How can I write about this book, Im Stein? It’s so hard.
I first heard Clemens read from it – what became its final chapter – in 2008. I first read it in an antisocial delirium in April, just after it was finished. I translated an extract in May. It came out two days ago and I have been re-reading it. Until then it felt like it belonged to me. I realize that’s nonsense, but it doesn’t stop me feeling jealous, wildly and fiercely so, that other people can read the book now and write about it and talk about it – and they are, and how. I know the only way I can claim it back for myself is to translate the whole thing.
I don’t want to tell you what it’s about, but I will. This won’t be a review because I can’t do it justice. It’s not a novel that will fit into a review.
It’s about the sex industry, about prostitutes and the men who make money out of them. It’s about one particular man, Arnold Kraushaar, who rents flats out to prostitutes and provides them with services, a man who doesn’t see himself as a pimp as such. And there are other men with other names running other businesses, club managers, gang members, policemen, fathers and regular customers. And there are women who work as prostitutes, and we learn some of their names but they never tell us them directly. It’s about the changes that happen in one big city in East Germany, from a state that tolerated a miniscule amount of informal prostitution to one in which it has been a legalized industry for ten years.
And there are stones and rocks – gemstones and crystal and eyes like diamonds, and tunnels through the rock under the city, and there are angels and killers and horror and there’s even love, or something like it. The women are all so different but most of them so strong, and p. 301 made me cry twice over and I had to skip one chapter when reading for the second time. There is Machiavelli and Karl Marx and Wolfgang Hilbig and David Peace and Hubert Fichte and Lewis Carroll, and no doubt more I haven’t identified. And it ends – almost – with Mahler, but is otherwise nothing like Open City.
Mostly though it’s Clemens Meyer. I know his work very well and, looking at the book again over the past few days, I’ve started to understand what style might mean. Because he employs a number of the techniques from his previous writing here, sharp cuts or stream of consciousness, switching perspectives or making us reel with his characters as the ground falls away beneath their feet. At times he reinvents modernism; snatches of song and conversation, wandering thoughts in the city – very Döblinesque. And he blatantly ignores the rules of reality, physics and even writing, to produce literature that nonetheless feels utterly true-to-life. Dreams never dreamt, conversations never held, dances never danced, dead men’s thoughts. All these things that worked so well in his debut novel, Als wir träumten, and in his short stories that I translated as All the Lights, and in the diary-form collection Gewalten, come together here in an almost overwhelming structure. Meyer skips back and forth in time but propels us along as Arnold Kraushaar ages. He has buried mysteries in his bedrock, which we can trace as the story moves on. But they’re not the driving force of this style-led novel.
People are talking about the book’s morals, but a novel doesn’t have morals. What Meyer has done though is given us these women’s voices, telling banal stories or horrifying ones, making us laugh. Im Stein starts and finishes with prostitutes talking to us about their working days, and there is a great deal of sex in between too, although most of it is not sexy; it’s their job. For the men, too, it’s mostly business. I think that’s what the author wanted to tell us.
The reviews have been excellent, but what bothers me about many of them is that they want to talk about prostitution. Perhaps that’s inevitable; perhaps it’s not yet a topic people can view without a moral lens. There are two things I’d like you to read instead, to give you an idea of the many things that went into the book: an interview with Clemens Meyer and a promotional piece including photos of his desk. You can also read a pdf sample from the first chapter. Im Stein is longlisted for the German Book Prize and I assume will make the shortlist, after which you should be able to read at least part of my translated extract online. And then British and American publishers will buy the translation rights and you’ll be able to read it all in English, one day.