Euro Stars: European Fiction in the UK: In or Out?
By Judith Vonberg
On a Wednesday evening at the end of September, I joined Rosie Goldsmith, four brilliant writers and an assortment of interested Londoners for a lively discussion on the future of European fiction in the UK. Would Brexit change anything? Should we be worried about cultural and literary exchange between Britain and the European continent in the years ahead?
We gathered on the third floor of Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly Circus, Europe’s largest bookshop and a booklover’s paradise. Rosie Goldsmith, founder of the European Literature Network and tireless champion of European literature in the UK, introduced the four panelists.Tim Parks is a prolific British writer who has lived in Italy since 1981. His most recent novel, Thomas and Mary: A Love Story, was published earlier this year by Harvill Secker. He appeared at the European Literature Days in Austria this November. Next to him was Joanna Walsh. Her writing has appeared in Granta Magazine and was anthologized in 2015 in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction. Vertigo, a collection of Walsh’s short stories, was published earlier this year. To her left was Antoine Laurain, a Parisian journalist, antiques collector and prize-winning novelist. He was a guest author at European Literature Night 2014 in London and his most recent novel, French Rhapsody, is published in English this month by Gallic Books. Claudiu Florian, prize-winning EUPL author, was the fourth panelist. He works at the Romanian embassy in Berlin and wrote his first novel – in German, his second language – over many months, while on the metro commuting to and from the embassy. He has since translated it into Romanian and an English excerpt is published in this year’s EUPL volume of winning authors.
The debate was an earnest one, each of the writers offering a very different perspective on the future of Britain’s literary relationship with the European continent. While Walsh expressed concern about both the logistical and the more intangible changes that could result from Brexit – ‘it is frightening to think what might happen if this closeness disappears,’ she said – Parks was more ambivalent. ‘I don’t deplore the result at all,’ he said. ‘I think it’s a fascinating development and may well turn out for the better.’
His ambivalence is rooted in a sceptical attitude towards the EU’s cultural institutions. He argued that cultural connections are created or destroyed organically, not by large institutions like the EU. ‘It is not at all clear that the EU has been a motor for cultural change,’ Parks said. In his view, novels grow out of local communities and acquire their significance through their engagement with local issues. He described himself as ‘perplexed’ by the term ‘international literature’. When an author tries to make a text speak to a larger, more diverse audience, he argued, the less power it has to address particular issues or communities.
Laurain, who was born and lives in the same district of Paris where six generations of his family lived and worked, seems to epitomize this localizing drive. ‘My own story is not so much a European story,’ he admitted. Yet for him, being proud of his French, specifically Parisian, heritage does not preclude a sense of kinship with other Europeans. And his books, although unmistakably ‘Parisian’, have found an adoring international audience. Just as a person can have multiple, overlapping identities, so too can a novel be rooted in a very particular context and yet speak to countless others.
Florian, who can be described as a trans-national European, embodied a very different type of European experience. Saxon, Germanic, Romanian and Transylvanian influences have informed both his own life and his writing. We were treated to an aural display of Florian’s trans-national identity as he read extracts from his novel in German, Romanian and English, each his own translation.
Walsh too is inspired by the diversity of linguistic and literary models that Europe (and the broader world) has to offer. After studying English literature, she had no particular desire to become a writer. It was only after being exposed to non-Anglophone literatures and literary traditions that she felt driven to write and to explore the gaps and differences between peoples, languages and literatures.
The evening itself was a celebration of diversity and difference, showcasing four very different writers with very different ways of writing and thinking. They had divergent opinions on Brexit, on its consequences for European literature and, more broadly, on the role of literature itself. They reminded us that one of the fundamental values of Europeanness is the diversity of people and ideas that it encompasses. This diversity will not disappear with Brexit and nor will the intangible cultural connections forged between individuals, communities and nations.