A Week in Books: All the fun of the Gothenburg Book Fair

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The Independent Culture

Last week's gift of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the Austrian dissident writer Elfriede Jelinek once more prompted baffled musings about the decisions of the Swedish Academy, which makes the award.

Last week's gift of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the Austrian dissident writer Elfriede Jelinek once more prompted baffled musings about the decisions of the Swedish Academy, which makes the award. Foreign observers like to fantasise about a secretive conclave of literary cardinals, invisible, inscrutable, and forever in search of some perfect blend of political rectitude and stylistic opacity. Well, I'm sorry to report that the helpful Swedish Academy stand at the recent Gothenburg Book Fair offered a frank face to the world - a world, in this case, of cheerful families laden with balloons, snacks and bulging bags of books bought, at a hefty discount, from the 700 exhibitors who fill two vast hangar-like floors at the biggest cultural jamboree in Scandinavia.

This year, British authors gave a national focus to some of the 500-odd discussion sessions at the Fair. The 39 glittering names who staged this reverse-Viking raid on Sweden's second city stretched from Jan Morris to Minette Walters, Margaret Drabble to David Lodge, Jenny Colgan to Joanna Trollope, and Sarah Waters to the Man Booker favourite, David Mitchell. The author of Cloud Atlas admitted he was indulging in "vague fantasies about acceptance speeches" at the prize-giving on Tuesday. "But I'm a superstitious man, so I think that the more I do that, the less likely I am to win." Spare a thought for the loneliness of the long-distance front-runner.

At Gothenburg, which over four days attracts 100,000-plus visitors, even the Swedish Academy takes its modest democratic place in a gigantic bookish bazaar. In one corner, Sweden's celebrity chefs show off their skills (and flog their books). In another, campaign groups do their bit to feed the world and save the planet. Punctuated by a network of coffee-and-cake stops, hordes of publishers sell their wares and parade their authors. A noisy children's section adds to the mood of an exuberant family outing rather than a service at the shrine of literature. Even the folk manning the Strindberg Society stand have found reasons to be cheerful. Just opposite the hall stands the Liseberg amusement park, Sweden's most popular attraction, and its aura of carnival merriment seems to have wafted across the street. Those supposedly glum Swedes have found out how to make books and reading fun.

Britain can boast a variety of superb literary festivals - with Cheltenham, the first and finest, in full swing until 17 October. But we still have nothing quite like Gothenburg, with its bustling city-centre hubbub. These days, the London Book Fair tries to bolt a "consumer" element on top of all the deals and sales, but it remains at heart a commercial market-place. At Gothenburg, visitors can pop in to buy Christmas cards and calendars; they can sign up for four intensive days of author discussions; or they can, as most do, mix their own literary cocktail somewhere in the space between shopping and serious study.

Could the crowded diary of British festivals make room for a similar shindig? On an annual basis, probably not. However, another great port city is now planning a series of one-off artistic celebrations. If Liverpool is still seeking the right format for a literary centrepiece during its stint as European Capital of Culture in 2008, the programmers should start Swedish lessons now.

As for those Nobel Prize mysteries, the man to watch is Horace Engdahl, Perpetual Secretary of the Swedish Academy since 1999 and a decisive influence on its deliberations. Given the rabid abuse from right-wing American media that its choice of the anti-war Jelinek has stirred, maybe he should think about erecting a bullet-proof screen around next year's stand at Gothenburg.

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