New book on Herta Müller: introducing the Nobel prize winner


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When Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 2009 it’s fair to say that she was little known in the English-speaking world; only five of her books existed in English translation then, and The Times announced the award with the headline ‘Herta Müller – who she?’. Müller’s previous brush with English-language fame had been back in 1998, when her novel Herztier had won the International Impac Dublin prize, in Michael Hofmann’s translation as The Land of Green Plums. Even in German, she had a much lower profile than the other recent German-language winners of the Nobel Prize, Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass.

Cover of Herta Müller ed. Haines and MarvenWith all this in mind, my colleague Brigid Haines and I decided to put together a volume on Herta Müller which would cover all her major works and themes, introducing her to the wider audience that would follow – we hoped – from the award of the Nobel prize. Fast forward a few years, and here it is!

Our volume features original contributions from Katrin Kohl, Alex Drace-Francis, Valentina Glajar, Moray McGowan, Beverley Eddy, Norbert Otto Eke, Karin Bauer, Wiebke Sievers, Jean Boase-Beier and Rebecca Braun, as well as essays by Brigid and me.

The chapters focus on the major works Reisende auf einem Bein (Traveling on One Leg), Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (The Fox was the Hunter even back then, so far unpublished in English translation), Herztier (The Land of Green Plums), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (The Appointment) and her most recent novel Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel), as well as on key themes and issues within her work such as Müller’s poetics, the Romanian background of her texts and the role of the Securitate (the Romanian secret police), Müller’s collage publications, and gender and sexual politics. Several chapters look at Müller in an international context, considering her reception abroad (particularly in Poland and the Netherlands), her work in English translation, and the effect of the award of the Nobel prize on the author’s image; and all quotations are translated, so readers have access to works which haven’t (yet!) been translated into English.

In the chapter I wrote for the volume, ‘Life and Literature: Autobiography, Referentiality, and Intertextuality in Herta Müller’s Work’, I examine the links between the author’s life and her writing. The autobiographical elements of Müller’s work were emphasised particularly in the articles which introduced the author after the award of the Nobel Prize – understandably, because her texts do draw on her own experiences in Romania, as she herself acknowledges in her non-fiction essays. However they are by no means straightforward autobiography: Müller’s distinctive poetic style transforms real life into non-realist fiction. What is more, she continues to rewrite key episodes from her own life, bringing into question the whole notion of autobiography – Müller continually reassesses the meaning of her past, and thus rewrites her own life through literature.

Brigid Haines and Lyn Marven, eds, Herta Müller (OUP, 2013)

Advent giveaway 2: an exclusive short story extract

Today is National Short Story day in the UK, and it’s also #translationthurs on Twitter, so it seems the ideal day for my second giveaway, this exclusive extract of Silke Scheuermann’s ‘The Handover’ (translated by me), from her collection Reiche Mädchen (Rich Girls, 2005).

It might seem like a tease only to post an extract, but in essence – as you’ll see I hope – the extract contains the germ of the whole story, and has all the characteristics of a good short story: subtlety, suspense, intensity, and the promise of a dramatic denouement.

I translated the extract from The Handover for the International Short Story Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, and it’s reproduced here with their kind permission. You can find out more about Silke Scheuermann (in English) here.

What affects the way we read books? thinking about authors, gender and translations

In my last post, I was looking at different covers for the same novel in translation across a range of languages, because I was wondering to what extent the cover image affects our expectations of the book inside. If the novel has a different cover, do we actually read it differently? could we even consider it to be a different novel? Think of the ‘adult’ versions of the covers for the Harry Potter series, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – aside from being a marketing ploy, those different covers also implied that the version inside was a book for grown-ups, whereas the children’s versions weren’t.

Cover images aren’t the only thing to affect how we read books though; extra-textual (or real-life) information also has a bearing on how we approach narratives. One of my (many) side-interests is in the role that gender plays in a text – how characters’ genders are represented and embodied, for example, or how language reflects, configures and reveals gender – and a few years ago I wrote an article* about three novels where the main character or narrator is the opposite sex to the author. In these cases, the authors were women and the characters were male; one of my conclusions was that writing a character or narrator of a different gender was a way for these writers to signal overtly that these texts were fictional, as much women’s writing tends to be read as autobiographical in the first instance, even when it is fiction. Continue reading

Judging books by their covers: Herta Müller in translation

Since Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009, there have been a whole host of re-issues, new publications and translations of her writing. It’s fascinating to see how the books are now being marketed (aside from the ubiquitous stickers saying ‘Nobel Prize winner’, of course), and what their cover images say about the writing inside.

Hanser’s handsome hardback versions have minimal images and muted colour schemes. I particularly like the architectural street view and blue wash on their version of Müller’s 1989 Berlin novel, Reisende auf einem Bein: the focus is on the plane in the sky, with its intimations of departures and arrivals. In the novel, the sky above the city – a frequent theme in texts set  in Berlin – is both a reminder of division and suggests the potential to cross boundaries. Continue reading

Highs and Lowlands: desperately seeking Romanian publications by Herta Müller

It might not look like much – the cover is a grainy black and white, with a picture of a rather unattractive toad – but this book, Niederungen, is probably the most sought-after of Herta Müller’s publications… or at least it is from where I’m sitting. There is only one copy to be found for sale on the internet (believe me, I’ve looked hard!) and it’s going for just shy of 1000 Euros – which is a little bit beyond my budget…

The book has a fascinating publication history: it’s Müller’s first book, published by Kriterion in Bucharest in 1982. The book is a collection of short stories which largely deal with life in the rural Banat, in surreal, dark, poetic texts, often from a child’s point of view. Continue reading

Even curiouser: a postscript

My mum read the last post, and phoned me up to remind me that my favourite book from the library was a picture dictionary, in French, by the wonderful Richard Scarry.

I thought I’d share that, not as further proof of my odd obsessions as a child (my other most-frequently borrowed book was a huge origami manual) but in praise of Richard Scarry, on the one hand, whose signature worm-in-a-hat is sadly missing from the front cover. His book Things (which I borrowed from my junior school library) is still a source of truly terrible puns and a little giggle to myself when I think of those squiggly, fingerprint-like Things (going from Bad to Worse, on a bus, but of course!).

And in praise of public and school libraries on the other hand – where else would generations of children get access to reference materials on whatever strange and magical subjects they alight on, and books which will fuel their imagination for decades to come?

Is this the place? book review

The figure of the stranger who comes to a new place is a bit of a cliché in literature (and film, and TV for that matter). But it’s a useful device, allowing an author to describe somewhere as if seeing it for the first time, to explain and comment on the history of a place, and to highlight cultural differences and those little local quirks which long-term inhabitants slowly but surely come to think are the normal way of doing things.

Recently I’ve been reading novels by authors who themselves are (or were) newcomers to Berlin, just like their characters: Chloe Aridjis’s Book of Clouds * (whose main character Tatiana is Mexican),  Anna Winger’s This Must Be the Place, and I’m just about to start Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ The History of History. They are all debut novels, as it happens – coming to Berlin obviously inspires writers!

This must be the place brings together Hope, an American in Berlin, and voiceover artist Walter, who dubs Tom Cruise into German. Hope is traumatised after living through September 11 in New York shortly after losing her child, and only reluctantly agrees to follow her husband Dave to Berlin. Walter once worked at Disneyland – playing Prince Charming with “a little European authenticity” – and he dreams of returning to the US to kick-start his career again, with a little help from his friend Tom. They make an odd couple: Walter is increasingly infatuated with Hope, while she is oblivious to his intentions but keen to escape her isolation and increasingly reliant on her German guide to the strange city. Continue reading