Translatables! (Part 1)

As I follow blogs and news, I see more and more mediocre writers in German being translated into English, whether it’s Pascal Mercier, Ingo Schulze or Thomas Glavinic; if we additionally consider how few German novels are translated at all, the fact that so many bad writers make the cut while so many good writers don’t almost amounts to a tragedy.

For what it’s worth, I decided to put up a list of writers or books who deserve to be translated into English, who deserve a wide audience, accolades and admiration, although they don’t, at the moment, get either beyond the borders of Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This list is made up of two times four writers/books. Four living, contemporary writers, and four ‘dead’, classical writers. Especially in the latter period there are countless more writers who deserve infinitely more recognition abroad than they have been getting (Christoph Martin Wieland and Jean Paul come to mind), but with these four writers and books it’s particularly appalling. I will try to keep my appeals short, in many cases they’re backed up by reviews I’ve already written for this same blog. This is Part 1 (here is part 2).

Part 1:  Contemporary Books!

Hartmut Lange, Das Konzert (1986)

Novellas have a long tradition in German literature, and nowhere in the world is this genre as highly regarded as here. From classical masters of the form like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theodor Storm, Stefan Zweig, to Nobel Prize winners Paul Heyse and Günter Grass, the novella has always been given full attention, and the writing of novellas has always been a task especially scrutinized and analyzed. The best living writer in the form is Hartmut Lange, and not only does he not have the international attention that he deserves, he’s also vastly underrated in Germany, where he has become a kind of “writer’s writer”. His writing is classically elegant, complex, yet always light and readable and his books are suffused with his concern with places, history and culture, as well as age-old problems of the human heart. He is easy to read, but hard to stomach sometimes. The same applies to what I think is his best work, the novella Das Konzert, a tale of ghosts living in modern Berlin. There are ghosts killed by the Nazis, and Nazi ghosts, who have been waiting to be forgiven, in a bunker under the earth. Lange projects a ghost Berlin over the real, modern Berlin, and demonstrates concerns with responsibility and guilt; it suggests how historical continuities, and individual, cultural ones mold a national and local consciousness. There’s not a spare line in it, but Lange writes as if he had all the time in the world. He is one of our living masters. Read him. Translate him.

Additional links

Read my review of Das Konzert? Link
Read my review of his most recent book,
Der Abgrund des Endlichen? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Lange’s Wiki page? Link

Patrick Roth, Christus-Trilogie (1991-1996)

This one requires a bit of cheating. It’s not one book. It’s three books, parts of a trilogy, they can be read individually, of course, but read together they form one of the most impressive works of art written in the German language in the 1990s. Patrick Roth blindsided me, I never noticed him, but suddenly, he was everywhere, holding the prestigious Poetics lectures in Frankfurt, publishing high-profile books about all kinds of topics: novellas dealing with Hollywood, books about movies, about identity, and, of course, the Christus Trilogie. The first of these, Riverside, subtitled “Christusnovelle”, was published in 1991, the second, Johnny Shines oder Die Wiedererweckung der Toten, in 1993 and the third, Corpus Christi, in 1996. Each of them is only about 160 pages in length, but the reader emerges from them mesmerized, reluctant, as if he was dipped into a different world. Roth manages to call up two very different registers: he writes in a very archaic kind of German, meant to imitate Lutheran tone and voice, and at the same time, in a very clear and modern kind of German. Miraculously, this really works, and envelops the reader in a linguistic tapestry that seems biblical, and yet filled with an easy, glittering suspense. The first and last of the books are concerned with Jesus himself; Riverside is about two men coming up to an eremite who reputedly has met Jesus himself, avid to find out more about that man, trying to sift truth from tradition. They are soon caught up in a net woven of language and mysteries. The same thing happens to the protagonist of the third book. Its protagonist, Judas Thomas is intent to investigate the so-called resurrection of Jesus. He finds an eye-witness and interrogates her, which develops into a discussion about truth and faith, which never becomes academical, and is completely mesmerizing. The middle one is set in Death Valley, California, and is about an oddball who regularly opens coffins, demanding the dead person inside to stand up and walk (not successfully), who becomes enmeshed in a murder and is interrogated by a police woman. Three books, three investigations. Every line shows that Roth is both a gifted writer of prose as well as of drama, maybe one of Germany’s best in the business. The rest of his fictional work is surprisingly weak, compared to the ravishing thunderstorm of Christus Trilogie. But it’s hard to compare to that singular literary achievement. It’s a shame that it hasn’t found an American translator so far. Everyone should read it, in German or in translation. It’s, and I don’t say that lightly, a masterpiece.

Additional links

Buy his books on amazon? Link1, Link2, Link3
Read Roth’s Wiki page? Link

Thomas Stangl, Was Kommt (2009)

Thomas Stangl is an Austrian writer, one of a whole range of promising young novelists, another of which would be Clemens J. Setz, who was recently nominated for the German Book Prize for his ok second novel Die Frequenzen, a sign of his diminishing skill that would only get worse in following years. The same year also saw Thomas Stangl nominated for his stupendous novel Was Kommt. With Stangl, the situation is different. Was Kommt is his third novel, and it’s proof that Stangl is one of the leading living prose writers in the German language, getting better with each book. Like many great writers, his work recounts his obsessions. With time, memory, and history, amongst other things. His prose went to the Austrian school of Bernhard, Innerhofer and Handke, but unlike the recently translated Andreas Maier, he is in full control of his style. He is able to make it work for him, perform the tricks he needs it to perform in order to convey his thinking. Stangl’s work, like Lange’s, examines historical continuities, by juxtaposing different time levels, and creating a gorgeous linguistic maelstrom that draws the reader into the histories and memories of Stangl’s characters. Stangl is a committed writer, committed to his ideas and to his places, there are few writers who can evoke places so uncannily and directly as he can, places as well as times. In Was Kommt, Stangl shines a harsh light on the 1970s, by superimposing one character’s life in the 1930s on another’s life in the 1970s, clearly highlighting connections and continuities, evoking a place and a period so precisely that he takes your breath away. He, like Lange, Roth, uses a rather simple vocabulary, but as far as syntax is concerned, his writing is very complex, and not an easy read necessarily. But an astonishing, mind-blowing one, that I’m sorry to see so many of my anglophone friends missing out on. If you can, read a book by Stangl. Or translate him. You won’t be sorry. If Stangl continues at this rate, he will become one of the language’s most important writers. Already he’s one of its best.

Additional links

Read my review of Was Kommt? Link
Buy Thomas Stangl’s book on amazon? Link
Buy Clemens J. Setz’ book on amazon? Link
Read Stangl’s Wiki page? Link
Read the official page of the German Book Prize? Link

Reinhard Jirgl, Abschied von den Feinden (1995)

This is a writer that you don’t have to introduce to book-loving Anglophone readers any more. Although he hasn’t been translated yet, his name keeps coming up in discussions of contemporary literature and debates over international awards like the Nobel Prize in Literature which he would richly deserve. Jirgl’s writing is indebted to such titans of modern German literature as Alfred Döblin, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson, but the power of his narratives, the violence of his set-ups and the raw emotion and the brilliance of his thinking are all his own. Like many of the best contemporary German writers, he meets history head-on, interrogating its narratives, and the language in which these narratives were constructed. Abschied von den Feinden is not Jirgl’s best book, but it is the first book where he fully came into his voice, into that style that he made his own ever since. It introduces many of his topics, and unlike his other books, it even contains an explanatory section for all the symbols and typographical deviations he uses. It’s comparatively short and explosive, a story of two Germanys, two brothers, and a woman’s fate in the debris of a ‘better society’. It’s not his best novel, but one of his best. If you can, read Jirgl. He is the best living German writer. And for God’s sake, translate his books. (my review of Abschied von den Feinden)

Additional links

Read my review of Abschied von den Feinden? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book
Die Unvollendeten in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Francois Monti’s review of that book/translation? Link
Read Jirgl’s Wiki page? Link

Read Part 2 here.

Thomas Stangl: Was Kommt

Stangl, Thomas (2009), Was Kommt, Literaturverlag Droschl
ISBN 978-13-85420-752-8

In Thomas Bernhard’s searing, bitter, but magnificent play Heldenplatz, an aging Jewish professor who survived the Third Reich, and his family meet in a hotel room because his brother has just killed himself. In their discussion the wounds of the past open, the wounds of the trauma of Austria’s Jews. Near the end, Robert Schuster, the professor, exclaims:

They would really like to,
if they were honest
gas us today just like 50 years ago.

His brother’s daughter Anna concurs:

In Austria you have to be either Catholic
or National Socialist
anything else isn’t accepted,
anything else is exterminated.

The play ends with his brother’s widow hearing again the sounds of the 60.000 Austrians who, in 1938, had assembled on the Heldenplatz in Vienna, to cheer Adolf Hitler. Their noise drowns out everything else on stage until the curtain drops. In this play we see an oddly un-chronological view of history. History is what stays, what’s written into culture, language and people’s behavior. Bernhard’s play was written against the background of Kurt Waldheim’s presidency, who was an officer in the Second World War and while not participating in any war crimes in person, lied about his war record and had, as a commission’s report showed, had knowledge of war crimes at the time. Additionally, as Alexander Pollak and Ruth Wodak have shown in their studies, the Austrian press during that time engaged in untruthful as well as openly antisemitic attacks against Waldheim’s detractors, producing a heated and troubling atmosphere that may well have reminded careful observers of the 1930s.

The kind of thinking that informed Bernhard’s work, especially Heldenplatz, can also be found in Austrian writer Thomas Stangl’s new novel Was Kommt, published by Droschl and longlisted for the German Book Award. Thomas Stangl, born in 1966, is less well known than he should be. Was Kommt is a very good and exciting book although it’s not great; the reader keeps waiting for the novel to step up its game just a little, which never happens, which can be a tad frustrating in a novel this good. Stangl’s published by a small literary publisher, and despite winning a prize now and then, isn’t very well known nor as successful as his literary achievements should make him. Most disappointingly for me, he hasn’t been translated into French or English yet, so I can’t really share my enjoyment of his work with most of those who will read this article. And it really is an excellent book, so good, in fact, that I read it twice cover to cover without reading another book in the meantime. Stangl is a virtuoso, both the writing and the construction of the book are amazingly successful. Was Kommt is both (seemingly) simple and dauntingly complex at the same time, which is a result of Stangl’s reduced vocabulary and his use of short main clauses. There is none of Bernhard’s complex page-long constructions. Stangl’s sentences can be long, but when they are, all he offers, in terms of syntax, are paratactic constructions which are easy to parse. These parataxes are often used to create a strong sense of repetition, with words and even whole phrases recurring again and again.

Structurally, however, Stangl’s use of parataxis, as a way of arranging bits and pieces of his narrative, makes for a difficult reading at times. Was Kommt is not a book to be read on noisy trains or while cooking or being distracted in other ways. It demands the reader’s full attention. Stangl builds his text from two different persons’ stories, which take place at different times, but he blurs chronological distinctions and hierarchies, as he cuts the stories apart and offers us the resulting pieces by turns. One of the stories, set in Austria ca. 1978 is about the 15 year-old Andreas Bichler, an overweight boy who loves books, but who is beset by fears. He appears shy, but that’s because his fears have made him afraid of opening his mouth and speaking his mind. When he talks, he feels betrayed by his mouth, by the words he uses. Words, in general, tend to mystify him. An avid reader, he can still be thrown by words as they are used in public discourses. He will save up words he hears from neighbors or his grandmother and repeat them in public in lieu of uttering his own words. It’s like he records language and then plays and replays it again. This defense mechanism, this fear, subsequently results in creating a distance between himself and his memories of himself; memories which are filtered through a language-based system, as he well recognizes. He lives in the present, and Stangl endows him with a language that operates only in the present and the future tenses. Although he is an orphan, there isn’t, to our knowledge, any past trauma that might explain his emotional imbalance or his peculiar linguistic restriction. In fact, Stangl has constructed the two protagonists of his book as sensitive personalities who are assaulted by the society of their time. Andreas is physically abused by his classmates and emotionally stressed by the tensions of his time, which he appears to experience as attacks upon his own person.

Emilia Degen, the other protagonist of the novel, is 17 years old, and is also an orphan, living with her grandmother. Her story largely takes place in Austria in 1937, which is an interesting choice of time. The society had not yet been fully taken over by the Austrian National Socialists who would be one of the driving forces behind Austria’s acceptance of Germany’s annexation of the country in 1938. It had ceased to be democracy since 1933, when then-chancellor Dollfuß abolished parties and the parliament and inaugurated a dictatorship which is known today as “Austro-fascism”. Although Dollfuß, an enemy of National Socialism and a stout Catholic, was assassinated in 1934, the Austro-fascist regime stayed in power until the country’s takeover by Nazi Germany. This is, of course, what Anna in Bernhard’s play refers to: “Catholic” probably refers to the Catholic dictatorship of Dollfuß and to the fact that ‘non-National Socialist’ doesn’t have to mean ‘democratic’ or ’emancipating’. Both were hostile to Jews (as Catholicism itself, in various forms and guises has also consistently been, a tradition that the present pope, in however an underhanded manner, apparently aims to resurrect and continue) and shortly after the takeover, within a very brief period of time, all hell broke loose for Austrian Jews. The atmosphere in Emilia’s environment, even before these decisive events, is distinctly antisemitic. Students in Austria’s Clerical Fascism rise at the beginning of the class yelling “Österreich!” and a teacher of German rebukes a professor’s analysis of Schiller’s plays as flawed because the professor isn’t able to read those plays with a ‘German voice’ which is the only way they’ll come alive, according to the teacher, who, later, will rejoice in the expulsion of Jews from schools and public life in general, exclaiming that “we are now amongst ourselves.”

Emilia Degen isn’t Jewish and Stangl’s aim isn’t a discussion of the usual victims. His goal is the depiction of an atmosphere, aggressively antisemitic and generally contemptuous of human dignity and rights. Like Andreas, Emilia is both physically and emotionally bruised by the events of the book. Unlike Andreas, she falls in love and her love is reciprocated. The man of her dreams is called Georg and her dreams of him, her pining for him are described in some of the most tender and beautiful prose I have had the pleasure of reading in weeks. Georg is a communist and although sex with him (as sex generally appears to be in the book) is a dirty and hurtful affair, their time together saves Emilia from Andreas’ kind of despair, although she isn’t any stronger than he is. Emilia and Andreas both are intellectually impotent and both are either unsuccessful or dissatisfied with sex or matters that concern their bodies in general. Her story, just like his, is mostly told in the present tense, but while his story makes only infrequent use of the future tense, her story contains several significant chapters written in the future tense. History, in Stangl’s book, isn’t that which was, but it’s “Was Kommt”, which can be translated as “that which comes”. And what comes is the darkest period in European history, and much more. Andreas’ present, for example, lies in Emilia’s future and the book makes ample use of this fact by brilliantly opposing one and the other.

In Emilia’s present, Antisemitism is rampant, and fear hovers like a thick cloud over Vienna. It is in the same Vienna, several decades later and in a very similar atmosphere that we encounter Andreas. In his present, the chancellor of Austria is Bruno Kreisky, a Jew who survived the Third Reich by fleeing the Nazis. Isn’t that a significant change? But, as a discussion with Andreas’ grandmother demonstrates, Antisemitism is still rampant, and traces of the 1930s are still in the air. Four ministers of Kreisky’s cabinet had a Nazi past and Kreisky’s actions, whether attacking, without a shred of proof, Simon Wiesenthal as a Gestapo collaborator, or, indeed, Thomas Bernhard for the aforementioned play Heldenplatz, carry more than a strong whiff of the past. This continuity that any look in the history books suggests, is expanded upon by Stangl, who uses the city of Vienna as a canvas whereon he projects his ideas. The extensive use of concrete and well known locations in Vienna suggests an understanding of places in Guy Debord’s sense of a psychogeography. The increasingly dreamlike and confused meanderings of the protagonists near the end reminded me, personally, of Debord’s concept of the “Dérive”. The resulting drift appears to bring Emilia and Andreas closer together, as objects of history rather than its subjects.

Just as he uses Vienna’s rough surface, Stangl also makes use of Emilia’s and Andreas’ bodies. Vienna reflects the past and its presence in that which happens and will happen. The two protagonists’ bodies reflect how these events happen, how small acts, words, fisticuffs, impact upon larger, more abstract issues like language and culture. This is the exact opposite of Bernhard’s late work. Stangl’s repetitive, circling writing is intent not to get abstract ideas like history and language slip away. He pins them down to concrete surfaces and at the same time, by blurring the distinctions between past and present, cause and effect, loosens up the tightly wound system of historical narratives. The plot isn’t really that important, because the two protagonists tell the story as it takes place on and through them. If this sounds weird, it is. And it is a sign of Stangl’s power as a writer that he is able to pull this off, that he dazzles the reader not primarily with words or phrases but with the whole structure and sequence of the book. In fact, the language sometimes seemed almost flat to me. The effect is cumulative. If you give the book the attention it deserves, it will amaze and stun you.

And it’s not that fatalistic, actually. Unless I’m mistaken about what happens at the end, Stangl tells us how we can escape history: “Oder brauchst du das Leben nicht; nur diesen einen Punkt, an dem du Nein sagst, zu allem, was noch kommt; und Nein; und Nein -” Saying no, which, maybe, means dying? Extracting your body from the train of history, stepping aside. It’s not quite clear, the book demands multiple rereads (or more attention than I gave it), but the circular nature of life and history means that if history is that which comes, it is also that which was, spun around. Was Kommt is a marvel and it deserves to be translated and praised and to win as many prizes as possible.

[special thanks to Liam]