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Büchner Prize winner Lutz Seiler on poetry, prose and the second life of translations

With three of his works now appearing in English translations, German poet and novelist Lutz Seiler is seeing his writing in a whole new light.

Photo: Heike Steinweg / Suhrkamp Verlag

Celebrated genre-crossing author and Büchner Prize winner Lutz Seiler on his three new English translations, the literary significance of objects, and what it takes to write both poetry and prose.

This year, the Büchner Prize – Germany’s most prestigious literature award – was given to Lutz Seiler, a figure as close to universally liked and respected as is possible in the envy-driven book world. Born in East German Thuringia in 1963, Seiler grew up in a village that was more or less flattened by Soviet-led uranium mining projects.

I sometimes have the feeling that they sound better in English than in the original.

After training as a bricklayer and carpenter, he moved to Berlin in 1990, where he spent time in the anarchic post-Wall alternative scenes of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg while making his first moves as a poet – his 2000 collection pech & blende (Pitch & Glint) proved to be a sensation. Since his celebrated 2014 debut novel Kruso, which was translated into English by Tess Lewis and released in 2017, Seiler has also established himself as a writer of critically acclaimed and widely read fiction. This autumn, the UK indie press And Other Stories is publishing English translations of Seiler’s 2020 bestselling novel Star 111, much of which is set in post-Wall East Berlin, as well as Pitch & Glint and a collection of essays entitled In Case of Loss. Seiler now lives between Stockholm and the small town of Wilhelmshorst near Potsdam, where he runs literary programming at the Peter Huchel Haus.

First of all, congratulations on winning the Büchner Prize! How did you react to the news?

When I got the call, I was on the way to Bamberg to give a poetics lecture there, and I was sitting in the ‘quiet train’ of the Deutsche Bahn – I usually make sure to try and book in the phone-free zone, although there’s always still some person or other talking on the phone nearby. My mobile was on silent, and I didn’t recognise the number, so I didn’t pick up. It was only on the following day that I found out about the prize, after my lecture in Bamberg, which was probably a good thing – I don’t know if I would have still managed the lecture… To put it briefly: my joy was immense, and this prize is a special honour in any case. It’s also good for my books.

It is very exciting that these three titles are all appearing in translation at roughly the same time, which means English-speaking readers can now be introduced to all your different writerly aspects: novel, poetry, essays. How does it feel to see your work appear in the English language?

The fact these books are now out in English means a lot to me – it’s as if what I’ve written is coming to life once again, in another language. That process is more than the word ‘translation’ can describe: it is the reincarnation of a literary text within the sound world and the thought world of English. This especially holds true for the poetry, because when a poem is translated – and a poem is, above all, a sonic construction, a piece of music – it gets created anew, composed anew, using that other language’s resources.

But really it applies to the novel and essays, too, because the way I write is led by ear and has a lot to do with sound and structures of sound. I had quite an intense correspondence with Stefan Tobler, who translated the poems – he asked me all kinds of questions, pages and pages of them. It took some work. Ultimately, I find this whole transformation fascinating. And when I hear the poems in translation, I sometimes have the feeling that they sound better in English than in the original.

Photo: IMAGO / Bildgehege

Star 111 has two different narrative threads. There is Carl, a young man from Thuringia who goes to live in Berlin after the Wall comes down, and there are his parents, Inge and Walter, who go travelling together across the West. Why did you combine these two threads, and what is gained by their interplay?

Bringing these two storylines together, in a way that was unobtrusive and elegant, was this novel’s main challenge in terms of narrative technique. Doing so was also appealing because it gave me the chance to narrate, in detail, two post-reunification adventures – and one paradox. The old move out into the world, while the young stay at home; the parents’ story in the West, and Carl’s Berlin story.

Both of these stories provide commentary on each other, and in a certain sense, Star 111 is also a coming-of-age novel, a novel about individuation: Carl has to learn that his parents have a life outside parenthood, and that they share a lifelong dream that he knew nothing about. And this might be the most important part of his individuation – seeing his parents as other people beyond parenthood, people with their own goals and dreams that have nothing to do with him, the child.

A Thuringian bricklayer becoming a poet in Prenzlauer Berg – there seems to be plenty of Lutz Seiler in the novel. What role does your own biography play?

In writing Star 111, my own experiences from that time were essential – a kind of authentic material. I myself lived in East Berlin after the Wall came down. And much of what I narrate about Inge and Walter, and their odyssey through the West, stems from my own parents’ story. We talked about it often while I was writing the book. For Star 111 as literature, however, it is irrelevant whether something “really” happened in exactly this or that way. In the act of writing, everything changes: the language takes over, and you find you want to create a certain melody, a sound, a rhythm. So there the act of invention begins, which means your text begins to follow its own laws, even as it enters the realm of the fantastic – even until, for example, a goat begins to fly.

In this novel, and in your essays too, there is a tremendous attentiveness towards objects. Why do they appeal to you as an author?

Perhaps my background plays a role here. In the DDR, we spent long periods of time owning only a few things – things that we would look after and, when necessary, repair ourselves. And these things have developed into a kind of witnessing, a kind of testimony. They used to belong to our family; they store our memories. Beyond that, I am interested in this question: to what extent might all this be useful in our present moment? The East German population – with its particular expertise in the matter of objects – was essentially predestined to become a sort of avant-garde of sustainability. After 1989, however, there was rarely much interest in what competencies there might be in the East, and far more discussion, instead, of Eastern shortcomings.

In the act of writing, everything changes.

Your book Pitch & Glint is, for my money, one of the finest poetry collections in the German language. It is deeply rooted in your childhood years and in the Thuringian post-industrial DDR landscapes you grew up in. What inspired you to write about this particular time and place?

That collection is like a literary founding document for me, perhaps my most important book. It first came out in German in the summer of 2000, and this year it appeared in its eighth edition – that’s quite unusual for poems. I say “founding document” also because it contains poems about my childhood landscape, a landscape that was destroyed by uranium mining. And about the village I grew up in, which was razed to the ground for mining by the Soviet-East German company Wismut. Today, only a slag heap there bears the name of our village. It’s a diabolical world, this one, where the innermost substance of my radiant homeland gets used to power nuclear warheads that – in case of emergency – are going to get pointed at us.

The Büchner Prize jury described you as “an author who began with sonorous volumes of poetry and found his way from there to writing narrative”. How did you come to prose, and to the novel? Do the different genres demand different writing processes?

For a long while, I thought poetry was the more interesting, more exciting genre, in every instance – which is why I only came to the novel late, and via some intermediate steps, like writing essays and short stories. Poetry and prose are two different ways of being in the world, each associated with their own distinct states of consciousness. I believe there is one life that leads towards the poem, and another that leads towards narrative. Poetry requires what I once called “a concentrated form of absence”, a set of conditions that allow the writer to reach past conventional causalities and arrive at a powerful image. Prose requires a lot of presence – and discipline. Both are now important to me. But poetry remains my home port.

Finally, can you tell us what you are working on now?

I am currently collecting material for a new novel, and working on a somewhat longer story at the same time. But if the work isn’t finished, then you cannot go talking about it – at risk of your own demise.