While We Were Dreaming
by Clemens Meyer
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Pub Date 19 Sep 2023 | Archive Date 13 Apr 2023
Startlingly raw and deeply moving, While We Were Dreaming is an extraordinary coming of age novel by one of Germany’s most ambitious writers, full of passion, rage, hope and despair.
Rico, Mark, Paul and Daniel were 13 when the Berlin Wall fell in autumn 1989. Growing up in Leipzig at the time of reunification, they dream of a better life somewhere beyond the brewery quarter. Every night they roam the streets, partying, rioting, running away from their fears, their parents and the future, fighting to exist, killing time. They drink, steal cars, feel wrecked, play it cool, longing for real love and true freedom.
‘[Meyer’s] stripped-back prose is suffused with meaning.’
— The Arts Desk
'[Meyer] is one of the strongest German writers.'
— Heinrich Oemsen, Hamburger Abendblatt
‘Clemens Meyer’s great art of describing people takes the form of the Russian doll principle: a story within a story within a story. ... So much is so artfully interwoven that his work breaks the mould of the closed narrative.’
— Katharina Teutsch, Die Zeit
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 23 members
'While We Were Dreaming', written and published in German in 2007, recently translated beautifully into English by Katy Derbyshire, looks at the life of a group of young men from around twelve years old to early adulthood (eighteen/nineteen).
Danny, Rico, Mark, 'Porno' Paul, Stefan ('Pitbull') and Little Walter live in Leipzig; and were thirteen years old in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down. So we see them growing to adulthood in the turbulent years following the Reunification of Germany.
Teenage years are already difficult enough, but when you live in a 'rough' urban area of an Eastern European city with not a lot to lose and everything to gain, there are many more difficulties and trials to face.
Clemens Meyer has written in jumbled vignettes, skipping to and fro throughout the years so that at times it can become difficult for the Reader to place where we are in the boys lives and what age they must be. This confusion is often added to by the dawning realisation we come to as we read that the narrator here isn't necessarily particularly reliable. I felt that, as is often the case with young men like these who have something to prove and a reputation to build or maintain, some of these stories were perhaps exaggerated; or, a tale heard about someone else might have been co-opted and worked into their own 'Legend'. Then we also have the fact that liberal amounts of alcohol and much drug-taking are involved in the stories/memories recounted, which seemingly begins to build from the earliest age covered here to the point that around their mid-teens they seem to be existing in such a haze of substance abuse we can surely doubt much of what they seem to recall?
As I reached the final section of the piece, I also began to imagine the writer himself, trying out different versions of the same scenarios to see which one works best. So in this respect, like the last Fitzcarraldo work I read, 'The Private Life of Trees', Meyers also seems to have created something which is as much about the art of creating and story-telling as it is about the subjects and setting of his novel.
The title of the novel is after all 'While We Were Dreaming' and I think it safe to say that, one way or another, we can't be sure what is 'real' and what has been imagined. However, regardless of the slightly 'fever dream' presentation, I found this work to be entirely engaging and one of the reasons for that was that I could genuinely relate to the characters. I expect that a reason that some people will really enjoy this read is that they, like me, also come from a background like that depicted in this book. While I was born and raised in the North-West of England, rather than Eastern Germany, I too grew to adulthood in the grim post-industrial poverty soaked areas (though in the '70s and '80s) which bred the escapist recreational drug-taking, drinking, theft and joy riding which we see described here. I knew boys like our main characters in 'While We Were Dreaming'. I indulged in some of the behaviours depicted during my own teens.
I don't want to give anything more away, but I think Clemens Meyer has written a very clever depiction of what might have been real in that place, at that time. Everything is painted in such a wonderfully (though depressingly) atmospheric way. The football violence, the grim streets and blocks of flats/apartments, the techno clubs and raves in abandoned factories, 'red light' areas - and even the consequences of the boys' wild behaviour; all are faithfully recreated in this novel.
I enjoyed this book very much and had great appreciation for the skill with which it was both written and translated. In my opinion 'While We Were Dreaming' deserves to be recognised in prize lists this year. I am grateful to Fitzcarraldo Editions and Netgalley for furnishing me with a digital ARC, this title is now on my list of books I would love to buy a physical copy of sometime soon.
This is a great new translation of a German classic written nearly 20 years ago about life in Berlin in 1989. It is a rich, layered story, sometimes bleak and shocking, but also sometimes very funny. It's authentic and honest. a book with depth and emotion. These characteristics have been kept alive in this excellent translation. It is a slightly challenging read, but once you are in it becomes a page turner. A worthy Booker nominee.
This is my favorite book of all the books longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. I will not, I can not, forget the power of Clemens Meyer’s story, and his mates’, with whom I lived for the duration of the novel. I felt their every bruise and wound, I felt their longing and their determination. It has my highest praise.