Tim Parks, writing in the New York Review of Books blog, recalls a time (1904) when the English Football Association declined to participate in the formation of an International Football Federation (FIFA), not quite seeing the point of the exercise. Even in 1930 they thought the journey across the southern Atlantic to participate in the World Cup in Uruguay was not really worth the bother and expense. They could after all play Scotland, and whether the fixture was at Wembley or Hampden Park, plenty of people would turn up for that. (Close to 150,000 fans came to the match at Hampden in 1937, a European crowd record.) Who needs Argentina or Brazil when you’ve got Scotland?
Parks does not want particularly to make a point about football or even sport in general, rather about literature, and the point, or pointlessness, of awarding international prizes in that sphere. He and his colleague at the Università di communicazione e lingue (IULM) Edoardo Zucatto organised a conference (an international conference of course) in Milan last month entitled Towards a Global Literature. The Mexican writer Jorge Volpi, though declaring himself in favour of internationalisation, nevertheless pointed out how difficult it had become at the height of the vogue for magical realism for South American writers to get themselves published if they didn’t subscribe to this stylised and at the time enormously fashionable fictional mode. Volpi told the conference how in the 1990s a group of Chilean writers formed the so-called McOndo group (an ironic reformulation of Macondo, the central location in One Hundred Years of Solitude), complaining that the international vogue for magical realism was preventing South American writers from recounting more prosaic truths about their countries.
“To what extent,” asks Parks, “are novelists ‑ like athletes in the Olympics, or soccer players in the World Cup ‑ being asked to contribute to the building of a vast and for the moment largely imaginary global culture? In what way does this change the kind of literature that gets written, and the way it is written and talked about?”
Edoardo Zuccato attacked the whole concept of post-colonial literature, suggesting that those postwar writers in Africa and India who had chosen to write in English and French for the international community had not only given us a superficial and easily consumed exoticism; in doing so they had made it less likely that a Western public would make the effort to read those working in the local languages and offering something that would be genuinely “other” from the Western novel package we are used to.
“What I found fascinating,” writes Parks, “as this discussion bounced back and forth, was that no one seemed to accept the idea that it might be enough to address one’s own community, that perhaps it was not strictly necessary to appear in this global space or contribute to its formation. Why should the literary world allow itself to be hijacked by this larger project?”
“The ideal of a single world community,” he writes, “is an entirely honourable thing, but when literature (like football) becomes an instrument for creating that community, then there are other implications that may not be so attractive. Bas Heijne, a Dutch essayist and critic, gave one of the most interesting talks of the conference, suggesting that globalization invites us to see our own cultures as foreign and minor and even proposing that as English dominates the international literary scene, fiction is becoming more and more self referential and less genuinely engaged with any society. However, despite Heijne’s fascinating presentation, none of his own considerable body of work is available in English. Who would translate a Dutch essayist?”
A few years back – during the Bush era I think it was – the much lampooned public intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévy (designer suit, white shirt open at the neck and a good bit below, hair a little too long) – responded to an article in an American newspaper disparaging contemporary French literary culture, which, the article argued, had turned in on itself and no longer packed the worldwide punch it had in the mid-twentieth century. There is something to be said for this view: fifty years ago we had Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Malraux, Mauriac, Bernanos. Today we have, well, Michel Houellebecq; JMG Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize in 2008, but that is scarcely enough to make Anglophones read him. BHL, however, argued that “having a worldwide reach” was not the only nor even necessarily the best way to measure the worth or effectiveness of a culture.
Even without francophonie (Kinshasa, Abidjan and Montreal all harbour more French-speakers than Lyon, Marseille or Bordeaux), metropolitan France has sufficient population (65 million) to support a self-sustaining literary culture, Henri-Lévy argued. And if French fiction does not any longer speak to other traditions but still very definitely speaks to the French, well that is not nothing. Certainly France once aspired to culturally dominate (and civilise) the world, but perhaps it does not so aspire any more, or not so much. And packing a (worldwide) punch, we might remember, can sometimes leave the minor players with bloody noses. Certainly there is a point to be made here: to an outsider France’s publishing and particularly bookselling sectors seem to be in significantly better health than those in more rudely commercial societies. True, not many people may have heard of Jérôme Ferrari or Marie NDiaye (Goncourt prizewinners), while not many people can avoid hearing about EL James. And so?
Parks speaks of “a vast and for the moment largely imaginary global culture”, but even if it is not in all respects desirable one doubts if it is imaginary. And global reach is scarcely new. English public schoolboys have been trained for more than two centuries on Homer and Horace, while the nineteenth century German and Italian stage thrilled to Shakespeare. There is, however, a debate about the merit of “our own” traditions and perspectives and how – or even if – we should protect them. The rival schools here have sometimes been called nativism and cosmopolitanism. In an essay to appear very shortly in the Dublin Review of Books, George O’Brien will touch on this question as it involved Daniel Corkery and Sean O’Faolain in the mid-twentieth century.