Anglomania

Anglomania

New books dissected over email.
April 19 1999 3:21 PM

Anglomania

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Robert, reading these two books put me in mind of an evening a few years ago when I brought my (since deceased) grandmother along to a fancy-pants Hamptons dinner event. My grandmother--a fantastically voluble Czech who fled with my mother to England in 1939 before decamping to America in 1948--was seated, along with my wife and me, at a table of young literati and would-be literati, whose numbers included Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, a friend since college. Wurtzel, as is her wont, was bemoaning that she "had" to travel to England and Europe to promote her best-selling book about depression. At which point my grandmother interrupted the whole sedate affair--hundreds of candles, poolside ambiance, cool Easthampton breezes, George Plimpton, etc.--by yelling at her: "Wot iz this! You are young! You are beautiful! And you are being paid to travel!"

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I was left feeling the same way about Ian Buruma's Anglomania, a sharp survey of historical European Anglophilia interwoven with reminiscences of his own family's embrace of the country over the last hundred years, and Julian Barnes' England, England , an overelaborated extended joke of a novel that posits the creation of an "authentic" theme-park England on the Isle of Wight. Oh, the keening! The gnashing of teeth! I'm actually reacting here more to Barnes' elegiac tone than to Buruma's refreshing embrace of English values. But the fact that Buruma's book needed to be written at all suggests, as the moon reflects the sun, that he has felt compelled to address a deep malaise.

Natives tend to take their best attributes for granted, so Buruma has set his as task to remind English readers what their country looks like from the outside. His point is simple and powerful: England created the idea of liberty, and, even in the depths of the Kosovo fiasco, it is worth noting how utterly world-historically transformative that idea has turned out to be. Voltaire took the metaphor of coconuts: If liberty could be grown on English soil, could it not be replanted in his then wildly revanchist France or indeed anywhere? The intervening centuries have more than proved him correct: American values, which are really distaff English values, rule everywhere from South Africa to the Soviet Union, and there now seems to be a historical inevitability to the ultimate triumph of those values in China, Africa, and Southeast Asia as well.

Buruma's book is actually a bit more nuanced: His running dialectic is between aristocracy and liberty, snobbery and inclusiveness, and he does a better job than I've seen anywhere of articulating just how those two countervailing British tendencies not only coexist but actually reinforce each other. Buruma, like the anglophiles he profiles, is more in love with the idea than the fact. In a funny bit on The Spectator, where he was foreign editor before resigning in the face of one too many encounters with twatty Oxbridge snootiness, he writes: "As Tocqueville already observed, the British upper class acts as a sponge for talent and amibition. Snobbery can act as a spur to personal achievement. The Spectator is one of those British institutions that lends aristocratic airs to bourgeois striving." His point is that just as marriage tames, sanctifies, and socializes lust, snobbery refines and focuses capitalist greed. This is a great foundation for a society, he suggests, but the getting in can grow a bit tiresome.

I don't really have the room on Day One to delve into the Barnes, but, Robert, I'd love to hear your take on British self-pity. Clearly, the question of Europe provides a legitimate locus for Anglo-angst. But from an American perspective, England seems rather to have become quite fully Y2K compliant. I mean, what a now place: You've got an unctuous American-style leader with a bevy of fabulous closeted and formerly closeted appointees and former-appointees, a forward-looking economic system that should be the envy of Europe, and an unflagging supply of cultural output (high and low) that remains remarkable by any standard. And that Shakespeare guy turns out to be quite the swordsman.

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Michael Hirschorn can name every member of Arsenal Football Club's starting 11. Robert McCrum is literary editor of Britain's Observer and his most recent book is My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke. This week they discuss Julian Barnes' England, England and Ian Buruma's Anglomania.