Roger receives Le Prix Henri-Queffélec 4 May 2013
We arrived at Concarneau on the Thursday evening, and booked into our (paid-for) hotel overlooking the bay. On Friday morning we made our way to the Arts centre, where the three-day Festival Livre et Mer, now in its 29th year, was to be centred. Immediately we sensed something special. The huge building on the sea front was buzzing with activity, with more than 60 volunteers and 40 authors making final preparations for the event.
As soon as I had introduced us at the reception desk, we were overwhelmed with kindness and attention. I was immediately introduced to all and sundry as ‘notre lauréat’, and began to understand the importance and honour of having been selected as the winner of the main literary prize – the Prix Henri-Queffélec.
However the laureate had not yet been announced publicly – that was for the evening inauguration ceremony – so there was much hush-hushing and fingers on lips. Having been given a tour of the voluminous and warren-like building – once a fish canning factory – we were whisked off by car to Quimper, where I had to start my duties with a half-hour live radio interview for France Bleu Bretagne.
This interview was to be shared with Christelle Capo-Chichi, the director of the Festival. We were soon in the studio, chatting with the presenter Clément as the news ran in the background. Fortunately my French is pretty fluent, but Clément’s first question almost threw me : ‘What do you authors talk about at these literary festivals ?’ ‘Oh ! No idea ! This is the first time I’ve been invited to one !’
The interview went very well and it was then back to Concarneau for a late lunch. The Festival runs its own canteen for the volunteers and authors, itself staffed by more volunteers. The lovely little port of Concarneau is very proud of its Festival.
The inauguration ceremony started at seven in the evening. After an introduction by the President of the jury, the renowned French author Hervé Jaouen, four local politicians, in good French style, took their turn to read self-congratulatory speeches. The president of the jury then took centre stage again to announce the prizes – a youth prize for a short story, the prize for the ‘Beau Livre’ – the best-looking book, then the main prize of the festival.
The initial selection of thirty books had been trimmed to eight for the jury to consider. Eventually two were left in the running: a novel about a dying man in a hospital overlooking the sea, L’Hôpital Maritime, and my second book of Mingming voyages, Mingming et l’Art de la Navigation Minimaliste. As the President said – quite a contrast – and eventually the jury came down on the side of ‘joy and humour’. That being the case, I gave them as much British humour as I could in my acceptance speech, including a digression on being a ‘rosbif végétarien’. It was heartening, at the reception that followed, to have a line of people coming up to say how much they enjoyed ‘l’humour très britannique’. Mind you, after the politicians, anything would have seemed funny.
Saturday morning was taken up with book signing. Then I had to resume duties as laureate. This involved, firstly, a round-table chaired discussion with three other nominees for the prize, in front of an audience, a so-called ‘café littèraire’. I had been somewhat apprehensive about being able to hold my end up in this rather rarified literary atmosphere, but it went very well.
Then there was the event solely reserved for the laureate, an interview and readings from the book in Concarneau’s famous pub – La Taverne des Korrigans. My interviewer was a charming and very perceptive local artist, Françoise Bercovici, who had evidently read the book very carefully and understood it in its entirety. I have now published an analysis she wrote on the French page of my website.
Interspersed with the questions and discussions were readings of three extracts, shortened versions of those I read at the RCYC. Two were read by French locals, while I reserved the ‘yellow whale’ incident to myself. The pub, a single low-ceilinged, wood-panelled room, was packed out, and the atmosphere was warm and receptive. The day was not yet over, as there was a big dinner in the evening that lasted until midnight. We were at the main table so I was able to get to know the President of the jury, who was sat next to me.
Sunday was more book signing and meeting readers and other authors. By the afternoon I was feeling exhausted, but work was not over: I was told that I had to do a TV interview. For this we went out on the stone jetty opposite the Arts centre, where I walked around, stared dreamily out to sea, holding a copy of the book (now with its Prix Henri-Queffélec wrapper) conveniently in my hand, then talked briefy to camera.
At seven in the evening, official duties all over, Brenda and I went with my two translators, Eric Andlauer and Marie-Odile Ottenwaelter, to a lovely restaurant in the ‘ville close’ and polished off a bottle of Sancerre over an excellent meal.
Vive la France !