Sunday Times, 14 February 2016
The Brexit vote was designed to see off the threat of Ukip, which failed to materialise. Nevertheless, Tory party finagling still requires that we be bored rigid by David Cameron’s comedy Euro-renegotiation and the possibility of a vote for Brexit later this year. This is madness — not the vote, but its timing. It is at least a generation too early. How can we possibly vote on Europe when we haven’t even tried it? This is not about straight bananas, creeping Merkelisation, French farmers, Greek debt or even migrants; it is about the one thing that always matters most in the end — the condition of the human imagination. Face it: the British imagination is still as Anglo-American and un-European as it was when we joined in 1973.
In fact, more so. Thanks to the spectacular rise in the quality of US television, the continued dominance of Hollywood and a still unstoppable flood of great American writing, the British have consistently been denied a good reason to look east. In our heads, Europe remains “foreign” in a way the US does not.
Consider the limitless repeats on ever more obscure television channels of those cretinous shows in which a presenter dressed in Primark-fabulous tries to help the most irritating couples researchers could find to buy a house abroad: ie, in Europe. They’re not doing this to learn the language or absorb the culture, they’re doing it for a nice place to sit and have a glass of wine. Oh, and sunshine, and, er, that’s it. Europe remains what it was in the 1950s: a place to get cheap booze and a tan.
Some would say this is inevitable, given that the one big thing that joins us to America and severs us from Europe is the English language. And it is certainly true that Brits “get” the European non-linguistic arts — painting, sculpture, architecture and music — much better than they get its literature. The one big literary exception is genre fiction, notably French and Scandinavian thrillers and detective tales, with their TV adaptations. Cinema falls somewhere between the two, but inhabitants of the Anglosphere tend to see films as primarily linguistic.
What else can explain the Oscars’ dismal “other” category of “best foreign language film”, or the Baftas’ hilariously mangled but no less offensively parochial “best film not in the English language”. It is — or should be — salutary to remind ourselves that Fellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Chabrol, Buñuel, Demy, Antonioni et al would be unceremoniously dumped into these folders of afterthoughts.
Nevertheless, there is an obvious overlap between novels and movies. When I asked the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro for his choice of current European fiction, he said his mind went blank. He came up with a list of Euro films instead. So it is, indeed, the language that has made us cultural Brexiters. From mid-Atlantic Brooklyn, Martin Amis agrees.
“There are very, very few European writers who have made any impression outside their own country. Günter Grass with The Tin Drum — how long ago was that? Michel Houellebecq is the only one who’s got any kind of reputation in the whole of Europe.
“It’s because of the incredible imperial dominance of English. Many English and American writers have reputations in many European countries, but it’s not a two-way street. There’s no earthly reason why anyone in the Anglosphere should desperately want to learn a foreign language, but there’s every reason why a German or Dutch or French person should.”
Amis goes further. His point is not simply that English happens to be the dominant language, it is that it is also the most literary. On a recent trip to Europe, he says, all the writers he met were “singing the praises” of English as a literary language.
“It’s a much more evolved language, with something like five times the vocabulary of Spanish, and no bloody accents, and natural gender, not grammatical gender.”
Amis doesn’t read European literature. He has no other languages and only “as a last resort” reads unignorable writers such as Kafka and Tolstoy in translation. This may sound extreme, but it is logical and probably a widely shared stance. After all, the language itself is a fundamental aspect of any work: take that away and you are missing something big.
Meike Ziervogel agrees about the oddity of English. She is a German who runs Peirene Press, a London-based publisher of European fiction. She issues three books a year, all 200 pages or less — she doesn’t see the point of long books — and all translated into English for the first time. Her sales are subscription-driven, and the books are heavily branded as Peirene. She follows, in other words, a European model of publishing-as-authoritative-voice, as opposed to the Anglo-American model of chasing the market with books that have generic — and usually lousy — covers. She even puts a personal statement on the first page of all of her books, explaining why they are good.
“The English language is simple and pragmatic,” she says. “It’s subject-verb-object and bang!” Other languages are more syntactically complex — German, for example, can keep you waiting for a key word until the end of the sentence.
One of Ziervogel’s own novels — Magda, about Goebbels’s wife — involved research into Nazi thinking. She points out that most of what Hitler wrote and said was anticipated in 1899 by The Foundations of the 19th Century, by an English writer, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. It was a bestseller, but the British did not become fascists.“I think that’s to do with the language, which influences how we think,” Ziervogel says. “The English are ultimately too pragmatic to go to the absolute extreme to which the German nation went.”
She does not, however, draw the same conclusion as Amis from English linguistic exceptionalism. Indeed, her mission is the dissemination of good European writing in English translation. She has noted a British fear of translations, which she sees as “fear of being confronted by the unknown — people want to be told the stories they already know”.
Certainly, for a generation at least, the British are going to have to read translations if they are to have any hope of becoming cultural Europeans. We are all used to seeing Europeans speaking bewilderingly good English on the TV news; the Europeans seldom see such accomplished Brits. Language teaching in the UK has collapsed since the government of Tony “Education, education, education” Blair scrapped its compulsory study to GCSE in 2004.
Over the past 15 years, more than a third of British universities have abandoned degrees in modern European languages. Fewer than 7% of A-level students of Spanish, German and French achieve an A grade. “These findings confirm that the UK has, in recent years, been squandering its already poor linguistic resources,” says Katrin Kohl, professor of German at Oxford.
Language studies are now dominated by the privately educated and the Russell Group of universities. This is a dismal picture, one more way our education system is widening the inequality gap, which is making the clever poor do much worse than the dim rich.
Of course, it’s also a dismal picture because there are 24 official languages in the EU, along with a host of regional ones, such as Catalan, Galician and Basque, and, increasingly, migrant languages such as Arabic, Turkish and Urdu. None of us will ever speak them all, but we should perhaps be just a little ashamed not to speak any.
For the time being, we must make the best of our monolingual predicament and finally try, 43 years after we joined, to engage imaginatively with Europe, to fill the gaps, especially in literature and film, in our understanding. Maybe we’ll hate it, maybe our grandchildren will vote for Brexit, but let’s give it a whirl.
My own recommendations on where to start are, first, the novelist Patrick Modiano, a French writer of whom the Anglosphere knew next to nothing until he won the Nobel prize. He is wonderful, strange and atmospheric, and seems to keep writing the same book, which is no bad thing. Start with the three novellas in Suspended Sentences. Second, the Spanish novelist Javier Marias (see right), who, to my shame, I have only just discovered. He is relentless in his pursuit of literary and psychological truth. All Souls and his strange sequel, Dark Back of Time, are where I began.
Finally, I agree with Will Self (see previous page): we should all read WG Sebald, whose death in 2001 almost certainly deprived him of the Nobel. The first of his novels I read, The Rings of Saturn — I’m afraid I must say this — changed my life. A German, he lived and died in England, but his sensibility is overwhelmingly Germanic and European. Above all, like the German artists Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, his imagination is seized by the catastrophe of the European 20th century.
In fact, start with Sebald. He reminds us of the one thing that, even more than language, divides Britain from Europe. We suffered neither Nazi nor communist occupation. Though we saw in the two world wars the fragility of our own culture, we never had to endure the spectacle of its actual elimination by murderously philistine forces determined to exterminate the past.
Thinking about that should make us all, humbly, more European. Our past — and, therefore, our future — depends on it.
Which Euro books do our writers read?
I certainly think Brits should read WG Sebald’s novels — and not through the lens of him being a “good German” by virtue of having lived here, but because their elegiac portrait of European grandeur and decline strongly negates the case for any form of British exceptionalism. The hecatombs of the dead that were piled up throughout the 20th century are still the vantage point from which we “objectively” view history; and the awareness of that fact alone (which Sebald so beautifully conveys) should make even the littlest of Little Englanders feel very small indeed. Start with his devastating critique of the RAF’s area bombing raids in the Second World War, On the Natural History of Destruction.
Pereira Maintains: Antonio Tabucchi Tabucchi was Italian, but lived in and wrote about Portugal. This short novel is the story of a journalist, decent, a lover of books, who writes a literary column in a Lisbon newspaper in the 1930s and becomes, almost without realising it, engaged in a political struggle against the Salazar dictatorship. The stages of his awakening are so delicately drawn, so cleverly constructed, that we are pulled almost helplessly into following him. A perfect example of the novel that shows how political influence pervades everything.
The Summer Book: Tove Jansson A realistic novel by the Moomins author, about a six-year-old girl and her grandmother spending summer together on a little island in the Gulf of Finland. The wonderful thing is the dual perspective: we see with the child, but we also see with the grandmother. In one sense, nothing happens: in another, their world is full of astonishing visions, emotions never felt before, intimations of mortality. A work of genius.
I loved the astonishing, luminously surreal novel Coldskin by the Catalan writer Albert Sanchez Piñol — sex with a sea monster made lyrically real.
Daniel Kehlmann is my favourite German novelist. His Measuring the World, about Humboldt and Gauss, lifted a rather somnolent German literary culture. His recent novel, F, is intricate, playful, ambitious.
Bernhard Schlink: The Reader A huge international success: a complex confrontation with the shame of the Holocaust.
Hubert Mingarelli: A Meal in Winter A sparse, beautiful and shocking novel that finds a more intimate route into the Holocaust.
Reunion: Fred Uhlman Written in English long after Uhlman fled Germany in 1933: the coming catastrophe of Nazism played out between the passionate friendship of two German boys.
The Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is a lovely contemplation of a life in solitude in a remote valley, into which the modern world slowly intrudes.
Kazuo Ishiguro (on classic films)
Jacques Demy’s frothily beautiful, bittersweet musicals Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, both starring a youthful Catherine Deneuve, paint such alluring visions of ordinary lives in provincial French towns that the anti-EU crowd will want them banned in the run-up to the referendum.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle rouge is really about the experience of the French Resistance, disguised as cops and robbers. With outstanding performances from three great actors of the era — Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonte, Yves Montand — it is one of the achievements of modern cinema. Volonte turns up again in Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, a moving, subtly affirmative film set in the grindingly poor countryside of southern Italy in the fascist years.
The Mexican visionary Guillermo del Toro created two sublime films about Francoist Spain seen through the eyes of children — Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.
For the whole of the 20th century, a life lived without Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Franz
Kafka would be poor indeed. Latterly, I have been enjoying the absurdly prolific and — because he wrote detective stories — underrated Georges Simenon. I am currently reading another French writer who might be dismissed as “genre”, but Pascal Garnier’s The Panda Theory goes way beyond that. It’s utterly strange and disorientating. Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World is a very German take on post-enlightenment history.
Back to the French: Albert Camus is more essential than ever, particularly L’Etranger; and Jean-Paul Sartre is in danger of being forgotten. His novel La Nausée is a better introduction to existentialism than his works of philosophy.
François Furet: The Passing of an Illusion An ex-communist intellectual recants and describes the French left’s infatuation with Stalinism, which was succeeded by infatuation with Mao. This continued until Philippe Sollers and his takeover of the Parisian elite, countered by the smart vanity of Bernard-Henri Lévy and his New Philosophers.
Anna Bikont: The Crime and the Silence A full account of the Polish church’s involvement with the massacre, with German permission, of the Jewish population of a town in Poland. A perfect example of the small instance standing for a whole, very Christian country’s denial of its enthusiasm for killing neighbours.
Dasa Drndic: Trieste A quasi-documentary novel, with a full cast of monstrous Nazi characters, about a Jewish woman and her affair, and child, with a handsome mass killer.
Javier Cercas: Soldiers of Salamis A Spanish novel about the inextricable connection between Franco and his enemies.
Laurent Binet: The Seventh Function of Language A recent ultra-smart satire on the whole galère of Parisian intellectuals: Sollers, Derrida, Lacan. Very overdone, very funny.