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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Woven Into the Web1

Daniela Hodrová
Traduction de Alex Zucker

Texte intégral

  • 1 The title of the symposium in Czech (Evropa píše) is such that the word Europe, grammatically spea (...)

A do této narativní sítě vyprávějící Evropy je lapen
spisovatel, sotva se jí dotkne vlastním žitým i psaným
příběhem a přede v ní nové oko a zauzlinu, zámotek.

1In Johannes Putsch’s woodcut of 1537, Europe is depicted in forma virginis. Queen Europe is garbed in a robe of green, the color of life and regeneration. Scattered about in a bizarre pattern are the names of her countries, their capitals represented by emblems. Mountain ranges, too, are illustrated here, and flowing across her body from top to bottom is the Danube. Perhaps the fact that Bohemia is located at the very center of the Queen’s torso, in the solar plexus region, site of the sunny chakra, captures the unique status of this land, in which the knot of European history has been tied more than once in the course of the twentieth century, as well as in those previous.

  • 2 Remarkably, this concept was later echoed by the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Te (...)

2If I may, then, I will use this personification as a point of departure. My other point of departure will be the notion, from four centuries later, of a universal cosmic material that forms an envelope around the earth, “imprinting and retaining, recording in some fashion, every one of our mental processes, deeds and thoughts ... every action whatsoever ... There is a record of all that has happened,” as the Czech psychologist Břetislav Kafka wrote in the 1920s. It was for this special material that he invented the concept of “protonation.”2

3In the spirit of these ideas, then, I imagine Europe as a living thing cloaked in an aura, an invisible mental substance woven out of every thought, memory, notion, illusion, dream, anxiety, obsession, and trauma that has ever passed through the head of this maiden, or rather lady, of an uncertain age. She has experienced every one of these and spun them into stories, individual and collective, ancient and contemporary. And it is in this narrative web of literary Europe that the writer is caught. No sooner does he touch it with his own lived and written story than he spins a new loop and radius, a new cocoon.

4By its nature, this narrative mesh, ever expanding, thickening, tearing here and there, is different at every moment, and yet in a sense it is the same, in that it grows in accordance with a “genetic” program, and pulses in regular rhythms. However, those inside the cocoon, eagerly awaiting transformation, may only with difficulty, if at all, distinguish its outlines and discern the processes governing its dynamics. Not only that, but simply by their looking at it, it changes into a story. Another characteristic of Europe’s narrative web or body is that the holes in the stories from various eras are interconnected; stories flow along invisible threads over and around one another, even within the same work, which itself in small form mirrors the larger web.

5And what sort of stories are they? The stories of Oedipus, Odysseus, Tristan and Isolde, the search for the Holy Grail; the stories of Christ, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and Faust; stories of lost illusions, delusion and insanity, crime and punishment; of inconceivable acts and misconceived guilt, of lost time and recollection, of alienation, and consecration unfulfilled.

6European writers of the last century were spellbound by all of these stories and many more, weaving together old and new alike, often questioning them, and not infrequently even parodying them (storytelling Europe has known all of these methods for ages), in the process transforming, if not completely reversing, their meaning. Gullible Hans Castorp, Thomas Mann’s modern-age Perceval, leaves the magic mountain for the slaughterhouse of World War I. Kafka’s surveyor searches in vain for a way into the Castle; while in The Trial, K. fails to recognize his own guilt and so falls short of redemption. The travels of Bloom, Joyce’s Ulysses, take him on a tour of the modern city, lasting but a single day. And in Robbe-Grillet’s Erasers, the Oedipus myth does double duty as a pseudo– detective story about the fatality of knowledge.

7Kafka’s novels also illustrate another distinguishing trait of “European text,” and above all that part of it which is linked with the chest of the allegorical being that served as our starting point: incompleteness. Citing Musil, Kafka, and Hašek, the Czech critic Václav Bělohradský has pointed out how the great novels of Central Europe share this trait. What he had in mind was not the incompleteness resulting from the circumstances of the writer’s life, but incompleteness as a result of his doubts about the ending, about the possibility of knowing, of creating a story with a single, unambiguous meaning. Such occurrences, if rare, are indicative nonetheless.

8In recent decades, however, European narrativity, or European narrative discourse, to use a modern-day term, is in my opinion characterized by still another, more weighty incompleteness — an internal one. Instead of the expected event, a “hole” yawns in the story, as in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe. The rigid structure of the novel, traditionally divided into chapters, collapses; the text is often composed of a sequence of loosely connected paragraphs, riddled with ellipses. This fragmentization corresponds to a descent into the past, foregrounding the text and recording the fleeting present. This is the case, for instance, in Milada Součková’s First Letters, Nathalie Sarraute’s Childhood and Between Life and Death, Marguerite Duras’s To Write, and Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. Examples of it in “women’s” prose in particular are legion. Also disruptive to the traditional continuity of text is hypercontinuity, in which the text is conceived as a stream, composed as a single, never-ending sentence (Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age), or constantly branching off and digressing (Song of Youth, by Josef Hiršal), coiling and collapsing in on itself — the technique known as mise en abyme is common, in the “new novel” and elsewhere. The narrative in these cases is frequently conceived as a search for narrative and story, as well as its “destruction” and “cleansing.” The Austrian Thomas Bernhard offers the reader stories that are formally complete, but destroys them from within, his fragmented themes repeating insistently throughout the text. The use of variations — the primary compositional and noetic approach of Milan Kundera, self-declared savior of the European novel — strikes me as another prominent trait of European discourse in those works that cast doubt on the existence of a single, “easy” meaning.

9It seems that those who come into contact with the body of Europe are infected by the internal incompleteness and discontinuity of its stories (though in reality, on closer examination, there are actually multiple continuities), and are carried away by the stream of European stories, visited by their characters, possessed by the demons of memory and forgetting. I was struck by this recently while reading The Invention of Solitude by the American writer of Austrian origin Paul Auster. For as soon as the narrator finds himself in Paris and Amsterdam, he plunges into the European narrative element, drawing on stories and themes both old and new (e.g., the story of Anne Frank). The typically European theme of memory even lends its name to the novel’s second part, The Book of Memory, placing Auster’s work in the context of the great European novels of memory, from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to Peter Nádas’s Book of Memories; the wandering through Amsterdam, too, echoes the wandering through the city of canals in The Erasers. And I was amazed to come across the story of the insane Hölderlin, who wanders a Prague cemetery in the novel Comedy, I am now writing.

10The same mechanism that operates between continent and writer exists between city and writer, too, in an even more obvious way; the aura of the city exerts its pull on foreigners as well as natives. The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague, by the French author Sylvie Germain, who lived in the city for several years, is written in an almost medium-like contact with Prague’s narrative aura. From this aura emerges a being without name, age, or face, with “a body of tears and memory,” an apparition born of the city’s stones, like Gustav Meyrink’s Golem. Germain’s text, like Paul Auster’s, gravitates toward internal incompleteness and, also like Auster’s, makes a theme of the act of writing. At first, this approach may seem like a postmodern play on story, yet hidden behind it, here and elsewhere, is the existential anxiety and ontological uncertainty of the narrator: “Who am I when I write this novel? Who do I want to be? Am I the one descending into my past, or the one standing off to the side, watching the descent?” (Forgive me for quoting myself, from the novel Theta, part of the loose trilogy “Città dolente.”)

11So how is it then with the European story, itself a substory of the macrostory of Earth and a metastory of the stories of individual European cities? What will it look like in the next two or three decades, and what meaning does it offer? And why is it that the story — my personal story, as well as the collective one, of which my own story is a part — is so attractive to us, or to me, even though, or in spite of the fact that, it is falling apart (my own trilogy from the Prague district of Olšany remains unfinished), that these stories are questioned and ridiculed?

12Perhaps what makes the story so attractive to European writers, including myself, is that it creates, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, a conscious (or even merely potential) context of meaning for individual action in history. If it can be said that mankind acquires a narrative, in its essence dynamic, identity through the story, which tells itself about itself or someone else, then the same is true in another sense about the space it occupies, and its stories. Europe certainly acquires its identity not only through its landscape, but also, unremittingly, through the stories it rescues from forgetting, shaping, and relating them. None of this is changed by the fact that in the postmodern situation the story is diminished, breaking down, fragmenting, called into question. To some the story may seem ailing, and perhaps in a sense it is. Nevertheless it is precisely this story that best corresponds to today’s changing conception of the world, to the nature of knowledge. In short, a story that is ragged and incomplete is still a story; more difficult to access, perhaps, but intended to lead us to a meaning that is also less accessible. In any case, it becomes part of my memory, contributing to my self-knowledge and, with luck, to my transformation.

13Some dreams are as significant as stories in our lives, replaying for us in images our current situation, the momentary state of our soul. Clearly, this is not true of every story, only of those we might describe as archetypal, such as Greek myths. We keep them tucked away in our unconscious, through their repeated telling effecting a transfer of primal epic information, of the initiatory human experience that is encoded in these stories. The significance of the story in psychotherapy is well known: once a person can tell his story — in other words, can conceive of and view his life with detachment — he is nearly, if not fully, cured. This was Tristan’s problem in the medieval novel Tristan et Iseut, recently published in a new edition by Pléiade, with all of its variants and extensive commentary. True, Tristan remained “crazy,” despite telling his story; but the reason he failed to be cured of his tormented passion was that his storytelling and self-revelation were nothing but a ruse, a role he played in the court of King Marc, lacking true detachment and a genuine desire for atonement.

14I believe the story can have therapeutic, restorative significance, not only for the individual, but for society as a whole. Who can say whether the fact that Europe today has an urge to retell the stories that once established it as a geographical-spiritual formation is not a sign that the ailing maiden is back on the road to recovery? Maybe “crazy” Europe is beginning to realize that her fragile identity exists only through the stories she remembers and tells, and in which she attempts to understand herself. Stories such as Tristan’s offer us moments of great wonder and high emotion, a way of perceiving that has long been neglected, covered over and suppressed in recent centuries by Europe’s restrictive rationalism. And yet it is these very stories, “great” and “small” alike, that constitute an irreplaceable tool of knowledge, and self-knowledge, for the individual and humanity as a whole. Faith in the story, despite being questioned by some modern novels and philosophers, has made a visible comeback in Europe in recent decades, with the story and its telling beginning once again to be viewed not only as a metaphor for humanity’s lot in life, but as a real and fundamental dimension of human existence.


Further Reading:
“In Both Species.” Excerpts. Translated by Tatiana Firkušný and Veronique Firkušný-Callegari. In Prairie Schooner: Czech and Slovak Writing in translation, University of Nebraska Press, 1992 (Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing 1992). “Inner place.” Translated by Charles Townsend. Czechoslovak and Central European Journal, vol. 11, Winter 1992, no 2.
Edited by Paul I. Trensky.
“I See a Great City…” Excerpts. Translated by Paul Wilson. In Prague: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. Edited by Paul Wilson. Whereabouts Press, 1995.
“The Kingdom of Olsany.” Excerpts. Translated by Tatiana Firkušný and Veronique Firkušný-Callegari. The Prague Revue.
Jáma Revue, Winter 1996, no 1.
“Perun’s Day.” Excerpts. Translated by Tatiana Firkušný. In Daylight in Nightclub Inferno: Czech Fiction from the Post-Kundera Generation. Edited by Elena Lappin. Catbird Press,

“Theta.” Excepts. Translated by Tatiana Firkušný and Veronique Firkušný-Callegari. In Allskin and other tales by contemporary Czech women. Edited by Alexandra Büchler. Seattle, 1998.


1 The title of the symposium in Czech (Evropa píše) is such that the word Europe, grammatically speaking, functions as a subject (“Europe writes”), whereas the official translation into English (“Writing Europe”) makes Europe an object, rather than a subject. As a result, I had to leave out a phrase in Hodrová’s essay in which she refers to this (the translator’s note).

2 Remarkably, this concept was later echoed by the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote of a “thinking layer” or “noosphere.”

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Czech Republic
Born in Prague in 1946, the writer, scholar, and translator Daniela Hodrová studied philosophy in Prague, receiving a doctorate for a thesis on the Russian writer Andrei Belyi. She worked as an editor for the publishing company Odeon and is currently a literary scholar at the Institute for Czech Literature of the Czech Academy of Science. Her main literary work, Città dolente (Podobojí, Kukly, Théta), a trilogy written between 1977 and 1984, could be published in Prague only after the political changes of 1989. Daniela Hodrová lives and works in Prague.

Alex Zucker (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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