A Week in Books: The quest for literary hegemony

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The Independent Culture

Over the next fortnight, London and Paris will both stake their annual claim to count as the true hub of the literary world.

Over the next fortnight, London and Paris will both stake their annual claim to count as the true hub of the literary world. The London Book Fair runs at Olympia from Sunday to Tuesday under the unpoetic motto, "It's Time to Talk Business". It still operates chiefly as a rights market for the publishing trade, although some new "consumer" elements range from masterclasses, with authors such as Rose Tremain, to the final of the "LitIdol" competition. Paris, where the 25th Salon du Livre takes place at Porte de Versailles from 18 March, offers an author-led banquet of attractions, with hundreds of readings and debates of the sort that, in this country, tend to happen at festivals such as Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Hay.

They're not quite comparable events, and the sternly commercial focus of the London fair is balanced by a crowded calendar of British book festivals that has no real counterpart in France. All the same, there seems to me to be something emblematic in the way that London presents itself as a global market-place for literature and Paris as an open forum for the world's writers. The difference evokes a long tale of two cities - a history of rival claims to supremacy. Yet modern market conditions can turn every stereotype as stale as last week's brioche. The UK's second biggest publisher, Orion, now belongs within the empire of the very French group Hachette Livre. It's only George W Bush who ever believed that there was no French word for "entrepreneur".

A heroically ambitious new book (or, rather, a newly translated book) aims to put this quest for literary hegemony into a deep historical context. The World Republic of Letters by Pascale Casanova (translated by M B DeBevoise; Harvard University Press, £22.50) travels far and wide, from French Renaissance disputes over the language of literature to the recent fashion for post-colonial fiction - from Ronsard to Rushdie.

But its core concerns the idea of literature, and the metropolitan institutions that define it, as a system of power: of gate-keeping, border controls, admissions and refusals. Casanova (well-known in France as a critic and broadcaster) follows the battle waged by writers on the margins of the system to carve out a space in which a truly autonomous "republic of letters" can flourish. Against or within the grand imperial capitals, notably Paris and London, pioneering outsiders such as Ibsen, Joyce, Kafka, Beckett and now Nuruddin Farah struggle to create a new kind of "universality that escapes the centres" - a literary land of their own.

Casanova's book is a demanding, rewarding read, but no more opaque than the work of Edward Said - which it often recalls. The breadth of this canvas means that, for Anglophones, much of the appeal lies in her mind-stretching ability to match familiar anecdotes of revolt or migration with linked histories from elsewhere. So she will compare VS Naipaul's pursuit of a "pure" Englishness with the Romanian EM Cioran's fight to command a classical French prose. Or she contrasts Ibsen's reception in London (as social realist) and in Paris (as soulful symbolist). Or she sets James Kelman's use of Glaswegian as a literary idiom alongside Mario de Andrade's groundbreaking Brazilian folk epic, Macunaima.

Covering so much territory, Casanova very occasionally stumbles into error, truism or else a too-familiar type of Parisian radical hauteur. All in all, however, she draws a remarkably rich and persuasive map of global writing and publishing not as "an enchanted world that exists outside time", but as a battlefield on which dominant languages and cultures have always wielded the heavy weapons. Every globe-trotting publisher who attends the London Book Fair ought to read it. Of course, not a single one of them will.