Thursday, 25 August 2016 16:36

My European Bookshelf: Shakespeare to Calvino

Written by Sam Volpe

 3320452655 be4c49997c zPhoto: jvoves (Flickr); Licence CC BY 2.0 

What is Europe? Is Europe more a geographical, cultural, political or economic concept? What defines the European identity? These are all questions E&M has pondered from the very beginning, and over the years we’ve come up with many very different answers. Indeed, our vision of what Europe is and should be is influenced by many factors. With this new regular feature, My European Bookshelf, we wanted to consider one of those factors: literature. In this space, E&M has invited young Europeans to share the books that have shaped their understanding and perception of Europe. 

The idea of this column —to be written by someone new each time — is that on our bookshelves we keep an idea of Europe. Over days and weeks and months of reading we travel across borders we might never even dream of in real life. I've written about a few examples of (at times only vaguely) European writing and why I feel they're important; if you're scratching around for something good to read, this list might be a start. You see, on my bookshelves, there are many versions of Europe, from the bloody and historical to the whimsical, the factual, and the symbolic. It is worth noting too, that I have used this space to write what I can only describe as a literary prescription: at least some of these books will be good for your soul. 

In today's Europe, the wars of the 20th century loom large in our cultural consciousness, and this extends to my bookshelves. As a child, one of my first introductions to 'adult fiction' came reading Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong.  Faulks' evocation of pre-WW1 France is evocative, whilst the destruction of the Somme which comes later in the novel is heartbreaking. Faulks is perhaps a somewhat maligned 'middle-brow' writer, but this is him at his most vivid. It is to this book more than any other that I owe my rose-tinted view of France. Faulks' Amiens of the early 20th century is a town that no longer exists, if it ever did, but that hardly matters. 

The treatment of Jews in Europe is one of the continent's darkest recurring themes and and something well worth deeply reflecting upon. (Indeed, there is a compelling argument that Shakespeare's portrayal of a spiteful Jewish moneylender in this play is itself troubling.)

Another poignant war story worth reading is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Ostensibly a children's book, it contains the most touching portrait of death I can remember, and renders wartime Europe beautifully. Zusak is an Australian, but his civilian account of war complements Faulks' military story; and both are reminders of the troubling century Europe endured. 
It would be remiss to write about my relationship with European literature without recognising The Bard. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is perhaps my favourite example of his European sensibility. Portia's 'The Quality of Mercy' speech remains one of the most powerful pieces of rhetoric in existence, whilst the treatment of Jews in Europe is one of the continent's darkest recurring themes and something well worth deeply reflecting upon. (Indeed, there is a compelling argument that Shakespeare's portrayal of a spiteful Jewish moneylender in this play is itself troubling. Read this, or even better, try to catch a production and make your own mind up.)
Back in the 21st century, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels are hard to avoid in certain literary circles at the moment. This is for good reason. My somewhat sub-standard Italian means that I have only read My Brilliant Friend in translation, but the honesty of the story so far (no spoilers, please!) is powerful. Growing up is tough wherever you do it, and Ferrante's Naples is a warm and lived-in place, and her account of the conflicting feelings that accompany going to new schools and becoming in effect new people is startling. Read the novels before you're the only person on the planet left out. 
Whilst I have so far talked about depictions of real places, some my favourite writing is set in locales that are, whilst clearly European for a variety of reasons, fictional. William Goldman's The Princess Bride is more famous as a cult film starring Andre the Giant, however the novel on which the film is based is equally thrilling. It is not explicitly an European book; Its swashbuckling adventure takes place somewhere not-quite-real, but Florin and Guilder are countries grounded in the idea of renaissance Europe — and who could forget the trio of colourful Europeans— the Sicilian criminal Vizzini, Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya, and Turkish wrestler Fezzik— who play a central role in the story?
Other not-quite Europes are perceptible in Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciasia and The City and The City by China Mieville. Very different novels, these however both portray European cities of a darker hue. Equal Danger's world passes for an Italy beset by corruption (although it is deliberately not named that way), and t classic example of the doomed noir detective.   Meanwhile, the fantastical conceit of Mieville's two-cities-in-one somewhere in mitteleuropa is at first hard to get your head around, but then a powerful way of thinking about how we relate to one another. In his Besźel and Ul Qoma citizens are engaged in a bizarre act of not-seeing— they ignore the second city in front of their eyes, the buildings in between the ones they choose to see, the people dressed and speaking in a different way. In a time of strife and refugee crisis, Mieville's writing feels essential in 2016. 

Photo: Ruth Hartnup  (Flickr) ; Licence: CC BY 2.0

Of course in the end reading itself feels essential in 2016, but I guess I would — as a committed bibliophile who has had to ban himself from bookshops (sorry Waterstones)— say that. On a global and a continental scale we are grappling with problems that can make us feel lost or overwrought. In books and words we can both learn and take refuge. 
Hopefully a few of these titles will help you do that. If not, I have two final suggestions. Firstly, seek out the writing of Zadie Smith. Novelist and essayist both, the London-born writer is one of the most piercingly important voices out there, NW is the novel you need to read to understand London, whilst this New York Review piece about the troubling little worlds we build for ourselves is utterly exceptional. And then, if the metaphysical is more your thing, there's always Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities which will long remain one of the most thoughtful and beautiful books I have ever had the fortune to read. 
I hope this helps. 

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 October 2016 16:09

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