A collection of 100+ essays on literary topics
There is nothing in the founding documents of the European Union about ever closer literary union. But if there were, even if that were the only kind of union proposed, the British government would still be suspicious. They would see it as a Trojan horse. The British government knows the thin end of a wedge when it sees one.
Closer literary union in the rest of Europe is more than a statement of intent. It is a fact. Literary talent has only to be discovered in one part of the continent to be immediately translated into other European languages and put on sale everywhere.
But not in Britain. Britain’s literary sovereignty remains unchallenged.
Patrick Modiano was unknown in Britain when he won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Two years before that he had been awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. (Did you know Austria gave a prize for European literature? Neither did I.) Modiano’s many novels had already been translated into thirty languages, which is thirty more than most British people speak. A few English translations were hurried out following the award of the Nobel Prize, but Modiano, like most writers who are not British, would be better known if he were a fashion designer or if a Modiano was an Italian car.
Fortunately, other European countries have not taken reciprocal action but continue to translate as many books by British authors as by each other’s. Their bookshops are full of British books in translation. It can be frustrating in France, going into a bookshop (or a newsagent, since most of them sell books as well as newspapers and postcards) in search of a French novel, to find French authors outnumbered by French translations of British best-sellers.
It helps, if you’re trying to keep up with, say, Polish literature, if you can read French, because you’re more likely to find it in translation at the Maison de la Presse when you’re on holiday than in Waterstone’s when you get home.
Not that being in the European Union has made much difference. Britain has negotiated several opt-outs from aspects of the EU that it doesn’t like, but as far as I know none of them has had anything to do with literature. There isn’t a Literary Chapter as such. If there were we would have opted out by now.
Perhaps the reason there isn’t a Literary Chapter is that literature, as far as the rest of Europe is concerned, is not just a chapter, it’s the whole story. Reading each other’s books is what it’s all about. Ever closer union, for countries that read each other’s books, feels like a good idea. Only for Britain does it feel like a loss of sovereignty.
Do we think we don’t need to read other people’s books because we’ve got enough of our own? (What can I get my grandson for his birthday? What about a book? No, he’s already got one.) Do we think British authors are intrinsically superior? Does it feel like an admission that British authors aren’t any good? Does our inability to speak other languages make us feel anxious about reading foreign books even when they’re in English? Does the word ‘foreign’ when applied to literature carry with it the negative associations it has in other contexts? (Try to think of a sentence in which ‘foreign’ is used to mean something good.) Or do we consider literature in general to be so insignificant that it doesn’t really matter anyway?
Perhaps the best thing, since being in the EU has made so little difference to British attitudes, literary and otherwise, would be to leave. Perhaps if we were really on the outside we would feel our isolation more. Perhaps if we thought they were enjoying things we didn’t have, we would want them for ourselves. Perhaps the consequences of one big opt-out would be more noticeable than all the little ones and make us want to opt in again. Perhaps they would stop translating our books and see how we like it.
The literary case for Britain to remain a member of the European Union is, appropriately enough, entirely symbolic. Staying in would symbolise that Britain’s attitude to faraway countries and people of whom it knows nothing was different now.
The literary symbolic case is more important than the economic case or the security of borders case or any other case based solely (ostensibly anyway) on practical considerations. Such cases cannot be made with any certainty. Circumstances alters cases, as the saying goes in the version taught to me in my youth, like big noses alters faces. A symbol on the other hand, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, is not of an age but for all time.
Leaving the EU might or might not make a difference to the balance of payments, the net migration figures or the price of petrol. As far as that goes, it’s swings and roundabouts. Most people don’t know what to believe anyway. The literary case simply reminds us that what the Prime Minister said about Czechoslovakia when he came back from Munich symbolised a British attitude which, if we left the EU, might look as if it hadn’t changed much. While people in faraway countries continue to read each other’s books, we still prefer to read our own.
That would still be the case after a vote to stay in. Attitudes don’t change overnight. But the weight of symbolism would at least be pulling in a different direction. It would be the weight of momentum rather than the weight of inertia. Which would be something.