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On Writing The Great European Novel

In the year of our Lord 1868 a novelist by the name of John William De Forest coined the term ‘the Great American Novel’. He defined it as a book which both explores and embodies the essence of the United States of America. Among the most famous contenders — today — we find Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, Blood Meridian, American Psycho, Infinite Jest, and many more. According to this short list, the essence of America lies in megalomanic obsession, a history of slavery and bloodshed, the hypocrisy of its national dream, addictions, perversions of its collective psyche, or other such phenomena. The fact that these issues are reflected in American novels indicate how self-criticism and seeking truth are part of the bigger picture as well. — Here comes the great question: Is there a European equivalent?

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The Old World offers as many mountains of national literary treasures as there are nations, yet neither Don Quixote nor Les Misérables are typically known as the Great European Novel. However, there are worthy contenders among the classics, as can be seen by the following three examples published in the 1920s: Joyce’s Ulysses plays with several languages from the continent. Mann’s Magic Mountain assembles characters of various nationalities. Woolf’s Orlando features a journey through many countries and centuries. For quite a number of reasons, none of the above hold the position in question. So, what about recent releases?

In a 2010 article published by the Guardian on this issue James Hopkins reverses the question, asking whether or not ‘the European reader’ exists. With dozens of languages across the continent, this line of thought is more than justified. If a book is written in a foreign language and untranslated, how will it embody your experience of Europeanness? Well, by you not understanding it, of course.

Be that as it may, literature remains alive and well in all corners of the continent, and what is more, pan-European novels do exist. There is Koen Peeters’ Grote Europese Roman from 2009, telling the story of a salesman travelling from capitol to capitol; there is Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Grand Hotel Europa, in which tourism seems to be the only future on soil filled with history; and then there is Die Hauptstadt (The Capitol) by Robert Menasse, a novel on the state of Brussels in all its chaotic complexity. All these books are worthy to be put on a list of possible candidates. Interestingly enough, their authors were born between ’54 and ’68, while I cannot think of any contenders of younger generations. — Except, if I may, myself.

Before ever thinking of writing a novel, I had been keeping diaries. This stack of journals which dates back to 2014 shall never be read by a living soul as long as I breathe; yet, in one way or another, my diaries and travel journeys have formed the basis of what was to become my latest novel: Europe, Your Poets. Naturally, it is not the story of Maltheus Broman, but the story of Bram O’Malley, a student in his twenties without a career plan, but with a passion for poetry who tries to make a living somewhere in Europe. The idea for the book appeared to me in Slovenia during the unforgettable summer of 2020. Since then I used my old diary entries about days and nights spent in Dublin, London, Paris, and elsewhere to write a new story, a story which could be read by other pairs of eyes than my own, the diary of Bram — which he himself on his turn would never ever publish during his life-time. A lot of my impressions, struggles, and poems went into the finished novel. Everything is dramatised. Nothing is without truth.

By living an unsteady life, I happened to live in a lot of places and wrote, if you will, a very European diary. More often than not, diaries turn out to be horrible books: Many plotlines go absolutely nowhere; the characters develop far too slowly; and usually, the end is disappointing. It would be reasonable to assume that a novelist would avoid these flaws like the plague. Readers want threads tied, protagonists improved, ends happy. But such is not life. Right from the beginning Bram had a mind of his own. He made his own mistakes, and I myself would have wished for him to make other decisions on our final pages. The trajectory of his life just went in a way I had not expected while writing down his words.

In an early episode, O’Malley attends a slam poetry night with his girlfriend. He hates every minute of it, thus he ends up doing the worst possible faux-pas ever. No matter how often I read this very passage, I still laugh at my own creature. His transgressions surprised me, although they are very much in line with his quarrelsome character. It’s precisely his displeased nature which takes him from one border to the next. Finally, his hatred for bad art and his love for good art make him climb stages. Oftentimes he pays the price for precluding compromise, which entails remaining poor and restless. The countries in which he lives and the people he meets change his way of thinking about the continent and its culture. We may see his diary entries as unsent letters. Not to people but to cities he pours his heart out, knowing full well these pages won’t be read by any other human being as long as he lives.

In this final paragraph I may now reveal my true intentions for this essay after all. Despite its title On Writing the Great European Novel, I am not making the case this novel of mine is to be seen as great. I am, however, presenting Europe, Your Poets as a book which — to me — represents and reflects the essence of what it means to experience the past ten years as a young European artist among artists. Within thirteen chapters poets, writers, and actors enjoy incredible opportunities open to our generation, while also suffering real tangible problems of our times. Threats and troubles are put in heart-felt prose — and also verses, as this novel is not only the story of poets but just as well the story of the eponymous poem: A sixteen-stanzas-long rant on what’s wrong with the Europe of today, and why now is a time for action.

About the Author:

Funeral director by day, novelist by night, Broman has written several novellas, novelettes, and short stories, some of which are published in the contexts of magazines or national contests. The Serenity Of Death is his first novel. Its main character reappears in the light-hearted novella Nights In The OI' Rusty Quill. Many of these nights contain songs and poems. A collection of such pub poetry can be found in Bury These Poems.

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