I was browsing books in the beautiful bookstore in the former Dominican church in Maastricht last week. Reading the blurbs on the back it hit me how themes in contemporary novels seem so utterly disconnected from the momentous in the now, so very much rooted in the past without making literary sense of the now.
The Dominicanen bookstore Maastricht, photo by Jorge Franganillo, license CC-BY
Post WWII literature in the Netherlands has been dominated by two themes, first processing the impact of the war not just for those who lived it but also those who inherited their parents’ trauma, and second coming to terms with a suffocating strict protestant upbringing in an increasingly secularised world. The latter never appealed to me at all, spending several hundred pages in the tediousness of an environment that had no bearing on my life. The former was of more interest to me, tracing the lines of events then to the present day, the complexity and emotions of the many different layers. Europe’s most historical event in my own adult lifetime was the fall of the iron curtain, with the Berlin wall its evocative symbol, and all it led to, the reunification of Germany, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and ensuing wars, Eastern European countries joining the EU. But that too is over 30 years ago, and I’ve read the novels that explore the societal and psychological upheaval and consequences for our current lives.
We’re now over a fifth into the 21st century. Yet browsing the new releases table in that Maastricht bookshop you wouldn’t be able to tell, other than by checking the year of release of the books on offer. The majority still is processing, or actually just rehashing, those same themes. At best the ‘protestant coming out and of age’ novels have morphed into more general personal reflection by the author, novel writing in lieu of psychotherapy. It seems to be the result of marketing (this stuff has been selling for well over half a century!) or ‘easiness’ (you can’t go wrong with these themes as an author!), but daring or suprising it isn’t. It all seems to me so exclusively looking backwards to the past, the books my parents generation would have found daring or surprising in the 1960s and 1970s. Standing in that bookstore I also realised how in school we were told that these were ‘the themes that matter’, and that as a consequence there’s a sort of reflex in me when I pick up such a book that it should interest me. It became very tangible to me all of a sudden that what interests me most, and what indeed should interest me, wasn’t presented on that table. The story was in what was missing among the new releases.
Most of what was on offer fully ignores the now, and what might be momentous in the now, let alone trying to make literary sense with it. I long to see more emerging ‘great European novels’ that have the interwoven European society and its complexity center stage, more exploration of the shifting globalisation and geopolitics playing out in communities and invidual’s lives, the next two billion people coming online, the workings of digitisation and data on our lives, and through it all the climate threat. More now and forwards looking, looking towards the horizon from the now, while incorporating what went before. More novels that are, well, novel.
Luckily, there was something on offer along those lines as well. And more easily spotted once I realised what I wanted to filter out.
I think I have adjusted my book choosing filters permanently last week.
The Dominicanen bookstore Maastricht, photo by Bert Kaufmann, license CC-BY