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DIARY – Scottish Review of Books
by Tessa Ransford


October 28, 2009 | by Tessa Ransford


20 May

Leave home with the anxiety that tends to accompany solo packing and planning. Overnight in Glasgow with family which takes in the Da Vinci Code. Contrary to the opinion of all the reviewers (suspicious unanimity) we enjoy its relatively meditative pace and the lack of over-acting. It seems more likely that devotion to mother and child imagery throughout the centuries stems from the exiled Magdalene and her child than from the virgin-mother of a Hebrew prophet. The paganish ‘black madonnas’ are surely the source of the Magnificat, penned by Luke the Gentile: “all generations shall call me blessed… He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts…He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

21 May

I manage to forget that I arranged to meet Jenni Calder at check-in. Arriving at departure I realise my mistake and ask for a message to be put over the tannoy: Tessa is in departure! It works and Jenni appears. My feet are cold in the plane, wearing sandals in anticipation of a continental summer. But it’s cold in Berlin and cold throughout the ten days in Ger-many. On unpacking I find I’ve packed my land-line telephone receiver. It begs to be put back to base. In pity I gut it of its batteries. It feels symbolic of the writers-in-exile themes we deal with in International PEN, whose annual congress I am attending at the Hilton Hotel at the heart of old/new united Berlin.

Walkabout takes us to the Branden-burg Gate, the Reichstag and a display of massive sculpture celebrating Berlin as City of Ideas. This is somehow connected to the World Cup? A sculpture beside the river is of a giant aspirin – certainly circular if not spherical and it has been kicking around for a long time. Later we join Stephen, a Scottish translator of Ger-man art books, and a friend of his, Stef-fan, who is one of Berlin’s 2000 architects. His girlfriend is researching China. Jenni’s first novel, about to be published, is set in China and entitled Letters from the Wall. The Wall is the dominant ‘idea’ in the guided tour that follows supper in the Orianentor district of cafes and nightclubs.

Steffan’s is a tour integrating history, the present, architecture, literature, sorrow and laughter, the former post office – with figureheads of world geniuses, including James Watt – the mosque, the Potsdamer Stadt Bibliothek, the synagogue with restored façade and finally Bebelplaltz where another City of Ideas sculpture towers above us in the shape of a stack of books naming 16 of Ger-many’s chosen authors from Goethe at the base to Grass at the top. Fontane, who wrote about his travels in Scotland, is included. A sunken memorial to the burning of books by students on 10th May 1938 is made more telling by an inscribed quotation from Heine a century earlier: ‘wenn man Bücher verbrennt, dann werden auch Menschen am Ende verbrannt.’ We discuss Erich Kästner, author of Emil and the Detectives, who watched his own books being burnt, and a proverb which translates as “you must-n’t drink the chocolate you have yourself been made to pollute.” A tricky one that: don’t benefit from the corrupt system of which you are forced to be part?

22 May

A sophisticated Japanese delegate to the Congress tells Jenni and me at a formal reception “You two women from Scot-land are the only decent women here”. It is clearly meant to be a compliment.

23 May

Jiri Grusa, the International President, who was himself an exile in Germany after imprisonment in Chechoslovakia, states that the theatre of writing is the battleground of meaning. It is exciting to feel at the centre of intellectual intensity where everyone is aware that bombs don’t solve differences and that the endemic violence of the world today arises from the contradictions inherent in its globalisation. Günter Grass speaks devastatingly about the US, quoting Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and a medieval poet who begged not to be made to bear the guilt of war. (We learnt the night before of Tuchhol-sky, with a street named after him, who committed suicide for the shame of being German, while in exile during the war. Think of David Kelly).

I then opt for a boat trip on the river Spree realising that I didn’t previously even know the name of Berlin’s river. We learn of continual building, destruction, restoring, destroying of the restoring, then more rebuilding and new building and all the while people coming and going or going and not coming because of the Wall – where is it now – teenagers ask “what wall?” – Berlin’s population down by a million since the pre-war period – unemployment now and a standard of living cheaper than any other European capital. Buskers in the Gen-darmenplatz, on the other hand, are said to be the best in Europe, being often instrumentalists from impoverished Russian orchestras.

24 May

Discuss Edinburgh becoming a city of refuge with the director of the International Cities of Refuge Network from Stavanger. Decide I don’t need what is billed as ‘Literature of the world. A long night.’ Go out for a pub meal instead with some stalwarts from English PEN including Josephine Pullein-Thompson, whose pony stories I loved as a child. They have vendors selling the evening newspapers in the pubs and restaurants, which helps to keep the pulse of involvement throbbing somehow.

25 May

A four-hour event in Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble tower-house theatre is so tedious that many of us creep out to spend the second couple of hours in a nearby café. I find myself with a Portuguese, a French-speaking Swiss, both male, and an Italian woman. The talk is on how to captivate a woman. I won’t give away the secret, nor did I then.

26 May

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof has been built at enormous cost and is opened with cascades of colourful fireworks and Beethoven’s 9th symphony chorus from Schiller’s ‘Song of Joy’ plus Tchaikovsky’s Dying Swan music from Swan Lake (an odd choice with bird flu around) plus beat/pop music. Illuminated trains come from east and west to the steel-glass building as it changes colour. Sirens and ambulances. We hold hands so as not to become separated in the vast crowd. We eat sausage soup in a pub dedicated to Kästner’s Emil. Next morning we hear that a teenager ran amok and stabbed 25 people in the crowd.

27 May

I have been asked to open today’s assembly by reading one of Muriel Spark’s poems in commemoration of her. She was an honorary member of Scottish PEN. I read ‘To the gods of my right hand’. “Whoever the gods may be” it begins and ends with “the last encounter”. I mean to indicate the pun on right and write by holding a pen as I speak, but forget to pick one up as I go forward, so try to wave my hand about calligraphically. Later I’m told by my professor friend in Leipzig that Robert Graves divided creative authors into the right-handed and the left-handed, the latter being what Nadine Gordimer, who is present at the congress, approvingly defines as ‘witness writers’. Muriel may have been one despite herself.

28 May

I catch a train to Leipzig on the first day of operations for the new main station. I begin to make my way, following signs, to the correct platform. A man offers to help me with my luggage. I accept. He accompanies me to the platform and to the correct position on it for my coach on the 22-coach express train. I ask him if he hasn’t a train to catch himself. “No”, he says, “I’m just sight-seeing”. Lucky for me. People are kind. I must look old. I’m helped all the time.

29 May

In the cosy attic room allocated to me I wake to birdsong and attempts at sunshine. The newspaper has been delivered. Each house has a metal cylinder by the gate marked ‘Zeitung’. News is taken seriously in Germany. Pope Benedict was at Auschwitz yesterday, in the dark precincts a white-clad solitary figure of penance.

30 May

I visit some of my former haunts and then track down the Schumann house in Inselstrasse. This street was the former location of the major publishing house for German Literature, Insel-Bücherei. No sign of Janice Galloway’s Clara in the wood-panelled house. I check out the main bookshop in the city centre. No JG there. Only Rankin and Rowling make it to Leipzig from Scotland. But I find a full-colour leaflet advertising Dorothy Dun-nett’s historical novels in German translation.

A shivery barbecue party for me in the evening with intermittent thunder. Staff and students from the English department, some of whom I met in 2002. We discuss which English-language authors are studied in German universities. They have to fit the post-modern straitjacket, as here. The democratic intellect has, it seems, been lost to totalitarian regimentation of ideas. Along with this, rising student numbers, fewer real choices of course, administrative tasks which wear down the humanity of the humanities lecturers and it seems aspirin-cum-books is the about the only ‘idea’ that remains relevant.

31 May

I visit an exhibition of contemporary history and realise I am viewing a parallel line to my own life: the 55 thousand million killed during the war in the west. The history leads through the step by step division of Germany and of Berlin until ‘a death-strip runs through Germany.’ Much coverage is given to the uprising on 17th June 1953 which took place and was repressed in many parts of the Eastern bloc. But there were always some connections, personal and political. I remember the debate about Ostpolitik. We could do with some on a global scale now.

The poetry reading at 8 p.m in the elegant Haus des Buches is considered a success by Elmar, who has gone to much trouble with the arrangements and publicity. We have an audience of about 40, despite rain again, and the fact that Vikram Seth and Matthew Sweeney have recently attracted only a dozen or so. Dietmar Böhnke, who wrote his PhD on Alasdair Gray is there, and also his mother, who is the German translator of Coetzee. Dietmar acts as interpreter when needed, especially for my introductions to the poems. Some of those I read have been translated by Elmar. The second half of the reading is from my book of translations, The Nightingale Question. Andreas Reimann has come along and reads some of his poems, as does Uta Mauersberger. Elmar Schenkel too reads a poem. It is a happy reunion. (The two remaining poets I translated, Wulf Kirsten and Thomas Rosenlöcher, were invited by the Goethe Institute to Stanza and Word respectively in 2005.) We end with my own poem, translated by Elmar, ‘Easter in Leipzig.’ After questions and discussion about translation methods, I am thanked, applauded and presented with a single red rose. With June about to bloom next day it seems appropriate. All the books of my own work I have with me and Elmar’s stock of ‘Nightingale’ were sold. I am given an envelope full of euros.

From this Issue

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by Hugh MacDonald

Kill and Be Kilt

by Hamish Whyte

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