"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 16, 2017

Best European Novels (4): Belgium

Belgium is a small country and its literature is split into the two languages, Flemish (Dutch) and French. Happily, there is a lot of talent writing in both languages. The "Big Three" 20th c. classical novelists from Flanders are Willem Elsschot, Louis Paul Boon and Hugo Claus. The greatest Belgian writing in French (and therefore often wrongly thought to be a Frenchman) is Georges Simenon. In fact, Simenon used often Belgian and Dutch settings in his novels, especially in the 1930s, such as the semi-autobiographical Pedigree.

First the best novels in Flemish:

1. Willem Elsschot, Cheese (1933)
Willem Elsschot (1882-1960; in real life called Alfons de Ridder) was a writer and businessman (in advertising) from Antwerp, who because of the combination of these two functions, has been dubbed the “Flemish Italo Svevo.” He wrote eleven short novels, of which the highly amusing Cheese (Kaas) is the best, a gentle fable, timeless in its skewering of the pretensions and pomposity of the urban bourgeois man. A humble shipping clerk in Antwerp becomes the chief agent in Belgium for a Dutch cheese company and takes delivery of ten thousand full-cream wheels of this red-rinded Dutch delight. But he has no idea how to run a business, or how to sell his goods. He is more focused on setting up his office with a proper desk and typewriter, rather than doing the hard-selling that is needed. When his employer comes to Antwerp to settle the first accounts, he panics... See my full review. Soft Soap and The Leg (Lijmen / Het Been) are two more examples of humorous novels by Elsschot which lead the reader to reflect on the absurdity of life.
English translation and preface by Paul Vincent (Granta Books, 2002).

2. Louis Paul Boon, Chapel Road (1953)
Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979) was a Flemish novelist and journalist who was a serious candidate for the Nobel prize in Literature. He gave up literary language for regional Belgian Dutch words and expressions with which he colored his writing in a Faulknerian way. Boon combines social engagement (an important characteristic of Belgian literature) with advanced literary techniques. Chapel Road (Kapellekensbaan) is his masterpiece. Its interesting construction combines several narrative threads, including an almost postmodern one where the writer and his friends discuss how the story should develop further. The story itself is set in the 19th c. and is about a girl who wants to escape from a grey industrial town "where it is always raining, even when the sun is shining" (the town is a fictionalized Aalst, the town where Boon himself grew up). A third thread in the book is a reworking of the classic myth of Reynard the Fox. Boon’s other famous novels, both available in English, are My little war (Mijn kleine oorlog) and a sequel to Chapel Road, Summer in Termuren (Zomer in Termuren).
English translation: Adrienne Dixon (Dalkey Archives, 2003)

3. Hugo Claus, The Sorrow of Belgium (1983)
Hugo Claus (1929-2008) was the most important Flemish writer of the 20th century. He has written over 20 novels, 60 theater pieces and thousands of poems. Unfortunately, very little has been translated into English, and what has been translated is difficult to find. Claus' best work is the semi-autobiographical "bildungsroman" The Sorrow of Belgium (Het Verdriet van Belgie), a book that has been compared to The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass. It is the story of the coming of age of the protagonist in a right-wing, Flemish nationalist family during the German occupation in WWII. When the young man discovers the anarchist literature that has banned by the Nazi's, his eyes are opened to a new world, one which had been forbidden by his far-right environment. He is inspired to become a writer himself.
English translation: Arnold J. Pomerans (Overlook Books)

4. Dimitri Verhulst, The Misfortunates (2006)
Dimitri Verhulst (born in 1972) was born in Aalst, like Louis Paul Boon. He shares the older author’s critical but compassionate view on Belgian life. Verhulst’s most famous novel is The Misfortunates (De Helaasheid der Dingen), a loosely autobiographical story of a young writer who reflects on his youth growing up in a family that knew no sobriety. Both his father and his uncles had an unwavering commitment to the pub. The boy grows up amid the stench of stale beer, and it seems that the same future is waiting for him, until he makes his own plans for the future. Both comedic, crude, heart-warming and humorous.
English translation: David Colmer (Portobello Books, 2013)

Then the best novels in French:

1. Georges Simenon, Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945)
At his death in 1989, Liegeoise writer Georges Simenon had published over 375 works, including 75 novels and 28 short stories in his fictional detective series featuring Inspector Maigret. The Maigret series has been translated into over 50 languages, making the Belgian Simenon the most translated French-speaking author in the world. More than that, Simenon also wrote more than a 100 serious novels, called "romans durs." These "hard novels" were not detective stories but darkly realistic psychological novels, books in which he displayed a sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Some famous titles are: Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Pedigree, Tropic Moon, The Engagement, The Widow and Red Lights. In the "romans durs" Simenon tried to show the range of his talent. One of the best is Monsieur Monde Vanishes (La Fuite de Monsieur Monde, 1945), in which Simenon addresses one of his favorite themes: the urge to cast off a familiar, restrictive life. The middle-aged Monsieur Monde is a prosperous Parisian businessman, the owner of a factory and conservative family head. One day, feeling unloved by his family and associates, he just walks out on his life, leaving everything behind. He travels to the Riviera where he happens to strike up an acquaintance with a prostitute, then moves on to Nice with her. He has no plan and no ambition; when his money is stolen by a chambermaid, he shows no anger. But then by chance he meets up with his first wife, now an opium addict, and the question of moral responsibility poses itself. Can Monsieur Monde remain uninvolved, a man alone? See my article on Simenon.
English translation: Jean Stewart (NYRB, 2004)

2. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Monsieur (1986)
Jean-Philippe Toussaint (born 1957) is a Belgian prose writer and filmmaker, who was educated in Paris. He was strongly influenced by Beckett and the Nouveau Roman. Monsieur, which was filmed by Tousssaint in 1990, is typical of his work. It is a minimalist series of vignettes from the life of an introverted, quiet man who lacks any strong interests or will power. Although he is utterly passive, he still manages to keep his head above water and seems always content. You might compare him to the "uncarved block" of Daoism, while his way of life embodies the idea from the Daodejing that the qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength. Nothing happens in this novel, but Toussaint still manages to keep his readers interested. In his quirkiness, Monsieur Toussaint also has some traits of that other nay-sayer, Melville's Bartleby.
English translation: John Lambert (Dalkey Archive, 2008)

3. Amélie Nothomb, Tokyo Fiancée (2007)
Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan of Belgian parents in 1967. In fact, her father was the Consul-General for Belgium in Kobe (later also Ambassador in Tokyo). Despite her background in a diplomatic family, in her public persona and her writing Nothomb is the embodiment of unconventionality. Since her debut with Hygiene and the Assassin in 1992, she has written a novel a year (of the concise French type, it should be added). She has been widely translated and won many prizes. One of her best novels is the semi-autobiographical Tokyo Fiancée (Ni d'Eve, ni d'Adam), in which an affair with a Japanese suitor, Rinri, serves as the impetus for fun discoveries about the Japanese way of life, especially food culture. Rinri is really in love, and although Amélie likes spending time with him, she doesn't love him. She also doesn't want to give up her independence. After he proposes, she struggles with the question how to best refuse this sweet and shy boy. Another excellent book set in Japan is the popular Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements), in which a Belgian woman returns to Japan, where she lived as a child, for a job at one of the country's major corporations. The cultural misunderstandings pile up like a train wreck until the woman gives up trying to adapt to the Japanese way of working. See my full reviews of Tokyo Fiancee and Fear and Trembling.
English translation: Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2008).

May 7, 2017

Best European Novels (3): The Netherlands

It's time for novels from my own country, the Netherlands. I have already written about Dutch novels a few years ago, but here I would like to present a somewhat longer list while excluding Flemish authors as these will come in a separate post about the Belgian novel.

As I wrote in my previous article, Dutch literature has long been largely unknown abroad, but thanks to active promotion by writers, publishers and the Dutch Foundation for Literature, that has changed. Today, Dutch novels are, for example, very popular in Germany and Scandinavia and several authors have higher sales figures there than in their own (small) country.

Three themes stand out in Dutch novels: Calvinism (the results of a strict Calvinist upbringing), colonialism (the relationship with the former East Indian colonies) and the War (World War II when Holland was occupied by the Germans).

Here are the best novels from the Netherlands:

1. Multatuli, Max Havelaar Or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1859)
The first Dutch novel of stature - and according to some, still the best - was written in the mid-19th c. by a colonial administrator. A passionate novel that woke up Dutch society by blowing the whistle about the oppression of the Javanese people in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Max Havelaar is an idealized self-portrait of the author, Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker), who, like his protagonist, was a colonial official in the Javanese town of Lebak. The book is advanced in its almost "postmodern" composition, with a self-reflexive frame story and countless digressions and stories-in-stories. A beautiful story at the heart of the book is the tragic tale of Saïdjah and Adinda, two Javanese children whose lives are crushed by the double heaviness of indigenous and Dutch rule. Read my full review.
Translation: Roy Edwards in Penguin Classics (1987). An older English translation at Google Books.

2. Louis Couperus, The Hidden Force (1900)
Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was born in The Hague but grew up in the Dutch East Indies. His first novel, Eline Vere, was a psychological masterpiece about the tragic fate of a young heiress, a neurotic woman with a turbulent family, set in fin-de-siecle The Hague. It was an immediate success. Couperus wrote more novels with a setting bourgeois circles in the Hague, but also Symbolist novellas, as well as historical novels situated in the ancient world (like Flaubert's Salammbo). His greatest achievement is The Hidden Force (De stille kracht), written in 1900 and inspired by a year long visit to the Dutch East Indies in 1899-1900, the country of his childhood. It is the story of the decline and fall of the Dutch resident Van Oudyck due to his inability to see further than his own Western rationalism. The "hidden force" can be interpreted as the silent opposition of the colonized, as the symbol for the cultural gap which in a colonial situation can never be breached successfully. We could also say that colonial society, founded as it was on the right of the strongest, led to moral decay, which slowly but irresistibly wrecked the Europeans, as another hidden force. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent, Pushkin Press (2012). Older translation by Texeira de Mattos at Gutenberg.

3. Nescio, Amsterdam Stories (1910-18)
Three wonderful novellas (The Freeloader, Titans and Little Poet), bittersweet accounts of artistic, idealistic young men, their big plans and mad longings, all ending in sadness and resignation. The individual is no match for the world and helplessly comes to grief if he tries to resist. Nescio (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh, 1882–1961) writes about our complete insignificance in the grand scheme of things - but also that our insignificance doesn't matter, for there is something wonderful in that, too. All three stories provide a good picture of Amsterdam at the beginning of the 20th century. Above all, Nescio's style is wonderful: utter simplicity combined with humor, irony, understatement and sentiment (but never sentimentality), all elements miraculously balanced. Read my full review.
Translation: Damion Searls, published by NYRB Classics (2012). 

4. J.J. Slauerhoff, The Forbidden Kingdom (1931)
The Forbidden Kingdom (Het Verboden Rijk, 1932), the masterwork of poet-maudit and ship's doctor Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936), is a classic of modernism with an experimental narrative, and at the same it is also a romantic tale of travel and adventure. The novel starts with two historical tales: the founding of Macao in the 1550s, by Portuguese soldiers and colonists, the fortress-trading city on the South Chinese coast, and back in Portugal itself, we get the story of Luís de Camões ("Camoens" in the novel), courtier and poet, author of the classic epic, The Lusiads. To this is added a story about a nameless 20th century Irish radio operator. This man works on a small ship steaming around Asia, and finally ends up in Macao. He describes himself as "the most rootless person alive." These two stories are then closely linked together by Slauerhoff. Much of what Camões felt and said appears again, as an after-echo, in the twentieth-century sections. Slauerhoff even goes so far as to drop hints that the 16th century Camões and the 20th century radio operator may be the same person! The radio operator recognizes places where he cannot have been before, his memories become a mixture of his own and those of Camões. At the end, like the 16th century poet, his highest wish becomes to be absorbed by the anonymous millions of China. Past and present merge as if a hidden passage through time has been opened. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent. Published by Pushkin Press (2012).

5. Ferdinand Bordewijk, Character (1938)
Ferdinand Bordewijk (1884-1965) was a lawyer and novelist who wrote in a violent style reminiscent of New Objectivity. Karakter (Character) is his most famous novel. It tells the story of Katadreuffe, a clerk who is struggling to work his way up in society, but who is time and again blocked and even bankrupted by his biological father, the formidable Rotterdam bailiff Dreverhaven. Dreverhaven is a massive man who enjoys evicting the poor from their houses or declaring people bankrupt. He knows no mercy. To challenge his enemies, he has his office in one of the darkest and poorest areas of Rotterdam, but although he is generally hated, nobody dares stick a knife in his back. At the end of the book, in a final confrontation with the son, the father declares that he has in fact worked for his son - by putting obstacles in his way, he has made his son "a man of character." But there is no reconciliation, as Katadreuffe exhibits the negative side of a strong character - he is unable to love others or even connect to them. Katadreuffe finds success, but not personal happiness. Character is also a great portrait of pre-war Rotterdam where the drama is set. Character was filmed in 1998 by Mike van Diem. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in that year. Read my full review.
Translation: E.M. Prince (Ivan R Dee; 1st Elephant Pbk., 1999)

6. Gerard Reve, The Evenings (1947)
In The Netherlands, Gerard Reve (1923-2006) is considered as one of the three greatest writers of the postwar period, together with Hermans and Mulisch. However, he remains completely unknown abroad. His greatest novel and one of the best novels ever written in The Netherlands, had to wait until 2016 before its first English translation finally appeared. Set during the last ten dark days of 1946 in Amsterdam, the story of The Evenings revolves around Frits van Egters, a young man who lives at home with his parents, whom he finds annoying and embarrassing. Each of the ten days is the object of one chapter, and as Reve skips the time Frits spends as a clerk in the office, we indeed get descriptions of his "evenings," plus his time off on Sundays and Christmas. Frits spends his free time by withdrawing to his bedroom and doing nothing, listening to the radio, or visiting friends, whom he tries to provoke and challenge. Central themes in The Evenings are loneliness, boredom, disillusionment, lack of self-esteem, social isolation and the cynicism of the protagonist. Although Frits has several friends, he is in fact very lonely, as the conversations he has with them are generally superficial and unimportant, even nonsensical. The relationship Frits has with his parents, and especially his father, is plainly bad - although he also hides his love, which becomes apparent in the conclusion of the novel. He is also suffering from repetition compulsion: he regularly has to look at his watch, cannot stand pauses in conversations and has an obsessive fear of the future, especially the process of aging and physical decline - baldness is an important subject in his conversations and he studies his own scalp every night in the mirror. He delights in reminding his brother, who is only a couple of years older, that his hairline is already receding. According to most interpretations, Frits van Egters' character primarily reflects the problems of the generation that had matured during WWII, when the Netherlands was for five years occupied by the Nazis, and of whom many came dazed and without faith or ideals out of that war. The novel may strike one as gloomy and cheerless, even negative and cynical, as it did readers in the 1950s, and also me when I first read it in high school. But reading it again after several decades, I now enjoyed the grotesque and liberating dark humor that peppers the whole novel. The author has a sharp eye for absurd and poignant details. Perhaps because I don't live in Holland anymore and am not bothered by the dark and gray weather described in the book, I only registered the comical effects, which are made stronger thanks to the businesslike style of the author, setting down even the smallest things in detail. Also funny is the solemn and needlessly complicated idiolect Frits uses, even when talking to himself. This "ultimate book on the art of boredom" ends with a beautiful and moving epiphany when on New Year's Eve, Frits begs God’s forgiveness for mocking his parents so brutally.
Translation: Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press (2016)

7. W.F. Hermans, The Darkroom of Damocles (1958)
Both a dark wartime thriller and a metaphysical mystery, based on the doppelganger motif. During the German occupation of Holland, tobacconist Henri Osewoudt is visited by a shadowy figure named Dorbeck, who looks exactly like a "positive mirror image" of himself - everything that is effeminate and weak in Osewoudt, is strong and manly in Dorbeck. Osewoudt is a man without beard growth and a high squeaky voice who is just a nondescript tobacconist in a suburb of The Hague, living with his mentally ill mother and an unattractive wife who is also his niece. He has no self-respect at all. Dorbeck instructs Osewoudt to execute a number of dangerous secret assignments on behalf of the resistance movement against the Nazis, including several killings. Although things quickly go awry, these violent actions give Osewoudt a feeling of dignity. After the war, Osewoudt is regarded as a traitor and captured. He is unable to prove that he received assignments from Dorbeck - Dorbeck has vanished completely and Osewoudt cannot even prove that his doppelganger ever existed: Osewoudt has taken a photo of himself with Dorbeck, but the film is empty. Hermans shows us the moral ambiguity prevalent in a society in the grip of war and chaos and the impossibility of heroism. In the darkroom of life in wartime, the sword of Damocles is always dangling above one's head. Read my full review.
Translation: Ina Rilke, published by The Overlook Press (2008)

8. Cees Nooteboom, Rituals (1980)
Although in the first place known as a travel writer (see my post about Roads to Berlin), Nooteboom has also created a fine novelistic oeuvre for which - strangely enough - he is more famous in Germany than in the Netherlands. The protagonist Inni Wintrop wanders the streets of the free "flower power" Amsterdam of the 1960s and 1970s, looking for meaning in the "wonderful, empty universe." He happens to encounter Arnold Taads and his estranged son Philip, who in a universe without god, are attempting to create their own meaning in life through rituals. We even have a Japanese tea ceremony here! Arnold Taads is rigidly tied to time, his son Philip in contrast tries to escape time through Zen-like rituals, and as regards Inni, "women had become his religion," but that also leads to complications: when his wife Zita leaves him for an Italian, he attempts suicide. "A parable about  the importance of learning to ride the unpredictable waves of life in a universe devoid of God," as the website of the Dutch Foundation for Literature calls this novel. Read my full review. Another great book by Cees Nooteboom is the novella The Following Story (see my review).
Translation: Adrienne Dixon, published by Quercus, London (2013)

9. Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven (1992)
Huge novel containing all the themes that are important in Mulisch oeuvre. As mankind has discovered DNA and therefore the secret of creation, God wants to end his covenant and have the tablets he once gave to Moses returned to him. Events on earth are manipulated by a couple of angels so that two men (an astronomer and extrovert ertomaniac, Max Delius, and a withdrawn linguist who later turns politician, Onno Quist) and a woman (Ada Brons, who is a cellist) meet and a child (Quinten) is conceived who is to become the person who will find the Tablets and return them to Heaven. This setup results in many bizarre and humorous complications. The novel paints an interesting picture of Holland in the 1960s and after, before turning into a sort of Foucault's Pendulum with Raiders of the Lost Ark mixed in. In the two main characters, who are each other's opposites, the reader can recognize Mulisch (Max) and his friend, the chess master, Jan Hein Donner (Onno); it is also the first part of the novel dedicated to their story which is the most beautiful. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent, Penguin Books (1996)

10. Hella Haasse, The Tea Lords (1992)
When the trio of four great postwar authors is expanded to a quartet, it is usually Hella Haasse who is added to the team. Hella Haasse was of the same generation and also started writing in the years just after the war. Hella Haase was born in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and won fame with the novella The Black Lake (Oeroeg), which came out in 1947. It is a Bildungsroman about an anonymous narrator growing up on a plantation in the Dutch colony, who has a childhood friend of native descent; the story describes their inevitable estrangement as time goes by. Is friendship between a Dutch colonial and an Indonesian child possible and can they really understand each other? Besides colonial themes, Hella Haasse excelled in historical novels, such as In a Dark Wood Wandering, a novel of set during the Hundred Years War and focusing on the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d'Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d'Orleans, a poet and scholar who suffered decades of captivity in England. Equally famous became The Scarlet City, set in 16th c. Italy and bringing to life the Borgias, Machiavelli and Michelangelo. But in my view her greatest achievement is The Tea Lords, a later novel in which she brings historical themes and the Dutch East Indies together. The story is based on family archives of the heirs and relations of the tea plantation owners featuring in the book, so there is a historical basis to it all. Protagonist is Rudolf Kerkhoven, scion of an established family of planters in Java, who after his studies in Holland, returns - young, idealistic, and ambitious - to the colony to be introduced into the mysteries of the tea trade. The core of the story is formed by Rudolf’s struggles to establish his own remote plantation in the jungle, so to speak hacking it out from the teeming undergrowth, in the damp uplands south of Bandung, and in his marriage to the resolute but troubled Jenny, daughter of another old-established Dutch dynasty in Java. The greatest strength of the novel is its atmosphere: a powerful sense of the overwhelming greenness of the Javanese countryside and the steaming jungle pervades the book. But empathy for plantation life does not mean that judgement on colonialism itself is suspended.
Translation: Ina Rilke, Portobello Books (2010)

11. J.J. Voskuil, The Bureau (1996-2000)
A series of seven novels (5,000 pages) called a "soap for intellectuals," filled with detailed descriptions of the daily affairs over a period of thirty years at the "Bureau for Dialectology, Folklore and Onomastics" (based on the Mertens Institute in Amsterdam where Voskuil himself worked for thirty years; the novels have a strong autobiographical component). One the one hand, the novels are a parody of academic specialization, on the other hand a demonstration of office politics. In that last respect, they mercilessly describe the petty irritations and teasing, the conniving and crawling that over the years take hold of people obliged to spend their days working together in a hierarchical setting. The academic satire is evident from the fact that Maarten Koning, the protagonist and Voskuil's fictional alter ego, is charged with research into the most obscure of folk traditions, such as the belief in elves, or the uses of scythes and harrows - nobody knows what purpose the research is meant to serve. Scene by scene and through vivid dialogues Voskuil builds up a picture of a surrealistic agency of which Kafka would be proud and gradually The Bureau itself emerges as the real main character. A classic of Dutch literature.
No English translation available; the novels have been translated into German.

12. Arnon Grunberg, Tirza (2006)
Arnon Grunberg belongs to the younger generation of Dutch writers. He wrote his first novel, Blue Mondays, in 1994. Two other novels, Phantom Pain and The Asylum Seeker, won the AKO Literature Prize (the Dutch Booker Prize). But his best novel is Tirza, about a father's obsessive love for his graduating daughter. This novel won another important literary prize and was also Grunberg's first novel to be made into a movie. As J.M. Coetzee has written, it is a novel filled with "wit and sardonic intelligence." It is the hilarious and tragic story of Jörgen Hofmeester, a man who had it all according to bourgeois norms: a beautiful wife, two intelligent daughters named Ibi and Tirza, a nice house with a garden in an upper-class neighborhood of Amsterdam, a respectable job as editor for a publishing house, and a large sum of money stashed away in a Swiss bank account earned by renting out part of the big house without informing the tax office. But during the preparations for his beloved daughter Tirza's graduation party we come to know what Hofmeester has lost: his wife has left him (and now come back after three years to harass him), Ibi has broken off her university course to start a bed-and-breakfast in France, Hofmeester has been laid off at the publishing house and his Swiss savings have evaporated due to hedge fund speculation. So he has only Tirza left, the apple of his eye... but Tirza tells him she is leaving on a trip to Namibia with her new North-African boyfriend Choukri. Hofmeester is shattered when she disappears on that holiday, and travels to Africa to search for her, but the heat, his drinking and bad memories combine to unhinge him. Finally, in a surprising conclusion we discover the beast that had all the time dwelt within him. Grunberg is an even stronger nihilist than W.F. Hermans - again and again he shows us how thin the veneer of civilization is.
Translation: Sam Garrett, Open Letter Books (2013)

Previous posts in Best European Novels:
Austria - Germany & Switzerland

May 3, 2017

"Sir Vidia's Shadow" by Paul Theroux (Non-Fiction)

Sir Vidia's Shadow, written in 1998 by Paul Theroux, is a fascinating account of a mentor-disciple relation between two unusual men, the authors Paul Theroux (the disciple) and V.S. Naipaul ("Sir Vidia"; the mentor). The book details how that long friendship started, how it developed when the disciple became a successful author in his own right, and how it ended when Naipaul gave Theroux the boot. Theroux's reaction was typical: he started writing the present book, as he felt liberated, he says - he finally had come out from under the shadow of his mentor.

The friendship began in 1966 in Uganda. Theroux was then 25 and teaching at Makerere University, Kampala, after originally having come to Africa (Malawi) for the Peace Corps. While enjoying the African continent and the free life, he was also trying his hand at poetry and magazine articles. Naipaul was about ten years older and the already famous author of five novels including A House for Mr Biswas, and several non-fiction works as his account of India, An Area of Darkness. He came to Uganda for six months as "writer in residence." The two soon met and Theroux, who spoke the language and drove a car, became Naipaul's guide and interpreter, while Naipaul coached him in writing - having him rewrite an article almost ten times.

Theroux provides a good portrait of the brilliant but eccentric Naipaul, but also of himself as an ambitious starting writer. We see Theroux literally at the feet of the idolized older artist, studying his work in detail and listening to the smallest scrap of advice. Theroux also proofread the book Naipaul was then working on, The Mimic Men. Naipaul in his turn gave the young Theroux the confidence to continue writing and later helped him find a publisher.
“Friendship is plainer but deeper than love. A friend knows your faults and forgives them, but more than that, a friend is a witness. I needed Vidia as a friend, because he saw something in me I did not see. He said I was a writer.”
When Naipaul left Uganda and returned to the U.K., Theroux soon visited him during the Christmas holidays, staying with Naipaul and his wife Pat. And when Theroux moved on to a University job in Singapore, he kept up a frequent correspondence with Naipaul, what he himself calls a "correspondence course in writing."

In 1972 Theroux settled down in the U.K., where he would remain for the next decades - in 1967 he had married an English woman whom he had met in Uganda; they had two children. This gave Theroux the chance to meet with Naipaul again, although not very frequently as both writers were also busy world travelers and on top of that, Naipaul lived in rather remote English countryside. After Theroux himself became famous thanks to the publication of The Great Railway Bazaar, which was published in 1975, the relation started to change subtly as both men had become more like equals - they also started drifting somewhat apart and in Theroux's opinion, Naipaul became more moody and self-important. Theroux also became more financially successful than Naipaul, although according to general critical opinion Naipaul is in a higher class - he not for nothing received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.

The end came in 1996, when Naipaul snubbed Theroux in the street, apparently angered by Theroux's attitude towards his second wife, a Pakistani journalist he had unexpectedly married. Theroux felt deeply hurt (something which shows in the last two chapters, which are a bit venomenous and self-pitying), but was also free to write Sir Vidia's Shadow.

Is it a good book? In general, opinions are sharply divided, but I would say yes, it is a fascinating Johnson-Boswell account, difficult to put down. On the whole, I think Theroux writes truthfully - this is not a tale of sour grapes or dirty laundry. Theroux greatly admires Naipaul as an artist and that shows through on every page. Theroux does in this book what he does best: he is not a superb stylist or deep thinker, but he excels in sharp observations (the African scenery!) and memorable characterizations, here in the first place of his subject, V.S. Naipaul.

By the way, all bitterness is now out of the air again, as both authors have shaken hands in 2011 at the instigation of Ian McEwan.

[This is a revision of a post written some years ago]

Best Non-Fiction

Art

(Auto-) Biography
Sir Vidia's Shadow by Paul Theroux

Culture
Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

History

Literature

Memoirs
The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig

Music

Philosophy

Religion
The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler

Science

Travel
The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

December 25, 2016

Best Classical Music for Christmas

When hearing the term "Christmas music" you are perhaps in the first place reminded of the tunes that are piped through muzak systems in shopping malls, restaurants and other public places already from November on - tunes you have heard so often that you really don't want to hear them again. But as Christmas was an important feast within the church year, there is also a great and long tradition of beautiful classical music specially composed for celebrating the season.

[The Annunciation to the Shepherds, by Abraham Hondius, 1663]

Here are my favorite pieces of classical music for Christmas:

1. Thomas Tallis, "Puer natus est nobis"(1554)
Thomas Tallis is considered as one of the greatest composers of choral music in England. The seven-part Christmas Mass "Puer natus est nobis" was written during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor who had restored the Roman rite. The elaborate mass is based on the plainchant of the same name. The cumulative effect of the polyphony with seven voices has an almost hypnotic effect. This substantial music must have been written for a special event and scholars think that it was the visit Philip II of Spain made around Christmas Day 1554 to England to marry Queen Mary. There is also a double meaning to the title of the mass, for English Catholics hoped Queen Mary would soon bear a son. Her reign, however, was as cruel as that of her husband Philip II with his Inquisition: in the 5 years Mary was on the throne, she had 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake - so much for the spirit of Christmas. In 1558 - a;ready ill - she died during an influenza epidemic and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I, who reversed her policies.

2. Heinrich Schütz, Weihnachtshistorie (1664)
This music was a revelation to me when I heard it for the first time: from the opening sinfonia it is filled to the brim with good will and joyousness. As in Bach's Passions, there is an Evangelist who sings in accompanied recitative and tells the Christmas story, but the work really comes to life through its great lyrical moments. There are eight such interludes, corresponding to moments of direct speech by characters in the story. Each of them is highly individual, from the shepherds to the Three Wise Man and even Herod.

[Nativity scene by Gerard David, 1495]

3. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ (1684)
The French Baroque composer Charpentier wrote various pieces of Christmas music, including a full Mass (Messe de Minuit pour Noël) for Christmas Eve. Charpentier wrote two Pastorals for Christmas - this is the second one (H.483); the other one (H482) is for smaller forces. The Pastoral was popular in France since the 1660s, as a combination of the Bible story with ancient Greek bucolic literature (although the usual love story between shepherd and shepherdess is of course skipped). The Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ consists of seven scenes and follows the story of the shepherds in the fields, the annunciation by the angels and finally the adoration of the child in his straw cradle.

4. Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto No 8 in G Minor "Christmas Concerto" from Twelve Concerti Grossi Op. 6
Several Italian Baroque composers as Vivaldi, Torelli and Manfredini wrote "Christmas concertos" for performance on Christmas Eve, but the very best is the above concerto by Corelli. It has the usual pastoral elements without getting cloying. Instead of the usual fast movement, the concert ends with a Pastoral. In fact, all twelve Op 6 concertos by Corelli are fantastic, so do yourself a favor and listen to them all!

5. Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Oratorio (1734)
The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were performed consecutively on Christmas Day, Second and Third Christmas Day, New Year's day, the Sunday after New Year and on Epiphany. As I have written in detail about these cantatas in my series about the Bach cantata, I will here only refer to those older posts (starting with the first cantata "Jauchzet, frohlocket" for Christmas Day). Bach's Christmas Oratorio is the best Christmas music ever written and for me Christmas is not complete without listening to this beautiful and joyous music. (Bach wrote more beautiful cantatas for Christmas, these are all discussed in my blog).

[The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni, 1640]

6. Georg Friedrich Handel, Messiah (1741)
Strictly speaking, Handel's Messiah, although now often played in the Christmas season, is not really Christmas music: it was originally meant for Easter, and the Christmas story only takes up small part of the whole oratorio. But today it has become customary among choral societies to perform the Messiah, just like Bach's Christmas Oratorio, around Christmas. The oratorio starts in Part I with the prophecy by Isaiah, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds (the only scene based directly on the Bible): the shepherds are introduced by an instrumental Pastorale, the Pifa, which takes its name from the shepherd-bagpipers, or pifferare, who played in the streets of Rome at Christmas time. The music is in swinging time and resembles a lullaby - here we have some real "Christmas music." This part concludes with reflections on the Messiah's deeds. Part II covers the Passion in nine movements including the oratorio's longest movement, an air for alto He was despised. This part is concluded by a scene called "God's Triumph" which culminates in the "Hallelujah Chorus." Part III of the oratorio concentrates on Paul's teaching of the resurrection of the dead and Christ's glorification in heaven.

7. Georg Telemann, Christmas Oratorio "Die Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem" (1759)
This double cantata has been called the "best Christmas cantata after Bach." It is tenderly expressive, imaginative and joyous. The text is by the Berlin poet Ramler, and Telemann's music responds with expressive warmth and irresistible charm. It is work of noble simplicity starting with a harmonization of the Latin carol In dulce jubilo. There are in all twelve movements; of outstanding beauty are the "Shepherd's Song" (with an interesting bassoon part) and the bass aria "Hirten aus den goldnen Zeiten." Trumpets and drums add their luster where necessary in this bright piece of music.

8. Johann Baptist Vanhal, Missa Pastoralis in G Major (1782)
Mass written to performed on Christmas Eve. The pastoral style in 18th c. music is characterized by simplicity and rustic charm; also such devices as a drone bass and a yodeling pattern are employed. Unlike the Baroque number mass, the Missa Pastoralis is cast in six major movements, with a central contrasting section in the long Gloria and Credo movements. There are no arias and set-pieces, but the soloists are employed to delineate new ideas. The use of pastoral elements is sophisticated and effective, promoting a coherent musical unity for the whole Mass cycle. And the melodies are simply very beautiful, too.

9. Joseph Leopold Eybler, Christmas Oratorio "Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem" (1794)
Eybler was a pupil of Albrechstberger and a contemporary of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Besides chamber music works, he mainly wrote religious music. This oratorio has the same title as the one by Telemann, but the text used is a different one and it is longer: there are eighteen movements. The basic mood is cheerful and there are various delightful musical pictures. There are two divisions; at the center of each stands a meditative quartet. Arias placing high demands on the singer prepare for the concluding chorus in each part. The concluding chorus of angels in Part One is a gentle siciliano; the concluding chorus of Part Two has strong dynamic contrasts and ends with a finely crafted fugue.

[Czech nativity scene]

10. Jakub Jan Ryba, Czech Christmas Mass (1796)
This is delicious folksy music, telling the Christmas story in a rural Bohemian setting, in Czech, and that all in the frame of a Mass. The music contains characteristic short melodic motifs and colorful rhythms inspired by Czech folk music. Because of its folk character and simplicity, it was excluded from the Catholic liturgy, but it iwa nonetheless often performed. The mass consists of nine parts. The opening part (Kyrie) begins with a popular verse "Hey Master, get up quickly," with a young shepherd waking his master. The Gloria celebrates the birth of Christ; in the Graduale shepherds assemble people from all lands for a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, where the visitors finally plead with Christ for the protection of all people.

11. Hector Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ (1853–4)
L'enfance du Christ is an oratorio by the French composer Hector Berlioz, based on the holy family's flight into Egypt. Berlioz wrote his own words for the piece. Berlioz described L'enfance as a "sacred trilogy." The first of its three sections depicts King Herod ordering the massacre of all newborn children in Judea; angels warn Joseph and Mary to flee and save their child. The greatest aria of this part is the one by Herod, expressing his inner despair as he is tormented by a recurring dream of a child who will overthrow him. Herod is accompanied by trombones just as Méphistophélès was in The Damnation of Faust. The second part shows Joseph and Mary setting out for Egypt with the baby Jesus. Here we have the most famous part of the oratorio, L'adieu des bergers ("The shepherds' farewell"), which is often performed separately. The final section portrays their arrival in the Egyptian town of Sais where they are given refuge by a family of Ishmaelites. The work concludes with a serene movement for tenor and choir.

[Cornelis Massijs - Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, 1543]

12. Camille Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël (1858)
Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio is somewhere between a cantata and an oratorio: the size is compact, but the structure is that of the larger oratorio. Most of the work is lyrical and contemplative in character. Saint-Saens wrote this work when he was only 23. The work is in ten movements, a prelude followed by nine vocal numbers. The pastoral prelude, for strings and organ, is in "the style of Bach," harkening back to Bach's Christmas Oratorio, evoking images of shepherds tending their flocks in the fields. In the other movements, the vocal soloists take turns representing different characters from the Christmas story. In the Ninth movement the melody from the prelude comes back. The final movement is a hymn of praise of all creation in the presence of God. Saint-Saëns' study of the choral music of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Berlioz had a great influence on the work.

13. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker (1892)
This ballet, based on a story by the German author E.T.A. Hoffman, is primarily performed during the Christmas season, as the story is set on Christmas Day and features a Christmas party and the exchange of presents - the protagonist Clara receives as a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of an ugly little man from her godfather, the councilman and magician Drosselmeier. In her dream this nutcracker will come alive as a handsome prince and lead her to his fairyland. I watched this ballet yesterday again after a long time and must say that it very well captures the Christmas atmosphere (or perhaps our idea of the ideal Christmas atmosphere has been influenced by this ballet). It is very popular, major American ballet companies are said to generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker alone.

[Adoration of the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622]

14. Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols (1942)
A choral piece scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp (no orchestra!), written for Christmas. There are eleven movements; the texts are in Middle English. The piece was written in 1942 while Britten was at sea, going from the United States to England. Originally conceived as a series of unrelated songs, it was later unified into one piece with the framing processional and recessional chant in unison based on the Gregorian antiphon "Hodie Christus natus est," heard at the beginning and the end. The first movement is sung by the sopranos alone. The second movement is an upbeat and festive piece intended to welcome the audience as guests coming to celebrate the holiday. The next few songs are about the child Jesus. The 7th movement consists of a harp solo, creating a sense of angelic bliss. Movement 8 has an interesting echoing effect. After a Deo Gracias, the last movement mirrors the first one, this time by exiting the stage.

15. Arthur Honegger, Une Cantate de Noël (1953)
This was the last work by Swiss composer Honegger. The cantata, for mixed chorus, baritone solo, children's chorus, organ and orchestra, is in three parts. The first part describes the chaos in the world before the advent of the Messiah ("De Profundis"). The second part consists of a potpourri of melodies of famous Christmas songs, as Silent Night, etc. The third part is a solemn chorus (Laudate Dominum) ending in a finale by the orchestra which again takes up the dissonances from the beginning of the cantata.

16. John Adams, El Niño (2000)
A two-hour opera-oratorio for five soloists, large adult chorus, children's chorus and sizable orchestra by the American Minimal composer John Adams. It retells the Christmas story, with the first half focusing on Mary's thoughts before giving birth in Bethlehem, and the second half covering the aftermath of the birth, Herod's slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the early life of Jesus. But Adams presents his material in an unconventional way. Mostly avoiding Biblical texts, he sets the Magnificat, extracts from the Apocrypha, a medieval carol, a mystery play, and several poems by Latin American women authors. His switch to a female, non-European perspective brings unusual nuances to the familiar story. Another aspect is that Adams mirrors the slaughter of the Innocents by Herod (see No 10, Berlioz, above) with an account of a massacre in Mexico City in 1968. A nativity with a sharp contemporary twist.



December 16, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (5): Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Die tote Stadt (1920)

Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is the last of the great fin-de-siecle Viennese operas, first performed in 1920 in Vienna and Hamburg. The city in the title refers not to Vienna, but to Bruges in Belgium, as the libretto written by Korngold with his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, was based on a major (but now forgotten) novel by the Belgian Francophone author Georges Rodenbach (1855-98). This book, entitled Bruges-la-Morte, is a melancholic story about an obsessive love over the grave: a man is obsessed with the memory of his deceased wife and tries to mold a dancer, who uncannily resembles her, after his wife, with tragic results (note that the same idea was later taken up in the film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock!).

[Scene from the opera, 2015 Graz]

Bruges-La-Morte is the iconic Symbolist novel. The movement in poetry, music and the visual arts, developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, centered on the idea that the truth in art could only be represented indirectly (thus discarding Realism and Naturalism). This could be done by writing in a metaphorical and suggestive manner, thus endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. It is an art which is elusive and shuns direct utterance. It seeks half-tones rather than strong colors. But it is also characterized by a certain mysticism and a preoccupation with death, with swans and lilies, and an obsession with woman's hair (as in the Symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, where Mélisande's abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure, is fetishized). The same hair fetish occurs in Die tote Stadt (see below).

The initial setting is the same in both novel and opera. The main character is Hugues (called Paul in the opera), a young widower who, distraught at his wife's death several years before, has moved to Bruges. Bruges (in Flemish: Brugge), once the major trading city of Belgium (and today a bright tourist attraction), in the 19th century had become a dead town, dreaming of the past amid the mystic peace of its churches and cloisters, and for Hugues/Paul the desolate cityscape with its dark and stagnant canals symbolizes his own mood. There he sits brooding among the relics of his beloved dead wife (called Marie in the opera) – her clothes, her letters and portraits, and most importantly, a length of her long blond hair kept almost religiously in a crystal casket.

[Scene from the opera, 2015 Graz]

In this way, he has erected an altar of sorrow and remembrance to his wife. Hugues/Paul has no occupation and rarely leaves the house. His only activity is a daily walk through the deserted and dusky streets of the old town, under the shadows of the ancient walls, listening to the bells of the many churches, often longing himself for death, hoping to meet his beloved in a new life beyond the grave. It is a situation halfway between reality and dream. The memory of his wife monopolizes his every thought and deed. In fact, he is in the thralls of a morbid and unwholesome cult.

But then chance brings an ambulant opera troupe to the city, among whose members is a dancer named Jane Scott (Marietta in the opera), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, especially as regards her long, yellow-gold hair. Hugues/Paul seeks contact with the dancer and is surprised to discover that even her voice is similar to that of his deceased wife. Confused, he transfers the feelings for his dead wife to the new Jane/Marietta, and dreams to renew an ideal union. He imagines that the dancer has been brought to him by the intervention of supernatural forces.

[Paul and Marietta in a scene from the opera, as performed in 1921]

Here novel and opera libretto part company. In the novel, Hugues courts Jane and is briefly happy, although his romance with her is in fact scandalous (in the 19th c. operatic dancing girls were virtually prostitutes). She becomes his kept mistress, and he rents a room in the suburbs for her where he pays daily visits; he also has her give up her profession. But of course, no two people are similar and Hugues soon discovers that the character of the new woman is very different from that of his deceased partner: for one thing, being who she is, she is far coarser. She mocks him when he asks her to wear his dead wife's dresses, as these have become too old-fashioned. His infatuation also has become the scandal of the town and sets numerous tongues wagging. The final scene plays out in Hugues' house. An annual religious procession, the Procession of the Holy Blood, will make the rounds of Bruges and also pass by Hugues' windows, so Jane begs to be allowed to visit his house to watch the event. Jane comes for the first time to his house, and is interested in the portrait of his wife (“She looks like me”), without realizing what she is seeing. When finally she dares touch the precious coil of hair, just when the procession is passing, and jokingly winds it around her neck, Hugues in a frenzy strangles her.

[Paul and Marietta in a scene from the opera, 2015 Graz]

Perhaps because the novel was considered too scandalous for bourgeois sensibilities, in the opera the relation between Jane/Marietta and Hugues/Paul is presented as a vision, a dream brought about by Paul's ecstatic mood upon seeing a woman who looks like his dead wife. Although in his dream he sees her true character as she appears surrounded by her many lovers, she still manages to fascinate her weak admirer, conquering him with a beautiful Lute Song. When she later visits his home, full of the relics of his dead wife, she wants him to embrace her just at the moment when the religious procession (as in the novel) passes by. Paul is appalled at her lack of piety. Next Marietta snatches up the relic, the golden strand of the dead woman's hair, winds it around her neck, and begins to dance. Frantic with rage as Marietta desecrates what he holds most sacred, Paul flings himself upon her and strangles her with the strand of hair. Here the vision ends. Paul wakes up only to see Marietta stand in front of him - in reality, she has only now for the first time arrived at his house - but he sends her away as the vision has cured him of his infatuation. He even decides to leave Bruges, the dead city.

The opera consists of beautiful, elusive music and is the supreme masterwork of the then only 23-year old composer. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was an Austro-Hungarian composer who astonished the musical world as a composing wunderkind. Mahler proclaimed him a genius at age nine (!), after which he started lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. Korngold wrote orchestral music, piano music and chamber works, besides songs and operas.

Die tote Stadt was a great hit, and it made a triumphal tour around the world – until the Nazis forbade it as Jewish music, while the immediate postwar generations were only interested in twelve-tone music. The lavish Straussian music brings out the tension between sexual desire and ideal aspiration, decay and death, and shifts from gloomy orchestral interludes to high-soaring song.

Forced out of Austria by the rise of Nazism, in 1934 Korngold moved to Hollywood where he became a pioneer in composing film scores - along with  Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, he is one of the founders of film music. His serious music (which includes a beautiful Violin Concerto) was considered out of vogue at the time he died, but is now experiencing a reawakening of interest, and Die tote Stadt is also again staged in opera houses today.

The opera Die tote Stadt by Erich Korngold is available on DVD (Dynamic) with Stefan Vinke as Paul and Solveig Kringelborn as Marietta/Marie, the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice with Eliahu Inbal as conductor and choreography by Pierre Luigi Pizzi.


December 12, 2016

Best European Novels (2): Germany & Switzerland

Although earlier novels exist, such as the picaresque Thirty Year War novel Simpliccimus, the German novel only really gets under way with Weimar giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who, although in the first place poet and playwright, also wrote three important novels: The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), an epistolary novel about an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795), the first German Bildungsroman (novel of self-cultivation); and Elective Affinities (1809), which will be treated below.


Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) was also in the first place a playwright; he wrote one novel, Michael Kohlhaas, but also a number of intriguing short stories, of which I include the somewhat strange and uncanny The Marquise of O... below.

The fantastic stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) were very influential during the whole 19th c., being adapted into such ballets as Coppelia and The Nutknacker, as well as Schumann's piano work Kreisleriana. Hoffmann was one of the major authors of the Romantic movement. The Sandman is a short story that not only introduces the horrific titular character, but also brings a woman who is in reality an automatic doll on stage. It was one of the core texts studied by Freud in his essay "The Uncanny."


The 19th c. saw few novel writers in Germany, in contrast to France and England; most of 19th c. Germany fiction was truly the territory of the novella and the short story with such authors as Tieck, Von Chamisso, Von Droste-Hülshoff, Von Eichendorff, Mörike, and others. They were not pure realists as Flaubert, but wrote in a romantic style that has been called "poetic realism." I have below selected Theodor Storm (1817-1888) and his novella The Rider on the White Horse as an example. Usually considered as Storm's masterpiece among his in total 50 novellas, through its setting on the North German coast it sets the stage for the battle of man versus nature - the dykes and the sea -, while creating an unnerving, superstitious atmosphere with the haunted white horse and its ghostly rider.


Germany's greatest 19th c. novelist who brings Germany at long last into the European realistic tradition was Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Born in Prussia, Fontane was a journalist (and for many years correspondent in London) and drama critic, who only at age 57 wrote his first novel. His in total 15 novels are mostly about modern life and are characterized by ironic humor and fluent dialogues. It is regrettable that from this major European author almost no English translations are available. Besides Effi Briest treated below, major works are Irretrievable (like Effi Briest, about a failed marriage), On Tangled Paths and Der Stechlin.


Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was without a doubt Germany's greatest novelist of all time. His ironic novels and novellas are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual, as well as his analysis and critique of the European and German soul. Three of his novels, Buddenbrooks (about the decline of a merchant family in Lübeck over the course of four generations), The Magic Mountain (about a Swiss sanatorium as a microcosm of the ideological conflicts and discontents of contemporary European civilization) and Doctor Faustus (the story of composer Adrian Leverkühn and the corruption of German culture in the years before and during WWII) have been included in "The Ten Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century" as selected by 99 authors, critics and scholars. One of his many novellas, Death in Venice, became extra famous through the excellent film by Luchino Visconti. In 1929 Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Another Nobel Prize winner was Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), who, although a very respected author in Germany, achieved world fame only after his death as his books were taken up by the 1960s counterculture (hippie) movement. This was in particular with such novels as Siddharta, with its quest-for-enlightenment theme, or Narcissus and Goldmund. The "magic theatre" sequences in Steppenwolf were interpreted by some as drug-induced psychedelia, although Hesse never used substances. His last work, a dystopian novel called The Glass Bead Game was arguably his best. All his novels explore the individual's search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.


Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a prolific author and important representative of Modernism in Germany. He is best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (see below). Despite the canonic status of that work, Döblin can be called an under-recognized author; although his work has received increasing critical attention in Germany over the last few decades, he is little known in the English language area and too few of his novels have been translated. (Berlin Alexanderplatz is currently unavailable in book form in English).

Anna Seghers (1900-1983) was famous for depicting the moral experience of the Second World War as her major theme. As she was Jewish, she emigrated in 1934, and after the war returned to what soon became East Germany, where she received many prizes for her work. Besides The Seventh Cross, another important novel was Transit Visa, about Jewish people trying to escape Fascist Europe.


Günter Grass (1927-2015) was the greatest German novelist of the postwar period, and another German Nobel Prize winner. Grass is best known for The Tin Drum (see below), a key text in European magic realism. His works often have a left-wing political dimension; in his fiction he also often returned to the Danzig of his youth. The Nobel prize committee praised him as a writer "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history." Other important works are Cat and Mouse, The Flounder (about the roles of and struggle between men and women, from the Stone Age to the present time) and Crabwalk.


Christa Wolf (1929-2011) was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany and was instrumental in establishing a distinct literary voice for that part of Germany. She also experimented with prose styles. Besides her best known work, The Search for Christa T. (see below), she is also known for Kassandra, a reinterpretation the battle of Troy as a war for economic power and a shift from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society, and Kein Ort. Nirgends about the fictional meeting of the German poet Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderode.

Uwe Johnson (1934-1984) was a member of Gruppe 47 and, together with Heinrich Böll and Günther Grass, is counted as one of the three greatest authors of the generation that started to write immediately after WWII. His early work is often about the division of Germany. He uses a difficult and discontinuous style, with sudden shifts of time and perspective. His magnum opus is the tetralogy Jahrestage (1971, 1972, 1973, 1984). Use Johnson is virtually unknown outside Germany.


That is not the case with Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), as he is another German Nobel Prize winner and has been translated in more than 30 languages (all the same, it is difficult to find an English translation of his work today). Many of his novels and stories describe individuals struggling to sustain themselves against the wider background of war, terrorism, political divisions, and profound economic and social transition. Sometimes his protagonists are stubborn and eccentric individualists opposed to the mechanisms of the state or other public institutions. His best-known works are Billiards at Half-past Nine (1959), And Never Said a Word (1953), The Clown (1963), Group Portrait with Lady (1971) and The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974, see below). While his early novels usually treat WWII, his later work draws a grim picture of postwar German society.

Peter Weiss (1916-1982) earned his reputation as the proponent of an avant-garde type of meticulously descriptive writing, and as an exponent of autobiographical prose. As a politically engaged dramatist, he gained international success with his play Marat/Sade. Weiss' magnum opus was the novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, called the "most important German-language work of the 70s and 80s." He was also active as a painter and experimental filmmaker. Again, an author who today is almost completely unknown outside Germany.

Happily, that cannot be said about W.G. Sebald (1944-2001), who lived and worked as a university lecturer in Norwich in the U.K. Sebald came late to literature and is especially known for his four postmodern prose fictions: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995), and Austerlitz (2001). They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, literary criticism, history and philosophy in a new form of prose fiction, and are all written in a haunting style with sentences that sometimes meander over several pages.

When we look at German-language Swiss literature, we have to mention four authors. Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854) was a pastor and novelist about the Swiss countryside; he is especially remembered for his nightmarish, allegorical novella The Black Spider (see below).


Gottfried Keller (1819–1890) is best known for his novel Green Henry as well as the short stories collected in The People of Seldwyla. Although he is one of the most popular narrators of literary realism in the late 19th century, nothing of his oeuvre is in print in a modern English translation.


That is different for the Modernist Robert Walser (1878-1956), who has received some welcome attention in recent years. Walser has been called "the missing link between Kleist and Kafka." He was unsuccessful during his lifetime, and even forgotten, until he was rediscovered in the 1970s. His work has influenced contemporary authors as Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek and W.G. Sebald. Representative novels are Geschwister Tanner, Der Gehülfe and Jakob von Gunten.


The best postwar author from Switzerland, and one of the most important writers of the German language sphere, was Max Frisch (1911-1991), whose works are shot through with irony and who focused on problems of identity, individuality, and responsibility. He was also active as an important playwright and practiced the diary as a literary genre. His major novels are Stiller (1954, I'm Not Stiller - see below); Homo Faber (1957 - about an engineer whose rational ideology is shocked by wildly unpredictable events after crash-landing in the Mexican desert); Montauk (1975); and Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979, Man in the Holocene - a chillingly beautiful portrait of a man who, surrounded by nature's erosion in the Swiss mountains, suffers from loss of memory due to senility).

The best German novels are:

1. Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O... (1808)
A disturbing novella about a young widow who one day finds herself pregnant without having a clue as to how that could have happened, and advertises in the newspaper for the father of the child to present himself for marriage - this all to the dismay of her highly respectable family! The man who appears is a Russian count, who during an attack at the citadel of her father, saved her from a gang of Russian soldiers... She can't believe it... [tr. Penguin Classics]

2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Elective Affinities (1809)
An elusive book: even Goethe's contemporaries didn't know how to explain it - was the great author in this tragic story of persons attracted to each other as by some natural force, against which nothing helped, pleading in favor of marriage or rather against it? The novel was even misunderstood as a metaphorical argument for the chemical origin of love (as in the tendency of chemical species to combine with certain substances in preference to others)! Written in a detached, even august tone (the principal characters always maintain the strictest decorousness, no matter how strong their feelings) and composed with well-balanced care, the novel itself is an expression of Weimar Classicism, a movement inspired by the humanistic, classical art of Greece and Rome, of which Goethe was the foremost proponent. [tr. Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics]

3. E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Sandman (1816)
Based on the mythical character who kindly puts children to sleep by sprinkling magical sand onto their eyes. Hoffmann turned this on its head by making the Sandman into a sinister character. According to Nathanael's (the protagonist) nurse, he throws sand in the eyes of children who will not go to sleep, so that the eyes fall out and can be collected by the Sandman. The protagonist of the story grows to associate this nightmarish creature with the sinister figure of his father's alchemist associate Coppelius, who may be responsible for the sudden death of the father. Later in the story Coppelius reappears in the guise of Coppola, an Italian trader in lenses. He has a collaborator called Spallanzini, with whom he has built the lifelike automaton Olimpia - the doll is passed off as Spallanzini's daughter and Nathanael falls in love with her - with a terrible result. [tr. Penguin Classics]

4. Theodor Storm, The Rider on the White Horse (1888)
The life story of an ambitious and intelligent young dyke master, who wants to make various improvements to his dyke, not only for safety but also to win new land. The backward villagers, however, obstruct his efforts and in this unenlightened universe, a great man pays with his life for his pride and creativity - a very pessimistic conclusion, were it not that his achievement - the new dike - survives his death. The dyke master, in the meantime, has in death merged into the legend of a rider on a haunted white horse, galloping along the dyke through night and fog. [tr. New York Review Books]

5. Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest (1896)
The novel of an impossible marriage that ends in failure: 17-year old Effi Briest is paired by her parents with 38-year old Baron Geert von Instetten, who of all things had been the unsuccessful suitor of the mother! This is all the more wrong as Effi is not only still a child, but also has a childish character. When her stiff, strict and humorless husband is away, Effi has a fling with a Major who is visiting the desolate coastal town. She herself forgets about this short infatuation, but when her husband six years laters find her letters to the Major, he kicks his wife out of the house and kills the Major in a duel! As a "fallen woman," Effi even looses her child to her husband, and her parents avoid her for the social stain attached to her. In the end, German society with its petrified moral concepts, will crush her life. [tr. Penguin Classics]

6. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901)
The saga of four generations of a merchants' family from Lübeck (based on Mann's own family history), which inevitably declines as younger generations are more interested in art than in business. The exploration of decadence in the novel reflects the influence of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. The Buddenbrooks of successive generations experience a gradual decline of their finances and family ideals, finding happiness increasingly elusive as values change and old hierarchies are challenged by Germany's rapid industrialization. Germany's most enduringly popular classical novel, an intimate portrait of 19th-century German bourgeois life. [tr. Vintage International]

7. Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (1927)
Combining autobiographical and psychoanalytic elements, the novel was named after the lonesome wolf of the steppes and it reflects a spiritual crisis of the author through the portrayal of the protagonist's split between his humanity and his wolf-like aggression. As a journalist, Harry Haller is critical about developments in Germany during the interbellum, but he is also a wolf of the steppes who hates human sentiment. Via various magic-realistic events Harry realizes that he is not a being with only two sides, black and white, but that he, like all human beings, combines hundreds of persons and characters in himself. [tr. Penguin Modern Classics]

8. Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)
The story of a murderer, Franz Biberkopf, who is drawn into the underworld after his release from prison. Biderkopf has to deal with misery, lack of opportunities, crime and the imminent Nazism typical for Germany during the 1920s. When his criminal mentor murders the prostitute whom Biberkopf has been relying on, he realizes that he will be unable to extricate himself from his environment. Berlin Alexanderplatz is known for its Modernist use of montage, being told from multiple points of view, and using sound effects, newspaper articles, songs and speeches to propel the plot forward. Was included among the top ten German novels in the poll mentioned above. Also made into a great television series by German director Reiner Werner Fassbinder. [tr. Kindle edition via Amazon, no print available]

9. Anna Seghers, The Seventh Cross (1939)
The novel is set in 1936 and describes the escape of seven prisoners from a concentration camp. It was soon translated and inspired a Hollywood film in 1944. The Seventh Cross was one of the very few depictions of Nazi concentration camps, in either literature or the cinema, available during the war itself. [tr. Verba Mundi Books]

10. Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959)
The novel is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, who is born in 1924 in Dantzig. Although his brain is already completely developed at birth, through sheer force of will he stops growing from his third year, which enables him to observe the world from the perspective of a child, without having to participate in it (or take responsibility). This maniacal drumming midget can also shatter glass with his voice and drum grownups into a trance. When the war breaks out Oskar pretends to be insane, so that he is not responsible for the terrible things that happen. The novel is strongly political in nature, but there are also elements of magic realism. Initially considered as blasphemous and pornographic, the bawdy, earthly but also serious novel is now a solid part of the canon and considered as one of the top ten German novels. [tr. Mariner Books]

11. Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T. (1968)
When Christa T. dies, her grieving friend tries to prevent her from disappearing into oblivion by recreating the life of this very individualistic woman based on the letters and diaries she has left behind. The narrator's / author's way of searching for who Christa T. was, turns also into a way of thinking about herself. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

12. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries - from the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (1970-83)
Only the first volume of this large novel was ever translated and you are lucky if you can still find it. In this magnum opus Johnson tells via diary entries about the present life of a German single mother in Manhattan, Gesine Cresspahl, who has fled from East Germany, intermingled with her memories about her childhood during the Weimar Rebublic, Nazism and the beginning of the Cold War. [tr. Mariner Books]

13. Heinrich Böll, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974)
From a literary point of view this is not Böll's greatest novel, but it is his most famous, also thanks to the film by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. The story is told as a documentary, a confidential report to the reader on the basis of sources, about the panicked political climate over Red Army Faction terrorism in the 1970s, fanned by the tabloid press. The main character, Katharina Blum, is an innocent housekeeper whose life is ruined by an invasive tabloid reporter who depicts her as a Communist, an atheist and a whore, and a police investigation when the man with whom she has just fallen in love turns out to be wanted by the police as a terrorist suspect. A strong condemnation of the misrepresentation of facts which has stolen the honor of Katharina Blum (something happening daily in our "postfact" present).  [tr. Penguin Classics]

14. Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975-81)
So far only volume 1 has been published in English of this huge 3-volume novel. It is a historical novel that dramatizes anti-fascist resistance from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to the end of WWII. The protagonists are young working-class students who seek ways to express their hatred for the Nazi regime. They meet in museums and galleries, and in their discussions they explore the affinity between political resistance and art, the connection at the heart of Weiss's novel. The novel includes extended meditations on paintings, sculpture, and literature. [tr. Duke Univ Pr]

15. W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (1992)
The Emigrants consists of four short biographical narratives and forms the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four "displaced persons;" it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page. [tr. Vintage Classics]

The best Swiss novels are:

1. Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider (1842)
Gotthelf's best known work, an allegorical tale about a monster spider that devastates a Swiss valley community - first as the result of a pact with the devil born out of need, and a second time due to the moral decay that releases the monster from its prison again. The story is a parable of good and evil, in which evil is painted in glaring colors - both evil in the heart of human beings and evil rampant in society. It is also a vision of cosmic horror in the style of Lovecraft, or, as Thomas Mann interpreted it, as a sort of foretelling of the horrors of Nazism. [tr. New York Review Books]

2. Gottfried Keller, Green Henry (1855 / 1879)
Green Henry is one of the most important "novels of self-cultivation" in the German language, the life of Heinrich Lee from childhood through his first romantic encounters, his fledgling attempts at becoming a painter in Munich, and his eventual installation as a chancery clerk. The story gets its name from the color that Heinrich liked to wear. Unfortunately, there is no modern English translation of this book. [tr. Overlook Books]

3. Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten (1909)
The narrator, Jakob von Gunten, is a young man who runs away from home and decides to spend the rest of his life serving others. To this end, he enrolls at the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants, but once there, he receives very little education, except learning humility. Walser based the novel on his own experiences: after arriving in Berlin in 1905 he attended a school for servants and later worked as a butler. Jakob von Gunten has something of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, but he is also like Barnabas and Jeremias, Surveyor K.'s demonically obstructive assistants in The Castle by Franz Kafka (who very much liked Walser's writings). [tr. New York Review Books]

4. Max Frisch, I'm Not Stiller (1954)
A novel about the question of identity. The narrator, travelling on an American passport with the name White, is arrested on arrival in Switzerland and accused of being the missing Swiss sculptor "Stiller." He persistently denies, but visiting friends and acquaintances also identify him as Stiller - even Stiller's wife! Later the reader will discover that White and Stiller are in fact one and the same person. [tr. Mariner Books]


[This post incorporates some phrases from Wikipedia about the various authors and novels. All images also from Wikipedia.]