My Europe

I FIRST SET FOOT on European soil–if we include Britain as a European country, which most Americans don’t–when I was twenty-three years old.  I stayed a week, traveling around England and Scotland, visiting sites like Oxford and Coventry and Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-on-Avon, the castle of Mary Queen of Scots and Loch Ness and then Glen Coe, where my ancestors had been massacred.  I went to pubs and drank lots of beer and ate lots of awful food, I rented a car and drove in the wrong lane, and in general tried to soak up as much atmosphere as I could, like any tourist.  The book I was reading was George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, and I liked to believe it still had some significance, it had something to say about the England I was seeing.

The second time I visited Europe, I was thirty-four.  I came for the Frankfurt Book Fair and then toured around Germany promoting my first novel. This was a different kind of Europe, made up of trains and taxis and bookshops and lecture halls, a Europe that felt much like my book tours of the United States, and I kind of missed that other Europe, made up of cathedrals and battlefields.  I was in Germany, a country I’d read so much about in history class, but other than the Brandenburg Gate, there wasn’t much history visible. I couldn’t find a familiar connection, a place where my stored images were confirmed.

Last week I was in Paris, city of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Henry Miller, of Joyce and Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, and there, surrounded by all the monuments and famous cafes, I felt a comforting continuity–that feeling when your expectations and reality perfectly meet.

It was an illusion, of course.  Paris has nothing to do with any of those old ghosts. I just needed to verify that they were there, and that I was there, standing or sitting right on the spot where they had been.  I wanted to share their space or their importance or something; I don’t know if you can call it nostalgia, but it’s close–a wish to be where things happened that were important to you.

There’s a stupid question that colleges in the U.S. used to put on their applications:  if you could invite any four people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be?  The answer supposedly showed something about your personality, like a dream or a Rohrshach blot.  The same is true for how you see a country or a continent that you really know nothing about. Of my forty years, I’ve spent less than one month on European soil.  And I’ve never been to South America or Africa or Asia or Australia.  So you’ve chosen a good test subject.  In my ignorance, I’m as American as they come.

My Europe–like my Asia–is made up, but not entirely by me.  It began when I was a child.  First there were the fairy tales–Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskein, Hansel and Gretel–all of which took place in a pastoral, old world Europe.  Even Peter Rabbit was from England.  These first tales established Europe as a small, provincial, yet magical place, full of peasants and kings, ogres and dragons.  So the old Europe, for me, was an unreal place, a fairyland where a child might find anything, but where–thanks to some American fiddling with the Brothers Grimm’s tales–the good people lived happily ever after.

My modern Europe began, like so many Americans’, with World War II (a fairytale, for American children at least, in which many good people die but many others live happily ever after).  In the paperback war novels I found on the downstairs bookshelf (where all the suspect, not-really-serious books lived), I flew along with Allied pilots on their bombing runs over Ploesti, and evaded Allied ships with the crew of the U-235, making its desperate run for Argentina. On TV there were movies like “The Great Escape” and “The Bridge at Remagen,” and of course in school there was The Diary of Anne Frank.  Europe was war-torn (this was in 1970, remember; already I was hopelessly trapped in the past).  In Europe you had to dodge bullets and hide in the woods, hoping a kindly family might take you in and hide you.  The cities were dark mazes, with sewers to splash through, and spies in trenchcoats clattering down alleys, the unlucky ones shot dead on the cobblestones.  This heroic and foolish view was updated by bad TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes–a comedy, if you can believe it, aboout being held prisoner by the Nazis.

Around this time I was being introduced to the cold war by Mission Impossible and stupid spy movies that were being rerun on TV. Berlin, and East Germany, figured heavily in the movies, just the idea of slipping through the Iron Curtain.  There was always microfilm involved, and checkpoints along the border, and occasionally a beautiful double agent doing her best impression of Sophia Loren.  There was no room for any reality in these stories; it was all plot and scenery, and the scenery was of the postcard variety–the towering Alps, Venice, Trafalgar Square.  Now the spies were hip like James Coburn; they wore turtlenecks and drove Jaguars and knew the right wine to choose.

That was, for me, modern Europe.  Because by now I was learning European history on several channels at once.  On one channel was Europe as the horror movie.  As any American kid of that generation knows, Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman all came from Europe–not the cosmopolitan Europe of Berlin and Paris and London, but the dark, backward countryside, populated by superstitious villagers, gypsies, and mad and doomed aristocratic families in their ancient castles. This was the foggy, haunted Europe of Hammer and American International films.  The era in which the films took place was foggy, sometime after the French revolution but before the advent of the automobile–that nameless age where Edgar Allan Poe, who knew nothing of Europe, set many of his best European tales.

On another channel was Europe as an ancient battlefield, whether that meant costume dramas of knights in armor, medieval epics with armies charging each other with long pikes, or near-Biblical tales of Roman gladiators.  As in Shakespeare’s histories, the key issues at stake in these movies (all of them laughably bad, unworthy of any criticism except laughter) were loyalty and revolution–freedom, really.

A child, I didn’t try to make anything out of these films.  Now theorists might point out the power structures of nobles, gentry and peasants and how these corresponded to some existing class system in the 1930s; or the idea of Europe as a failed past; or how the horror films predict in strange ways the unholy experiments soon to be carried out by the Nazis, but all I cared about was that the action of the movie make sense–that dramatically it earned its right to exist as a story.  That the story took place in Europe didn’t mean much to me.  Instead of the French fighting the English, it could have been cowboys and indians; instead of Frankenstein it could have been the creature from the black lagoon.

That wasn’t true of the romance movies, or the racing movies.  Paul Newman had to win in Europe.  Le Mans wasn’t Daytona Beach; the Gran Prix wasn’t the Indy 500.  It had class and mystery, like Monaco itself, that place that had won Grace Kelly away from us (I mean, how could Philadelphia compete with Monte Carlo?).  The foreignness of Europe was important–was half the fun.  Europe was a romantic playground for Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, and everyone drove around in convertibles and wore sunglasses and drank champagne.  Even New York was boring and mundane compared to Rome or the Riviera.  Part of this, I think, was a popular twisting of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the expatriates’ embracing of what they thought of as an exalted or true culture–or at least one not as shamelessly vulgar as America’s. An older culture, one based on something other than raw capitalism.  But the movies really didn’t care about that; they were more drawn to the idea of Europe as an exotic background, Europe as a fancy stage set.

Later I would come to the disaffected Europe of Kafka and Celine and Camus, the moody and alienated Europe of Bergman and Antonioni, the tender and weird Europe of Truffaut and Godard, the rock and punk and mod Europe of The Who and The Clash and The Jam.  I discovered the stately Europe of Bach and Couperin and the romantic Europe of Schumann and Mendelssohn.  I discovered the American Europe of jazz musicians like Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew and writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

But none of this Europe was or is real.  It’s outdated history, highlights from high pop culture filtered down haphazardly through the media.  My Europe is a fantasy made up of other people’s fantasies, of collective fantasies as varied as Blow-Up andThe Painted Bird and The Italian Job, and I think this is true for most Americans.  The American authors who I find have written most brilliantly about Europe acknowledge this, incorporating the strain of fantasy–of self-conscious composition–into the text itself, a kind of disclaimer.

Here’s James Salter, from his novel A Sport and a Pastime.  The France his American narrator dreams up is as much a product of the imagination as a real place.  The churchbells of the small town where he’s staying have just rung:

They flood over me, drawing me out of myself. I know where I am suddenly:  part of this town and happy.  I lean out of the window and am washed by the cool air, air it seems no one has yet breathed.  Three boys on motorbikes going by, almost holding hands.  And then the pure, melancholy, first blue of morning begins. The air one can bathe in.  The electric shriek of a train.  Heels on the sidewalk.  The first birds.  I cannot sleep.

I stand in line in the shops, no one notices. The girls are moving back and forth behind the counters, girls with white faces, with ankles white as soap, worn shoes going at the outside toe, dresses showing beneath the white smocks. Their fingernails are short.  In the winter their cheeks will be splotched with red.


They wait for me to speak, and of course it all vanishes then.  They know I’m a foreigner.  It makes me a little uneasy.  I’d like to be able to talk without the slightest trace of an accent–I have the ear for it, I’m told.  I’d like, impossible, to understand everything that’s said on the radio, the words of the songs.  I would like to pass unseen.  The little bell hung inside the door rings as I go out, that’s all.

I come back to the house, open the gate, close it again behind me.  The click is a pleasing sound.  The gravel, small as peas, moves beneath my feet and from it a faint dust rises, the perfume of the town.  I breathe it in.  I’m beginning to know it, and the neighborhoods as well.  A geography of favored streets is forming itself for me while I sleep.  This intricate town is unfolding, detail by detail, piece by piece.  I walk along the river on the bank between two bridges.  I stroll through the cemetery that glitters like jewelry in the last, slanting light.  It seems I am seeing an estate, passing among properties that will someday be mine.

These are notes to photographs of Autun.  It would be better to say they began as notes, but became something else, a description of what I conceive to be events. They were meant for me alone, but I no longer hide them.  Those times are past.

None of this is true.  I’ve said Autun, but it could easily have been Auxerre.  I’m sure you’ll come to realize that.  I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh.  It’s a story of things that never existed although even the faintest doubt of that, the smallest possibility, plunges everything into darkness.

Across the novel, from the single word–“Monsieur?“–spoken by the shopgirl, Salter’s narrator creates a love affair that captures an entire country, the perfect France of his American dreams, full of food and history and sex, all the while understanding that it’s a construction.  His position as an outsider guarantees that he will never possess the real France he desperately wants, making his desire–like Humbert Humbert’s for Lolita, or Pnin’s for social success in Nabokov’s paranoid and hilarious White Russian dream of America–insatiable and therefore all-engulfing.

The outsider can never know what the native knows, even if he or she is permitted inside, but the view from outside can be even more compelling.  That’s true for most writers, I’d say, since many of us are outsiders in our own countries, communities, and families.  We’re always outside looking in, trying to figure out why things are the way they are. At our best, we bring to the world a curiosity that borders on the obsessive.  Send Henry James to the Antarctic, and he’d send back a brilliant and detailed view of social life there–his own view, yes, but still true. Every year in the U.S. there are excellent examples of what you might call cross-cultural novels (also known in Hollywood as the fish-out-of-water story) written by first-generation Dominican-Americans or Korean-Americans or Pakistani-Americans detailing the vagaries of life in their new country; it’s almost a standard form, since the clash of cultures necessarily creates all kinds of drama.  In fact, you can find marvelous novels from pretty much every group that has immigrated to the U.S. since 1900, and you’ll continue to find them as long as new groups keep arriving.

To write about a place from the inside, I think, is much more difficult.  You have to inhabit it fully, whether in actuality or through a prolonged act of the imagination, fed by heavy research.  You need to learn the language and the daily clocks of the place and its people and incorporate them fully into a character who takes them for granted (unlike the cross-cultural novel, in which every little difference can be commented on by the new arrivals or fish-out-of-water).  I think a good writer can do this with another culture or another country, but it takes a great and conscious effort to overcome those secondhand versions of life he or she has been bombarded with since childhood.

I haven’t done that with any part of Europe. The only work of mine set here is actually set right here in Leipzig; it’s a screenplay on the life of Clara Wieck Schumann.  While I read many of the biographies of her, and noted the background details of her daily life, in writing the script I was more interested in how the characters talked to each other, and what scenes I needed to show to get her life across to the viewer.  I didn’t worry about the culture beyond her place in it.  Like those cheesy movies of the 50s and 60s, my Clara uses the city and its churches and bridges and the facade of the Gewandhaus as a pretty–and to the American eye and mind, typically 19th century European–backdrop, just an extra bit of costume in a costume drama.

In a way it makes sense.  My Europe in Clara is the Europe I grew up with.  To do better than that I would have to be like James Salter’s narrator and live here, become, day by day, invisible, so that anywhere in the city, at any time, I might be following you, watching you, listening to what you say and writing it all down like a spy.  And even then I wouldn’t know Europe; I would only know you. For me that would be enough.  Ultimately, Europe isn’t a mystery.  You are.

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