A National Literature

Keynote address given by Kiril Kobrin

First presented at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair, Russia

Kiril Kobrin Keynote text: “A National Literature”

The phrase “national literature” consists of two words –”national” and “literature” where “literature” has a much more obvious meaning than “national” not only from the academic perspective but also from the point of view of common sense.  The adjective “national” can refer to both – to language as well as to nation. If we speak about language, then Kafka, for example, could be considered a genius of German national literature, while Joyce and Flann O’Brien, of English (and at the same time Myles na Gopaleen is a genius of Irish literature). The only thing is that Myles and Flann are two pen names of the same writer; two of his masks, one English, the other one Irish. That’s why when Myles started writing a column for The Irish Times in English it confused the whole thing even more.

The situation becomes practically insoluble if we suppose that “national literature” is called so because it belongs to a particular nation. In this case “national literature” could only emerge when there is a nation. However the concept of a nation developed only in the 19th century with works by Hegel, Fichte, etc. And what was there before the 19th century then? Was Voltaire for example representing any national literature at all? Or Swift? Or Shakespeare? If the answer is yes, it means that literature could be called national retrospectively, basing either on ethnicity or on language. Ethnicity smells of blood and soil and casts a slightly dubious light on our reasoning so far. Language brings us back to the very start of our discussion. Moreover it’s not only the bottom chronological lath which is put into question, but the top one as well. If “nation” is a concept of the 19th century (the age of nationalism) can we really speak about nations in the 21st century?  Is there any national literature today or having started with the Great French Revolution it finished with the Second World War? National literature existed just for 150 years, which is too short to be compared with the literature of antiquity or middle ages.

There is one more alternative though. “National literature” might only relate to those nations, which are trying to become the so-called “political nations”, in other words to obtain some sort of statehood, independence, budget, army, and Olympics representation. In other words it means that there is national Scottish literature, Welsh, Catalan, but there is no such thing as French or German literature. In this case “national literature” refers to a short and optional period in the history of different nations, and interest in such literature could only be very modest. And what does British literature mean then? Is it national? Does it exist at all?

If you ask me how to solve this task, I will answer that I don’t really know. However I can make some assumptions. I believe that literature should be attached to:
1)      language
2)      region (the place of residence – a factor determining usage and literary tradition)
3)      state

In that case Franz Kafka is a German Prague writer, who once was a national of Austria-Hungary and later of Czechoslovakia. Please, note that I have intentionally missed the ethnic marker, because even taking into account all the stir around Kafka’s being a Jew, the question is secondary.

Kiril Kobrin, 2012