I was thrilled to hear about this event, Riveting Germans: After the Wall, hosted by Rosie Goldsmith of the European Literature Network and featuring, among others, one of my favourite German writers, Julia Franck. ( Her novel The Blind Side of the Heart is reviewed here). Nino Haratischvili, writer of the much praised The Eighth Life, was also taking part as well as the German poet Durs Grünbein. Their translators, Ruth Martin, Charlotte Collins and Karen Leeder were participating too. What more could you want? So I signed up, organised train tickets and accommodation, and hot footed it down to the wonderful British Library last Tuesday to soak up things German- and European.
The first part of the evening saw Rosie Goldsmith in conversation with all three writers. Nino Haratischvili talked about her move to Germany from Georgia as a child and the birth of her great novel The Eighth Life, published in English this month by Scribe in translation by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin. The novel is the story of her Georgian family over six generations and the historical and political upheavals they went through during the twentieth century. She’d been aware that when Georgia featured in writing it was seen through the eyes of others, not from the Georgian perspective, so she set out to address that, not intending originally to produce such an epic book (it’s been called Tolstoyan). Interestingly, when asked about her decision to write in German rather than Georgian, she said she found writing in German gave her a little more distance from her material, allowed her to be more playful.
Durs Grünbein and Julia Franck talked more about their memories of divided Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Julia Franck left East Germany for the West as a child before 1989 and spent one year in a transit camp- her book Lagerfeuer ( translated as West) deals with this time. She talked about the difficulties of living in a camp, of sharing intimate space with strangers, and said the camp itself is a protagonist in the novel. The conversation then turned to the tough mothers in her novels, in die Mittagsfrau ( The Blind Side of the Heart) and Rücken an Rücken ( Back to Back). (This brought up a few nostalgic moments for me as I used to reward myself with a Julia Franck novel when taking school trips to Germany and Rücken an Rücken was the very first German novel we discussed in our German book group 7 years ago now).
We then heard readings from all three writers, firstly in the original German and then in translation. These were mesmerising. I didn’t know Durs Grünbein’s poetry at all so it was fantastic to hear two of his poems, both in the original and in translation, Kiosk by the Sea and On Learning Old Vocabulary. After the readings the translators took centre stage and we heard from Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins about the long process of co-translating The Eighth Life ( at 900 plus pages this took 4 years, on and off) and their current translation projects.
So this was a fabulous evening, brilliantly hosted by Rosie Goldsmith, and, yes, I did come away with a signed copy of The Eighth Life. I’m wondering how and when I can lock myself away from other obligations for several days to read it, but let it be soon! I’m looking forward hugely to this Lesefest and will report back.