Leipzig book fair award winner: in the limbo of the magical

A nice signal: poet Jan Wagner wins the fiction prize in Leipzig. Philipp Ther wins in non-fiction and Mirjam Pressler in translation.

Appreciation for Jan Wagner, who seizes our language mindfully and with relish. Photo: dpa

Fiction: Jan Wagner for "Rain Barrel Variations

It was a surprise that the poet Jan Wagner was nominated. That he has now won with his book of poems "Regentonnenvariationen" is a nice signal.

Poets are the shamans among writers. In the poem, the resonances of words are sounded out, their meanings measured. Poetry is an orchid that smells all the stranger the faster and more is written, printed and thrown on the market.

So it was already a surprise that Jan Wagner was included in the list of nominees for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize with a volume of poetry. That he has now received the prize, as one of five in the fiction category, is a nice signal. It is a sign of appreciation for an author who mindfully and with relish appropriates our language.

The award: The Leipzig Book Fair Prize has been awarded since 2005 in the categories "Fiction," "Nonfiction/Essay" and "Translation." It is endowed with 15,000 euros each.

The jury: Hubert Winkels (DIE ZEIT / Deutschlandfunk), Rene Aguigah (Deutschlandradio Kultur), Dirk Knipphals (taz), Sandra Kegel (FAZ), Meike Febmann (freelance literary critic), Lothar Muller (Suddeutsche Zeitung) and Daniela Strigl (freelance literary critic).

Jan Wagner, born in Hamburg in 1971, has published eight volumes of poetry. The early ones were published by Berlin Verlag, the later ones by Hanser Berlin. He has already received 27 awards for his work. So the jury of the Leipzig Book Prize did not choose an outsider to bring attention to poetry for once. Jan Wagner is appreciated for his "poetry full of presence of mind," in which the pleasure in playing with language does not stop at strict forms, as the jury put it.

The first poem of the "Rain Barrel Variations" is dedicated to goutweed. It must be a plant with "blossoms that are so floatingly white, chaste as a tyrant’s dream".

Poetry in the age of Google means that hardly any word, hardly any name remains for long in that suspended state of the magical that arises when the ignorant is confronted with a pure signifier of sign and sound. The goutweed, says Wikipedia, is a plant species from the genus goat’s foot. "schickt seine kassiber / durchs dunkel unterm rasen, unterm feld," writes Jan Wagner about the underground activity of the ailment weed, which can also be made into salad.

The "rain barrel variations" tell of goutweed, mulberries and silver thistles. Of horses, donkeys and koalas, of Jaffa, Krynica Morska and Zanigrad, of the dead grandfather, of young drinkers and of children in the tree. It becomes exciting when plants, animals, people meet in unexpected ways like the willow catkin in Aunt Mia’s nose when she was a girl. There is also talk about the rain barrel itself: "a kind of oven / in the negative; didn’t smoke, / swallowed the clouds."

Jan Wagner is a traveler in the tradition of the Romantics, a wanderer who sees the "little" things before him: "there was a now, and there was a here." Wagner contemplates the world in the consciousness of the one who not only knows, but rejoices in the fact that this world is there and will be there even without him.

The rhythms of his poems are varied. Sometimes classically paced like Greek verse, sometimes improvisational, but never without form. Calmly and steadily the sentences flow. They sound best at night and in the garden. ULRICH GUTMAIR


Nonfiction: Philipp Ther "The New Order on the Old Continent

Philipp Ther’s book "Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent" (The New Order on the Old Continent) is a mixture of reportage and analysis: about Europe since 1989.

Philipp Ther wins in the non-fiction category. Image: dpa

Aside from the fact that not a single author was nominated in the nonfiction category, there was little to nothing to fault in the list of nominated books this year.

In fact, each of the five books has a unique selling point. In the case of Philipp Ther’s book "Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent" (Suhrkamp) from last fall, which was awarded the 11th prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, that is the explicitly pan-European perspective on the upheavals since 1989. The jury, headed by Hubert Winkels, praised the book by the Viennese professor of Eastern European history as a history book that anyone who wants to understand the recent conflicts in Europe should read.

The book is a mixture of reportage and analysis. Ther repeatedly comes back to the concrete everyday life of the people and thus shows what the abstract talk of reforms and upheavals is actually about. For example, of so-called Euro-orphans, children in Poland whose parents became migrant workers in the West. Ther, who has lived in the Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine, is also concerned with the question of people’s "self-transformation," which, as he points out, involves not only adaptation but also resistance.

His lightly written analysis is a preliminary assessment of neoliberal reforms. Thers is not concerned with fundamental criticism of neoliberalism, but with its application and concrete social consequences. In it, the so-called reform countries of the East prove to be an experimental field of neoliberal policy. Ther traces the arc to the immediate present and is able to prove: "Since the euro crisis that erupted in 2010, there has been a new and deliberate connection between the East and the South of Europe. The reforms imposed on Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal bear similarities to the neoliberal cuts in post-communist Europe."

Bringing out these pan-European connections without getting bogged down in ideological critique is a major merit of the book. In 2011, Philipp Ther published "The Dark Side of Nation-States. Ethnic Cleansing in Modern Europe." A much-praised book, it is surrounded by the amusing story of a failed attempt at prevention on the part of the former president of the Federation of Expellees, Erika Steinbach. Ther had accused the associations of expellees of having continued the Cold War in Ostpolitik even after 1990. In 2008, Steinbach tried to dissuade the publisher Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht from publishing the book.

A lesson in authoritarianism. Even in purely habitual terms, the impression is that this is not Ther’s cup of tea. TANIA MARTINI

Translation: Mirjam Pressler for "Judas" by Amos Oz

Mirjam Pressler receives the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for her translation of Amos Oz’s novel "Judas" about the early days of Israel.

The opening: "This is the story of the winter days at the end of 1959, beginning of 1960." Such a no-frills, lapidary first sentence takes some daring. Amos Oz finds his way from this unmediated beginning to an almost timelessly brittle tone for his story of Israel’s early years, abysmally titled "Judas."

Mirjam Pressler wins the Leipzig Book Prize for her translation of "Judas" by Amos Oz. Image: dpa

Oz tells the story of the asthmatic student Shmuel Asch, who out of sudden financial need becomes a reader for the bedridden old scholar Gershom Wald and soon begins to talk animatedly with him about Zionism or the conflict between Jews and Arabs. And Oz tells of Shmuel’s love for Atalya Abrabanel, the guardian of Gershom Wald.

The novel is at the same time a reminiscence of the early days of Israel – and a reflection on theological questions: Thus, Shmuel Asch breaks off his studies when he despairs of his master’s thesis entitled "Jesus in the Eyes of the Jews". But the young man’s questions remain.

The fact that Oz’s sparsely elegant Hebrew can also be understood in German is thanks to Mirjam Pressler. As a translator, she has translated Zeruya Shalev, Aharon Appelfeld and Lizzie Doron, among others. Pressler herself likes to compare her work to that of a musician interpreting a foreign composition. And her version of "Judas" is certainly musical.

Her sensitivity for the self-evident clarity of a novel like "Judas" may also be due to her own literary output as an author of books for young people and children, for which she has already been awarded numerous literary prizes, including the Buber-Rosenzweig Medal in 2013.

She has also been honored twice in Leipzig – the German Book Prize, as it was then called – in 2002 for her novel for young people "Malka Mai" and in 2004 for her life’s work. Now, for her virtuoso mediation work on "Judas," she received the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in the translation category.

The seven-member jury, consisting of journalists and literary critics, thus gave Pressler preference over Moshe Kahn’s twelve-year mammoth work on Stefano DArrigo’s monumental novel "Horcynus Orca," written in an artificial Sicilian dialect, Klaus Binder’s prose version of Lucretius’ "The Order of Things," Elisabeth Edl’s translation of "Graser der Nacht" by Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, and Thomas Steinfeld’s new translation of Selma Lagerlof’s classic children’s book "Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey Through Sweden."

Together with Amos Oz, Mirjam Pressler came on stage to thank him for writing "a wonderful book". Oz replied that translating a literary work was like playing a violin concerto on a piano. And Pressler is a great pianist. In his laudatory speech, taz literary editor Dirk Knipphals emphasized Pressler’s tone: "Nothing here sounds like a translation." Last but not least, the award is a nice coincidence for the host country Israel. TIM CASPAR BOEHME

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