Adam Ash

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Bookplanet: German novels are selling abroad

The New German Novel: Less Weighty, More Exportable -- by CARTER DOUGHERTY

FRANKFURT, Dec. 19 - Through all the hard-drinking nights and hazy mornings, the characters in Sven Regener's novel "Herr Lehmann" take scant notice of the seismic shifts happening on their doorstep in Berlin. It is 1989, the year the wall fell, but Mr. Regener's motley crew of down-and-out characters can't be bothered.

And Norwegians, it turns out, adore the book even though it pointedly ignores a historic moment in Europe. Cappelen, an Oslo publisher, took a chance on Mr. Regener, a first-time German novelist, by purchasing the rights to publish there, and now finds itself savoring success - roughly 7,500 copies sold in that tiny market - of a book that is simultaneously mundane and delightful.

"It's a marvelous book, both very funny and easy to identify with," said Cappelen's editor in chief, Anne Flotaker. "We were also quite keen on publishing a German writer who did not come across as heavy-handed and old-fashioned, one who might not live up to all our prejudices of what German literature is."

Having eschewed the traditional model of heavy, politics-laden prose in favor of light, even lively storytelling, German authors are in the midst of a breakthrough that is propelling their work to hitherto unfound success abroad.

Giants like Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll have handed the world books known at least as much for their intellectual heft as for their riveting narratives. In the 1980's, Patrick Süskind achieved widespread attention with "Perfume," a brisk-selling tale of a Frenchman with obsessive olfactory interests. But in the last few years, a new layer of books, occupying the wide middle ground between timelessness and pulp, is achieving recognition.

"My first sale got me peanuts 20 years ago, and that was a massive success for me then," said Tanja Howarth, a literary agent for German publishers who has worked in London since the 1980's.

Recently, six British publishers bid for the rights to publish "Der Schachautomat" ("The Chess Automat"), a quirky historical yarn by Robert Löhr about a 19th-century inventor who creates a puppet that plays chess. Ms. Howarth said the six-figure advance paid by Penguin Books demonstrated the potential it saw in the book.

Sales numbers for quality works in translation seldom break records. And in the United States, a sought-after market, only 2 percent of publications are works in translation, according to the German Book Office, a publishers' trade group that recently conducted a survey of Publishers Weekly, the top industry journal, to assess trends in non-American literature. It found that Germany had edged up on the list of countries whose works were discussed in the journal, from third in 2004 to first this year, said its director, Ricky Stout.

Two separate trends in German publishing over the last five to seven years have transformed what appears under the label "written in Germany" and amplified news of the change to the wider world, people in Germany and abroad said.

When Oprah Winfrey recommended Bernard Schlink's novel "The Reader" to her book club members in 1999, she did more than guide them toward a novel of a confused love affair between a teenage boy and an older women. She clued them in to a good story with a dash of politics - the woman eventually goes on trial as a concentration camp guard - but with narrative drive.

Mr. Schlink's book has been followed by works from a host of German authors, some older but many who emerged toward the end of the cold war and in the 90's, who are ready to tell a story for its own sake. The universality of a good read trumps borders any day.

"The Germans have made my job a little easier, especially in the last couple of years," said Rebecca Morrison, the London-based publisher of "New Books in German," an English-language anthology of summaries of recent works.

The aftermath of the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair, where many publishers reported heavy interest in translating German books, has convinced many German publishers that Mr. Schlink's success in the United States was no fluke.

"Die Vermessung der Welt" ("The Measurement of the World"), a historical novel by Daniel Kehlmann, wound around the 19th-century lives of a mathematician and an explorer, has been bought by publishers in most of Europe and in North America. Perhaps less surprising, Michael Wallner's "April in Paris," a polished story of love between a German soldier and a French resistance fighter in World War II, has also been sold abroad.

But their success probably owes something to the end of German passivity in promoting cultural wares, publishers said.

"New Books in German," created by the German book trade association, takes aim at publishers abroad who do not speak the language. The group also awarded the German Book Prize, consciously modeled on Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize, for the first time in 2005. Arno Geiger, a 37-year-old Austrian, won for his novel "Es Geht Uns Gut" ("We're Doing Well"), a tale of a fractured family in postwar Vienna.

For British publishers, who have for years been aware of the consistent French efforts to sell French literature, a little German activism is welcome.

"Everybody here talks about their romantic, formative years in Paris, but nobody's really in love with Germany and they don't read German," said François von Hurter, who runs the Bitter Lemon Press in London, a publisher of crime novels. "So they basically ignored it."

It helps too that German literary critics, for years the doctrinaire guardians of solemnity in books, have changed.

Younger Germans, writing in the country's leading newspapers, have infiltrated their ranks and become vital conduits of new books. And even Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the stodgy dean of critics, confessed that reading "Herr Lehmann" was a guilty pleasure he would recommend to others.

At the leading edge of success abroad lie the writers. Once content to write for a small circle of readers at home, they have tuned their antennae toward the rest of world, testing out ideas on publishers with an eye toward eventual sales abroad.

"The authors place value on being known internationally," said Wolfgang Hörner, Mr. Regener's editor at Eichborn Berlin, which published "Herr Lehmann" in Germany. "When I talk to them and talk about books, I get questions about whether other countries would be interested in this book. That's very much a new phenomenon."


At 1/08/2006 11:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

check out GOOGLE

Cay Marchal

Taipei Times

German writer writes in CHinese

At 1/08/2006 11:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Writing in Chinese is a learning curve for German expatriate

Cay Marchal visited Taipei on a stopover and was inspired enough to
return and become an author of Chinese books

By Dan Bloom (

Cay Marchal was on his way from Germany to Japan in 2001 when his
plane touched down in Taipei for a stopover, but he ended up staying
in the city for two days because Typhoon Nara was keeping planes

That was his initial taste of Taiwan, and later, after a year working
as a German teacher in Japan, Marchal decided he wanted to come here
to live and work on a Ph.D. dissertation. He was accepted as a
visiting scholar at Academia Sinica, in Nankang, and the 31-year-old
German national has been here ever since.

Marchal, who writes under a Chinese pen name, has also done something
few Westerners here have done. In September, he published a book of
essays that he wrote in Chinese, and the book was released by a major
publisher in Taipei, with several Chinese-language newspapers taking
note of the unusual way the book found its way to publication in

Titled A Guide to My Foreign Soul in Taiwan, Marchal's book was
published by Aquarius Books in Taipei. The first printing was 3,000
copies and a second printing has been released as well. In addition,
Marchal has appeared on a few TV and radio shows and sat for several
newspaper interviews, to promote the book.

"The book happened like this," Marchal, a native of Wilhelmshaven in
northern Germany, said in a recent e-mail. "Two years ago, I submitted
some freelance essays to [a Chinese-language newspaper] and the
editors there later asked me to write a weekly column. I did this for
about a year-and-a-half, and I wrote all the columns in Chinese by
myself. After writing about 60 columns, I thought it might be
interesting to try to collect them into a book, for publication here,
and I was lucky enough to find a publisher at Aquarius Books."

When asked how, as a native German-speaker he learned to write in
Chinese, Marchal explained, "I first started studying Chinese in 1994
in Germany, taking classes for about two years, and then studying on
my own. Later, I went to Beijing for about 10 months in 1996 and

Marchal finished his masters degree in 2000, writing a paper about The
Book of Changes, and in 1999 studied French literature, Chinese and
Arabic philosophy at the Ecole Normale.

"I had always thought about trying to write in Chinese, the idea was
always in the back of my mind. So in the 1990s, I began trying to
write some short sketches, diary entries, letters, things like that,
even some classical Chinese verses. But I was always, quite frankly,
scared about this attempt to write in Chinese. It's a daunting

"In the winter of 2001, I met an editor of a Chinese-language literary
magazine in Osaka, while I was working in Japan, and during our
conversations and meetings, I began to feel that maybe, yes, someday
it might be possible to actually write in Chinese. Later, when I came
to Taiwan, I began to see my way even more clearly."

"In my book, I have written also about the problem of trying to write
in Chinese," Marchal said. "There is an American writer in Japan named
Ian Hideo Levy, and he is one of the few non-Japanese writers to write
novels in Japanese directly by his own hand, without translations, so
I guess he has gone through similar experiences as I have in trying to
write in Chinese."

"There is also a Persian woman named Fatima, or Yen-ying in Chinese,
her name is very famous in Chinese literature, because the writer
Eileen Chang wrote about her in some essays: how they lived together
as students in Hong Kong during World War II in the 1940s, how they
went out to the cafes and to cinema, how was their life in these small
dormitories students used to live in at that time," Marchal said.

"In my book, I write a lot about Taiwan and Asia. But I approached
everything from a subjective [point of view], writing about and
thinking about things that happened to me," Marchal said.

"In my book, readers will find some stories about my days in Taipei, a
mixture of Graham Greene-like ironical impromptu [writing] and
classical Chinese prose," Marchal said.

"For example, one story in the book focuses on a poster of Che Guevara
that I saw in a bar here one day, and another chapter is about those
coffee-table books with wedding photos that one can find near the
Zhongshan MRT station, and another story is about how Vincent van Gogh
studied calligraphy."

"Actually, my book is not about Taiwan so much as about how a
European, or a cosmopolitan person, might see the world here in
Taiwan," Marchal said.

"You know, while I am here, it's never possible to forget the distance
between Taiwan and Europe and the loneliness of living in a foreign
country without being able to see, on a regular basis, all the people
I know back in Europe -- my family, my friends, my mentors. For me,
living in Taiwan at this period in my life, I can say that it feels a
bit like being Yen-ying in Hong Kong in the 1940s, but without
somebody like Eileen Chang helping me out."


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