Katy Derbyshire

Fantasy Book Picks for This Town

You know when you love a TV show so much that you want to recommend books for all the characters to read? You do, right, it’s not just me?

That’s what happened with BBC’s brand new drama series This Town, set in the West Midlands in 1981 as riots rage and a band forms, inspired by the 2Tone spirit and the Thatcherite shite going on around them. A bunch of youngsters and their families are embroiled in the politics of the day, largely Northern Ireland-related. And the soundtrack is a treat. Some singing along occurred.

So here come the V&Q book picks for almost all the main characters in This Town, with the exception of the ones I really disliked. I assume they don’t read books.

For songwriter and angsty teen Dante, it’s got to be a bit of metaphysical poetry, right? The Poems of John Donne, preferably a dog-eared second-hand copy with many pencil underlinings.

His cousin Bardon, top singer and guitarist, is such a big reggae lover that we’ve got him Marlon James’s excellent novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, re-imagining the attempted killing of Bob Marley. In paperback, stuffed into the pocket of his leather jacket.

Bardon’s mum Estella needs a good cry, and an empowering tale featuring a blues singer who steps up to a maternal role. What better than Alice Walker’s classic The Color Purple?

Fiona learns to play the bass just to join the band, and don’t you just love her for it? This one was easy: Viv Albertine’s punk-rock/parenting memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, about those three things and life as a woman in general.

Dante’s brother Virgil is rightly angry with the family’s situation. I reckon a bit of Audre Lorde would be right up his street, confronting injustices and changing the world in poetry and prose. Your Silence Will Not Protect You might even be a motto for his own life, who knows?

The brothers’ dad Deuce made me all melty inside. This is a man who knows how to love, but maybe bell hooks could still teach him a thing or two. And I think he’d appreciate the Christian sides to all about love as well.

Drummer Matty would want a first-edition copy of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, purchased from an antiquarian bookseller in Moseley. Sharp-edged, loud and experimental – beat, baby, beat!

Ah, and now to Jeannie, our lovable skinhead girl, music writer and keyboardist. Who would of course absolutely love Birgit Weyhe’s graphic novel Rude Girl, translated by Priscilla Layne. Get your copy here from 29 April.

London Book Fair 2024

The side entrance to Kensington Olympia, with hoardings and crash barriers and lots of people
The beehive entrance

The last London Book Fair I attended was in 2019. In 2020 I was all set to fly over and take on the role of “translator of the fair”, with a poster-sized photo of me up outside the Olympia venue and events lined up – when the fair was rightly cancelled. There wasn’t an in-person version in 2021, in 2022 I got Covid just before leaving, and in 2023 I was too stressed and hunkered down in Dublin instead.

As you can imagine, this year I was absolutely delighted to see what felt like hundreds of people – mainly translators – who I hadn’t seen in the flesh for five years. But before that came the Assembly of Literary Translators, held near Elephant and Castle. Previous years have seen pre-book fair events for translators organised and funded by institutions. It seems that wasn’t possible this year, but Scandinavian-English translator Ian Giles stepped into the fray and did it himself. The down side: without outside funding it was more expensive than usual, which put a few people off. Other than that, though, it was a great start to the week.

Take several dozen literary translators of all ages, some established, some not yet. Put them in a nice room and give them panel discussions and a chance to chat, followed by crisps and little cans of wine. What do you get? A kind, supportive atmosphere that reminded me why I love the literary translation community. Panels were on the advantages of mentoring for both mentors and mentees, how to actually make a living, what editors want – and the one that got everyone talking: neurodiversity. Am I? Are you? The topic really echoed across the next few days. Well programmed!

And on to the main event. Olympia is under construction, making the place more of a beehive than ever. Hard hats mingled with business suits on the pavements outside, and inside was buzzing too. So many thousands in such a small space. For German book people: the London Book Fair is positively dinky compared to Frankfurt, only two halls on two floors, and like many things in the UK, if you scratch the surface it looks like it’ll fall apart any minute. There’s a choice of too hot with green nylon carpet (tech), too hot with blue nylon carpet (publishers), or the air-conditioned relative calm of the children’s book section, where unfortunately the nylon carpet was hot pink. I’m told they held horse shows at Olympia until a couple of years ago, hence the disposable carpet, but publishing types are fond of the old place.

Can you guess what makes up for it? The people! Obviously, the Literary Translation Centre is the best bit of the fair, since it’s filled with and surrounded by the worker bees of the book hive, busily cross-pollinating world literature. Is this metaphor still working? Who cares! There were panel discussions, all of them packed out and most of them interesting. There were free drinks, which I missed. And most of all there were conversations. I wasn’t the only person whose strategy between appointments was to stand around by the LTC and wait for someone I know to join me for a chat. Quality aimless catch-ups were had, new people were met, hugs and views and book tips were exchanged. And one thing I noticed: British publishing people are not afraid to wear bright colours. I’d actually bought a natty suit for my star turn in 2020, which didn’t get a lot of wear that year, so I was pleased to be able to put it on at last.

Carpet, boots, skirt

Aside from friendship, the other recurring topic was solidarity with the writers and civilians of Gaza. On almost every panel I attended, one person made a statement reminding us of the ongoing war and its casualties before the discussion began, usually to applause. English PEN addressed the subject at two events: Palestine, Israel, and Freedom of Expression in the UK, and Writing against Violence: Palestinian Literary Voices. There was a vigil outside by Book Workers for a Free Palestine on day one, though I didn’t notice it at the time. At Frankfurt last October, we were still reeling from the horrific Hamas attacks and hostage-takings eleven days previously, with hastily organised events in solidarity with Israel, but also protests against the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s disinvitation. At London, Palestinian writers were present and on our minds. In an industry that thrives on empathy, we obviously feel world events keenly. I hope we can extend compassion inclusively, to all those suffering in and as a result of this conflict.

Manifesto for Human Language

A sign reading zakaz tlumočeni – translating prohibited
Machine translations: sometimes the context is key

Translators have been concerned about technology since St Jerome stubbed a toe on a newfangled scroll. Actually, though, there are some ways in which it has done us good. Although I still own a barrage of paper dictionaries, I no longer work with a big fat yellow book open on my lap and I enjoy the flexibility that online research offers me. More technical translators have adapted to using new technologies like CAT tools and machine translation software, and as long as demand was increasing we rarely saw the march of progress as a problem.

Now, however, generative AI is threatening translators’ livelihoods – along with the quality of literary translation and even democracy itself. The German, Swiss and Austrian literary translators’ associations have collaborated on a petition, addressed to representatives in the European Union and to readers themselves. The idea is to protect human translation of literary works. It’s available in German and English, so you can read before you sign.

Here are the key demands in the manifesto:

1. The regulation of generative AI:

  • No language automation without transparent operating principles and training data.
  • AI developers must clearly state which copyright-protected works have been used during training.

2. Protection for intellectual property rights:

  • No AI training with our works against our will.
  • No AI training using our input without adequate compensation. 

3. Transparency and co-determination:

  • No AI-generated book content except by mutual agreement between publishers, authors and translators.
  • Mandatory labelling of pure AI-content.

4. Targeted support for cultural work:

  • Only human creators and works should receive literary funding.
  • No promotion of technologies that aim to replace, rather than support, human creativity.
  • The cultural technique of literary translation must be preserved and reinforced to ensure that the creation of world literature can be sustained.

5. Empowerment of Readers:

  • Human translations must be clearly identified; translators must be named on the book cover.
  • Governments and civil society have the obligation to promote critical language skills and technological literacy. 

6. Responsible resource use:

  • The environmental footprint of AI software cannot be ignored.

7. Fair labour conditions in the digital world:

  • All people working on and with AI require ethical labour conditions and adequate pay.

We think it’s worth supporting.

Leipzig Book Fair Prize Nominees – and Anti-Rivalry

There are two big-budget book prizes in Germany: in autumn the German Book Prize, and in spring the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. The season’s nominees – announced today by the Leipzig Book Fair – get a lot of extra attention, special readings, and a sales boost. They can come from any German-speaking country but Germany does tend to dominate.

Leipzig doesn’t do longlists but it does have three different categories: fiction, non-fiction and translation. The fiction list is the most interesting to me personally, so here’s a bit about the five nominated titles:

Anke Feuchtenberger: Genossin Kuckuck – the second graphic novel ever nominated (we’re publishing the first, Rude Girl…), it tells a personal story of growing up in an East German village. But it’s also full of fantastic horrors, with girls, animals and fungi apparently “transcending socialist reality”. They say it took Feuchtenberger ten years to write it, and the cover certainly promises a gruesome treat.

Wolf Haas: Eigentum – the Austrian author writes excellent crime fiction, some of it published in English by Melville House, and excellent non-crime fiction. This one’s allegedly an “enjoyable, touching read” in which Haas reflects on his 95-year-old mother’s life and her inability to ever buy property. A good few German-language writers have been tackling poverty and class issues recently, and I like that development. I also like the way Haas plays with language.

Inga Machel: Auf den Gleisen – a debut novel set in Brandenburg and Berlin, with a young man taking a heroin addict for his father, who has recently died by suicide. Through this surrogate relationship, he seems to tackle his grief and his own past. Apparently, it’s written in a fragmentary style in rough language and addresses visibility and invisibility – what’s not to like?

Barbi Marković: Minihorror – the cover makes it look like it has Smurfs in it, which might be deliberate. Belgrade-born Marković tells the story of a couple, Miki and Mini, trying to fit in to big-city middle-class society. Sounds pretty horrific to me, in the best possible way! They say the book’s humour tends towards sarcasm, and they also say it’s a comic in novel form, which I can’t quite make sense of.

Dana Vowinckel: Gewässer im Ziplock – aha, this is the only writer out of the five who I’ve met, at an event in Berlin, but she wasn’t talking about her book so I don’t have a head-start. Another debut, this time set in Berlin, Chicago and Jerusalem with a 15-year-old Jewish protagonist, it’s a tale of a fragmented family and momentous decisions. The judges say it “permits a diversity of worldviews even in the most intimate of circles”, which sounds like it’s more than your usual coming-of-age novel. English rights have sold to HarperVia so you can find out for yourself at some point.

So, a really broad and interesting selection. But I want to add something here about writers and competition. Since Covid, I’ve noticed a lot of Berlin writers being beautifully supportive of each other. It’s most visible on Instagram, where you can tap into a veritable love-fest of mutual appreciation: pub-day congrats, book pics, affection and hearts, hearts, hearts. It’s delightful! I’ve also noticed it at a few recent events: just the other day, with a little gang of fellow writers showing up with balloons and enveloping Laura Lichtblau in hugs at the launch for her novel Sund. And then there was Deniz Utlu and Necati Öziri in conversation about their books Vaters Meer and Vatermal. With two books about Turkish fathers out at the same time (albeit very different novels), the writers could well have been positioned as rivals, but they went absolutely against that and showered each other with praise.

And then Stefanie de Velasco posted on Insta that she’d asked her publishers not to submit her new novel Das Gras auf unserer Seite for the Leipzig prize, because the competition stresses her too much (and because one of the judges has said literature shouldn’t be political, which is obviously bullshit). I instantly thought about my annual ritual of going through the German Book Prize longlist announcement at the outdoor pool with a German writer friend, and how hard it can be for her when she has a book out and isn’t nominated while all those other writers are.

I don’t have an answer. Awards are an effective way of gaining attention for a tiny fraction of the books that come out every year, and watching the benefits to two Voland & Quist authors nominated for the autumn prize over the last few years has been instructive. At the same time, I’m glad some writers are opting out of all the competition and rivalry, which does them no good. It’s not like they’re Blur and Oasis; in fact, they can perform together and collaborate and share and multiply the love. So whoever wins this particular prize, the real winners are… all those loving and supportive writers out there.

Two New Magazine Kids on the Block

The Delfi editorial team: Miryam Schellbach, Enrico Ippolito, Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, Fatma Aydemir

The German-language literary magazine landscape is beset by similar challenges as the Anglophone one: funding is hard to find, energy is finite, so projects tend to peter out after a while. I took a trawl through the German-language litmags listed at Literaturport and noticed that a good few of them have folded since Covid, sadly. Most of the longstanding journals here have an affiliation to either a creative writing school – like Edit from Leipzig and BELLA Triste from Hildesheim, both great places for discovering new writers – or larger publishing houses. Some of them go back decades, and many don’t see the need to change things that worked fine in 1968, thank you. Which means not only keeping that old-school design, but also publishing only in print.

A couple of exceptions do offer a tiny bit of online content, perfect for translators looking for short material, for instance. Glitter is the only queer German literary magazine, and offers sneak peaks online, as does Swiss mag Das Narr, doing interesting things with narrative. Two magazines focus on essays and reportage and also offer digital subscriptions for readers further afield: check out Merkur for classic stuff and Reportagen, which does what it says on the tin and has easily the most glamorous website. Speaking of glam, Das Wetter is the glossiest of lit-related mags, chock-full of young writers, visuals and music.

But there are two newcomers shaking things up a little. The first is a twist on the traditional model, Delfi – print-only, but gorgeously done and edited by a hip young team. They pack the power of the large Berlin publisher Ullstein, which means they attract interesting writers in German (Olivia Wenzel, Deniz Utlu, Evan Tepest, Senthuran Varatharajah…), combined with international contributors like Eileen Myles and Ocean Vuong. I semi-sneaked into their semi-private launch party but they were very sweet and cool about it. Definitely one to watch when issue two comes out on 29 February, and it’s easily available via booksellers.

Issue #1

Kicking up dust right now is the newly launched Berlin Review. I’m not the only one excited about it – their mix of essays, LRB-style-only-younger reviews and what they call “memos” is getting all the cool kids hot under the collar. What I’m most impressed by is their international ambition, with pieces in German and in English. That means they’re somewhat of an exception to the widespread “don’t mention the war” attitude towards Israel and Palestine in Germany right now. Their first issue features a text by Adania Shibli on the fallout of her disinvitation from the Frankfurt Book Fair and an essay on the history of Palestinian migration to Germany by Joseph Ben Prestel, French anthropologist Didier Fassin on “The Inequality of Palestinian Lives” and Israeli philosopher Elad Lapidot on the work of David Grossmann and the Middle Eastern peace process. They’ve been doing some great events pre- and post-launch here in Berlin – and you can get a digital subscription and read some of the work for free.

It feels like a good time in some ways, it feels like things are picking up again after Covid, and people are willing to take new risks on writing. Long may they continue!

Dilek Güngör: A wie Ada

A review by Katy Derbyshire

Dilek Güngör’s latest book launched a fortnight ago at a packed Berlin event, where the love flowing back and forth between the stage and the audience was palpable. Dilek – full disclosure: I think we’re friends, we’ve definitely been for a coffee together and I’ve translated an essay she wrote, as yet unpublished – talked about how her latest protagonist Ada is once again very like her but not identical. The audience swooned at that, since Dilek is eminently likeable. But as she read and talked, we learned that Ada wants everyone to like her and then yet again, she doesn’t.

Though it has the word novel on the cover, the book is a collection of miniatures telling tiny stories about Ada in the third person. At times they’re reminiscent of a picture book for children, especially when they’re about Ada as a child. Unspectacular things happen and the language and content are pared right back as we read about Ada’s view of life. But that tone holds firm, regardless of Ada’s age. Part of the fun is that we never know, at the start of each page, whether we’re reading about a grown woman or a little girl. While the book dips in and out with blithe disregard for chronology, I get a sense of whimsy, of Ada retaining the questioning outlook of her younger self. As a journalist, Güngör knows how to write concisely, and she uses that skill to fine effect here.

What’s it about? I suppose it might be about growing up in Germany with Turkish parents, and existing as an adult here on that basis. There are scenes where we meet a stubborn child who wants things other children have but won’t share her own belongings. We get miniatures about hospitality; remember that Twitter moment when people remembered the awkwardness of never being fed by their (German) schoolfriends’ families? That comes up a few times. There are times when Ada helps a friend, presumably another Turkish girl, to meet a boyfriend in secret – though the paring back goes so far that it reads at times as if Ada only ever has one friend, over a space of fifty years or more, the word friend almost a mask donned by different actors.

Friendship is an important topic in the book, touched upon many times at different life stages. Ada’s friend, we read, is kind and good and never sees Ada as a foreigner or an outsider, assures her repeatedly that we’re all the same. What I got here was a sense of reluctance to tell that friend to her face that no, actually, she and Ada are not the same. Ada wants to be liked, after all. Maybe it’s just me, but I found a sadly relatable streak of envy and anger beneath the surface. Another thing I enjoyed is the author’s refusal to explain; this is not an ethnological study, it’s literary fiction, and she’s not going to waste space elucidating Turkish (diaspora) customs if you haven’t worked them out by now.

What else? Thoughts about language and multilingualism, sweet but never saccharine relationships to her children, her parents and grandparents – the subjects of some of Güngör’s previous novels – and perhaps a portrait of a life as it is now. My favourite miniature is about Ada tipping out the carrier bag of her life:

‘Ada’s bag contains her childhood and teenage years and the now and soon also old age. You could take a look at it all, dust it off and put it on the windowsill. On the dresser, if you had one.’

A suitable carrier bag

This one page takes us from that image all the way to Ada’s grandmother poking her great-grandchildren with her walking stick. I’m reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” – A wie Ada too is packed full of unheroic tales, a book to be dipped into, moments from a woman’s life gathered up and brought home for sustenance. In its apparent simplicity, it contains vast depth and emotion. I may well read it multiple times – I recommend you do too.

Announcing… Birgit Weyhe’s New Graphic Novel RUDE GIRL

You know when a character in a comic wears a band T-shirt and you know the musicians personally? Maybe not – I guess it doesn’t come up all that often. But that’s what happened to me when I first read RUDE GIRL, Birgit Weyhe’s graphic novel telling Priscilla Layne’s story. There it is, on page 264 – a Mother’s Pride T-shirt. The first thing I did was take a photo and send it to the former singer, who went out and bought a couple of copies of the German original. The second was to think: Would people want to read this in English?

Back to the comic itself: the author and artist Birgit Weyhe likes telling people’s stories in her work. She’s often drawn to outsiders, or people who have moved between continents like herself, after a childhood in Germany, Uganda and Kenya (as detailed at the beginning of MADGERMANES). Over the years, a number of her fictionalised characters have been Black. But when US academics accused her of appropriating those stories, she was offended.

Then along came the Black German studies professor Priscilla Layne, visiting from the States. What if Weyhe tried to tell her story – but in closer collaboration than usual? The upshot is RUDE GIRL, a graphic novel about growing up feeling different, and finding – at least for a time – a like-minded community through music.

We get Birgit Weyhe’s take on what Priscilla Layne described to her, followed by sections where Layne gives her feedback; perhaps on the choice of colours, perhaps adding more detail or defending a character. In the process, Weyhe takes on her comments and changes things. It’s a fascinating insight into the writing and drawing of a graphic novel. And Layne’s life makes a very interesting subject.

A childhood in Chicago with a single mother from Barbados, a fairly absent Jamaican father, challenges fitting in at school and trouble in the extended family. First discovering German through Indiana Jones, and later discovering ska, reggae and punk. Pursuing an academic career originally inspired by Kafka while battling imposter syndrome – and achieving a whole lot in life. And who better to translate the book of that life than Priscilla Layne herself?

In the meantime, having commissioned and edited that translation, I’ve met Priscilla in person. Our years on the Berlin ska scene didn’t quite overlap, sadly; but our encounter was still warm and friendly, since I felt like I knew her already. It takes guts to tell a story like this, and both Weyhe and Layne have guts aplenty. For music fans, there are album covers, haircuts, outfits, hangovers, and Birgit Weyhe manages to capture the thrill of dancing in an ecstatic crowd in a single image. For everyone else, there’s a fascinating life told in pictures, a tale of how a sense of community buoys us up and gives us joy and confidence.

RUDE GIRL is published on 29 April, but you can pre-order now.

Dublin Literary Award: 6 German Books Nominated

All six books translated from German
All six books translated from German

The Dublin Literary Award today announced its 70-strong longlist of titles nominated by 80 libraries around the world for the 2024 prize. Honouring excellence in world literature, it is one of very few awards that covers both translated and original English fiction. And we’re delighted that V&Q Books’ very own Identitti, written by Mithu Sanyal and translated by Alta L. Price, is in the running! With a big fat purse of €100,000 for the winning team or sole writer, the prize is highly coveted. Last year’s winners were the German author Katja Oskamp and her translator Jo Heinrich, who were deliriously happy about the whole thing – especially given that it was Katja’s first book to be translated into English and Jo’s first published translation.

This year once again sees a strong German presence among the nominees, with a whole six books translated out of German. The one we didn’t publish are:

Olivia Wenzel: 1000 Coils of Fear, translated by Priscilla Layne (Dialogue Books)

Sharon Dodua Otoo: Ada’s Realm, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi (MacLehose Press)

Ulrike Almut Sandig: Monsters Like Us, translated by Karen Leeder (Seagull Books)

Esther Kinsky: Rombo, translated by Caroline Schmidt (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Daniela Krien: The Fire, translated by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press)

I once judged this prize, which was hugely rewarding but also very difficult. I don’t envy this year’s judges – even picking an unbiased favourite out of these six feels hard to me, but they have another 64 books in the mix.

The shortlist is announced on 26 March, and the winner on 23 May. May the best book win!

Irina Liebmann: Berliner Mietshaus

A review by Katy Derbyshire

I’m a major fan of the writer Irina Liebmann, especially her dogged devotion to one particular street in Berlin, about which more in a later post. The very first of her books that I read, however, was Berliner Mietshaus. It has been extremely cold in Berlin lately, the kind of weather that requires you to curl up near a heat source with a familiar book, and this was that old favourite.

The premise is simple enough: In 1979, Irina Liebmann chose one building in the East Berlin borough of Prenzlauer Berg and interviewed everybody living in it, then wrote down what they told her about their lives, their homes and their jobs. It opens up a detailed doll’s house, a portrait of a particular place at a particular time painted by its inhabitants, climbing the stairs from one flat to the next, crossing the yard and doing the same in the rear building.

Housing stock in Prenzlauer Berg, 1984; Bundesarchiv

Liebmann describes her work since 1988, when she left East Germany for the West, as ‘non-fictional prose that is always also lyrical and dramatic.’ And we can see the seeds of that style here in her first book. It was originally planned as a reportage series for the GDR’s Wochenpost, but the newspaper ended up not printing several of the pieces (too negative) and then discontinuing the feature entirely. And so it was first published in East Germany in 1982 by a small publisher in Halle – to not much acclaim, as Liebmann explains in an afterword. The book, she writes, was not affirmative enough for the politicians and not critical enough for the critics. Now, however, it serves as a unique and revealing monument to that time and place.

Each chapter loosely follows the same pattern, starting with the writer’s approach to the tenants in the flat. She knocks on their doors, explains what she’s doing, and usually they invite her in quite willingly and talk freely. They offer her drinks – coffee, vodka, beer, wine – and sometimes food, often cigarettes. The TV might be on, half-watched ice skating or science fiction. Children eat their tea, wash up in the bathroom or the kitchen and are brought in to say good night to the visitor. We don’t get a sense that anyone feels threatened; they’re clearly comfortable airing all sorts of gripes about life in the GDR. When the conversation turned to politics, however, Liebmann writes, ‘I put down my pencil,’ and she was at pains to protect everyone’s anonymity by keeping the address to herself, shuffling the residents around the flats and borrowing the shops on the ground floor (lingerie and haberdashery; a bakery) from a different building.

In the GDR (unlike today), Prenzlauer Berg was a working-class neighbourhood with a fairly bad reputation; in the early 80s, many people moved out to new tower blocks in the outskirts, complete with lifts and central heating. The tenants are largely workers, some of them in jobs that no longer exist, but there are also students, a photographer, a couple who make marionettes for a living and a copy editor eager to share his literary preferences and mental health history. We meet elderly women who experienced the 1918 revolution, for example, and of course the Nazis. One claims her father can’t have been a true believer since everyone had to join the party; Liebmann lets this clearly untrue statement stand without editorialising. One woman’s sister used to be a cleaner for the writer Alfred Döblin’s brother; she’s lost the two paintings of his that she inherited. Or perhaps they never existed – who can say? Liebmann writes that she never questioned what people told her, was more interested in what they’d tell a stranger spontaneously.

Another long-term tenant, Frau N., remembers receiving a note from her family’s Jewish doctor:

We have to fall in with kit and caboodle tomorrow morning. Dr Neihoff. […] On Metzer Strasse, opposite his practice, the N.s stood and watched the next morning as the old doctor carried his suitcase out of the building and climbed onto a truck. It was a last farewell. There was nothing we could do, says Frau N.’

Like Walter Kempowski or Svetlana Alexievich, Irina Liebmann collages other people’s statements but lends them structure and context – and like Alexievich, she has an unusual gift for getting people to tell their stories. The book’s literary quality lies partly in its keen eye for tragedy and comedy.

We meet a number of confident young women and learn the strategic ins and outs of marriage, divorce, child benefit and housing policy in the GDR. They seem very wise for their years, often working mothers in their early twenties, independent whether they’re in a relationship or not. Here’s Liebmann’s touching farewell from Sylvia S., who works behind the counter at a butcher’s shop. When she had her son Stephan, her employer couldn’t arrange childcare to start with so she didn’t marry his dad, because single mothers get more benefits that allowed her to stay at home. Now she gets up at 4:30, takes her boy to nursery for 6 and starts work at 6:30. She’s on leave when Liebmann visits; her partner’s off sick.

‘Sylvia puts her pale-blue anorak back on and she and I leave the flat, down the dark corridor, open the wooden door of the front building – the passage is damp so you don’t hear the plaster crumbling – say goodbye on the street, head in different directions; I pause after three steps and turn around. Far ahead, the pale-blue anorak turns too, and Sylvia waves at me for a long time. She’s 22 years old.’

I could go on; the tenants feel genuine, some funny and positive, some dull or irritating. The moments of friction are fascinating too, particularly the encounter with two theology students, an academic discipline often frowned upon in East Germany. It’s hard to say whether the book’s poignancy stems entirely from the fact that these people’s world has disappeared. I think Liebmann’s melancholy style, nascent here but already recognisable in passages like the one above, also plays a part. I’m sure I’ll be re-reading Berliner Mietshaus for years to come.

Alexandra Roesch’s German Books of the Year

Translator Alex Roesch looking happy
Alex Rosch © Farideh Diehl

Next up in our series of translators’ tips from the wealth of German books in 2023 is the translator and literary scout Alex Roesch.

German literature in 2023 has proven to be a year dominated by the distinct voices of talented women. My top picks offer up a trio of perspectives on life, identity and resilience written by women, and a fourth rather unusual title for good measure by a male author.

First up is Maike Wetzel’s Schwebende Brücken (Schöffling), a story that captivated me from the first page and stuck with me as the most poignant read of the year. The story, set in contemporary Berlin, unfolds during a family outing to a local lake that takes a tragic turn, leaving a grieving woman alone with two children. Wetzel’s writing skillfully captures the rollercoaster of emotions that life throws at us, with death lingering in the background. Her prose is a masterclass in revealing the extraordinary in the everyday, making it a deep dive into beauty, love and resilience. A beautifully crafted read.

Next on the list is Deborah Feldman’s Judenfetisch (PRH), a memoir from the New York-born author renowned for her autobiographical work, Unorthodox, which has been adapted into a popular Netflix series. This latest memoir extends Feldman’s introspective journey, tracing her evolution from a rigid religious Chassidic community in Williamsburg to a renewed connection with Judaism in the vibrant landscape of Berlin. Navigating the complex terrain of Jewish identity in Germany, the memoir explores profound themes of authenticity, power dynamics, and the pervasive influence of societal perceptions on individuals and communities, always accompanied by the author’s distinct voice. The narrative offers keen insights into the challenges Jews face in Germany, unravelling intricate nuances that shape their experience. Feldman’s critical view of financial support to Jewish communities in Germany peels back nuanced layers, questioning its impact on authentic community development. ‘Judenfetisch’ isn’t just a personal narrative; it’s a no-nonsense exploration of modern identity and belief systems.

My third choice is a historical fiction novel set in the landscape of Theodor Storm’s Schimmelreiter in North Germany. This one is perfectly aligned with the current season with its themes of witchcraft, storm surges and the formidable power of nature. Jarka Kubsova’s Marschlande (Fischer Verlag) tells the intertwined stories of two women – Abelke Bleken in 1580 and modern-day geographer Britta Stoever. Set against the backdrop of the Hamburg marshlands, the novel weaves the tapestry of these women’s lives, reflecting on the evolution of feminism and persistent challenges across centuries. Abelke, who manages a farm on her own in the 1580s, stands as a symbol of resilience; this is mirrored by Britta’s contemporary struggles as she leaves her career for domestic life in the same marshlands and faces challenges that resonate with the struggles of her historical counterpart. Marschlande is a fascinating exploration of history, nature and female empowerment, which also touches upon some deep emotions.

A final rather unusual recommendation is the astonishing, comic and unparalleled novel Der Vorweiner (Ullstein) by Bov Bjerg, which depicts life in the remnants of Europe in the late 21st century. This is a bold, unconventional novel that makes a riveting read. The world we once knew has ceased to exist, leaving behind parts of Europe shielded by a colossal concrete barrier. Resettlement camps house migrants from all corners of the globe, strictly prohibited from entering the continent unless selected. The story revolves around two main characters, A for Anna and B for Berta, a mother-daughter duo. It all begins with A for Anna’s decision to hire a ‘Crier,’ a professional mourner who will lament her death. In a society where tears have become a lost art, people employ migrant workers to live with them and assume the role of mourners, as shedding tears is considered prestigious and carries social status.

This novel really is an extraordinary and intriguing piece of literature. The dystopian backdrop, characterised by extreme climate conditions and a soulless society, is juxtaposed with a darkly humorous depiction of events, offering a refreshing break from the current overly sensitive cultural climate. Der Vorweiner is a captivating read that shocks and delights in equal measure.