Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘European Literature Days’

European Literature Days – October 2015

Posted by lucypopescu on November 11, 2015

SpitzThe European Literature Days (ELiT) festival held in the Wachau region of Austria encourages cultural exchange between European based writers, translators, publishers and readers. This year the overall theme was “The Migrants”, a loaded term and geopolitically relevant given the refugee crisis currently being played out in central and eastern Europe.

A.L. Kennedy gave a powerful keynote lecture which served as a resounding call for writers and artists to do more to counter the negative propaganda surrounding migrants and refugees. “True art is not an indulgence,” she warns, “but a fundamental defence of humanity.” Kennedy evokes a past, present and future where ‘Those defined as Others go first. The strangers, the migrants, those forced into desperate motion by cascading cruelties.” But the rest of us face the same threat and fate: “When art fails, failure of imagination follows and thereafter cruelty thrives.” All engaged artists and artists, those interested in safeguarding free expression and culture should view themselves as “voluntary migrants” or “Honorary Others”, she suggests, because they know from experience that art is a more powerful tool than propaganda.

Exploring literary trends in Europe, Rainer Moritz, a German writer, publisher and translator, remarked on the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six autobiographical novels, entitled My Struggle. Books presented as autobiography which contain elements of fiction are increasingly popular, he suggests. Moritz and French-German academic Jurgen Ritte embarked on a lively discussion about ‘novels without fiction’ also called ‘exofiction’. In Germany there appears to be a distrust of fiction and instead a yearning for what is perceived as authentic, including a renewed interest in political novels. Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Going, went, gone, nominated for the German Book Prize, is a case in point. It is about refugees in contemporary Germany. Crime novels continue to be big in Germany. Moritz noted that every city in Germany must have its own detective.

Rosie Goldsmith, who also moderated, responded that if there was a detective in every German town, then almost every English town now has a literary festival. There is also a proliferation of literary prizes and many readers orientate themselves around these awards, using them as a guide to what to read. Goldsmith observed that fantasy fiction continues to be widely read, perhaps prompted by the popularity of various TV programmes and films. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, is a notable example of the genre’s literary potential.

Despite further cuts in arts, the smaller independents continue to publish literary fiction in translation. German authors, in particular, have done well in Britain. Erpenbeck won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The End of Days, there was a German strand at this year’s Cheltenham literary festival and Julia Franck’s West, Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘F’ and Timur Verms Look Who’s Back were published to great acclaim.

True to the festival theme, various international writers who have settled in Europe were invited to contribute. These included graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet, who grew up on the Ivory Coast and now lives in Paris; Lebanese writer Iman Humaydan, president of Lebanese PEN who lives part of the time in Paris; South Korean born Anna Kim; The British-Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub; French Afghan writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi; and Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer living in Germany. Once again, EliT explores topical themes and celebrates a diverse range of international authors.

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European Literature Days

Posted by lucypopescu on November 20, 2013

European Literature DaysEvery year I am invited to a charming and informative literary festival in Austria called European Literature Days (ELiT). It’s held in the small town of Spitz, next to the River Danube in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wachau. During the long weekend of events, I get to meet new authors, hear the preoccupations of my European colleagues, and participate in numerous debates about literature and culture. This year’s theme was “The Limitations of Literature” and included talks on the graphic and documentary novel, and how they are challenging ideas about traditional literature, as well as panel discussions about the extent to which technology is changing our conception of literature and literary markets.

The first day was taken up with a mini conference entitled “Backflow”, specifically about book translation in the Danube region. I didn’t think there would be much of relevance to the English delegates but was pleasantly surprised. In the morning, various authors spoke about translation generally and the impact on book markets, throughout the whole of Europe caused by the rise in digital publishing. German writer and moderator Rudiger Wischenbart suggested that online publications and E-books potentially offer new opportunities for the smaller south-east European literary markets, allowing more authors to publish digitally and reach a wider readership across borders. Instead, Wischenbart felt, the opposite was true and that because of the dominance of large global players, such as Amazon, Google, Apple etc the smaller literary markets in the region are drifting apart.

Miha Kovac, an academic and publisher from Slovenia, noted that the English book market continues to be a major force in central /eastern Europe. His research had found that the smaller the country the greater the import of English books. Sales and the accessibility of English books were now substantially aided by Amazon.

Fellow Brit, Chris Meade (Director of if:book and a Trustee of Modern Poetry in Translation) spoke eloquently about how the digital age and rise of multi-media could actually help to nurture the diversity and translation of poetry. As a small, sophisticated piece of software, the App, he argued, was the perfect counterpart to a poem – a compact piece of art in which the culture of a nation can be distilled. The digital age is changing the way we think, read and compose but Meade is optimistic that we can use technology to shape a new literary culture.

In the afternoon we met in smaller groups and debated various subjects related to the translation. The UK has a poor record for the translation of literary fiction – currently thought to be around 4.5% of fiction sales in the UK – and yet authors from countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia, dream of obtaining a wider readership by being translated into English.

That evening German writer Matthias Politycki read from his latest novel, Samarkand, Samarkand. Politicki’s first novel to be translated into English, Next World Novella (Peiriene Press, 2011), was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The following day, Steve Sem-Sandberg (pictured), Swedish author of The Emperor of Lies (Faber & Faber, 2012) about the experiences of Jews in the Polish ghetto of Lodz during the Holocaust, gave a brief presentation on the “Documentary Novel” and Swiss writer Christian Gasser took us through the rise in popularity of the “Graphic Novel”. Gasser noted the range of subjects covered in the past 25 years, from growing up in Iran under the Ayatollahs, Hiroshima and the Holocaust to reportage from the Gaza Strip and North Korea.

The graphic novel theme continued into the evening with a reading from Austrian comics’ author Ulli Lust (Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, Fantagraphics, 2013). On our last day we were taken to an exhibition of the Belgian comic series Lucky Luke. Together with The Adventures of Tintin and Asterix, it is one of the most popular and best-selling comic-book series in Europe and we were fortunate to meet French artist Achdé, who took over drawing new Lucky Luke stories in collaboration with writer Laurent Gerra in 2001, and continues today.

Once again, the festival raised interesting issues and introduced me to an array of contemporary European authors I’m keen to read in English translation. However, I am also reminded that while writers from around the world want to be published in English, our response is poor. We live in a globalised society, we have E-books and print on demand – it’s easier than ever to cross literary, linguistic and cultural borders – and yet it continues to be the smaller, independent presses that are promoting international fiction in this country.

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Literary Responses to the Financial Crisis

Posted by lucypopescu on September 30, 2012

Every year, a European writers’ festival takes place in the tiny town of Spitz in Austria’s picturesque wine-growing region of Wachau. European Literature Days always features a range of writers and encourages lively debates on a variety of literary subjects. This year’s theme was “Europe: Fortress, Trauma, Dream”, with a particular focus on how writers have responded to the financial crisis or ‘trauma’.

Over two days, writers and other literary professionals explored the notion of ‘Fortress Europe’. The negative connotation is that the European Union has drawn “a dividing line across this continent” that welcomes the wealthy nations and excludes the poorer states. Equally, European culture, it was suggested, is defined as “a variation of Anglo-American culture where exceptional individuals gain entry from other linguistic backgrounds”. Despite these perceived inequities, many authors, particularly from Southeast Europe, retain faith in “the European dream”. For them, Europe is synonymous with hope for a better future.

One of the most interesting debates was about how writers have responded to the global crisis. There have been several books written by economists that offer thoughtful analysis of, and even solutions to, the financial crash, but what about fiction? Two German names came up. Thomas von Steinäcker’s Das Jahr, in dem ich aufhörte, mir Sorgen zu machen, und anfing zu träumen (The Year in which I Stopped Worrying and Started Dreaming) is set in an insurance firm at the height of the financial crisis. Kristof Magnusson‘s Das war ich nicht (It Wasn’t Me) is about a German banker on a Chicago trading floor. Magnusson writes in German and translates from the Icelandic. Both received rave reviews and, regrettably, neither has been translated into English yet.

Some of the Eastern European delegates offered interesting perspectives. Jaroslav Balvin, editor of the multilingual Czech Literature Portal, asked dryly “crisis, which crisis?” Sreten Ugričić, former director of Serbia’s national library, pointed out: “Humankind is always in some sort of crisis.” Aleš Šteger, a Slovene poet and publisher, remarked that the financial newspapers in his country “serve as a platform for hidden messages between politicians, bankers and managers.” The majority of people don’t know how to read them and find the financial pages boring, he suggested, but the happy few who read between the lines can glean essential information. He compared this to the use of poetry in communist times that contained hidden allusions and metaphors.

When it comes to literary fiction, maybe the Germans are ahead of the game. As to British authors, rather feebly, I could only recall Alex Preston, a young city trader, and his debut novel This Bleeding City, which received mixed reviews. Theatre can react so much faster. I immediately thought of David Hare’s piece of verbatim theatre, The Power of Yes (2009) Lucy Prebble’s morality tale, Enron (also 2009) and Denis Kelly’s The Gods Weep. (2010) Perhaps it is just too early for fiction writers to respond with anything meaningful and they have to gain the necessary perspective before delivering the definitive chronicles.

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