Every evening I am in a bookshop reading to an audience that varies from three (in Dresden) to a hundred (in Frankfurt). Because I speak a few words of O-level German, my publisher has asked me to conduct the entire tour in the native tongue. After a few days, I overcome my shyness and embark on hugely ambitious sentences, in which verbs are missing and tenses and genders are chaotic. German verbs should stack up neatly at the end of sentences, mine are like a rail disaster, an ugly collision of elements: "... hatte werden hatten wurden konnen sein." (When a radio DJ asks me to explain how we can benefit from reading Proust, I answer the German equivalent of: "Proust she was to be very interesting in enlightening to us being.") An irony lost on the publisher is Marcel Proust's vehement insistence that readers should never meet writers. Good writers should always be disappointing next to their books, said Proust; it was important to read a book, not shake the author's hand: "There are some writers who are superior to their books, but that's because their books are not Books." I can't claim to write Books, but it is clear that - speaking in catastrophic German with a streaming cold - I am far from the efficient sales vehicle my publisher might have wished for.
GERMANY has a vast trade deficit in literature. The country translates more foreign books than any other. For every German book that a British publisher takes on, German publishers will translate 22 English language books. It leads to embarrassment when German booksellers ask, "So which German authors do you read? Do you like Martin Walser? Have you read Christoph Ransmayr? What do you make of Valentin Senger?" I confess my ignorance (the only contemporary German author I have read is the wonderful WG Sebald). But Germans know all about what is going on in Britain. I meet university graduates who are writing theses on the sense of time in Julian Barnes and satire in Will Self. British literature is routinely praised as inventive and funny, while Germans excuse the poverty of home-grown works. In Munich, I meet a melancholic editor of the large current affairs weekly Focus. "We used to have great literature," he tells me. "We used to have great sense of humour, too. It is sad that we killed all the ones who laughed."
AT ANY point, a series of authors will be on tour around Germany, and one hears of their progress in each city. "Martin Amis was in town last week," a journalist in Berlin tells me. Then come the personal observations. "A very nice man, but so short, so short..." Stories about their foibles abound. My publicist tells me that Margaret Atwood always requires a basket of fresh lychees in her hotel, and sharpened pencils at her readings, Don DeLillo insists on an efficient shower, Nadine Gordimer asks for an espresso machine in her room. These stories have a moral: one shouldn't be "difficult". Publicists have a way of exacting revenge. Still, after days of touring and answering the same questions ("So, how did Proust change your life?"), I begin to understand the urge to trash a hotel bedroom and insist on the freshest lychees.
AT LEAST German booksellers are the envy of the world. Only 5 per cent of the market is controlled by book chains, the rest is in the hands of extraordinarily efficient independent booksellers. The staff have usually studied bookselling for two years at university and, in the care they take in locating a book for customers, they display the patient expertise one finds in continental pharmacists. But there are worries that it is all about to change. The European Union's competition laws demand an end to the price fixing agreement in place in Germany, which means that big book chains will be able to undercut independent shops. Booksellers are getting political in response, though sometimes in bizarre ways. In Frankfurt I come across a bookshop that is planning a protest against the directive in the form of a 24-hour reading of Goethe's works. They are starting with The Sorrows of Young Werther and will end with Elective Affinities.
WHEN in the 1970s the Paris Review asked Philip Roth why he had started writing, he replied, "In order to meet women." The thought comes to mind at a reading in Erlangen, Bavaria. The audience is full of beautiful German women, many of whom sport the popular rimless spectacles. Sadly, the only people interested in requesting that I climb into a bed are the many photographers who think it would be a good idea for me to imitate the ailing Proust. Handily perhaps, as far as writing goes. "Happiness may be good for the body, but suffering is better for the mind," said the French writer who indirectly paid for my tour.Reuse content