I often chair and curate events on European Literature in the UK, where I’m often asked:‘Does European Literature exist?’ That may be a shocking question to all of you out there on the Euro-mainland but on our little islands it’s a valid question. It’s tied up with our traditional British Euro-scepticism and our current government-led political anti-EU bias.
Publicly I always adopt a brisk, head-mistressy approach to this question, along the lines of: ‘Ofcourse European Literature exists, even in Britain, and I’m not going to waste time debating it. Move on! Accept the reality!’ And I continue: ‘We may be entering another fragile period of EU-scepticism but we have a rich cultural unity and there’s no way to stop that juggernaut.’
Privately I’ll admit that ‘Juggernaut’ may be an exaggeration and the idea of creating any cohesive, unified European whole – in politics or elsewhere – is ambitious. But there are at least 50 Reasons To Be Cheerful; 50 mini-trends. We don’t ‘do revolution’ here in the UK.
Thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall – 25 years ago this autumn (coinciding neatly with our 2014 ‘ELIT Days’ http://www.literaturhauseuropa.eu!) – and thanks to a growing band of skilled and creative translators, enlightened booksellers, better marketing and feisty independent publishers, the UK’s international book scene is slowly joining in the great European narrative. Very few of us would say this is due to any Euro-idealism or love of Europe but rather because we know there is some great writing out there, from Bulgaria to Berlin, and we want to read it. We love reading. And we’d happily admit that the success of Euro-crime writing in the UK triggered the upward trend.
Reminding you here of our poor track record is painful but only about 4.5% of the fiction we read in the UK is foreign/translated. But that’s an improvement over the recent 3%! In the 5 years since I have been moderating ‘European Literature Night’ at the British Library in London (May 14th http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event159834.html), I’ve watched our reading and publishing habits open up. I see the same thing happen in the ‘European Literature Network’ that I run in the UK: a greater willingness in the book trade to translate, collaborate, take risks, invest.
So, hello Montenegro! Hello Greece! Good to meet you! Gosh, you Lithuanians are clever! What fascinating experimental fiction from Romania, and such wonderful, fat, page-turning German and Italian novels! Welcome to Britain Iceland, Norway, Wales, Turkey and Russia!
We Brits may not throw all your different literatures into a ‘Greater Europe’ melting pot, but rather we taste them as individual tapas. They may have to compete for book sales with a main course of Anglo-American ‘Meat and 2 Veg’ but the public’s taste-buds have been tickled and the appetite of the festivals and arts organisations whetted.
Participating as I do these days in literature festivals like ‘ELIT’ helps satisfy my appetite and overcome my ignorance of what’s on the European literary menu, but more importantly it enables me to bring back some tasty titbits to Britain.I’m particularly looking forward to trying the new Wachau wines – and that is not a metaphor! See you at Spitz an der Donau this October!