The seventeenth of January, 2011: festival writing

I’ve been wandering around with the word festschrift in my head. Not sure why, but I’ll not let it go to waste. Here’s a blog on the festschrift (n., German, lit. ‘festival-writing’, a collection of writings forming a volume presented to a scholar or savant on the occasion of his attaining a certain age or period in his career).

The first thing that my cursory researches on the subject have unearthed is that festschriften do seem to find their way to a rather good class of public intellectual: so there was a festschrift for Richard Dawkins (including a contribution from the Bishop of Oxford, who I suspect is as close to being an atheist as it is possible to be while still being the Bishop of Oxford and is probably my favourite bishop (although that isn’t saying much, bishops, as a species, being what they are)); Carl Sagan got one for turning sixty (and even contributed to it himself, which seems a bit like cheating);  Nabokov had to wait till he was seventy, but at least got the likes of John Updike and Anthony Burgess writing for it (in the highbrow US journal TriQuarterly).

Kurt Vonnegut – overrated as a novelist, I think, but practically perfect as a person (at any rate an A-list dinner-party guest) – got a festschrift off his wife, Jill Krementz, for his sixtieth birthday. The list of contributors is, as you might imagine, richly eclectic and staggeringly brainy-hip; it includes Garry Trudeau, Milos Forman and KV’s old army mucker (and occasional minor character in his novels) Bernard V. O’Hare (links to a PDF, but a PDF worth reading), as well as the usual suspects (Updike again, Mailer, Capote, Vidal).

What’s nice is that Vonnegut gave his wife a festschrift of her own when she turned fifty. In his preface, Vonnegut wrote (among other things):

Scientists of the future will want to know if any of the photographs of Jill in this book have been retouched. No. Let them explain, if they can, why it was that the older she was the more beautiful she became.


I love everything about festschriften. I love their humanity, their creativity, their eclecticism. I love that we haven’t got a word for them in English, and get to use italics and a German plural. I love that they’re just nice. Wouldn’t you be just colossally happy if someone gave you a festschrift?

So if anyone’s wondering what to get me for that tricky 80th birthday in 2058, I’d like a festschrift, please.


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