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GUEST BLOG: Discovering German literature

5th April 2012 - Charlotte Ryland


There have been 13 German-language Nobel Literature Laureates, exceeded only by French and English, but, despite a thriving literary culture, German-language fiction remains a disproportionately small sector of the market for translated literature in Britain compared to the other major European languages.

New Books in German was set up in 1997 to introduce publishers, literary agents and readers to the best contemporary writers from Germany, Austria, German-speaking Switzerland and many other nations. Here editor Charlotte Ryland offers a short introduction to what you might be missing out on and lays a few stereotypes to rest.



New Books in GermanIt's not just the sudden arrival of the sun that's putting a spring in my step this week. Even if winter persists, this time every year is always a moment of great relief and satisfaction, as I press the print button on the next issue of New Books in German.


NBG - as the name suggests - is a magazine that presents the best new books in the German language (that is, from Austria, Germany and Switzerland). Covering fiction, non-fiction and young adult titles, our print and online versions provide a very current overview of what is happening in the world of books in those countries. And our expert editorial committee selects books that have the potential to cross borders, to make waves in an international setting.


When NBG began life, it worked mainly within the British publishing industry. Through partnerships with cultural institutes worldwide, with the Frankfurt Book Fair, and most recently with the German Book Office New York, we have become wholly international. But our focus remains on the English-language market, because that is by far the least accessible market for translated fiction; the one where our powers of persuasion - and the translation funding that is guaranteed for all the books we review - are most necessary.


And these efforts do bear fruit. Within weeks of each other, the rights to two remarkable German novels were recently bought by two remarkable publishers: Faber secured the winner of the 2011 German Book Prize, In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (translated by Anthea Bell), to be published in autumn 2013, and Penguin bought a crime novel with quite a twist, The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach (tr. Bell), due in September this year.


All the Lights by Clemens MeyerAlongside these publishing giants, smaller independent publishers are bringing out a range of superb German books: Clemens Meyer's All the Lights (tr. Katy Derbyshire), out now, and Christoph Simon's Zbinden's Progress (tr. Donal McLaughlin), out this August, from And Other Stories; Alissa Walser's Mesmerized (tr. Jamie Bulloch) coming from MacLehose Press in June; and Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (tr. Bell), out now, from Peirene Press.


Even this brief selection of books already in English gives a sense of the diversity of this scene - from Meyer's tales of a provincial Eastern German underworld to power and passions in eighteenth-century Vienna in Mesmerized. And it is this richness and diversity that has struck me during my first couple of years at NBG.


The impression persists - and much of the British media continue to sustain it - that German literature is serious, dense and philosophical. Only appealing to certain readers, and only when they're in the mood to be challenged. In short, it's worthy literature.


But NBG's selections time and again show a very different side: books that are lively, racy, thrilling, inspiring, laugh-out-loud funny.... It is not for nothing that the term 'New Readability' has been coined in recent years, to describe a crop of new writers in German who argue that it is possible to combine a serious approach to their subject with an entertaining, compelling, plot-driven story.


Perhaps above all, though, German literature is home to a rich array of voices. Positioned at the centre of the European continent, the culture of the German-speaking countries looks both West and East at once, and the number of authors writing in a German that is not their 'mother tongue' is astonishing. In NBG's spring issue we review authors with origins in Georgia, Slovenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Croatia and Japan, as well as literature arising from Switzerland's vibrant spoken-word scene, from Austria's Slovene minority and from Germany's 'new states' - the former GDR.


'Reading German' is therefore more than reading about the German-speaking lands. It is about encountering other cultures and experiencing cultural exchange. But this is where we risk erring into that 'worthy' territory again, and misrepresenting the literature. For more than anything, reading these books is immensely enjoyable. It is, of course, my job to say this; and when I began to work for NBG, I was concerned that this might - beyond a core of top-quality writers - be a difficult argument to keep on making. The real pleasure of the job has been that this concern has never made itself felt, that we continue to read more excellent and exciting books than we are able to fit into our pages. To be involved in bringing some of these works to a wider international audience is a privilege, and makes the storm before the calm of that print button more than worthwhile.

 

If you would like to be added to the NBG mailing list, please contact Charlotte via the NBG website.

 


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