Visit of Elle-Mari Talivee and Kadri Tüür from Estonia to the Centre national de littérature in Mersch, Luxembourg, 17.-21.11.2011

Report by Kadri Tüür

Not much to say about Thursday, the 17th. Travelling took some time (read: the whole day); Marc was so kind to come and pick us up at the airport and give us a lift to Mersch where one of the two studios of CNL was prepared for us (equipped with two beds instead of the regular one, and with ample information material with greetings from Pierre). The studio itself was an admirably compact space with a guest room / writing table / kitchen and bathroom downstairs and a half-open balcony type bedroom with a bridge to the nearest window upstairs. We immediately fell asleep and felt like young & careless students again back in the golden bygone times when we shared a dorm room in Tartu. This was a pleasant feeling.

Friday, the 18th saw us stepping out of our door 2 minutes before 9 to be present in the main building just at the right time. Pierre first showed us around the temporary exhibition that at the time of our visit was devoted to the history of the Centre’s house. As they have five rooms downstairs for temporary exhibitions (generally ca 2 exhibitions per year; one produced by the centre, and another brought in), the structure of each exhibition is already pre-destined. Magnetic showcases on the walls and standing showcases were exemplary (loe: viimase peal). The same can be said about the exhibition furniture in Victor Hugo house in Vianden. What seemed different from our practices was that there were some old original items on display, instead of their copies. The same can be said about the display in Victor Hugo house in Vianden.
The upper floors of the Centre are filled with offices for the employed researchers and a library that also serves as a visiting researchers’ room, with a book storage right next to it. In the cellar there is one more hall where children’s book readings take place. The centre also hosts various concerts, readings, meetings with writers, conferences, seminars, etc. 
All together, there are ca 20 people working in CNL, engaged in the arranging, completing, and cataloguing the writers’ archives, preparing critical editions of Luxemburgish writers, in academic research, in compiling annual bibliographies and developing online databases. As we later could see in the book store / cafe of CNL, the work of the centre is intense and purpose-driven as it has yielded in an impressively great number of high-quality publications.
Under the roof in the main building there is a lecture hall plus seminar room, accompanied by a cosy cafe room where the personnel gather for mid-morning coffee break every day. We had the privilege of participating in one such communal coffee break. Advisable for all institutions that value a sense of community :)
Attached to the main maison, there is another house that has some more offices and where the climate-controlled manuscript archives are located. The centre also has a great collection of newspaper clippings and a collection of miscellaneous items (such as paintings, posters, and a wedding gown of one of the members of the family who used to own the house – comparable to the legendary false teeth of poetess Marie Under, supposedly in the collections of the Cultural History Archives of Estonian Literary Museum ;)
There is also a seminar room that is used as a working space for part-time researchers.
The adjacent house is refurbished (read: re-built) as two guest apartments (called ‘studios’); our neighbour was a scholar from Japan whose specialty was Lëtzebuergesch language.  
Should it not be clear from the description above, it should be stressed that the centre as a whole has been set up in a very rational, yet organic manner: all the functions of a literary research and popularisation centre are well integrated into one compact complex and the efficiency of the small team must be but admired. As we were told, it has much to do with the brilliant organisational skills of Mme Germaine Goetzinger, the head of the centre. And, last but not least – the centre evidently does not need to fight for financing, but even the pettiest eye could not detect any evidence of squandering. 

Accompanied by Pierre and his colleague Jeff, we then drove up north to Vianden where Les Amis de la Maison de Victor Hugo à Vianden have established a museum dedicated to Victor Hugo who lived there as an expatriate in 1871. His family & companions lived in a hotel across the street, and Hugo rented a room in a tiny trapezoid house by the river l’Our. Again: all is compact, thoughtfully assembled and exposed, accessible at your own speed with the help of an audio guide. The four-storied house with narrow staircases is definitely not accessible for handicapped people, but the ground floor and audio guide still are. In the attic there is multi-media room and library where one can sit in peace, read books, or take a computer quiz about the contents of the permanent exhibition. (We did better on the ‘elementary’ level than the local team ;)
As the lovely museum and the lovely lunch had taken their time and we were running late, we hesitated, but then still went for a quick tour of Vianden castle, one of the greatest ancient feudal residences in Europe. It sure was great, a bit too great for us, but we probably got the taste of it. New construction works were carried out there, too.

We had also learnt that CNL is preparing an online database of Luxembourg authors on the basis of their major publication Luxemburger Autorenlexikon (2007; in French 2010; analogous to our 300 Baltic Writers) and, of course, 50 % of us flamed in professional curiosity. The database was to be made publicly available in a few days, and the people responsible for it had just detected a problem in the system they wanted to pin down for the software developers and were thus busy testing on Friday evening. So we started bothering Claude early Saturday morning and he gave us a comprehensive overview of the database (www.autorenlexikon.lu). Again: a neatly devised project with user-friendly interface and a well-argumented explanation behind every decision. The only hypothetical need that I thought might arise was that the possibility to search multiple criteria of the same type (e.g. not only authors from Mersch, but authors from Mersch AND Grevenmacher) was missing. But the software developers will continue to be close at hand. In the future, it is planned to be linked up with the online catalogue of Luxembourg libraries (as we later found out when talking to Charlotte, all the libraries in the state, from school libraries to the National one, use the same Marc21-based database Aleph, available at bibnet.lu). The head of the centre, Germaine, said that they plan to hold a big press conference on the occasion of launching the database.

Pierre almost lost the hope that we might be able to catch the train to Walferdange for the book fair, but we proved to be in an appropriate shape for a short-distance run to the station, and eventually managed to get there even before the opening speeches. The book fair where CNL participated with its own stand in the main hall took place in three halls of a community sports centre. All the major publishers of Luxembourg, but also of the neighbouring regions were present, as well as antiquarians and private people selling old books, side by side with the fancy movie production companies and representatives of Baha’i and Christian communities.  It took us several hours to browse the whole thing; we met many nice people, with some of whom we had common acquaintances, and some had otherwise connections with Estonia or Estonian literature. The anthology of European book prize winners that also includes an Estonian Tiit Aleksejev, has been issued by Luxemburg publishers, for example. We were also shown a photo book of European writers’ statues that included Tammsaare’s monument in Tallinn by the author of the book himself. Perhaps we should think of devising a database of the statues and memorial plaques of Estonian writers, in co-operation with National Heritage Board?
We ended the official part of the day with a late lunch in Luxemburg and then took a train back. The train connections in Luxemburg are really fast and convenient. The sad thing was that the internet cable in our room still refused to function – but the more time we thus had for digging into the information acquired during the day and available on the shelves of the studio. 

On Sunday we took a late start and arrived Luxembourg for a literary walking tour around 11. Pierre first took us to the central catholic cemetery where most of the national literary figures are buried: author of the words of the Luxembourg anthem Michel Lentz, journalists and satirical playwrights Edmond de la Fontaine (more known by his pseudonym Dicks) and Batty Weber (his grave was designed in an exceptionally ‘ecological’ style by foreign architect of sacral buildings), August Liesch, the author of the fable for adults about mouse Ketty, traveller and soldier Ernst Koch, etc.  On the outside corner of the cemetery under a tree there is a modest monument commemorating the ‘club war’ of 1799 that bears remarkable similarities to our Mahtra war. In general, during our literary walk & talk we found a lot of parallels between the historical and cultural dynamics of Estonian and Luxembourgish literature, sometimes with a considerable time lapse (like in the case of the two peasant wars), but still on the same wavelength and with a similar rationale. We have to carefully think over whether we could present this as a ‘European dimension’, but it was interesting, at least.
We then proceeded to the centre of the city where almost every second house bore a plaque commemorating an author who had used it at a certain point of time (ok, exaggerating, but not without any grounds). We also paid a visit to the statue commemorating Lentz and Dicks, and then a statute of Renard the Fox devoted to its Luxembourgish creator Michel Rodange who actually also belongs to the ‘golden trio’ of the forefathers of the Luxembourg literature, but who did not make it to the first statue.
We then combined lunch and working session, discussing the best/worst practices of attracting new audiences, communicating one’s existence, and manifesting the common European heritage. It seemed that one key element of the public success of CNL might be the strategy ‘to be present at appropriate places as much as possible’. About attracting new audiences, Pierre pointed out that before starting the attracting business, it is as necessary to ask – do we need any additional visitors? Can we handle them? Do we have enough content to offer them? Sometimes a single event attracts some public that is only interested in that particular topic and would not be easily persuaded to return to any other event. On the basis of the experience of Muhu Museum it can be said that taking into consideration the question of the ‘carrying capacity’ of the museum and its personnel is far from being insignificant. Over-exploitation is good for no resource.
After departing with Pierre, we improvised yet another working session with the representatives of Luxembourg Estonian Society on Elle-Mari’s initiative (ok, exaggerating again; it was a meeting of schoolmates, essentially, but it quickly turned into devising of a new cooperation project :). The busy day concluded with our visits to Luxembourg City Museum and Natural History Museum.

It seems to me that one thing that we might add to the preparation of the coming mobilities is to provide the hosts with somewhat more detailed information about the job shadowers’ professional background, as well as a preliminary overview of the particular sending and receiving institutions, in order to be able to create a wider ground for contacts in advance. For example, we found out about a researcher at CNL who has the same type of research interests as us (landscape studies and nature writing), and were fortunately able to schedule a meeting with her during our visit, but it might have helped our hosts to prepare the working sessions if such interests would have been known in advance. The co-workers of CNL must be praised for being very kind and flexible in adjusting their schedules to provide us as many opportunities to see their work as possible.

As we had to catch the plane Monday morning, but had still a lot to do in the Centre, we woke up early and headed for the next door already half past eight. We were fortunate enough to meet Myriam, a French teacher and research associate of the CNL whose academic interest is in the depictions of landscape in literature, painting and tourism publications as a tool for national identity construction. Again, we detected several similar literary and / or historical tendencies, and it seemed there is a lot we can learn from each other. We were kindly presented with several article collections from the selection of CNL publications dealing with landscapes, identity construction and negotiation of borders. We will definitely continue our collaboration in one form or another.
And after the final formalities we were off for the airport again with Marc and Pierre who made sure the plane would take off in spite of the fog that covered the Luxembourg country that morning. But the sun soon started to shine and there was no doubt we had to go, being absolutely delighted with Luxembourg and our hosts. 

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