29 December 2011

Your own work, that's the prize

Concerned that my last post may be misinterpreted as sour grapes about my city’s latest laurel-crowned translators, I write here to clarify; Ingo, Susanne & Ursel unquestionably “deserve” their prizes; who’d doubt their work was the best? My punch was not aimed at prize-winners but rather at prize-giving & prize givers.

You’ll be told that you need to reward excellence in society by granting honours, usually with a whack of cash attached. If you didn’t do this, it’s implied, excellence would remain plankton-like, swilling about the seas, it’d have no motivation to conjulate into a nice, compact two chapters &  proposal form. We’d have no excellence, no one who wanted to bring things on. We’d be back in the cave.

Is there any evidence to counter this claim? – It’s hardly possible to compare our societies with others, that give few or no prizes – because almost all societies do reward excellence.

The alternative is to hypothesise that prize-giving exists - not because literature or other arts or other areas of life wouldn’t produce wonders without it – but in order to reinforce the status of the prize-givers. As long as even a few people are still interested in what you’re doling out, your place in the pecking order is assured. When the last waverers waver away from you & ignore your prize – and ten applicants is getting close to a blanket ignorance - your podest is pulled away under your feet.

Which may lead prize-givers to take up their own, real work again, their “doing.” Perhaps it is only in our own work that there are prizes to win, which are worth winning. And worthy the winning.

30 November 2011

A carve-up or a meritocracy? Hamburg's literary prizes.

Alongside six grants of six thousand Euro each for new German literature, a team at Hamburg's Kulturbehörde headed by Wolfgang Schömel grant three literary translation prizes of € 2500 each year. The literary translation prizes are exclusively for translations into German. I submitted an application including a sample translation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1930s modernist masterpiece "A Scot's Quaire", a work largely unknown in the German speaking world. Have a dip here into the novel if you're not familiar with it.

Dr. Schömel informed us per email that there were 194 applicants in total for these nine prices, including the three for translation. Of these only ten were translators. Not to have won a prize which - purely statistically speaking - you've got a one in three chance of winning is quite the opposite of inspiring.

Under "Förderpreis für Übersetzung" I understood something like supporting young talent, a prize to bring unknown translators on their way to their first proper contracts for literary translation. Not a bit of it.
Ingo Herzke, one of the winning translators, has done nearly all the German A. L. Kennedy & Allan Bennet's "The Uncommon Reader"; Susanne Höbel does, among other things, the German versions of the Graham Swift novels. Ursel Allenstein, the final winner, translates from Swedish and Danish and has a row of published translations to her credit.

So these prizes "award achievement" do they? Then you need to have a serious read of poet & satirical artist Tom Leonard's critique of prize-giving inside the literature industry which is spread, magnificently throughout his journals of the last two years.

11 November 2011

On filthbook (like this!)

I returned from filthbook the other night with the predictable feelings – vacuously psyched-up, morosely enjoying the illusion of having done something, while knowing full well that a kitsch, peter-pan nowhere land had again managed to rob me of ninety minutes of my life, time which I shall never again recover. I came across my closest friend from my young adulthood –aged twenty-two, I’d broken off the friendship with him completely, an action that had meant a lot to me. There he was, taking a home-made quiche out of the oven, sending out his charming, playful, bashful smile in photos taken thirteen years later. Suppressing the separation-pain and necessity of the break – buzz, buzz, click, click – I click him the pre-formulated filth request – or, to use the official party language, I filth him –  which he filths back, accepted, without message, some days later. So now we’re friends in filth on filthbook & if we meet, by chance, on the street in Edinburgh – him say coming up from one of the Cowgate pubs and me going down that street by the back of the Tron, past where the City Cafe used to be – we’re less likely now to blank each other, though the objective shame flowing under the swapping of Broughton High School news would only be the greater, because of the official link between us in the book.
It makes me think of card-carrying party members in one-party states; of course most of them know and knew in private that being in the pary is the lowest of the sheepish low; but being in the party can get you jobs, get you deals you wouldn’t have got, kid you into a tolerable self-image. Is that a bad-taste comparison? -  however bad-taste filthbook may be, it doesn’t torture or kill you, like the apparatchiks did. I wonder. The middle-aged man sounding of in front of 104 filthy-friends about the coolest piece of 1990s techno he’s currently listening to – isn’t he desensitising a piece of his consciousness for ever, murdering it actually? And who are we, sitting with bags under our eyes, flicking through these posts – bystanders, curious for 0.25 seconds, the vicarious pleasure not worth the skin of scum settling thereby on the soul.
But must finish now. Writing this article, I’ve been neglecting my duties on The Book for far too long. 

30 October 2011

Goethe's Eight Hour Avantgarde

We sat in the very back row of the Thalia through eight hours of Goethe’s Faust, Parts I & II. The play started at 5 pm and finished at 1.15 am. The night of 1st October this year in Hamburg was warm – a pleasant 21 degrees when we came out for the first break at 7.45 pm, after the end of Faust Part I; it was a wise directorial decision to pull that through in a oner. The sold-out theatre combined with the warm weather outside made drowsy air-clouds float up to us at the back, sending us to sleep now and again during the action.
            And that action was fantastic; it didn’t matter at all that you woke realising you may have dosed off for half-an-hour, the dramatic body was so rich that you couldn’t be sorry about anything you might have missed. It was an irreverent take on Goethe’s work, with a bit scripted in at the start of Part II happy to proclaim that many of the rhymes in Faust are shite, words pulled haphazardly out of a rhyming dictionary.
            Yet if there are a few duff rhymes in among the endings of the 12,000 lines that make up Faust I & II, then it hardly matters. The series of strong images that comprise Faust’s life – from being involved in the making of paper money, to – very much in the spirit of the Frankenstein times – being involved in making an artificial human being, were convincingly portrayed. The eight and a half hours were a time out of time, a spiritual and intellectual holiday. 

24 October 2011

At the Thalia Theatre's Faust

On the October 1st we saw the second night of the Thalia theatre’s uncut production of Goethe’s Faust. More on this theatre experience later, but we’ll begin with the end, with Faust, now saved, being pulled up to heaven. The text of these final lines of the play belongs to a “Chorus Mysticus”; in most productions these verses will be recited, but at the Thalia they were sang with the whole cast on stage, to a catchy tune, musical style. This is my English translation of what Thalia’s Chorus Mysticus sang:

All which will die on us
Is only allegory;
The inadmissible
is our contemporary;
The indescribable
now has been done;
The forever-womanly
draws us ever on.

16 October 2011

A Lot to Swallow.

      Before returning on a late night train from the city to my suburban home, the yellow press suddenly becomes enticing, when in day light hours it's nothing of the sort. Hamburg's tabloid, the Mopo, normally suffices; but finding myself recently late in the evening at a community centre after a storytelling evening, I realised that any one of the strange free magazines on offer from all manner of unheard of groupings could easily rival the Mopo, for narratives of conflict, dirt & salaciousness. Picking up "Info of the Imprisoned" magazine, I certainly got a different kind of "info" than I had intended to.
        What got most under my skin was the story of a Mr Werner Braeuner, a prisoner in Sehnde, near Hannover, who went on hunger strike for 6 weeks in May & June of this year, before breaking of his strike after forcing a partial result from the prison authorities. Mr Braeuner's claim is that his fellow prisoners regularly defecate in the communal food, during preparation in the prison kitchens. As a result of his hunger strike he now has the right that some of his food is delivered to him directly & doesn't have to pass through the communal kitchens.
         The story reminds you of the most disgusting rumors from the primary school playground. Of course, it's impossible for an outside reader to be able to tell if the claims are true or not; but even if not, Mr Braeuner's claims & strike action are statements in themselves about how a politicised prisoner sees his world. You could attempt to brush off Mr Braeuner by labelling him delusionally insane; but if he is that, his seems to be an assertive, articulate & focussed type of insanity. I wish to add that I cannot support Mr Braeuner's wider politics in anyway whatever; but what does this particular case tell us?
       Allow me to quote (in English translation) Mr Braeuner's statement in the June 2011 issue of the aforementioned magazine, which is typical of his recent statements in various media:
"Prisons are homes of perfidy; they contain, in comparison to the population outside, a far above average number of people with personality disorders who exhibit extreme patterns of behaviour with the least possible cause. Possible triggers for these behaviour patterns can be, for example, a general feeling or being pissed off, or out of sorts - and the extreme behaviour can also be displayed without any discernable trigger. One possible reason behind an apparently arbitary negative behaviour is the psychological relief a disturbed person can experience, after carrying out a covert, antisocial action. It's therefore not uncommon that disgusting additions to the food are found in prison kitchens ... Although the other prisoners get to hear about these additions, most simply suppress this information, as they percieve themselves to be in a helpless situation. You swallow it, in the most literal sense, or you avoid particular dishes like the monthly hot-pot or the puddings. Everyone develops their own coping strategies. Disgust hangs constantly in the air, without ever becoming tangible; statements like 'the strawberry compot's got real colour today', start taking on a very particular meaning." (Werner Braeuner in "Gefangenen Info", June 2011).
And what's the moral of the story? Better the devillish tabloids you know than the free magazines you don't? Stick to the literary novel where you'll often be reading about the grubby dealings of the university educated but rarely about our prisons' grubbiness? Or simply make sure you're own mechanisms for suppressing unpleasant information are in good working order; take the whole thing, in other words, with a large pinch of salt.

15 October 2011

Catching Rilke’s Autumn

Because Rainer Maria Rilke’s most famous autumn poems evoke the season so strongly, it becomes hard, after years of living with these lines, to distinguish between your own recurring autumn experience - & Rilke’s framing of that experience. Harder, still, in days of climate change, to catch those “two final southerly days” that Rilke refers to in “Autumn Day”, which was published in his 1902 volume “The Book of Images.” Yet while our Hamburgian grapes rot on the vine – sweeter & bigger than last year but still too sour to eat many of – I feel it’s my last chance for this year to post my translations of ‘Autumn Day’ & of ‘Autumn’.

Autumn Day

Lord – it is time. The summer was so big.
Lay your shadows down upon the sundials,
and down the dales let the winds fly loose.

Order fullness from the last few fruits;
give them two final southerly days,
push them into ripeness – and hunt
the last sweetness in the heavy grape.

If you’ve no house yet, you’ll not build one now.
If you’re alone now, you’ll stay that way for long,
you’ll wake, read, write long letters,
and wander here and there through the avenues,
restlessly, as the leaves tumble down.


The leaves are falling, falling from afar,
as if withered in the heavens’ furthest gardens;
they’re falling with a gesture of negation.

And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
out of all stars into loneliness.

We’re all falling. That hand, there, falls.
And take a look around you: it is in everything.

And yet there’s One, who holds this Falling
infinitely gently in his two hands.

09 October 2011

Not remembering The Dead of The Wall

Laughing at The Left party is a sport for the mainstream German politically interested; although they continue in recent regional elections to get more seats than the Free Democrats, the party still officially governing as part of the national coalition, when The Left does make the papers it is to be portrayed as a group of silly, unprofessional, incurable eccentrics. Left-bashing must be one of the last politically correct forms of scapegoating, othering, marginalising. Go on, put the boot into the Loony Left so that it never really makes it off the floor; we certainly wouldn’t want to be meeting any one of their most reasonable demands.
To be fair to the mainstream, The Left does provide a ceaseless flow of what seem to be ridiculous poses and gestures. Your first impression is that they don’t need anyone in the establishment to marginalise them, that they insist on self-marginalisation. That might also have been your first impression if you were lucky enough to have been present at their regional meeting in Mecklenberg-Vorpommern on August 13th this year, which just happened to fall on the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. In certain German institutions – town council committees, fishermen’s trade unions, political parties – it has become established practice that citizens of the former East Germany, who were murdered by state forces when fleeing through the border zone – or others killed while assisting  those trying to escape – are remembered through a one minute silence observed on this date. In German, this group of individuals are simply referred to as the Mauertoten – the dead of the wall. The exact number of people killed in this way remains a controversial question – anything between 130 and 250 individuals, depending on whose figures you trust.
Sensibly, Meck-Pomm’s Left leader, Steffen Bockhahn, was following suit and had organised the one minute silence for his party meeting on that day. Why sensibly? Attempting to explain the wall in a larger historical context is an activity that members of the Left like to indulge in; the Left’s leadership were taking their chance to counterbalance these explanations, vulnerable as they are to misinterpretation when Germany’s media gets hold of them.
Only that three members present refused to stand up for the minute’s silence; one of them, Marianne Linke, will possibly get thrown out the party for not having done so. Defending her action, Linke acknowledged that, “every death is one death too many ... [but that] ... we live in a democracy, in which it should be up to each and every individual, where and with whom – and at which time – she / he chooses to remember which victims. I stayed sitting because I was thinking about the people – including people in my own family – who lost their lives fighting in the class struggle of the last century.” (Translated from: Die Freitheitsliebe.)
For readers outside Germany, Marianne Linke’s words may require some interpretation - which “class struggle” will ancestors of a 66 year old German woman have died in? Mrs Linke may be referring for example to family members who were among the c. 1200 Berliners killed as part of the government clampdown on the revolution of March 1919, or to left-wing individuals killed during the Nazi era.  
Her refusal to stand and her defence of it appear obscure and  petty – does that make them wrong? Of course the dead of the wall shouldn’t be forgotten – does that make it right for us to act as if we had strong feelings about them just when it is convenient for our bosses and for state technocrats that we do so? How many of us have spent one minute silences not remembering, worrying about our straining overdrafts or thinking of those we would like to have an affair with, but won’t?  
            And should we support the privileging of some groups of people murdered by states over other groups of murdered individuals – the separation into the deserving and undeserving dead? Do we also need an annual minute’s silence to remember the 500 000 kids in Iraq in the 1990s, who, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture report of 1995 died as a direct result of western sanctions, sanctions supported by Germany through the instance of the EU?
            Are those who refuse to stand up the truly dangerous ones? Can you, in those moments when you’re refusing to comply, kill with state authority? Aren’t the non-standers, non-sitters, non-speakers, non-eaters, non-glass raisers committing acts of radical pacificism, diminishing the always violent potential of the collective?
            I don’t know anyone here in Germany who had a family member or good friend who became, in death, one of the Mauertoten; if I did I might judge Marianne Linke’s actions differently. The group of Germany’s dead who I feel most responsible for are the c.275,000 individuals with mental and / or physical disabilities murdered on order of the Nazi state in the 1930s and 1940s; because my daughter has a mental disability, I feel a duty to take ownership of this issue. Yet I do not even know whether a special date has been allocated to remember the fate of this group of individuals; if it has, public awareness of it is minimal.
            If remembering these people with disabilities who were killed by Nazi-ism does establish itself on a particular date of the calendar of rememberance, should I feel anger towards the non-observers which there will inevitably be? Let us for a minute take a wedding party as an analogy for a political party: what do you do with the wine-soaked grandfather-in-law, who’s spouting off with his usual bigotry against blacks / arabs / the French, who refuses the conventions that contemporary polite discourse has constructed for him? Do you physically put him out into the rain – or do you tell the old man to shut up, & then divert him by getting him to tell his old dirty jokes, at which he excels?
            Marianne Linke misbehaved; not standing, she refused a convention of contemporary polite German discourse; she refused a political agenda which she considered imposed upon her by the mainstream and with which she couldn’t identify. Will it make a better world to go on marginalising the large numbers of people who will always act like that, by putting them out into the rain? Ah, you say, but a political party is not a wedding party, politicians have to be disciplined and Get Things Done. Yes, Get Things Done, like building walls and fences to keep some in and others out, walls they know that humans will try to cross without authority, humans that they will then kill with their state authority. For killing by the state is the most complete possible form of marginalisation; fleeing the East German state was the strongest form of criticism possible against that state; killing these political refugees was the strongest possible form of silencing that critique.  
            Allowing more mild misbehaviour into daily politics would allow more humanity in there, more daily subversion of those individuals hell bent on Getting Things Done, while lacking compassion for those they are doing the things to. Marianne Linke’s reasons for not standing may have been obtuse; but how do we know when we might next need not to stand, in the presence of authorities we wish to neither honour nor support. 

08 October 2011

Welcome to Goethe's Gonna Getya

          As some of you may have arrived here on Henry Holland's recommendation, I feel at the least obliged to pay him a modicum of respect by introducing myself - and to elucidate how reading my online journal may enlighten and entertain you, the reader. Having struggled all day with this blogging technology, but now, at last, on the verge of communicated speech, I feel a little like Goethe's Faust, waking in a picture book alpine meadow at the start of Faust II, able to deeply forget the psycho terror involved in getting his end away with young Greta in Faust I -  and able to throw himself robustly down new paths of life. Writing to liberate, both the reader and the writer.
          Yet my online journal - as the title suggests - is subject specific; hear here not only an acquaintance's undigested emotionality; read and hear here translations of modern classic & contemporary German poetry; hear the most hair raising stories here, on the politics of this land, Germany, and of this city, Hamburg - and of the chat & the crack between politics, writers & the theatre people. Hear, hear!
        Though hearing Goethe's name in the title & first paragraph will have been enough to have shorn me of a good deal of my audience; in a country where the chasm between high culture and all that other stuff is far greater than back on The Island, most will choose never to cross that chasm, and will rubbish any tidings they hear from the land on the other side of it. Add to that the fact that, after 10 years hearing here, I haven't been able to find a single left-wing leaning German who will admit to liking Goethe, then, well, there was to be no turning back with my choice of title. Goethe's gonna getya - a journal about the power of art to entrance and change you, even amid the most grotty of quotidian cicumstances.
        Naturally, my journal will also be about the subject's inverse - about the many people in Germany who Goethe won't get - who Goethe's works won't help - who wouldn't give a flying fuck for the stuff - and also about those who don't or won't get Goethe. Among the first group I would number many of Germany's prisoners - some of whom I'll be blogging about in the next few days.
            Which only leaves me to give you a welcoming taste of Goethe's Faust in English, in Henry Holland's translation, which he kindly allowed me to use today. Here we find Faust strolling and pontificating about rebirth at Easter, a text that Thalia Theatre's current production of Faust I & II plays up for the rich kitsch possibilities it invites. (The original German text starts "Vom Eise befreit.")

 In there heaven, truly

So turn away now from these heights
to look instead back to the town.
Out of the gate – like a dark, gaping mouth –
is issuing forth a colourful crowd.
Everybody wants to soak up the sun,
and sing the rebirth of The Son,
as they themselves are resurrected:
out of lowly, uncouth houses,
out of the guilds and the bondage of trade,
out of the pressure of gables and slates,
out of streets full of folk packed tight,
out of the churches’ venerable night:
every single one of them is brought into the light.
Look, just look, how speedily the masses
scatter themselves over gardens and fields,
 how the river in its breadth and length,
moves a few jolly boats on the water’s top
til laden right to sinking point
the final barge at last departs.
Even the paths of the far off hills
are flashing to us in their vivid clothes.
I hear the milling throng already,
here are the people in their heaven, truly,
proclaiming, satisfied, large and tiny:
here I am human and here I may be.