Towards the end of the first year of Anita Brookner’s deathtime, I was remembering my meetings and conversations with her. What we talked about: art, books, the literary world, France, friends in common. What we didn’t talk about: her early years, her personal life, politics (I never knew whether or how she voted), or anything practical. No exchange of recipes. No mention of sport. ‘Anita, what do you think of Ireland’s chances in the Six Nations?’ was not a question that ever came to my lips. I remember her telling me that she had just finished a novel and so, for the moment, was ‘doing exactly what I like’. I said, teasingly: ‘Well, in your case that probably means rereading Proust.’ Her eyes widened in alarm: ‘How did you guess?’ On another occasion we discussed Simenon. I had mainly read the Maigret stories; she had mainly read the romans durs, which she greatly admired. I asked her to recommend one. She was, as in everything, quite firm. ‘Chez Krull.’ This conversation must have taken place before 1999, as the Fnac sticker on the back of the copy I bought on my next trip to Paris is priced in francs: 37.70, reduced from the publisher’s price of 39.90. I remember taking the novel on a few holidays but never getting around to it. Something about the title kept putting me off: that cosy French chez followed by a harsher, doubly foreign surname. But I must have started it once, because there was a boarding-card stub stuck in at the end of the first chapter. So, twenty years on, it was time finally to follow Anita’s advice.
That harsh, clashing title turns out to be part of the point. The novel is set in a small French town in the north, towards Belgium; the time must be the late 1930s. The original Krull, Cornelius, was German, but has spent four-fifths of his life in France, and became naturalised before the First World War; he still barely speaks French and is losing his German. A weaver, he had spent a peripatetic time before settling, as a man does, for no apparent reason, in a hut among the reed-beds. He scratched out an existence making baskets; largely mute, pipe-smoking, he still does, with a hunchbacked and equally mute assistant. He married the illegitimate daughter of a ‘woman from the South’ who kept a bar on the canal, fathered by a passing man from Alsace. The Krulls – there are two daughters, Anna (30) and Elisabeth (17), and one son, Joseph (25), born on either side of the Great War – have expanded the bar to include an épicerie and a bargees’ chandlery. They live at the very edge of town, near a lock, where the yellow trams turn round. The complex genealogy, legal status and time-line are important. Despite several decades of scrupulously honest existence – Joseph has done his French military service – the Krulls are still regarded as outsiders: they confirm this themselves, when every Sunday they walk into town to the Protestant temple. They survive mainly on the passing trade of bargees, who, while scarcely enlightened, lack the prejudices of the town, and are happy to stock up chez Krull before the next stage of their journey. The Krulls’ precarious existence is contrasted with that of their only friends, another German immigrant family, the Schoofs, who run a butter and cheese shop. They have assimilated better: only French is spoken in the shop, and it seems that the town has decided – partly from the name – that the Schoofs are in fact Dutch. On such nuances do lives and livelihoods depend.
Cousin Hans arrives from Germany on the first page, preceded by a letter from his father. Hans regards himself as a ‘pure’ Krull, and is everything the impure Krulls are not: he is cynical, mendacious, scrounging and loud-mouthed. His first act, on moving in, is brutally to seduce the underage Elisabeth. He borrows money from his aunt and bullies the timid Joseph, who is studying for his medical exams. He goes to see Pierre Schoof, breaks the shop rules by loudly talking German, and when hustled into a back office, asks to borrow money: a large part of his father’s fortune, he reveals, is tied up in Belgium, and he needs to wire 5000 francs immediately in order to release it. (Nowadays, this scam arrives regularly into email inboxes, and still works; it’s good to see the original, face-to-face version.) There is, of course, no money in Belgium; Hans spends the loan freely in town, and never mentions repayment. His behaviour alarms the ‘French’ Krulls. He lies casually, and confesses those lies just as casually; he also forged that letter of introduction from his father, who died 15 years previously. But, worse than all this, he blatantly and deliberately offends against the first law of the immigrant: do not draw attention to yourself. And by drawing attention to himself, Hans Krull also draws attention to those ‘impure’ relatives of his who live beside the canal where the town runs out.
Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency – which is, I realise, just as I put it into those words, a frequent Brooknerian theme. As is the wider notion that those, like Hans, who take life less seriously than others are better equipped to survive it. But this is Simenon, so there is less interiority and more violence: I can’t remember the body of a raped and murdered girl being fished out of a canal in Anita’s work. Yet though this is a roman dur, we are never far from Brooknerland: the world of the immigrant, of navigating cautiously in a foreign country – foreign, even if you have been born and done your military service there. I can imagine Anita admiring Simenon’s grasp of the restless dynamic between autochthon and immigrant, especially when anything goes wrong. An outbreak of typhoid? Even though Joseph is a victim, he is deemed the carrier. Virtue is turned into vice: if the immigrant doesn’t work hard, he is a scrounger; if he does, he is money-minded and avaricious. Simenon well understands what spurs and then animates a rising swell of racist indignation. A stone is thrown through the window, a picket is mounted by children, a drunken woman establishes a false narrative, a doorstep is smeared with shit, a dead cat is found hanging from the bell-pull, the words assassins and a mort are daubed on the shop’s blind. The police are only half-helpful: as one investigating officer says to another, ‘It smells of Kraut in here.’ The Krulls decide – not inaccurately – that Hans is the bringer, or at least aggravator, of their misfortune, and attempt to pack him back to Germany. But Hans declines the role of scapegoat, and so the novel moves to a grim conclusion which, though emotionally logical, I doubt you would guess (and which I shan’t give away).
Simon Leys, that wise Belgian Sinologist, critic and novelist, rightly notes, in The Hall of Uselessness, Simenon’s ability to achieve ‘unforgettable effects by ordinary means. His language is poor and bare (like the language of the unconscious) … It would be difficult to make an anthology of his best pages: he does not have best pages, he only has better novels, in which everything hangs together without a single seam.’ What typically helps produce his unforgettable results is a tight unity of place and time: in most of Simenon’s books, what might be happening in Paris, let alone the outside world, is rarely a consideration. Chez Krull is a departure from that norm: the outside world impinges forcefully. Borders are crossed (the novel even ends in Italy); we hear of Hans in Belgium and Hans in Germany. What is his stated reason for refusing to return there? It made my head jolt back. ‘Because there was talk of putting me in a concentration camp.’ The words camp de concentration occur four times in the novel (in a different lie, Hans’s long-dead father has recently been put in one). I checked the date of the book: Simenon finished it at La Rochelle on 27 July 1938. What was all that about most people being ignorant of concentration camps until after the war? It is there in the popular fiction of the day.
Books travel strangely through time, sometimes remaining just themselves, sometimes picking up an extra charge and weight from the circumstances in which they are read. I was reading Chez Krull not many months after the Brexit vote and what appeared to be its immediate social repercussions: the wall-daubings, the increase in racial abuse, the throwing of shit at ‘foreign’ women, the arson of a halal butcher, the licensed aggro of ‘English patriots’, the killing of a Pole in Harlow. Even in my strongly Remain part of London, I noticed some of its effects: for instance, the way Eastern European builders now lowered their voices rather than shouting at one another in cheery Slavic accents. I am well into bus-pass age, but am largeish and evidently white, and felt abashed when receiving nervous glances on pavements from smaller, less white women. The world of Chez Krull is a common, shared one. And some of those Polish builders might have come here from the same place (if for more commercial reasons) as Brookner’s parents, back before ‘the Hitler war’, as some used to call it.
Referendum Day fell strangely, smack between the birthday of my Francophile father (22 June) and my Francophile mother (24 June), both long dead. That evening, after the polls had closed, there were eight of us at supper; all had voted Remain, while feeling little enthusiasm for those who had publicly argued our cause: Cameron, Osborne and the Incredible Vanishing Man who was leading Labour. But both campaigns had been rampantly mendacious, and built on the armature of fear. Towards the end, I asked the table: ‘If it all goes wrong, who will you hate the most: Gove, Johnson, or Farage?’ Gove was beneath numerical notice; Johnson got seven votes; I put my own marker against Farage. In the context of Brexit, Johnson seemed to me just a chancer; Farage, on the other hand, had been poisoning the well for years, with his fake man-in-pub chaff, his white paranoia and low-to-mid-level racism (isn’t it hard to hear English spoken on a train nowadays?). But of course Nigel can’t really be a racist, can he, because he’s got a German wife? (Except that she’s now chucked him out for the Usual Reasons.) Without Farage’s covert and overt endorsement, the smothered bonfire of xenophobia would not have burst into open flame on 23 June. After the killing of Arkadiusz Jóźwik in Harlow, there was television footage of a group of Polish mourners. They spoke quietly and decently – don’t draw attention to yourself! – but I was glad when a youngish Pole said: ‘And there is one other person responsible. I won’t give his name. (pause) Yes, I will. It’s Nigel Farage.’ A day or two after the referendum, Farage proudly announced that we had got our independence back ‘without a single bullet being fired’. Yes – apart from the three fired into Jo Cox MP from the home-made gun of an ‘English patriot’.
Not that I didn’t nearly vote for Johnson (at the dinner referendum, that is). For years I had been vaguely in favour of him. He was sui generis (as he would doubtless have put it himself), funny on Have I Got News for You, unpompous. He hadn’t done much as London mayor, except to rebrand Ken’s red bicycle project as Boris’s blue bicycle project, but he didn’t seem an objectionable cheerleader for the city. And he couldn’t possibly be a racist either, could he, because he’s more than a bit Turkish himself? Then there was a slight family reason for cutting him some slack. Whenever anyone slagged him off in my presence, I would say: ‘Well, my brother taught about twenty future MPs when he was at Oxford, and he told me that Boris was the nicest as well as the cleverest of them.’ At the time, it felt like an answer; no longer. My brother now lives in France, his British pension has fallen in value by 10 per cent, and he’s become a bargaining chip. Maybe his ex-pupil could post him some cash.
When Johnson covered Brussels for the Daily Telegraph, he was part of a decades-long press campaign, whose main features were straight bananas, unelected bureaucrats (does no one ever wonder about Britain’s unelected bureaucrats?) and high-end expenses (while our MPs merely put in for duck-houses, moat-clearance and jumbo TV sets). And as anti-Zionism may often disguise anti-Semitism, so Europhobia proves a handy disguise for wider xenophobia. But of course it wasn’t just the press. Few prime ministers in the years since Edward Heath signed us into the EEC have found it either natural or politically expedient to enthuse about Europe. I grew tired of hearing Major and then Blair insisting that we were ‘at the heart of Europe’ when we hadn’t joined the euro or signed up to the Schengen Agreement. Politicians never tried to sell Europe to the British people as anything other than an advantageous commercial joint venture. Ours has been an entirely pragmatic membership, never an idealistic one. We never bought into Europe as a grand projet, or even an expression of fraternity. All this makes it hard for many here to imagine that idealism about the EU still has breath and life within Europe. After the Brexit vote, many of my European friends expressed disbelief and astonishment. It seemed to them that we had run mad in the noonday sun.
Before 1973, De Gaulle twice blocked Britain’s admittance to the Community. Oh, we said to ourselves, that’s just because he didn’t like the way he was treated in London during the war (when Churchill declared that the heaviest cross he had to bear was the Cross of Lorraine). Some of De Gaulle’s reasons were indeed personal and historical – going back as far as the humiliating Fashoda Incident of 1898. But his expression of them was precise. The British, he said, should not be allowed to join Europe because they were not communautaire – not ‘community-minded’. And now, decades on, we can see that he was right. We have been very unsatisfactory Europeans, the rude boys farting in the corner. Give us this exemption, that opt-out, we want our money back. In 2011, I went to the European Parliament for the first and only time; I was chairing the European Book Prize. It was a time when the European project was under great strain, and there was fear the euro might collapse. Even I, as an outsider, could smell the deep anxiety. At dinner I was put next to a high German politician whose name I didn’t catch. He was lucid and perceptive about the current dangers. At one point I asked him: ‘Through all this crisis, over the past two or three years, can you think of anything the British have done or said which has been of any help or use to Europe?’ He considered the question for a while, and eventually shook his head, more in sadness than anything else. ‘No,’ he answered. I later discovered his identity: Martin Schulz, now running against Angela Merkel. As he put it back in October, when president of the European Parliament: ‘I refuse to imagine a Europe where lorries and hedge funds are free to cross borders but citizens are not.’
Liam Fox resigned on 14 October 2011, four days before I won the Booker Prize. There was probably no causal connection, but it meant that my publisher could buy me the original of a Peter Brookes cartoon which appeared in the Times. It shows a House of Commons green bench, deserted apart from two figures. Fox, eyes staring and face aghast, is reading out his resignation speech, while next to him a colleague hides his face behind a book: it is, appropriately and gratifyingly, The Sense of an Ending. The cause of Fox’s resignation seemed to me utterly career-terminating; and it struck me as odd – as it usually does when ministers resign – that if their duplicitous actions deem them unworthy of representing their country, why, why, are they still deemed worthy of representing their constituents? Does the electorate deserve some lower level of trust? But then the days of ministers resigning, really resigning (Profumo, Carrington) seem to be gone. Arse sticks to seat like never before. Look at Boris Johnson: sacked by the Times for fabricating a quote, sacked by a Conservative party leader for lying, openly lying in the referendum (the NHS ‘pledge’, the zillion Turkish ‘immigrants’ on their way here), and he ends up as foreign secretary. True, Sir Henry Wotton famously defined an ambassador as ‘an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’, but that hardly implies that the man in overall charge of Her Majesty’s ambassadors should trade so often in professional porkies. I remember talking to a Tory insider when Cameron and Johnson were first seen as rivals for the leadership. ‘Boris thinks David’s a lightweight, and David thinks Boris is a loose cannon,’ said my source. ‘And the trouble is – they’re both right.’ Now Johnson, Fox and David Davis, another whose career seemed well washed up, are in charge of our Euro negotiations. On the eve of the referendum, Johnson claimed that Europe’s ‘plan’ for us was like Hitler’s (Gove also used the Nazi analogy). Along with John Redwood – he of the velveteen disdain (‘That’s a very BBC question,’ he tells Kirsty Wark patronisingly) – Johnson has been a big proponent of the ‘prosecco and cheese’ argument: that the Italians and the French will be so scared of losing the British market for these staples, they will be obliged to cut us a deal. Johnson claimed that the British drank 300 million litres of prosecco a year. Unfortunately, the entire production of prosecco last year came to 450 million litres, of which UK sales were 35 million. Now, puffed up with promotion, but still idle about fact, he seems as lightweight as he is loose. And that ruffled Etonian charm doesn’t work so well outside Anglo-Saxon countries. As Guy Verhofstadt and Wolfgang Schäuble put it, in weary disbelief, after their first official encounter with him: ‘We are both accustomed to having a high degree of respect for foreign ministers.’
Hans Krull doesn’t allude to the Nazis, or to the general political situation in Germany; but he does talk about the Jews. It is worth quoting the exchange at length. Joseph is complaining to Hans that every time something bad happens in the town, the Krulls get the blame ‘just because we’re foreigners’. Hans, ‘like a man who is the repository of truth and has no doubts about it’, insists that Joseph is wrong: ‘It’s not because you’re foreigners … It’s because you aren’t foreign enough … or else that you are too foreign.’
Joseph is baffled: ‘We aren’t foreign enough?’
Hans explains further:
Or too foreign. You aren’t open enough about it. You’re ashamed to be foreign. Just like you’re ashamed to be Protestant. You move in here and want to be just like everyone else. You imitate them cack-handedly, but you know it’ll never work. And they sense that. I bet that on the 14th of July you fly more flags than everyone else and on Corpus Christi you scatter rose petals in the street. People resent that more than if you did nothing, if you just simply lowered your blinds.
Joseph objects: ‘But if we were more aggressive, that would make it worse.’
It’s not a question of being aggressive, just sure of yourselves. Like when the Jews go and live somewhere else. They’re not ashamed of their names, or their noses. They’re not ashamed of their business sense, or their greed. That’s how it is and not otherwise. So much the worse for other people and what they think. They live among themselves and don’t care if kids pull faces at them in the street.
Simenon signed off the novel four months before Kristallnacht; and Hans is hardly being set up as a repository of any truth other than his own. But Joseph’s bafflement reflects the insoluble dilemma of the immigrant: damned if you do (try to ‘be like them’), damned if you don’t, and equally damned if you take up some midway position. Here in Britain today, there is a dismal clarity to the official position. You save children from a burning house – you get chucked out; you care for your British husband and British children for decades, but also spend time abroad caring for your relatives – you get chucked out; you misplace a comma while filling up an 85-page form, or fail to come up with a historic gas bill – you get chucked out. Some, either fearful or disgusted, are already chucking themselves out in order to keep their families together.
But this is not exactly a change of policy: the Home Office under Theresa May had a routine policy of appealing, all the way to the top, in any immigration case that went against them. Now it is as if the Brexit vote has given them permission to purify the country except when there is popular outcry and mass petition in a particular case. And what is the Brexiteers’ vision of our future, purified nation? It seems to be a mixture of Merrie England, Toytown and Singapore. Outward-looking in the sense of ‘open for business’, which tends to mean ‘up for sale’. Inward-looking in other senses. Morally depleted by cutting ourselves off from Europe and sheltering beneath Trump’s fragrant armpit. What might we end up as? Perhaps a kind of Bigger Belgium with quasi-American values – also, as Belgium might be, torn into separate nations again. Do we seriously think that those who voted for Brexit are going to be better off under this state-shrinking government? (I can’t recall the slogan ‘Poorer but Happier’ being used.) That the NHS will be properly funded? That the increasing numbers on zero-hours will not be exploited further? That the old winners will be the new, even bigger winners? Do we seriously believe that Mrs May will construct ‘a country that works for everyone’? To the pieties of our current political elite, I much prefer the old Portuguese proverb: ‘If shit were valuable, the poor would be born without arses.’
Back in the run-up to the referendum, ‘English patriots’, in the guise of football supporters at the European Championship, marched round Marseille chanting: ‘Fuck Off Europe, We’re All Voting Out.’ Similarly, Mrs May doesn’t like too much cosmopolitanism: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,’ she contends, ‘you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ Simon Leys, who was born Pierre Ryckmans in Belgium and proceeded via Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong to Australia, where he lived from 1970 until his death in 2014, understood both the paradox of parochialism and the danger of ‘national culture’. That paradox had been well expressed by Borges: ‘The writer who was born in a big country is always in danger of believing that the culture of his native country encompasses all his needs. Paradoxically, he therefore runs the risk of becoming provincial.’
Leys elaborated on this: just as Goethe lived in Weimar – then ‘a town somewhat smaller than Queanbeyan’ – but kept up not just with the English and French literary scenes, but with the latest Chinese novels as well, so ‘cosmopolitanism is more easily achieved in a provincial setting, whereas life in a metropolis can insidiously result in a form of provincialism.’ He concludes:
Culture is born out of exchanges and thrives on differences. In this sense, ‘national culture’ is a self-contradiction, and ‘multiculturalism’ a pleonasm. The death of culture lies in self-centredness, self-sufficiency and isolation. (Here, for instance, the first concern – it seems – should not be to create an Australian culture, but a cultured Australia.)
Boris Johnson suavely assures both us and Johnny Foreigner out there, that ‘we are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.’ Well, it depends what that means. And also what Europe decides. But I would rather listen to the young female bassoonist whom I ran into as I was coming out of the polling station on Referendum Day. She had played in period orchestras all over Europe; we talked about music and literature, and she told me how Mahler and Shostakovich wrote for the bassoon. When she mentioned enjoying a short story of mine, I replied – ‘soppy-stern’ – that I hoped she understood that none of my readers was allowed to vote for Brexit. ‘God, no,’ she said. All the musicians she knew had had their lives enriched by being in the European Union and the interchanges it had made possible; they were ‘shitting themselves’ that the vote might go the wrong way.
Like many Remainers, I feel complicated emotions about Brexit, as I did about the Iraq war. Those of us who were against the war wanted Bush and Blair and the MPs who voted for it to have their faces rubbed in their own folly, to be proved massively, damagingly wrong, to enjoy vast hubris; while at the same time we hoped that this would not involve too many British soldiers or innocent civilians (or innocent Iraqi soldiers) getting killed; we also hoped that the coalition had a victory strategy, and that the wider regional consequences would not be too disastrous. (And look how all that turned out.) Similarly, I now hope that – as seems likely – the smug confidence of the leading Brexiteers, and their arrogantly aggressive pre-negotiation attitudes will run up against European reality, and be well punished. That Europe will make us stump up all we owe, that a hard Brexit will ensue, that the European Union will make us wait as long as Canada had to wait for a trade deal, that Trump will make us a humiliatingly America-First offer. That those parts of Left Behind Britain who voted to quit the EU will discover that the bright new future without all those Poles and Romanians and Bulgarians means that they will now have to pick strawberries, grade potatoes and care for the demented, and that, capitalism being what it is, the wages won’t be any higher. That the good folk of Cornwall and Ebbw Vale, who overwhelmingly voted Leave despite major EU funding both past and promised, and whose councillors immediately petitioned central government to match those lost ‘foreign’ handouts, will be told that, unfortunately, the money has run out. And so on. But I also wish that somehow my country comes out of it all without too much collateral damage. The Iraq war is not an encouraging parallel.
And another thing. Can we please get over the solemn-voiced mantra of ‘The People Have Spoken’? The People were asked a question by an over-confident political elite, allowed a monosyllabic reply, whereupon a slightly different version of the same elite chooses to interpret that monosyllable in a way that fits its own political and internal-party interests. As for the much invoked ‘Will of the People’, there was – obviously – no common will. And the ‘Will of the People’ leads all too easily to ‘Enemies of the People’, that Stalinist phrase now embraced by the Daily Mail, the Pravda of the right. The Mail, which gave its readers thirty pages of more important news and comment before deigning to report the conviction of Jo Cox’s murderer, and which has itself now been delisted as a source of reliable information by Wikipedia. That squalid headline resulted in extra security being required for the judiciary. But at least it’s English judges being protected by English policemen against English ‘patriots’. So that’s all right then.
The day after the vote, I was walking in my local park when a man cycled towards me straight over a no cycling sign. I gave him a routine, unthinking glare, to which he responded with a shout of ‘Oi, Flaubert, where are you now?’ A rare North London cry of Brexiteering triumphalism. The following day, the English rugby team beat the Wallabies in Australia to register a 3-0 series victory. An Australian newspaper headlined the result: ‘Now Another Continent Hates You As Well.’ We shouldn’t underestimate this reaction to our current national trajectory. We have our sentimental vision of how others see us: as correct, humorous, eccentric, polite, tolerant, phlegmatic and so on – ‘très British’. But historically, they have equally – if not more often – thought of us as cold, arrogant, violent, self-interested, racist and hypocritical. A French woman who has lived in England for thirty years told me in the days after the referendum that she was thinking of moving back to France. And though she is the gentlest of persons, and not at all interested in politics, she added: ‘Now people will hate you again.’ Note the ‘again’. We may be in for some jours durs.