My post-Leipzig talk

In March of this year ten writers and six publishers from New Zealand were at the Leipzig Book Fair, on the Frankfurt Book Fair’s stand. We were being introduced to German journalists, publishers and readers as part of the preparations for New Zealand’s appearance as Country of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair this October. When were were home again the Wellington contingent—me, Fergus Barrowman, Jenny Patrick, and Damien Wilkins gave talks about the experience. This is mine.

First I’m going to say I had a wonderful time in Germany and the thronging exhibition halls of the Leipzig Book Fair were an eye-opener. Everyone concerned with our trip performed energetically, gamely, and bravely—or some of that and in character in the case of Alan Duff. I had a few fans who came to my appearances to get their copies of Der Engel mit den dunklen Flugeln signed. One of them, to my delight, was dressed up as Carmen San Diego.

I’ve had two books in German, hardback and paperback, both out of print now due to the vagaries of publishing companies swallowing each other. But, that said, I’ve been doing this for a long time now and have, as far as editions of books go, the usual long campaigner’s proportion of spent shell casings to live ammunition.

This talk is about being in Leipzig, but its subject is possibly the recession, and how we talk about what we do.

One night when we were in Leipzig, Fergus and I went along with Damien to a party at the house of Josef Haslinger, head of the University of Leipzig creative writing program. The party was for the students and two visiting writer faculty members from their partnership school at Columbia University New York.

Josef Haslinger’s house was on the fourth floor of a building in a suburb full of converted Eastern Block factories beside one of Leipzig’s four rivers, which Haslinger told us in August would echo with the voices of people in dingys and kayaks. The house was double glazed and had two terraces, one for the smokers with ashtrays, and tea lights which stayed lit—something that never happens with candles on the deck of our villa in Kelburn. I was appreciating the windlessness and double glazing and, as I do, looking around and thinking, “People live like this.” I’d recently seen dusty courtyards off quiet alleys—Hutongs in Beijing—and high-rises studded with air-conditioning units dripping black mould in Shanghai, and had thought, “People live like this.” It’s never pejorative. It’s not envious. Nor am I location-shopping for fiction. But every difference represents one more thing to explain about what’s familiar to me. For instance I can say “Our Villa in Kelburn” to you Wellingtonians and I don’t have to do a whole lot of describing after that. Differences require description—and description is out of fashion in books. (Fair enough, since we can Google all terms of reference, and there are certainly those who think that all imagery is just fancy terms of reference.)

When I travel I’m being alert, and also half asleep. Half asleep because part of me is always registering that going to a foreign place is like going to the future—you’re somewhere you’ve looked forward to, but where you have no say or influence. You’re a ghost. Or you’re in someone else’s story. At the same time I often get to see things I’ve absorbed from books and films, and sometimes feel I’ve waited for my whole life. Like the spring thunderstorm Fergus and I got caught in in the gardens of the Nymphenberg Palace just outside Munich, when planetary thunderheads, so big and dense they looked like they should have their own gravities, came together and squeezed the sun. There was sunburst. A corona of light and filmy grey shadows bristled in the little bit of blue sky between the clouds. Then blue went green, and we heard a slow-motion rockslide of thunder, and felt and saw the first ‘plops’ of rain. We don’t get raindrops that size. Foreign raindrops; coins I can’t spend here.

So here’s me in Leipzig, at Josef Haslinger’s house, eating black bread and frankfurters. We’re hungry because we didn’t eat enough of the nibbles at the Leipzig Museum, where the New Zealand string quartet were playing. I’m still thinking about the museum and the music and walking behind the moment—pretty much the same way I walk behind Fergus when we are out on a long ramble. I always start plotting something, and if I’m behind him he can deal with obstacles and oncoming people, and never mind that he ends up feeling like a cow with a calf, or one of those patriarchs whose wives always follow a step after him. I can’t be expected to think and steer myself.

What I’m thinking at Haslinger’s party, and will go on thinking throughout our German trip, is something like that there’s room for everything, but not now, not at the moment, and whatever you look at could be different. I’d just seen old musical instruments. Old pianos, from back when there was no accepted size or shape for them and a buyer might have asked for one to fit the corner of a particular parlour. I’ve seen the museum building itself—made from pink stone quarried somewhere near Leipzig. It had fossils in it. I dropped a nibble and it landed on a black glyph in the flagstone at my feet that was really a prehistoric centipede. When we were in the taxi on the way to the museum we’d passed the University and a building made of steel and glass, and, and sockets in the steel, the rose window, pillars, and Gothic arches from the old cathedral that was wrecked during the unrest in 1989. I was planning to go back and photograph it and tweet it for my Christchurch followers to show them what’s been done with rubble, and old stones in new settings. I was feeling proud of the string quartet. Their Death and the Maiden had earned a standing ovation from the Germans. I was feeling proud of Michael Norris whose piece they played first. He teaches at Vic and though he’s on my back doorstep I hadn’t heard of him before. I was moved and excited by his Exitus.

Josef Haslinger, Damien, Fergus, and another German writer are talking about New Zealand’s being country of honour and how Fergus is spending his days talking himself hoarse on behalf of his authors—and how he feels a bit awkward doing so because Leipzig isn’t really a Rights fair, with selling, and he’s rudely—he feels—trying to sell. Ten writers and six publishers are at the Leipzig Fair on the Frankfurt Book Fair’s stand. We are introducing New Zealand—country of honor at Frankfurt in 2012.

Fergus is saying that there is a very short lead-time. “Translations take time we might not have.” He’s concerned that New Zealand might end up being represented only by what just happens to already be in translation and in print—or pending. “Of course we can curate what appears around that,” he says.

I’m standing next to him shrugging. My “What can you do shrug”. Then I’m nodding because he’s saying, “We can only do our best.” I’m nodding because of how important all this is. I’m shrugging because when I was talking to someone that very day about the ideal of New Zealand literature being well presented at Frankfurt they said, “Well, Elizabeth, it’s a book Fair not a literature Fair.” Which, of course, has the virtue of being true.

I think of something to say. With my usual apparently beside-the-point scene-setting: “When Damien and I were in the Messe tram the other day with Claudia from the Frankfurt Book Fair she was talking about how few German books make it into English. And how many books in English are translated into German. That Germany is on the downstream end of the flood of books in all the Englishes. Or, actually, books from New York and London and whatever makes it through New York and London.”

The other German writer’s eyes light up. “Yes,” he says. “That’s true. You have to ask yourself: does my book need to be translated? Why should my book be in German?”

And—at that moment—with the bread and frankfurter working their magic on my blood sugar, this struck me as a rather delightful and liberating question.

One of the wonderful things about Leipzig the city is, in fact, the gift of failure. In the years after reunification around 50% of the city’s population moved away. Leipzig is full of empty buildings. There was one grand old hotel near the Hauptbahnhoff that nearly got me killed because I’d be staring at its name in perplexity while crossing the road. The Hotel Seaview. The Hotel Seaview translated from the seaside by an Eastern Block hotelier. There were falcons nesting at the top of our taller hotel and we still couldn’t see the sea from there. Most of the empty buildings in the depressed Leipzig have been preserved. Now they’re being slowly bought up and restored. Leipzig may not boom, but it will grow and be beautiful.

Because of where history is at we have all spent our adult lives with talk of success at the centre of much our talk. And we’re still doing it, like birds awake when they should be asleep and singing in the light of a distant forest fire. I was lucky to see those Hutongs in Beijing. Most of them were leveled for high-rises. The people from the vanished neighborhoods gather after work in parks near to where they once lived. They get together and do ballroom dancing, which keeps them warm on late-winter nights. Success can erase things as effectively as failure. That’s what I was thinking about when I left the party. That all any empty building says is: “Not now.”

We were at a party. Our hosts were generous and gracious. The food was good. We imagined the lives of others. We remembered things we already knew like how quickly some literary folk from New York can work out that they don’t need to talk to you. We exerted ourselves for ourselves and others. Damien tried to get up something reciprocal between Haslinger’s program and the IML in Wellington. Fergus talked himself hoarse. We walked down four flights of stairs. The tram floating down the dark street like a lit barge was the wrong tram. But taxi drivers all speak English. The glyph in the pink stone was once alive. And rain coins have no face value, they might be worth anything or nothing.

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