The Swiss were on a roll (sorry!) during week 2 of the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival.

Fellow Left-hander Arno Camenisch

Day 11 21.08.2012 Arno Camenisch

EIBF foreign fiction events are enhanced by the author reading sections of their work in the original language.  It was a particular joy, however, when Arno Camenisch, read  in both Rhaeto-Romanisch (and the two languages have nothing in common, to my ear).  He wrote the story in German and then rewrote it in Rhaeto-Romanisch.  He was adamant – he does not translate his stories as the two languages have different sounds, different registers.  The voice must be found in both languages.   Sometimes the writing process is reversed. The story in question, Sez Ner, is published in the European Fiction 2011 anthology, and was translated from the, in this case, German version by Donal McLaughlin, who read the story in English and was delighted to announce that he is in the process of translating the Sez Ner trilogy, which will be published in its entirety by Dalkey Archive.

Is the story any good?
It’s only 6 pages long  but it certainly establishes the place and the background of an alpine farming community with a very incompetent swineherd.   I’ll be reading the novel when it appears in English.  EIBF author’s mission accomplished.

Stuart Kelly, Gabriel Josipovici, Christoph Simon

Day 12 22.08.2012 Christoph Simon

Christoph Simon appeared on stage with the legendary Gabriel Josipovici, who gave the reading of the festival for me.  By the looks of the picture on the left, Simon enjoyed it just as much.  But this post is about the Swiss and my lips are sealed about Josipovici’s novel, Infinity, The Story of A Moment, until I have read it.

Simon was talking about Zbinden’s Progress, also translated by Donal McLaughlin, a novel in which the plot can be contained in the following sentence. An old man in a home takes a walk down a flight of stairs, accompanied by his carer, Kazim. The walk takes so long that Zbinden has time to tell his life story to Kazim. It’s a story that is not action-packed but is nonetheless full of human emotion and poignancy:  a happy marriage between two serious walkers, the sadness of the widower and the bemusement of a father who cannot relate to his only son.  And yet Zbinden is not full of self-pity.  Simon summarised his story as humane.  Others have a more vexed relationship with old age.  Indeed there is plenty of entertainment in the home.  It is full of characters and humour in the old folk’s home: someone who “escapes” from time to time to travel around Europe, his kleptomaniac tedencies leading to a variety of souvenirs; a man and a women who hate the sight of each other, but who Zbinden is convinced belong together; and Zbinden himself who wants only to convert his fellow pensioners to the art and joy of walking to induce in them his own joie-de-vivre.

Is the book any good?  Oh yes, although it’s not for those who prefer plot-driven tragedies. This is life and an old man living the days that remain to him with dignity.  There’s a happy end which brought a few tears, not only to one of the main characters, but also to my own.

Day 13 23.08.2012 Peter Stamm

We’ll dispense with the is the book any good section here because you already know that I loved Seven Years earlier this year, and that I interviewed Peter Stamm about it.  But I couldn’t resist this event could I?  I even picked a seat in the front row to sneak the most fantastic picture ever – but then the microphones got in the way! Bah!

Anyway Stamm’s English is so good, there was no need for a translator and Rosemary Burnett, the interviewer, once married to an architect who wanted to live in a house with no cupboards,  fully understood the architectural conflicts underpinning the novel.

Talkng of his spartan style and voice, Stamm said that it has taken years to develop.  He often throws again half of what he writes because it’s not up to scratch.  He would probably be less picky if he penned baroque, ornate prose because mistakes are less obvious.

He prefers to make literature out of ordinary people’s lives because extreme situations (such as war) don’t teach us much about ourselves.

Rosemary Burnett confronted Stamm with a review from someone who accused him of being nothing other than the bookkeeper he had been for 10 years.  Stamm’s response, dry and deadpan like a typical dusty bookkeeper, “It wasn’t 10 years.”  Hilarious.  Revealing that one couple had reconciled after reading the novel, while another had split, he said that he is considering putting a disclaimer apropos future editions of the novel.

The event ended on a high note in the signing queue where I managed to snap myself what I consider the would-have-been-perfect-if-I’d-got-the-lighting-right portrait of a quiet, unassuming but brilliant author.