Sheffield prepares for high impact on low lands

Nederland, Amsterdam,'Author Herman Koch, ''Foto: Mark Kohn
Nederland, Amsterdam,'Author Herman Koch, ''Foto: Mark Kohn

SHEFFIELD is preparing to welcome the Low Countries Literati – six top writers from Belgium and Holland who have come together for ‘a rock star-style tour’ of six English cities for six nights of readings and debates.

The High Impact tour, sponsored by Flanders House and the Netherlands Embassy in London and involving six award-winning and best-selling Dutch-language storytellers, is designed to raise awareness in the UK of what is some of the most exciting literature in Europe these days.

The Dutch Poet Laureate, along with Flanders’ leading graphic novelist, two international bestsellers, a thriller writer, a celebrated historian and a travel writer will take to the stage at St George’s Church Lecture Theatre at the University of Sheffield next Thursday (January 17).

Herman Koch was shortlisted for International Author of the Year 2012 for his novel, The Dinner, which has sold more than one million copies throughout Europe.

Back home he is also known as a comedy actor. “From 1990 to 2005 I wrote and acted in a comedy show I made together with two friends, but I had already published a few books before that,” he points out. “I always considered myself first a writer, never a real actor anyway.

“Of course later on, after the show became rather popular, it hindered my so called ‘serious reputation’ a bit. That is why I am so happy to be published in countries now where nobody knows me at all.”

The Dinner is set in a restaurant where two well-to-do couples are meeting to discuss their 15-year-old sons who have committed a crime. It sounds a universal kind of story but do the characters act in a way that is particularly Dutch?

“The idea came from a real event that took place in Barcelona in 2005 where two youngsters, more or less accidentally, killed a homeless person,” he says. “This is very international, I think, it’s happening everywhere, filming their acts with smartphones etc.

“The particular Dutch taste of the book lies in the portrait of our over-tolerant and politically correct society, for which the Dutch have been congratulating themselves for the last five centuries. Now there are some cracks becoming visible in this tolerance, and these cracks are present all over The Dinner.”

From the notoriously insular perspective of the British book-buying perspective,  The Dinner  would seem to be his breakthrough novel internationally. Has that affected choices in what to write next?

“I had already written a novel after The Dinner (which is published in some countries, and will be published in the UK next year), so it didn’t have any real effect in that sense.

“After a bestseller most writers write a novel that is a lot worse. I decided to break with this tradition and try to write something better. I even think I succeeded, although it is up to the reader to decide about that.”

He will be reading The Dinner in translation next week and as someone fluent in English it must seem strange that it is someone else’s words. “Since I have been reading so many British and American authors for the past 40 years it feels very ‘real’ to see my book published in English. But it looks like a book by a different writer who doesn’t have a lot to do with me. Especially when I spot a copy on an airport. Would anyone buy that? I wonder. But maybe they will: it looks so much like the other (real) books.”

High Impact is obviously a marketing initiative for  ‘Low Countries Literati’. But Koch doesn’t feel there are particular characteristics of the writing from Flanders and Hollsndf that are different from other regions

“We are not that different from Sweden or Estonia, say. It is just a small country with less known writers than from the US and the UK. “

Koch lived in London at the end of the Seventies and beginning of the Eighties and is looking forward to the so-called rock-style tour. ”I went to a lot of gigs in pubs and venues - The Police, The Specials, Madness. I hope it will be a bit like that with us. People being noisy, drinking pints and shouting insults at the stage.”

Low Countries Literati takes place at St George’s Church Lecture Theatre at the University of Sheffield next Thursday (January 17).