A week in books: The glory of the Cheltenham

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The Independent Culture

It came as a jolt, reading about Franz Kafka recently, to learn that the wraith-like recluse of Prague gave public performances of his fiction in bookshops. An Evening with Dr Kafka sounds as improbable a draw as (say) Karaoke Night with J D Salinger, but it happened all the same. These days, even Franz K would be asked to tour the festival circuit with every new slim volume that came out. Since he adored actors and acting, perhaps he would have triumphed at this game. The most unlikely figures do. No writer (except cynical celebs) embarks on an authorial career expecting to tread the boards. The wonder remains that most do it not only willingly, but well.

Today, the Cheltenham Festival of Literature begins (with The Independent as media sponsor). It offers the chance to see and hear 400 writers over 10 days, with an overarching theme of "journeys" and separate strands guest-directed by Nigel Williams and Fred D'Aguiar. Discount the sponsors' hype if you will, but surely even the loftiest Olympian observer would find this a feast fit for the literary gods. Today's bill alone contains events with Martin Amis, Robert Hughes, Jung Chang and Robert Harris. Stars scheduled to shine later include Clive James, Harold Pinter, Kate Adie, Julian Barnes, Melvyn Bragg, Philip Pullman, Robin Cook, Sarah Waters and Janet Suzman. Regular festival highlights stretch from Michael Ignatieff delivering the Cheltenham Lecture on "What is Britain for?" to Jonathan Bate's Laurie Lee Lecture on John Clare (see p.24) and, on 18 October, the annual Cheltenham version of the "Man Booker Prize". This year, a panel consisting of Claire Tomalin, Joan Bakewell, Simon Hoggart, Sue MacGregor and the hopelessly outgunned author of this column will be battling over some eminent novels that the Booker judges overlooked - A Suitable Boy, London Fields, Birdsong, Any Human Heart and Enduring Love.

As always, the lustrous names sell themselves. Yet the glory of the Cheltenham approach lies in its strength-in-depth - a richly-laden seam of literature that gives access to rare and exciting company. For example, the "Across Continents" element will stage the results of a creative partnership in which British, Chilean and Ugandan writers - Maggie Gee, Ayeta Anne Wangusa, Mauricio Montiel and Tobias Hill - have exchanged countries for a month. Events on 11 and 18 October will showcase these literary swaps.

Next weekend, the "Across Continents" theme continues with a glittering contingent of African writers, among them a trio of transplanted South Africans (Barbara Trapido, Christopher Hope and Gillian Slovo), Malawi's Jack Mapanje, Algeria's Assia Djebar, Zimbabwe's Tsitsi Dangaremgba and Mozambique's Lilia Momple. The last three appear in a "Women of Africa" line-up which will also travel to Ilkley, Bristol, the Royal Festival Hall in London, Birmingham and Leicester (details from www.africacentre.org.uk/africanvisions2003).

This is an auspicious moment to hear fresh literary voices from the continent, just after J M Coetzee has become the fourth African writer in two decades to take the Nobel Prize (following Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz and Nadine Gordimer). The elusive Coetzee, by the way, still contrives to appear on fewer public platforms than his artistic godfather, Kafka. Even Cheltenham has yet to entice him. Maybe next year...

Cheltenham Festival of Literature: box office 01242 227979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk

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