Sport 40 edited by Fergus Barrowman and Sally-Ann Spencer review

by Nelson Wattie / 23 June, 2012
As New Zealand heads to the Frankfurt Book Fair, Sport 40 offers a taste of contemporary writing in German.
Regular readers of Sport will find two-thirds of its 40th issue are familiar: known thoroughbreds from the Victoria University Press stables strut their dressage, while colts and fillies in training are permitted to frisk. The writing is technically polished, coolly efficient yet strangely bland. Sport is an elegant literary journal for the “passionless people”. The remaining third is more colourful, a “special feature” of “Contemporary Writing in German” (in translation), to coincide with New Zealand’s Guest of Honour status at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Regrettably, though, there is little editorial guidance. No introduction defines the principles of selection or sets a frame of any kind. Neither do the skimpy “bios” at the end compensate.

To be told of a writer (Daniela Seel) that “her poetry has appeared in anthologies and periodicals” is to be told very little. The note on Esther Dischereit gives no true impression of her prolific and varied publications or of her courageous stand on political issues. The two poems, beautifully translated, are gems, but readers deserve to know she was a 1968 radical and is now a leading trade unionist, a position combined in her writing with religious self-questioning and a compassionate exploration of Jews in today’s Germany. Similarly, there is nothing to tell readers of Dietmar Dath’s essay/story that he is the leading Marxist thinker of his generation or that in his numerous works he has used science fiction to deal radically with aesthetic, social, political, sexual, biological and gender issues, as well as the mysterious edge of modern physics.

All this is relevant to “The fairytale of the totally symmetrical butterfly”, his pithy semi-fictional study of Amalie Emmy Noether, a mathematician and physicist of genius, deeply admired by Albert Einstein, who triumphed over prejudice against women in academia. This item alone is worth the price of the book. The best-known living writers in German are not here. The trio of Nobel Prize winners – Günter Grass, Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller – are absent. So are Jürgen Becker, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Martin Walser and Friederike Mayröcker. Perhaps (who knows?) attention is to be drawn to younger aspirants. Of the 23 writers here, 15 were born in the 1950s and 60s. Even so, I miss personal favourites like Robert and Eva Menasse. By contrast, on the No Man’s Land website, over 60 youngish German writers will be found in translation. Many of the individual texts in Sport 40 are well worth reading closely, but this selection is a taster, not an overview.

SPORT 40: NEW ZEALAND NEW WRITING 2012 WITH CONTEMPORARY WRITING IN GERMAN, edited by Fergus Barrowman and Sally-Ann Spencer ($40).

Nelson Wattie is a writer and translator.

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