OPINION John Saul

NWR Issue r13

Open Minds and Aspirations

Aged seventeen, long before there was a phenomenon known as Brexit, I came across a friend reading Albert Camus' The Outsider in a quiet corner at school. He leant me his Penguin edition, on its cover a sullen youth in a (possibly grubby) vest. The glare of the Mediterranean sun, the black night, the red soil and cypresses—it was all astonishing, utterly different from the quiet suburb of Liverpool where I had been growing up. We may have had ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’, but we certainly had nowhere called Marengo, or Arab men and women, people putting chairs out on pavements, or going to the beach for the afternoon to play in the spray and then make love. Alone the idea that Camus' Meursault might catch a two o'clock bus thinking he would arrive by nightfall and return the following day was exciting, exotic—such events never occurred in Liverpool, or for that matter in Shakespeare, or in any of the official texts put before us at school.

The Outsider was my introduction to 'foreign' literature, to fiction not only with settings and subjects beyond home shores but often written differently too. Exposure to such literature has clearly affected how I write. It has opened up so many possibilities.

It also made me keen to experience other cultures, languages and lives. We can read Javier Marías, or travel to Spain; an open mind seeks both. Given the right circumstances it makes sense to aspire further: to work in Spain, and read Marías in Spanish. It has taken forty years of effort by the European Union to make the latter possible without bureaucracy. Now, aspiring to take such a path is beset with uncertainty; it may soon become more difficult.

Having followed Mersault to the executioner's, and meandered with Jean-Paul Sartre's Roquentin in his Nausea, the first and most obvious door to open was to France. I wanted to see this country so connected with ours historically, in its ideas, its common understandings. And it was on our doorstep – —how fortunate! – I became a student in Paris (again, how fortunate). I signed in. I joined the class by the Seine, alongside German, Turkish and Japanese students. The world more than doubled in size overnight.

Gradually the literature, art and music of other countries appeared. With so much ground to cover, I must have skidded from author to author – —Kafka, Duras, Hesse, Tolstoy. Of course, fiction written in the UK and US also mattered. But literature in translation, in making up only a small fraction of what there was to read, inevitably tended to be of a higher grade. This phenomenon has persisted to the present day.

Another obvious revelation was the work of Latin American authors. Stumped on how to describe a body ascending to heaven, Gabriel García Márquez found the solution one day when seeing washing on a line fly off into the sky. Magic realism: this writing sounded magical but told of matters that were very real. Led on by fantastic, enthralling details in The Autumn of the Patriarch, readers were able to enter the mind of a dictator. Meanwhile Julio Cortázar could talk freely of changing identity to become a salamander.

These excursions into other cultures and ways of writing have been liberating. Whereas, for example, a much- trammelled piece of advice for UK writers of fiction impresses a need to develop solid characters, authors writing in Spanish regularly remind us how loose a person's identity may be. As a result, I can cite as an example, I recently wrote how a woman in the Vietnamese countryside, a stranger to the narrator, turned to him and said, I know you. This would have been no surprise to Cortázar. To an author who could so easily and lightly connect the fate of a person to the dropping of a sugar lump or the fluff in their pockets, it would simply have been an idea worth exploring.

Elsewhere in Latin American literature, it would rain for months, and the dead lived on. Even pallid versions of such ideas could not, and did not, readily occur to authors in the UK or US. The conservatism of much British life does not encourage innovation, while US fiction has for a long time confined itself almost exclusively to narratives in a familiar social (often narrow, North American) setting.

As the UK now turns its back to its closest neighbours, the very countries we would most naturally reach out to, Europe in its literature entices as before. The Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai and Portuguese António Lobo Antunes are two of the most innovative writers of fiction alive. Krasznahorkai turns upside down the idea of concision in writing – —we reach the real heart of the matter through relentlessly mesmerising prose. Antunes structures dialogue and plots in the most adventurous ways, ways that work. Hundreds of pages may pass without the description of a single face; by the end we have an extraordinary panorama before us; we know what a great city like Lisbon feels like.

We don't yet know the precise terms and effects of Brexit but we can be sure contact with other cultures will be diminished. A particular onus will be on publishers to help maintain access to such authors. Already Antunes has no publisher in Britain. Already, looking outwards is threatening to turn from being a thrilling experience to a task requiring effort; alone the need to re-shape our own affairs consumes our energies. Already the message delivered, that we reject the European Union, will have dampened the desire of others to be in contact. Travelling post-referendum in the Netherlands and Germany, I heard many times how the UK is becoming irrelevant, ignored, forgotten. These views reminded me of the words of a character in AL Kennedy's Serious Sweet: ‘For more than a century now … Britain’s been circling nearer and nearer the drain.’

As freedom of movement becomes restricted, presenting hurdles that until recently were non-existent, expectations and aspirations towards all the European mainland offers will inevitably fall. Students in particular will find just stepping across the Channel not the carefree joy it once was. Many – —more than before – —will not even imagine doing it.

The internet, and indeed the real world, is littered with advice on how to write. When asked about advice, I hesitate to say more than simply: read. But with the advent of Brexit, and its inevitable curtailment of access to the other extraordinary countries right on our doorstep, I would now add: read the translated. Buy it, enjoy it. It matters more than ever.

John Saul was shortlisted for the international 2015 Seán Ó Faoláin prize for fiction. Last summer he had work in Best British Short Stories 2016 (Salt Publishing, UK). Appearing widely in magazine form, his short fiction has been published in four collections (three at Salt). Author Website


       


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