As far as I can remember, the Balkans have been an object of fearful fascination and wonderment until I finally decided they were worth exploring instead of dwelling on Western European biases and misconceptions !
Aussi loin que je me souvienne, les Balkans m’ont toujours fasciné et intrigué au point de finir par décider qu’il valait la peine d’être exploré plutôt que de rester à des préjugés et idées fausses véhiculés enEurope de l’Ouest.
5 minutes in Belgrade were enough to make me fall for the incredibly fascinating Balkan soul, a mix of bluntness, music, laughter and cosmopolitanism!
Cinq minutes à Belgrade m’ont suffi pour tomber totalement en fascination pour l’incroyable âme balkanique mélange de rudesse, de musique, d’éclat de rire et de cosmopolitanisme.
But what I really discovered and am even more convinced this time round is that we are dealing with the birthplace of our European Culture
Cependant, ce que j’ai réellement découvert et donc je suis de plus en plus convaincu cette fois, c’est que nous avons ici à faire au berceau de notre culture européenne…
made of Thraces, Romans, Slavs, Byzantines shaped into an emotional and explosive juxtaposition of adverse realities best symbolized by Sofia’s Square of Tolerance
…constituée des Thraces, Romains, Slaves, Byzantins, jusqu’à former une juxtaposition explosive faite d’émotions, de réalités contradictoires et que symbolise parfaitement le square de la tolérance à Sofia.
“where all cultures have been at a stone throw of each other yet managed to never cast a stone all the while” to quote the 365 association’s free tour guides!
« Où toutes les cultures étaient à un jet de pierre l’une de l’autre mais ont réussi à ne jamais se jeter la pierre» pour citer le guide de l’association des excellents tours gratuits (cliquer sur le lien ci-dessus en anglais)
Arriving on Thursday night I was immediately immersed in these contradictions: rude Israelis shouting in my hotel and antisemitic apologies from the front desk officer, Muezzin’s call to prayers and Icons, Icons, Icons
Des mon arrivée jeudi soir, j’ai été submergée par ces contradictions : Israéliens grossiers hurlant dans mon hôtel et excuses antisémites à la réception de l’hôtel, appel à la prière du muezzin …et des icônes des icônes des icônes
everywhere on the land of the monks who created the Cyrillic alphabet, i.e. the birthplace of part of Europe’s cultural identity…but more so in the catacombs of Nevsky cathedral (fabulous) and in the Ryla monastery where I didn’t feel like contradicting the enormous attendant ready to eat me alive 😜
Partout sur le sol où des moines ont créé l’alphabet cyrillique, donc une partie de l’identité européenne… Mais surtout dans les catacombes de la cathédrale Nevski (fabuleuse) et dans le monastère de Rila où je n’ai pas eu le courage de contredire la gardienne prête à me manger tout crue !
Just look at a map:
Un coup d’œil à la carte suffit :
Bulgaria is the holy of the holy of the Balkans, our European crossroad!!!
La Bulgarie et le Saint des Saints des Balkans, notre carrefour européen !!!
South of Romania, East of Serbia and Macedonia, North of Greece and Turkey with a sea opening on the Black Sea….Something I of course only discovered once in Sofia (and only realized we had an hour of difference once back to Ljubljana upon my return 😂)!
Au sud de la Roumanie, à lestent de la Serbie et de la macédoine, au nord de la Grèce et de la Turquie, avec une ouverture sur la mer Noire…ce que je n’ai découvert évidemment qu’une fois à Sofia (tout comme je n’ai d’ailleurs réalisé que nous avions une heure de différence que lorsque je me suis retrouvée à Ljubliana sur mon trajet de retour😂)
After 5 mn, I thought I had seen it all… yet like all the Balkans, I had barely glanced at the tip of the iceberg ….
Cinq minutes ont suffi pour que je sois convaincue que j’avais tout vu… Et pourtant comme dans le reste des Balkans, je n’avais fait qu’entrevoir la partie émergée de l’iceberg.
Vitosha Mountain and Street
History, Powers, crossroads, Square of Tolerance with its Churches (Orthodox and Catholic), Mosque and Synagogue.
Histoire, puissances, croisée des chemins, square de la tolérance avec ses églises, sa mosquée et sa synagogue.
About the latter let me give you an advice if you wish to attend the Shabbat Service: either ring the bell (something I didn’t dare as it’s normally forbidden) or bang the door loud enough….and do pay a visit to the little Jewish Museum
D’ailleurs à propos de cette dernière permettez-moi de vous donner un conseil si vous avez l’intention d’assister à l’office du shabbat : il vous faut soit sonner à la porte (quelque chose que je ne me suis pas permis de faire puisque c’est censé être interdit) ou frapper la porte assez fort pour qu’on puisse venir vous ouvrir… Et surtout aller visiter le tout petit musée qui se trouve à l’étage Et qui, Parmi de nombreuses pièces, donne certains éléments historiques dont vous pourrez lire ci-dessous mes notes en anglais (que je suis prête à vous traduire, il suffit que vous le demandiez..)
which, among interesting artefacts, gives historical elements I took some notes about:
In 140 BC when Phiscon conquered Alexandria during the Civil War for the throne in the Hellenic Country of Ptolemaeus, the fear of repression made lots of Jews flee from Egypt by ships and through the Mediterranean they took refuge in Salonica and other cities along the coast of south Thrace. In 44 Judea was returned into a Roman province. The great Jewish uprising that broke in 66 in Judea known as ‘the Jewish war’ spread quickly to Samaria and Galilee. The mass movement of the Jews to Europe from the Iberian Peninsula towards Russia started with the destruction of the second temple my troops of improved Titus in 70. This process increased considerably after the unsuccessful apprising led by Shimon Bar Kohba when the resistance movement against the Roman subjection was finally broken. The triumphal arch in Rome was built after the death of Emperor Titus in order to remind of the conquest of Jerusalem.
During the middle ages the Jews were forbidden to pass to the other side of some neighborhoods and had to pay special traveling fees. The Jews and communities established in the towns of the Balkans , Cyprus, Egypt and around the ancient Greek polises in south Italy. Side-by-side with the Judeo Hellenic literature, numerous inscriptions on Jewish children and gravestones are preserved in Greece, the language that came in the mode of life. About 3000 week words of Greek are in the text of Talmud and Midrash.
The Sephardim where the third compact and numerous group of Jews that settled in the Balkans after the Romaniotes and Ashkenazim. When the Safardim settled in the Ottoman empire they adopted the organization of the established Jewish communities, the so-called Kehalim. These were unions of Jews from common place of origin. Every klal had its synagogue. In the end of the 17th century 39 congregations in Istanbul and 29 in the Balkans. According to the origin of the members we were named Portugal, Catalonia, or Cordoba. In 1496 the Jews were banished also from Portugal. They needed to run away , due to the mass problems and persecutions, and Marans became also the victims. In the Ottoman Empire they settled in the towns were already existed Jewish communities these Sephardic synagogues.
The Jews played an important role in the development of printing and publishing in the Balkans. In 1493 Jewish printing house was set up in Constantinople. Judeo Spanish also known as Ladino became increasingly spoken. In this language was created in literature that is considerable m and various in content. This language developed on the basis of the medieval Spanish dialect and underwent a considerable lexical influence of the Balkan languages as well as of Arabic and French
It should be noted as well that Jews from Bulgaria, despite harsh conditions in working concentration camps, survived almost entirely under the Nazi occupation. Follow the links below for more information.
Il faut également noter que les juifs de Bulgarie, malgré des conditions de vie difficiles dans des camps de concentration dans leur pays, ont survécu dans leur presque totalité à l’occupation nazie. Je fournis ci-dessous des liens pour plus d’informations sur ce sujet.
George Rotunda, Boyana church , Sveta Sofia, Sveta Petka Samardjiska… and of course St Alexander Nevsky
the National Art Gallery @Kvadrat 500
was some nice Vlaminck, Courbet, Valladon, Dunoyer de Segonzac, but mostly good insight into Bulgarian artists, I really enjoyed discovering Kiril Tzonev and Nicolas Petrov
Sofia Old Thermal Baths turned into Sofia History Museum where I enjoyed a concert and got invited to the opening of a contemporary art exhibition
Les bains thermaux de Sophia devenus musée d’histoire de Sofia où j’ai pu assister à un concert et être invitée au vernissage d’une exposition d’art contemporain.
Not to mention the Opera and Theatre
and the cherry on the pie was the very moving and family concert the Bulgarian born French singer Sylvie Vartan gave at the DNK
Sans oublier le théâtre et l’opéra mais surtout, cerise sur le gâteau, le très émouvant concert quasi familial que la chanteuse française Sylvie Vartan,née en Bulgarie, a donné au DNK
Yet my cultural shock wasn’t Cosmopolitan Sofia
Pourtant mon choc culturel n’a pas été la découverte de la Sofia cosmopolite.
but the little I saw of exquisitely Roman Plovdiv which I visited with a Moroccan attaché, my new friend Lala Amina Alaoui
Mais plutôt le peu que j’ai pu voir de la l’exquise Plovdiv romaine que j’ai visitée avec une attachée marocaine, ma nouvelle amie Lala Amina Alaoui
It was thus a very pleasant and educational trip into another part of our European soul and a major part of our culture. My delight over the byzantine medieval churches was certainly one of my major surprises and I am now heading towards their Romanian counterparts….
Ce fut donc un voyage extrêmement agréable autant qu’instructif dans encore une partie essentielle de notre âme européenne et de notre culture. Ma joie à découvrir d’autres églises médiévales byzantines fut certainement l’une de mes grandes surprises et je me réjouis désormais de découvrir leurs sœurs roumaines.
Free Sofia Walking Tours with http://www.365association.org
Traventuria tours +359 2 4890885
5 mn Sofia
Wizzair pour vols low cost en Europe de l’Est (Sofia et Bucharest depuis Genève)
Balkan studies association http://www.seesa.info
Bibliography http://www.seesa.info/resources: Major surveys and overviews
Without being exhaustive, the following list gives an idea of the international scope of this discipline and its thematic breadth:
• Robert Lee Wolff, The Balkans in Our Times (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1956)
• L. S. Stavrianos, The Balkans since 1453 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1958)
• Charles and Barbara Jelavich, eds., The Balkans in Transition. Essays on the Development of Balkan Life and Politics Since the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
• L. S. Stavrianos, The Balkans, 1815-1914 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963)
• William H. McNeill, Europe’s Steppe Frontier, 1500-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964)
• Charles and Barbara Jelavich, The Balkans (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965)
• Traian Stoianovich, A Study in Balkan Civilization (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967)
• Charles Jelavich, ed, Language and Area Studies. East Central and Southeastern Europe: A Survey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)
• Paul L. Horecky, ed., Southeastern Europe: A Guide to Basic Publications (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)
• Joseph Rothschild, East Central Europe between the Two World Wars (A History of East Central Europe, edited by Peter F. Sugar and Donald W. Treadgold, University of Washington, 1974)
• Helmut W. Schaller, Die Balkansprachen. Eine Einführung in die Balkanphilologie (Heidelberg, 1975)
• Michael Impey, “The Present State of Romanian Studies in the United States and Canada,” Modern Language Journal, Vol. 59 (1975), Nr. 5-6, pp. 262-272
• Radoslav Katičić and Mate Križman, Ancient Languages of the Balkans (The Hague, 1976)
• Agnija V. Desnickaja, Grammatičeskij stroj balkanskikh iazykov: issledovanija po semantike grammatičeskikh form [Grammatical Organization of the Balkan Languages: Studies of the Semantics of Grammatical Forms] (Leningrad, 1976)
• Peter F. Sugar, Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804 (A History of East Central Europe, edited by Peter F. Sugar and Donald W. Treadgold, University of Washington, 1977)
• Charles and Barbara Jelavich, The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 1804-1920 (A History of East Central Europe, edited by Peter F. Sugar and Donald W. Treadgold, University of Washington, 1977)
• Michael B. Petrovich, “American Work on East European History, 1966-1976,” Balkanistica, Vol. 4 (1977-1978), pp. 89-122
• Kostas Kazazis, “Albanian, Hungarian, Modern Greek, and Rumanian Linguistics: 1966-1976,” Balkanistica, Vol. 4 (1977-1978), pp. 132-145
• Georg R. Solta, Einführung in die Balkanlinguistik mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Substrats und des Balkanlateinischen, (Darmstadt, 1980)
• Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans. Volume I: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Volume II: Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)
• Emanuele E. Banfi, Linguistica balcanica (Bologna, 1985), Jacques Feuillet, La linguistique balkanique (Paris, 1986)
• Petia Asenova, Balkansko ezikoznanie. Osnovni problemi na balkanskija ezikov sŭjuz [Balkan Linguistics: Fundamental Problems of the Balkan Sprachbund] (Sofia, 1989; V. Tŭrnovo 2002)
• Tat’jana V. Civ’jan, Lingvističeskie osnovy balkanskoj modeli mira [Linguistics Foundations of the Balkan Model of the World] (Moscow, 1990)
• Norbert Reiter, Grundzüge der Balkanologie: ein Schritt in die Eurolinguistik (Berlin & Wiesbaden, 1994)
• Jean Sedlar, East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500 (A History of East Central Europe, edited by Peter F. Sugar and Donald W. Treadgold, University of Washington, 1994)
• Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
• Uwe Hinrichs (ed.), Handbuch der Südosteuropa-Linguistik (Wiesbaden, 1999)
• Paul Robert Magocsi, Historical Atlas of Central Europe, Revised and Expanded Edition (A History of East Central Europe, edited by Peter F. Sugar and Donald W. Treadgold, University of Washington, 2002)
Major current periodicals
• Balkan Studies (Institute for Balkan Studies, Thessalonike, 1960-)
• Balcanica (Serbian Academy of Sciences, Belgrade, 1970-)
• Balkanistica (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1974-)
• East European Politics and Society (1986-)
• Études balkaniques: cahiers Pierre Belon (Paris: De Boccard, 1994-)
• Linguistique balkanique (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia, 1959-)
• Revue des études sud-est européennes (Romanian Academy of Sciences, Bucharest, 1963-)
◦ Articles between 1963 and 2007 are now accessible online.
• Slavjanskoe i balkanskoe jazykoznanie (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1975-)
• Southeastern Europe (1974-)
• Slovenski jezik / Slovene Linguistic Studies (Ljubljana, Slovenia and Lawrence, KS, USA, 1997-)
• Studime Filologjike (Albanian Academy of Sciences, Tirana, 1964-)
• Studime Historike (Albanian Academy of Sciences, Tirana, 1964-)
• Zeitschrift für Balkanologie (Munich: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 1962-)
• News about Early Modern Greek Studies -> http://www.early-modern-greek.org/
• Macedonian Language E-Learning Center -> http://macedonianlanguage.org/
• Society for Romanian Studies website -> www.society4romanianstudies.org/
• Institutul de Studii Sud-Est Europene (Bucuresti) -> www.acadsudest.ro//index.php?option=articles&cntid=10&itemID=30
• Institutul de Istorie N. Iorga (Bucuresti) -> www.iini.ro
• Institutul de Istorie A. D. Xenopol (Iasi) -> http://iit.iit.tuiasi.ro/adxenopol/
◦ Anuarul Institutului de Istorie A. D. Xenopol, are online at http://iit.iit.tuiasi.ro/adxenopol/aiix.html
◦ Xenopoliana, at http://iit.iit.tuiasi.ro/adxenopol/xenopolitana.html
◦ Studia et Acta Historiae Iudaeorum Romaniae at http://iit.iit.tuiasi.ro/adxenopol/sahir.html
◦ Other publications are listed at http://iit.iit.tuiasi.ro/adxenopol/publicatii.html
• Institutul de Istorie George Baritiu (Cluj-Napoca) -> www.history-cluj.ro/
◦ Anuarul Institutului de Istorie George Baritiu. Seria Historica
▪ Articles between 2006 and 2010 accessible at www.historica-cluj.ro/arhiva_digitizata.php
◦ Bibliografia istorica a Romaniei -> www.history-cluj.ro/Istorie/Ro/startIstorie_BibliografiaIstorica.htm
The Krulls’ precarious existence is contrasted with that of their only friends, another German immigrant family, the Schoofs, who run a butter and cheese shop. They have assimilated better: only French is spoken in the shop, and it seems that the town has decided – partly from the name – that the Schoofs are in fact Dutch. On such nuances do lives and livelihoods depend.
(…)(their German cousin’s) behaviour alarms the ‘French’ Krulls. He lies casually, and confesses those lies just as casually; he also forged that letter of introduction from his father, who died 15 years previously. But, worse than all this, he blatantly and deliberately offends against the first law of the immigrant: do not draw attention to yourself. And by drawing attention to himself, Hans Krull also draws attention to those ‘impure’ relatives of his who live beside the canal where the town runs out.
(…) wider notion that those, like Hans, who take life less seriously than others are better equipped to survive it.
(…)though this is a roman dur, we are never far from Brooknerland: the world of the immigrant, of navigating cautiously in a foreign country – foreign, even if you have been born and done your military service there.
(…)I can imagine Anita admiring Simenon’s grasp of the restless dynamic between autochthon and immigrant, especially when anything goes wrong.
(…) Virtue is turned into vice: if the immigrant doesn’t work hard, he is a scrounger; if he does, he is money-minded and avaricious. Simenon well understands what spurs and then animates a rising swell of racist indignation.
(…)Simon Leys, that wise Belgian Sinologist, critic and novelist, rightly notes, in The Hall of Uselessness, Simenon’s ability to achieve ‘unforgettable effects by ordinary means. His language is poor and bare (like the language of the unconscious) … It would be difficult to make an anthology of his best pages: he does not have best pages, he only has better novels, in which everything hangs together without a single seam.’
(…)What is his stated reason for refusing to return there? It made my head jolt back. ‘Because there was talk of putting me in a concentration camp.’ The words camp de concentration occur four times in the novel (in a different lie, Hans’s long-dead father has recently been put in one). I checked the date of the book: Simenon finished it at La Rochelle on 27 July 1938. What was all that about most people being ignorant of concentration camps until after the war? It is there in the popular fiction of the day.
Books travel strangely through time, sometimes remaining just themselves, sometimes picking up an extra charge and weight from the circumstances in which they are read. I was reading Chez Krull not many months after the Brexit vote and what appeared to be its immediate social repercussions: the wall-daubings, the increase in racial abuse, the throwing of shit at ‘foreign’ women, the arson of a halal butcher, the licensed aggro of ‘English patriots’, the killing of a Pole in Harlow. Even in my strongly Remain part of London, I noticed some of its effects: for instance, the way Eastern European builders now lowered their voices rather than shouting at one another in cheery Slavic accents.
(…)both campaigns had been rampantly mendacious, and built on the armature of fear. Towards the end, I asked the table: ‘If it all goes wrong, who will you hate the most: Gove, Johnson, or Farage?’ Gove was beneath numerical notice; Johnson got seven votes; I put my own marker against Farage. In the context of Brexit, Johnson seemed to me just a chancer; Farage, on the other hand, had been poisoning the well for years, with his fake man-in-pub chaff, his white paranoia and low-to-mid-level racism (isn’t it hard to hear English spoken on a train nowadays?).
(…)(Boris Johnson) hadn’t done much as London mayor, except to rebrand Ken’s red bicycle project as Boris’s blue bicycle project, but he didn’t seem an objectionable cheerleader for the city. And hecouldn’t possibly be a racist either, could he, because he’s more than a bit Turkish himself? Then there was a slight family reason for cutting him some slack. Whenever anyone slagged him off in my presence, I would say: ‘Well, my brother taught about twenty future MPs when he was at Oxford, and he told me that Boris was the nicest as well as the cleverest of them.’ At the time, it felt like an answer; no longer. My brother now lives in France, his British pension has fallen in value by 10 per cent, and he’s become a bargaining chip. Maybe his ex-pupil could post him some cash.
When Johnson covered Brussels for the Daily Telegraph, he was part of a decades-long press campaign, whose main features were straight bananas, unelected bureaucrats (does no one ever wonder about Britain’s unelected bureaucrats?) and high-end expenses (while our MPs merely put in for duck-houses, moat-clearance and jumbo TV sets). And as anti-Zionism may often disguise anti-Semitism, so Europhobia proves a handy disguise for wider xenophobia
(…)Few prime ministers in the years since Edward Heath signed us into the EEC have found it either natural or politically expedient to enthuse about Europe. I grew tired of hearing Major and then Blair insisting that we were ‘at the heart of Europe’ when we hadn’t joined the euro or signed up to the Schengen Agreement. Politicians never tried to sell Europe to the British people as anything other than an advantageous commercial joint venture. Ours has been an entirely pragmatic membership, never an idealistic one.
(…)Before 1973, De Gaulle twice blocked Britain’s admittance to the Community. Oh, we said to ourselves, that’s just because he didn’t like the way he was treated in London during the war (when Churchill declared that the heaviest cross he had to bear was the Cross of Lorraine). Some of De Gaulle’s reasons were indeed personal and historical – going back as far as the humiliating Fashoda Incident of 1898. But his expression of them was precise. The British, he said, should not be allowed to join Europe because they were not communautaire
(…)And now, decades on, we can see that he was right. We have been very unsatisfactory Europeans, the rude boys farting in the corner. Give us this exemption, that opt-out, we want our money back.
(…)Arse sticks to seat like never before. Look at Boris Johnson: sacked by the Times for fabricating a quote, sacked by a Conservative party leader for lying, openly lying in the referendum (the NHS ‘pledge’, the zillion Turkish ‘immigrants’ on their way here), and he ends up as foreign secretary.
It’s not a question of being aggressive, just sure of yourselves. Like when the Jews go and live somewhere else. They’re not ashamed of their names, or their noses. They’re not ashamed of their business sense, or their greed. That’s how it is and not otherwise. So much the worse for other people and what they think. They live among themselves and don’t care if kids pull faces at them in the street.
Simenon signed off the novel four months before Kristallnacht; and Hans is hardly being set up as a repository of any truth other than his own. But Joseph’s bafflement reflects the insoluble dilemma of the immigrant: damned if you do (try to ‘be like them’), damned if you don’t, and equally damned if you take up some midway position. Here in Britain today, there is a dismal clarity to the official position. You save children from a burning house – you get chucked out; you care for your British husband and British children for decades, but also spend time abroad caring for your relatives – you get chucked out; you misplace a comma while filling up an 85-page form, or fail to come up with a historic gas bill – you get chucked out. Some, either fearful or disgusted, are already chucking themselves out in order to keep their families together.
But this is not exactly a change of policy: the Home Office under Theresa May had a routine policy of appealing, all the way to the top, in any immigration case that went against them. Now it is as if the Brexit vote has given them permission to purify the country except when there is popular outcry and mass petition in a particular case. And what is the Brexiteers’ vision of our future, purified nation? It seems to be a mixture of Merrie England, Toytown and Singapore. Outward-looking in the sense of ‘open for business’, which tends to mean ‘up for sale’. Inward-looking in other senses. Morally depleted by cutting ourselves off from Europe and sheltering beneath Trump’s fragrant armpit. What might we end up as? Perhaps a kind of Bigger Belgium with quasi-American values – also, as Belgium might be, torn into separate nations again. Do we seriously think that those who voted for Brexit are going to be better off under this state-shrinking government? (I can’t recall the slogan ‘Poorer but Happier’ being used.) That the NHS will be properly funded? That the increasing numbers on zero-hours will not be exploited further? That the old winners will be the new, even bigger winners? Do we seriously believe that Mrs May will construct ‘a country that works for everyone’? To the pieties of our current political elite, I much prefer the old Portuguese proverb: ‘If shit were valuable, the poor would be born without arses.’
Back in the run-up to the referendum, ‘English patriots’, in the guise of football supporters at the European Championship, marched round Marseille chanting: ‘Fuck Off Europe, We’re All Voting Out.’ Similarly, Mrs May doesn’t like too much cosmopolitanism: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,’ she contends, ‘you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ Simon Leys, who was born Pierre Ryckmans in Belgium and proceeded via Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong to Australia, where he lived from 1970 until his death in 2014, understood both the paradox of parochialism and the danger of ‘national culture’. That paradox had been well expressed by Borges: ‘The writer who was born in a big country is always in danger of believing that the culture of his native country encompasses all his needs. Paradoxically, he therefore runs the risk of becoming provincial.’
Leys elaborated on this: just as Goethe lived in Weimar – then ‘a town somewhat smaller than Queanbeyan’ – but kept up not just with the English and French literary scenes, but with the latest Chinese novels as well, so ‘cosmopolitanism is more easily achieved in a provincial setting, whereas life in a metropolis can insidiously result in a form of provincialism.’ He concludes:
Culture is born out of exchanges and thrives on differences. In this sense, ‘national culture’ is a self-contradiction, and ‘multiculturalism’ a pleonasm. The death of culture lies in self-centredness, self-sufficiency and isolation. (Here, for instance, the first concern – it seems – should not be to create an Australian culture, but a cultured Australia.)
Boris Johnson suavely assures both us and Johnny Foreigner out there, that ‘we are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.’ Well, it depends what that means. And also what Europe decides. But I would rather listen to the young female bassoonist whom I ran into as I was coming out of the polling station on Referendum Day. She had played in period orchestras all over Europe; we talked about music and literature, and she told me how Mahler and Shostakovich wrote for the bassoon. When she mentioned enjoying a short story of mine, I replied – ‘soppy-stern’ – that I hoped she understood that none of my readers was allowed to vote for Brexit. ‘God, no,’ she said. All the musicians she knew had had their lives enriched by being in the European Union and the interchanges it had made possible; they were ‘shitting themselves’ that the vote might go the wrong way.
Like many Remainers, I feel complicated emotions about Brexit, as I did about the Iraq war. Those of us who were against the war wanted Bush and Blair and the MPs who voted for it to have their faces rubbed in their own folly, to be proved massively, damagingly wrong, to enjoy vast hubris; while at the same time we hoped that this would not involve too many British soldiers or innocent civilians (or innocent Iraqi soldiers) getting killed; we also hoped that the coalition had a victory strategy, and that the wider regional consequences would not be too disastrous. (And look how all that turned out.) Similarly, I now hope that – as seems likely – the smug confidence of the leading Brexiteers, and their arrogantly aggressive pre-negotiation attitudes will run up against European reality, and be well punished. That Europe will make us stump up all we owe, that a hard Brexit will ensue, that the European Union will make us wait as long as Canada had to wait for a trade deal, that Trump will make us a humiliatingly America-First offer. That those parts of Left Behind Britain who voted to quit the EU will discover that the bright new future without all those Poles and Romanians and Bulgarians means that they will now have to pick strawberries, grade potatoes and care for the demented, and that, capitalism being what it is, the wages won’t be any higher. That the good folk of Cornwall and Ebbw Vale, who overwhelmingly voted Leave despite major EU funding both past and promised, and whose councillors immediately petitioned central government to match those lost ‘foreign’ handouts, will be told that, unfortunately, the money has run out. And so on. But I also wish that somehow my country comes out of it all without too much collateral damage. The Iraq war is not an encouraging parallel.
And another thing. Can we please get over the solemn-voiced mantra of ‘The People Have Spoken’? The People were asked a question by an over-confident political elite, allowed a monosyllabic reply, whereupon a slightly different version of the same elite chooses to interpret that monosyllable in a way that fits its own political and internal-party interests. As for the much invoked ‘Will of the People’, there was – obviously – no common will. And the ‘Will of the People’ leads all too easily to ‘Enemies of the People’, that Stalinist phrase now embraced by the Daily Mail, the Pravda of the right. The Mail, which gave its readers thirty pages of more important news and comment before deigning to report the conviction of Jo Cox’s murderer, and which has itself now been delisted as a source of reliable information by Wikipedia. That squalid headline resulted in extra security being required for the judiciary. But at least it’s English judges being protected by English policeman against English ‘patriots’. So that’s all right then.
The day after the vote, I was walking in my local park when a man cycled towards me straight over a no cycling sign. I gave him a routine, unthinking glare, to which he responded with a shout of ‘Oi, Flaubert, where are you now?’ A rare North London cry of Brexiteering triumphalism. The following day, the English rugby team beat the Wallabies in Australia to register a 3-0 series victory. An Australian newspaper headlined the result: ‘Now Another Continent Hates You As Well.’ We shouldn’t underestimate this reaction to our current national trajectory. We have our sentimental vision of how others see us: as correct, humorous, eccentric, polite, tolerant, phlegmatic and so on – ‘très British’. But historically, they have equally – if not more often – thought of us as cold, arrogant, violent, self-interested, racist and hypocritical. A French woman who has lived in England for thirty years told me in the days after the referendum that she was thinking of moving back to France. And though she is the gentlest of persons, and not at all interested in politics, she added: ‘Now people will hate you again.’ Note the ‘again’. We may be in for some jours durs.