View into the german literary scene

Europe reads:
Literary events and writers’ meetings in the European context

Quelle: Goethe-Institut © Alida Bremer
Alida Bremer © Alida Bremer
Alida Bremer
Member of the Croatian P.E.N. Centre
Literature provides insights into the lives of other people, and into the social situations of foreign lands and past times. If Europe is to be not only an economic community whose self-image can be severely undermined by a financial crisis, but a continent criss-crossed by cultural and interpersonal connections, literature in particular can be of major significance for this networking. Love and death, hopes and fears, everyday disasters, passions and blows of fate are similar the world over, yet there is a difference between whether they happen in the south of Italy or in Denmark, under the conditions of post-socialist Polish society or in contemporary England. Literature opens us up to mutual understanding and satisfies our curiosity about the world.

The curators of many literary festivals in Germany have pursued the idea of “more Europe” in recent years, inviting writers from a number of European countries to talk about, read about and discuss the subject of Europe. What is remarkable about this is that such events take place not only in major cultural centres, but also in smaller places. As well as taking part in discussions with the audience, writers also exchange views among themselves and meet their translators, resulting in friendships that overcome distance and borders. Little by little, every such encounter helps to construct a Europe of other values beyond bureaucracy and the financial crisis. Writers are not ambassadors of their countries, but they do know the needs and joys of the societies from which they come and are therefore particularly well-placed to engage in European exchange. The Goethe-Institut in Budapest has a literary blog entitled “Wir und Europa” (We and Europe), which shows how the web can be used for such exchange. In it, writers from Germany, Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia write about their experiences in and of Europe. If one considers not only the festivals, but also the varied programmes of the literary and other cultural centres (such as the Gasteig in Munich or the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin (LCB), the writers and translators-in-residence scholarships, the seminars, workshops and conferences, it is possible to speak of a diverse cultural scene that strengthens the European community in times of crisis without neglecting its aesthetic values.

Thanks to a number of event organizers, Germany has become a very popular destination for writers from other European countries. Here, they encounter an interested audience that is willing to spend hours listening to readings. That is something the invited authors realise anew every spring in Leipzig, where Europe’s largest literary festival “Leipzig liest” (Leipzig reads) takes place in parallel with the Leipzig Book Fair. Even authors who have not even published a book in German find an audience here, for example at the Balkan night at the old UT Connewitz cinema, where hundreds of people from Leipzig gather each year on the Saturday of the fair to listen non-stop for four hours to writers from Southeast Europe. Leipzig proves again and again that despite all the prophesies of doom, literature has lost none of its clout. This year, a conspicuous number of writers read from their tablet PCs rather than from printed books – but what counts are the words and not the medium through which they are conveyed.

It would be naive to believe that an audience forms by itself. Concepts and considerations, money and time are needed to make a public reading culture of this kind into a tradition. “Leipzig liest” has become increasingly varied over the years. The event’s organisers have become ever more creative in seeking out suitable reading venues in the city and interesting facilitators to present their authors. For Eastern European writers in particular, Leipzig has become almost a magical place where they can meet colleagues from all over Europe once a year and where they a given a hearing. A Book Prize for European Understanding is awarded in Leipzig – the Book Fair itself deserves such a prize.

At times of austerity measures, organisers become very imaginative in seeking out sponsorship and promotion, and also in selecting themes, venues and participants, and they expend a great deal of energy in advertising their programmes. If one takes a closer look, however, every German city – even the smallest – seems to be aspiring to stage an international literary programme. “I am very pleased that the second edition of the European Literature Festival vielSeitig was even better than the first. We have definitely founded a literature biennial tradition,” says Wolfgang Suttner, Artistic Director of vielSeitig, the European Literature Festival in Siegen. An audience of more than 1,500 listened to texts by European writers from ten countries in this university town in September 2012.

Even very unusual concepts found sponsors and an audience. The sixth Meeting in Telgte entitled “Europe in crisis – talks with European writers” took place in February 2013. Thirteen writers gathered in this small Westphalian town to devote their attention to a subject currently of great interest to many Europeans. Some of those invited had close connections with at least two countries and many were multilingual, which meant that they brought along a great wealth of experience and subjects. During the three-day meeting, based on the setting in Günter Grass’ book “Treffen in Telgte” (The Meeting at Telgte), there was only one large group reading for an audience, while the talks on Europe took place behind closed doors. It is thanks to the event’s curator Hermann Wallmann that the event took this form. He believes in creating space for writers so that they can engage in discussion in peace, away from the public eye and from any local and national expectations. This was probably the most intensive and intimate debate on the difficult subject of crisis that has been organised at a gathering of European writers in recent years. The authors from Slovenia and Croatia realised that writers from Belgium are struggling with similar political problems as they are themselves, while the writer from England reported on what it is like to write in a language everyone uses and which as a result is constantly being reinvented.

Peter Böthig and Otto Wynen, the curators of the European festival of travel literature “Neben der Spur” (Journey of Discovery), also had an original idea, which was to focus on travel literature in order to learn more about Europe: “Europe’s face is changing rapidly. The extreme form of conflict that took place in Southeast Europe in the nineteen-nineties is part of a global transformation process that raises the question of a modern European identity.“ In May 2012, the two curators organised a meeting of writers in Neuruppin and the surrounding area within the context of the Fontane Festival to discuss subjects including the last war in Southeast Europe.

Similar festivals are also organised in the big cities, of course. The International Literature Festival Berlin mounted a “literary rescue package for Europe”. Writers were asked “for a(n) [autobiographical] story about their experience of Europe”, and these stories were presented and discussed in September 2012. “These individual stories are the little “euro coins” we have all got in our pockets,” wrote Ulrich Schreiber and Thomas Böhm, the festival organisers, who launched the story-writing activity to oppose the concept of Europe being reduced to a financial problem.

What the “Leipzig liest” Festival is for the east of Germany each spring, lit.COLOGNE, Cologne’s literature festival, one of Europe’s biggest, has been for the west for the last twelve years. Using focal themes, this festival organises meetings of authors with artists of all disciplines and events on political and journalistic subjects, including theatre, cabaret and children’s literature.

Although writing and reading are solitary activities, major events of this kind prove that literature stands in the midst of society. And although Europe is met with scepticism in public discourse, the thousands of people attending these events in Germany prove that Europe is emerging as a common cultural area.

Alida Bremer

Alida Bremer was born in Split, Croatia in 1959.
She read Comparative Literature and Romance, Slavonic and German Studies in Belgrade, Rome, Saarbrücken and Münster, completing a doctorate in Comparative Literature. She works on a freelance basis for the S. Fischer Foundation, managing the TRADUKI network project.
She is a member of the Croatian P.E.N. Centre.

Spring 2013