It seems absurd to lament the fact that Europe has trouble telling its own story. For centuries, when the continent has projected narratives of confidence and self-assurance, those narratives have often underwritten empires and capitalism, racism and war making. Given this ignominious history, it is likely a good thing that the dominant political narratives about the European Union, by contrast, are more nuanced, more tentative, less sure of themselves. But, as several recent books emerging from an EU in crisis suggest, the relative dearth of such stories is itself a problem.
Despite the three books discussed here—Michel Houellebecq’s novel Serotonin, Robert Menasse’s novel The Capital, and a new pan-European poetry anthology called Grand Tour—the most important thing to note about EU literature is that there is hardly any of it. Most of the recent genre fiction that explicitly invokes the EU retreats into dystopian speculation, and it is almost always about life after the EU, not about life in and with it.1
Similarly, the recent bumper crop of British novels dealing with Brexit are, as Joe Kennedy noted in 2017, largely “a contemporary declension of the condition-of-England novel,” far more about the country leaving the EU than about the EU being left. Helen Oyeyemi’s 2019 Gingerbread mocks Brexit UK in the shape of Druhástrana, a fairy-tale land somewhere in Europe that basically severs itself from the world via a “Great Referendum,” but which is also a main object of fascination in the novel. Even Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016)—one of the most sustained engagements with questions of home and identity in a post-Brexit world—barely mentions the EU.
But, of course, there is another genre of narrative associated with the EU that has long thrived, nowhere more so than in England: so-called “Euromyths,” tall tales about the dismal dictates of the Brussels bureaucracy that are in the standard arsenal of right-wing populists throughout the EU. Inventing such Euromyths was the particular trademark of Boris Johnson, who served as the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels from 1989 to 1994.
Johnson approached the job with the condescending diffidence with which an older generation might have approached a colonial post. With minimal curiosity and minimal attention to detail, he spent five years sending florid and factually challenged dispatches—about the regulation of banana curvature, about paddling pools over 12 inches deep requiring lifeguards, about condom sizes and the Italian rubber industry—all of which were a kind of funhouse mirror for the exceedingly stolid yet important stuff actually coming out of Brussels in the period.
However despicable this scandalous mythmaking, it also highlights the comparative inability of the European Union to respond with myths of its own. Storytelling about the EU tends to be done by those—actively, aggressively—disinterested in it.
Is that the EU’s fault? Such seems to be the charge leveled by Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Serotonin (which was published in French in January 2019 and is now available in English). The novel’s antihero is a misogynist, a smoker, a misanthrope, a fast driver, and a depressive, in a Europe that seems to have less and less room for men like him. There is something antilibidinal in this new Europe, Houellebecq suggests—something unerotic, something hostile to appetites.
It matters, Houellebecq’s book implies, that this protagonist is a man. There is, it seems, something about (white) men in Brussels. Whether it is Boris Johnson’s vivid tales of castration by Eurocracy or the strange single-mindedness with which Mr. Farage Goes to Brussels, there is a kind of traditional masculinity that feels threatened by the EU.
This goes for books like Serotonin, but also for a novel like Robert Menasse’s The Capital. Here, too, it is men and their sense of historic trauma that hold the key to a renewal of the European project.
The Capital truly leans into being a story about the EU. It is a tragicomic story around bureaucracy, subsidies, and European integration. Its main characters are small cogs in the EU administration in Brussels or people dependent on this administration in some way. And yet, unlike Houellebecq’s deliberately nihilistic attack, Menasse’s satire is suffused with a moralism born from a sense of the continent’s shared history.
There are attempts to tell different kinds of European stories, too. In March 2019—timed perhaps to coincide with the original date for Brexit—the German publishing house Hanser put out Grand Tour: a hefty, five-hundred-page volume, gathering poems by young poets from Malta to Sweden, from Portugal to Bulgaria.
Grand Tour is not just a document of European interconnection. It is also, itself, a grand feat of interconnection: each poem is presented in its original and in a German translation. Both the poems and the translations come from a long list of young literary figures hailing from across the continent. Many of them are about 20 years younger than Houellebecq, and it shows. They live a united Europe in a new, more intuitive way. Taken together, these three works offer something of a panoramic view of Europe’s own mythmaking: if Houellebecq shows us where we are, Menasse shows how we got here, and Grand Tour can—maybe—suggest where Europe is going.
One of the strange aspects of anti-EU sentiment is that it is widely shared across the continent, yet always expressed in a tone of isolated, silenced, furtive heresy. Houellebecq—who has managed to fashion a dissident persona out of such insights as blowjobs actually being nice—has always excelled in this rhetoric.
Houellebecq’s latest Houellebecq-protagonist is Florent-Claude Labrouste, who works in a nondescript administrative position, essentially selling out French farmers to his colleagues in Brussels. When the novel opens, Florent-Claude is living off an ample inheritance in an iconic 1970s tower with a Japanese girlfriend named Yuzu, who holds orgies in his master suite while he is away in Brussels, dismantling the apricot industry of the Roussillon.
The book is full of this sort of muchness, which teeters somewhere between overloaded symbolism and outright trolling. And, as in the case of Florent-Claude’s Brussels trips, these overdetermined scenes seem to gesture toward saying something about Europe—about the idea, about the reality, and about the Union. But do they?
When Serotonin was first published in France, at the beginning of the gilets jaunes uprising, Florent-Claude’s diatribes against the EU were taken seriously as a critique. More to the point: the book was taken seriously as a novel, and it was taken seriously as a narrative about the EU.
This is in itself interesting. After all, the EU—for Florent-Claude and, probably, for Houellebecq—is only one small part of a world that has no more room for a certain kind of traditional masculinity. Florent-Claude himself suggests that his “indifference … to the apricot producers of the Roussillon”—the farmers he allegedly serves, but whom, in fact, he is betraying—speaks not just for itself, but to a broader malaise: his indifference to his job, his girlfriend, and, indeed, his life.
Storytelling about the European Union tends to be done by those aggressively disinterested in it.
In general, Houellebeqc is funnier and fleeter when it comes to a more general temperature-taking of the continent, independent of apricot producers and the Eurocrats that betray them. The novel opens in a nudist colony in Spain, for example, where pensioners from Northern Europe mingle awkwardly with Los Indignados, the anti-austerity protesters who first emerged in 2011.
Houellebecq gets a lot of mileage out of a sendup of the united Europe created by tourism: the paradores of Spain, with their barely worked-through fascism; the Relais & Châteaux in France, with their picture-book sellout ethic; the resolute nondescriptness of French budget hotels. Somehow, wherever Florent-Claude drives, he is faced with a common European substrate of crumminess and chintz.
But does that common substrate mean that European integration itself is shallow? Or does it mean Florent-Claude is? In fact, Florent-Claude sees clearly that the problem is him. “Humanity,” he says, “was not at all in league against me; it was simply that there hadn’t been anything, that my connection with the world, which had already been limited, had gradually dwindled to zero.” Why take this seriously as a critique of the EU?
Behind Florent-Claude’s anomie is not so much the fact that Brussels is far from people’s lives; it isn’t that it is bureaucratic. It is that a certain type of person—white men and some white women—could long depend on their world responding to their voice, will, and identity in certain ways, and the EU has offended them by dulling that response. Florent-Claude Labrouste glides through a world in which he has no more resonance, but it is unclear that his somnambulistic gliding asks for anything resembling resonance in the first place.
It is not easy to say what is supposed to be diagnostic about such an encounter. The fact that some European critics were determined to read a politically salient indictment into this missed encounter between a man and his world is, in its way, more revealing than anything in the novel itself. The world of Brexit is precisely one in which one man’s unfocused sense of malaise and thwarted privilege suddenly becomes 450 million other people’s problem.
Brussels does not come off particularly well in Menasse’s The Capital (the Marxian resonance is an accident of translation; the German title is Die Hauptstadt). Still, the novel is far from the kind of reflexive Europhobia of Serotonin. In his political essays and manifestos (some of them coauthored with political scientist Ulrike Guérot), Menasse attacks not so much the EU itself, but rather the persistence of national and parochial interests. This warning against national particularism is a position that has clearly evolved out of the mythos surrounding the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Austria’s relationship to the EU has always been an interesting one. Pro-EU sentiment in Austria is not overwhelming, but it is solid. Even the far-right FPÖ has largely given up on the idea of leaving the EU altogether. Perhaps the idea of being a small cog in an over-administered and somewhat passionless multilinguistic mega-state may not hold quite as much terror for a people that, after all, ran such a mega-state for centuries.
Indeed, several details of Menasse’s novel—the cityscape with which The Capital opens being one of them—seem intended to position it as a descendant of Robert Musil’s 1930s novel The Man without Qualities, a monumental stocktaking of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
One of the plotlines in The Capital concerns an abortive “Big Jubilee Project” that is meant to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the European Commission. This is clearly modeled on the “Parallel Campaign” by which the characters in The Man without Qualities are planning to celebrate Emperor Franz Joseph’s 70th year on the throne alongside Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 30th. The irony in Musil’s novel is that this fortuitous alignment of anniversaries will happen in 1918: the year both of these monarchies came to an end.
Menasse’s use of the “Big Jubilee Project” in The Capital, therefore, sounds quite a bit like a warning, and in two senses. Musil’s book was a look back at a sprawling, dysfunctional empire after its demise. And it shows that what comes after empire—resurgent nationalism, for one—spells even greater disaster. The world of the European Commission, it seems, is rife with backbiting, careerism, and ineffectual bureaucracy, and may indeed collapse on itself. But the alternative, Menasse seems to warn, would be far worse.
Brexit or Utopia?
As a reminder of the stakes, Menasse has a Holocaust survivor wander through the story. In the course of the novel, he goes from being an object of intense interest and almost fetishism to being thoughtlessly neglected by the Eurocrats. This character (and his treatment in the novel) acts as a reminder of what has made European integration necessary, and what it is meant to forestall. But he also serves as a reminder that the EU may be falling short of this vital function.
Another character, Alois Erhart, may well speak for Menasse himself when he says that the only genuine capital of the EU must be Auschwitz: “‘Auschwitz: never again’ is the foundation stone upon which the project of European unification was built.” In finding a new capital for the EU, Erhart doesn’t even have to speak aloud his critique of the current capital. Brussels’ belle epoque buildings are colonial amnesia set in stone; the modernist architecture of the Espace Léopold is a promise of a new start in a space named after a colonial butcher. Auschwitz, by contrast, would be “a city of the future, and at the same time the city that can never forget.”
The Capital aims to be a literary epic for the EU; just how literary Menasse’s EU is became clear in October 2017, when it was revealed that the author had fabricated quotes from a deceased EU politician, not just in the novel but in his essays as well.2 What novelists and poets have largely neglected—bringing literature to bear on the European Union—Menasse appears to have pursued with a single-mindedness that, ironically enough, had no patience for the messy facts.
But perhaps more vexingly: Menasse wanted the EU to have founding myths, and he turned to dead (male) authors and fictional (male) characters to provide them. Does it matter that, even though his was an EU constituted of self-abnegation, mortification, and resignation, it was a fantasy of highly masculine forms of self-abnegation, mortification, and resignation? In the end, Menasse’s men experience Brussels with a sense of disgust, loss, and melancholia for past greatness not so different from that felt by Houellebecq’s Florent-Claude.
Menasse’s sense of a Europe whose cautious vision of progress is forever tempered by a sense of past loss is echoed in many of the poems collected in Grand Tour. In one poem, entitled “Progress,” the Northern Irish poet Alan Gillis reflects that “it’s great now to see some progress” in Belfast. But he then asks what progress can mean in a place so marked by past violence. Could this progress involve coffins returning from the ground? Will it involve “a reassembled head” admiring “the shy young man / taking his bomb from the building and driving home”?
In the preface, Federico Italiano and Jan Wagner, who assembled the poems in Grand Tour, propose that poetry “is not the worst indicator for determining where we are on that path to the place or the state of an ideal Europe.” The collection strays well beyond the bounds of the EU, including poets from Russia, Georgia, Norway, and the United Kingdom. But surely that kind of feeling the editors mean to assemble, that index of where “we” are along the path to an idea, implicates the institutional shape that large parts of Europe have given themselves, and the way that shape does and does not accord with European feelings.
The editors seem to be evoking The Divine Comedy: halfway through its journey toward itself, the EU finds itself in a dark forest. The national challenge is only the most visible obstacle in the darkness.
The other, less visible obstacles are surely the logical and ethical limits history imposes on the celebrations and self-legitimations of the European project. Celebrating a political arrangement that ended war in much of Europe is one thing. But it is quite another to celebrate the unity of a continent that last united to exploit most of the globe, and now allows its erstwhile colonial subjects to drown on its beaches.
These obstacles make appearances here in the margins, as they do in European discourse in general: distant hauntings of past violence and present violence elsewhere. In a poem by Hendrik Rost we read about
Deep repositories, chasing humans. … Everything
piles up, news of massacres,
tsunamis crash through the living room
But more important is the sense of a continent still tentatively testing out multiple identities in an age of interconnection. What Houellebecq and, under different premises, even Menasse understand as loss—of self, of resonance, of place in the world—these texts accept simply as their situation. We might call Grand Tour a post-Brexit project, in the sense that it never seems to entertain the fantasy of breaking with the facts of this great interconnection.
A poem by Romanian poet Dan Sociu is entitled “The Way Home Is No Longer the Way Home,” but ends with the line: “The way home was never the way home.” This may well be the lesson this generation has learned over all others. The hesitating gestures of many of these poems throw into sharp relief what both Menasse and Houellebecq have perhaps too much of: single-mindedness.
What institutional shape that interconnection, and that hesitance, should take is, of course, not something the poems can address. Still, perhaps Grand Tour has it right. For all the differences in their assessments, Menasse and Houellebecq are unnerved by this instability at the heart of the EU’s identity. But people the world over know what a Europe that is sure of itself looks like. Maybe some uncertainty is a very good thing.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
- Recent novels thematizing the refugee crisis, such as Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Exit West, short-circuit the swoop of the continent in favor of focusing on the country of origin and the UK. Hamid has his protagonists step through a magic portal from a refugee camp in Mykonos to “a bedroom with … furnishings so expensive and well-made that Saeed and Nadia thought they were in a hotel,” somewhere in London. ↩
- In 2017, the historian Heinrich August Winkler pointed out that Menasse had made up quotes attributed to the Christian Democratic politician, and first EU Commission president, Walter Hallstein (1901–82)—even in his nonfiction collaborations with Guérot. His version of Hallstein basically parroted his own views on the EU as the necessary mortification of the nation-state. Hallstein, it turned out, had envisioned no such thing. ↩