At the German-Finnish Club
Writers of the English tongue move around the globe in a kind of bubble. Wherever they go, their language is spoken, their books are translated or sold in English-language bookstores, and friendly British Council staff are on hand to buy them train tickets and maybe even pay them a per diem. Sixty percent of the over ten thousand books translated into German last year were translated from English, while more and more Germans read English-language literature in the original. Germany is a huge market for Anglophone literature. Books originally written in German, on the other hand, account for only a miniscule part of publications in the UK and the US, despite the efforts of some very courageous independent publishers.
Writers like myself, whose native language is anything other than English, navigate the globe in a vast pacific ocean of foreignness, searching for tiny atolls of appreciation in the form of emigrant clubs, university departments and cultural embassies such as, in my own case, the Goethe Institute.
Which doesn´t mean we don´t get around. German writers in particular seem to be all over the place, hopping from one exotic location to another. There are fellowships and residencies in Rome and Kyoto, in Istanbul and Los Angeles, and the Goethe Institute, which puts on readings and other events for German-speaking audiences, owns some of the choicest real estate in the world. My friends and colleagues speak about faraway places as if they were just around the corner, as if it meant nothing to fly halfway around the globe for a thirty minute reading or a panel discussion, or to spend a month as a resident writer in Uzbekistan. At agency parties in Berlin, poets trade tips on Santa Monica cafés or the best mole poblano in Oaxaca. Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Johannesburg – there are very few places that have not been visited by some sort of literary delegation from Germany. The carbon footprint of German literature is that of a lurching giant.
Yet even for a German writer, there are places that are truly exotic – if we do, that is, what I think is long overdue in the face of cultural globalization: disregard physical, measurable distances and redefine the exotic as a place where, when you were twenty, you never ever thought you would end up, for any reason whatsoever.
I used to teach German literature in one such place, Ohio, and one day in the mid-nineties, when I was still a young, idealistic professor of German literature, I volunteered to direct a group of M.A. candidates who were slogging through a lengthy reading list for their exams. We decided to start by play-reading Frank Wedekind´s Spring Awakening, an impressionist drama of adolescent sexual confusion … Since the air conditioner in the seminar room had failed and one of the students in her haste had parked in a restricted lot, we decided to move our meeting outside, to a small square of brownish lawn with a view of the parking lot, between the languages building and "the shoe" – a gigantic, 100.000 seat football stadium shaped in the form of, well – a horseshoe.
This is where I first experienced the forlornness, the sheer despair of complete cultural and linguistic isolation. What was I doing here, sitting in 30 degree heat between a parking lot and a football stadium, reading a beautifully crafted piece of fin-de-siècle literature? It was a disaster, and the first time I felt that at some point in my career, I would have to choose between the language I love and my job.
More recently, I accompanied my wife, the writer Marica Bodrožić, to a reading in Tampere in central Finland, an astoundingly exotic place by any standard, even though it is only a short flight from Berlin. We had mansikkajäätellö – strawberry ice-cream – in the port city of Turku and proceeded by train past scattered wooden houses, many beautifully rounded vowels (on disposable coffee cups, the wrapping paper around my scrumptious wild boar pie, a quickly stained Finnish grammar) and a million birch trees to Tampere, a city more strangely fascinating than, say, Amazonian Manaus, which has, after all, had a place in the European cultural imagination for a long time. Nobody I know had ever been to, or even heard of, Tampere.
When we arrived at the modest quarters of the German-Finnish Club, we were met by a mixed group of students, expat Germans and Finnish germanophiles, and by the peculiar sing-song of my Rhenish home town accent. Most of the club´s members appeared to be from around Cologne, and they were correspondingly jovial.
The reading went well, the q&a was friendly, the wine at the reception flowed freely. Even though those of us who write in relatively obscure languages need our own cultural and linguistic context like we need the air we breathe, like we need the feel and smell of our own bed covers to get a really good night´s sleep, every once in a while we discover, in the most unlikely places, an atoll of congeniality, and we are grateful, and we wonder somewhat enviously what it must feel like to write and travel in the idiom of contemporary world literature, the English language, which covers the globe like a vast and rising ocean.