SNF Project 'British Literary and Cultural Discourses of Europe'

Prof. Ina Habermann, Centre of Competence Cultural Topographies / Department of English, University of Basel

Time: 01.03.2014–31.08.2017

Project Summary

In the present crisis of the EU, this project analyses twentieth-century British literary and cultural discourses of Europe, seeking to contribute to a better understanding of how contemporary notions of Europe have been shaped. Since Britain finds itself, and has placed itself, on the margins of Europe, it will be highly instructive to study British projections of Europe over time and in various types of writing as well as in institutional discourses. The project was developed within the framework of the Centre of Competence Cultural Topographies at the University of Basel. The Centre’s research focuses on ‘boundaries of Europe’, both geographical, and imagined or discursive. While important work at the Centre is concerned with the Eastern boundaries of Europe, the present project looks towards the Western margins, asking about the various ‘Europes’ that have been constructed in Britain, both in terms of participation as well as in processes of othering. The focus will be on cultural and particularly on literary discourses, which are multi-layered and at times self-reflexive, thus offering a representative basis for an analysis of complex cultural identities.

Even though we are concerned with, and about, the contemporary situation, we suggest that it can only be understood adequately by taking a longer view, beginning after the great chasm of World War I and taking into account the interwar period and the build-up to World War II, the War itself as well as the Cold War period, and post-reunification Europe. This time frame of roughly ninety years, or three generations, corresponds to Jan and Aleida Assmann’s notion of the contemporary, shaped by “communicative memory”, a “synchronic memory-space” (J. Assmann 2006: 8) defined by a specific relation between personal communication and representation through media as well as cultural artefacts (such as letters, photographs etc.).

Our project is divided into three PhD research projects. In selecting these, we focussed on literary and cultural discourses which transcend the boundaries of the nation state rather than on bilateral relations between Britain and other European nations. Three ‘cultural topographies’ have been selected which appear to be particularly resonant with regard to European discourses: the English Channel as a contact zone and space of exchange between Britain/England and ‘the Continent’ (“England and France: From Literary Channel to Narrative Chunnel”), the chiastic construction of East and West in Britain’s image of Europe (“Europe East and West: Literary Negotiations of a Blurry Borderline”), and the South of Europe as defined by the Mediterranean Sea (“South: Between the Pillars of Hercules and the Hellespont”).

Links between these projects are manifold – they are historical, conceptual and topographical as well as topological, both in terms of geo-political constellations which structure the perception of Europe, and in terms of personal networks of relations. In terms of the relevance of our inquiry, we do not propose to conduct an empirical analysis of collective opinions, but we maintain that the imagery used and the views expressed in fiction and various forms of popular writing offer an adequate and representative reflection of the cultural imaginary of the nation, and of the important issues at stake. We hope to contribute to a more thorough understanding of Britain’s position towards a Europe where the ‘British stranger’ (Wall 2008) has taken residence, and we also feel that we are ideally placed to undertake such an investigation in Switzerland, a country that shares Britain’s marginality with regard to Europe and thus provides the instructive and in some respects privileged view of the stranger within.

Sub-Project I: England and France: From Literary Channel to Narrative Chunnel (Melanie Küng)

This sub-project is concerned with the literary discourses surrounding the English Channel/La Manche, including the Channel Islands, as an Anglo-French in-between space which divides and connects, a cultural contact zone where English and French fortunes have been woven together, quite literally in the Bayeux Tapestry, from the time of the Norman Conquest. We take our cue from Emily Apter, who describes Margaret Cohen and Carolyn Dever’s approach in their collection The Literary Channel (2002): “The present collection’s emphasis on the Channel rather than on the discretely bounded territory of the nation-state shifts the focus away from influence studies and toward a paradigm of ‘Anglo-Euro’ cultural topography that questions the very ground of cross-cultural comparison. The fluid space of the Channel becomes a metaphor for a zone of mutual refraction where Britain defines itself through its incongruent reflection of Frenchness, and vice versa” (Apter in Cohen/Dever 2002: 286). Our project will look at the changing significance of the Channel for constructions of national identity.

As Dominique Rainsford points out, with regard to World War II, the Channel was often seen as the natural obstacle which saved Britain from invasion and also helped the British to remain independent ideologically (Rainsford 2002). The wealth of popular historiography about the occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II testifies to their significant role within the wider context of British-European history. We propose to study narratives dealing with the Channel Islands, with a view to the discourses of Europe which may be extrapolated from them.

The opening of the Eurotunnel in 1994 has moved Britain, at least psychologically, closer to the Continent (see also Darian-Smith 1999). The literary representation of this move, according to Apter in her afterword to Cohen and Dever’s collection, is the “narrative Chunnel”, which “picks up where the literary channel leaves off in suggesting a focus on the relationship between Anglophone and Francophone literary history in the New Europe. […] Chunnel literature points to a state of postnational borderlessness that sublates regionalist and minority claims in the future history of the novel.” (Apter in Cohen/Dever 2002: 287) For Apter, “best-selling Euro-Fiction may strike readers as being situated in a historical as well as geographical and political vacuum.” (Ibid., 289) Apter appears to foresee a gloomy future for literature about ‘Europe’, but contrasting the ‘Chunnel’ with the Channel Islands literature, which celebrates the local and idiosyncratic, it appears that literature is a place where the emaciation of certain concepts of Europe can be both criticised and counteracted. As Rainsford remarks, in a discussion of Jonathan Raban’s Coasting (1986), that the Channel “speaks of a Europe that is much more than the sum of the nations that are included within it, […] a patchwork of identities, but one with habitable rips.” (Ibid., 154) He suggests that Europe should be seen neither as homogenous, nor as modular, where “each nation fits to its neighbours with an airtight seal” (Ibid., 158). Instead, in-between zones such as the Channel, or other topological features such as the Pyrenees or the Alps, can be seen to relieve its “claustrophobia and potential complacency” (Ibid.) as they become the setting for narratives of people’s lives.

Sub-Project II: Europe East and West: Literary Negotiations of a Blurry Borderline (Blanka Blagojevic)

This sub-project investigates British representations of Eastern Europe and their meaning in the context of Western identity construction. A more or less vague and imaginary ‘Eastern Europe’ has long been popular as a setting for British literature, the best known examples including Dracula’s Transylvania as well as ‘Ruritania’, providing a setting for popular romance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Goldsworthy 1998). These are expressions of a mind-set, to be investigated in more detail, which has been characterized as ‘balkanism’ (Todorova 1997, Hammond 2010; see also Wolff 1994).

Blanka Blagojevic looks at the work of British writers who travelled in ‘Eastern Europe’, often on the initiative of the British Council, to analyse the ‘Europes of the mind’ which they created out of a mixture of preconceptions, literary tropes and experiences. Supported by our research on the British Council’s Home Division (see Sub-Project I), this will be contrasted with the output of Continental European immigrants to Britain, famous examples being George Mikes’s How to be an Alien (1946) or the work of Arthur Koestler, in order to highlight the contribution of Eastern European authors to negotiations of British identity. It will be fascinating to discover how the dominant discourses of the 1930s and 1940s compare, across the gap of the Cold War, with recent developments, given the attention that British writers paid to the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s and the wealth of literary, dramatic and other representations of Eastern Europeans which accompany the recent influx of these immigrants to Britain and Ireland (Korte et al. 2010).

While fictions of the ‘James Bond’-type can be seen as popularisations of a Cold War mind-set, we will ask which British fictions may today be taken to epitomize Britain’s negotiation of the Eastern European Other. Has the EU now taken over the role of the totalitarian enemy who must be defeated by British individualist liberalism? Texts to be considered include recent contributions to the spy novel genre such as John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor (2010), as well as Tim Parks’s Europa (1998) and Nicholas Shakespeare’s Snowleg (2004).

Sub-Project III: South – Between the Pillars of Hercules and the Hellespont (Susanna Sargsyan)

This sub-project analyses British discourses of Europe focussed on the Mediterranean. While Susanna Sargsyan will look at fiction which uses the Mediterranean as setting or projected space, the main focus should be on travel writing. It will be crucial to pay close attention to the kinds of European imaginary spaces created, and to the cultural positioning of both writers and implied readers. In this context, the notion of a ‘spirit of a place’ provides a good starting point, since the phrase denotes a potent mixture of topographical experience, sensory perceptions, preconceptions and fantasies which can contribute to an understanding of Europe as a ‘feeling’ or an emotional quality, even where the word itself is not mentioned. This kind of emotional investment can create a feeling of belonging which is as hard to pin down as it is crucial to the construction of identity.

Paul Fussell’s classic work Abroad. British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1980) provides the starting point for the sub-project as regards the early twentieth century, both because Fussell mentions a wealth of material that should be analysed further and because he makes important points about travel writing and genre, discussing it in terms of essay writing as well as the romance and the quest and thus highlighting its power to shape the cultural imaginary. Authors worth looking at include Norman Douglas (author of the popular classic South Wind, 1917, and many influential travel books), Lawrence Durrell, a distinguished travel writer who worked for British Embassies and the British Council, Rebecca West, who travelled for the British Council and wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote travel accounts of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople and worked for Special Operations Executive in Crete during World War II, Compton Mackenzie, who wrote accounts of his work for British Intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Olivia Manning, author of the Fortunes of War novel series (1960) based on her travels with her husband Reginald Smith, a British Council lecturer.

Regarding contemporary discourses of Southern Europe, the sub-project also considers travel guides such as the DK Eye Witness Guide Europe and the Lonely Planet Guides as well as popular writing (f. ex. Stephen Grady, Gardens of Stone:My Boyhood in the French Resistance, 2013; Gavin James, Ariadne’s Thread, 2011) and literary travel writing, perhaps with an emphasis on Jan Morris’s important work (f. ex. Fifty Years of Europe: an Album, 1997). Middlebrow writing and ‘holiday novels’ will be of crucial importance, since we consider it culturally significant and representative of people’s projections of Southern Europe. In line with the topological approach which forms the basis of our inquiry, the sub-project should also include writing in English from Gibraltar (Mary Chiappe, M.G. Sanchez, Sam Benady; see also Constantine 2009), a place inviting self-conscious reflections about its identity as a South-western European outpost of Britain.


Assmann, Jan. Religion and Cultural Memory, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006.

Briggs, Asa. The Channel Islands: Occupation and Liberation: 1940-1945, London: B.T. Batsford, 1995.

Cohen, Margaret and Carolyn Dever (eds.) The Literary Channel. The Inter-National Invention of the Novel, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.

Fussell, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Goldsworthy, Vesna. Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Hammond, Andrew. British Literature and the Balkans. Themes and Contexts, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Korte, Barbara, Eva Ulrike Pirker and Sissy Helff (eds.) Facing the East in the West. Images of Eastern Europe in British Literature, Film and Culture, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Rainsford, Dominic. Literature, Identity and the English Channel. Narrow Seas Expanded, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.

Todorova, Maria. Imagining the Balkans, Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Wall, Stephen. A Stranger in Europe. Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair, Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford UP 1994.