2013 in #fridayreads: a self-indulgent post

Sabbatical came to an end, and with it the spare time and reflective capacity for regular blogging. This makes me sad, and my new year’s resolution is to communicate far more on this blog, for there are many brilliant projects I would love to share with you and hear your input on. In lieu of a proper narrative post, I am going to give you what has become known as a listicle; a list of all the books I read this year, on trains, planes and late at night, when I wasn’t reading articles or academic books. The Holocaust novels were work books, but the rest were read for pleasure, if only, I fear, the childish pleasure of sneering, in some cases.

(Last year’s Friday Reads are here.)

Novels about the Holocaust

Der Siebente Brunnen, by Fred Wander was probably the best, Ruth Klüger’s unterwegs verloren was as well as a memoir of post-Holocaust damage, a salutory warning about life in the German studiesacademic trade. Also, Chasing the King of Hearts, by Hanna Krall, a Polish Holocaust melodrama; Jakob der Lügner, Der Boxer and Bronsteins Kinder by Jurek Becker, who is schmaltzy and strangely sad, and Nackt under Wölfen by Bruno Apitz, now fallen out of favour owing to having been a communist. I cannot say I recommend the novel, precisely, but I do think it is a fascinating phenomenon. Also Mendelssohn is on the Roof, by Jiri Weil, a Czech survivor, an unbearably beautiful and elegant Holocaust novel about the occupation of Prague. Read it.

Otherwise, novels in rough order of reading:

Translated by Jamie Bullock: Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast, a timeless classic about a domineering father, perhaps a little dated thanks to its link to the fall of the Wall, but then not.

– The Taste of Apple Seeds, by my beautiful ex-DAAD-lektorin, Katherina Hagena, who fed my imagination with German Romantic water nymphs and lent me a bike in Hamburg in 1997. A satisfying family saga with a happy ending, drenched in the atmosphere of the apple country around Hamburg.

Capital, by John Lanchester: Why don’t people write capacious nineteenth-century Trollope-esque books any more, critics cry? Well, now they do, in spades, and they clank and creak and groan with their oldfashionedness. In Capital, Asians are all hardworking corner shop managers or impressionable young terrorists, bankers are wankers and African refugees clever, hard-working and doomed. The property bubble serves as a metaphor for the British nation, except when deserving people inherit the unearned wealth. Very, very readable, and certainly an improvement on the dreadful December, where Sebastian Faulks tried the same trick from a sour rightist perspective.

Room, by Emma Donoghue. Why not take the tragic Fritzl case, strip it of all its political aspects, set it in milchtoast American suburbia, and turn it into an allegory for attachment parenting? Because you’d get this mawkish book.

Claustria, by Régis Jauffret. A far darker, nastier, more political retelling of the Fritzl story. I am still not convinced that it is a story worth re-telling.

Poor Miss Finch, by Wilkie Collins. LOFELY FEENCH, a beautiful rustic English maiden, is blind! With a terror of the colour blue! And then she falls in love with a man who TURNS BLUE! And then she’s cured of her blindness, so his NON-BLUE TWIN must masquerade as him! Poor Miss Finch! This is a great book.

Metropole, by Karinthy Ferenc. This was a random Kindle purchase, but perhaps the best book of the year: elegant Hungarian modernist allegory of the absurd and the existential in the city, Miéville meets Kafka meets Zamyatin. Excellent, and wonderfully translated by George Szirtes.

The Devil I Know, by Claire Kilroy. Another elegant allegory, this one of the Celtic Tiger. Also wonderful, and genuinely unheimlich in parts, with the devil dancing rings around Howth Head.

The Mill for grinding old people young, by Glenn Patterson. A Belfast historical novel that I wanted to love, and that sung with description, but didn’t really speak to me.

Dotter of her father’s eyes, by Mary M. Talbot. Graphic memoir about her own life story interwoven with Lucia Joyce’s. I enjoyed it, but my Joycean knowlege is  too coloured by the O’Brien Nora biography for me to buy Talbot’s sympathetic portrayal of Lucia as a victim at the hands of her uncaring father. By all accounts I have read, Lucia was very sick and Jim did his absolute best to support her independent and creative life.

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling. Now if you are going to do latter-day nineteenth-century bourgeois novels, this is how to do them: with a searing Labour-driven rage about social injustice, vile and horribly real teenagers, the toxins of snobbery and the nastiness of the housing market, in a wee English town. Much, much better than Harry Potter, and a real treat.

The Soldier’s Song and his two lachrymose companions, by Alan Monaghan. Irish First World War saga. Excellent comfort reading in the dog days of summer.

Railsea, by China Miéville. He quits the discredited Socialist Workers Party, he writes rollicking classics like these. He’s on a roll. Hooray for Miéville.

Far North, by Marcel Theroux: A dystopian fantasy too icy to melt my heart. And one that makes little emotional sense, saving as it does its brutalised heroine’s innocence to the end. But well put together, if you like that kind of thing.

The Dinner, by Hermann Koch, because it was a quid on the Kindle. A Dutch Lionel Shriver. This is not a compliment.

A Few Green Leaves , by Barbara Pym. WILL the village spinster marry the vicar? I am sure none of us can wait to find out!

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Now THIS, this is what excellent middle-brow fiction is all about. Hilarious, absorbing, political, internetty, sexy, with good fashion and astute observation of displacement, adolescence, America, Nigeria. I wanted it never to end.

1913: The Year before the Storm, by Florian Illes. Illes made his name with a pop book called Generation Golf, and this drops just as many brand names, only this time they are modernists – Mahler! Mann! Proust! – instead of 80s consumer gadgets. But the effect is the same.

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann: about the arduous crossings between Ireland and America, of one family’s story and the unexplored undersides of transnational Irish history. I adored its unhurried but absorbing tales: the link between Frederick Douglass and the unimaginable horrors of the Famine, the first airmen’s adventures and the devastation left behind by the Troubles. Then I read a review that pointed out it was more than a little sugary and uncritical, and felt a little ashamed of myself. However. I enjoyed it immensely.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen: Oh, Franzen, your questionable Kraus Project, even if it does focus on Austro-Hungarian modernism, has done little to endear your writing to me. Guess what? Locking yourself in a room away from the internet does not seem to yield brilliant insight into a world of literature and imagination! I fear that such celebrated isolation might instead produce smug and introverted fiction that is witless about reality. Freedom is supposed to be another neo-realist novel that saves plot and character from the clever-clever onslaught of postmodernism, but unlike proper C19 novels, and unlike Lanchester and Rowling, not one of his Mid-Western characters has to worry about money. I repeat: the novel is a State of the Nation take on the Dilemma of Freedom, but without money constraints. It’s the worst kind of white man’s fantasy about human nature. Franzen, please recall: from Austen to David Lodge, the motor of the bourgeois novel is money, who has it, who inherits it, who steals it, who dies for lack of it. Also, your writing style is leaden and your book is far, far too long.

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner: one of the neo-cosmopolitan novels written by young brilliant Americans in the wake of Teju Cole. Chilly, perhaps frozen by history; it is a good book, drenched in booze and sex and intellectual failure, but not a perfect one.

Rivers of London and all her foxy daughters, by Ben Aaronovitch. I am late to this party, but what a party it is. I and the rest of the planet adore these books. You like silly fantasy? You like escapist Londony fiction? You like Miéville but could do without the pompous intellectual fireworks? Run, don’t walk.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. But run AWAY from this one. If Mr. Penumbra had been published fifteen years ago, it would have been called an Internet Novel, because it’s all about the tussle of Google versus the Book. Nowadays, all novels are internet novels, so it has lost its novelty. This is NaNoWriMo-esque drivel, featuring a nerd, a manic pixie dream girl and a Mysterious Magic Bookshop, reconciles Google and the novel overnight in a sugary marriage not unlike the end of Metropolis. Mr. Penumbra makes me sorry about the future of the novel; the Kindle hasn’t killed it off, but what has it done to impressionable writers’ skills?

The Property, by Ruta Modani. Israeli graphic novel about a family returning to Warsaw to try and claim the family home. Bittersweet, with some vicious satirical bite, and quite a bit of sentiment. The love stories overwhelm the politics, in the end; how very heartwarming.

Long Walk To Freedom, by Nelson Mandela. Read just before he died. It is somewhat hard work, and you can tell when the editor pleads with the inveterate politician to put in some personal colour among the endless committee meetings, but gosh, it is an education. Essential.

In Love’s Place, by Etienne Van Heerden. A serendipitous discovery; I wouldn’t have read this if I hadn’t met Van Heerden at an event in Bloemfontein, but I actually think it’s rather good. Sombre, reflective, sprawling saga of post-apartheid life in Cape Town and the impoverished badlands thereabout.

NW, by Zadie Smith: some called this a daring modernist experiment; I say that modernism is a hoary old box of tricks invented a hundred years hence, and NW reprises some of them without any great aesthetic innovation. The heart of this novel, about a working-class Londoner’s education as a lawyer and the vicious multiple obstacles put in the way of poor black kids, is wonderful, the rest could go and hang out in Lanchester’s Capital. Definitely worth it, but perhaps would be better as an incisive novella, not a baggy Smithy novel.

When We Were Bad: A Novel, by Charlotte Mendelssohn. Family saga in Jewish North London. Funny, somewhat truthful and absorbing, if a little heartwarming in the end.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding. Oh, we all love Bridget. We love her most pissed and on Twitter, and least having a mawkishly perfect relationship with her angelic posh moppet children, but she’s still always great fun to hang out with.

Stoner: A Novel , by John Williams, the Rediscovered Classic of the year. Beautifully sombre mid-century modernism, and the pains and truths of a life in academic literary studies unfolded. Stoner never publishes but the one book, the book of his thesis, and he dies holding the book, all alone. Nonetheless, his students love him and Stoner truly believes in letters; perhaps that belief and that love is all a life needs. I can see why John McGahern loved this novel. A truly great novel would have turned to look at the nasty gender and race issues that it pushes aside in favour of the white male American tragedy, though.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: endlessly self-indulgent, dear, and with that ghastly middle-brow fascination with high art. Stop telling me how wonderful the seventeenth-century painting is, how noble the unworldly furniture restorer, how vile Las Vegas is and how poetic your tiresome drunk Russian teen. Stop talking, Donna. Now look around. Where has your plot gone? Is it about that manic pixie dream girl? That terrorist event in New York? That implausible painting heist? Stop and think. Oh, all right then, don’t bother, just keep on chundering out those drug-addled monologues. Everyone will buy you and review you anyway.

Another Country, by James Baldwin, my current read. Blistering mid-century modernism that turns around and snarls brilliantly, queerly in Stoner’s lumpen mid-western face. While freshening everyone’s drink, of course, because that is what everyone does even in the most luminous and scorching of mid-century modern American novels.

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Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British Library

It’s not often that I’m down in London and able to swank around all the amazing literary and German-language events here, but that’s the joy of sabbatical! Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to go to an Open University-sponsored event on Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British library, with German literary hero Birgit Vanderbeke, translation hero Jamie Bulloch, and new literary heroes Jordi Punti, Miha Mazzini and Maja Visenjak Limon.

I first encountered Vanderbeke’s work eight years ago, when I taught Geld oder Leben (Your Money Or Your Life) to first year students at Trinity College Dublin, and was enchanted by how angry the students were at the critique of capitalism in the seemingly guileless novel. How dare Vanderbeke suggest that there might be a way of living outside capitalism! How dare her deceptively simple prose lead the teenagers into an unexpected linguistic critique of marketing! I developed a healthy respect for her dark literary arts.

The British Library didn’t showcase one superstar, though – it created a brilliant, transEuropean dialogue on literature between five brilliant, opinionated and collegiate literary experts. I livetweeted the discussion under the hashtag #wct, if you’re interested in reliving the experience via breathless Twitter, but what’s missing there is the repartee, the translation heresies and the shared vision of European literature that emerged.

Translation heresy was definitely a theme – Limon confessed to translating into her second language, Bulloch to not knowing or caring much about literary theory, and Vanderbeke vigorously asserted that translation had to disrespect, indeed destroy the text to bring it closer to a new audience. Quite fabulous.

But even more moving than the translation heresy was the passionate commitment to translation in evidence. Although all three writers declared emphatically that writing with a translator in mind would be impossible, all three argued that translation is essential to literature, and indeed to human communication – it allows us to see the human in someone who is far away. Punti argued eloquently that European culture has in fact been constituted by inter-European translation, from the first Catalan translations of Dante in the fifteenth century onwards, and that Europe can be seen as a space of distinct but interlinking translation traditions – the Mediterranean tradition, the Slav tradition, and the declining but crucially important U.K. tradition.

There were many more insights in the mix, from discussions about new readability and the influence of Anglo-Saxon plot-driven fiction on other languages, to concerns about the number of national literatures that are becoming increasingly insular. I even managed to ask Vanderbeke and Bulloch a question about the Nachleben of Vanderbeke’s Muschelessen: what does it mean to have a text translated almost 25 years later? (Vanderbeke said that this book is an exception, it has stayed alive through readings and dialogues and constant publications ever since she first wrote it in 1989). I didn’t get a chance to tell her how delighted I was that her work managed to outrage my students so thoroughly eight years ago, but instead I left with a new reading list and a renewed passion for translation – an even more important gift.

Guilty Pleasures of the Year 2012: a year in #fridayreads

It would be wonderful, of course, to write an elegant in-depth review of every book I read, but that is an aspiration reserved for the more serious book bloggers out there. Instead, I have compiled a short, ascerbic and in no way particularly reflected selection of my leisure reading this year below. Kafka, Adler and my colleagues’ monographs predominate in my non-leisure reading, but on the train, late at night and in the bath, here’s what I finished and, mostly, enjoyed, in 2012:

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Book of the year, of the decade: Open City, by Teju Cole. So wonderful and Sebaldian and cerebral and beautiful that I need to wait a year and read it again and make it part of my life.

Other runners-up: Traveller of the Century, by Andres Neuman, lovely whimsical romance set in Biedermeier Mitteldeutschland, full of the sounds of Schubert and the plots of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the daffy ideas of German idealists.

South Riding, by Winifred Holtby, which is completely absorbing, combining Brontëesque passions with some good solid Marxism. Excellent stuff.

Tales from the Mall, by Ewan Morrison: half Fast Food Nation anti-capitalist rant, half flash fiction set in Scottish malls. Wildly entertaining.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels, which I glugged down one by one in Germany, as thirsty as the aristocratic alcoholic protagonists. They left little trace, but were wonderfully biting.

The empty family, and A Guest at the Feast, by Colm Tóibín, who cannot write an untrue sentence.

Hope. A Tragedy, by Shalom Ausländer. Post-Holocaust, riotously impious novel. What would you do, dear reader, if you found an aged, filthy and spiteful Anne Frank in your attic?

Kraken, by China Miéville: squiddy fantasy fun from everyone’s favourite Socialist Worker

Pack Men, by Alan Bissett: aaaah, so brilliant! Masculinity tenderly filleted, with a side order of Manchester streetscape, Scottish culture and queer sex. Just: fab.

The Journey, Oh! What a beautiful Sunday and Literature or Life, by Jorge Semprún: amazingly sharp, moral literature by a Marxist philosopher who survived Buchenwald.

The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander: conventional but gripping and moving novel about disappearances in the Argentinian dictatorship.

HHhH, by Laurent Binet: Binet manages to pull off both a meta-reflection on the ethical pitfalls of writing historical fiction, and an utterly gripping and moving account of the heros who assassinated Heydrich.

Inoffensive: Disgrace, by Coetzee: very well-done, yes, and I certainly learned a lot about white people in South Africa. I suspect the correct adjective is ‘fine’, or even more dispiriting, ‘Booker-prize-winning’.

Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson: she really is gloriously unhinged at times, but such madness is ideally suited to Pendle witch fiction.

Thursbitch, by Alan Garner: Perhaps it is the Manchester hinterland that sends writers gloriously mad. More dark magic lurks in the Cheshire hills.

Stasiland, by Anna Funder: not the GDR I know from friends who grew up in the former East, but quite gripping, still.

Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille: WELL GOSH.

Pleasured, by Philip Hensher: fun, well-done fall-of-the-Berlin-wall saga.

Gewalten, by Clemens Meyer: fantastic, foulmouthed prose fizzing with energy and intelligence.

There but for the, by Ali Smith. Wry, well-observed State of the Middle Classes epic in miniature.

Imperium, by Christian Kracht: rollicking adventures of a deluded German vegetarian in the South Seas before the outbreak of WW1. Enjoyable and not remotely racist, despite some odd fight on the matter in the media.

Entertaining Trash for those brainfree moments: Historical tosh by Karen Maitland, feminist chicklit by Mhairi McFarlane, scabrous Jude in Ireland by Julian Gough.

Not So Amazing: Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis: evidently initiated the manic, maximalist, magical voice–of-the-Nazi-perpetrator narrative that Jonathan Littell continued two decades later. I still think it’s a meretricious kind of achievement. Mass murderers are not interesting.

Zoo Time, by Howard Jacobson: I loved the rants about middlebrow fiction, but not so much the creaking misogyny. Sigh.

Childish Loves, by Benjamin Markovits: I really wanted to love this, but in the end just couldn’t. Byron is horrible, and effete New York writers with midlife crises just too dull.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman: the premise of a self-conscious meta-magic-novel set in Narnia is brilliant, but why make the protagonist really miserable all the way through?

There were a lot of books that I ordered from the library and never read, including most of the Booker shortlist. Whoops. Perhaps I should call them up again. This was also the year I got a Kindle and, much to my surprise, I find I really dislike reading books on it, find it stressful and unsatisfying, and would far rather have the comforting heft of a paper book in my hand. It is wonderfully convenient for travelling, but I always look forward to picking up real books when I come home.

I always mean to read more history and sociology, but never do, and am sure I have missed some wonderful new gems. Readers, what have I left out?

Delighted, honoured, and cheap: AHRC fellowship for ‘The politics of transmission of Holocaust testimony in the German cultural field’

I’m delighted and a little overwhelmed to be able to announce that I’ve been awarded an AHRC Early Career Fellowship for my next research project, ‘The politics of transmission of Holocaust testimony in the German cultural field’. There were only seven awards in the whole of the UK, and mine seems to have come in as the cheapest, which obviously makes me a bargain! On a more serious note, of the seven fellowships awarded, two of them went to German Studies at Leeds – mine and my colleague Professor Stuart Taberner‘s – and a third went to another inspiring and senior scholar in German and translation studies, Professor Jean Boase-Beier of UEA. An amazing vote of confidence for my department, and a fantastic statement of support for German studies nationally. It’s wonderful that the Arts and Humanities Research Council is promoting German and translation studies at a time when the modern languages community really needs support.

My project grew out of my work on H. G. Adler with Professor Frank Finlay. As I researched in Adler’s archive to discover why his literary testimonials to the Holocaust struggled to find publishers and readers, I started wondering whether he was alone in finding the path to publication difficult. In the difficult post-war years, was a canon of Holocaust literature in German established which implicitly excluded some writers, and why did it do so? Was there a particular difficulty about writing in German about the Holocaust that made it hard to have testimonials published and read? I formulated these working research questions, as I read further:

  • How was a canon of German-language Holocaust testimony formed throughout the 1940s and 1950s?
  • What impact has this hitherto unrecognised canon had on later German-language literature about the Holocaust?
  • How and why have German-speaking literary witnesses to the Holocaust challenged this canon?

My study proposes that in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, an unacknowledged canon of Holocaust literature was formed in Germany. I’m aiming to create an innovative methodology, drawing on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu as well as on close literary analysis, to account for the mechanisms that ‘canonised’ some writers of German-language testimonial literature about the Holocaust and, more importantly, ‘excluded’ others. My project looks at a series of nine case studies, selected for their exemplary status as excluded writers from the canon of Holocaust literature over the course of the period 1945- 2012.

I suspect that my chosen writers were excluded for various reasons: because of being in exile and away from powerful networks of writers, because of writing in an unfashionable or controversial style (don’t be too funny!), because of their political opinions (a minefield in both parts of a divided Germany) and gender. These are working hypotheses, of course, and I’ll be finding out how the path to canonisation was formed as I dig deeper in the authors’ archives.

More formally, my project addresses the following research questions:

1. How was a canon of German-language Holocaust literature first formed in the 1950s, subsequently challenged in the 1960s and rediscovered and/or remediated in the decades that followed? What rules governed the process by which certain German-language authors had their Holocaust literature or literary testimony canonized, whereas other authors were excluded?

2. What influence has this canon had on later Holocaust literature in German, and how has it been remediated in other, German-or English-language literatures? How has this canon of German Holocaust testimony been remediated as a way to ‘read’ and ‘come to terms with’ other traumas in different, often transnational contexts?

My concrete plans for the fellowship include a monograph, an edited volume, and two conference papers. In addition, I hope to establish a network of scholars concerned with canon-formation in Holocaust literature and its remediation.

As part of the project, I’m co-establishing a Holocaust Memorial Day project based both in the University of Leeds and the wider Leeds community. I’ve also been involved in establishing links with the University of the Free State in South Africa, sharing insights into the role of literature and the literary canon in mediating testimony and trauma in post-Apartheid South Africa. In collaboration with Professor Taberner, I’ve established contact both with the Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State, and with the Holocaust and Genocide Foundation in South Africa, and we’ve established an ongoing dialogue between UK and South African Holocaust researchers and  educators. I’ll post more about this aspect of the project shortly – it’s complex, exciting and very sensitive.

In addition, the University of Leeds has been generous enough to co-fund a PhD studentship that will be associated with the project. Watch this space for an advertisement!

I’m still overwhelmed and honoured at the award – and excited to start delving in the archives…

Clemens Meyer visits Leeds

Thanks to funding from the DAAD, I and the German department at Leeds were able to host renowned Leipzig writer Clemens Meyer in Leeds for two days. The highlight of his visit was a packed-out bilingual reading at Leeds Central Library. Alumni from German, German students from several universities, members of the Leeds Anglo-German Society, SMLC academics and the general public were held captive by Clemens’s entertaining and raucous bilingual reading.

The evening started in German, when Clemens read from his short story, set in a prison, ‘Wir reisen’, and then switched to English when Dr. Catriona Firth read from the English translation. Clemens has often been compared to Irvine Welsh, so Dr. Firth’s Glasgow accent seemed appropriate! However, in interview with me afterwards, he admitted that while he admired Trainspotting, he doesn’t feel much affinity with Welsh’s later work. When discussing the short story form, film and the question of East German literature after the fall of the Wall, Clemens revealed an astonishingly wide range of literary influences and references, from Goethe to Yorkshire’s own David Peace. He also reacted robustly to the German press’s frequently dismissive attitude to his gritty writing from the streets of Leipzig. ‘They call me a one-trick-pony: well, I’m not, but better a one-trick-pony than a no-trick-pony!’ he said.

Clemens also taught a creative writing workshop and a translation workshop with students of all levels during his time at Leeds.

We had an even more raucous time afterwards in the Reliance pub, discussing Scottish nationalist film and East German scooters, but the less said about that, perhaps the better…

Thanks are due to the DAAD for co-financing his visit, the University of Leeds SMLC Literary Studies Research Group for organising the ‘International Writers at Leeds’ series, to Leeds Central Library for hosting the reading and inaugurating a partnership, and to Clemens’s publisher And Other Stories for making the visit possible.

Clemens’s visit follows in a long line of visits by distinguished German literary guests to Leeds, showing the strong links between teaching literature, translation and literary research at Leeds.

About Clemens Meyer

Clemens Meyer is a leading light among young German writers. His publishers And Other Stories describe him as a born storyteller. Born in 1977 in what was then East Germany, he studied at the German Literature Institute, Leipzig.

He won a number of prizes for his first novel Als wir träumten (While We Were Dreaming), published in 2006, in which a group of friends grow up and go off the rails in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Die Nacht, die Lichter (All the Lights) was his second book. It won the prestigious Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2008. Since then he has published his third book, Gewalten (Acts of Violence), a diary of 2009 in eleven stories.

Livetweet: WIGS2011

Ingrid Sharp and I are presented with gorgeous orchids for our work in organising the conference


Phew! I think I’ve pretty much recovered from the annual Women in German Conference, held at Leeds last weekend – but the energy of the conference is still buzzing with me. It was a fantastic success, with nearly sixty female Germanists from Ireland and Great Britain present, as well as two brilliant and opinionated crime writers, Sabine Deitmer and Gitta Kloenne. The feminist fictioneers kept us entertained as well as enraged with hilarious and troubling readings from their novels about prostitution, debates about women’s rights and bumping off unnecessary husbands.

The papers were also wonderful, and the extraordinary turnout meant that we could have themed panels covering topics ranging from mediaeval printing to Muslim feminist hip-hop. Not all that wide a leap, indeed – both are very much about means of circulating, marketing and adapting texts! The conference began and ended up with papers given by postgraduates on the ways that the GDR has been represented in the British media and publishing industry. That was an unintended coincidence, but I think it represents what WiGS does best – promote brilliant young postgraduates and talk about the ways in which German culture matters in Ireland and the UK.

I think I’m particularly exhausted post-conference because I also took on the task of live-tweeting all the way through. The results are below! Another post on the trials and benefits of live-tweeting is to follow, but for now, enjoy WiGS in 140 characters or fewer…

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Larissa Boehning visits Leeds

In March 2011, I was lucky enough to be able to bring German author Larissa Boehning to hold a translation masterclass and reading at the German department in Leeds, giving students an insight into literary translation and publication

Larissa Boehning and I discuss the translation workshop with my colleague Ingrid Sharp


On the 28th of March 2011, German author Larissa Boehning held a translation masterclass and a reading at the Leeds German department, accompanied by her translator Lyn Marven, who is also an academic at the University of Liverpool.

Students from all undergraduate levels and Masters students really enjoyed coming together to tackle particularly tricky translation problems in Boehning’s new unpublished novel, ‘The Song of the Cicadas’, and to bounce their ideas off Boehning and Marven.

Afterwards, Boehning held a reading from the novel, and she discussed political issues in her work with academics from the Department of German, Russian and Slavonic Studies. She also discussed her writing style and how she tackles the big issues in European history, from Stalin’s purges to the US occupation of Germany, while maintaining a focus on individual stories and family tales in her writing. Boehning’s work explores the way in which family histories and the histories of Europe criss-cross each other.

The event was a great opportunity for students of German literature and translation to see the work of a young writer and translator in action, and to get a taster of the professional literary translation process. As a result of this and other events, several students are now considering literary translation as a career. Larissa Boehning is just one in a series of distinguished German literary guests at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures in Spring 2011.

About Larissa Boehning

Larissa Boehning received great critical acclaim with her debut collection of short stories ‘Schwalbensommer’ and her novel ‘Lichte Stoffe’, about the experiences of the daughter of a black GI growing up in suburban Germany. She was trained in cultural studies, philosophy and art history. After four years in Palma de Mallorca, she has been back in Berlin since 2007. In 2000 she won Jetzt magazine’s short-story contest, and in 2002 the Prenzlauer Berg Literature Prize. ‘Lichte Stoffe’ received an award in 2007 for best German-language debut novel. Boehning regularly teaches creative and literary writing at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf.