South Africa stars at French public reading festival

Audio 20:38
Gilles Vidal

Just as new technologies allow us to read on hand-held computers, even mobile phones, listening to people reading books out loud is also increasingly popular. The annual Marathon des Mots in Toulouse is France’s leading “public readings” literary festival. Rendezvous joined some 57,000 visitors at this year’s edition where the guest of honour was South Africa.


It’s a back-to-basics approach to reading: all you need is a chair, a text, a reader and an attentive audience. While ipads and mobile phones allow you to read anytime, anywhere, more and more booklovers in France are flocking to literary festivals to hear texts being read out loud.

The Marathon des Mots festival in Toulouse, south-western France, is a leader in the field. It was founded six years ago with the aim of celebrating the spoken word.

During this year’s four-day festival, some 57,000 people came to hear 80 actors and authors reading from well-known texts. The vast majority of the readings, held in parks, public buildings, bookshops and theatres, are free of charge.

What with South Africa hosting the World Cup and some 17 African nations marking 50 years of independence, this year’s guest of honour was South Africa, a country where “oral performance and readings are quite common; you feel obliged to allow audiences to access what you’re saying in an oral way” said South African poet Antjie Krog who read from her work “Country of my skull”.

Star attractions included Nobel prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee reading from a new short story Nietverloren - quite some treat coming from this renowned recluse who never gives oral interviews - while Jean Rochefort, octogenarian French star of stage and screen, had the “honour” of reading from Coetzee’s novel Disgrace.

For authors, reading aloud can be an important part of the writing process, a sort of test, but also a rather sensual experience. “When it works you have this huge pleasure of the writing without the anxiety,” said Gwenaelle Aubry, winner of the Prix Femina 2009. A good reading can also “pump up” the text admitted Slovenian poet Miha Pintaric, whose faith in writing had been restored after hearing his texts read well in public.

And what about the audience? Words like soothing and musical cropped up most when describing the attraction. One local bookworm was thrilled at hearing Coetzee read his own work despite limited English which meant having to rely on the well-read French translation. “He was talking about his own experience, I think, and you could hear the nostalgia in his voice,” she said.

The next edition of Marathon des Mots in Toulouse will be held in May 2011; the guest of honour is Lebanon.


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