This year’s Beyond Words French Literature Festival at the Institut Français du Royaume Uni featured a great line-up from across the Channel. Throughout the week, the Institut Français du Royaume Uni in South Kensington, London, was bustling with people eager to see their favourite French authors in conversation with their British counterparts discussing not only their latest books, but many things words and ideas from France, past and present.
The first event I attended was A Gallic Evening with Muriel Barbery, Antoine Laurain and Jean-Baptiste Andrea, chaired by Viv Groskop. Gallic Books publish “the very best of what the French are actually reading.” Over the past decade, they have brought over one hundred authors to the British reading public.
Muriel Barbery, author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody, talked about her latest novel, A Single Rose. A forty-year-old botanist is summoned to Kyoto by the assistant of her recently deceased father whom she has never known, for the reading of his will. A melancholy loner, raised by her mother and her grandmother, she discovers the beauty and importance of flowers in Japanese culture . . . and falls in love . . . The narrative is structured as a series of short allegorical stories based on ancient legends. The novel encompasses Barbery’s usual concerns with the human condition, underpinned by philosophical concepts and ideas. Her complex, multi-dimensional narratives invariably offer a mosaic of experiences and viewpoints as her characters search for meaning in their lives.
Antoine Laurain’s quintessentially French novels have a universal appeal that transcends language barriers. He has a knack for blending mystery, humour, romance and nostalgia. His memorable and relatable characters instantly draw you in – among them an eccentric antique collector, a disillusioned chef, a sharp-eyed bookseller and an ordinary family man suddenly caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The wit, elegance and simplicity of his writing, and his punctilious attention to detail, transport readers to the streets of Paris and other picturesque locations. The Red Notebook is one of Gallic Books’ bestsellers both in the UK and the USA, as well as being selected for Queen Camilla’s Reading Room. Sales of his books across all formats in English number over 180,000 copies. His latest novel, An Astronomer in Love, encapsulates his usual exploration of the complexities of relationships, the power of small moments, and the consequences of the choices we make.
Jean-Baptiste Andrea is a master of atmospheric and suspenseful storytelling, weaving intricate narratives that reel you in and keep you hooked. His descriptions are visually arresting, conjuring landscapes, weird atmospheres and crucial details in the mind’s eye. His complex, multi-dimensional characters with their relatable strengths, motives and desires driving their actions, are offset by richly depicted settings – be it a rugged wilderness, a small rural town, or an icy mountain – that serve as more than just a backdrop. Andrea’s latest novel, Devils and Saints, starts with an elderly man giving virtuoso professional piano performances in airports and train stations. The narrative moves back in time to his childhood at an orphanage where he was abandoned, leaving him to fend for himself among other lost boys. Perfect for fans of Oliver Twist and Lord of the Flies.
Discussing his seventeenth novel, Lessons, with Ted Hodgkinson, head of literature at the Southbank Centre, Ian McEwan most certainly gave us a lesson in life, how to cope with it (or not), and more besides: “The fifties was a great decade for things not being said. There were many tensions in my home environment [as a child] and some of that finds its way into the novel . . . When we contemplate our lives, when we get to that point in our adult lives where we have childhood and adolescence behind us, we are constantly re-examining and rewriting that story – depressives are often people who cannot anticipate failure, or look back remembering failure, and they get trapped in a negative state – and there is a sense of something almost happening. And so we see that there are many, many things that happen in life that are never resolved, and it is the business of movies and novels and operas to try and persuade us that things are concluded, but most things don’t get resolved, most problems don’t get solved – either they get forgotten, or they just become part of who we are. One of the worst, most insidious new words in the English language is ‘closure’. There is not any closure to the great vagaries of life, there is simply absorption and, as it were, learning to live with your ‘being’. When you suffer a great loss, it becomes part of you, part of what you are, it is not solved . . . So, consistently through this novel, things are not solved . . . There’s a suspicion that we’ve learned nothing, nothing at all, and yet in some odd way we feel slightly more qualified to exist.”
Colette and the theatre of inventing herself
More love lessons followed in the shape of Deborah Levy, Michele Roberts and Emmanuelle Lambert and Diana Holmes talking about Colette’s experimental life and radiant writing. The panel looked at the way in which Colette’s works delve into the complexities of female identity; how her writing challenges traditional gender norms and social constraints; and how she as a person defied the conventions of her time by advocating for independence, and expressing female sexuality in an open and unashamed way.
It was the perfect build up to the final event of the festival: Paul B Preciado – the writer, philosopher and leading thinker in study of gender and sexual politics – describing how Virginia Woolf’s Orlando resonates with their personal writing and theory, and that “transitioning is also translating.”
“We are transitioning, all of us. This is an Orlando moment in history,” Paul B. Preciado
A screening of the trailer of Preciado’s forthcoming film led into a critical examination of Virginia Woolf’s influence in terms of identity, desire and behaviours. “Virginia Woolf is a profoundly non-binary author, that’s what I think . . . that’s the only way I could make sense of her writing, of their writing . . . that’s in a sense what the film is proposing . . . If each of you are thinking about your life, picturing how you’d tell your own biography, I can imagine nothing better than Orlando to speak about your conditions, whatever they are – conditions of changing language, changing country, not having a clear origin, not knowing who you are, becoming something that you did even know what it was before, and now you better know what it is – all of these conditions are Orlando, in a sense, by and in of themselves.”
The copyright to all the content of this site is held by the individual authors and creators. All rights reserved. Enquiries: please use the contact form