A ″Pretty Good Story″ in German, Too | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 08.07.2004
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A "Pretty Good Story" in German, Too

The German version of former U.S. President Bill Clinton's autobiography "My Life" -- or "Mein Leben" -- hits bookstores Thursday, but the real highlight is the upcoming Berlin visit of the author himself.


Clinton's memoirs are expected to top the German bestseller list

In a display of typical Clinton charm, the 57-year old former president joked at a New York launch party that he didn't have any idea if his autobiography was a great book. "But it's a pretty good story," he said.

Now, German readers will have the chance to form their own opinions about Bill Clinton's story-telling abilities. The 957-page tome detailing Clinton's political and personal life has been available in English since the book's release on June 22, but starting today, bookstores are stocking the German translation.

German hoopla surrounding the book, which has been dubbed the "Harry Potter for grown-ups" because of its record-breaking performance, probably won't reach fever pitch until July 11, when Clinton breezes into Berlin for an autograph-signing session and talk-show appearances.

Limited signatures for German fans

According to his aides, Clinton is capable of cranking out 600 signatures an hour, though it's unlikely that so many of his fans will be able to cram into the Dussmann bookstore on Berlin's fashionable Friedrichstrasse. Clinton's appearance is being managed just like that of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who signed copies of her own best-selling memoirs, "Living History," at the same venue last year. Then, 200 tickets for the signing were distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

For both the Clinton memoirs, German publisher Econ-Verlag, ordered an initial print-run of 100,000 copies. Though Hillary Clinton's book was an immediate bestseller in Germany, publicist Carl Carlsberg told DW-WORLD that he expects her husband's book to ring up more sales, as has been the case on the U.S. market.

"In some sense, her book paved the way for Bill's autobiography," Carlsberg said. "But Bill Clinton's book will be much more successful. He was, after all, the president, and only he can deliver those first-hand insights into politics."

Rock-star aura

Bill Clinton in Berlin

Clinton enjoyed rock star-like receptions on his past visits to Berlin.

It's unlikely that German sales of the book will match those in the U.S., where it topped a million sales in the first week despite negative reviews such as that in The New York Times, which called it "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull." But there's no denying the buzz surrounding the book's German launch.

Bill Clinton und seine Frau Hillary 1982 in Little Rock Arkansas Rückklick

Former Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, celebrate his victory in the Democratic runoff on June 8, 1982 in Little Rock, Ark.

"Clinton has always been a popular president," Gary Smith, director of the American Academy in Berlin told DW-WORLD. "I remember the two times he came to Berlin, he had the aura of a rock star, not only for expats, but for Germans as well. He's the most eloquent and international of presidents in memory. He was educated abroad, he's deeply passionate about politics, and more knowledgeable than most politicians about a broad range of issues. That's something that is, in a way, very European, because those qualities would also be expected of a British or German head of state."

Clinton's appeal can also be attributed to Germans' dissatisfaction with the current U.S. administration, said Prof. Reinhard Isensee of the American Studies department at Berlin's Humboldt University.

"In hindsight, he seems to be very different from the present president," Isensee told DW-WORLD. "People liked his way of approaching issues, even though they may not know that some of the current administration's actions have their roots in things Clinton did during his term."

The Lewinsky factor

Across the Atlantic, much of the hype surrounding Clinton's book has arisen because of curiosity over what the ex-president would say about his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But Smith said those revelations won't be a major motivation for Germans to shell out €28 for a copy of "My Life."

"The Lewinsky affair was of less interest to Europeans in general," Smith said. "At the time, there was a widespread attitude of incomprehension about the impeachment proceedings. Germans couldn't comprehend it was happening because he was trying to cover up an illicit liaison with another woman. The fact that Germans are so interested in his memoir says something deeper about Germany's relationship to the U.S. -- and a strong foundation of pro-American feeling among German people."

In the book, which some reviewers have said reads like a very detailed diary, Clinton tells how, after confessing to the affair, Hillary insisted he sleep on the couch for a good two months. He only managed to save his marriage and his relationship to daughter Chelsea, by undergoing extensive family and individual therapy.

But the first mention of Monica Lewinsky comes well over half-way into the book. Clinton devotes far more space to describing his troubled childhood in Arkansas, and his astounding rise to his country's highest office. That is something that captures the German imagination, Isensee said.

Appeal of the American Dream

Buchcover Bill Clinton Mein Leben

Bill Clinton: "Mein Leben."

"Germans want to read a story about someone who came from a socially disadvantaged background and worked his way up," Isensee said. "With American personalities, they relate to this idea of the American dream, which was very true for Clinton. He had a tough childhood, he encountered various obstacles on his way up, and he's a sort of witness of current American history."

For his account of recent history, Clinton received a healthy $10 million advance -- $2 million more than Hillary received for her memoirs. "I hope my publishers get their money back," he was quoted as saying at the time of the book's U.S. launch. With world-wide sales of "My Life" in 30 languages, Clinton's publishers can rest assured they will get their money back. To ensure maximum regional interest, publishers have even taken the novel step of releasing custom-edited national editions. The Spanish-language edition, for example, contains lengthier passages on Mexico's debt crisis, while European editions devote more space to the Balkans crisis and the Kosovo bombings.

"There was largely a commercial motivation," Smith said of Clinton's decision to pen his memoirs now. "But of course, there was a political motivation too. It was about setting the record straight on the issues that clouded his presidency -- Monica, the impeachment, and his bitterness about the way he was pursued by the right-wing -- this hatred of Clinton."

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