The second session from Sunday’s World Literature Weekend event held by the London Review Bookshop provided a chance to have a debate about a wide area – Central Europe.
Penguin has recently published a ten book series under the umbrella the Central European Classics and the series editor Simon Winder was flanked by several translators Michael Hofmann, George Szirtes and Tomáš Zmeškal to talk about what it meant to be central European when the books that covered the start of the last century up to around the end of the second world war and what it means now.
There were several conclusions that are worth capturing and sharing here.
The first, and once you think about it one of the most obvious, is that most of these writers were describing a world that no longer exists. Winder talked about one writer who had not only the name of his home ton changed but his entire country subsumed into another.
Add to that the quite widespread phenomenon of having cultures that hated each other tightly packed together and you had a melting pot of languages, migration both voluntarily and compulsory as well as war.
This produces an almost dream like quality to most of the writing where the world’s that the writers inhabit are often imagined and fluid. That is a theme that the assembled speakers agreed went through the classics series.
The second theme was around the idea of an anti-state position. Michael Hofmann said that at first he didn’t understand why Thomas Bernhard had been included until he came to look at it from this anti-state point of view. he said that during his writing career Bernhard was racked on the knuckles with writs and legal actions but had been slightly further east he would have been imprisoned and much more heavily censored.
Finally when it came to looking at the future there was a feeling that central Europe was potentially re-emerging having been squeezed out of common parlance after the end of the second world war. With the collapse of the Austro Hungarian Empire, then years later the spread of Soviet satellite states Europe became divided into East and West with not a great deal of room for the Central states to have their own identity in the middle.
That could potentially change as the political geography of Europe changes. The writers in the series are still read by their native Czech and Hungarian readerships and there was a sense that the world and mentality that emerges through the pages of the books in the Penguin series could come out of the shadows once more.