Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

What do European writers share in common? And, to hoist the stakes from the speculative to the metaphysical, does or could such a beast as a true "European literature" exist? Put baldly, the questions that prompted last weekend's "Writing Europe" conference in Amsterdam threatened a swift descent into canal-side mist and murk: half Hegelian seminar, half EU committee meeting. "I fear those big words," says Joyce's Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, "which make us so unhappy."

Yet Joyce, of Dublin, Paris, Zurich and Trieste, was nothing if not an archetypal European writer. Chuck a richly diverse bunch of authors together, as Amsterdam's Maison Descartes and the European Cultural Foundation did at the De Balie arts centre, and what they do is to convert such nebulous entities into tangible experiences. Someone mentioned George Steiner's notion of a European culture defined by cafés packed with talking, thinking heads, from Odessa to Oporto. The slightly scruffy earnestness of our venue, unchanged for decades, would gladden Steiner's heart and prove his point. I love De Balie, even if it reminds me a bit of Gore Vidal's great bon mot: "Everything changes... except the avant-garde."

Proper writers also know when not to thump a tub. So, no superfluous fist-shaking at Islamist jihadis or Washington neo-cons, both eager to herald (or to hasten) Europe's cultural collapse. Of course, some literary versions of "Europe" have underlined the Classical and Christian values that now invite dissent - that US migrant TS Eliot, for one, did so. In Amsterdam, Eliot's chilly traditionalism found no takers. Rather, a freedom-cherishing humanism informed by art and history, but wary of tribal loyalties, emerged as solid common ground. And if Europe's cultural homeland lies in its classic texts, those works offer not a sacred scripture, but an open source.

The cities of liberal Europe, said Abdelkader Benali, a fast-rising star of Dutch literature, are "wonderful places to doubt. You start from an assumption and at the end of the evening you have chaos - because chaos means liberty." James Meek, from Scotland, doubted so deeply that he - rhetorically - denied the existence of any shared Euro-culture or history. True-Brit scepticism? Not really, but a post-Enlightenment skit in the vein of Voltaire, or even David Hume.

But European writers doubt most when they remember. For Dutch writer Michaël Zeeman, speaking in the city of the tourist-thronged Anne Frank House, European culture opts to recall its shame as much as its glory, and "to give a catalogue of its faults". Or, as the Czech enfant terrible Jachym Topol so pithily put it, "I like to write about the skeletons underneath your bed."

Yet that defining doubt should also embrace a writer's ability to grasp this tragic history. Very movingly, and eloquently, the Danish novelist Jens Christian Grøndahl warned against the literary temptation to puff up a minor talent with the grandly ghastly side of Europe - the wars, the empires, the massacres. "I'm sceptical about the way history itself might imbue your prose with a touch of seriousness - even if you're a lousy writer," he said. "I think it's close to cheating."

Raid Europe's darker past for some sort of emotional crutch, and you end up not with art but kitsch: "a sentimental reduction of our moral presence, at times appearing far more scary to me than the man from Tora Bora." Grøndahl has now written about terrorism, but "I had to make a digression, instead of looking the present in the eye." His novel Red Hands draws on the German Baader-Meinhof militants: a story of home-bred horrors that he can tell from inside out. As yet, Red Hands lacks a UK edition. Any publisher who aims to make a small contribution to the concrete reality of European literature should take note.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments