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.

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