Do you really need another reading list? (part two)

April 13, 2020

Some thoughts on the rest of this particular list of novels by world writers:

Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk. Heaven knows how many times I’ve read this and parts of it still reduce me to utterly helpless laughter. The Great War as experienced by a congenital idiot who can get himself into more scrapes than anyone can imagine, with superb original illustrations as an added bonus.

Vassily Grossman: Life & Fate. A serious story of the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, and rated a twentieth century equivalent to Tolstoy’s War and Peace by many, including me. Last year the equally powerful prequel, Stalingrad, was finally published in its entirety, some sixty years after it was first written. It’s very strong stuff, and a salutary reminder of just how much the Soviet Union suffered in that war, and its massive contribution to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

Josef Roth: The Radetzky March. So moving that it hurts, in places, this is another portrait of a completely vanished world, the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it drifts inevitably and disastrously towards the First World War. I recently re-read it so will just point you here if you’re interested.

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life. Some days, this understated and little known German novel is the best I’ve ever read. A naval captain, appalled by his experience of the Great War, gives up on society and the world and retires to the forests of East Prussia with a loyal follower, to lead a simple life. He discovers a new existence, with meaning and significance, finds happiness and/or contentment, and of course, sadly, this cannot last. Escapist? Possibly. Hippy-ish? Again, perhaps. But the lessons the captain learns are real and there for all of us to contemplate.

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand. This one feels like it’s on the list as a token gesture to literature from the Arab world, which I have explored much more since I originally put my list together. There’s the exoticism of the setting, the romance of a completely different culture, and the background is the famous poet Omar Khayyam and his poem, the Rubaiyat. But I think if you are only going to read one of Maalouf’s many novels, you should probably go for Leo the African, or Baldassare’s Travels. They are all magical, and at times remind me of Umberto Eco at his best. I’ve come relatively late to novels from this part of the world and there’s lots to explore.

Question: what is it about vanished worlds, and powerful evocations of them, that grips me so? For as I write this and reflect on what I’ve told you about a good number of the novels above, it’s clear to me that this is a common strand, and something that draws me and affects me greatly…

Another question: why are all my novels in this category – writers in languages other than English – all by male writers? I currently have no answer to this one, but it requires some thought on my part…

To be continued…

2 Responses to “Do you really need another reading list? (part two)”

  1. robfysh Says:

    Thanks for recommending Josef Roth’s Radetsky March. I’ve just finished it. Broad impressions: It was like wandering through a museum where tidbits of the Austro- Hungarian empire were laid out on display. Mildly interesting, if not emotionally riveting. I felt Roth’s writing to be stilted as if he were observing the characters and context from a distance, only occasionally engaging with their humanity. To me his style was cold and detached, but maybe that was his intention, to underline the artificiality of an empire and a culture past its use by date? Was translation into English a factor here?
    On the other hand, here and there his depictions of scenes and circumstances were masterful. The sadness (melancholy?) of the characters builds throughout and takes one by surprise towards the end. The appreciation it leaves of characters cast adrift from life long certainties in a crumbling culture will stay with me I suspect.
    In summary, it took a bit of effort to last the distance, but despite that a worthwhile read.


    • litgaz Says:

      I enjoyed reading your comments, not least because they provide some perspective on what I think. I agree with your assessment of his style as cold and detached, and I think it’s part of the effect he’s aiming for – it seems to help create the distance in time. And Roth was writing during the totally different chaos after the Great War. Each time I’ve read it, I’ve been shocked by the suddenness of the ending and Trotta’s death. I’m glad you thought it was worth it.


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