For the week that's in it, brush up on some of the highlights of European literature
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.