European Literature Days Lucy Popescu Spotlight

bookblast diary lucy popescu at european literature days

Lucy Popescu heads to European Literature Days in Austria, and writes a special report for Book Blast.

Every year I travel to Krems, lower Austria, to attend European Literature Days (ELit), a three-day literary festival. This year the theme was ‘Animals and Other Humans’. As Walter Grond, the festival’s founder and director, observed: “Human characteristics such as morality, rationality, self-perception and empathy, are also prevalent in the animal kingdom.” To understand the various nuances of this subject one only has to think of Dutch writer and philosopher Eva Meijer, who advocates for the rights of animals in her 2019 book, Animal Languages, translated by Laura Watkinson, published by John Murray. The same year, Meijer was writer in residence at National Centre for Writing, supported by the Dutch Foundation for Literature. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend ELit, but her thinking around animal ethics informed many of the discussions.

BUY Animal Languages: The secret conversations of the living world

Animal Ethics

The festival opened with a heated debate between Austrian writer Michael Köhlmeier and German philosopher Anne Sophie Meincke, entitled ‘Animals and Language’ which I sadly missed because of a delayed airport transfer. The following day, Mara-Daria Cojocaru, a German poet and philosopher, currently based in London, spoke about the animal welfare crisis. She is the author of Passionate Animals: Emotions, Animal Ethics and Moral Pragmatics, in which she argues that to improve human-animal-relations, humans have to become passionate animals themselves. Her particular concerns include the problems associated with animal experimentation and factory farming. She also talked about the language of animals – how they use their bodies and their sense of smell. There was an exhibition of Cojocaru’s ‘animal informed poetry’ in which she had collected olfactory signatures while out walking, chosen by her dogs, preserved them as solid perfumes and used words based on the scents and her dogs’ responses. The street names where they walked became her poem titles. Later, she read from her poetry and, in one, gave a heart-rending account of the death of a pet dog.

BUY Passionate Animals: Emotions, Animal Ethics and Moral Pragmatics

Michal Hvorecky, Slovakian author and journalist gave us a sneak preview of his forthcoming novel, DanubeThe Magic River, about a sturgeon living in the Danube – its ability to navigate miles of river over decades and its struggle with microplastic pollution. Its ancestors, the great sturgeon, lived in the Danube for centuries, before becoming extinct, their habitat destroyed by pollution and human activities. Hvorecky wanted to give the sturgeon a voice. Sophie Kimmig, German wildlife biologist and author, talked about the animals of the night she has studied, such as foxes, bats and owls and the different languages they use to communicate their needs and for social interaction. Her 2021 book Von Füchsen und Menschen (About Foxes and People) is a bestseller in Germany. Her most recent book, Lebendige Nacht (Living Night) published in 2021, explores the hazards of light pollution and Kimmig suggests that we are likely to lose 60% of animals active at night.

In the debate ‘Metamorphoses and Transmigrations of the Soul’,  Antoine Jaccoud, French-Swiss author, playwright, screenwriter and sociologist, read from his collection of five short stories, Der gefrorene Zulu im Diemtigtal (The Frozen Zulu in the Diemtig Valley). Sibylle Grimbert, French writer of eleven novels and a publisher, talked about her latest book, The Last of His Kind, about a great auk called Prosp, who is the last of the species, and Gus the zoologist who captures the flightless seabird. She won the Goncourt des Animaux in 2022, awarded for books celebrating animals. Both authors feel that us humans need to change our behaviour towards animals and our meat consumption.

Teresa Präauer continued the animal theme and read from Oh Schimmi and Animals Come. Kinga Tóth, an Hungarian linguist, visual and sound poet, gave an extraordinary vocal performance and created a vivid sense of animal expression. Further discussions and readings featured Bodo Hell, Roberta Dapunt, Hilal Sezgin, Tara June Winch (author of The Yield) and Christina Walker.

BUY The Yield

The festival concluded with the Prize-giving ceremony of the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action. This year it was presented to Philippe Sands the British-French lawyer and writer, born in London to Jewish parents. He explained that he has a deep connection with Austria as family members had been born here and lived in the region.

Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

Sands spoke movingly about 9/11 being the catalyst for the writing of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity  which has been translated into over 30 languages since it was first published in 2016. He had written numerous international law books before then, but wanted to find a bigger audience for what he cares about. East West Street took seven years to write and went through five different drafts. It’ is  about four men connected by the city of Lviv, (formerly known as Lemberg) whose lives intersected during the Second World War. One was Sands’ maternal grandfather, Leon Buchholz, whose entire family were murdered in the Holocaust. Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, were international lawyers who developed the concept of crimes against humanity and genocide applied in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46. The fourth, Hans Frank, was Hitler’s lawyer, a war criminal tried and executed at Nuremberg.

BUY The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive

In 2010 Sands was invited to Lviv to give a lecture. His grandfather was born there, but had never spoken about his childhood. Sands wanted to find his grandfather’s house. His mother had been born in Austria but was transported to France as a young child for her own safety. There had been a conspiracy of silence surrounding their past so writing about it was difficult, he said. Although East West Street is a book about crimes that happened to his family, his editor had to persuade Sands to put himself in the story. As a lawyer, he observed, you learn to detach yourself and step back. But in this book, and The Ratline (2020), he attempts to understand everyone’s perspective. It was a process of self-discovery which allowed him to engage with his family’s past. Sands admits that he is not a religious person but working on these books has helped give him a better sense of his Jewish identity by filling out the past.

BUY East West Street: Winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize

His forthcoming book is about the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and his friendship with former SS leader Walther Rauff. Sands is a firm believer that words – literature and books – gradually translate into action against injustice and that this includes animals and biodiversity.

It was a fitting conclusion to this small European festival that always seems to be ahead of the curve with its themes and concerns.

Special feature by Lucy Popescu for BookBlast.

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

About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

Be the first to comment

Bienvenue, Welcome!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.