(Clemens Meyer at the Leipzig Book Festival, 2010)
I had got it wrong, quite, quite wrong. I'd read Katy (Derbyshire) hyping, pushing, gushing about & explaining this man on her Love German Books, but I wasn't able to trust her backing Meyer. I thought self-interest was at play, that she's only praising this guy to the heavens cause she's already had her translation of one of Meyer's books published, & maybe more are in the pipeline. (Why, actually, are you guys hanging round reading this, when you could be reading literature? - Katy's translation of 'All the Lights' by Clemens Meyer is purchasable here.) But thank God I did read Katy communicating Meyer, even if I mis-read her. That misreading was enough to make me get a ticket to hear and see Meyer reading on the old trans-atlantic ferry boat, The Cap San Diego, two nights ago as part of the Harbour Front Festival.We walk down steep metal steps into the hold of the boat, a guide coming down behind me is telling his party that these huge vats we see on the walls around us used to hold the heating oil. Large info-panels hanging from the ceiling tell the story of the ship, the floods of émigrés. Jews fleeing torched houses back in Bismark's Germany, the unemployed fleeing poverty. This event hall is packed, as the ship must have often been when it was still sailing.
Meyer appeals to me from the start, as he never gives smooth, glib answers to the questions posed by Antje Flemming from the Literaturhaus in Hamburg. She does a marvellous job, staying persistent about the questions that matter to her, and not letting herself be ruffled by Meyer's prickliness. The pair obviously know each other a little; they've certainly built up rapport with each other in advance of the event -- a must if an interview about a complex aesthetic subject, literature, is going to work live on stage. Why wasn't it possible to build up this rapport between author-interviewees and interviewers at the Harbour Front before the reading last Saturday at Der Spiegel?
Meyer comes across as an angry young man who has found a righteous way to sublimate that anger -- into his books, but also into the way he acts in public. No, he says, he doesn't feel proud about the fact that one of Germany's highest circulation current affairs magazines, Focus, has just compared his writing in his latest novel with Hemingway's. His style in Im Stein, his latest, isn't anything like Hemingways. says Meyer; the comparison might have fitted to some of his earlier writings, but not to this book -- the Focus commentator has either mis-read Hemingway, or he's misread Meyer. Or he's misread both.
His answers sometime ramble, but wherever he rambles off to is just as interesting as where he started, compelling storyteller that he is, whether you're listening to him or reading him. He does nothing to hide his Saxonian accent, which wins him for me before we've really started. The Saxonian -- alongside the Swabian -- is the accent north Germans make most fun of, saying it sounds stupid and ugly. The Brummie of the German accents if you like, it's that low status. Meyer uses it freely, showing he cares not a fig for petty bourgeois snobbishness: his mind's away at work on far higher things.
Meyer is very serious and edgy, but is also able to 'see himself as others see him'. A youngish, bespectacled, edgy writer with big things on the go and the talent to back them can be a funny thing for an audience. ''I'm now going to read the first chapter, titled '123', and am then going to go on and read from the 3nd section of that 2nd chapter, if you follow me." Audience laughs. Meyer, dead-pan: "I actually find that inappropriate," he says, turning to his interviewer, "I just told them that 'I'm going to read the first chapter, titled '123' and so on. And then they laugh. No, I don't think that's on.'' A short, unpleasant moment as the audience feels scolded. And afterwards it comes to you that Meyer savours unpleasant moments. That he feeds off them.
An almost 600 page novel set around sex-workers in a fictionalised, former East German city might sound like too much unpleasantness, so that many prospective readers are put off even starting the novel. Having now heard Meyer read two excerpts from it live on Wednesday, that would be a great pity. The city is a fictionalised version of Leipzig, made much bigger, and Meyer says that it, the city, should be seen as a central character in the big. This thought excited me: I've long longed for a novel like that about my native city, Edinburgh, but in vain. There isn't one. Meyer's approach reminds me of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's city in Grey Granite (1932), a composite of Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, and maybe similarly motivated: ''I wanted the freedom'' as Meyer simply puts it, explaining his fictionalised metropolis. Freedom, self-determination, refusing to judge yourself by the standards of others: unexpected in a novel about sex-workers, but these, on first impressions at least, appear to be major themes of Im Stein. For the first time, since many a vote or a prize-winning, I'm feeling that I care who wins: will he get the German Book Prize come October 7th?