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Rise of the new Anglo-world order

It's an old controversy that was reignited this autumn by the remarks of a Nobel Prize judge: is Ame

In October, shortly before the Swedish Academy awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, its permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, gave an interview to Associated Press. "There is powerful literature in all big cultures," Engdahl declared. "But you can't get away from the fact that Europe is still the centre of the literary world . . . not the United States. The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature . . . That ignorance is restraining."

No American writer had won the Nobel since Toni Morrison in 1993 - and now we knew why. For all the apparent vitality of fiction in the US during the intervening 15 years - the miraculously fertile autumn of Philip Roth's career, say, or the formal daring and intellectual scope of major novels by David Foster Wallace, William T Vollmann and Jonathan Franzen, to name only three members of a notably gifted generation - the American scene, in Engdahl's view, was irredeemably parochial.

The response from the US was swift and predictable. The editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, listed just some of the great writers the Nobel committee has failed to honour down the years: Proust, Joyce and Nabokov. An organisation with such oversights on its record ought to "spare us the categorical lectures", he said. And Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wondered if Engdahl had really been paying attention in all the time since he and his colleagues gave the prize to Morrison. "He is just betraying an insular attitude towards a very diverse country."

Engdahl wasn't really - or, at least, not only - complaining about America's alleged literary provincialism, of course. He is certainly right that the Americans (and the British, for that matter) don't translate as much as they should: whereas in France almost a third of all works of fiction published in a given year will be in translation, across the Atlantic that figure is closer to one-thirtieth. But the principal reason for this is the global hegemony of the English language.

The real cause of Engdahl's angst, therefore, is that what he called the "big dialogue of literature" is today actually being conducted mostly in English - by inhabitants of Britain's former colonies, for instance, especially those in south Asia and the Caribbean; and also by non-anglophone writers who have followed Conrad and Nabokov in choosing to write in English. One of the most interesting and critically acclaimed novels to have been published in the United States this year is The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-born writer who had only a rudimentary command of the language when he arrived in America in 1992.

In France, almost a third of all works of fiction are translated. Across the Atlantic the figure is close to one-thirtieth

Indeed, Hemon's is an interesting case. For among the complexities flattened out by Engdahl's vague appeal to an undifferentiated "Europe" is the predicament historically faced by writers who, like Hemon, come from the smaller European nations. One thinks, for example, of the Romanian writer E M Cioran. Looking back in 1949 on his younger self, Cioran wrote of his inner circle in Bucharest: "Located in a corner of Europe, scorned and neglected by the world, we wanted to call attention to ourselves . . . We wanted to rise up to the surface of history: we revered scandals, the only means, we thought, of avenging the obscurity of our condition . . ." Ultimately, avenging the obscurity of his condition meant, for Cioran, leaving for France and writing in French.

Cioran is describing there what Milan Kundera, in his most recent book, The Curtain, calls the "provincialism of small nations". This is a kind of defensive pride that regards the "large context of world literature" with suspicion. Kundera contrasts it with the provincialism of bigger nations which turn their backs on world literature, not because they fear it, but because their own cultures seem to them "sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere". Leaving aside the question of which "Europe" Engdahl was talking about exactly, the extraordinary thing about his remarks is that they managed to be parochial or provincial in both senses - in other words, defensive and self-satisfied.

At the same time, however, Engdahl did gesture towards the kind of literary cosmopolitanism (the "big dialogue of literature" and so on) that Kundera argues for in The Curtain. In Kundera's view, there are two contexts in which works of art can be understood: the "small" or national context and the "large", supranational history of the art form itself. Provincialism is the inability to imagine one's national culture in the large context, and Kundera thinks it has done great damage to our understanding of literary history. If we were to view the history of the novel in the large context, we would see, for example, that Laurence Sterne was reacting to Rabelais, or that Flaubert was living on in Joyce.

Kundera credits Goethe with being the first to have understood this. In the 1820s, Goethe declared that the age of Weltliteratur, or "world literature", was at hand: "National literature no longer means much these days, we are entering the era of Weltliteratur and it is up to each of us to hasten this development."

He conceived world literature as a series of transactions between national literatures that would eventually give rise to something like a "universal humanity". In this respect, world literature was analogous to the global market that was taking shape at the same time. (And, in fact, exactly this parallel would be drawn twenty-odd years later by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto: "As in material so in spiritual production. The spiritual productions of individual nations become common property . . . [F]rom numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.")

There is a significant wrinkle in Goethe's theory of Weltliteratur, however - one that Kundera either overlooks or else chooses to downplay. And it is that Goethe reserves a special role for one national literature in particular: Germany's. He wrote that it was the "destiny" of the German language to become the "representative of all the citizens of the world". With the centrality of translation to German literary culture, anyone who knew the language well enough wouldn't have to go to the trouble of learning Greek or Latin or Italian; they could read Homer, Virgil or Dante in German translations that were more than a match for the originals. Germany, therefore, was the literary marketplace par excellence. And Weltliteratur, it turned out, wasn't so much a matter of dissolving national boundaries as a matter of a single national literature going global.

You might say that today America (or the "Anglosphere", if you want to include Britain) plays the role that Goethe once envisaged for Germany. And this, rather than America's "isolation", is what Engdahl was railing against.

In his comments to reporters after the announcement that the Nobel Prize this year was going to Le Clézio, Engdahl again struck a cosmopolitan note. Le Clézio, he said approvingly, "is not a typical Frenchman; he is a nomadic writer. He doesn't belong anywhere." This was a theme that Le Clézio himself would take up in his Nobel Lecture, delivered in Stockholm on 7 December.

Much of the lecture, entitled "In the Forest of Paradoxes", is frankly rather anodyne: a string of bromides on the benefits of globalisation and decolonisation, interrupted by Le Clézio's musing as to whether Hitler would have been able to get away with his crimes if the internet had existed in the early 1930s. Le Monde's magnificently grumpy literary blogger Pierre Assouline described it as "excessively consensual and overflowing with fine sentiments", "quite boring and politically correct, very 'united colours of literature'". There is also a long acknowledgements section in which Le Clézio discharges his debts to an impeccably heterogeneous parade of fellow writers, including "the Africans . . . the writers of the first nations in America . . . [and] the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis who allows us to imagine the life of a leatherback turtle".

Yet there is one passage in which this blandly utopian line is complicated a little. Having construed literature, in good post-colonial fashion, as a means of expressing "identity", Le Clézio recognises that in order to be heard, an "Indian from the far north of Canada", say, must write in the "language of the conquerors" - in English or in French. That may be "unjust", he admits, but translation into one of the world's linguistic "monarchs" is the price of getting a hearing.

Le Clézio takes it for granted that French is one of those "five or six" dominant global languages (alongside English and, one assumes, though he doesn't spell this out, Arabic, Spanish and Mandarin). This was to be expected, for in March 2007 he was one of 44 signatories to a "Manifesto for a 'world literature' in French".

Written by Jean Rouaud and Michel Le Bris, that document had its origins in a remarkable accident of publishing history. In the autumn of 2006, several of the major literary prizes in France were awarded to novels by writers whose first language was not French. The anglophone Canadian writer Nancy Huston won the Prix Femina, while the Prix Renaudot went to Alain Mabanckou, a Congolese-born novelist who lives in the United States.

The most newsworthy prizewinner of all, however, was the American writer Jonathan Littell, whose novel Les Bienveillantes ("The Kindly Ones") won both the Prix Académie Française and the Goncourt. This 900-page epic, set on the Eastern Front during the Second World War and told from the point of view of an SS man involved in the administration of the Final Solution, sold more than 300,000 copies in a little over three months.

For Rouaud and Le Bris, this was a historic moment nothing less than a "revolution": the moment at which the French literary establishment acknowledged properly for the first time that the centre no longer held. What the dis tribution of the prizes that autumn showed, the manifesto argued, was that the "centre" of in fluence in French literature had been dispersed to the four corners of the globe. This was the end of the colonial conception of Francophonie, and the birth of a "world literature" (littérature-monde) in French.

The revolution was not merely a matter of geography, either; it also had an aesthetic dimension. For too long, Rouaud and Le Bris argued, French fiction had been in thrall to an aridly formalistic and self-enclosed model, the legacy of the nouveau roman, in which all contact with the "world" and its "vital energies" was frowned upon. When French literature went global, therefore, it rediscovered realism.

Significantly, the model for this transfor mation was English. Rouaud and Le Bris looked to the explosion of post-colonial energies in English fiction in the early 1980s. In novelists such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri and Salman Rushdie, they saw not products of decolonisation, but rather avatars of the 21st century. This was a generation of immigrant writers who did not hanker for the old country, but instead affirmed and wrote out of their "plural identities".

It is a nice historical irony, of course, that the opening up of French literature to the "world" should require the emulation of an anglophone model. And it may well be that rather than announcing a revolution, as Le Clézio and the other signatories to the manifesto believe, the death of Francophonie in fact simply confirms the global domination of English.

Jonathan Derbyshire is a writer and philosopher

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special