In late August, the beautiful, serene museum north of Copenhagen in Humlebæk hosted its annual literature festival. The events from Louisiana Literature 2012 are over and done with, the reviews have been made, photos snapped, books autographed, and the long queues have dispersed outside the Concert Hall and in the café. Mingling, but skillfully distancing themselves in this tiny space for such magnitude, are all the old wealthy and new wealthy, the bookworms, the I’m-sorry-I-can’t-come-to-work-I’m-sick-cough-cough, the elderly, the hip hipsters, bohemians, squares, the noobs and snobs, the well-rounded, the unshaved-in-that-hip-way, the messy-haired-in-that-hip-way, the Patti Smith fans and David Vann groupies, the Aira connoisseurs, the gender theoreticians and literary scholars.
Getting down on Friday
It’s a world of fascination and owes much of it force to its settings. Out there, in the quiet of the architectural woods next to architectural buildings overlooking the Sound, is an outdoor stage. And on that stage sits Patti Smith – the stage is in her honor. She is entertaining an audience of hundreds that are semi-circle placed around her stage. Inside the buildings there are long lines of ant(s)y people waiting to get in, to get out, to move forward or just move! goddammit. The outside is mellow, lots of open space, no queues, laughing. Inside is Eugenides, Matar, Moestrup, Lee, Fruelund, Sonnevi and Vann. A(nother) Smith, Matar-Vann-Hollinghurst, Desai, Aidt, Ullmann and Aira. And queues and laughing. Not quite mellow per se, it’s a bit hot and personal boundaries are challenged when it proves hard to uphold the Scandinavian ‘this is my dance space’-ethos. But the anticipation is hard to corrupt. And there is life and liveliness all around.
My trusty camera woman and I arrive as Patti Smith makes her first appearance on the Park Stage. Her voice is drifting through the vegetation towards the museum and floating to sea all at the same time. It’s mellow. But we, that is I, have no such time for mellow right now, onwards my trusty camera woman! We must find the Meese stage. There is plenty of time for mellow Patti’s voice. So, naturally, we head in the totally wrong direction, that is, by my lead, even though camera woman says ‘hold on! I think it’s that way (pointing in opposite direction)’. After minor adjustments of inner compass and turning of map in direction that befits said inner compass, we again head to the Meese stage.
Hisham Matar, I read, and then recount to camera woman, ‘comes from a strong background’. His father was kidnapped and has as of yet not turned up – a situation that weighs heavy on his authorship. Matar reads from his debut novel ‘In the country of men’ a section about a son and his mother. Tonny Vorm, the interviewer, enthusiastically lays the scene with the ‘need to know’ about the link between his/story and story and the process of writing. But Matar holds that the connection between life and work is mysterious to writers, and that it is good to not know but in stead be driven by a desire to figure out that vague notion of what the end result will be for one’s self. In fact, there is no point in knowing already or too much, but in stead what experience feels like or what it turns out to be. Matar writes in a second language; it makes him braver, write more obsessive, he says. Language hints and points toward something, but it never says. And it is this unutterable aspect that fascinates him. He reads a passage from his latest book, ‘Anatomy of a disappearance’, and this time it is recollecting an episode with a drowning man in Geneva. He reads very well, mellow. You can see that what he has to say, and how he says it, resonates well with the audience. And Tonny Vorm.
Patti Smith is so anticipated that the notion of her precedes her actual presence on stage at 4 o’clock. She herself is a cool punk cucumber indeed as she from the second she goes on stage captivates and loosens up the Scandinavian coolsters: ‘Are we at the same place as before?’, she asks a mere 2 1/2 hours after her last appearance at the same stage. And when she can’t find the passage she wants to read, she gets her guitar player Lenny to flip through the pages, while she takes a question from the audience. This time there is no interviewer. Just her. And Lenny. She reads and recalls her time spent with Robert Mapplethorpe in the Summer of Love. There is a mood shot: Vanilla Fudge and LSD, sitting together and drawing. Later Motown and dancing. She recounts the scene that gives her memoir ‘Just Kids’ its name: an elderly woman seeing Patti and Robert on the street nudges her husband to take their picture, because ‘they must be artists’, whereto the husband replies ‘ah go on, they’re just kids’. She has a fascinating voice, it’s husky and soft at the same time, rhythmic with a distinct Jersey accent. She captures past moods for the audience to enjoy in the Chelsea Hotel, Sam Shepard, and before she speaks/sings ‘Kimberly’, she reads a passage about her meeting with Ginsberg – which I recorded for you to enjoy.
After Patti Smith we went in again to the Meese stage, because there was a triple reading with Hisham Matar, David Vann, and Alan Hollinghurst. The three are very different in narration – Matar melancholic and calm, Vann bubbly and extrovert, and lastly Hollinghurst, well, British with a capital upper class, country house B.
Matar is first up, and he reads a passage that the audience who attended the previous talk would recognize; a scene with a mother and his son on a trip to Norwegian Nordland – a place Matar has only been to in his imagination helped by a photo, but so skillfully recounted that apparently he even fooled his Norwegian translator. David Vann takes the stage after Matar and he reads from Legend of a Suicide, and in spite of the seriousness of the theme and the knowledge that it is semi-autobiographical, the passages he reads are humorous. It shines through when his memory turns on his reading and he laughingly pauses the story to recount scenes from his childhood, shooting squirrels and fishing anecdotes in Ketchikan, Alaska. Characters like Daphne, Cecil, George, and Mother populate Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child from 2011 – I couldn’t from the short passage he read, figure out if he was on a level of seriousness or pastiche: I for one understood it a pastiche of the whole country house 19.-20.th century stiff-upper-lip British culture that generation after generation loves to dwell on – the once Greatest Nation in the world looked upon with nostalgia as the Kingdom is unwilling to face the reality of the 21. century. But I could be over-interpreting – he might just like the antiquated narrative style of ‘rather dreaded’, ‘blasted’, ‘dratted cigar’. It was nonetheless completely a different sadness from the previous two – but all three were dealing with some type of sadness and memory.
The next event was rather blasted to say it in Hollinghurstian, to my great annoyance as it was one of the authors I really was looking forward to get to know: Argentianian César Aira was interviewed by Rigmor Kappel Schmidt at the Giacometti. The fact that the interview was in Spanish evaded my attention as I hurried my camera woman along, but my lack of knowledge in Spanish was not the issue, as it was recounted in Danish along the way. But I cannot say much about him or his works as there was a terrible mess with the sound and every other minute the damn microphones started in on that oh so beautiful chalk-on-board, teeth clenching howl. Patient and polite as I am (read: I was in the second row and the place was packed – so I decided not to make a statement just then…) I stayed put through the whole séance and it was brutal! It was a bad cocktail of warmth that develops when you stuff 70 people in a room with 50 chairs, hissy and passive-agressive intellectuals behind me criticizing the interviewer in a voice just loud enough for everyone around them to hear that you have firsthand experience with the incompetency of the interviewer, and that incessant microphone howling and screeching. I could also sense that I had stretched my camera woman’s tolerance and goodwill to the limit, and offered her to call the day over and done with. So we had our traditional cake and coffee, listened to the very first minutes of Patti’s last performance of the day, and skipped off just in time to see ampoule and her co-conspirator Ida running, nay bolting like the devil was on their tracks up the street to make it to the evening concert.
So, it’s Saturday and I am up early and eager. Going solo to see Jonathan Safran Foer and Jeffrey Eugenides in the Concert Hall. My camera woman has politely declined to spend another day in Humlebæk with me. But when I get there – and I kid you not, this is over an hour before the doors to the Concert Hall open – there is a queue going from one end of the museum to the other. No way even half of the people in line are getting in! So I trot down to the Giacometti and overcrowded as it also is, I sit down on the floor with my back to the wall and a giant statue blocking my view to the front where Mette Moestrup (DK) interviews Mara Lee (SE). But the circumstances of my seating arrangement are quickly forgotten when Moestrup and Lee start in on issues concerning gender, sex, culture, body and power. Both are concerned with the project of uncovering various aspects of woman and power through literary/language/artistic projects. I remember the first time I saw Moestrup performing at Testrup with She’s a Show last year – loved it! Haven’t had the chance to read anything of Lee’s yet – maybe because ‘Ladies’ has wrongfully been classified as chiclit, a genre I try not to dabble to much into. They really covered all the bases in the talk: disciplining the body (Foucault), biopolitics and -power, the female ideal, fusing Lee’s Korean background with the Swedish that sounded like it bordered on language poetry; how the letters l and r are alike in Korean, linking words like ‘våld (violence) and ‘vård’ (caring) and dealing with what that means, how Lee made a transition from experimental poetry to literary market prose, how desire/lust plays out in a young girl who is not portrayed as a victim or airbrushed to anonymity. They also spent a great deal of the time discussing what feminism is, and how we have to acknowledge that women are competitive and are capable of displaying wrong or bad feelings/actions without being finite, and how not acknowledging this leads to totalitarianism. As I said; covering all the bases.
After a break, Judith Schalansky (DE) and interviewer Marc-Cristoph Wagner sat down in the Giacometti room. This time I had ninjaed my way to a chair in the second row. Wagner introduces Schalansky and her upcoming novel ‘Der Hals der Giraffe’. Prior to this, Schalansky has worked with fusing literature with the scientific approaches of typography and cartography. Her body of works mark out an author who approaches meaning in more ways than merely creating words that go onto a page – so that her books carry statements on more levels than content alone. ‘Ich mache Bücher’, she replies. And with a degree in Art History and Communications Design it is safe to presume that all components of the novel have been planned and thought through to a T. In ‘Der Hals der Giraffe’, she, in her own words, has turned the concept of the Bildungsroman upside down. The main character, Inge, is an elderly woman, a biology teacher fed up with the state of her pupils’ (mental) capacities. In the last throes of a closing school and a community where the young leave for Berlin and the old stay behind, Inge teaches, or rather preaches, biology, adaptation, evolution and change; conditions she herself is not prepared to live by. Running on logic and fully content with the conservative Truth of Nature, Inge is a fascination to Schalansky, who wants to make this ‘cliché’ possible, readable. “Sie (Inge) hasst ja Kultur”, says Schalansky, referring to the coupling of the term both within culture as most know it and the agricultural meaning of the word – pointing to the contradictory and stagnating nature of Inge herself. ‘Veränderung gibts nicht für sie,’ although she is constantly on the verge of situations of possibility.
Danish actor Charlotte Munk reads very vividly in between part of the interview – linked below.
After the interview I take my copy and get in line to get the book signed.
Schalansky has taken fountain calligraphy pens and an impressive collection of stamps with her covering various butterflies, seashells, leafs and other shapes and symbols. I stammer ‘Schmetterling, bitte’ and she signs the book, and I leave.
Leave for a new queue outside the Concert Hall to experience a reading of Anne Carson’s retake of Sophocles’ Antigone in the illustrated ‘Antigonick’ by a row of the authors presented throughout the festival and Carson herself. The room is packed, anticipation is high. Carson does the intro and then the authors one and two, sometimes three and four come up to the microphone to perform the ancient new tragedy. I particularly like Nielsen reading as king Creon. I do however have some issues with the overtly monotonous readings throughout a large part of the event – it was a bit too distancing and highbrow for my taste – maybe it was a symbolic retort to the centuries of describing Antigone and the female on a scholarly level that described and pictured her from every angle as Object and objectified. I just know I kept going back to the time I read Antigone one of the first semester at uni and recalling the mental images I conjured up to supplement what I was witnessing in front of me.
Going home I decided that I had experienced enough at Louisiana Literature 2012 and a third day of queueing and elbowing was not for me.
To conclude, although no regrets, I wish I had seen Cia Rinne’s sounds for soloists, Lilian Munk Rösing interview Nielsen, the Foer/Eugenides talk and gone on walk with authors Tomas Espedal and Morten Søndergaard. But then again, with the packed weekend it would not be LouiLit if I didn’t have to make a compromise or two during the festival.
My ticket for this year’s Louisiana Literature has arrived.
I am psyched and ready to dig my festival heels into the tarmac, up close and personal, first row baby, at the annual show of authors and audience galore.
Hoping that my smile and winks will get the attention of those heavenly, holy, saintly, divine, godly, godlike, ethereal, otherworldly; immortal, angelic, seraphic, cherubic beings, perhaps a quote, or at least a good snap with the hipster filter.
If you have any interest in names such as Patti Smith, Kerstin Ekman, Jonathan Safran Foer (you would), Cia Rinne (you should), Judith Schalansky – I could go on… so I will – Linn Ullmann, César Aira, Anne Carson and Tomas Espedal et cetera, and no interest in going to Louisiana to ogle (or you just plain and simple can’t), but still would know what it was like; stick around kid. This might get interesting.
Also, I am on Twitter – if you want to follow the hopefully steady live-tweets.
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.