18 September 2013

Authors shine while Harbour Front 'Festival' and Spiegel flop: German Book Prize reading with Mirko Bonné and Monika Zeiner

I want to admire Mirko Bonné for the way he does what he does. It's evident that he's not really enjoying the event, but he gets on with it professionally, dealing with Claudia Voigt (Der Spiegel) and her questions patiently, courteously even. Doing events like these are a necessary evil for Bonné if he wants to hold on to the working conditions that he's earned for himself, through which he can live as a full-time writer in the year 2013. Yet apart from giving a small number of writers an income out of which they can write, it's hard to see who the event last Saturday and other similar readings are meant to serve; and why we as an audience should contribute to serving these people.

The reading takes place in a side-wing of Der Spiegel's shiny, glassy, harbour-fronting Hamburg headquarters, an apt building for an institution that thinks more highly of itself than most other people do, its remaining readers included. This self-congratulatory tone spills over into the way in which Volker Hage (Der Spiegel) interviews Monika Zeiner. In the midst of his series of non-questions, he meanders off into a sales-spiel for the print-edition of his magazine, which he pushes to a place where it's getting embarrassing, for his audience at least. Zeiner has the presence of mind to defuse this embarrassment with a joke: 'all right, all right, I'll buy Der Spiegel!' The most memorable line of the evening.
Neither Hage or Voigt seem to know what register to use with their audience, and end up with a hotchpotch in which they speak to us as Educational Representatives of the German Literary Establishment. Hage decides that he needs to explain to us what a blog is, because Bonné writes one, 'Gras', the German spelling of grass. 'It's a kind of online diary', says Hage. Must be his over-brimming pride in his print-edition that prevents him grasping the basics of online cultural discourse. A blog, Mr Hage, is rather unlike a diary. Neither you nor me would spontaneously record the details of our sex-lives or our psychosomatic health disorders on our online, open-access blogs; and who writes full-sentenced reviews of German Book Prize readings in their diaries? Voigt seems equally unsure just how stupid her audience actually is – although that audience looks sharp-witted enough to me. In a question to Bonné, she first refers to him as a Lyriker, the German for poet, but then, apparently worried that someone in the room might not know that word, adds a paraphrase: ' ... you write poems.' Follows this Freudian slipperiness up by asking what criteria he uses to decide whether he opts for poems or prose-fiction in his treatment of any given material. This sounds so much like a question that is asked for the sake of asking a question, rather than a question where Voigt or anybody else cares about the answer. If this is Voigt and Hage following an 'accessible-literature-for-everybody!' agenda, they should go back and rethink both their aims and their methods.
It's a shame that these tedious interviews overshadow Bonné's and Zeiner's readings out their novels, both of which are on the six-book shortlist for the German Book Prize, the winner of which will be announced on 7th October. Bonné reads a passage from his novel Nie mehr Nacht, a book which could work under the title of The Final Nights in English. The middle-aged protagonist has been driving through the night from Germany to Normandy, his music addicted teenage relative in the passenger seat beside him. Driving finally into Normandy, they have a brief conflict about whether Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit is a suitable soundtrack for the landscape. I'd have loved to have heard a blast of Nirvana coming through the sound-system either before or after the event, any mechanism actually, capable of breaking down the stiffness, the North-German-ness, that hung in the air. But all we got was musak while we waited for the delayed talk to start, inconsequential, and appropriate.

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