Authors Donna Leon, Laura Kasischke and Simon Beckett ponder the happy mysteries of scoring hits with foreign-language readers (The Guardian)
For the American writer Laura Kasischke, the first inkling of her second life in France came when a former student wrote to say her portrait was on the cover of Le Monde. Kasischke was teaching creative writing at a community college in Michigan, with two collections of poetry and a couple of novels already under her belt. But when her first novel appeared in France as À Suspicious River in 1999, it launched a spectacular literary career in translation that took her completely by surprise and is still going strong nearly two decades on.
Today, Kasischke is better known in the US as a poet, winning prizes including the National Book Critics Circle award for her 2011 collection Space, in Chains – though she jokes that in the US no one is really well-known for their poetry.
But in France it’s her novels that have found success, featuring prominently on bestseller lists, with 2014’s Esprit d’hiver winning Elle magazine’s Grand prix des lectrices. Her appearance at this year’s Festival America in Vincennes left her “staggered to be asked for hundreds and hundreds of autographs, and stopped on the street, recognised, asked for photographs and so on”.
Kasischke is just one of a number of writers in our increasingly globalised world who have made their names far from their own countries, with British authors such as Robert McLiam Wilson, David Mark and Rosamunde Pilcher finding substantial audiences in France and Germany.
One possible reason Kasischke suggests for her own success – based on a comparison of reader comments in France and the US – is that “the French enjoy protagonists and narrators who aren’t necessarily likable in a way that Americans may not, and also that the French may have more patience with … endings that are elliptical. These things are praised by some of the French customers and very much frowned upon by some of the American customers.”
For translator Frank Wynne, her suggestion that continental readers are more tolerant of unappealing characters seems all too plausible: “Literature does not exist to be heartwarming – even Watership Down is filled with violence and savagery – yet there is a large readership that longs for the familiar and the reassuring, and I think perhaps that is more in evidence among British and especially American readers.”
But differences in literary taste are forged by the different structures of the publishing industry in the UK and the US, Wynne points out. “Anglo-American publishing is now dominated by four publishers. Penguin Random House alone has dozens of imprints – Heinemann, Vintage, Chatto, Harvill, Cape, Crown, Bantam, Ballantine – which gives the impression of a greater diversity than truly exists. Anglo-American publishers search for ‘breakout’ books, for authors who ‘repeat’. This is much less true in France, where authors still regularly move between publishing houses [and] where reviews, word-of-mouth and prizes can still propel sales of individual titles.”
Wynne says that the vibrancy and diversity of literary culture in France and Spain is still protected by regulations preventing retailers from selling popular books at large discounts, restrictions that disappeared in the UK during the 1990s, adding: “Literature is a sufficiently major part of French culture that there are still radio and television programmes discussing books, and many authors are also major public figures, something that would be all but unthinkable in the UK or the US.”
The bestselling American crime writer Donna Leon, who says she owes her career to Swiss publisher Diogenes Verlag, puts the contrast in starker terms.
“I think Europeans read less crap,” Leon says, “and most of [the crap] they read, they get from the US. Since this is true about food and entertainment, why should it not be true about books? Europeans, especially Germans, read serious fiction, read it in great numbers, and it is common to hear people speak in social situations seriously and at length about literature.”
It isn’t a new phenomenon. After publishing four Inspector Brunetti novels in the early 1990s, Leon found herself without a publisher in the US. “Then Danny Keel at Diogenes read one and liked it,” she says. “They made a publicity fuss about them, and off they went. Thus it was Switzerland that created the success of the books in the German language.” It wasn’t until the eighth Brunetti novel was published in both English and German in 2000 that Leon began to realise her commercial impact.
The latest Brunetti novel, The Waters of Eternal Youth, featured on the New York Times list of hardcover fiction bestsellers when it appeared in 2015.
According to Leon, part of the novels’ appeal for German readers is that they are set in Venice, where the author has lived for almost 40 years. “It seems to be the city of their dreams, the way Florence has been for the British. It does not hurt that the books deal with serious political and social issues and bang the ecological drum very hard. This grim undercurrent catches the attention of people who face similar problems and who, unlike the Americans, are prepared to talk about them and attempt to solve them.”
German readers are certainly enthusiastic about crime fiction that touches on social and political issues, agrees the translator Katy Derbyshire, citing writers such as Oliver Bottini, Juli Zeh and Frank Schätzing who have been picked up by publishers in the UK. The country has also been keen on portraits of Italy since Goethe, she says, but she’s not convinced they read “any less ‘crap’ – perhaps they just read more in total. There’s a sense that it’s fine to read easier stuff as long as you balance it out with something more challenging.”
International success might be gratifying, but how does it affect a writer’s work? Very little, according to Leon. “The humour is still more English than it is anything else, and I suspect the ethical sense is more Anglo-Saxon than Mediterranean,” she says. “I’ve lived outside of the US for about 50 years, most of them in Europe, so the things that concern me are European. My politics have surely moved away from the current Manichaean thinking that characterises current politics in the US.”
For Kasischke, the barriers are both cultural and geographic: “If I lived there, and could speak the language, and perhaps speak with other French writers, or if I could even … speak French with my French fans, their thoughts might influence how I think about my own writing. But I live in Chelsea, Michigan – and that’s very, very far from the French literary scene.”
Simon Beckett, a British crime writer who has found an audience in Germany that as yet far outnumbers his audience at home, agrees that it’s impossible to tailor his writing for readers abroad. “I can’t see how that could work,” he says. “You just have to write the best story you can and then hope people enjoy it. Which is what I’ve always done anyway.”
A couple of psychological thrillers he published during the 1990s appeared in German translation. But when the first in his series featuring the forensic anthropologist David Hunter, The Chemistry of Death, came out as Die Chemie des Todes in 2007, Beckett realised his career had moved to an entirely different level.
“I was boarding a plane at Leipzig when someone ran after me shouting my name,” he recalls. “I thought there must be a problem with my ticket, but it was an airport worker who’d recognised me in the departure lounge. She’d dashed to a bookshop to buy one of my novels and then run all the way back so I could sign it.”
The Hunter series has done well in the UK and has been translated into 29 languages, but the reaction in Germany is very different to anywhere else, Beckett continues. “They seem to have a lot of literary festivals, and crime fiction in particular is very popular, as it is in the UK. But whereas here I might do an informal talk in a library to 20 or 30 people, in Germany it’s usually on a stage in front of several hundred. There’ll be an interviewer who’ll also translate, since I don’t speak German, and an actor who’ll read out extracts from the book.”
There’s such an appetite for Beckett’s fiction abroad that his latest novel appears in German translation before it has even been published in English. Totenfang, in which Hunter investigates a body discovered in the Essex marshes, shot up German bestseller lists when it was published in October. English readers will have to wait until June for the case to be resolved in The Restless Dead.
Beckett is at something of a loss to explain why his novels have struck such a chord in Germany. “In my experience, readers are pretty much the same in Germany as the UK, except that there are more of them,” he says.
As for the translators who have brought his work to a new audience, Beckett says he doesn’t have much contact with most of them, but gets on well with those he meets.
“It’s odd when a book arrives in the post with your name on the cover, and you can’t understand a word of what’s inside,” he says. “Translation is a real skill, and since I don’t speak any other language, let alone 29, I have to take it on trust that it’s a true representation of what I’ve written.” A lot depends on the translator capturing the style, tone and atmosphere of the original, he continues. “But it’s still the novel whose story and characters I’ve created and sweated over. A good translation takes that and makes it accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to read it.”
Donna Leon puts it a little differently. “I think reading a translation is an act of faith,” she says. “We have to trust in that person’s intelligence, taste and choice to render a text in our language into a similar text in the one in to which it is being translated. The translator should have a deep understanding not only of the languages but of the culture of the place in which the book is set so as to understand reference, allusion, humour and the prevailing moral code of the other country.”
According to Kasischke, cultural connections are even more important when you move beyond prose. “I’ve worked more closely with my most recent translator, Céline Leroy, because, in addition to the fiction, she has translated my first book of poetry.” Wild Brides, which appeared earlier this year as Mariées rebelles“required more discussion than the fiction,” she adds, “some of it rather hilarious like, what do you mean to suggest by the angry sandwich?”
But for all these discussions, the fundamental mystery of her fame in France leaves Kasischke with an abiding feeling of luck. “It’s been an unexpectedly wondrous source of surprise income,” she says, “for which I feel I had to do no work whatsoever, since I was simply writing, in English, novels I’d have written anyway.”