A weekend spent in the company of literary giants

In has taken just three years for Louisiana Literature to become Denmark’s most prestigious international book festival

Pulitzer prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides began writing his latest book in the usual haphazard way – he was writing a completely different book at the time. “There was something I didn’t like about it,” he told his audience at Louisiana Literature, which he participated in over the weekend. “It felt wooden and old and smelled like a second-hand couch.” This year’s edition is the third time the international book festival has been held, celebrating literature and storytelling against the art gallery’s spectacular backdrop. This year’s line-up was nothing short of impressive. Patti Smith, Kiran Desai, Jonathan Saffran Foer, Cesar Aira and Jeffrey Eugenides were some of the international names who attended the four day-event. This bookworm’s first stop was rocker Patti Smith. Smith walked out onto the park stage with rounded shoulders. Her wild, knotty hair protruded from beneath a woollen hat. Her fingerless-gloved hands clutched the all-too familiar microphone. Now 65 years old, the singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist still feels like the punk crusader she was in 1975 when her acclaimed debut ‘Horses’ was released. “No matter whether I’m washing up or looking after my kids, I’m still the girl who can put her foot through the amplifier,” she told the crowd gathered on the Louisiana lawn. Smith read aloud from her memoir ‘Just Kids’, which took the US National Book Award for non-fiction in 2010. She spoke about being raised in a town of fields and pig farms, where the cultural centre point was in her family home – a house full of books. “I would say I have spent over half of my life reading,” Smith said. She wrote her book to give something back to the literary world, and to honour her former lover and friend, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It took her 20 years. Revisiting New York’s beat poetry scene, interviewer Christian Lund asked Smith to read a poem with her long-term guitarist, Lenny Kaye. Kaye played and Smith sang a poem in memory of Jim Morrison. It was the same performance they had done in a church 45 years earlier as a part of the St Mark’s Poetry Project. It was a controversial performance back then, and Smith said half the crowd had loved it and the other half had wanted her arrested for desecrating the church. “But that’s not so unfamiliar these days,” she said, referring to Pussy Riot’s punk prayer. Venturing indoors, Jeffrey Eugenides – author of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner ‘Middlesex’, and also ‘The Virgin Suicides’ – explained his latest attempt to reinvent the wedding plot in a book unimaginatively entitled ‘The Marriage Plot’. Drawing on the works of his favourite classic authors like Henry James, Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, Eugenides has tried to breathe new life into old themes. The passage he read aloud depicted a couple falling in love in their early 20s. The male character asked his lover why she never “took a dump” at his place. Anna Karenina probably took a dump every now and again too, but no-one really talked about it. On a more cultured note, another US-based writer, Kiran Desai, talked about notions of belonging and dislocation, as explored in her 2006 Booker Prize-winning novel, ‘The Inheritance of Loss’. Born and bred in India, Desai explained that she had to undergo the process of dislocation to become an author there. After all, the novel was an English tradition introduced to India during colonial times. “We loved our dogs like a British person loves their dogs … We would eat a tuna fish with cheese sauce,” she said. It has been a long time since Desai’s last book, but she is midway through writing a new one. She has written 4,000 pages – about 3,600 too many and describes the anxiety she feels every single writing day. It was a message for the writers among us to take home: prize-winning authors are human too. They experience moments of doubt, frustration and anger. They bin their books and start over. But they persist. And our bookshelves are all the better nourished because of it.