Riveting Germans: 30 Years Later…

Or, to be precise, two riveting Germans and an equally riveting Georgian now living in Germany!

With impeccable timing, the day I posted my review of Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau, I got to see the author at the British Library, in an event organised by the European Literature Network (headed by Rosie Goldsmith). She was joined on stage by poet and essayist Durs Grünbein and playwright and novelist Nino Haratischwili (or should that be ‘shvili’ for English readers rather than ‘schwili’ for German ones?), whose monumental work The Eighth Life (for Brilka) has just been published in English by Scribe. The translators Charlotte Collins, Ruth Martin and Karen Leeder were also there and read the English version of extracts from the authors’ work.

Ooops, I may have bought a few books once again! Zoe has given up on me as incorrigible…

There was a lot of ground covered in the nearly 90 minutes of discussions and readings, but what particularly stuck in my mind:

Julia Franck and her identical twin sister wrote and enacted fantasy stories together as they were growing up, a bit like the Brontës. She mentioned her Communist grandmother, who was so reluctant to give up her dream of an alternative, better Germany even after the fall of the Wall. She also spoke about the humiliation and cruelty of life as a refugee, the contrast between the utopia you are chasing and the reality of what you find (especially when you are not allowed to integrate into the host society), and why in her book West, the refugee camp itself is a main protagonist. When Rosie Goldsmith asked her why there were so many cruel or cold women in her books (or women who could be interpreted as such), she replied:

Women are not necessarily the better people. I have experienced cruel women in my life… But also what we expect from mothers nowadays is so different from what it was 50-100 years ago. In those days women tried to be strong, to survive, to solve problems, they had no time to be helicopter parents, so they might come across as cold and neglectful.

Durs Grünbein admitting that their generation of German writers were privileged to have the material (of the division and then reunification) to write about. Also, why he prefers poetry: it is easier to swerve from past to present, to be in both time frames and in many different places simultaneously. I loved one particular phrase from one of his poems:

Ist der Sand enttäuscht wenn die Dämmerung fällt?

Is the sand disappointed when evening falls?

Meanwhile, Nino Haratischwili claims she had no intention of writing such an epic novel, and that if she had realised from the outset that it would take four years and 1200 pages to write, she might have abandoned the project before she even started. She was focusing initially only on Georgia in the 1990s, a messy, confused period with the fall of the Soviet Empire and lots of infighting. She was trying to answer her own questions about Georgia’s history and why her country keeps on repeating the same old mistakes, but found that it took her earlier and earlier in time. She also said she wrote in German out of laziness (because she would have had to translate it from Georgian later on), but also because writing in her second language gave her a freedom and a sense of adventure and playfulness.

In your mother tongue you use words and expressions more automatically, but in another language you question things more and have more freedom to experiment. I still have this feeling of discovery in German.

The evening was also an opportunity to launch the newly published German Riveter magazine, with illustrations by the wonderful Axel Scheffler. Containing exclusive extracts and reviews of many new German authors, it also contains an article about German crime fiction written by Kat Hall (mainly) and yours truly (very tangentially).

All in all, a brilliant evening which I’d been looking forward to for months, well worth the logistical acrobatics of arranging for alternative pick-up of the French exchange student.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

I saw a blog post this week on Portuguese reader Susana’s blog A Bag Full of Stories, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to tag myself and take part. As you know, I am very opinionated when it comes to translations!

A translated novel you would recommend to everyone

Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (trans. Thomas Teal) is such a deceptively simple story of village life in winter and the friendship between two women, but it is full of undercurrents, ambiguity, darkness. Of course, if you haven’t read Tove Jansson at all, then I suggest you start with the Moomins, which are just as wonderful for grown-ups as they are for children.

A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed

The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which was the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, was even better than I expected.

A translated book you could not get into

Everybody knows that my Achilles heel is The Brothers Karamazov, which is ironic, given that I love everything else that Dostoevsky wrote (and generally prefer him to Tolstoy). I have bought myself a new copy of it and will attempt it again (for the 5th time?).

Your most anticipated translated novel release

This is a little under the radar, but it sounds fascinating: Istros Books (one of my favourite publishers, for its brave championing of a part of Europe that is still woefully under-translated) is bringing out The Trap by Ludovic Bruckstein, a Romanian Jewish writer virtually unknown to me (because he emigrated in 1970 and was declared persona non grata in Romania). The book is made up of two novellas, offering, as the publisher blurb goes, ‘a fascinating depiction of rural life in the Carpathians around the time of the Second World War, tracing the chilling descent into disorder and fear of two cosmopolitan communities that had hitherto appeared to be havens of religious and racial acceptance’. The official launch will take place on 26th of September in London and you bet that I’ll be there!

A “foreign-language” author you would love to read more of

I only discovered Argentinean author Cesar Aira in 2018, and he is so vastly prolific (and reasonably frequently translated) that I have quite a task ahead of me to catch up. His novels are exhilarating, slightly mad and, most importantly, quite short.

A translated novel which you consider to be better that the film

Movie still from Gigi.

Not many people will agree with me, but I prefer the very short novella Gigi by Colette to the famous musical version of it, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. The book’s ending is much more open to interpretation and makes you doubt the long-term happiness of young Gigi. It can be read as a satire and critique of the shallow world of Parisian society and the limited choices women had within it at the time.

A translated “philosophical” fiction book you recommend

Not sure I’ve read many of those! Reading biographies of philosophers or their actual work is more fun. The only example I can think of, and which I enjoyed at the time but haven’t reread in years, is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, transl. Paulette Moller.

A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long

Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (trans. Shaun Whiteside) is a post-apocalyptic novel with a difference. I’ve been meaning to read this much praised novel forever, but in the original, so I finally bought it in Berlin last year… and still haven’t got around to reading it.

A popular translated fiction book you have not read yet

Korean fiction seems to be having a moment in the sun right now (thanks to a great influx of funding for translation and publication), especially the author Han Kang. I haven’t read the ever-popular The Vegetarian but her more recently translated one Human Acts (trans. Deborah Smith) sounds more on my wavelength, with its examination of policital dissent and its repercussions.

A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin is perhaps far too intimidatingly long (1000 pages) for me to read, but it sounds epic: six generations of a Georgian family living through the turbulent Soviet 20th century.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Friederike Schmöe?

friederikeToday I’ve invited Friederike Schmöe, one of my oldest friends on Twitter, in the hot seat to answer questions about her life of crime. I got to know Friederike in my professional capacity first, as she is a university lecturer and linguist interested in cross-cultural adventures, but then I discovered her crime novels and I’ve been a fan ever since.

She’s written 12 novels featuring gentle yet stubborn academic Katinka Palfy from the University of Bamberg, and 7 featuring feisty ghostwriter Kea Laverde from Munich, as well as several standalones (including a couple for young adults). Despite her productivity and longevity in the German crime fiction landscape, her work has sadly not been translated into English yet. If there are any publishers or translators listening out there, you are really missing out! The world needs more independent, no-nonsense detecting heroines like Kea and Katinka.

Friederike blogs in German but can be found tweeting in both English and German under the handle @123writer.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I’ve been reading detective fiction ever since I was able to read. As a child I was captivated by unsolved riddles. The older I get, the more I feel that crime fiction reflects the distortions in our world. People aren’t saints and everyone makes mistakes or becomes guilty somehow, even though his or her intentions may be honest. In some cases, these distortions end up in tragedy and disaster. This is reality – mirrored in crime fiction.

friederikeshelfAre there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I have a crush on Nordic crime fiction. I love the sound in Scandinavian literature. Don’t know where that soundtrack comes from – maybe it is induced by the overwhelming landscapes up there? Generally I browse the book stores for novels that take me to interesting places I haven’t been to yet, anywhere in the world. I don’t like serial killers and graphic slaughter scenes very much: all those paranoid murderers are overrated in my opinion. I adore stories where ordinary people get involved in something. I also want to laugh from time to time. That’s why I like to choose books with quirky, witty characters. And I appreciate real characters with a background, doubts, hopes, desperation, dreams, humour, not just the usual love affairs and burnout crises.

What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

Hard to pick just one out of so many good ones I’ve devoured lately … Well, let me name Gisa Klönne and her sequel about Hauptkommissarin Judith Krieger, a tough, cool detective chief inspector with pronounced views about life and a deep loneliness in her heart.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I think I’d take Darja Danzowa, a Russian crime fiction writer. Her humour is just smashing and I might need something to laugh about on that island …

First book featuring Kea Laverde, published in 2009.
First book featuring Kea Laverde, published in 2009.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I have Deon Meyer’s ‘Seven Days’ on my shelf. I’ve been told he is a gorgeous writer. Plus, the book is set in South Africa, where I’ve never been, so it will be a kind of holiday for me.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Biographies, family sagas, short stories, travelogues. I’ve just discovered a most outstanding writer, Nino Haratishvili, who wrote a 1200-page novel about the history of a Georgian family in the 20th century ‘Das achte Leben’ (Eighth Life). Incredibly gripping, though no crime fiction. The genre is not that important to have a thrilling reading experience, as long as you have a book in your hands where you can lose and find yourself in its pages.

Thank you, Friederike, for some very unusual suggestions – hopefully we can find some of them in English, as my Georgian and Russian are non-existent to rusty! If you read German and would like to find out more about Friederike’s books, all of them are available to order online and you can see a list on the author’s website.

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. If you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions!