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European Novelists of the late 20th century

by Upstate NY Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 11:18:11 AM EST

In many European countries, poetry is favored as the highest literary form. Not so in the US nor in South America where the novelists are much more celebrated. Sure, we have our New York School of Poets, the Black Mountain School, the LANGPOs, but mainly it's the novelists who leap to the forefront of US literary arts. In South America, the wave of Baroque and Magic Realist writers shows no sign of ebbing.


But, when I read poetry, I often turn to Europeans.

I range from reading the well known masters such as Paul Celan and the little known poets such as Rhea Galanake.

So, lately (the last year), I've decided to take up contemporary European novelists to balance out my reading. I've read extensively in many European early 20th century movements, OULIPO and Nouveau Roman, the Becketts, Musils, Manns, Grass's, etc., but not so much the post 1950's. I've been reading all the way up to this decade.

So, what European literature stands out for me? I have to say, German writers, and particularly the Austrians, are really most impressive. Thomas Bernhard, I've decided (ha, ha), is the greatest European writer of the second half of the 20th. His books seem to sweep through philosophy and ideas both formally and with razor-sharp critical acuity. Take his novel "Korrektur," for instance, in which he evolves a Wittgenstein figure into a foil for Heidegger, and he manages to poke holes through philosophy in a deceptively simplistic style. He shows that fiction is a form of writing which can actually have a critical apparatus that approaches thinking and philosophy from another much less remarked upon angle: that of simulation. Bernhard is impressive. very funny too.

Other Germanic writers I've taken a liking to in the last year: Gregor von Rezzori, Arno Schmidt, Peter Handke, Max Frisch. I should also mention Elfriede Jelinek and Christa Wolf who are very good but I would not rank with the others.

The French are all about innovation. They write rather short books, and tend toward the minimalist. In fact, it's surprising to see a lack of style in French literature. Isn't French culture and language all about style?

That's ok. It's fun to read short French books that tend to push forward the limits of literature, and the French seem to do this best. If you can make it through the stultifying obsessive work of someone like Robbe-Grillet, you may become charmed by later works by the likes of Sollers, or the earlier works by Perec and especially Queneau. I've lately taken up reading some current French authors such as Marie Redonnet and also Nimier. They are pretty good.

Ah, the Brits. I am a bit underwhelmed by what's become of British Lit. It seems all that fantastic literary history is really hanging over the heads of its best authors. I will note that I'm most impressed by the contemporary writers Beryl Bainbridge and especially Lawrence Norfolk, whose "In the Shape of a Boar" is a masteriece of the 21st century. I'm also partial to the Scot Alasdair Gray and his "Lanark" novel, though I think he's a bit kooky.

In other countries, Spain's Javier Marias is excellent, I've become a big admirer of Italy's Giorgio Manganelli, and though I've tried to enjoy Orhan Pamuk's novels, I can't make it very far into his books before simply glazing over. Admittedly, this may be due to poor translations because I can't read Turkish.

Some writers from around the world who I've recently enjoyed: Australia's Janet Frame, Canada's Marie-Claire Blais and Robert Kroetsch, Brazil's Clarice Lispector & Osman Lins, and Japan's Yukio Mishima.

So, in case you're wondering, I read about 50 novels a year, I had no TV until recently, and I read an entire book every two days. I spend most of my free time this way. Right now I'm reading Mark Mazower's history of Salonica, an excellent look at Jewish, Christian, Muslim relations in the time of the Ottomans.

What European novelists from 1950 on interest you?

What country's fiction post-1950 is most impressive?
. US 25%
. Brazil 0%
. Argentina 0%
. Austria 12%
. UK 25%
. Ireland 0%
. Spain 0%
. Italy 0%
. Germany 25%
. France 12%

Votes: 8
Results | Other Polls
I voted US writers, but because I'm ignorant of pretty much all the European writers you have mentioned. Now have a list, however, thank you very much. But when I've been into a reading phase, I've focused on Beat, Kesey, and other West Coast writers. Great diary...something new and interesting!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 11:49:31 AM EST
Well, let's start a mini-US thread. I thought this should be Euro-tilted because of the blog. But among the drug-induced lit. you mentioned, what Burroughs book do you like best? Ever read Lowry's Under the Volcano?
by Upstate NY on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 12:34:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Kesey is my favorite. Kerouac, of course. And lots of shorter articles and stories...graduate school may have permanently damaged my ability to read long books, except when traveling...then its a gas! Ever hear of the poet Lew Welch? Wrote amazing poetry, and some of it really funny and incisive. As an adman he invented Raid's "Kills Bugs Dead" brand!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 01:32:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I also voted US writers, which may also stem from ignorance (my reading of modern literature is rather patchy), but I'm very fond of Joseph Heller and a couple of others.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 05:11:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great topic, Upstate!

I cast my vote for Hermann Broch, a brilliant mid-20th century Austrian novelist.  The posthumously published "The Spell" is the one I've most recently read.  Others in English":"The Sleepwalkers", "The Death of Virgil."  

Nobody has better described that intuitive perception of the mystery of being.

by Plan9 on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 12:19:30 PM EST
I have read "Death of Virgil" and liked it quite a bit.

Thank you Joseph Goebbels for saving Broch's life. Seriously.

What is it about Austria that produces such fantastic fiction writers? According to Bernhard, living in Austria makes you very miserable. Is that it?

by Upstate NY on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 12:36:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian empire permitted Jews to come into the cities.  By the 1920s, Vienna had become a Mecca for intelligent, talented people. There was an explosion of the arts as people interacted, Jews and Christians alike--and none of them particularly religious. Elias Canetti, a Jew with roots in Bulgaria, was one of them.  His memoirs about that time are fascinating.  Another good book is "Wittgenstein's Vienna."  Broch was a part of that world, along with Musil, Mahler, Gropius, Kokoschka, and a bunch of others.  It must have been an extremely stimulating, intellectual time, with a lot of experimental writing going on.

And of course if you left Vienna and lived in an Austrian village (so well described in Broch's "The Spell"--among other things it is an allegory about Hitler) you were back in a medieval, hateful, narrow-minded environment in which people were ripe for the Nazi message.  So there was a huge contrast between the two worlds.  That might have contributed to the artistic ferment.

by Plan9 on Sat Jul 30th, 2005 at 10:38:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
After years of putting it off, I recently got down to Grass's Blechtrommel (Tin Drum) and was absolutely enthralled. I definitely mean to read more of his works.

Heinrich Böll was hot when I first came to Germany. I've always admired his work, but I think he'll end up like Sinclair Lewis - once his contemporaries have past away he'll hardly be read at all.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt ät gmail dotcom) on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 01:04:34 PM EST
The Clown was pretty good, but I agree with your assessment of Boll. I liked Grass's Dog Years. It's the only one I've read.
by Upstate NY on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 01:10:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of my favourites is Kazuo Ishiguro.

I know he was born in Japan, but he has lived in London since he was 5 years old, and I regard him as a European author.

Eats cheroots and leaves.

by NeutralObserver on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 01:58:42 PM EST
Milan Kundera.  Genius.  

There has really been a great literary tradition in Eastern Europe that has only improved since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Some of my favorites are Dubravka Ugresic (Croatian), Venedikt Erofeev, (Russian), Tatiana Tolstaia (Russian), Josef Skvorecky (Czech), Bohumil Hrabal (Czech)...

And I would like to now take the opportunity to plug a series being published by my friends and mentors at Northwestern University, "Writings from an Unbound Europe."  If anyone is searching for some quality European novelists, (err, translated into English) I would highly recommend checking out some of these titles.  Great untapped reservoir of contemporary Eastern European writing out there.


Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 02:02:42 PM EST
Witold Gombrowicz (Poland), Ludwig Vaculik (Czech), Petur Dimitriu and Gregor von Rezzori (Romania), and Vassilis Vassilikos (Greece).

Of course, I omitted some of these names because they are mainly pre-1950.

Gombrowicz especially is excellent.

by Upstate NY on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 02:28:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I second the motion for Kundera. One of the Swedish Academy's most glaring omissions (not too late though; he's still alive, but it's almost two decades since he peaked).

Masterpieces: The Joke; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; The Farewell Party; Immortality.

The world's northernmost desert wind.

by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 03:37:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Did you read Ignorance?  I regret to say that I wasn't extremely impressed with it, compared to his earlier works.

I certainly agree with you on the Nobel prize, though.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 06:50:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've read extensively in many European early 20th century movements, OULIPO and Nouveau Roman, the Becketts, Musils, Manns, Grass's, etc., but not so much the post 1950's.

Grass is very much post-1950: first publication 1956, Der Blechtrommel = The Tin Drum 1959.

Ah, the Brits. I am a bit underwhelmed by what's become of British Lit.

As Salman Rushdie is one of my favourite authors, I disagree :-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 05:06:23 PM EST
Is he British?

Here's more like a transnational, and his game has really, really fallen off after Shame.

by Upstate NY on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 05:35:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, until he moved to NYC and succumbed to high-society party life, he was very much a British author: he lived most of his life there, he said his childhood's Bombay no longer exists, while his family moved to Pakistan; and after all, he is virtuose with the English language, not Urdu. On the other hand, Rushdie's central theme is the state of being a migrant - say, being viewed as an Indian in Britain and British in India; or viewed as a Muslim by white seculars and as an apostate by Muslims. But if you didn't like anything after Shame (not even The Moor's Last Sigh?), then that was well in his British time.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 05:49:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I actually shuttled Rushdie around town a few years ago. He was a very nice man, very down to earth. On the other hand, he cared too much about selling books, and he gave the same tired talk he always gives which is long on frivolity and light stuff and short on anything of importance. The guy really has a lot to say but he refuses to say it in favor of pushing his own celebrity.

Two things in particular stuck out: He keeps calm and responds in almost understated tones when angry (after a security snafu) and his name is not SAL-man. It's sal-MAN.

by Upstate NY on Sat Jul 30th, 2005 at 01:44:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For Irish late C20 novelists I would recommend one book above all others - The Book Of Evidence by John Banville.

Based on the true story of a down at heel aristocratic anglo-irishman (malcolm McArthur) who due to financial difficulties, alcoholism, and insurgent psychosis became first a thief of high value paintings and then a double murderer. He was eventually captured in the Irish Attourney General's flat in Dublin!

The Novel is his recreated by the author first person monologue all the way through the events leading to his trial and is absolutely mindblowing.

Another strong recommendation (and very different to Banville's book) would be The Barracks by John McGahern. It's an account of the slow painful death from cancer of a policeman's wife in 50's rural Ireland. Think Chekov mixed with Camus. He had some of his early books banned in the 60's in Ireland - Notably one called 'The Dark'. He was villified by the Church - driven out of his job as a teacher and is now a national institution in Ireland.

I spend quite a bit of time in the Village where 'The Barracks' is based and it is strange to meet some of the people who some of the characters in the book are based on.

A lot of modern irish fiction is garbage though unfortunately imho. Niel Jordan - Garbage. Roddy Doyle - garbage. I could go on but I really couldn't be bothered reviewing a long list of disappointing books in my in my head.

Big up to whoever mentioned Milan Kundera.

by irishhead on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 06:02:33 PM EST
I will definitely have to check out John McGahern.  Thanks.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 06:17:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A wonderful Irish novelist.
by Plan9 on Sat Jul 30th, 2005 at 11:40:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
From postwar Germany try also Uwe Johnson Jahrestage (recently translated into English, can't remember the translated title) Christa Wolf's stuff. Max Frisch from Switzerland is also very good, particularly Homo Faber and Stiller.
In Poland the poetry is better than the prose (Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, Rozewicz plus countless lesser poets) but there is some good prose. Tadeusz Konwicki, Ryszard Kapuscinski (journalistic stuff) are my favorites. And if you like the classic modernist stuff try Witold Gombrowicz (make sure you get the new translations, not the old ones) and Bruno Schulz.
by MarekNYC on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 06:12:35 PM EST
Hi Marek,

Are you Polish? If you are could you please go over over here and have a read and tell me if you think I could somehow get the info contained to the Polish press.

by irishhead on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 06:16:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Kundera, definitely. Skvorecky, as well.

On the French side, may I note Erik Orsenna, Robert Merle (his "Fortune de France" for which he became most famous is a great way to learn French history of the 15-17th century, but his other novels are even better, in my view, and very varied). Jacques Attali (yep, the former "marble" EBRD president) is unsufferably arrogant, but he has written a few very fascinating novels.

No mention of the Russians... lots of great stuff there. I'm sure I'll forget some, but would like to mention Zinoviev, Vassili Grossmann, Anatoly Rybakov.

Ernst Junger is certainly worth a note as well, as is Ismail Kadare of Albania (quite well known in France).

I won't start on science fiction, although that certainly fits within "novels", doesn't it? We'll need another thread, but let me add Zamiatin, a precursor to Orwell (he is first half of the century, but definitely worth a mention)

Are we allowed to mention Tolkien and  Rawlings?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 06:27:09 PM EST
Yes, if we are to include science fiction, then the Strugatsky Brothers and Lem are great. Lem must have been thinking of Bu$hCo. when he wrote "Memoirs
Found in a Bathtub".
by core halo on Mon Aug 1st, 2005 at 11:44:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with many of the names mentioned above. Here are a few more I would recommend:

First, for french style, read Julien Gracq and Marguerite Yourcenar... Marguerite Duras, too and Romain Gary/Emile Ajar...

Then: Ismail Kadare, from Albania, Yachar Kemal and Orhan Pamuk (yes, Turkey is in Europe!)...

And Italy: Carlo-Emilio Gadda, Italo Calvino, Antonio Tabucchi, Alessandro Barrico, Erri de Luca,

And Spain: Manuel Vasquez-Montalban, Eduardo Mendoza, Jorge Semprun...

And Fernando Pessoa...

And don't forget the Russians: Alexander Soljenitsin and Alexander Zinoviev...

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 06:42:07 PM EST
re: "...writers from around the world..."  I must toss out the name of Chinua Achebe and Things Fall Apart.
by caldonia on Sat Jul 30th, 2005 at 06:10:14 AM EST
Harry Mulisch is an excellent writer. Two of his best books, The Assault and The Discovery of Heaven, are available in English. Highly recommended.
by bastiaan on Sat Jul 30th, 2005 at 03:09:18 PM EST
I have read most non-English writers in English translation only, except a few French novels. (I voted for them. My lifetime project, by the way, is to read the entire "Temps" of Proust, and by the current pace, it will take me 2,000 years to finish it!)

I second names like Kundera, Grass, Sebald, Robbe-Grillet, Calvino... but one of my favourite writers is Umberto Eco. He did set the stage for European historical mysteries. But for his "Foucault's Pendulum," "Da Vinci Code" would not have been born, I believe.

From my countrymen, I would recommend earlier works (during 1950s) of Kenzaburo Oe (Nobel laureate), which opened my eyes for literature. If you want a little more modernism, you may wish to try Kobo Abe, or Haruki Murakami.

I will become a patissier, God willing.

by tuasfait on Sun Jul 31st, 2005 at 12:44:17 PM EST
A bit off-beat as a choice, but I personally enjoy Antonio Camilleri's novels on Sicily, in particular, but not exclusively, his Montalbano detective novels.

Hannah K. O'Luthon
by Hannah K OLuthon on Mon Aug 1st, 2005 at 07:46:26 AM EST
I second your choice, but I also like his novels taking place in the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries: I just finished reading "Il re di Girgenti" and I enjoyed it a lot.

Among the Italians, I would add also Leonardo Sciascia, Alberto Moravia and Dino Buzzatti...  

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Mon Aug 1st, 2005 at 10:52:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I liked "A wisp of smoke" very much. It gave me the illusion that I understood Sicily at the turn of the century.

Hannah K. O'Luthon
by Hannah K OLuthon on Tue Aug 2nd, 2005 at 07:32:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Funnily, the french translator of Camilleri has found a trick to render the mix of Sicilian dialect and Italian: to translate the specific words of Sicilian, he/she uses the language (Franco-provençal) which was in use in the region of Lyon before the XXth century. As many words were still in use when I was a kid (long ago: you don't hear them anymore!), I enjoy it a lot...

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Tue Aug 2nd, 2005 at 04:14:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One thing that the American translator Barbara Wright does when she translates the speech of exurban Parisians is to make it sound like redneck speech. She does this for her translations of Raymond Queneau novels. It's pretty funny stuff.

Queneau himself really liked the translations.

by Upstate NY on Wed Aug 3rd, 2005 at 09:28:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"The Memoirs of Lt.-Colonel Maumort" by R. Martin du Gard, a French Nobelist who died in the 1950s, has been beautifully translated into English.

The novel addresses a very serious question relevant today.  How could good people, with wealth,privilege, and education, do evil things?  That's the core of the struggle of Maumort as he writes his memoirs. He had the best teachers imaginable who trained him in feats of concentration and intellect, was philosphically inclined, and yet practiced colonial racism.  One stunning section deals with the Nazi occupation of his chateau.  Over dinner he chats with Nazi officers, one a doctor, about why they support Hitler.  

I often think of Maumort when I consider American ideals and the almost reflexive wish Americans have to be helpful while viewing the US's unapologetic contribution--vastly greater than any other nation's--to global warming.  And the book applies equally to the American occupation of Iraq.  Both of these actions, supported by many people with good intentions, are leading to mass destruction.

by Plan9 on Mon Aug 1st, 2005 at 11:34:15 AM EST
I've recently read a book that brought our present era to mind as well. It's julian Benda's "Treason of the Intellectuals." It's one thing for a cryptofascist government like Bush's to completely demoralize us, but for our journalists and think tanks to remain silent in the face of it is a form of treason as well.
by Upstate NY on Wed Aug 3rd, 2005 at 09:30:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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