Literary Festivals: A Place of Serendipity

I am a sceptic when it comes to literary festivals, primarily because they strike me as a paradox: literature is, at least in my opinion, best experienced spontaneously by oneself whereas an event, by definition, is a ‘planned public or social occasion’. One might argue that my personal understanding of literature as this intimate experience is both very bourgeois – granted! – and ahistorical, since literature once was a very public art form and, in some regards, still is, e.g. drama. Nevertheless, for me literature was always about the act of reading, about this very intimate connection between a text, most of the time fiction, and me. So the idea of sitting in a theatre, listening to someone reading a piece of literature or talking about literature corrupts my notion of literature in some way.

Literature evokes thoughts and feelings, and reading gives me the chance to pause and let my mind wander around or give into my emotions when I feel like it. I decide the pace in which I take in the text. The literary event only knows one pace and that is the pace of the reader or speaker. This can add to a text or my understanding of it and transform it into something it would not have become if I were reading it myself. In most cases, however, the inability to ‘conquer’ a text the way in which I want to leaves me unsatisfied and sometimes even hostile against it.

Nonetheless, I get why people go to literary events: they seek for an authentic and unique experience; they want to absorb the aura of true literary genius; they look for someone who explains this complex world to them; perhaps they want to be comforted; and they definitely want to be entertained. Or perhaps none of these motives are accurate and they are mere projections of my own reasoning of why I go to literary events from time to time.

The climax of the literary event is the literary festival: it is the running sushi of literary consumption. It offers a dazzling abundance of everything people are hoping to experience at a literary event, and it is up to them to decide what and how much to take in. It is a very efficient and easy way of engaging with literature, and in most cases also less time consuming than reading the same number of books. Cynics might say: people attend literary events not because they are readers but rather because they want to experience literature without the hardship of reading. This would explain why I always feel a bit guilty after I attended one. As if I cheated on literature, and on my own principles.

The time has come to make a confession: I recently cheated again. On the last weekend of October, I went to the Festival of Italian Literature in London (FILL) at the Print Room of the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill. I had discovered the event due to an announcement on the website of one of my favourite English publishers, Fitzcarraldo that on Sunday, 28 October, one of its authors, the French novelist Mathias Énard, was going to talk at FILL about the current state of the European novel. I had not read anything by Énard, but I knew him by name – his latest novel ‘The Compass’, set in my hometown Vienna, had received lots of praise in the German Feuilleton – and I was highly interested in what an author of his calibre had to say about his vocation. However, it would be his co-panellist Nicola Lagioia that would make the bigger impression on me.

I had never heard of Nicola Lagioia before this afternoon, even though he ‘is one of Italy’s most critically acclaimed contemporary novelists’, as I learned from Catherine Taylor’s introduction of the panel. His latest novel ‘La ferocia’ even won the Strega Prize in 2015 and was published in the UK in 2017 (‘Ferocity’, European Editions).

Lagioia does not speak English, but that did not prevent him from stealing the limelight from Mathias Énard, whose English was flawless. It certainly helped that the audience was predominantly Italophone. But even I, whose Italian is sufficient to order a meal at a Trattoria at best, was completely smitten by Lagioia’s contributions to the discussion. Without understanding most of it at first, just by absorbing the way he spoke and the reactions of both Énard and the audience, what he had to say seemed absolutely accurate, enlightening, and endearing. Based on the assumption that the translator did a decent job, it turned out that I was not mistaken. Lagioia’s remarks were fresh, clever, and witty all at once. Listening to him was an intellectual pleasure, and what made the experience even more profound was that it was unexpected. I had come to hear the thoughts of a French intellectual, and now I only cared for what his Italian counterpart had to say. I am convinced that I was not the only one feeling that way: after the talk, people rushed to the bar not only to have a drink and discuss what they had just listened to but also to browse the book table. Many left with one of Lagioia’s books under their arms.

I had had a very similar experience at another FILL event called ‚The story of now’ the previous day. Again, this talk featured a renowned novelist I only knew by name: Ali Smith. I was aware that the first two instalments of her in-progress quartet of novels, ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’, had been reviewed very well and I was curious what she had to say about how to capture our times in literary ways. But again, it was not the writer I came for but an Italian not speaking English at all, the novelist and literary critic Walter Siti, who would make the most profound impression on me. I was quite disenchanted when I learned that none of his works have been translated to English or German, yet.

My point is: you go to a literary event to see and hear one particular author, but you might discover someone else. Someone that you had no idea would be there because you stopped reading the event description after you came across the name of a writer you knew and booked a ticket. Both Nicola Lagioia and Walter Siti were fortunate discoveries I made this way. And they lead me to the conclusion that going to literary events might be in some cases of serendipitous value. It is this discovery, a result of serendipity by itself, that rehabilitates them for me at least to some extent. Now attending literary events feels like cheating only half the time; the other half it feels like healthy curiosity.

Benjamin Mayr