Arno Geiger: The first German Book Prize winner | German Book Prize | DW | 09.10.2016
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German Book Prize

Arno Geiger: The first German Book Prize winner

Austrian author Arno Geiger won the first German Book Prize in 2005 with his family novel "We Are Doing Fine." The award thrust him into the limelight and has continued to have an Impact.

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Interview with Arno Geiger

If he'd known that this would be the novel that would catapult him into the spotlight, Arno Geiger would have chosen another book cover. A sour looking boy adorns the front of his award-winning book "We Are Doing Fine."
"How he wants to appear like an adult with his too short legs," scoffs the Austrian author. Geiger came across the photo while at a flea market in Vienna. He had no idea that many would see a young Arno Geiger in the boy. "But I didn't have protruding ears," he protests.

Book cover for Arno Geiger's We are Doing Fine, Copyright: Ariadne Press

A novel as a door opener

It's been 11 years since the jury for the German Book Prize first nominated Geiger's novel in the longlist, later naming it as the best novel of the year for 2005. "Then, I was writing for my livelihood," he says, referring to the four years in which he wrote the novel. He lived in a noisy, cramped apartment, happy only for the low rent. At the time as an author, one could just barely survive.

But with the 25,000-euro award, an enormous load was lifted from Geiger's shoulders. "Before, my name wasn't big and it was hard to get attention for my books," he says. That changed overnight. Suddenly, he went from being unknown to a celebrated author. Dream print runs and license sales abroad followed and he was able to move to a bigger apartment.

Family history among pigeon droppings

Arno Geiger's former Vienna apartment, Copyright: DW/R. Otte

Arno Geiger lived in a tiny apartment here in Vienna until he won the German Book Prize

In his award-winning novel "We Are Doing Fine," Geiger tells the tale of a Viennese inheritance and the added burden that comes with it. Philipp is left a house by his grandmother and ends up delving unenthusiastically into his own family's history, which seems to be buried under tons of pigeon droppings - quite literally. The story takes a sophisticated ride through a century of Austrian history.

The book made it onto the bestseller list and was, in a way, a door opener for Geiger. His subsequent books have all benefitted from the success of his award-winning novel. The author himself thought the award was a coup. Suddenly, he had a large audience, no financial worries and the freedom to continue writing.

Men who stare at hippos

Following it were books like "Alles über Sally" (All About Sally) in 2009. In it, Geiger takes a gritty, but loving look at the marriage of Alfred and Sally. Following a slump in their relationship, the suburban ideal is suddenly cracked and an affair adds to the confusion. There is no certainty for anyone, anywhere.

Then there's the novel "Selbstporträt mit Flusspferd" (Self-portrait with Pygmy Hippo) from 2015, which is all about someone who loses the ground beneath his feet. Freshly separated Viennese student Julian is searching for comfort and lands himself a part-time job working with a terminally ill professor with a hippo in the garden.

However, the young man finds himself distracted from caring for the imposing creature by Aiko, the beautiful but unapproachable daughter of the professor.

It sounds a little bizarre at first, but Geiger artfully delves into the mesh of relationships with his words and the loneliness of his characters slowly emerges.

A promise of happiness

All of Geiger's novels demonstrate the author's feel for language and his knowledge of human nature. His fictional characters process their origins, while working on their relationships and their struggles with themselves and the world. And they are so vivid and tangible, that they stay with the reader for a long time afterwards.

"I never know everything about my characters. I try to meet them on a level playing field and learn something from them," explains Geiger. What drives him as an author is ultimately the desire to better understand his fellow human beings. And the Austrian is not afraid of big emotions - his books always swing between the promise of happiness and the possibility of a happy ending.

Book cover, Arno Geiger's Der alte König in seinem Exil

A tribute to life

Without false modesty

Arno Geiger was born in Bregenz in 1968 and grew up in Wolfurt in westernmost Austria. His dialect initially led to a lot of problems when he moved to Vienna. But his neighbors liked him anyway - the young student, with whom they shared a toilet and bathroom and who they sometimes politely asked to turn down the television. Readers get to know his hometown and his family in "Der alte König in seinem Exil" (The Old King in his Exile, 2011).

Geiger decided to write a book about his father, August, and his spiral into dementia. It's about the way his family dealt with the disease and how they found their way out of the initial helplessness. This intimate book is not only able to bring his readers to tears, but also to laughter.

When August Geiger finally died, his death was even reported in the arts section of some newspapers, because the eccentric loner had found a place in the hearts of many readers. Why? His son had not illustrated a portrait solely about the sickness, but about the man. And it is exactly this kind of empathy that makes Geiger's literature so special.

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