A Horse Trots Out of the Text: Literary Festivals in Germany
The whole year round, in small cities and large, in green meadows and in dark clubs, there are countless literary festivals. Where does this trend come from?
Of all the arts, literature is the only one that takes place in private; reading is a solitary occupation. But the book has been pushing more and more out of this personal space. Since the late 1970s, events have been emerging at which several authors recite their texts, as at the Klagenfurt Festival of German-Language Literature, which has been taking place since 1977. Here not only authors readings but also the evaluation process of the jury for the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize has gone public and is broadcast on television. In Darmstadt, the Literary March has been taking place since 1968, at which the Leonce and Lena Prize for Young Poets has been awarded since 1979. The focus of the Erlangen Poets Festival, founded in 1980, is long afternoon readings in the local castle gardens. In the 1990s came more and more literary festivals: cities such as Berlin, Cologne and Munich now all have their big city-wide literary events.
From virtual to real life
This development is not surprising. Although the idea seems to have established itself that “real” life has taken second place to the digitalization of our world, that Facebook & Co. have made “genuine” communication between people rare, the opposite is in fact the case. There is a new longing for real encounters and experiences that can be shared with and remembered by other people. The more virtual the world becomes, the more people feel the need to leave their own four walls in search of the special event. And literature is increasingly being presented as an “event”.
Between “poetrees”, sofas and meadow flowers
Typical of this development is the literary festival Prosanova, which was organized for the third time in 2011 by graduates of the creative courses in Hildesheim, Lower Saxony. Here the literary reading has become an art form, the space affects the text and text the space. When during a reading a rider on a white horse suddenly trots through the doors of the hall, text becomes reality. In this spirit not only the concept of the reading has been fearlessly taken to its performative extreme, but also the performance space itself has been fitted out as a comfortable public living room so as to make room for the encounter of authors with audience and critics. People meet under the “poetree”, a sculptural tree on which typewritten poems hang, and sit on sofas and in armchairs between wild flowers and former army barracks. The more offbeat, the better and more impressive. But organizers have also had the courage to reduce events to the essential, as when at “dark readings” the listener can follow the text completely undistracted by visual impressions.
Reading at 2,000 meters high
The quest for new presentation formats for literature began not with the young writers of Hildesheim but those of Leukerbad. Since 1996 the international festival that takes place in this Swiss resort has broken fresh ground: readings are held before grand Alpine backdrops, in hotel bars and at unusual places such as the Roman-Irish bath. While an author reads aloud from the edge of the pool, his listeners swim quietly about. The high point is the annual midnight readings at the Gemmipass, 2,350 meters above sea level. Literature has now scaled the final Alpine peak.
The right festival for every taste
Reading culture is gaining strength not only in the provinces but also in the big cities. For example, in Cologne, lit.COLOGNE has been offering a program of entertainment with cabaret stars, musicians and writers of all genres since 2001 – from comedy stars to winners of the German Book Prize, there is something for every taste. Also since 2001 the German capital has been playing host to the Berlin International Literature Festival, where every day for a week there are countless readings by writers from around the world. In Bremen, the focus is on poetry with the Poetry on the Road festival, while the Mainz Literary Festival invites mainly young and unknown writers. But this trend has been promoted above all by the festival Leipzig Reads, the biggest German literary festival, which runs parallel to the Leipzig Book Fair and in only a few days holds more than 2,000 readings. There is hardly a city that has been able to resist the vogue.
A text to remember
Even at the major events the simple “water-glass reading” is now a rarely seen format. Texts are recited by actors, staged and accompanied by music, while panel discussions are held to promote deeper understanding of the works. It remains only to wait and see which of the new formats that have been tried by Prosanova and others finally establish themselves. In the end, it is always the text that counts. But under a “poetree” and accompanied by the tones of electronic music, perhaps it sounds even better – and may become an unforgettable memory.
is a literary scholar and Koreanist who, after stationings in Seoul and Tokyo, now works at the headquarters of the Goethe-Institut in Munich.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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