Brexit, the virus and the literature


From Hans von Trotha

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“We want our country back” railed the “Leave” movement. The author Laurie Penny then hijacked this slogan. (Imago images / Empics / Matt Crossick)

After the decision to leave Europe, British authors had a lot of novel material to offer. Then came the next dystopia made reality: the virus. What does the combination of Brexit and Covid-19 mean for British literature?

“I want my country back”: This is how the young author Laurie Penny headed a startling text after the 2016 Brexit referendum, based on a slogan used by Brexit supporters.

JK Rowling had warned in a tweet that Lord Voldemort would vote for Leave. And Robert Harris tweeted, “Feel like I’m in a bad dystopian political thriller.”

Other authors went straight to the analysis. Martin Walker, for example: “The Brexit vote is a victory of the past over the future, the old over the young, the less educated over the academics, from Little England over Great Britain.”

Or Philip Pullman, the president of the Society of Authors, who put it this way: “We had a headache, so we shot our foot off. Now we can no longer walk and we still have a headache.”

A hostile, inhospitable place

One of the slogans of the “Leave” movement was: “We want our country back”. The young blogger and writer Laurie Penny wrote after the referendum in her “I want my country back” article:

“I’m afraid that the wish of those who want their country back will come true. It will be a hostile, inhospitable place for immigrants, ethnic minorities, queer people – for everyone who was not meant as Nigel Farage, ( one of the co-founders of the Brexit party) declared the victory of the normal, correct people. “

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Britain is traditionally a literary nation. And so writers have accompanied and promoted the discussion about Brexit. The Scottish author AL Kennedy lives in London and has often spoken out as a committed opponent of Brexit, not least in columns in German newspapers.

Infected by Trumpism

She sees England infected by Trumpism. Literature, however, promotes empathy and that is not in demand in a society where insults and indignation are the order of the day. Fortunately, people are still interested in literature and are shocked by what’s happening to their country, she says.

In 2018, Jonathan Coe presented one of the novels of the hour: “Middle England” – a kind of comedy in which Coe lets his characters lurch into Brexit.

In March 2020 the author is sitting in a Berlin café – before one of the very last readings that will take place before the first lockdown. There is a strange nervousness in the air. Will he even be able to fly back to London? We all don’t yet know what a lockdown feels like.

Coe says: “I read an article in the Atlantic this morning that annoyed me. It said that next to Corona, Brexit would immediately become a temporary problem. Even if everything next to Corona should become a temporary problem – I think we must be able to dedicate ourselves to more than one thing. “

But sometimes that’s not that easy – especially not when two phenomena multiply each other in their drama and dynamics. Even before the virus hit the island, visions of what was in store for Britain were bleak.

The deeply divided nation

In John Lanchester’s novel “The Wall” from 2019, England is surrounded by a high wall, which is defended against any intruders by all means, including inflatables – a result of Brexit in connection with the so-called change in the novel, i.e. climate change.

Brexit has deeply divided the nation. Or the vote simply revealed how divided the nation is.

Jonathan Coe believes David Cameron did not know that he would open Pandora’s box with the vote. Someone more responsible would not have done that, he says.

Many authors see it that way. Laurie Penny’s essay concludes with the words: “This Britain is not my Britain. I want my country back. I want my imperfect, tolerant, forward-looking, creative country back.”

For AL Kennedy it is an unmistakable sign of the decline of the public service media when they offer a stage for a man like Nigel Farage: “The BBC made him big. This horrible guy who looks like a battered frog and has nothing to say about it He’s the boring, aggressive drunk who sits in the corner of the pub. And that’s where he should have stayed. “

The British to the British

Since the Brexit referendum, numerous essay volumes and non-fiction books have been published on the subject, including ironically colored books that explain to us Europeans what makes Great Britain tick.

The British to the British who Britishness, emphasize not only the non-fiction books but also many novels these days. In John Lanchester’s “The Wall”, for example, the drinking habits in the pubs are particularly emphasized – also a cultural difference between British and Europeans:

“A state of intoxication in which you ingest so much alcohol so quickly that you continually get more and more drunk during the next two hours, when you actually don’t drink anything.”

The current novel by John Le Carré, published in 2020, has a sport as its title that is intended to reflect the elegantly prancing English way of communication: “Badminton”. A typical Le Carré in which the old master of the political thriller apparently feels challenged again by Brexit and Russia’s resurgence in foreign policy.

Golden Age of Fiction?

Brexit and its consequences are the subject of literature. AL Kennedy, however, is still waiting for the great literary hit – and she wonders if it would even be noticed:

“Literature will react, in any case. But will that be noticed? Literature has so little publicity here now. When I write about Brexit, it is more likely to be noticed in Germany than in England.”

The author Will Self, on the other hand, sees the dawn of a golden age of fiction. In one of his texts it says: “Even if the Brexit decision was an unexpected, shocking event, writers above all inspire what has preceded it and what follows it. Because that tells something about the character of our nation.”

Brexit or Covid-19

In the next four to five years, English literature will not only have to deal with Brexit. In addition to the radical change that the completed Brexit means, there is the coronavirus. Which of the two topics will the literature dominate?

AL Kennedy says: “Whether Brexit or Corona influenced British literature more? Here we have Brexit, Corona and our government with their failure. The same people are responsible for both – so we will probably get the worst possible variant of both.”


Speaker: Nina Less and Tonio Arango
Director: Giuseppe Maio
Ton: Andreas Stoffels
Editor: Dorothea Westphal


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