what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, March 5, 2012

picking up Voltaire's Coconuts

A second-hand English bookshop here in Sofia which boasts 10,000 titles – this is the Elephant Bookstore. Go down Rakovski St from the square in front of Alexander Nevski Cathedral, cross Dundorov Bv and its on your left – although somewhat disguised at the back of a tea Shop which you have to enter through a large iron gate.

The collection is in a tiny space – with the books piled to a high ceiling. I emerged with 5 or 8, depending on how you count them since one was a bumper collection of four West of Scotland novels written variously between the 1930s to 1980s entitled Growing up in the West and containing no less than 4 different books - Edwin Muir (Poor Tom) by one of Scotland’s most respected writers of the 20th century and three less well-known writers - JF Hendry (Fernie Brae), Gordon M Williams (From Scenes like these) and Tom Gallacher (The Apprentice). Although the last was published in 1983 and is based on life and shipyard work in the 1950s in my home town (Greenock), I was not aware of the book or the writer. Many people say there was a renaissance of Scottish writing in the 1980s – but I would suggest that this is to underestimate what was being produced fairly consistently in the 20th century in this small country of 5 million people. I’ll say something more shortly about this.
Another book was also an unknown Voltaire’s Coconuts – or anglomania in Europe by Ian Buruma an under-rated writer who was born a Dutchman, writes now in English and has lived in Japan, UK and America. The book brings many European historical figures to life eg Voltaire, Goethe, Garabaldi, Mazzini, Marx - all from the perspective of their attitude to the structure of English life and government. It starts with Voltaire's famous query - "Why can't the laws that guarantee British liberties be adapted elsewhere?"
Having been imprisoned in the Bastille for publishing a satirical poem on religious persecution in France, Voltaire travelled to England to find his model of tolerance and liberty. As a universalist and a rationalist, the French philosopher assumed that these virtues could be transplanted elsewhere, and most especially to the France of the ancien Regime. Anticipating objections on the lines of "you might as well ask why coconuts, which bear fruit in India, do not ripen in Rome” he stated that it took time for those (legal) coconuts to ripen in England too. There is no reason, he said, why they shouldn't do well everywhere, even in Bosnia and Serbia. So let's start planting them now."
What Voltaire essentially admired in England was the theory of equality before the law and the separation of legislative and executive powers. England in the 18th and 19th centuries was seen by prominent French and German figures in many regards in the way we now view the United States of America – full of dynamism, workshop of money but with rather uncouth, disrespectful citizens and media.

A 1998 edition of JK Galbraith’s 1958 The Affluent Society was the next book – this one with a foreward in which the author assessed what time had done to his analysis. One of the reviews I unearthed was by writer and left-wing Labour MP John Strachey in the long-defunct Encounter magazine. Here is a highly viewable video of Galbraith reminiscing,
Books by Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March) and Louis de Bernieres (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) rounded off my purchases – all for the total price of 17 euros! Such is the joy of serendipity in foreign bookshops – and this one in particular!
The cafe also has a great atmosphere and buzz – being Sunday, parents and kids were present, with lost of activities for the latter. My one complaint is that a lot of the books were disfigured - apparently deliberately - with the back page of the cover having been torn off. This is pure sacrilege - I have never come across this apparent policy........

I have, on this blog, already posted links to surveys of the literature from small countries in central europe particularly Hungary which I offered in a discussion about the subject on another blog
The Irish are well-known as good story- tellers and writers– whether it is George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, WB Yeats, Louis McNeice or, more recently, William Trevor, John Banville, John McGahern or Sebastian Barry. As a Scot, I have an obvious bias in suggesting that the quality and quantity of the Scottish literary output of the past 80 years is on a par with the European best (Latin American and China are something else!!). For an introduction see this assessment and this listing of the best 100 Scottish books

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