Startlingly raw and deeply moving, this extraordinary debut novel from one of Germany’s most ambitious writers is full of passion, hope and despair. 

Rico, Mark, Paul and Daniel were 13 when the Berlin Wall fell in autumn 1989. Growing up in Leipzig at the time of reunification, they dream of a better life somewhere beyond the brewery quarter. Every night they roam the streets, partying, rioting, running away from their fears, their parents and the future, fighting to exist, killing time. They drink, steal cars, feel wrecked, play it cool, longing for real love and true freedom. 

While We Were Dreaming was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, announced on March 14 2023.

The International Booker Prize 2023
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Fitzcarraldo Editions
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Clemens Meyer

Clemens Meyer

About the Author

Clemens Meyer was born in 1977 in Halle and lives in Leipzig, Germany. He worked as a security guard, forklift driver and construction worker before becoming a published novelist.
More about Clemens Meyer
Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire

About the Translator

Katy Derbyshire, originally from London, has lived in Berlin for over 20 years. She helped to establish the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, awarded annually since 2017.
More about Katy Derbyshire

Clemens Meyer on While We Were Dreaming

‘When I was on the path to becoming a writer, an author, I was searching for my first theme, my first subject, and I suddenly realised that those stormy times after and before the fall of the [Berlin] Wall – which I was a part of – could be transformed into a great tragedy, a great epic. All those figures, lost in time, struggling but still dreaming.’ 

‘It took me six years [to write While We Were Dreaming]. I had to find the right style for it – clear as glass but still poetic, rough but still romantic, fragmented but still epic – and then I had to compose all the episodes. For a long time, I was looking for the right form, for a way to bring it all together, whether linear or non-linear… until one of my mentors told me: write a montage novel, like, among others, [John] Dos Passos. And I did. I wrote half of the novel with an old typewriter, but then I switched to a notebook, which made things easier, although typewriting did teach me a lot about the rhythm and precision of words and sentences.’

Read the full interview here.

Clemens Meyer

What the judges said

While We Were Dreaming skilfully captures with pathos and anger the sense of what happens when all the certainties of the grown-up world evaporate and the future is up for grabs. The story of German unification as it did not appear on your TV screen.’

What the critics said

David Mills, Sunday Times

‘The cumulative power of [the] well-constructed, pitiless and unflinching dispatches from the underbelly of society is remarkable […] Historical events often pass unnoticed by those living through them, unaware even of how much their lives have been changed. It is Meyer’s achievement to capture the profound effects those events had on the lives of those at the bottom of German society.’

Jonathan McAloon, Financial Times

‘The narrative nips back and forth between the group on the cusp of adolescence, and when they are in and out of prison and rehab, or worse. What some of them were like as children is cleverly saved for much later, once we know who they become […]While We Were Dreaming which was longlisted for the International Booker Prize, has the strengths of a good first novel: a vivid sense of place and detail; a focus on voice, rendered wonderfully in Katy Derbyshire’s translation.’

Publishers Weekly

‘Meyer’s 2007 debut, appearing in English for the first time, is a brilliant coming-of-age portrait of friendship and political change in East Germany […] Meyer’s sharp, hypnotic prose is deftly translated by Derbyshire, resulting in a grand mythology of youth that brims with complex and shifting allegiances, rivalries, rages, and deaths. This is both harrowing and compulsively readable.’

Gwendoline Choi, The Oxonian Review

‘Meyer’s grim, heavy offering provides such insight into the struggle of the everyday that it comes to eclipse the upheaval of the historic. Yet, the lasting impression of the novel is crushingly innocent: ‘Fred lit a few candles and we moved in closer and ate and drank and we were happy’. Flashes from history extend towards and across to us in our 21st-century Anglophone setting, including universal moments of unbridled joy alongside the painful nostalgia of teenage bravura. Most powerful is Meyer’s ability to force readers to reflect on the momentous in their own banal surroundings, the last bastions of hope and naivety palpable amidst the devastation.’

The Southern Bookseller Review

While We Were Dreaming sits well on the shelf ‘midst Trainspotting, Stand By Me (er, The Body) and Requiem for a Dream, those disturbing yet nostalgic tales of the rise and fall of childhood chums slumming down life’s yellower brick roads, but what makes this kaleidoscopic coming-of-age collection really stand (by me) out is the punch-in-the-gut pivotal point of turning 13 in East Berlin, 1989.’

While We Were Dreaming

Other nominated books by Clemens Meyer

Bricks and Mortar

Other nominated books by Katy Derbshire

Bricks and Mortar