When I was in my 20s and going through my first big reading discovery binge, I could walk into any one of many book stores and be met by an array of translated works ready for me to explore. 20th century European fiction was in vogue and I could choose from a huge range, from Camus, Colette and Sartre through to Kafka, Hesse and Hamsun – and many of these were published by Penguin and considered mainstream.
There’s still a vast array of European literature available, and many might argue that the choice is even better than it used to be, with publishers such as Pushkin Press and Alma Classics (amongst many others) bringing out lovely editions of books from France, Germany, Italy et all. However, it seems to me that despite this, there are works that have slipped through the net and become less obviously available nowadays; and two particular books spring to mind.
The first, “The Other Side” by Alfred Kubin, was mentioned by translator Will Stone in his excellent interview on the Pushkin Press website. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but it still nestles on my shelves, having sat there since the 1980s. If I recall correctly, my old friend H. recommended it to me; the only novel of a visual artist, it’s what would probably now be labelled speculative fiction, but what I would have thought of loosely as fantasy, and we probably read it because we were very obsessed with Mervyn Peake at the time and thought this might be similar. It’s not a book I see mentioned often and certainly the Penguin Modern Classic seems to be no longer available.
The other is by German author Ernst Junger, best known for his WW1 memoir, “Storm of Steel”. His 1939 novel “On the Marble Cliffs”, which sits next to “The Other Side” in my collection, is an allegorical work, widely seen as a reaction to the rise of National Socialism. A tale of the destruction of a rural community, I’m not sure that this one is even still in print and old Penguin copies seem to be very highly priced.
This set me thinking about trends and fashions in books; why, I wonder, would these works, which were obviously popular and highly regarded enough to warrant mainstream Penguin editions, slip out of favour? In a culture we have now of celebrating European literature with sparkly new volumes, why would these two not be available with the rest? As I mentioned in my post on Herman Hesse earlier this month, apart from his best-known works, many of his books seem harder to track down and aimed less at the general reader than they used to be, and I can’t help thinking this is a shame.
I’m a bit partisan, but I tend to think that the 20th century produced some of the finest works of literature, and many of the European authors I read are amongst the best ever. I could pick up a Sarte or a Simone de Beauvoir, a Calvino or a Camus or a Colette, a Kafka or a Hesse and be assured of reading something different, wonderful and mind-expanding. Alas, I do find that what passes as mainstream nowadays is much, much less interesting than what used to be available.
So I suspect I will still keep returning to my older books to get the kind of bookish joy and thrill I used to, as well as discovering new authors thanks to my favourite indie publishers. And if you have any suggestions of any neglected European authors I should explore, I’d be very interested to hear them! 🙂