I find it odd that so few writers or academics seem to have asked the question which has been bothering me this last year – how does one get to know a country or get under its skin
I have fairly wide interests, skim the book reviews, follow the serendipidous leads while surfing the net – so might reasonably be regarded as well-read and not boxed in by over-specialisation. I am therefore reasonably confident when I say that I have not heard many people raising this question.
I can’t be the lack of writers with experience of living in several countries - look at the scale in the 1920s and 1930s of migration of the most talented Russian, central European and German writers – whether to other European countries or North America. If ever there was a period when you could expect interest in exploring the multiple dimensions of a nation’s soul, that was surely it. But how many real studies of this sort have been attempted? Of the depth, for example, of de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?. And remember, of course, that that book was the result of a visit of only some 9 months – not the work of an émigré.
Writers like Joseph Roth, Arthur Koestler and Czeslaw Milosz had intensive experience of various countries in their adult life but I don’t know of any works from them which deal with this question.
Perhaps it requires a butterfly mind like mine to be interested…..in exploring, for example, the 16 or 17 different ways there seem to be of “getting to know a country”. Perhaps indeed only outsiders (such as ex-pats) who don’t get sucked into the life of a country have and retain the distance which is perhaps needed for the search? Recent times have seen the development of a large cadre of travel writers - but how many of them can seriously be said to have tried to get under the skin of a country?
And, of course, we often remark on the difficulty of knowing even our most intimate of friends – so how is it possible to do justice to the complexity of a country – with its variety of regions, classes, generations?
Clearly some have tried. – for example Germany; unravelling an enigma which is one of the Interact Series of books from Barnes and Noble devoted to cultural analysis.
But while I find the book interesting for its take on cultural patterns (eg communications) and how they underpin post-war German commercial practices, in no real sense does the book try to understand Germany and its cultural features.
I thought Dinner with Persephone; travels in Greece by poet Patricia Storace
which, as you would expect from a Nobel [prize-winner, seem beautifully written. But it appears that most of the book focuses on churches!
I am left with Theodor Zeldin's The French as the only book I can immediately think of which gets seriously under the skin of a nation.....
I will continue this search......