Requiem for a European
Parting is such sweet sorrow
The immigration hall at Heathrow Terminal 5 is hyper-lit, with 2001: A Space Odyssey oblong lights that blare down from the ceiling. My flight lands early, just after the 6 a.m. threshold the airport maintains to reduce night noise, but already hundreds of people are stacked up in snaking queues, bleary-eyed, muffled in masks.
It is the last day of January 2021 and my first time arriving home to London after Brexit. At the U.K. Border, as British immigration is now branded, nothing obvious has changed. There are two areas: to the left, passports from the United Kingdom, the EU, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea; and to the right, “All Other Passports.” A serried rank of e‑gates stand mute, cordoned off in red tape. The pandemic, with the blizzard of paperwork it has blown into our lives, now requires that we are checked by humans. Years ago, I would go out of my way to avoid the e‑gates. I hated them, with their iris-scanning cameras, their “Try again” or “Seek assistance” messages that would pop up even if your passport was not forged and your face was in fact your own. Now I miss the ease, the impersonal swish of the portal as it glides open its jaws to admit you to the other side.
If Christian mythology turns out to be right and there really is an interrogation process before we are hived off to heaven or hell, it’s probably modelled on the U.K. border. Increasingly, such places are Stygian underworlds where all your rights are smoothly cancelled.
The first time I passed through this particular Hades was in 1991, when, aged twenty-three, I moved to Britain from Canada. I write “moved” but the correct verb is “came.” I didn’t know I was moving back then. Neither did I know I would stay for thirty years. In Toronto, I had just finished my degree and had a job I loved at a publishing house, but we were taken over (however improbable this sounds) by a hedge fund. Before the money men deemed us a poor investment and shut us down, we published many British authors, most of whom were already well-known and who would later go on to become the most celebrated writers of their era. Luckily for me, part of my job as a junior editor was to procure hockey tickets and restaurant reservations, and I would often accompany those writers. I loved the Brits’ wit, how sharp and observant they were, their mordant readiness to decry and disbelieve. When the publishing house folded, I got a temporary visa for the U.K., even though I had been there only once before.
How to describe London in the early 1990s? It looked like a bomb had fallen, seemingly only yesterday. The city was still cloaked in the ashen pallor of the postwar era. I arrived in May, at the nadir of a recession. I remember vomit-coated stairs at Camden Town Tube, neighbourhood hotels that turned out to be hostels for working men of a certain age, some a step away from living on the street. Those first few months, the sun did not shine once — something I had never experienced anywhere in Canada, despite some iffy summers. Dark circles half-mooned themselves under my eyes. I became pale and thin and wore out two pairs of brogues as I pounded the pavement looking for jobs.
Setting out alone in cutthroat, competitive (never mind stupidly expensive) London, with no financial or emotional backing from family, was all consuming. My first decade there, I could afford to leave the country only a handful of times. In those pre-Eurostar days, a trip to the Continent was like a scene from Brief Encounter, where one would board a rumbling, damp “boat train” to Dover, then a ferry, then a lightning-fast TGV to Paris, where things actually worked and people looked less routinely miserable.
Europe intimidated me to begin with. It was too beautiful, and I was too insignificant. I struggled to absorb the tourmaline allure of the Mediterranean, the bullying romanticism of the French capital and its ranks and ranks of famous dead in cemeteries, which proved that people really did die and presumably I would one day, too. Britain, with its tidy gargoyles and familiar language, felt like a safe bridge between the boxy strip malls and hockey rinks of my childhood and the deliberate passion of Paris.
But even then, I didn’t drive a distinction between the two: Great Britain, Europe. I had come to live in Europe; that was how I thought of it. I was — or would be, when I eventually gained my citizenship — a European. Even if people from my background (welfare class, brought up on the margins of rust-belt economies) do not usually end up speaking four languages, have a bank account in euros, and know how to make as well as spell bouillabaisse. But what makes a European? Must you have ancestors in the ground for 3,000 years in Liège or Palermo? Or know the correct time of day to drink a single espresso? Or have an unfettered attitude toward sexuality acquired in adolescence or via Eric Rohmer films (whichever comes first)? Would I ever be this, or was it only a delusion?
Three years ago, when Brexit had established itself as a grim reality, deforming and dividing Britain’s society, its political class, and its institutions, I started writing a new novel, my seventh. In response to those favourite questions voiced at literary festivals or book clubs — Why do you write? Who do you write for? — I can say only, “I don’t know.” And I don’t. Probably I write to keep myself company, usually in periods of confusion and distress, which seem to arrive punctually every few years.
The book’s title, Day for Night, was with me from the beginning. While staffed with fictional characters, its plot follows the contours of my life. The story opens in January 2018 with the first-person narration of Richard Cottar, a fifty-year-old British film director with a multiracial background. The second half is written in the third person, with Richard’s wife, Joanna, a film producer, as the focal point. As the narrative unfolds, Richard and Joanna navigate what was to be Britain’s last year in the European Union, taking the measure of what they are about to lose while trying to make a long-planned film about Walter Benjamin.
Throughout that year, when the news became more and more surreal (the Daily Mail ’s call for treason charges against members of Parliament who were not sufficiently zealous about Brexit made it into my novel), Richard and Joanna’s company kept me focused and vaguely buoyant. I woodpeckered away every morning, usually in wintry pre-dawn hours before I got the train to my teaching job at the University of East Anglia. Some days, I could manage only 500 or 600 words before email and teaching took over my head.
The events of my life back in 2018 were poured straight into those pages: readings at the Southbank Centre; coffees with my agent in Soho; films at the Curzon Bloomsbury; epic nighttime walks home after too many number 73 or 38 buses had streamed past me (back in those halcyon pre-pandemic days when double-deckers were routinely so packed that they declined to pick up passengers). That April and May, I went to Italy to lecture in Bologna and Siena, as well as to Rome, Naples, and Capri to contribute to an art exhibition on Benjamin’s relationship with landscape. In July, the book accompanied me to Portbou, on the northern perimeter of Spain, and in August to Manhattan, where I stayed for three weeks to research Benjamin’s possible afterlife. Had he survived, he was destined to sail to New York, where he would have joined his friend Hannah Arendt to teach at the New School.
All my experiences — impressions, fragments of conversation, plays and films I saw, friends I met in darkened bars to chew over our sense of horror and isolation — were sieved into prose. I don’t think I’ve ever written like that before, using the raw material of my everyday events to power a story whose destination I really didn’t know and couldn’t predict. For a long time, I thought of the novel as a personal project, of interest only to me: an experiment in real-time writing. The process of crafting fiction gave me the delusion that I had some purchase on the present, as my adopted country became increasingly unrecognizable.
One thing I have learned about the apparition of an injustice as monumental as Brexit: it changes the very air around you. Reality morphs, and you find you are living in a parallel dimension, possibly more real and certainly starker than the zone you thought you inhabited. It was this uncanny quality that I tried to capture, even as it intensified around me.
Should fiction be political? Some literary critics have declared that Brexit has reinvigorated the British Novel (whatever that is). It’s certainly possible that a spate of intelligent, perceptive titles such as Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Laura Kaye’s English Animals, and Sam Byers’s Perfidious Albion would not have existed without it. My own Day for Night is not a diagnostic of the underlying social factors that the Conservatives leveraged against the EU in their referendum (I’ve left that to bona fide English writers such as Jonathan Coe and Amanda Craig) but about the effects on two individuals who do not have the most to lose from Brexit materially, yet who will suffer a great deal emotionally and intellectually. Richard and Joanna not only believe in the idea of Europe, they are European. There is no way you can pluck that from people’s minds, even if you relegate them to separate passport queues for the rest of their lives. Also, Richard and Joanna are, like me, “citizens of nowhere,” to borrow former prime minister Theresa May ’s phrase — people who thought they had superseded nationality.
Writing into or against the fast-moving current of the chimera we call history is possible, but that doesn’t guarantee novels will account for or grasp the meaning of these moments. They take too long to reach their readers, for one thing. Most books, in printed form, have a time lag of four or five years: two years of thinking and drafting, six months of hesitation and distraction and waiting for your agent and editor to read them, then two and a half years taken up by the production and marketing cycle. By the time a work comes out, history has moved on. Brexit? Yesterday’s news, love. Have you heard about the 130,000 people dead from a virus while the government and its cronies rake in billions on bogus test and trace systems?
Whatever novels are for, they’re not about accounting for corruption and despair. Fiction is about people, not processes. But we read these tales to know how politics — meaning the structures of power, domination, and exclusion, which masquerade as events — gives rise to the “structures of feeling” (to borrow the Welsh writer Raymond Williams’s term) that we live in. These zones of affect are where we pass our true subjective lives. They are constructed of abstract things such as possibility, justice or injustice, persecution, hope. And as a result, they are elusive, difficult to define or pin down — that is, until you read a clutch of stories written within a particular zone of the space-time continuum. As the critic Adeline Johns‑Putra has argued, “The novel’s capacity to express higher truths, its sense of deep social, political, or philosophical meaning, requires both the immediate sensations of character and setting, on the one hand, and an evocation of history, on the other.” Fiction is where history lives on, in other words, when history is over.
Here is a mystery: Day for Night ended up quite lighthearted, even funny in places. Obviously, I wanted people to enjoy reading it. In the broadest sense, fiction exists to entertain, to stimulate emotions and thoughts, to enliven and provoke and question and delight. Perhaps I also wanted to forestall the groan of “Not another Brexit novel,” as readers banish it to the Siberia of their bookshelves. I needed to turn my horror into something good. Boorish Johnson and his shell-company, Ascot-betting cabal have put enough malfeasance into our world. I wasn’t going to add to it.
In the end, I seem to have written a tragicomedy. Richard and Joanna are fractured — maybe fatally so. Their rift is reflected in my life; it was already inside me when I began to write. I am not who I thought I was (a European). This country is not what I believed it to be (liberal, tolerant, dynamic, international). Perhaps my book is ill-disguised therapy. Brexit traumatized me more than any other upheaval I have experienced. “Why do you take it all so personally?” a writer friend asked me recently. Because it is personal. What could be more personal than my rights, my citizenship, and the possibilities they confer?
It might be that being a writer begets delusions of grandeur. Authors are used to controlling events, at least on the page; in fact, control-freakism may be an essential part of the job. A narrative requires strategy — not quite the same strategy as the backroom plotters in Westminster, although you need a chess player’s knack for knitting cause and effect. But in Brexit, I met my match. I had no voice, no riposte, other than to join nearly a million other ransacked people on marches through London holding witty homemade signs (“No Island Is an Island” was one of my personal favourites).
Part of the project of being a writer is to be able to define the terms of one’s engagement with the world, as well as to be able to invent and reinvent the self — more than if we’d done something sensible like become management consultants or chiropractors. To be a completely invented person is at once a liberation and a disentanglement from narratives of nationhood or identity. These are only ruses, after all, meant to distract us from vast inequities of power. There is also another inconvenient truth: that we don’t actually know who or what we are. I was only ever Canadian or British or European to satisfy the shadow theatre of the nation-state, which is fiction, all of it: the borders, the identity documents, the right to work and the right to access and the right to be fleeced by tax systems while billionaires rendezvous with super-yacht architects in Monaco.
Who are we, then? We are the people who have seen the tangerine sunsets of the Kalahari. We are a chemistry of longing. We are entities that try, constantly, to un‑strand ourselves from the moment, waves of spirit awash in the accident of technology. We are the person on the flight to Nairobi watching night gather over Khartoum amid plumes of thin cloud. We are the people who live with a zeal for possibility, that serene power, a feeling not far from love. In this realm, we become someone else, but also ourselves.
These are lofty ideals indeed, and the exact species of idea that the instigators of Brexit set out to destroy. Dare I quote from my own novel?
For the first time in her life, her principles and values have been violated on a mass scale. Joanna considers that depriving millions of people of their citizenship and right to exercise freedom of movement on the premise of a bogus referendum immoral, and likely criminal. She hopes the architects of Britain’s demise will be tried in a court of law for it in the future. They’ve swapped day for night, and for what?
This is Joanna’s anguish, but it is also mine. For twenty years, I was a European. Along the way, I acquired multiple languages, a Spanish partner, a borrower’s card at the Berlin State Library, two European Union grants, and a necklace of friends strung from the Sporades to the Pyrenees. The dedication for Day for Night came to me spontaneously as the book was going to print: “For the citizens of Europe.” Meaning for all of us, regardless of nationality, now unhomed. And for what we thought would always be. I cherished my accidental Europeanness, in part because it was so unlikely.
Now I find myself confined to an island, one that is likely to visit an internal fracture upon itself. Scotland may well become independent, and Ireland could reunite. England is a future Luxembourg or Faeroe Islands. The once mighty United Kingdom will find its fall long and hard.
Meanwhile the fiction writer labours against the slab of raw events, chipping at it, resculpting it into something that returns the individual to herself. In his essay “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” That is what a novel can do: take hold of the memory of an incendiary present and turn it into a future that we, as readers, can return to forever.