From the Feuilletons


From the Feuilletons

This week it's books, books, books.

Wednesday saw the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest book fair in the world. Hungarian author Peter Zilahy writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Frankfurt is a pilgrimage. Even if you only do it only once in your life, like a Muslim to Mecca." The Neue Zürcher Zeitung agrees, stressing that it's not only writers who think that way: "The mood in the German book trade is great," writes Joachim Güntner. "As festival director Juergen Boos puts it, there's 'a feeling of growth in the air.' The fair is booked out, he says, although one hears conflicting accounts about the presence of Latin American publishers (officially the number is growing, while unofficial sources say it's sinking). The Americans and English, who represent the book fair's 'core markets,' are once again coming in pre 9/11 numbers. Asia is booming in Frankfurt, China has boosted its presence by an impressive thirty percent."

Apparently out of the blue, the FAZ has published two articles in English on the books coming out in Germany this autumn. Both give a good indication FAZ feueillton style. Hubert Spiegel writes on new fiction, and Christian Geyer on new nonfiction.

Rather than inviting a country as guest to the fair, this year Frankfurt features Catalonia as a cultural entity. The decision sparked a huge controversy, as the Barcelona-based Institut Ramon Llull, responsible for the organisation, planned to invite only authors writing in Catalan. Merten Wortmann asks in the Südeutsche Zeitung if the decision doesn't have more to do with politics than with literary quality - to make amends for decades of oppression of Catalan language and literature under Franco. "Long after the dictator's death, writing in Catalan was a sort of unintended political exclamation mark for authors. But this also became a burden, because large sections of the public also automatically assumed that Catalan literature was inextricably linked with the Catalan question, and for that reason saw it as more provincial than it really was. In general, the current generation of writers is considered the first that can 'simply write, without having to defend the fatherland at the same time,' as Barcelona critic Julia Guillamon recently put it. The question remains, she wrote, 'as to whether the Catalan cultural can also survive without a political project.'"

Nuria Amat, a Catalan author who writes in Spanish, wonders in Die Welt whether one hundred years ago it would have been a problem to invite Franz Kafka, who wrote in German, if the Czech Republic had been guest of honour: "Just as we can no longer conceive of Prague without Kafka, we cannot understand Barcelona without its two linguistic cultures. We know that it's the business of politicians to manipulate people with lies, and the business of writers like Kafka to expose lies. But what happens when the politicians and cultural bureaucrats in charge of invitations to Frankfurt refuse an author like Kafka because he's been defined by those handing out the cultural subsidies as an author without a homeland or a language of his own?"

Shortly before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the German Book Prize for 2007 was awarded to Julia Franck for her novel "Die Mittagsfrau" (Lady Midday - excerpt in English here). Writing in Der Tagesspiegel, Gerrit Bartels is anything but thrilled: "Once more, what we have here is a classic jury decision, opting for the book with high target-group appeal. For all its shortcomings, for all its quirky trudging along, for all its insistence on raising the question why Franck is telling us all this in the first place, the book will nonetheless find its audience, and indeed already has. Last week 'Die Mittagsfrau' was ranked at no. 17 on Der Spiegel's bestseller list: A mother leaves her adolescent son alone on a train station at the end of the Second World War and never wants to see him again. There's plenty of people out there who want to know how it got to this. Sad woman supreme, but no 'novel for long discussions,' as the jury has it."

Edo Reents, by contrast, who reviewed the book for the literature section of the FAZ, was deeply impressed. The book "leads us into those eerie human depths about which a political or social statement, that is a value judgement, cannot be uttered," he writes.

And the feuilletons paid considerable attention to Doris Lessing's wining the Nobel Prize for literature. All papers featured lengthy, even full-page articles:

For Jens Balzer in the Berliner Zeitung: "Lessing's opus is broad in reach and genre-bridging but for fifty years it has circled unrelentingly around one and the same question: How to cope in a world where there seem to be no alternatives? What constitutes an indidual's 'own', 'self-determined' life? In our post-emancipatory days many will find such thoughts naive, but this does not make them less true or pressing. The functionaries of old-school literary criticism always viewed Lessing's works with suspicion; no wonder that Germany's most popular literary critic, Marcel Reich Ranicki's spontaneous reaction to the news was 'disappointing.' 'From the Anglo-Saxon world he would have much rather seen John Updike or Philip Roth' take home the award. Like Updike and Roth, Lessing began her career with novels of self-discovery. Not of course with male self-discovery novels but with women's self-discovery novels. She doesn't describe middle-class men agonising over nymphomania and commitment phobia, but middle-class women agonising over commitment and doubts about whether the role of housewife and dutiful mother really is the only one that life has to offer."

Ingeborg Harms in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes: "In her prolific career, Doris Lessing employed intellectual acuity and a necessary dose of sarcasm to create a rich parallel world to the present-obsessed present day. Her books maintain a dialogue with a literary tradition which for centuries formed the yardstick of intellectual life. Doris Lessing is an ambassador of loneliness and she portrays a life in thought as an alternative which becomes ever more plausible as the years go by. Her large heart and her active mind demonstrate how one can write about Afghan refugees and at the same time attend to the fate of female souls with a Jane Austen-like sensibility."

"No, this was not a choice reached using literary criteria alone," writes Lothar Müller in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "It does not honour a great stylist, nor a writer who developed new narrative forms, such as Coetzee and Imre Kertesz. The Nobel Academy ratified the symbolic importance of a writer at the moment where her work had started to pale. Doris Lessing is a child of the crumbling Commonwealth and a witness of the long process in which Africa began to step out of the colonial shadow. She became a novelist by describing this crumbling and this new begining, in 'The Grass is Singing' for example. But Doris Lessing is also a child of the crumbling of the old order of the sexes, and not only in Europe. She became a world author not only because she described this crumbling and the strengthening of feminism, but because she also demanded it."

Other stories:

Die Zeit 11.10.2007

Jane Fonda turns 70 in December and next week she will be the guest of honour at the Vienna Film Festival. Katja Nicodemus visits the actress and political icon in Atlanta and talks to her across a double page spread. For example about Fonda's attempt to put a feminist spin on the Vietnam film "Coming Home". "I wanted to send out my little message against phallocentrism. The idea was that there should be sex between the paralysed veteran played by Jon Voight and my character, but without penetration. I wanted to show that a man who couldn't get an erection because of his injuries could still be a better lover than the 30-seconds-and its-over man I was married to at the time. So I had to fight it out with director Hal Ashby. I called it the 'great battle of penetration'. One day we had a bunch of veterans on the set as extras in their wheelchairs. One of them had brought his girlfriend along. When I asked him about his sex life he said that he sometimes had erections that lasted four hours. Hal Ashby overheard this and I thought, 'Shit, that's the end of my anti-penetration plan.'"

Die Welt

Vassili Grossman wrote the "War and Peace" of the 20th century. Historian Karl Schlögel celebrates "Life and Fate", Grossman's epochal novel of the Stalin era, which has just been published in its full 1000-page version in German for the first time. "Grossman follows the trails of his characters at a time when the front wandered Eastwards and ploughed up the entire country, uprooting countless millions of people or burying them in its wake. In Grossman's universe there are German POW camps, concentration camps and the Gulag complexes of Kotlas, Magadan and Kolyma. Grossman knew the milieus which he sketched out with relentless precision, the military jargon, the topics discussed by the intelligentsia in the laboratories that were evacuated to Kasan. It is not just the professional exactitude of the war reporter that fixes the nuances and details in these utterly credible chronicles, but the sharpened perception and presence of mind of the combatant who had learned that a lapse of attention can cost one one's life."

Neue Zürcher Zeitung 06.10.2007

Norwegians are up in arms that boys are doing increasingly poorly at school, while girls' grades are steadily improving, reports Aldo Keel in an article on the latest chapter in the Scandinavian battle of the sexes. Even in maths the girls are on top, he writes. In Norwegian, moreover, girls now have "twice as many top marks as boys, once the stronger sex. Instead of delighting in the girls' successes, teachers are issuing a sorry lament. School is too theory-heavy for the boys, they say, and too much time is spent sitting still. Schools favour discipline, diligence, exactitude and a sense of responsibility, all considered 'female values'. 'School is too feminine,' the left-socialist education minister recently announced. 'We've got to create a more masculine arena.' His proposal: 'More action. More computers.'" - let's talk european