A tale of two authors from Ukraine and the UK

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The Jan Michalski Foundation in Montricher is like a cathedral of literature in the middle of the countryside

My reading list for the first half of the year was weighted in favour of two authors who came to Switzerland, Jonathan Coe from Britain and Andrey Kurkov from Ukraine. I was invited to moderate a discussion with the visiting authors at the Bibliotopia Festival in Montricher in May. Apart from being talented and prolific writers from newsworthy countries, Coe and Kurkov are kindred spirits.

Born in the same year, 1961, both Coe and Kurkov are keen musicians. They both use humour to lampoon the social and political woes of their respective countries. Their work is a pleasure to read, which is just as well because I had to read their books in bulk in a short space of time – The Rotters’ Club, Number 11 and Middle England by Coe, and Death and the Penguin, Ukraine Diaries and The President’s Last Love by Kurkov. I recommend all of the above and I look forward to reading more from these authors.

Hailed as a post-Soviet Kafka, Kurkov’s work is whimsical on the surface with a dark undercurrent. In Death and the Penguin, the eponymous penguin is called Misha and he lives with a lonely writer called Viktor. Misha exhibits human-like emotions, or at least Viktor interprets his behaviour that way. At one stage, Misha looks at his master and considers him ‘with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldly-wise party functionary’. Hungry for work, Viktor agrees to take on the task of writing advance obituaries of VIPs for a newspaper editor. All seems fine until his first subject meets an untimely end. Before long there is an epidemic of untimely ends in the bulging obituary file, as Viktor finds himself ensnared by powerful forces. Through Viktor’s circumstances, Kurkov is making a commentary on corruption and the cheapness of life in Ukraine.

“All was well, or appeared so. To every time, its own normality. The once terrible was now commonplace, meaning that people accepted it as the norm and went on living, instead of getting needlessly agitated. For them, as for Viktor, the main thing, after all, was still to live, come what may.”

In a similar vein, the satirical gem The President’s Last Love, gives us wickedly funny characters in outlandish situations. Following the life of the fictional serving president of Ukraine, Bunin, from his youth in the 1980s, we witness the combination of cluelessness and opportunism which helps him climb up the greasy pole of politics. Bunin goes from an amoral hand-to-mouth existence to an amoral gilded existence, always entangled in blighted love affairs and sustained by heavy drinking. Ironically, when he has the most power, he has the least freedom. Even the new heart he received in a transplant comes with strings attached. You will learn more about post-Soviet Ukraine in this highly-entertaining book than you would from reading a hundred articles, and the story will make you laugh and cry. I can’t wait to read Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees set in the Donbass grey zone, which is about to be published in English.  

The third book of Kurkov’s I read was his Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev which covers the time of the Maidan protests in 2013/2014. Kurkov lived a short distance away from the square where all the action happened and travelled extensively around the country during those months.

The juxtaposition of everday family life, planting vegetables at the dacha, attending literary events, throwing children’s birthday parties, with the danger, lies and absurdity of the political situation is a great way to capture recent history. It is fascinating to accompany Kurkov, an ethnic Russian, as he experiences the revolution first-hand and observes the crafty machinations of neighbouring Russia.

Incidentally, another speaker at the Bibliotopia festival, the literary activist Mikhail Shishkin, had some alarming things to say about Russia. The Swiss-based author explained that there is a civil war happening in Russia on the internet. “The frontlines are clear and everyone knows what side they are on,” he said. He warned that the war would inevitably go offline into the real world. The problem with Russia has always been the transition of power. “Russia now is pregnant with new states,” he said, predicting that the day Putin is gone, the whole system of Russia will fall apart.

Speaking of formerly powerful empires falling apart, Jonathan Coe does a wonderful job of excavating the cracks running through British society. His twelfth and most recent novel, Middle England, is being referred to as the great Brexit novel. Some of the main characters have appeared in two previous books, The Rotters’ Club and Closed Circle, but Middle England stands alone as a hugely satisfying read. Coe refers to these books as “panoramic serio-comic political novels”.

Middle England gives us the latest portrait of a nation, striking a pleasant harmony between light and dark notes. What shines through is how exceedingly clever and compassionate Coe is, another thing he has in common with Kurkov. Coe gently savages the dull and prosperous areas of “deep England”, graced with enormous garden centres, palaces of time-wasting for those with leisure and money. This is the heartland of Conservative voters who rely on the we-won-two-World-Wars argument no matter what the political question. The absolute rejection of the other side’s point of view, as seen in the divisions between the characters, is not a million miles away from the online civil war in Russia to which Shishkin referred.

Coe takes a broad canvas when he writes about British society, from the London Riots of 2011 to the Brexit campaign to the influence of trans rights activists in academia, all featured in Middle England. With more action and an even broader sweep, Number 11 is a fantastic read. Coe has packed a lot in, very successfully from the uber-rich of London to reality TV to food banks. A series of episodes with interconnected characters, the novel features a mini police drama and a delightful fable about the quest for the security and innocence of lost childhood. It even takes a horror-movie like turn at one point.

The black humour in The Rotters’ Club is even more pronounced. This time we are back in the 1970s, in the youth of Benjamin Trotter. Set in Birmingham where Coe is from, the novel features a big cast of characters. Like Kurkov in The President’s Last Love, this novel is closely aligned with the writer’s generation, time and place. There are stories within stories in The Rotters’ Club and plenty of characters with strongly-held opinions. An interesting way to explore the class system, labour relations, teenage angst and creativity, friendship, sexual discovery, police violence, music and more.  

And all along, there are real events which shape the characters’ lives, none more so than the scene (spoiler alert) where two characters are caught up in one of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Coe builds up to the horrible climax so masterfully that its impact is devastating. You think you are in a sweet, love scene but you are actually in a vicious death scene. I hardly ever have the experience of being too shocked to continue reading but I had to put the book down for a while to recover after that scene. Not that there is any gore, just an awful realisation. 

I’m going to squeeze in just one more title on the subject of politics. Another writer at the festival (it really was a fantastic line-up) was Philippe Sands, the author of East West Street, published in 2016.

This non-fiction book is partly a memoir and has been hugely popular, even though it is a fairly dense read. The city of Lvov / Lviv / Lemberg is at the heart of the book, along with the Nuremberg trials. Sands traces the stories of three Jewish men and their families from Lviv (now in Ukraine), one of whom is his own grandfather. The other two were legal scholars who ended up connected to the post-war trial through their work on the definition of genocide and crimes against humanity.

East West Street is a powerful and important book. How the author managed to write about those terrible years in such a restrained way is admirable. I loved all the personal details in the background of the three men. Accompanying Sands on his research quest was a great way to tell the interlocking stories. My only complaint is that there was too much repetition of the genocide versus crimes against humanity argument. Sands himself is a human rights lawyer.

So many books, so little time. Thanks to Goodreads, I know that I have read 25 books in the first 25 weeks of this year. When I finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered it’ll be a neat one book per week for the first half of the year.

Finally, some snippets of news to do with my work in Switzerland. Back in April, I was invited to take part in the Sunday radio show Les Hautes Parleurs on RTS radio to talk about Brexit. The interview (in French) was filmed and you can view the recording here.

Shortly before that I was the Sonntagsgast (Sunday guest) on the Regionaljournal programme on German-language Swiss public radio, Radio SRF 1. That was a more wide-ranging discussion in German. Meanwhile I am putting the finishing touches to a new writing project, and I will have exciting news about that next month.

That’s all folks. Enjoy your summer reading and do let me know if you take the plunge with Kurkov and Coe!

Morges, a festival to remember

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Hurrying in the rain, listening, learning, signing books, cool evenings, coffee vouchers, wet umbrellas, smiling crowds, dogs in arms, queues at the till, drinks at the bar, boats, sunshine, big names, kind words, new ideas and free white wine.

What more could you ask for?

When I knew I would be spending the weekend at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges, I decided I wouldn’t take any notes. I would just enjoy the moment and soak it all in. Now, one week later, I am left with a colourful miscellany of impressions and memories. There was so much going on, my quiet writer brain had to shift into a completely new gear.

I was invited to the festival to promote my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths. I would have been thrilled enough at this honour alone but the festival was also hosting Ireland as guest country of honour, which meant I was sharing space with some of Ireland’s most accomplished contemporary authors.

Morges is known for its authors’ tent, a huge marquee filled with rows of authors sitting behind tables. The English language section was like an island in the middle. I sat there with the Swiss-based authors, the visiting Irish authors and a number of other English-language authors, like Douglas Kennedy, Hisham Matar and Rachel Joyce. They were all gracious and welcoming.

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Most people who approached the table to talk were friendly, pleased to put a face to the name. A few were not so pleased about the book. You can’t win ‘em all.

On the first afternoon, I did a stint in the tent and attended two talks about Irish literature, the first with John Boyne and Donal Ryan, and the second with Donal on duty again along with Anne Enright and Paul McVeigh. The next day presented a different mix, Anne Enright, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume, this time talking about families in Irish fiction. I cannot tell you everything they said, just that I appreciated listening to Irish voices analysing Irish questions, and the feeling it gave me of being closer to home.

I went on a literary cruise (!) on Sunday. Five minutes before the cruise started, I was at the wrong end of the lakefront eating a hot dog. Running under those circumstances is not something I’d advise anyone else to do, especially right before a boat trip. In the queue to board, a man asked me to hold his crepe so he could search for his ticket. I was not the only one squeezing in food around much more exciting things.

The cruise talk featured debut authors Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal, two interesting and talented writers who clearly like each other. If any chat show hosts are looking for the perfect duo, ask these guys. Both of them come from difficult backgrounds and write about those times in their fiction.

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Spending time with the three other authors based in Switzerland – Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes and Jason Donald – was great fun, like having work colleagues again. I also took part in a panel discussion with Padraig and Diccon about Switzerland, Brexit and the European Union. It was a lively debate, the first time I’ve had an event in that particular format. Very enjoyable.

In a weekend of many interesting conversations, one chat about a potential nonfiction project was particularly illuminating. Maybe Morges will be indirectly responsible for my next book. All I know is that I need to send out a proposal before the leaves start to turn. And that means back to quiet time for a while.

Irish literary greats come to Lake Geneva

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Ireland is the guest country of honour at Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges this weekend, which means appearances by Anne Enright, Donal Ryan, Sara Baume, Kevin Barry, John Boyne, Paul McVeigh, and the winner of the 2017 Irish novel of the year award, Kit de Waal.

From what I know of other festival programmes, this gathering of Irish literary talent is unprecedented. The festival, which hosts 280 international writers, mainly from the French-speaking world, is free and open to the general public. It is one of the prettiest towns on Lake Geneva. Don’t let the rain keep you away.

Apart from being thrilled at the golden opportunity to meet some of my literary heroes and to hear them speak, the other reason I am harping on about Le livre sur les quais is that it is the first literary festival I will be taking part in as an author.

I’ll be joining Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney to discuss ‘Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality’ at 4.30pm on Sunday in the Cave du Couvaloup. The debate will be hosted by Ed Girardet.

Bern-based Diccon Bewes, a household name in Switzerland, is British and a best-selling author of books about Switzerland. Padraig Rooney, author of The Gilded Chalet, is from the border region of Northern Ireland and has lived in Basel for many years. An interesting mix of perspectives on Europe!

Morges is known for its giant author tent on the lake shore, where writers sign their books and meet readers. More than one hundred and fifty events including panel discussions, conversations, talks, readings and films are taking place in various venues around the town as well as on board cruise ships.

Below is the full English programme. Hope to see you in Morges!

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Friday, 1st September

18.00-19.00 – What Next in Irish Fiction? /Ou va la literature irlandaise? With Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright . Moderated by Matthew Wake – In English with the translation into French by Lesley Viet- Jacobsen. Venue: St Jeanne.   English/French

Saturday, 2nd September

11h – 12h15 – Exile, Memory and Refugee Experience with Jason Donald, Hisham Matar, Melissa Fleming.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

13h – 14h45 – Dystopias, Utopias and Places of Escape with Rachel Joyce, Claire Vaye Watkins and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15- Irish Encounters: turbulent families with Anne Enright, Sara Baume, Donal Ryan.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15 – After Arab Revolutions/Apres la revolution arabe:  Hisham Matar in conversation with Thierry Meyer – with translation into French by Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue: Sainte-Jeanne.  English/French

16.30-18.00Writing History with John Boyne and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

16.30 – Thriller sans Frontiers : Denise Mina et Bernard Minier en conversation – Moderation: Nine Simon et la traduction Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue Sainte Jeanne.          English/French

17.00-18.00 – Claire Vaye Watkins – lecture bilingue – Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Nouvelle Couronne Cave.                                                               English/French

Also a fiction writing workshop:

15.30-17.30 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Perfectly flawed characters – Teacher: Jason Donald (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group), venue: Grenier Bernois, Bibliothèque Adulte. With prior registrations to gwg.workshops@gmail.com

Sunday, 3rd September

11-12.15 – Irish Encounters:  Place and Landscape in Irish fiction with Kevin Barry, Kit de Waal, Sara Baume.  Moderated by Matthew Wake. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing with Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – tickets to buy online or from the ticket office. Boat – Le Lausanne, boarding on the quay.

13.30-14.45 – Writing Crime with Denise Mina, Ruth Ware, Sophie Hannah. Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00-16.15– Writing on the Borders with Rachel Joyce, Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat-Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00 – 16.15 – Fictive ou reele – heros pour toujours:  Sophie Hannah, Vivianne Perret – Anime par Elise Lepine et traduit par Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue : Sainte Jeanne.                                                                                                                                       English/French

16h30 – 17h45 – Switzerland, Brexit and the New European reality with Clare O’Dea, Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

Cruise:

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing  with Paul Mc Veigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – boat: Le Lausanne. Tickets to book online or from the ticket office.

GWG Creative Writing Workshops –Grenier Bernois – bibliotheque adulte. To pre-register at gwg.workshops@gmail.com

10.30-12.00 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Showing not telling – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

15.30-17.00 – Non-fiction Writing Workshop: Writing effective memoir – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

The cheapest way to travel

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Reading is by far the cheapest way to travel. And it often beats the real thing. This summer I spent a lot of time in the United States, including an action-packed week in New York and pleasant stays in Southern California, Connecticut and Virginia. I enjoyed several days in a nineteenth century resort on the North Sea, and also travelled to a made-up Portuguese province called Barba.

I read two tragic memoirs, abandoned one novel in exasperation and finished two that I really didn’t enjoy. But overall, it’s been a happy journey with most books ending up on the ‘liked’ and ‘loved’ shelves. Maybe you’ll find something here for your autumn reading list.

Starting with the best: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a phenomenal piece of work. This book was apparently the sensation of 2015. Not sure how I missed that. Two central drivers make the story totally gripping – one is the resolution that the reader craves for the main character, our wish for him to find inner peace; the other is the wait for the full revelation of what terrible thing(s) happened to him to cause so much misery. The latter is dragged out to the nth degree but it didn’t matter because the writing was so good. Besides, I just wanted to stay in that world.

I don’t know how a book about a man in extreme physical pain and emotional torment is so enchanting but, trust me, it is. The novel supposedly follows the friendship between four young men who meet in university and form a bond for life, but there is only one star in this show and that’s the ever-suffering Jude. Many other intellectually and artistically brilliant characters (all of whom adore Jude) allow us to vicariously enjoy all the possible ways one can live life to the full. There is a fair amount of repetition in the book along with lavish descriptions of luxury lifestyles. But it was fine. Even the bottomless goodness of the good characters versus the bottomless evil of the bad characters was acceptable in this operatic book.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good old-fashioned American family drama told over several decades. Two marriages in Southern California break up when the father of one family starts an affair with the mother of the other family at her baby’s christening party. The opening party scene is brilliant. We are left to follow the destinies of the six children of these two couples who become step siblings. The children’s anger and confusion fuels anarchic behaviour which ultimately leads to them being bound together for life by tragedy.

In I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice, the writer charts her family’s struggle since her husband was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease. A free-spirited Irish couple with young children, they were living a charmed life before the disease knocked everything down. Not quite everything. The pair went on to have twins, choosing to fight death with life. Simon Fitzmaurice wrote and directed a film relying on eye gaze technology to communicate. And Ruth has produced this brave book. There is so much to take from her in extremis perspectives on friendship, motherhood, love and marriage, pain and loss, and of course illness.

Fitzmaurice writes with eloquence and rage. The realities of caring for a loved one with a paralysing illness are familiar to me which made the memoir resonate all the more. I will remember this book for a long time. Ruth Fitzmaurice talks a lot of the joys of swimming in the cold Irish Sea, something I was happy to have the chance to do again this summer (in real life), hence the photo above.

In an effort to broaden my German literature horizons, and inspired by a chapter in Padraig Rooney’s The Gilded Chalet, I decided to take on the challenge of reading the classic doorstopper Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann.

It tells the story of four generations of the wealthy Buddenbrook family. I plodded through the 850 pages (in English, don’t worry) in increasing admiration, especially as the author was so young when he wrote it. A brilliant depiction of a family, a class and a town, written with an enjoyable helping of satire but also compassion.

Mann recreates a century in the life of a community. At times we view group scenes from a distance as a set piece, while at other times the action is painfully intimate. I’m amazed at how many moments rang true for me as a modern reader. What he does with the internal life of the main characters is astounding. Maybe unsurprisingly, the men are the more complex and interesting characters, with the women presented more as simple or enigmatic creatures. But that fits the era, sadly. How Mann so perfectly understood and was able to capture the ennui and awful weight of respectability of generations of the Buddenbrooks is simply amazing.

From 1890s Germany to 1980s Britain, and the debut novel by Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon. A lovely story about a lonely foster child, beautifully and convincingly told. De Waal knows the care system inside out and it shows. But she is also a wonderful writer who has created a sweet and true character in Leon. The sympathetic adult characters are really well observed, the women in particular. Maybe we spend a little too much time at the allotments but that’s OK. I’ll be saving this one for my children’s must-read shelf when they are a little older (thirteen plus would be fine). I’m really looking forward to seeing de Waal at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival next weekend in Morges.

The Children by Ann Leary was a quick, satisfying read, recommended by one of my favourite book blogs, A Life in Books. It provided entertaining family dynamics with a little mystery and menace thrown in. Despite some of the heavy themes, the book manages to remain light and pacy. I would definitely like to read more of Ann Leary.

The other memoir I read was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, in which the author describes his career as a surgeon, up to and including his terminal cancer diagnosis. An extremely interesting examination of medical matters and ethics, Kalanithi held back so much emotionally that I almost forgot to be moved. The chapter written by his widow at the end made up for that.

If you’re curious, the book I gave up on was The New Republic by Lionel Shriver, the one partly set in a fictional province. I enjoyed the opening in New York but the plot became increasing silly and the writing too forced when we landed in Barba. The satire on terrorism with lots of echoes of the IRA was too clever for its own good. As a die-hard Shriver fan, I was quite taken aback.

Finally, a reminder that I will be appearing at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges (near Lausanne) on Sunday September 3rd at 4.30 pm. I will be participating in a panel discussion with fellow Swiss-based authors Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney on the subject of Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality. For some of the weekend I’ll be sitting at my table in the writers’ tent signing books and meeting people. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday and features Ireland as guest country of honour this year. There are many fantastic talks, readings and workshops for fans of Irish literature plus a hugely impressive roll call of Irish and international writers to meet (full programme). Hope to see you there!

Writing news and summer days

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Quite a lot has happened over the past few months so I thought I’d share some of my writing news before I lose track. I’m borrowing the Irish calendar summer here, which is May, June and July. In Switzerland, summer officially starts on midsummer’s day, June 21st. This way I get the best of both worlds.

May was the month of reviews. An Irish academic in Germany, Fergal Lenehan, wrote a long, thoughtful essay about The Naked Swiss for the Dublin Review of Books. It is the best, most comprehensive analysis of the book so far. A great reward in itself. Lenehan is the author of a book about German images of Ireland which is based on a study of news coverage of Ireland in two German weekly publications, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, over a 60-year period. On average, the two outlets together ran one article about Ireland per month from 1946 to 2010, indicating a surprising level of interest.

At the end of the month, I got an unexpected message from the Swiss correspondent of the Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, to let me know that his review of The Naked Swiss was online. Needless to say, I was delighted, but also taken aback by the tone of the debate in the comments at the end of the article. Who would have thought FT readers were so emotional?

In June, I got the good news that a short story of mine had been placed second in the fiction category of the Geneva Literary Prize. The story hasn’t been published yet but I will let you know as soon as it’s available to read. A member of my tiny writers’ group, Tara McLoughlin Giroud, won the non-fiction prize so it was a double celebration.

Then came the most exciting news of the summer. I received an invitation to take part in Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges, an event I referred to last year in a blog post as ‘book heaven’ on Lake Geneva. Here’s a photo from the 2016 festival.

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The festival takes place from September 1 to 3, and what makes it really special is that the guest country of honour this year is Ireland. To be appearing under the same roof as some of the most respected names in contemporary Irish literature is almost too good to be true. My panel event is scheduled for Sunday afternoon but the rest of the time I will be hopping from one talk to the next, soaking up the literary atmosphere. As soon as the English programme is published, I’ll share it here. The Irish and international authors on the bill include John Boyne, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Kit de Waal and Douglas Kennedy.

I’ll leave you with some images of these summer days in Switzerland. The photo at the top is of Limmatquai in Zurich. Highlights so far: Swims in the Aare river (Bern) and the Limmat. A hike along Lake Brienz. A night spent “sleeping on the straw”. Meeting scary cows on an alp. Crossing Lake Geneva at dawn. Sunset at Muntelier.

Wishing you all lots of freedom and fun this summer.

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Axalp in the Bernese Oberland
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Morning in Lausanne

 

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Charmey, Fribourg

 

Book heaven on Lake Geneva

Book heaven on Lake Geneva

Walking into the crowded authors’ tent at Le livre sur les quais (The book on the quays) literary festival in Morges on Saturday, my first thought was that I had entered a cattle market of books and authors. The festival now boasts a roll call of more than 300 authors. Could this be too much of a good thing?

Le livre sur les quais is only in its seventh year but has achieved significant national and international recognition, attracting big names and 40,000 visitors. Although mainly a festival of French-language literature, the festival has an excellent English programme and star-studded guest list (Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train).

Morges is a pretty little town on Lake Geneva, a short commute from the city of Lausanne. On the five-minute walk down from the train station to the lake shore, you glimpse large courtyards to the left and right, surrounded by low-rise apartment blocks. This is urban living at its best. There is an attractive old centre, and when you cross the main street, Grande rue, any of the side streets lead down to the lake shore and stunning views of the water and the French Alps to the south.  

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The authors’ tent is right on the water’s edge, an impossibly long marquee with the sides left open on the lake side in the hopes of a breeze. Continuous lines of tables run along the ‘walls’ on each side of the tent, facing several inner rectangular ‘islands’ of tables. It was a hot day on Saturday and the temperature in the tent was sweltering.

The authors sit behind these tables, each with a pile of books on display. The presence of so many authors in one place, selling their books (not that they handle money, you take the books from the table and pay at a till) creates a feeling that they are vying for attention.

Maybe I was projecting, the way I do with cows too, but some of the authors looked a little forlorn and overwhelmed. According to the programme there were 348 guests attending the festival, authors, poets, translators.

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For the visitors, the wonderful thing about the set-up was that you could walk up to an author you admire and strike up a conversation. This accessibility is one of the great attractions of the festival. I went straight to the island of English-speaking authors island. The authors come and go participating or attending various talks in venues around the town or on pleasure boats!

I was delighted to meet Alison Anderson, author of The Summer Guest, which I had been reading on the train journey to Morges (big disadvantage of ebooks – you can’t get them signed!). The novel is a fictionalised account of a real summer spent by Chekhov and his family in an idyllic country setting in Sumy in Eastern Ukraine. The story is told partly through the diary of a blind woman who became close to the great writer, made poignant by the knowledge that she is dying, and partly from the perspective of the present day translator of the diary.  Anderson gives a fascinating account of her research trip to Sumy here.

It was a day of discoveries and striking up connections with people. One talk I attended was a panel discussion about historical fiction with Rosie Thomas, Petina Gappah (amazing speaker from Zimbabwe), John Boyne and Anne Korkeakivi. John Boyne, best known as the author of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, talked about the nit-pickers who come to him with minor factual corrections. He also confessed he checked one-star Amazon reviews to see what people did not like about his books.

“There are no mistakes in fiction. Once you put a made-up character into a historical setting, it’s corrupted. The story you’re telling comes first.” I am really looking forward to reading my new copy of Boyne’s latest novel, A History of Loneliness, his first novel with an Irish setting.

My visit to Le Livre sur les quais was a very enriching day for me, but one where I was glad to be the observer and not the observed. But soon it will be my turn to sit at a table and talk about my book. After a career of asking questions, I’m not sure how easy it will be to have the roles reversed. This month I will be giving my first interviews about my book, and two talks at the Geneva Expo on October 2 (more info here).  

One more thing for any of you who are on Goodreads. The Naked Swiss  is now listed there and you can mark it as ‘want to read’ if you like, and/or follow my author page.

Have you attended any literary festivals this year? What do you think is the best formula? I know a huge amount of work goes into these events and I think they are fantastic for readers. I hope authors feel the same. Not only did I come away with these great books, but I was able to meet or listen to four out of the five authors. 

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