Last year we celebrated twenty-five years of New Books in German. As we looked back on a quarter century of championing the best German-language books for translation into English, Sheridan Marshall asked some of the people we worked with to single out a book they particularly enjoyed. Here are their recommendations.
New Books in German has helped bring a wealth of German-language literary treasures to an English-speaking readership. To celebrate our role in championing great German-language literature, we asked colleagues from all over the literary world to choose a favourite NBG title in English translation. We are pleased to bring you this collection of twenty-five recommendations of remarkable books to commemorate a quarter of a century of the New Books in German project.
These titles have all been through the rigorous jury selection process at New Books in German before being picked up by their respective English-language publishers, with translation costs being supported by either the the Austrian Federal Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport, Goethe-Institut, or Pro Helvetia.
Our juries aim to select those books which are not only excellent examples of their genre, but are judged suitable for an English-language readership. Their success in this is evidenced in the list below. Whether you’re looking to lose yourself in an epic family saga like Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life, a gripping thriller like Maike Wetzel’s Elly, or a fabulously atmospheric little tale like Urs Faes’ The Twelve Nights, or to find yourself in a perceptive account of contemporary relationships like Daniela Krien’s Love in Five Acts, or to challenge yourself with and uncomfortable but necessary read like Christian Jakob’s and Simone Schlindwein’s Dictators as the Gatekeepers of Europe, this selection is a reminder of the range, relevance and variety of contemporary German-language writing.
Read on below to see a selection of favourites from some people we have worked with over the years. Several titles are featured multiple times, reflecting colleagues’ enthusiasm for some truly brilliant writing. Please click here for a link to more of the books that have passed through the jury and made it into English translation.
Recommended by Tanja Howarth, Tanja Howarth Literary Agency
The Wet Fish, recommended by New Books in German in 2007 was Volker Kutscher’s first Gereon Rath Mystery. The 544 pages by a German author unknown in Britain, was rejected by every major publishing house. An independent Scottish publisher, Sandstone Press bought translation rights and commissioned Niall Sellar to translate it. At this stage, nobody knew that ARD in co-production with Sky were to acquire the rights for the most lavish and expensive German TV series, based on the first two novels by Volker Kutscher. Babylon Berlin was born and Sandstone Press was lucky to be able to use it as the title for The Wet Fish. So far, there have been three TV series and the fourth is supposed to be streamed this year. Babylon Berlin (The Wet Fish) was followed by The Silent Death, The Fatherland Files and The March Fallen, and plans are under way for the publication of Lunapark. For incurable Gereon Rath addicts, there are three more titles waiting to be translated: Marlow, Olympia and Transatlantik.
Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life, tr. Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin
Recommended by Anne Vial, Literary Scout
Nino is not just a star on the firmament of young German contemporary writers, but of European and, yes, World-literature! She is here to stay. The Eighth Life is Tolstoy meets House of Spirits. This is literature at its best, the kind you don´t want to put down and are glad it’s 1200 pages long. An epic family saga full of colourful characters, covering six generations and an entire century of Georgian history. The Eighth Life reads like a Russian classic rewritten for modern times. A completely immersive and delicious read: warm-hearted, sensual, with humour and lightness. The Eighth Life as a play had great success, so did the audio – and it is now being made into a Hollywood TV series (to be announced) – I can´t wait!
This is literature at its best, the kind you don´t want to put down and are glad it’s 1200 pages long.Anne Vial, Literary Scout
Steven Uhly’s Kingdom of Twilight, tr. Jamie Bulloch
Recommended by Jamie Bulloch, Translator
I feel very privileged that I was able to translate Steven Uhly’s masterful Königreich der Dämmerung / Kingdom of Twilight, the finest twenty-first-century German novel I have read. Starting in German-occupied Poland in 1944 and extending to New York in 1980, this is an epic work in scope, ambition and drama. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, it is nonetheless a page-turner that documents the interconnected lives of three families as they grapple with the geographical and emotional dislocation brought about by the legacy of war. A book that deserves to be better known in both its native Germany and the English-speaking world.
Maike Wetzel’s Elly, tr. Lyn Marven
Recommended by Caroline Waight, Translator
I absolutely loved Maike Wetzel’s Elly, a clever, multi-perspectival novella that explores the dynamics of a family tragedy. When eleven-year-old Elly goes missing, her family is devastated. Four years later, she returns – but is this girl the real Elly or an imposter? Understated and powerful, this is both a gripping thriller and a moving depiction of grief and loss. I couldn’t put it down.
Daniela Krien’s Love in Five Acts, tr. Jamie Bulloch
The US (left) and UK (right) covers of Daniela Krien’s Die Liebe im Ernstfall.
Recommended by Rosie Goldsmith, Journalist, Presenter, Director of the European Literature Network
Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien, translated by Jamie Bulloch, tells the inter-linked stories of five women as they navigate life, love and work in post-Berlin Wall Germany – but like all great novels its power reaches far and wide. The closely observed lives are narrated in short episodes, or ‘acts’, of elegant stylistic restraint which carefully reveal depths of grief, struggle and longing – for love, creative freedom and independence. All female life is here –in the stories of these women brought up in East Germany under Communism but confronted with the choices and challenges of the New Germany of the 21st century, as they explore their roles as friends, partners, siblings, daughters, mothers, wives and working women. Not only is the novel memorable but the cover is unforgettable too: it shows a woman standing poised on the edge of the diving board of a swimming pool.
Also recommended by Annemarie Goodridge, Information Officer, Goethe-Institut London
I loved this novel for its honest, empathetic and perceptive account of contemporary male/female romantic relationships.Annemarie Goodridge, Information Officer, Goethe-Institut London
I loved this novel for its honest, empathetic and perceptive account of contemporary male/female romantic relationships. Exploring themes like the tensions between parenthood and career, being single, and ‘patchwork families’, Daniela Krien movingly portrays the interwoven lives of her five main female characters, their partners and families. Set in Leipzig, a city which exemplifies the impact of German reunification, the reader gains an insight into the pros and cons of transitioning from the restrictions of communism to a ‘free’ capitalist society with its complex range of choice and dilemmas.
And selected again, this time by Doris Kraus, Journalist
Love is a many splendoured thing in Daniela Krien’s novel, Love in Five Acts. The book follows the varied loves and lives of five women in the city of Leipzig – friends, acquaintances, sisters, rivals. Together they form the multi-coloured tableau of female lives in an urban environment in which anything is possible but not every decision is wise. There is Paula, a bookseller, mother of two daughters and once happily married to her soulmate Ludger; Judith, a doctor whose life consists mainly of work and sport; the author Brida who finds her true love in the carpenter Götz – a sentiment he unfortunately only shares for so long; Götz’ frustrated former partner Malika and her sister Jorinde, battling it out with her ex over their children. Love in Five Acts is an unobtrusive yet impressive novel which manages to dig deep without making for the moral high ground. A book that lingers on.
And also a stand out book for Tina Hartas, TripFiction
The lives of five women are interleaved in this quasi documentary-style rendering of life in Leipzig after the fall of the Wall. Paula is first up followed by her friend Judith, then Brida, Malika and Jorinde.
From the outset, it is clear that the stories will plumb the depths of these women’s lives in the 21st century – post reunification – and their situations and responses are individual yet somehow universal, these are the lives writ large of ‘everywoman’, beautifully observed. As a reader you are invited into each life for a snapshot period and then you dive into the life of the next woman (hence the choice of beautiful book cover, perhaps). The writing is terrific, as is the translation, and the author can definitely tell a story. This is a very readable novel.
Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century, tr. Jamie Bulloch
Recommended by Steph Morris, Translator
The bone-freezing grimness of Berlin’s worst winters is evoked with such skill in this novel I use it to explain why I left the city. Luckily the nifty characterisation provides equal quantities of human warmth. Beginning with a motorway pile-up in a snowstorm and the first sighting of a wolf which slinks through the narrative, interrelated stories take us through the city and beyond from teenage runaways, artists, alcoholics and construction workers, ending with reconciliation and an affirmation of love.
Lukas Bärfuss’ One Hundred Days, tr. Tess Lewis
Recommended by David Beck, Head of Culture, Embassy of Switzerland in the United Kingdom
Lukas Bärfuss’ debut novel One Hundred Days, translated by Tess Lewis and published by Granta in 2012, examines the complexities of cruelty in the Rwandan genocide from the perspective of a Swiss development worker, sitting in relative safety in his compound whilst the massacres break loose. The self-inspection of the main protagonist’s moral outrage and complicity are illuminated by Bärfuss’ prose: a reflection on our morbid fascination with death and genocide in the media.
Rüdiger Görner’s Kokoschka, tr. Debra Marmor and Herbert Danner
Recommended by Professor Rüdiger Görner, Director of the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations, Queen Mary University of London, and author of Oskar Kokoschka. Jahrhundertkünstler
Kokoschka was productively conscious of the explosiveness of his two media: colour and words. Writing his biography meant to take account of this quality without betraying form. It was particularly pleasing to find that this translation into English succeeded in capturing this very quality.Professor Rüdiger Görner
As it happens, I am writing these lines in Weimar in the context of events focussing on ‘Language as Experiment’, organized by the Klassik Stiftung. Part of this remarkable festival is a celebration of Translation. It includes translations from one medium into another. In that sense, Oskar Kokoschka was a ‘translator’ himself, who transferred myths into painting, and, as a writer in his own distinctly expressive way, colour into words. Kokoschka was productively conscious of the explosiveness of his two media: colour and words. Writing his biography meant to take account of this quality without betraying form. It was particularly pleasing to find that this translation into English succeeded in capturing this very quality. Kokoschka was obsessed with the human face and that of animals. Through these faces he enacted ‘translations of the person’s soul’ into the visible, yet knowing that they were, to a certain extent, mere masks. He knew his Nietzsche well enough, though, to see in those ‘masks’ the real ‘truths’ about his objects of portraiture. Perhaps in that sense, translations, too, produce masks in words of what claims to be the ‘original’.
Raphaela Edelbauer’s The Liquid Land, tr. Jen Calleja
Recommended by Jen Calleja, Translator
The Liquid Land is everything I look for in a novel; it’s surreal, a socio-political commentary and also about the role of stories and myths in the formation of personal and national identity. Raphaela Edelbauer has a unique and commanding style that hooks you in, every line perfectly crafted. This book about a mysterious town collapsing in on itself and the young woman looking for answers about her parents while trying not to get drawn in by the mysterious place and its inhabitants is deeply unnerving and at times shocking, but routinely lightened by humour and absurdity. I’m very proud to see my translation currently shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize.
And also picked out by Alexandra Wachek, Music, Theatre & Literature Project Manager, Austrian Cultural Forum, London
The Liquid Land is a highly intelligent written novel that is incredibly thought-provoking and fun to read, written by one of the most interesting voices of contemporary Austrian literature. The book, set in contemporary Austria, follows a young physicist, Ruth, who is working on finishing her postdoctoral thesis on the topic of ‘an alternative theory of time.’ This theme soon begins bleeding into the story itself, as the protagonist faces the sudden loss of her parents in a car accident and decides to venture into the mysterious town ‘Groß Einland’ in which time seems to work ‘fluidly’. Ruth is on a mission to find out her departed parents’ connection to this town as well as using the escape as a chance to work on her thesis. Eerie discoveries about the strange town, and its unstable ground as well as the connection to the character’s progressing definition of an alternative theory of time create a mysterious and captivating atmosphere. Themes such as adapting to change, and dealing with loss are rediscovered in an intriguing new way in this confusing time-bent setting. The strong and powerful narrative style creates a unique atmosphere and perfectly captures the ambivalent core of modern times.
Urs Faes’ The Twelve Nights, tr. Jamie Lee Searle
Recommended by Petra Hardt, Publishing Consultant
Robert Walser, Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt have set international standards for Swiss literature. Peter Bichsel, Jörg Steiner and Adolf Muschg continue the reception history. Urs Faes’ work is yet to be fully discovered: the master of nuance, with various themes tackling the human condition, from man’s goodness to his despair. The Black Forest, ideally suited for metaphors and saga-based literature, is the backdrop for Urs Faes’ haunting tale, Twelve Nights, of how momentum affects lives that could have turned out differently and how memories lead to the hope of reconciliation. European literature at its best, this title is highly recommended.
Also chosen by Jo Heinrich, Translator
I’m so glad that Jamie Lee Searle’s beautiful translation has meant that this story has come to a new audience.Jo Heinrich
The Twelve Nights is a fabulously atmospheric little tale: it’s almost possible to hear the crunch of the snow under your feet and smell the home-cooked food in the inn as you read it. I’m so glad that Jamie Lee Searle’s beautiful translation has meant that this story has come to a new audience.
Robert Menasse’s The Capital, tr. Jamie Bulloch
Recommended by Bärbel Becker, formerly Head of International Projects at the Frankfurt Book Fair
The Capital by famous Austrian author Robert Menasse is certainly worth re-reading. Why? At this particular moment in history facing the war in Ukraine and the wish of Ukraine to become a member of the EU it is good to remember the behind-the-scenes workings of this institution. May we hope that the vanity of the novel’s characters will not take centre stage in the real-life debate.
Also an NBG favourite of Geoffrey C. Howes, Professor Emeritus, Bowling Green State University, Department of World Languages and Cultures
The title refers first to Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union but emphatically not the capital of Europe. Menasse treats his large, multinational cast satirically and compassionately as they grapple with ancient trauma, stalled careers, a mysterious murder, pork markets, and the centrepiece of the plot: a ‘Jubilee Project’; to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the European Commission. An Austrian academic champions a theme for the celebration: the EU should reclaim its founding vision of a supranational Europe to prevent any future paroxysm of nationalism like the Holocaust. The conflicts between lofty ideals and hardnosed structures, between personal ambition and institutional inertia, become page-turning drama, and this 2017 German Book Prize winner has only gained relevance since Brexit and the war on Ukraine. Jamie Bulloch’s translation beautifully recreates the novel’s momentum and nuance.
Esther Kinsky’s Grove, tr. Caroline Schmidt
Recommended by Shaun Whiteside, Translator
Written shortly after the death of her partner, the translator Martin Chalmers, Esther Kinsky’s Grove is both an intricate meditation on mortality and a beguiling and perceptive travelogue. The bereaved narrator travels to Italy, the Po Valley and muses on the nature of memory and the resonances of landscape, and funerary architecture in particular. It’s a haunted and moving book but not overwhelmingly a melancholy one. Esther Kinsky has a keen and sometimes beady eye for the telling detail, and she notices the people around her – the gas-fitting repairman, the girl, hands blue with cold, begging for cigarettes and rocking a pram, the Russian woman clutching her dogs. As Kinsky says, ‘What will ultimately prevail in memory is never clear in advance; it defies every intention.’ The book is beautifully translated by Caroline Schmidt.
Ronen Steinke’s Anna and Dr Helmy: How an Arab Doctor Saved a Jewish Girl in Hitler’s Berlin, tr. Sharon Howe
Recommended by Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo, Founder of DigitalBack Books
Only a few pages in, this promises to be a fascinating read into Arab-Jewish relations in 1920’s Berlin – one that is now largely forgotten – as well as shedding light on the captivating story of Dr Helmy’s courage and bravery in hiding Anna in plain sight from the Nazis.
And also chosen by Daniela Schlingmann, Director, Daniela Schlingmann Literary Scouting
This unique true account of a Jewish Woman saved by a Muslim doctor in Berlin during the Third Reich is an incredibly compelling read and makes you hold your breath throughout the book. The reader can’t help but be touched by Anna Boros’ and Mohammed Helmy’s unbelievable story: it almost reads like a thriller. Thoroughly researched, the author draws an atmospheric picture of Nazi Berlin and its terror. He takes a look into the old Arab side of Berlin; during the roaring twenties, the city was an attractive place for the Arab world. Risking his own life to save Jews, Helmy feels like an Arab version of Oskar Schindler, equally poised to achieve global attention. A remarkable true story that makes for a compelling read and is bound to help build bridges between cultures – an important book in more than one way.
Eva Menasse’s Darkenbloom, tr. Charlotte Collins, (forthcoming, Scribe Publications)
Recommended by Aleksandra Erakovic, Rights and Licences, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch
At the centre of Darkenbloom is an unresolved crime, the massacre of several hundred Jewish prisoners, committed in the last days of World War II. Almost the entire village was implicated but the mass grave was never found and the perpetrators were never brought to justice. The story begins in 1989 when a stranger comes into the village and starts asking uncomfortable questions. This precipitates a mudslide of repressed memories and from multiple perspectives going back and forth in time we get pieces of the jigsaw. Structured like a whodunnit, we have hopes of resolution and redemption but the novel does not offer sentimental solutions. It shows how history influences the individual and how silence festers and poisons even the following generations. More than a historical novel, it tells us something about the moment we are living in and how the seeds for what happens now have been sown long ago.
Olivia Wenzel’s 1,000 Coils of Fear, tr. Priscilla Layne
Recommended by Gosia Cabaj, Head of Information Services Northwestern Europe, Goethe-Institut London
1,000 Coils of Fear is the kind of a book which you start reading and don’t want to stop. I remember having to force myself to read more slowly as I got carried away with the rhythm of the language. Also, you might find yourself looking at vending machines at train stations in an entirely different way.
The book was also chosen by Lucy Jones, Translator at Transfiction
I very much like the storytelling structure, which echoes an interrogation of a passenger at US customs, while revealing the protagonist’s back story. And then the backstory itself is compelling. In a nut shell!
Shida Bazyar’s Sisters in Arms, tr. Ruth Martin, (forthcoming, Scribe Publications)
Recommended by Aleksandra Erakovic, Rights and Licences, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch
Sisters in Arms is a highly political novel about three friends who try to navigate a racist and sexist world. It starts with a newspaper article that accuses Saya of being responsible for a fire that killed several people. The book is Kasih’s attempt to set the record straight but it is also a place to finally vent her anger at a world that does not care about the reality behind the headline. Bit by bit, the events leading to that fateful night are revealed. Saya, Hani and Kasih are sisters in arms because they have always had to fight for acceptance and belonging. Their unconditional friendship is their anchor and throughout the text, the readers are directly confronted with their prejudices. The breathless pace of the novel urges us to keep on reading, to learn what has really happened and to understand what our role in this drama is.
Christian Jakob and Simone Schlindwein’s Dictators as Gatekeepers for Europe, tr. Lydia Baldwin and Emal Ghamsharick
Recommended by Petra Freimund, Director/Producer
Dictators as Gatekeepers for Europe is neither an easy nor a pleasant read, but mandatory to understand the problems with immigration policy from African countries into Europe from both sides. While the book is a detailed account of European border control and how Europe tries to control the stream of refugees from the African continent by migrating European politics and money, it also gives an insight into how African states operate and how the content suffers. People still try to flee their home countries despite or maybe because of the European support that reminds them of colonisation, based on arrangements with African politicians. If you are interested in understanding what politics lie behind the immigration crises and why Europe is complicit in the mass murder of Africans fleeing their home, I can highly recommend starting with this book. An uncomfortable but necessary book.
New Books in German would like to extend our heartfelt thanks not only to those who contributed to this article but to the countless others who have been involved with the project over the years, giving their time, energy, and expertise.
Many of you have worked with us as readers, jurors, writers, trainers, interviewers, funders, Steering committee members, publishers, editors and volunteers – what the project achieves would not be possible without you.
Here’s to the next twenty-five years! And beyond!
Thanks also to Annie Rutherford for the article idea and for some initial research