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Culture

American Expat in Berlin Wins 2003 Pulitzer Prize

American novelist and Berlin resident Jeffrey Eugenides has been awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his second novel, "Middlesex."

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Ten years in the making: Eugenides reaps a Pulitzer reward for "Middlesex."

A decade after the overwhelming success of his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, author Jeffrey Eugenides -- one of America's great young hopes for fiction writing and a longtime Berlin resident -- has been awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for his second offering, Middlesex. DW-WORLD and DW-RADIO's Inspired Minds Web site -- http://www.inspiredminds.de -- recently profiled Eugenides.

Spanning eight decades -- and one unusually awkward adolescence -- Eugenides's prize-winning novel is a fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender and deep desires that surround the serpentine family history of American student Calliope Stephanides. It also bravely explores the discomfort of adolescence as experienced by a hermaphrodite.

The award could be seen as just reward for 10 years of dealing with the unexpected claim of The Virgin Suicides and the somewhat cruel twists of fate that life tends to throw at us all.

Unexpected success and twists of fate

When Eugenides published The Virgin Suicides in 1993, a friend joked about how the author should ensure it sold consistently to keep him in pocket for a decade. And it did just that; it continued to sell at a steady rate and has found its way into at least half a million homes since its release.

A good job, too, because while writing The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides was fired from his regular job for concentrating more on the manuscript than on his day-to-day work.

A dreamlike story of five mysterious sisters and their unspoken suicide pact set in the American Midwest in the early 1970s, The Virgin Suicides was made into a film in 1999. Directed and adapted by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, the bleak suburban tale was accompanied by a set of lush, '70s-tinged tunes by the French dance act Air, making for a haunting, yet sweet soundtrack.

Critics and contemporaries drew parallels between The Virgin Suicides and John Updike's The Poorhouse and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. American author and journalist Jay McInerney hailed Eugenides as "a hypnotic storyteller, [creator of] a mythology out of the ostensibly common materials of middle-class, middle-American life."

But after that masterstroke, Eugenides himself seemed to have disappeared.

How strange is normal

He resurfaced in 2002 with Middlesex, having spent the last three years in Berlin burning the midnight oil to finish it.

Middlesex is a sweeping novel that follows the progress of a rogue gene, from Asia Minor and the burning of Smyrna in 1922, to Depression-era Detroit, through Ford factories, the 1960s race riots and white flight, and beyond. Far, far beyond. It is the almost century-long saga of a Greek-American family, not unlike Eugenides' own, told through the eyes of a hermaphrodite, Calliope Helen Stephanides.

In places, Middlesex reads like an autobiography. And with Callie born in the same year as Eugenides (1960), and raised in the same Detroit suburb by Greek-American parents, it's hardly surprising.

But when Deutsche Welle spoke to Eugenides, at Berlin's famed hangout for intellectuals, Café Einstein, he was quick to insist that at most his family provides a mere backdrop for Middlesex: "Most of the story is invented. The narrator is a hermaphrodite, which I am not. The grandparents have an incestuous relationship, which mine, I must point out, did not. ...I drew on the skeleton of my family history to give the book a reality and ground it in reality."

Either way, Callie's story as a hermaphrodite -- a person who has both male and female sexual organs -- is an extreme concept. Even bizarre perhaps. And yet, like The Virgin Suicides before it, the themes in Middlesex are actually universal.

"What I do is take something that might sound freaky at first and make it very normal," says Eugenides. "I think that if you read Middlesex, the idea of hermaphrodites will become much closer to your own experience. It's really symbolic of the change we all go through at puberty and the sexual confusion that we all have at adolescence. But all I can say is that the books I've written sound extreme but they're actually about experiences that, I think, everyone goes through."

The best things come to those who wait

Eugenides has won a number of awards for his fiction, which includes short stories. A master's graduate of Stanford University, he has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and The National Foundation for the Arts, a Whiting Writers' Award, the Harold D. Vursell Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and most recently a fellowship from the Berliner Artist Program of the German Academic Exchange Service and the American Academy in Berlin.

So, while Eugenides may have been out of sight for almost a decade, he's clearly been hard at work. And his re-emergence on the international literary scene was greeted enthusiastically by that old fan of his: novelist Jay McInerney.

He told the British weekly newspaper, The Observer, that Middlesex was one of his favorite books of the year, adding, "[It's] the great Greek-American hermaphrodite epic that we didn't realize we needed until we read it. Now I know what he's been up to these past 10 years."

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