Lit.COLOGNE and Dortmund, Nellie-Sachs-Prize. March 17-20, 2010. A Blog Catch-Up

On June 22, I had lunch with Reingard Nischik  (Engendering Genre, The Works of Margaret Atwood – with special attention to the comix!) and Gabriele Metzler from

Germany – whom I have known for many years. They were here for the International Short Story Conference, as Reingard is a literary scholar and Gabriele — though a political scientist — is also interested in literary forms. They wanted a Canadian experience, so we sat outside at Live in the pouring rain, protected by an assemblage of four umbrellas – two patio ones, two pedestrian, resulting in a sort of cascade effect – and talked of suicides at Niagara Falls and ate vegan food as the drops dripped down our backs. Now that’s Canadian!

To make it even more Canadian, I apologized (Guilt!) for having neglected, on my dreaded blog (Overwork! Protestant Ethic!) – the last occasion on which I’d seen them. I’d promised to write it up, and I hadn’t… (Shame!) So here it is at last, Reingard and Gabriele.

Lit.COLOGNE is the giant, highly successful literary festival in Cologne, Germany. This year was its tenth anniversary, and how it has grown! Writers stay in the round Hotel am Wasserturm, actually a former water tower. To see this year’s programme: http://litcologne.de/festival/archiv.  On Page 72 you can see the extraordinary list of invited writers and performers. (Right after me, for instance, came Patti Smith.) The event took place in a hall full of rollicking Cologners – known for their good humour, it seems – and young stage and film actress Birgit Minichmayer (The White Ribbon) did a fine job of the readings in German. Old friend Suzanne Becker orchestrated the mix of readings and interview – she did the interviewing herself. Then we had dinner, with Reingard and Gabrielle, and Suzanne Becker, and Astrid Holzamer, a very old friend who is with the Canadian Embassy – a prime mover for Canadian culture in Germany. Birgit Schmitz and Anna von Hahn from Berlin Verlag were there, as well. Then we went off to the festival’s gathering spot, a pub in a chocolate factory – this is a bit hard to explain, but there was everyone, hoisting a stein or two.

NELLY-SACHS-PRIZE: The next day, Astrid and I went to Dortmund by train, where we were met by Hans-Georg Schutz of the Nelly-Sachs Prize, of which I was the 2010 recipient. (Actually it was for 2009, but the City of Dortmund had some politico-economic problems that caused the event to be postponed). The Prize was presented by the Mayor, Birgit Jorder, and the excellent speech was delivered by esteemed literary critic Frauke Meyer-Gosau. The Canadian ambassador, Peter Boehm – a very old friend indeed, as he was the student  researcher my novel for Life Before Man, back in 1979 – was present, as were Suzanne Becker and the head of my publisher, Berlin Verlag, Elizabeth Ruge.

The prize is given by the City of Dortmund in commemoration of the poet and Nobel Prize winner, Nelly Sachs, who fled from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust just in time, and lived out the war in Sweden. Her poetry was composed in great hardship and grief, which was also its subject. She died in 1970.

The ceremony itself was interspersed with music chosen by Herr Schultz around the theme of birds and birdsong, as a tribute to my bird-related activities. It was sung and played enchantingly by a group led by Monika Bovenkerk. The other artists were Magdalene Harer, Zoe-Marie Ernst, and Dorothee Lehna. For others who might like to stage a “birdsong”concert, here is the programme:

William Williams (1701?), Sonata for D, in Imitation of Birds; M. Quignard, “Printemps” (1749), Rossignol amoreux; Jacob van Eyck, ca. 1590-1657, Engels Nachtegaeltje; Marco Uccellini, Sonata in D, “Die Hochzeit der Henne und des Kuckucks.”

Nelly-Sachs-Prize Speech

Sehr Geehrte Frau Burgermeisterin, Sehr Geehrter Herr Botschafter, Verehrte Juroren, Sehr Geehrte  Damen und Herren, Liebe Gaste:

It is truly an honour to have been chosen as the recipient of the Nelly-Sachs-Prize. I’m aware that I join a long and distinguished list of earlier recipients, the first of which was Nelly Sachs herself. This list includes not only many of my favourite authors of earlier generations, but several contemporary friends and colleagues. I thank the jurors of the prize for placing me in this stellar company, and I thank also the City of Dortmund, which, despite the challenges facing it, has seen the value of continuing this very special tradition.

It’s a tradition that pays tribute to an exceptional artist, Nelly Sachs – a poet who lived through desperate times, and who, in the face of many difficulties, managed to use her talents to bear witness to those times. This prize also pays tribute to the verbal arts, and thus to one of the oldest gifts we have – one shared by all human beings. By this I mean our ancient, complex and intertwined human languages – languages that are like no other creaturely languages, since – with their elaborate syntax and their past and future tenses – they allow us to gaze far back in time, and also far forward in it. We alone can take stock of ourselves as a species: not always a cheering prospect. We can praise our own strengths, but we are also highly aware of our failings. Close to the angels, sometimes, maybe; but frankly, not often. And when we go to the other extreme, we can be terrible indeed. Dante spent more energy describing Hell than he did on Paradise because it was more real to him.

Increasingly, those who study human origins are coming to see art, and especially narrative art, as an evolved adaptation – an ability that helped us survive during the thousands of generations before recorded history. Each of us has a story-of-my-life that situates us in time and space and roots us to a specific part of our planet. What we do for our individual selves, our artists do for our collective selves. This is where we’ve been, they can tell us.  This is what we’ve done. This is what humanity is capable of. The high notes and the low.

The literary arts are remarkable in another way: through them we come as close as we can ever come to the experience of being fully inside someone else’s mind. We can imagine ourselves as the other. And the more we can do that, the less we are likely to treat that other as a mechanical object, devoid of feeling or humanity. We are also more likely to avoid the road to the Inferno if we can visualize it clearly ahead of time: this too is among the roles of the artist.

So I thank you once again for choosing me as this year’s Nelly-Sachs torch-bearer. For all who win prizes of this kind are just that: we’re allowed to hold the torch or the title or the cup for a brief moment, and then it must be passed on. This is the nature of language itself, and the nature of story, and also the nature of song. For unless it travels, from hand to eye as in reading, or from mouth to ear to air as in singing – unless it travels, it dies.

I’m very happy to have travelled this short distance with you. Thank you.

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