This week’s Translation Tuesday draws us into the mind of a middle-aged woman named Maria, who is struggling to find a job. As she moves through her humdrum morning routine, Maria’s thoughts stray to her parents, her husband, and her former employer, and, from these fragmentary memories, we begin to piece together the circumstances that led to her current situation. In a prose colored with pathos and loneliness, Anna Weidenholzer, in Elisabeth Lauffer’s translation, nevertheless maintains a lightness and humor that make this story a pleasure to read.
When he opens the door, I’ll say, Thank you for the invitation. I’ll say, My name is Maria Beerenberger, pleased to meet you. Have a seat, he’ll say, offering me a chair. I will have known what to wear. I will have thought about how I’d describe myself as a person. He’ll be wearing a necktie and a silver wristwatch. He’ll say, Frau Beerenberger, tell me a little bit about yourself. Gladly, I’ll say, gladly. I am familiar with the material. At least I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. And now we wait. What are you saying, he’ll ask. Frau Beerenberger, what are you talking about. Well, I’ll say, I am sitting across from you because I know the things people say, people who know what life is all about, because I’ll be one of those people. I didn’t believe in myself, you see, I didn’t believe in my future. Why, he’ll ask. Please explain. Then he’ll fall silent, lean back in his seat. Very well, I will say. As you wish. The day goes on, the light goes out, my neighbor used to say. Let’s start at the end.
If you love reading fiction by writers from around the globe, you are used to hearing about the big prizes that put international literature in the spotlight: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Man Booker International, the Caine Prize, the Prix Goncourt, the German Book Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Tanazaki Prize, and many others.
In fact, you might even have trouble keeping up with the variety of United States–based awards just for literature in translation, from the Best Translated Book Award (now eleven years old) to the National Book Award’s new Translated Literature category. It’s getting to be like following the Olympics, without all the fuss over new stadium construction. For one thing, winning books, like medal-bedecked Olympians, don’t get to the podium all by themselves. Winners need a team (and a coach and money) behind them. For another, we know that lots of great contenders don’t make it to the final round.
So what should we know about book prizes as we are reading the shortlisted candidates or hoping for a win for one of our favorite writers?
Today, we’ve partnered with Scribe Books to introduce the majestic German Book Prize winner Der Spiegel calls “the first worthy successor to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain to appear in contemporary German literature.” It is also the debut novel of Lutz Seiler, a major German poet we’ve published in our pages before. In the novel excerpt below, our protagonist has just arrived at a seaside town after an unspeakable tragedy. The true subject of this chapter is revealed to be Ed’s unsettled inner state—dive in and read all the way up to its heart-stopping end.
He smelled the sea even before he got off the train. From his childhood (memories of their only trip to the Baltic Sea), he remembered the Hotel am Bahnhof. It lay directly across from the station, a big, beautiful attraction with oriels built as round towers, and weather vanes in which the numerals of the years crumbled.
He let a few cars pass and hesitated. It wouldn’t be wise, he thought, especially as far as money was concerned. On the other hand, there was no point in arriving on the island in the afternoon, since there probably wouldn’t be enough time left to find a place to stay—if he could find one at all. He had about 150 marks on him; if he were careful, he could make it last for three, maybe even four weeks. He had left ninety marks in his bank account for rent transfers, enough until September. If he were lucky, no one would take exception to his disappearance. He could have fallen ill. Summer holidays would begin in three weeks. He had written his parents a card. They believed he was in Poland, in Katowice, for the so-called International Student Summer, as he had been the year before.
The reception desk was built unusually high and looked as if it had been swept clean, no papers, no keys; but what did Ed know about hotels? At the very last moment, the heads of three women appeared, rising like the pistons of a four-stroke motor in which the fourth spark plug has failed to ignite. Impossible to discern from exactly which depths the receptionists had suddenly surfaced; maybe the high shelf of the desk was connected to a back room, or maybe over the years the women had simply got used to staying under cover as long as possible, quiet and still, behind their dark veneered barrier.