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Wherever I go in Europe, I come across the scent of literature everywhere like a cloud of perfume. In countless places, I see a shadow out the corner of my eye; I hear a voice in the distance. If I drive past Brussels and the Battlefield of Waterloo, I pick up the despondent Fabrice del Dongo, who is searching for his regiment, for the battles, for the emperor. A bicycle trip on the Venice Lido irrevocably takes me past the slightly faded glory of the Grand Hotel des Bains; I see Gustav von Aschenbach looking longingly at Tadzio. When I was a guest writer in Berlin, I often met Franz Biberkopf in the neighbourhood behind the Alexanderplatz. In The Hague, Eline Vere pops into a chic shop. In London, Mrs Dalloway buys flowers. They’re everywhere. The landscapes and cities of Europe are home to unforgettable stories. That is how I got to know Europe, which is to say: the people and countries which, due to history and geography, have relied on each other to have quarrels, to become divided, to become reconciled, to conduct trade, to visit each other. Even before I had actually been everywhere, I was there in my imagination. The network of literature stretches all over the world, but nowhere is it so close, so compelling and so familiar to me than in Europe I know the stories thanks to the work of many translators, the best and most meticulous readers that exist.

                Literature, both past and present, reveals a reality that is just as complex and varied as the tangible day-to-day reality. Literature was given to us because it is impossible to traverse time and space in real life in order to collect knowledge and gain experience everywhere. Writers are not the impersonal advocates of tourist highlights; they are, as Zola said, the temperament through which reality and the people therein are seen. Given the wide range of writers and temperaments, literature provides a good overview of human capabilities to interpret reality.

Not everyone sees two versions of the world like me, both through their own eyes and through the gaze of literature. However, the world can also be observed and experienced in a poetic way without what may be considered at times as the bothersome presence of fictional characters. I call that the poetic attitude. In my eyes, that way of dealing with reality is essential even to correct conduct, to developing a sensitive morality. That attitude is not airy-fairy or sombre, but understands everything in a historical timeline and with philosophical depth. It loves language. It is cultured without being prissy or prudish. It encompasses love and the realisation of death. It is self-reliant and independent. It has a sense of humour. It makes mistakes. It appreciates doubt and ignores boastfulness. Writing, reading and living on the basis of that outlook, that is my goal. But I see that the poetic attitude has been suppressed in our times.

A warm summer’s day in 2014. We take a trip from our accommodation in the French Alps to Lourmarin in the Vaucluse via Mont Ventoux and the source of the river Sorgue. My goal is the cemetery there, which is hot and abandoned. The grave is easy to find. A small, rough tombstone, overshadowed by an overgrown oleander. The name of the man who lies below, Albert Camus, is coarsely carved into the tombstone, as well as his dates 1913 - 1960. Nothing else. I stand there a while and thank him for his work and the example that he provided. He was already lying there when I got to know him in 1962 and fell in love. First with ‘The Plague’ and ‘The Stranger’, then with the long essays and the rest. And then with the man with that beautiful face, the upturned collar of the jacket, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

                I see the landscape of the Vaucluse around me. Far in the distance, I hear the Medieval songs of the trouvères and I see the figure of Petrarch on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. I also see how the cyclist Tommy Simpson lost his life there in 1966. The poetic attitude is not limited to exalted literary facts, but sees the human drama. In the same way that a farmer can raise the different layers of earth, the farmer of the imagination can see the cultural layers of European culture at a glance.

What is the position of European literature at this moment in time? As first point of reference, I would like to choose the speech and the lecture that Albert Camus gave on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.  His generation – my parents’ generation – experienced the harsh reality of wars and mass extermination in both senses of the word and were tasked with building a different world. The written word was the most important source of information. Literature played a special role therein, was seen as an essential part of culture. Society was a type of pyramid with the elite at the top. The elite possessed the erudition, the money, the sophistication and the authority. The workers’ movement at the base of the pyramid focused its own elevation on that peak. If they couldn’t rival the elite in terms of prosperity, they could perhaps in terms of knowledge and refined taste. Culture belonged to everyone.

                In his lofty vocation, the writer is an outsider, according to Camus, but he is also part of the community as a whole. He says: ‘In this day and age, by definition he cannot place himself in service of those who make history; he is in service of those who endure it.’ In his eyes, the heart of literature is shaped by the commitment to truth and to freedom. Truth is secretive, it evades you, it must be conquered. And freedom is dangerous, difficult to give shape to, but full of joy. During a lecture that he gave a few days later in Uppsala, he explained the position of the writer in further detail. He gave that lecture the neutral title ‘L'Artiste et son temps’. The English translation of that is ‘Create dangerously’.  It is a telling difference. Whereas the title of the translation paints a picture of a hero who creates while endangering his own life, Camus keeps it simple: the artist is inextricably linked to his time, which is to say: there is an interplay between both. The fact that dangers lie therein is a given, not fodder for sensationalism.

                The picture that he paints is essentially positive. The writer must opt for both a place in reality, as well as for a rejection of reality; opposing positions that drive each other and ‘endlessly overflow, characteristic of life itself in its most joyful and heartbreaking moments’. It concludes with the intensely poetic image of ‘great ideas which, amid the din of empires and nations, bring the sweet stirrings of life and hope with a faint flutter, as if from doves’ wings’. It sounds like a spell. However, he spoke at a time in which literature had authority and the writer was a prophet. And such a Nobel Prize elevates you somewhat. You think that you can walk on water. I am slightly more level-headed about that.

My second reference point is the essay that Milan Kundera published in 2005: Le Rideau (The Curtain). When he wrote it, he had passed 70 and he took a gloomy view of literature. The world had changed in the time between the account of Camus and his own. The major authors of the 20th century, let alone those from the centuries before that, were no longer read and understood. And that, complained Kundera, while the novel can reveal that which no other art form can reveal. The novel is first to show the minutest details in society that announce major changes. The novel is the canary in coal mine. It is sensitive, predictive, patient, multiform, detailed. However, Kundera argues that even that magnificent art form is crushed in the cyclical movement inherent to all phenomena. What goes up must come down. He finds resolution at the end of the novel, but says once again what an amazing treasure we are allowing to slip out of our hands. Although I know, and to a certain extent admire, his examples, I see the tired attachment to a somewhat rigid taste for primarily older white male authors in his argument. He doesn’t spare a word for the merits of other important voices, such as those of women. Why Hermann Broch and not Virginia Woolf? I don’t blame him for that one-sidedness, although I share his melancholy about what will be lost. Because since that time, since 2005, the situation for literature has become even more precarious. Facebook and Twitter rose to prominence in 2006; the iPhone was introduced in 2007.

             Can we preserve both: the richness of great old novels by extremely dead writers and the enthusiasm, the search for new narrative forms and analyses of reality by young writers and creators, new generations? Can we reconcile tradition and innovation, continue to know where we come from, give diverse voices free rein, and preserve and guard literature as an essential part of culture? The crux of the matter lies in the latter part of the sentence. The poetic attitude, which is necessary to live life well, will be lost if the function of literature is no more than an ornamental one in the salons of a few old men and women. Literature must go back to the core. The poetic attitude must be the aim of a good upbringing.

Reading is no longer a favourite pastime or a source of information and experience. The landscape has changed. The erosion is visible everywhere: also among the so-called cultural elite, who sometimes like to assume somewhat populist traits. Research has shown that a quarter of Dutch young people can barely read and write. That news was briefly shocking. People called it a disgrace, something had to happen! And subsequently nothing happened, as usual. Reading is important, both reading patient information leaflets and poetry. The effect of the former is measurable, while the latter is not unfortunately. Because everything has to be measurable in our times, while imponderable values, such as those found in literature, don’t count. Until it’s too late and that wonderful means to be able to interpret and cope with reality is lying in the cultural wheelie bin. I do not blame illiterate young people for that; I blame the parents who should educate them and demonstrate by example what’s important. Reading takes time and effort. Fewer and fewer people are willing to spare either of those two things. No time is no excuse. No time is a choice. People speak in just as much depth and just as often about easily-digestible, but time-consuming, Netflix series as they did fifty years ago about the new novel by W.F. Hermans or Hella Haasse, albeit more superficially. Social media with its egocentric success stories, public executions and breathless style has rejected truth and depth.

                The elite, guardians of culture, have been dethroned or stepped down from the throne and become fragmented. They are attacked by populist theories that view any form of uniqueness or complexity as an attack on the ‘people’. Erudition is reviled. Having read a lot is ridiculous. During the strict lockdown, the coffee shops and the off-licences were open; we could nurture our addictions. Those were evidently essential. The book stores and libraries were closed.

                Literature no longer has the position in society that it had in the past. In the Netherlands, the position of literature was already somewhat precarious. Compared to other European countries, knowledge and appreciation of the literary tradition is minimal.  One of the side effects of this is the loss of historical understanding and of empathy. Polarisation in society is on the rise in part because of that. Conduct is dictated by personal emotion at the time and an unyielding sense of being right. People no longer approach others openly, but pass judgement on them and exclude them. The battle for equality, however important it may be, has become an us-vs-them battle.

Of course, writers also undergo changes over time. They make those visible in their themes and their style. However, if the slightly chaotic and complex diversity of European literature comes under political pressure and if the social reality forces the writer into the straitjacket of an explicit identity, the Writing is difficult in that case. If elites turn away from their traditions and feel ashamed about what was once valuable, if groups fight and exclude each other, that development will end up with everyone being alone in a desolate landscape. More courage is needed than ever before to continue believing in freedom and truth, more courage is needed than ever before to continue writing independently.

                Writers and readers must boldly promote the importance of literature. Europe, the old battered Europe, the Europe of slow decisions and hopeless compromises, but also the Europe of many stories, needs to be given a kick in the backside by us. All kinds of initiatives to promote reading are already being developed for young people; an array of them, slightly different in each country. Great, but not enough. Too fragmented. That can be improved. Above all, we need to preserve reading. In the Netherlands, we have had a Boekenweek (Book Week) since the 1990s, a successful union of writers, publishers, bookstores and readers. The decline of reading would definitely have taken on an even more ominous form if we didn’t have an excellent reading infrastructure in the Netherlands, which experiences its annual climax with the Boekenweek. That seems to me like a great export product.

                Each year in March, all countries in Europe will have a ‘book ball’, an overarching European Book Week gift and numerous performances by writers, articles in newspapers, programmes on the television and podcasts. We will build a new network of literature across Europe, in which we get to know each other before we have actually visited each other.                

Although there are many of us, every writer writes alone. He alone is responsible and liable for every poem, every story, every novel that he creates and sends out into the world. Every writer writes alone and based on his own temperament. He bows to nothing or nobody. He is always flexible and subversive. He embodies the ambiguity of the solitary individual in the collective. He performs a lofty task with humility. He stands next to the other and asks questions. Who are you? What are your hopes? What have you endured? He views the vulnerability that this entails as the natural price that he pays. Courage is needed to take up that position. Or drive. Or both. He learns from great examples; he relies on them. He will not be able to rival them, but he will, at least, convey some of the inspiration.