European Literature—made in the UK?

By Christine Lehnen

We are unable to believe that our own world will pass. So it will go on for ever? No. It will turn into something else. Slowly — too slowly to be perceived by the people living in it.

(Szalay, All 130).

In the novel All That Man Is (2016), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, nine protagonists travel the European continent, from Lille over Budapest to Copenhagen and beyond. The author, David Szalay, is quite a traveller himself: a Canadian citizen raised in London who is now based in Budapest and published in the United Kingdom. In 2013, he was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. But can such a book, or indeed such an author, be fully understood if considered only as a ‘British’? It is my aim in this article to show that a new category is required for a better understanding of contemporary British fiction. All That Man Is is neither an example of national nor of ‘world’ literature; instead we may think of it as belonging to an area literature, more specifically to a European literature made in the UK.

In this article, I will first provide a brief insight into current debate around literary area studies, following Christopher Bush who points to the advantages of an area studies perspective over the concepts of both national and ‘world’ literature, arguing that “[i]f areas are less sublime than the world, they should prove sufficiently challenging to most of us” (172). I will then go on, in a second section, to review a part of the groundwork that has already been laid out in conceptualising European literature, most notably seen in the work of César Domínguez, who posits that the supranational political developments in the shape of European integration since 1993 merit an investigation of the accompanying changes in literature. Working with data from the Eurobarometer, I will attempt to develop a preliminary generic horizon for what European literature might look like, focusing on possible forms, themes and content. Finally, I will take a closer look at David Szalay’s All That Man Is, contrasting it with the author’s most recent book Turbulence (2018) to explore the potential of the concept of European literature in the analysis of fiction written and published in the United Kingdom today.

Image by Hernan Pinera under CC BY SA license

Why Literary Area Studies?

In his contribution to the 2017 status report of the American Comparative Literature Association, Christopher Bush points out that literary scholars have recently been pitting ‘the nation’ against ‘the world’, unhappy with the nation as primary referent of their work (Gymnich 1549). At the same time, scholars have engaged in a heated normative debate about ‘global fiction’ or ‘world literature’ (Gymnich; Moraru 128; Moser, “Figuren”, “Literatur”; Kristian Shaw 26; Schmidt-Haberkamp; Schmidt-Haberkamp and Gohrisch).

Bush suggests an alternative: the area. It is worth quoting the case he makes in full:

At a time when monolingual, nation-based departments and disciplines seemed to many hopelessly out of touch with contemporary realities, […] ‘world literature’ can be said to have won that battle, but I would argue that this very victory has revealed ‘world literature’ to be not one thing but rather a name for a variety of […] possibilities for what might come after nation-based literary studies. Supernational but subglobal areas are one such possibility: Areas represent not just a quantitative compromise between nation and world […]. They break open the limits of the national while retaining enough specificity to allow for in-depth research and knowledge of the relevant languages (172).

Bush is referring to non-exclusive, overlapping areas such as the Black Atlantic, the European continent or commercial areas such as the Silk Road, emphasising that these areas are “heterogeneous” and thus cannot serve as a call for the mobilisation of an “original identity” or “underlying essentialism” (171).

As Bush contends, literary scholars have already begun investigating concepts of critical regionalism or literary area studies, for example the concept of European literature. César Domínguez and Theo D’haen, editors of the Routledge World Literature Reader, dedicate an entire volume to the possibilities of a post-national literature emerging in contemporary Europe. This emergence may be prompted by or companion to economic and political supra-national developments on the continent (Domínguez and D’haen, New Literature) — a context that the United Kingdom has been a part of. It is interesting then to see that in the recently published Routledge Companion to Twenty-First Century Literary Fiction, a similar category of ‘European fiction’ does not figure. Instead, it is the aforementioned ‘global’, British or postcolonial fictions that are included. While the editors make it clear in an interview published in this journal that they are by no means aiming “for it to be comprehensive or definitive”, they are seeking “to help make some sense of what’s going on today and perhaps give an indication of the direction of travel” (Wintersgill 2019). [1]

In the following, I am going to argue that a critical contribution on European literature could have been included in the companion, to account for one direction of travel in literature most recently published in the United Kingdom: European literature made in the UK. What is European literature, however? In this next section, I will focus on a proposal by César Domínguez which I consider the most productive entryway into this literary area. I will follow up with a case study of European literature currently emerging from the United Kingdom, namely the books of David Szalay.

What is European literature?

European literature can be used to denote a term of literary history, interchangeable with ‘Western literature’ (The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica). However, academic discourse has more recently approached European literature from a conceptual as opposed a literary history point of view, one notable contribution being the volume edited by Domínguez and D’haen mentioned above. Working from and within a context of increasing empirical post-nationality in Europe, the contributors each suggest their own conceptualisations of what European literature could be.2  It is Domínguez himself who most explicitly engages with the idea of a European area, when he points out that the process of European integration has changed the continent, for both member and non-member states alike, regionalising Europe to a degree that no other area in the world is currently being regionalised (28). He emphasises that there is “evidence of new identities and new loyalties” (28) in the European Union, which the numbers cited above only serve to illustrate. As Domínguez puts it:

The EU as a new polity calls for new questions about […] European literature […]. The reason is not only the novelty of the EU in itself […] but mainly the outcomes of integration understood as Europeanization […]. European integration Europeanizes national cultures, the result being a phenomenon rather different from what one could have understood as ‘European culture’ so far, which, in turn, is re-appropriated in its pre-integration meaning by Europeanization. (28)

In other words: Domínguez encourages us in his contribution to consider whether and how the political changes we have been experiencing in this area are negotiated by literature (30). He adapts Ulrich Beck’s concept of “everyday cosmopolitanism” to posit an “everyday Europeanization”, saying that at least since the 1990s, everyday nationalism is circumvented and undermined through our experience of being integrated into European processes (33). As Domínguez rightfully points out, “[w]e do not as yet have a clear idea of what Europeanization in cultural terms — even less in literary terms — means” (37). But we have some idea about what Europeanization means to ordinary people in their everyday lives, thanks to the Eurobarometer. [2] The European Union policy ranked most important in the 2018 Eurobarometer is the “free movement of people, goods and services within the EU”, followed by peace between member states and an economic union (European Commission 35). The majority of respondents also agree that immigration is the biggest challenge facing the European Union, followed by terrorism and economic themes as well as climate change (European Commission 35).

I argue that these are aspects we can and should look out for, to see if and how they take shape in contemporary British fiction. In theorizing a European literature, some potential avenues, relating to theme, content and form, suggest themselves:

  1. themes of travel, migration, terrorism, the environment.
  2. in content, we might expect effortless border crossings, multilingualism, the co-presence of multiple nationalities outside of ‘their’ nation-state (i.e. the meeting of strangers).
  3. formally, we might expect multi-perspectivity as well as ‘networked novels’, as Caroline Edwards describes them in the Routledge Companion (16), where spatially widespread situations are incorporated into one narrative (I would expect less of a temporal diversity).

The above is not meant to be a comprehensive list but a generic horizon, a starting point from which to chart the waters ahead. Although it is evident that genres do not exist a priori, the practice of literary criticism shows that it is nearly impossible to meaningfully interpret individual texts without referring to some kind of genre conception (Gymnich and Neumann 32).

European literature made in the UK?

The Routledge Companion to Twenty-First Century Literary Fiction includes a section on case studies of paradigmatic contemporary Anglophone authors, one of which I would like to turn into a case study of my own to shed light on the way that ‘British’ fiction finds itself in a process of Europeanization. In her contribution to the companion, Katy Shaw explores contemporary literature through the Granta award, discussing David Szalay who was awarded for his 2011 novel Spring (37–338). What Shaw makes no mention of is the classification of Szalay, a Canadian national living in Budapest, as a ‘British’ writer, or, as a reviewer makes reference to in The Guardian, even an ‘English’ writer (Cleave, n.p.). It is my hypothesis that ‘British’ writing has become, and is increasingly, Europeanized, and that David Szalay is a prime example of such a process.

Szalay followed up Spring (2011) with a book entitled All That Man Is (2016). Marketed by the publisher as a “piercing portrayal of twenty-first-century manhood” (cover copy), All That Man Is revolves around nine male protagonists at different stages of their lives in the present day. In considering the first three of these, a reader can begin to notice some similarities: Simon, the youngest, is travelling Europe on Interrail with a friend, and almost ends up sleeping with a woman from Serbia in Prague; Bérnard, a young man from Northern France, travels to Cyprus and sleeps with an English woman after he was rejected by Iveta from Latvia; Gábor, a man from Hungary, serves as a bodyguard to a Hungarian woman called Emma being pimped out in London, while simultaneously wanting to have sex with her. Aside from the fact that all these protagonists are men, and all out for sex that they are not getting, they also share narrative characteristics in line with my conceptualization of Europeanized texts. They are all travellers. They all (effortlessly) cross borders. They all spend time in a country where they have not been born, without experiencing any trouble with visas or border crossings at all. They all meet people of other nationalities — perfect strangers — and strike up some form of relationship with them. And they all negotiate foreign languages in one way or another. Simon is faced with a menu in a foreign language(Szalay, All 3). Bérnard speaks with two English women in his hotel in Cyprus:

‘He sounds like a tosser,’ she says, when he has told her what happened.

‘I don’t know,’ he says. What is it, a tosser?’

‘A tosser?’ Sandra laughs, and looks at Charmian. ‘How would you explain?’

‘Sort of like an idiot?’ Charmian suggests” (Szalay, All 80).

Gábor finds it worth mentioning that he can order chicken kebab in London “without mishap. (His English is quite fluent; he learned it in Iraq – it was the only way they could communicate with the Polish soldiers they were stationed with …” (Szalay, All 112). This is also true for the six remaining protagonists of Szalay’s book. Referring back to the preliminary generic horizon formulated above, All That Man Is seems to tick all the boxes: it features travel and migration, effortless border crossings, multiple languages and nationalities as well as multi-perspectivity and spatial (though not temporal) diversity.

Image by Giuseppe Milo under CC BY SA

If we look at Szalay’s next piece of writing, Turbulence (2018), we encounter many similar themes at first glance. Turbulence, originally written for the BBC as an audio piece,consists of twelve short narratives, each of them featuring a protagonist who is flying somewhere, for example from Gatwick to Madrid or from Hong Kong to Singapore.  It is set in airports all over the world. A minor character of the first story then takes over to serve as protagonist of the second story, and so on. There is travel and migration, there are border crossings, there is multi-perspectivity and spatial diversity. So far, so ‘global fiction’, one might argue. However, referring back to the ‘European’ generic horizon, some items from the list are remarkably absent. For example, there is almost no negotiation of foreign languages or meeting of complete strangers; all the protagonists know the people they meet, either because they are related, married or business associates of some kind. There are also only two stories revolving around the meeting of strangers:  the fourth story, in which a pilot sleeps with a journalist in São Paulo, and the first story in which a mother returns to Spain after visiting her son in the United Kingdom. In the fourth story, the one that is not set in Europe, there is no negotiation of foreign languages or mention of national identity, whereas in the first story, set on the European continent, both occur: “[The mother] wondered whether to speak to the man [sitting next to her on the plane]. He didn’t seem to be English. The handful of words he had said to her as they shuffled around each other in the aisle had had what sounded like a French accent” (Szalay, Turbulence 7). Later, the passenger is treated by a doctor after turbulence: “The woman was asking her questions in English with a strong Spanish accent” (Szalay, Turbulence 9). When Szalay sets a story in Europe, be it All That Man Is or Turbulence, strangers — and the necessity of negotiating an understanding with them — play a much larger part than in stories set on other continents. In neglecting such negotiations in stories set outside of the European continent, Szalay suggests a much more interconnected view of Europe, where multilingualism and relationships across national borders, even just temporary relationships with strangers, are the norm. Or, more precisely: it suggests a view of Europe that has become so interconnected that negotiating differences with an Other, most obviously represented by linguistic differences, has become a standard part of life. Szalay captures the experience of ‘everyday Europeanization’ in his works, and it takes the shape of negotiating an understanding with strangers who are not like you, but whom you cannot avoid. This could be part of an answer to the question raised by César Domínguez: what it is that Europeanization means, both in cultural and literary terms.

Concluding remarks

From this very brief analysis, more of the generic horizon emerges. European literature made in the UK today is not only about multiperspectivity and spatial divergence, not only about travel and migration — there are other genres which feature such narratives. European literature instead seems to include all that and more, the more of having to meet perfect strangers and negotiate some form of understanding with them, especially through the negotiation of (foreign) language. European literature deals with (and has previously dealt with) encountering the legitimate Other, having to negotiate interactions with this Other that you are unable to reject. Not all of Szalay’s characters are satisfied with the intercultural exchanges they experience, unlike Szalay himself, who as an author seems more than happy to engage with the Europeanization of the literature from the United Kingdom. To return to the opening quote of this article, while we may be hesitant to acknowledge that our world is changing, this transformation is not too slow “to be perceived by the people living in it” (Szalay All 130). David Szalay has certainly perceived it: The stranger is everywhere, whether you travel or stay at home, his books seem to tell us; and they may be here to stay.


[1] In the interview, the editors go on to explain that they included only anglophone fiction in their perusal of twenty-first century literary fiction, even though Daniel O’Gorman wonders “what the book would have looked like had we included more focus on literature in translation: Michel Houellebecq, Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolaño, for instance, have all made a significant impact in the Anglophone world over the past twenty years, but taking that step into translated fiction raises all sorts of difficult questions” (Wintersgill 2019). In other words: From the perspective of area studies, the editors of the Routledge Companion choose a linguistic area of material originally written in English, which is obviously a legitimate choice. As Bush stresses, areas are non-exclusive.

[2] In the most recent Eurobarometer, more than half of the respondents in each member state of the European Union say that they consider themselves to be EU citizens (European Commission 33), including a majority of 57 % of respondents in the United Kingdom.


Christine Lehnen, “European Literature – Made in the UK?,” Alluvium, Vol. 7, No. 4 (2019): n. pag. Web. 22 August 2019. DOI:

About the Author

Christine Lehnen is a writer and academic. Her research has been published in The Journal of Literary Theory and her short stories have been awarded the prizes of the Young Academies of Europe and the Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen. Since 2014, she has been teaching the Novel Writing Workshop at the University of Bonn. She is currently finishing up her postgraduate studies of English Literatures and Cultures as well as Political Sciences at the University of Bonn. As C. E. Bernard and W. F. Reynold, she publishes fantasy and suspense novels. She has studied in Paris, lived in the United States, Canada, Australia, and is currently based in Bonn.

Twitter: @chrisseleh

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