The German Book Prize does it again and other literary news from Germany

The German Book Prize 2013 has been awarded to Hungarian-German writer Terészia Mora for her novel Das Ungeheuer (The Monster). Spiegel Online, Tagesspiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung have more. Finally, here is a video interview with Ms. Mora about her novel.

Now I have expressed my disastisfaction with the German Book Prize selections before, both here and here. Now the good news is that Ms. Mora’s winning novel is not a middle class family saga set against the backdrop of German history like approximately eighty percent of previous winners. Instead, it is a sort of literary road movie featuring a disaffected middle-aged middle class man who travels through South Eastern Europe mourning his Hungarian-German wife who committed suicide. But then, tales of disaffected middle class people in their thirties and forties who are well off, but drift through life and refuse to grow up and become adults, can win the German Book Prize in a pinch, when there is no middle class family saga available. The 2006 winner, the novel Die Habenichtse (The Have-nots) by Katherina Hacker is another example. No, the trophy is not a baby, by the way. The baby is Ms. Hacker’s then newborn daughter.

Now I no more get the “disaffected middle class professional who refuses to grow up” subgenre than I get the “middle class family saga set against the backdrop of recent German history” subgenre. In particular, I always have problems figuring out what is so bad about the protagonists of those novels and why they are not considered proper adults. In Ms. Mora’s case, I suspect the reason is that her protagonist failed to notice that his wife was suffering from a deep depression that eventually led to suicide. Which would make him unobservant and potentially a jerk, but in what way is Ms. Mora’s forty-year-old protagonist not an adult? Privately, I suspect that accusations about characters not being “proper adults” are just veiled jealousy of people who manage to live a life free of marriage, children, mortgages and other attachments. But again, this does not apply to Ms. Mora’s protagonist, because he was married. And Terézia Mora explicitly said in the video interview I linked to above that her protagonist only becomes a full adult by the end of the novel.

Talking of protagonists we are supposed to dislike, because they allegedly refuse to grow up, I stopped reading Nick Hornby’s novels the moment I realized I was supposed to dislike his protagonists and sympathize with their annoying girlfriends, whereas I always sympathized with the protagonists (who were all geeks of some sort, so it was easy to sympathize, even if football or music are not my fandoms of choice) and hated the girlfriend characters.

But this is not supposed to be an indictment of Das Ungeheuer (the titular monster is the wife’s depression BTW), which I haven’t read. In fact, it seems as if very few people have read it, since Das Ungeheuer has only two customer reviews at Amazon Germany. Honestly, some of my stories have more and I have neither stellar sales nor a whole lot of reviews.

However, the German Book Prize is still sadly predictable. As for the supposed other favourites on the shortlist, Clemens Meyer’s novel Im Stein (In the stone) didn’t have a chance in hell, since it’s society epos set in the redlight district of a big German city and redlight districts are too alien and offputting for bourgeois middle class readers. Die Sonnenposition (The sun position) by Marion Poschmann had rather better chances, since it features the director of a psychiatric clinic in former East Germany shortly after the unification ruminating on his family history, i.e. it has the crucial ingredients middle class and family saga. Though in the end, the jury still went with Terézia Mora instead.

BTW, there actually was an SF novel on the shortlist for the German Book Prize, Nichts von euch auf Erden (Nothing of you on Earth) by Reinhard Jirgl, but unsurprisingly it didn’t win. For the record, I’m surprised it made the shortlist. A lot of people seemed to dislike Jirgl’s novel because of the faux futuristic slang he uses much of the time BTW. I wonder how they would have coped with A Clockwork Orange.

Interestingly, Terézia Mora also busts the prejudice that literary writers don’t write series and sequels, just in case John Updike’s Rabbit series hasn’t already done that. Because Das Ungeheuer is the sequel to Ms. Mora’s 2009 novel Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent (The only man on the continent), wherein the workaholic protagonist suffers from burnout and is saved by his wife, the suicide from the latter novel.

More German literature news: Bulgarian German writer Ilija Trojanow has been denied entry into the US, where he was supposed to speak at a conference in Denver. Officially no reason was given, but there are suspicions that an open letter that Trojanow and fellow German writer Juli Zeh wrote to Angela Merkel to protest NSA surveillance might have something to do with it.

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6 Responses to The German Book Prize does it again and other literary news from Germany

  1. James Davis Nicoll says:

    I think German and Canadian award bait may be similar in many respects:

    • Cora says:

      The Canadians don’t seem to be as big on family sagas, but the depressiveness of it all is surprisingly similar. We could always export a couple of our writers, if Canada wants them.

  2. Daniela says:

    Based on my own observations and experiences when it comes to depression not realizing or not wanting to realize that someone is having trouble is pretty common. Along the line of ‘ignore it and it will go away’. Or the whole ‘not wanting to get involved’.

    I’ve even had “friends” totally ignore it and bitch at me for breaking appointments, even after I pointed out to them that I wasn’t doing too well at the time. Same with family. Or people who came to me after my nervous breakdown and mentioned that they’d noticed I was doing badly and how glad they are that I’m now doing better and getting help. Eh?

    But in my experience that has nothing to do with not growing up. In my case a number of people were what one would consider grown-up, some were even trained coaches/teachers focusing on communication.

    The issues, at least when it comes to depression (even more so with bipolar), has far more to do with our society and that mental problems are still something very hush-hush that one best not talk about. Just shut up and get over it. The thought of the “Klapse” is still lurking in many minds.
    It’s perfectly fine to talk ad nauseam about physical illnesses or accidents, but the moment you dare mention something like depression you become ostracized and a pariah. I have friends who grew up with a bi-polar parent who went undiagnosed and untreated for decades, even though everyone knew that something was wrong.

    Now that would maybe make an interesting book, the way how our society damages people and then punishes them for being damaged and struggling. Depression would be a good topic for that. Instead depression is often used just as a prop, by writers who have no knowledge of and not really done much research into depression. Romance novels are especially bad at that (no, dear writer, falling in love is not a cure nor is sex).

    • Cora says:

      I completely agree that our society ignores people with mental issues and that problems are often hushed up by friends and family.

      But from what I’ve gleaned, Mora’s book is less about the wife’s struggle with depression (though the diary portions may give a view into her mind) and more about the husband’s journey of self-discovery and growth, though he struggles with depression as well after the suicide of his wife. Just as the previous book in the series showed the wife helping her husband overcome his burnout and workaholic tendencies. I could be mistaken, but this sounds as if the wife is something of a magical prop, who merely exists tp propell the husband onto his journey of self-discovery, which is pretty offensive, come to think of it.

      PS: Sorry you had to go through that and glad you’re feeling better now.

  3. Mark says:

    I tend to disagree this time. I kind of liked Mora’s previous novel, which captured modern globalized work environments and I.T. specifically pretty well. At least I could relate to it and I think that it was a pretty original. That said, I had a bit of a problem with the POV in which it was written, a strange mix of 1st and 3rd person. I’m currently reading Das Ungeheuer (I started one day before the novel got the award, so that was really not the reason why I was interested).

    I haven’t watched the interview yet, but if she comments on the lack of series and sequels: I can’t think of a single non-genre German language series of novels, so she is not sooo wrong about that. Sure there are some English language examples like Updike or more recently Atwood, but it’s simply not as common. In some cases like with Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels you have actually have a reccuring character, but in that case it’s just a framework for very different stories.

    So what would have been the alternative?

    Marion Poschmann would have been the least original choice (her novel apparently has all the ingredients for a German Book Award).

    Clemens Meyer? Really? For the past decade he is the critique’s favorite working class bad boy writer. I have read some of his work and I think he writes working class porn for middle-class critiques who think it’s cool to have a favorite working class writer. Just putting prostitutes and criminals into your novel doesn’t make it more important or more authentic or whatever. He also won the other important German book prize before (the Leipzig one). I think he even one it twice.

    Jirgl’s SF novel? I had a quick look into this one. A tome of a book. I think unreadable. That doesn’t automatically make it good or on par with Burgess either.

    • Cora says:

      I guess I couldn’t connect with Terézia Mora’s previous novel, because I’ve never had that kind of corporate job. Doesn’t mean that it’s bad, just not for me.

      As for series in German non-genre fiction, there is Sven Regener’s Lehmann trilogy, Neue Vahr Süd, Der kleine Bruder, Herr Lehmann plus his newest, which is a spin-off of sorts. And Günther Grass kept revisiting Oskar Mazerath and family to the point that he nuked Mazerath as well as the characters from Der Butt in Die Rättin, though that’s probably more along the lines of Philip Roth’s Zuckermann.

      And I think you hit the nail on the head that the shortlist was quite poor this year. Marion Poschmann’s novel would have been yet another predictable family saga winning the German Book Prize. I agree that Clemens Meyer is something of a one-trick pony, but at least his book would have been a departure for the German Book Prize, even if he won the prize of the Leipzig book fair twice. Jirgl’s novel might fail, but at least he was trying something new (for German literary fiction, that is). As for the fifth nominee, Die Ordnung der Sterne über Como by Monika Zeiner, it sounds like bad women’s fiction, even if the protagonist is male.

      Anyway, do report back when you’ve read Das Ungeheuer.

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