Going Dutch with German Writers (2) : Anecdotes involving Interpol

When you go drinking with a mysterious writer who never makes public appearances, almost anything can happen. Francis Nenik tells Katy Derbyshire about professional golfing, getting thrown out of libraries, dissident writers and fake identities in literature. It’s all a little unsettling.

No face, just writing: Francis Nenik doesn't like public appearances.
No face, just writing: Francis Nenik doesn't like public appearances.Foto: Privat


Francis Nenik has published two books, XO and Ach, bald crashen die Entrechteten furchtlos gemeingefährliche hoheitliche Institutionen, jagen kriegserfahrene Leutnants mit Nachtsichtgeräten oder parlieren querbeet Russisch, Swahili, Türkisch und Vietnamesisch, während Xantippe Yamswurzeln züchtet. He took second place in last year’s Edit essay competition and the new issue of Edit features a story by him. XO is a collection of about 400 loose sheets in a cardboard box; all Francis Nenik’s texts are also available for free online, via the quandary novelists.

Where? Killiwilly Irish Pub, Leipzig

What? Francis drank Guinness and Strongbow. I stuck to Wernesgrüner Pilsener.

What did we talk about?

We started off talking about Francis Nenik. It’s a pseudonym, by the way. I don’t know his real name but he told me he writes under various different pseudonyms; the idea was to have so many that he forgot which names were his. It hasn’t worked yet though. So I just didn’t address him by name and he pretended to be called Francis all evening. This was the first time he’s ever met up with anyone from the literary business, he said. He’s never appeared in public under his pseudonym, never done a reading from his books. The launches and events take place without him – he’s shy, he said, and other people are much better at reading than him. And there are so many more important things in his life anyway – literature comes in maybe at fifth place, after his daughter, his friends, paying the rent, his family, his skateboard – so maybe sixth place. Wasn’t it the same for me? Out loud, I supposed it was. I’m not sure whether I was telling the truth or not. I didn’t make a list.

Francis was quite forthcoming about himself, or about whoever he is, or about whoever he wants us to think he is. How did he come to start writing, I asked him at the sober end of the evening, and the ensuing story was long. His first job was as a professional golfer before he had a back injury and had to change career. Later in the evening there were some anecdotes about the early days of professional golf in post-89 East Germany, which I can’t remember very well but they involved Interpol. He comes from a tiny village near Leipzig, where he still spends a lot of time working on the farm. He likes to make things with his hands. Like tractors. He still likes sports. He told me the name of the martial arts thing he does and I instantly forgot it. He likes hanging out with friends, skateboarding. Anyway, then he went to university and studied various things – Latin, classical archaeology, something else, it later transpired – and then it was suggested to him that he embark on an academic career but he didn’t want to. He began writing for his daughter – one children’s book a year. It’s the village that keeps him grounded, he said, because nobody there cares about writing. Most people he knows don’t know he writes; there are people in the village who are illiterate and they get by perfectly well with a little help. Later on he used the word schizophrenic to describe the situation. It’s only now that I’m wondering how telling that was. Yet he did seem fairly grounded, or perhaps fairly persuasive.

We talked a bit about the literary business. Francis said he doesn’t read much – ah! like Finn-Ole Heinrich, I said, and he nodded and said he’d heard of him. Maybe he was bluffing. I told him about how Finn did this project where he just travelled round the country on trains, making videos of random people he met, and I said I thought that was a good way to collect up enough experiences to have something to write about. Francis talked about how he’d heard about the creative writing school in Leipzig – I think it must have been on the radio – and the students said their texts were picked to pieces in class, and they thought that was a good thing. Neither of us liked that idea very much. Why not just admire each others’ work, why do writers have to suffer such indignities? Francis doesn’t feel the need for his writing to be perfect, I think he said, because he doesn’t take it all that seriously. I’m not sure I believed him. I talked about envy, how I battle with envy of other translators, no matter how satisfied I am with the books I’m working on myself. Francis said he doesn’t have that problem. I believed him. I felt slightly foolish.

He reads very little, he said. But he seems to go to libraries and get fixations with things – Thomas Pynchon made him laugh out loud and get chucked out of the library the other day, apparently. And he discovered B.S. Johnson in a library. Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 were on the shelves – volume 6 was in a special room guarded by machine guns because it was a novel in a box. Hence XO. None of the German reviewers seemed to have picked up on that; they quoted all sorts of alleged inspirations of which he was entirely unaware, said Francis, but he didn’t mind. Now his book is in the machine-gun room at libraries (he looked proud). He saw it in one library catalogue but it said it had been bound. He rang them up, he said, and complained. He pretended to be from the publishing company.

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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.