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British playwright Ella Hickson won several major awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for her debut play, Eight. She went on to take the play to New York, where it sold out. Her talent for capturing and challenging the apathy of young Brits put her in the role of "a public spokeswoman for her generation" (in the words of the Sunday Times). We asked her to recommend a European read for the summer - and she took us to the root of the love story.

Ella_Hickson
Photo: Ella Hickson
Ella Hickson: "As Europeans we live differently and we love differently."

The European literary canon is littered with novels, plays and biographies that aim to explore, or occasionally define, the nature of love. It is essential that these novels exist. Love, I believe, is not only a product of one individual being fascinated by another; it is also a phenomenon created by the intersection of two cultures, the meeting of difference. Thus to read great love stories is to witness the human instinct to sniff, burrow and bathe in dissimilarity. Just as man and woman are of the same species and yet each is most fascinated by the parts of the other that are different to their own, the European love story offers us what is at once familiar, because we all know love, and yet strange for it is love in a different language.

Packed into the celebration of difference that I believe lies at the root of the love story, is an important message regarding the European community; our continent provides the common ground, the familiarity, upon which we should voraciously explore one another's differences.

As Europeans we live differently and we love differently. In my late teens I worked in an Italian restaurant in England. Each night, with hands clasped to their chests, and furrowed brows, the chefs would recite Dante and the English waitress would roll her eyes. There is something in the English reserve that finds the exuberance of the Mediterranean man rather unconvincing. Yet, some months later, I travelled to Italy and one night in Naples, with a collection of Dante now tucked politely under my arm, I watched as a couple began to fight. She threw her flip-flop at him, he called her something that made passers-by hiss, and then they kissed one of the best kisses I have ever seen. Whilst it is the stuff of Cornetto adverts, the real life rendition packed enough punch to convert me to Mediterranean exuberance.

What this anecdote aims to prove is that it is not so much the nature of love or passion that alters from culture to culture, but rather the expression of it. It is in this respect that literature should be your ally. The Greeks, I believe, have four different words for love; I have always thought this was a wonderfully good idea. Even as a writer, I often find myself stuck in the semiotic gap between the rather lacklustre beige of a 'like' and the thudding clunk of a 'love' and wish there was something better than 'really like' or 'like a lot.' (I am not one to resort to metaphors about summer days or stars.) So perhaps there are words that Europe has to offer.

Even as a writer, I often find myself stuck in the semiotic gap between the rather lacklustre beige of a 'like' and the thudding clunk of a 'love'

Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting provides a great example. He spends an entire chapter explaining Litost –

'What is Litost? Litost is a Czech word with no exact translation into any other language. It designates a feeling as infinite as an open accordion, a feeling that is the synthesis of many others: grief, sympathy, remorse and indefinable longing.'

I think I know what he means. I believe I have this feeling when I watch a partner struggle with something or be treated unjustly, and even, strangely, when I see an old person crossing the road unaided. I feel it is something to do with vulnerability, whether it is theirs or mine, I am not sure.

I may be way off the mark, perhaps Kundera would laugh, but to be right or wrong is not the point. The point is that I am forced to explore my emotional geography for a tiny moment without the use of the containing and restrictive implements of my own language. Because Kundera’s language is different to my own, I cannot simply inherit his emotional tale, I cannot put the feeling on like a coat. Instead, I must become an active reader, I must engage, step into the fray, I must emotionally translate.

Emotional translation is, I believe, the lynch pin to successful relationships. Many call it compromise but instead I see it as the acceptance and intrepid exploration of difference. Literature is a great training ground for this; take just three novels, Camus' Outsider, Jeanette Winterson's The Passion and Jean Rhys' Good Morning Midnight and you have a comprehensive journey from detachment, to passion to heartache; you can read them, learn from them, accept that there are different approaches and position yourself accordingly.

There is no substitute for first-hand experience when it comes to matters of the heart but I believe that books, and especially books by authors of different genders, cultures and ages to yourself, will arm you well for the battle. I like to see the literary canon as a collection of ageing aunts and uncles, keen to impart their emotional wisdom on a young and naive whippersnapper like myself.

Read with your heart on your sleeve.

I do not suggest that novels or their authors should be seen as examples to be followed: there leads the way to melodrama, wrack and ruin (which is something I personally advocate but I can understand that not everyone will agree). My advice is only to be an active reader; read with your heart on your sleeve and see that we all think, feel and love differently. People will not bend to your way of feeling, so instead step fearlessly into the gap in between two people; abandon the words you know, learn new ones, learn to translate.

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