#tddl: the winner is…

On Sunday, the winners of the four prizes plus the audience award were announced. Yes, that’s right, I’m a bit late. Sue me.

If you feel you need to catch up with what’s happened over the three days of readings – and I recommend you do take a gander – here is my summary of Day One., a day about whiteness and the blindness of writers and judges in the face of it. Here is my summary of Day Two, a day mostly about mediocrity and the praise it can elicit if it is narrowly tailored to MFA standards (in this country: Literaturinstitut (see this review). And finally, here is my summary of Day Three, a day which saw the competition’s best text by a country mile, and one of its worst and if you’re still completely lost as to what the hell is going on, here is my general post about this year’s event. If you want, you can read all the texts here, though you should hurry, they won’t be online forever.

The five winners

So on Sunday, the venerable judges voted in a dramatic fashion. The day was full of surprises. You know what wasn’t a surprise? That the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunifaction history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. It didn’t even come in second, not until Bjerg’s MFA-by-numbers meditation on fatherhood and sad white men had its place in the spotlight.. Last year’s decision to sideline the politically interesting texts for Schmalz’s solid, but politically empty monologue was, as it turned out, a sign O’ the times. At least this year’s winner, Tanja Maljartschuk’s text, was very good, and sharp enough in focus and moral clarity, likely the second best text in a field that was, overall, stronger than last year’s.

Indeed, of the five texts I personally considered best, my three favorite texts also won three awards. Only Corinna T. Sievers, whose sharp text about womanhood, sex and the struggles of addiction confounded the judges, and Ally Klein, whose text about anxiety and panic attacks, a text which I would not have properly understood without help myself, went unrewarded.

The five writers as I would have liked them to win

Dündar did win an award – the third place Kelag award. And Raphaela Edelbauer won an audience award. Regrettably, the second and fourth place awards went to Bov Bjerg and Anna Stern respectively. I want to talk about these for a moment: most observers of the voting that led to Anna Stern award saw judges changing their vote, voting tactically – because here’s what almost happened: Joshua Groß’s bad text almost won, because Klaus Kastberger suffered some kind of mental breakdown and kept throwing his hat in the ring for Groß’s text which was politically and literarily dubious.

It was stunnning. I could not believe it – but in the end the explanation is simple enough. Despite women winning the majority of this year’s awards, the structure of the Bachmannpreis favors men. The reason women did well this year (unlike last year, for example) is that Edelbauer, Dündar and Tanja Maljartschuk have written texts that are generally considered among the best texts, across the board. Nobody could have excluded those three texts from awards. But that a mediocre writer of MFA or Literaturinstitut pabulum like Bov Bjerg not only gets praised , but also takes home an award at least three women would have deserved more, is a sign of a certain tolerance of white male mediocrity – or rather, a certain critical appreciation for a tone and style of writing, a nonchalant irrelevance.

Indeed, Kastberger compounded his sad performance when he praised Bjerg as one of the most relevant German writers of our time – which, if true, is a horrible indictment of contemporary German literature. Honestly, I don’t think it’s true, but it’s instructive that this is where Kastberger’s brain went, this is his category for Bjerg – and maybe that also explains his support for Joshua Groß. Important Male Novelist – a category he leaped to defend.

There’s another little nugget that turned up in the award’s aftermath: Anselm Neft, whose text used slurs and appropriated the voice of a socially weaker person with a language of cliché and stereotype that aimed for effect rather than depth, went on a Facebook rant about a critical voice on Twitter. He defended his use of that language and slurs and assembled a crowd of angry Germans who agreed with him. That crowd contained almost every signifcant participant in the #tddl-discussion on Twitter, plus some of the judges. Everybody agreed that it should be fine to use slurs against Roma and stupid, biased or cowardly to complain about this minor matter. Interestingly, among his supporters appear to be people involved in running the award: in the comments, he noted that someone had told him that he had only barely lost out on the audience voting, which Raphaela Edelbauer had ended up winning.

The whole sorry affair both underlined why texts like Dündar’s that critically interrogate German narratives have a steep hill to climb to win an award like this one, and why writers like Neft and Bjerg will for the foreseeable future have a shortcut to such honors. There’s no topic like the vague sadness of adult white men to win awards. That’s been true for decades, and at least on the basis of this year’s TDDL, it still appears to be true.

be15b04908

Advertisements

#tddl: Day Three: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Things are coming to an end. Day Three closed the active portion of the Bachmannpreis with a thoroughly interesting set of texts. Tomorrow prizes will be awarded. At least one of today’s writers should win one, as we have seen the best text of the competition (as well as one of the worst) but we’ll get to that. Meanwhile, here is my summary of Day One. Here is my summary of Day Two. Here is my general post about the event. If you want, you can read all the texts here. The writers today were Jakob Nolte, Stephan Groetzner, Özlem Özgül Dündar and Lennardt Loß.

It was a short day, and not overall as annoying as some previous days – apart from one very bad text, there were two meh texts, one fantastic text, I did not run out of white wine and also I took a nap which is always lovely.

Jakob Nolte, whose novel I’ll review soonish, started the day with a story that seems a bit boring and written slightly sloppily, but upon reading his novel it appears to be written in – his style, I guess? That does not make it good though – it was mostly boring and uninteresting. A couple of crooked metaphors, odd grammatical choices etc. It’s a perfect middle-of-the-road text. Not good enough or bad enough to create excitement, but after day one started with death, and day two started with anal sex, starting day three with a mostly meaningless story about a woman on a beach wasn’t such a bad change of pace. The racial politics of the text were a bit dubious, but so is Nolte’s work generally. His novel uses various people of color to provide meaning and depth to the tale of ethnically German twins born in Norway, which is the whitest possible constellation. In comparison, the story wasn’t that bad.

In a sense the whole day was slowly building to Dündar’s excellent text, as the second writer, Stephan Groetzner, produced a humorous, clever and satiric text about – look, I’m not entirely sure. The text was partially set in Moldova and in Austria, and in its Moldovan sections it sidestepped the usual German tendency of filling these texts up with local color that always feels at best a bit exploitative (see Nolte, Jacob) and at worst a bit racist (see Neft, Anselm). Instead, the text was filled with Austrian terms – from local Austrian myths to Austrian vocabulary – specifically signposting his intentions by having models in Moldova have vegetable based nicknames, all of which were words that only exist in the Austrian variety of German. Groetzner is German, and this rubbed Klaus Kastberger the wrong way – mind you, this is the same Klaus Kastberger, who last year listened to a story about service personnel of color – and urged us to re-learn how to deal with servants.

Thank God the next text was brilliant. Özlem Özgul Dündar presented a brilliant text. A chorus of mothers, echoing various writers from the German tradition (I particularly heard Jelinek, but I am biased) presented the facts and emotions around an unnamed calamity, where neo-fascists burned down a house inhabited by foreigners. The most likely reference is to the 1993 Solingen arson attack, but other elements appear to be referencing other arson attacks that happened at the same time. I say “neo-nazis” but the people involved in the Solingen attack were largely “normal” young men, some with solid background. And in other arson attacks, like the one in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, which happened around the same time, a whole mob joined the attackers. Dündar’s story touches on many of these beats, and also provides a harrowing and moving account of what it feels like to have been there, to have died there, to have survived it. Her textual means were precisely attuned to the needs of the material – and while the text was presented as prose, it showed the author’s background in playwriting and poetry. An enormous text – slighly marred by some of the reception, as some of the judges, in particular Michael Wiederstein, who grew up near SOlingen, appeared to have no great interest in neo-nazis.

There’s a weird thing in Germany where this country has an obsession with Nazis in the period between 1933 and 1945, but attempts to blank out the topic of Nazis after that period, especially Nazis that were born after the war, or even later. That explains why Wiederstein, Mr. No Historical Memory of Events Happening After 1990, invited Lennardt Loß, whose awful, awful text, an excerpt from a very likely lamentably awful novel, is centered around an old Nazi (a “real” Nazi) and someone who was part of the RAF, the left wing terrorism that was particularly active in the 1970s in Germany. There are so many distasteful things about the text, from the dumb use of parallel guilt between someone supporting the RAF and an actual Nazi – but the text itself, with its stilted dialogue, miserable prose and misshapen structure, was almost as offensive on a purely aesthetic level. Loß, with no particular interest in history outside of Wikipedia entries ended day three on a bad note.

I mean it’s a fool’s game to predict the jury but Dündar’s text was so goddamn good that only a moron wouldn’t vote for it to win, but we’ll see.

#tddl: Day Two: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Boring

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day two (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Corinna T. Sievers, Ally Klein, Tanja Maljartschuk, Bov Bjerg and Anselm Neft. . You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For a summary of the first day click here.

The day started with a text about a nymphomaniac female dentist, in a story by Corinna T. Sievers. With a few exceptions here and there, Sievers’s style was exceptionally clear and sharp, mostly, again, with a few exceptions, allowing the writer to modulate events and tone with some ease. Oh, and the story was largely pornographic. The scene ends on a slowly and carefully described blow job, performed by the dentist on one of her patients. This was not a surprise. In the novels I’d previously read of hers, explicit sex scenes were the rule rather than the exception. But it’s worth a closer look. These are novels about child abuse (in fact, two out of three novels broach the topic), crime, alcoholism, dysphoria. Two out of the three feature middle aged female protagonists who are struggling with the pressures and expectations placed on them in some way or another. To note one in particular, the widely acclaimed novel Maria Rosenblatt: it takes up the stucture and language of crime novels, with frightening ease, and inverts many of its assumptions. How does the story change if we turn the boozing detective who fucks around into a woman? How do other elements of the story have to stretch and adapt? Reviews of the book all mention its sexual explicitness – by comparison, just among the books I reviewed this week – I can assure you, despite the incredible flood of penises in Stephan Lohse’s novel, no review focused on the homoerotic or queer centering of male genitalia – we’re used to dick, as described by dudes. So far, each novel makes specific, different use of the explicit sexuality that appears to be Sievers’s hallmark – so if this writer is so clever what’s the point with the story as presented at the Bachmann-Preis? To understand you have to look at the complicated history of the Bachmannpreis. In the very first instalment, in 1977, Karin Struck presented a story involving female bodily functions and was severely upbraided by one of the critics: nobody is interested in the thoughts of a woman who menstruates! By contrast, a few years later, Urs Allemann took an award home with a story about a man who admits his pleasure in sleeping with infants. And there is one more possible contextual allusion: in her introduction, Sievers mentions Martin Walser as a writer she admires. On the one hand, yuck! On the other hand, a few hours after the reading, I had to think of the year Walser’s daughter, Alissa, presented a half-incestuous atory about a woman who uses her father’s money to purchase sex and then talks to him about it. Walser also took home an award – with a story that had possible autobiographical implications. Now, Sievers is, by profession, a dentist, and choosing to present a story about dentistry, when she had not done so in any of her previous novels, seems strategic, implicating her audience in the performance in a way that she could not have done with a written story. Her slow, strangely paced reading contributes to that theory. And there’s more: the reaction to the text, particularly by the male jurors, some of whom, like Klaus Kastberger, joked that they would want to get an appointment at her practice, “though we should talk about the price,” appears to have justified most of her literary choices. The story, much like Raphaela Edelbauer’s story that opened the first day, had significant problems, but, like Edelbauer’s text, on balance more good things than bad things and in my opinion had been the second best text presented at the competition thus far.

This assessment didn’t change after the second text of the day, an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Ally Klein. Klein’s story did not appear to be any good – bad imagery, a surfeit of adjectives, flabby structure, more like a pile of excited descriptions than a serious piece of fiction. But as I browsed twitter, I came across a series of tweets by Sarah Wipauer, a writer who suffers from periodical and incapacitating panic attacks and as a sufferer of this affliction. She immediately recognized the symptoms in Ally Klein’s text. She was not just moved to tears, but brilliantly explained how the very deficient seeming nature of the text, like its images and adjectives and banal seeming prose was actually further evidence of its literary treatment of specific symptoms, and what seemed vague and imprecise was, in reality a well-made, precise text about this particular affliction.

The morning was brought to a close by a story by Tanja Maljartschuk. Maljartschuk has published multiple award-winning novels in Ukrainian – she has never published a longer narrative originally written in German. That said, her story was absolutely enjoyable. The most classically written story so far, written with professional routine, it is a story about a migrant who is constantly in danger of being picked up by the police, and an older woman with dementia. Their paths cross, as a strange combination of acts takes place, in a scene of biblical and literary allusion, the protagonist steals some money from the old lady, but ends up washing her feet, as he is, at the story’s end, arrested, with certain doom in his future. The benign theft has echoes of two texts in particular – there’s the encounter of Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean in Hugo’s classic novel – and a sequence of scenes from Clemens Meyer’s debut novel Als wir träumten, where a whole group of impoverished, disillusioned young men steal from an older woman, but also take care of her, in a strange sense of symbiosis between two disadvantaged groups. Much as in Lohse’s racist text from yesterday, this echo connects racial and class issues, but unlike Lohse, Maljartschuk connects the two levels with skill and ease. If anything, the story is too well made, hiding its skill under a clear, startling veneer. By far the best story of the competition so far.

The two afternoon readings were kicked off by Bov Bjerg. I don’t have a ton to say about this one, in part because my initial and also my second impression are/were wildly at odds with the audience reaction on Twitter and the jury’s enthusiastic reaction. I’ll write a review of his bestselling novel Auerhaus one of these days and will use the opportunity to go into more detail. What it is, is a very well made story about a father and a son, about depression and the fear of your child inheriting your own suicidal ideation. I may not understand panic attacks, but boy do I understand that fear. I want no child of mine to grow up suffering as I did and do. And on some days that does translate to: I want no child(ren). That said, the story is incredibly flat and boring and banal – incredibly so. It’s not its simplicity. I love well made simplicity. But I think the right comparison here is with the Maljartschuk story that preceded it. Both texts were well made, but while the achievement of Maljartschuk’s story is that of an experienced writer who has worked on their craft – the “well-made” aspect of Bov Bjerg text is that of MFA-taught well made writing. I have complained about the MFA-taught slickness before, particularly about the two major MFA mills in Germany, the Literaturinstituts in Leipzig and Hildesheim. I believe that the positive reaction to the story and the inability to see the exceptionally formulaic nature of its achievement (in other words, it’s literally institutionally well-made not literarily well made) is connected to the way the literary critical system in this country is set up – with Leipzig and Hildesheim producing a specific kind of writing, influencing the critics’s sense of the literary field – and in turn, the critics’s expectations shaping what is taught as a “well-made story” in Leipzig and Hildesheim. In a sense, this story was made for this stage, in a terribly boring cercle vicieux. This is not a bad story by any means, just an awfully dull one, the wrong kind of well made, with a fundamental expectation of universality that is typical of white men, which is why the lack of diversity this year is such a problem.

At least with the day’s final story, written and presented by Anselm Neft, we were back on more reliably German ground, as Neft appropriated the experience of marginalized people, used racist slurs against Roma, absolutely crowded his text with clichés and sloppy prose, and was generally not so much an embarrassment to the proceedings, but a solid representation of a year of this award with the largest percentage of German writers of recent years (Edelbauer was the only Austrian writer on the list this year). I admit, reader, I fell asleep during the story. I reread it later, but honestly, it wasn’t even offensive enough to keep yours truly awake.

Tomorrow’s group of writers is odd. I have no sense of who I really want to win the award. Tomorrow starts with Jakob Nolte, whose well received last novel is actually pretty bad (review forthcoming), and Stephan Groetzner, who reads exceptionally obnoxiously. God knows.

+

#tddl: Day One, the Great White Nope

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Raphaela Edelbauer, Martina Clavadetscher, Stephan Lohse, Anna Stern and Joshua Groß. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

The day began with the writer I was most excited to see. Not because I thought it was the best writer in the competition, but because Raphaela Edelbauer‘s book is such a lovely accomplishment and yet I had no idea how she’d approach the writing of fiction proper. One of her book’s strengths is a sense of how the languages of fiction and science and history are connected – and in her text she achieved much of the same thing. A text that ended up being about the terrors of history implicated both science and the people who partake in it. How we deal with nature and how we deal with our fellow human beings – at the same time, the parts of the text that were fiction proper were not nearly as good as the nonfiction sections. Edelbauer does not have a mastery of the first person narrative yet – indeed most disappointingly, she does not bring the same attention and care to the first person fiction narrative that she brings to the nonfictional work. The prose in the latter is multifaceted and complex, while her first person narrative frequently falls flat. The text overall had a curiously conservative and polished feel despite the author’s young age – the skill in the nonfictional passages still meant that the text ended up being an above average achievement. What a way to start the day!

Particularly since the second author of the day was Martina Clavadetscher, whose novel I loved, and who brought prize winning cachet to the competition. Her text, on the printed page, looked like her novel, short, poetry-like lines, and occasionally poetry-like rhythms and small rhymes even. In the early goings, her text about death and the predicaments of the female experience, was dense with well turned phrases and potential. Quite soon, the text flattened out into – I guess, boredom? As it turns out, Clavadetscher appears lost in the short form – she was unable to impose any kind of real structure on the text, which meandered from paragraph to paragraph. On the way to the end it shed all of the well turned phrases from its beginning and picked up a large assortment of empty clichés. A big disappointment.

Stephan Lohse’s text on the other hand – hoo boy. Lohse’s debut novel, published last year, had an underlying, but underdeveloped queer narrative that was among the strongest points of that otherwise middle of the road coming of age novel. His story is about two poor marginalized white boys – and as in his novel, he has a very good handle on the male teenage experience. The best part of the story is an interesting though underdeveloped queer facet. There’s a twist here though – the main character identifies with Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba – although in a key paragraph of the novel Lohse complicates this and it’s worth explaining in detail: when during a class discussion children pick who they want to be when they grow up, he answers “black.” His teacher – the only non authorial voice of authority in the text – defends him against the derision of his fellow students: being black isn’t about the color of your skin, it’s about how you feel on the inside, whether you are “dem Wesen nach ein Schwarzer” – whether you are a black man on the inside. Like some nightmare James Schuyler had in the 1930s, that’s that in the story. The rest of the story is split between a conversation between the two boys and infodumps about the life of Patrice Lumumba. At its core the story is a story about marginality and struggling with marginality by appropriating the language and experience of another race, but the author never undercuts the basic assertion of the teacher in the story – and is unpleasantly comfortable with giving the boy, who just goes by Lumumba, numerous lines where they boy uses a form of Bantu as a way to fill in the gaps of his white experience.

But while authors can be blind to these kinds of faults in their work, the panel of literary professionals that judged him should have seen and noted the issues. Nora Gomringer came closest by noting that the story is a bit delicate (“heikel”). As for the other judges, they continued their sterling performance from years past by just sailing past the racial or even, really, class issues of the text. New judge Insa Wilke even saw this text as a significant contribution in a current progressive conversation about race – and if you believe that I have a racially dubious bridge to sell you. But as it turns out, her own invitee had his own problems in this regard.

First however, after the much needed break, was Anna Stern. Her first novel was a mess of names and structure, and though her second book was much clearer and more readable, her text was a messy, unstructured chaos that read like a first draft in literally every single sentence. Most of the audience on twitter admitted to being confused, although in text we did not pass, riverrun, past Eve’s and Adam, but merely through the crucible of a text of modest means and no proofreader.

The day was brought to a close by Joshua Groß. I had previously read three of his books though not reviewed here. Groß’s writing is an update on 1990s pop writing, particularly on the German tradition of the writers around Christian Kracht. Groß uses ironically refracted misogyny and an affected lightness of tone and inconsistently applied contemporary references to write a pop cultural tableau without the depth of his forebears. In his 2014 novella Magische Rosinen, his protagonist is a “rapper” who travels to Brooklyn a lot – he’s no Patrice Lumumba, but there’s an uncomfortable sense here of a white bourgeois writer of enormous privilege to use the terms of black culture to fill in the margins of an ultimately meaningless contemporary identity in our social media age. And it’s not just Groß – young privileged white German writers have seized on this moment to explain why they feel so uprooted. Simon Strauß, Botho Strauß’s son, has just published a novel about youthful nihilism that veered – like its author – sharply right. Strauß, like his father, has written a book and essays that align him with the rise of the far right in all areas of German cultural and political life. Joshua Groß’s project – such as it is – appears different, but it’s only different to a point. He’s also very happy to work on shaping white German identity by means of appropriation – and as some of Christian Kracht’s career has shown, the line between this kind of party nihilism and right wing celebration is a precarious one.

I haven’t even mentioned the actual text Groß read yet, but it’s a forgettable riff on American culture, particularly on mechanisms and events surrounding an NBA game in Miami. The text is replete, as all of Groß’s work, with misogynist staples and clichés etc etc etc. The most notable part of it is the defence of the text by Insa Wilke, the judge who invited the author to read. Wilke appears to believe the text is cutting edge, giving a much-needed update on 1984’s panopticon. In doing so, she not only ignores Thomas Mathiesen’s 1997 coinage of the synopticon in his classic essay “The Viewer Society” (and its web 2.0 updates, for example Doyle 2011), but also literally the whole body of pop literature and the body of work of writers like William Gibson and many others. It’s baffling, but it is evidence that the Bachmannpreis, over the past years, has turned into a search for the Great White (literary) Hope, and the racially troubling texts in the last three years are no accident, and the praise for texts like Lohse’s and writers like Groß isn’t either.

Raphaela Edelbauer’s text is the best of the bunch so far, but apparently, Lohse is the frontrunner. I mean who the fuck knows.

Dire le monde pour l’inventer

Souvent, lorsque je parle, quand je suis face à face, je m’étonne d’entendre, en même temps que l’autre, ce que je viens d’énoncer à l’instant : je me découvre. Aussi, lorsque l’autre s’énonce, peut-on quelquefois, en des moments privilégiés, devenir cet espace offert à la compréhension. Mais dès que l’attention fléchit, je bredouille, sans arriver à poursuivre un cheminement. Comme si, pour dire, j’avançais sur un tapis tendu par l’attention d’une altérité soutenue. En d’autres mots, comment pourrait-on articuler la langue dans une bouche, si ce n’est, toujours déjà, dedans l’oreille du voisin ? Et cette langue, qu’invente-t-elle d’autre que ces catégories du monde que forgent, avec ces mêmes vocables, nos fictions mentales ? En d’autres termes : parler, c’est dire le monde pour l’inventer.

Maurice Olender/Un fantôme dans la bibliothèque