George Szirtes, who was recently described by Man Booker International Prize Winner László Krasznahorkai as ‘My Hero’ in the regular Guardian column, blogs on , reporting on the history and traditions of the festival and summarising the first provocation.
As some will know Norwich has hosted the Worlds Literature Festival for eleven years now and I have attended many of them and summed up the last three before being asked to sum up this one. Putting aside capital cities as centres of all the arts Norwich has been a city of literature for a long time, partly because of its history but chiefly because of the early establishment of the Creative Writing course at the UEA which has produced so many successful, prize winning and much praised writers. That MA course started in 1970 and began to offer PhD’s in the mid-eighties.
The New Writing Partnership was a collaboration between the city, the county and the university and was renamed the Writers’ Centre Norwich in 2009. This partnership has been so successful that the city, which was already a City of Refuge, was named as England’s first UNESCO City of Literature. It is now also in collaboration with the British Centre of Literary Translation, first set up by W G Sebald, and has a great ambitious programme. In other words Norwich is a hive of literary activity and each year’s festival brings its internationally known writers to the city for the sessions known as salons and for public readings.
Each year the Festival has a set theme that eight writers are invited to address in the form of provocations that can be about half an hour long and are followed by a salon discussion. Last year the theme was Nostalgia, this time it was Reputation.
My task in summing up is to recall all the main points of the provocations and discussions and to try to link them together in a presentation lasting about half an hour. This could be a dry business so it is worth trying to hold it together with some running theme or metaphor. In this case it was an expression used by a first participant at the festival, Dan Richards who, in describing his unsuccessful attempts to sell a previous book to publishers, said it was like offering them an octopus in a suitcase.
The octopus follows.
First session and Jon Cook’s introduction
It is very tempting to begin with the octopus in the suitcase that Dan Richards mentioned at the end of our very first provocation by Chris Bigsby. It is, after all, a creature with eight limbs and and we have had eight quite various tentacular provocations. Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, about whom she spoke that morning, is titled The Pike. Jon Cook then spoke of D’Annunzio being drawn to his public as a predatory bird to its prey. Kyoko Yoshida, in her reading told us a story about squirrels with secret gardens. Liz Berry read us two poems featuring birds, in one of which she told us that a certain kind of pigeon was known in the Black Country as a Birmingham Roller, which I first misheard as a burning umbrella. Anna Funder gave us, was it Ernst Toller, as “an animal, a beaked bird with a glossy black head”. Then Vesna Goldsworthy suggested that hoping to be a writer by engaging in literary study was like preparing to be a jockey by qualifying as a vet. Then, at the very end, the publisher David Graham wondered whether he was a fox in a henhouse or a lamb to slaughter.
Given all this I was rather hoping that I might be able to link all the sessions together by reference to various animals, but then the animals thinned out and grew somehow facetious and the only analogy I have left in my hand is the menagerie.
It would be equally tempting to begin with As You Like It and Jaques’ “all the world’s a stage” speech about the seven ages of man where the fourth age belongs to the soldier who is conveniently compared to a leopard:
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
And that, I thought might cover a few bases in thinking of reputation in terms of honour and of quarrels, of the sheer transience of bubbles, and indeed of cannons, both the firing kind with two n’s and the kind – perhaps just as deadly, in its own way – with just one.
Jon Cook built his introduction to the salons on Pascale Casanova’s book, The World of Letters and set about exploring the idea of reputation and place. Where do you go to make your reputation? To the big cities, of course, to Paris, to London, to Berlin, to New York, to the great metropolis beyond your back yard. Metropolitan power, he said, following Casanova, was a matter of accumulation; of competition, rivalry and dispute (those jealousies mentioned in Jaques’s speech); and of concentration – a kind of density where all the books and ideas are crowded and jostling together.
He also brought our attention to the idea of a national literary consciousness which some posit as the glory, or even definition of a nation, while pointing to exceptions such as Stendhal who, notoriously (for his French countrymen) preferred Shakespeare to Racine.
But wherever it’s happening now, he ended, it will probably go on to happen elsewhere. I suspect this ease and rapidity of movement has a great deal to do with the technology of immediate communication and globalisation of capital. In any case, as Feste, another melancholy clown in Shakespeare, points out “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”.
This is the first in a series of blogs reporting back from Worlds Literature Festival, and more blogs will be posted over the next few weeks.
George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948, and came to England with his family after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He was educated in England, training as a painter, and has always written in English. In recent years he has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature, producing editions of such writers as Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. He co-edited Bloodaxe’s Hungarian anthology The Colonnade of Teeth. His Bloodaxe poetry books are The Budapest File (2000); An English Apocalypse (2001); Reel (2004), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; New & Collected Poems (2008); The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009) and Bad Machine (2013). Bloodaxe has also published John Sears’ critical study Reading George Szirtes (2008). Szirtes lives in Norfolk and recently retired from teaching at the University of East Anglia. He is currently translating the Man Booker Prize winner László Krasznahorkai.
Follow George on Twitter @George_Szirtes .
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