Harvill Secker International Writing Day

Having co-curated the ACALASP Festival of Ibero American Literature which took place in November 2009 at Foyles, Charing Cross in London, my friends from this famous bookshop invited me to attend the Harvill Secker International Writing Day. I decided it was about time to have a nerdy literary Saturday and today was the day.

There were very interesting discussions. My favourites were the first session on “Books that changed the word” and the last one dedicated to literary translation.

“Books that changed the world” is a challenging subject. The panel was formed by Nicholas Shakespeare, Irish writer Joseph O’Connor, and a very posh sounding Claire Clark, brilliantly chaired by English PEN Director Jonathan Haewood. I’ll just throw what, to my opinion, were the best ideas of the morning.

Among these books that changed the world, are those titles which Clark defined as totemic. These, as you can imagine, are those of Tolstoi, Joyce, Kafka, Dickens, Proust, Darwin or Homer if you like. There was also a nice discussion on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the impact and controversy around it.

O’Connor mentioned that a vast number of this “must read” authors are somehow already part of every reader’s DNA and have a key place as the furniture of our current culture. He asked the audience, for example, how many had read the Origins of Species. I think out of 80 people only 3 raised their hands (with great proud, by the way). There! we haven’t read the masterpiece but we all know it’s relevance and we accept the fact that it did change the world. Examples are endless. I must confess this comment was a relief as I am one of those persons who have unsuccessfully tried to read the first volume of In Search of Lost Time at least 3 times, embarrassingly leaving the book aside on page 120. Curiously, just after the iconic madeleines moment. 

The highlight of the day was a rare public appearance by the Galician author Manuel Rivas. In my opinion a huge disappointment. When an interesting writer such as him does not feel comfortable in English I believe is crucial for the success of the event to have simultaneous translation. Not consecutive, simultaneous. After a charming effort to start the session in English, Manuel Rivas gave up (or maybe that was as far as his English could go) and carried on speaking in Galician. His translator, Jonathan Dunne, did his best to keep the chat flowing but  inevitably I got distracted and eventually bored. 

I am not a ferocious reader of Rivas’ work, but the film La lengua de las mariposas which is an adaptation of one of his stories, caused a great impact on me and I do recognize Manuel Rivas is the voice of the suffering of the Galician people during the Spanish Civil War. But aside the importance of talking about these subjects, his literary work is beautiful and human. I was indeed disappointed by the event, overall because the consecutive translation took away precious time that would enable us to hear more of what Manuel Rivas had to say, especially with the publication of his latest work  Books Burn Badly. 
I missed the talk by AS Byatt which striked me as an intelligent woman worth reading.
Another missed opportunity was the session on Crime Fiction. Great subject! The discussion was chaired by a man whose name I did not catch but that is a crime fiction critic. He sat there with Irish writers Stuart Neville and Gene Kerrigan, who reacted only to the chair’s questions. It seemed more like a job interview than a literary chat. Straight forward questions followed by straight forward answers. Neville had better moments that Kerrigan, he seemed a bit more charming and engaging. A few interesting points were mentioned. Let me write them down just as they sounded, as bullets:
  • In the past 10 years, crime fiction is the most popular genre leaving the all times winner romance in second place.
  • Crime fiction is so popular because people like reading about things that scare them. (Really?)
  • The highest paid author in Britain is a crime fiction writer.
  • Women are the main readers of crime fiction.

Towards the end of the conversation Stuart Neville said something quite interesting in regards of these celebrities who become best-selling authors e.g. Katie Price, etc. He said that the money these books bring back is key to afford publishing other authors like him. Clever huh?

I may not feel inclined to read Stuart Neville or Gene Kerrigan’s books, and the audience at Foyles agreed with me as they were the only authors who (sadly) were not asked to sign any books. Well, people were told they were staying another 10 minutes to do book signing but no one came forward.

However, Neville has a blog that I will read: http://conduitnovel.blogspot.com/

The day finished with a fascinating session called Lost in Translation chaired by Sarah Ardizzone. In the panel we had a grumpy Tim Parks, Alon Hilu and Xiaolu Guo. I read Park’s novel Europa a few years ago and did not like it so I was not impressed by his attitude today. He was sitting there feeling he was the big shot at the table. Yawn!

The discussions on literary translation can carry on for hours. It was interesting to hear the feelings of authors such as Hilu and Guo towards they translators. Both of them did not have the best impression. They described it as a love-hate relationship in which the translator not always gets it right. Tim Parks, on the other hand, being an author and translator himself understandably made his defense in quite an intelligent way. But then Guo mentioned the fact that she is her own translator of her work from Chinese to English (eat that!) since he found that no translators were accurate enough because there are cultural references that only Chinese people understand and therefore are untranslatable.

I asked the panel if they agreed in the fact that there is an element of creative writing in literary translation. Parks answered me. First, as if the question was truly obvious but later on he did admit that the translator is forced to be as creative as possible to find the way to remain faithful to the original ideas of the author. Thanks for that, I liked it.

As we left the gallery at Foyles, the audience was provided with a goody bag courtesy of Harvill Secker. It is the most generous goody bag I have ever had and ever will. It contained 6 books!! One hardback signed copy of Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, José Saramago’s Blindness, Gunter Grass’ Peeling the Onion, J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Bernieres’ A Partisan’s Daughter and Nesbo’s The Redbreast. How good is that!!

The only puzzling thing is that all these except for the Umberto Eco’s are actually not Harvill Secker books but Vintage. So who should I thank?