The Eds Discuss – European Culture

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Post-referendum, the Shiny Eds (all Remainers) are still reeling at the Brexit vote! We thought it timely to explore our experience of European culture on the page and screen. Do feel free to join in the discussion in the comments below:

What was the last book you read by a European author?

Victoria: I think it must have been one of Patrick Modiano’s novels. It can be hard to recall which one as they are similar to one another the way the tessellated pieces of a patchwork quilt are similar. But I’ve recently reread Missing Person, the novel that won him the Prix Goncourt in France and it was even more brilliant the second time around. And I also read Dora Bruder, a non-fiction work in which Modiano tries to trace the life of a young Jewish woman whose fugue from her boarding school landed her in Auschwitz. Modiano is so easy to read and yet he is incredibly moving.

Harriet: I think it was Thus Bad Begins, the most recent novel by the Spanish writer Javier Mariás, whose work I discovered at the beginning of this year when a friend gave me his 2013 novel The Infatuations. I can’t remember ever reading any contemporary Spanish fiction before and was completely bowled over – I’ve got another of his earlier novels on the way at the moment.

Annabel: I’ve recently read a trio of French ones: Blood Wedding, the latest gory crime thriller to be translated from Pierre Lemaitre, and two utterly charming novels – No and Me by Delphine de Vigan, a crossover hit from a few years ago, and The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. I loved them all.

Simon: I never know if Turkey counts…? If it does, then I read Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali for this issue of Shiny New Books. Before that, it was Michel Quint’s Strange Gardens, translated from the French, which I read for Vulpes Libris’ French Reading Week. It’s a brief, poignant novel about clowns, war, and fatherhood – make of that what you will!

Do you read much contemporary European fiction/non-fiction in translation? Is it something you like doing or does it feel a bit worthy? Are there contemporary European authors you especially like?

V: I admit I don’t read that much in translation. Partly because I can read French, and reading in translation makes me feel guilty because I ought to get through some of the enormous TBR pile of French novels I own. But whenever I do read a book in translation I’m often surprised by how much I enjoy it. I think I must have a prejudice that I barely notice about European fiction being heavy and depressing. There are contemporary authors like Elena Ferrante and Fred Vargas whose books I love. Last year I read a Magda Szabò novel, Iza’s Ballad , and it was one of my books of the year.

H: For many years I refused to read literature in translation – on the grounds that that if you didn’t read things in their original language there was no point as you’d be missing so much of the author’s original expression. I’ve long since abandoned that idea, because I realised there was such a lot of wonderful work I was closing myself off to. My only quibble remains the fact that I often don’t enjoy translations from French, which seems a peculiarly difficult language to transpose into readable English. I’ve read a lot of Scandinavian noir, though my taste for that seems to have diminished of late. I’ve recently read and loved Elena Ferrante, always enjoy Simenon, and highly recommend the French author Anna Gavalda.

A: When I think about it I read masses as a teenager – all the Maigret novels, Tolstoy and the Russians and plenty of Greek and Latin classics! Then I had a gap for over twenty years and I’m loving re-reading Maigret at the moment, alongside many other modern European authors. Having passed through a Scandi-noir kick too, I’m now reading more by French authors like Pascal Garnier, whom I adore, than others. And no, it’s not worthy at all – a good book is a good book, whatever language it is written in (as long as the translation holds up of course).

S: I read very little contemporary literature of any variety, I have to confess – well, it’s hardly a confession when I’m so firmly planted in the reprints section of SNB. When I do turn to modern literature, it’s based largely on choosing authors I know well – and those are chiefly British and American. I need to redress the balance.

What about the European classics? Goethe, Balzac, Zola, Thomas Mann, Italo Calvino, Cervantes, Proust, Kafka, etc, etc, all that lot.

V: Ah, well, I studied French and German at university and went on to teach French literature, so this is sort of an unfair question for me. I have read an awful lot of the French and German classics from the 18th century onwards, but then it was my job to do so. And actually, I really loved them. It’s easier to say who I didn’t like: Voltaire, Thomas Mann, on occasion, and Boris Vian. Apologies to those who love that trio.

H: I’ve read quite a lot of Zola, who I admire tremendously. Once tried Proust in French and lasted about a page. I’ve read and enjoyed Colette, and Hermann Hesse, if they count as classics.

A: I’ve dabbled, but it’s rare for me to read a European classic these days unless it’s dystopian or a fairy tale, E.T.A. Hoffman being a favourite. The classics do tend to require closer reading, more concentration and consequently require more time which I don’t always have. I would like to re-read some ancient classic texts though, like Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars.

S: I probably read about 5-10 translated books a year, but there are enormous gaps in my knowledge of European classics. Of the list above, I have read one book by Balzac, one by Kafka, and… nothing else. I’m drawn to certain European books – translated works by more obscure writers in the NYRB Classics series sometimes tempt me, and that’s how I discovered the wonderful Hungarian writer Dezső Kosztolányi – but the classics oddly terrify me.

Can you remember the first time you read a book by a European author? And if it was memorable, why was that so?

V: The first European book I read was Marguerite Duras’s novel, L’Amant (The Lover). I was 17, studying languages and had not long returned from my first holiday to France, where I’d bought it. I suppose it must have been a new release back then. I’d been told the language was simple, and it was, relatively speaking. But the story, about a taboo relationship between a young French woman living in Indochina and her much older, richer, native lover was far too difficult for me to fully grasp. I know I read it again in my mid-20s and had almost no recollection of it, which struck me as amusing at the time. I do remember that the first reading had left an impression on me of terrific sophistication in the French culture.

H: The first European book that I can remember picking up was Alain-Fournier’s only novel, Le Grand Meaulnes. My father had a copy of it on his desk when I was about thirteen, and for some reason I was absolutely fascinated by it. It was in French so I can’t imagine that I made much of it, but the novel has always stayed with me as something magical and special. My French is better now and I have had a go at it in the original language and also read it in English. It’s a wonderful blend of realism – set in a small town in France in the early years of the twentieth century – and an almost fairy-tale quality as the eponymous Meaulnes meets a beautiful young girl at a costume party he stumbles across and then spends many years trying to find her again. Wonderful.

A: It was probably War and Peace or Anna Karenina, chosen because of the 1970s BBC TV adaptations which I loved.

S: Good question! I think it might have been the author who is still my favourite European writer, and among my all-time favourites from anywhere: Tove Jansson. I read The Summer Book when I was about 18, and reread it recently with the same love for its gentle depiction of grandmother/granddaughter living on a Scandinavian island. But I feel sure I must have read something in translation in the first 18 years of my life… surely? But my mind is a blank.

What about novels set in Europe – do you like to travel in your reading? Do any of your favourite authors choose European settings regularly for their fiction?

V: I think the cutting edge of fiction these days has moved out towards India, Asia, the Middle East. European settings have become associated with comfort, perhaps? (Though that may now change.) I remember as a child reading the Chalet School stories by Eleanor M. Brent Dyer – one of the few authors who wasn’t Enid Blyton, who I had pretty much on intravenous drip. Anyway, what I remember was a veneer of cosmopolitanism that the Mallory Towers girls didn’t seem to have. While they fussed about anchovy paste, the Chalet School girls went skiing and sustained terrible head injuries in the slalom. I was also entranced by the Europe of Edith Wharton, who allowed her scandalous heroines to flee there, where the morals were so much looser and the living on the Riviera was cheap. The Old World was sophisticated, tired, understanding, louche – like a mother who lets you lie on the sofa reading her Sidney Sheldon novels.

H: I’m not particularly drawn to novels set in Europe, though I’ve got a lot of pleasure recently from reprints of Eric Ambler’s novels, which range around all over the place – A Kind of Anger, set in southern France, was one I liked a lot. I’ve also recently enjoyed two novels by Cecilia Ekback which are set in the far north of Sweden. Then there’s Scott Fitzgerald who wonderfully evokes the Riviera of the 1920s in Tender is the Night. And Virginia mentions Edith Wharton, whose work I’ve read and loved, though not for a long time.

A: I love European settings for novels. I’d second Tender is the Night (which also has a section set in the mountains above Montreux in Switzerland, where I have fond memories of holidaying in my teens). I love France, and any novel set there will attract me. However, I enjoy some particular time periods for other locations: Cold War Berlin, Renaissance Italy and so on.

S: I have something of a prejudice against novels set abroad – I prefer reading them by people from those places, rather than the Brits Abroad. There are always exceptions, of course. I love Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April and Ann Bridge’s Illyrian Spring, for instance. But in general, I’d choose the authenticity of a native inhabitant of a country (or somebody who at least lived there for a long time), rather than something akin to travel literature.

What about European films? Or television? Do you watch them much? Any favourites to recommend?

V: I am terrible about watching films. I hardly ever do, so I don’t see many in any language. But I have watched quite a few French films and what I love about them is that they are so not Hollywood. Nothing happens. Quite literally in films by Eric Rohmer, for instance, Conte d’automne, Conte d’eté, and I really loved that. All these films with one plot point per shot do my head in. And I went through a phase of watching pretty much anything with Gérard Depardieu in it. My favourite French film is Bon Voyage, about a group of disparate people who are thrown together during the desperate days of l’exode in 1941 when France was being invaded by Germany.

H: I do! I’m addicted to the stylish European thriller series that get shown on BBC4 periodically. The French Spiral (Engrenages) has gone through several series and is brilliant, then of course there’s The Killing, The Bridge and others too numerous to mention. And yes I love films, so have some favourites here – on my list of absolute best films is Jean Renoir’s 1937 classic La Grande Illusion, bascially about some men who escape from a German fortress in WW1. I also love the two 1990 films La Gloire de Mon Pere and Le Chateau de Ma Mere, based on the novels of that name by Marcel Pagnol. Also based on Pagnol’s work were two great films, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. These are all classics but I’ve seen some excellent contemporary films too – I was bowled over recently by Dheepan, about three Tamil immigrants trying to forge a new life in France, which won the Palme d’Or in last year’s Cannes Film Festival. I agree with Victoria – French films are so refreshingly un-Hollywood.

A: While I love European authors, I don’t watch much European cinema or TV. I find having to concentrate on the subtitles distracting from watching the visuals. I wish my French was better. I have got a box-set of Spiral to try, and rather loved the quirky and distinctly visual French film Delicatessen by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. The Swedish film of Let the Right One In was excellent, (I’ve not seen the US/English remake, but the original novel is the best vampire story I’ve ever read by the way!).

S: A short answer – I can’t think of a single European film or television series that I have seen!

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Do join in the discussion! You can also read Victoria’s ‘Brexit Reading’ here.