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.
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!
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.
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?