Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Print houses and jury panels are busy, autumn is coming.

Fall’s footsteps can already be heard in literary circles. As summer hosts its last open-air festivals, prize organizers and publishers are gearing up for a new season of surprises. In today’s dispatch, our Editors-At-Large from Europe tell us more about what is going on in the Czech Republic, Portugal, and France in this transitionary period. Come back next week for this summer’s last dispatch. 

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the Czech Republic:

Held from 1 July to 4 August at venues in five cities – Brno, Ostrava, Wrocław, Košice and Lviv – across four countries, Authors‘ Reading Month (ARM) may well be Europe’s biggest literary festival. It is certainly a major logistical feat: now in its 19th year, the festival featured 100 authors from six countries. Turkey alone, this year’s guest country, was represented by more than thirty authors, including Nedim Gürsel,  Murathan Mungan, Ayfer Tunç and Çiler İlhan. A strong Czech contingent featured prize-winning novelists Bianca Bellová and Josef Pánek, bestselling writers Michal Viewegh and Alena Mornštajnová, as well as a plethora of poets.

One of these, Petr Hruška, created a storm by resigning from the jury of the State Award for Literature. He did so in protest against the new Czech minority government, led by billionaire Andrej Babiš, taking office with the backing of the Czech Communist Party, which has never distanced itself from its history of oppression. In an open letter to the Ministry of Culture Hruška said he felt compelled to resign because “as of yesterday our state is represented by a repulsive government that has made a deal with the communists, enabling an extremist political party to become a covert and overt part of the state power… I cannot and will not participate in this process.”

The Czech Minister of Culture stated that it was disrespectful to the authors to hold the prize “hostage to his personal political views.”  However, Hruška is hardly alone:  three others also resigned from the State Prize jury, and the issue resonates particularly deeply with the wider population this year: a recent survey found that 76 percent of Czechs and 61 percent of Slovaks condemn the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia of 21 August 1968. The 50th anniversary of these traumatic events is being marked by a number of events and exhibitions, including a powerful set of Oldřich Škácha’s photographs, Occupation 1968, from the collection of Prague’s Václav Havel Library.

Writers and translators wishing to steep themselves in Czech culture also have until 31 August to apply for a 2019 residency in the “Prague: City of Literature” programme.

Lindsey Semel, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Portugal:

Hot, dry August is the month of holidays in Portugal. Business as usual takes a pause so that everyone can have time to enjoy village parties, go to the beach, entertain family visiting from abroad, make an annual pilgrimage to the Catholic holy site in Fatima, and generally pass the days of the summer heat as slowly as it demands. The literary scene is no exception. While August is low on events, the long hours at the beach offer a perfect opportunity to catch up on a stack of new releases.

Sara F. Costa’s A Transfiguração da Fome has received a lot of positive press. Published by Editora Labrinto, the collection received an honorable mention at the second edition of the Prémio de Poesia Soledade Summavielle, a prize awarded to poetry collections for their innovation. At the end of July, Menina e Moça, a bookshop bar in Lisbon with an excellent program of literary and cultural events, hosted a book launch that included selected readings as well as discussions with the editors. The casual, trendy setting facilitated a warm reception.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France:

August and September in France mark both the back to school season (rentrée scolaire) and more importantly, for us and the French alike, the beginning of the rentrée littéraire, or Autumn Publishing Season. It is a literary affair, lasting from August to November, unmatched in scope and fanfare by any other even inside or outside France. The rentrée littéraire encompasses a cornucopia of releases, author events, and multiple awards. Every year, publishers save their best names and titles for this period where readers are keenest and most aware. And this year, the stakes are higher than ever.

Official statistics show that some 567 new novels are expected to be published in these months, 381 coming from francophone authors, and 186 from foreign authors. For those keeping count, more than thirty percent of books published during the season in France will be in translation. 91 of these books are debuts, the highest number ever recorded for the rentrée littéraire. According to Babelio (the French response to Goodreads), the most awaited books represent a good split between homegrown talent and titles in translation. Maylis de Kerangal, Amélie Nothomb, and Laurence Cossé, well-known beyond even the Hexagone, are all publishing new novels this autumn. And Anglophone writers are not far behind: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach place highly Babelio’s reader-based rankings.

Just as exciting as the new books is the intense competitions between them for the many, many prestigious literary prizes awarded during the season. The retail giant FNAC, albeit not as high-brow as its successors, announces the winner for its Prix du Roman Fnac in mid-September, officially kicking off an award season that will last until December. It is followed in October by the Grand Prix du Roman of the French Academy. But this is only the opening act. In November, six illustrious prizes are awarded between the Prix Femina, Médicis, Renaudot, Goncourt, and Interallié. And that does not include some smaller prizes, or foreign and student-chosen spin-offs of the previously mentioned prizes. Autumn truly is a busy period for French readers.


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