Magical Memories of ELIT 2013
This is Spitz an der Donau, just over an hour’s blissful drive from Vienna. I’ve been invited as observer, moderator and journalist to ‘ELIT’, the annual European Literature Days, taking place in the town of Spitz in the Wachau region. The ELIT team, I think, regards me as a rather exotic bird, not only because I wear bright colours but because I am indeed odd: I am a passionate Europhile from Britain, one of the EU’s most sceptical members; I speak German and other European languages (a declining breed in the UK); I publicly champion language learning and European literature (linguists are exotic in Britain and only a small percentage of what we read is translated fiction) and I organize and chair events to promote and celebrate international arts (ditto, ditto). It’s an uphill struggle – which is why it is a relief to be on the Danube among like-minded people for whom ‘Europe’ is not a dirty word.
In this picturesque, peaceful place a literature festival takes place to decide the future of European literature and to create an intellectual hub for European ideas. ELIT is ambitious, intellectually bold and sustained by ample food and drink and participants from all the 10 countries visited by the Danube on its cross-border journey. Here the word ‘Europe’ is on everyone’s lips and nobody runs to hide.
How is it possible that we in Britain have become so divorced from the debate, so afraid of anything European? And please note: I am not beating the drum in favour of the EU but of European culture. In fact, in the UK I have to beat 2 drums, as both ‘the arts’ and ‘Europe’ are side-lined.
Am I in heaven? At our ELIT dinners I overhear Slovene and Slovak, Hungarian and Bulgarian, Swiss and Romanian writers, academics, journalists and arts leaders holding Danubian conversations about ‘Europe as a spiritual entity’, the creation of a ‘European think tank’, and of how narrow modern English literature is. My head is buzzing. I sit next to Leonie Hodkevitch who speaks 15 languages and teaches in 4, is married to an American and who knows someone who speaks 52 languages; at breakfast I chat (in English!) with Steve Sem-Sandberg, Swedish star author of ‘The Emperor of Lives’ whose home is now Vienna, the very capital of multicultural, multilingual Europe today. I chair a seminar on the Graphic Novel (‘Can they really be considered novels?’) – and, my favourite task, I moderate a celebration of ‘wine and literature’ in a wine cellar with 2 hilarious German academics. Who says those Germans have no sense of humour?!
Maybe it was the wine, maybe a dream, but as our European Literature Days 2013 come to a close on a gloriously Spitz-sunny Sunday, as I join the ELIT Sunday walkers waltzing through the autumn leaves by the Danube, we are all in step. We’ve achieved our own special European harmony – at least for a few days.