his editor, and they have been arguing). The novel finds him leaving Hamburg on assignment to interview Dirk Svensson, a peculiar author of children’s books who lives on a lake with his three legged dog. During his stay, Mandelkern stumbles upon a manuscript of Svensson’s revealing a complicated mix of people, events, and circumstances.

Pletzinger is careful never to reveal too much to us at once. Structurally, the novel alternates between a chapter of Svensson’s narrative manuscript and a handful of Mandelkern’s observations and reflections, told in easily digestible, paragraph-long chunks with clever titles. Theses parallel stories unfold and converge, overlapping and slowly piecing together the histories of Pletzinger’s characters.

It is this process of uncovering and revealing that makes the novel so interesting to read. It is up to us to start seeing relationships between the smallest details (for example, golden bobby pins). Mandelkern admits he is obsessed with “making connections where there are no connections”. As Mandelkern introduces us to the details of his life with Elisabeth and his investigation into Svensson’s world, we are given so little information that we are left on our own to decide exactly how these details fit together:

We had no mission outside of ourselves (I found her red hair in the corners of my apartment). From our words and thoughts we designed streets and moved more purposefully, maybe more meaningfully, in them (she showed me the remote map quadrants), we used our bodies (I went beyond my boundaries).

This caffeinated, contemplative style propels the novel forward through the longer portions of Svensson’s manuscript (which stays truer to traditional form, but still preserves Pletzinger’s brisk, smooth style).

And within the larger context of the novel, what is missing seems to be just as important as what is present. Furthermore, as Mandelkern reads Svensson’s manuscript, he learns that only a fraction of it is true—another fraction is completely fictional, and the remainder is just a series of attempts at building some kind of cohesive, understandable connection between the real and the reconstructed. Both authors struggle desperately with the burden of stitching together and making sense of their histories, because as Svensson notes, “What you don’t hold on to disappears”. This fear of impending loss seems to drive the novel as it drives Svensson and Mandelkern to complete their work, to make sense of their histories and to move forward past them.

That said, readers have to pay attention. Pletzinger’s characters are linked in specific ways. By the end of the novel, when everything is being pulled together in one large chunk, it takes a moment to recall everything that was in Svensson’s plot-heavy manuscript. This book is packed with details that come back again and again. That one brief sentence snuck somewhere in one of Mandelkern’s jotted down paragraphs that you will never be able to find again, offhandedly mentioning a painting on the wall? Probably important. And such is the sad exuberance of Funeral for a Dog—a beautiful self-referential story about love, longing, and loss that should probably be read at least twice to fully appreciate.

9 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks back we held our final Reading the World Conversation Series event of the season, featuring Thomas Pletzinger (author of Funeral for a Dog) and German translator Ross Benjamin (translator of Funeral for a Dog, Roth’s Job, and others).

The event was really interesting—Thomas and Ross have a great rapport—and was punctuated by a pillow fight turned thunderstorm in the middle . . . Which is only the third reading of Thomas’s that got a little crazy. First there was a group of streakers in the library. Then an audience member passed out due to the queasily detailed section he read (she broke her jaw). And now, Rochester brings soaked students pounding each other with wet pillows. Yes.

22 April 11 | N. J. Furl | Comments



Our final Reading the World event of the spring is coming up next Wednesday, April 27, in Rochester. (This event is not to be confused, by the way, with another that we have scheduled quickly thereafter on May 2. That event is our contribution to the PEN World Voices Tour, and we’ll be posting all the info on that one forthwith . . .) This RTW spectacular will include Thomas Pletzinger—German author of Funeral for a Dog fame—and Ross Benjamin—the award-winning German-to-English translator of Funeral for a Dog. All the good details are below.


Reading the World Conversation Series:
Thomas Pletzinger & Ross Benjamin

APRIL 27, 2011
Wednesday, 6:00 p.m
Welles-Brown Room, Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
(Free and open to the public.
Free parking passes available at information booth.)

Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog received a great deal of praise when it was first released in Germany. It was compared to John Irving (for storytelling) and to Max Frisch (for sensibility and humor), and he even won the prestigious Uwe-Johnson Prize.

Soon thereafter, Pletzinger landed a deal with W.W. Norton to publish the English language edition, translated by award-winner Ross Benjamin. The novel has received attention for its global settings (Germany, Brazil, U.S., Italy), innovative structure, and mixture of intelligence and wit.

Pletzinger comes from a new generation of writers who are less concerned with writing about Germany’s past and whose interests and influences are more global. This reading and conversation will focus on this new generation of writers in Germany and what makes their writing so vibrant and unique on the current stage of world literature.

Visit this event on Facebook

(This event is presented by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)

15 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog (translated from the German by Ross Benjamin) has been getting a ton of great attention recently. It was praised in the New York Times and a Powells.com Review-a-Day. The mysterious forces behind the iBookstore chose it as the “Book of the Week.” We’re going to be discussing it in my class next Tuesday. And Ross and Thomas will be here in Rochester on Wednesday, April 27th for the final event of this season’s Reading the World Conversation Series.

And, as the reason for this post, an interview by Diana Thow with Thomas and Ross is now available on the newly redesigned Iowa Review website. It’s such an awesome, fun, fascinating conversation, that I’m going to quote a huge chunk of it (hopefully all at the Iowa Review are down with this . . . BTW, everyone reading this should subscribe) that’s related to the translator-author relationship:

Diana Thow: Can you give me an example of some of the questions you would ask?

Ross Benjamin: While translating I find that when I want to ask an author a question it rarely consists of wanting to know what a word means. A dictionary can tell you what something means, but if you’re able to talk with the author the most important material you can gain is at the textural level. How the author is using language and what they are doing with that language that is new and unexpected. This is perhaps not completely penetrable upon a first read, not without a more involved discussion. It took a lot of time for Thomas to address all my questions.

Thomas Pletzinger: The question about Heimwehtourismus for instance.

RB: Yes, that one was never really resolved. The word is Heimwehtourismus, which is used in a specific way in the novel, and it has a specific meaning that’s difficult for anyone who’s not familiar with the German context. A Heimwehtourist is a tourist, literally a homesickness-tourist—it’s one word.

DT: You translated this as “nostalgia tourist,” if I remember correctly.

RB: In one place I did, yes. The word describes somebody who travels to their former or their ancestral homeland out of nostalgia, and it’s often closely associated with tourists who visit their former homes in what was once east Germany but is now Poland or the Czech Republic, but it has an even broader application than that. In Thomas’s novel there is a scene in which a character travels back to a former home in the east, and the word is used there, but there are also places in which the longing for home is used more metaphorically. There are characters who are searching all over the world for a sort of home, and they are called Heimwehtourists as well… so “nostalgia” doesn’t really capture it. Often I used a contextual solution, and occasionally I think I might have added allusions to clarify. But yes, that was one question that went on forever.

TP: While we’re talking, I’m looking at my e-mail folder and in this folder it says: Ross Benjamin, 714 e-mails.

RB: Right. And some of those e-mails contain a hundred questions each.

TP: Or when we started this whole process and had the issue with the Badeinsel?

RB: Right, that’s never been adequately resolved. So, when you’re swimming in a lake sometimes there’s a wooden thing with a ladder on it that you can swim out to climb on and jump off.

TP: And there’s Astroturf on it sometimes…

RB: Yeah, sometimes there’s Astroturf. Everyone calls it a different thing. What do you call it?

DT: Uh.

(a pause, Thomas laughs)

DT: A dock? A swimming dock?

RB: Yeah, a lot of people start with dock, but when you look up these terms it gets problematic. Some people call it a raft, which I think of something that floats away, or a float, or a floating dock, but docks are always attached to the land. The definitions aren’t very precise, and then websites that sell these things call them all sorts of different names. Everyone still disagrees on what the right solution is. We ended up with floating dock. And I think that’s because the copyeditor was really convinced. But I was on one of these things on Cape Cod a few weeks ago, and I was talking to my mother about it and she said, “We called that the raft all throughout my childhood.” There’s a book called A Yellow Raft in Blue Water with a picture of one on the cover….

TP: You see how he works. His whole family is involved. He’s in a bathing suit on vacation and he still thinks about it. Everyone around him is involved. The issue with the Badeinsel was one of the first things that my editor at Norton heard about the book before reading it, and he was thinking, “Oh god, here we go.” It’s on the second page of the novel and we’re already e-mailing fifty times back and forth about that damn thing in the water.

But I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a translator to have someone like me who can read the English translation. Maybe it’s useful, but I can think of better things than having someone looking over your shoulder. But I was so interested to watch Ross at work on my book, so for me it was amazing for me to see how—what’s the word for akribisch, Ross?

RB: Meticulous?

TP: Yes, this is the word precisely. Akribisch, meticulous. I always thought I knew my book. I thought I knew what I was doing, and of all the people in the world, even my own editor, even myself…. I think Ross knows the book better. Maybe he doesn’t know the back story as well as I do, but of all the people in the world, he knows the actual text on the page best. And I find it fascinating that someone who hasn’t written the book would be able to find so many mistakes, or slight mistakes, logical mistakes….

RB: These were tiny, tiny, tiny things.

TP: Yes, tiny things. But Ross would spot everything. For instance, in the hardback German version of the book a woman buys a pizza and it comes in a plastic bag. New York pizza isn’t delivered in a plastic bag, it comes in a box. I am an idiot, how could I have thought that pizza is delivered in a plastic bag? And then she hangs it on a Türklinke!

RB: A door handle.

TP: Right, a door handle?! There are no door handles in New York! They’re doorknobs. So we rewrote the whole thing.

RB: There’s also the problem of hanging the pizza….

TP: Yeah, yeah.

RB: But all of these things a reader wouldn’t notice, they would read right over it.

TP: Right. My editor didn’t catch this, but you did. While Ross was translating the book into English, I was working on editing the German paperback (btb-Random House, 2010). So now the paperback is totally different from the hardcover book.

RB: What’s happened is that the paperback consists of a translation of my translation of his book. So the paperback is actually Funeral for a Dog translated back into German by Thomas Pletzinger.

TP: And it’s much better than the first edition.

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