Cafés, books and debate are a mainstay of French culture in a uniquely seductive way, so to savour some French flair, head to the Institut français in London this week for the second Beyond Words Festival. Forty writers, translators, actors, musicians and journalists are taking part in talks and live performances, presenting iconic films, and engaging the broader public, not just Francophiles.
How Paris changed the world
Baudelaire looked at what being a bohemian meant and invented the word “modern”; Hemingway made Paris an obligatory destination for aspiring young American writers on their European Grand Tour; the French capital was home to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco; and Nabokov was published there.
May 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of May 1968 when French workers joined student protesters in Paris with a one-day general strike. Although the government was not overthrown, the protests ushered in a cultural revolution.
The Photo Exhibition AU COEUR DE MAI ’68 by the late French photographer Philippe Gras tells the story of May ’68, fifty years after the event. There is free access to the exhibition at the Institut français during La Médiathèque’s opening hours, until 19 May.
Mitchell Abidor’s May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France explores the legacy of the uprising through the oral testimonies of the young rebels. By listening to the voices of students and workers, as opposed to those of their leaders, May ’68 appears not just as a mass event, but rather as an event driven by millions of individuals, achieving a mosaic human portrait of France at the time.
And in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason looks at the emergence of a new economic paradigm – postcapitalism – partly instigated by rapid developments in information technologies that underpin the current revolution which we are going through.
Eric Hazan, founder of the publishing house La Fabrique, takes us through the radical history of the French capital from Robespierre and the Commune to Sartre and May ’68 in A Walk Through Paris: A Radical Exploration. Drawing on his own life story and experiences during the 1960s, he exemplifies a radical life lived in the city of revolution. Whereas Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City offers an altogether more laid back appreciation as she maps her identity on the streets of Paris.
Redoubtable dir. Michel Hazanavicius, 2017. 107 mins.
Paris 1967. Jean Luc Godard and Anne Wiazemsky: in love and revolution.
What is la Francophonie?
Alain Mabanckou, author of African Psycho and Black Moses: “When we talk about Francophone literature, we think quite naturally of a literature made outside of France, most often by writers form the former French colonies. This definition, in its generality, has the merit of cutting short further discussion in order to assuage French consciences. And we could apply it to the literatures of all former colonies . . . To be a francophone writer is to be a depository of cultures, a whirlpool of worlds. To be a Francophone writer is to benefit from the heritage of French literature in general, but it is above all to bring a personal touch to a harmonious whole, one that dissolves borders, erases race, reduces the distance between continents in order to achieve a fraternity of both language and the universe.” (source: The White Review).
Journalist and critic Boyd Tonkin, whose 100 Best Novels in Translation is due out in June, kicked off the translation strand of the festival yesterday afternoon, discussing translating French and Francophone Writing, followed by a selection of pitches by emerging translators about the French language books they are most excited about this year, showcased by translator Ros Schwartz and Harvill editor Ellie Steel. The doyenne of translators, Ros is a pillar of support and wisdom for young hopefuls breaking into the field. She gave The BookBlast® Diary an exclusive interview last December which can be read here.
Today, Wednesday 16th, at 6pm, a new voice in literary fiction, Franco-Venezuelan author Miguel Bonnefoy will be in conversation with Daniel Hahn. His debut novel Octavio’s Journey has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. His second novel, Black Sugar, tells the tale of a family’s changing fortunes as they live on the edge of the Latin American rainforest in Venezuela, and farm sugar cane. They cannot exist cut off from the modern world forever.
On Friday 18th at 2pm, the staged reading of Ian Soliane’s play Bamako-Paris (translated by Felicity Davidson) is part of the Institut français’ Cross-Channel Theatre programme, directed by Kimberley Sykes, with Clifford Samuel as Ibou.
Ibou, a Malian stowaway hanging on to the landing gear of an Airbus A320 heading for Paris, is talking to us about his future, his hopes, the mad idea that germinated in his mind: that of hanging on to a landing gear. The monologue is intersected by the post-mortem of his own body, sixteen hours later, the corpse lying on the autopsy table in a room of the Paris Forensic Medical Institute.
Also on Friday 18th, at 8.30pm, is the screening of Beauty and the Dogs, dir. Kaouther Ben Hania, 2017, 100 mins, in Arabic with English subtitles. During a student party, Mariam, a young Tunisian woman, meets the mysterious Youssef and leaves with him. A long night begins, during which she’ll have to fight for her rights and her dignity in the hands of a gang of dirty cops. Tunisian author and director Kaouther Ben Hania depicts an edifying portrait of her country poisoned by corruption and male chauvinism.
The Literary Salon comes to South Kensington
The European Literary Salon held yesterday afternoon was the first of three events featuring a collective, salon-style discussion as opposed to the more traditional literary format. Jakuta Alikavazovic, a French writer of Bosnian and Montenegrin origins; British writer Claire-Louise Bennett; and German writer Esther Kinsky discussed, with Daniel Medin, non-narrative fiction in contemporary European writing and the importance of translation.
The second Salon will be held at 8pm this evening, Wednesday 16th. Publishing à la française will be followed by a screening, in French, of Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens’ film Editeur. The founder of POL, Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens died in a car accident on the island of Marie Galante, Guadeloupe, in January this year. In a series of pop-up readings introduced by writer and translator Frédéric Boyer, two of Paul’s authors, Goncourt prize winner Atiq Rahimi and Medicis prize winner Marie Darrieussecq, will be joined by guests Catriona Seth, Adrian Rifkin, Christopher MacLehose, Dominic Glynn and Stefan Tobler. There will be readings from some of the landmark books he published by Georges Perec, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Louis Schefer, Olivier Cadiot, Emmanuelle Pagano, Emmanuel Carrère . . .
The third Salon will be held tomorrow, Thursday 17th at 6.30pm: Fresh French Voices. Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait, published by Les Fugitives which makes the work of untranslated French female authors available in English, is a novel of angst and high farce; “a dense, intense examination of the disruptive effect that ideas about art and politics have on one another.” She will be in conversation with Baileys Prize for Women’s fiction winner Eimear McBride, whose latest novel is The Lesser Bohemians.
Following this discussion, chaired by translator Sophie Lewis, Noémi will be joined by two up-and-coming writers from Editions Verticales: Quebec-born Hélène Frédérick, and Pierre Senges who is known for his radio adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, as well as for his quirky, poetic Lichtenberg Fragments. Conversations with the writers will be accompanied by a series of readings on realism, literary debt and new forms of writing, introduced by Emmanuel Bouju and Jeanne Guyon.
Marcel Proust’s regular attendance at the salon of Countess Greffulhe provided him with the material for what is arguably the most famous novel to come out of France: In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). Proust in Just One Hour, on Friday 18th at 7.30pm, in English and French, sounds perfect for literary loafers.
In a special live performance, Véronique Aubouy heroically attempts to sum up the whole story of In Search of Lost Time for her audience in just an hour. Véronique manages to bring to the stage the complex world and characters of this intricate plot. Introduced by Christopher Prendergast (King’s College Cambridge).
Hell is Other People
Laurent Gaude and translator Adriana Hunter visited Hell and the Underworld yesterday afternoon. His novel Hell’s Gate is like a 21st century Orpheus in the Underworld with some Faust thrown in for good measure. The killing of a boy during a mafia shoot out in Naples leaves his parents in a million little pieces. The distraught mother entreats her husband to find the murderer and finish him off, or else bring back their son. So he sets off on his quest and meets people who tell him there are doors into the Underworld. He finds the boy and brings him back, but the door back into this life will only let the son through, and not the father. Death is angry . . . An interview with his publisher, Jane Aitken, at Gallic & Aardvark can be read here.
At 6pm today, Wednesday 15th, writer and film-maker Atiq Rahimi will discuss language, political violence, historical belonging and migration. He left Afghanistan for France in the 1980s, where he spent 18 years in exile. He won the 2008 Goncourt for The Patience Stone, his first book to be written directly in French, as a way to escape the “involuntary self-censorship” he feels when writing in Persian. The novel portrays a young woman’s attempt to keep her husband alive as she rages against men, war, culture, God. In partnership with English PEN who have supported the English editions of The Patience Stone and A Curse on Dostoevsky.
Roland Barthes, Television Degree Zero screened at 6.30pm, today, Wednesday 15th, will be introduced by film critic Brian Dillon. It was a special edition of BBC’s The Late Show (1990), dir. Terry Braun, 1992, 120 mins.
Marie Darrieussecq in conversation with Lisa Allardice at 7pm today Wednesday 15th, will focus on Being Here Is Everything, her portrait of the German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907). A close friendship with the sculptor Clara Westhoff and with Rainer Maria Rilke; marriage to the painter Otto Modersohn; and a lifelong insistence on the ability to paint and to have a corner of solitude in which to do it, made of her a trailblazing woman. She became one of her generation’s preeminent artists. In this exceptional London appearance, Marie Darrieussecq will also be talking about her other books, including Pig Tales.
The Red Collar dir. Jean Becker, 2018, 83 mins 8.40pm, Wednesday 15th, in French with English subtitles, is based on Jean-Christophe Rufin’s novel translated by Adriana Hunter.
War: The Great Swindle
Au revoir là-haut, dir. Albert Dupontel, 2017, 115 mins, 8.40pm, Thursday 17th, is the winner of 5 Cesar Awards. Dupontel’s crime epic is an adaptation of Pierre Lemaître’s Goncourt winning novel, and is introduced by award-winning translator, Frank Wynne.
L’amour, Identity and Performance
No French cultural festival would be complete without a touch of Truffaut and a tortured love triangle involving a young French writer and two English sisters.
Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, dir. François Truffaut, 1971, 132 mins, is one of Truffaut’s most personal and romantic films, set in a Welsh coastal resort. Screening Sunday 20 May 2pm, in French with English subtitles.
Vernon Subutex 1, by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018. The closing event of the festival, Fisbach and Vernon Subutex at 7pm, on Monday 21st May, looks set to be an unusual experience. Singer Fishbach, will read extracts from Vernon Subutex and perform songs inspired by Despentes’ world.
Vernon Subutex 1 is the first title in a trilogy set in modern Paris, charting the fall and fate of Vernon Subutex, a former record shop owner, forced out on to the streets after a series of disasters. An odyssey of sofa-surfing and a cult social satire that has taken Europe by storm,The BookBlast® Diary review of Vernon Subutex 1 can be read here.
An advance proof copy of Vernon Subutex 2 arrived in the post yesterday, for publication on 12 July by MacLehose Press. Despentes will be in the UK 22-23 May and is available for interview – when I am out of town. Manque de pot!
Beyond Words Festival tickets & info.
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