European Literature Days 2023 / ELIT – Europäische Literatur Tage, November 16-19, Krems, Austria. By Rosie Goldsmith

In November 2023 I was delighted once again to be asked to return to the Danube town of Krems in Lower Austria to host several of the talks and interviews making up this remarkable gathering of authors, academics, journalists and performers from all over Europe, the 15th ELit festival.  It is akin to a 3-day Think Tank of European Thought – there is nothing else like it. Among the many unforgettable conversations we held on this year’s theme ‘Animals and Other Humans’, I was also honoured to conduct the concluding keynote interview with international lawyer and writer Philippe Sands, when he was awarded the 2023 Austrian Book Trade’s Honorary Prize for Tolerance in Thought and Action.
You can read the festival blogs and watch the videos in our special report below.

By WALTER GROND, Artistic Director European Literature Days

On the theme of this year’s festival: Animals and Other Humans

Humanity has passed its zenith. During its breathtakingly rapid rise in the industrial age, humanity, which rules over the earth, has forgotten to live in harmony with itself and nature. The view of animals can help people to feel integrated with other living beings in the sense of living together as brothers and sisters. The French poet and essayist Jean-Christophe Bailly observed how in the gaze of animals the question arises about the delineation of the boundaries between humans and other sentient beings. Animals have experienced man’s cruelty, yet their gaze focuses beyond him into the wide open, where they prove themselves superior. This suggestion of the epic is the discussion basis for the European Literature Days 2023.

Bailly’s essay The Animal Side reflects on man’s transforming perception of himself, and thus a new relationship of humans with animals. Contemporary scientific findings already support a discussion about the fourth blow to man’s unrestrained narcissistic self-love: Copernicus first moved the earth from the centre of the universe; Charles Darwin ended the illusion of man as the image and likeness of God, while Freud exposed the unconscious processes of the psyche as a field for discovery. Since the 1970s animal ethics has considered whether animals, like people, don’t also possess intrinsic dignity and unassailable animal rights. Recent scientific research attributes reason, language, self-awareness, the vision of the future, the capacity to suffer and moral behaviour to animals. Hence, it shakes the bastions of humanity towards other living beings and highlights our diminishing ability to assert the things that differentiate humans from the animal world. 

The many pets as protagonists of novels and current narratives are a phenomenon of contemporary fiction, whose rich backstory is not obvious at first glance.  Animals as central characters are jointly responsible for the popular bestsellers of recent decades. They ensure excitement as well as reassurance as favourite “pets” and resourceful mavericks, and they assume a therapeutic role for readers who are stressed by modern civilization. It may be horses, cats, dogs or exotic creatures that promise relaxation and a harmonious living environment.

Since its beginnings, literature has been populated by animals, and always in a way that helps us understand more about man than about the animal. There is a wide spectrum from the classical myths to Sigmund Freud’s exploration of the unconscious, and it ranges from animal deities to anthropomorphic animals. Animals function as representatives of man’s quest for the meaning of life, be it in the form of mythical creatures, the adventure of the wilderness, giving consolation, or be it as a sacrificial animal or image of the enemy, as a metaphor of danger from the unknown or as embodied wisdom. Animals are a taboo subject in religious writings as well as being demonized, idealized and presented as adorable. Animals stand for almost everything that humans don’t understand. In classical myths, animals emerged as messengers from the heavenly sphere and from the underworld, while the modern depiction of anthropomorphizing from man to animal usually conceals neurotic and psychotic states. The motif of metamorphosis into an animal tells the tale of the abysses of modern man, of isolation and alienation, of the encounter with one’s own desires and the development of inner conflicts.

At a second glance, the contemporary literary representation of animals hints at something timeless. Alongside the portrayal of animals as man’s faithful companion, Nature Writing recently gained prominence as a literary trend emphasizing plants, animals, or even entire ecosystems at the heart of the narratives. The poetics of Anthropocene literature is even more recent and incorporates eco-thrillers as much as apocalyptic narratives and poetry and prose from a planetary perspective. This literature emerged as a reaction to a development of contemporary philosophy’s post-millennium discussion of the Anthropocene. This brings us to our epoch, starting from World War II, when people and their drive for growth became the leading influential factor for the earth’s biological, geological and atmospheric processes and in this vein responsible for climate change.

This contextual background to the European Literature Days 2023 introduces books from international contemporary fiction in which animals play a leading role. Animals and Other People invites international authors and philosophers to explore the following questions: Do claims over the millennia persist about the fundamental differences between people and animals? How do we treat animals, and how should we treat them? Are we permitted to manipulate animals for our goals? What is the situation with livestock farming, testing with animals and the industrial use of animals? Is the future of all life on earth decided along these lines – and not least what priority technology will have in relation to life in future? Do humans need to rethink their relationship to themselves?


(ELIT YouTube Channel, Director Clemens Schmiedbarer)

Videos of all 2023 EVENTS:

Video of PHILIPPE SANDS in conversation with ROSIE GOLDSMITH
In November 2023 Philippe Sands was awarded the Austrian Book Trade’s Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action. This frank and moving interview With Philippe concluded the prize-giving and the 2023 ELIT festival:


(In English and German)
Written by Irene Zanol and Victoria Strobl:

REVIEW of the 2023 Festival
Written by journalist and critic Lucy Popescu for BOOKBLAST


(various photographer credits):

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