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?