Literary festivals, what are they good for? Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, you might say. Sure, a lot of the questions revolve around the same things; ‘how do you write a novel?’, ‘how should readers read you novel?’, ‘what is literature to you?’ – questions, whose answers I pretty much know by heart now. And there is not really any grand surprise when authors say ‘well, I get up at 9, have some breakfast, sit by the computer all day, and hope to have written at least 2 solid pages by the end of the day’. If you want to experience something different though, you have to get in between the creases and observe reactions, the digressions that evolve in the interviews outside the standard questionnaire, like observing audience interaction, author reactions to questions, readings and the expressions and tonality of the readings. So the following introductions are some of the impressions I had of this years Louisiana Literature.
Kjell Askildsen/Helle Helle
Yes, yes, yes, I am getting to the festival itself: there was enough to feast your eyes on. Like for instance a p***** off Kjell Askildsen who closed the ball off with giving us comparative literature students, researchers and all of the critics who label him and others as minimalist writers a flogging during the Kjell Askildsen/Helle Helle interview. Man, he really did not like that label at all! Throughout the interview he was laid back until the point where the interviewer called him and Helle Helle minimalists and then he just let it rip (in that 80-something-years old, half-blind intellectual crazy fashion). I can’t say I blame him in a way; labels can be incredibly restricting and especially if you don’t see why this or that label is tagged to you. But on the other hand; I don’t see literary minimalism as a dirty word, not even an intellectualization of some people’s styles. If you can choose to say a lot with a small amount of words, that’s fine. If you want to use 4 pages to explain the color of your grandmother’s living room carpet, that’s fine too – to me, it’s all in the strength and confidence with which writers write.
If you are into dystopia novels you might have found Marc-Cristoph Wagner’s interview with Juli Zeh interesting. The German, Berlin-based author talked about her latest novel, ‘Corpus delicti’ and the obsessive development we see in modern times in any area relating to health issues. And although I didn’t really get a sense of how her novel is different or bringing anything new to the genre of the dystopia novels such as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ or ‘Brave New World’ (maybe it’s not supposed to) I bought a copy that in this moment is just sitting in wait for me. I especially thought of someone close to me, who has her own theories about the possible detrimental effects of the fanatic attitude people have with health these days – and she might very well be right. She was also very passionate about the topic, so I have a feeling that might just translate onto the novel.
Carsten Jensen/Ilija Trojanov
If you are a traveling literary soul with a weak spot for having a critical eye to globalization then the Jensen/Trojanov combo is your bet. Trojanov is the author of ‘Collector of Worlds’ and Jensen is most widely known for his ‘We, the drowned’. They both put great emphasis on the experience of traveling – something that evolved from an exiting sensation to something Trojanov explained as painful if you stayed to long and realized you never did fit naturally in with the locals. They both agreed that a journey was endless and goalless. Jensen amusingly said that the two most favorite places a Dane could be was in departures and arrivals of Kastrup Airport, because if Danes didn’t travel they would get claustrophobic. But Jensen is nonetheless a Dane and heavily involved and invested in Danish issues, such as the Danish involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, and in debates on culture and academia. Trojanov’s travelling life story on the other hand is that of someone who chose his country rather than being rooted in one, or as he said “a forced travel”. His parents fled Bulgaria and ended up in Kenya and Trojanov now resides in Germany and writes in German.
What happens when you stick a lodger, an author lacking inspiration in an apartment with a landlady, a woman waiting for her boyfriend to come home from India, and who also incidentally believes her body’s sole purpose is to produce babies? And what happens when the lodger gets the crazy idea that his next novel should be a detective novel – and what better way of gaining material than to put someone under surveillance? Aka. the landlady who is just sitting alone in her room. Well, Kirsten Hammann’s latest novel ‘Kig på mig’ (Look at me) is what happens. Interviewer Marie Tetzlaff was anxious to know just why successful female authors such as Helle Helle and Hammann chose to let their female characters appear strong on the outside and all kinds of messed up on the inside, I’m guessing to poke at the degree of self-portrayal from a hidden angle, but the question was just left hanging in the air.
Lars Saabye Christensen
One of my favorite interviews was the one Anette Dina Sørensen did with Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen. He was there to speak about his latest novel ‘Bernhard Hvals fortalelser’ (Bernhard Hval’s Freudian slips). Bernhard Hval is totally inappropriate – your average anti-hero – completely useless in social settings. An outsider, who teams up with another outsider, a race walker named Notto Fipp with a fondness for a diet consisting of milk and bananas that is quite out of the ordinary (who, incidentally is an actual person). Christensen read a scene from the novel, where Hval and his wife are on their honeymoon in Nice and on one of their outings none other that Knut Hamsun falls down with a heart attack next to them. Naturally, Hval a doctor who prefers the dead, must help in resuscitating Hamsun, although he would much rather let him be. The reading was hilarious and the audience responded well to the narrative. Christensen then spoke of his affinity for Oslo, his home town, and ended the interview by reading ’22 7 2011′ commemorating the victims of the Oslo/Utøya attack. It was so hard to listen to that I had to strain myself so as not to cry. (A reading by Aksel Hennie can be seen here.)
All in all, there was an incredible amount of experiences and impressions at the four-day festival – so much so that I would be writing for many days about it if I didn’t limit myself, so I will stop here. This was not the last literature festival I will be going to.
Hubby and I went shopping the day before yesterday and my feet are still aching after the trip. But now the bookcase is five books and one periodical richer. I don’t know how it is that I am not surgically fixed to the many good second-hand bookstores in Copenhagen, but I must count my lucky stars that I don’t live in the city, otherwise I would spare no expense and make no excuses whenever I walked by one of those homely smelling shops that are lacing the city center. Well, I would probably not go broke, since the last items I bought were a whopping DKK 5,- a piece, but due to this low prize hubby had to entice, scold, command and drag me out of the shop, fingers clawing at every protruding shelf and book in sight.
I am constantly amazed at the volumes and themes that fill these shelves – some are interesting and other’s make you wonder why on earth this made it through printing. On one of the shelves a 20 volume encyclopaedia in beautiful leather binding occupied most of the space with topics spanning from cattle breeding to the Hapsburg family tree. Outdated and almost redundant in these days of online information searches, for sure; but not without its charm and oh, the fragrance! However, on this particular day, I went for the small, but meaningful choices.
The faculty of humanities in Denmark has been under attack on several fronts these last years, one of which has been what the students are, or more importantly are not learning – with no shortage of indignation by various criers who cannot get over the fact that this or that branch of humanities does not know the great insert-name-here. That in combination with the canon of culture that was imposed upon the land some years ago led my eyes towards the little blue book from 1955 with the nice free birds fleeing the cover (ornithologists or twitchers may use the comment field to enlighten us non-bird people as to what sorts these creatures are). Titled “The book of literature”, works are selected, as stated in the introduction, to show the “riches we have in our classic literature” and to make “you into a reader” with works spanning from ballads to the early 1920s. And so Kingo, Johannes Ewald, Oehlenschläger, Grundtvig, H.C. Andersen and Johannes V. Jensen are shoo-in’s for the collection. What is interesting is that it is completely devoid of female participation. Whether it is for lack of trying or for the simple reason that maybe women pre-1920s don’t write, the editor’s do not say. And what exactly their definition of ‘reader’ is, is also not stated. But I am guessing that it is what you become if you read these texts.
Just before I was hauled out of the bookstore I managed to grab onto a periodical that screamed ’80s’ at me. Turned out to be quite an amusing piece of reading called HUG! no. 32, whose theme was “At the mercy of the big city” from 1981. It’s very fascinating to browse through since so much focus to this day is on the city, both architecturally and culturally speaking. There is even a 2-year interdisciplinary uni-education called 4cities that focuses on urban studies using Brussels, Copenhagen, Vienna and Madrid as a backdrop. Back in the periodical, one contribution is focused on the futuristic Copenhagen in the year 2000 with suggestions spanning from banning cars and, of course, a broad wish amongst the younger generation for the founding of the now much scolded and torn-down Youth House (which was realised a year later, in 1982). Then as now Danes’ fascination with Berlin is distinctive, which becomes obvious as I read the periodical. There is a short story and a feature on the city culture of West-Berlin by Carsten Jensen (who is also editor of HUG), a couple of subculture pieces (punk and skinheads) and a translation of Ulla Meinecke’s “Überdosis Großstadt”.
All in all I was quite satisfied with my loot and in the time to come I hope to do much more book(s)hopping in various second-hand bookshops – ironically, in the nearest future this will be done in Berlin 🙂 If you have any good tips on Berlin bookshops I cannot go without seeing do comment.
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