The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


I didn't enjoy the second volume of Anthony Burgess's memoirs, You've Had Your Time, as much as the first, but there are many memorable stories, and these lines, right at the end, made an impact:
Milan Kundera defines a European as one who is nostalgic for Europe, and he is probably right. Evelyn Waugh's words about the dismemberment of Christendom refer, proleptically, to that nostalgia. If, living out of Great Britain for more than twenty years, I have become a paying guest of Europe rather than a European, it is the better to indulge the soft-centred dream of belonging to a culture that I do not wish to believe is dead...
That identification of nostalgia may well be right - I know I look back more than forwards, and read very little modern fiction, though my defence is that it simply hasn't yet proved itself. By which I don't mean that not enough people have come to the opinion that a given work is a classic over a long enough period of time, though I admit to being as easily-led as the next fella. More that the contribution that any particular work has to give to the dream-life of the nation, the continent, the culture, has to be given time to work.

Literature is, for want of a better phrase, a big conversation, and by reading, writing and thinking, we take part in it. I was very pleased indeed to read recently that Borges thought of it in the same way - a conversation going back and forth in time.

However, when seen in the context of the whole of human history, that conversation is terribly young, even assuming a starting point with the ancient Greeks, and it is now under a greater threat than that of mass philistinism. There are any number of books at the moment telling us that we are in deep, deep trouble, and from previous examples of civilization-collapse it seems that we are virtually programmed to create progress traps and then walk into them. I can't recommend too highly Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress for an account of this, though Clive Ponting's A Green History of the World covered this ground first, and Jared Diamond's Collapse does the same at greater length.

In a recent article in the London Review of Books Susan Sontag was said to have wanted to spend more time trying to write a novel, because she believed the novel to be more relevant, more immediate and more necessary than politics or history. Well, from a certain perspective. The meme survives where an individual human will not, but it won't survive species extinction.

It's not that the conversation of our European civilization is not important, or not beautiful, or not great, but it is just far smaller than those of us who still partake think it is. I'm not optimistic.

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