Jonathan Franzen Visits Brazil, Leaves People Puzzled

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In its 10th year, Brazil's biggest literary festival, held in Paraty on the coast, attracted 25,000 visitors, nearly as many people as live in the picturesque colonial town. They came for the celebrity authors and films, sure, but mostly for an intimacy with books.

That's no small thing in a country where few novelists make a living, where illiteracy rates are around 12 percent, and where the newspaper with the largest circulation, Folha de Sao Paulo, sells around 300,000 copies to a population of 203 million.

Posting on Twitter, someone identifying as the entertainer Rafael Cortez enthused, “It's the first time I see books used as something other than a table wedge!”

"I was ecstatic," festival-goer Sheila Lustosa commented on Facebook: “To sit together with each author, to participate a little in their world, in the creative process, amid the anguishes and desires of each author -- it encourages us to read, so we can live longer lives and understand more lives.”

Naturally, some appearances produced more ecstacy than others. Brazilian author Zuenir Ventura was a big hit with the audience, winning laughs when he read a passage from his new book, "Holy Family," in which he relates his first lesson about sex, having stumbled as a child upon his aunt having relations with a man in the back of a pharmacy. Britain's Ian McEwan and America's Jennifer Egan received a standing ovation for their joint session.

On the other hand, the festival's headline act, the American novelist Jonathan Franzen, fizzled. His drawn-out pauses and doses of Midwestern humor confounded the Brazilian crowd. On her blog for Folha de Sao Paulo, literary critic Joselia Aguiar wrote that Franzen was capable of "brilliant phrases" but appeared tense and timid. In a later post, she said, "Franzen, who almost came across as a freak, could also be uplifting."

The newspaper O Globo was less balanced, declaring in a blog post:

The biggest disappointment in the program was the American Jonathan Franzen, one of the most anticipated attractions of the event, whose session dragged at prime time.

There were a few other complaints about the event, officially called the Paraty International Literary Festival, or FLIP, in Portuguese. In a blog post on the Folha website, writer and filmmaker Andre Barcinski said the city of Paraty could not handle the crowd, its guest houses charged outrageous prices, and its overflowing restaurants meant interminable queues. He also lamented that the festival relies heavily on publishers:

I know that FLIP depends on publishers and serves as a vehicle for them to launch their books. But there is a mass of authors without publishers out there, and a debate on how to publish a book independently would have enormous appeal.

Writing on the website of Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Berlin-based Brazilian poet Ricardo Domeneck criticized the festival for including only seven women among the 44 featured poets and writers this year. “Is it necessary to be a literary character for a woman to have a better chance of participating?” he asked.

In the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper, however, literary critic Ubiratan Brasil concluded that the festival was an overall success: “FLIP closed its 10th edition with its usual ups and downs but left the impression that its hits were more decisive than its errors.” He especially praised the festival's celebration, 110 years after his birth, of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, one of Brazil's most important writers. Drummond's words were projected on the wall of a church in a city square, and his poems were recited before each author session.

John Freeman, editor of the British literary magazine Granta, which helped launch the careers of McEwan and Franzen, attended the festival to launch Granta’s first collection of pieces by young Brazilian writers. In an interview with BBC Brasil, he was asked about the perception of Brazilian literature abroad. “Actually there is no perception,” he replied, lamenting that so much is said overseas about Brazil’s economic development and nothing about its literature.

For five sweet days on the Brazilian shore, at least, the home crowd had its say.

(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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