Journey to the End of the Night (1932), by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
I came late to Journey to the End of the Night, Céline’s brutal novel of the dissolution to which the First World War reduced humanity, and wonder whether I’d have been a different novelist had I been as hooked on him as a boy as I was on Dickens. This isn’t to say Dickens can’t be sulphurous, but it mattered to him to be loved, whereas Céline – in a manner that is all but impossible for an English writer – wishes his readers to hell.
Is it an affectation? Partly. Misanthropy is its own sort of showing-off. But French prose has take-it-or-leave-it contempt in its bloodstream – Rabelais, de Sade, Huysmans – and just because the savagery is exultant doesn’t mean there’s no truth in it. Triumphant delight in touching rock bottom is what gives the novel its “vital spice, so sordid and irrefutably alive”. Céline’s words. He knew what he was about: “Clowning villainy.” Deep into the night we go, laughing, affronted, noticing and smelling every detail of our dissolution, the language educated and common all at once, each sentence half drunk with loathing for the other. “To survive,” he wrote, “I needed lecherous tonics, drastic elixirs.” Journey to the End of the Night is just such an elixir.
Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), by Alain-Fournier
Anna Karenina? The Leopard? Radetzky March? With foreign fiction, I don’t strike out on my own. Recent, well-reviewed novels in translation usually get looked into and optimistically put aside for later. For present purposes, I’m going back to Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, which was a cultish book when I was pointed to it 45 years ago. I wouldn’t call it cultish now. Few NS readers won’t know that Meaulnes is a schoolboy grand in both stature and hero-worship.
The story is set deep in the French countryside and it aches with loss and yearning, for a lost place and a lost girl. The girl was taken from life: on 1 June 1905 Alain-Fournier, whose real name was Henri-Alban Fournier, fell for a girl he saw in the street. Frankly, he stalked her, though very unthreateningly. A few weeks later he saw her in the street again and they exchanged a few wistful words. She said, “What’s the good?” and disappeared “for ever”. They met again eight years later. She was married and his book was about to be published. If the novel were not romantic enough, a few facts make the rereading all the more poignant. In August 1914 Alain-Fournier was called up to the front. On 22 September he was reported missing in action; his body was not recovered until 1991. He was 27.
Doctor Faustus (1947), by Thomas Mann
Set in the first half of the 20th century and drawing inspiration in part from the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is the composer Adrian Leverkühn, whose Faustian pact takes the form of intentionally contracting syphilis, which, over the 24-year course of the disease’s incubation, will allow him to achieve true greatness as an artist. The price is the renouncement of his ability to love, with its accompanying loss of humanity and, ultimately, descent into madness.
Although the story plays out in parallel with the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, Leverkühn’s journey is never merely a blunt political parable. The whole book is filled with ideas about culture versus character, and Nietzsche’s theory that the eternal tug of war within the artist (between the Apollonian and Dionysian elements of artistic nature) is an essential component in the creation of art could not have been given a better outing. Even though Mann lifted much of the musical theory in the book directly from Arnold Schoenberg, Doctor Faustus also contains some of the most beautiful descriptions of music you are ever likely to read.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979), by Italo Calvino
In 1983 I started a PhD thesis on Muriel Spark, that most European of modern Scottish novelists. Her interest in the nouveau roman took me to writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, while the postmodernist theory of the day led me to playful works such as Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. It’s a novel about the power of story, a puzzle box that manages to be clever without becoming dry or self-satisfied. It reminded me that reading should be fun, and that not all mysteries have fixed or pat solutions. Thinking about it, I might just have to find a comfortable spot, sit there with the book, and open it again.
Zorba the Greek (1946), by Nikos Kazantzakis
I have never forgotten the joy of reading Zorba the Greek one sweltering summer in Istanbul while the sounds of street vendors wafted through the open windows. I first read it in Turkish, and then, a few years later, in English. On both occasions the words of Nikos Kazantzakis enhanced my mind and touched my heart.
In the tale of a young Greek intellectual, a bookworm, and the fascinating Alexis Zorba, I found the many layers composing “European identity”, as well as the conflicts inside my own soul. I understood the difficulty of turning Zorba, “so full of flesh and bone”, into a fictional character “of paper and ink”. I admired Kazantzakis for his chutzpah.
Some books you read. Others, you listen to. I listened to Zorba “speak about his village near Mount Olympus . . . the Balkan Wars, Hagia Sophia . . . women, God, patriotism, death”. An “ignorant workman” at first glance, he had the courage and curiosity to ask the very questions that philosophers had been asking themselves for centuries – only, for him, they were immediate, alive and never pure rhetoric. I watched him as, having momentarily run out of words, he danced like crazy. I identified with the narrator whose personality had been shaped by Homer, Bergson, Nietzsche, Dante . . . Reaching out beyond cultural and religious boundaries, this remarkable novel taught me so much about myself, the Aegean, the Balkans, masculinity, male friendship and humankind with its unexpected cruelty and equally unexpected compassion and love.
Jealousy (1957), by Alain Robbe-Grillet
In this story, set in a French colonial mansion on a banana plantation somewhere in the tropics, a detached male narrator observes his wife (referred to as A) and Franck, a plantation worker. The narrator describes, without emotion or psychology, their precise physical proximity while eating a meal – including the exact position of their chairs on the veranda, the hissing of the lamp, the cries of small animals at night, the stain of a squashed centipede on the wall.
As this obsessive detail accumulates, it becomes clear that our apparently objective narrator (peering through the blinds of the windows of the house) is crazed with jealousy. The literary innovations put to work in the French nouveau roman movement, (with its challenge to 19th-century narrative conventions of plot, character and time) were an important influence on my own writing. Its sisters were phenomenology, cubism, surrealism and existentialism. These were the languages that lit up the European 20th century and they remain (along with some of the tropes of the British detective novel) part of my closest art family.
Independent People (1934-35), by Halldór Laxness
This is the novel with everything. It is huge and precise, bleak and funny, relentlessly wonderful. It is the story of a man, Bjartur of Summerhouses, who strives for independence but seems to haul the weight of Iceland’s history, mythology and economy behind him. The story is built on anger, love, hate, spite and generosity. His first wife dies in childbirth but the child, a girl, is kept alive by the warmth of a dog. Bjartur discovers that the child isn’t his, but he rears her as his own – and they fight, a battle of wills within a battle of wills. Life is a battle, against inequality, the climate, the geography, the world. Bjartur is savage and a poet, a grim man who changes the name of his farm from Winterhouses to Summerhouses. He fights his way through weather that is so well described, the snow drops on your shoulders as you read. And it doesn’t melt.
La Chartreuse de Parme (1839), by Stendhal
Stendhal is one of the great European novelists. Worldly and passionate, he knew about war, politics, love and pleasure, and wrote about them with unrivalled clarity and wit, always with a salting of irony, and with a superb descriptive pen. La Chartreuse de Parme was written at great speed and published three years before his death. It follows the adventures of young Fabrice, the illegitimate son of a French revolutionary officer, and the wife of an Italian aristocrat, from the battlefield of Waterloo – so brilliantly evoked that Tolstoy modelled his battles scenes on Stendhal’s – through life at an Italian court where everyone conceals their views from the prince, to imprisonment in a tower from which Fabrice makes a spectacular escape. He enters the church and becomes a celebrated preacher, at the same time renewing a love affair that ends in tragedy. There are few more enjoyable, surprising or entertaining novels than this: each time I reread it I am amazed again.
Hunger (1890), by Knut Hamsun
“It had been going steadily downhill for me all along, and how! In the end, strange to say, I was stripped of everything under the sun . . .” Hunger follows an unnamed narrator around the streets of old Kristiania (now Oslo) as he slowly starves. What at first seems to be a story of misfortune and poverty gradually becomes something darker and far more interesting as the storyteller’s jolting monologue begins to unveil his character. Time and again, he sabotages himself, and other people who try to help him, until we begin to suspect that his real hunger may be not for food, but for self-destruction. Yet, at the same time, it is hard to know whether anything he tells us is true: Hunger’s real subject is the messy, unreliable, self-justifying and ultimately irrational nature of the human mind. What does this man want? Who is he? What is he trying to do? With Hunger, Hamsun’s aim – to torpedo literary “realism” below the waterline – is achieved triumphantly as his self-deluding narrator’s attempts to save himself flounder repeatedly in the swamps of his own mind.
Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), by Carlo Collodi
It has to be Pinocchio. This is a book that should be unbearable. Collodi wrote it as a morality fable for young people during the unification of Italy. He was concerned that Italy was losing its brightest and best to emigration and set out to extol the efficacy of education and hard work. But instead of being preachy and dull, Pinocchio exploded like a bomb and its shrapnel continues to fall today. Its imagery is so vivid and precise that it has become part of the way we think. When Pinocchio turns into a donkey we can trace the moral intention but the incident is so alive and we are so connected to him that the nightmare never leaves us.
Pinocchio is a great example of a writer being carried way beyond his intentions by giving himself up to the sheer joy of the telling. When we give ourselves up to stories like that, we make discoveries – which is why a book written in 19th-century Italy has given us a way to think about artificial intelligence. And the strutting confidence of that first line, dismissing hundreds of years of fairy tales about kings and queens, “Once upon a time there was . . .” What? A king? No, a piece of wood.
Mend the Living (2014), by Maylis de Kerangal
The first I heard of this novel was when the French publisher, Gallimard, told me that they had run out of cover space to list all the prizes the book had won. It describes a 24-hour medical procedure: a young surfer from Le Havre suffers a terrible accident and is declared brain-dead, his organs are “harvested” and his heart – in a climactic sequence of breathless suspense – is rushed to Paris for transplantation into the body of an older woman.
A simple story, but one told with incredible patience and attention to detail. You feel not just that you are inside the operating theatre with these people, but that you are inside their minds as they work. And the language is extraordinary: de Kerangal takes the specialised vocabulary of clinical procedure – unknown to most novelists – and forges it into poetry.
Crime and Punishment (1866), by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I read Crime and Punishment as a student when I was living with friends in a seedy rented house and was being kept awake at night by mice scratching away in the corner of my cold room. Dostoevsky’s great novel is an urban phantasmagoria, with the streets of St Petersburg the backdrop to the young, impoverished anti-hero’s restless wanderings. Raskolnikov, who commits the crime from which all else flows, is a peculiarly modern creation. A student of superior intelligence, he believes he is exceptional, like Napoleon. He longs to become an engine of self-reinvention, to transcend the morality of the herd, even to step beyond good and evil. But, as he discovers, he has a conscience, too, and this makes a coward of him and proves to be his undoing. Crime and Punishment can be read quickly, as a detective story or metaphysical thriller, but also more slowly as you savour its resonances and deeper religious and political meanings. I haven’t read it in nearly 30 years, yet not a week passes that I don’t think about it.
Love and Garbage (1986), by Ivan Klíma
Love and Garbage by Ivan Klíma (translated by Ewald Osers) is writing that walks fine boundaries between innocence and experience as the narrator processes encounters and provocations that feel impossibly new. Prospective readers might like to know that this is a book that will alter their perspectives on . . . well, love, and garbage (or, at the very least, their perspective on the relationship between the two).
Alexander McCall Smith
Invisible Cities (1972), by Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino is an astonishing writer, serious and yet playful, an exponent of what might be described as magic realism. Invisible Cities is one of his best-known books and, in my view, one of his best. The novel is composed of conversations between Marco Polo and the Great Khan, all about extraordinary cities Polo claims to have visited. In fact, he is talking about Venice even when the city in question sounds quite different. The descriptions are lovely – breathtaking at times – and it is one of those books that is quite unlike anything else. Calvino is still widely appreciated and his books may lead the reader to other 20th-century Italian authors such as Dino Buzzati.
For Two Thousand Years (1934), by Mihail Sebastian
Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years is a succession of vignettes that linger in the reader’s memory. A wonderfully talented Jewish playwright, poet, journalist and music lover at home in the literary bohemia of Bucharest, Sebastian found himself increasingly isolated as many of his close friends among Romania’s leading intellectuals joined forces with the pro-Nazi Iron Guard. He was also a novelist, and here he evokes with delicate restraint what it means to be “absolutely, definitively alone”, fully aware that the world around you is becoming treacherous and mortally dangerous.
Describing attending university lectures, he writes: “Strange hostile faces in the front rows . . . I received two punches during today’s lectures and took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” Like his Journal 1935-1944 – one of the greatest memoirs of the dark years leading up to and through the Second World War – this haunting novel shows how a subtly refined mind experienced the rise of 20th-century European barbarism.
Sebastian survived the war, betrayal by his friends and the Holocaust, spirit intact, only to be killed in a traffic accident in May 1945, when he was 38 years old.
On Black Sisters’ Street (2007), by Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe is a Flemish author of Nigerian birth who writes and publishes in Dutch and English. I’m a great admirer of her fiction, in particular On Black Sisters’ Street, a shocking and insightful novel about four African female sex workers who end up living in Antwerp, standing in shop windows in the red-light district. It explores the journeys each one takes from Africa, where they are sold a dream of financial independence, to Belgium. Some of them are hoodwinked; others are resolved to climb out of poverty by any means necessary. All of them endure the degradation of working in a brothel. Unigwe’s women are not presented as victims to be pitied, however: they are flawed, and one even aspires to become a pimp in her own right. Unigwe is acclaimed as one of the finest new African writers. She has won multiple awards, including, in 2012, Africa’s most generous literary award, the $100,000 Nigeria Prize. There are many Europes. This novel is about one of them.
Pereira Maintains (1994), by Antonio Tabucchi
Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi is a short, simple, devastating story about a moderately sensual man who discovers that he can’t ignore politics. Dr Pereira, a literary journalist, lives a life of innocent nostalgia, writing the culture page for a Lisbon paper and enjoying his omelette aux fines herbes. But this is Portugal in the 1930s, and into his agreeable life comes a young man who is committed to a kind of politics which, it is clear, will bring him – and Pereira – into mortal danger. This is a novel of great moral power with the force and delirious readability of a thriller, and with the depth and complexity of something much greater in scope than its fewer than 200 pages would suggest. It is surely one of the great European novels. It will never cease to be necessary.
Egalia’s Daughters (1977), by Gerd Brantenberg
I can’t remember the first time I thought consciously about translated novels. When I was a teenager, all those black Penguin Classics – from Flaubert and Tolstoy to Brontë and Austen – seemed, kind of, the same: just “classics”. But I remember the first translated novel I “discovered” for myself, and which I still think of with affection. For the first time, I realised how crucial it was that all sorts of writers should be translated, not just one or two from any language, to make sure the breadth of authors’ voices was heard. I was given Gerd Brantenberg’s Egalias døtre, published in the UK as Egalia’s Daughters: a Satire of the Sexes, by a friend in 1985. It is savage, full of raucous sex, funny. Brantenberg creates a topsy-turvy society where women are dominant, the “normal”, and men are relegated to second place. It’s a terrific exploration not only of artificial gender differences but also the way in which power corrupts, and has a brilliant linguistic structure, in that all the words that usually have a masculine form are feminised, and vice versa.
Brantenberg, a Norwegian feminist, teacher and campaigner, worked at the Women’s House in Oslo, was a board member of Norway’s first association for lesbian and gay rights, set up a series of women’s refuges and founded a feminist literary forum with the purpose of encouraging women to write and publish. Only three of her ten novels have been published in English: Egalia’s Daughters is the most celebrated of these, and it remains, for me, a modern translated classic, sitting in pride of place on my bookshelf.
W, or the Memory of Childhood (1975), by Georges Perec
Georges Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood – so secretive, so obliquely structured – opens with unusual frankness about its workings: “In this book there are two texts which simply alternate; you might almost believe they had nothing in common, but they are in fact inextricably bound up with each other . . .”
The first is an adventure story – “an arbitrary but careful reconstruction of a childhood fantasy about a land in thrall to the Olympic ideal” – and the second is autobiography, “a fragmentary tale of a wartime childhood, a tale lacking in exploits and memories, made up of scattered oddments, gaps, lapses, doubts, guesses and meagre anecdotes”. Yes, it looks like two stories but, in fact, W has only one, unmentioned and unmentionable: the history of the Shoah.
W possesses, simultaneously, formal exuberance and historical weight. I love everything Perec wrote but the book I love the most is this strange experiment in montage and novelistic form, this novel emerging from two cleanly separate parts, “as though it was only their coming together, the distant light they cast on each other, that could make apparent what is never quite said in one, never quite said in the other, but said only in their fragile overlapping”.
Seven Years (2009), by Peter Stamm
I am reluctant to label any novel a “favourite”, because I’m a promiscuous reader, given to sudden fancies from which I move on. But I was taken by Seven Years, by the Swiss novelist Peter Stamm, which I read quite recently.
It describes a strangely obsessive relationship between a well-educated young man and a lumpen Polish immigrant who is on the face of it charmless, not all that attractive, and kind of stupid. Both the Polish woman and the relationship are lasting in my head; I can conjure the quirky but riveting dynamic almost like a tune or a smell. That’s an achievement. I then read Stamm’s All Days Are Night, also good, and also weird. I like weird. I like when a book goes somewhere other than where I expect.
I saw Stamm at an event in the Hay Festival in Colombia, and – how rarely authors whose work we enjoy reading turn out like this – he was engaging, smart, thoughtful and downright, dare I say it, likeable. I don’t require fictional characters to be likeable, and hardly require writers to be likeable either, but when authors do turn out to be appealing, it’s a happy surprise.
The Man of Feeling (1986), by Javier Marías
I love the first line of The Man of Feeling – it tells me nearly everything about the company I’m about to keep. It goes like this: “I don’t know whether I should tell you my dreams.” It is direct yet circumspect, with a tantalising shot of self-regard. I both immediately sense a suave vulnerability and suspect that here is a man who has perhaps benefited from dedicated hesitancy where other men’s artful versatility has undone them. Yet it is considered neither in any way sophisticated nor generous to speak of one’s dreams, so I also infer that this man takes all aspects of existence very seriously, that he is someone who moves unabashedly between realms, from the meticulous to the mystical, from glamour to banality; someone who is honed as much by intrinsic compulsions as by external exigencies; someone who believes that the waking world and the nocturnal regions are all of a piece. And so he is a haunted man and naturally I want to know all about such a man’s dreams.
Mystery and evasion are alleged to beguile, yet it is this man’s intoxicating self-scrutiny and undulating disclosures that seduce me. Right from the start, I realise he is going to confide in me.
The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-23), by Jaroslav Hašek
When I was asked if I had a favourite European novel, The Good Soldier Švejk, Jaroslav Hašek’s imperishable masterpiece, reported for duty with almost Švejkian keenness. And what does “Švejkian” mean? It means an enigmatic mixture of idiocy and cunning, deep folly and deep wisdom, an incarnation of human stupidity and yet also with something of the divine about it: with his moonface, he hangs above us in the heavens, inviolable, immortal, too thick to die.
The Europe he inhabits is one that is unravelling, and – though the author did not know it – regrouping like pre-cancerous cells that metastasise into the carnage of the Second World War. Here, it is the absurdity of Austro-Hungary that is being exposed; a whole world of police spies, bureaucracy, officers with plumes in their hats and ordinary soldiers with lice in theirs, all in a Europe beating itself up for no reason that anyone can discern. And so, the only way out is laughter and the audacity of lunacy, in which, as Švejk remarks after a spell in an insane asylum, “there’s a freedom . . . which not even Socialists have ever dreamed of”.
Aracoeli (1982), by Elsa Morante
Elsa Morante was considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century by the relatively few people who have heard of her, but her fame was eclipsed, as so many women’s recognition has been, by that of a man – her husband, Alberto Moravia. That Morante was considered the superior novelist is all the more impressive, given her meagre output, a product of turbulent times: as a Jewish-Italian woman living under fascism, she had to hide out in the mountains when the Germans invaded. History: a Novel was her magnum opus but I have a soft spot for her last book, Aracoeli, a darkly visionary Oedipal tale of a man driven by a need simultaneously to remember and to forget.
Aracoeli is to History as Days of Abandonment is to the “Neapolitan Novels”; it is no surprise that Elena Ferrante has cited Morante’s influence. And if the book itself is a tour de force, the translation is no less astonishing, the late William Weaver allowing himself some wonderfully baroque flourishes in re-creating Morante’s dense, feverish prose, nevertheless keeping just the right side of overwrought.
Deborah Smith is the translator of Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, which won the Man Booker International Prize in May
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe