Author Focus:

Morality and Mirth

Steph Morris talked to German novelist, playwright and translator Kristof Magnusson on a visit to the EÜK (Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium) in Straelen, northern Germany.

Author of three critically and commercially successful novels, Kristof Magnusson’s first published work – the play Männerhort (‘men’s crèche’) – has now been made into a film. He was more than happy not to have been involved, having observed the ‘circus’ of hectic rewrites and last-minute changes from a relaxed distance. Kristof describes the result as ‘OK for a German film’; if he were talking about German art or theatre, say, (or books!) this would be praise. Still, nothing is worse than arrogant authors moaning about how their work has been filmed; you have to stand back. And he learned to relinquish control gracefully when the play was first produced for the stage. As we speak 1.2 million cinema tickets for the film have been sold in Germany, so the team must have got something right, he says.

It seems unlikely Magnusson would slip into the arrogant author role – he must have got something right there himself. Self-effacing, more like: he says he’s moved on as a writer since that play. And our conversation moves on to, but this leads me to my first question: why, oh why, does no-one take comedy seriously? Männerhort is classed squarely as a comedy, has made a lot of people laugh in Germany, on stage and screen; Kristof’s novels fall into the category of literary fiction, but demonstrate more humour than this genre typically offers. In English we have writers such as Roddy Doyle or Hilary Mantel who can juggle the comic and the sobering; what about German literature? What does humour mean to him as a writer? There’s an expression in German: man muss mal lachen – you have to laugh sometimes – which makes laughing sound like an unfortunate necessity, like bowel movements, Kristof says, a base instinct. In fact it’s a literary instinct, a crucial one. A creative and subversive one, I suggest. Yes, and writing which can handle important subjects with humour demonstrates the real power of literature. It can be a tool to change perceptions, a means towards freedom. He finds people – and writing – devoid of humour deeply suspect. Like Heidi (the baddie in his new novel), I say. Yes, and in the German mainstream there’s a misunderstanding about what humour is. It isn’t a deadpan anecdote enlivened by a joke at the end, then another anecdote followed by another joke, ad infinitum; it’s a sensibility, a perspective. I assure him the former is prevalent in Anglo-Saxon culture too; but can he name some German writers who demonstrate humour in the wider sense? Only pre-war ones, he says. Tucholsky? Yes, or Erich Kästner, Thomas Mann even; he wrote beautifully ironic prose. The Nazis silenced or banished all this, and killed humour for the foreseeable; an aspect of totalitarianism is indeed the exclusion of humour.

NBG readers will in any case find rumours of the death of irony in German literature exaggerated. But now I want to get serious and talk about morality. What role does it play in his work? A conscious one, sure, Kristof says. His new book Arztroman (‘Doctors. A Novel’) is a portrait of Berlin and its inhabitants, and also describes the work done by medics and the emergency services on a daily basis; these two aspects are presented with (deceptive) ease as matters of fact. The third aspect isn’t handled subtly, and wasn’t meant to be. Two characters with opposing world views are pitched against each other: Anita, an emergency doctor, who believes in doing good and helping others, and Heidi, writer of ghastly self-help literature, who believes people should take responsibility for themselves, look after their own interests and not expect society to clear up after them – a philosophy we in the UK still call ‘Thatcherite’. An international thing really, Kristof says, the Kohl-Reagan-Thatcher era. It’s clear whose side we’re both on, and Kristof’s baddie Heidi is very ‘juicy’, as we would have said then, a figure the reader can delight in hating. However Anita, although an excellent doctor, is always trying to do the right thing in her private life and getting it badly wrong, annoying everyone around her. A messed-up character not everyone will identify with. I suggest it’s possible for someone more on Heidi’s wavelength to engage with the story too. Kristof doesn’t sound convinced; he says some have dissed the book as do-gooder literature, but he’s happy to have got people talking about the fundamental issue of solidarity. It used to be a guiding principle in Europe, but we seem to be giving up on it in the name of neo-liberalism. Is that what we really want, he asks?

The novel’s psychodrama ends on a note of equilibrium. Some readers were hoping Anita would wreak a final ‘juicy’ act of revenge on Heidi; I think not, Kristof says; instead Anita learns to keep her oar out and let things be. This bloodthirsty reader was half-hoping for one final ‘juicy’ disaster to put Anita and her assistant Maik through their paces, and it nearly happens, but is averted. These things very rarely do happen, Kristof says; realism was critical. Yet he’s not afraid of exposing the reader to the human body’s vulnerability. In his first novel the protagonist is attacked by a lunatic French DJ, later leaps out of a speeding jeep fearing for its driver’s sanity, and by the end is on crutches. Artztroman is punctuated by scenes where people’s survival depend on Anita’s decisions and skills; he describes their conditions and her treatments unsparingly – I wanted to make it clear what this looks like, Kristof says. (I won’t repeat the details, let’s just say that at one stage we get an impromptu tracheotomy). He cites playwright Sarah Kane’s work, the body as a projection-surface.

Realism is one of the books’ strengths, thanks not least to research. Kristof’s first novel is set between Hamburg and Reykjavik, territory he is familiar with; in the second, three characters’ lives are contrasted and interwoven: a writer, a literary translator (so far so good), and, erm, an investment banker. The detailed, nail-biting descriptions of the latter at ‘work’ – risking millions in speculative transactions which ultimately bring an entire bank down – required extensive research among bankers in Frankfurt, German’s finance capital. Equally with Arztroman, on the one hand a portrait of the city he lives in, Kristof could have made things easier for himself, but no, his main protagonist is an emergency doctor and her work is made central to the plot. The research involved six months shadowing and quizzing the doctors who work with the emergency services, who drive to each scene separately from the ambulances and decide what treatment is needed immediately or during the journey to A&E. Admit it, you love research, I say. Yes, he responds, reminding me that before studying writing, he trained as an ecclesiastical musician; like written music, the facts garnered during research serve as a basic structure you can then get creative with. Again this is too modest. At any rate, if we are to stick with the metaphor, then he is a very talented musician: the emergency scenes are some of the most gripping passages in the book, the story-telling at its finest because he has successfully distilled the relevant factual information and dramatised it. It turns out he got the doctors he’d consulted to read successive drafts of these scenes. You turned medics into literary editors? Yes. He bought them dinner in return, but they were enjoying the task anyway. Introducing the emergency services to literary fiction was something Kristof had long dreamed of; as a child he loved playing with fire engines. Using an emergency doctor was also a good way to get his novel’s tentacles into a lot of people’s private lives. A hospital setting would have been too narrow; Anita and her assistant Maik attend to patients on the streets, in their houses and flats, on an allotment site in once case. Anita’s split-second diagnoses are informed by observations of the patients’ lifestyles.

Kristof is the only person I know who successfully divides his time equally between writing and translation, equally successful at both. Do the two influence each other? Is translation versus writing an interesting subject in the slightest? It is! Icelandic writer Einar Kárason’s books, which he read initially in German translation, were an early influence on him, inspiring him to start writing himself. Like his writing career, his translation career began with drama. But after he began publishing novels he was head-hunted to become Einar Kárason’s German translator, since the publisher thought his narrative style was a good match. So he is now himself responsible for Kárason’s style in German! Kristof maintains that writing is not necessarily harder than translation. Writers have to come up with a story, sure, but they have it easier when it comes to language; they can delete things they can’t find the right words for, things which aren’t working. Kristof studied creative writing, and now teaches it. What is his take on storytelling technique, the craft of writing? He doesn’t seem to think his technical skills are out of the ordinary. He’s ruthless with the red pen, and the novels get reduced by nearly half when he comes to editing. He listens to his doctors’ advice too, of course. And translation is excellent training. He also says that reading drafts out loud is crucial. He does a lot of public readings; 120 for Das war ich nicht. Kristof becomes very upbeat describing how the network of independent bookshops and independent publishers in Germany work with each other to organise events, bringing writers and readers together. Everyone benefits and it gives people some hope for the future, instead of all this doom and gloom about the state of the publishing industry.

Kristof was Translator in Residence here at the EÜK in Straelen two years ago. Now I am in the post, and we move on to a candid discussion of the joys and challenges of the job, which cannot be repeated here …

By Steph Morris

Kristof Magnusson
Photo: Gunnar Klack

Kristof Magnusson
lives in Berlin and divides his time between writing and translating (from Icelandic into German). Before becoming a bestselling author he worked for a charity helping the homeless in New York and trained to be a church musician.
In 2013 he spent time in London as writer-in-residence at Queen Mary, University of London.
Steph Morris’
Photo: Ebba D. Drolshagen
Steph Morris’
translation of Martin Suter’s The Last Weynfeldt will be published this year by New Vessel Press.