Best-selling and prize-winning writer of history and fiction Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘s Written in History: Letters that Changed the World is a fantastic addition to his list of publications. It is a selection of correspondences between eminent people at significant moments in history. Matching form for form, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s introduction too is in the form of an epistle addressed to the reader. In it he describes the principle upon which his selection of letters has been arranged. He also gives a crisp and informative account of the various purposes letters have served over the ages. “Some letters were intended to act as publicity, some to remain absolutely secret. Their variety of usage is one of the joys of a collection like this.” This collection consists of letters that are public letters ( like Balfour promises a Jewish homeland), letters that were designed to be copied out and widely distributed in society such as the public letters of great correspondents ( Voltaire and Catherine the Great were enjoyed in literary salons across Europe) or official letters announcing a military victory or defeat. Or letters that were political and military in nature revolving around negotiations or commands and could not be read out in public. For instance Rameses the Great’s disdainful note to the Hittite king Hattusili or Saladin and Richard the Lionheart negotiate to partition the Holy Land. This is a fine selection of letters originally written in cuneiform, on papyrus, then letters written on parchment or vellum, until paper was created in China around 200 BC. Letter writing belonged to all spheres of life. The beauty of letter writing is that nothing beats the immediacy and authenticity of a letter.
Written in History is a splendid anthology. It is a fabulous introduction to different moments in history made ever more delightful by the short notes written by Simon Sebag Montefiore preceding every letter. It is a wonderful, wonderful book which balances the act splendidly between providing information, being sensitive to the correspondents and being a sophisticated performance of a walk through history.
In March 2019, London-based Intelligence Squared’s acclaimed events on great speeches and poetry presented an event based on Letters That Changed The World. Joining the author on stage were No 1 bestselling novelist Kate Mosse. Together they discussed letters by Michelangelo, Catherine the Great, Sarah Bernhardt, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing and Leonard Cohen.
A cast of performers, including Young Vic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, rising star Jade Anouka, Dunkirk actor Jack Lowden, and West End star Tamsin Greig, brought the letters to life on stage.
In January 2019 Simon Sebag Montefiore attended the Jaipur Literature Festival. He gave a splendid public lecture-cum-performance on the Romanovs. Here is a recording of the event where he held the audience spellbound. Much like the reader is with Written in History.
Bridge of Clayby Markus Zusak is an extraordinary book. It
is a story about a family of five brothers and their parents. Penelope
Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar, the mother is an immigrant who is dearly
loved by her second husband, Michael Dunbar, and father of the boys. One fine
day it all falls apart with the discovery that the mother has cancer. It is a
slow death. A grief so searing that it tears the family apart. The father
drifts away, abandoning the boys, expecting them to fend for themselves. It is
a story told slowly, flipping back and forth in time, by one of the sons –
Michael Dubar. Bridge of Clay is
about the Dunbar family, Michael returning to the boys seeking their help to
build his dream bridge and the younger son, Clay, offering to help.
Bridge of Clay is quite unlike Markus Zusak’s previous novel, The Book Thief. Yet, Bridge of Clay is a fabulous novel for
its craftsmanship, its unique form of storytelling, its pacing, its brilliant unexpectedness.
It builds upon expectations of the readers of The Book Thief but as Markus Zusak says in the interview, “the
challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written,
despite The Book Thief’s success, and
readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for.”
I met Markus Zusak at the Jaipur
Literature Festival where he was a part of the delegation of writers and publishers
brought across by the Australian High Commission. It was then he kindly agreed
to do an interview for my blog.
Here is an edited version of the interview
conducted via email.
JBR: Bridge of
Clay can only be read if one places oneself in that fog which comes
with grief and numbness of sorrow. What prompted this story? How do
you work out the voices of the characters?
MZ: I had this story in my mind since I
was twenty years old…I was walking around my neighbourhood back then, in
Sydney, and I had this vision of a boy who was building a bridge and he wanted
it to be perfect – one beautiful, perfect, great thing.
The voices of the characters came the way
all ideas do – from spending time with the book, getting to know it. After I’d
written The Book Thief, I realised it
was finally time to take on the boy and his bridge. And as soon as I did that,
I thought, ‘Well, you can try to write a smaller, quieter book…or you can bet
everything.’ I decided to bet everything, and the first part of that was seeing
Clay, the protagonist, as one of five brothers. Next came the
multi-generational story, and I took it from there.
JBR: This kind of fluid writing, languid, placid,
calming tone of the narrator, all the while creating a disruptive
narrative is very emotionally draining to craft. Yet it feels special
in Bridge of Clay. Did it
take many revisions to achieve? What was your routine to write this book?
Did it differ from your other books?
MZ: Routine is everything. I actually have
a friend whose first question to me when we meet is, ‘How’s your routine
going?’ The idea of the writing in Bridge of Clay was very exact. Matthew is
trying to make order of the chaos in the epic, sprawling and sometimes shambolic
history of the Dunbar family, and I was trying to write in the spirit of Clay’s
bridge-building. I feel like that was one of the reasons it took thirteen years
to write this book. I was writing for the world championship of myself.
JBR: Did this book involve research?
MZ: It took a lot of time researching this
book – not only bridge building and the artworks of Michelangelo, and
horseracing, and details of Eastern Europe during communism, but also the
biggest research of all – which is getting to know the characters themselves.
Being with the characters and working for them is what gets a book over the
line, I think. In the end you’re not writing for the audience anymore – you’re
writing for them – the characters
inside the book. In this case I was writing for Clay and all the Dunbar boys,
and the animals in their household, and for Michael…but especially for Penny
Dunbar, who is the true heart of the book.
JBR: Why jumble the sequence of events?
MZ: The structure of this book works in two ways: one is that it continually builds, which
is why each part is still titled with the previous part. For example, Part Two
is called Cities + Waters, rather
than just Waters. Part three is Cities + Waters + Criminals. I did this
because it replicated the building of the bridge, but also because we don’t
just live things and leave them behind. We carry our stories with us.
The second part of the structure is tidal – where
the past and present come back and forth like the tide coming in and going out.
I like the idea that we start becoming who we are long before we’re even born.
Our parents’ stories are embedded in us, and so are their journeys and
sacrifices, their failures and moments of heroism. I wanted to recognize those
stories. I wanted to write a book about a boy in search of his greatest story
whilst recognizing the stories that got him to that point.
As Clay is makes his way outwards in the world, the
history of the Dunbar family is coming in…and I think that’s how our memories
work. We are always caught in the current between looking forward and behind
JBR: Pall of death looms large. It is not discussed
easily in families. Yet a nickname soon takes on a proper noun —
“Murderer”, a terrible reminder of Death. Why choose this horrific
MZ: Matthew Dunbar names Michael, his
father, the Murderer because he left the family after their mother, Penelope,
died. He claims that he killed their family by doing this, so it’s really a
play on words. I also used it because I think we all know when we see a
nickname like that, that there must
be more to it. Is he really a murderer? Or is he taking the blame for someone
else – and in what capacity has a crime been committed?
We spend this entire novel getting to know
its characters (and especially Clay), and when we finally understand the irony
of the nickname, we have one of the last pieces to understanding its
JBR: Why have such a slow paced novel at a time when
every else is writing fast paced detailed novels? Is this novel about the
creation of art, creating something unique? How did you decide upon the chapter
titles? A piece of artwork that is only completed with the complete
engagement of the reader otherwise the story glides past.
MZ: Why follow a trend of continually
making this easier, faster, and too easily known? We live in a world now where
we feel like we deserve to know everything right
now – and I see the role of novels as a saving grace where we can still
say, ‘Come on – do some work. Think a little bit. I promise you’ll be
rewarded.’ Maybe novels are one of the last frontiers where the pay-offs aren’t
instant. You can be offered a whole world, but it also demands your attention.
They’re the sort of books that have always become my favourites.
JBR: What came first — the story or the
MZ: The story was always there. I had
several different attempts at narrators, and settled on Matthew about seven
years into writing the book…In the end he deserved it – he does so much to keep
the Dunbar family together, and he’s telling the story to understand and
realise just how much he loves his brother, and how much he wants him to come
JBR: How did it feel to create the character of Clay?
MZ: Clay was always there. He was always
there, attempting to be great. He kept me honest writing the book. I wrote this
book to measure up to him.
JBR: Who is Penelope modelled upon? Why does it seem
that she is not necessarily based on her namesake from the epic?
MZ: All characters become completely
themselves from the first time you fictionalise something about them. In the case
of Penelope, she was based on my parents-in-law, who came to Australia from
Poland. When they got here they were shocked by the heat. They’d never seen a
cockroach before. They were horrified…but they had made this epic journey to
start a new life – and that was the first seed for Penelope’s story – but from
the moment I saw her practising the piano and being read to from The Iliad, she was only ever Penelope
Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar.
As for not being a based on the exact
template of Penelope in The Odyssey,
she’s certainly patient, and determined – but I also wanted her to be more. All
of the characters in this novel are heroic in their own way. Penelope, as I
said, is the heart of the book, and I wanted her to be stoic, and deceptively
strong. She’s perennial – a survivor and mother, and certainly a formidable
opponent in the Piano Wars with her sons
JBR: Which edition of the Odyssey and Illiad did
you read? When did your love for the epic start? What prompted you to reimagine
MZ: My editions are the Penguin classics,
translated by E.V. Rieu. I never studied them at school or university, but I
decided one day that I needed to read The
Iliad. I always loved the bigness of them – the larger-than life characters
and language…the overwroughtness of it!
As for it’s thread in Bridge of Clay, it came to me when all of the characters started
having nicknames, and when Clay is training – the start of the novel is like the Games in Ancient Greece. Then, when
I thought of Penelope being called The Mistake Maker, I immediately saw her
practising the piano in Eastern Europe, which I called a ‘watery wilderness’,
which was a direct quote from Homer’s description of the sea. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what Bridge of Clay is. It’s a suburban
epic that pays tribute to the bigness of our everyday lives.’ We all think we
have dull, drab existences, but we all fall in love, We all have people die on
us. We all fight for what we want sometimes. It all just seemed to fit, and
then I thought of Penelope being sent to Australia with a copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I never doubted that part of the story.
JBR: What was it like to interact with readers in
India when you visited the country in January?
MZ: To be in India with a book is like
being with your fiercest friends. Indian readers are special in that they love
showing you how much they love you, and as a reading culture it is like no
other place in the world. I loved every minute.
JBR: Why release the book for two types of readers
across the world particularly in an important book market like USA where it has
been labelled as #yalit?
MZ: I’ll often answer this question by saying it
really doesn’t matter because a book will find its true audience. I had a
choice to release this book with a different publisher to place it firmly in
adult territory, but I love the people I work with, and I wanted to stay with
them. That’s the only reason it was released as a young adult novel there. I
think that was possibly an easier proposition with The Book Thief, because it’s an easy book to love – but I think Bridge of Clay does makegreater demands of its reader. It’s a
tougher book to read. Liesel is given to you on a plate; she’s easy to love –
orphaned, in a book about loving books – but Clay is a character to fight for.
You almost have to prove that you can withstand all he goes through to fully
In short, a reader almost has to earn the right to
love him – and so maybe it’s more a novel for true believers in my writing,
which makes it a harder book to market for teenagers.
Either way, the challenge was always to write this
book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience.
And that’s something I know I fought for. Every decision was made to make the
book exactly what it needed to be, and follow its vision completely.
Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today. The Jaipur Literature Festival is a festival of cultures, language, ideas and literature, and I feel very privileged to have the chance over the next few days to listen to so many Indian authors and personalities from around the world and to converse with them.
At this confluence of cultures, I’m pleased to address
the friends from the trade at Jaipur Bookmark today.
After all, that is the fundamental principle of any
literature festival: creating an environment for interactions that promote the
free exchange of ideas and opinions.
The free exchange of ideas and opinions – never has
that been easier than today, in the 21st century.
And never has it been so threatened.
Over the past 20 years, communications technology has
taken an evolutionary leap, one that surpasses anything the most far-sighted
science-fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries could have imagined.
In Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” from
the year 1968, Dr Heywood Floyd, an astronaut, has a “videophone call” with his
daughter while at the space station.
Fifty years later, in the summer of 2018, the German
astronaut Alexander Gerst used his mobile phone to take fascinating photos of
his time at the International Space Station, images which were transmitted
around the world.
Videophones, computer tablets, artificial
intelligence, voice control – many of the things that Kubrick envisaged 50
years ago have become reality.
According to the 2018 Global Digital Report, of the four billion people
around the world who have access to the Internet, more than three billion use
social media every month. Nine out of
ten users log on to their chosen platforms using mobile devices.
The number of people who use the most popular
platforms in their respective country has grown over the last 12 months by
almost one million new users each day.
What I find remarkable here is that not only has
communications technology made a quantum leap, the devices that allow the
world’s population to participate in the global conversation have also become
so inexpensive that almost everyone can afford one.
That is giving rise to a previously unknown
participatory process, one that has the power to change democracy’s traditional
Everyone today is in a position to publish whatever
they want – using blogs, podcasts and self-publishing platforms, as well as
traditional publishing houses. News is transmitted around the globe in the
fraction of a second, and social networks allow us to reach more readers and
viewers than ever before.
In just a minute I will talk about the challenges and
consequences that are resulting for the publishing industry.
First, however, let’s look at the darker side of these
In the 21st century, a few select businesses have
become private superpowers. They can do more than most countries to promote or
prevent a free exchange of opinions.
Via social networks, phenomena like the viral spread
of fake news, hate speech and slander now have a global impact.
Professional trolls strategically destabilise
political discourse online, fuelling populist, nationalist and anti-democratic
tendencies throughout Europe and around the globe.
One observes that, here in India, free speech is facing a threat sprouting from religious motivations, political biases and social judgments. Attempts in the recent past to silence journalists, writers, film-makers and publishers reflect the rise of identity politics and apathy on the part of the state. Two journalists of international repute – Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari – were shot dead within a span of nine months. Publisher friends like DC Books, Kalachuvadu Publications and their authors have witnessed attacks by fanatics who may have never even read the books in question.
When I look at the hysteria, hatred and hostility that
characterise the discussion in social media, the permanent state of turmoil
that societies around the world find themselves in, then I begin to doubt
whether we are actually capable of using the communications technologies whose
development we are so proud of.
To paraphrase Goethe: “The spirits I called / I now cannot
In social media, language is used as a destructive weapon
day in and day out, and it’s become clear how disastrous this can be for those
individuals targeted by the bullying. It can even lead to murder.
In his 2016 book Free
Speech, which you undoubtedly know, the British historian Timothy Garton
Ash examines the question of how free speech should take place.
He asks which social, journalistic, educational,
artistic and other possibilities can be realised to ensure that free speech proves
beneficial by facilitating creative provocation without destroying lives and
He comes to the conclusion that the less we want to
have laid out by law, the more we have to do ourselves.
After all, Ash explains, there is no law that can draw
a line between freedom and anarchy – every individual must look within before expressing
himself or herself and must take responsible decisions.
I would like to talk with you about this “how” in the
coming days and hear your opinions.
Personally, I feel that the participatory process I
mentioned before requires us – our industry, but also each of us as individuals
– to take a stance. Expressing an opinion of this type was long reserved for
politicians or the media. Today, in the 21st century, we all have the
possibility of making our voices heard.
And we should not do that in keeping with the motto “overnewsed
but uninformed,” but in a carefully considered manner.
I believe that this permanent state of turmoil is
troubling, this hysteria which does not stop at speech, but which now
increasingly leads to violence.
Personally, I’m alarmed at how the language we use is
becoming increasingly coarse and, following from that, the way we interact with
The problem about this state of turmoil is that it
usually results in the exclusion of others and, consequently, causes even
deeper trenches to be dug.
Yet how can we deal with the challenges of our time –
and find solutions to them – if not in dialogue with each other?
That leads to the question: what responsibility do
publishers bear, does our industry bear, today, in the post-Gutenberg era?
How can publishing houses and their products remain
relevant in an age in which fake news can be disseminated faster than
In which rumours, supposition and conjecture are more
quickly viewed, liked and shared than texts capable of explaining complex
As my friends Kristenn Einarsson and José Borghino have
pointed out on many occasions, “If we are to create and maintain free, healthy
societies, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge
established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and make room for
new knowledge, critical opposition and challenging artistic expression”.
Publishers in the 21st century are in a privileged
position: the industry looks back on a long tradition, on the one hand, and has
built a reputation. Publishers are gatekeepers – they filter and assess
content, they curate before they publish.
They consider it part of their job to publish content
that is well-researched, documented, checked and carefully assembled as way of
contributing to the range of opinions present in society.
On the other hand, they now have the possibility of
reaching their readers through various channels, offering their expertise, their
content and their opinion exactly where their target group is found.
Publishers and authors in many parts of the world risk
their lives by writing or bringing out books that criticise regimes, uncover
injustices and shed light on political failures.
On 15 November 2018, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer,
Arundhati Roy wrote the following in a letter to the Bangladeshi writer,
photographer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam: “How your work, your
photographs and your words, has, over decades, inscribed a vivid map of
humankind in our part of the world – its pain, its joy, its violence, its
sorrow and desolation, its stupidity, its cruelty, its sheer, crazy
complicatedness – onto our consciousness. Your work is lit up, made luminous,
as much by love as it is by a probing, questioning anger born of witnessing at
first hand the things that you have witnessed. Those who have imprisoned you
have not remotely understood what it is that you do. We can only hope, for
their sake, that someday they will.”
As you know, Shahidul Alam was taken into custody in
July of last year after he criticised the government of Bangladesh in an
interview with Al Jazeera and in various Facebook posts. Fortunately he has since
been freed, but the charges against him remain.
Without wanting to turn these very personal remarks by
Arundhati Roy into a generalisation, I would just like to say that she has put
it in a nutshell when she writes that, through their work, writers, authors, journalists
and artists draw a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world.
Journalists and other authors write despite
intimidation and threats. Like Shahidul Alam, they are driven by a mixture of love
and anger. For that, they deserve our highest esteem and respect.
Writers and journalists are being intimidated and
forced into silence all around the world because of their political and social
engagement, something we condemn in the strongest possible terms.
As discoverers and disseminators of ideas and free
thought, we, as a community, have a greater responsibility to uphold freedom of
expression. At the same time, we cannot withhold our criticism of its misuse.
I hope to have the chance to speak with many of you
about these issues in the coming days.
At Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, I moderated a fantastic panel discussion on “Critical Thinking and Book Reviewing”. The panelists were Ambassador Navtej Sarna, writer Alexander McCall Smith, critic and translator Jenny Bhatt and literary journalist Somak Ghoshal.
At Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, I was in conversation with author Daman Singh about her novel Kitty’s War at Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. It is historical fiction set within a railway colony at the time of World War II. It is about the Anglo-Indian community told through the eyes and experiences of Katherine Riddle or Kitty, as she is more popularly referred to.
Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu, was invited by Neeta Gupta, Founder, Jaipur BookMark, to participate in the JBM Copyright Roundtable.T
It was held at Diggi Palace and the keynote was delivered by Michael Healy. The other participants were Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, Alind Maheshwari, Arpita Das, Claudia Kaiser, Kannan Sundaram, Maggie Doyle, Michael Healy, Phillipa McGuinness, Prashasti Rastogi, Safir Anand and Urvashi Butalia, moderated by Naveen Kishore.
The cue given to the panelists by JBM was: Copyright underpins everything we do as an industry and without it all opportunities quickly recede. The principle of copyright is threatened at a global level and to a degree we have never seen before. This is true in India as it is in many countries. This session is a call to publishers, literary agents, rights managers, lawyers, authors and international book fair organisers for the protection of copyright.
Kannan Sundaram gave a short speech putting forth the concept of nationalising prominent Indian writer’s works rather than restricting them to a copyright life arguing that this had been done for Tamil poet Subramania Bharathy. Whereas in the case of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore the copyright period had been extended by a decade so that Visva-Bharathi University, the main benefactors of Tagore’s literary estate could continue to earn royalities for a few more years.
Here is the complete text of Kannan’s speech delivered at Jaipur BookMark. It has been published with permission.
you JBM, Neeta Gupta for this opportunity to share my views.
will be making a few remarks on copyright issues in Indian languages in general
and Tamil in particular.
premise of this panel that copyright is facing a threat in contemporary times
is not entirely true of many Indian languages. I would not generalize the
publishing context of all Indian languages. Every Indian language publishing
has its own eco system. However, in most languages the adherence to copyright
has never been strong.
I know that Malayalam market is an exception. There could be other languages where copyright is adhered to but that is not the overall picture of Indian language publishing. In Tamil copyright has been an option not a rule. It may have been extended to popular authors, authors who would fight it out, but not to most authors who had no clear understanding of copyright acts. In Tamil publishing adherence to copyright regulations is improving only now. Writers are fighting back using social media and prime time debates in television on copyright are happening. And there are publishers who appear on TV and argue why they cannot pay royalty!
copy left is an idea and an aspiration for many in the world, in the state of
Tamil Nadu it has been practiced legally in some instances for some decades now.
This is a practice that is unique to the state of TN. So we have had an opportunity
to access copy left in practice.
over 60 years now the government of Tamil Nadu purchases copyright of an author
by paying a lump sum money to the copyright holder and then puts it out in the
public domain. This process is referred to as ‘nationalization’.
This practice was initiated after a
controversy surrounding the rights of our national poet Mahakavi Subramania
Bharathy. Responding to public demand that no one can own the rights of a poet
who was perceived as belonging to the people, first the Tamil Nadu government
bought the rights of Bharathy’s works in 1949. Then in the mid-fifties it was
nationalized, that is gifted to the people. (If you want read this story I
recommend the book ‘Who owns the Song?’
by A.R. Venkatachalapathy).
would like to quickly compare this to the story of a nationally treasured
writer Rabindranath Tagore. Visva-Bharathi University had an iron clad hold
over Tagore’s copyright through the term and then succeeded on extending
copyright for 10 years!
up on the new tradition established for Bharathy, various Tamil Nadu governments
over the years have nationalized the works of over 130 writers. It started as a
trickle and then became a sludge. When any of the governments in India decide
to patronize culture, it usually starts well but the rot quickly sets in and
then it typically goes to the dogs. What started as a process of national
honour to outstanding personalities of Tamil literature has now gotten
entangled in nepotism, patronage and corruption. I would not be able to
recognize the names of a quarter of the nationalized writers!
are the pros and cons of this nationalization process?
Tamil writers do not bother to assign copyright when they create a will for
their belongings and property. It not valued by them or their families since it
typically brings in little money. Therefore, posthumously it often becomes
complicated for any publisher that wants to publish them. Nationalising a
writer’s works clearly this all up nicely. The family gets some money and the
publishers are free to publish the works. This as far as I can see is the only
pro of this process. The honour is not there anymore since writers are
nationalized with little discrimination.
cons are many.
is a bestselling author, there is a price war between publishers undercutting
quality of the books published drastically.
the books of authors that have been nationalized remain out of print. This
obviously is because their works are not valued turning the process of
nationalizing their works irrelevant. Also if the author is a slow and steady
selling, thena publisher with exclusive rights might do limited editions but
when there exists the possibility that somebody else too might publish it and
eat into the limited market, then there is little initiative to publish it.
copyright goes, no one exerts moral rights of work. This may not be the legal
position but that is how it works in practice. This means publishers take
liberties with the text. They feel free to edit, delete, change, condense and
adapt the text in any way they like.
One publisher who publishes only nationalized books dedicates all the books to his mother. After sometime this publisher realized that the readers do not understand that he is dedicating all the books to his mother but wrongly assume that all writers are dedicating their books to their own mothers. So now the dedications are accompanied by photographs of his mother! A very commendable sentiment but ethics of it is debatable. Since no one can represent a nationalized book or can sign a contract, essentially any possibility of translation becomes very slim.
I interviewed the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. The interview has been published in the online news portal Scroll. The text of the interview has been c&p below while the original url is here.
Alexandre Ziegler, the French Ambassador to India, was at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year to announce the winner of the 2019 Romain Rolland Book Prize. Recognising the best translation of a French title into any Indian language, including English, the Indo-French jury takes into account the quality of the translation and the publication itself while selecting the winner.
The award comes with an invitation to the Paris Book Fair 2019 in March for the publisher of the work and an invitation for the translator to attend a one-month residency in France.
This year, the longlist included essays as well as fiction and a very strong contribution from Indian languages apart from English, with four translations into Malayalam, two into Hindi, and one each into Tamil and Bengali. The winning title was The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine, published in France by Le Seuil, in India by Kalachuvadu, translated into Tamil by SR Kichenamourty.
The Romain Rolland Book Prize is just one of the actions of the French Institute in India to support translations of French books in India. It runs the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme and also launched a special training programme for translators this year. The first step was a one-day translation workshop focused on Indian regional languages, which took place on January 22 at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and brought together more than 60 participants from various universities in Delhi. Ros Schwartz, the acclaimed translator, conducted the workshop. The long-term translation programme is part of the roadmap leading up to, on the one hand, the Paris Book Fair 2020, where India will be the focus country, and on the other, the New Delhi Book Fair 2022, where France will be the guest of honour.
Ziegler, who has been the Ambassador of France to India since 2016, spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival about these initiatives. Edited excerpts:
Why was the Romain Rolland Prize instituted and what is its main focus? Does France have similar prizes in other countries too? The Romain Rolland Book Prize is a translation prize that aims to support publishers and translators involved in the translation of French titles into Indian languages. The purpose is to find the best book and to be able to negotiate for it on best possible terms while also promoting texts in translation. My feeling is that we speak about strategic and economic partnerships, of which both are growing well but we still have to invest more in culture.
In this age of machine translations, we often forget the human touch of a translator is critical. Translators are at the very core of the relationship between books and the world. What we have realised through our interventions is that it is not just texts in English and Hindi but we got very good texts from other languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam, too. It makes one realise that languages are very crucial to reaching out to other cultures, not necessarily in entire diversity of language. This is very reassuring for us.
The second Romain Rolland Book Prize is being awarded because of the quality of text. Creating the prize happened organically through the ongoing Tagore programme to recognise translations. We wanted to reinforce the initiative. As a result we are also co-organising a translations workshop with the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The first one happened in January with acclaimed translator Ros Schwartz.
France has an active book trade, bookstores and book fairs. How receptive are the French to literature from India? Recently you released Over & Underground, a joint production between French and Indian writers and illustrators. How successful are such literary experiments? Does the cross-pollination of such cultural experiences help foster bilateral relationships, not necessarily confined to the literary domain? Translation of the work of Indian authors in France has experienced several waves. Today there is a renewed interest among the French public for Indian authors. The dynamism of Indian publishing, its diversity and India’s international outreach have created a new curiosity for India and its authors and thinkers. The example of Over & Underground shows the combination of creativity between Indian and French authors, poets and illustrators. These co-publications need to be further encouraged and that is what we are working on.
Cross pollination of cultural experiences is exactly what we strive for to strengthen the ties between India and France. Books and other expressions of cultural diplomacy are a significant part of fostering bilateral relations.
What is the size of the French book market ? What are its characteristic features such as which genre sells the most, are print books preferred to ebooks, what is its growth rate etc? Is digital publishing making inroads with French readers? The French publishing market is worth 4 billion euros, 300 million of which is in e-books. Overall, the French reader prefers printed books but there is a real growth in e-books. For consumer books, it represents only 3% of the market but for the B2B and books on law or medicine, this market reaches 9% with an annual growth of 10%. The e-book is also directly linked to the presence or absence of bookstores. E-books sell better where bookstores are not available.
The time of traditional reading has decreased but a recent survey conducted in November 2018 shows that 69% of the French population is connected: they read online but not necessarily literature! Each day, the French spend an average of 33 minutes on a computer and 52 minutes on a mobile phone. Reading is therefore omnipresent on other platforms but basically there is an attachment to the printed book in France: an average 5000 copies are printed but real successes vary between 200,000 and 300,000 copies. This is the case of [Michel] Houellebecq’s latest book, which will reach 400,000 copies. The trend is also to publish more titles each year. The number of prints is hence lower today than it was ten years ago.
France is known for its robust independent booksellers. Globally independent bookstores are finding it difficult to thrive but not necessarily in France. It is a remarkable success story. Do you have any interesting case study/report to share about how these independent bookstores have managed to continue? There are about 1,000 independent bookstores in France. All those located in city centres are working well with an annual growth rate of 0.8%. This is a stable figure. Since 1981, the single price of the book has also allowed these bookstores to diversify. 37 countries, including 11 European countries, are currently applying the single price on books.
Recently the French Book Office (FBO) participated in the New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF). What was the response from the locals to your participation? Did the FBO gain significant learnings from its presence at the fair? The French Institute in India invited four publishers of children’s literature and social sciences, and organised four professional panels. The exchanges between Indian and French publishers were very constructive but the NDWBF is not the ideal place for professional meetings. On the other hand, the invitation of a French author whose work has been translated in India and invited for a dialogue with an Indian author would allow exchanges with a wider audience. But our four publishers were very satisfied with their discovery of the Indian market and the prospects for collaboration in social sciences and children’s literature.
In 2003 I attended the Salon de livre Jeunesse at the invitation of the French government. It was extraordinary to see the throngs of children attending the book fair and buying books. I would be curious to know if the children’s book fair continues to be as popular. If so what are the kinds of books for children and young adults that are trending in France? Would you consider collaborating on projects for children’s and young adult literature with Indian publishers? The Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse in Montreuil attracts a large number of visitors each year. In 2018, for the 34th edition, there were no less than 179,000 visitors in 6 days, 4,000 more than in 2017. So I think we can say that children’s publishing is a booming sector in France. The dynamism of publishers and all those involved in books and reading contributes greatly to this success. Access to the fair was free for a good number of visitors and it is a real desire for cultural democratisation. As well as the multitude of actions that take place throughout the country and throughout the year around reading: meetings, workshops, debates, readings, competitions, prizes, etc.
Children’s literature in France is a market that knows how to renew itself, to question itself and, finally, to innovate. Thus, the early childhood segment develops real nuggets with sounds and materials to touch. The album is full of creativity with an incredible diversity of illustrators. The documentary is now close to coffee-table books by offering books that appeal to adults and children alike, whose aesthetics are so neat that it gives one pleasure to open and read them. As for fiction, from its first readings to “young adult” literature, publishers are increasingly perfecting their skills by offering books of high quality, covering all the themes that may interest young readers.
Would you consider instituting a prize similar to the Romain Rolland Book Prize for children’s literature as well? We are in fact planning to consider children’s books as potential winners of the Romain Rolland Prize. This will be discussed in Jaipur with the jury members.
How well are translations of world literature received in France? How have you fostered and continue to manage a cross-pollination of literary traditions in France and India? The French market is also influenced by Dan Brown and other Anglo-Saxon authors. But the phenomena of great success such as Elena Ferrante (Italian) or Arundhati Roy also shows that the French readership is open to world literature beyond Anglo-Saxons. This is why we believe that Indian authors have their rightful place in the French market.
Do you have any details that may be shared publicly of a road map planned for the 2020 Paris Book Fair where India is the guest of honour? What are the significant features of such an extraordinary event? We are hoping to select many writers including children’s and young adult writers, across genres, as well as initiating new translations. We do not want only established writers to be invited to the festival. We would prefer to have a range of outreach programmes too. For instance, conferences, debates, collaborations with libraries, bookstores, universities etc.
What are the events planned at the 2020 Paris Book Fair? Anything exciting that the Indian publishers and readers should be aware of? The Syndicat National de l’Edition and the National Book Trust have just signed the partnership agreement on 22 January 2019 for Livre Paris 2020. This book fair is a meeting place for the French public and Indian authors. We would like to organise panel discussions between French and Indian authors. For example we could have our two Nobel Prize winners in Economics enter into a dialogue. We also wish to encourage translation of Indian authors who have not yet been translated into French in order to introduce the French public to new young authors from all over the Indian Union. We also hope that this meeting will foster professional exchanges between Indian and French publishers. Several steps are planned. Pre-meetings in March 2019, a breakfast networking at Frankfurt between French and Indian publishers; invitation of French publishers to Jaipur 2020 and a professional training session on publishing that we would like to organise in India at the beginning of 2020. Not to mention the translation training programme that we recently launched with Jawaharlal Nehru University.
It is a keynote speech worth reading. Naveen Kishore is a publisher who is utterly brilliant but in this speech it is apparent he lives his craft. He plays with words. His theatre life where he specialised in controlling the lights has undoubtedly influenced his writing. To me the very act of writing for him is like a performance meant to enrich the experience not only for himself but for those who read/listen to him. So when he talks about the role of a publisher facilitating good writers to be heard while underplaying his own voice, I wonder. He definitely underplays it but is also very much in control. It is like the person in charge of lights in the theatre. Critical role. To give the desired effect, atmosphere, experience and impact of performance , the lights are crucial. Likewise with writing, writers, translators, publishers. It’s a creative act which is underpinned by many other considerations and this has to be recognized.
In January 2017, the Australian Council for the Arts will be leading a delegation of publishers to India. They will also be attending the Jaipur Literature Festival ( 18-22 Jan). A B2B roundtable has also been organised in New Delhi.
The delegates from Australia include:
1. Australia Council representative
Dr Wendy Were, Executive Director, Strategic Development and Advocacy
Australia Council for the Arts | www.australiacouncil.gov.au
One month before the 10th anniversary of South Asia’s largest and most renowned literary festival, Jaipur Literature Festival founder and co-director Namita Gokhale (with William Dalrymple) sat down with Jaya Bhattarcharji Rose to talk about her latest, and eighth novel Things to Leave Behind. It is a multi-generational story set between 1840-1912 in Nainital and Sat Tal, Kumaon, part of the Himalayas.
How did Things to Leave Behind come about?
A tangle of memories about a time I sensed and knew. I had accessed a rich treasure of information through Mountain Echoes, the book of oral biographies I had compiled and transcribed. Then there was Clever Wives and Happy Idiots, folktales that had been recorded in the memoirs of Russian spy and adventurer, Ivan Minayev, which we at Yatra Books [a Delhi-based publishing house specialising in translations where Gokhale works as director] published and I wrote the introduction to. I wanted to give voice to this, to record and to remember those days, those stories.
In your acknowledgements you mention how this novel was inspired by your grandfather’s text –The History of Kumaon?
I did not have the good fortune to meet Badri Dutt Pande but he was an inspirational figure, who helped rid Kumaon of the infamous British ‘begaari ‘ system of unpaid labour. His book The History of Kumaon, originally written in Hindi with the title Kumaon ka Itihas gave me deep insights into the past.
How much does family and memory, especially of the hills, play a role in your writing? How have those shaped the subjects you write about?
I grew up in a beautiful house called ‘Primrose’, which finds fleeting mention in the novel. Many of the stories and episodes have their source in family history, including the tale of the royal physician Jeevan Chandra Vaidya.
How is writing about the mountains a different experience from writing about anything else —for instance in the context of your other books like the very successful Paro and Priya.
Urban novels have a different edge to them. The city has a very different character and atmospherics from the mountains.
Why adopt the British Raj spelling when the story is told from an Indian perspective?
The story is told from several perspectives. The old ‘Raj’ spellings were in use and authentic to the times, so I used them, especially in the early parts. The language and spellings I employ become slowly ‘modern’ in the course of the narrative.
Your first book was commissioned by the legendary editor, Carmen Calil when she was at Chatto & Windus. This was at a time when it was not so easy to access London-based publishing firms. As a publisher and writer yourself what are the transformations you have seen evolve in publishing?
Publishing has changed in terms of markets. India has its own readers, writers and publishers, and this strong internal market is growing. We are the third largest English publishing market in the world, after the US and UK. My first novel struck a chord and succeeded. I was very young and I learnt a lot, including how to cope with subsequent failures.
Your fascination for literature is evident in the local publishing history of the late 19th century to the early 20th century that you blend into the story. Is this your fascination as an author or a publisher?
I am fascinated by the power of books and ideas, in transforming how every age views itself. I wanted to describe the books people were reading, disputing, talking about. My fascination was as a reader as well as a publisher.
How did the title Things to Leave Behind come about?
I had spent five weeks at the Bellagio Center [residency program] at Lake Como. I was working on In Search of Sita and also this novel. When I was to leave, I struggled with the packing and made out a list of Things to Leave Behind and realized that this was to be the title of my book.
Things to Leave Behind is a novel that is incredibly powerful in its syncretism. Although there is a thriving and lived caste system in the mountainous regions of Almora and Sat Tal a significant portion of your novel dwells upon the arrival of missionaries of different religions such as Swami Vivekananda and the Baptists. Yet you are able to show how people always find the breathing space to live life according to their terms. Were these manoeuvres by the characters an exciting challenge to write?
The story told itself, the characters made their choices and lived out the consequences. That’s all. There was a ferment of ideas; a conflict of identities, then as there is now.
You have painted an unsettling picture of the hierarchies of the caste system operating in the hills. Can you share a little more about this character – Jayesh Jonas – and where he came from? Do you feel things are different in these societies today?
The caste system was rigid and hierarchical in those times. It has changed, but the attitudes and prejudices cast a long shadow. I was a Pant [part of a compound of a North Indian surname of people with a Hindu Brahmin background] before marriage. Jayesh Jonas was based not as a character but in his situation on a branch of my paternal family tree (that had decided, in very different circumstances, to convert to Christianity).
How have these hills affected you as a writer?
I keep going back to that landscape because somewhere in my imagination it provides immense solace. But that’s not all I write or want to write. Let’s see where my muse guides me next.
What do you feel is the one myth about the hills that people have that you’d like to demystify through your work and writing?
I try always to demythify the false romanticism of the simple hill life. People are complex, complicated and cunning everywhere.