Home > About reading, Opinion, Translations > A EU book tour

A EU book tour

 I realized lately that I had never read any Dutch book, although the Netherlands are a country really close to my own, France, and are one of the 27 members of the EU. To me, the EU means we try to live together with a bunch of common rules, well, except for the British who always ask for an exemption for everything, on principle. Thinking about it, we don’t know a lot about each other, though. So I imagined I would start by reading at least one book from another country member of the EU and thus do a little literary tour. As a reminder, the 27 countries are:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Cyprus
  • CzechRepublic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latonia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

That was a great decision, made on a whim, without thinking of any practical consequences. I have already read one or several books from the countries in blue in the list but I want to read more of them. Then my first thought was to write a list of books by country and then choose at least one of these books. For France, I’m tempted to read a writer from the Négritude Movement, like Aimé Césaire and for the UK, I’d be glad to pick one from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I’m already worried about how to find a book from Luxembourg, Malta and Cyprus translated into French. I decided not to try to find the best book of each country (who could point it out to me, btw?) but look for books a) translated into French b) available in paperback c) last but not least, appealing to me.

So here I am, with an Excel spreadsheet and Internet, ready to type that marvellous list. And then a doubt poured down on me. Where do I start? How do I identify the “nationality” of a book? Chewing over this, several possibilities came to my mind:

According to the nationality of the writer.

That sounds only fair, otherwise countries like Belgium or Ireland wouldn’t have any books since their language is French, Dutch or English. But then what happens if the country no longer exists or if the borders have changed?

Do you refer to where the writer comes from and see in which country the place is now? And where does a writer come from? The place he/she was born? Then Romain Gary, the one who changed his birth name Roman Kacew into a French one on his ID card (a nom de plume wasn’t enough) would be a Lithuanian writer because he was born in Vilnius? Or Kessel would be Argentinean because he was accidentally born in Buenos Aires? And of course, then you have to face all the writers who were born in the colonies (Camus in Algeria, Duras in Indochina…) So forget about the place of birth, I mused.

Then what?

Do you refer to the nationality written on their passport? What if they have several? And what about writers who emigrate? Is Milan Kundera still Czech after so many years in France? 

That left me with more questions than answers and moving on to the next possibility. 

According to the language of the book.

At least, you don’t have to care about the existence of the country or of changing borders or of emigrating writers. Objection 1: how do we deal with countries with several languages, official or not? (Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, Spain…) Objection 2:  Where do I file Samuel Beckett who wrote in English and in French?

And in this case, Kafka is a German writer even if Prague is his city. When I think of Kafka, I think of Prague not of Hamburg or Dusseldorf. His cultural background, his environment seems Czech. Is that the other alternative?

According to the cultural background of the books and the residence of the writer.

Then Kafka is Czech.This leads some readers to wonder if Murakami is still a Japanese writer as in some of his books, if it wasn’t for the Japanese names of the characters, you could forget they take place in Japan. But another difficulty pops up now. How do you give an objective definition of the “cultural background”?

That’s when my brain threatened to blow up. The complexity of European history was exposed in front of me and each possibility seemed to bring more questions than answers.

So I don’t have a clear answer.

Bookstores don’t have a clear answer either. They seem to choose the language of the book as a criteria to select the appropriate shelf. Some do differently. For example, there’s a travel bookstore near my office. They have tourist guides and fiction books (mostly literary and crime fiction) on their shelves. I thought it was the best place to go to find books sorted by country, fiction books sitting beside the guide books. They have another method. They choose books according to the nationality of the writer and/or the setting of the books. For a given country, you can find books written by foreigners but that describe the life in the country you want to visit. Whoa, another idea… 

That leaves me with no rule at all to draw the list or choose the books. The idea was a whim, the choice will be a whim too, and that’s perfect for me. I’m now asking to all the readers of this post to free their minds and write all their recommendations, suggestions and “coup de coeur” (*) in the comments. Hopefully, there will be enough of them to make a list. I’ll publish it on the Reading Lists page, accessible to every one and you’ll have to follow the blog if you want to find out which books I’ll read for my EU tour because honestly, right now, I have no idea.

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(*) Un coup de coeur is a French expression which literally means “blow of the heart”. It is frequently applied to the books you love and want to recommend to other readers. In bookstores, you can see signs “coup de coeur du libraire” to point out the books the employees particularly liked.

  1. April 22, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    What a fascinating project! Looking through the list of EU countries, it strikes me that there are far too many of whose literature I know nothing.

    The question of identifying an author’s cultural background is an interesting one, especially as authors crossing boundaries is becoming more common a phenomenon. For instance, stepping outside the EU for a moment, most authors known in the West who are considered “Indian” live in the West (Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry, etc.), have often grown up there, and invariably write in English, and primarily for a Western readership. I really am not sure that it is makes much to regard such writers as “Indian writers”: they seem to me more accurately described as Western writers of Indian origin.

    I think I’ve read two Dutch books – The Diary of Anne Frank, and a novel by Harry Mulisch that was translated into English as The Assault. Mulisch died only last year, and I have been sufficiently impreesed by The Assault to want to read more.

    I’ve also tried one Estonian book – Treading Air by Jaan Kross. Kross is very highly rated in his own country, but I must admit I didn’t get too much out of this book. My fault, I’m sure.

    Anyway, I’d be interested to read of how this project progreses!

    Like

    • April 25, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      I agree with you on “Western writers of Indian origins” vs “Indian writers”.
      Now I remember I’ve read a Dutch novel, since I’ve read The Diary of Anne Frank. It was such a long time ago that I didn’t think about it.
      Thanks for the other recommendations, I’ll look them up.

      Like

  2. April 22, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    I thought when you wrote Europe you meant the continent, now I see it has been narrowed down to the economical and political entity… Guess I have to do a European non-EU tour then. Which still leaves me with Switzerland, Turkey, Russia, Norway, Albania, Iceland, Croatia and then some… I guess you might have gathered that I am not a EU fan. Think the whole thing should be called off.

    Like

    • April 22, 2011 at 4:54 pm

      The EU (should be called off), not your tour. You had to start somewhere. 🙂

      Like

    • April 25, 2011 at 8:13 pm

      I had to find a criteria and including Russia meant two many authors. Exploring Russian literature is a project in itself. (a never ending one, I suspect)
      I’ll follow your non-EU tour, it’ll be fun too.

      PS : I got my first paid-checks in LUF when spending my money in FRF, which means I had to pay for cross-border money transfers, carry two purses, and do maths to know how much my lunch cost. So I rather enjoy the EURO.

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      • April 26, 2011 at 6:44 am

        It’s normal for me. I don’t know it any other way. I circulate between. France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK that means I always carry different money. And I miss the old money. The most beautiful looking money in the world- the Dutch one- disappeared with the EURO. Or the French St-Exupéry note…

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  3. April 22, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    I think you can be flexible; setting definite categories does complicate things. For example, I like crime writer Adrian McGinty. Irish by birth now living in Australia. I still consider him an Irish writer.

    Recently I watched (as you know) The Sea Wall. A Cambodian director. French colonialism. Is it a Cambodian film? I put in both the French and Cambodian categories.

    I can’t think of any titles from most of these countries but if I do, I’ll let you know. There’s a Danish crime novel coming out called The Keeper of Lost Causes that sounds really interesting.

    Like

    • April 25, 2011 at 8:05 pm

      In fact, I do think that the cultural background is the best criteria. I’d feel French even if I lived abroad because all my formative years have been in France. The native language is important too because it influences your way of thinking. (I bet you feel British even if you live in America)

      About The Sea Wall. That question comes back almost every year for the César Awards. I remember that journalists started an argument about films by Luc Besson.

      I’ll need to go to your blog and find the Polish crime fiction writer. I was interested when I read your review.

      Like

  4. April 23, 2011 at 5:09 am

    Start with an easy one is my advice and worry about the intricacies later.
    So, to answer your first question: The Twin by Gerhard Bakker aka Là-haut, Tout est Calme. The author is from the Netherlands, it’s set there, and he writes in Dutch (though translated into English by an Aussie, which is nice). I’ve never been to Holland, but the book seems ‘Dutch’ to me. See http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/the-twin-by-gerbrand-bakker/
    Lisa

    Like

    • April 25, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      Thanks Lisa.
      I’m not taking this too seriously. It’s mostly an opportunity to look for new reading ideas. Thanks to Caroline’s post on Dutch literature and my own researches, I’ve now many reading ideas for Dutch literature.
      I still have nothing for Malta and Luxembourg. I’ll try to find books set there. There must be some financial crime fiction set in Luxembourg, there’s much to do with what happens in banks there.

      Like

  5. April 26, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Sorry, it is in German but the names will help you pick a writer from Malta.

    Like

    • April 26, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      THANKS. I noted the names, I’ll look for them. You can give me German sites like this, I don’t understand everything but I can move around without getting lost.

      Like

  6. April 26, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Shame you’re not doing Albania. Ismail Kadare is a fantastic writer.

    Does Luxembourg have a big literary tradition?

    Portugal has to be Eca de Queiros I figure, not that I’ve read any yet…

    Like

    • April 26, 2011 at 6:48 pm

      I had already Kadare in mind.
      I’ve never heard of any writer from Luxembourg. Caroline hasn’t either and she’s really aware of German-speaking literature. I’ll have a look in a local bookstore in Metz as Luxembourg is close and the economies are intertwinned.

      I’m in contact with a Portuguese reader, that’s the writer she recommended. (and few others)

      I went digging and I’m astonished by the number of Dutch writers I found. Many of them sound really interesting.

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      • April 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm

        My impression is that there’s a strong Dutch literary tradition which isn’t very well known outside the Netherlands. Estonia apparently has a fair bit.

        Like

        • April 26, 2011 at 7:00 pm

          It seems well known in France, but not by me. There are LOTS of Dutch books translated into French. For Cees Noteboom for example, there are many more in French than in English.

          Like

  7. April 26, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Oh, I know it doesn’t count, but V does at least have a Maltese character and several scenes set in Malta in case you get desperate for a Maltese angle.

    The Maltese Falcon would probably be a better bet at that point though…

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    • April 26, 2011 at 6:51 pm

      Despite your brilliant post, I’m not ready for Pynchon.
      Thanks for The Maltese Falcon, I wanted to read it anyway. I’ll see what I can find with the writers Caroline pointed out to me through that German website.
      Is there A Luxembourgish Sparrow out there?

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  8. April 26, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Yes, it’s a frustration how little Dutch literature is translated/promoted in the UK.

    Like

  9. April 28, 2011 at 5:36 am

    How about Rudolf Vrba (slovakia)”I Escaped from Auschwitz.”

    Like

    • April 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      It doesn’t sound funny, from the title. I add it to the list (tiny list so far)

      Like

  10. leroyhunter
    April 29, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Your list is a real challenge bookaround. Shows up (for me) how easy it is to stick to the obvious choices. I suppose part of the problem is the limit on what gets translated into English: I can’t think of a Finnish writer who has been, for example. But then there’s other stuff I’ve just never heard of, such as Max’s Portugese suggestion de Quieroz. Oh well, you can’t hope to cover all the bases I suppose.

    Another suggestion from Portugal would be Fernando Pessoa: I have The Book of Disquiet but to be honest it’s not something you read straight through, more a book to be dipped into, read out of order.

    From Slovenia I recently bought (but haven’t read yet) Necropolis by Boris Pahor. Here’s the publisher’s description:
    http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/book/?GCOI=15647100740660
    Like Guy’s Vrba suggestion it’s not a “fun book”.

    I hope you’ve settled on Dubliners as your choice for Ireland?

    Like

    • April 29, 2011 at 10:59 pm

      I’m currently reading a Finnish book by Arto Paasilinna. It hasn’t been translated into English but another one, The Year of the Hare has been. Several books by Paasilinna are translated into French but only one is translated into English. Sad. I think I live in Translation Country. (You can even listen to Bob Dylan in translation if you want to. It’s weird though)
      Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll add them to the list.
      Yes, I’ve chosen Dubliners for Ireland and it’s even in the “To Be Read Soon” category of my kindle. If I get lost in the English version, I’ll buy a French translation.

      Like

  11. January 15, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Hi Emma,

    I stumbled onto your blog in a rather circuitous way which all started with a review of Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark on the Mookes and the Gripes. I’m quite happy I landed on your blog, because I’m also French, because I always like finding new book blogs, because I like the titles you read, and finally because I like your idea of an EU book tour. Sadly, we know so little about the books that come out of other countries! That’s actually why I started my own blog (in French) about books from Central and Eastern Europe. I don’t feed it very regularly, but if you need some inspiration about Poland, Romania, Hungary and (not in the EU, I know, but still so much worth their while) Serbia or Albania, you’ll be very welcome to visit it. By the way, your questioning about how to classify an author is one that I very much share and that I think is particularly relevant for Central and Eastern European authors.

    Passage à l’Est

    Like

    • January 15, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      Hello,

      I’m grateful that some odd links brougt you here. I think that Poland, Romania and Hungary are in the EU. What I’m missing with this restriction is Albania and especially Kadare.
      I’ll have to visit your blog. (another French who wanders accross the English-speaking bloggosphere!)

      It’s hard to realise what it must be to be from a place that has changed several times of country, especially when you’re French and thus from a country that has been known as France for centuries. Sure the borders moved here and there but the core of it remained.

      Like

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