Lutz Seiler: The Literary Voice of Modern Germany

Lutz Seiler, the award-winning German writer, has earned his place as a luminary in contemporary German literature. His unique narrative style melds personal experiences from his upbringing in the GDR with a keen sensitivity to the present moment. Seiler’s diverse body of work encompasses novels, poetry collections, and essays, showcasing his versatility as a writer. After winning the German and the Leipzig Book Prizes, he was recently awarded the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize, underscoring his significance and standing within the German literary landscape. His works often delve into the historical and cultural complexities of Germany, particularly during the final years of the GDR and the reunification period. British publisher And Other Stories is set to release three of Lutz Seiler’s works in the UK: “Star 111”, his most recent novel, translated by Tess Lewis; “Pitch and Glint”, a poetry collection, translated by Stefan Tobler; and “In Case of Loss”, an essay collection, translated by Martyn Crucefix.

Ahead of his publishing tour of the UK, Lutz Seiler was kind enough to answer a few questions about his writing, his place in German literature, and the way he works with his translators.

Alex Roesch: This autumn, three of your works will be published in English – the essay collection “In Case of Loss”, the poetry collection “Pitch & Glint”, and your latest novel, “Star 111”. They will reach a broad international audience. What does this mean to you?

This is more than what can be described as “translation”; it is the rebirth of a literary text in the sound and thought world of the English language.

Lutz Seiler

Lutz Seiler: The fact that these books are now appearing in English means a great deal to me – what I have written practically comes to life once again, in another language. This is more than what can be described as “translation”; it is the rebirth of a literary text in the sound and thought world of the English language. This especially applies to the poetry, because in translations, a poem, primarily a sound structure, a piece of music, is recreated anew, re-composed using the tools of another language. But, in reality, this also applies to the novel and the essay since my writing is guided by the ear and has much to do with sound and sound structures.

“Star 111” has now been translated into six languages and “Kruso” into 23. How did you find the collaboration with your English translators, particularly Tess Lewis, who translated both of these works into English.

Tess Lewis

To facilitate the translation of “Kruso”, there was a working week with almost all the international translators at the German Translators’ Centre in Straelen, where we went through the novel together from the first sentence to the last – it was a very intensive week during which I got to know my book again due to all the questions. That’s where I met Tess and her questions. We also met for “Star 111”, this time in Berlin and at my home in Wilhelmshorst. Tess is an outstanding translator, and you can tell from her questions that she picks up on details that might not have been entirely clear to me when I wrote it. She is very meticulous and precise; I have great confidence in her work. She received the Schlegel Translation Prize for translating “Kruso.”

I also had an intense exchange with Stefan Tobler, who translated the poems. He delved deep into the poems, asked all sorts of questions, and we exchanged lengthy emails – it was hard work. I believe that from this conversation about poetry, I gained new insights into my own poetic technique.

Your poems, in particular, are strongly autobiographical and deal with the past and your childhood in East Germany. Has your poetic vision been preserved in the English translation? What is it like to read your own poems in another language?

I enjoy seeing the poems in English, and I am fascinated by this transformation. Sometimes, when I hear them, I feel that they sound much better in the other language than in the original… Whether the “poetic vision has been preserved” is something I cannot judge because my English is not good enough for that – ultimately, native speakers must assess it, as they can hear all the nuances and connotations of the sound. But what I said about Tess Lewis also applies to Stefan Tobler: I have great confidence in his work.

Beyond language, what cultural elements or references do you believe may require explanations or adaptations for English-speaking readers who may not be as familiar with the history and context of East Germany?

Literature is, at its best, something universal, understood across borders. This is the foundation for a concept like “world literature.”

Lutz Seiler

I don’t think my literature requires specialised knowledge about East Germany and its history – that would be sad. I didn’t write “about East Germany” but rather about life in a specific time and place. Literature is, at its best, something universal, understood across borders. This is the foundation for a concept like “world literature.”

Your novel “Star 111” is set during the political upheavals in East Germany in 1989 and has been described by critics as a ‘Reunification novel par excellence.’ What personal experiences or memories inspired you to write this book?

I used my own experiences as material for the novel “Star 111” – otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to tell this story. I lived in East Berlin at that time. Much of what I tell about Inge and Walter and their odyssey through the West is based on my parents’ experiences. We talked a lot about it. That was valuable material for writing.

How ‘faithful’ to the past (your own past) are you in your novels? What are your thoughts on fidelity to the ‘real’ in fiction?

For the novel “Star 111” as literature, it is irrelevant whether this or that actually happened exactly as described. You must invent to tell the true story. Aside from that, I need authentic starting points, and then, during writing, everything changes, language takes over, you want a certain melody, a sound, a rhythm, and invention begins. It becomes something else. The text follows its own literary laws, even into the realm of the fantastic, where a goat can start to fly, for example.

In “Star 111”, your protagonist Carl Bischoff is mystified by his parents’ decision to emigrate. The parallel story of the parents in the West, and later in America, is one of upheaval. Why does Carl find it so difficult to accept his parents’ decision?

The parents, Inge and Walter, leave everything behind and head out into the world with nothing, which confuses their son. You could also say that Carl is shocked. He had seen his parents as contented people who had settled and whose life plan seemed complete. He now has to understand that his parents are very different people from what he had assumed, with their own goals and dreams independent of him. He must learn that his parents have a life outside of parenthood, with a life dream he knew nothing about. This is part of the development that Carl goes through in the book, perhaps the most important part of his individuation: seeing his parents as different people beyond parenthood, with their own goals and dreams unrelated to him, the child.

You have worked as a mason yourself and your father and grandmother were weavers. Craftsmanship is something you greatly appreciate. In “Star 111”, tools of all kinds play a significant role. Where does this fascination for all things mechanical come from?

…the population of the East, with its ability to manage with just a few possessions and to make them last, to care for and even repair them if necessary, was destined to be a kind of vanguard of sustainability after 1989. However, no one ever asked about the competencies of the East; only the deficiencies were a topic.

Lutz Seiler

I am interested in the way the skills and training we received in East Germany can be beneficial and a positive approach in a new era. In essence, the population of the East, with its ability to manage with just a few possessions and to make them last, to care for and even repair them if necessary, was destined to be a kind of vanguard of sustainability after 1989. However, no one ever asked about the competencies of the East; only the deficiencies were a topic.

For Carl, my main character, the profession of mason is a ticket to the new era. The anarchic group in post-reunification Berlin, which I call “the crafty pack,” immediately recognises that they can make good use of Carl – they want to make abandoned houses habitable again. They say, “Since the Wall fell, we need the masons.” Carl is a mason and familiar with craftsmanship, which shapes his world view. What he can literally grasp also becomes part of his language as a poet.

When sensory relationships with things diminish because they are no longer understood, cared for, repaired, and are only replaced, the perception of the world changes as well. That’s what we are experiencing now, the end of the mechanical age, a watershed that overshadows everything and is more significant than the events of 1989/90. Carl, the mason, and his father Walter, formerly a weaver and now a computer specialist, are “creatures on the threshold” who come from the analogue and mechanical age and must now assert themselves in a new world.

You mainly work with material from the past and have stated that you need a maturation period for it to become usable for you. What are you working on now, and does it also take place in the past?

I am currently collecting material for a new novel and simultaneously working on a longer story. Until it is finished, I must not speak about it on pain of my own downfall.

You began your career with poetry and later transitioned to storytelling through essays. Does poetry still appeal to you as the most interesting genre?

I once said that, for a long time and under all circumstances, poetry seemed to me the more interesting and exciting genre – which is why I only arrived at the novel quite late, through several intermediate steps like writing essays and stories. Now, both are important to me, but poetry is still my spiritual home.

You will be going on a book tour in England. What are you most looking forward to?

I am looking forward to meeting people and books – and to revisiting a place that will be a setting in the plot of my new novel.

Many thanks for your time and all the best for the book tour.

As part of the book tour, Lutz Seiler will be at the Goethe-Institut, London on October 12th, 2023. Lutz will be in conversation with Granta editor Thomas Meaney, and translators, Tess Lewis, Stefan Tobler and Martyn Crucefix, to explore bringing Seiler’s unmistakable craft and sound to English. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

Lutz Seiler was born in Gera, Thuringia, in 1963 and today lives in Wilhelmshorst, near Berlin, and in Stockholm. After an apprenticeship in construction, he worked as a carpenter and bricklayer. Since 1997, he has been the literary director and custodian of the Peter Huchel Haus. His writing has won many prizes, including the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, the Ingeborg Bachmann and the German Book Prize, and been translated into twenty-five languages. Some of his stories, poems and essays have appeared in English in journals and magazines including GrantaModern Poetry in TranslationPN ReviewPoetryPROTOTYPE, the New StatesmanShearsmanStand, the TLS and The White Review.

Alex Roesch is a bicultural, bilingual freelance translator based in Frankfurt, Germany. An experienced translator of fiction and nonfiction, she has an MA in Translation from the University of Bristol; was one of twelve international translators at the Summer Academy 2017 at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin (LCB); and was selected for the International Translators Program of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2021.   

Lutz Seiler photo copyright © : Heike-Steinweg