“We’re gonna have to build a wall!”
This isn’t Donald Trump talking about Mexico or UK immigration minister Robert Goodwill announcing the new wall at Calais. The words belong to Terry Wogan, stalwart of British broadcasting. He made the joke during his coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007, when several Eastern European countries were topping the points table and the UK was languishing near the bottom.
I was reminded of his words during a conference at the University of Basel earlier in the autumn. Entitled, ‘In and Out of Europe: British Literary and Cultural Discourses of Europe in the 20th and 21st Centuries’, the three-day event was intended to shed light on historical and contemporary realities of Britain’s relationship with the European continent as negotiated in the cultural sphere. Brexit was obviously a recurring theme.
During the conference, the geographical and historical barriers to Britain’s integration in Europe were addressed many times. Yet many contributors argued that cultural factors – the walls in our heads – are far more significant in the unique relationship Britain has with the rest of Europe than either geography or history.
These psychological barriers – intangible and often subconscious affirmations of fundamental difference between Britain and the rest of Europe – are much more impermeable, argued many speakers, than any physical boundary. And literature, we were constantly reminded, often plays a key role in constructing, fortifying, weakening or even demolishing our mental walls.
Both the respected academic Menno Spiering, lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, and Lisa Bischoff, PhD candidate at Bochum, discussed the oft-neglected sub-genre of British Eurosceptic novels. Usually set in a dystopian future, novels such as The Aachen Memorandum by Andrew Roberts, The Commissioner by Stanley Johnson (Boris Johnson’s father), and Euroslavia… Can You Escape it? by Terry Palmer depict Europe (or, more specifically, a version of the EU) as a totalitarian institution erasing Britain’s sovereignty and national identity. Such novels, combining patriotism with Euroscepticism, affirm the validity of our collectively imagined barriers to Anglo-European integration.
Other contributors offered radical new readings of popular novels such as Julian Barnes’ England, England and Rose Tremain’s The Road Home. In a discussion of the former, Ed Dodson from Oxford showed how Barnes’ outward attempt to lampoon Euroscepticism with a satirical portrait of “little England” is almost undermined by the nostalgic tone through which that portrait is created.
In her reading of Tremain’s best-selling and highly acclaimed novel, Anna Maria Tomczak of the University of Białystok presented a powerful critique of the author’s depiction of the unspecified Eastern European nation that her protagonist Lev, an economic migrant in Britain, calls home. It is strewn with errors, Tomczak argued, and rooted in an underlying assumption of British cultural and intellectual superiority.
The challenge to the narrative of British (or English) exceptionalism that these two novels seem to present is cast into doubt by these new readings. Other novels were discussed that are perhaps more successful in defying this narrative. John Lanchester’s 2012 novel Capital confronts us with the question of who belongs in London and why, argued Ellen Dengel-Janic from Tübingen, and depicts a world where nationality has little real significance as wealth is gained and lost according to the arbitrary fluctuations of the real estate market.
In another paper, Janine Hauthal from Brussels reminded us that Caryl Philips and Bernadine Evaristo have written powerful books that counter conventional (i.e. white) understandings of Britain’s engagement with the European continent. The European Tribe and Soul Tourists offer postcolonial visions of Europe from a black British perspective, Hauthal explained.
We are seeing walls and fences going up across Europe. But this conference was a timely reminder that words are the most powerful medium for creating or destroying barriers between groups of people. We must champion those novels that seek to undermine narratives of difference and denounce those that perpetuate them.
By Judith Vonberg