Happy birthday LitFestBergen
In her book, Memorial, the British poet Alice Oswald tackles the great, classic epic poem The Illiad, and removes Achilles’ rage, the carrying motif. She tells that ancient critics praised The Illiad for its “enargeia” - Oswald translates “enargeia” as “bright, unbearable reality”. Enargeia, Oswald explains, is also the word that was used when the Gods came down to earth, not disguised, but as themselves.
I have also read that the word “enargeia” is used to describe the effect that a given literary style has on the reader, it appeals directly to the reader’s senses, and the surroundings are portrayed in such a way that “the listener is transformed into an eyewitness”.
One could perhaps translate “enargeia” with the word “vivid”, after all, we all know what a vivid description is, I think, as I walk through a forest at dusk.
I probably forgot to tell you. I’m out walking.
My father is walking ahead of me. He’s taken me on a path that runs alongside a lake, to get to an old, overgrown orchard, where there is a huge, forgotten tree from which he hopes to pick apples.
None of this is disguise, an allusion to either Dante’s Divine Comedy – where Dante walks through a dark forest – or the famous apple tree in the Bible.
It’s how it really is, as we walk along the path in the gloaming.
But this is an introduction to a celebratory speech I have said I will give to mark the fifth birthday of Bergen International Literary Festival.
Only, I’m terrified of giving speeches.
Ever since I said yes, I’ve regretted it. For several months, my face has resembled Munch’s “Scream”, while I, behind my face, have thought, scream, I have to say something grand.
There’s something about the proportions that makes me freak out, something about the words, the words in congratulatory speeches are often grand, monumental, important and substantial, like boulders in freezing temperatures. Even the word “hooray”, which is often included in a congratulatory speech, seems to me to sit too high up on the shelf, I can’t reach it.
That is because you, says the small, furry stone in the dry riverbed that my father and I are now passing, which turns out to be not a stone, but a baby bird that is lying there pretending to be a stone in order to be left in peace, you don’t like big words, you prefer the small words that teem under the boulder that has “SUBSTANCE” written on it in capital letters. Words often quickly run out through your hands onto paths other than those you thought they would follow, for example, you were going to hold a congratulatory speech and whoosh, there you are on a path on your way to an apple tree in the gloaming, and then ta-da, both God and Dante fall into your text in disguise, through openings in the words apple, forest and dusk. Words are a plastic and shapeshifting material, and time is marching mercilessly towards that moment when the speech will be held, and the word «hooray» lies teetering up there on the shelf, and will fall into your head any minute now, and how do you think you’ll fix that, the baby bird with its quivering beak asks and dashes off into the high grass on the other side of the riverbed, into which my father and I now step.
The grass reaches almost over our heads, so here we are, while my other consciousness, the one that’s writing the congratulatory speech for Bergen International Literary Festival, is working overtime to find ways out of the thick congratulatory grass.
Once out of the grass, the path snakes up and across mossy scree. It weaves in and out around the rocks, some bigger than those of us who are walking here, past them. It’s easy to understand that great moss-covered stones became trolls in fairytales, because here in the gloaming everything has untidy edges, everything that is solid seems to move a fraction, everything seems as though it could move on from what it is to become something different. The stones are like dreams that have tumbled out of someone as they slept, and here they lie, forgotten dream stones. But one of them opens its mouth and says: You clearly think that you’ll manage to get out of holding this congratulatory speech, but everything around you here knows that that is what you must do. Another stone nods and says: We are great boulders, therefore it is natural for us to hold big words, for us it would be easy to say words such as “uncompromising”, “unique”, “generous”, words such as “fearless”, “wise”, “innovative”, without giving it any thought we could say “words”, “society”, “time”, without hesitation, we would say “freedom”, “bulwark”, and “hope”.
I turn to look at them: they lie there brooding, very pleased with what they’ve said.
We enter a small forest of tall, dark green spruce. There are some crows in the tree tops, the sound of their cawing echoes in the rock face beyond the trees, the whistle of rustling feathers when they take off and fly into the sky above us, and I hear only too well what they’re saying;
Ever since that time you stood in the forest when you were twenty, the crows caw, you’ve wondered where that image would end up, in what text the small baby bird would be resurrected, and where the stones would lie and where we crows would fly -
Until today, when everything just fell into this text, here.
And that’s perhaps because it seemed like the perfect hiding place for someone who, terrified, has said yes to writing a congratulatory speech, someone laughs in the present tense, above my head: it’s the apples on the apple tree that are laughing. All of them. We are of course congratulatory apples, they say in unison, but you probably didn’t know that. Might we, here in your congratulatory speech, be as bold as to remind you that there are some big words that you like as well, which you could use? You rather like the word “Hooray”, which according to several dictionaries may stem from the old imperative form of the German verb “hurren”, which meant to “move quickly, rush forwards”, you like the idea of so-called “vivid descriptions” because the reader or listener is transformed by the words into a kind of eyewitness of something he can’t actually see. You like the fact that what is concrete is thus something inconceivably magical, inside a thing that is made up of letters. And we also know that you have sat here, at Bergen International Literary Festival, for five years, and been overwhelmed, year after year, by the diversity of paths that these streams of words take, you have learnt about the grandmother hypothesis from an evolutionary perspective, you’ve learnt how people with an endangered language have developed metaphors in order to escape the attention of the powers that be, you have been close to tears, for example, when Mary Ruefle and Gloria Gerwitz, who were supposed to talk about the menopause as a woman’s everyday life, an event that you yourself suggested, refused to talk about the menopause, as they were done with it long ago, and instead wanted to talk about death, about aging, and Gloria Gerwitz said with sadness in her voice that she once had had a waist, and that she missed that waist.
And we know that you often think about what the festival director, Teresa Grøtan, said when she was asked about the intention when she launched Literature Live Around the World in 2020, a phenomenal festival initiative where the festival broadcast live contributions from 12 literary festivals around the world, including Australia, USA, India, Afghanistan and Jamaica, over a 12-hour period. She said; This is a peace project. Through actions and words, she demonstrated practically and simply, the insight and desire for the world to come together. This is what the word says: a peace project. Even when the theme of the festival is “rage”.
And it’s actually very simple to say! say the apples over my head. You’re happy, and grateful.
The apples are right: It is very simple to say. It is also very simple to quote something that Mary Ruefle said, she said: “Everyone reading the same book at the same time is the beginning of the end.”
And so, I would say that Bergen International Literary Festival is a necessary antidote to the end of time.
Thank goodness it exists, many congratulations on your fifth birthday – may you continue, may the words flow and our thoughts be free, for all eternity.
Translated by Kari Dickson