She is, of course, a writer – and not just any old writer: she’s the 2012 EU Literature prizewinner, Jana Beňová.
Qualifying letters normally tack onto a name, but Jana’s tag, the one which open doors for her, is a prefix. It heralds, in a triumph of trumpets, the Slovakian name that follows; a name few English-language readers would recognise. It introduces her. It stamps value on her work. It instructs us to take her career seriously. And it advises residency hosts that by inviting her to write in their community, they will be rendering a service to Culture (yes, with a capital C).
Cognac’s Littératures Européennes association has taken heed of that advice. During October and November Jana is breathing in the balmy Cognac air and breathing out poetry onto paper. She’s the first guest in the new, annual Jean Monnet residency, which coincides with the literary festival from 17th to 20th November.
Jana is a 42-year-old poet and novelist with a degree in dramaturgy. She was a journalist for a Slovakian daily newspaper for 7 years and has published poetry, short story collections and novels since 1993. Her novel Seeing People Off, subtitled Café Hyena, won the EU prize.
Café Hyène, as it is called in French, is a distinctive work of art. It follows the activities of a group of literary friends in the run-down Petržalka district of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Not only is the language captivating, the storyline is original: it shows the lives of Petržalka citizens in poetic, philosophical bursts, like fireworks.
You won’t have seen this novel in English (why not, for goodness sake?). It will only be available in May 2017, published by indie American publisher Two Dollar Radio. I’d definitely recommend the slim volume: it’s the kind of book you can read several times and still discover something new and thought-provoking each time you open it.
I was lucky enough to be Jana’s interpreter when she arrived in Cognac and addressed the general public. She speaks great English, though little French (just enough to order what she likes to eat and drink). It was my first experience of interpreting and, apart from telling the audience that her favourite activity was working – instead of walking (oops!) – I found it to be an interesting, though intense, challenge.
Jana loves the town of Cognac, which, she says, should be perfect for ageing her work into a VSOP or an XO. When I met her in a wine bar for a chat, she told me how the river brings a sense of raison d’être to a place – much like the Danube in Bratislava. She regularly walks along the River Charente, admiring the golden autumnal light and continuing her writing process in her head. She’s not a writer who sits at a desk and churns out words. She needs time to contemplate things, to let her mind create as she wanders. This is why swimming is one of her favourite activities.
She can’t note the ideas she has while swimming, but is confident that she’ll remember them. When she walks, she always takes notes. I told her how I record my ideas on my telephone when I’m running – even though it can be difficult to hear my recorded words through my puffing. But recording speech doesn’t work for Jana. There’s something in writing that pushes you forward, she says. This doesn’t happen when you speak.
It’s this need to continue being ‘in’ her fiction even when she’s not at her desk that led Jana to stop her work as a journalist: she says you need to be fully present as a journalist, which you can’t do if you’re writing fiction or poetry.
Winning the EU Prize for Literature hasn’t changed Jana’s career path, although it helped financially and has been especially useful in attracting translations. Jana has read books from all over the world, and as a writer she longed to be part of the world literature scene. For a Slovakian writer using a language read by only 5 million people, getting translated is as important as getting published. Of course, EU Literature prizewinner also sounds good!
The prizewinning Café Hyena has a deliberately disjointed style. It isn’t necessarily Jana’s only style – indeed, she didn’t decide to write it in this way. When she starts writing a piece, she’s not fully sure of what it is. She constantly asks herself where it’s going in terms of style, structure and narrator. Then, after some time, it opens and shows her the way. She says the style comes from the body of the piece, so her new work will be different to Café Hyena because she feels she has finished her journey into this style.
The Jean Monnet residency is the moment for Jana to bring together the ideas for her next oeuvre and set them down on paper. Yes, on paper. She finds the physical act of combining pen and paper important in the writing process, and regrets that screens have replaced typewriters.
Residencies are useful because they allow her time to live alone and write; time during which she doesn’t have to do any other work. Writers need to be alone. The best way to be alone without being lonely, according to Jana, is to sit in a café.
Of course, writers need to see people too, and Jana’s schedule includes visits to local towns each week to meet the Charente public. This brings the balance that is key to Jana’s lifestyle – another being the city / country balance. Big cities are great for a short time, but then she needs to come to a country town for the serenity. Even her choice of home is a balance, as she alternates between Spain and Hungary. The building in which Jana writes is important to her too. Luckily, she feels at home in the 200-year-old residency house in Cognac, and likes the sense of other people having lived there.
Writing isn’t just the act of writing, she says: it’s all about living. And when you want to write, you will do anything to combine the two. She owns nothing and has no money saved for retirement – but as long as she’s writing, she is free and open and unafraid.
Come and meet her at the Salamandre conference centre in Cognac on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November at 10am.