Book review: Inventing Ruritania, By Verna Goldsworthy

The vampire chronicles: what bookish Balkans did for us

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The Independent Culture

Mining the rich literary vein inspired by the Balkans, this book gained much attention when its publication in 1998 coincided with meltdown in the former Yugoslavia. Funny and acute, Goldsworthy's engaging work of criticism deserves a new audience.

The "gently ridiculous proxy" of Ruritania first appeared in Anthony Hope's Prisoner of Zenda (1894) though the West's fascination with the Balkans goes back to Byron, who described Albania as a land where "Birds, beasts of prey and wilder men appear". Inventing Ruritania is mainly concerned with the host of English novels set in the region. Despite characterising this obsession as "the imperialism of the imagination", the Belgrade-born Goldsworthy declares, "I love the English literary Balkans… atmospheric, imaginative, sleek and seductive, even funny."

Novelists who utilised this landscape include Shaw, Saki, Durrell and Olivia Manning. Goldsworthy casts a humorous eye over the pukka heroes of John Buchan and Bram Stoker. Buchan's Richard Hannay "suffers from a Byronic feeling of almost debilitating spleen" while Jonathan Harker in Dracula "desperately clings to the (very Victorian) obsession with train timetables."

A key to this fascination can be detected in our potent word borrowings. "Probably the three most commonly used words of Balkan origin in the English language – 'bugger', 'balkanisation' and 'vampire' – all reflect a fear of the Other, the threat of possible invasion and corruption."

Evelyn Waugh's novel Unconditional Surrender includes a comic variant of the Byronic hero in the Balkans. German officers are baffled at the death of gung-ho Brigadier Richie-Hook: "The single-handed attack on a fortified position by a British major-general... had no precedent in Clausewitz."

But Waugh himself was the butt when, during a mission to Yugoslavia in 1944, he loudly insisted that Tito was a woman. Tito approached him in a wet swimsuit: "Will you please ask Captain Waugh why he thinks I am a lesbian?"