On its 21st birthday, The Independent Bath Literature Festival was in celebratory mood, demonstrated most clearly in the writers' room where a keg of cider had been stationed, either to steel an anxious author's nerves before taking to the stage, or to celebrate after a successful event.
The festival kicked off with Pat Barker talking about her new novel, Noonday. She revealed that her acclaimed trilogy had been picked up by the BBC – perfect timing to coincide with the centenary of the First World War – only to be dropped again. Surprisingly there were many questions asking her to compare Billy Prior, hero of her Regeneration trilogy, with a A Streetcar Named Desire's Stanley Kowalski. Surprising, that was, until it emerged an A-Level class was in, hoping she could do their homework for them.
Brexit was on the lips early on with a debate pitting “In-ers” Vince Cable and Professor Christina Slade against “Out-ers” Sir William Cash and Kate Hoey. A show of hands at the beginning and end revealed that some changed their minds, but only to become more confused. Sebastian Faulks revealed he had not made up his mind, saying that while he voted “with the big boys” in the 1970s, he said his “inner hooligan” was pushing him to siding with the leavers.
Gloria Steinem packed out Bath's Forum and was met with rapturous applause from the audience, who had come from all over the country to hear the feminist campaigner speak. Later that day was a racy session about women and the ageing process, in which Arlene Heyman thrilled the audience with her eye-watering descriptions of sex among the older generations.
The Abbey Hotel provided much of the after- show parties and had drawn up a suitably literary cocktail list. From Lime and Punishment, pretty lethal with its dose of absinthe, to Tequila Mockingbird and Prime of Miss Gin Brodie, they kept speakers and viewers well oiled for the duration of the festival.
The festival saw a range of speakers rule themselves out of signing up to reality shows. Strictly Come Dancing will not be seeing the talents of Joan Bakewell or Janet Ellis, while The Great British Bake Off will not tempt Marian Keyes into the kitchen.
AC Grayling talked of an overlooked century, the 17th, and how it shaped the modern mind, and going further back Daisy Dunn brilliantly resurrected Catullus for the audience. She compared him to a Hoxton hipster, pointing out that he played down his wealth, partied hard and made witty flirtation into art. “I haven't yet met a modern man who measures up to him,” she added.
Iris Murdoch's letters revealed the philosopher and Booker Prize-winning author as a secret “rock chick”, who not only frequented Rolling Stones gigs but thought the Beatles should be made Poet Laureates.
The actress Carol Drinkwater talked of her experiences working with “Larry” Olivier, and Tom Sperlinger told of his extraordinary time teaching English literature in the occupied West Bank of Palestine, including teaching Romeo and Juliet.
In among the wealth of literary walks Brian Blessed roared and heaved, and Deborah Moggach cast aspersions on the film sequel to the adaptation of her book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Jamie Cullum, a favourite of the Bath audience, talked of his literary aspirations via his magazine The Eighty-Eight, and made his true feelings on the film Whiplash known. From a jazz perspective, he was not a fan.
There was a riotous Literary Death Match, in which authors went head to head for the ultimate prize of being the first Bath champion, which in the end went to Paul M M Cooper, after the tie-breaker went down to a question about James Joyce. Victors and vanquished repaired to the bar after to argue over the results.
Tracy Chevalier was the big name author to visit on Friday and revealed that her new book, At the Edge of the Orchard, was a take on Little House on the Prairie “gone bad”. The same night Ben Miller spoke of his book The Aliens Are Coming!, and he suffered the dubious privilege of being the only author to receive a heckle from a Geordie gentleman who was clearly refreshed and failed to make much sense.
Five of the best Brazilian writers, past and present
Five of the best Brazilian writers, past and present
1/5 Clarice Lispector Complete Stories (translated by Katrina Dodson)
Clarice Lispector’s stories have now, finally, been collected in English, so that we can read all the major works that have made her a legend in Brazil. The stories bring out the heat and passion of everyday characters and everyday lives, including teenagers becoming aware of their sexual and artistic powers, middle-class women with the daily concerns of home and love (or lack thereof), animals, and children. Lispector was born in 1920 into a Jewish family in the Ukraine and brought to Brazil as a child, when her family fled the pogroms. The author of varied and dazzling works, it is perhaps for her stories, such as ‘Love’ and ‘Family Ties’, she is most adored.
2/5 Paulo Scott, Nowhere People (translated by Daniel Hahn)
Driving home through São Paulo one night, Paulo, a well-heeled law student and democracy activist, passes a figure at the side of the road. A n indigenous, Guarani Indian girl stands in the heavy rain. When Paulo elects to give her a lift to her family’s roadside camp, their fleeting encounter will have far-reaching repercussions. Scott conjures a society riven with race and class divisions, still seething with anger at the now fading hopes raised during the county’s awkward transition to democracy
3/5 Tatiana Salem Levy, The House in Smyrna (translated by Alison Entrekin)
A light-footed and subtle novel that doesn’t skirt life’s sorrows (love gone wrong, disease, death). The protagonist, who suffers from a mysterious and debilitating illness, is the granddaughter of a Sephardic Jew who left Turkey for Brazil. When her dying grandfather gives her the key to his house in the ancient city of Smyrna, Turkey, she sets out on a quest, retracing her family’s history across continents and reviving with every step.
4/5 Michel Laub, Diary of the Fall (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
The narrator of Diary of the Fall is marked by his complicity in a childhood prank at his Jewish private school which left the school’s only Catholic boy badly injured. Meanwhile, his father wrestles with his own memory as it is unpicked by A lzheimer’s, and his grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor, spends his final years jotting down fictionalized memories, so determined is he to forget the reality. Notable for the restrained power of its short paragraphs, this novel tackles guilt, class and racism in a fresh and moving way.
5/5 Milton Hatoum, The Brothers (translated by John Gledson)
Set in a Lebanese immigrant community in the A mazonian city of Manaus, The Brothers is the story of the identical twins Yaqub and Omar, their mutual jealousies and their family’s disintegration. It conjures up the sights, sounds and smells of the Amazon as well as the experience of a Lebanese family in a setting very different to the one in Raduan Nassar’s Ancient Tillage, but one equally prone to strong passions. Hatoum’s novel was, in fact, first read by Nassar, who was a mentor to Hatoum years before the novel appeared.
The last day of the festival included women under 30 talking about feminism and Daphne Selfe, the world's oldest supermodel at 87, giving her style tips. The comedy play Austentatious thrilled the Jane Austen-loving Bath audience, as did Stephen McGann, who plays Dr Turner on Call the Midwife, and who once pursued an MA in medical studies.
Sunday marked the end of artistic director Viv Groskop's three-year reign. The much-loved chief was waved off with a raucous party in Igloo, a new venue under the Abbey Hotel, where the drinking and revelling went on until the very early hours followed by teary farewells. A suitable end to a week-long 21st. µ
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- Independent Bath Literature Festival
- Pat Barker
- Viv Groskop
- Jamie Cullum
- Tracy Chevalier
- Gloria Steinem