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 17, 2014

Indifference to our European differences - part I

Three years ago, to the day, I was expressing my concern about the absence of good writing on specific european societies and systems
it's actually easier for a Brit to find about what the Chinese are feeling and discussing than it is to get a similar sense about the various countries of Europe! If you don’t believe this, have a look at the reading list in section 6 of my briefing paper on administrative reform in China. This gives a rich variety of material which can be read about relevant current developments in China. The Chinese-American migration and intellectual exchange has been a powerful mechanism to give us that.
There seems very little equivalent for individual countries of Europe. Ralf Dahrendorf , Tony Judt, and Perry Anderson are some of a very small group who have had the ability to focus intellectually on European countries and communicate them to us clearly. Perry Anderson’s papers on the ongoing debates in countries such as France and Germany which he brought together in his 2009 book The New Old World are exceptional. 
I would like, for example, to plug into the thoughts of greens, left and other groups in the heartland of Europe – and learn what they are doing in practical actions (social enterprise), policies and discussions to help shape a shared vision and agenda for social change.
Where do I go to find this out? Newspapers and journals are too general – and books (apart from Paul Hawkens and Paul Kingsworth) so specialised and numerous that it needs a specialist to help. But where are the "gatekeepers" to help us identify such pe0ple? In posts in previous years, I’ve tried to give a sense of the limited number of good books on, for example, contemporary French, German, Italian or Spanish societies – let alone Polish or Romanian ones!
Sadly, the subsequent years of intensive reading have given me no reason to revise my judgement about the paucity of intellectual efforts to transcend European national borders. Indeed one book which I found last year in Sofia’s second-hand English bookshop (The Elephant) strongly confirms it. It’s Malcolm Bradbury’s 1995 Dangerous Pilgrimages – transatlantic mythologies and the novel which looks at mutual American-English influences on the development of the novel in the past couple of centuries.
I thought I had found an equivalent Modernism – a guide to European Literature 1890-1930 which Bradbury had edited a few years earlier – but it turns out the book is a rather stale series of essays on only the key European figures of that period. Nothing comparative since 1930!
My post of 17 March 2011 went on -
The barrier to our understanding of developments in other European countries is not just linguistic. It stems also from the intellectual compartmentalisation (or apartheid) which universities and European networks have encouraged in our elites. European political scientists, for example, have excellent networks but talk in a highly specialised language about recondite topics which they publish in inaccessible language in inaccessible journals. What insights they have about each other’s countries are rarely made available to the wider public. The same is true of the civil service nationals who participate in EC comitology or OECD networks – let alone the myriad professional networks. We talk about gated communities – but they exist virtually as well as physically. 
Sign and Sight used to translate outstanding articles by non-English language authors (but folded in 2013) - so Eurozine is left as the only network of 75 European highbrow journals and translates interesting articles into at least one major European language
In principle, the most interesting books on a country’s society should be written by nationals of that country – they after all know it best - and duly translated. For example  Luigi Barzini’s The Italians probably still gives us the best insight into Italians despite being written more than 50 years ago. And Geert Maak the Dutch.
But generally, it is outsiders who seem  more able to capture the essence of a country and its people - eg Peter Robb key aspects of Italy; Theodor Zeldin the French; John Ardagh (several decades ago) the Germans. Spain is better served - although Gerald Brennan's South of Granada also remains (after 50 years) one of the best insights.....although this week's book by Jeremy Treglown looks to rival if not supplant it
What does all this tell us about modern writers I wonder? I suppose translators are just too busy to form an association and do some writing themselves?

Recently I referred to an interesting study of 10 societies - The Inner Lives of Cultures only one of which, sadly, was European – Romania. But the chapter was an insightful one  - if missing any references.

The painting is one of Atanas Matsourev's wonderful aquarelles. His technique is amazing - they look so much like oils. I met him a few weeks back - and bought this sketch. a self-portrait. 

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