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Foreign fields: Boyd Tonkin chooses his favourite shorter classics in translation

4 July 2020

9:00 AM

4 July 2020

9:00 AM

If I had a rouble or a euro for every reader who fulfilled their lockdown promise to devour Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Proust my bank account would hardly grow by a single penny. Duty, guilt and pride never made the pages turn more swiftly, whatever a book’s length. Almost all vows to catch up on doorstopper classics from the global canon will have failed to outlast the fallen blossoms. Yet you might more realistically blend discovery and delight by exploring some of the smaller miracles of great fiction in translation.

Freshly completed, in first-rate new translations, the 75 volumes of Georges Simenon’s Maigret mysteries bear witness to a Penguin Modern Classics project of majestic scope and unflagging quality. Chaste, chiselled prose; piercing psychology; surgical scene-setting — in Paris and provincial France — of keyhole precision; gnawing moral complexities: a multi-course feast awaits newcomers to the Belgian master.

Another French-language purveyor of concentrated tastes on smallish plates, Colette may also prove addictive. I would start with Chéri and its sequel The Last of Chéri, as their imperishable — and impenitent — heroine Léa progresses from shrewd courtesan to stricken lover of toy-boy Fred to, finally, free-spirited grand old baggage. But then the modern French art of impure passion conveyed in the purest, jewel-like prose remains a thing of wonder, from Raymond Radiguet’s The Devil in the Flesh to Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.

When it comes to love, understatement and ellipsis has its poetry too. Although the English pride (or curse) themselves on sensitively veiled passions, no fictional tradition achieves this better than Japan’s. Sample the beautifully oblique and drily funny portrait of a marriage, and a life, in Natsume Soseki’s The Gate, or anything by Yasunari Kawabata — with Snow Country a lovely entry point. But heart-shredding sadness, subtlety and tact can thrive in southern Europe too. I envy any reader who comes fresh to the six books in Giorgio Bassani’s ‘novel of Ferrara’, all magnificently retranslated by the poet Jamie McKendrick. If you must pick one, then The Garden of the Finzi-Continis will stay with any functioning soul for life.

Also from Italy’s Jewish community, Natalia Ginzburg has suffered a patchy translation history, but her semi-autobiographical Family Lexicon(translated by Jenny McPhee) is a quietly opulent and nuanced portrait of a small world cherished in memory. Ginzburg, like Bassani, came from a great Italian generation that delivered its treasures in modestly sized packages. Few much longer novels can match the lyrical yet devastating account of post-war trauma in Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires. With its sheer haunting strangeness allied to mighty imagination and immaculate prose, Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe sounds more contemporary than ever, in its story of a forlorn garrison waiting for a catastrophe that might never come, or else will destroy everything. The endlessly fertile Italo Calvino, for his part, conjures galaxies of places and ideas in brief chapters — as, supremely, he does in the witty inventions of Invisible Cities.

If Calvino’s fables whisk us into far realms of speculation, other compressed classics look deep within. Confinement may tempt you to share Rainer Maria Rilke’s visionary (and absurdist) plunge into the fevered mind of a poetic drifter, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Or to join Clarice Lispector’s ecstatic, torrential journey into the interior of her young Brazilian heroine, Near to the Wild Heart. Or to go into exile (of many kinds) with the enigmatic heroes of Vladimir Nabokov’s devilishly artful Russian-language novels, none more bewitching than Glory. Or to follow the blazing, Othello-like rise and fall of a brilliant Sudanese sojourner in England in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, often cited as the most influential of all Arabic novels.

Fictions of the inner life can also make their mark via ink-dark comedy. Imagine Samuel Beckett, with extra dyspepsia, planted in the Austrian backwoods, and you approach the bleakly hilarious, tragicomic domain of Thomas Bernhard. His work may breed addiction too, and the outlandish saga of musical obsession and rivalry in The Loser offers a fine portal. For pitch-perfect deadpan humour to offset the misery of stultifying routine (something that might help us all right now), visit post-war Amsterdam in the company of Gerard Reve. His The Evenings reads, fabulously, as if Albert Camus and Tony Hancock had bonded as soulmates.

Humour can administer a moral sting as well: no short novels disguise their punches more charmingly than the fables of the Finnish-Swedish begetter of the Moomins, Tove Jansson. My favourite, The True Deceiver, funnels an ocean of her droll wisdom about the traffic between art and life into its compact frame.

But any guide to non-English fiction should surely end with a spectacular celebration of the translator’s art itself. For that, Gilbert Adair’s version of Georges Perec’s A Void can have few if any rivals. Perec’s original mystery story, La Disparition, is a ‘lipogram’, written entirely without the letter ‘e’. Adair adopts the same constraint in English as in the French original.

Critics sporadically try to mimic this word-dodging lingo in all its virtuosity. It’s a tough call, but the following paragraph swankily aims at that trick too.

Crucially, A Void turns pain into play. Its author lost his mum and dad to war, bigotry and Holocaust. His whodunit-form story smartly pivots on such a void, on a vast loss, but transforms it into bliss. Adair’s way of working also finds fun and frolics in its art of surrogacy, which skirts around a horrid abyss. Good translation, though, always did that, and still triumphantly can. It busts out of linguistic prisons, snapping bars and taking flight.

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