Denis MacShane: In search of a European book culture

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The Independent Culture

How does one create a book prize at the European level? There are plenty of prizes within each national culture, and brave efforts to encourage books in translation. There is also the grandfather of them all in the Nobel Prize for literature - but its remit is global.

Two years ago in Paris, Jacques Delors and Jean Daniel, the legendary left-liberal journalist who has been chief of the Nouvel Observateur for more than four decades, set up a committee to award a European Book of the Year prize. The jury consists of top Brussels correspondents, Europhile and Eurosceptic, but the exercise has thrown up interesting questions about whether European book culture can be said to exist.

There are polymathic European critics, like George Steiner, who read across languages and write glowingly about European culture. But is the reader in the airport bookstore, or indeed in Europe's educated classes, really conscious of belonging to a single culture? Clearly, there are authors who get translated. There are bestsellers which become commodities across frontiers. Pudenda sells across borders, as Charlotte Roche's tamporn Wetlands shows.

But European common culture is more easily speechified about than turned into reality. Various efforts by commissioners in Brussels to persuade their fellow citizens of the rightness of Europe have usually foundered. The first prize was awarded for a gloriously irrelevant essay by the former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, The United States of Europe. The phrase, made famous by Winston Churchill in 1946, has hung round the neck of pro-Europeans; a single federal entity is never going to see the light of day. For the next prize, it was decided to lift the sights higher.

Britain is producing a generation of historians, like Ian Kershaw, Orlando Figes or Paul Preston, who write with real insight into the culture and history of other European countries, and are translated. Timothy Garton-Ash can be found in many European newspapers with his insights into global politics. But the empirical culture of British history and essay-writing is inimical to representing Europe as other than a conflict zone or a boring set of technical problems.

Yet both the shortlisting committee and the jury in Brussels were able to find a Brit for the second award – but a man who has not lived in Europe for many years. Tony Judt (right) is almost the perfect exemplar of the title of his great winning book, Postwar. He was born in 1948 and came of age in the great European upheaval 20 years later. He mixed King's College, Cambridge, home to Keynes, with the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Sartre, Aron and Beauvoir. He has written on big post-war European questions, mainly connected with culture and politics in France.

Judt started as an ardent Zionist but is now a stern critic of Israel's settlement policy. But like many making European history today – Nicolas Sarkozy, David Miliband or Joschka Fischer – his parents or grandparents originated in that part of Europe which was lost to history under the jackboot of totalitarianism and vile prejudice.

Judt is ill, and was unable to receive his prize at a splendid ceremony in Brussels. The President of the European Commission, the President of the European Parliament, Europe's Foreign Minister and other stars of politics were all on the platform to hear Judt's acceptance speech by video from New York. In the closing words of Postwar, he writes that "the new Europe... is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to that past. If Europeans are to maintain this vital link... then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation." That plangent plea for history at the centre of culture is important. Britain hates telling the story of Europe unless it is told by the anti-European fanatics who control much political thinking. But without an adequate history, Europe and Britain - as part of Europe - can again be trapped by the terrible mistakes of its past. Judt is a worthy winner of the European Book of the Year Award, and raises the prize to a new level.

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