Discovering the author in the mirror of his works
The Romanists Dr. Stephan Nowotnick and Marie Cravageot organize the Literary Encounters -Les Rencontres Littéraires- at the University of Wuppertal
A series of seminars on contemporary French literature was the impulse to create the literary encounters, Les Rencontres Littéraires.
"Why shouldn't we invite the authors we are talking about personally?," asked the Romance scholar Dr. Stephan Nowotnick, who teaches French, Spanish and Latin American literature in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies. With the aim of "bringing students of Romance Studies into personal contact and into personal conversation with important authors of contemporary French literature, which they have previously read and studied in seminars, the Rencontres Littéraires represent a special contribution to a study of literature filled with life," he said. Nowotnick began to put this idea into practice in 2015 with his colleague Maren Butzheinen and has been organizing the French Encounters for five years now, with Marie Cravageot at his side since 2016. Both organizers are also thinking of the citizens of the region who are interested in French literature and who can participate in the readings of the "contemporary French authors who generally belong to the first league". Over time, the university, as a venue, has thus also become an important meeting place for this rendezvous, which is now known transregional.
Symbol for the German-French cultural exchange
The ever-growing audience has only one condition to meet, Cravageot explains, "they must understand French", because the readings are held in the original language, with the possibility of translation in the subsequent discussions. Thanks to the cooperation with other institutions in Wuppertal, such as the Volkshochschule, which promotes the next Rencontres Littéraires in its French courses, or the partnership committee between Wuppertal and Saint-Etienne, the researcher says, "one can indeed speak of a symbol for German-French cultural contact and exchange, a symbol that has a particularly strong resonance in Wuppertal and the region.
Femina and Goncourt prize winners come to the valley
Nowotnick and Cravageot are looking specifically for current, widely read French authors of contemporary literature and are always up to date with their invitations. "For example, Jérôme Ferrari, Laurent Gaudé, Maylis de Kerangal or Jean-Philippe Toussaint have already been our guests", Nowotnick tells enthusiastically "authors who are on everyone's lips in France, who are sometimes treated like stars", because the status of a writer is different in France than in Germany. "Their books are available in stacks in the large French bookstores. In November, the young great shooting star of contemporary French literature, Sylvain Prudhomme, comes to University of Wuppertal. Awarded with the Prix Femina, he is one of the hottest authors in France. In January, he is followed by Prix Goncourt winner Nicolas Mathieu, who received the most important and oldest French literary prize in 2019 for his novel Leurs enfants après eux (Engl: How Later Their Children). "This prize comes immediately after the Nobel Prize for Literature and has been awarded since 1903. It was named after the writer brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt," explains Nowotnick, and these chosen books, he continues, "are among the obligatory Christmas presents for the French.
Discovering the author in the mirror of his works
The format of the Rencontres Littéraires has a unique feature, because, Cravageot explains, "for the meeting, we agree with the author in advance on a central theme that runs through the author's entire work. This theme is linked to thematic axes chosen to give coherence to the various Rencontres Littéraires. There are thus two main ideas: the overall axis between the various encounters between the authors and the specific theme of each encounter." Students will also be involved in the implementation in the form of moderations or short lectures, the so-called Echos de lecture, in which they present their personal impressions of the book and the author. "Embedded in the Rencontres are also a lecture and readings of extracts from the works by the author himself, which he comments on in detail and with which he illustrates the theme of the encounters. It is always a matter of discovering each author in the mirror of his or her entire work", Cravageot says about each encounter "it is a dynamic event where everyone can speak up. The course is always different".
And to ensure that the next encounters are well attended, the two organizers launch a large-scale advertising campaign each time. Beside the conventional posters, fylers and email messages also francophile aligned neighbor universities take part in the information transfer and all Romanceists nationwide are informed about the dates on the Internet side www.romanistik.de.
Country focus of the University of Wuppertal since 2017: France
Since 2017, France has been the country focus of the University of Wuppertal with an abundance of relationship structures and activities. In these Nowotnick includes "numerous ERASMUS partnerships with French universities, bi- or trinational study programs with France, internships in France in the field of teaching and others or a DAAD guest lectureship in Wuppertal with a colleague from Paris-Nanterre", as well as "possibly soon an additional bi-national German-French Master's program. The Rencontres Littéraires complement these expandable, special measures, and this year Nowotnick even arranged a close cooperation with the bureau du livre (book office) of the French embassy. "The bureau du livre organizes and coordinates all visits of French authors to Germany every year. The basic idea is that the embassy will also arrange for authors whom it has invited to come to Wuppertal, and we will also arrange for our guests to visit other cities via the bureau. A typical win-win situation".
Sustainability through text backups
"All the events of the past have been recorded and transcribed", explains Cravageot "our aim above all is to secure a trace of this rich and fascinating exchange". In addition, all texts and dates are also accessible via the homepage at https://www.romanistik.uni-wuppertal.de/de/rencontres-litteraires.html. "For our courses in Romance Studies, we use these texts as teaching material in seminars on contemporary French literature. Some students also use them for their bachelor thesis and some of these transcriptions have even been published in specialist journals" she adds. A dream, of course, would be the publication of a book with the collected encounters of the Wuppertal conversations.
Rencontres Littéraires, a project with a future?
Cravageot and Nowotnick still have a lot to do. For example, they are planning the differentiation of the formats, which could be such that in the future, e.g. two authors would be invited to a topic. A colloquium 2021 on the topic of the social crisis in France is also planned, and with the increased involvement of the media, they are working on partnerships with cultural institutions and a more intensive cooperation with the city's cultural office. "It is interesting to hear," says Nowotnick with a laugh "that authors are meeting in Paris and discover that they have both been guests in Wuppertal!"
As the long-term overriding goal of the series, Nowotnick and Cravageot would like to see the series of Rencontres Littéraires in Wuppertal become an important, nationally known meeting place for contemporary French literature and thus become a forum for the German-French cultural exchange.
The next Literary Encounter will take place on November 10th at 16.00 with Sylvain Prudhomme in the University Library.
Uwe Blass (Interview of 10.06.2020)
Dr. Stephan Nowotnick teaches French, Spanish and Latin American literature in the subject Romance Studies and, in cooperation with the University of Besançon, runs a binational German-French program.
Marie Cravageot teaches French literature and is an expert on contemporary French literature.