Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Leipzig Book Fair

Leipzig has always been important for the printed word. The first newspaper in the world was printed here in 1650. Publishing and printing has been Leipzig’s most important trade for centuries; every second Leipziger was employed in it until WWII. When Leipzig became a Soviet zone at the end of the war, 360,000 businesses and most of the publishing houses fled to the west. The city continued to have an important book fair during GDR times, but here was no freedom of the written word. Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain—the Monday night marches that resulted in the peaceful revolution and the fall of the wall started here-- the city is once again an important laboratory for literature. The Frankfurt Book Fair is commercially more important. Berlin has more publishing houses, but for the sheer exuberance around books and reading, nothing beats the Leipzig Book Fair.

The fair lasted four days (March 18 to 21) and drew 150,000 visitors, 30% younger than twenty. There were 2,100 exhibitors from 39 countries. Events took place from 8:00 AM to well after midnight.Ulrich Blumenbach won the translation prize for David Foster Wallace’s “Infinitive Jest,” Ulrich Raulff won the prize for Non-Fiction/Essay for his book “Kreis ohne Meister,” a biography of the poet Stefan Georges. Georg Klein won the fiction prize for “Roman unserer Kindheit.” The Hungarian author Gy├Ârgy Dalos won the Prize for European Understanding for his books “Der Vorhang geht auf” (The Curtain Lifts) about the end of dictatorships in Eastern Europe.

The Leipzig Book Fair is pivotal for small independent publishers, especially those from Eastern Europe. Many Eastern European publishers can only afford to attend one international fair and most choose Leipzig. I enjoyed the exposure to literature from Bosnia-Herzegowina, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. Many of the writers have not been published in the West. The translations were often financed by German foundations.

My first impression of the fair was visual and auditory overkill. Publishers staged a dramatic struggle for readers. They presented titles with the most commercial potential. VIPs were surrounded by autograph hunters. There were countless readings, discussion groups, book signing, mini-concerts by music stars, and garish manga-graphics. Visitors walked around with gigantic shopping bags to collect free gifts, buttons, stickers, pens, brochures, book samples, and audio books.

But then I discovered another Leipzig Bok Fair: the fair for writers and readers. With more than 1500 writers and 2000 readings and events, the fair is the largest reading festival in the world. Readings took place at 350 venues, in hair salons, cinemas, the cemetery, the opera, and the aquarium. My personal highlights were Balkan Night (music and readings) and the event at the Polish Institute where a collective of translators (Germany is worldwide the most important country for translators) spoke about translating the Ukrainian author Otar Dovzhenko, and the award ceremony of the Kurt-Wolff Foundation. Leif Greinus and Sebastian Wolter, two young publishers who started Voland & Quist Verlag in Dresden won the prize for most promising publishers. They specialize in authors from the spoken word scene. Klaus Wagenbach won the main prize for lifetime achievement. The event took place at the Connewitzer Velagsbuchhandlung, an independent bookstore and publisher. The upper floor of the bookstore was bursting at the seams. Voland & Quist introduced one of their authors, the talented poet Nora Grominger. I had seen her at City College New York a few months ago when the Creative Writing department invited her to present her work.

Wagenbach prides himself that he publishes books readers should read, not just books readers want to read. He spoke about his career and read from his forthcoming memoir. He started his publishing house after he’d been fired from Fischer Verlag and moved his business to Berlin in ‘64 when, because of the erection of the Berlin Wall, everyone else was leaving Berlin. He wanted to create an East-West Berlin press for he believes that Germans have a common history and language and that literature could be our bridge. He published the East German dissident Wolf Biermann—the manuscript was smuggled into West Berlin in installments. The GDR government retaliated by blocking all licensing of East German writers for him.

He is known as a courageous, courage-inspiring exemplary publisher who introduced Germans to the work of Alberto Moravia, Boris Vian, Natalia Ginzburg and Alan Bennett.

I listened enraptured to him and Nora Grominger sitting on a sofa made of books. After the event, I met Mama Hinke, the mother of Peter Hinke and owner of the bookstore. She had prepared a scrumptious buffet and had made all the Schnittchen herself. This too is love for literature in Leipzig, I said to myself, pleased that I had made the journey.