#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.

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#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.

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#tddl, Day Two: The Jurypocalypse

So Day Two of the Bachmannpreis ended. Here is my summary of Day One. Here is my general post about the event. As I said yesterday, I’ll assume your German is not fluent enough to follow along, but if you want, you can read all the texts here. Today was exhausting to watch. Yesterday, we had 4 bad texts and one excellent one. Today we had 3 good texts and two awful ones. But if yesterday’s theme was the one of the adult competing with the children, today was the day of horrible jury discussions. I barely stressed the role of the jury yesterday, but each text is allotted roughly an hour: 25 minutes reading, 30 minutes discussion and a 5 minute short introductory film curated by the writers themselves. Sometimes, the jury discussions are about taste, about interpretation, issues like that. Sometimes, like today, they betray blind spots of the jury. Class and race are such blind spots. The jury, consisting of German, Swiss and Austrian critics had such a horrific performance today that I was embarrassed to be German myself (not that there isn’t recurring occasion to feel such shame). But first things first: the writers reading today were, in this order: Ferdinand Schmalz, Barbi Markovic, Verena Dürr, Jackie Thomae, Jörg-Uwe Albig.

Ferdinand Schmalz opened proceedings and it seemed like the day was going to be much better than yesterday. Schmalz is a nom de plume, and appears to be a character. The whole reading was like a performance. A little pork-pie hat, unwashed hair and an excited voice: a reading that elevated a text that was already pretty good. Everything in it worked as needed, sounds, rhythms, plot. This text wasn’t as good as Wray’s story yesterday, but it was good enough that I wouldn’t be upset if it did win the award. A fantastic, greasy, behatted, positively Bernhardian beginning to day two.

Next up was Barbi Markovic, who I had been looking forward to. Markovic, a writer from Serbia, had been doing interesting things with language and literature for a few years now and I was rooting for her. However, the text wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. It was good, it was interesting, and it was relevant, but it needed a good and gentle editor. The story itself, about a family found dead in an apartment, was clearly a metaphor. For what? Well, maybe the way nation states relate to each other or for the way smaller states are subjugated in larger, vaguely totalitarian confederation. The fact that the author is Serbian and her work circles around Serbian topics, seems relevant here. However, one of the judges, Michael Wiederstein, who comes from the area where I currently live, but lives in Switzerland now, proclaimed that texts should not be seen in any such contexts. “I don’t care that the author is Serbian!” he exclaimed, squinting with Germanic self righteousness.

Rough visual approximation of the jury discussing Verena Dürr’s text.

Lucky for him, the next writer was Verena Dürr. Dürr is, I think, an experimental poet who uses the dry and repetitive language of rules and handbooks. As it turns out, when turned into a prose narrative, this is horrifyingly dull. She offered a text about art dealers that was basically a list of expensive objects and of high culture associations. Everybody I follow on Twitter was stunned by the bland and deathly dull nature of the text. It was well made, I mean truly carefully and very precisely done. It’s just utterly uninteresting. However, the real gem was the jury discussion afterwards. Suddenly, judges who complained about a lack of relatable characters in Markovic’s story barely found enough breath to praise this shiny polished turd of a prose narrative. Michael Wiederstein exclaimed how he had so many art dealers among his friends and he was going to show them this story! Suddenly, the possibility of identifying literature and experience appeared, bright (dare I say white?) and shiny on the horizon. Everybody broke for lunch, and I hoped for a better afternoon.

In the afternoon, everything went from bad to worse and I suddenly found myself running out of white wine. Next person up was Jackie Thomae, a writer of color from East Germany. Her story was light but precisely written. It was about a young man of unnamed background who is read by his environment as a Muslim. It’s not relevant for the story which ethnicity he is, because the story’s theme is how his identity is constructed by the power relations around him. He works for a company called Cleanster that offer cleaning services. This is the seventh time working for the company; he’s got a routine, but he’s not a ‘pro’ yet. As he enters the apartment, a few things go wrong and he ends up only partially cleaning the apartment. Wracked with guilt and shame, he flees, onto the next job. The woman who contracted him to clean is unhappy and slips into a strange discourse about how of course these young Muslim men cannot expected to clean, I mean they learned a totally different set of gender roles in their culture. The text is not subtle about its topics: how whiteness and class intersects and constructs subjects in our society. Thomae is incredibly clear about it. It’s a strong story, very clear, very relevant, the writing unflashy but calibrated perfectly. Well, as it turns out that’s not how the jury saw it.

Reading some of the books by this year’s Bachmannpreis-candidates.

No. The jury collapsed in their own Germanic whiteness to an extent that should be part of a curriculum in a critical whiteness course. It was almost like a performance. Klaus Kastberger, who teaches in Graz, said: “we have to learn how to use servants again properly. They used to have rules for that and how we are lost without the rules.” He also asked to be explained the foreigner’s motivation because it wasn’t entirely clear to him. Why would he be intimidated by a washing machine (the story, again, incredibly unsubtle, says, literally: he didn’t want to break another expensive machine that he could never pay for). Meike Feßmann said we need to have a discussion about his cultural background and how it influences his actions, echoing, partially WORD FOR WORD, the statement of the white woman in the story who, in case that wasn’t clear, wasn’t supposed to provide a how-to of white behavior. The protagonist takes selfies “to impress the girls,” but somehow that didn’t reach Hubert Winkels, who thought it was a picture to impress the relatives “in Bosnia, Senegal or wherever” (IN BOSNIA, SENEGAL OR WHEREVER). TWO different judges used the phrase “clash of civilizations” to describe what happened, and Michael Wiederstein, he with the many rich art dealer friends, thought the ‘moral of the story’ was that people should clean more themselves. Kastberger repeated that this was not how you treated servants, that in the 19th century Austrian monarchy, servants were treated much better and we should learn from that and I think it was at this point that I may have lost my mind, my hearing or suffered some other collapse. As a German poet (and, I guess, critic?) I felt such intense shame for these people of similar overall background, I think I may have had an outer body experience.

Jörg-Uwe Albig then closed the day with a strange masculine fantasy, overwritten and undercooked. It is fitting after all that happened that the day ended with a writer called “Jörg-Uwe.” His story is about a man who was left by his girlfriend, has an exoticizing fantasy sequence in Ethiopia (because for Germans, somehow, going to Africa to find yourself is a thing. Yes, I know, Henderson the Rain King exists but, you know, Bellow, he of the “show me the Zulu Tolstoy” was a racist). In Africa he sexually assaults a church (yes, yes, don’t ask). I’m not sure what happens at the end because I stopped caring.

In summary: after today, I think, by rights Wray should still be leading the pack. I think Schmalz, Markovic and Thomae would all deserve one of the two other awards, but except for maybe Schmalz, they didn’t really challenge Wray’s claim to first place. And after today, I think Wray is damn lucky he’s white.