Dublin celebrated Bloomsday 2001 with four days of literary readings hosted in civic buildings by Dublin Corporation.
Writers’ festivals are based on a strange concept. Film festivals or drama festivals celebrate art forms which are intended to be performed and which are meant to reach large groups of people at once. But the reading of poetry and novels is largely a solitary occupation in which an individual link is created between a writer’s words on the printed page and the imaginary world built up in the readers’ mind. At a writers’ festival this relationship is brought out of the shadows and the private literary experience becomes a collaborative and externally controlled event. This begs the question whether our appreciation and understanding of our favorite authors is enhanced or devalued by the extra contexts we are given. Do we get more from a book by hearing it read aloud by its creator? Do we appreciate our literary heroes more by seeing them in the flesh?
As far as the packed houses at this year’s Dublin Writer’s Festival were concerned, the answer to this was an emphatic "yes!" and positive proof that the most exciting thing for any reader is to have your precious book touched by the hand of its creator (as he signs it). There was ample opportunity for this kind of thrill for Dublin readers as the Festival provided the opportunity to meet a wide variety of writers from all over the world. This year, the Writers Festival broadened its canvas from its previous modest celebration of local authors to a gathering of international stature.
Writers from as far afield as India, the UK, the US, Germany, and Norway shared platforms with writers from closer to home, such as Bernhard Schlink, Jostein Gaarder, VS Naipaul, John McGahern, Colm Toibin, Fred D’Aguiar, Amit Chaudhuri, and Jane Urqhard. The program cleverly linked the better-known names with the lesser-known. This was more than a marketing ploy for publishers – it led to some interesting discoveries as well.
The kind of exposure that an event of this kind gives a writer is a publisher’s dream, but there was no sense of commercialization or cynical marketing ploys about the events in Dublin. What came across instead was a genuine excitement on the part of writers to share their work and experiences, and audiences soaked up everything they were given with gratitude and enthusiasm.
Every reader has at least one hero, and a program of events contains a personal highlight for everybody. This highlight for me was the appearance of VS Naipaul in Dublin for the first time. I gave three years of my life to a struggle to come to terms with his controversial vision of the post-colonial world. The Naipaul reading was surprising for three reasons – the first being that he would consider appearing in Dublin at all (this was his first time, and he was leaving the following morning). The second was how unlike the well-publicized Naipaul persona the real Sir Vidia turned out to be. Naipaul’s acerbic wit and prickly personality are renowned. He is famous for having walked out of a press conference because he was labeled a West Indian Writer. He is said to look harsh and predatory – what Saul Bellow called his "eagle on the crags" look – and he has not generally shown an interest in his public. What showed up was a small, neat Indian man, with warm sparkling eyes and a ready smile, who was more than willing to sign the scores of books thrust at him. The gap between the persona and the reality, or a kinder, gentler Naipaul?
There was little kind or gentle about his reading, however. This was the third and greatest surprise. VS Naipaul came to fame as a comic novelist, which came to a peak with A House for Mr. Biswas in 1961. Throughout the 1970s his artistic vision grew ever bleaker, until in the 80s and 90s he no longer wrote fiction. Some have seen this as the death of a great imagination. Yet in Dublin , 40 years after Biswas, Naipaul unveiled his latest: Half a Life – a comic novel about a young Indian coming to London from the Caribbean in 1957, and being introduced to social circles. Naipaul acted out a dinner party scene, playing the audience for laughs to the hilt – and successfully. Anyone who expected a fundamental change in Naipaul’s capacity for cruel caricature, however, would have been disappointed, particularly in his description of a "West Indian West African" called Marcus.
Naipaul shared a platform with John McGahern who read from his forthcoming novel, his first since Amongst Women, published 10 years ago. This was an instance of the programming of international and Irish authors together and in this case it was a marriage of equals. A brilliant instance of this programming of the less well known with better known was the poetry reading with Ron Houchin, John Burnside, M�ire Mhac an tSaoi and Fred D’Aguiar on Bloomsday itself. Guyanese poet and novelist, now living in the US, D’Aguiar was the big name and attraction here. John Burnside won the Whitbread award for poetry in 2000; Irish language poet Maire Mhac an tSaoi is well known to Irish audiences from their schoolbooks. But compere Theo Dorgan cleverly reversed the order to begin with Ron Houchin – a poet whom I hadn’t heard before, but whose collection, Death and the River, I rushed out to buy immediately afterward.
This was a classic instance of how seeing and hearing the writer himself enhanced the experience of the work. Ron Houchin was born in West Virginia and lives in southern Ohio where he has taught literature and creative writing for twenty-six years. His modest demeanor and gentle West Virginian accent made a startling contrast with the power of his startling images – opposing light and dark and showing how life and death flow into each other:
I sit at home naked so the dead will come around admiring my body.
These are the ones who long for any form to finish their business in.
They need something to be close to.
I give them my naked self.
Ron Houchin was one of the discoveries for which an audience can be grateful to a literary festival.
Another successful pairing was Bengali novelist Amit Chaudhuri with Northern Irish poet Mebdh McGuckian. Amit Chaudhuri is identified with the group of Indian writers in English who have come to prominence in recent years – Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, for example – not least because he has edited the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature. But, as he commented in reply to a question, this Indian literary renaissance is at least partly a publishers’ marketing ploy and his own literary allegiances are as much to English or Bengali literature, as to any new Indian literary tradition. Chaudhuri’s prose in his most recent novel A New World, about a Bengai who returns from the US to live in Calcutta for three months of the year, is sparse, uncluttered and deceptively easy to read. Chaudhuri needs to be read and considered carefully to capture the subtle portrayal of alienation and failure in the novel. He read aloud a short story and a memoir about his experiences of reading as a child. But exciting as it was to see him, his reading was passive and made it clear that he is better to be read than heard.
In sharp contrast was Mebdh McGuckian who illuminated her image-dense poems with human and engaging descriptions of the events which had inspired them – the death of a child; the death of her friend in a bomb in Northern Ireland. The link which the compere made between the writers – as sharing a similar political experience in Bengal and Northern Ireland was tenuous to say the least, but the contrast in styles and material made this a successful and stimulating reading.
The enthusiasm, the packed houses, the conversations at the Festival gave credence to the cliche that Dublin is a city of writers and talkers. The experience of this festival was that writing, reading and talking do complement each other, enriching the reading experience.
– Anne Sheridan