Tag Archives: Henriette Walter

Being Benevolent

What could be better than spending 4 days at Cognac’s European literature festival, surrounded by books?

OK, winning the lottery, maybe. Or creating world peace.

But within the constraints of my little bookish life, what did I find even better than just attending last week’s Littératures Européennes, as I do every year?

The answer is being a volunteer (in French, we say a bénévole). Yes, I had my first voluntary experience there, last weekend, in a team with the 40 other book-loving volunteers and it heightened my appreciation of the whole literary festival.

As you’ll know if you’ve read my 2015 and 2016 blog posts about the festival, the idea is to get to know our fellow Europeans better through reading books. Each year one country or region is selected: for this year’s edition, the theme was the Mediterranean islands.

The Littératures Européennes association chooses books set in the country of honour and translated into French. The shortlisted ones are sent to libraries and schools all over Poitou-Charentes, who vote for their favourites. All the authors are invited to the festival to meet the public, and the winners in each category receive prizes.

courtesy of Le Texte Libre

I have avoided volunteering up to now (apart from odd slots at my favourite Le Texte Libre bookshop stand) because I like to be free to explore, to listen to the talks and to meet the authors. I thought that as a volunteer I would be stuck in one place, dealing with complaints and telling people where the toilets were while exciting events sparkled all around me.

No, Harriet. Wrong again! Well, some people did ask where the toilets were – and I must admit that I made a fab list of the most bizarre things I was asked – but I certainly wasn’t stuck in one place. We were able to take part in our choice of events, since we worked in pairs. And instead of suffering complaints, we were kissed with compliments.

It was great to work alongside the other association members and get to know them while we welcomed authors and translators, prepared rooms for round table events and helped out visitors. In fact, if this blog post is rather light on photos of people, it’s because I was far too busy looking helpful to use my camera!

La Salamandre (Courtesy of the VIlle de Cognac)

I knew that the festival was free and that you could watch discussions between authors on specific European themes. These take place at La Salamandre conference centre, which has an auditorium, an onsite literary café and smaller rooms.

I’d also been to the popular panel between shortlisted authors for the Prix des Lecteurs, (readers’ prize) which is held at Cognac’s Avant Scène theatre.

Prix des Lecteurs, Avant Scène theatre

What I didn’t know about were the numerous events organised outside the boundaries of the talks, prizegiving ceremonies and bookshop stands.

Thursday was dedicated to secondary school pupils, who came for special activities led by a selection of authors. The booktubing session – where real-life booktubers Lizzie and Gwendoline filmed pupils talking about their favourite festival books – was a highlight for me. It was also useful because a high school will be booktubing on my own novel, Tree Magic, next spring.

Friday saw high school students take over the conference centre. Their sessions taught them about careers in publishing and they also filmed each other interviewing the authors. And primary schools were not forgotten, as children’s authors and illustrators drove all over the region to speak to classes.

Children were also an important focus of the festival during the public opening at the weekend. A whole room was allocated to children’s workshops, films, musical siestas and readings, which ran all day on Saturday and Sunday.

This year the variety of public events was much wider. Authors gave readings, which you could listen to on headphones while drinking a coffee or wandering round the stalls. There were photography exhibitions, performed plays, book signings, film projections and readings accompanied by music.

I loved the fun ‘tarot-card’ game with mysterious goddess Circe, who would find the text to match your mood and read it to you. In the evenings, festival partners provided entertainment, including a play at Hennessy’s theatre, ‘Les Quais, Ici ou Ailleurs’, and a film projected by Eurociné.

As the theme was the Mediterranean Islands, you could hear authors speaking in Italian, Sicilian, Greek, Corsican, Cypriot, Maltese and Croatian. There were also plenty of discussions about insularity, war, the Mafia, leprosy and the refugee situation. I did hear one British accent among the authors: Emma Jane Kirby dropped in and talked (in excellent French) about her novel The Optician of Lampedusa.

Other authors present included 2012 Goncourt winner Jérôme Ferrari and the current writer-in-residence, Sicilian Davide Enia. Davide is the author of Palermo boxing novel On Earth As It Is In Heaven, and was everyone’s darling. The audiences laughed at his jokes and he spoke in a charming choreography of Italian gestures. During his six-week residency he worked hard, visiting schools, libraries and bookshops throughout the region to talk about Sicily and his work.

I had a coup de coeur for Sophie Chérer, author of L’Huile d’Olive Ne Meurt Jamais, which is based on a true story about mafia resistance. She talked to a group of secondary school pupils and made them think about what success actually means, in terms of a book. She also asked them how they felt about books being put in competition with each other to win a prize, and explained why she found this odd. Ironically, Sophie later learnt she’d won the secondary school readers’ prize.

One of my favourites from a previous year (see my 2015 blog post about the London edition of the festival) was also present. Henriette Walker, etymologist extraordinaire from the French Academy, was back to fascinate the audience with her talk about the origins of language in the Mediterranean islands.

Imagine my delight when I saw that her latest book was all about the names of trees. Needless to say, we had an interesting discussion, which ended with a simultaneous book signing.

Sunday evening’s magical, musical reading by refugee story-collector François Beaune, was followed by clearing up and then a drink and pizza for the volunteers.

We’ll be meeting again in a few weeks for a debriefing – which is, of course, an excuse to catch up with all our new friends.

Next year’s festival, held from 15-18 November 2018, will be honouring the countries around the Baltic Sea for its 30th anniversary. Why don’t you come along and discover them through their authors’ voices?

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.