Safe in the Anglosphere
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
We have yet to take the proper pulse of writers’ reactions to the referendum result. There were the instant tweets: Salman Rushdie’s “Old Farts 1 The Future 0. Well done England [sic]. Maybe lose to Iceland next & get out of Europe properly”. Prescient there. J. K. Rowling’s “I don’t think I’ve ever wanted magic more” should become immortal. Meanwhile Irvine Welsh’s response was characteristic: “Selfish old cunts fucking things up for youth? Well there's a first!”
And then there were some reactions on the 3:AM online magazine: “Brexit is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, from Ali Smith, for example. There was Will Self with some trenchant and hard-to-disagree-with opinions.
At the same time the thought occurs to me: maybe we were never truly culturally connected to the Continent. I just stumbled across an item entitled (again, presciently) “Brexit of the Mind” from February 2016 by the Sunday Times journalist Bryan Appleyard in which he writes of how he asked various British (male) writers for their “choice of current European fiction”. Kazuo Ishiguro’s “mind went blank” and he instead mentioned a few films such as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. That film appeared in 1964!
Martin Amis agrees with Appleyard that the English language “has made us cultural Brexiters”. Amis reveals that he doesn’t read European literature. Only as a “last resort” he reads “unignorable writers” such as Kafka and Tolstoy. “There are very, very few European writers who have made an impression outside their own country. [Debatable.] Günter Grass with The Tin Drum . . . . Michel Houellebecq is the only one who’s got any kind of reputation in the whole of Europe.” What about Elena Ferrante? Or Knausgaard? He goes on to say that “there’s no earthly reason why anyone in the Anglosphere should desperately want to learn a foreign language, but there’s every reason why a German or Dutch or French person should”. So that’s all right then.
Amis then makes the curious observation that English is not only the most dominant language; it is “also the most literary”. This strikes me as absurd. How does he know? Surely a language is as literary as a writer deploying it makes it? He tells Appleyard that on a recent trip to Europe, “all the writers [he] met were ‘singing the praises’ of the English language”. Nice for him, but it’s clear that there would have been little reciprocal sentiment.
This may explain Amis’s approximate grasp of foreign terms when he uses them in his fiction: in The Pregnant Widow (2010), we read “They were the children of the Golden Age (1948?–73), elsewhere known as Il Miracolo Economico, La [should be Les] Trente Glorieuses, Der [should be Das] Wirtschaftswunder”. The collection of short stories Heavy Water (1998), meanwhile, which includes that great story “Career Move” about a minor English poet and a Hollywood screenwriter trading places, contains several “foreign” errors: the poet Paul “Célan”, “ruse du [de] guerre”, “desaparacidas” for the Argentinian “desaparecidas”. In an eviscerating review in the LRB of Amis’s most recent novel The Zone of Interest, Michael Hofmann wrote “A curious feature of this macaronic German – nicht? – is that it has a zero tolerance policy for umlauts. I don’t think I saw a single one”.
Did no editor at Cape spot any of these errors over the years? Or – unworthy thought maybe – did they feel unable to tamper with their pre-eminent novelist’s manuscript? I imagine it’s the only thing the editor would have needed to do. Why allow foreign languages to be treated with such apparent casualness? Now, more than ever, we should be more vigilant in that direction. Even if it’s only about perceptions.