flapped paperback

Bricks and Mortar

Clemens Meyer

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Winner of an English PEN Award | Longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize
Published 17 October 2016 (UK), 2 May 2018 (US) | French paperback with flaps, 672 pages


When the evening comes I stand by the window. I push the slats of the blind apart with my fingers and look at the evening sky behind the buildings on the other side of the road. It’s still getting dark early. The year’s not even a month old and already it feels long and hard. Mind you, there’s not much work at the moment. We all complain in January. I just want to catch one last sight of the sun and the last ray of light. I leave for work at eight in the morning; it’s still not really light then. Everything’s better in the summer. I bet everyone says that but on the other hand, in summer I think of holidays and I often don’t feel like working. And I think things go best in the winter, if you leave January out of it. Mind you, lots of us probably see that differently. It’s a shame the flat doesn’t have a balcony. I could sit out there in the summer and sunbathe, better than the stupid tanning salon, and in winter I could stand out there before sunset and have a smoke and watch the sky, watch it turning red. I like to look at the moon on clear nights. It always reminds me of that song. My mother used to sing it to me before I went to sleep. ‘The Moon Has Arisen’. When I hear it now, and that doesn’t happen often, I don’t know when I hear it at all, so… I can’t really describe it. Sometimes I sing it in my head. Magda always used to say: ‘I’m getting feelings,’ when she meant she was feeling sad. But it’s rubbish actually, that thing about the seasons. Summer or winter, autumn or spring, the phone always rings. Just not that much in January. When I was a child I used to think, when I was very little though, that there was a fifth season. And once I asked my mother if the year starts on the first of January every year and if New Year’s Eve is always one day before that. And if it ever snows in June. She laughed and hugged me – that’s why I haven’t forgotten it. Just like the song. I’ve often thought about the white mist in the song, before I go to sleep. When I have a child one day I’ll sing them a different song. One that’s not so sad. I’m more of a cheerful person. ‘Alert and lively,’ they wrote in my school report. They always had these assessments by the teachers. And Magda always used to say: ‘Don’t get so hyper, girl, you’re as fluttery as a bird.’ She’d say so many funny things, and sometimes they were fitting and sometimes they weren’t at all, and I miss that. She’s in Hannover now. She sends me cards sometimes and she always remembers my birthday. She always used to say letters and cards are more personal than text messages. She sends me these really cheesy postcards, puppies, giant hearts, roses with glitter on, and sometimes cards with music. I still write her emails and texts though. My mother’s the only one I send postcards to. The last one on New Year’s Eve. That was for Christmas too. We don’t see much of each other any more but my New Year’s resolution is to go and visit her more often. Because she doesn’t like coming here to me, to the city.

The winter’s cold this year, colder than it’s been for ages. And I could hardly get to work in December, I had to leave the car at home. The whole city was buried in snow and the snowploughs could hardly keep up. I dread to think of my gas bill because I usually leave the heating on all day at home so it’s nice and warm when I get back from work. I often slept here in December, and I even stay the odd night now. Because I don’t want to go out in the snow. I used to go sledging every day when it snowed, when I was little. And sometimes my mother put me on the sledge and pulled me along when we went shopping. That was back in Jena. We have big hills there for sledging and skiing. I’ve never been into skiing though. I was really crap at it. My friends used to laugh at me, all the girls, and the boys even more. But I was good at sledging. I used to go hurtling down the steepest slopes, and even the boys had respect. It’s actually a good thing that the winters are getting so cold again. It’s the climate. But it could all be different next year. When I have a child I want to put it on a sledge and pull it along when we go shopping. I don’t really mind if it’s a boy or a girl. Mind you, maybe I’d like a girl better. I think you’ll be able to choose, in the future. Decide for yourself if you have a boy or a girl. Maybe there’ll be a pill you can take. But that’s probably a long way off. Mind you, some things suddenly go really quickly, what with technology and progress. And it’s rubbish, actually. It’d probably all turn out the same, compared to now. I know I wanted to have a boy, before I left Jena. That was back with Bert. I can’t understand why I left him now. I thought, I have to get out of here, God knows why they call the place Jena Paradise, but he wanted to stay there, he had it all planned out. Because his father had this chemist’s and he studied pharmacy especially. There’s a lot of money in pharmacies. People are always getting sick. At every time of year. Especially now. And when they’ve invented those boy-or-girl pills they’ll make even more money. They can even cure AIDS now, pretty much. I still don’t like to think about it though. I’ve never met anyone with AIDS. People talk a lot of crap about it sometimes. We all go for our check-ups regularly. Even though we don’t have to any more, not by law. It used to be different. But people think and talk a whole load of crap when it comes to that and when it comes to us. And I stand by the window and push the slats of the blind apart with my fingers and look out at the buildings on the other side of the road, with the sky turning red behind them now and the night coming up. Four thirty and the phone’s only rung four times, and the door only twice. For me, I mean.

Because Jenny’s been here since twelve and she stays till twelve. Twelve hours, that’d be too much for me. Ten hours is the longest I do. After that things start getting too hard on me. That makes me laugh, it could be one of Magda’s. Although it’s a bit of a stupid joke, not funny at all when I think about it. But now I’m getting feelings, thinking about her. Yeah, yeah, getting too hard on me. Don’t go getting sentimental now. Because we were pretty close really, and everything came easier, work and everything. It’s OK with Jenny. She only comes four times a week but she works Saturdays and Sundays and that’s when I’m off. My weekend’s really sacred to me. Like my arse. (That again!) Now I can light one up at last. I make sure I don’t smoke too much, you know. One cigarette an hour. Or I try, at least. The most I get through is fifteen a day, and that’s alright, I reckon. Jenny smokes like a chimney and she’s constantly spraying her air freshener around. Spring Lavender fragrance. I can’t stand it. We don’t do a lot of talking. Sometimes we sit together in the lounge when we’re waiting. I’d say we get along as colleagues. She’s a totally different type to me. Three stone more than me, I bet, heading for motherly territory, but there’s enough men into that, believe it or not. And I wouldn’t say she isn’t pretty. No, Jenny’s pretty alright. In the face, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. She’s just womanly, and I mean that as a compliment. And we get on well enough, each to his own, that’s what I say. Clients only have a good time if they feel like a guest. I haven’t seen Magda for a long time, and I often wonder how things are going for her in Hannover. It’s calm there, the Godfather and the Angels have everything under control. And the girls have plenty of trade, I’ve heard. You hear all sorts of things, since the Angels have been here too. I don’t have anything to do with them though. I just hear a lot of things. I’ve been with the boss’s firm for eight years now. I always say ‘boss’ and ‘firm’. Or sometimes I say ‘the Old Man’, because that’s what some people call him. Out of respect. I think he gets on fine with them, with the Angels, I mean, because the guy who’s top Angel here used to be a friend of his, they say, or at least they used to get on OK, divided the city up between them, but I don’t know exactly. There’s girls who know a hundred per cent what’s up, who get all the gossip, although it’s usually less then fifty, per cent I mean, of the truth, but when I get home from work and sit by the radiator I don’t want to hear any more about all that shit.

I read somewhere the other day that the lawyer of the Godfather from Hannover city – apparently he’s the big boss of all the Angels – that he’s also Schröder’s lawyer, the ex-chancellor. I’d like a lawyer like that myself. And what does it matter if he works for the Angels? Everybody’s just doing business. Or they all want to, at least. Russian deals, Gazprom, girls and stocks and shares. The big money. Now I’m thinking too much about it again, but that’s the way it is at work, when I’m waiting. And watching the day disappear. And the lights of the cars and the street lamps between the slats of the blind. Chasing across the walls, together with the shadows. It makes me go all funny, I get feelings and I zip my Adidas jacket up to my neck. I’m really fond of this jacket. I’ve had it for years now, I bought it back in Berlin. It’s got red stripes on the sleeves and you don’t get them very often. I voted for Schröder in ’98. That was my first election. That was back in Jena too. I need to put some moisturiser on my legs. The air’s too dry. The radiator’s turned up to five. And minus ten outside. At least. I’m getting dandruff again as well. Haven’t had it for ages. But I use this natural shampoo, with nettles, that gets rid of it. It’s better for my hair. All the chemical stuff is too aggressive for me. I tried it for a while, Head ‘n’ Shoulders and all that, but that made it even worse. That stuff stings my pussy like fire. Not that I rubbed Head ‘n’ Shoulders in down there, I don’t have dandruff there, mind you, there’s girls who have permanent dry skin down there, but it gets everywhere when you rinse it off in the shower. Showering and dry skin is a problem anyway, because you take so many showers. And with your pussy, because you’re always shaving. But that’s just part of the job. I got the natural shampoo from Jenny. She has these creams as well that she recommended for dry skin. There’s this natural store at the station, I go there a lot now. It’s really better for me, although I wouldn’t buy perfume and deodorant there, mind you. I keep on going to the Douglas store for that. Even though they use embryos. Come in and find out. Pretty stupid slogan.

I need another cigarette now. Number eight today, I’ve been counting. I’m really trying to cut down. But I can’t manage to stop altogether. All the girls I know from work smoke. Well, ninety. Per cent, I mean. Sometimes I think about why that is. When I’m waiting, when I’m standing by the window, even when I’m right in the middle of it. ‘Girl, you’re a fucking liar and a lying fucker,’ Magda would say now, not that funny really either but we still laugh at that kind of crap, but really, what can you do when the stupid thoughts go dancing round your head like it’s Mardi Gras up there. We don’t really have a proper carnival here, not like other places, although a few idiots hold their little parades. But it’s better and cheaper than coke or speed or that fibreglass mix. Crystal. Crystal meth. Smoking, I mean. Cheaper. But it’s no good anyway, because it eats you up in the long run. Coke, I mean. C, and whatever. I tried it all, back in Berlin. Pretty dumb. Come in and find out. It wasn’t all bad though. I can’t be doing with all that victim crap. Because it was a great time, a wild time. Oh, the poor girl! That all fits in with their image. Their tabloid image. What I always say is: Oh, the poor guys. I do understand it, though, to be honest. That they come to me. And it’s fine that way. And now it’s Mardi Gras in my head again. Real carnival parades. Because I’ve been waiting for two hours and keep staring at the telephone, when I’m not standing by the window that is. It’s pitch black outside now. Magda and I, we only used to have one phone. It worked fine. We were more than colleagues. Now I sometimes hear Jenny’s mobile in the other room. She can tell it’s January too, I think. Everyone can tell the difference. Not just us girls. My favourite taxi driver always says, actually he’s only said it two or three times: ‘January’s hibernation time. Taxis, DAX, nocturnal services.’ ‘Nocturnal services’ means me. Even though most of my work is during the day. He doesn’t mean it in a bad way. Because no one has any money in the New Year, he says. He’s a lovely guy. Used to work at a big printing press here in the city before the Wall, before ’89. Talks about it a lot. In his mid-fifties. Married for almost thirty years. And two children. Always talks a lot. That’s fine. I like listening. Although I’m not so sure about the DAX. I’ve never been into it and I never will. I know a few girls who swore by it. Three or four girls, they bought and sold and gambled on stocks and shares like there was no tomorrow. A right little share club. But that was an exception. I wasn’t in on it because I always say, after work I don’t want to hear anything more about work. Mind you, it’s not that easy, of course. It was different with Magda but I’m trying to give it up, all this talking about her and thinking about her. Because it is how it is now, and that’s fine, because, and this is what my mother used to say when things weren’t going well and she was sad about something: ‘Things are just the way things are now, aren’t they.’

But they’re really pissed off now, I think, those girls I know who put their money on the DAX. How much, I don’t know. There’s no insurance that pays anything back. I don’t know anything about it anyway. I play the lottery. As dumb as that sounds. Not long ago this guy I know won over thirty thousand. He’s just a friend of a friend of a friend. Or maybe a friend of a friend. But he’s not a guest. Through Mandy – she works at Hans’s place. And she knows the guy who won all the money. Used an abbreviated combination. Five numbers. I saw him one time at Hans’s dive of a place. Mind you, ‘dive’ is unfair. It’s a nice clean place he’s got there. Small but perfectly formed. Really clean. All the fixtures and fittings, I mean. Not exactly the dog’s bollocks (Magda!), but I’ve only ever heard good things about it. Percentage-wise. Even though I say I want to be left in peace after work it always still comes to me. The gossip, I mean. Because of course I can’t just say: I’m off then. I read that guy Kerkeling’s book where he goes on a pilgrimage. Pretty funny. But I couldn’t be dealing with all that walking. Santiago de Compostela. Finding yourself or God or the world or whatever it was he found. Sounds like compost. And of course I can say that. That I’m off. Just like anyone, any tenant can hand in the notice on their flat. The phone rings in the other room. It’s quiet in here and I turn on the radio.

I’m going to call my daughter Sabine. It’s totally crazy, but I’d like to be called Sabine too. Because I really like the name. Strange working thoughts. Mardi Gras again. And I only mean my work name, my stage name. If I hadn’t called myself Babsi, stage name I mean, I’d be Sabine now... Because I used to work with a Sabine and we got on quite well, not all that long ago. Not as well as me and Magda back in the day – she was almost like a sister to me, was Magda. The one I think of so often. The one I started off with. Snow White and Rose Red. She didn’t used to shave her pussy, Sabine I mean, she didn’t even have a landing strip. I’ve got a lot of respect for that. Honest to God, I like it. Why don’t any of the guests like it any more? Eighties style. But smooth and blank puts money in the bank. She was doing well though, put it in her ads especially. If everyone’s suddenly shaved then you can make good money out of short black pubes. She had long black hair, on her head of course, and now she’s doing art, under her real name, hasn’t been part of the firm for almost two years now. Photos and media stuff. And drawing as well. A lot of people here in the city do art. Artists, you know. People who are good at it. Or studied it. When I think that I used to be a student. Technical college. The Old Man collects pictures, I heard. But only big ones, the kind that cost a lot and make money. My feet are sticking to the floor. I should have wiped up that Coke earlier on. My second guest knocked over the bottle on the coffee table. I lie down on the bed. Still smells of work, even though I put a new cover on it earlier. The first guy was crap, the second one was OK. If I don’t shave my pubes they come out blonde. I’m a natural blonde. I’ve always wanted dark hair, that’s why I dye it sometimes. Is it OK to dye down there? Then maybe I would leave a landing strip. Mind you, they say it’s not healthy, dyeing, maybe that’s what’s behind my dandruff that’s come back, if I don’t use that nettle stuff every day. I turn on the TV, still on mute. I turned it down earlier when my second guest came. The radio’s on really quietly in the background. Sometimes when someone young comes along, some guy who’s not bad looking either, I wonder – actually I only used to wonder right at the beginning – if he has a girlfriend and just needs a bit of a change, or if she’s not good enough at blow jobs or never gives him one at all or whatever, or if it’s because he really can’t get himself a fuck. There’s plenty of shy guys out there. But actually I don’t give a shit. It’s fifty-fifty with me, I mean between arseholes and bigmouths and the shy ones. But I can’t say exactly, because the shy ones are sometimes just as crap, even though I do prefer the quiet ones – let Mummy deal with it. Then I can do the conducting myself and they don’t ram me to a pulp. But fifty-fifty’s not right anyway because there are all sorts of other kinds and that messes up the percentages. Sometimes I think about writing a list, a kind of types table.

Six o’clock, the news. The first guest was crap. The second one was OK. That’s how you have to look at it, otherwise you go crazy. Or I do, anyway. The best hits of the eighties. I like eighties music. I was born in ’79 and my music’s more from the nineties, techno, Scooter, Hyper-Hyper, me and my mother went to Berlin in ’95 for the Rolling Stones, Voodoo Lounge tour, no one from my techno gang was allowed to know, but my first school disco was in ’88, just before the Wall fell. They played all the hits there. You know, that Opus song ‘Live is life’. Falco, ‘Rock me Amadeus’. Who was that other one, was it Trio or Peter Schilling? Da Da Da.

The phone rings. I don’t love you you don’t love me. Yeees? Hm. Yees. Of course. Right away. Rotkäppchenweg 12. Bose. Yes, like the hi-fi company. Hmmm. Yes. Can’t wait. See you in a mo. Da Da Da.

It’s five fifty-five. The city and the world. Get the news five minutes earlier. I must have drifted off for a bit. I’m always tired at the moment. Must be the weather. It’s always the weather. Like so many things. The minute I close my eyes I start dreaming. Rotkäppchenweg: Red Riding Hood Way. There is such a road here, down in the south of the city, there’s a whole corner made up of fairy tales, where the roads are named after them. The Brothers Grimm. My mother used to read me them sometimes. Not often. But I do remember a couple of them. I don’t mean the usual ones that everyone knows. The ones the roads in the south of the city are named after. Sleeping Beauty Road. Frog Prince Way. Snow White Crescent. Cinderella Road. Snow White and Rose Red. I know that from Sabine, she used to live there, grew up round there, she told me. And went to school there too, in the Eastern Zone days – she’s two or three years older than me. But the school wasn’t called ‘Rumpelstiltskin Secondary’ or anything like that. I remember those fairy tales really well, like the song ‘The Moon Has Arisen’, and it really is up high above the houses over there, small in the cold clear night, and I go over to the coffee table and sit on one of the two seats because I don’t feel like sitting on the bed right now. The blind’s still moving and making noises against the window. ‘Iron Hans’ was one of the fairy tales. And there was ‘Mother Trudy’. And ‘The Fisherman and His Wife’, I remember that one too. ‘Manntje, Manntje, Timpe Te / Flounder, flounder, in the sea / My wife, my wife Ilsebill / Wants not, wants not, what I will.’ Or something like that. Grandma and Grandpa came from the coast. Bad Doberan. And my mother speaks the local dialect from up there when she wants. We often used to visit when I was little. What does manntje mean, Grandma? And what’s a timpe? Grandma and Grandpa gave me the book of fairy tales when I turned eight. It was green and it had strange pictures in it, sometimes they scared me. I don’t know where it is now. Mum still lives in the same flat in Jena and my old room’s still the same. It’s probably on the shelves there somewhere. I keep meaning to go and visit more often. The first guy spent a lot of money today and I’m glad of it. Good money for January, anyway. And he wasn’t such an idiot really, could have done with cutting his fingernails, that’s all, and cleaning them in the first place. If you ask me there’s nothing worse than men with real dirt under their nails. Sure I say, ‘Go and give your hands a bit of a wash,’ but I can hardly hand him a trowel. There’s worse, of course. Cheese, for example. Beauty’s only foreskin-deep, Magda used to say. Sabine was a strange one, she never complained. I really did like her a lot but she was definitely a strange one.


The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut which is funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Katy Derbyshire is the winner of the Straelener Übersetzerpreis 2018 (Straelen Prize for Translation) for her translation of Bricks and Mortar

Bricks and Mortar is the story of the sex trade in a big city in the former GDR, from just before 1989 to the present day, charting the development of the industry from absolute prohibition to full legality in the twenty years following the reunification of Germany. The focus is on the rise and fall of one man from football hooligan to large-scale landlord and service-provider for prostitutes to, ultimately, a man persecuted by those he once trusted. But we also hear other voices: many different women who work in prostitution, their clients, small-time gangsters, an ex-jockey searching for his drug-addict daughter, a businessman from the West, a girl forced into child prostitution, a detective, a pirate radio presenter…
     In his most ambitious book to date, Clemens Meyer pays homage to modernist, East German and contemporary writers like Alfred Döblin, Wolfgang Hilbig and David Peace but uses his own style and almost hallucinatory techniques. Time shifts and stretches, people die and come to life again, and Meyer takes his characters seriously and challenges his readers in this dizzying eye-opening novel that also finds inspiration in the films of Russ Meyer, Takashi Miike, Gaspar Noé and David Lynch.

‘Meyer's multifaceted prose, studded with allusions to both high and popular culture, and superbly translated by Katy Derbyshire, is musical and often lyrical, elevating lowbrow punning and porn-speak into literary devices ... [Bricks and Mortar] is admirably ambitious and in many places brilliant – a book that not only adapts an arsenal of modernist techniques for the twenty-first century but, more importantly, reveals their enduring poetic potential.’
Anna Katharina Schaffner, Times Literary Supplement

‘[Bricks and Mortar is a] stylistic tour de force about the sex trade in Germany from just before the demise of the old GDR to the present, as told through a chorus of voices and lucidly mangled musings. The result is a gripping narrative best described as organic.’
Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

‘A journey to the end of the night for 20/21st century Germany. Meyer reworks Döblin and Céline into a modern epic prose film with endless tracking shots of the gash of urban life, bought flesh and the financial transaction (the business of sex); memory as unspooling corrupted tape; journeys as migrations, as random as history and its splittings. A shimmering cast threatens to fly from the page, leaving only a revenant’s dream – sky, weather, lights-on-nobody-home, buried bodies, night rain. What new prose should be and rarely is; Meyer rewrites the rules to produce a great hallucinatory channel-surfer of a novel.’
— Chris Petit, author of Robinson

‘This is a wonderfully insightful, frank, exciting and heart-breaking read. Bricks and Mortar is like diving into a Force 10 gale of reality, full of strange voices, terrible events and a vision of neoliberal capitalism that is chillingly accurate.’
— A. L. Kennedy, author of Serious Sweet

‘The point of Im Stein [Bricks and Mortar] is that nothing's “in stone”: Clemens Meyer’s novel reads like a shifty, corrupted collocation of .docs, lifted off the laptop of a master genre-ist and self-reviser. It’s required reading for fans of the Great Wolfgangs (Hilbig and Koeppen), and anyone interested in casual gunplay, drug use, or sex.’
— Joshua Cohen, author of Book of Numbers

‘The language is dizzying at times, frank and colloquial in others, but through Katy Derbyshire‘s glorious and award-winning translation, the reader is guided around this intoxicating, unflinching underworld without getting lost. Some of the content in Bricks and Mortar will be shocking to many, but this sombre drift through lonely nights and clandestine activities offers a fascinating and compelling take on post-Cold War Germany. ’
— Reece Choules, The Culture Trip

‘[A] remarkable origami of streams of consciousness’
Annie Rutherford, The Skinny

‘With the conceit of prostitution as the quintessential expression of capitalism ... Meyer savages all forms of exploitation with darkly perverse humor. As befits the span of subjects and voices, the language ranges from the arcana of high finance and law to the street argot of the underworld. This language plus all of Meyer’s wordplay make Katy Derbyshire’s translation of this shadowland symphony a positively gargantuan achievement.’
— Ulf Zimmermann, World Literature Today

Clemens Meyer was born in 1977 in Halle and lives in Leipzig. Bricks and Mortar, his first novel to be published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions, was shortlisted for the German Book Prize, awarded the Bremer Literaturpreis 2014, longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, and shortlisted for the 2019 Best Translated Book Awards. His collection of stories, Dark Satellites, appeared with Fitzcarraldo Editions in Katy Derbyshire’s translation in 2020. While We Were Dreaming, Meyer’s debut novel, was originally published in Germany in 2007.

Katy Derbyshire, originally from London, has lived in Berlin for twenty years. She translates contemporary German writers including Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Simon Urban, Annett Gröschner and Christa Wolf. Her translation of Clemens Meyer’s Die Nacht, die Lichter was published as All the Lights by And Other Stories in 2011.She occasionally teaches translation and also co-hosts a monthly translation lab and the bi-monthly Dead Ladies Show.