Another quick review of Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark set in Norway, Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic set in Switzerland, and Leila Aboulela’s The Translator set in Aberdeen and Sudan. Common themes: human trafficking, dark underside of apparently very civilised societies and an outsider’s gaze at mainstream culture in a particular country.
Le Livre sur les quais is a relatively unknown literary festival taking place on the banks of Lake Geneva, in the small Swiss town of Morges (near Lausanne). It started in 2010 with just 180 mainly Swiss local writers (a friend of mine who lives in Morges referred to that first year somewhat unkindly as ‘all cook books, tourist guides and crafts manuals’). However, in its 5th year, it has expanded to 362 authors, including many international authors (particularly English-speaking, to satisfy the large expat community in the area). Each year there is an honorary president – a well-known French-speaking author (last year it was Tatiana de Rosnay, this year it was Daniel Pennac – and a different geographical region is invited to be the ‘guest of honour’. In 2011 it was Quebec, Belgian Walloon region in 2012, last year it was Rhone-Alpes and this year it was Tessin – the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
This is a book festival for both fiction and non-fiction fans, for all genres, for all ages, and for quite a few languages. There is a huge book tent on the lakeside, where you can buy your books (at exorbitant Swiss ‘exchange rates, where 15 euros becomes 31.50 francs) and get them signed by the authors when they are not at a conference. There are said conferences, either individual or panel discussions, workshops, films, wine and food tasting, art exhibitions, concerts and, above all, the boat trips with readings. What better way to spend a sunny September weekend than cruising on Lake Geneva listening to Daniel Pennac read from his many novels, Luc Ferry ponder philosophical and ethical issues and Philipp Meyer debating the New Great American Novel with Donald Ray Pollock? Oh, and did I say that all of the events (except for the cruises) are free and that most of them don’t even require pre-registration?
Swiss and French-speaking authors are of course predominant, but there were many authors that were interesting to me as an English speaker. These authors would have been mobbed at a literary festival in the UK – Nathan Filer, Naomi Wood, Louise Doughty, Douglas Kennedy, Andy McNab, Val McDermid, Jo Baker, Caroline Lawrence and Peter Robinson – but here they were mostly subjected to relentless button-holing by us expats, who kept telling them how much we’d enjoyed their books.
It is also a great opportunity to become acquainted with the up-and-coming authors, or those writing in other languages who have not been translated yet into English. This was a common complaint: many authors told me they had been translated into German, Italian, Swedish, Turkish, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian etc. etc., but not into English. This made me wonder just how ‘big’ or ‘wealthy’ the publishing business is in those small countries and languages, that they can ‘afford’ to translate so much. And not just from well-known American or English authors.
While French readers were queuing for autographs in front of Katherine Pancol, an author who writes what I would describe ‘soap opera with designer gear’ (I could not finish her book), I got to meet and have proper conversations with far more quirky and interesting authors whose books I bought (as I mentioned yesterday) or Pedro Lenz, who writes in Swiss German dialect, and Matthias Zschokke, born and raised in Switzerland but now living in Berlin, or the very candid and delightful debut novelist Lottie Moggach, whose book on online identity sounds both chilling and fascinating. (And yes, she was asked about the benefits but also the disadvantages of having a famous writer as a mother.)
Beautiful weather (to make up for the miserable summer we’ve been having in this area) and good coffee and cakes contributed to this perfect day, as well as bumping into many friends and fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group. In fact, many of them were running their own workshops on characterization, life writing, translations. I think it’s a given that I’ll be attending next year too!
Finally, here are a few choice quotes from the sessions I attended:
I don’t think you make a conscious choice of writing a ‘classic’ or writing a book that sells. Those authors who have written classics were not aware that they were writing classics at the time. After all, if you only sell five copies, no matter how good your book is, does it have a chance to become a classic? (Louise Doughty)
It was torture writing my book, but nice to have it written. (Nathan Filer)
I stuck to a proportion of about 90% fact and 10% fiction in my depiction of Hemingway’s life and loves, and I was afraid I would be scourged by Hemingway experts, but in the end if you are writing fiction, you need to give yourself the licence to get away from the facts. (Naomi Wood)
I don’t find it easy to write, nor do I feel a compulsion to write every day, so for a long time I thought that meant that I wasn’t a real writer. (Lottie Moggach)
I originally wrote this book in English and contacted a publisher in the US. They were initially very enthusiastic, until they discovered my age. All of my previous novels counted for nothing. They all want young and healthy writers, who can reliably produce a book a year for a long stint. (Mary Anna Barbey)
I am supposedly on a book buying moratorium, but this week I cracked and completely forgot about it. After the Chateau de Lavigny readings that I attended last Sunday, I could not resist buying paperback books by at least two of the authors present there.
Jessica Maria Tuccelli: Glow – five unforgettable voices weaving over a century of Southern life in America; slave plantations have been built adjacent to the glades of a razed Cherokee nation. An epic novel, filled with many personal, intimate stories.
Jason Donald: Choke Chain – Nelson Mandela said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ In 1980s apartheid South Africa, bad parenting seems to be rife, as two young boys find out about deceit, violence and petty crime from their volatile father.
Then I made the mistake of reading some reviews I trust and following some writers’ Twitter stream… and got excited about the following two books, which I downloaded in electronic format.
Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice – already read and reviewed here
Mark Edwards: Because She Loves Me – a psychological thriller, filled with passion, obsession, jealousy and murderous intent. I’ve previously enjoyed the build-up of suspense in Edward’s novel ‘The Magpies’, so am curious to see what he does next.
I also borrowed a book in French from the library: Susie Morgenstein: Confession d’une grosse patate – a half-serious, half-humorous look at the plight and self-flagellation of an overweight woman. I later discovered it was not by a French writer at all, so there were no loving descriptions of foie gras and wine…
Finally, yesterday I attended the literature festival ‘Le Livre sur les Quais’ (Books by the Quay) in Morges in Switzerland. I had the pleasure of meeting several writers I know, admire, have read or am currently reading: Louise Doughty, Noami Wood (of ‘Mrs. Hemingway’ fame), Val McDermid, Nathan Filer. I was with a German/Swiss friend who introduced me to some German-speaking writers, while I introduced him to some French and English-speaking ones. So of course I had to buy a few books and get them signed… Sadly, none of them are yet available in English.
A short story collection which won the Goncourt novella prize last year, this is a wonderful mix of surrealism, absurdity and cross-cultural comparison written with great humour and compassion. I previously read and briefly reviewed this Moroccan-French writer’s wonderful book about a year in the French education system. And doesn’t this one have an irresistable cover?
I love the noirish style of this Swiss-Italian writer (who writes in French) and hope he will soon get translated into English. This is the story of writer’s block mixed with marital block – a couple go on holiday in an isolated mountain chalet to try and rekindle both their relationship and their artistic inspiration. Of course, things don’t go according to plan…
The latest book by this American-turned-Swiss author, it is crime fiction with an extra literary dimension. It also bravely examines human trafficking in this wealthiest, most peaceful of Alpine countries. It is also the book that I saw several French writers reading while they were waiting for their book signings to start: always a good sign!
This post is linked up to the Showcase Sunday meme hosted by Vicky at Book, Biscuits and Tea. A great chance for us to oooh and aaah over our latest acquisitions. And remortgage our house to buy some more!