A Week in Books: The quest for literary hegemony

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home