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