Book festivals that have successfully pivoted online during the pandemic now face the challenge of bringing audiences back to the live experience. And never is the value of live events more apparent than when it feels like you’re listening to a special encounter, as we were on Saturday during the conversation between the former bishop Richard Holloway etartist Alison Watt.
The two became friends when Watt was looking to do a painting for a non-secular space, and Holloway introduced her to Old Saint Paul’s Church in Edinburgh, where he had previously served as rector. Watt’s painting, Still – a 12ft by 12ft image of white draped fabric – now hangs in the Memorial Chapel.
Holloway’s voice quavered audibly as he told the story of Albert Ernest Laurie, rector of Old Saint Paul’s at the turn of the 20th century, who became an army chaplain during the First World War. When Laurie returned from the trenches, he created the Chapel of Remembrance, and sometimes stood there at midnight with a censer, pronouncing the names of the men whose corpses or dying he had tended. Space, says Holloway, contains “the complexity of the human condition.”
Conversation ensued as Watt interviewed Holloway about his long life and the changing contours of his faith and beliefs. Over the nearly 20 years of Edinburgh’s International Book Festivals, audiences have shared parts of its history, so Saturday’s event was both new and familiar, a journey of questions being answered, certainty to doubt and hesitation.
“The only Christian doctrine that I support with complete approval,” he said, “is original sin – we are screwed up creatures.” But he said the Christian faith always offered a way out of difficult experiences, whether personally or societally, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have managed to do in countries like Northern Ireland and Africa. du Sud: a way to “own what made you, but be able to park it and move on”.
At the end of the event, he read a poem he had written which is in his latest book The Heart Of Things, and explained how poetry “became a kind of scripture” for him.
Poets themselves might be reluctant to embrace this idea but, on the same stage a few hours later, two of Scotland’s leading practitioners, Don Paterson and Scottish makar Kathleen Jamieagreed that there is a public role for the art form, especially in difficult times.
Paterson, reading from his new collection The Arctic, preceded his reading with a sort of apology: “A lot of things in this book are grim as hell, understandable given that we suffer from convergent apocalypses, which is good if you’re a poet but not fun for everyone.
“Easter 2020”, a raw and angry poem, written during and directly addressing the early days of the pandemic, left audiences deeply moved. He said, “I never thought I would say this, but I really think poets have an obligation to step in right now, just to testify.”
It was a sentiment that Jamie echoed, albeit reluctantly, when speaking of the poetry as “self-rescuing – and if I take other people with me, that’s fine”.
There have been more explicit discussions of the emotional rescue of the Canadian writer, historian and former politician Michel Ignatieff when he discussed his new book, On Consolation: Finding Solace In Dark Times, with Allan Little. In it, he delves into the thinkers of the past, from the biblical character of Job to Cicero and Abraham Lincoln, examining how they needed comfort and how they found it.
There is some comfort, he says, in the simple fact that there have always been dark times: think of Montaigne, writing in the midst of civil war and plague in 1586, or Condorcet, writing his treatise on progress while in hiding from the Jacobins who would eventually claim his life.
Personally, he says, he cannot console himself with a religious belief or the idea that history is a continual progression towards better times. What it boils down to is love, companionship, friendship, “being loved by someone else and knowing a little bit how to love them back.”
Canadian compatriot, novelist Emily Saint John Mandel found solace in starting a new novel in the dark early days of the pandemic in New York City.
“I thought that the grand project of a novel could be a refuge, good for my mental health. I wanted maximum escape. Anywhere on planet earth was too close to my apartment, so I ended up with lunar colonies and time travel!
That book, Sea Of Tranquility, is out now, starting with a transfer man to Vancouver Island in 1912, loosely based on one of his ancestors, and ending with a futuristic book tour in 2203.
But there’s also a pandemic, just like in her previous bestselling novel, Station Eleven. “You can start out as an escape and then realize you’ve just written about your own situation,” she said. “The horrific dark historical moment has seeped through.”
Many of the books currently being published have a bit of this ooze. Speaking about his new book, The Last Days of Roger Federer, Geoff Dyer spoke about how the pandemic had colored the “atmosphere” in which the book was written, even if it did not shape the material.
The book explores the latest and greatest works by writers, artists, musicians and, of course, tennis players. But there are many ways to leave the court: like Federer, like Serena Williams, playing a “ceremonial” last US Open, or like Boris Becker, ignominiously in prison.
Visual artists tend to fare better than writers when it comes to late flowering – think of Turner’s Transcendent Quasi-Abstracts, although Dyer said that John Berger’s late work, written long after his novel G, Booker Prize winner, and enlightened by decades of living in a peasant commune in the French Alps, had a pure vein of wisdom about them.
It was an audience member who mentioned David Bowie, whose seductive last album Blackstar was released days before his death in 2016, and he was again remembered by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard as part of a discussion about his new novel, The Morning Star, which revolves around the subject of death.
Music lover Knausgaard has compiled Spotify playlists (tracks ranging from Albinoni to Billy Eilish) for each of the nine characters whose voices we hear in the book, which focuses on the appearance of an ominous star that causes strange events. Here too, he says, the events of 2020 have “seeped” into the ominous atmosphere.
Knausgaard said that after completing his cult six-volume series of autobiographical novels, My Struggle, he thought he might not write again. The desire to write a novel came “all at once” and with it, a new series: he has now written two other books (which have yet to be translated) and is starting a fourth.