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Henry M. Robert

Judith HERMANN: “To Ukraine I have mixed feelings of strangeness and closeness”

German writer about Maidan, music, communication with readers, and ability to see the world as small and big
23 April, 2014 - 17:42
JUDITH HERMANN / Photo from the website N-LAND.DE

Literary critic, Professor Hellmuth Karasek called Judith a voice of her generation. People still say the same, although Judith tries to distance herself from this “definition.” The author’s first book of short stories was translated into tens of languages and sold with a print run of nearly 600,000 copies. Natalia Sniadanko, who has translated two of her books into Ukrainian (Nothing but ghosts and Alice), says that “it was not a detective, love story, scandal biography of a celebrity, fantastic fiction, or any other genre that would make such print runs possible; Judith Hermann managed to cross one of the most long-lasting publishing stereotypes that a story cannot be a commercial genre. Her stories are no way commercial. In spite of that, people read and reread them. Critics have called her texts the stories told by insomniacs, who tell them with their eyes half-closed, and even after second reading these stories continue to enchant.”

Born in Western Berlin, the author did not finished higher education (Germanic Studies and Philosophy), and later took up journalism, coming for internship to one of New York publications. Later the writer received Alfred Doeblin fellowship in the Academy of Arts, Berlin, and wrote a book in Guenter Grass’s house (the writer’s residence). At the same time Judith worked as a waitress to gather impressions. Her book of stories was published by one of the most respectable German publishing houses – Fischer – and received quite a wide response. Then Judith Hermann became incredibly popular. The Ukrainian readers saw her first book Summerhouse, later in Yurko Prokhasko’s translation, and Serhii Zhadan described it as follows: “This is a book of stories about the words which even if can be pronounced, should be whispered quietly rather for yourself than for a conditional interlocutor, although in this book this conditional interlocutor is often present, but his presence does not appear so necessary, rather it is a reason to continue to tell the stories, to continue the game which you know how is called.”

We were lucky to meet mysterious and laconic, but sincere Judith Hermann at the Book Arsenal in Kyiv. In a conversation with The Day she shared her feelings about Ukraine, as well as that soon her first novel will be published.

Alice is your third book, which has been translated into Ukrainian. Do translations bring you closer to Ukrainian culture?

“I am very glad that all three books have been translated into Ukrainian. This is a great honor for me. I don’t know where this feeling comes from, but I am very much attracted to Ukrainian mentality and culture, although I feel that it differs much from the German ones. I don’t know why Ukrainians take so much interest in German literature. I feel connection with Ukrainians, and I am happy about that.”

It’s not your first visit to Ukraine. What do you feel about the country?

“This is my fourth visit. Five years ago I was in Lviv; four years ago – in Kyiv, and three years ago – in the Crimea. For me it is a country that unites the Western and Eastern mentalities. It does not seem strange to me as probably Moscow or St. Petersburg would be. Ukraine is closer to Germany, and I have mixed feelings of strangeness and closeness to it. I find Ukraine a very beautiful melancholic country with a long and interesting history. There are distinct contrasts, when old and new cities mix and change. It is pleasant to observe. Here you can touch the past.”

Previously in an interview you said that you don’t read much of Ukrainian literature (you named Yurii Andrukhovych then). Has this situation changed? Have you come to like other Ukrainian authors?

“I have read Natalia Sniadanko. But the problem is that not so many translations are available. This is a question of translations. I have also read recently a book about the Maidan which contains texts of young and older Ukrainian authors. It contains very important thoughts concerning the time spent in the Maidan. I think it is very important now to read Ukrainian authors, because in the background of this crisis you need to hear voices. For this is not about Ukraine only, but entire Europe. It refers to me as well.”

You have also said that you take interest in Russian literature. What are the reasons? Do you have any connection with Russia? For, recalling your story The Red Coral Bracelet from the first book, in which you tell about your Russian origin, one can build certain suggestions.

“I am connected to Russian culture, because my grandmother, like the story reads, was born in St. Petersburg. But I was born in Western Berlin, in FRG. And there Russian literature was less read than in GDR, the eastern part of Germany. I know that in Russian schools there are subjects when you simply need to read. I have read much as well, but I was not taught this. In GDR, for example, much of Dostoevsky was read. And I was 40 when I read his works for the first time. The world changes somewhat with every book. Before that I had read Chekhov and Akhmatova. It seems to me in my case the thing is about naive attraction to eastern mentality, the soul of the East. Ukraine still has to formulate its identity, but what if I as a German was asked what is my identity? This is a very complicated question. Yesterday I was in the Maidan for the first time, and it is two hours by plane from Berlin, I mean it is very close.”

In your stories music and travels are present. What roles do they play in your life? What do you listen to these days? Do you travel much?

“I don’t listen to the music much these days. Maybe it’s because I am growing older. I hope it will return to me some day. And travels are still important for me. Getting separated from my country, I have an opportunity to look at it from afar, thus learning more. It is important how small the world is on the one hand, and how big it is on the other. At the same time, traveling makes me tired, and I often ask myself, why did not I stay home this time? But then I always feel happy that I didn’t.”

How do the meetings with your readers influence you?

“These meetings are a kind of crossing. When you write a text, you are alone. And when this text comes into the world, a movement begins, the turbulence (owing to critics), and this way is often very hard. For me meeting readers is like a mirror – it’s an opportunity to look/peep how this book speaks to the reader. What my characters appear to him – the way I imagine them? When a book remains unread, it is simply paper.”

Has journalism helped you in your work of a writer?

“Journalism has taught me not to circle round for a long time, but to focus on something specific. To express something quickly and concretely. It also made me braver.”

And the last question: what are you working on now?

“I have just finished my fourth book. It will be published in summer, in August. This is my first novel, although a short one. The publishers say that I must practice in pronouncing the word ‘novel.’ So far it is somewhat funny for me, but it is so. I am glad that I’ve finally finished it.”

By Olesia YAREMCHUK, The Day
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