Maxim Biller on Sighing in Hindi

For a while, I’ve been working on a translation of Maxim Biller’s sulfurous 2000 essay "Cowardly the Land; Feckless the Literature" (G).  It’s a sparkling cavalcade of well-focussed hatred directed at deserving victims.

One of his stories, "The Mahogany Elephant," has just been translated into English and published in the New Yorker.  Turns out some of his stories have been published in the New Yorker in English.  Here’s an excerpt from an online-only interview with him:

Are there American writers you have drawn inspiration from? Jewish-American ones?

When I was twenty, I discovered the books of Malamud, Heller, Bellow, Roth. They taught me to be free to write about my own—the Jewish—people, just as Chekhov, Camus, and Fitzgerald wrote about their people. My biggest hero was always Mordecai Richler. I loved him, because he was comic, tragic, and never pseudo-intellectual. He understood that literature is about telling a story, not showing off your vocabulary. I met him once. We went on tour through Germany—he was reading in English, I was explaining in German who he was, and at night we had a whiskey and smiled at each other and didn’t talk much. I’m sad that he is no longer alive and can’t write more of his wonderful novels.

Are there themes in your writing that seem to you to be typically German, and that American readers might be unfamiliar with?

I hope not. I think that literature—if you succeed at it—is universal. It is always this thing with love and war and parents who lied to you, and, of course, there must be some suspense and a lot of invisible poetry, and then it doesn’t matter whether the characters sigh in German or in Hindi.

One thought on “Maxim Biller on Sighing in Hindi

  1. Have conflicted feelings about this author. A Malamud he is not, at least at this stage of artistic development.

    The “New Yorker” story, with its echoes of Hemingway (yes, Hemingway; I thought that fellow was going to go to the window and see faces in the rain), seemed a bit flat, not only in the sense of lacking in zest and vigor, but also of having little depth (or even little illusion of having depth).

    The essay you are translating, if Anthea Bell does not snatch it away from you before you can find a publisher, is a rant. Now, I like a rant now and then; I like good rants. But this is not a good rant. It is not a bad rant, but it is harsh, overly harsh, and the harshness is oppressive.

    Since my first acquaintance with Germany was in the late 70s–“Deutschland im Herbst”–Biller’s comments on the idolatry of the RAF, Brecht, of all things leftist, or what one assumed at the time to be leftist but may really only have been a romantically struck pose in reaction to sodden Spiessbürgerlichkeit, struck a resonating chord in my parched American expatriate soul. I will never forgive the leftists, especially the left wing of the SPD, for having ended the chancellorship of one of Germany’s most able postwar politicians, Helmut Schmidt, thus ushering in the gray mediocrity and later corruption of the Kohl era.

    But statements like this–Germans are “ein Volk von selbstsüchtigen, neurotischen Feiglingen”–do seem heavy-handed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s