Conference Report: “The ‘Second World’ in Contemporary British Writing”

Conference Report: “The ‘Second World’ in Contemporary British Writing” International Conference at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU)
16-18 September 2022

Florian Gieseler
Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany

The main objective of the conference ( was to investigate contemporary British writing published after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but imaginatively located in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War – the so-called ‘Second World’. A particular focus – and relatively new angle within the larger context of global Cold War literature and postsocialist perspectives – was the retrotopian potential of such narratives, as conceptualised by Zygmunt Bauman. Scholars from the United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and Germany attended to investigate whether more recent British writing was indeed expressing, as the CFP had proposed, “the apparent desire to review and imaginatively revisit past ‘utopias’ […] as retrotopia, the desire to retrieve – through creatively engaging with ‘genuine or putative aspects of this past’ – the utopian potential that it represented”.

With the construction of retrotopias being one of the key interests of the conference itself, the setting of this in-person event, the main campus of Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg in Saxony-Anhalt, a region in Eastern Germany, metonymically contributed to the impression that participants experienced an event of retrotopian quality. The value of the in-person event was stressed in the opening speech by the conference convenor, Katrin Berndt (MLU), who emphasised that planning an on-campus event had been part of the overall concept, even though it had been difficult to predict whether it would be possible to realise the conference in this form after all.

The main topic, as Berndt outlined, was inspired by both historical and current interests in the repercussions of a shared European past, manifested in collective memory and in present-day concerns with recourse to this past. What was conceptualised as ‘Second World’ and formed in the aftermath of WWII, once was celebrated by Czech writer Milan Kundera as “the greatest variety within the smallest space” and as distinguished by its commitment to a shared European identity in his famous essay on “The Tragedy of Central Europe” in 1984. In more recent decades, British writers such as Ian McEwan, Natasha Walter, and Julian Barnes have returned to, and set narratives in, countries of the former ‘communist bloc’, which had promised and propagated ideals that it had failed to meet. In fact, the uncompromising enforcement of this utopian promise had led to the establishment of totalitarian systems cloaked under that very promise. According to Berndt, the key motivation for the conference had been to investigate and understand British writers’ desire both to revisit, and to reconceptualise, stories about this particular period of our shared European past.

The different layers of meaning inherent in terms such as ‘First World’ right up to the ‘Fourth World’ were discerningly explored by Ulrich Busse (MLU) in his welcome address. The ‘Second World’ with its designation of the former ‘communist bloc’, as he pointed out, was a coinage modelled on the terminological predecessor ‘Third World’ and used to communicate political alliances as well as economic hierarchies in the Cold War period.

Richard Brown (Leeds) discussed one of the most well-known contributors to the field in the first keynote lecture of the conference: “McEwan’s Art of the Possible … Lessons on Fiction and the Political in his ‘Second World’ Writing from The Innocent to Sweet Tooth”. Brown argued that ‘Second World’ was a term resonant for McEwan’s fiction that provided links to Julian Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro. From The Innocent via Black Dogs and Sweet Tooth to the recently published Lessons, there has been a succession of nuances in Ian McEwan’s fiction that functions as a deconstruction of, or transgression from, retrotopias and mere nostalgia. The method applied in McEwan’s Cold War novels is what Brown calls the ‘fridge effect’. This allows the writer to ‘freeze’ and preserve a historical setting and a mind-set in order to show the necessity of political and personal transgressions, and how political orientation defines cultural meanings and identities.

After the keynote lecture, Dr Judith Marquardt (City Councillor for Culture) opened the evening reception and expressed her welcome and gratitude to all participants, especially to the conference organisers, on behalf of the city of Halle. In her address, she drew attention to the city and region’s centuries of experience with political, social, and economic transformation, emphasising that academic research and collaboration have been essential in dealing with it.

The second day of the conference started with the keynote lecture by Ágnes Györke (Károli Gáspár University, Budapest) on “Affective Encounters: The Second World in Contemporary British Writing”. Her in-depth examination and mapping of three characteristic novels (Utz by Bruce Chatwin, Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer, and The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro) suggested that the encounters of the West with the East, as imagined in the narratives, should be comprehended neither as ‘the Other’ nor as ‘the Self’. The recognition of the familiar and intimate in an alien environment, from a Western perspective, allows the reader to empathise with the characters’ private sphere in a totalitarian regime that is seen and depicted as ominous and disconcerting in the light of nostalgic exploration. The concepts and motifs associated with the settings of the three novels include, among other notions, obscurity, Kafkaesque place and time, alienation, fascination, and an inherited sublimity that can, however, easily turn into its opposite at any time.

The topic of the ‘Other’ continued to be the key interest of the individual sessions. Melinda Dabis (Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Budapest) employed Madina Tlostanova’s concept of postcolonialism to argue that Kazuo Ishiguro re-imagined (one) Central Europe in The Unconsoled. The (deliberate) disorientation created by the author suggests that the cultural identities in a postsocialist order have been cast into a maze as the borders are represented as, for a large part, undefined. The absence of particular affiliations groups the identities of Central Europe together as a distinctive postsocialist ‘Other’.

The West-East divide remained a concern in the paper of Ágnes Harasztos (Eötvös Lorànd University, Budapest), whose discussion of “The Postmodern Baroque as a Heterotopia for East-Central Europe in post-1989 British fiction” was based on a variety of intertwined paradigms, e.g. poststructuralist, postsocialist and postmodern Baroque theories, which were applied to three narratives (Utz by Bruce Chatwin, Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury, and Men in Space by Tom McCarthy). The postmodern Baroque is to be understood as a counter-modern approach or vision that undermines the binary opposition of rationalism and exoticism as attributed to West and East, respectively, in the Western travelogue tradition. Western narratives and focalisations see and use the postmodern Baroque of East-Central Europe as a function to create or mirror their own heterotopias.

The next session engaged with various notions of figurative border-crossings. Robert Kusek (Jagellonian University, Krakow) addressed Deborah Levy’s nostographic writing (e.g. The Man who Saw Everything), which is predominantly concerned with shaping identities and homesickness in the frame of ‘Central-Europeanness’. Remarkably, Kusek explained that no nation had yet claimed ownership of the South-Africa-born Levy or her writing. In her narratives, which, in Kusek’s opinion, have been under-appreciated, she remains in search of a home that is ‘out of’ home, and thus creates an ‘imaginary’ Central European homeland.

Eastern Europe in the time of the overthrow of Ceausescu’s dictatorship in Romania is the setting of Patrick McGuiness’s novel The Last Hundred Days, which was investigated in Therese-Marie Meyer’s (MLU) paper on “Liminal Morality”. She argued that the novel offered a dystopian reading of the Romanian Revolution with a focus on moral dissociation. In a battle for integrity and survival, the everyman-protagonist, whose disposition, in Meyer’s words, represents ‘crowded isolation’, learns how to make a move from passivity towards agency in order to bring down a corrupt and totalitarian system. The protagonist, however, becomes complicit in corruption himself to achieve this goal. A paradoxical ethos such as this is not easily resolved but affirmed by the need for existential (individual and societal?) security.

The third day of the conference was dedicated to legacies of fiction writing and historiography that explored ideological, personal, and institutional uncertainties and ambivalences overall. The final keynote lecture on “Retrotopian Settings for Traitors: John le Carré’s Spy Fiction” by Betiel Wasihun (Birmingham / TU Berlin) laid the foundation by unravelling how surveillance and betrayal are represented in the author’s espionage novels. John le Carré, a former spy himself, found the ‘Second World’ riddled with betrayal and chose it as his preferred topos. His novels raise the question of legitimacy of treason and betrayal all over again as there is always the concern of a ‘positive’ or ‘moral’ traitor in the light of heroism – or an arguably utilitarian opportunism. Wasihun argued that le Carré’s return to these settings from the Cold War even in his post-1990 fiction was deeply connected to the moral handling of the past. In her analysis of, for example, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and A Legacy of Spies (2017), she showed how characters in a sequel retrospective narrative try to legitimise their past actions and decisions with recourse to ambivalent forces of conscience: duty, responsibility, veracity, and ethics. John le Carré’s leitmotif, as Wasihun argued, is to become and remain human in the light of ideological and ethical ambivalences.

The afternoon presentations began with a discussion of literary documentation in memoirs written on the ‘Second World’. Cultural historian Andrew Wells (Kiel) unravelled the lessons to be learnt from “Memory, Ego-Documents, and Excavating the Socialist Past: Timothy Garton Ash’s The File (1997) as Showcase of Historical Methodology”. The book explores Garton Ash’s file recorded by the Stasi (Ministry of State Security in the GDR) and includes auto-biographic reflections as well as the results of his investigative journalism. Aimed at understanding how to use personal and archival material, The File distinguishes fact from fiction while scrutinising potential discrepancies between Stasi reports, historical diaries, and individual memories. In line with the fact that his memoir offers a great deal of reflection upon the reliability of memory and subjectivity, Garton Ash refrains from condemnation of former Stasi collaborators, and recommends humility when confronted with the past.

The implementation of the ‘correct opinion’ (as the consistency of doctrine) was addressed by Olga Trebyk (Kiev) in her paper on “Challenging Orthodoxy: Orwell’s Legacy in Contemporary British Culture”. She drew attention to the ongoing relevance of George Orwell’s committed literature in both British and Ukrainian culture, exemplified by the range of creative adaptations of his works for the stage and in popular culture, including popular music, and its particular potential for satire. Drawing on the philosophical contributions of Erich Fromm, the paper foregrounded the significance of Orwell’s visions for contemporary, retrotopian perspectives aiming to discern the connection between truth and freedom.

Katrin Berndt’s paper “In the Middle of Elsewhere: Central German Retrotopias in British Second World Fiction” discussed the new literary interest in a larger variety of East German settings, including smaller urban centres and, occasionally, rural regions of the GDR.  With a focus on Philip Sington’s The Valley of Unknowing (2013), Fiona Rintoul’s The Leipzig Affair (2014) and the Karin Müller series by David Young, she traced their representation of quotidian life in the GDR, how popular fiction such as Young’s engage with ‘exotic’ settings to engender feelings of estrangement, and how strategies such as the second-person narrative translate alienation from, and disillusionment with, the GDR’s ‘really existing’ socialism and its failure to fulfil its own promises.The conference could not have been more appropriately rounded off than with the public reading of The Leipzig Affair by Fiona Rintoul herself at the Literaturhaus Halle. The lively discussion of participants and guests brought home the persistent interest in not only retrotopian perspectives on the ‘Second World’ that will undoubtedly encourage further literary and critical explorations.

© Gerd Danigel, SchönhauserAllee underground station, East Berlin, GDR, 1984, CC BY-SA 4.0, detail fromönhauserallee_1984.jpg

Reading and Discussion with Fiona Rintoul, Literaturhaus Halle, 18 September 2022
© Carsten Albers