Clemens Meyer is a Leipzig writer. He’s written four books: the novel Als wir träumten, the short story collection Die Nacht, die Lichter, the diary-format collection Gewalten and now another amazing novel, Im Stein, which is shortlisted for the German Book Prize. I’m a big fan of his and we’ve known each other for some time, travelling in the UK together to promote my translation of his second book, which we called All the Lights (because the literal translation would have rhymed).
Restauration Tucholsky, Bötzow Privat, Berlin-Mitte
Buletten and beer in Tucholsky (Clemens had Aquavit afterwards), whisky at the Bötzow (I switched to beer in between)
What did we talk about?
This time it wasn’t hard to get chatting. Clemens is hard to stop once he gets started, and he starts by telling me he’s been to the restaurant before, with a film producer. Because Als wir träumten is being made into a film, which is exciting. We talk about the election the past weekend. He says he was in Frankfurt on his reading tour but went back to Leipzig to vote and found they’d cut his electricity off. Right now he’s in the money though so he paid the bill. He tells me which party he voted for but the whole of Saxony votes CDU so it wasn’t much use. He wants a political party that doesn’t tax writers and artists, because writers and artists have such unstable incomes. This year he’s doing very well but next year, who knows. Ireland doesn’t tax writers at all for some kinds of income, he tells me, and then he tells me a couple of German writers who’ve been tax exiles in Ireland in the past. This is new to me.
We talk about blogging. Clemens used to write a blog for the FAZ but he wasn’t very good at it. He was very enthusiastic to begin with and wrote pages and pages, but then he found he was cannibalizing his ideas and couldn’t write other things, and it drifted into nothingness and they stopped paying him. He didn’t get many comments and he didn’t respond to the comments he got, except that he registered himself under another name and wrote his own comments. He wasn’t sure why they wanted him to write a blog anyway, for a newspaper website, when a column would do. Now the papers seem to have abandoned the blog idea altogether and he writes a column for Die Zeit, which I’ve never seen because it’s only in the East German edition and he doesn’t think you can get that in Berlin. I ask does he feel like an East German and he says no, well yes, and I say, but you were only a kid in the East. And he says he was thirteen at reunification and that was the end of his childhood. Clemens is fond of dramatic statements, but he relativizes it and adds that it would have been anyway, it was puberty. But yes, he spent his formative years in the GDR and his parents and grandparents most of their lives.
Our Buletten are not bad (later we critique them) but we both add mustard. Clemens is drinking Berliner Pilsener, which I don’t like, and I have Radeberger, which he doesn’t like. At this point I’m drinking faster than him, which worries me slightly because Clemens Meyer is not known for being a modest drinker. But he’s had a cold, he tells me, and it’s really tough being on a reading tour with a cold. He had a nosebleed on stage last week. I wonder what on earth people thought, given his reputation. He did a reading with the other writers shortlisted for the German Book Prize and he could hardly speak. But he met Reinhard Jirgl, who he thinks is great. I’m not sure I could read an entire Jirgl novel all the way through, and Clemens says well, he hasn’t quite managed that either but it’s still amazing writing. We talk about how difficult it would be to translate Jirgl because of his crazy orthography. Clemens can’t tell what the rules are but he’s sure Jirgl knows them. Amazing guy, incredibly intelligent, and he just does his thing and doesn’t sell many books and that’s fine.
I’m not sure how, but we start talking about music. He and his friend Uwe do a DJ show occasionally – only in private – and it’s anti-disco. They make stupid jokes and announcements before every song, he says – and he does an impression of himself with a very strong Saxon accent – and then he does a couple of three-minute readings in between. They start with Heino and Schlager (I cringe) but nobody dances to that so they play classic stuff like Michael Jackson and Elvis. He says he’ll invite me along if they ever do it in Berlin. His dad writes songs for fun, he says. Clemens sings one about men digging for gold in the Sierra Nevada and I deliberately avoid looking at the people at the next tables. I refrain from singing one of the songs my dad writes for fun but we agree it’s a coincidence. We talk about my trombone-playing uncle too, and Clemens says he plays the trumpet himself. He used to play in the church choir but now he only plays when he gets home at night, like Sherlock Holmes with his violin. He does an impression of himself playing the trumpet. He likes free jazz but he’d have to practice a few weeks before he could manage that. I get another impression of Clemens Meyer playing free jazz on the trumpet.
We talk about the research for Im Stein. How did he find out about the Hell’s Angels, for example? He reads the press very carefully, apparently, including biker magazines and blogs and all sorts of obscure publications. And of course it’s fiction so he made a lot of it up. He certainly never had an interview with a Hell’s Angel like the one in the novel, good God, no. Plus they’re called Engel GmbH in the book. I start worrying about the people at the next tables. Clemens likes the place, he says, because it’s not full of tourists like other bars round here. I’m not sure about that; they’re speaking English on one side of us and Swiss German on the other, but Clemens doesn’t have very good hearing so maybe he hasn’t noticed. He always talks very loudly indeed and I’m used to that now, but still; the tables are very close together. I suggest we go elsewhere and we move on to the former Bötzow-Stuben just along the road. On the way we pass the Tucholsky Buchhandlung and admire Clemens’s book through the window. It’s a tiny bit embarrassing because the bookseller is still there and hears us talking. There is some slagging-off of other books on display, but we both approve of Terézia Mora.