Going Dutch with German Writers (10) : Most perceptive man: Eugen Ruge

Is award-winning novelist Eugen Ruge a Berliner at heart? What better way to find out than over a glass or two of wine on Pappelallee? The power of youth, gentrification, and Prenzlauer Berg mothers – Katy Derbyshire gets ever so slightly mawkish over a very charming, talented and perceptive writer.

Gifted with "mordant and insightful wit" (according to the "New York Times"): Berlin writer Eugen Ruge.
Gifted with "mordant and insightful wit" (according to the "New York Times"): Berlin writer Eugen Ruge.Foto: dpa

Who?

Eugen Ruge is the author of two novels, In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts and Cabo de Gata. His debut won the German Book Prize and has been translated into twenty languages, including Anthea Bell’s In Times of Fading Light. The New York Times called it “a pulsing, vibrant, thrillingly alive work, full of formal inventiveness, remarkable empathy and, above all, mordant and insightful wit.”

Where?

Lorberth, Prenzlauer Berg

What?

Eugen Ruge had Spätzle and Spätburgunder, I had Grauburgunder.

What did we talk about?

This is the first time I’ve approached an author through a publishing house rather than directly, and I’ve been a little more tense than usual about the whole affair. But Mr Ruge, it turns out, is very charming and very used to interview situations, and puts me at ease fairly quickly. We sit outside and order drinks – the waitress seems to know him – and he orders food. I ate at home beforehand and he apologises for making me watch him eat. Later I regret not getting anything to soak up the alcohol.

Still a little nervous, I suggest to him that he’s from Prenzlauer Berg, and he bristles slightly at my ignorance. He was born in the Urals, he says, so he’s not exactly from around here. I knew that, I say, and I did but I’d forgotten until he said it. We start off on a little smalltalk about where I’m from and how I got to Berlin. There was a man involved, I say, who turned out to be an idiot but I stayed anyway. I tell him I know a few women here who’ve fallen for fools before their German was good enough to notice that all their jokes were stolen, and that takes us on to the importance of a sense of humour in relationships. Is it as important to Germans as it is to Brits, I ask, and he nods vigorously. The German equivalent to lonely-hearts jargon GSOH is “humorvoller Mittfünfziger”, he says. I pull a face.

He once wrote a whole play about people composing self-descriptions for personal ads. Of course, anyone describing themselves as “humorvoll” ought to ring alarm bells. Ruge moves swiftly on to Derrida, and my face drops. I am hugely embarrassed to find myself sitting with a famous writer talking about Derrida and structuralism in conjunction with personal ads, and I am too dumb to pick up on what is surely a totally interesting subject. My mind racing, I decide against bluffing and come clean about my ignorance. So Ruge tells me about the German metacommunications man, Schulz von Thun, and his book with the unfortunate title of Miteinander reden. About how very few of our utterances can ever be taken at face value – someone saying “The traffic light is green” is unlikely to be giving the driver a helpful tip, for instance, and the answer is unlikely to be “Oh, thanks for pointing that out.” So nothing we say actually means what we say, or is necessarily understood as we mean it. Isn’t that scary for a writer? Perhaps nothing you write is ever understood the way you mean it either. Well, he says, obviously not scared at all, that’s why writing dialogue is tricky, but once you get the hang of it you can squeeze a whole lot of meaning into realistic conversations, and that’s something he learned in his many years of writing plays.

The waitress comes to take his plate and asks would we like another glass of wine. Yes, he says, and yes, I say. Our top-ups come in dinky 0.2-litre carafes. But then he remembers he only wanted to drink one glass and decides I’ll have to help him out. English people can take more alcohol than Germans, apparently. This assessment proves incorrect later in the evening.

We talk about Prenzlauer Berg. In Ruge’s second novel, the narrator flees Berlin in disgust at what becomes of the place in the nineties – makeshift cafés serving overpriced latte macchiato to property speculators. Has he got used to it now? He thinks for a moment. It’s not that he minds where they’re from, he says, although they’re all from the West; it’s more that the people who live here now are all of a certain type. Living on inherited money and raising their kids on organic food; pushing six-thousand-euro strollers and expecting everyone to leap out of their way. Ruge is not the first person from Prenzlauer Berg to express this opinion. No, he hasn’t got used to it, but should he be the one to move away?

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The Blogger: Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire is a London-born translator who moved to Berlin in 1996. She has translated many contemporary German writers, including Felicitas Hoppe, Francis Nenik, Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Simon Urban, Sibylle Lewitscharoff and Christa Wolf. She likes talking about books.

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