Commentary - Afflicted by the stiff upper lip

Francis Gilbert laments the ignorance of the modern British reader

In 1990, the late Professor Malcolm Bradbury predicted that the decade of the great European novel was about to begin: with the countries of Europe converging economically, Continental fiction would inevitably flourish. Or so he thought.

It never happened. Far from European writers commanding the literary scene in the next decade, it was English-speaking writers such as Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood who continued to set the agenda. Fiction from English-speaking countries all over the globe remained vibrant. Although Continental writers such as Gunter Grass and Jose Saramago were awarded Nobel prizes for literature, their writing never captured the British public's imagination here in the same way as did, say, John Updike, Philip Roth or Arundhati Roy.

Why is this? Is it because British editors dislike Continental fiction? Are our book publishers just as Eurosceptic as our newspapers? Or is it because the public isn't buying these books, despite the promotions, the good reviews and the prizes?

Having looked deeply into the matter, I cannot criticise publishers, ultimately, for failing to promote European fiction. Conglomerates such as HarperCollins have endeavoured to sell terrific Continental novels (one thinks, in particular, of the Dutch author Marcel Moring's In Babylon), but without much success. Smaller outfits - Quartet, Serpent's Tail, the Harvill Press - have worked tirelessly to bring such translated fiction to a wider audience but, again, have struggled to shift significant numbers. Harvill has had bestsellers with the Dane Peter H0eg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow and the German W G Sebald's quasi-fictional work; but Quartet has virtually been bankrupted by the exercise.

Christopher MacLehose, the chairman of the Harvill Press, blames Margaret Thatcher. "The education system that she set up means that far too many people have no interest in reading about European culture. We have the least ambitious reading public in the world."

Is he right? Or is it just that, apart from a few well-known names, most European fiction is pretty undistinguished? Well, MacLehose singled out Extinction by the late Austrian Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) as a great unread European novel. Extinction (1986) - perhaps Bernhard's masterpiece - was published by Quartet in Britain in 1995, and then soon picked up by Penguin Modern Classics. Narrated by an Austrian intellectual living in self-imposed exile in Rome, who returns as heir to his family's sprawling, Gothic estate after his parents and elder brother are killed in a car crash, it is great howl of rage against the duplicity and shallowness of Austrian culture. A furious energy and black humour permeate the text - which is one entrancing, 300-page paragraph.

Bernhard exposes the phoniness of Austrian culture - its insularity, its inability to accept its Nazi past, its smugness - in a way that raises interesting parallel questions about contemporary Britain. "In the Austria of today," the narrator says, at the end of the book, "vulgarity is the watchword, baseness the motive and mendacity the key. Every morning when we wake up we ought to be utterly ashamed of today's Austria." He could have been talking about Blair's Britain.

A deep sense of shame suffuses much European fiction; it is there, too, in Grass and Saramago, but strangely absent from British fiction. This shame is driven, I think, by the Continent's fascist past. Any good European writer has, in the end, to grapple with fascism in some form or other, whereas English-speaking writers do not feel obliged to address such a destructive ideology.

English fiction, in particular, can seem very complacent in comparison to works like Extinction. Irony, gentle satire and verbal tricks replace powerful rhetoric, anger and dynamic sentences. For all its controversial content, most British fiction - from Martin Amis's Money to Zadie Smith's White Teeth - is underpinned by a tepid liberalism. The rage that Bernhard, Grass and Saramago explore at such close quarters is kept at a distance and dismissed as fanatical folly. British fiction does not engage with that most primitive of emotions: fury. It is still afflicted by the stiff upper lip.

We are as smug in our insularity - if not more so - than Bernhard's Austria. We are blind to who we really are. Saramago explores this theme very powerfully in Blindness (1995; translation published by Harvill in 1997), a terrifying fable about what might happen if blindness suddenly afflicted the entire population. Saramago convincingly demonstrates that our democratic values are, in fact, illusory and that a minor catastrophe could easily destroy our supposedly liberal society.

This accessible, pacy and violent story would make a brilliant class reader for some of the older teenagers whom I teach. Unfortunately, the national curriculum is prohibitive when it comes to fiction in translation - even where Nobel prize-winners are concerned. And yet, MacLehose is right: it is in the classroom that such fiction is needed. We must encourage our pupils to look beyond the self-satisfied pieties of British fiction and culture, if these great novels are ever to attain the readership they deserve.

Francis Gilbert teaches English in a comprehensive school. He is completing a novel about wartime Hungary

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you