Illustration: A businessman is sitting on a bench in the sky. In one hand he holds an open book, in the other a red balloon.

Beyond the Politburo

Literature allows us to see the world from another point of view. We immerse ourselves in a character in a book and are able to expand our ability to empathise with the other and perhaps develop more tolerance. What role do books play in questions of European identity? What sort of connections or bonds with the other can it create?

Every year the Frankfurt Book Fair sees a ferment of international bargaining and buying, each immense hall rumbling to the chatter of editors, agents and salespeople, with the occasional sighting of a bewildered author. Something about the atmospheric conditions sends the participants slightly mad: what is known as the ‘Frankfurt effect.’ Mad enough, for instance, to think that even literary works are critically important to the running of modern society: beyond the Fair, however, life goes on as usual, with the mass of Europeans preferring moving images to the effortful parade of print. A glance at the relevant statistics is enough to send a glacial wind through those busy halls, or through the morale of any serious writer. Best to ignore them.

What cannot be ignored, however, is the fact that the Fair’s frantic transnational interaction is something of an illusion; back in the bookshops of Europe, the majority of offerings are either national, or translated from English – especially American English. Where English is already the native language, things are worse, not better: apart from classics (Tolstoy, Mann, Balzac), the average bookshop in Britain has only a tiny scattering of contemporary foreign titles. Exceptions such as the success of, say, a certain Swedish detective thriller show what a wasted opportunity this is.

In France, where I have lived for the last twenty years, friends happily talk of an Italian or Spanish novel in the same breath as a French work but the authors are usually well known. The mass of European fiction never passes its own national borders.

Little-known Ambassadors

Illustration: A man holds an open book in his hands. Above his head are two clouds.
The European Union Prize for Literature will only have a real effect if the winners are then translated into other European languages, illustration: Katie Edwards / Ikon Images via picture alliance

It is expensive to hire a translator even though these unsung ambassadors are notoriously underpaid, and publishers need to know that the investment will pay off, even if only in the long term. Those brave publishers in Britain such as Serpent’s Tail or Dedalus, who do take the plunge, with the help of small grants, find their books go entirely unreviewed in even the quality newspapers and periodicals – whose book pages (with the understandable exception of the Times Literary Supplement) seem to circle around the usual suspects, and rarely proffer any genuinely fresh horizons, European or otherwise.

Of course, a translation is always a compromise, an opaque glass colouring the pure light of the original – as I know from my own current struggle to translate Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Gone are the days when we learned Norwegian just to read Ibsen. The newly-sprung European Union Prize for Literature, which awards a prize to twelve writers from twelve selected countries, will only have a real effect if the winners are then translated into other European languages: given even the Guardian has not so far devoted a single line to the prize, it seems yet another EU initiative has once more struck the very low boredom threshold of its citizens.

Perhaps, when it comes to books, there is a suspicion of centralised directives that have nothing to do with the act of writing – which is a personal utterance in a shared tongue, not a shared continent. We remember the Soviet Union’s interdiction on virtually anything but the literature of its Socialist Republics – although that comparison is not quite fair, as present-day European literature is theoretically free and uncensored (some would argue, of course, that the publisher’s accountants impose their own form of censorship).

Nevertheless, we have to be ever-vigilant about the centralising, ‘Politburo’ element of the EU – nowhere so evident as in the Common Agricultural Policy, which crushed any alternative to chemo-agribusiness and has left the continent’s soils, water and wildlife in a dire state, to the vast profit of chemical companies like Bayer and ICI. The fact that there was never any Common Literature Policy must be to do with free speech, although why that argument should not have applied to the far more critical subject of farming, I have no idea.

The fact is, literature thrives on difference, not similarity. Its primary gift is to enable us to enter the being of those who are not ourselves, and who are even entirely other: which is why poetry, drama and fiction are always the first targets of any tyranny. Literature gives us the chance to see the world through significantly different eyes, to inhabit the other, and thus to broaden our human sympathies; perhaps even to increase our capacity for tolerance.

Gone are the days when we learned Norwegian just to read Ibsen.

That being said, the great modernist poet Fernando Pessoa has not only told me what it is to be Portuguese, but also what it means to be anonymous and human; perhaps the winning novel of the EUPL for Portugal, Os Meus Sentimentos by Dulce Maria Cardoso, will do the same.

If European literature is a polylingual collection of differences, then the key question is whether the qualification ‘European,’ so important when it comes to a cup in football, has any unifying effect on those differences, or whether it is simply a phrase, a practical vessel to stop a multitude of variegated marbles rolling over the floor. Could the same ever be asked about ‘Commonwealth’ literature, the subject of many an anthology, critical study and prize? How could such a definition work for ‘Hispanic’ literature, which drives straight through any European border controls on the way to the Americas?

The Accidental Cameroonian

The brand-new Prix Cévennes is a worthy attempt to encourage literary integration by awarding a prize to the best European novel of the year, but of course they have to be already published in French. Knowing how cautious most French publishers are, there might be few surprises. And what about all those non-European writers who live and are published in Europe and even write about it, but who happen to be American, or Cameroonian, or Chinese?

Come to think of it, America makes an interesting comparison. The differences between the states of the United States are as great as those between the nations of Europe (including the north-south and east-west ‘divides’), but an American writer writes primarily out of America rather than, say, California or Maine, however deeply implicated the work might be in the particularity of an area. My good friend, the late Frederick Busch, was an American novelist, and although he loved coming ‘to Europe’ (back to his own roots), and was fully aware that I had dual British-French nationality (born in Paris to British parents, and living in France), I was not in his eyes a ‘European’ novelist, but an ‘English’ one.

America has forged its identity through the emotional and symbolic devices of a patria, the means by which its immigrant populations felt (and feel) a sense of belonging in a vast, freshly-conquered continent. This is every American writer’s sounding-board, whether or not in opposition, support, or diffidence to it. Oddly, it is a young and somewhat shallow entity – artificial, even – yet immensely powerful.

In the bookshops of Europe, the majority of offerings are either national, or translated from English.

If Europe ever acts as a sounding-board for its writers, it is as something deep and tragic rather than triumphant. It is the tragic, bass resonance of a long history of extraordinary achievements and catastrophic failures, of democratic refining and brute conquest. The European Union arose out of the need to avoid a repetition of such failures, these being mostly in the form of wars and massacres, and the attendant pain, suffering and exhaustion. But for literature, human failure is more interesting than its avoidance – we writers all walk in the shadow of The Oresteia, just as we trace another root to the philosophical debates in the Athenian agora and the votes cast upon the pnyx.

Often, when I feel momentarily European, it is not just with a sense of comfortable belonging and even affection, but with the thrill and dread of a subliminal vertigo; of pride mixed with appalling guilt. After all, as humanity faces the consequences of its heedless greed in catastrophic climate change, it is with the sense that its initial cause first slouched into being in Europe.

Europe’s present political (rather than emotional) unity, it has to be admitted, is the quarrelsome, ever-compromising one of an extended family, but a somewhat dull family – the means being bureaucratic, a plethora of rules and regulations and the stale air of committees, in which the tender flower of literature withers.

This is unfortunate, because the differences mentioned above will go on having the potential for tragedy, as well as for delight; but for all their laudable and necessary efforts, neither Brussels nor Strasbourg have ever inspired so much as a single great line, even in derision – despite John Keats’s belief (which I share) that “poetry makes everything interesting.” It is probably up to local initiatives like the Vilecina International Literary Festival in Slovenia, which publishes the Vilecina Almanac (twentyfive authors, not all of them from Central Europe), to nibble away at parochialism – although I can’t see that making the Guardian, either.

My own fiction has recently been consciously ‘European.’ This is more from my personal circumstances as much as a desire to shatter British post-imperial narrowness. For instance, my fifth novel No Telling (Cape, 2003) concerned a French schoolboy in a grim 1960s Paris suburb, and featured not a single English character. Taking advantage of my dual nationality, I intended it to be a window opening uncompromisingly onto another culture: it sold poorly, despite widespread and flattering reviews, but did slightly better in Dutch. My editor reckoned that if its setting had been Ireland and not France, the novel might have achieved bestseller status. British readers prefer their France to be quaint and paradisal, a holiday destination, a refuge.

Illustration: A businessman walks into a book that has the flag of the EU as a cover.
If Europe ever acts as a sounding-board for its writers, it is as something deep and tragic rather than triumphant, illustration: Gary Waters / Ikon Images via picture alliance

Rather the old Cliches

Interestingly, No Telling has so far failed to find a French publisher. They tend to be drawn to British novels that strengthen or echo a received French opinion about Britain. Thus the literature of Europe that is translated does not necessarily break new ground – of mutual understanding or awareness – but solidifies, by dint of the need to sell, the old clichés: Scandinavian gloom, Polish trauma, French sex (Michel Houellebecq being the summum of contemporary French fiction to the average British reader).

I have German connections through my German nephews (sons of my half-Belgian half brother), and my father’s experiences as a serviceman in the last world war. The Rules of Perspective (2005) is set in a bombarded German town in 1944, the action being divided between the staff cowering in its art museum and an American infantry officer stumbling through the ruins a day later, who finds the burned bodies of those we hear throughout the novel. Durin its writing, I visited Berlin, and was ticked off by a young museum employee, furious that yet another Englishman was concentrating on the few years of Nazi rule and entirely ignoring the centuries of ‘ordinary’ German history.

It was a telling example of how dangerous it can be to stray over one’s border; I replied that the importance of the Nazis had little to do with duration, and everything to do with effect: in my case, and devastatingly, on my own family as well as on my wife’s Polish-Jewish relations. My passionate defence made him pause. I believe a minute piece of welding – or at least soldering – happened that evening. At the least, we both learned the importance of cross-cultural sensitivity.

Estonian Modesty

Finally, Between Each Breath (2007) is explicitly about the meeting of the socalled ‘Old Europe’ with the ‘New Europe’ of the ex-communist bloc: a happily-married, middle-aged English composer falls in love with an Estonian student, and fails to take account of the repercussions. The differences here have disastrous, even tragic, consequences – partly through mutual incomprehension hidden under a sheen of well-meaning tolerance (I was also satirising the plump, self-satisfied Blair years).

This novel was translated into Estonian. Its Estonian readers were apparently intrigued to see their country through a foreigner’s eyes; belonging to a small and modest nation, they were amazed that anyone would want to write about them at all, and I in turn was amazed at their modesty, given that Estonia is one of the oldest, proudest and most historically put-upon members of Europe. Thus I learned a great deal from this novel, not so much in the writing of it, but in the cross-cultural aftermath.

No one can deny that the frail consensus of the EU, given a tensile strength only by the sheer quantity and complexity of thread, is possibly all that separates us from the old nightmares.

Estonian readers were apparently intrigued to see their country through a foreigner’s eyes.

But it is the old nightmares that also define us as European, part of our shared legacy, our guilt. Europe may have no border controls in the old sense of customs and excise but the borders exist nevertheless – where literature is concerned, linguistic borders can be simply impassable. Try finding an Estonian novel in a Greek bookshop, or vice-versa, among the Dan Browns and J. K. Rowlings. Yet a nation is defined not just by how it sees itself but by how others see it, and in turn, by how it sees others. Thus I suggest that the real role of European literature within Europe (let alone without) is to illuminate difference, not to promote sameness – while at the deepest level showing how we are all, in the end, vulnerable human beings with similar neuroses, desires and preoccupations.

If the present political and bureaucratic unity is mostly irrelevant to a writer’s deeper sense of ‘Europeanness,’ that same unifying body could do more to encourage a truly European literature, without turning it into an exclusive club. I recently met an EU translator, driven to despair by the pointless, soporific minutiae of the endless papers, memoranda and reports she was paid to render from English into French: if a fraction of the vast sums at the EU’s disposal were to be directed towards literature, in the form of generous publishing grants and serious bursaries for translation rather than yet more prizes in a crowded field, that Estonian novel might have an increased chance of being picked up in a Greek, Slovakian or Belgian bookshop (or even a British one), and difference celebrated as part of a shared adventure.

About the Author
Adam Thorpe

Adam Thorpe is a poet, novelist and dramatist. He grew up in India, Cameroon and England and now lives in France. After graduating from Oxford University in 1979, he founded a touring theatre and travelled to villages and schools. He has won numerous prizes.