In one of his short stories the English author William Somerset Maugham writes of an elderly man who had visited the whole world without ever leaving the remote village in the Haute Savoie in which he was born. An avid reader, he had walked the tree-lined boulevards of Paris and felt the intoxication of the cherry blossoms, he had strolled through Mayfair, he had wrestled with the undergrowth in the tropical forests of Borneo and had ridden for days through the Australian outback. He had got to know the world through the pages of the books he read.
A Tory MP recently suggested that every young European under twenty five, whether or not they have been students on the Erasmus exchange, be issued with a free Eurail Pass so as to travel for a month across the continent. Young people’s knowledge of Europe and its heritage is, claims the MP, lamentable.
By hopping on the train, our young citizens will boost the business of the Jugendherbergen and the fast-food outlets, but it is to be hoped they will see the stained glass of Chartres, the murals of the Sistine Chapel, the Tower of London, and the Mezquita in Cordoba. They can mount in the Ferris wheel in the Prater, look out over Clew Bay from the summit of Croagh Patrick, or contemplate in awe the north face of the Eiger.
For those less keen on overnight train travel and the confusion of the Hauptbahnhof at rush hour, there is another solution.
So much of Europe’s great literature draws its power and analytical strength from that exegetical key so frequently applied in scripture study, Sitz im Leben : knowing about where people live, understanding their physical environment, seeing in our imagination the landscape which shapes their aesthetic, not only helps us to become familiar with their world (which is also ours) but also deepens the impact of a novel and augments our insight into human character and its development. That treasure of literature which made Maugham’s imaginary Savoyard peasant a citizen of the world is open to all of us.
With Heinrich Böll we can visit Achill Island off Ireland’s western seaboard, with PG Wodhouse we can stroll through the lush meadows of rural Shropshire and have afternoon tea in Blandings Castle. Emile Zola can be our guide as we window-shop on the elegant boulevards of Paris, Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig can invite us to their table in the Café Central, Emily Brontë can expose us to the wild expanses of the Yorkshire Moors. The Belgian novelist Marnix Gijsen, who describes as none other the life of Flemish village communities and whose bronze bust is below our window, looks up from the Square de Meeus at the office of the COMECE General Secretary in Brussels.
Novels are more than imaginative exercises in topography, they are not just the Rough Guide to Europe in another guise, they tell us about more than just the physical environment in which their characters live. What makes literature so valuable, and the rich literature of the twenty-eight EU member states such a treasure, is that in its pages too - meeting the Buddenbrooks, the Trottas, Emma Bovary, the Bennet sisters, Natalia Ginzburg and her mother, or even Inspector Maigret and Hercule Poirot – we are discovering Europe in the search for its soul. Every young European citizen can open a novel, turn a page, and undertake a voyage of discovery without ever leaving his or her armchair. They can even use their Kindle.
Patrick H. Daly