I knew that Cognac’s European Literature festival wasn’t a literary festival. Not a writers’ literary festival, in any case. I knew it would be nothing like the intimate meeting place for writers and readers you’ll find at the St.Clementin and Charroux lit fests.
But it was happening close to home. There would be books and authors. And I was intrigued because the European country selected as the theme of the festival wasn’t a country. It was a city. The city of London.
Aha, I thought, as I looked through the programme. Now I’ll understand how the French see the English.
The inauguration event – a discussion between two journalists about their visions of London – came halfway through the festival (I haven’t worked that one out yet. Perhaps I’ll have to wait until France is the theme country to understand this logic).
But Jon Henley, a journalist from The Guardian, had to cancel because he was reporting on terrorists in Paris. So his French equivalent – Eric Albert, who lives in London and works for Le Monde and Radio France – was alone on stage with the interviewer.
I soon understood why London had been chosen as a theme country: Eric described the city as being an island within England, and added that the M25 is the border. In France, he said, Paris is representative of the whole country, but London is different to the rest of England and doesn’t represent it at all.
He talked about the villages within London, its organic creativity, the way people live alongside each other and yet don’t mix. He cited examples of the contradictions you can find, such as a headmistress in the East End who wears a full burqa, but who organises a Christmas crèche and drives a sports car.
Things became political when he talked about the English attachment to the NHS, the unequal wealth distribution, the UK’s discomfort within Europe, the media power of the BBC and the admiration the British had for bankers before the financial crisis.
Then the subject of the famous British humour was raised. Eric said that the English aren’t ‘drôle’; they need humour because they’re ill at ease with each other and are often not quite sure of what to do or say. He talked about the importance of self-mockery because they don’t like to take themselves too seriously – though it’s not because the English mock themselves that they necessarily believe what they say.
Does that sound like you and me?
His analysis couldn’t be complete without talk of sport – and the way most Brits support a football team. As for cricket, he described it as being the only sport where you stop for tea and lunch, where both teams wear the same colours, and where the match can last for 4 days and not even produce a winner. Yes, I laughed too.
A question about British writers’ role in politics was asked. Eric explained that Brits don’t like intellectuals or philosophers. They don’t like long essays. They prefer to read novels that show what’s happening in the world. According to Jon Henley (by telephone), the term ‘intellectual’ is almost an insult in the UK. Politicians take the place of intellectuals, and novelists transpose today’s problems into fiction.
Aha, I thought. Now I understand why the Cognac European Literature festival doesn’t feel like a lit fest. It’s not about the writers themselves – it’s for the French public to listen to intellectuals philosophizing about books and culture.
It was riveting to listen to Eric’s analysis – even if I felt like an eavesdropper (or a British spy) in the French audience. I was a little disappointed, however, not to witness any long-winded questions. You know, the ones the French love to ask, in which everyone (including the questioner) loses the thread and can’t piece together the actual question.
My disappointment didn’t last long. The following day there was a chat show with a presenter whose convoluted questions stumped everyone momentarily – including the panel of four English authors and their translators (bravo for a great job).
John King, John Lanchester, JW Ironmonger (who also turned out to be a John) and Rosie Dastgir had been nominated alongside Maggie O’Farrell and Peter Ackroyd for the ‘Prix des Lecteurs’. Their selected books had been distributed to 87 libraries in the region, and a thousand readers voted for their favourite. I think all thousand were there to listen to the discussion.
Among comments like: “yes, I agree with what John’s saying” and “I do bow to John and John’s expertise” – which displayed a British humour that had nothing to do with feeling ill at ease – they addressed the meaning of London in their novels. Rosie compared London to New York, the latter being her lover and the former her long marriage. They explored the concept of world fiction, which is popular in London and yet rare in Paris, and we learnt the Australian term ‘NESBians’, which refers to people with Non-English-Speaking Backgrounds.
At the end the prizewinner was announced. I was expecting the lady giving the award to make a joke about ‘John’ winning. But she was French. So John Ironmonger’s ‘The Coincidence Authority’ was proclaimed winner, and I’m sure everyone went into the foyer, bought a copy and queued to get it signed. I went home to think about everything they’d said.
The final event I attended was completely different. The title ‘The incredible story of love between the English and the French’ had me sitting in the audience at 9:30 on a Sunday morning (that was the incredible bit). This time it was a ‘Café Littéraire’, which meant that the chat show was hosted in a room with a bar. Apart from that, it was exactly the same table-on-a-stage format as the others.
A distinguished French professor of linguistics, Henriette Walter, was the key speaker. Two hours of fascinating analysis of the similarities and differences between the French and English languages ensued. From the history of tribal invasions and their effect on language, to ‘false friends’ and the use of English in today’s French language; Henriette took us on a spellbinding journey illustrated with examples in both English and French.
She told us that there are more pure Latin words in English than in French today. This is because the English had a limited use of Latin, so the words remained uncorrupted (unlike in France): climate, data, enigma, museum, item and ratio are all examples. She explained how the Germanic Franc invasion of France added an aspirated ‘h’ to the Roman unaspirated ‘h’ in the French language. That’s why we can make a liaison in ‘les hommes’ but not in ‘les halles’. As for the infiltration of English words into modern French, she can’t see the problem as long as they add a nuance that the French equivalent doesn’t have – for example ‘weekend’ is slightly different to ‘la fin de semaine’.
She spoke with passion and laughed at her own tendency to get carried away (could this be classed as British self-mockery?). There was an inevitable reference to Clemenceau’s “English is just badly pronounced French” quotation and a nice observation from Henriette herself: “When they say English is quick to learn, what they mean is that you can quickly learn to speak bad English.”
The festival wasn’t for writers. It wasn’t intimate. But it was full of thought-provoking moments. And now I understand the English. I think.