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Novel Tales from Established Voices

As well as introducing an international readership to the best new novels by emerging writers, NBG keeps readers up to date with the latest works by more established authors. During the past few months, three giants of the Germanlanguage literary scene have published new novels. Sorcha McDonagh introduces these acclaimed figures, surveys their oeuvre and existing translations in English, and reviews their new novels.

Peter Handke Rights
Peter Handke is in the avant-garde of the avant-garde movement in Austria. He was born in Austria in 1942 and was brought up by his mother and step-father. While still a pupil at a Catholic boarding school, he had his first taste of his future career when his work was published in the school newspaper. He began a degree in law at the University of Graz in 1961 and it was there that he contributed to the avant-garde literary magazine manusckripte. Three years later, Handke’s first novel was accepted for publication, and he cut short his studies in order to focus on his writing.
Handke’s first play was entitled Publikumsbeschimpfung (literally: ‘Audience-insulting’), and it won admiration for its unconventional and bitingly satirical take on the theatre. Four actors speak directly to the audience in a piece that is less about plot than about provoking the audience into reconsidering the very nature of theatre. They end with a brief round of insults directed at all the theatregoers present. The play had its Englishlanguage premiere at the Oval House Theatre in London in 1970, in a production by The Other Company. Handke, who is himself a translator from English, French, Slovenian and Ancient Greek into German, has had many of his other works translated into English. These include The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), which describes a murder committed by a footballer after being sent off during a match, and The Left-handed Woman (1978), an elegiac tale of a woman who separates from her husband and cannot stop listening to the same record over and over again. Handke has long been passionate about film and has both written screenplays and directed films, including co-writing the film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) with director Wim Wenders. The film remains a classic and inspired the Hollywood remake City of Angels. Handke’s deeply moving memoir of his mother, who committed suicide, was published in English as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (2001).
Handke is noted in Austria and throughout the German-speaking world for his highly original use of language and his postmodern style. They have earned him fans, honorary degrees and awards such as the prestigious Büchner Prize. Yet Handke remains a controversial figure due to his outspoken political views on such issues as Serbian involvement in the Balkan Wars.
Peter Handke, Immer noch Sturm
(Suhrkamp, 2010)
Handke’s latest novel is Immer noch Sturm (‘The Continuing Storm’) and is published by Suhrkamp Verlag. It is about a family during the Second World War who live in the German- Slovene region of Austria. The narrator is seen as a traitor by his family because he was fathered by a German officer and because he eventually leaves home, turning his back on the Slovene language and culture. A series of his now-dead relatives come back to visit him over the course of the narrative and the conversations that he has with them form the basis of the novel. Dialogue has such an important role that this could be described as a play in prose. This is a strange and beautiful book, with an English connection that becomes forcefully apparent at its conclusion.
Uwe Timm Rights
Uwe Timm is perhaps best known as the author of Germany’s student revolutionary generation, the ‘68ers’. Born in Hamburg in 1940, Timm’s first job was as an apprentice to a furrier. After working in the industry for three years, he travelled to Munich and Paris to study philosophy and German. It was during his time at university in the late sixties that he became involved with the student revolts, an experience that has shaped his writings ever since. In 1971 Timm received his doctorate in German literature and published his first collection of poetry. So began a long and illustrious career as an extraordinarily versatile writer: a poet, essayist, children’s author, young adult author, memoirist, screen-play writer and, of course, a novelist of the highest order.
Timm has written four books for children, the most well-known of which is Rennschwein Rudi Rüssel (1989), a book about the adventures of a young family and their pet pig. It won the German Youth Literature Prize a year after its publication and was released as an English language film called Rudi, the Racing Pig in 1994. A number of his other works have also been translated into English and they showcase many of Timm’s most common themes. Snake Tree (1989), Headhunter (1994) and Morenga (2003) all reflect his engagement with foreign cultures; while The Invention of Curried Sausage (1995) and In My Brother’s Shadow (2005) prove how much he engaged with his own culture and history. The latter is one of his most significant works and is a memoir of his elder brother’s time in the SS and the repercussions it had on the rest of the family. Although Timm was just two years old when his brother joined the SS, and little older when his brother died, his life was always overshadowed by the mythological figure of the brave and dutiful brother whom he never really knew. Through an investigation of military reports, letters, family photos and cryptic entries in his brother’s diary, he developed a more nuanced picture of the role his brother played in the war. Timm was awarded the prestigious Heinrich Böll Prize in 2009.
Uwe Timm, Freitisch (KiWi, 2011)
Uwe Timm’s latest book, Freitisch (Free Meal), is published this year by Kiepenheuer & Witsch. It takes the form of multiple stories within a story, and engages once again with the student movements of the 1960s. In the main narrative, two men who knew each other at university meet for a coffee more than forty years later. They reminisce about their days as idealistic students of the ‘68 generation, telling stories about the lunches they ate for free as part of a bursary scheme run by a local insurance company (hence the title). Their café conversation provides a small stage on which the whole of recent German history can be played out. This is a book that ranges from human comedy to discussions about the works of the idiosyncratic literary great Arno Schmidt, but at its heart it is a powerful novel about the loss of youthful idealism.
Martin Walser Rights
Walser is considered one of the most influential German writers of the post-war era. Born at Lake Constance in 1927, he began to help out with the family businesses of coal-dealing and inn-keeping after the early death of his father. He was a member of the German army during the final year of the Second World War but returned to school once the war had ended and completed his state exams. Walser went on to study literature, philosophy and history at the Universities of Regensburg and Tübingen, receiving a doctorate in literature in 1951 for a thesis on Franz Kafka. He worked in radio as a reporter, producer and radio play author for some years before deciding to concentrate on his career as a novelist.
Walser’s first novel, a huge success both critically and commercially, was published in English as Marriages in Philippsburg (1961). It casts a critical eye on post-war German society by examining a different character in each of its four chapters. Walser’s most well-known novel appeared in English as A Runaway Horse (1966). The novel centres around two former school friends with very different attitudes to life, who run into each other while on holiday with their wives. The novel builds to a dramatic climax when the two men are caught in a raging storm on board a sailing boat. Other works by Martin Walser in English translation include two books that follow the character Anselm Kristlein as he negotiates his way through life in an obsessively competitive society – Halftime: A Novel (1960) and The Unicorn (1983); and Swan Villa (1983) about an estate agent whose every action results in abysmal failure. While more than twelve of Walser’s works have been translated into English, many more have never found the English-speaking audience they deserve.
Walser has won numerous prizes for his work, including the Büchner Prize in 1981 and the 1998 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Never one to shy away from controversy, he faced a backlash after his acceptance speech for the Peace Prize, in which he criticised the frequent discussion of the Holocaust in the media and the use of Auschwitz as a ‘moral cudgel’.
Martin Walser, Muttersohn
(Rowohlt, 2011)
Walser’s new work, Muttersohn (literally: ‘Mother-Son’), is published this year by Rowohlt Verlag and is set in two former monasteries in south-west Germany. One of the monasteries, on the shores of Lake Constance, has been converted into a psychiatric hospital, while the other lies on an island in the middle of the lake. The cast of characters includes the protagonist (Percy), his friend ‘the professor’ at the mental hospital, and Katze, the head of a local motorcycle gang. Walser writes as delightfully as ever with the same sense of sardonic irony with which he burst onto the literary scene. This is a complex but very fine piece of work which addresses weighty themes: the power of love, the power of belief and the power of language.
With these new novels, Handke, Timm and Walser have again made important contributions to the story of modern European literature – gems that will resonate just as much in English as they do in their original language.
By Sorcha McDonagh
with additional research by Samuel Pakucs Willcocks, Stefan Tobler and J.A. Underwood.