#TDDL: a summary. Part 2: The Good

So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, yesterday the awards were voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.

I split my summary into three parts: the writers I did not like, or didn’t like enough, my favorites, and then a third about the actual results. Here is part 1: The Bad, which you should read first.

My favorites are, in this order:

Helga Schubert

Laura Freudenthaler

Egon Christian Leitner

Lydia Haider

Audience Award: Hanna Herbst

In the first summary I grouped the writers by similarities rather than by chronological order or preference. I would like to continue doing it here, and there are two obvious groups. The odd woman out is Laura Freudenthaler. I’ll begin with an admission: I listened to the story and was bored, looked at the text and was a bit nonplussed by some elements of the style and was ready to dismiss it, until one of the readers I value most suggested I have another look (because of that reader I had another look at Lisa Krusche too, but that did not help. More on Lisa Krusche at the very end of Part 1). And I was wrong. Freudenthaler’s story is an extraordinary achievement. Structurally it moves like a melody, with a devastating, literally explosive ending – and it’s a testament to her skill that a big, devastating, fiery end, after only 8 pages of story, feels earned, and not like a gimmick. Freudenthaler, like Ally Klein at TDDL 2018, does a remarkable job of making anxiety feel real. Moreover, she excels at using real scientific facts about the developments of peat fires or other phenomena of spontaneous underground combustion organically, as a way to illuminate the knowledge we have about her story. As a writer, Freudenthaler has a knack for the curious detail – like the sound of a burning fire, sucking in oxygen, and its similarity to the sound of an asthmatic person having an attack. Freudenthaler connects insides and outsides, a personal violent episode leads us into the story and a massive conflagration leads us out. It touches on political concerns, but indirectly, trusting the protagonist’s anxiety to carry us over.

Much more overtly political are Egon Christian Leitner and Lydia Haider. Both of them extraordinarily Austrian in their talk and both of them explicitly, directly and forthrightly political. Neither of them really helped their texts by reading them aloud. Egon Christian Leitner has a large body of work of largely fragmentary or rather: episodic prose about life on the margins. Unlike exploitative texts, like Bachmann participants Neft and Schutti, Leitner is always empathetic and clear about his own speaking position. The language evades simple emotive tendencies, it doesn’t try to manipulate the reader, it grounds marginalized people in the details of their own realities. Despite the clarity of the language, it’s not plain or journalistic, instead Leitner’s tone is deliberate and clean. His reading, regrettably, was offered in a monotone that emphasized some of the structural repetitions, but undersold his skills at deploying sarcasm and other forms of pointed humor. Leitner stood out, and is one of my favorites because his work felt genuinely unique – not filled with the phraseology of Bachmanntexts past, or leaning on the imagery of 1990s fiction or nonfiction, it felt almost sui generis, though particularly 1970s Austrian literature can offer further examples of work written in Leitner’s style. A similar mixture of sui generis with echoes of brilliant texts in the Austrian tradition is found in Lydia Haider’s text. Where Leitner’s text was dominated by the reasoned speaker’s voice, Haider’s story teems with voices. A text about contemporary politics, violence and right wing rhetoric, it borrows from a completely different Austrian tradition, most famously Jelinek, whose later novels and plays interrogate the violence inherent in common and popular phrases. I will admit, I am not as well read in other examples of that tradition. At the end of her presentation, Haider reads from a copy of plays by Werner Schwab, furnishing us further venues of reference and interpretation. The text is dense, and Haider’s intensely dramatic reading regrettably covered up its details – revisiting it quietly, its well-turned language reveals a skilled writer, with an urgency that’s equal part literary and political. Much of it is flashy, clearly, but the unusual language, the thoughtful engagement with a tradition, and the examination of contemporary issues lift it beyond all the texts discussed in the previous section. Both Leitner and Haider’s texts are unthinkable without assuming that these writers see themselves, as Otoo noted, as citizens as well as writers, and they present us also with an answer to some of the lazy reactions to Otoo’s speech, such as irritated (and irritating) complaint, Otoo were expecting us to learn a bibliography before or instead of engaging with the issues. What Otoo did instead, with several examples early in her speech, is ask for a literature that’s thought- and careful, that considers questions of solidarity, and that brings empathy to not just its characters, but its readers, as well. The jury could have noted any of that or other links to Otoo’s speech, which would have been especially apropos in Leitner’s case, but they decided to ignore it instead.

And finally, my favorite writer of the competition – she was my favorite before everything started and consistently my pick to win it all: Helga Schubert. Helga Schubert and Hanna Herbst presented texts about parents, and they did so one after the other. Of all the writers in this post, Hanna Herbst is the weakest, and on the level of writing, she does not reach some of Lisa Krusche’s heights. At the same time, her texts also do not evince some of the downsides to Krusche’s text. Herbst is not, as far as I can tell, primarily a literary writer – and this text, though it may become part of something larger, feels specific to a moment. Herbst’s text is gimmicky – a remembrance of a father that’s filled with small bits and bobs, frequently unpleasantly precious. If you’ll think of the music of Belle & Sebastian, the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Silvain Chomet, you can guess at the tone. Through it all, the text, however, retains a genuine, a moving core, and unlike other texts in the previous section, never reproduces racism. In fact, it’s the rare text that feels carefully crafted even though it’s sometimes overrun with unexamined common phraseology. There’s a sense of a kind of writing that came out of creative writing departments in the early 2000s, like Paul Harding’s Tinkers. One episode had the father ask his daughter to bring her three favorite books to him, only to burn them without explanation, a story that Hanna Herbst manages to invest with a sense of connection and mystery – everything seems polyvalent, resonating with different energies, a good text. Its biggest disadvantage was to be presented immediately after Helga Schubert gave us a story about remembering a mother. Schubert’s text swings wildly, it can be tender, cruel, warm, violent, personal, political – it’s a rich text by a writer who has been ignored by the literary establishment for a long, long time. A psychoanalyst by training, the prose she published in the 1980s is at times staggering in its use of economy. The story “Schöne Reise,” collected in the collection of the same name, reads like Carver after Lish was through with him. And Schubert preserved this quality. Politically, Schubert had always been complicated, I recommend reading a conversation she had with Rita Süssmuth, published as Gehen die Frauen in die Knie? in 1990, where Schubert evades expectations of feminist assumptions, harshly critical of GDR society and politics. The politics of the story she presented at TDDL were similarly complicated, but ultimately overshadowed by the portrait of a difficult mother – a mother who tells her daughter on her dying bed that she wasn’t wanted, and that she wants acknowledgment for giving birth to her despite that. It’s part of the power of Schubert’s story, that she ends up outside of the hospital, giving her mother that gratitude, without rancor, or damaging resentment. And though it’s tempting to retell bits and pieces of the story which can move the attentive reader to tears, what truly sets it apart is Schubert’s stylistic sharpness. Take sentence length for example – the normal sentence here is short, but not remarkably so; yet when she expands her sentences, they immediately fill up with detail and direction. Strangely, the story never feels like Schubert had to fight to get it into this shape – she’s just this skilled. I feel obligated to state that the story is not as good as some of the 1980s work, but it’s more generous and expansive than that work.

My next post discusses the actual awards (spoiler: I’m not unhappy).

#TDDL: a summary. Part 1: The Bad

So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage – and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, today the awards are voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.

And boy did we have some readings. There were no truly excellent texts on the first day, balanced out by some odd walks on the Caucasian side, and then there were two to three spectacular readings on the second day, and a solid third day. I’m not going to go through them chronologically, so as not to needlessly repeat myself. Writing about everything at once allows me to be slightly less vitriolic than I usually am – seeing the arc of a year’s crop of invitations is intriguing.

One of the most significant developments was the dialogue that the texts had with Sharon Dodua Otoo’s speech that introduced the events. Otoo’s speech very calmly discussed the role of race in German literature – she spoke clearly and eloquently about solidarity, lived experience, about the room to write yourself in a white society when you’re Black, when you’re Othered, by readers, publishers, other authors. What does representation mean to Black artists? The most urgent question, regarding this year’s competition, surfaces early in the speech: do some white writers write the way they do because they imagine their readership exclusively white? What are the expectations regarding literary “speech” – Otoo cites Chinua Achebe, who declared that “writers are not only writers, they are also citizens.”

And so to these three days of readings, with one (1) writer with Egyptian roots and one (1) writer with Kosovan roots, and everybody else with less complex backgrounds. How did these writers rise to the challenge of being “not only writers, [but] also citizens?” Poorly, for the most part.

I’m splitting the post into the writers I did not like, on the one hand, and a second post about my favorites, and then a third about the actual results.

My favorites are, in this order:

Helga Schubert
Laura Freudenthaler
Egon Christian Leitner
Lydia Haider
Audience Award: Hanna Herbst

This post, however, is about the others.

Let’s begin with the interesting, inoffensive, but banal – Meral Kureyshi and Jasmin Ramadan offered light texts that were written with skill and invested with some intriguing energy, but fell flat, ultimately. Both concerned with questions of gender, they differed in tone – Kureyshi read us a soft, pensive monologue about a woman’s love life. There isn’t one bad sentence in the whole story, on the contrary, it contains several striking observations and comments, but it lacks, ultimately, something to draw the reader through it. The opposite is true for Jasmin Ramadan. Author of several novels, her story is punchy – a sharp look at modern gender dynamics, written in a light, quick style, which, for this kind of award and environment, was a bit too light. Acknowledging the difficulties of calling something “literary” without qualifying the precariousness of that judgment, this text still fell short of what is considered literary, at least in this context. And there are certainly questions here, questions I would have liked the judges to ask, about representation of female writing, and of writers of color, and what the limits of our idea of literary writing mean for this kind of writer, particularly because Ramadan consistently works with the most fascinating notions of representation in her literary work. Hers was the first text, and a fantastic opportunity to tie a discussion of the text into the Rede zur Literatur, which supposedly frames the whole week. Spoiler alert: the judges did not refer back to Otoo’s speech a single time. Not that first day, nor any day thereafter. Not surprised, but still disappointed. It feels off, slotting Kureyshi and Ramadan somewhere into the middle of the field, but it is what it is.

Similarly in the middle, but for entirely different reasons, is another pair of writers, Jörg Piringer and Levin Westermann. Every year, there’s at least one poet – and it is remarkably often that poet who wins an award. Nora Gomringer won the main award, for example. Poets writing prose can be exciting. Unexpectedly, this year, we were offered poets writing poetry. And not just text that is written in short lines. In their readings, both Piringer and Westermann emphasized the structural qualities of poetry. Jörg Piringer offered a history of our current reality, connected to a metaphor from martial arts. He worked in free rhythms, but scrupulously emphasized the ends of lines, forming the poem as much orally as he did on the page. The reading was more rhythmic than the writing – a veteran of the digital poetry scene, indeed, often considered a pioneer, Piringer’s reading was impressively sharp, powerful enough to make readers read past many of the less than sharp observations of history and the present. The martial arts metaphor sits uncomfortably in the middle of a text which does not in any way reflect on the patriarchal nature of historiography, written for an implied audience that does not particularly need that kind of reflection: white, tech-savvy men. The masculine obsession with martial arts fits this pattern too well, not to mention the pronounced performance of the whole text. Still, until I reread Lydia Haider’s remarkable text quietly tonight, I considered Piringer’s poem one of the four best texts of the competition. I was never in danger of considering Levin Westermann’s text one of those. Westermann is an accomplished, widely published poet – and in his text, he shows himself to also be widely read. An early quote from a Matthew Zapruder poem cannot but make us think of Zapruder’s recent, mildly controversial book Why Poetry, a defense of poetry, which may as well serve as an explanation of why Westermann offered up this text. Other writers cited in the text include Rilke, Dillard and Jorie Graham. The text itself consists of rhythmic but irregularly metered and highly irregularly rhymed lines, making strong use of repetition and other kinds of form to produce a formally dense text, which has next to nothing to say that cannot be found in Zapruder’s text. The occasional political notes struck are bland, and drown in the incessant formal games that Westermann, unlike some late Graham, never convincingly connects to something that matters. The effect is strangely masturbatory, a display (sound, fury etc.).

Speaking of masturbatory – male writers tend to come to Klagenfurt with texts celebrating, well, themselves, in one way or another, and it’s never the stylistically brilliant ones either. Last year, an award was handed out to a navel-gazing story of a writer writing about his day walking through his city, picking up groceries (details may vary), having a series of extremely minor epiphanies, presented in the flattest prose imaginable. And the streak continues, unabated, with the next pair. Leonard Hieronymi and Matthias Senkel offered badly written stories that were largely pointless literary exercises with the sole purpose of centering the writers in question, though, superficially, their stories appear to be different. Matthias Senkel presented a story about a mystery, about an archaeological dig, written like a mosaic, composed of sections set in different periods. It tries to use scientific vocabulary to make the story discursively complex, with notes of Richard Powers and similar writers, but he entirely lacks a broader view or any sense of style. His is not the worst written story of the competition, but it’s also not too far off. His goal is one of faking layers of complexity to catfish readers into overlooking the blandness of the actual writing on the page. Some of the dialogue is downright risible, the information in the story closer to wiki-sourced infodumps than to well-digested and productively used knowledge, and the various attempts to play or toy with the reader a transparent ploy to engage in dialogue with a very specific (white, male) readership, which is curiously popular in German literature, as attested to by the popularity of the Barons of Blandness Thomas Glavinic and Georg Klein, both of whom have made a career of papering over poor writing with various kinds of metafictional games, in the case of Glavinic with some additional limp masculinity. Speaking of which: Leonard Hieronymi entered a story into the competition that read like a carbon copy of the travel stories written by Christian Kracht and friends in the earlyy and mid-1990s. It’s almost not worth discussing. Hieronymi, member of a group called “The Rich Kids of Literature” (it’s an English-language title, because of course it is), writes about getting horribly drunk, then taking a trip to the Romanian city of Constanta by the Black Sea, meeting famed Romanian poet Mircea Dinescu. There, he evokes Ovid and his exile, which he wrote about in the beautiful Tristia. In between all this he offers observations of Romania that switch between the banal and the offensive, and in the end he returns, having learned nothing. The expectations inscribed in books like this, the sense of who writes, who reads and who gets written about is stark, but at least, let me say that, Hieronymi comes close to making his politics explicit.

That’s not true for the next group of writers, Katja Schönherr, Lisa Krusche and Carolina Schutti. Let me start with Schutti, because I have very little to say about her story that I hadn’t said about her novels before. To quote my pre-Bachmann review:

Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page.

And

these books are… specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking.

I also note the sense of exploitation of marginality. All of this is exactly true for the story she presented. Tone, style, exploitation, all there. Again, someone on the margins, again, someone struggling with language. And like other Bachmann-writers in previous years, for example Stephan Lohse, she doesn’t shy away from indirectly using Blackness as a way to feed and expand her already dubious narratives of marginality. Her protagonist, in a moment of crisis, sees a documentary about Africa on TV, exclaiming “Ich bin in Afrika.” Schutti’s text is a paint-by-numbers Klagenfurt text, in the worst way. Her books sound like they should be read at TDDL, so did her story, which she read exactly this way, and she uses the same tropes of marginality to elevate her text into a borrowed relevancy. At least, one is tempted to say, Katja Schönherr’s protagonist isn’t marginalized. Just a regular white female character. But Schönherr also, almost aggressively, makes it clear that she has a very specific implicit audience. I’ll admit, it’s bad luck that her story came out when we are all so much more aware of the necessity of elevating marginalized voices, when people march to protest the disregard for Black and trans lives. Let me tell you what Schönherr’s story is about in the least judgy vocabulary: a (white) woman goes to the Zoo with husband and daughter, struggling with her life, worried she might die (she’s not ill). She sees an orangutan who picks up a sign (we are never told which) and holds it up. A conversation between various onlookers ensues, as they debate whether the apparent demonstration by the ape is right-, or leftwing, or neutral. Complaints arise that the demonstration isn’t narrowly tailored to ape-relevant concerns, and the protagonist slowly comes around to feeling solidarity with the orangutan, who, she feels, should be allowed to have its say. After the sign is abandoned, she acquires orangutan costumes and goes to the zoo with her daughter, costume-clad, with the sign, to continue the protest, until she gets kicked out. To cite Otoo, as the judges have conspicuously not done: who is this for? Who is this about? Who is included, who is not? If every writer is a citizen, and if we are to look at who the writer’s empathy is for, how do we read texts like Schönherr’s? Using the figure of public protest merely as a mirror for a white woman’s ennui and an a fear of death is deeply strange and unpleasant – and shows a profound disengagement with the reasons for such public protests, not to mention other…issues with the story. Similar problems of disengagement are displayed in the text by Lisa Krusche. Of the three in this final group, it is by far the most well written. I admit, I had to read it multiple times to engage with the tone and the writing, but there you are. That said, her story about disaffected youth, a sense of connection with an environment that in Krusche’s pen turns even the inorganic organic, and virtual spaces suffers from the exact same problem as Schönherr’s story. The same questions apply – though she masks it better than Schönherr’s plain offering. The central theoretical text for Krusche’s story is Donna Haraway’s late-career book Staying with the Trouble, in which Haraway completes a disengagement with real, tangible change, with a connection to intersectional feminist issues, in favor of a loose examination of kinship and inter-species solidarity that was a long time coming in her work. This excellent essay by Sophie Lewis explains in detail where the problems with Haraway’s book are. Krusche’s story would have been tonally off in any year of the competition, but it sounds a particularly discordant tone this year, particularly. It’s not just that the police as an institution is noted and dismissed as “maybe inherently humorous,” which, I have no words. The use of virtual spaces in narratives is especially fraught. There are copious essays noting why texts like Ready Player Go are structurally racist, and what the imagination of whiteness in virtual spaces really means. Afrofuturism has offered much pushback to these imagined spaces, and clarified why there are no real neutral visions of the future. Krusche does not engage any of these questions and offers, at the end, a general pessimism, a view of revolution that is colorblind in the worst way. It’s an unpleasant text, masked by a sometimes stunningly beautiful sense of reality, borrowed straight from JG Ballard’s unpleasant dystopias of white distress. Sophie Lewis makes it abundantly clear that Haraway’s avoidance of empathetic solutions to patriarchal and racist violence (in fact, she specifically reproduces racism in the book) isn’t a byproduct, but an essential structural component of elevating oddkins and “kinnovations” over families and the masses of humans. The same is true, though less focused, of Lisa Krusche’s text. To connect the text to Sharon Otoo’s speech: who is its audience? Who do we have empathy for? Krusche’s text is about whiteness in multiple problematic ways. Nam Le, in his sticky book-length essay on David Malouf, notes the role of the bush, the untamed wilderness, in the imagination of colonial settler writing. He writes that for immigrants, “whiteness is our bush” – for Lisa Krusche, the old oppositions are active. The bush is still the bush, dystopian, wild, decaying. The contrast even to writers like Vandermeer, with all his flaws, is instructive. A text inspired by a past that we should be learning to read critically instead.

More on the writers I wanted to win in the next post.

 

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2020 edition.

If you follow me on twitter,you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain.

I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. Here are some anticipatory remarks from earlier in the week.

So what is happening?

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4-5 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).

This year there’s a Coronavirus-related shift online. Only the moderator is in Klagenfurt, Austria. Everybody else joins via video. The readings are pre-recorded, while the judging happens on live video. Since everything is on a three-ish second delay, this might get messy.

So what happened in the past years?

The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you are fortunate – you can now purchase it in a bilingual edition here and I *urge* you to get a copy. Incidentally, the German judges were still slightly upset about Otoo’s win the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.

Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win, but she did win second place. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury. So of course, 2019 went even worse. None of the adjudicated awards went to someone challenging the order of things. Here is my summary from 2019. It was depressing.

So what’s happening this year?

Somehow, the organizers came up with a brilliant idea. Each year, a writer introduces the events with a so-called “Rede zur Literatur” – a State of the Literature speech. This year, they gave Sharon Dodua Otoo the reins, who delivered a brilliant speech on Wednesday night (read/see it here) that managed to be trenchant and measured and relevant all at the same time. She ended it by mentioning some important Black German writers – none of whom have been invited this year, or last year, or the year before. Because of course not.

As for this year’s field – it’s…interesting. Not for diversity reasons, that’s still clearly off the table – except for Jasmin Ramadan, a writer with Egyptian roots, and Meral Kureyshi, born in Prizren, it’s as white as you’d think. That said, there are two writers this year who count among classic writers in their or any field. Most important: Helga Schubert. Schubert has been an important writer for all my life. She wrote a bona fide classic nonfiction book about female complicity in the Third Reich, the still-powerful Judasfrauen. She also writes short stories which are so unbelievably well made, I cannot help but have the highest expectations for this year. The other is Jörg Piringer, who is an important figure in early digital poetry. I have written reviews of the work of Meral Kureyshi (which is good) and Carolina Schutti (which is not), linked below.

I have misgivings about the field! And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots.

Thursday
10.00 Uhr Jasmin Ramadan
11.00 Uhr Lisa Krusche
12.00 Uhr Leonhard Hieronymi
13.30 Uhr Carolina Schutti
14.30 Uhr Jörg Piringer
Friday
10.00 Uhr Helga Schubert
11.00 Uhr Hanna Herbst
12.00 Uhr Egon Christian Leitner
13.30 Uhr Matthias Senkel
14.30 Uhr Levin Westermann
Saturday
10.00 Uhr Lydia Haider
11.00 Uhr Laura Freudenthaler
12.30 Uhr Katja Schönherr
13.30 Uhr Meral Kureyshi

 

 

 

2 Novels by Carolina Schutti

Schutti, Carolina (2010), wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, Otto Müller
ISBN 978-3-7013-1178-1
Schutti, Carolina (2012), einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, Otto Müller
ISBN 978-3-7013-1193-4

Carolina Schutti Novels As has become tradition on this blog, as the Bachmannpreis rears its head, I’m reviewing some books by writers invited to perform there, though I never really get around to reviewing all that many. I already reviewed a novel by invitee Meral Kureyshi (click here), a while ago, actually, and here now is a review of two novels by Carolina Schutti. Schutti is a writer with a truly impressive track record. Not only does she have a PhD in German literature (she wrote a dissertation on Elias Canetti), but she’s also won a plethora of awards for her books – novels, novellas and other texts. And yet – to say I felt let down by the two novels under review is to understate how grueling the experience of reading these short books really was. I’ll say this for her: Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page. Both books use language to tell the story of people who struggle with it – who struggle with telling a story of themselves, and as a result, it is deplorable that Schutti declines to give them that voice. Instead she sets them up with a boilerplate reservoir of phrases that are all too common in books like this. And there are so many books like this. There’s an unpleasant lure to characters who are at the margins of language and society – not the truly aphasic, but the reticent ones, the ones who live between languages, or the ones with mental illnesses that make for dramatic performances.

And so her debut novel, wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, (those who are carried have no need of shoes) focuses on an 18 year old girl who struggles with communication. She manages to work from a limited set of phrases in her work as a server, but once she meets a man and her life opens up, that language is no longer sufficient. There is a sudden turn, as a walk through the woods leads to a confession on the part of the protagonist, and eventually, a complete collapse. It is language, at every turn, that leads her astray, language, that condemns her, and language, at the end, that helps her pull herself together – or apart, depending on your reading. This tendency, to present a text that is primarily about language and not as much about actual lived experience, is a Bachmann cliché, and in some ways, last year’sline-up and results were a confirmation of this tendency, with Ronya Othmann’s autofictional text sidelined, and Sarah Wipauer’s rich, but not myopically self-centered text entirely ignored. It is difficult not to read these texts about mentally marginalized people by those in academia with some suspicion, as an exercise in tone and form. But even formally, this is upsettingly thin. It seems to strive for a switch from a certain simplicity in the early chapters to a much richer set of poeticisms in the last chapter, but nothing in the early chapters is actually simple, per se. These seem like the most mathematically average sentence length, with the typical number of adjectives for books written in German in the 21st century. And while there are more poeticisms towards the end, they veer sharply into Lifetime Movie sententiousness. As a comparison, for simplicity and formal mastery, take fellow 2020 Bachmann invitee Helga Schubert. In her story “Schöne Reise” we find truly reduced sentences, which bloom in extremely specific spots. The narrative, of a state-sanctioned Black Sea holiday, is tense, a story like a tightly wound spring, begging to be read and re-read. There is not a single sentence in Helga Schubert’s story that you don’t feel is crafted for this story specifically, and there’s no immediate comparison, except with her peers among the best writers of her generation. Not a whiff of epigonality.

This has, necessarily, to do with what I consider the most difficult mode of writing: simplicity. Everyday details and sparse language is the most difficult combination to pull off very well. Schutti’s attempts, at least in the two novels I read, from another problem that seems to me particularly German – the overuse of useless detail, particularly around food. The amount of times we are treated to individual bites of food in between thoughts or dialogue, intended to show the banality of passing time, in contemporary German literature is an absolute mystery to me. In the debut novel there’s a whole paragraph involving the serving of soup. Is this the German variety of show, not tell? Who did this to you? It is so pervasive, and such a sign of thoughtless paragraph writing – writing, that is, that’s concerned with what a paragraph is about more than about the individual sentences constructing the paragraph. Not to overuse Helga Schubert as a reference, but after all, she IS invited to this same competition, and her collection Schöne Reise, which contains the abovementioned story, is full of people cooking or eating, and there isn’t a single “biss in sein Brötchen” type of paragraph structure. I’m fine knowing you’re eating your food, carbs and all – do not list individual bites for me. It does not enhance anything.

Another issue with these books about people struggling with language is that the writers of those books tend to be especially highly educated – and so they offer observations that are incredibly complex but are couched in simple situations. Like Schutti, when her protagonist looks yearningly at the windows of rich people and observes that the people inside, unafraid to be robbed, “send out some of their light, it falls hard upon the asphalt, right in front of her. She cannot pick up this light, though she can climb inside, or step over it.” etc. This is highly poetic, if not particularly good, and entirely out of place with the much plainer and banal observations in the immediately preceding sentences. Somehow, and I think we can blame this on writers like Peter Handke, the margins of language have become a playground for these poeticisms toying with the perception of reality. In books like Schutti’s debut, however, it just feels exploitative. Talking about people who are really, genuinely marginalized, and coating their lives with self-serving language games seems dubious. When it’s this badly executed, its worse. There’s also often a racial component to it, and that Schutti’s second novel, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, “I must have walked across soft Grass once,” is about immigration and the learning and unlearning of language, and uses many of the same tools and tricks of the first book, confirms this theory. Now, the book is autobiographically inspired. Its protagonist is a woman who has lost the ability to speak the language of the place she came from as a child, Belorussian. Schutti herself is the child of immigrants and has lost the ability to speak their language, Polish. Immediately, these references, and connecting the struggles with language to learning or failing to learn a language gives the typical spiel more heft. The execution though is no better than in the debut novel. The immediate comparisons that come to mind, including Aglaja Veteranji’s brilliant novels, or Melinda Nadj Abonji’s underrated debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, all serve to emphasize how flat, in the end, Schutti’s constructions end up being.

To be clear – these books are both exceptionally competent – but not as novels. They are specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. It’s inconsistent, yes, but consistently so. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking. An unbelievably fitting writer for Klagenfurt, then. It’s a surprise it has taken so long.

#TDDL 2020 – some anticipatory remarks

This is less like a full post and more a note – I know this blog has been mostly dormant these past weeks, but the annual deluge of posts regarding the Bachmannpreis is about to hit the blog. The Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur (TDDL – the days of german-language literature) are about to begin.

This year is different in multiple ways. Due to Coronavirus, the event is largely online – there is no audience, and the writers and judges are not crammed into a sweaty tent in Klagenfurt this year.

Another change – each year the readings are inaugurated by a longer speech, the Rede zur Literatur. Last year, we were offered a narratological note involving Wrestling metaphors. That year’s speaker was Clemens Setz. This year’s speaker is Sharon Dodua Otoo. You know what I think about her. There was always heightened significance to her choice, particularly given the extraordinarily privilege-blind judgments in the past several years, which increasingly sidelined interesting and/or non-white writers in favor of an insular view of what good and praiseworthy literature can and should be. Here’s my commentary on last year’s results.

So giving Sharon Otoo the reins to, in a way, define the framework for this year’s discussion, was always going to be interesting and necessary, particularly given some of the publicly uttered resentment towards her. However, if anything, this year’s long overdue discussions of the role of race in policing, public policy and health care, not just in the US, but also in Germany and Austria, have further emphasized the pivotal role of this year’s speaker. The field of writers (more on that Wednesday-ish) this year is barely more diverse than last year’s, with some really dubious choices, politically and literarily.

At the same time, in publishing, some truly amazing books have come out (or are about to come out) which challenge the narrow idea of literature propagated by the #tddl judges. Cemile Sahin’s Taxi and Olivia Wenzel’s 1000 Serpentinen Angst, for example, are two of the best German-language debuts to come out in years and years, and books like Deniz Ohde’s Streulicht are on the horizon.

Who knows, maybe this is the year when the Bachmannpreis judges truly reckon with the diverse realities of writing and living in Germany, and do not retire to their bleached, boring, insular view of literature and culture.

#tddl: the winner is…privilege?

So, man what a bummer this day was. Yesterday I wrote “what’s notable about today’s writers is just a continuation of things I already noted. This is the first time that the selection and treatment of writers seems so cohesive – and not in a good way. Following along in real time is like looking at a thesis statement, of a thesis you do not particularly care about.”

This absolutely continued in the award voting. In my German language commentary I wrote a 1000 word mini-essay on how these awards exemplify the typical Bachmann-text and I cannot summon the energy to do it a second time. But the main thing to understand is this: there are always typical Bachmann texts, and texts that are different. If your text is good enough, it will make it onto the awards list even if it doesn’t fit the mold.

There was no room for exceptions this year. The special kind of voting leads to every award coming down to a two-text runoff ballot, so for four awards you can have up to 8 texts competing – and since the shortlist (voted on before the beginning of the public awards voting) consists only of 7 texts, you’d assume all texts get a look-in. Not so. Each of the four runoff votes involved Yannic Han Biao Federer’s text, until it won the fourth award. The winner is Birgit Birnbacher’s text – excellent and fitting for Klagenfurt. Leander Fischer’s and Yannic Federer’s catnip won second and fourth place respectively, and Julia Jost won third place. The only other text that made it into the runoff election was, bizarrely, Daniel Heitzler’s absurdly bad story. Although both Sarah Wipauer and Ronya Othmann had made it to the shortlist, neither of which even received runoff consideration, not to mention an award, which is enduringly strange.

It felt like a circling of the wagons around the cultural capital that is amassed by the gatekeepers represented by the Bachmannpreis-jury and the whole unsavoury theoatre surrounding it. “We are important and the texts we like are important” seems to be the message. As all people of privilege in Germany and Europe and the world are circling the wagons, whether it is men, or white people or the financially dominant class, afraid of losing that privilege, this group of critics, professors and academics replicates a process that is happening everywhere, shutting the door hard on difference. But what today’s awards also make clear is that a solid portion of the public is no longer behind them. In this small microcosm, this is represented by the public vote – which went to Ronya Othmann’s important, excellent text, who thus won the fifth, public award. This tension, the closing of doors by the gatekeepers is regrettable, but what’s most remarkable that the two best writers of the competition are two young women, who have not even published one book of prose – and thus represent an exciting future.

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

 

 

 

#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Katharina Schultens, Sarah Wipauer, Silvia Tschui, Julia Jost, and Andrea Gerster. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

Ah, what a day, what a day! Five women, two science fiction stories, murder, Nazis, and divorce proceedings. I’m telling you, things were on fire! Well, maybe not so much on fire as occasionally slightly warm. Tepid maybe? Look, honest to God, a clear favorite emerged today, reading a story without any recognizable flaws, and a runner up turned up as well, also very well executed, mostly, and the rest, well, tbf, there are five slots to fill every day, not everyone can be a winner.

The first reader was Katharina Schultens. Schultens is an exquisite poet, and what’s more, a poet of the kind that should be easily transferable to prose – long, looping sentences, complex rhythms, all of that. What’s more, there is a strong vision behind the text she read. Not everything became clear – it is an excerpt from a novel, but it appears that the text is a Ballardesque vision of a future (it is set two hundred years after 1984) after some ecological collapse. Regrettably, one would have, given the very real ecological threats today, hoped for a more relevant kind of catastrophe, say, speaking of Ballard, something like The Drought; instead her vision veers towards the post-human, with Vandermeeresque landscapes threatening deformed or changed descendants of humanity. She’s not just somewhat apolitical regarding our very real ecological crisis, which is a bit problematic – but in addition, completely (apparently) randomly, she uses the heat of Africa as a metaphor, which seems a bit tone deaf given that any ecological disaster would hit countries in Africa harder than, say, Germany, so if you are steering clear of politics, maybe not lean into the Africa-as-metaphor too much, yes? I mean, it’s white blindness, I suppose. And then there is the confusion and dullness of some of the fiction. Speculative fiction that takes such a big leap needs a proper story telling backbone – which this text, very specifically, does not have. There are great, meaty descriptions of situations and things, and there are rail-thin, meandering sections of what you’d have to call plot? It is very odd, how strong talent and strong vision somehow leads to a mediocre text.

The second reader was Sarah Wipauer. Wipauer’s text, almost irritatingly, has no flaws that I can see. Last year, a hole was discovered in the ISS – seemingly drilled from the inside though it wasn’t clear who drilled it and why – it necessitated an unscheduled spacewalk to plug it from the outside. As far as I can tell, it is still entirely unclear what happened. As a writer, Wipauer is intrigued by space stories, and by the quirks and oddities of small news stories, and she took this event and turned it into a ghost story set in Austria. There’s everything in it that  you could possibly fit – provincial history, medical oddities, and Wipauer appears to be able to manipulate syntax at will to fit the story and the individual voices in it haunting these events. Towards the end the story tightens even further, including social pressures regarding class and gender. There is not one word too much, and the story wraps up beautifully. No matter what the rest of the days bring – this has to be one of the five best texts.

It is with text three that things started going off the rails. The author, Silvia Tschui, appeared to present at first a bucolic story (an excerpt from a novel), written with tight craftsmanship – oh how I was mistaken. It became clear real fast that #1, she pursued a kitsch kind of writing, offering a cliché depiction of a childhood on a farm, with mild doses of violence, lessons, and the kind of dialogues that someone who grew up in the city assumes are spoken in the countryside. So far so dull, but then the story took a bad turn. I mean, excuse me, for not immediately assuming the worst – but it’s true: bucolic clichés have a special function in literature, especially German literature. Farmers are often used to show a nation’s real backbone, and attacks on farmers are the way the political right tends to frame foreigner invasions. In Germany, the so-called conservative revolution was particularly enamored with that figure – the work of Hermann Löns – in particular the 1910 Wehrwolf – was used as inspiration (Löns died in 1914), and many books in the 20s, and particular 30s, repeated and enlarged these motifs. In the early-to-late oughts, German literature added another trope, that of Germans-as-victims. The Germans in today’s Poland and the Czech Republic and Hungary fled the approaching Soviet army and often lost everything. Tschui’s text connects the bucolic motif with those revisionist stories of victimization. They are all the rage in German TV shows and movies. In Tschui’s text there are German farm boys scared of an Enemy who is sudden, cruel, mean, and is connected, in the broader narrative of the novel, to a East European mythical figure, that the Germanic boys have been told to be afraid. The (post)colonial aspects of German/Prussian occupation of Poland have not been discussed as broadly as they should have, but this text reads exceptionally exploitative, with an almost archetypical and racialized sense of an Other. As a result, the text was both literarily bland and politically dubious. Did this come across in jury discussions? Except for Hubert Winkels’s fairly clear words, the other judges steered fairly clear of the text’s issues. Honestly, what would you expect?

The afternoon readings were less eventful overall – the first story, a story from the Austrian countryside by Julia Jost, was very well done – mostly. A story about an Austian childhood, with pedophile priests, knives, Nazi heritage and more. The story is written with enormous energy and humor, clearly, CLEARLY the second-best story of the day, magnificent in many ways – though the ending is a bit of a dud – the writer had to tie up all her plot points so it becomes plodding real fast.

And finally, the final story – a banal tale of child custody and motherhood – the story itself isn’t necessarily banal – we are quick to label women’s stories as banal because they don’t conform to masculine hero narratives. And indeed, there are issues in the story here and there that piqued my interest – but the story is told with no literary energy, no skill beyond the routine of a prolific novelist. She needs to get from one end of the story to the other – and by Jove, she will get there. Choice of words seemed almost random in its banality.

On Friday the readers will be

10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer

 

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.

If you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain.

I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. CLICK here if you want to read a summary of Day One.

So what is happening?

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4-5 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).

So what happened in the past years?

The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.

Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury.

So what’s happening this year?

Michael Wiederstein is a bit of a caricature, it seems to me. I noted his invitee Verena Dürr and the dubious discussion of her text back in 2017 (go read it here), and this year he really, REALLY brought his F game. In the most dubious field of writers since I started writing about the award, he made the…ah, just the most exquisitely bad choice of all. His invitee, Tom Kummer is famous. Now and then there’s a famous writer – John Wray is an example. Tom Kummer isn’t famous for being a good writer. Tom Kummer is famous for being a plagiarist. Caught not once, but multiple times. For falsifying interviews first. For cobbling together texts from his own and others’ older texts. For falsifying quotes and using incorrect details. He was given chance after chance after chance.

German and Swiss tastemakers have decreed: this man deserves more chances. He is precious. He is our gonzo hero. The usually very good Philip Theisohn called Kummer’s elegy to his deceased wife – like all of his work of questionable originality – “moving.” What it is, most of all, is fucking awfully written. There’s a bad tendency in German literature to look at some American writers – Thompson, Salter, Hemingway – and see their simplicity as simple. All of this is facilitated by translation, of course. I love Hunter Thompson’s work. Thompson was a fantastic writer. Not always, not in all of his texts, but his stylistic sharpness and moral clarity are rare in literature. Philip Theisohn cites Kummer’s admiration of Thompson in writing that “Kummer, the last real gonzo, was led by the conviction that a world of lies doesn’t deserve truth either, only more lies, which led to his infamous fake interviews in Hollywood.” – #1 there are still New Journalist writers out there, and the masculinist veneration of “Gonzo” has always been suspect to begin with. and #2, if you ever read Thompson with dedication and care – he primarily cares about the truth. Post 1974-Thompson is a bit complicated in his approach to the self in his work, but the use of fictionalized self, and using your own perspective as a distortion to better see the truth has a profoundly moral impetus with Thompson, whatever other faults he had (he had a lot) – there’s none of that in Kummer, and even Theisohn knows better than to claim otherwise. Kummer, his deceptions, his toying with truth and originality never had a goal beyond the celebration of one Tom Kummer. This navelgazing white masculinity is all too common in literature, and at least half of the TDDL field often suffers from that; and Michael Wiederstein, the juror, is the perfect embodiment of this white male navelgazing element in German literary culture. Da wächst zusammen was zusammen gehört.

The rest of the field is also a bit dubious. Among the writers I have read in preparation, Ines Birkhan is very original but very bad, Andrea Gerster and Yannic Han Biao Federer seem flat and dull. Lukas Meschik is prolific, somewhat interesting, but boring. And then there are the three writers I have the highest hopes for. Ronya Othmann and Katharina Schultens are very good poets – Othmann in particular writes exceedingly well and should be immediately seen as a favorite, based on potential. And there’s Sarah Wipauer, who has not published very widely, but she has a blog here which contains short, exquisite prose, and I have read texts unpublished on- or offline, which are similarly exquisite. Wipauer, Othmann and Schultens, in my opinion, lead the field here, by quite a solid margin.

I have misgivings about the field! And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots. You’ll see the whole thing kicks off with two of my favorites on day one, in the two first slots.

Thursday
10.00 Katharina Schultens
11.00 Sarah Wipauer
12.00 Silvia Tschui
13.30 Julia Jost
14.30 Andrea Gerster

Friday
10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer

Saturday
10.00 Ines Birkhan
11.00 Leander Fischer
12.30 Lukas Meschik
13.30 Martin Beyer

 

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

Diversity: #tddl and the Tin House workshop

If you follow this blog, you may have seen my complaints about Anselm Neft’s reading on the second day of TDDL and its aftermath on social media, where Neft defended his use of racist and sexist slurs because of his use of a specific voice. Of course, his “friends” came out in support of literature and against “censorship” and attacked his critic. So far, so German.

But as it turns out, Neft’s awfulness is maybe part of a larger political moment. I recommend the most recent episode (Jul 19) of the excellent Still Processing podcast. To summarize: apparently, during this year’s Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, Wells Tower, an established author, presented a text which sounds eerily similar to Neft’s: like Neft, Wells Towers appropriates the voice of a marginalized person, a homeless person in both cases, and uses this set-up as an excuse to be offensive and insulting to other margínalized people. Apparently, there was an intervention there, particularly after a night of reflection.

This is also an indicator of the different ways in which the two counties deal with this moment. No such reflection appears to have helped Neft and the various supportive voices in the German-language literary community.

Again, I recommend you listen to the July 19 episode of the Still Processing podcast.

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2018 edition.

If you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little smelly book cave.

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists.

The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it last year, which explains why last year’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst.

This year’s lineup, with the exception of an interesting writer here and there, seems similar in quality, but whiter and more German than any recent line up. Although they did, similar to 2016 and 2017, invite a writer who hasn’t published anything originally written in German yet, which is always an intriguing proposition. It’s Ukrainian novelist Tanja Maljartschuk. Her fiction has already been translated into English and published by Cadmus Press – you should have a look.

Outside of this – there’s a bestselling novelist this time, some dubious looking male writers, Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I absolutely loved, and Jakob Nolte, who uses science fictional elements in his very interesting work. I have a weird gut feeling about who the judges might gravitate towards this year, given last year’s dubious choice, but since I’m awful at predictions, I’m not going to go all out here.

The real change this year is a shift among jurors. Nora-Eugenie Gomringer, whose most recent collection of poetry I reviewed here, joins the jury, as does Insa Wilke. Regrettably, they do not replace any of the lamentable jurors that made last year so frustrating (see particularly my account of Day Two of the competition). They do bring “the heat” – as they say. I read some of Corinna T. Sievers’s novels, an author invited by Gomringer, and they are excellent.

There are many bad signs. I had to put away a book by Joshua Groß after three pages due to its 1950s style sexism. It’s an overall very male, very white and very German list (the best German-language writers are not – in fact- German). And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list (I have written some comments or reviews for some of these writers, you can find those linked directly)

Bov Bjerg, D
Martina Clavadetscher, CH
Özlem Özgül Dündar, TUR
Raphaela Edelbauer, A
Stephan Groetzner, D
Joshua Groß, D
Ally Klein, D
Stephan Lohse, D
Lennardt Loß, D
Tanja Maljartschuk, UA
Anselm Neft, D
Jakob Nolte, D
Corinna T. Sievers, D
Anna Stern, CH

A Note on Özlem Özgül Dündar

Dündar, Özlem Özgül (2018), Gedanken Zerren, Elif Verlag
ISBN 978-3-946989-07-3

After a review of Anna Stern, who will read at this year’s Bachmannpreis, I want to turn to another very intriguing writer, similarly young, also slated to perform in Klagenfurt at the same competition. Özlem Özgül Dündar writes poetry, prose and drama. She’s roughly from where I currently live, and she studied philosophy in Wuppertal. Then she went on to study literature at one of our two dedicated MFA universities: Leipzig. She’s a translator, which is an excellent training for any writer. But of her own work, she has not as far as I can tell published anything in book form beyond this thin little collection of poetry, which came out earlier this year.

But what a poetry it is. Despite many many dissimilarities, the writers she immediately made me think of, in terms of poetry, are Wolfgang Hilbig and Said, but mostly the former. Dündar’s interest is not in an interlocutor, not in a playful encounter with music and tradition. In her poems all lines appear to be the same length, but that’s a trick – indeed, it’s an artifact of printing: they are all fully justified so that words line up evenly on left and right margins. The poems themselves are narrow, and the author sometimes breaks them up as if she was counting syllables or letters or some other Moore-esque approach to form, but I’ve gone through multiple poems now and I cannot get a consistent syllable length within the poems. What it is is a conversation with that kind of writing.

What’s more, her poetry almost monomaniacally obsesses over the distance between the self an others, about the way we move through space and how we limit our own spaces and how others limit our spaces. Words, in some poems become just as much of a spatial gesture as physical gestures do. And in her poetry, the way she treats line breaks, it mirrors that same interest or obsession. For a first collection, it’s an astonishingly smart and careful effort. The connection, to me as a reader, to Hilbig’s poetry is the interest in the self and its delimitations, the self and its necessities, and the many ways those necessities are broken up. In contrast to Hilbig, however, the language itself throughout Gedanken Zerren is fairly simple – the complexities of Dündar’s poetry, to my mind, come from repetition and her management of breath and speed. Hilbig made heavier use of pathos inherent to word choice, I think

Özlem Özgül Dündar has done well in open mic competitions, and she has also won serious literary awards – which suggests her work works well on the written and the spoken level. Since I have read this book in anticipation of her participation in a prose competition, there are limited ways in which this very impressive book can help me do that. She has written essays that share her poetry’s breathlessness, and there’s a chance her performance will similarly arrange simplicity against a complexity of structure and rhythm. Whatever happens, I am already intrigued.

 

Two novels by Anna Stern

Stern, Anna (2014), Schneestill, Salis
ISBN 978-3-906195-17-9

Stern, Anna (2016), Der Gutachter, Salis
ISBN 9783906195438

This coming Thursday, the Bachmannpreis will begin again and I will, again, follow along, glued to the TV screen. Excitement, excitement, excitement. I will write a separate post listing this year’s changes and authors, but this time I have read some of these writers in advance. One of them is Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I have reviewed quite enthusiastically here.

Another is Anna Stern. Anna Stern is a German writer who lives and studies in Switzerland. She has published, as far as I can tell, two novels and, most recently, a collection of short stories. To assess her performance in Klagenfurt reading those stories would have been most fitting, I did not, however, have enough time and money to purchase the complete oeuvre of Ms. Stern. Instead, I read her two novels. While I didn’t particularly like either of them, there’s an obvious, sharp progress between novel one, the 2014 Schneestill, a puzzlebox novel drawing on noir, on Auster, and probably also on Simenon, and novel two, the 2016 Der Gutachter, a more grounded, urgent book about a murder and people living off the Bodensee. There is more authorial control, depth, and narrative sharpness in the second book compared to the first. That said, both books live, in my opinion, in the boring wasteland between the fetid depths of “awful” and the airy heights of “great.” Both books are…ok. Difficult to distinguish from many other middle of the road crime novels published in Germany, and hardly among the more interesting.

Schneestill is set in Paris, and you can tell the author is very excited to share that with us, because there are occasional French words, dropped into the text for local color. People meet in cafés and while there’s a long noir tradition in German fiction connected to Chandler, Goodis and Hammett – this novel’s atmosphere seems specifically French. There’s the shadow of Simenon over everything in this book, with a postmodern admixture of Modiano – and his American progeny, Paul Auster. Simenon’s dense but short book live off a sense of absolut clarity, even if things are obscured, there’s always a sense that if you find out the right facts, or can shift your position to a more advantageous one, you can see how it all connects. There’s a moral imperative to that kind of structure in Simenon, or at least that’s how I remember his work. Modiano, whose masterpiece is a surreal alterative history of the Third Reich in France, destabilizes this clarity. In the trilogy immediately following his debut, he destabilizes the certainty of seeing clearly, of being able to remember clearly, of there being an obvious truth, and not just the muddle of history. And while his later work would work this search for a truth to a finer, clearer point, giving his whole oeuvre a certain urgency and direction, it is this trilogy that influenced a young American writer named Paul Auster, who stripped Modiano of the sense and weight and responsibility of history, and turned it into a career of writing clever, navel-gazing novels, often built like a puzzle, with mostly lamentable prose. While Anna Stern explicitly names Ian Rankin as one of the pillars of her work (in Der Gutachter). I cannot help but see Simenon, Modiano and Auster in Schneestill.

There are two different melodies woven through the book, something that Stern retains in Der Gutachter. One is a story about obsession, about gazes, about seeing, watching, interacting with people. A young man sees a mysterious woman in a café, immediately falls for her. As he comes home, he finds that she has just been released from prison where she had been sent for a murder a few years earlier. This does not dampen his ardor in the least – on the contrary, much as it would any of the five hundred indistinguishable protagonists of Auster’s novels, it increases his obsession. He tries to find her again, creates a web of gazes to trap her. In the end, and under curious, complicated circumstances, he meets her – and she tells him her story, like a charming Parisian Scheherazade. This melody is refracted in different ways, among them the obsession of another character which complements – and complicates – the original protagonist’s obsession. This search for the truth through an examination of the streets of Paris and the faces of its women, this is where the novel retains the closest ties to Simenon, as well as in the moral question that dominates this part of the book: what is a murderer – and can we trust, engage with, understand, and ultimately, forgive a murderer – even before we ever met them? Can I balance the evidence of my eyes and my heart – with the rational, bleak truths offered by the world around us? Stern’s protagonist, in his quest to find that woman, becomes a creep, and this is by far the most interesting part of the book, because Stern acknowledges this, though not for long. There’s a short period, just a handful of pages towards the end of the book, where you can almost read it as a criticism of not just the male-centric narratives of Simenon, Modiano and Auster, but also of the many many writers that followed in their wake. But regrettably, that’s not what Stern is interested in.

She’s more interested in memory and guilt, which is the second melody woven throughout the book, and this is sort of where we lose Simenon, and enter into Modiano territory, but it’s Modiano as seen through the lens of Paul Auster. I have to repeat: she mentions Auster nowhere in the book, but it’s hard not to see him as being an influence here, maybe indirectly, since Auster’s influence is felt in a lot of fiction, regrettably. The question of what happened, who is at fault in the murder case, and how does what happened change those involved becomes the most dominant one as the book rushes to a finish. Unlike Simenon, or some of the crime novels specifically cited by the author, the book isn’t really interested in the circumstances of what happened, it isn’t really interested in the awfulness of guilt and the way it deforms those that live with it. All of the book, including the knotted conclusion, seems to be more of a literary game with the various ways to express all these themes. It’s a riff on a couple of different writers, with the only thing that distinguishes this book from its predecessors being the flat writing, that sometimes morphs into a very poetic register, but without giving us a feeling of authorial control or interest. A smart, well-read writer, but a bland, not very well written novel, was my initial impression upon finishing it.

By contrast, the tone of Der Gutachter is much more consistent, and the novel is faster to summarize. It is not a complicated puzzlebox of conflicting melodies, it does not draw on a smorgasbord of writers. Instead it is something more simple: a crime novel with an environmentalist’s conscience. It begins as a story about a Gutachter, an evaluator, who suddenly goes missing, presumably murdered. The book’s protagonist is a police officer who takes roughly a week to find out what happened, and structurally, it shares the same weak ending that a lot of crime novels have – having a long explanation at the end that collects all the ideas and leads that we picked up along the way in a sufficiently dramatic way has always been a crutch for crime novels, and their main weakness. But as the detective finds out who killed the evaluator, he also takes the time to find out about what his last evaluation was about – giving expert testimony on the ideal phosphorus levels in the local lake. That seems simple, but as the police detective collects evidence, he also collects information about the complexity of the topic. Anna Stern has studied Environmental Science in Zürich, which explains why the detective’s enlightenment takes the form of didactic info dumps which we as readers cannot escape either. That said, the topic of what grounds one’s life, how livelihood can become more than just a job, but something ingrained in one’s identity, all of this gives an urgency and moral clarity to Stern’s second novel that the first one lacked. The style of the book, while still nothing to write home about, is much more consistent, a much better read overall.

There are no longer Simenon, Modiano or Auster in the background here. Au contraire, the writing has turned to much more Germanic sources. Although – sources less connected to her German origins and more to her present Swiss background. There’s a long tradition of Swiss (and Austrian) writers using a slightly distant, objective-seeming style, using the protocols of institution and office to create their stories. Despite the detective protagonist, Der Gutachter is not written in the style developed by German noir writers. Instead, I hear echoes of writers like Max Frisch, Hermann Burger, Albert Drach and Adolf Muschg throughout the book. I mean, obviously I mean no comparison – these four, particularly Burger and Drach, are absolute masters of their craft, but it’s impossible not to hear them here. Stern herself takes care to mention Ian Rankin here, and there’s absolutely a sense in which Rankin and the tradition of Scottish crime writing more generally (for example Denise Mina) have left their fingerprints here as well, though not necessarily stylistically. The Scottish tradition of crime writing strikes me, who hasn’t read that much of it, as being particularly interested in social backgrounds and social motivations, and these end up being essential to understanding the novel’s murder case. But it is the contrast between the institutional, careful tone of the detective’s narrative, and the wild, angry complaints from the local fishermen, that really encapsulates the book’s conflicts between disinterested analysis, and modern science and economy on the one hand, and one of the oldest professions on the other. Usually, especially reactionary writers will use peasants as a foil to criticize modernity, often with anti-Semitic overtones (think Hans Fallada). Anna’s use of fishermen is smart – it removes certain connotations and increases the connection to the land. That said – the style of Burger, Muschg or Frisch is hard to pull off. Burger is one of last century’s best German-language writers, and Frisch isn’t far behind. It’s hard to write like this without slipping into a certain blandness – and Stern does not succeed in evading this fate.

But all criticism aside: honestly, I am curious about where this writer is going. If I could do it again, I would read neither of these two books and I cannot see myself recommending them to anyone. But at the same time, I can see many readers who like these kinds of novels enjoying them, and as far as I can tell the books have been published to good reviews – and indeed, the author has been invited to participate at this year’s Bachmannpreis, after all, one of German-languahe literature’s most prestigious awards. There’s absolutely a good, solid chance that I am way off on this.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen

Marković, Barbi (2016), Superheldinnen, Residenz
ISBN 978-3-7ß17-1662-3

I’ve discussed this issue before: how do you define a German novel? Some of the most interesting books published in the German-speaking countries recently have complicated this question beyond the usual distinction between literature by Germans and German-language literature, which is also written, say, by Austrians and Swiss writers. Barbi Marković offers a completely new challenge. Her debut novel Superheldinnen has been published in German by an Austrian publisher, and it is not a translation of a previously published Serbian book. The author speaks and reads and writes German (she has taken part in this year’s Bachmannpreis), and has written vast portions of the book in German – before giving up and translating the bulk of it back into her native Serbian. Her friend and translator Mascha Dabić then translated (with her help) that text back into German, whereupon it was then published by Residenz Verlag. Superheldinnen only exists in German – and in a way, this makes the book German literature, much as I think the excellent output by British writer Sharon Dodua Otoo, who was born in Ghana and now works and lives in Germany, should also be considered part of German literature. Too- narrow definitions of what German literature is misrepresent how the field of German literature works – and risks focusing only on the most dull and boring books to boot.

Germans like to talk about migrants, the recent, almost unbearable novel by Jenny Erpenbeck (Go Went Gone) is a good example of that focus, but they are not as happy to hear from those migrants themselves – the strange spectacle of the 2017 Bachmannpreis is evidence of that. Barbi Marković was born, has lived and worked in Serbia – but her literary output is clearly yoked to her years of studying in Vienna. Her first book is a riff on Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. her second a riff on Thomas Bernhard’s story Gehen, and this, her third? It’s a sharp interrogation of the immigrant experience in Vienna during the late Oughts, it’s also an extended riff on various German and literary texts, it is an explosively written take on fairy tales, existentialism and the dread and anxiety of poor people. Marković employs all kinds of methods and genres to push her story forward, from montage to poetry, and given the enormous vitality of its speaking voices it’s hard not to see her acquired skills as a playwright at work here. This book is very good, very funny, and very desolate and dark. It’s also heads and shoulders above all the books on last year’s German Book Award shortlist, if you want a sense of the priorities of German critics. Superheldinnen is vital, relevant, brilliantly written literature. It’s also German literature. The question should not be – is this German literature? It should be – why isn’t there more German literature like this?

The book focuses on three women. They live in the Vienna suburbs, congregating, like Shakespeare’s witches, to ponder fate – their own, but also that of people around them. They have special “powers” – they can lift a hapless person from misfortune and obscurity onto a better path, but they can also make a person vanish from the world – well and truly vanish, so that nobody will ever remember them again. Like Macbeth’s witches, their mutterings and comments and speeches have the quality of a chorus, of a coven of angry voices, but there’s no hero in the foreground. There’s just the three women – who are all of them immigrants, and utterly poor, “working poor,” as the terminology has it today. They have jobs but sometimes, bad luck, racism and other systemic obstacles will be quite enough to root people quite firmly in poverty. And they want out. They don’t wish for riches – they crave to be middle class. That is, being able to afford going out occasionally, being able to put food on the table without anxieties and maybe even afford children. In their words, we read disdain and envy for those who have a secure life, but also plain desperation. All three women live a life without safety, without support, and their language reflects this tension. The book looming in the background of Superheldinnen is Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin’s classic novel of poverty and despair.

In fact, Marković, who studied German literature, names the book specifically in a section of her novel that takes place in Berlin. This feat of transposing Döblin’s novel, which is incredibly male, filled with violence, male sexual anxieties and the expectations that society places on men, onto the lives of these women, is a remarkable bit of literary wizardry. The author demands of her readers that they be able to see beyond the specifics of these two sets of people to the issues and problems they share, as part of the working class underbelly of Europe. In many ways, this is obviously a book about migration, assimilation and issues like that, and I may get to them later, but Marković does break with expectations in writing a stirring, bleak portrayal of the despair of vast sections of the working class, whether they are immigrants or not. This clear sense of social issues isn’t particularly common in immigration narratives, which often focus more on cultural issues. It’s not that immigration narratives portray only affluent people – but the answer to why they sometimes struggle is often racism. What about capitalism, one imagines Marković’s rejoinder. Things are a mess for vast portions of the populace, and the reasons for that are complex and dispiriting.

That is not to say that Marković isn’t interested in cultural issues at all. The plot, in the present tense, focuses on the most recent meeting of the three women where they decide who to curse and who to lift from misfortune. Interwoven into their debates are memories of the past, of attempts to make it in Berlin, of memories of Belgrade and Sarajevo. As it turns out, the book offers its readers a layered discourse about speech and memory. The invention of the power to erase someone from public memory alone is a powerful metaphor for the way memory is constructed. Shoshana Felman, in one of the most striking essays I have read this year, suggests that women cannot have an autobiography, inasmuch as an autobiography entails confession. Women can only testify – and this is a process that implies (and demands) readers, other women, others who read that autobiography and thus make it real. “We might be able to […] access our story only indirectly – by conjugating literature, theory, and autobiography together.” That is a very clear description, I think, of what Marković does here. She creates a montage of voices and references – in part the book is an actual montage, of her text and bits and pieces of ads, billboards and other noises, centering around that central metaphor of the possibility to be entirely erased from memory. So how do we deal with it, we speak, we speak and we listen, we read and we share.

I’m sorry for the brevity of this review and its shortcomings, but I haven’t been well.  As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand

Goetsch, Daniel (2016), Ein Niemand, Klett-Cotta
ISBN 978-3-6ß8-98021-9

So you may remember my posts about the BachmannPreis earlier this month – I always try to read books by authors involved in it but I don’t always manage. This year I came away with four novels by four of the writers, and the very first one I read was a big dud. Daniel Goetsch’s reading on Day One of the Bachmannpreis was dull, sort of competent, but incredibly boring. It was inconceivable that he had read an excerpt from a novel, i.e. that there was a whole book of that material out there. A case for the Geneva conventions? I had had a look at his 2016 novel Ein Niemand by the time he read his story and it started very promisingly – derivative, but interesting, and I was looking forward to challenging my negative opinion of his writing. Maybe, in book-length form, he was a much better writer? I’m not good with very short fiction anyway. So ahead I went and took a plunge into Ein Niemand (~ A Nobody) and, man, I wish I hadn’t. If you write a story about mistaken identities, conspiracies, economic fanaticism, suicide, love, desire and more, there should be no way to make the book a punishingly boring reading experience, and yet, Goetsch succeeded. Maybe that is his superpower. What’s more, the book is competently written throughout, though more in a journalistic rather than literary way. How can this go so bad? There’s a bit of research that went into the book and it’s presented to us like a high school recapitulation of knowledge gleaned from Wikipedia – nothing is at stake here, except a case of very fragile masculinity. If you ever wanted to read a book where a man regrets not having the wherewithal to sexually assault a woman who denied him sex, and where this “failure” is shown to be indicative of other kinds of weaknesses of character, look no further. If you want a book that is largely set in Prague and has a sense of place that smells of a well annotated Lonely Planet guide rather than of observation and description, halt, you have your book! If you crave a book that borrows from various European traditions heavily, but comes off as an improvised pastiche by a high school student (who doesn’t get laid) – I have just the book for you! Should you read this? GOOD LORD no. At the same time, I can’t say whether it wouldn’t work in a translation, if by translation we include the Deborah Smith school of light to heavy editing of the original text. Because the structure isn’t all bad – after all, many other books have made this work. As it is the best thing about the book is the lovely cover. Maybe Klett-Cotta should invest in editors.

The structure is that of an interrogation: the German police, on the eve of Romania’s joining the EU, have caught a Romanian who they believe is in the country illegally. The man, who they believe is someone named Ion Rebreanu, proclaims to be, in reality, a German citizen named Tom Kulisch. Most of the novel is written in Tom/Ion’s voice and is written in a very “written” way, but the information contained therein is also information the policeman receives in the sections that are set in the novel’s present, and are narrated from the policeman’s point of view. The reason, I suppose, why the story of Tom/Ion is not told more orally is due to the overarching theme of the novel: the play of identity and narrative. We, like the policeman never know what’s happening, and some of the novel’s fictional games are on the surface, some more submerged. Some of the novel is set in an area of Bucharest called Gliulamila, which, as far as I can tell, is completely made up. It’s not entirely clear whether that’s intentional, as a fictional game, or not. With overall awful books, one is always tempted to assume incompetence, not intention, but I’m not sure here. After all, the novel is completely based on providing layers of unreliable information told by various characters to various other characters. The book offers us Tom/Ion’s story as one of confusion, of being misidentified by many people, of lying about his past, about his present, the fear of being found out connects with the fear of not being found out etc. There are other characters who did a name-change like Tom/Ion, and again other characters who are living a lie. The constant elements are sex, violence, hunger, as well as a curious copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies that the protagonist carries around with himself. We are frequently cautioned to assume none of the story told is real, with a strong vibe of The Usual Suspects about some of the writing, but for a possibly invented narrative, intended to stall the police for a few hours, Daniel Goetsch spends an awful lot of time engaging in describing male malaise. The novel moves either too fast (the final chapter of Ion/Tom’s story reads like a deadline needed to be kept for the manuscript) or too slow, as in the truly excessive and languid examination of the relationship of Tom/Ion to a mysterious woman named Mascha.

The deficiencies of the novel are obvious just from reading it, enough to make me worry about the sanity of Klett-Cotta’s editors. They become particularly glaring if looked at in context of their literary forebears. JMC Le Clézio’s only true masterpiece, Le Procès-verbal, as well as some of Modiano’s work (particularly Boulevard de Ceinture, maybe?) appear to have provided some inspiration – the major connection however is the Swiss tradition of examining identities. Goetsch, himself a Swiss writer, was clearly influenced by some of the giants of Swiss literature, particularly Max Frisch and Adolf Muschg. Muschg’s Albisser’s Grund (inexplicably untranslated into English) is an absolutely brilliant novel about a foreign-born psychiatrist named Zerrutt who is one day shot by his patient, Albisser. The police starts questioning the victim, because as it turns out not everything is as it seems. Albisser’s Grund is roughly twice the length of Goetsch’s book but so much more captivating. For Muschg, writing, narrative, personal identity are all at stake in the book, and he manages to create a book that is both highly constructed and symbolic and emotionally relevant at the same time. He also makes use of the element of foreignness and how that changes how we construct our narratives and read others’. There is very little evidence in Goetsch’s book of an awareness of the same thing, or in any case, it is badly executed. The major example of the kind of writing we find in Ein Niemand, however, is Max Frisch. I don’t, personally, love Max Frisch, apart from Montauk, which I think is a flawless piece of prose. But, in particular in Stiller and Mein Name ist Gantenbein, Frisch provides a skillfully executed example of how identities and narratives are connected, and how telling stories of ourselves can often also just be us telling stories, both to ourselves and to others. Political, personal and social expectations are all part of this narrative game. Less relevant to the novel under review, there are many other Swiss writers engaged in this kind of writing, with Dürrenmatt, playwright, novelist and theorist, as a particularly notable example, though in Dürrenmatt it has an absurdist angle that we don’t find here. It makes you wonder what’s in that water there, doesn’t it. Then again, whatever’s in the water clearly doesn’t confer talent – because for all the similarities to other books, be they French, Swiss or German, Goetsch clearly doesn’t hold up his end of the tradition.

The only tradition where he does hold his own is that of tedious masculinity. I cannot tell you how tiresome it is to read book after book of men worried about their dicks. Invented or not, Ion/Tom’s story is to a large part one about impotence, in a framing that reminded me a lot of Grass, particularly late Grass. In Grass’s work, which I admire almost unreservedly (while pretending he only wrote one and a half books since 1999), there’s a strange obsession with masculinity and male genitals, both literally and symbolically. I mean, really. Dicks and memory are the two overarching themes of his work. Grass connects masculinity all the time with the act of writing and with literary tradition (Bloom, anyone?), and sexual potency always doubles as creative potency, too. And that’s fine if you are a preternaturally talented artist (see my obit here for some more fawning). It’s more of an irritation with Daniel Goetsch. The story Ion/Tom tells has multiple beginnings. It begins with a suicide, or it begins with witnessing a deadly accident, or – and I think this is the real beginning: it begins with Tom’s failure to translate a manual from English to German. There’s a sentence in it, “The image that has been adjusted will not be reflected even if it is captured,” which eludes him. His inability to render it in German leads to a kind of mental breakdown and then sets in motion all the rest of the story. Now, this has multiple uses in the book. The sentence itself reflects the way the story is built; but also, on a less metafictional level, this failure to translate the sentence is repeated in his failure to “man up” in his subsequent dealings with women. After his breakdown, Tom witnesses an accident, pickpockets the victim, and takes on his identity, to go to Prague where he lives as Ion Rebreanu for a while before moving to Bucharest and eventually back to Berlin. Rebreanu is a “real man,” who has a woman for his passions and a woman to talk to, although he apparently has sex with both. In one of the strangest scenes of the book, Tom’s inability to fuck one of the two women, is then followed by recriminations – had he been a real man he would have just forced her, he would have taken her. The book doesn’t use the term friendzone (thank God), but Ion/Tom is constantly stymied by being considered a friend by a woman he’d really, really like to fuck, which, I mean, thank you but no thank you?

The rest of the story is full of strange clichés about Czechs, Russians, Roma and Romanians, to the extent that the few genuinely good observations are startling, unexpected. There is a two page rant about Romanian politics, by an interesting (but unexplored) character which is startlingly interesting to read, although it is couched in Wikipedia’d information about Ceausescu and his reign. I mean, the book’s decisions of what to dwell on for pages and pages and pages, and what to sketch in half a sentence are confusing. I mean, yes the book is bad, and yes, the only other text I know by the author is worse, but there are many solid ideas here, and it’s inexplicable that Goetsch didn’t have an editor who told him to cut the genital self-examination and expand on some, hell, any of the other elements. I mean Goetsch is a competent writer. How did this happen? And why did I have to read this? And what do I do with my copy of the book? Questions raised by a questionable book. Here’s to hoping the other three Bachmann-inspired purchases are better!

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

#tddl, Day Three: The Nopocalypse

Things are coming to an end. Day Three closed the active portion of the Bachmannpreis with a thoroughly underwhelming set of texts. Tomorrow prizes will be awarded. None of today’s writers should win one, 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 Eckhart Nickel, Gianna Molinari, Maxi Obexer, Urs Mannhart.

I’m not going to dwell overmuch on this damp squib of a day. Two of the texts were good, but not as good as the four texts I already highlighted, and two of them were bad, but also, somehow, in an underwhelming way. The day came, passed, I ran out of alcohol, etc. Well, let’s get on with things: to the crapmobile!

Eckhart Nickel wrote a story that one of the judges correctly connected to Adalbert Stifter (I have a bad? review of his masterpiece Indian Summer here), but that, in the end, had more in common with that German master of awful short stories, Bernhard Schlink. This was regrettable because Nickel, who is German literature royalty (outside of Wray the “biggest” name in this year’s lineup) started his text with extraordinary skill. From top to bottom, the technical execution was clean and nice, but the payoff was uninteresting. In the ease and skill of execution he reminded me (despite no overlap in plot or themes) of last year’s third place winner Zwicky. It was the best text today and while I’d rate it a distant fifth overall, it’s the only of today’s texts that should be in a prize discussion at all.

Gianna Molinari offered a text based on a real life case where an unknown refugee fell from a plane and died, nameless. In her attempt to give him back some dignity, she uses photos, and a careful examination of the workers who found him and the way the state dealt with him. I liked much about the story, but not so much the story itself? Regretfully, she reminded readers of the many writers in German who did much of this better, particularly Sebald and Lenz. The story was so directionless and boring that the audience, when the writer took a sip, applauded in apparent relief for the story to be over. Alas, no dice.

Maxi Obexer – man. So Molinari did make use of the experience of a refugee to write a German story (to apply for a German story award), but she did it with care: she was interested in that person. Maxi Obexer however also wrote about the refugee crisis, but the story was blind to the author’s own privilege, degraded other foreigners, appropriated the difficult experience of thousands to tell a small story that moved a persona very similar to the white author, who had teaching gigs in Georgetown and Dartmouth, front and center. Obexer is talented enough for the writing to be solid, and smart enough to include some good observations, but the overall feeling was creepy and unpleasant. It came really close, as a story, to offer the same blindness as the jury did yesterday. She also kissed a girl.

Urs Mannhart closed out the day and the competition and, I mean, I don’t know what to say. Molinari and Obexer both used foreignness as a trope and foreigners as props, but Mannhart told a story about wolves and men and rugged nature and horses that was set in an unnamed country (Kirgizstan?), overloaded with foreign names, occasional flat out racism; the worst aspect of the story was the undeniable solid skill of the text. Written in a 19th century adventure novel tone, it had no obvious stylistic problems or weaknesses. Except, you know, for the, uh unimaginative racism and toxic masculinity.

Tomorrow, awards will be handed out. There will be a first award, the Bachmannpreis, a second award, the Kelag Preis, and a third award, the 3sat-Preis. There’s also an award voted on by the audience. As I said yesterday, the only two writers who are on an almost equal footing in competing for first place are John Wray and Ferdinand Schmalz. Barbi Markovic, Jackie Thomae and maaaaybe Eckhard Nickel should be competing for third place. That’s not to say that this sad spectacle of a jury will vote this way. I think that the unbearable Verena Dürr stands a real chance of beating one of the better texts. And the audience is a real wild card. My ideal order is Wray, Schmalz, Thomae. Fingers crossed?

#tddl: Day One, the Wraypocalypse.

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: Karin Peschka, Björn Treber, John Wray, Noemi Schneider and Daniel Goetsch. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

Karin Peschka started the day with a text set in a post-war devastation, with a protagonist just called “Kindl” (“the child”). The writing is intentionally simple and stark, with vast sequences of dull, repetitive description that urgently required culling, and some occasionally very strong images. Peschka’s text was very weak, relying too much on the setting and the protagonist to carry the rest of the text; it was derivative, most of all. Yet, in hindsight, with all the other terrible texts behind me, it wasn’t that bad. At least it was competent and occasionally interesting.

If you’re wondering how to properly watch the competition: like this. On TV, with twitter on the laptop and a coffee mug full of cheap white wine. At least that’s how yours truly does it.

Björn Treber, a very young writer with just a few small publications under his belt offered an unusually brief text, basically a long description of a funeral. It read like an overnight improvisiation before the deadline to hand in the text. There was nothing at stake, nothing interesting, no tension, no direction, no discernable stylistic interest. There were hints of interesting directions, but Treber never explored them. He’s clearly not untalented, but this read more like an early early draft that you’d bring into a writing workshop, to tease out the hints in it of identity, heritage and existentialism. It did not read like a story offered at Germany’s second most prestigious literary award.

John Wray was third, and boy did he save the day. You know, this felt like seeing LeBron playing against a high school basketball team. After Treber’s story that was barely acceptable as homework in a creative writing class, John Wray offered a modulated, shifting story that touched on culture, history, literature, power, gender and race. It told a story that is impossible to summarize, but one that reflects on its own structure, its own language, that touches on realism, science fiction, historical fiction and the current taste for dystopian writing. In it we had a barely-successful writer from Brooklyn, a sister with a mental illness who imagines a story, an ornithologist whose encounter with natives is a paraphrase of turn of the century anthropology, a fascist leader and more. There is a prominent nod (I think) to Alfred Korzybski in there and many other writers. All of this in just a handful of pages that took 25 minutes to read aloud in a slow, somber voice. I wouldn’t be surprised if the story’s movements and turns couldn’t be made to fit the Chaucerian form of the Madrigal (the return of the original rhymes made me think of that). All of this was made without any kind of literary arrogance – you could tell the skill and the exhilaration of the writing throughout but it also reads extremely light. This is not just the best story of the day – but one of the best stories, in the way it is condensed and shaped, I’ve read all year. Everybody broke for lunch and I refilled my coffee mug with white wine and ate some crackers.

This is my cat’s reaction to hearing Noemi Schneider read. I have to say, I agree with her on this!

After the break, 35 year old Noemi Schneider read a text that was, in sound, skill and attitude, a text I’d have expected of a precocious 20 year old. In fact. Young Ronja Rönne read a text in a vaguely similar vein last year. There’s a lot of irony in it, playing with language, expectations etc etc. but it is also just plain terrible. There’s nothing redeeming about the text in any way. Amateurish, flat, and boring, it also left a bad taste in my mouth because Schneider is not above toying with exoticism to flesh out aspects of her characters’ relationship to reality. That’s not new: in her recent novel, she similarly used foreignness as a metaphor, and an asylum seeker as a prop to tell a story about Germany and family relations in this country. Awful, unpleasant and bad. Suddenly, Peschka’s story didn’t seem quite as awful.

The final reader was Daniel Goeltsch, who, look. It was the last reader, first day, maybe that’s why he seemed insufferably dull, but BOY O BOY was he dull. A story about postwar Germany that was so terrible and dull that the discovery that it is an excerpt from a novel made me recoil in shock. Weaponized boredom, is what it was. Lazy imagery, terrible writing about physical intimacy, wave after wave of irrelevant description and, I think?, plot? I don’t think Goeltsch is all bad. I started reading his novel Ein Niemand an hour ago to review it on the blog and it’s not bad? I think Goeltsch needs a loving but mean editor. This story didn’t really go anywhere, it was written in the most plodding dull German I can imagine this side of Martin Walser, and I was so disinterested, I barely paid attention to the jury squabbling over the text.

I don’t know if Wray will win the whole thing. The judges seemed to believe his text was too good (I wish I was kidding) and they still licked their wounds over finding out, post-factum, that last year’s winner, the brilliant Sharon Dodua Otoo hadn’t heard of the competition before. As one judge groused: “at least he’s heard of us before, unlike THAT PERSON last year. He knows there are smart people sitting here.” That person? Exqueeze me? You mean last year’s runaway winner? Anyway, that might count against him. Plus there’s a real heavyweight to come, Barbi Markovic, a genuinely excellent writer. However, Bachmannpreis gives out three awards, and Wray should win one of them easily. Based on the text alone, he should win the whole competition, easily, but with the insurrection of the small minds and literature gatekeepers, one never knows.

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol

imageIf you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little smelly book cave.

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists.

Last year’s winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. This year’s lineup, with the exception of an interesting writer here and there seems similar in quality, minus Otoo and Tomer Gardi whose novel I’ve also reviewed.

The great exception is John Wray. John Wray is an American novelist with Austrian roots who writes in English. I’ve interviewed John Wray on Bookbabble years and years ago. See here. Really, listen. He’s luvverly. On this blog I reviewed his debut novel The Right Hand of Sleep and his third novel Lowboy. His second novel, not under review, is also quite excellent! I’m interested in what text he will be reading. Below is the full list of authors. If you check their publications, you’ll see a sad and unsurprising number of white German language writers writing about immigration and/or people of color from a very Germanic perspective. If you’ve read Jenny Erpenbeck’s awful recent novel, imagine that, but worse. And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list:

  • Jörg-Uwe Albig
  • Verena Dürr
  • Daniel Goetsch
  • Urs Mannhart
  • Barbi Markovic
  • Gianna Molinari
  • Eckhart Nickel
  • Maxi Obexer
  • Karin Peschka
  • Ferdinand Schmalz
  • Noemi Schneider
  • Jackie Thomae
  • Björn Treber
  • John Wray

Bachmannpreis

Grigorcea, Bachmann and Germany’s Next Idol

tddl If you follow me on twitter and you wondered about the deluge of German tweets on Friday and Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I was live-tweeting the strangest of events.

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists. Actually, poets tend to do well. Lutz Seiler, one of Germany’s leading and best poets, won the competition in 2007, and his first novel wasn’t published until last year. This year’s winner is the extraordinary Nora-Eugenie Gomringer, daughter of one of Germany’s greatest living poets, Eugen Gomringer, and an excellent and influential poet and slam poet in her own right. She hasn’t published fiction yet, but her extraordinary feel for language allowed her to sway enough jurors to her cause. At 37 years of age, she’s I believe the oldest of the three prize winners.

One of the two other prizes voted on by the jury went to Dana Grigorcea, whose debut novel Baba Rada I’ve reviewed recently in anticipation of her reading. She read an excerpt from her forthcoming novel which is extremely different from her debut novel, as far as I can tell from the text she read. It’s a much more detail oriented, carefully sculpted, sober text about a childhood and adolescence in Bucharest, just as the country went through its own pangs of change and maturation. No wild metaphors, murders or insanity in this book, but from what I can tell, it’s the same exquisite writing.

You can, if your German is up to it, see videos of all the readings and jury discussions from this year’s TDDL here (though I’m not sure how long they’ll be available online) and you can find all the texts as .pdf files here.