Literature and Publishing
Literature in Luxembourg
“A peculiarity of the literature of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is that it dates back little more than 20 to 25 years. […] The country’s entire literary back catalogue comprises scarcely two or three slim volumes of verse, a few scraps of poetry published at various times in its newspapers, and a handful of pièces de circonstance printed on unbound paper.” That is how Félix Thyes (1830-1855) described the state of Luxembourg literature in his 1854 Essai sur la littérature luxembourgeoise. In the same year, what is more, Michel Rodange (1827-1876) confirmed that “our national belles-lettres are so scant that one can, in a single day, read everything yet published”.
By the time Ian De Toffoli (b. 1981) was writing in 2014, the landscape was unrecognisable: “It is noticeable that, since the ’80s, [Luxembourg] literature has expanded to the point where, although the number of published books remains limited, it can no longer be said to be an undeveloped, fragmented, stunted artistic discipline. It is young, admittedly, so it is not long since it acquired a degree of maturity, but that maturity can no longer be denied”.
Expressed exactly 160 years apart, these diametrically opposed conclusions say a lot about how far Luxembourg literature has come since the Grand Duchy was created in 1815/1839.
Whistle-stop tour of the history of a multilingual literature
Since its inception, the most salient characteristic of that literature has been its trilingualism. From the time when Franz Ludwig von Hontheim (1768-1821), Antoine Meyer (1801-1857) and Félix Thyes published their first literary works – in German (Vermischte Schriften, 1818), Luxembourgish (E’ Schrek op de’ Lezeburger Parnassus, 1829) and French (Marc Bruno, profil d’artiste, 1855), respectively – down to the present day, the use of these three languages in Luxembourg’s daily life has shaped the country’s literary history.
Admittedly, it must be said that the various languages’ fortunes have risen and fallen over the years. For example, the main characteristic of the 19th century was the rise of Luxembourgish to the status of literary language, in particular through the work of the “classic” authors Michel Lentz (1820-1893), Edmond de la Fontaine (1823-1891) and Michel Rodange, whom C. M. Spoo (1837-1914) credited, in 1896, with founding the country’s Luxembourgish-language literature. However, the desire to escape from all regionalism and “speak to the world beyond dialect” (Joseph Tockert, 1875-1850) led the literary avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century to largely turn towards German and French.
Nowadays, the trend is towards the gradual fading-away of the different roles and degrees of prestige sometimes afforded to each of Luxembourg’s languages, and you sometimes even find several languages used in a single piece of literature. As such, it seems less appropriate to talk about “Luxembourg’s three literatures” – as has some commentators have done – than about a unitary Luxembourg literature in several languages. With its own tradition that goes beyond linguistic splits, a unitary literature is more closely related to the realities of Luxembourg society.
The origins of the literary landscape that we know today go back to the 1980s, or even the 1960s-70s. Those decades were marked by an increased awareness of their nationality among Luxembourger writers, leading them to employ a mix of all three national languages. It is not only literature written in French and German is becoming resolutely modern, but also that written in Luxembourgish, as evidenced by, among other things, the rise of the “new Luxembourgish novel” since 1985, as pioneered by Guy Rewenig (b. 1947) and Roger Manderscheid (1933-2010). Under the banner of the “end to modesty”, promoted by Manderscheid in 1978, Luxembourger writers have thrown themselves into combating the fragmentation of the literary world and have resolutely banded together to defend their interests and share their experiences, through literary associations and events, among other things. At the same time, professional publishing has been developing and institutions charged with promoting literature in Luxembourg have been set up.
The diversification, expansion and consolidation of the Luxembourg literary scene has continued until to the present day, as shown by, for example, some of the figures for the current publishing sector.
Trends in contemporary Luxembourg literature: some figures
The Luxembourg Publishers’ Association (FEL) now has over 20 member publishing houses, some of which are exclusively or mainly dedicated to literature, such as Black Fountain Press, capybarabooks, Éditions Guy Binsfeld, Hydre Éditions, Kremart Edition, Op der Lay, Éditions Phi and Éditions Schortgen. Some have a particular focus on certain genres and languages, which bears witness to an increasingly strong identity in their editorial lines.
In the absence of exhaustive recent data, it is challenging to put an exact figure on the number of literary works published every year by authors who are either Luxembourgers or are living in Luxembourg. Although many publish with houses that are FEL members, others have their work brought out by a subsidy publisher or abroad, some of them by prestigious publishing houses, such as selected works by Guy Helminger (b. 1963) (Suhrkamp and Eichborn) or Anise Koltz (b. 1928) (Gallimard).
Ian De Toffoli, in the 2014 study cited above, counted 89 works of literature published in 2011 and 98 in 2012. The figures for recent years are likely to be higher. In fact, looking just at the new works published in autumn 2020 (rather than in the whole year), the catalogues published by the FEL (which only include FEL members) featured, apart from 29 children’s titles, 40 literary publications across all languages and genres.
Prose accounts for the lion’s share of the 40 publications, with 17 novels and 15 works belonging to other sub-genres of prose. It should be underscored, however, that many Luxembourger writers produce poetry. Although there is not much in the way of young adult fiction, children’s literature is doing very well. Overall, numbers of publications in all three languages are increasing at a similar pace: of the 2020 autumn titles, 13 were in Luxembourgish, 12 in French and 11 in German. Only in the field of children’s literature is Luxembourgish clearly dominant.
For some time, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of publications in English, which account for four of the 40 mentioned above. Those publications are due to English-speaking expats and to Luxembourgers who have emigrated to English-speaking countries, but also to a generation of young Luxembourgers who, while they live in the Grand Duchy, choose to express themselves in English. Writing in English is now accepted for literary competitions and prizes: for example, the 2020 Batty Weber Prize was awarded to Pierre Joris, who publishes in English. What is more, 2017 saw the foundation of Black Fountain Press, a publishing house that prints exclusively works written in English. By contrast, literature written in the tongues of immigrants, such as Italian and Portuguese, finds it difficult to cut through in the public imagination, perhaps for reasons of language.
It also needs to be noted that women are well-represented in the current literary landscape, even though Luxembourger writers were, for a long time, overwhelmingly men.
Although these figures and trends represent burgeoning creativity and publishing in recent decades, the Luxembourg literary world also has a number of literary institutions and prizes, the purpose of which is to support the creation, promotion and study of literature.
Key institutions providing support, literary prizes
One of the key institutions and an important go-between in the world of Luxembourg literature is the Centre national de littérature / Lëtzebuerger Literaturarchiv (CNL), based in Mersch. Set up in 1995, this publicly funded cultural institute comes under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture. As the name suggests, it works as much towards preserving and studying literary heritage as towards promoting contemporary literature. It organises literary exhibitions and events, and publishes several series, including the Dictionnaire des auteurs luxembourgeois, an online directory of information on the lives and works of over 1,450 authors since 1815.
In the field of research, it is important to also mention the University of Luxembourg’s Institute for the Luxembourgish Language and its Literature (ILLL), founded in 2006. It offers courses on Luxembourgish up to postgraduate level, including a Master’s in Secondary Education – Luxembourgish Language and Literature.
The key institution in terms of financial support is the Luxembourg Ministry of Culture and the National Cultural Fund (FOCUNA). Founded in 1982, FOCUNA has put in place a series of support mechanisms for the fields of literature and the publishing industry. Providing publishing, translation and mobility grants, among other things, one of the most notable programmes it runs, in partnership with the non-profit Les Amis du Livre, is a writing residency in Berlin and Bourglinster, Luxembourg.
The creation of Kultur | lx will redistribute responsibilities in relation to support and development for the various stakeholders in the literature and publishing sector.
As well as these public bodies, it is important to mention private organisations. The Servais Foundation is the first and only foundation whose sole purpose is the promotion of literature in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, through the award of the Servais Prize, among other things. The foundation was set up in 1989, on the basis of the bequest of Jeanne Servais (1899-1985), whose home now houses the Luxembourg National Literature Centre, which is also where the foundation is based. The Luxembourg Publishers’ Association (FEL) also works to promote Luxembourg books, in general, and the country’s literature, in particular. Meanwhile, A:LL Schrëftsteller*innen – founded in 2020, as the successor body to the Lëtzebuerger Schrëftstellerverband (1986-2016) – works to support the rights and demands of Luxembourger writers.
Literary prizes are among the most important means available to these institutions of encouraging creativity. The longest-established prizes are awarded by the Ministry of Culture and the Servais Foundation. Since 1978, the Minister of Culture has held an annual national literary contest, in which a prize is awarded to manuscripts from a different genre every year, with two different readership age categories. In addition, every three years since 1987, the minister has awarded the national Batty Weber Prize for literature. It is awarded to a Luxembourger writer for the whole of her or his œuvre. The three most recent winners are Lambert Schlechter (b. 1941), Georges Hausemer (1957-2018) and Pierre Joris (b. 1946). As for the Servais Foundation, every year since 1992, it has awarded the Servais Prize to the author of “the most significant work of literature to have come out in the previous year”. The three most recent winners are Elise Schmit (b. 1982), Francis Kirps (b. 1971) and Ulrike Bail (b. 1960).
More recently, in 2006, the FEL set up the Lëtzebuerger Buchpräis, in which annual prizes are awarded to books in several categories, including literature. Even more recently, in 2015, the Municipality of Bettembourg established the Laurence Prize for the manuscripts of young authors. The choice of winners of these newer prizes is not based solely on the decision of a panel of expert judges, but also on a public vote, which demonstrates that Luxembourg literature is increasingly making a splash.
The three latest winners of the literature category of the Lëtzebuerger Buchpräis are Nico Helminger (b. 1953), Tom Reisen (b. 1971), and a joint publication by Samuel Hamen (b. 1988) and Marc Angel (b. 1960).
It should also be noted that several Luxembourger writers have also won prizes abroad, including the Mallarmé Prize for Jean Portante (b. 1950) in 2003, the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for Jean Krier (1949-2013) in 2011 and the Goncourt Prize for Poetry for Anise Koltz in 2018.
These prizes honour the authors’ creativity, while also contributing to the visibility of Luxembourg literature. Other literary events and the growing presence of literature in the media, libraries, bookshops and schools are further evidence of its development.
Literary events, media presence and schools
When talking about events that punctuate literary life in Luxembourg, Walferdange Book Weekend is top of the list. Started in 1995, it has become the setting for major literary events, at which, every November, publishers present their new autumn releases. Since 2015, the Municipality of Bettembourg has been holding the LiteraTour literary festival every April. It is at these two events that the Lëtzebuerger Buchpräis and Laurence Prize are awarded, respectively. In addition, there is the Poets’ Spring Festival, Luxembourg, which has been held since 2008. The Migrations, Cultures and Citizenship Festival, which takes place in March and dates back to 1981, includes a Books and Cultures Salon, which includes, among other things, literary events focused on literature born out of immigration. On top of these national-level events, literature also plays a major role in the programmes of regional cultural centres. Lastly, Luxembourg literature and publishers are represented at international events, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Paris Book Fair, the Brussels Book Fair and the Paris Poetry Market, at which Luxembourg will be the guest of honour in 2022.
Sustained academic research and specialist literary criticism have emerged in recent decades. In the written press and on radio stations, there is widespread discussion of new releases, with contributions from authors and even discussions of aspects of literary history involving, among others, journalists, researchers and writers; more and more people are trying to make a living from their writing.
There is also greater visibility of bookshops, which have joined together in the Luxembourg Federation of Bookshops (FLL). These days, new releases and literary prizes regularly receive a great deal of publicity, both in-store and in shop windows. A similar approach is also noticeable in libraries.
Lastly, Luxembourg literature is now included in some school textbooks. Traditionally, Luxembourgish has been taught in primary school and in the first year of secondary school, where anthologies of Luxembourgish literary texts are used. Some texts by authors writing in Luxembourgish have also made their way into the German- and French-language textbooks used in secondary schools. In Luxembourg’s vocationally oriented General Secondary Education system, extracts from Guy Helminger (an author also read in German schools) are included in the baccalaureate programme. The trilingual anthology Literaresch Welten (2012) and a series of reprints of classics with commentaries produced by the Centre national de littérature / Lëtzebuerger Literaturarchiv (CNL) give students the option of tackling literary texts written in Luxembourgish. To encourage teachers to read them, the CNL publishes a series of teaching packs on these texts. It should be noted that the teaching of Luxembourgish language and literature is currently undergoing changes; further developments can be expected in the future.
Luxembourg literature of all languages has developed over the decades, gaining in visibility and renown. It is no longer the scant literature that Félix Thyes talked about, but rather one with its own traditions that is developing in a flourishing literary community. The country’s literature is now being produced by authors who have created works rich in terms of quality and quantity. It certainly is no longer possible, as Michel Rodange wrote, to read the whole of Luxembourg’s national literature in a day!
Curator at the Centre national de littérature / Lëtzebuerger Literaturarchiv (CNL)