"You can't just take a comedy act and stick it into Google Translate!"

Henning Wehn on silly puns and why Stewart Lee is wrong about joking in German.

Henning Wehn styles himself as "Germany's comedy ambassador", intent on defying stereotypes and proving that his country can produce comedians. I spoke to him about German puns, silly words and performing stand-up in a second language.

How did you learn to be a stand-up?

By doing it, really. I came over to the UK nine years ago, and was working in football marketing for Wycombe Wanderers. Then one night I walked past a pub that said "Tonight: Stand-up Comedy" and thought, I'll have a look. I watched it and thought I'd like to have a go, so I treated the headliner - Gary Delaney - to a few beers. In return, he wrote me down a few phone numbers for open mic nights. It became a hobby and then, two years later, a job.

What was the first gig that you did like?

It was the Purple Turtle on Essex Road. It was a rough place and a half. The pub dogs were barking more loudly than any of the acts. But I realised the concept of standing on stage worked, and I was hooked.

The idea of doing jokes in a foreign language seems incredible to me. Did it worry you?

Not really, as the gig I watched, most of the acts were appalling. I was fortunate that my first contact with comedy was horrendous - if I'd gone to the Comedy Store things might have been different.

Have you done stand-up in German?

I haven't, for no other reason than to do that I would have to back to Germany and go through the clubs and build up and polish an act. You can't just take a comedy act and stick it into Google Translate! The reference points have to be known for the comedy to make any sense. I don't have the time and energy to do that. Whenever I've performed in Germany it's been for international audiences who want a gig in English.

I remember a Stewart Lee piece where he suggested it was harder to joke in German because of the sentence construction.

Much as I respect Stewart, that's not true. He suggested you couldn't make a pun in German, but you can. And I contest the idea that there's no humour in the German language.

Is there anything in the idea that humour varies with nationality?

Certainly. The "pub jokes" in Britain and Germany are the same, but in the UK there's more importance attached to humour - in adverts, you'll see "good sense of humour". The idea of self-deprecation, too, that's a massive difference. In UK, you can make any mistake at the workplace, as long as you can then tell the tale in an entertaining way, you'll be all right. Whereas in Germany, people would say, "First, you messed it up and now you're trying to make light of it". That would make it twice as bad.

Britain has a better developed "humour industry" too. There are comedy clubs in every small hamlet; there are comedy clubs for kids - aimed at pretentious parents who'll drag their spoilt kids to an arts centre to listen to some jokes they won't get! It's a very British thing to say: even the kids have to learn how to laugh. It's every little bit as wrong as it sounds.

What is day-to-day life actually like as a stand-up?

You're self-employed - actually, the German translation works better. It's selbständig - on your own constantly. You're the managing director of your company, and you have to move the business forward. I've always got a pen and paper with me, and I have a box at home where I chuck all my loose scraps of paper. Once a month, I type everything up and process it.

For something like the Edinburgh festival, where I have a one-hour show to write, I approach it knowing the show title - No Surrender this year - and a vague idea of the narrative arc, and I have to find stories that go hand in hand with that. That's a more methodical approach.

For a radio panel show, you'll get a topic. I did QI, and they were doing The Puritans, which was a subject I knew nothing about, so I had to do the background reading and think about it. Now I have material about the great bestiality panic in New England and no idea when I'm going to get to use it again!

Best man speech?

Maybe.

Are there too many panel shows?

The answer has to be no. As a performer, the impact of being on a show is diminished by their being so many of them; but then again, because there are more shows, more people get on them. It's a double-edged sword.

How's the Edinburgh show coming along?

Last year's show was called My Struggle, about my struggle being the German Comedy Ambassador to Britain for the last nine years. No Surrender will deal with success, failure and authenticity - although I'm not sure I should use something that's got a "th" in it.

It's largely inspired by my trip to Australia earlier this year. I was at the Melbourne Comedy festival. I've never really been to Australia, so there was no hope in hell I would get good houses. On the first night, I said to the woman who ran the venue, "How are we doing for tickets?" I didn't expect to have sold any. She said we had sold 60.

On the opening night, I stood at the entrance, waiting to shake hands with the 60 people who are coming, and [there were] eight people. Eight. I asked her why she had told me 60, and she said: "I didn't want to bring you down before your first show." You should always lower other people's expectations. She should have told me she sold two.

German has plenty of words British people find amusing -- "Handy" for mobile phone. Are there any English words that sound ridiculous to you?

Helter skelter? At least it's your own word, though. I hate it when people act as if they don't have a language of their own. In English, you have "bum bags" and in German, we just say "body bag". I'm sure we should be able to find our own word.

Henning Wehn's show No Surrender will be on at Edinburgh between 4 and 28 August. For more details, visit his website.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era