passaporta

The enigma of a literary festival



1. The book signing

When I was two turns away from meeting the author, it occurred to me that I must keep a question or two ready when he signed the book. I looked at the copy in my hand, a thick paperback with intricate cover art – Japanese-styled cottages next to the sea on which a three-masted ship sailed, and in the distance mountains, clouds, a pair of large birds in flight – a design that perhaps anticipated the novel’s style. The blurb above the title announced that Sunday Times found the book ‘Spectacularly accomplished and thrillingly suspenseful’. A frivolous quote; why did they choose this one? I had my question.

“Do you have a say in deciding what quotes go on the cover of your books?” I asked, as he wrote my name and signed on the title page.

He smiled, and looked up: “Well, the publishers usually decide that but I do have the presidential veto powers. I haven’t really exercised it, though – I just leave it to them.”

“What do you think of this one?” I pointed to the quote above the title. “Thrillingly suspenseful!”

He squinted his eyes and looked at the ceiling, searching for an answer. “Well… you’re right… it’s a bit redundant, isn’t it? A book can’t be suspenseful without being thrilling, can it?!”

I smiled, nodded and thanked him as we shook hands. Moving out of the line, I opened the page where, below the title The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, he had scribbled, in large but barely readable letters, his name: David Mitchell.




2. Jews and Palestinians

We were in Brussels, Wife and I, at the Passa Porta literary festival 2011. It was a multilingual event, featuring conversations in Dutch, French and English with over a hundred authors. Earlier in the day, we had joined a conversation with Ramsey Nasr and Etgar Keret. The festival brochure described Nasr as a “Dutchman and Palestinian” and Keret as “the greatest Israeli talent of the moment,” and added that “both are passionate and versatile artists with clear opinions.”

The mood in the beginning was light. Keret talked about his family’s history of “bad soldiers.” He began writing, he said, when he was in the army, serving out his compulsory military tenure where, labelled unfit for one job after another, he was assigned to the “basement section” to wait for emergency calls, which never came. He then spoke about the unhappy circumstance of his father who, as a holocaust survivor, was prevented from sharing happy stories from his childhood. Keret preferred to think of himself as a Jewish writer than an Israeli one; it allowed him to assume another identity (a Jew of another nationality) and look at Jewishness from the outside.

Nasr discovered the power of the written word at college, where a satirical piece he’d written about some bullies gave others the courage to mock them afterwards, which turned the tables. He was more a storyteller than a writer, he said, and chose different mediums – including film – to tell a story. On the Israeli – Palestinian question, he said people often adopted extreme viewpoints, while the solution, in his view, was neither black nor white – one had to take a nuanced view, to recognize the space in between.

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Somewhere along the way, as the discussion swung towards the central theme of Jews and Palestinians, the mood grew dark. It was a subtle shift, without any particular turning point, but towards the end the uneasiness was palpable. Despite maintaining a liberal and open-minded view through the discussion, it was hard for the two writers not to take a stance and to become defensive. There was, for instance, the topic of a collaborative effort between Keret and a Palestinian writer to publish a collection of stories between the same covers. This point was taken up by Nasr as “an indicator of the sad state of affairs” because the stories themselves had nothing to do with each other, there were no interleaving narratives – it was just a poorly cobbled collection of stories by two authors, and this was being hailed as a milestone in Jewish-Palestinian literature. Keret conceded to the main argument, but went on to explain that there was a time constraint in publishing this work. This response, which felt like a defensive retort, took away some of the spirit the two had built up.

Near the hour’s end the writers were asked what they thought of the current Arab revolutions. Their answers, expressing optimism and hope, bordered on the ideal. It was a reminder that this was a discussion between writers, creators of real and imaginary worlds, not policy makers or politicians.




3. Literary Festivals: then and now

The first literary festivals held in the late eighteenth century weren’t open events of the kind we see today: early festivals were events setup by – and restricted to – clubs or universities. A speech delivered at the Phi Beta Kappa society at Cambridge in 1830 captures the intent of such events:

The moral purposes to which this occasion may be made subservient, are of high value. It is attended generally by a large assembly of the most accomplished and intelligent portion of our community, and not infrequently by distinguished visitors from distant parts of the country. The animation and excitement of a literary festival, during which the cares of professional and active life are laid aside; the rivalries of politics forgotten; the dreams of ambition dissipated; the friendships of former days, already fading dimly from the memory, again restored; … – the animation and excitement of such an occasion, open the heart to the reception of the loftiest and noblest principles, which, if worthily inculcated, must sink deep, and exert an influence no less beneficial than permanent. … The want of some safe public amusement, gives an increased value to every celebration of this kind.

It was an occasion for poets, writers and members of a club to gather, listen to speeches, exchange ideas, wine and dine.

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These elements are now a small part of the much-expanded modern version of the festival, whose origins date back to 1949, when the first Cheltenham Literature Festival was held the spa town in southern England. Today there are over 250 literary festivals each year in the U.K. alone, the biggest ones drawing over a hundred thousand people. These mega-events, hubs of commerce and culture, bring together writers, publishers, booksellers, media and (because they are the ones who pay) readers. The Passa Porta festival is a relative newcomer: it began in 2004 and is now held once in two years.




4. The postcolonial writer

Next on our agenda was Andrea Levy whose recent novel, The Long Song, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2010. The brochure added some biographical details: Andrea Levy’s parents emigrated from Jamaica to Great Britain; the wrench between two homelands continues to occupy the writer in her novels. We walked to a nearby venue, along the narrow winding lanes of central Brussels, with the occasional comic strip mural making a surprise appearance.

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Levy reminded me of my school headmistress. She spoke in a deep voice with clear diction, her surefooted answers were peppered with pragmatism, and her elevated manner of speech sounded, at times, like a church sermon. Her answers were mostly to the point, which allowed a lot of ground to be covered in the one-hour interview. She had started reading literature, she confessed, only at 23; the school years she had managed to get through without really reading books in the curriculum. (Oh it is possible, she said, and the small crowd, mostly grey-haired, laughed.) Writing came much later, in her mid-thirties, when she realized that there was very little literature about blacks in Britain – it was a gap she set out to fill.

She spoke about historical fiction and its challenges. Even the most liberal person in nineteenth century Caribbean would sound horribly racist now, she said, so the challenge was to stay true to those times and yet give a modern reader the right essence. She noted that people in the nineteenth century had a much smaller understanding of the world at that time, something that is hard to imagine these days.

Her love for the novel as a form was evident. She spoke of the joy of fiction, of how through fiction one learns in a different – emotional – way rather than an intellectual way. “When you are working on a story, the world becomes an exciting place to discover; you become a child.” She liked to use the “language of film” to do her storytelling in her novels, which were organized as scenes and had “tracking shots.”

Although all her works have a colonial or postcolonial setting, she felt she was a Londoner – she didn’t view herself as someone “caught between two worlds.”

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Shortly before the end the interviewer, a Dutch lady journalist, asked if she would take up more novels about her Jamaican past, or if she would “move on.” Levy, patient with the interviewer until then, took exception to this label and mildly scoffed at the question. She couldn’t say what subject she would choose for her next novel, she said – that would depend on what would interest her at a particular point in time, and not on what her background was.

This answer, true in a general sense, neglects to acknowledge that what has interested her so far – with good reason – is her colonial ancestry and her life in postcolonial Britain.

After the session I bought one of her novels, Small Island, at the makeshift bookseller stand in the foyer.



5. The actor

David Mitchell, next on our list, had a poor start. He faltered, paused, searched for words, and was barely articulate as he described, out of context, how he would often be late to pick up his children from school. I wondered for an instant if this was the effect of facing his interviewer, the lovely Annelies Beck, a Dutch TV journalist and writer, who glowed with a charm and confidence that made her as interesting as Mitchell seemed prosaic.

Then, after the reading of a passage from his latest novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, the conversation took off. He described that passage as an indulgence, a piece he’d often come back to (while writing the novel) when he couldn’t continue with the main story. But then, he said, the things that don’t really “fit in”, these indulgences, everything that you get wrong, they form a writer’s style. “A bit of self-indulgence is good; too much would be disastrous.”

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There was a sparkling intelligence in his sentences as he spoke about the novel’s genesis, during his stay in Japan, and his research about the Dutch, a people he knew almost nothing about. There was also something endearing and human in the way he occasionally searched for words, pausing mid-sentence, displaying an irregularity one wouldn’t associate with a wordsmith. The reason for this quirk would become clear only later.

On historical fiction, he said one had to get “the big stuff” right, and then invent the little things. “You can’t invent the date of Napoleon’s Russian invasion (Laughter) – there’s nothing wrong with it, only that it wouldn’t be historical fiction anymore, but a sub-genre of science fiction called alternate or speculative history.” So the big stuff was history, and the little stuff was fiction. And periods of status quo were bad for historical fiction, while revolutions were very good.

This notion about revolutions being good for historical fiction brought to mind The Blue Flower. A masterpiece of historical fiction by Penelope Fitzgerald, the novel is set, from a revolution standpoint, in the most uninteresting of times. The trouble, then, with such generalisations is that the moment they are uttered they lose a part of their truth.

Mitchell reflected on “the iceberg principle”, a device used by authors to create that “shimmering bubble of fiction”: you learn all about the world and characters you are creating, then hide ninety percent of it. “Only then will the ten percent that appears in the book seem authentic – or else the bubble will simply go POP!”

It was a humourous, entertaining interview, and the momentum swung nicely back and forth between author and interviewer. The hour passed by in a blink, and soon afterwards I found myself in the queue, holding a copy of his novel, awaiting my turn to meet the author.






David Mitchell’s open secret is that he has a stammer. He has devised ways to hide it, which makes him come across as a person who’s searching for words when he’s not: the pauses are there to stop the stutter, to continue elsewhere if one syllable or letter is troubling him. He writes about all this in an essay, where he tells others like him to “stop trying to kill your stammer”:

Change how you perceive your stammer. Stop seeing it as an enemy to be vanquished: it is an integral part of the process of how you think, perceive others, and process language, and no good ever came of hating an integral part of yourself (as opposed to an undesirable character trait.) Your stammer informs your relationship with language and enrichens it, if only because you need more structures and vocabulary at your command.

All this I got to know later. At the festival, after his interview and our short exchange, I came away thinking here was a good example of someone who was great with words on paper but not very articulate in person. Wife, though, wasn’t impressed; she thought he was putting on an act all the while, and at first I couldn’t fathom why she’d think that way. In the end she was right with her observation – there was an act there – but not with her inference – the act was there for a good reason, and wasn’t something disagreeable.



6. The senior citizen sermon

After this electrifying session, the Orhan Pamuk talk and interview betrayed a generational gap.

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The Pamuk interview, labelled by the organizers as the festival’s highlight, was set at the Henri Le Boeuf Hall at the Centre for Fine Arts, a three-tiered concert hall that could seat a few thousand. We chose a location with a good view of the stage where two nicely-upholstered seats stood next to a table with drinks. (Those seats were the best we’d seen so far; the lesser writers had sat on lean plastic chairs without armrests.) To my right was an old man, in his seventies, whose excitement was not different from that of a boy at his first circus visit, waiting for the show to begin. All around us were at least a thousand people, men and women of various nationalities, ages, religions. And we are all there, in spite of our differences, because of what we shared: our interest in Orhan Pamuk.

What is it in a writer that can bring together people so different from one other? Pamuk himself had an answer when he began to speak: a writer’s greatest accomplishment, he said, was to make readers think of the characters in a book as their own selves, of the characters’s stories as their own stories.

It was a classic Pamuk idea, expressed in his circumambulatory style. There was more along this line in his short introductory talk on what he called “the other”: how novelists write stories about others as if they were their own stories, and how readers understand the lives of others and alter the boundaries of their own identities. “Others become us and we become others when we read novels, and write novels.”

Such sentences, framed in a manner that suggest a profound truth, soon become tiring. He continued: “Behind every great novel lies an author whose greatest pleasure comes from entering another form and bringing it to life.” I was impressed when I heard this first, but it does not hold up to a closer look: this ability – to enter another form and bring it to life – is a basic trait of literature; it is true of all fiction that ‘works’, not just the great ones, and it can apply to every serious novelist.

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In the interview that followed, Pamuk spoke about his recent novel The Museum of Innocence. It is a book about love, he said, but in literature love has often been placed on a pedestal; he wanted to look at love as something ordinary, like a traffic accident. (The crowd laughed, but he seemed to ignore it.) It is also a novel about Istanbul. He spoke of the melancholy of Istanbul, its sights and sounds, of how thousands of people hear the same sounds in a city, which binds them in a way people aren’t aware of.

In more ways than one, Pamuk’s replies seemed not dissimilar to that of a senior citizen one may encounter on a train, willing to offer his wisdom on most matters, quick to correct or rectify your stance on something. He sounded like a master who had all the answers, like someone bored with the interviewer’s silly questions. It was perhaps the contrast to Mitchell that made these qualities more striking.



7. The enigma of a literary festival

After the Pamuk interview, in the exit queue outside the Henri Le Boeuf Hall, I began to collect my thoughts around this strange day we’d had. It was a grand meeting between writers and readers, and there seemed to be a contradiction in this. Here they were, the practitioners of this solitary occupation, coming out in public and speaking to throngs of people as if this was most natural; and here we were, the reclusive readers, getting out of our dens and enduring large crowds to get a glimpse of these practitioners. Why?

We hear a lot about such festivals being “meeting points”, but the writer’s main motivation, acquired or natural, to participate lies in commerce: building one’s brand, selling more books, meeting the publisher’s publicity needs. All this is so pervasive now that no one gives it a second thought; speaking in public is now a mandatory skill in a writer’s kit. But here’s the rub: these writers wouldn’t – couldn’t – be at such a festival but for their writing, and yet, sitting on the platform in front of a mike, they become something different, a persona almost independent of their books, an individual with opinions, prejudices, sense of humour – a performance artist. And the reader falls, almost unknowingly, into this deception, confusing the writer for her work, mixing the two.

One of the writers we listened to did bring up, for a few brief moments, the dilemma he faced at such events. Etgar Keret, hesitating to respond directly to a query from the moderator, mused over the difficulty of conveying sincerity on stage, in front of a public audience. The moderator instantly jumped on that statement, asking him with disbelief if he could not be sincere, but Keret seemed to have something more nuanced in mind, a thought he could not articulate well in this foreign language. He tried again to explain, giving an example of how something serious may induce laughter from an audience and be taken lightly, but he soon gave up the attempt and moved on. Keret, though relaxed and comfortable on stage, appeared to hint that he would prefer sitting at his desk, writing.

For readers, a literary festival can be a sumptuous feast. Meeting and listening to our favourite authors is often a delight, and shuffling from one venue to next covering many in a single day creates a dizzying experience. If a reader is also a writer (or wishes to be one), such visits are not unlike a pilgrimage: interviews with authors provide nourishment to such souls, and talks are like sermons they wish to memorize.

But all this exposure to writers cannot only be a benign influence on readers. Is it possible to love a writer’s works without liking the person? By exposing ourselves to authors at such literary festivals and interviews, do we risk lessening our pleasure in works we might otherwise have enjoyed more? These questions are relevant in particular to readers of fiction, where any link between the work and its author is tenuous at best. Can this awareness keep the familiarity gained about the writer as a person from interfering, especially when it conflicts with our perception of the writer’s work? I shall soon begin to read The Museum of Innocence, and I know this one will be different from the other Pamuk novels I’ve read and loved.



13 thoughts on “The enigma of a literary festival

  1. Interesting post.
    “Is it possible to love a writer’s works without liking the person? By exposing ourselves to authors at such literary festivals and interviews, do we risk lessening our pleasure in works we might otherwise have enjoyed more? ”
    I have experienced meeting a very well known writer in person at a literary festival and have been so put off by their attitude that I have been very reluctant to read any their work.

  2. Parmanu: wonderful post. Really enjoyed all of it. Have you read Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, by the way? An underappreciated novel in my view, and one where the protagonist has a debilitating stammer.

    1. Thank you, Jai. I’ve enjoyed your notes on the Jaipur Literary festival over the years, and I revisited some of them last week as I was working on this essay. (So if your statistics showed a recent surge in the Jaipur festival related posts, it probably was me.)

      I haven’t yet read Black Swan Green. In the essay I linked to above, Mitchell makes an astonishing assertion related to this novel: “Too many people who read proofs of Black Swan Green have asked me how I did my research on stammering: they can’t all be trying to make me feel good about myself.” That’s how successful he has been in reducing his stammer below a “threshold”.

  3. Lovely piece, Parmanu.

    As a journalist – and one not terribly thrilled with the way media works when it comes to literary coverage – I’d see a literary festival completely differently and most probably very cynically.

    The first thing on my mind would, of course, be getting interviews whether I personally like the writer and writing or not. The next would be trying to gauge how much of the crowd is there because of the opportunity to meet or listen to their favourite writers and how much (significantly more, I think) of the crowd is there because a literary festival is a very cool thing to show off about (shows you have brains, you read).

    I’ve been a journalist too long to see a literary festival – actually, any event that requires media support – with anything but with cynicism.

    But I think, if I hadn’t interviewed so many people including authors in my life and therefore known that most often the person you imagine through her/his writing or art is different from what she/he is in real life (and here, I don’t mean anything necessarily negative, but a person in her/his own right rather than the mix of her/his characters I’d built up the image from), I’d probably be excited to go to a literary festival. I’d think, as somehow I still do, that writing is magic and I’d love to meet and thank the magicians who did so much for me.

    1. You bring up a point that I did not take up in the essay.

      Such festivals expose the commercial side of literature, which for a reader can be banal and tiresome, if not ugly. This was another reason that led to my “strange” feeling at Passa Porta. I view literature as an escape from my main vocation, the corporate IT world I am a part of. In that world, large events and conferences dominate the scene and over the years I’ve grown tired of it all. My cosy notions about literary circles being “very different” received a blunt answer when I saw that this world was no different: people here too were full of self-importance, and had a disproportionate opinion of their work and this field’s relevance. This is what large events and gatherings (with media coverage) can do to something that was nice, idyllic, magical.

      So how can we see and hear those “magicians” your refer to, and still retain all that magic writing is about? Book readings at small bookstores may just be the answer.

  4. I really enjoyed this thoughtful post, Parmanu. The Montreal English-language (mostly) literary festival is coming up and I plan to go with a friend to hear Amitav Ghosh. The first year I was all excited about the event, the second year less so, and this year not much at all; I guess I’ve started to see through it to the egos and self-importance, and the commercialization and “use” of writers by others. On the other hand, it has been really nice to see and hear some people I admire. I would have been disappointed in Pamuk, whose work I have enjoyed so much! I hope you’ll tell us what you think of “The Museum of Innocence” — a number of people haven’t liked it as much as some of his other books, but I liked it a lot. Thanks for all you’ve reported and digested for us here!

    1. Beth, it’s interesting to hear that you read Amitav Ghosh. “The shadow lines”, “In an Antique Land”, and “Sea of Poppies” are among my favourites (The Shadow Lines is perhaps an all-time favourite), and I am eagerly awaiting this summer’s release – River of Smoke.

      Literary festival or not, I wouldn’t miss a chance to hear him in person!

  5. Thank you all for reading this long post and sharing your views. I was unsure how a 3500 word essay would be received here – it wouldn’t have been surprised me if this post had gone ignored. But despite all that is being said about the shrinking attention span of heavy internet users/readers, it appears that there is no need to worry. Needless to say, I’m thrilled.

    And here’s a link to a recent column by FT columnist Harry Eyres, who has a different view on why people visit Literary Festivals.

  6. OMG OMG OMG You met David Mitchell! OMG OMG OMG you’re like my neighbor or something! OMG OMG OMG I think I am going to pass out! Never could meet during my London year, but this time we must!

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