Friday, September 15, 2017

the nations

Vego (a Swedish vegetarian/vegan food magazine): Summer, Autumn, Winter

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My life and theme remain defined by the statement of national identity that I was already issuing at the age of five, when asked to give an interesting fact about myself: I am half-Swedish. Nearly every post in this blog is in some way preoccupied with the thought of what nations are, or are imagined to be.  The significance of being uncertainly part of two different nations; the personal questions it raised in respect of who I thought I was, and how I should behave, and what I should feel, have never left me. I've lived all my life in England. An undefined sense of lack of congruence has driven my interests and obsessions. Not being able to more than half-identify with England or Britain, I've always felt very strongly the absurdities and injustices of nationhood, the imposition of nationhood. But this discomfort and this critique coexists with a secret patriotism. The "native land" (for which the Romans had a single word patria) remains a meaningful concept so far as my emotions are concerned, however often I might fear or loathe the manifestations of patria in others.

For several years now I've been labelling some of my posts by country, that is by labels such as Specimens of the literature of Sweden (Finland / Spain ...) though I've only bothered to do this with places that I write about quite often. Nations are an inevitably useful way to organize. But I do find myself questioning the approach now, even though I won't change it. I think it rewards a sort of prejudice that is perhaps venial but widely shared.

It's like this. Encountering the overwhelming riches of culture (I too, like Ashbery, always seem to be discussing an overpopulated world), we readers make choices. It's good to read (or "study") one or two topics or authors (or national literatures) in unusual depth; we learn things then that we will never learn from a merely superficial knowledge of everything. On the other hand we see the point of reading widely; we know all too well the limitations of mere specialism. So we follow the dictum: learn a lot about a few things, and a little about a lot of things. If I might counsel perfection, the perfect reader's profile would also have aspirations to a range of intermediate areas of sub-specialism: a select group of topics or authors in whom we will certainly never be experts but in whom we choose, sometimes rather arbitrarily, to take a closer interest than we can pay to most of the other worlds of literature. These interests begin and then they tend to grow. Fo instance, I'm more likely to read a book from Africa than a book from South East Asia. There's no particular reason for that, I've never been to Africa, it certainly isn't a value judgment, and I recognize (as many African authors also say) that Africa is too huge and varied for the term "African literature" to have much meaning. Neverthless, I just happen to have read a few (a very few) African books already, I've become involved somehow. And once I'm involved, of course I want to read more.

And then the counter-argument: that we all need, at rather regular intervals, to step out of our own ruts. Most likely, this post is going to kickstart me into reading something from SE Asia!

But this national-literature-consciousness is bound to my own era and indeed to the very completism against which I have often argued. The early (1950s) Penguin Classics on the shelves of my childhood (in those early days, Penguin Classics consisted of translations only: books originally written in modern English were out of scope) didn't then have black spines. Instead, they had a rather complex colour coding scheme reflecting the language or literature to which the book in question belonged. As far as I remember, it went something like this:

Red: Russian
Grass-green: French
Rich reddish-brown: Classical Greek
Purple: Classical and Medieval Latin
Orange: Middle English
Sandy brown: Arabic/Middle East
Olive green: German
Yellow: Indian and Far East
Mediterranean Blue: Italian
Slightly greenier Blue: Spanish
Shea-nut brown: Scandinavian

I think a younger reader will most likely read Murakami and Paulo Coelho and Mohsin Hamid and Roberto Bolaño without the slightest intention of "doing" the country from which the author hails, perhaps without the thought ever occurring to them that the book they are reading has anything to do with any particular nation or literature. That an author comes from Brazil is perhaps not intrinsically more interesting than that they come from Swindon or Hornsea. Besides, many contemporary authors no longer live in their country of origin but in a big city elsewhere.

And yet the question of nationality continues to seem important to me. Perhaps pessimistically, against a background question of "What gives significance to anything at all"?

An article I happened to read yesterday, about ideas of nationality that are something more than exclusive.

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