Friday, 20 August 2010

Štiks and Stones

Having missed all the interesting events at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I nabbed a place at the European Fiction event, which boasted perhaps the oddest line-up of the year. Writers Alasdair Gray, Igor Štiks and Michał Witkowski were present, discussing the latest anthology from Dalkey Archive, collecting ‘the best’ fiction from (almost) each European nation.

Quite how they chose each writer is beyond me. Igor Štiks – a Bosnian émigré living in Edinburgh, famous for his works on Croatian life, was chosen to represent Bosnia. Hmm. Michał Witkowski is the Polish author of Lovetown, representing, uh, Poland. Alasdair Gray, the 75-year-old asthmatic who hasn’t written a decent book since 1992, represents Scotland. Hmm again.

This opens questions. Gray hardly seems the best choice to represent Scotland in this anthology – his work barely takes place on this planet, let alone Mother Caledonia. Štiks is an academic and his entry (which he read from) sounded like the sort of intertextual shtick most academic writers do. Witkowski’s entry could have come from McSweeney’s. Representation was discussed, but I wasn’t listening to that, because I was thinking about funnels.

Anyhow, I haven’t read this anthology, so it would be easier to do that. What was interesting to hear was how nations such as Poland are so entrenched in their own literary traditions, to them, “avant-garde” is only an expression in inverted commas. Witkowski spoke of looking to America for innovative, experimental fiction, and the same is true of the UK. The problem was diagnosed, inevitably, as publishers being blockheads. It was vexing to learn publishers could pay less for new fiction in translation than celeb memoirs.

It is also vexing to think that Gray was chosen on the grounds of being the most avant-garde Scottish writer alive. Are there really no Scottish writers who like to write books on the toenails of weevils, or treatises on Franco-Prussian ergonomics on napkins? I happen to know seven such people, and six of them were born in Haddington.

Štiks was the most compelling and handsome speaker there and I’ll be snooping around his work very soon. As much I like Alasdair Gray’s books of sexual fantasies/perversions, he cuts an awkward onstage presence, if “cuts” is the right word, slumped with his arms behind him, stumbling into theatrical answers like a grandpa being given an occasional electro-shock wake-up. Witkowski was amusing and looked the most like Viggo Mortensen.

I also tried a kumquat today. I have to say: disappointing. I expected better. The kumquat is the Scottish avant-garde of the fruit world.


  1. Should I be ashamed that I haven't heard of these people, even though I study Eastern Europe? Or is that the point? The question is *why* is this anthology full of disappointing authors. Low budget? Bad PR? Either way, it's too bad.

  2. I'm sure the anthology itself is exemplary. Dalkey know what they're doing. It's just the Scottish entry that was questionable.

  3. You don't seem too impressed by the Polish or Czech contributions, either.

  4. Well. We shall see. We shall see. There's a copy on a shelf with my name on it. (Štiks is Bosnian, by the way).

  5. Whoops. Sorry! I have a strong association with hacheks and Czech.

  6. Perhaps these three charming gentlemen were the only ones who agreed to do the event? They may have had the Dave Eggers of Bosnia on the list, and the Polish Lucy E., but they were busy participating in a Jitterburg festival in Slovenia. Incidentally, they came in second, beaten only by the Swedish Will Self and my nemesis - Mrs. Senidanerg etc etc.

    I can't explain the Scot, though.

  7. Lars Gjøvik, formerly the King of Gjøvik, represents Norway. His entry is a very moving discourse on the shortage of ice-blue panties among Oslo's cross-dressers.

  8. Oh good. I was worried it might be the Queen of Drammen. That would be worse.

  9. A ripe, fresh form the tree kumquat is rather tasty. Also, its name is disgusting.

    Viggo on the other hand has a delightful name, and I bet he's tasty.