From Homer to Camus by way of Brecht, French author Laurent Gaudé picks the books that tell us something important about the continent today
he European Union is no topic for a novel. It’s not fiction. It’s boring. That’s what everyone told me when I began writing Our Europe: Banquet of Nations. So why did I decide to go ahead in spite of everything? Because I belong to a generation born with the notion that the construction of Europe would be the lasting, unchanging political framework of our lives as citizens. Now this same generation may witness its disintegration.
Today’s Europe is cut off from its own people, and no longer knows how to arouse political enthusiasm. All we see now is its unwieldiness; we forget the utopia at its heart. And yet I remain convinced that, despite our often legitimate anger and frustration with the slowness and dissension within the EU, it remains the most astonishing political adventure of recent decades. Where else and when have 28 countries decided, freely and democratically, to join their fates together?
I opted for the form of a poem rather than an essay, because I believe that the language of poetry is best suited to tell the story of the ashes and utopia from which we were born. Our Europe: Banquet of Nations is a long narrative poem about how one can still want to be European today, and ardently. Here are 10 books that have shaped Europe as we know it.
1. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
I’m cheating a little by beginning with these two. But how can I not? From the very beginning there have been wars and voyages, interminable fighting and then the long wandering that follows victory. The Iliad and the Odyssey have engendered so many other works, appeared in other forms, been re-examined (from Virgil to Joyce), that, when it comes to literature, they are Europe’s shared foundation.
2. The Sleepless World by Stefan Zweig
Zweig is our great, worried European. His entire opus could find its place on a reading list about Europe, but I like this essay (published in Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink) because it develops the motifs of insomnia and nervousness. Zweig sensed the world around him was becoming agitated, and that this would lead to bloodshed.
3. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
I cannot talk about Europe without mentioning the Mediterranean, and The Leopard is one of the greatest Mediterranean novels. It has been unjustly overshadowed in recent years by Visconti’s fine film; one must read Lampedusa to immerse oneself in these southern lands where splendour and misery live side by side, and to understand that our heritage is one of both blood and light.
4. The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht
Read it, listen to it, or see it performed: Brecht’s cheeky voice and Kurt Weill’s music remind us that our works must never forget the people. And when I think of The Threepenny Opera, I cannot help but think of the production by Giorgio Strehler – another great figure of European culture – which I saw in Paris in 1986, at the age of 14, and which I shall never forget.
Read full article on The Guardian.