The first Lahti International Writers’ Reunion took place in 1963, right after the Cold War crises, and served as an important meeting place for writers from both East and West. The debates often became very heated, as social realism and modernism did not acknowledge the same literary values. During the 60’s, especially Soviet writers and representatives of the new French novel came at loggerheads – indeed, a debate between Vladimir Jermilov, the leader of the group of Soviet writers, and Claude Simon about the role of the artist continued in the pages of Literaturnaja Gazeta and Figaro Littéraire.
The reunion has featured in other foreign literary magazines, too, as many of the guests, including Agneta Pleijel, Malcolm Bradbury, Takeishi Keiko, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and Graham Swift, for instance, have given their accounts on what really was said or argued.
The writer’s relationship to the world has been a recurrent theme. Can writers have a real impact and does the writer have power were notable themes during the 70’s, along with imperialism and the third world.
Naturally, something that has been constantly questioned at the reunion is the relevance of such a reunion at all. In 1973, Sven Delblanc pondered the inferiority complex of western writers and their sadness in the face of the lost meaning of their work. A few years later, the Swedish journalist Ulf örnkloo called the Lahti meeting “the ivory tower of Babel”. Opposing views have also been voiced. In 1975, the novelist Herbert Gold concluded his report in The Los Angeles Times by saying: “Nevertheless, these argumentative, embroiled, cautious, astonished, and laughter-filled encounters before microphones, saunas and over strong drink managed finally to approach something of what W. H. Auden defined as the essence of poetry: that which comes from the heart and creates order.”
The Lahti International Writers’ Reunion has always been alert when inviting foreign writers. To this day, no less than eight invitees have subsequently been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: Miguel Angel Asturias, Claude Simon, Camilo José Cela, Günter Grass, V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, Herta Müller and Mario Vargas Llosa. Also several winners of the Booker Prize have participated: in the 21st century, Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton, among others. Over the years, our quest list has included such names as A.S. Byatt, Gianni Celati, Per Olov Enquist, Michael Houellebecq, Jaan Kross, Andrei Makine, Jayne Anne Phillips and Salman Rushdie.
The themes of the meeting tend to rotate around current literary topics. They have always been loosely defined, so that the panelists and those participating in the debate may approach the subject from their own personal angles. But whatever the theme, the debates have always returned to the central questions of authorship and what literature really is – not to forget speaking for the sheer joy of it.