Aged 15 I got a Christmas job at my local bookshop in Battersea so I could save to go interrailing. My parents’ bookshelves were brimming with mostly Black writers: Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Chester Himes, Terry McMillan, and I was surrounded by ‘consciousness’ (as we then called ‘woke’). I was yet to read European works in translation, and the bookshop opened up to me the rest of Europe and its myriad cities, cultures, languages and complex histories.
I started with French literature and read Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Perec, Georges Bataille. From there, I explored more of the continent, José Saramago, Italo Calvino, Primo Levi. Reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Likeness of Being was haunting and powerful. Kundera confronts readers with questions of exile, identity, belonging and selfhood.
I discovered John Berger, who, although not exiled, was a cultural émigré from Britain to France and his work introduced me to artists, writers and thinkers across Europe. Reading his Once in Europa opened me up to Russian literature and I was that 23-year-old girl in pubs reading Nabokov and Dostoevsky at the table whilst everyone chatted around me. I felt like I was a character in a Mike Leigh film and a total cliché, but I found my first true love and didn’t business what anyone else thought. A few years later when John and I met we became friends and he encouraged me to move to Europe and fulfil my potential.
From Russia, I went back to Bohemia and discovered the fantastical mind of Franz Kafka. Amerika, which inspired an incredible piece by German artist Martin Kippenberger, The Happy End to Franz Kafka’s Amerika, which I saw at the Tate Modern in 2005. I’d never thought Germany, with its complicated history, as a place that I would find compelling, but after seeing that piece I became curious.
A year later I went to Berlin for the first time and visited an institution called The Literatur Haus in Charlottenburg: a grand villa where the sole purpose is to connect readers with writing and literature. There are eleven Literature Houses across Germany and a European network of cities including Oslo, Copenhagen and Prague, yet not one in Britain. Literature Houses offer a deeper cultural exchange that is very different to libraries. These buildings stand tall as a beacon of the importance of narratives and storytelling. I understood that German culture, Gutenberg to Goethe and beyond, was built on the basis that, without literature, nothing else can be formed. I was hooked. Heading back to London, I enrolled in classes at the Goethe Institute and they helped me to discover the works of Hans Fallada, Hannah Arendt, Joseph Roth, Jenny Erpenbeck, Julia Franck, W.G. Sebald and Stefan Zweig.
What was so striking to me about the literature from the continent was that it seemed to be concerned with progress, difference and change. Outside of Shakespeare, English classics always felt so stuffy to me and obsessed with maintaining the status quo and birth rights. Where forbidden love and class was the order for the day in Britain, central European literature was concerned with surviving regimes and emphasised hard work and humility. Southern European literature seemed full of creativity and bold new ideas, centring humanity.
It seemed to me that continental European literature reflected the region’s turmoil and revolutions, while Britain maintained elite ruling classes and divided rule from the playbook from the Age of Empire.
Looking towards the publishing industry, where Europe’s biggest nations publish up to 42% in translation, Britain merely publishes 5%. The continent has always been interested in listening, thinking about and understanding the lives of others.
Reading the details of the Brexit bill, and all the United Kingdom will lose, I mourn greatly for the young people of Britain who won’t have the opportunity, as I did, to move to a European city without a visa, little money but a big dream, and make it work.
Starting my bookshop in Berlin at 27 with £5000 in savings was a bold and brilliant challenge. I would never be in my current position as publisher of Dialogue Books (especially as a Black woman) without having taken that step to fulfil my ambition of owning a bookshop.
One of the reasons I chose Germany was because it retained the net book agreement, so I knew society understood the value of a book. If I failed it wouldn’t be because my potential customers were going to Amazon, it would have been because I hadn’t properly curated the shop or created the right environment. The market would not have been the issue; my failings would have been my own.
To know that other young people from a variety of backgrounds outside the most privileged won’t have this kind of possibility again is heart-breaking and absurd. It leaves Britain’s hearts and minds in exile.
Sharmaine Lovegrove is the Publisher of Dialogue Books and lives in Berlin with her family. Tell Me About Europe is a project from the Goethe Institute London.