An illustration by Toby Whitebread depicting a library of world literature

Is it in any way “important” to read writers from our own country? Is there even any real difference in reading a book from home and a book from abroad?

Or to put it another way: when I pick up a novel, is it merely a question of a free-floating individual, the absolute, unconditioned me, picking up any literary performance from any time or clime and simply deciding after an hour or two whether I like the thing or not, so that when the final page is turned it is immaterial whether this book was written in Manchester or Melbourne and whether I grew up in Gloucester or Grozny?

I am trying to find a frame for the recent debate on the English school literature syllabus, a way of considering the question that will take us beyond the merest collision between supposedly blinkered nationalism (UK education secretary Michael Gove wants Charles Dickens) and supposedly enlightened openness (the writer Robert McCrum and Guardian readers prefer John Steinbeck). I also want to suggest that the fact this debate is taking place at all is part of a deep change occurring in the way literature is written and read across the world, a change also reflected in the decision to open the Man Booker prize to all fiction written in English.

Or is it rather a question of me as member of a community, steeped in my national culture, picking up a novel that may or may not have been produced in that same culture, within or without a framework of shared assumptions? If this version is more accurate, then my reaction to a book might very well depend on where it was written and where I was born.

For example: a boy from a well-to-do Cheltenham family is given Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, recognises in Hogwarts school a caricature of his own public school – certain teachers seem to be drawn from life! – and is thrilled to see his familiar world transformed by witchcraft and magic. Meantime, a middle-class girl in Bangkok is given a copy of the same book; she finds the magic surrounding Harry and company rather bland but is bewildered and delighted by a bizarre education system that subjects its precocious children to eccentric teachers in remote and bleak environments. What we think about the relationship between writer, reader and community matters; the question of whether writer and reader, at the deepest level, share a common language, is not an irrelevant one.

Michael Gove is insisting that English schoolchildren read Shakespeare and Dickens. The first wrote his plays for a specific London theatre, with certain actors and a familiar public in mind, his dramas of usurpation and regicide, whether in England, Denmark or Rome, nodding towards a local and volatile political environment that everyone was aware of. Dickens’s stories are built on observation and mimicry of a wide range of characters in a mainly middle-class urban English society which was very much the world of his readers. He often referred to his readers as his family and they recognised at once the kind of people he was talking about. Even if one can hardly prove that any specific social reform arose out of Dickens’s novels, they were certainly part of the contemporary debate and contributed to the atmosphere that eventually led to reform.

So, we could think of literature as being produced within a community and having to do with that community. In that case, books produced in the same culture would start to have more meaning when read together. As time passes we would expect to see the community changing in the books it produces, with writers deliberately differentiating themselves from each other, the way William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) is a consciously dystopian rewriting of R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858).

An illustration by Toby Whitebread  depicting pages falling away from world literature
© Toby Whitebread

Such thoughts would offer a justification for drawing up a literature syllabus whose core at least has to do with works created in our own country, past and present, not out of crass nationalism but to help children understand the role of literature in our culture and, at least partly, to understand our past and ourselves. The more a kinship is sensed in our own writers, the more we can grasp the differences of a work coming from elsewhere.

But is the world still like this? Does any writer today have a relation to their reading public remotely similar to the one Dickens enjoyed in Victorian England? Let me try and set up a paradigm for the present situation with a few words on Italy and Italian literature, since that is the country where I have now lived most of my life.

“What a bore,” remarked Alessandro Manzoni more or less as Dickens was writing Pickwick Papers (1836-37), “when there are five or six of us in a friend’s house talking together in Milanese and somebody from Turin, or Venice, or Bologna, or Naples, or Genoa comes into the room.” Switching from the local dialect to Italian, which only five per cent of Italians then spoke, the fun went out of the conversation. “You tell me,” Manzoni complains, “if we now have the same readiness and confidence in the words we choose, you tell me if we don’t have to use generic and approximate words, where before the special word was ready.”

Everything was more immediate and real for Manzoni in his local mother tongue. But later this same man would rewrite his great novel The Betrothed (1827), shifting it away from a Lombard, Milanese Italian, towards the Tuscan Italian that he had come to believe should be the “proper” language of the new nation that was forming. As a result the 1842 edition of the novel would become the cornerstone of modern Italian literature and is still absolutely compulsory reading in every Italian liceo. The intimate immediacy of the local was sacrificed to reach a wider audience and create a national public with a shared identity.

Today the outsider intruding in intimate conversations across Italy is not a Neapolitan or a Venetian – all Italians now speak Italian – but a foreigner. And wherever he or she is from, the conversation will switch from the local to, most likely, English. This is true all over Europe and much of the world. Of course at an elite level there has always been an international community, once Latin-speaking then francophone; now such a community is forming at all social levels, and speaking English. More and more we are all invited to join an international conversation.

If, then, when nations were forming, writers began to address their work to a national audience, wouldn’t it be logical that now, in a period of intense globalisation, they might think of their books from the start as being destined to travel beyond national borders? Hardly noticing the shift perhaps, the novelist begins to have a foreign audience in mind.

The New York Times recently ran an article celebrating contemporary foreign authors who have chosen to write in English (the Italian Francesca Marciano, the Russian Ellen Litman, the Bosnian Aleksandar Hemon, among others). But to change languages is a drastic move. Not everyone will succeed. In the 1950s the Dutch writer Gerard Reve boldly announced: “Let us no longer express ourselves in a local argot.” He wrote in English, failed to find an audience and eventually switched back, disgusted, to Dutch. At the same time, although many Europeans have English as a second language, relatively few regularly read novels in English. The fact is that the world is not short of translators and there are many other ways of crafting a fictional work to encourage its reception in other countries than our own. This is where the more intriguing changes are occurring.

How does it happen that a reader begins to feel at home with the literature of a foreign country? The simplest scenario is when we begin to think of ourselves as involved in that country and its destiny. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, one of the books squeezed off the compulsory syllabus by Gove’s reforms, was written in California in the 1930s and is intensely engaged in an American social debate. But it is written in English and historically the British share a great deal with Americans. British cinema and television are overwhelmed by American productions, and we hear so much about their elections we sometimes wonder why we’re not allowed to vote in them. It’s not such a big step to read Steinbeck.

This openness to American literature is general across Europe. Go into any European bookshop and you find 50 per cent to 70 per cent of novels are translations, the vast majority from English, above all American English. Since the 1960s European readers have grown used to reading fiction set in a society quite distant from their own. So constant is the presence of Americana in their lives that no mediation is required beyond the act of translation. Jonathan Franzen can pack his descriptions with every kind of American paraphernalia – mechanised recliners, air-hockey tables, refrigerated beer kegs – and still be widely read.

The same is not true the other way round. American and English readers are not overwhelmed by foreign texts and, with the exception perhaps of crime novels, show significant resistance to the minutiae of countries they know little about. Only three per cent of the novels on British and American shelves are translations. But then Europeans show the same resistance towards cultures they do not know. A writer from, say, Serbia, offering the same density of local cultural reference Franzen has, would require significant editing, or some radical act of mediation before being accepted for publication in Italy or Spain.

Rudyard Kipling died a year before Of Mice and Men was published. Spending much of his life in India he set about presenting that vast and strange continent to the English in stories that contained exoticism in a familiar narrative tradition. It was a new kind of enterprise, explaining one culture to another, not in travel books, but in novels. Accused of being an apologist for empire, his project was as widely criticised as it was praised, but in the end it was not so different from the logic that drives the work of such contemporary writers as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Whether we’re reading The Satanic Verses (1988) or The God of Small Things (1997), our exposure to the subcontinent is softened and mediated by endless references to western, usually English culture. When translating Rushdie into French, German or Italian, for example, the problem is not with Indian references, all usefully explained, but the many allusions to English literature. In Roy’s book English connections to India are everywhere stressed; characters watch The Sound of Music, listen to “Ruby Tuesday”, read The Jungle Book, are likened to Hansel and Gretel, quote Sir Walter Scott, play Handel’s The Water Music and keep bottles of French perfume in the safe. Readers need never fear they are too far from home.

Meanwhile, huge numbers of novels appear in native Indian languages but are rarely translated for readers in the west. When they are, they are challenging. UR Ananthamurthy’s wonderful novels Samskara and Bhava introduce us to a truly foreign tradition with a completely different range of reference as they delve into changing religious customs. But unmediated for a western public, they have not become part of the international conversation. Globalisation is not a level playing field.

Postcolonial literature, then, offered a new phenomenon: the author writing about a world, but not towards that world and not in the local language. As if Dickens had written about London for the Chinese, in Chinese. But there are many more subtle forms of mediation than those deployed by Rushdie or Roy. Perhaps the most successful was the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, which allowed us to engage with the history of Colombia by transforming it into a colourful fantasy where more or less anything could happen.

Loved by most, Márquez was loathed by many later South American writers who felt he had made it impossible to interest an international audience in the real life of their countries. In fact, had Márquez used the realism of Steinbeck, it is hard to imagine there would have been such sustained enthusiasm for an account of the vicissitudes of Colombia. Any form of fantasy or fable writing has the (commercial) advantage that it does not require intimate knowledge of a particular social context. Not surprisingly fantasy fiction is one of the dominant genres in bookshops around the world.

But there are many ways of sparing foreign readers unnecessary effort. Per Petterson’s excellent novel Out Stealing Horses (2003, published in English in 2006) requires and offers no knowledge at all about his native Norway or Norwegians. Likewise the Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s fine book Seven Years (2009, English publication 2012). Universal and existential issues are to the fore – love, death, betrayal, things we all want or fear – while anything specific to a community’s immediate identity and politics is left aside. Less admirable was the chintzy literariness of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker winner The Luminaries or Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century (2009, translated into English in 2012). Here all is pastiche and cleverness, the supposedly historical setting merely a passport to fantasy that will travel. These are the kind of books international literary prizes were invented for.

Where does that leave us with the English school literature syllabus? And, more importantly, what are we to think now of the idea of national literature? Should we hail the advent of a global community, give students a copy of Longman’s Anthology of World Literature and tell them they are free to choose between the Arab poet Ibn al-’Arabi, or the Chinese Li Yu, or Dante, or Pushkin, or Rabindranath Tagore, or Chinua Achebe? Should we regret that in opening to the whole world of writing in English the Man Booker has driven another nail into the coffin of national literature? Or should we welcome a shortlist with no British authors at all?

None of the above. Nostalgia can be a pleasure but is rarely helpful, while the recent enthusiasm for world anthologies encourages the crazy idea that we can all understand anything from anywhere with no need for context. Perhaps what a literature syllabus might usefully do would be to give students an idea of the shifting relations between writer, community and reader, and the role books can play in building our sense of ourselves and others. So, some fine reads from our own tradition – Gove’s choices seem no worse than others – and some examples of writers from other countries, or who seek to mediate between cultures, or create stories that float free from specific cultures altogether.

Above all, students should be invited to wonder why they are being asked to read this or that book, if only to encourage them to think carefully when they choose books for themselves, so as not to fall victim to the intensifying hype that has turned out to be the most easily internationalised of all literary phenomena. This trend, however, is hardly surprising. Such is the earning potential when a novel goes global, the promotional puff inevitably gets sillier and sillier.

Tim Parks is author of ‘Painting Death’ (Harvill Secker)

Illustrations by Toby Whitebread

This article has been amended. The originally published version referred to the British school system and syllabus when it should have referred to the English school system and syllabus.

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