Tuesday, January 22, 2013

High Impact UK tour of Low Countries literature ends with a Gala at the Tabernacle

Ramsey Nasr

The High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries evening at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, West London W11 last Saturday was a rousing finale to the six-day UK tour of Dutch-writing authors from the Netherlands and Belgium. The tour had kicked off in Oxford, and then moved to Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Norwich before ending up in London for a packed-out Gala Gathering at the Tabernacle.

I had been particularly drawn to the event by the presence on the programme of the fine Palestinian-Dutch poet, actor and director Ramsey Nasr. The poet was born in Rotterdam in 1974 to a Dutch mother and a father originally from the West Bank village of Salfit. For the past four years he has been the Netherlands poet laureate - a position which, unlike its British counterpart, is decided by a public vote.

I had previously seen and blogged on Nasr when he appeared at the London Review Bookshop in London in June 2011 in conversation with poet Ruth Padel. That event marked the launch of the  first-ever selection of Nasr’s work in English translation: Heavenly Life: Selected Poems. The anthology was translated by prizewinning Australian translator David Colmer and published by  Banipal Books, with a foreword by Padel. (The book was reviewed in Banipal magazine by Norbert Hirschhorn.) The London Review Bookshop published Nasr’s then latest poem the house of europe in a limited four-page edition of 250 signed copies, in Dutch and in Colmer's English translation. Banipal issue 35 had as its cover story a special feature showcasing the work of Nasr and 10 other Arab writers who write in Dutch,  translated into English.

It was a pleasure at the start of the Tabernacle evening to hear Ramsey recite from the stage. Goldsmith said he was "one of the best poets I've heard", and noted it was his last week as poet laureate. He began with the house of europe, followed by I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together). Much of Nasr's poetry is linked to music, and his third poem was in memory of  his favourite composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-75).  Nasr said  he was so obsessed by the composer that he had visited his widow. The poem he recited was allegretto from the three-poem sequence winter sonata  (without piano and viola) . The allegreto poem is built around a guided tour of a garden "approved and designed by the most supreme leader of the proletarians.."

Although I had originally gone to the Tabernacle mainly out of a wish to see Nasr, I found the evening as a whole a a real eye-opener. The Dutch are renowned for their interest in, and translation of, world literatures. But I had not realised quite how much Dutch literature, fiction and  non-fiction, has been translated and published in English in recent years. The translators whose names cropped up during the evening - sometimes repeatedly - included (with links to profiles by High Impact) David Colmer, Sam Garrett, Liz Waters, Ina Rilke, Nora Mahony and Stacey Knecht. 

The tour was advertised as *6 AUTHORS * 6 CITIES * 6 DAYS. In But , as High Impact artistic director Rosie Goldsmith, pointed out at the Tabernacle the number of writers had been 7,with travel writer Geert Mak joining as a special guest. The other writers, in addition to Ramsey Nasr, were non-fiction literary reportage writer Lieude Joris; comedian, satirist, actor and novelist Herman Koch; novelist Peter Terrin;  short story writer and novelist Chika Unigwe, and illustrator and graphic novelist Judith Vanistendael. The tour was blogged on the High Impact website by Michele Hutchison.

Three prominent UK-based writers who have based famous novels on Dutch themes took part in the Tabernacle evening as Gala Guests - David Mitchell, Deborah Moggach and Tracey Chevalier. They read extracts from their novels, respectively  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Tulip Fever and Girl with a Pearl Earring which was made into an award-winning film (reviewed here by Will Self) starring Scarlett Johnansson and Colin Firth). The three novels are historical. Two are set in the Golden Age of Dutch painting.  Tulip Fever was inspired by a 17th century Dutch painting bought by Moggach,  and Girl with a Pearl Earring weaves a narrative around of the Vermeer painting of that era. Mitchell's prizewinning novel opens at the end of the 18th century in the Dutch East India Company trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki, Japan. Mitchell gave a rollicking read in the voice of his drunken narrator.

 Deborah Moggach
The evening was punctuated by high-spirited performances by a duo of celebrated Low Countries musicians - jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans from the Netherlands and accordionist Tuur Floorizone from Flanders. Beer in distinctively shaped bottles was supplied freely to audience members courtesy of Flemish brewery Duvel, a supporting partner of the tour.

Rosie Goldsmith

Goldsmith, the dynamic compere of the evening, said the tour was the first of its kind. It was instigated and funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands and Flanders House in London. The Dutch Foundation for Literature in Amsterdam and the Flemish Literature Fund in Antwerp were also instrumental in getting the tour on the road.  

accordionist Tuur Floorizone and jazz trumpueter Eric Vloeimans

The theme of the evening was loosely a Golden Age - whether of the past, or of a present Golden Age of Dutch writing. Geert Mak read from his book on Istanbul, The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident (Harvill Secker, 2008) translated by Sam Garrett. The Bridge is one of four books by Mak to have been published by Harvill Secker since 2008. He is a bestselling author with In Europe having sold more than half a million copies. It was adapted into a 35-part TV series and has been translated into 14 languages.

Lieude Joris
Lieude Joris (interviewed here by High Impact) has established herself in the past two decades as an outstanding writer of works combining travel, journalism and fiction, for which she has won several major prizes. She read from the preface of her third book on Congo, The Rebels' Hour (Atlantic Books, 2008) translated by Liz Waters. This is her third book on Congo, which she first visited in  1985.

Herman Koch read from his novel Summerhouse with Swimming Pool, forthcoming from Atlantic Books. There was much black humour in the doctor main character's thoughts as he examines a patient. Koch's novel The Dinner (Atlantic Books, 2012) translated by Sam Garrett was a major international success.

Novelist Peter Terrin writes, according to the High Impact programme, "studies of existential angst written with chilling precision". He read from  The Guard (MacLehose Press, 2012), translated by David Colmer, which won the EU Prize for Literature. MacLehose, the Quercus imprint now celebrating its fifth anniversary,  will also publish the translation of Terrin's novel Post Mortem. The novel won the 2012 AKO Literatuurprijs, worth 50,000 Euros.

Judith Vanistendael talks about her graphic novels

Judith Vanistendael is an acclaimed Brussels-based graphic novelist (she has been dubbed a "Belgian Posy Simmonds"). She screened pages from her first graphic novel Dance by the Light of the Moon (published by SelfMadeHero in 2010) translated by Ina Rilke. This love story is based on her relationship with a political refugee from Togo. She wrote it in response to an autobiographical story on the same subject by her famous writer father Geert Van Istendael. Vanistendael also showed extracts from her graphic novel on cancer When David Lost his Voice published last year by SelfMadeHero in Nora Mahony's translation. Rachel Cooke writing in the Guardian described the book as "amazing...surprisingly tough".

Chika Unigwe

The Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe who lives in Belgium and writes in English and Dutch won the BBC Short Story Award in 2003 and the Commonwealth Short Story Award in 2004 and was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004. Her novels are The Phoenix (2005), On Black Sisters' Street (Jonathan Cape, 2009)  and Night Dancer published  by Jonathan Cape in 2012, having been published in Dutch as Nachtdanser in 2011. At the Tabernacle she read some of her new work. Unigwe gives a voice to those immigrants to Belgium whom "you don't hear about because they are not terrorists or footballers." On Black Sisters' Street focuses on the lives of African sex workers in Brussels.
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

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