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10 November 2023

Interview with Gérard de Cortanze
President of the Jean Monnet Prize for European Literature

Paolo Grossi

Writer, essayist, playwright, translator and literary critic, Gérard de Cortanze has published more than 90 books, translated into 25 languages, many of them into Italian. Winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Renaudot for his novel Assam, he has long directed the Folio Biographies collection for Gallimard editions and is now editor at Albin Michel. In September, he published his new book, Une jeune fille en feu, subtitled Christine l’admirable, sainte et rebelle. Since its creation in 1995, he has chaired the jury of the Jean Monnet Prize for European Literature, awarded annually at the Cognac Festival of European Literatures. In 2023, Italy will be the country of honour at the Festival, which will take place from 25 November to 3 December.



How did the Jean Monnet Prize for European Literature come about?


The creation of the Jean Monnet Prize reads like a novel… The prize has existed for 29 years, so there is a statute of limitations and I can talk about its genesis without risking jail…
During a meeting at the Parisian café Le Sélect, several members of the working group responsible for the Cognac Festival asked me if it was possible to create a prize ‘quickly’. A subsidy had been granted that had to be spent ‘by the end of the year, otherwise it could not be paid’. It was an arduous task: we had to assemble a jury, get them to select a shortlist of titles, read them, draw up a first list, a second, a third, and finally elect a winner… We had less than a month. How to do it? The mobile phone penetration rate in the world at the time was 0.6 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants… I then drew up a list of writer friends, journalists, critics who I knew would accept our proposal, and I undertook to find a winner as soon as possible who would agree to come to Cognac to receive the prize – an essential condition set by the organisers of the event… I already had an idea in my head, which I did not tell anyone about…. The person I had thought of might have refused …
The next day I went to Antonio Tabucchi‘s Paris flat, rue de l’Université, and asked him if he would accept the 1st Prize for European Literature. His reply was immediate and enthusiastic. I only had to inform the jurors, who were also enthusiastic, that they had just awarded the prize to the great Italian writer. A few weeks later, we left by car for Cognac. I specify ‘by car’ because a railway strike did not allow us to use the train. We were to meet at dawn at Angoulême station, where Antonio discovered to his horror that, as the bar was closed, he would not be able to drink the glass of champagne he had not stopped talking about during the entire journey…
This first edition of the prize was a great success. Antonio, as usual, proved to be brilliant, generous, amusing, and responded with wit and humour to the imbecile comment of a journalist who asked him how it was that he, a man of the left, could accept a prize for European literature!



What are the characteristics of the Jean Monnet Prize?


The aim is to crown a work, rather than a book. Our prize is by no means a ‘discovery’ prize. The writer must have international stature and be translated into several languages.



Which Italian authors have received the Jean Monnet Prize for European Literature?


Antonio Tabucchi was followed by: Rosetta Loy in 2006, on the occasion of the release of Nero è l’albero dei ricordi, azzurra l’aria; Claudio Magris, three years later, for Lei dunque capirà; Erri De Luca, in 2014, with Il torto del soldato. Finally, Rosella Postorino, in 2019, for Le assaggiatrici.



What is the relationship between the Cognac European Literature Festival and the Prize?


Created in Cognac in 1988 on the occasion of the centenary of Jean Monnet’s birth, the Littératures Européennes Cognac association acts to promote European literature and reading, through an annual festival and various cultural activities that take place throughout the year and target different audiences. Every year, writers, performers, journalists and artists from all over Europe meet on the third weekend in November making Cognac a European literary capital. The programme includes interviews and debates, meetings with the public, readings, films, youth activities, exhibitions and a large European bookshop, all over the course of three intense days in the heart of Cognac!
The Jean Monnet Prize for European Literature is the main event of this event dedicated to Europe, and a whole series of activities throughout the year aim to amplify its impact.
Thus, from April to November, the Readers’ Prize brings together more than 1,500 volunteers in the libraries of the Nouvelle Aquitaine region. At the beginning of the school year, literary prizes, workshops and meetings are proposed to schools students in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region, from kindergarten to high school.
Throughout the year, everyone can borrow books for all ages, twice a week, from the European library and participate in Cognac’s European Literature Thursdays. During the autumn, the Jean Monnet residence welcomes a young European writer.



Is the ‘country of honour’ usually also the country of the winning author?


Absolutely not. This possibility, which the jury discussed and considered, was quickly rejected as too restrictive. Jorge Semprun would never have come in 2001, when the host country was Portugal… When Claudio Magris received the prize in 2009, Italy was not the host country. When Antonio Muñoz Molina was awarded in 2012, Spain was not…
Since 2004, however, a ‘Readers’ Prize’ has been awarded to a European author for a book, written or translated into French, corresponding to the theme of the year’s edition. Organised in partnership with the departmental media libraries of Charente, Vienne, Charente-Maritime and Deux-Sèvres, the prize has so far involved more than one hundred and forty libraries and one thousand six hundred readers. Since 2017, the prize has included 1,500 euros and a month’s residency at the Villa Marguerite Yourcenar, thanks to the support of the Département Nord.
This year, four authors were selected: Giuseppe Catozzella, for Brigantessa; Chiara Mezzalama with Dopo la pioggia; Daniele Mencarelli for Tutti vogliamo essere salvati; and finally, Michela Marzano for her book Il mio nome è senza memoria.



What will be the programme of the next edition of the Festival? Which Italian writers will be invited?


There will obviously be the winner of the 29th Jean Monnet Prize: Bernhard Schlink, Colm Toibin or Amélie Nothomb...? …the answer in a few weeks!
Among the invited Italian writers: Daniele Mencarelli, Chiara Mezzalama, Giuseppe Catozella, Michela Marzano, Giacomo Mazzariol, Vincenzo Latronico, Giosuè Calaciura, Tonino Benacquista, Alberto Toscano, Francesco Forlani, Anna Bonalume, Matteo Alemanno, Lorenzo Chiavini, Sara Del Giudice, Giorgia Marras…