Dreams R Us
By Anna Aslanyan
Best European Fiction 2011, ed. Alexander Hemon, Dalkey Archive 2010
In a review of The Great Gatsby I came across a long time ago (hence no link) there was a phrase that stuck in mind: “The real American dream is to become Europe. Such dreams never come true.” Many books, both American and European, have been read since, informed by this maxim, and opening Best European Fiction 2011, the second anthology in the series put out by Dalkey Archive, I was subconsciously looking for signs of “Europeanness” that would imply these stories could only have been written this side of the Atlantic. While the jury is still out, the insightful foreword by Colum McCann concludes with the suggestion that “Europe is now a dreamhouse of America, and maybe even more ‘American’ than the U.S. itself.” This is but one way of reading the collection that presents examples of writing so varied you can never be sure where you are.
What, indeed, are the main differences between American and European writing? The question is hard to answer without lapsing into a flurry of critical clichés, but certain things cannot help springing to mind. There is scale, of course, both geographical and historical; there are cultural references such as music and movies; like it or not, there are firearms. The first point is not particularly relevant here: the continent of Europe may be relatively small, but Alexander Hemon and his fellow-editors widened it by including Britain and Ireland, as well as “Greater Russia”. On the other hand, FSU countries are somewhat underrepresented: apart from the Baltic states (never considered properly Soviet even in the heyday of the USSR), you have only Georgia, Moldova, and Belarus. The latter’s contribution, a dystopian story by Victor Martinovich, ‘Taboo’, which dwells on the horrors of a totalitarian regime, absurdist enough not to be mistaken for realist, was written in Russian.
The notion of scale is no litmus test in the Europe-vs-America argument: there is nothing more claustrophobic than, say, scenes of backwood Texas in DBC Pierre‘s Vernon God Little, and the best stories in this collection prove that size matters, but not in the traditional, linear sense. The protagonist of ‘Sex for Fridge’ lives in ever-diminishing apartments, trading them down to make ends meet, and the story has him staying in a place “called ‘Eve’s Asshole’, because it was so far away from the world of men.” Written by Zurab Lezhava, the piece makes you reach for the map of his native Georgia (a small country in the Caucasus, not an American state), just to put topography into perspective.
Hollywood, whose shadow often hangs over contemporary fiction, does not seem to affect the stories in the anthology in any significant way, although there are allusions to film. Even when Toomas Vint‘s hero observes that his actions and expectations are “pilfered from some American movie”, the Estonian writer does not sound less European for that. The epigraph he chose for ‘Beyond the Window a Park is Dimming’ is taken from ‘Genesis’: “In my dream, behold, I stood upon the bank of the river” – but to read American overtones into this dream would be to simplify the story of personal crisis imbued with feelings of displacement. The protagonist visits his family in Toronto to find he will never belong there, and is sad to hear his daughter’s prophecy: “There’s no sense in teaching the children Estonian. In ten years’ time they’ll have no more use for the language.”
The collection’s tone, when it comes to languages, is more optimistic. Its Spanish part includes stories in Catalan and Castilian; the UK is represented by Wiliam Owen Roberts writing in Welsh and Hilary Mantel in English; one of the two pieces from Ireland, ‘Trespasses’, is translated from Irish. In this story, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne comes close to discovering America – her heroine is about to visit her son in San Francisco. The immigration form she has to fill in is enough to put you off travelling: “Offense. Felony. That’s not a word Clara ever uses. It’s not a word used in Ireland.” To be on the safe side, Clara’s son asks her to “wear something ordinary, for the flight”, perhaps deeming her tight jeans and purple leather jacket too risky. The grey Dublin suburbs where the story unfolds and the American reality Clara imagines remain worlds apart, until a burst of violence suddenly paints the picture red (note: no firearms). Another fight that happened between two Irish farmers a couple of years ago “sounded like the plot of a play you wouldn’t put on because it is so dated and old fashioned” – a feeling Europeans occasionally get when looking at their old land.
The names featured in this volume range from relatively unknown, at least in the Anglophone world, to world-famous. Ingo Schulze is one of the most popular contemporary German writers, and his story ‘Oranges and Angel’ lives up to expectations. Set in Italy, it brings to mind the question of scale again, especially passages like this: “I’m always fascinated by the fact that it takes only two hours to get from Rome to Naples, and another two, in the opposite direction, to Florence. For me it’s always as if Rome lies at the equator, and Florence and Naples are overarched by two entirely different skies.” This is Europe compressed into a separate globe, self-sufficient, able to produce literature that can be read the world over without having to defend itself from critics eager to ascribe to it various influences.
The more you think of dreams (in both senses of the word), the more omnipresent they become in these stories. Marco Candida‘s ‘Dream Diary’ is another example of writing that you have no option but to call European, not least because it reminds you strongly of Italo Svevo‘s prose. Candida’s narrator seems a perfect patient for any psychoanalyst: a dream in which his New Abridged Zingarelli Dictionary disintegrates in his hand would make Freud weep with delight. “Inside the soft Zingarelli pudding, there’s a ballpoint pen – the pen I use for underlining my books. I have no idea what my pen’s doing in my Zingarelli, but there it is.” The dreamer goes on to discover his old wooden globe inside the dictionary; whether or not it indicates wanderlust is not revealed.
I could go on reflecting on different stories, trying to identify their origins and put them, as it were, on the map. Still, this would not help me decide if what I have before me can, after all, be branded as European. To be honest, towards the book’s end I care less about it, fascinated with the spectrum of voices most of which I have never heard before. This is not to say that the quality is uniform – like any collection, this has its hits and misses, and you can see what a hell of a job it was to unearth so many good ones and make them available to the English-speaking audience. The statement quoted at the beginning may be too radical to capture the real American dream, and yet Best European Fiction 2011 manages to convince you in its favour. Next I’ll be reading writers from across the pond to find out what it is they really dream of.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 4th, 2011.