A week in books: A Continental breeze for the windmills of your mind

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The Independent Culture

Literary genius is always with us. At least, one likes to think so, though the context of what we read, if not the books themselves, has utterly changed in the past 25 years.

Literary genius is always with us. At least, one likes to think so, though the context of what we read, if not the books themselves, has utterly changed in the past 25 years. Our cultural environment has become news-saturated. The throughput of news (or, more precisely, our culture treated as news) is overwhelming, and the literary agenda, directed by anniversaries and engineered publication "events", reads much like the day's headlines.

But there are exceptions. This newspaper's generous embrace of translated fiction is one, of course. And should I be reproaching the cultural atmosphere when I have been a direct beneficiary of a supremely counter-cultural commitment by the BBC? Two years ago, I was given 45 minutes of airtime each month on Radio 3 to discuss the European novel. The series' capital principle was that it should set out to discover the connections between Europe's novelists and literature – to draw a map of a landscape, with writers and their characters.

The Romantic Road began at the Convent of the Holy Trinity, a dark, weathered church in old Madrid, wherein lie, it is said, the bones of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Journeys begin where you choose them to: for me, the European novel started in Spain in 1605, year of publication of Cervantes' Don Quixote.

When el Quixote rode out, it was not just himself, his nag and Sancho embarking; he dispatched the whole of Europe in search of itself. My own quest, to map that Europe in the 400 years afterward, took me to 24 countries – from Portugal to Russia, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean – and into conversations with almost 150 novelists.

The first surprise was, on reflection, not a surprise. Only about 10 per cent of the writers were translated into English. (Although about two-thirds were translated into French and/or German, which I was fortunately educated to read.) The second was that, even though all the novelists I spoke to had never questioned whether they were part of a European tradition, they practically without exception believed profoundly in the importance of locality.

In Sweden, where a disproportionate number of novelists (Henning Mankell, Torgny Lindgren, Per Olov Enquist, Sara Lidman) come from the far north, that world cloaked in snow and silence seems to reverberate in their fiction with the comedy of ancient things: death, disease and vanity. And in Greece, the novelist Yannis Kiourtsakis explained how one of his characters meets a shepherd, who touches his hand and sings a song; he feels that all human culture is coming back to him. "In any feast of locality, there is everything that's universal."

Where does that fit in with the urban exoticism of the English novel? Is there a strong difference between our set of literary values and the Continental one? Cervantes' influence on Fielding, Smollett and Sterne was huge, and Victorian Britain was also far more European than we imagine, attending closely to the French and Russian masters. Only since 1945 have we begun to abandon Europe for the US.

There are also long-standing differences between English novelists and European counterparts – particularly in Central Europe. Our history of ideas has long been more empirical, and the English novel reflects that solid structuring, whereas the European novel tends to be fluid, concentrated, focused on emotional and sensuous depth.

But such generalisations pale by contrast with my remarkable book-by-book discoveries. Writers already translated include Eduardo Mendoza, Marta Morazzoni (winner of last year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), Halldór Laxness and Jaan Kross. Untranslated, but equally excellent, are the Dutch Hella Haasse; the Hungarian Dezsö Kosztolányi; the Slovaks Pavel Vilikovsky and Peter Pistanek; the Icelander Steinunn Sigurdadottir; Yannis Kiourtsakis; and the Ukrainian Yuri Andrukhovych.

After such an immersion in the novels of Europe, I am sure that literary genius remains, though one may need to seek it in unpublicised corners. Why not, then, in our world raining news, exchange that daily drenching for the opportunity to enlarge the umbrella of your pleasure? Why not seek out the polyglot genius of the European landscape first handed down to us in that polite, humorous, astonishing inquiry after reality by Quixote? If you do, I give you one wish. May all of your giants turn out to be windmills.

The final programme in Julian Evans's 'The Romantic Road', with A S Byatt, Philip Hensher, Ingo Schulze and Slavenka Drakulic, will be broadcast tomorrow at 5.45pm on BBC Radio 3. Reading lists for the series are available at: www.bbc.co.uk/radio3

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