For the week that's in it, brush up on some of the highlights of European literature
On Eurovision day, at the start of treaty-referendum week, we draw inspiration from another aspect of European culture. Here are the top books from each EU country as chosen by EILEEN BATTERSBY
The urban epic The Man Without Qualities (1930-1943, translated 1953-1960), by the Viennese writer Robert Musil, could top the list. So too could Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (1932), except that with the redrawn maps of Europe, Roth, the one-time Austro-Hungarian, is now considered Ukrainian. Confused? Then turn to Thomas Bernhard’s viciously clever, brilliantly sustained satire on the Viennese arts scene, Woodcutters (1984), which spans a late-night arts supper party.
Tomas Venclova looks to both his native country and to exile as ways of understanding life. He is a lyric poet, committed to asking philosophical questions. Part exile, part seer, he personifies the artist as witness. Winter Dialogue (1997) is a truly European collection, preoccupied and questing.
From Balzac to Zola to Maupassant to Camus; how about Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (1978, translated 1987), set in a Paris apartment house? Consider the surprisingly underrated and compelling Claudie Gallay’s The Breakers (2008, 2011), in which a woman attempts to recover from a trauma by recording migratory birds in Normandy.
It is possibly the richest national literature in Europe and the most difficult to narrow down. But WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995, translated 1998) remains inspirational. And how interesting that, for all his excesses, Günter Grass still has something to say.
Oscar Parland, who was influenced by Thomas Mann, came from a mixed northern European background. As a boy he moved to Finland from Kiev; The Year of the Bull (1962, translated 1991), an autobiographical novel about displacement, is set in 1918 in a Finland offering sanctuary to many Russians fleeing the revolution. The wonderful Norwegian writer Roy Jacobsen set The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles (2008) in Finland during the would-be Russian invasion of the Winter War in 1939.
He divides opinion, yet the Nobel laureate José Saramago’s finest work, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984, translated 1992), set in Lisbon in 1936 and centring on an enigmatic doctor who has returned home from Brazil, plays with reality, truth and the imagination.
Disputed by Greece and Turkey, Cyprus tends to be looked at rather than listened to. Lawrence Durrell spent three years there, from 1953 to 1956, and the result is Bitter Lemons, his account of how he purchased a house, taught English and made friends, written just before he began work on The Alexandria Quartet. Durrell – whose character Pursewarden remarks, “We live our lives based on selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in time and space” – evokes a physical sense of Cyprus, its ease and its turmoil.
In Ivan Klima’s Judge on Trial (1986, translated 1991), Adam Kindl has continued his legal work in Prague following the Russian invasion. He has done nothing yet has become compromised by association. A moral grandeur informs this novel about conscience and choice, in which a man and a country undergo desperate self-examination.
The literature of Luxembourg is written in three languages. Yet the two major poets Jean Portante, born in 1950, and Anise Koltz, born in 1923, both work in French. Portante is also a translator and essayist, while Koltz was well known as a children’s writer before confining himself to poetry.
Joyce and Kafka, with a little help on the visuals from George Grosz, race through Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé (1935, translated 1946), a crazed black comedy about a reclusive scholar living in his huge library who makes the mistake of marrying his nasty housekeeper. It makes you think about the dangers of reading, never mind living, in a house full of books.
Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s Marie (1943), a quietly elegant study of one woman’s consciousness, is dominated by the bored yearning of a wife who regards her unfaithful, detached husband as if he were a figure in a painting. The action moves from Paris to a country town. The central character is not a heroine, but, suspended between apathy and restless curiosity, her story is bleakly compelling.
In Beyond Sleep (1966, translated 2006) by WF Hermans, Alfred Issendorf, an ambitious young geologist with a famous father, needs to make his mark. He joins an expedition to northern Norway. Once there, his troubles begin and quickly multiply. A European masterpiece that surpasses even the best of Cees Nooteboom.
Mila Haugova’s poetry articulates the central European experience after the war. Her father was a political prisoner, and Haugova, having moved to Canada, soon returned to her homeland. Traces of Yeats and Pound may be seen in her work, but Haugova writes with an unsettling passion that is entirely her own.
In Brina Svit’s Death of a Prima Donna (2000, translated 2005) the narrator, a young gay French man, meets a Slovenian opera singer, through a journalistic assignment, and they forge an odd friendship. This beguiling, sophisticated novel triumphs through the characterisation of two very different people.
In his bicentenary year, only one British novelist can represent his island nation and humanity in general: Charles Dickens. Great Expectations (1860-61) is a formidable novel and even better than might be conceded, while David Copperfield (1849-50) is more than a book: it is sanctuary.
We could suggest Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar (1983, translated 1985) – and we do – but the most apt work to read in the context of European writing is Claudio Magris’s Danube (2001), in which he sets off on a journey through the history and cultures of central Europe by following the course of the great river, witness to so many stories.
Inga Abele, the poet and playwright, has published two novels, while her most recent poetry collection is The Horses of Atgazene Station (2006). Her story Ants and Bumblebees is included in Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Aleksandar Hemon. Best known throughout Europe for her work in theatre, her fiction is ready to emerge.
August Strindberg wrote By the Open Sea in 1890, when he was 40. One of Europe’s great dramatists, Strindberg created a devastating character study of one man’s decline in a novel few have read. The Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist looks to Denmark’s history in The Royal Physician’s Visit (1999, translated 2001), a stylish tale of power, lust, moral and intellectual compromise.
Chromos, the second of only two novels by Felipe Alfau – the other is Locos (1937) – is wondrous madness. Written in the 1940s, it remained unpublished until 1990. It has touches of Kafka and Flann O’Brien, and observes a group of Spaniards living and lost in New York. Unique is too small a word.
Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place (2000) gives some sense of the Maltese notions of community, albeit at a remove, in her Booker- shortlisted debut. A displaced Maltese father is repelled by the coldness of Cardiff, but there is no work at home. Many Maltese would regard the poet Mikiel “Kilin” Spiteri (1917-2008) as a much-loved national literary figure.
In his centenary year, we can’t resist Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), an assured comic extravaganza of worlds within worlds. William Trevor is the world’s finest living short-story writer; among his finest achievements are the collections After Rain (1996) and The Hill Bachelors (2000).
Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957), a kind of Greek Walt Whitman, remains best known for Zorba the Greek (1946, translated 1952), which was made famous by the film of the same name. Christ Recrucified (1954) may be the better novel. Contemporary Greek fiction is well served by Apostolos Doxiadis’s ingeniously irresistible cautionary parable Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (1992, translated 2000) in which the beauty and cruelty of maths prevail and one man’s life appears to collapse.
Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums (1993), translated by Michael Hofmann (1996), is a bold, daring attack on Ceausescu’s Romania. A group of students make their own bids to survive in their own way. The imagery is devastating and possesses the vivid clarity of a nightmare. Winner of the 1998 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, it is unforgettable.
In Magda Szabó’s The Door (1987, translated 2005), an ambitious young writer needs domestic help and hires the highly recommended Emerence, a remarkable housekeeper indeed. Szabó’s profound tragicomedy is about love and dependence. Dezso Kosztolányi’s classic Skylark (1924, translated 1993) remains fresh and moving. Sándor Márai, author of Embers, is another major voice.
Czeslaw Milosz’s The Issa Valley (1955) is a much-loved and beautiful fictionalised account of growing up in the Polish countryside. Another, earlier Polish classic is Boleslaw Prus’s The Doll (1890), a forerunner of The Great Gatsby, while the contemporary novelist Pawel Huelle’s Castorp (2004, translated 2007) pays effective homage to Thomas Mann.
After his release from a Siberian prison camp, Jaan Kross concentrated on poetry. His interest in his country’s turbulent story drew him to historical fiction; The Tsar’s Madman (1978, translated 1992), his terrific novel about post-Napoleonic Russia, tells the story of the Baron and why he was imprisoned. Was he ever truly insane? A literary page-turner of the highest quality.
Henrik Stangerup, author of The Seducer: It is Hard to Die in Dieppe (1985, translated 1990) remains a towering presence in Danish and European fiction. In this novel he explores the soul of a 19th-century poet, the self-destructive Peder Ludvig Moller. A more recent and unsung marvel is Peter Adolphsen’s glorious performance piece, Machine (2006, translated 2008), which tracks the life odyssey of a drop of oil from its beginning within the heart of a prehistoric horse to igniting in a car in Texas. A small marvel – the narrative, not the oil.