The right spice mix

As much as I had tried to plead for having more female authors in our reading panel, the people I came up with declined or didn’t even answer, and in the end, we only had one female author reading from her novel: Elsa Koester. Somehow I felt like I related more to her than to our other (male) guests, even if there is no objective reason to justify it. 

But there are plenty of subjective reasons for that. For starters, even though the novel Couscous mit Zimt deals mainly with French who lived in North-African colonies and returned back to France in the 1960s, it also involves a great deal of Franco-German relationships. Berlin, and even more so Paris, are almost protagonists in and of themselves. The novel also  retraces other key moments in my personal story, which feels somewhat eerily close to home: Châteauroux, where I was born, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where I studied, demonstrations I took part in, even the absurdly irritating and funny way in which the subway stations are announced in a Q&A form in Paris – all almost too familiar… but these might not even be the essential reason why I was so absorbed by the novel. The writing does it. The writing draws you, it drags you to wanting to read further, even in the moments when the story is so intense that you have to close the book. It took me weeks to read this book (and I am the kind of reader who normally doesn’t drop a book until they have finished it), because there were moments where I simply had to close it and let it live in me before I could read any further. I can imagine that it can be unsettling for some readers to cope with this type of writing – you have to be absorbed in it, totally. And I was so absorbed into the novel that when the online reading started, I was not so sure that the author would manage to convey all of this simply by reading a few pages to students who had not read the whole book. 

But it worked. In the aftermath some attendants told me: well, after the first passage, I didn’t really get what was so spectacular about this novel, but then, the more she read, the more I was transported. 

Preparing the reading

We organizers had had an e-mail exchange with the author to define which passages she would read. She suggested several possible aspects and we settled on colonial history as a main focus. It is not a topic you get much of a chance to work on in German Studies, I saw it as a unique opportunity to do so. And I knew that several students come from a pied-noir or North African family and would relate especially to the descriptions, the atmosphere, the feelings.

I gave the 3 chapters that were selected to read to the students, but I also held an online session where I had them summarize the main aspects. We did that in a pad, which gave me the opportunity to correct mistakes in the students’ answers, add missing information, ask more specific questions. 

Screenshot of the class pad during the preparation of the reading session with Elsa Koester, December 3rd 2020

Since the different chapters in the book are written from the point of view of the different female characters, it was pretty essential to me that the students get these different protagonists sorted out. I also struggled to try and get into stylistic aspects as well, but with limited success. 

Mixing the spices

In the end, it all came down to the author’s performance, and her finding the right spice mix for the reading to succeed – an image, by the way, that is a recurrent theme in the novel (which is called Couscous with cinnamon although it is said at some point that the key ingredient to get correctly dosed is actually rose petals).

The setting was very different from that with Arne Rautenberg. Very few distractions, white background, a light that was not too white and not too yellow, excellent audio: it was extremely concentrated – as if the reading voice was projecting a virtual movie on the white wall.

Screenshot taken during the reading by Elsa Koester on December 3rd, 2020.

The students sent the following notes after the reading: 

In ihrem Buch handelt es sich um Kolonialismus in Tunesien, wo ihre Familie herkommt. Sie hat uns über ihre komplizierten Gefühle mit der französischen Kultur erzählt. Für sie ist es ein emotionales Verhältnis. In ihrer Arbeit als Journalistin spricht sie nicht über Heimat und Kolonialismus, weil es zu privat ist. (….) Der Schreibprozess hat zwei Jahre gedauert. (…) Am Anfang hatte sie nicht geplant einen Roman zu schreiben. (…) In diesem Buch versuchte sie ohne Tabu zu schreiben, das war ein großer Unterschied mit journalistischem Schreiben. Wenn man alles rationalisiert, ist es furchtbar zu lesen, hat sie gesagt. 

This last point was contradicted in the reading of the following week by Erwan Desplanques: he too is a journalist and stated on the contrary that there clearly is a continuity between both ways of writings, and that he writes his articles and his short stories in the same spirit.

All the authors were asked very personal questions as to their relationship to writing, and the answer was pretty similar in all cases: writing stories not just for oneself, but for others, is somehow part of their personality and individuality. In the words of Elsa Koester, who just published her first fictional text, the sentence “I can’t imagine not writing anymore” echoed deeply in the students. For this honesty, this way of showing so much intimacy, I would like to thank her, and the other authors too for accepting to answer every even so personal question.

As for me, I will be passing Châteauroux tomorrow on my way to family visit, definitely with a different look at the station that in the previous 44 years of my life. And yes, I could blame the pandemic for not helping me become a good literature teacher, for preventing me from having pens and paper as the main utensils to help me communicate with the students. But I am so grateful to all the events and people who helped make this reading series possible, and to open inner worlds to the students in pretty dark times.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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