Europe’s lost stories

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The cliché that the British broke with European literature out of philistinism contains only a grain of truth. Continental fiction has been in decline, while our influences have come from elsewhere. It’s not a problem of translation, it’s a question of history. Do we have new European stories to tell each other?

Prospect, July 2004


In Douglas Coupland’s 1993 novel Shampoo Planet, his hero Tyler Johnson escapes his US West Coast home town to spend a summer in Europe. He writes home with disappointment: “Europe lacks the possibility of metamorphosis. Europe is like a beautiful baby with super-distinctive features who, while beautiful, is also kind of depressing because you know exactly what the child will look like at 20, at 40, at 99. No mystery.” This is an anti-Old World judgment that fits Tyler’s punk self-image (a faun at play in the hectic fields of US consumerism). Returning to America, Tyler himself eventually metamorphoses enough to sell out completely, finding a position with a global leisure corporation in Los Angeles. Before he does, he qualifies his analysis of Europe in less self-conscious, more honest words. What is wrong with Europe, he adds, is that its efforts to be modern always flop. What constitutes modern? “France has never heard of Sunday shopping.”

For British readers, Tyler’s opinion may seem trite, interesting only as part of Coupland’s wider critique of America. But we are in a curious position vis-à-vis such remarks all the same. As Europeans possessing a cultural heritage as immovable as any on the continent, do we shrug them off? Or do we agree with Tyler? The cultural position is similar to the one we find ourselves in politically: divided between a tensile connection to Europe and a desire to shear away and emulate the (over-)confident gestures of our younger, bigger brother. Narrow “cultural” down to “literary,” and we can go further. The shearing has happened: in the past half-century, Anglo-Saxon literary attitudes have shifted decisively away from Europe, westwards (and southwards) to the US and Latin America and the Commonwealth.

At the same time we inhabit a political and economic union, now of 25 member states, that has made our idea of Europe more synecdoche than reality. The “Europe” we evoke today is usually an entity concerned with Brussels or Strasbourg or UEFA. The Europe we live in is acquiring something homogenised about it, and may run counter to our cultural needs: while departments in Brussels administer initiatives to preserve dying languages, their colleagues in other departments are doing their best to turn us into lifestyle-consumers of identical stamp. The Czech writer Ludvík Vaculík, a respected opponent of Czechoslovak communism, wrote recently of the European Union’s drive to disseminate a philosophy only of affluence: “The EU is not advancing human awareness and the development of Europeans but, on the contrary, will prove a major obstacle to them.” We live balanced between nostalgia for the continent’s past, and a present whose ideology is unmistakably economic: a virtual Europe of museums and folklore, a material Europe of second homes and city-breaks. The closest comparison that occurs to me, pace Tyler, is of Europe as a Disneyland or Seahaven. So the question is not, how modern are we? (We are, in Tyler’s terms, superbly modern). The question, rather, is how much vitality—how much possibility of metamorphosis—is left of the threads that have bound Europe since the Renaissance?

Some terms need to be defined. The roots of modern Europe belong not to the EEC or the second world war, but to the 16th century, and in particular to the dangerous anarchists who were the draughtsmen of our commonality: Rabelais, Erasmus, Cervantes. Their humanist bandwagon was a perilous vehicle to board; their exuberance in driving it straight at the edifice of religious orthodoxy had its desperate side. But as a result of their writing, a continent departed in search of its identity. We still give shape to that pursuit through the mongrel art of the Renaissance that Rabelais and, more formally, Cervantes gave birth to: the novel. Without the novel, there would be no Europe. (Three hundred years later, when 70-odd years of cold war division produced a gulf across Europe, the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova noted that Europe continued to exist in the east only by virtue of its novelists and poets).

With the shift in our literary outlook away from European modernism—away from the successors of Sartre and Camus, our last continental icons—and towards the American postwar realists—Updike and Roth, Bellow and Morrison—what is our position now towards continental Europe? What ought it to be, as political union expands and reinforces its tenets? How to talk about it?

We lost interest in the continent, it is said, from a combination of Americanophilia and Anglo-Saxon insularity. This is not so. The extinction of literary intimacy with mainland Europe came only after the British reading public had been an exemplary European reading public for more than three centuries. Thomas Shelton’s 1612 English translation of Don Quixote was the first in Europe; a remarkable admiration characterises the English reception of Cervantes and other European fiction writers in the 17th and 18th centuries: Mme de La Fayette, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Laclos, Goethe, Jean Paul, Kleist.

The Quixote became so popular in Britain that in the 18th century new translations were published every few years. Of the most popular, Peter Motteaux’s (1700) was followed by the literal-minded Charles Jervas’s (1742), then by Tobias Smollett’s (1755), whose version ran to thirteen editions. More significant perhaps is Smollett’s comment in the Continuation of the Complete History of England (1761) of the link between Cervantes and Henry Fielding: “The genius of Cervantes was transfused into the novels of Fielding, who painted the characters, and ridiculed the follies of life with equal strength, humour and propriety.”

The 18th century, that most admirable epoch of novelistic playfulness, was ruled by the spirit of Cervantes and the homage paid to his memory by Fielding, Smollett and Sterne—all of them to some extent attempting (and succeeding) to fashion an English Quixote, equal to the original in comedy, character, digression, and fictitiousness. This aesthetic convergence was to continue for more than a century. Dickens and Thackeray converted Quixote’s horizontal, ideological wanderings into fiction that journeyed vertically, aspirationally, up and down class (as Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert did in France). This is no neat geometry, but the tangible result of Cervantes having conceived his novel as a journey and of his first imitator, the Frenchman Alain-René Le Sage, using, in Gil Blas de Santillane, the road as a means for his hero to seek out both a means of advancement and an identity.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a remarkable change occurred. Remarkable because, as Europe’s half-century of wars began to be played out, the products of the novel form—the chief vehicle for its cherished and carefully bequeathed humanism—abruptly abandoned aspiration to replace it with escape, resistance, fear. Theme was mirrored in form. The novel, once about telling a story, began to be about the difficulty of telling a story. From 1919 onwards, as Paul Fussell notes in his survey of literary travelling between the wars, Abroad, the whole of Europe was “frontier-obsessed and… map-mad.” The road of the novel now stopped at the border. A sample of British novel titles from the Thirties amply illustrates this neurotic preoccupation with frontiers, trains and anxiety: Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, Edward Upward’s Journey to the Border, Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear.

The continent disintegrated. Its themes coalesced into a single concern. How to deal with fracture?

Here Britain was in an anomalous position. It had undeniably shared in horror from the time of the first of the new 20th-century borders—the murderous “front” of 1914 that demarcated the line between Allies and Central Powers. Even so, in a specific sense, it did not suffer: its borders were not compromised in either world war. The literary gap between Britain and the continent dates from that time.

It is an old saw that the difference between British and continental novelists is that we can do narrative and they cannot. This may contain a seed of truth, but not because of our superiority. If true, it is because our lives—our narratives—were not disrupted by the 20th century’s cycle of war and atrocity to the extent that those of the Poles were, or the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Hungarians; of most mainland European nations.

That aesthetic break—the schism of form—between British and continental writing after the war has little to do with our native taste or supposed British “insularity”, but emerged from a condition of history. In Warsaw in 2001, I interviewed the Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki in his Stalin-era flat. To Poles who had experienced Hitler’s war and had then to deal with Stalin’s communists, he said, conventional narrative made no sense. “My generation time and again had to face the possibility of their lives being threatened. The traditional narrative structure could not express the psychological insight of the situations we found ourselves in.”

What befell occupied, annexed, border-compromised Europeans made linear narrative jar as thuddingly on them as the “experimental” fictions of postwar Europe jarred on British sensibilities. In the 1950s, where France had Nathalie Sarraute’s Portrait of A Man Unknown (1947) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953), Britain had Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61). Nevertheless, the experiments of the French nouveau roman, and its associated European formal exploits, were not an ultimate cause of British readers turning to America in the 1960s. What took them there was America’s own vitality, an evolving narrative force in which one can see an unbrokenly vital line stretching from Scott Fitzgerald’s America in The Great Gatsby to Thomas Pynchon’s in Mason & Dixon. History had caused continental Europe’s faith in narrative to falter in its stride; in the US (as, variously, in Latin America and the Commonwealth) there was no pause in the gallop. The great, unbordered expanse of narrative Sstill lay all around.

What went wrong in the Old World? I fed, from inky school bench onwards, on Maupassant, Flaubert, Zola, Céline, Sartre, Camus, Proust; my youthful spirit was bottled in the poetry of Nerval, Baudelaire and Valery Larbaud. It was French literature that represented the greatest of the continent; France’s decline occluded our interest in Europe.

But isn’t the idea that French fiction declined merely a figment of British ignorance? Surely the French would declare the reverse—that the novel advanced on the continent while Britain got caught in a formal cul-de-sac. The nouveau roman, uncovering a subjective, randomised world of objects, events and non-verbal sensations, dismissed the narrative novel’s “dubious relationship” with the world. Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the theorists of the new movement, declared in For a New Novel (1963): “How could style have remained motionless, fixed, when everything around it was in evolution—even revolution—during the last hundred and fifty years?…[Novels] survive only to the degree that they have left the past behind them and heralded the future.” In Robbe-Grillet’s time it was important to be modern, and even we—the British!—championed the nouveaux romanciers because the conservatives attacked them. But Robbe-Grillet was also the villain of the piece, a writer of prodigious skill at publicity but mediocre judgment (how could he otherwise have consented to write the text for David Hamilton’s collection of vaselined erotica, Dreams of Young Girls?). In March 2004, he finally attained membership of the Académie Française. One Academician, Michel Déon, himself a well known novelist, wrote to me afterwards, “It’s amusing to think that for 30 years this agronomist ran a thing called the nouveau roman which may have made his fortune but which ruined the reputation of the French novel outside France.”

The nouveau roman arrogated literary gravity, fell into a poverty-stricken emotional minimalism and produced a generation of “novels” that were no thicker than a box of restaurant matches. The result almost fatally undermined French fiction throughout the 1970s and 1980s. During the 80s, I worked as an editor for a London publisher (the British publishers of Sartre and Camus 20 years before). Each spring, several years running, I would do the rounds of the Paris houses to see what was being published. The answer was plenty, but practically nothing worth translating. In eight years I brought back two worthwhile French novels, one by Michel Déon, another by Patrick Besson.

France’s self-absorption, its imperial pretension to be the regulator of the literary world (an ambition linked, I think, to wartime defeat), helped to close down British interest in continental fiction. Significantly, at around the same time, a new aesthetic from further east began to open up—defined by Milan Kundera. If the novel is a European form, it is more accurately a western European form, and only later central and eastern European. It came to central Europe in the second half of the 19th century, and central European novelists impacted only slowly on western consciousness. Neither Franz Kafka (d 1924) nor Robert Musil (d 1942) was widely recognised as a writer of European rank until after 1945. The collected works of Joseph Roth (d 1939), the great elegist of the tottering circus of Austria-Hungary, were not published in German until 1956. (In Britain, we began to read Roth only in the mid-1980s). Kundera, first translated into English in 1970 with The Joke, was the exception, and his rapid ascendancy became the key to British readers’ entry into the aesthetic identity of central Europe—a unity of small nations cyclically kidnapped by “protective powers” and other tyrannies.

But it was a one-man show. British readers did not really become familiar with the centre and east of Europe (or its periphery). On the west of the continent, the novel may have been shrinking; but in the east this was not the case, and we need to answer a charge of ignorance. I emphasise this because the novelists of central and eastern Europe succeeded in the 20th century more far-reachingly than any of their western counterparts (except perhaps Joyce) in making visible the modern era. Just as Cervantes’ first lesson was to have Don Quixote discover that the world did not resemble what he had read about it in books, so Kafka, with his cosmos of impasse, and Musil, with his endless loose ends, indicated how Europe at the peak of its civilisation was also at its most untrustworthy and discontinuous. There is, surely, a 21st-century resonance there. We have great difficulty in seeing the twin towers or the Madrid bombings or the torture at Abu Ghraib prison as part of our world, but that is because we lack perspective, not because a new world began on 9/11 (as many commentators insisted). The world’s fragilty revealed on 9/11 had been revealed long before in central and eastern Europe, and prefigured in the work of its writers — Andric, Broch, Canetti, Capek , Gombrowicz, Hasek, Hrabal, Kadare, Kertész, Kis, Konwicki, Kosztolányi, Krleza, Milosz, Svevo. What these writers also have in common with us in Britain is that, though their stories may seem strange, their Europe is our ancestral Europe: a continent of picaresque risk in which the individual is sent out to venture everything, exactly as Britain’s fictional forebears were—our Crusoes and Gullivers, Joneses and Shandys — a few centuries ago.

Nor is Europe merely a stadium of competing aesthetics. A country’s literature is its unofficial foreign policy; an expression of its specific interests. Our specificity, curiously, is what we most have in common in Europe, and we need to feel it because without it we will cease to be connected and instead turn into a kind of atopia, a nowhere built in the image of an airport. Through its specific geography the novel creates its metaphors, and a mosaic of places where human emotions can lodge. Through its attempts to retell specific history, it tries to earth its own, and our, fears.

Why don’t the British know more of this carnival of locality? There are problems of remoteness, obscurity, translation. There is the domestic fog of media and publicity, thousands of books claiming readers’ attention. Should readers really be demanding a constant redistribution of literary priorities? An ongoing complaint, to be heard at translators’ conferences and European publishers’ lunches, is that British publishers are not interested in fiction in translation. Of the 100,000 books published annually in Britain, the complainers charge, only a miserable 3-4 per cent are translated. This criticism has its origins in a nostalgia for those pre-1970 glory days of European (French-German-Spanish-Italian) translation, and the bizarre assumption that publishers have some kind of high duty to bring translated fiction to British readers. And yet, all of the central European writers mentioned above have been translated, and can be found on Amazon or The complaint about translation may be justified in a few cases. There is no defence for not having translated the collected stories of Alexandros Papadiamantis, the pioneer of modern Greek prose, nor for passing over the Hungarian novelist Lajos Grendel, nor the novels of the Latvian Nora Ikstena or the Estonian Peeter Sauter. And it may be fair to say that British publishers are too ready to forswear quality in favour of commercial turnover. But corporation-dominated publishing, with us now for more than 30 years, is not terribly committed to authors, whatever their nation. Reputations also rise and fall for a variety of often arbitrary reasons. I think of the brief moment of fame for Balkan writers during the wars in Yugoslavia. Recently, I could not find in bookshops or on Amazon a single British-sourced translation of the novels of the Yugoslav novelist Danilo Kis , though Faber and Penguin once published several of his works and Joseph Brodsky considered his novel Garden, Ashes “the best book produced on the continent in the post-war period”.

What more are publishers supposed to do? Every work of continental fiction published in English is the result of individual enthusiasm. The Harvill Press, Britain’s most dedicated publisher of translated fiction, has contributed to the reputations of numbers of European novelists. Christopher MacLehose, its publisher, established in Britain the Portuguese José Saramago, later a Nobel laureate, and the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell. Smaller publishers—Arcadia, Bitter Lemon, Canongate, Carcanet, Dalkey Archive, Dedalus, Peter Owen, Pushkin Press, Serpent’s Tail—though they would be happy one day to see a 100,000-copy bestseller on their list, continue to publish books they care for. Do the publishers’ critics want a centralised translation publishing programme?

When continental European critics and publishers complain that their British counterparts are uninterested in translation, they usually avoid a more difficult task—that of interrogating the fiction to discover whether it is worth translating. During the 1970s and 1980s the British who, to some extent, had reason to be proud of their fictional record, were none the less frequently asking, “Why are the Americans so much better than us?” Elsewhere in western Europe, and France in particular, such self-criticism was non-existent. A recent book by a professor at the university of Grenoble, Pierre Jourde, has at last attacked this cycle of self-adulation. In La Littérature sans estomac (Literature Without Guts), an assault on the promotion of literary mediocrity, Jourde singles out cliques like that of Le Monde des livres, presided over by Philippe Sollers, guru of the literary Left. “In the precious world of contemporary literary life, writers—a weird species of mammal—graze calmly beneath the gaze of gawping onlookers in their cultural enclosures,” Jourde writes. “In their dreams, they ‘disturb’, they anger those in power and upset the established order… In fact, no one is attacking them, and they are not hurting anybody.”

My advice to the Euro-plaintiffs would be to try another strategy. What is it that the continent’s writers have to say? What might it be exciting to have cultural conversations about? About freedom? About the nature of democracy or modernity; about the value of history? They might conclude that proselytising on behalf of, say, the Albanian Ismail Kadare, the Portuguese José Saramago, the Pole Magdalena Tulli, the Swede Jan Henrik Swahn, the Estonian Jaan Kross might produce better results than complaining.

There are too the accusations against British readers: that they are useless at other languages, that Anglophone culture is dumbly Americocentric. But shouldn’t we rather be pitied? The English-speaking world is large and multi-continental. And, even at home, the world looms large. London contains the largest collection of linguistic groups on the planet. Of course, many Britons do speak another language. It’s just not necessarily a European one. The charge that the British are uninterested in what is going on beyond our tidal waters is an odd fantasy.

Fifty years is the blink of an eye in the history of the novel. After Cervantes published the Quixote, Spain was so overwhelmed it took 250 years to produce another novel. In France, the French novel once again has a voice, in the shape of the disaffected editor of a review, Perpendiculaire, who in 1994 published his pointedly titled first novel, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (Extension of the Domain of the Struggle), published in English as Whatever. Michel Houellebecq—Balzac’s representative in the globalised world—has said of his second novel Atomised, A bracingly incendiary attack on the French Left, that: “The idea which prevailed was that a book was a style, a writer was a style, only a style. In my book there is more sociology than psychology, and that’s new.” Not quite, but every French novelist of the 19th century would have known what he meant.

What is the novel, and what is it for? It’s a metaphor in the form of a story, that renders the world legible. It has no pedigree, only a blueprint that came out of the old, opiate landscape of La Mancha the best part of 400 years ago. It is self-renewing; hard-wired for resistance to propaganda, orthodoxy, conformity, massification, fakery, bullshit. The vitality of the European novel—or perhaps I should say the European vitality of the novel—rests on an insistence: that we question historical experience, seeking the individual in the communal, the communal in the individual. That seeking is bound for inconclusion, because the sense of who we are is not fixed, but an engagement with reality. What kind of engagement? A novel, more than any other artistic form, is a work made by an individual for an individual. As much as a metaphor it is a request, from writer to reader: here I am as a human being. Do you recognise anything? Are we both human beings? When a writer of Houellebecq’s singularity asks that question, the British are clearly willing to listen. Have we missed opportunitites to listen more widely? Undoubtedly. Have we been excessively engrossed by American fiction? Perhaps. Has our ear for the European novel been damaged? If it has, it is a reparation easily made. Now is a good moment. After accessions and elections, we can turn our back on euro-Europe with equanimity, and return to its  fiction, where a continent of localness can still be found.

As for Tyler Johnson, he may think he knows what the child will look like in 99 years’ time, but unless he reads its novels, he’ll have no idea what will metamorphose.


© Julian Evans 2004

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