wolf haas

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.

Jamie Bulloch’s German Books of the Year

Translator Jamie Bulloch, smiling
Translator and historian Jamie Bulloch

and a couple to look out for in 2024

By Jamie Bulloch

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?

Wolf Haas: Property

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: Maman

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.

Anne Rabe: The Possibility of Happiness

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.

Mareike Fallwickl’s forthcoming And Everything So Silent

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.