Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
I am so glad I took the European Literature module this semester, it was definitely a good decision! Each week, we discovered a new amazing novel, author and bit of European history. In week 8, we had to hand in our project proposal: it is a formative assessment that basically prepares you for the final essay. It felt very early in the semester but it worked really well in the end.
For certain modules, especially in first year, you have to do an essay and are given a set of many different questions. But with this module, the final assessed piece is a project: that means you can do anything you want and come up with a question or title yourself.
The only requirement is that our projects need to focus on two or more texts, one of which must have been studied on the module. Their definition of “text” was very broad because it could be a literary text, or anything that ranges from a film to a song and even a music score! We were encouraged to be adventurous but I decided to be boring and work on texts I felt I really understood to be on the safe side.
After the usual panic moment (“I don’t know what to do so I don’t know why I’m at uni and I’ll fail my entire life”), I realised I’d always known what I wanted to work on. From the start, I decided to focus on the theme of anxiety, guilt and trials in three novels and two shorts stories (a cheerful topic!). I discussed it with my seminar leader who said that would be way too much to fit in, in such a short essay and that I should only keep two.
Below is my project proposal: this is word for word what I gave to my lecturers. We needed to write our primary sources, a brief outline, the questions we wanted to ask throughout the essay (it’s usually 3000 words long in second year by the way) and a list of secondary critical sources we’d use. Each student was then paired with a tutor (depending on the themes and novels you choose), a bit like when you do a dissertation. My tutor is the amazing Duncan Large (I’m his biggest fan 😛 ), who taught the super cool Reading and Writing Translations module I did last semester.
Before writing this proposal, I spent a whole week going through all my lecture and seminar notes, took 20 books out of the library and did some research to come up with a full essay plan with critical quotes (it is now longer than the total essay word limit). Since my plan is ready, I’ll try to write the entire essay during the Easter break so it’s out of the way and I can focus on Contemporary Fiction (I already have a few ideas!) and Shakespeare (more lost than ever).
Working title and primary texts: Anxiety, persecution and existentialism in Camus’s The Outsider, Tabucchi’s Pereira Maintains and Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’. (I will only use ‘The Metamorphosis’ in a few sub-parts. I thought it was too interesting and relevant to remove completely from my essay.)
This project will explore the representation and function of guilt and otherness in Camus and Tabucchi. It will demonstrate that, through these themes, the authors raise the problematic of human nature and identity. Indeed, their implicit comment on the socio-political situation of twentieth-century Europe illustrates the Sartrean philosophy of existentialism and Camus’s theory of the ‘absurd’, which was further explored in The Myth of Sisyphus. Can the motifs of judgment and guilt be read as a symptom of a crisis of identity? What may these crises signify in the context of their publication? And more generally, what is European Literature? Does such a thing exist? Are there any themes or concerns that allow us to draw connections between twentieth-century European writers?
Both Camus and Tabucchi’s novels are similar in terms of narrative style, structure and the issues they raise. Both novels are strongly influenced by the political context in which they were written. This essay will show that ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Kafka shares similarities and I will argue that these three authors, writing at different times and in different countries, shared anxieties concerning Europe and its future. The first part of this essay will explore anxiety, guilt and punishment – the main themes of these pieces. While Pereira’s anxieties are that of the outside world, the news and the political regime, guilt (or its absence) in Camus offers a different vision of human experience. What are they guilty of? Is the man or the action judged? What does it mean to live in society? These questions raise the problematic of humanity and inhumanity: during his trial, Meursault is treated like a monster, and in ‘The Metamorphosis’, this idea is taken literally with Gregor turning into an animal. This part leads to the motif of punishment: it can be legal (The Outsider), metaphorical (‘The Metamorphosis’) or divine (Pereira Maintains). This fear (or unusual lack of it with Camus) is linked to the characters’ behaviour and their relation to the world and ‘the other’. These themes may be read as a feeling of persecution and an identity (or existential) crisis – both for the characters and for the authors.
The second part of this essay will thus focus on persecution and identity. Tabucchi responds more directly to political concerns and confronts the construction of identity in relation to one’s political engagement (littérature engagée – Pereira’s raison d’être at the end of the novel). With Camus, identity and deviance is the result of socio-cultural unrests (colonialism): like in Pereira Maintains, the setting of The Outsider is essential to the understanding of the novel and leads to the theme of ‘otherness’. In Pereira Maintains, identity is shaped by politics and, therefore, by what Pereira and Rossi write or do not write: do they choose to collaborate or resist? The ending of the essay will suggest that the understanding of the context in which these novels are set and were written is crucial (both World Wars are important too). Tabucchi uses the act of writing (translating) and the motif of repentance throughout the novel to convey these issues but, on the other hand, Camus takes an existentialist or absurdist approach to destabilizes the readers and subvert the desire to give a meaning to life. A parallel between Camus and Kafka can be drawn in relation to the absurd. While Pereira becomes a symbol of heroism in the rise of fascism and Nazism, Meursault is the opposite – an antihero that illustrates Camus’s pessimist take on life. Therefore, the socio-political landscape of The Outsider, Pereira Maintains and even of ‘The Metamorphosis’ can be read as the cause of this crisis of identity, which gives way to existentialist concerns (that manifest themselves with the themes of otherness, inhumanity and guilt).
Barthes, Roland. ‘L’Etranger, roman solaire’, in Les critiques de notre temps et Camus, ed. by Jacqueline Levi-Valensi (Paris: Editions Garnier Frères 1970), 60-64.
Camus, Albert. ‘Afterword’ (1955) to The Outsider, trans. Joseph Laredo (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1984), 118-119.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Penguin 1975).
Klopp, Charles, D., ‘Antonio Tabucchi: Postmodern Catholic Writing’ in World Literature Today (2009), 331-334.
Powell, Matthew T., ‘Bestial Representations of Otherness: Kafka’s Animal Stories’, Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Walsh University), 129-142.
Keller, Ursula. ‘Writing Europe’ in Writing Europe, ed. by Ursula Keller and Ilma Rakusa (Budapest, New-York: Central European University Press 2004)
Ryan, Michael P., ‘Samsa and Samsara: Suffering, Death, and Rebirth in “The Metamorphosis”’, in The German Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Spring 1999), 133-152. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/408369> Accessed: 26/02/2016.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. ‘An Explication of The Stranger’, trans. Annette Michelsen, in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Germaine Brée (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall 1962), 108-121. Essay originally published in French in 1947.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism and Humanism, trans. and introduction by Philip Mairet (London: Reed Consumer Books Limited 1980)