This year's Frankfurt Book Fair changed several things in the layout, and in the security measures. Where in the past, only Hall 8, where the English-speaking publishers plus the Israelis used to be, had handbag-searching at their entrance, this year all bags get searched at the general entrance. Also the English speaking publishers plus the Israelis switched to Hall 6, which is much closer to the rest of the action, but meant that the Latin-origin languages moved to Hall 5. Which was when the Italians, who were supposed to get their stand in 5.0, protested that there was no way they were going to be placed BELOW the French who are in 5.01. I don't know whether these are long term Napoleonic scars, or what, but I have it from a publisher who was told by the President of the Frankfurt Book Fair. In the end, ruffled feathers were calmed, and the Italians were content with 5.0.
These territorial squabbings notwithstanding, the opening speeches at the opening ceremony started with strong appeals to European unity and fighting against the evils of nationalism in all our countries. Then they got self critical. The second speaker was Heinrich Riethmüller, President of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, and he offered a mighty "J'Accuse" in direction of not solely Turkey but also our own government (and the rest of the Europeans) for not doing anything due to Erdogan's refugee leverage. He quoted a letter the imprisoned writer Azli Erdogan (no relation) has written, representative of over 120 currently imprisoned writers and journalists in Turkey, which was a heartwrenching appeal, and lamented "the silence of politics". The next speaker was Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, who departed from his prepared speech by immediately addressing what Riethmüller has said. "'Politics' may be silent, but I won't be. I agree with you, Herr Riethmüller. The voice of Frau Erdogan says all about Herr Erdogan. Someone who seeks to silence his opponents by persecuting them and locking them up can no longer be a democrat. I join you in calling for their immediate release." Since he said this on a public occasion to an audience of hundreds and in the presence of two heads of state - the Kings of Belgium and Holland respectively, because this year's guest(s) of honor were Flanders and the Netherlands - it was hopefully a gesture not unnoticed. The rest of his speech was pretty good, too. He linked Trump, Le Pen and our homegrown evils, the AFD, and called for "an uprising of the decent", to speak against hate speech, because this is our test, the one we didn't think would come for our generation, where we truly find out whether we've learned better than our grandparents. He also used his bookseller background to connect reading to empathy, which I'm less sure about, given that there are plenty of books around which incite hate, but anyway. There is currently some talk about whether or not Schulz will replace Gabriel as the SPD's candidate for chancellor in the next elections, but so far it's not likely he'll give up being President of the European Parliament for such a candidacy.
As mentioned, the guest of honor isn't one country this time, but two, or rather, one and the linguistically related region of another. Two of their authors, Charlotte von den Broeck for Flanders and Arnon Grünberg for the Netherlands, gave us a new format for the traditional last speech, always by a writer from the guest of honor country. Instead of a speech about their country, they gave us a poetic dialogue about shame, writing, empathy, distance. By far the most "literary" conclusion the opening evening has had for a while.
There has been no shortage of famous writers, German and international alike, at the Book Fair this year, but by far the most famous author came from another industry. No, Bob Dylan didn't make it to Frankfurt. (Though every publisher who had Dylan lyrics or biographies about him in their backlist included those at their stand.). But Bruce Springsteen did. Alas for most of us, he didn't do so in public or announced. Instead, he presented his memoirs to a select audience of ca. 60 journalists, and the rest of us only learned about it the next morning. However, it WAS a traditional reading/presentation - just two minutes for photographs, then he read an excerpt from his autobiography and answered questions. The invited journalists loved it (and were v.v.v smug the next day, let me assure you; one said that "Bruce looks more Irish the older he gets", while I tried very hard to pretend I was only jealous on likeadeuce
Some famous authors I did meet and listen to: Donna Leon, whom I'd met earlier this year in February, and who, as an American living in Europe, was inevitably asked the T question, which led to this bit of dialogue:
DL: You know, I think the rest of the world should get a say in US elections as well, seeing how our decisions affect all of you. But unfortunately, nobody listens to me.
Moderator: Will you vote?
DL: I've voted already.
Moderator: We all agree that Trump is unspeakable, but is Hillary Clinton really a better choice? I've got a Republican cousin in New York who says she's just as bad, and...
DL (interrupting him, first with mock horror, then with real verve): Argh - Republican relations! No, she's not "just as bad". And by the way, I didn't vote for her because she's a woman, either. I voted for her because she's incredibly smart, she's disciplined, and she gets things done.
That told him. Then there was Ian Kershaw, of British historian fame, presenting his book about what he called "the 30 years war of the 20th century", i.e. The time between 1914 and 1949. The original English title is "To hell and back", I hear, but the German one is simply "Höllensturz" (no "back" optimism), and of course Kershaw's moderator gloomily asked whether we're falling into hell again right now. Kershaw didn't want to commit to this exactly, pointing out that in the 30s, two thirds of Europe was ruled by various dictators, whereas now, most countries have had decades of experience of democracy behind him, imperfect as they are/were, but he wasn't exactly vibrating with optimism about the future, either. Interestingly, he thinks the European project peaked in the late 70s, not the 80s or early 90s, which would have been my choice, but didn't elaborate, as most of the conversation was obviously about the decades his book covers, in which "everyone always made the worst of all possible choices". When the moderator congratulated Kershaw for his fluent writing style, Kershaw said: "Well, I've always had a very low boredom threshhold as a reader, and so as a writer I try not to challenge my readers to feel they need to explore theirs."
Turkey didn't stop being an urgent subject, never more than when Can Dündar, the editor of the now defunct Cumhürryet
, spoke; he urged us all not to treat Erdogan as the sole voice of Turkey, to remember and support all the other voices Erdogan is trying to erase. He also pointed out the not-newness of Erdogan's behavior, quoting something Erdogan had said when Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s - "Democracy is the train which will carry us to our destination; then we won't need it anymore". Deniz Hüzel, a correspondant who'd actually been in Istanbul during the night of the attempted coup, described his experience and chilling it was, too.
In terms of "books I'm putting on the 'to check out later, they sound intriguing' list": German translation of the correspondance between Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola, published apropos the movie "Cezanne et moi" (which I've watched and found frustrating because to me it was as if it kept being on the verge of something better, more interesting, and then didn't manage), German translation of Mary Beard's "SPQR", and a new biography covering the young Erich Honecker. Which I hadn't thought would interest me, but I caught the presentation of the book almost by accident, and Martin Sabrow, who wrote it, made "Erich Honecker. Das Leben davor." (The Life Before) sound fascinating. He talked about how it had been his goal neither to redeem or deconstruct Honecker, but to look at his youth not least because it had been rewritten quite differently once Honecker rose to the top, but also in terms of how it relates to the era; Sabrow was a good out loud narrator (which not all authors are) as he wryly told his anecdotes about young Erich Honecker, undercover Communist resistance member, managing to escape the Gestapo in an action movie worthy chase only to be arrested the very next day because he'd forgotten he had given the driver of the taxi he'd jumped out of when noticing the cops were on his trail his intended destination, which was near where he was hiding. He also drew a connection between Honecker's stubborn refusal to face realities in the late 1980s and that arrest in 1935 followed by ten years of prison (in Nazi Germany): "A deep distrust towards one's own people. Remember, he starts out wanting to free them, but then he's arrested and does he get applauded? No, of course not. He's reviled and spat at while everyone he sees cheers the Nazis. And that's when you start the mental division between "the true people", who need to be led by the (Communist) party, and the unreliable mob."
This resonated not least because of current day events, and the painful awareness that "deep distrust" isn't just something crusty old ideologues who have their people fenced in by walls and shooting orders feel. I've felt it myself.
Now for some visual impressions from the fair:( Below the cut )
Tomorrow the book fair ends with the presentation of the Peace Award of the German Book Trade. Stay tuned.