By YVONNE FRENCH and GUY LAMOLINARA
The "New Literature Series from Europe" is bringing some of the top contemporary writers from the 15 member states of the European Union to the Library to read their works.
Most recently, on April 6, an award-winning Austrian writer read from his latest novel. Readings have also featured a new-age writer from Finland, a young English poet and an Algerian-born francophone author. A Greek favorite-son-turned-author is scheduled to read May 13, followed by authors from the Netherlands in June and Spain in July.
The series was initiated by the member states of the European Union and the European Commission and several divisions of the Library of Congress, including the Library's Poetry and Literature Center in the Office of Scholarly Programs and the European Division. Embassies from each of the authors' countries are sponsoring their visits and receptions following the readings.
"These renowned European authors exemplify the originality, diversity and continued evolution of European cultures. This gives Washington audiences the unique opportunity to understand and be enriched by contemporary European literature in the Library's elegant European Reading Room," said Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs.
The most recent writer in the series was Christoph Ransmayr of Austria, whose Morbus Kitahara (The Dog King) shared the 1996 European Aristeion Prize with Salman Rushdie. Mr. Ransmayr was born in Wels, Austria, in 1954. His novels have been translated into more than 20 languages. He currently lives in Ireland.
Mr. Ransmayr's visit was coordinated by Margrit B. Krewson, German/Dutch area specialist in the European Division. Teresa Indjein, cultural attaché of the Embassy of Austria, introduced the author.
According to Mr. Ransmayr, the book took "five to seven years to complete, but I would like to speed it up to two to three years." For him, writing is "an internal struggle. All the while I am creating, I am thinking, 'Can I finish this?'"
So far, Mr. Ransmayr has finished two other novels, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness (1984), set against the backdrop of the Royal Austro-Hungarian arctic expedition of 1872-74, and The Last World (1988), a best-seller in Germany and winner of the Franz Kafka Literary Prize.
He introduced the audience gathered April 6 at the Library to characters from The Dog King, which takes place in the fictional city of Moor. "Bering was a child of war and knew only peace," Mr. Ransmayr read. "Whenever talk turned to the hour of his birth, he was told to remember that he had cried his first cry during Moor's only night of bombs."
The novel is based on the fictional premise that the Marshall Plan was not implemented after World War II and postwar economic and social conditions continued to deteriorate.
Mr. Ransmayr also introduced the novel's title character, named Ambras. During the war, he had been a laborer in a prison camp and "bore a thumb-wide scar on his left forearm. It was the imprint of the red-hot file with which, after liberation, he had forever erased the prison number tattooed there."
The third character the author introduced was Lily, who lives in a burned-out weather tower and whose "agility in the wilderness offered better protection from the attacks and brutality of the gangs than any of her rifles."
Mr. Ransmayr is already at work on another novel -- one which, he fears, will also take five to seven years to complete. It will be another adventure, set in Tibet, "with the Himalayas as a backdrop."
The author believes "he has been very lucky" to have so many readers. "My prose is not easy to read," he said. "It requires patience."
On March 25, Assia Djebar, a francophone Algerian writer, read in French, and Shakesperean actress Lara Ring read the English transactions. The reading was arranged by Carol Armbruster, French/Italian area specialist in the European Division.
Ms. Djebar was introduced by Lazare Paupert, the cultural attache and director of the Embassy of France. He said that after the Algerian independence in 1962, Ms. Djebar was the first woman to teach at the University of Algiers. Between the ages of 20 and 30, she wrote four novels and then turned to documentary filmmaking, in part because she thought it would be a good way to explore techniques she could use in writing.
A longtime resident of France, Ms. Djebar is now Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
Trained as a historian of the Maghreb -- the northwestern part of Africa closest to the Mediterranean Sea that includes Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia -- Ms. Djebar has produced poetry, short stories, documentary films and novels. She maintains her focus on her native Algeria and works in her native French language.
Ms. Djebar is the author of the four-volume Algerian Quartet, which includes L'amour, la fantasia (1985; Eng. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, 1988), Ombre sultane (1987; A Sister to Scheherazade, 1997; winner of Prix Liberator in Frankfurt), Vaste est la prison (1995; Vast Is the Prison; trans. forthcoming from Heineman Publishers) and Le blanc de l'Algerie (1996; The White of Algeria; trans. in progress).
The following passage from the translation of The White of Algeria, read by Ms. Ring after Ms. Djebar read the French, typifies the evocative language and imagery in Djebar's writing:
"Three white days ... Three Algerian days. The whiteness of dust, that dust which no one could then make out, but which invisible and fine would infiltrate the mourners who flowed toward you in such droves at the moment of your departure. Slow dust, which little by little renders those days distant, remote. Whiteness insidiously effacing each hour, stripping away the reality ... The whiteness of forgetting. Nothing remains around us except the blind hate of which we are neither the targets nor evidently the source. ... You have spoken of Algeria. ... A dream of sand. No. Caravan. Densely populated, but disappearing. No. A Sahara fully drained of oil and mud. A Sahara betrayed. An Algeria of blood, streams of blood, of decapitated mutilated bodies, of children's stupefied expressions. Longing takes me right into the middle of this funeral gallery to lay down my pen and my brush and rejoin them, to break into pieces with them."
British poet Lavinia Greenlaw read on Feb. 10. Ms. Greenlaw was introduced by David Evans, director of the Cultural Department of the British Embassy, who noted Ms. Greenlaw was the first British Council Fellow in Writing at Amherst College in Massachusetts and that she writes critical reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and the Independent. Ms. Greenlaw's visit was coordinated by Abby Yochelson, reference specialist in English literature in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division.
Ms. Greenlaw was born in 1962 in London into a family of doctors and scientists, whose professions she came to write about in her first published pamphlet, The Cost of Getting Lost in Space (1991). Her work has reflected an appreciation of science from the poet's perspective and emphasized similarities in the two fields. "The poem ... has to be as tightly constructed as any scientific hypothesis," Ms. Greenlaw has said.
Following Love from a Foreign City (1992), she returned to the subject of science in Night Photograph (1993), her first full-length collection of poetry, followed by A World Where News Travelled Slowly (1997). Her work has also appeared in The New Yorker.
One poem she read, "River History," tells the history of an area called South Docklands, where she once held an office job in a refurbished spice wharf. She said by way of preface that the office block across the water, Canary Wharf, now dominates the east side of London's skyline and is near Traitor's Gate, where in Elizabethan times decapitated heads were stuck on spikes.
The poem describes the docks from the times of "Saxon corn" and "taxes paid in pepper" and a daily catch of "salmon, eel, smelt and plaice" through the postwar period when "centuries of waste had silted the river/till the water ran black over Teddington weir/and a bag of rubbish thrown from London Bridge/took six weeks to ride a dying current/out to the estuary." In present-day "Coriander Building ... the smell of new paint has yet to sink in, like the spice that still seasons the air after rain." The poem ends: "A film crew arrives, on a costly location shoot/for Jack the Ripper. ... Intent on atmosphere, they've cluttered the alleys with urchins, trollops and guttersnipes ... who ... gaze across at the biggest, emptiest office block in Europe."
The first author to read in the series was Anselm Hollo, a Finnish poet and translator. He read Dec. 12 -- one week after the 80th anniversary of Finnish independence. His visit was arranged by Mr. Gifford.
Mr. Hollo was introduced by Cultural Counselor Anneli Halonen of the Embassy of Finland, who noted that Mr. Hollo's father translated 20 languages into Finnish. Mr. Hollo was born in 1934 Helsinki, Finland, and was educated there and in the United States. When he was in his early 20s, he left Finland to live and work as a writer and translator, first in Germany and Austria, then in London. His translations into Finnish include Allen Ginsberg's Howl and John Lennon's In His Own Write.
For the last 30 years, Mr. Hollo has lived in the United States, teaching creative writing and literary translation. He is associate professor in the Graduate Writing and Poetics Department at the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist-inspired nonsectarian liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo.
Mr. Hollo read several of his own translations into English of poems by Paavo Haavikko, whom he called "the grand old man of Finnish poetry" and of Pentti Saarikoski, and gave the audience a brief survey of 20th century Finnish poetry.
The first of his own poems he read was titled "A Town Dedicated to the Pursuit of Fitness and Inner Peace," which, he noted, was a headline in a local New Age newspaper in Boulder, where he and his wife, the painter Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, make their home:
That's why they're building
fifty new houses
right next door
now the telephone wants to tell me about a deal
on cleaning our carpets & upholstered things
I tell it "we don't have any"
then replace it quite gently
in what I believe is called its cradle
The town, he noted, is unlike the majority of the planet's towns
which remain dedicated
to plain old pursuit of food
and staying alive a few moments longer.
Greek novelist Nicholas Papandreou will read from his works at 6:45 p.m. May 13 at the Library. The reading is free and open to the public. Reservations are not required.
Mr. Papandreou was born in 1956 in San Francisco to a family of prominent Greek politicians and academics. His father, Andreas, and his grandfather, George, served as prime minister of Greece, and his brother, George, is a member of the Greek Cabinet.
Crowds, campaigns, speeches and the Greek countryside shape his first novel, A Crowded Heart (Picador 1998, Penguin 1996). It broke sales records in Greece when it appeared in 1995, and remained in the top 10 for the next two years. His second book, Lepti Grammi (Fine Line) (1997), is available to date only in Greek. He writes in both Greek and English.
Other authors will be scheduled as part of the continuing series.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.