Eleanor Collins
DOOR Vea Kaiser
18-11-2014

As I pulled aside the heavy curtain of the hotel room, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. The clock on my phone said it was just after eight, the sky outside looked as if it was about to fall to the ground. Although – no, that’s not quite right: you couldn’t see the sky itself at all, just one thick, heavy, grey-brown-black blanket of cloud that rumbled and rolled and spewed water like a fountain. My hotel room looked out over a large, wide square, where people were clinging to their brollies, faces concealed by thick scarves and heavy coats, and for once there wasn’t a single cyclist to be seen. The perfect weather for literature, really.

And even if the sky over The Hague didn’t see it this way, for me the sun was shining, as the previous evening had brought with it an absolutely brilliant encounter. For the first time, I was able to meet my editor and the other lovely folk at De Arbeiderspers, my Dutch publishing house. And above all, I was able to meet my translator Kor der Vries. We had worked together very intensively for near on a year, and it was really exciting to finally meet him in person. And yep, he’s just as funny as I imagined him to be. Translating (whether it’s a short text or a book) always seems to involve letting go: if you haven’t mastered the target language to the standard of a native speaker, it is hard to tell what someone else is doing to your text or how it’s being received, let alone to keep track of its further development. So it’s great to have translators that you can trust completely, as was the case with Kor de Vries, as is the case with Ellie & Mara.

Despite that, the entire day was overshadowed by a terrible problem: why did all the authors I so desperately wanted to see have to be on stage at exactly the same time as our presentation of The Chronicles? ‘Why, oh why, you Olympian Gods? What are you trying to tell me?’ went round and round my head the whole day. Above all, I was frustrated that the author of my favourite book so far this year was appearing at the same as us. Nickolas Butler’s debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs was for me the best read of the entire season. I would’ve so loved to meet him in person, would’ve loved to know how he spoke, how he moved, the way he thought, what his voice sounded like.

And I would’ve probably still been in a bad mood four days later for having missed him, if our own event hadn’t been so lovely. I suddenly felt like a little girl all over again, the way it was before my novel was published. Now that my book is a bestseller most of my readings take place on a large stage in front of an audience of more than a hundred people, and last about an hour and a half. In this respect, it was a completely adorable experience, suddenly appearing as part of an ‘exhibition’ of The Chronicles, where short excerpts and mini interviews were being presented to the audience, as if we were a class of music students performing to our parents at the end of the year. As if the last year of my life hadn’t happened at all. A funny little blast from the past.

But the absolute highlight of the evening was yet to come. My beloved, the best man in the world, who had even travelled to The Hague just to see me, sent me a text: come to where the books are on sale. I’ve found him. Suddenly, I felt incredibly nervous, rushed into the foyer of the Royal Theatre and there he was: my beloved, together with Nickolas Butler. It was a long, long evening, spent in unbelievably great conversation with the nicest author I’ve ever met.

And that’s precisely the great thing about literature festivals: sleeping little, drinking lots, crazy sources of inspiration, great experiences and encounters that stay with you for the rest of your life.

Many thanks to the brilliant Crossing Border team for inviting me to this incredible festival, for your incredible hospitality and for a weekend I shall never forget.

All translations from Eleanor Collins
18-11-14

As I pulled aside the heavy curtain of the hotel room, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. The clock on my phone said it was just after eight, the sky outside looked as if it was about to fall to the ground. Although – no, that’s not quite right: you couldn’t see the sky itself at all, just one thick, heavy, grey-brown-black blanket of cloud that rumbled and rolled and spewed water like a fountain. My hotel room looked out over a large, wide square, where people were clinging to their brollies, faces concealed by thick scarves and heavy coats, and for once there wasn’t a single cyclist to be seen. The perfect weather for literature, really.

And even if the sky over The Hague didn’t see it this way, for me the sun was shining, as the previous evening had brought with it an absolutely brilliant encounter. For the first time, I was able to meet my editor and the other lovely folk at De Arbeiderspers, my Dutch publishing house. And above all, I was able to meet my translator Kor der Vries. We had worked together very intensively for near on a year, and it was really exciting to finally meet him in person. And yep, he’s just as funny as I imagined him to be. Translating (whether it’s a short text or a book) always seems to involve letting go: if you haven’t mastered the target language to the standard of a native speaker, it is hard to tell what someone else is doing to your text or how it’s being received, let alone to keep track of its further development. So it’s great to have translators that you can trust completely, as was the case with Kor de Vries, as is the case with Ellie & Mara.

Despite that, the entire day was overshadowed by a terrible problem: why did all the authors I so desperately wanted to see have to be on stage at exactly the same time as our presentation of The Chronicles? ‘Why, oh why, you Olympian Gods? What are you trying to tell me?’ went round and round my head the whole day. Above all, I was frustrated that the author of my favourite book so far this year was appearing at the same as us. Nickolas Butler’s debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs was for me the best read of the entire season. I would’ve so loved to meet him in person, would’ve loved to know how he spoke, how he moved, the way he thought, what his voice sounded like.

And I would’ve probably still been in a bad mood four days later for having missed him, if our own event hadn’t been so lovely. I suddenly felt like a little girl all over again, the way it was before my novel was published. Now that my book is a bestseller most of my readings take place on a large stage in front of an audience of more than a hundred people, and last about an hour and a half. In this respect, it was a completely adorable experience, suddenly appearing as part of an ‘exhibition’ of The Chronicles, where short excerpts and mini interviews were being presented to the audience, as if we were a class of music students performing to our parents at the end of the year. As if the last year of my life hadn’t happened at all. A funny little blast from the past.

But the absolute highlight of the evening was yet to come. My beloved, the best man in the world, who had even travelled to The Hague just to see me, sent me a text: come to where the books are on sale. I’ve found him. Suddenly, I felt incredibly nervous, rushed into the foyer of the Royal Theatre and there he was: my beloved, together with Nickolas Butler. It was a long, long evening, spent in unbelievably great conversation with the nicest author I’ve ever met.

And that’s precisely the great thing about literature festivals: sleeping little, drinking lots, crazy sources of inspiration, great experiences and encounters that stay with you for the rest of your life.

Many thanks to the brilliant Crossing Border team for inviting me to this incredible festival, for your incredible hospitality and for a weekend I shall never forget.

15-11-14

With heroes it’s always difficult. Some heroes are quite simply heroes and will remain heroes forever: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Superman, for example. On the other hand Odysseus was a hero for some (the Greeks) and a wily fox for others (the Trojans). Certain figures such as Obama or Lance Armstrong are heroes for a period of time before they lose their magic. And then we have our personal heroes. Childhood heroes are perhaps different to those we look up to as adults. What happened yesterday was that, within the space of an hour, I had found a new hero and lost an old one.

At literary festivals you often wander into the readings more out of chance than anything; you are attracted by the blurb and are keen to look in on the action without having any particular connection to the event. And that was exactly how I found myself sitting in front of Michail Schischkin, not really minding what he did, merely hoping he wouldn’t talk too much about the content of his new book, as I find there’s nothing duller than writers who talk about what happens in their books (me included). But as soon as he began to speak I was fascinated. Schischkin belongs to a dying breed of writers; he’s a hugely influential storyteller and a critically engaged public intellectual. A writer with clear opinions on things. German authors are quite rightly criticised as being gluttonous money-makers, solely concerned with the next book prize and the results of the Bundesliga. Schischkin was inspirational, revealing the way in which the writer, as someone who likes to find answers to questions, can play an important role in society outside the ivory towers of the literary world.

I had found a new hero and as a result was looking forward all the more to seeing my long-time hero, Paolo Giordano, live. For years I had been seriously impressed by the way he managed to enchant so many readers with his stories at such a young age. But in the flesh he was far from enchanting. He was simply an arrogant Italian who spoke as if heavily under the influence of drugs and who deemed it necessary to inform his wife’s five-year-old son that it was he who had moved into Giordano’s villa, and not the other way round. Perhaps I’m doing him an injustice. Maybe he was nice and said smart things too. Maybe I just couldn’t hear them because someone had said smarter things before him. Because listening to humdrum family anecdotes being told by a former physicist who doesn’t care about the comet landing because his debut novel has sold five million copies is boring after you’ve heard someone explain the dilemma Russian intellectuals are facing on the brink of a third world war.

So, perhaps that’s the danger of literary festivals – that old heroes lose their magic. But maybe that’s also the gift of festivals; they allow us to find new heroes.

And after the event I once again realised that I will never be a hero: I lack the courage. There were so many people in the Royal Theatre that I became claustrophobic and had to get out. It was a shame because it meant the evening was over for me, but at the same I was incredibly happy. I mean, come on! Isn’t it great that I can get claustrophobic at a literary festival? For ultimately that means that literature is loud, literature is alive, literature inspires people. And isn’t that precisely the job of a hero?

14-11-14

A friend of mine, who goes trotting round the globe at least three times a year on business, always says that the surest oracle for your trip’s success is the pilot’s in-flight announcement. According to him, the modern-day traveller can use the pilot’s voice and choice of words to make predictions about their trip, in the same way ancient Romans used migrating birds to foretell the future. The pilot on my flight to Amsterdam was young, good-looking and incredibly cheerful. As we flew into Dutch airspace, he warned us of turbulence ahead – even as he spoke, the plane dropped several metres. Young girls started screaming, the old lady next to me began to pray and our pilot yelled out with a whoop, “That’s the way, aha aha, I like it, aha aha.” And so, as my friend, and expert-jetsetter, would undoubtedly say: an eventful weekend lies ahead of us.

***

For me the festival began in the shuttle bus to The Hague when my fellow traveller, an American woman, asked me, “Are you a writer or are you a musician?” In our daily lives, we’re either shoppers or students, commuters or newspaper readers; the roles we perform over the course of the day change from hour to hour, but at a literary festival you can be a writer the whole time and simply enjoy it. Devoting days on end entirely to literature, music etc. allows you to forget the world around you. And that’s the nice thing about escaping reality for a short while, just like in the ancient Greek festival of Dyonisia, and spending time appreciating the fine arts. As Euripides puts it so eloquently in his Bacchae, “Oh, blessèd is he who in high felicity knoweth the Living Fountain of the Gods, he who crowned with wreaths of laurel, in dedication to the worship of Dyonisia his life spends.”

In this particular Euripidean passage, the worship to God inevitably refers to the theatre festival, which was organised over several days in Dionysus’s honour, and not the wine that was drunk there. But seeing as the two things go hand in hand, it seemed only fitting that the first official item on our schedule was a drinks reception for the group. Translators and writers were able to get to know one another and raise a toast to the occasion whilst loud, but awesome music blared out through the speakers during the early evening as everyone chatted away cheerfully. I’ve already been to several literary festivals but I’ve never been to one with such a young and friendly team of organisers, such a cute festival director and such tasty beer. It had barely begun and already I never wanted to leave. As we wandered past the beautiful, little houses and through the trendy alleys and charming back streets of The Hague on our way to dinner, the feeling only grew stronger. “Oh, blessèd is he who in high felicity…” The Euripidean words continued to echo through my mind until I took one look at my handbag in the restaurant: there was parrot shit on it. I take it all back. Dear Hague, you and I are not going to be friends. Your birds just shat on us.

***

But despite this, the entire evening was about pushing boundaries and stretching limits. All kinds of languages echoed across the table, as its surface bowed under the weight of the exquisite Indonesian delicacies. The white wine was cold, the chicken was aromatic, the beef was tender, and the green beans in coconut milk were worthy of a sonnet. Yet before I get side-tracked waxing lyrical about the Indonesian cooking, I have to mention the best thing of all: getting to know my two translators, Mara and Ellie. When I translate from Ancient Greek into German, it’s always a case of throwing together my ‘own’ version of the text, but Ellie and Mara are truly brilliant translators, because they’re able to bring the text across into English/Dutch in the best way possible, enabling the text’s own charm and distinctiveness to shine through in another language. Of course it was somewhat shameful that the two of them could speak and write better German than I could, with Ellie displaying a perfect Berlin accent and Mara using a highly sophisticated level of Standard German. And so I feel like I’m really the lucky one at this event: Polished versions of my German texts, without their original imperfections, will be available to read in Ellie’s superb English and Mara’s brilliant Dutch.

Prologue
04-11-14

Whilst travelling around the world, my best friend fell in love with a Dutchman who, as a result, decided to follow her to Austria. As my best friend is incredibly neurotic and he didn’t want to stress her out, he temporarily moved into my flat until he had found a place of his own. He ended up staying in my living room, which had been empty for weeks as I no longer had a life, thanks to the impending deadline of my second novel. My best friend made us promise never to talk about her, after all the Dutchman knew her in the biblical sense and I’d known her since nursery school. Apart from her we didn’t have any common ground, so we spent many an evening talking about our countries instead.

We established that the Netherlands was half the size of Austria but had twice as many inhabitants. He explained to me why Dutch football was so awesome, and I explained to him why Vienna was an Eastern European city and not a Western European one. The only two issues we never succeeded in clearing up: I couldn’t understand why almost all Dutch food is deep-fried and he couldn’t fathom why most Austrians can’t speak English.

Even if we couldn’t solve these issues, they had been raised. And that was the important thing. Up until the moment when my best friend’s Dutch boyfriend asked me why all Austrians sound like members of the von Trapp family when they try to speak English, I had never noticed the appalling foreign language skills of my compatriots. All of a sudden the scales fell from my eyes – it was true, we really can’t speak English. And Remco had a similar experience; the very fact that I didn’t have a deep-fat fryer in my kitchen made him realise that food doesn’t always have to die a second, fatty death to be edible.

The great thing about meeting people from other cultures is not only what you discover about those cultures, but also what you discover about yourself. And that doesn’t just apply to interpersonal relationships, but to literature too.

When I was writing my first novel I had very little, if any, idea what I was actually doing. It was only when I began working with translators, that I gained an appreciation for the idiosyncrasies of different languages. I suddenly realised that German syntax is enormously ambiguous. I discovered the many shades of meaning in Austrian German, and was astonished to find that in some cases other languages didn’t have expressions for these words at all. And I also discovered that translation actually means appropriation. The first time I saw the Dutch translation, I had the feeling that only 40% of it belonged to me and 60% to Kor de Vries. Nevertheless, together we had created something completely new, as if my work had been expanded without any effort on my part.

It is precisely because of this process of exchange, of expanding across borders, of discovering the foreign as well as gaining a new appreciation for the familiar that I’m so looking forward to my time in The Hague.

I often associate literary festivals with lots of fascinating authors, brilliant musicians, getting to know colleagues from around the world, sleeping too little, drinking too much – and I imagine Crossing Border to be particularly intense. I’m already having great difficulty deciding what to miss and what to go and see – there are just too many exciting things on.

In my meandering thoughts everything is decorated with hundreds of tulips and there are twice as many people as at a German reading, but in half the space. In my imagination I also get to meet Arnon Grunberg and tell him I want to have his kids. And if I don’t, that might just be for the best. In any case, it’s going to be great.