teresa präauer

Tess Lewis’s German Books of the Year

Translator Tess Lewis in smiling front of well-stocked bookshelves
Tess Lewis © Sarah Shatz

Moving on with our translators’ books of the year featurette, here comes Tess Lewis.

2023 was an especially strong year for women writing in German, so narrowing down my favorites to a few titles was an almost impossible task (and an unfair ask—Katy!). I’ve neglected many of my darlings and chosen one book from each German-speaking country. All three of these books, I’m glad to say, will be appearing in English in the next year.

From Germany 🇩🇪: Judith Hermann’s latest book, Wir hätten uns alles gesagt (We Would Have Told Each Other Everything), is a collection of her Büchner Prize lectures that reads like a psychological page-turner. Hermann delivers acute an exploration of how life becomes fiction—or not—and how the unsaid counterbalances what is said—in person and on the page. I guess you could call it ‘narrative auto-nonfiction.’ For a preview, check out the excerpt in Katy’s translation in Granta magazine’s recent Germany issue and enjoy the whole book when Mercier Press and Granta Books publish it next year.

From Austria 🇦🇹: I’ve already recommended Teresa Präauer’s satire of 21st century manners, Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert (Cooking in the Wrong Century) elsewhere and don’t mind if I do again.

There’s no accounting for taste, we’re told, but this witty, kaleidoscopic novel shows that it’s a very contentious topic, indeed. In the age of influencers and Instagram, the aspirational lifestyle has become an overinflated balloon, which Präauer punctures repeatedly over the course of two dozen overlapping, sometimes contradictory vignettes of a dinner party teetering on disaster. All the right elements are there—luxury brands mixed with flea-market finds, a star chef’s sumptuous cookbooks, the expensive dishtowel from Copenhagen—but the moving boxes are still unpacked long after the move and the guests show up late, having already eaten and tracking mud in. In one of the author’s many deft touches, the slyly sensuous episodes unfold to a subversive Spotify playlist: when one guest burns a hole through the Copenhagen dish towel, the Oscar Peter Trio plays Close Your Eyes, when another complains that there no more utopias, Miles Davis plays So What.

One way or another, we’re all cooking in the wrong century and out of that disconnect—the gap between the lives we imagine (or that are imagined for us) and the way we live now— Teresa Präauer has created a feast. Pull up a chair when Pushkin Press publishes it next year.

From Switzerland 🇨🇭: The Romansh poet Leta Semadeni’s first novel, Tamangur, is a gem with many facets. This childhood idyll in a remote alpine valley full of shadows throbs with a dark undercurrent of loss. Tamangur is an old stone pine forest in the Engadin but in this book it is also a mysterious realm of the dead, a kind of Valhalla for hunters and their families.

Like Cooking in the Wrong Century, Tamangur unfolds in vignettes. Eighty-four overlapping and intersecting episodes and flashbacks follow an unnamed young girl, simply called ‘the child’, and her grandmother as they navigate their grief at the loss of the girl’s beloved grandfather and her younger brother. It gradually becomes clear that the child believes she is responsible for her brother’s death, as a result of which her parents have abandoned her with her grandmother.

The small village has its share of oddballs and cranks, more or less harmless, including Elsa, whose passionate affair with Elvis is somewhat complicated by his absence, a seamstress who steals the memories of others, a louring chimney sweep, and a rude goat. They form a makeshift family of misfits that take some edge off the sharper corners of fate. Semadeni’s prose is crystalline, evocative and highly attuned to the faintly absurd. A joy to read for all its heartbreak. Seagull had the good sense to snap up the rights.

Dinner for Five

Teresa Präauer: Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert

A review by Katy Derbyshire

Seeing as this is an old-school blog, I must start with a full disclosure: ten years ago I went Dutch with Teresa Präauer, drinking beer, Fernet Branca and pastis. It was a delightful evening, cementing my view of the Austrian author as a very cool person. In order not to dim that rosy glow, I didn’t read any more of her work, despite having loved her first two novels, Für den Herrscher aus Übersee and Johnny and Jean – until now.

Foolish? Obviously. Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert is fucking fantastic. Translation rights have sold to Pushkin Press, so you’ll be able to find out for yourself at some point. It was nominated for the German Book Prize and shortlisted for the Austrian and Bavarian Book Prizes.

The scenario: a woman has a new Danish dining table in her newish flat. She invites over her male partner, a married heterosexual couple, and a Swiss man and his girlfriend, but the latter can’t make it. So there are five people around the oiled-wood table for that quintessential middle-class activity: a dinner party. Green salad, quiche Lorraine, crémant: “At some point, everyone in their circle of friends had stopped drinking either champagne or Sekt, though both were sparkling wines, and now only ever drank crémant.”

As you might expect, Präauer works with the beloved trope of getting her characters drunk and seeing what happens. You’ll know it from Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage (which I despised), or from Eugen Ruge’s novel In Times of Fading Light, or indeed from mainland Europe’s favourite British skit, Dinner for One. It’s a fun thing to watch; as Byron wrote: “…it was first silent, then talky, then argumentative, then disputatious, then unintelligible, then altogethery, then inarticulate, and then drunk.” However, Präauer takes a playful sledgehammer to the proceedings in several ways.

First of all, she lets her narrative break down and start again a few times, each time adjusting it to banal reality. So instead of punctual arrivals, smooth conversation and complicated recipes, we get latecomers, awkward silences and, well, quiche – to name just a few variants. What appeals most to me, though, is that our hostess is new to all this bougie hosting business. Her anxious perfectionism arises from class insecurities, and we see the guests mainly through her eyes, although she’s not a first-person narrator. Präauer gives us snapshots of the hostess’s mother and grandmother cooking and eating very differently – hence the “wrong century” of the title. There are food memories of her own, addressed in the second person: not having any salt when you moved into your first flat, cooking frozen fish with tinned tomatoes, your grandparents distilling fruit brandy in their cellar, eating yoghurt with walnuts and honey on holiday in Greece.

We end up with a portrait of today’s concerns, the things middle-class people talk about at dinner parties: women in jazz, empowerment, language, lipstick, parenting, utopias or lack thereof. We see how the hostess wants her home to be, her precise style choices all terribly now. (Remember all that tiresome interior décor stuff in A Little Life? Like that, but meaningful.) We get an eyeful of how heterosexual relationships work these days, with some norms eroding but some firmly in place. We get the disputatious, the altogethery, the inarticulate and the drunk, as the narrative itself gets increasingly raucous and sexy. It’s ironic and knowing – and it’s all very funny, in all its permutations.

There’s one chapter towards the end that I might have done without – a little too explainy for my taste – but the ending itself made up for it. This is a book for foodies and for those who aspire to be great hosts and fall short, for anyone riddled with self-doubt in social situations, and for people who like watching other people get drunk. It inspired me to search in my phone for photos of food, hence the pictures accompanying this review. In other words, it’s fucking fantastic.