German Book Prize Fleeing from oneself

Buchpreisträger Bodo Kirchhoff
Buchpreisträger Bodo Kirchhoff | Photo (detail): © Laura J. Gerlach

Bodo Kirchhoff has been awarded the 2016 German Book Prize for his novel “Widerfahrnis”. This guarantees that it will sell well – as do the winners of other literary prizes in Europe and the USA.
 

From time to time there does appear to be some justice in the literary world after all: back in 2012, Bodo Kirchhoff had been nominated for the German Book Prize for his highly complex novel Die Liebe in groben Zügen, but failed to be shortlisted despite reaping numerous rave reviews. Now he has succeeded, and at Frankfurt Book Fair was awarded the prize, which is endowed with 25,000 euros, for his novel Widerfahrnis.
 
Widerfahrnis gets off to an unspectacular start in an apartment building in the foothills of the Alps. One cold wet April night, a man and a woman, both of them the wrong side of 60 and their hearts full of disillusion, get into a car and set off for Italy. They drive right across the country without really knowing what it is they are looking for. A former small-time publisher and the owner of a failed hat store, they have only just met and are fleeing from their lives in which nothing new ever happens anymore, from their past, and from themselves. In vain.

Apparent charity

Because of course they cannot escape. What is more, in Italy they encounter people everywhere who are fleeing in the opposite direction. And then, in the Sicilian city of Catania, they suddenly come across a girl of around twelve in a tattered dress who wordlessly offers them her necklace. The couple take the girl back to their hotel, buy her clothes and become obsessed with the idea of being her parents, helpers and rescuers. Yet their apparent charity has less to do with selflessness than with the deficits of the ageing couple, and with typically German fantasies about saving the world. In Widerfahrnis, Kirchhoff puts together a novel by masterfully combining his major themes of love, men and women, and the endless search for happiness in life, with the current refugee situation. In this instance the “unprecedented occurrence” that defines a novel is really the entire journey, though above all its disturbing end …  
 
The honour, which many critics believe has come a few years too late and should really apply to Kirchhoff’s entire oeuvre, is also gratifying for the author, who is one of the initiators of the German Book Prize. “I thought there needed to be something in Germany to lend tailwind to novels”, he recalls in an interview with German daily newspaper Die Welt. Not everyone agreed. “People at the time were almost shocked by the desire to award a ‘German’ prize for literature.”

The long road to the Book Prize

It is almost impossible to imagine now that for a long time there was no prize for the best novel or best work of narrative prose in German, despite all the promotion prizes and scholarships, despite the Büchner Prize and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. However, unlike in France, the USA or Great Britain for example, there was a reluctance in Germany to single one work out from the huge number of new publications.
 
As an author who has to earn a living from writing, Kirchhoff would certainly have been aware of the marketing impact such a prize would have. This is particularly obvious in the case of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most renowned literary prize: awarded to the best narrative work of the year since 1903, the prize is endowed with only a symbolic ten euros, yet the books that receive it become bestsellers, without exception. The fact that the prize-winning works are published for the most part by leading houses such as Gallimard, Grasset and Seuil sparks criticism time and again.

No award without discussion

The situation is rather different when it comes to the British equivalent, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, which is worth 50,000 pounds. A complicated procedure is applied so as to prevent the major publishing houses from exerting any influence: the foundation that awards the prize appoints an advisory committee, which each year selects a new judging panel. In Great Britain too, even shortlisted novels see their sales boosted. The award ceremony is then broadcast live on television, ensuring once and for all that the prize-winning work becomes a bestseller. This is also the case with the Pulitzer Prize in the United States: awarded since 1917, it honours not only journalistic work but also theatre plays, poetry, non-fiction books and novels.
 
Ever since the German Book Prize was first awarded in 2005, there have also been the same discussions of whether this or that particular author deserves the prize. Naturally, some novels will appeal to a wider audience (such as Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart or Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World), while other less easily digestible books (like Frank Witzel’s Die Erfindung der Rote Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969) are able at least briefly to make it onto the bestseller lists. “Ultimately, people will always have their preferences when it comes to taste, but they balance each other out”, says Bodo Kirchhoff. He has every reason to be satisfied, both as the initiator of the prize and now as a prize-winner: “Books have to be discovered that will appeal to readers – as well as others that are likewise of interest. The prize has succeeded in doing this time and time again.”