Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For lovers of literature who don't have to spend the time buying, selling and bitching, one other delight of every London Book Fair week is the sudden blossoming of events that can make starry-eyed literati dream that the old ideal of the "republic of letters" may still have some life in it. For most of the year, large-scale British publishing looks like one of those would-be funky ads for Renault cars: a Continental machine with an American voiceover. Many major firms now belong to French or German parents, yet - with a few exceptions - the bulk of the buzz and hype they generate has a deeply transatlantic twang.

For a few brief days in March, you may catch a glimpse of literary, and personal, links with the rest of Europe and the wider world. On Tuesday, one publisher who embodies those connections at their boldest and best - Christopher MacLehose of Harvill Press (now Harvill Secker) - picked up the book fair's award for a lifetime's achievement in international publishing. At a party to celebrate his 40 boundary-busting years in the business, messages of support arrived from leading global novelists. I especially enjoyed the gesture of support lobbed by Portugal's Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago into a room graced by the topmost of top brass: "In solidarity against international capitalism!" Given the balance sheets of a few UK publishers, some might have replied that they've been doing their level best.

The book fair also gave the Goethe Institut in London a pretext to do what many scoffing Brits might have thought utterly inconceivable: not merely to stage a programme of readings from post-war German writers that lasted through a long Friday evening, but to flog every ticket and even to turn large numbers away. Writers and artists hailed their German-language gurus: A S Byatt relished the fierce ironies of Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Antony Gormley the mystical raptures of Hermann Broch, Anthea Bell the lyrical sadness of W G Sebald, Philip Hensher the earthy density of Siegfried Lenz, and so on... (I plumped for the bittersweet tensions of Judith Hermann's lovely stories in Nothing but Ghosts.)

With the World Cup in Germany three months away, we should be braced for the inevitable orgy of crass stereotypes among the usual suspects in the media. This night of Germanic stars was, if you like, a way of getting some retaliation in first. The sculptor Richard Wentworth said, with no tongue visible in cheek, that he found young British artists a little worthy in comparison with the bubbly (or spritzig?) humour of their German counterparts. He also noted how refreshing it was to focus on German figures in a British forum not obsessed with the events of 1933-45. I take the point, and endorse it. And yet... surely one compelling reason to celebrate post-war German culture is precisely its hard-won ability to examine those years and honour the victims?

Respect for the art of the living does not rule out remembrance of the lost. This week, I also met two extraordinary witnesses from that accursed era. Imre Kertész - teenage Auschwitz inmate, Hungary's Nobel laureate, and author of the amazing Fatelessness - now spends a lot of time in Berlin. His autobiographical book, The 'K' Dossier, is due to appear in Germany this month.

Then Denise Epstein movingly invoked the spirit of her mother, Irène Némirovsky - killed in the camp that Kertész survived - at the British launch of Suite Française. Here, as with Kertész, stood a vivid, vital bond with a terrible history: the best of people, who came through the worst of times. Writing of the stature that Kertész has created, or she has preserved, lets us embrace the present without forgetting the past. In any republic of letters worth its name, the dead must have votes and voices, too.

Comments