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Books Cotswolds

Report from Cheltenham Literature Festival

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the Cheltenham Literature Festival in the Cotswolds. I spent the first night of the festival at an intimate evening with the bald spot on the back of a gentleman’s head and the much maligned Mr. Franzen.

Before he began to read, Franzen noted he was in the fourth week of touring to promote his new novel, Purity, and admitted he he had hit a wall just before the start of this event. Despite his fatigue, he still managed to charm. I particularly enjoyed hearing him read from a scene in the book where a couple has sex on a nuclear missile in Amarillo, Texas.

However, an opportunistic journalist hoping for another Iraqi-war-orphan-esque gaffe would have been rewarded towards the end of the Q&A when a woman in the audience asked him about his relationship with his mother. He started his answer by offering his gratitude for the middle-class privileges his parents had bestowed on him, including an education and disapproval of his writing—which he said gave him “something to prove.” Then he went on to note that on top of all that, they were also nice enough to die when he was in his thirties, liberating him to write things he could have never written when they were still alive, including The Corrections. I can just imagine the headline: “Franzen Glad His Parents are Dead.” The audience seemed to take the answer in the spirit in which he intended, though. No gasps or tutting as far as I could hear, and the line for his book signing was still out the door by the time we finished dinner and moved on to the next event of the evening.

I spent the next hour in a much more intimate setting, just 30 or so audience members, the moderator and Nell Zink, Franzen’s literary protégé who was profiled in The New Yorker earlier this year. My friend headed to the tent next door to see the wildly popular Caitlin Moran, and the uproarious laughter from that crowd occasionally seeped into our venue.

Nell Zink reading from The Wallcreeper

Zink was funny, too. Not necessarily ha-ha funny, but odd and awkward and charming and all over the map. At one point she veered off in an explanation of a character’s hairdo in The Wallcreeper to enlighten us about an eighteenth-century hair condition amongst German peasants that included dreadlocks and was referred to as Plica Polonica (a Polish braid). There appeared to be little filter between her darting to-and-fro mind and her mouth, which was a good thing as far as I’m concerned.She was, in short, exactly how I imagined someone who had written the lighting-paced and weird and wonderful The Wallcreeper to be, and I would have been disappointed if she had been any other way.