BOOK REVIEW: French literary scene rediscovers Central Europe

By bne IntelliNews July 8, 2015

Iana Dreyer in Paris -


Are France’s literati suddenly taking a renewed interest in Central Europe?

Mitteleuropa is a travel book with musings on books, art and film that has been nominated for the European Book Prize 2015. Other new titles - Karpathia, Eastern, Prague - faubourgs est - by young first-time novelists are being brought onto the book market in a matter of a few months between mid 2014 and winter 2015. The cities Krakow and Wroclaw were invited to showcase their writers at the Salon du Livre, the key French-language annual book fair in March 2015, in another indication that Central Europe is becoming attractive for France’s reading public.

Since the death in 1980 of Romain Gary, author of A European Education (1945) and Promise at Dawn (1960), with his Russian Jewish-Polish-Lithuanian background and flamboyant globe-trotting persona, there’s hardly been, among the towering figures of French literature, anyone using the region as a source of inspiration or setting for a meaningful piece of literary work.

Traditional links

France has a long tradition of welcoming exiled writers and other artists from Central and Eastern Europe. Poland’s Witold Gombrowicz, or Romania’s Eugène Ionesco in the post WWII period are such examples. Among those who wrote in French, few did on the countries they were born in.

Milan Kundera, the Czechoslovakian writer who emigrated to France in 1975 and shifted to writing in French, is an exception. The now 86-year-old celebrated writer made an unexpected comeback in 2014, with a successful new philosophical novel, The Festival of Insignificance. But this piece’s setting is not his native country, it is Paris’ elegant Jardin du Luxembourg.

Before WWI and WWII France was a country drawing a large number of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. These included many Jews from Russia and Ukraine of course, but also from Poland, Hungary, or Romania, which are a dominant group, on the run from misery and pogroms. Writers and artists with this background were very present in French public life: The Dadaist Tristan Tzara and the celebrated poet Guillaume Apollinaire are among the most prominent. The Austrian Jew Stefan Zweig was a best selling author in France - as in Germany, but unlike in Britain. Galicia-born Joseph Roth spent the last six years of his life in Paris, where he died, impoverished and an alcoholic, in 1939.

The nationalistic and anti-Semitic Vichy regime running France after its military defeat against Nazi Germany in 1940 choked off this cultural life. Internment of foreigners in dreadful internment camps, vividly described by Arthur Koestler in Scum of the Earth, and deportation of Jews was the new order of the day. After WWII, the descendants of Central and Eastern migrants blended fully into French society. Then came the Cold War, which largely cut off links with the region.

Beyond the holocaust

The early 1990s were a period of rediscovery of the region. In Mitteleuropa Olivier Barrot recalls his discovery of still unknown works from Hungary: “Like so many people, I discover  [Sandor] Marai when his books got translated after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist regime”.

Except as – or because it tends to be - seen through the holocaust prism in France, Central and Eastern Europe tends to be what Jean-Christophe Buisson, a literary critic at Le Figaro newspaper termed a “a grey zone, almost black, in which one is hardly interested in”.

That decade is also one of brooding over the Vichy past. In Dora Bruder (1997), 2014 Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano wrote the story of a man trying to piece together through newspaper clips and police archives the life of a rebellious teenager, daughter of Jewish immigrants from Austria and Hungary, who was deported to a Nazi death camp.

Though the number of translations of contemporary writers from Central and Eastern Europe has increased in recent years, French publishing tends to be one step behind the German book industry. Joanna Bator’s 2009 novel Sandy Mountain, a family saga under communist and post-communist Poland, was published in German in 2011. It appeared in French only in 2014 (Though it still isn’t available in English). It is generally small, niche publishing houses such as Editions Noir sur Blanc or Actes Sud who bring books from contemporary writers from Central Europe to the market.

Andrea Salajova, born in Slovakia, and now a French film maker, captured France’s lack of interest rather well. Eastern, set today, and published by one of the most established Parisian houses, Gallimard, is the story of a Slovakian-born Paris-based dancer, Martin, who returns to his native town Michalovce, a run-down Soviet-era industrial town in Eastern Slovakia, to visit his grandfather at his deathbed.

Martin has been away from home for 10 years and hadn’t made efforts to stay in touch. As he broods over his uncertain success in France’s art scene, he meets those he left behind: a family belonging to those groups of society who lost out in the post-Communist transition, incapable of making money in a new world of brash materialism. Their life is one of low expectations, chronic unemployment, alcoholism, and racism.

Of Martin, the narrator writes: “In Paris, he hadn’t talked to anybody about his previous life. There are only very few people who are really interested, he understood this very quickly”.

Among the few who do have a genuine interest in the region are younger French-born writers, mostly newcomers on the literary scene.

Austro-Hungarian mania

Timothée Demeillers, a journalist and travel guide author in his early thirties, has lived in Prague, where he first went on a student exchange. He was drawn to Central Europe precisely because it seemed at first “seedy, grey and mysterious”, he told bne IntelliNews.

Prague, faubourgs est (Prague, eastern suburbs), is the story of two young men who live their early adult lives in the early years of the post-Communist era selling drugs, pimping and drinking in the city’s gritty bars and clubs. Both were in love with the same woman. The book draws a portrait of an impoverished city that discovers mass tourism and prostitution on a large scale in the 1990s. Marek ends up leaving in 2000 for the United States, to return seven years later, finding his close companion of those wild years, Jakub, drifting away as a drug addict and dealer as the city gentrifies and grows rich.

Salajova and Demeillers’s books have in common the key theme of what Demeillers termed in an interview with bne IntelliNews “the very rapid destruction of people’s hopes after the fall of communism”. Migration and alcoholism are a corollary.

Eastern’s first page contains these words: “All migrations of European Man have been to the west”. Demeillers’s Marek, in a moment of doubt about having returned to Prague, says: “it’s as if Warhol came back to walk into the wooden churches of his native Eastern Slovakia, or if Schwarzenegger went back to his Austrian mountains, that wouldn’t fit, one would think something’s wrong, that life goes only in one direction and not the other, that the world does not go East, mind you, otherwise we would know it, right?”

Another newcomer on the French writing scene is Mathias Menegoz. The first novel of a scientist by profession, Karpathia, immediately won a prestigious prize, the Interallié. The book is a sophisticated historic adventure novel set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the 1830s. It is written in a flawless, smooth classic style, some have likened to Alexandre Dumas’, the 19th century author of the Count of Monte Cristo. The story is one of a Hungarian aristocrat engaged in the Austro-Hungarian army who, after fighting a duel to defend the honour of his future wife, quits military life to settle in his family estate in Transylvania. The book is all about strife: aristocratic pride, feudalism, interethnic tensions, passion, love, violence.  

But it is not only about the past. In an interview at the March Salon du Livre, Menegoz explained: “In France one feels one is in an old, solid, nation unified a long time ago. But there are plenty of other European countries that were about Germans living in an Austro-Hungarian empire, Hungarians, Romanians, etc. They had their culture, their religion, their language, without belonging to a nation in such a unified sense as ours. And that was very exotic to me. But during my research for the book and travels to Romania and Hungary I also understood the problems”.

The huge success in France of Zweig’s memoirs The World of Yesterday, re-edited in 2013, shows that Menegoz is not alone with this fascination. In an interview with bne IntelliNews, Barrot even speaks of a “mania” for everything Austro-Hungarian, and which he says is not only a French phenomenon. Does this interest in a political state that defies the traditional French republican self-understanding indicate that something deeper is going on in the country?

Common roots

Barrot is one of the few figures of the close-knit literary establishment to have come out with a book about these parts of Europe. Barrot is interested in a broadly defined geographical area: the main criterion for a country, writer or piece of art to be included is to have been located somewhere where the German language was dominant in late 19th and 20th century: the Austro-Hungarian Empire in particular, right down to Northern Italy and the Balkans, but also Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and of course Germany itself.

By contrast, Demeillers and Menegoz are newcomers more in sync with today’s realities in Central Europe. Yet all three share one feature: though solidly anchored in France, they all have a family background rooted in Central Europe. Barrot has Jewish ancestors from what used to be Bessarabia. Demeiller’s mother stems from a Sudeten German family. Menegoz’s mother is from a German family from Hungary. All three say their books are not about a quest for identity, although their background partly explains the initial curiosity that drew them to the region. 

France’s polity is deeply divided about its contemporary multicultural society. Its elite frets about its place, power, and role in an enlarged, open, Europe. A big part of the population is tempted by the sirens of nationalism and xenophobia. Europe’s future itself is again in question with the crisis over Ukraine and in the Eurozone. In such an environment, getting a sense what worked and didn’t in defunct Austria-Hungary may be a way of dealing with some of the resurgent ghosts of a darker European past. In France writers with this special background are best placed to contribute to the whole discussion of what it means to be European today.

Book references:

Olivier Barrot, Mitteleuropa, Gallimard, Paris, February 2015

Joanna Bator, Le-Mont-de-Sable, Editions Noir sur Blanc, August 2014

Timothée Demeillers, Prague, faubourgs est, Asphalte éditions, Paris, October 2014

Arthur Koestler, Scum of the Earth, Eland, London, 2006

Mathias Menegoz, Karpathia, P.O.L., September 2014

Andrea Salajova, Eastern, Gallimard, February 2015


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