Autumn Awards

Sporting trophies in blue-and-pink light
Photo by Meghan Hessler on Unsplash

A round-up by Katy Derbyshire

In the German-speaking world it’s not just autumn leaves that rain down as the days get shorter – literary awards come thick and fast as well. They tend to be national or regional and a lot of them are named after dead white men. Here’s a little run-down of 2023’s autumn winners.

The German Book Prize went to Tonio Schachinger (31) for Echtzeitalter (Rowohlt Verlag) – a modern-day tale of public schoolboys, set in Vienna. At €25K, this isn’t the biggest pot in terms of prize money, but the enormous marketing buzz that comes with it encourages comparisons to the Booker Prize.

The Swiss Book Prize (for books written in German) went to Christian Haller for Sich lichtende Nebel (Luchterhand), a 128-page novella intertwines the lives of the physicist Werner Heisenberg and a fictional character mourning the loss of his wife. Fun fact: the 80-year-old Haller studied not physics but zoology. He walks away with CHF 30K, so a big chunk more than the German winner. Who is Austrian.

The €20K Austrian Book Prize, meanwhile, found its way to the country’s most heavily-bearded writer, Clemens J. Setz (41), for Monde vor der Landung (Suhrkamp). Another one taking a real historical figure as its springboard, this 528-page whopper looks at contrarianism and alternative facts through the lens of an early 20th-century religious community leader.

Let’s stick with Suhrkamp a while, who do have a nose for award-winners. They’ve brought home a couple more prizes this season, starting with the Bavarian Book Prize for Deniz Utlu’s Vaters Meer, about a son’s memories of his lost father in Turkey and Germany. With this one, the judges have a half-hour public discussion to choose the winner but if they can’t agree within that time, no one gets anything. This has never actually happened. Deniz (40) got €10K and a porcelain lion.

Porcelain lions. Photo © Yves Krier

The other Suhrkamp winner is Lutz Seiler, who’s been really cleaning up. The 60-year-old East German – published in English with aplomb by And Other Stories – got the €30K Berlin Literature Prize, which entails a guest lectureship, and also the €50K Big Serious Writer Prize (not really: it’s the Georg Büchner Prize, but that doesn’t distinguish it very well from the other prizes awarded by the German Academy of Language and Literature, also named after dead men). Seiler’s tax office won’t be rubbing its hands in joyful anticipation, though, since both awards are for his life’s work and so not subject to income tax!

Enough of the deserving dudes – three cool prizes have gone to women writers this autumn, too. And I’ve really enjoyed all of the winning books, so I’m pretty happy. Teresa Präauer had threatened to fall into the always-the-bridesmaid category, making shortlist after shortlist but never hitting the jackpot – actually this allegory is funnier for men, but never mind. Now, though, the beehived 44-year-old got to take home the Bremen Literature Prize (€25K) for Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert (Wallstein) – hooray! You may recall my jubilant review. Very much looking forward to getting my hands on it in English one day, from Pushkin Press.

Next up, the Aspekte Literature Prize, a €10K award for debut novels, with a solid reputation for picking high-class acts. This year’s went to Charlotte Gneuss for Gittersee (Fischer) an intimidating story of teenage lives in the GDR. Born in 1992, Gneuss obviously never experienced the East German state first-hand and there was a storm in a teacup over that, but I didn’t find it diminished her writing at all. Oh, and I’ve just seen the book also got the €15K Jürgen Ponto Prize too, another one for debut fiction. Rights have sold to five countries so far, but not English-language.

Last but by no means least, the Wilhelm Raabe Prize went to Judith Hermann, for Wir hätten uns alles gesagt (also Fischer) and all her other books as well. A chunky €30K for the 53-year-old Berliner from the City of Braunschweig and the highbrow-not-funky national radio station Deutschlandfunk. Did I mention I’ll be translating that very same title for Mercier Press? It’s a complex book about writing and life, her most personal to date, that veers between storytelling and essay. I happen to love it.

Bunch of flowers. Photo © Stadt Braunschweig / Daniela Nielsen