Letter from Berlin: CanLit Comes to Town

By Stan Persky | October 2, 2004

BERLIN—What does it feel like to be at a literary reading in which the audience is outnumbered by the reader? Pretty weird.

My long-suffering friends know to the point of upchucking that I’m a Berlinophile well beyond the ordinary call-of-Canadian-duty to be polite in a place where you’re a visitor. They will be delighted, therefore, to hear me abjectly confess that sophisticated, Kultur-drenched, sexy, hip Berlin can run just as screwed-up a literary festival as Toronto, Vancouver or Rejkjavik, Iceland.

Okay, straight to some Scenes from Art-Torture: It’s a rainy late-September afternoon when I pull myself together enough to decide to attend that evening’s English-language back-to-back readings at Berlin’s 4th Annual International Literary Festival. The LitFest is a 10-day multi-ring circus that includes 60 writers from 45 countries, a children’s books program, a sort of United Nations political conference, music performances and film showings, and hundreds of red roses handed out by bevvies of festival volunteers.

The readings that evening are held in a several-hundred-seat theatre on Hallesches Ufer along the shore of a Berlin canal (Ufer means “shore” in German). Tonight’s readers are U.S. novelist Joseph Olshan and Canada’s own Aritha van Herk. I down my cappuccino in the café next door and pile into the theatre with the crowd. The crowd is me and five other people. That’s six, in case anybody’s counting.

On the other shore, there’s reader Olshan, a stocky bald guy in his 40s, the author of several novels, most notably a gay novel titled Night Swimmer and an earlier one called Vanitas, which I vaguely remember reading and vaguely remember not liking very much. Olshan is accompanied by a guy who serves as both introducer and post-reading interlocutor, and a German stage actor to read the translation of Olshan, and three musicians to play a pre-reading piece. The piece is by Vivaldi and one of the musicians is a 10-year-old angel of indeterminate sex wielding a viola-cello.

Before I try to figure out what going’s on and what’s gone wrong, the report on Olshan’s reading. The piece he’s reading, from a novel called In Clara’s Hands, is about a 75-year-old Jamaican woman who speaks a Jamaican-English patois. Olshan has apparently written a previous novel about her and is threatening to write a third one. In the post-reading Q. and A., we learn that such a woman apparently featured somewhere in Olshan’s secular-Jewish-New-York childhood.

The trick of the reading is that Olshan is able to “do” the Jamaican-English patois. And he does it (and does it), very well, too. But after awhile, you find yourself wondering, Why is he telling me all this? Despite the Q. and A., I never find out, except that Olshan finds it interesting to write about this semi-autobiographical, semi-imagined elderly woman. Maybe it provides relief from writing gay novels, for which there is less market than there was 10 years ago. In this “Clara” novel, he’s combined Clara with one of the characters from one of his gay novels, though he concedes in the Q&A that maybe it doesn’t work so well.

Somewhere toward the end of this rather uncomfortable art event (what I think of as Art-Torture), I begin thinking. I begin thinking about: a) literary readings of prose; b) German-style literary readings of prose; c) the literary festival’s problems; and d) maybe-not-so-sophisticated Berlin.

a) I don’t like literary readings of prose, even though they’re very popular in Berlin. I don’t like them because I don’t get the point. I inevitably find myself thinking, I could read this myself, on the page, at home, with a cup of coffee, my feet up on the settee. What am I doing here? I get the point of poetry readings. Poems “happen.” Often, reading them on the page, you don’t get them. Often, when the poet reads the poem aloud, the poem “happens” and you get it. Poems are meant to be read aloud. Prose isn’t. In fact, reading prose aloud screws up the pace and rhythm of the prose. And prose read aloud goes on (and on) a long time.

I’ve often thought that readings by prose writers ought to be replaced by the prose writer giving a little polemical talk about whatever’s on his or her mind. But that probably isn’t a solution. I’ve run into lots of fiction writers who don’t have a lot on their minds except the stories they make up. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against good fiction or the fact that many fiction writers don’t have very much on their minds other than their fiction. I just don’t see the point of hearing it aloud.

Lots of writers, it turns out, can only express themselves in the mode in which they prefer to write. That’s often just as true of poets, playwrights, and sci-fi writers as it is of fiction writers. Not a lot of writers seem to enjoy talking; understandably, they prefer writing. Certainly, Olshan’s post-reading talking was decidedly dull and uninspired. We learned that he likes to swim and is good at it, that writing is rather autobiographical, that… doze.

b) German-style readings of prose are a special problem. There’s inevitably a requisite, overly-long introduction. This is because of a German cultural feature that is committed to some good-for-you edification along with anything else you’re going to get. At a reading of a writer in a foreign language, there’s the additional problem of translation.

In Germany, famous foreign novels—like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment—are often read on the radio, so there’s a tradition of semi-dramatic readings of prose in translation. I’ve nothing against it. The reading goes on for weeks, and if it’s the sort of thing you like to listen to, it can be very satisfying, I gather. The best thing about it is that it’s on the radio. I.e., you don’t have to listen to it. This cultural tradition of prose reading is carried over into foreign language prose reading, where an actor is usually brought in to read the German translation semi-dramatically.

Naturally, at literary readings where the writer is reading in Tagalog or Arabic or Mandarin, there needs to be some translation. But there’s some question about whether that’s necessary when the foreign language is English, because so many Germans speak and understand English. In any case, the result is often a long introduction in German, a snippet of the reader reading in his or her native English, and then a long chunk of the actor reading the translation in German. Here, even the post-reading Q&A was translated into German. The result is that you get to hear the reader for a third or less of the allotted time.

c) and d) So, how come only 6 people turned up for Olshan’s reading? Well, maybe Olshan’s unknown, and Berlin literary audiences are unwilling to try out something unknown, and foreign to boot. Come to think of it, how did Olshan get on the list in the first place?

At this point, I start to get a little paranoid. It looks like the people on the list are people who have been translated into German. Maybe the German publishers have a finger in this. Maybe the German Translators Union, if there is such a thing, has a finger in it. Maybe the multiple funding agencies… I even paranoidly notice that one of the six people in the audience is Olshan’s travelling companion, so, do I count him as one of us or one of them?

Or maybe the Berlin Festival didn’t get the word out, despite its bevvy of volunteers. Or maybe Berliners ain’t as interested in literature as I sentimentally imagine them to be. Anyway, by now, the volunteers are handing out red roses to Olshan and his team, and the outnumbered audience is slouching out of the threatre. Gee, given its size, they could have given roses to the audience, too, although I would’ve felt a little funny riding home on the subway clutching my rose.

Okay, you’ve been very patient. You want some Canadian content. Here comes Aritha van Herk, novelist, professor at Calgary, pleasant-enough feminist. Let me admit, right off the bat, that I haven’t read van Herk, and so I will curtail my judgments accordingly. But how come she’s the main Canadian rep at this lit festival? How did she get picked? Well, I suppose, why not van Herk? At least, they didn’t choose Rex Murphy.

I decide not to be paranoid and I simply settle in. This time it’s more of a saw-off between reader team and audience, but the audience is less than 25 people. Van Herk, a red-haired woman of about 50 or so, is accompanied by three young women musicians who get things going with a six-handed piano performance of a Dvorak piece. Here, I have to confess to a semi-misogynist musing: as they six-handedly hammered away at the piano, I thought to myself, I’ve always wondered whatever happened to the Furies after they got done tearing Orpheus to pieces.

In addition to the musicians, van Herk is aided by a woman introducer and interlocutor, an actress to semi-dramatically read the German translation, and a translator for van Herk herself to tell her what is being said in German (van Herk speaks Dutch, and some German, but needs help on the fine points). So, seven women before the mob at Thebes. Some mob.

These classic allusions are not altogether off the point. The piece van Herk is reading is about someone named Arachne (like in, Arachne the Spider), who eventually meets someone named Athena (like in, the Goddess of Wisdom who, after a weaving contest with Arachne, turned Arachne into a weaving spider). In van Herk’s version, Arachne is a saleswoman for women’s underwear in rural Alberta.

If I had properly prepared myself by reading one of van Herk’s books, I might judge this piece to be not very talented, but I haven’t read van Herk, so I’m in no position to judge. It seemed like a mildly feminist cross between Ovid-gone-wrong and the Thelma and Louise road movie. I missed the point, as I so often do. But I can judge the Q&A. Although van Herk seems nice enough, her answers to questions were dull, sloppy-minded and uninspiring. The one interesting question came from a German grad student young woman who asked in perfect English (thus reinforcing my suspicion that most German attendees of literary readings understand English as well as I do) about the relation between van Herk’s work and that of Quebec English-language writer Gail Scott.

Van Herk allowed that she knew Scott quite well, that Scott had spent two weeks in her Calgary home with pneumonia, and that Scott’s writing was “more poetic” than her own. And that was it. So, instead of this prof of literature telling us anything about Gail Scott or Lit or whatever, she provided a lazy answer. Then, the roses were handed out.

I’ve saved the worst for almost last. I went to the LitFest finale, a reading by American novelist and essayist Gore Vidal. This time, an audience showed up. About 300 people. Didn’t fill the theatre, but respectable, I suppose. Vidal, frail at 79, but seemingly perfectly compis mentis, came on stage in a wheelchair. There was the intro in German. Then Vidal told a little self-deprecating joke about his physical condition, and made a couple of remarks about the 4th century a.d. Emperor Julian, about whom he’s written a novel, Julian the Apostate. Perfectly good novel. Then after a minute and a half of speaking, Vidal turned it over to the German actor. German actor read German translation of a chunk of Vidal’s Julian for about 20 minutes. Vidal spoke for one more minute about next chunk of Julian. Then German actor read another chunk of translation for about 20 minutes. No Q&A. Then came the rose, and Vidal was wheeled off stage, waving the rose to show that he was alive. A two-and-a-half-minute evening with Vidal. What were they thinking??

I don’t want to give the impression that this was all there was to the festival, or that I came anywhere close to covering its panoply of events. There was an absolutely wonderful 3-way hour’s conversation one rainy afternoon hosted by American poet and translator Eliot Weinberger. It featured a young American-Israeli poet, translator and publisher, Peter Cole, and two elderly poets, the Palestinian Taha Muhammed Ali, and Israeli Aharon Shabtai. The whole thing was in English, rather heavily-accented English, but understandable. The poets were intelligent, passionate, and wise. The hosting was sophisticated. It was lovely. The audience consisted of 10 people, several of whom were connected to the festival and/or the participants. But if the literary reading has a point, and you’re getting the point, it’s not so bad being outnumbered by the readers.

I went to a dramatic festival-opening keynote talk by South African poet Antje Krog, and later to a discussion on South African publishing between Krog and South African novelist Zakes Mda. Both were middling-interesting. I missed Javier Cercas, author of the great Soldiers of Salamis novel, and Claudio Magris, author of Microcosms.

It was my own fault. Just too damned lazy to get off my ass. I decided not to see the film showing of Cercas’s novel because it was playing on the other side of town, started at 9:30 p.m., was 2 hours long, and by the time the after-showing discussion with Cercas was over and I’d ridden home, it would be well past 1 a.m., and I’m just too damned old for that kind of Art-Torture. And I skipped the appearance of Romeo Dallaire at the sort of UN conference that was somehow part of the festival, even though I was passing up some Canadian content. I should also note that the night after his non-reading, Gore Vidal participated in a political conversation, although I have to admit that Vidal on politics is not my favourite topic. (I was attending another event that evening, but the reports indicated it was a perfectly okay event.)

So I can’t confidently say that the festival is totally screwed up or that Berlin isn’t as hip as I’d like to believe. But let’s just say, I have my creeping doubts.

And I won’t say that I’ll never go to a literary prose reading again, because you should never say “never.” But I don’t think I’ll go to a whole lot more of them.

Berlin, Oct. 2, 2004


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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