I’m a European-minded writer who lives in England and writes in English, which is my native tongue. I’m not monoglot. French, German, Russian, Italian and Spanish are all available to me, but I’ll never now make the step of trying to write seriously in any of them. Likewise I’m a European-minded reader who, years ago, was inclined to think T.S. Eliot nothing special after a century and half of German lyric poetry, and who still today stumbles over eminent English philosophers and critics spinning ‘new’ arguments that across the Channel are a century old. Yet I love the English language and English literature. They are central to my life-world. So the question arises: are there other people like me, who stumble over an extraordinary disjunct of literary values and references in their plural worlds? I only know it in the European versus Anglo-Saxon form which haunts all my books. But surely it happens across other involuntary cultural divides. It’s not a matter of being torn in two directions. It is, as a writer and as a critic and as one of and audience, not being able to find a form that fits both worlds. Maybe it doesn’t exist or maybe I haven’t managed to find it. I know now, because boundaries either hem me in or shut me out, that I have to work at crossing back and forth. A great deal of my work has been about literary and philosophical quarrels across boundaries. Sometimes I’ve taken cross-boundary otherness as a direct theme but mostly I’ve presumed it beyond the text.
I’ve chosen to write books, over the years, about big intellectual names generally disliked in England: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, as well as countless unknown Russians. Nietzsche, when I ‘befriended’ him in 1996 had recently been branded ‘radically unsound’ in The Guardian newspaper, and in the years surrounding Nietzsche in Turin I was astonished at the ‘Nazi’ image that persisted. In my most recent book A Shoe Story it was clear reviewers struggled to accept that Heidegger’s philosophy did happen and did change our lives: through attitudes to art as event and ‘mass ornament’, was my argument. They believe ‘because he was a Nazi’ this can’t be so. Actually in what art has come to mean European thought has predominated in England, albeit indirectly and disguised. Heidegger’s sometime disciple Derrida was almost equally unwelcome in thinking English circles during the height of his fame, from the 1980s on. At the outbreak of sheer nastiness when he died in 2004 his supporters protested with an affectionate farewell volume. So I’ve tried to write about Derrida too, closing the gap.
Likewise, at a much greater distance, and with even less chance of the speaker having first-hand knowledge of the writer/thinker he’s condemning, Hegel is a kind of taboo name among English publishers, except philosophy specialists. But then their practice is to turn Germans into something more bearable to Anglo-Saxon minds. A recent Times Literary Supplement review of a four-volume work on German Idealism all but travestied it by proceeding in this way. Author Nicholas Boyle wrote to say, in effect, that while he and his co-author were grateful for a good notice they hardly recognized their work in what was published about it.
And so the blind spot extends, even to obscure names the English are prepared to respect: Goethe, Schiller, Thomas Mann; Freud in his capacity as German thinker and writer; and many more. It’s not that there are not great English scholars who interpret and love the work of these great writers and thinkers. But they do it for fellow specialists, because these are figures who haven’t moulded the culture of this island, and therefore their place is peripheral (unless an English version of them is created, as in the case of Freud. I talk about this in my book The Secret Artist.)
This coming year, 2015, I’ll be broaching mainly German topics despite what I suspect is the lack of a home audience. Meanwhile I’ll be finishing a novel set entirely in Russia and Finland. Some of its characters will struggle with being Russian, others with being English: hemmed in, or shut out by, and from, their countries of origin. I can’t make advance claims for its quality, but the novel will undoubtedly have, or aim at, some of those characteristics which Nietzsche’s translator R J. Hollingdale picked out half a century ago, explaining to readers of Goethe’s Elective Affinities that the settings where the action takes place are not only naturalistic and have a symbolic function; the characters too. On the sense of alienness that Hollingdale was anticipating, the same, I think, might be said for Thomas Mann’s great novels a century later, when, despite the warnings, an eminent critic like D.J. Enright could still fall into the trap of feeling these were somehow alien and unssatisfactory ‘novels of ideas’. Just before his death in 1955 Mann wrote after twenty years’ exposure to the market in US publishing that it was a curse in the world to be a German novelist.
Well, I’m not Goethe or Thomas Mann, but it is my vocation to defend them against accusations that they are, basically, not Anglo-Saxon in what interests them and how they instinctively and by choice write and create art. I’ll defend them, but even more I’ll be trying to understand those European-Anglo-Saxon differences which make serious literary reading so perplexing. To think of what binds Shakespeare and Wagner will start me off. I’ll also be comparing Goethe’s The Elective Affinities (1809) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811). Both are classics in their respective traditions. Both are in some sense social novels, and both treat of the clash of personality types and the ensuing complications for unmarried and about-to-be-married love. But where the comparison really leads is towards a great difference in what two nations see as characteristic of themselves and their great literary achievements.I’ll be writing too about Thomas Mann, a German insider first potentially shut out by his covert homosexuality, later excluded by actual exile, and about the Prague-born, German poet Rilke during his time in Paris (more borders crossed and recrossed). Two modern stories of bodily human transformation have also served to remind me of the European-Anglo-Saxon divide. Seven years after another Prague-born writer in German, and Jew, Franz Kafka, published his heartbreaking satirical novella Metamorphosis (1915), the English writer David Garnett, on the edge of the Bloomsbury phenomenon, had a huge success with a long whimsically melancholy story called Lady into Fox (1922) It’s the social context in which these two vastly different, but related, tales were written, interests me, along with the literary traditions into which they fitted, and the publics they subsequently commanded. Both narratives are richly symbolic; both also belong to their time and place. It is in fact very difficult to talk about them one alongside the other, and so, in the piece I have in mind I will have to interpose my own involvement in those two worlds, and the double effect of those stories on how I in my turn see the world.
This segues nicely into what will be one of my theoretical preoccupations in 2015: subjectivity and autobiography, and their role in writing the history of ideas. The relationship between Hume and Kant is a good place to look for a characteristic divergence of European and ‘English’ (I know: born in Edinburgh) views on subjectivity, and I’ll be going there. A critic of A Shoe Story took me to task for including too much of myself in that narrative. But I remembered Adorno’s remonstration in Nietzsche’s direction (which I wrote up in an earlier blog). Nietzsche had accused Brahms of composing autobiographically, out of his own emotional life, but Adorno said that to make that criticism negatively was to misunderstand the function of subjectivity. I’ll borrow the defence if I can.
Meanwhile I’ll kick off the new year a few weeks early with a description of the journey away from England I felt I had to make in order to write A Shoe Story at all. Perhaps I should have included this ‘needing to be underway’ introduction there, for when I take on European topics for an anglophone audience I do always feel the need to say where I am. The problem of course is not belonging in either place. And so I have to create a framework in which at least the words are mine, and, I hope, literature of a sort.
Do read ‘Getting Away to Europe in order to Write’. Blogs on Goethe, Mann, Rilke et al. will follow.