…and a couple to look out for in 2024
We’re rounding out the year with a few different translators’ recommendations. Here comes the first, by the historian and translator Jamie Bulloch – enjoy!
Those who know my tepid enthusiasm for autofiction might raise an eyebrow at my choice of German books for 2023, all three of which belong to this genre. Have I, perhaps, become a convert?
The first of these is Wolf Haas’s Eigentum (Hanser). With the narrator’s ninety-five-year-old mother on her deathbed, he sets himself the task of writing her life story before her funeral. The ‘property’ of the book’s title refers to his mother’s obsession with the amount of square metres she owns, having been born into poverty. The novel contrasts the hard rural life of the mother, consisting of nothing but ‘work, work, work’, with the middle-class existence of the educated narrator born into a completely different generation. I suspect that there’s as much fiction as auto in this title – surely Haas’s father didn’t really die from drinking nettle tea? – and the author laces his subject with a great deal of humour: this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages. Wolf Haas has crossed my path as a name several times before, mainly in connection with his crime novels. His writing is crisp and concise, and I’m now keen to seek out the rest of his work.
Sylvie Schenk’s Maman (Hanser), a shortlisted title for this year’s German Book Prize, is similarly succinct. This is another portrait of a mother and one where the narrator has to fill in huge gaps in her family history. Of her maternal grandmother who died in childbirth, having perhaps become pregnant through prostitution, there are no more than a handful of details. The way Schenk reimagines this grandmother’s complicated life, giving her a personality and dignity, reminded me of Monika Helfer’s Die Bagage, another of my favourite reads from the last few years. The scenes describing the narrator’s orphaned mother, as she moves from one rejection to another, are heartbreaking. Schenk is uncompromising as she scrutinises her family members; there is plenty of wit here, but when the writer unleashes her arrows nobody is spared.
The third of my top books for 2023 was also on the German Book Prize shortlist. At the heart of Anne Rabe’s Die Möglichkeit von Glück (Klett-Cotta) is the topic of violence and how this is perpetuated from generation to generation. What is at once fascinating and disturbing about this novel is the chain of continuity that it establishes, linking the Nazi period to the East German dictatorship and the far-right scene of the neue Bundesländer in post-reunification Germany. In the narrator’s own life, the most immediate manifestation of violence is from her mother (another book about a mother!), perhaps confounding the reader’s expectations. The scene where this mother forces her two small children to take a scalding bath is unbearable, but Rabe navigates the brutality with deftness and offers some hope, at least, for the future. You are left desperately hoping that the narrator, with small children herself, will be able to break the cycle of violence and draw a line under the sins of the past.
Two novels I’m very much looking forward to next year are by two Austrians: Mareike Fallwickl and Arno Geiger. Fallwickl’s last novel, Die Wut, die bleibt (Rowohlt), tells the story of a group of young women who, sick of toxic male behaviour, form a vigilante group to exact revenge on the perpetrators. The chocolate-box setting of Salzburg offers a sharp and ironic contrast to the brutality of the narrative, which is leavened by the tenderness of friendship. A brilliant read. Her next book, Und alle so still, will be coming out in April, also with Rowohlt. About Geiger’s next book, which is likewise due at some point in 2024, there are as of yet no details. But if it’s anywhere near as good as Unter der Drachenwand or Das glückliche Geheimnis, it will be another compelling read.