Writing Europe

Writing Europe


372 Pages


Democracy thrives on social dialogue and collective search for solution. As a forum for new ideas and impulses the Körber-Foundation seeks with its projects to involve citizens actively in social discourses. The private, non-profit-making foundation provides a forum for involvement in politics, education, science and international communication. Citizens who take part in competitions and round table discussions organized by the foundation benefit in many ways: they can pass on knowledge, identify problems and initiate activities. These kinds of stimulus form the Körber-Foundation’s contribution to the everyday culture of democracy.



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Published 23 January 2013
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Writing Europe

What is European about the Literatures of Europe?

Ursula Keller
  • Publisher : Central European University Press
  • Year of publication : 2003
  • Published on OpenEdition Books : 23 January 2013
  • Serie : Hors collection
  • Electronic ISBN : 9786155053986

OpenEdition Books


Electronic reference:

KELLER, Ursula. Writing Europe: What is European about the Literatures of Europe? New edition [online]. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2003 (generated 17 December 2013). Available on the Internet: <http://books.openedition.org/ceup/1611>. ISBN: 9786155053986.

Printed version:
  • ISBN : 9789639241893
  • Number of pages : 372

© Central European University Press, 2003

Terms of use:

Democracy thrives on social dialogue and collective search for solution. As a forum for new ideas and impulses the Körber-Foundation seeks with its projects to involve citizens actively in social discourses. The private, non-profit-making foundation provides a forum for involvement in politics, education, science and international communication. Citizens who take part in competitions and round table discussions organized by the foundation benefit in many ways: they can pass on knowledge, identify problems and initiate activities. These kinds of stimulus form the Körber-Foundation’s contribution to the everyday culture of democracy.

Ursula Keller

Ursula Keller is a publicist, film-maker, and dramaturg at the Literaturhaus Hamburg.

Table of contents
  1. Writing Europe

    Ursula Keller
  2. Impressions and Conversations during the Intervals

    Ilma Rakusa
  3. Europe Untitled

    Guðbergur Bergsson
  4. The Literary Hero as Hero. A Discourse in the Genre of the Intellectual Primitive

    Andrei Bitov
    1. Chapter Two. A SCYTHIAN’S DREAM
    2. Chapter One. ANACHARSIS (Yesterday’s text)
  5. Language and Terror. Seven Remarks on the Languages of Europe

    Hans Maarten van den Brink
    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
    6. 6
    7. 7
  6. Europe Has the Shape of My Brain

    Mircea Cărtărescu
  7. The Nursery School Teacher from Tversk Street

    Stefan Chwin
  8. Concentric Circles of Identity

    Aleš Debeljak
  9. Europe from the Fringe

    Jörn Donner
  10. Europe?

    Mario Fortunato
  11. The Western Bloc

  1. Eugenio Fuentes
    1. I
    2. II
  2. Notes of an Escapist

    Jens Christian Grøndahl
  3. Europa’s Lovers

    Durs Grünbein
  4. Woven Into the Web

    Daniela Hodrová
  5. Europe in My Prose and My Theatrical Work

    Panos Ioannides
  6. Europe — One Way of Reading It

    Mirela Ivanova
  7. A Sort of Huge Portugal

    Lídia Jorgel
    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
  8. Europe Writes in Time

    Dževad Karahasan
  9. Between the Local and the Universal

    Fatos Lubonja
    1. The Final Slaughter
    2. In the Seventeenth Year
    3. Prophet, Judge, Witness
  10. Europe or “Eleuthera, City of the Mnemosyne”

    Adolf Muschg
  11. In the Intimacy of Literary Writing

    Péter Nádas
  12. Guest Faces

    Emine Sevgi Özdamar
    1. Istanbul, the Half-European, Half-Asian City
  13. On the European Ingredient in the Text (with a Sidelong Glance at an Eel in a Bathtub)

    Geir Pollen
  14. In Memory of Ernst Wiechert

    Jean Rouaud
  15. “We’re All Right.” Europe’s Influence on My Writing

    Robert Schindel
    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
  16. Oh, Children Smeared with Honey and with Blood

    Ivan Štrpka
  1. The Light Falls on Me

    Richard Swartz
  2. Looking for a Widened Self-Awareness

    Nikos Themelis
  3. Europe, a Blot of Ink

    Emil Tode
  4. The Future of Europe

    Colm Toíbín
  5. You Are Leaving the American Sector

    Jean-Philippe Toussaint
  6. European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest

    Dubravka Ugrešić
    1. The Participation of G. Drubnik in the Whole Thing
    2. Europe As Far As India
  7. B-Europe

    Dragan Velikić
    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
  8. What Can Lithuania Give to Present-Day Europe

    Tomas Venclova
  9. Unfinished Thoughts

    Māra Zālīte
    1. I. Europe. A Greek myth as metaphor
    2. II. The Cross and the Sword
    3. III. Margaret and Faust

Writing Europe

Ursula Keller
Translation : Andrew Gane

Image img01.jpg

Fündiger, was das Gemeinsame im Verschiedenen
angeht, sind die Autoren, die es in einem gemeinsamen
europäischen Raum der Erfahrung, der Erinnerung, der
Lektüren und Erzählungen aufsuchen, in jenem
transnationalen kulturellen Echoraum, in dem sich die
vielen verschiedenen Stimmen Europas am ehesten
berühren, überschneiden, verknüpfen und vernetzen.

Europe and Literary Authors

1There were times when the idea of a united Europe was a profound and emphatic concern of the great European writers, giving rise to an abundance of meaningful essays on Europe. Novalis, the Schlegel brothers, Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, Rudolf Borchardt, Hermann Hesse, André Gide, Ortega y Gasset, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Thomas Heinrich and Klaus Mann, Stefan Zweig, Hermann Broch, and Alfred Döblin were all writers that not only pinned their political and cultural hopes on Europe, but also worked in various ways toward the establishment of a broader European feeling of community that would reflect pride in the variety and diversity of its culture.

2And yet since Europe stopped being the playground and battle-field of megalomaniac power fantasies or the subject of high-flown ideals and hopes and dreams, since its descent from the utopian heights to the depths of pragmatic realpolitik, the European idea seems to have lost much of its emotional appeal and intellectual power. Moreover, for some time now, the Europe under construction in Brussels appears to have purposely avoided calling upon intellectuals or ordinary citizens to reflect upon or identify and engage with the European project. It has, at best, attracted mere angry polemics. In his essay Brüssel oder Europa — eins von beiden (Brussels or Europe — one of the two), Hans Magnus Enzensberger accuses the European architects in Brussels and their institutions not only of creating decision-making processes lacking in both transparency and in democratic legitimacy, but also of promoting a centralism that will quash Europe’s great diversity of social forms, cultures, traditions, positions, and talents. In order for Europe to survive as an economic power, everything that distinguishes our part of the world from others must be eliminated as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. A competitive Europe must become quicker, larger, and more efficient; it must be more lucid and homogeneous—a kind of synthetic superpower.

3The fact that in the early part of the year it was not overgeneralization by Brussels, but America’s excessive aggression that drove the citizens of Europe onto the streets is not perhaps adequate proof of the formation of a new European public opinion. It does, however, demonstrate the need for Europe to reflect upon itself and the manner in which such public opinion might form. There can be no better time than now to draw Europe’s intellectuals and writers into a discussion about what Europe really means, and about what the continent could and must become if it wishes to be more than merely a pressure group for economic expansion with limited political responsibility. Even without their differences with America, Europeans currently have many good reasons to consider the development of a Europe that is rather different from the Euroland envisaged by Brussels. For this to happen, Europe needs — perhaps more than it realizes — the self-understanding of writers.

4Since Europe’s inception, it is literature, the most self-reflective of the arts, that has played a decisive role in the development of European culture and self-reflection. In the myths, pictures, and stories through which it has told of itself and tried to comprehend itself, Europe has consistently reaffirmed the peculiarity of its culture and its special way of viewing and interpreting the world. At present, however, the continent’s self-image appears more blurred than ever. The Europe in which present-day Europeans might recognize themselves has yet to find its contours.

Europe’s “Best Self

5It is this Europe, so unaware of itself, that the writer and former president Václav Havel takes to task when he writes: The only meaningful objective for Europe in the next century is to be its “best self,” that is, to revitalize its best intellectual traditions and thereby contribute creatively to a new form of global community of living.

6Perhaps Europe will find it easier to be its best self because — more than any other continents and cultures — it has had ample opportunity to become acquainted with its “worst self.” In the course of its history, so full of both promise and devastation, in the course of its dramatic success story, which has outdone all other continents and cultures in terms of the conflict between the most brilliant intellectual, cultural, and social achievements on the one hand and the darkest excesses of destruction and self-depredation on the other, Europe has come to know itself. And in doing so it has exorcised all previous feelings of superiority as well as any naive notions of innocence à l’américaine.

7And thus the soft image of the future Europe that appears on the horizon in the essays composed for the symposium and in the discussions of the invited authors is a long way from that of a proliferating superpower. It is a more considerate Europe, a Europe that recollects, reflects, doubts, and hesitates; a Europe that allows itself the luxury of asking questions before it acts and that refuses, even in the field of politics, to equate an appreciation of complexity with time-wasting or indecision.

8As we know, there is, in today’s world, no shortage of complex and obscure situations in which such European qualities could prove their political worth. To perceive such qualities as strengths and to apply them responsibly in a global context – this is what could enable Europe’s best self to contribute to the new form of global community envisaged by Havel. At present, there is no other actor in sight that would be suitable for this role.

9The essays of Writing Europe offer a first impression of the manner in which European literary authors — who are, after all, experts in matters of complexity as well as scholars of worldly obscurity — could contribute to the purposeful development and application of such qualities. And they may reveal something else too; namely, the extent to which writers — who are also experts in matters of difference — could assist a unifying Europe in recognizing its real wealth, the incredible value of the variety and diversity of its cultures and languages, and of its ways of living and thinking. What could better resist the destructive force of a global mass culture that dispenses with difference than the natural cultural wealth and historical diversity of this patchwork continent?

What is shared in diversity

10The existence of so much difference in such a small area is an ongoing concern of the Eurocrats. But then Brussels still has to discover that such diversity also constitutes a considerable potential. But before it can make such a discovery, Brussels must first develop an awareness of the vital importance of culture for the multicultural and open European identity of the future. This requires it to view the many voices of European culture as sources of energy. It is this very energy that could make Europe’s multiple voices audible to each other, revealing their common tone, if only one could make the contours of an image visible in which Europeans, with their need for difference, might recognize themselves. For only then would they stop saying: “We don’t feel like Europeans even if we are Europeans” or “It’s only in America that you realize you’re a European.”

11It is this balance between difference and similarity, a balance we still have to locate, that many of the essays address. The tension between the two is not to be dispelled by slogans such as “unity in diversity.” It is this tension that makes the European project an open process, for it is within the still unresolved and tense relationship between local, regional, national, and European allegiances and interests that all issues of European identity must be considered, unless we argue them existentially. Europe’s future character will depend upon the success of how we cope with difference.

A single identity, no identity, or multiple identities?

12This is currently the big question facing Europe. Europe has been so taken up with its search for a future political form that it has completely forgotten to examine, a little more carefully, what is often repeated about European identity and its suitability for Europe. What does identity mean for a continent that comprises, above all, difference and contrast and whose very potential lies in the diversity of language, lifestyle, and experience? It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the writers — whose living is based on the art of making distinctions — tend to give somewhat varying and skeptical assessments of whether Europe has one identity or many identities, whether it lacks an identity, or whether it really needs an identity at all.

13Adolf Muschg, drawing on his Swiss experience, lodges a plea for an open, flexible, and vague identity — if any at all. He hopes that the renewable collective energy of Europe will not be absorbed by a single and monotone identity, and promises to stubbornly refuse, if necessary, any unprincipled social metabolism that time and again does away with identity only to re-establish it in some new form.

14This organic and process-oriented identity strategy is supported by the Slovenian poet and essayist Aleš Debeljak in his conception of concentric circles of identity. These emanate from most local and fecund surroundings, from the neighborhood to a region, rippling outward in an ever more abstract manner to national, state, and European identities. They end perhaps and with a bit of luck in our common humanity.

15Such postmodern ideas of concurrent or adjacent identities leave the Irish narrative writer Colm Toíbín cold. For him there is simply no European identity — or at least nothing that might be felt with the same emotional strength as the two other essential identities: the one bound up with memory, family, community, and personal experience, and the other centering on a nation, a state, and an imagined community. For him Europe is nothing more than a name for a set of interests, organized into the European Union, whose liberalizing and secularizing power Toíbín, the Irishman, has nevertheless learned to value. Meanwhile the novels of the Spanish narrative writer Eugenio Fuentes are more concerned with conflicts arising at the transition from regional to continental. If, as a writer, I try to grasp what Europe means for the people who walk its streets, it is my duty to warn that the concept holds both promises and threats. Whether we shall succeed in realizing what is shared and continental without damaging what is peculiar and regional is still an unanswered European question.

16In the view of the Estonian Emil Tode a socially binding identity cannot be founded on purely abstract ideas — it requires real people and meaningful symbols... In my view the attempt to create a common cultural identity in Europe (“European literature,” “European music, “European film”) aims at constructing a counterweight to this dominant power, constituting a nostalgic reminiscence of one’s own lost supremacy ... It would be best if Europe stopped being so self-analytical because Europe fails to find itself — there is nowhere that is not Europe.

17While Tode sees Europe everywhere, the Italian Mario Fortunato, who resides in London, sees it nowhere anymore. For him Europe disappeared some time ago in the fog of planetary homogenization that blurs all contours. Yet again: no homeland. Not in the Fatherland, not in Europe, nor Elsewhere either. There is nowhere else, nowhere: everything the same, everything homogenized and shrunk. This is how he summarizes his thorough disillusionment.

Europe of Books

18When it comes to discovering things we all share in spite of our differences, the most successful authors are those who search in the common European space of experience, memory, reading, and narrative, in that transnational cultural echo-chamber in which Europe’s many different voices come together, intersect, combine, and form a network.

19With great empathy, the French narrative writer Jean Rouaud describes, in his homage to Ernst Wiechert, how two related temperaments and pitches encounter each other in this echo chamber, recognize themselves in each other, and come to the realization that we belonged to the same geographical and mental region — German–French resonance in a place where one might not expect it.

20As a child my first European guests were dead people: Madame Bovary, Robinson Crusoe, Isadora Duncan, and Molière, writes the Turkish-European Emine Sevgi Özdamar. I was in Europe, among my dead friends. And they did not leave me alone. Prince von Homburg, Woyzeck, Hamlet ... Brecht, Kafka — all reside in Europe’s sky, next to the moon, and touch the lives of people even if they are far away. The dead have created the European sky.

21Books you read in childhood form your image of the world; they are a writer’s third parent, writes the Serbian author Dragan Velikić. My tower, which I have inhabited since reading through all of Karl May’s novels, is built from Cervantes’ humor, Italo Svevo’s tensions, James Joyce’s circular routes, Danilo Kiš’ Pannonian remembrances, from Herman Broch’s sleepwalking.

22And just like his tower, so also the towers of many of the authors in both east and west are inhabited by the same pillar saints of European literature. Cropping up time and again, Dante, Shake-speare, Goethe, Kafka, Musil, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Nabokov, Proust, Joyce, Woolf ... — the Europe of books is astonishingly homogenous; and astonishingly “eurocentric”: Neither Americans, nor Asians, nor Africans appear to have access to the innermost sanctuary of the literary pantheon of European writers. It matters little whether they are reading in the east or in the west or how they feel about Europe, as European authors they are embedded in a cultural context that shapes and contributes to their texts and that they, as writers, continue to mould through their texts.

Europe As an Intellectual Space