Lars Saabye Christensen, 19th October
Lars Saabye Christensen is an award-winning author, whose acclaimed novel Beatles was published in Norway in 1984, but only reached the UK in translation by Don Bartlett in 2009. His work was translated into English after a meeting between his Norwegian publisher and Arcadia Books at the Gothenburg Book Fair. Beatles has been highly successful and critically acclaimed since its release in English by Arcadia.
NICE Nordic Festival of Art and Culture and Manchester Literature Festival’s day of events focused on international writing and translation kicked off in the richly decorated Lord Mayor’s Parlour in the Town Hall on Albert Square with a discussion of translation and writing by Lars and his publisher. Although he has been writing in Norway since the early 1980s, Lars’ work has only recently been translated into English.
The event began with a reading in English and Norwegian by Lars, which gave us a sense of how different the two languages sound. Lars then discussed his views on writing, translation, and his other passion, music. To Lars, “translation is a fragile thing, a transportation of stories to other countries”. He described translation as a difficult craft, and translators as “ambassadors of literature”. When asked by an audience member how he felt about how accurately his work should be translated into other languages, he was clear that a bad translation could spoil a good novel, but that he felt that capturing the essence of a story, the “atmosphere of the building of the story” was more important than getting every word exactly right.
He decided to become a writer at the age of thirteen, he laughs, when he lost his hair. You don’t have a history at thirteen, he says, “you’re empty”, but he also began writing seriously with a group of adolescents who shared his love of poetry and literature, kept secret and possibly reflected in the four boys in Beatles and their adoration of music.
He describes timing as crucial to writing, completing Beatles at the end of the 70s, when he said the memories were still strong but he had the distance to appreciate the time without bias. However, when asked why he wrote the book, he laughs again and says, “I wanted to get revenge.”
“On who?” asks Gary, his erstwhile publisher.
“All my teachers, girls,” says Lars.
“And did you?”
“No,” he says.
He is a master of the anecdote, demonstrating the key skills of a great author lie not just in beautiful use of language but in the ability to pluck all manner of events both dramatic and mundane and make of them stories.
So far, Lars’ experience of Manchester has largely involved unexpected fire alarms. After an early morning wake-up call with an alarm at his hotel, he was interrupted halfway through his own event at Manchester’s sumptuous Town Hall by the screech of a fire siren going off. What makes Lars a great writer was what happened after we had all tipped out into the rain with the attendees of a tea dance in the main hall opposite.
Once we had all settled back into our seats, Lars told us the story of how he had been awoken by a fire alarm. When a fire alarm goes off, like most people, he looked around trying to decide what to take with him. None of us follow the instructions to leave immediately, getting dressed and picking up possessions to take with us. Lars described how he had pottered about the hotel room, selecting items to take. This, he tells us, is what writing is all about: taking experiences, “collecting them”, and saving them up for some moment when they can be taken out and used in writing.
Suddenly, a distraction that might have spoiled the event, actually provided a live example of how a writer works. While the organisers were cringing in embarrassment, Lars was amused and turned the whole thing on its head. We were also treated to what must be every writer’s worst nightmare: the loss of a handwritten manuscript in a suitcase on the way back from France. This, he said, was the point where he became a serious writer as he waited three days for the return of something that simply couldn’t be replaced.
His passion for writing is only matched by that for music. He described the two as completely contrasting, and yet also complementary. “Writing is a very private thing,” he says, but after ten months of isolation with his work, “it’s time to play,” and he turns to music and public performances. His love of music spills over into his writing, and many of his metaphors are musical. It’s clear from both his writing and speaking why he’s been such a success both in Norwegian and in English, and we look forward to seeing more of his work translated.
by Joely Black