Tag Archives: Cognac

When Danube meets Charente

dscn0720Last night I met a river. A deep, contemplative river of a person, just like the River Charente as it idles through Cognac.

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.

Foto N - Tomáš Benedikovič

Foto N – Tomáš Benedikovič

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.

dscn0716She 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.

dscn0712The 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.

dscn0732Thanks to the Jean Monnet residency, Jana is gathering her Cognac thoughts, ageing them and writing. We will all benefit from what I’m sure will be a complex, mellow XO blend.

Come and meet her at the Salamandre conference centre in Cognac on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November at 10am.

Three Johns and a Rosie

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.

DSCN2667Aha, 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.

ferry translation

The word ‘lanternes’ made my French husband laugh.

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.