The Euro View On Best Euro Fiction

Michael Stein at Czech Position has a worthwhile reaction to the American reaction to the Best European Fiction series from Dalkey Archive.

It gets down to that old experiment/nonexperimental debate that was had upon the publication of Best European Fiction 2010, thanks to odd remarks made by Aleksandr Hemon in his introduction and press interviews and Zadie Smith in her preface to the volume. I think Stein is a little hard on Ruth Franklin, who was one of the few critics astute enough to point out the incoherence in Hemon’s and Smith’s statements vis a vis Euro literature, but he does give her credit. He also rightly tags Smith:

Unfortunately, the debate (in so far as their was one) was obscured by some of Hemon and Smith’s initial statements. Franklin rightly points out Smith’s peculiar mention of O. Henry as somehow representing a model of American writing, together with Hemingway. What seems even more off-key though is the list of models Smith provides as a European contrast – “Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Kafka, Sebald.”

Barth? Barthelme? Did Smith compile this list on an American college campus that has a “European” feel and get it confused with the real thing. I would venture to guess that not only don’t most of the writers included in BEF have a list of models that looks anything like this, but that a good number of them have only the vaguest idea who Barthelme is and assume Barth is a misspelling of Barthes (when, as Milan Kundera well knows, it obviously refers to Karl Barth, the inventor of negative theology).

Smith’s list of models could be that of a reasonably well-read and above-average cosmopolitan American MFA student, a fact which Franklin pounces on to make her point that we are all in the same (literary) gang. But ask a Russian, Polish, Spanish or Icelandic writer about their literary models, or simply read the stories presented most recently in BEF 2011 and you will see that this notion of a global literature is an easily punctured myth.

The whole article is well worth a read, as it offers a nice glimpse of how Europe views its literature, and U.S. literature. And I look forward to Stein’s promised second installment.

And though Stein doesn’t mention is Lauren Elkin’s long review of BEF 2010 at The Quarterly Conversation makes some worthy points in this debate. Among them:

Blending and diversity are inherently related to the art of translation; when you take something from one culture and transform it into another, both the source and the target cultures remain distinct and yet transformed. But for all this crossing and trespassing, this project has an air of an “us and them” mentality to it: “[T]ranslation has to be a ceaseless process,” Hemon writes. “Not only do we have to provide a continuous flow of literary texts from other languages into English, we also have to be able to monitor in real time, as it were, the rapid developments in European literatures.” Eventually, one assumes, this increased correspondence will break down the differences between European and non-European literature. Already the influences and tendencies that come through in this volume go beyond a strictly European literary heritage, making that organization of literature by geographical area—especially one as vast as Europe—seem more and more arbitrary. The choice, therefore, to privilege these hybridized stories seems to indicate that the breakdown has already begun, to such a point that it seems as odd a construct to talk about “European fiction” as it is to talk about “North American fiction,” or “Asian fiction.” The exchanges between these literary spaces don’t stop with the landmass of a continent. Especially not one as arbitrarily located as Europe: where does Europe stop and Eurasia begin? What of the tantalizing closeness of North Africa?

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Unless I’m missing a joke there, the author has never heard of John Barth? Barth and Barthelme were all the rage in Europe in the 80’s, for example in former Yugoslavia where Hemon hails from. Perhaps less so behind the Iron Curtain.

It was a joke. In Encounter, Milan Kundera recounts being asked his take on Barthes in Paris and avoiding answering by throwing out the name of Karl Barth (who I had never heard of) with a saving reference to Kafka. I still think most of the writers in BEF wouldn’t know John Barth though – considering that some of them were little kids in the 80s and that his influence has faded into oblivion. By the way, Yugoslavia was behind the Iron Curtain

Thank you, and I haven’t heard of Karl Barth myself, and am not a fan of other Barth either, in fact I forgot about him too.

But, Yugoslavia: not a part of Eastern Bloc, freedom of travel, no censorship in literature to speak of. Entirely different situation with cultural access and influences, especially in the 70’s and 80’s.

That list, from Borges to Barth to Sebald, actually makes sense cross-generationally. Not every single generation from every country, but in broad terms, yes. Except maybe scratch Sebald, maybe it’s too early for him.

The map accompanying this post is pretty weird, right? Independent Corsica, Sardinia, and Vojvodina, expanded Russia… what am I missing?

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