Open books from Venice to Woking

As the euro arrives, the real heart of 'Europe' has little to do with banknotes, tax regimes or treaties. On the contrary, it looks something like a library
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Novelists are made to be read, not seen, and, to my mind, there has always been something rather unseemly about the sort of writers who become life-in-the-fast-lane celebrities, super-modelling the night away. After all, one of the central pleasures of a novelist's life is that your books will have a public existence, whereas you can live in as much day-to-day anonymity as you choose.

Novelists are made to be read, not seen, and, to my mind, there has always been something rather unseemly about the sort of writers who become life-in-the-fast-lane celebrities, super-modelling the night away. After all, one of the central pleasures of a novelist's life is that your books will have a public existence, whereas you can live in as much day-to-day anonymity as you choose.

Except, of course, in France, where writers often find themselves being put on display. Because every autumn – during that period after the lassitudes of summer which the French refer to as la rentrée – towns and cities around the country begin to host a series of book markets. And, this being France, the markets are given an appropriately intellectualised title: salons littéraires – events that really do place the writer in a shop window, to be gazed upon by passing-by readers.

Now I ended up in several of these "windows" because I was on an extended French book tour for my new novel, La Poursuite du Bonheur (published in the UK as The Pursuit of Happiness). It's my fourth novel to be published in France. But in the intervening two and a half years since the last one came out on that side of the Channel, I've learnt French. And after 24 months of steady one-on-one classes with a private teacher, I am reasonably conversational (especially after the third glass of wine). Which, in turn, meant that the attaché du presse at my Paris publishers, Editions Belfond, decided I was ready for this autumn's salon littéraire circuit.

And so, just a few weeks ago, I hopped on a TGV from Paris, en route to a town best known for the libation after which it is named: Cognac. The subject of this year's Cognac salon littéraire was "Love and the European Novel"... and even though I'm an American resident in London, my Irish passport seemed to qualify me for quasi-European status. Ditto the fact that my new novel was a love story. And then there was the fact that I could also mangle the language of Molière...

Whatever the reason, there I found myself in a first-class coach reserved for all the Paris-based writers attending the book fair. My God, a first-class train carriage reserved entirely for writers? But yes, the burghers of Cognac wanted to show us a good time, and so, upon arrival, we were all whisked off by mini-van for a long lunch at one of the great maisons du cognac – Martell. And when we reached our respective hotel rooms, a bottle of vintage cognac was waiting for us. And that night, there was a lavish dinner at a lavish château, and an open bar at the conference centre hosting the salon – a bar that served every variation of cognac imaginable... and (this was dangerous) free of charge to all visiting writers.

But we also had to work for our cognac... which required us to sit at a table with piles of our books next to us, smiling and generally looking earnest as hundreds of readers browsed around the marketplace. And, as with all markets, there was something rather law-of-the-jungle about this set-up. There must have been 50 or so other writers on hand – all of them positioned behind tables, waiting for readers to approach them, and simultaneously wondering if anyone would bother to talk to them... let alone do something daft such as buy a book.

But this being France, the reading public certainly did talk to writers – and in very blunt language. "You know, I really thought your last novel was a little lazy," one reader told me, while shoving a copy of the new one in front of me to sign. "And why do you always have such bad marriages in your books?"

I must admit that there was something highly democratic about this sort of one-on-one discourse. Yes, the French revere their novelists, but they also believe that they can tell them off if they are found wanting. Because they believe what you do is important, they also reserve the right to dress you down. A French writer sitting near me actually had one reader approach him and say: "I think you've destroyed your talent." When the novelist complained to me about such face-to-face abuse, I said: "Be grateful you live in a country where writers are taken seriously."

To which he replied (after a long swig of cognac): "Maybe too seriously."


'The Pursuit of Happiness' is published by Hutchinson, price £16.99

When I was at school, in Argentina, our notion of Europe was a vast and powerful conglomerate of culture and wisdom. From there, across the Atlantic, came the history to which, magister dixit, we owed our existence. From there came the writers whose literature we read, the musicians whose music we listened to, the film-makers whose films we watched. From Europe came the faces of our ancestors, the accents of our grandparents, the names entered in copperplate handwriting on the front page of our exercise books.

Argentina, we were told, was brand new, and we were meant to love it simply because it was ours. The word "ours" repeated itself relentlessly in our anthems, symbols, geography textbooks: "nuestra Patria, nuestra bandera, nuestras Malvinas." Paraguay or Mexico, which together with 20 other countries were supposed to constitute what some called South and others Latin America, were as mysterious to us as the Cocos Islands.

France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Switzerland, the shifting nations of Mitteleuropa, even Great Britain (for we never understood the old joke "Storm over the Channel; Continent cut off") were part of one coherent, definable, dearly familiar whole.

Earlier images were less kind. For the 18th-century inhabitants of Benin in west Africa, Hell lay beyond the sea because that was where the European slave-traders came from. A 17th-century Chinese portrait of a European shows a creature with a beak-like nose, the body covered in hair, the chest sporting a couple of lung-shaped tattoos and the mouth exhaling a dark gust of tobacco smoke. Writing about a journey through Europe in the 16th century, Seyyid Hasan Agha described the people as "short, smelly and addicted to uncomfortable clothes".

No doubt for Erasmus, for Voltaire, for Joyce, Europe was its culture and its common language or languages, Latin, French or Finneganspeak. Their roots dug down to the Greek and Roman classics and the Bible, to a source of common understanding, to a shared vocabulary of stories and symbols. By "European" they meant someone whose culture was greater than the narrow circles of their nationalities, and whose duties were ethical and philosophical rather than merely political.

Such a European, however, becomes extinct with annoying regularity. Montesquieu believed that a European was in his time an impossibility, the citizen of one nation made up of many others. Rousseau believed that there were no Europeans left except in one place, Corsica: "I have a presentiment that one day this little island will surprise us". Burke complained that "the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever".

In 1934 Thomas Mann, recalling a meeting with his old mentor, the publisher Sammi Fischer, noted an observation made by Fischer about a mutual acquaintance.

"He is no European," he said, shaking his head.

"No European, Herr Fischer? Why ever not?"

"He understands nothing of the great humane ideas."

Fischer's remark was intended both as a definition and as an elegy.

Today, bereft of a common language (computer English does not count), cautious about "humane ideas" (notwithstanding the International Court at the Hague), infinitely less inclined to chivalry than to calculated sophistry (consider the invention of Gastarbeiter and "resident aliens"), the concept of Europe is hard to define and, in the official literature, seems too good to be true. But a concept need not be good or true in order to exist.

In spite of the efforts of the European Parliament (the abolition of customs gates, the attempt to render all cheeses equal, the possibility of working for the same low wages in any member country) and in spite of the laborious symbols (the star-studded flag that mirrors that of the US, the inoffensive coinage devoid of history, the European Union Day which no one remembers), no one believes that there is such a thing as a Europe that does not include Switzerland, for instance, because it did not sign the agreement – or that includes Turkey, because it soon will.

Instead, as everyone knows, there exists a Europe with its history, its literature, its cooking, its landscape, much as there exists an India with dozens of different cultures, or a United States of America with barely one. It seems futile to counter that every social construct, every city, nation or continent, is a potpourri of odd bits and pieces; that "European" history is interwoven with that of the Arabs it expelled, of the Tartars it fought back, of the Africans it enslaved, of the Native Americans it slaughtered; or that it would take all the art of a textual theorist to lump under the banner of a common literature the writings of Kafka, Zola, Lorca and Pessoa; that andouille and Bratwurst, Venice and Woking were never made by the same eye or for the same palate.

As in a vast conglomeration of metaphors, all of these different parts constitute, somewhere in the deepest recesses of the mind, something we call Europe, whose existence is independent of treaties, tax agreements and advertising: – something that takes on the shape of a library.

Herr Fischer's Europeans, I believe, can still be recognised, here and there, surviving who knows how, caught between the petty restrictions of nationalism that equate identity with narrow-mindedness, and the constant blurrings of globalisation that advertise the merits of imbecility: among them, the late W G Sebald, Roberto Calasso, George Steiner, Izaak Mansk, Marina Warner, Umberto Eco, Claudio Magris and a few other inheritors of Erasmus.

Jewish mysticism tells us that because of the existence of seven just men, God doesn't crumple up the world. Perhaps Europe, el viejo mundo (as we called it in Argentina), owes its survival to a similar and larger meritorious lot.

Alberto Manguel wrote 'A History of Reading' (Flamingo, £12.99); his latest book is 'Reading Pictures' (Bloomsbury, £30)