GRIME. An interview with Sibylle Berg

In December 2022, Sibylle Berg’s novel GRIME was released in the US, the UK, and Ireland, in an assured and suitably acerbic translation by Tim Mohr. Written and originally published in German as GRM Brainfuck in 2019, the title won the Swiss Book Prize; academics have analysed it already; and GRIME is the first of Berg’s many novels to be translated into English with a mainstream publisher.

It seems fitting, then, that the book is set in Britain a few years into the future – even if it’s a bleak state that Berg imagines. The timing of the launch was sorely perfect, too. Following strikes over the Christmas season, and deep into a dark, contemporary winter of discontent, a story about four neglected teenagers living on a council estate in a fictive version of Rochdale, Greater Manchester hit shop shelves and booksellers’ sites. Don’t worry, though: at over 430 pages, GRIME offers good value for money amid a cost-of-living crisis.

The town of Rochdale is described in depressing terms; its closed shops and derelict cinema have been handed a death sentence by digitalisation. The place is no outlier in its supposedly grim streets, though, nor is the portrayal some prejudice appropriated from southern English snobbism. On the contrary, the description aims its fire at the neoliberal order and those in power across the Western world who have left communities behind. Here, grime music strikes a chord with the principal four characters. That genre – like Berg’s narrative – creatively vents real anger at a society that, apparently, will become thoroughly privatised. Soon we shall live not in a mere surveillance state, but in a dictatorship enabled by microchipping (among other technologies). Oh, and the newly crowned king has just abdicated.

Commissioned to interview the master of socially critical, sardonic German prose, I’m sitting in what feels like my second home, Manchester Airport, drinking a lukewarm coffee looking out at damp tarmac that is clouded over. I tap out my first email in what will become a banterous back-and-forth with “Bille B”, as Berg will sign herself off warmly. Otherwise she’s “Sibylle, Boss”: the self-ironic diva. I pause to ask myself how I can strike up conversation with an author I have a long personal history with, though she does not know it. As a frustrated undergraduate, desperate to appear avant-garde, I wrote my BA thesis on critical perspectives on pornography and Berg’s novel Sex II, only for it to be marked approvingly.

As a young lecturer, I set excerpts from her novel Ende gut (End happy) as translation exercises. I may have felt awkward about then discussing colloquialisms for fetishes and drugs with students, but they didn’t. Indeed, what’s remarkable about Sibylle Berg is that she’s a provocateur par excellence, yet popular despite (or for) being outrageous, offensive. Elfriede Jelinek meets Will Self. Acceptable, despite the swearing. Unforgiving and funny about the system; empathetic and incisive when it comes to individual characters, who tend to be from society’s marginalised groups and identities. Their representation embodies an argument for progressive politics. A national treasure? She’d welcome that badge with a smile, I’m sure, while rolling her eyes. But how should I open an interview with such an author without appearing embarrassingly fawning, arousing suspicion and raising an eyebrow, or without being mocked too much?

I decide to simply ask Sibylle where we would meet if we conducted the interview in person. I find it hard to imagine that we’d take a stroll in the park and feed the swans, so I mentally prepare myself for some seedy end-up-club with which a party night comes to a close. “We’d meet at the Hotel Lautner in Palm Springs”, she soon replies. “I’ve always wanted to go there, and being totally environmentally conscious I’d fly you in on my private jet. Oh, don’t thank me – it’d all be paid for by my charitable foundation, tax free. Help for Historians in Need. It’s registered in Guernsey, you know. Or as far as I’m concerned, we could go to Bath – that’s if you don’t want to fly. I’ve never been to Bath.” Quick-witted and sharp, Bille B, the Boss, had well and truly broken the ice. I retorted that buying an old bus, painting it, and naming her Sibylle before driving through the desert to the springs would also work fine for me.

What follows is a translation of our email chat about GRIME, the state of the world, and Sibylle Berg’s hopes and dreams – shot through with sarcasm. Fans can hear her reading from GRIME live, together with the grime artists who gave shape to her story, in London in early January. Dates, as they say, will be announced shortly.

Seán Williams (SW): Your book is sold as dystopian fiction. Why is it set in England?

Over a period of two years I was in England time and again. In Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, in Rochdale and in many other towns and cities in the north. I had hundreds of conversations, and studied the seventy per cent of the country that isn’t expensive property in central London bought by foreigners, or the film sets of Oxford.

Sibylle Berg

Sibylle Berg (SB): I’d translate “dystopia” as being aroused by decline. But perhaps it’s also just the term we use for everything that we want to distance ourselves from. Or merely some buzz word. And yet – unfortunately – everything in the book is true. Or it all become true in the last 3 years, anyway. I must say that I’m quite taken with my visionary qualities.  

Why England: well, they invented capitalism, were in the vanguard of privatization, and led the way in dealing mercilessly with people who are no longer needed to keep turbo-capitalism moving. Even if English people like to see the situation differently. England’s a prototypical Western country.

Before I settled on the location, there were simply questions that I wanted to answer for myself. Such as: how does surveillance that’s constantly expanding, how does the pulverisation of the private sphere relate to the crises of capitalism, which are stacking up on top of one another? What do capitalists actually want, beyond – well, producing more capital? And what happens to the moribund masses of people, masses getting bigger and bigger, those from a pre-digital age? I quickly arrived at the experimental laboratory that is England.

And that was the time BEFORE the final exit from the EU, the country was nearby, I could speak the language (just about), and England is a European, paradigmatic country for privatisation and surveillance, as I’ve said. Oh, and England has the best secret service.

Over a period of two years I was in England time and again. In Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, in Rochdale and in many other towns and cities in the north. I had hundreds of conversations, and studied the seventy per cent of the country that isn’t expensive property in central London bought by foreigners, or the film sets of Oxford. I spent a long time talking to academics, and was out and about with social workers, scouts, investigative journalists, and people from the places I then described. I had contacts and a plan of action – just like anyone who has an idea of what they’re doing. Namely that I wanted to know how Western societies are developing. Digitalisation has changed our lives, and many seem to be paralysed by its exponential acceleration, and by the feeling that an extremely rich minority wages a war against the poor parts of the world’s population. England leads the way in Europe in both respects – in implementing digitisation and in seemingly doing away with poor parts of the population. The answers that I came across are perhaps unsettling. Unfortunately they are thoroughly realistic, though.

SW: Don’t you think that the image of post-Brexit Britain as a landscape of catastrophe has become a bit of a fetish in German media?

SB: I’ve spotted that tendency right across Europe. People needed a deterrent, in order to preserve the construct of the European Commission. I find it very useful to think of the idea of Europe holistically. The EU as it exists now and as it’s structured is deeply neoliberal. Growth and profit are written into the statutes. From that point of view, Britain simply switched from one neoliberal political direction to another. I don’t know how much of the current crisis in England can be ascribed to Brexit, or if it’s more the symptom of the system on which it’s founded – and which applies to the whole of the West, where there are similar problems. The absurd idea of growth leads to permanent crises. Cheers!

SW: Rochdale doesn’t have a great reputation, anyway – weren’t you worried about your prose seeming judgemental?  

Rochdale is everywhere in the West, in America, it concerns all of us…

Sibylle Berg

SB: The people of Rochdale, Salford, in the falling estates on the edge of London or Leeds have only very rarely chosen to live in an area without much infrastructure and absent of future prospects. Some of them have been moved from their previous places of residence because social housing was sold off on the private market. They didn’t choose not to go into a skilled job or to continue with their education, or to attend worse schools – since Margit Thatcher [sic.] they’ve been disposed of in areas, displaced, or forgotten there. And that made me very angry, and it’s happened everywhere in capitalist societies. People have become, whatever, financial products generate a bigger surplus value than work. 

Anyway, to cut a long answer short: No. Rochdale is everywhere in the West, in America, it concerns all of us who aren’t on the Forbes Richest List. Because these binned beings, the forgotten youth – that’s us.

SW: There’s no shortage of sensitive topics in GRIME (child prostitution, say, among many others). Is there any no-go for you, a last taboo? 

SB: No. In art, everything goes – if you know what you are deploying and why. If you’re going to describe child prostitution – which exists – then you should do so without censoring yourself. But perhaps more brutal than a literary reference to brutality is the simple fact that at the time I was writing, more than five million children lived in absolute poverty in the UK, thousands are homeless…If you’re going to describe sexism, then it is stupid to correctly gender the literal speech of a sexist. Apropos adapting language, though: making an effort to further develop your own language is not something I perceive as censorship or as a prescription. I’m invested in not being old fashioned. 

SW: You say that you constantly utter the word “fuck” when in conversation, but in GRIME you’ve also written the expletive quite a lot (the book’s title in German is GRM Brainfuck, after all). Swear words don’t seem to restrict your vocabulary, though. The opposite, in fact: they’re a source of word play. Why is swearing so important to you, so creative for you?

SB: The original title in German is GRM Brainfuck, which is a combination of, well, GRIME and Brainfuck – the latter being in my case a programming language that became famous for driving programmers crazy. I’ve no idea whether swear words have some inherently potent, creative power – they’re just often direct, honest. And actually people have this desire to really swear at each other without pausing for breath. When speaking English – and I don’t speak English with much elegance, I have to say – well, I use “fuck” extremely often, because I lack more elegant words. Those Oxford-esque ones elude me.

SW: But cursing is pretty visceral – swear words are bodily, often sexual. So they’re well-suited to your style and your chosen themes, aren’t they? 

In my work language is always subordinate to the topic, and to the rhythm. For me, words are all the same, words are words, I don’t conceive of an idiom as vulgar or not – it is: language.

Sibylle Berg

SB: That’s an interesting question, I’ve never asked myself that. In my work language is always subordinate to the topic, and to the rhythm. For me, words are all the same, words are words, I don’t conceive of an idiom as vulgar or not – it is: language. The only things that I really try to avoid are hackneyed turns of phrase, tired images painted with well-worn words, ugly metaphors, too many adjectives, oh and a language that – watch out, vulgarity alert! – I’d call writerly wanking. Arousing oneself over wonderfully constructed sentences, citating the great thinkers (and that never means quoting women), and being inclined to bore readers. Often I find Hip Hop texts to be classes above literature – they’re more artistic, truer, more rousing.

SW: Talking of music, how did you first get into grime?

SB:While I was doing research for the book in England and was mainly meeting a large part of the forgotten population there – people who are now in the third generation of being unemployed in their families, who are not needed by the system, and who are living in cities in decline, in estates falling down – I came into contact with grime for the first time. Almost all the youth listened to it there, and its stars are role models for many.

I love rap, and so I began to go down into a grime rabbit hole. While writing the book I listened to grime non-stop, to be in sync with the music’s rhythm. It was clear to me that if there was going to be a book and if I was going to do a tour, then I’d do it together with musicians from England. And it worked. Now I’ll digress a bit, but the day in which Chas Apetti recorded the trailer for my book in Birmingham, and when the young TRodz performed the title song and the two founders of the Ruff Sqwad Arts Foundation (RSAF) – grime legends Prince Owusu-Agyekum (aka Rapid) and Ebenezer Ayerh (aka Slix) – were there too… that was one of the best days I’ve had in years.

SW:So grime music shaped both the content as well as the form of your novel?

SB: Yes, mainly the rhythm influenced the book, as well as the strong political stance of grime music.

SW:After reading GRIME we probably shouldn’t dare to hope – to believe that life can get better in the near future. Or can we? Towards the end of your book there’s the line, not without irony: “That’s something agreeable about the human brain. It lets its owner maintain hope to the end, won’t accept when a situation is certifiably fucked.”

SB: Well, hope is in any case a lousy concept. But this much is certain: people, myself included, are always too simple-minded for making long-term prognoses; things mostly turn out differently than our limited understanding can imagine. — Hey, in America there is now an armed robot policeman already. — Aside from all that, in part two of the book series – RCE #RemoteCodeExecution – you can read how to fend off this system. A book for a good mood. A manual. And if that doesn’t help at all, let’s hope that humanity simply does what it always does: adapts itself to the biggest amount of crap and – moves on.   

SW: You originally wrote about Britain in German, and now the book is appearing in English – but above all, in the USA. Were there conversations about which variety of English GRIME should be translated into? Did you want the language to still feel somehow foreign to readers, or more familiar?

When choosing the translator Tim Mohr, his strong affinity with music was important to me, as well as the modernity of his thinking.

Sibylle Berg

SB: When choosing the translator Tim Mohr, his strong affinity with music was important to me, as well as the modernity of his thinking. Had I chosen a British translator, my book would have become some sort of plan view, a drawing seen from above with the roof removed – because I’m an East German, with Russian-Romanian roots and not a Brit, as much as I so wanted to teach myself to speak with a Cockney accent. What’s more, the book’s theme is universal, it can play out anywhere in the West, though then the music would have become Hip Hop and during the long research trips I wouldn’t have eaten as well as I did in England. But it would scarcely have become a different book. 

SW: GRIME is the first of your novels to be published in English translation. What are your hopes for its reception?

SB: A scandal in The Sun: this communist person abolishes the monarchy and laughs about football. After that, millions, and after that – see the start of our conversation: private jet, Guernsey. To be made a dame. To be loved by all. And, by appearing with Dame Edna (who will live in Notting Hill) and Eddy Lizzard [sic.], to be able to finally speak English without saying “fuck” all the time.

© Sibylle Berg

Sibylle Berg is a Swiss-German author and playwright, and one of the most celebrated contemporary writers in the German-speaking world. Born in Weimar, Germany, Berg has written over 25 plays, 15 novels, and numerous anthologies and radio plays. Her work has been translated into 34 languages. Berg considers herself part of the Straight Edge movement and identifies as non-binary. Her novel, GRM, won the Swiss Book Prize. In 2020, she received Switzerland’s highest literary award, the Grand Prix Literature, for her work. She lives in Zurich. Find out more about Sibylle Berg here.

© Seán Williams

Seán Williams is a Senior Lecturer in German and European Cultural History in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield, UK. Beyond academia, he is a contributor to international radio, cultural magazines, weekend newspapers, and television. Find out more about Seán here.

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