The Book Club

Be Here Now

I think we are muddling through to some kind of, if not consensus, at least articulated difference of opinion. England is defined, made extraordinary–and also ridiculous–by the degree to which history remains a living presence in the lives of its citizens. This is the allegorical weight of Barnes’ novel: not only what happens when you spin off England’s past into a discrete, theme-park environment, but also what happens to England when it is liberated from its own history. Barnes means to end on an ambivalent note. While it’s a relief to take off the historical straitjacket, the past turns out to be self-renewing, a weed growing between the cracks of even the most determined efforts to live in the Now. Buruma, as it happens, ends similarly, closing with two distinct and yet intertwined moments: an alarming Conservative Party congress in Blackpool and the funeral of Isaiah Berlin, Jewish Anglomane and presumable poster don for the greatest possibilities of haute English-style progressivism.

In Blackpool, a fierce and stupid anti-Euro rally is underway. Buruma describes

the constant references to World War II … mostly made by young men who were born long after the event. It was as though they felt a lack of heroism in their lives, compared to their father’s or grandfather’s, and tried to make up for it by mimicking Churchill. This sense of inadequecy was echoed by a feeling of national impotence in a bewildering world, where old enemies seemed to be dominant.

Robert, this is presumably the doomsday feeling you’ve been describing and that I, writing from my own island of Manhattan, have so glibly mocked. Buruma isn’t much of a sentimentalist either, though: His argument, if I understand this part of it, is that the English idea has become less liberating than a millstone, and that England must sacrifice “England” for the great European idea. “For Europe to become more Anglophile,” Buruma concludes, “the Anglophile myth must go.” I confess I found this last bit a touch jumbled, since I doubt Europe much cares whether England remains insular and hopelessly revanchist. But Buruma pretty much has it right. “There is something grand about British resistance to Continental ideals,” he writes charitably, “something of Baudelaire’s tragic dandies affecting an aristocratic style in a mediocre bourgeois age.”

And here is where we seem to differ: England has, I believe, already articulated a new idea of Englishness, one that has conceded not only the European idea–what, if not “Europe,” is England fighting for in Kosovo?–but the international idea. My suspicion, and here I do voluntarily tear up my Groucho Club application as well as any dreams of making it into the MCC, is that Barnes is too invested in vestigial notions of Englishness to see the opportunities that lie ahead.

(Click here to read the final entry in this week’s “Book Club.”)