Anthony Burgess, Europe and Brexit
‘The history of England, from the time of the Roman occupation until twenty years ago, has been about the insistence of a very insular people on cutting itself off from that huge and dangerous continent that lies to its east and is separated by a mere twenty miles of sea’ (Anthony Burgess, ‘England in Europe’, 1985).
As Brexit approaches, the question of Britain’s future relationship with Europe remains largely unanswered. Burgess spent much of his life in Europe and was a great lover of European culture, but it is unclear what he would have made of Britain’s fated farewell from its continental neighbours.
In an article published in 1989, Burgess declared that he had become a European 21 years earlier, when he left England for the European mainland. Burgess had visited Europe prior to his late 1960s departure, (a pre-war walking holiday in 1939, his wartime posting in Gibraltar as part of the Education Corps, and a holiday visit to Rome in the mid-1950s), but England had remained the home to which he always returned. From 1968, Burgess became a man of the continent, living in Malta, Italy, France, Switzerland, before settling in Monaco in 1975.
Although Burgess considered unification of the continent an ideal, he was doubtful whether England could be European, or even whether Europe could be unified at all. A major barrier was the absence of a common language. Lacking the grammar system of languages on the continent, he declared English to be ‘closer to Chinese than to French or German’. Burgess had mixed views on European languages: he admired the German ability to make efficient compound words, but scorned the practice of capitalising all nouns; he saw French as fitting for the world of sensuality, but was damning about what he saw as the bastardisation of the Latin word for water, aqua, into eau, and the excessive pride the French had for their mother tongue.
Burgess’s proposed solution to the lack of common European language was not Esperanto, as some argued, or English, but a return to Latin. He presented his thoughts to a conference in Venice organised by the European Parliament, but, by his own admission, the suggestion went down very badly: ‘The French were appalled. They had no doubt about what was already the pan-European language’. The Venetians rejected the proposal, Burgess claims, because Venice is a city that ‘does not take the future seriously at all’, choosing instead to look forever into Europe’s past.
Language was not the only problem: the differences of national mindset also stood as a barrier, notably between the English and their French neighbours. The French way of thinking, according to Burgess, is deeply rooted in Cartesian rationalism, in contrast to the empiricism and pragmatism of the British. ‘This means that their approach to the problems of politics, economics, even amour is highly logical.’ It was, Burgess argues, this logic and sense that caused the French to surrender to Germany in the Second World War, while lack of logic and abundance of stupidity allowed the British ‘blunder on impossibly from 1940 against a superior enemy’.
Burgess also considered religion to be a dividing factor among the countries of Europe, the reformation having severed the continent along the lines of Catholicism and Protestantism. Although Burgess described himself as ‘an unbeliever’, his upbringing meant that he found himself more at home in Catholic countries than in Protestant England. The exception was Malta, which proved to be a little too Catholic in its attitudes. Burgess was drawn to the island because at that time it was within the sterling zone, but while it may have been easy to transfer sterling into Malta, books were a different matter: nearly fifty volumes from his collection were seized and incinerated by the oppressive Maltese state because they violated the strict censorship laws.
The main thread of unity weaving through the nations of modern Europe is the Common Market, which Burgess regarded with scorn. Europe, he said, could not be bound together merely through the ‘common faith of consumerism,’ but should find common ground that is linguistic, religious and cultural.
But had such a unity ever existed? Burgess claimed that it had: ‘It existed before Martin Luther nailed his ninety-two theses to the cathedral door of Wittenberg and John Calvin began to undermine the principles of free will.’ It existed before the idea of ‘the nation’ had fully taken hold, a concept which would lead to chauvinistic rivalry and catastrophic wars.
Although Burgess expressed a desire for European unity, it is clear that what he loved about Europe was the difference contained within it: the great variety of language, culture, faith and food. A Europe unified to the point of monoculture would not have pleased a man who had such an interest in the other. However, Burgess was all too aware, having lived through history’s bloodiest war, that ‘The history of Europe is the history of Europeans killing other Europeans.’ So even if it was true European unity meant less variation of language and culture, it would be a price worth paying if it maintained peace.
Words: Alex Crumbie