After reading English literature for a year mostly from England, I set apart August to read books originally not written in English from around the world. Penguin Little Black Classics series and Penguin Modern series are both superb for my purpose: they are pocket-size books, each including one or a few short stories from one or more authors; perfect for trying out new authors (Three Tang Dynasty Poets anyone?) or checking out shorter works from familiar ones (e.g. The Beautifull Cassandra by Jane Austen). I took full advantage of these series’ as you’ll see later.
The two major classics this month were Anna Karenina and Odyssey. The rest were either shorter in length or by lesser-known authors. As you will see, for various reasons I missed out most of the Asian and Middle Eastern languages. I also wanted to include Beowulf which was written in Old English and I just saw a book of Welsh folklore in the library. I endeavour to do this again in the future!
Now let me fly you around the world, starting in South America.
I have to say these two are probably the most weird and wonderful of the whole lot. At the same time, and probably for the same reason, these were the two I most wished I could read in their original language.
Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector***
The Hour of the Star is a classic short novel by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector (1920-1977), published in 1977. It was translated from the Portuguese to English by Benjamin Moser in 2011.
‘Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola and her philandering rat of a boyfriend; she would like be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly and unloved. She has no future, and no sense of who she is. For her, reality is “too enormous to grasp”. Yet telling her story is the narrator Rodrigo S.M., who tries to direct Macabéa’s fate but comes to realize that, for all her outward misery, she is inwardly free. Slyly subverting ideas of poverty, identity, love and the art of writing itself, Clairce Lispector’s audacious last novel is a haunting portrayal of innocence in a bad world.’ (Penguin Modern Classics)
As I said at the beginning, this was the one that I wished most I could have read in the original Portuguese. There were a couple of pages of Translator’s Afterword at the end of the book with some fascinating information. Apparently, ‘no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original.’ I got the gist of the sad story, but it was odd in many ways!
The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges****
The Garden of Forking Paths is a short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), published in 1941. This is the first story in the book. The Book of Sand (1975), The Circular Ruins (1940), On Exactitude in Science (a one-paragraph literary forgery published in 1946) and Death and the Compass (1942) are also included. They were translated from the Spanish to English by Donald A. Yates, Andrew Hurley and James E. Irby.
These five short stories had completely different storylines but they all had a dark and dream-like quality. The blurb on the book called the author ‘a literary magician’, I thoroughly agreed and enjoyed the ‘fantastical tales of mazes, puzzles, lost labyrinths and bookish mysteries’ very much. (Penguin Modern 46)
We will now fly towards west over South Pacific Ocean, to one of the thousands of islands of Indonesia.
I would never have been able to discover this if not for a good friend who is from Indonesia himself and not only recommended it but gifted it to me. Thank you Jonathan!
The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata***
The Rainbow Troops is an autobiographical novel by Indonesian writer Andrea Hirata (1967-), published in 2005. It was translated from the Indonesian to English by Angie Kilbane in 2009.
The story was about a group of dirt poor kids enjoying knowledge, friendship and childhood in their tumbledown village school. Even though they had no shoes to wear, even though they had to cycle hours every day to get to school, even though the school room leaked in the rain, the pages were full of hope, courage and fun. Their parents and teachers believed in education and that education would make a difference to their impoverished life, in which their families had stuck generation after generation.
But at the end the reality caught up and took over their careless childhood; the school collapsed and education didn’t save them. The hilarious children cracked me up every night before bed, but the ending was incredibly sad to read.
We’re now heading north towards Japan.
There are so many choices. I was tempted by a few contemporary titles, for example, The Convenience Store Woman has been on my radar for a while. But Kindle Deals made the decision for me and I’m happy to be re-introduced to Murakami so many years after reading Norwegian Wood.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami****
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a memoir by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (1949-), published in 2007. It was translated from the Japanese to English by Philip Gabriel in 2008.
I was hoping a memoir of a writer would touch on writing a little more than this, but true to the title, this book was really mostly just about his running: daily exercise, training for marathon, experience participating in marathon and triathlon in different cities and environment. But this was truly a testimony to good writing: I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his running even though I hate running myself.
Next, we go north and northeast across the vast land of Russia.
My original plan for August was to dedicate it to a month of Russian novels and short stories. The idea was mostly inspired by A Swim in A Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. But I changed my plan because of the gift from Indonesia. Maybe I can try the Russian-reading-month idea again in winter.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy*****
The most famous of the whole lot, Anna Karenina, a novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), first published in book form in 1878, initially released in serial instalments from 1875 to 1877. There are various English translations available. The audiobook I listened to was translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918), the physical book I read was by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2000). The translation history of Anna Karenina could be a study in itself.
‘Anna Karenina seems to have everything – beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son. But she feels that her life is empty until the moment she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalizes society and family alike, and soon brings jealousy and bitterness in its wake. Contrasting with this take of love and self-destruction is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.’ (Penguin Classics)
Tolstoy makes story come to life. I particularly loved the paragraphs of Anna and Vronsky on the train when they first fell in love, where Kitty looked after Levin’s dying brother, and when Levin was late for his wedding. I also love how Stepan’s name somehow always appeared in the same sentence as food items. If you’d like to be a fly on the wall with me watching Stepan and Levin consuming a magnificent meal, see here.
The Nose by Nikolai Gogol****
The Nose is a satirical short story by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), published in 1836. The book also includes The Carriage (1836). Both were translated by Ronald Wilks in 1972.
The Nose was particularly brilliant. One morning you look in the mirror and suddenly realise that oh my goodness my nose is gone, along with the pimple! What would you do?
Keep going west, we have now arrived in Europe.
Thanks to Penguin Little Black Classics, I was able to sample two of the most famous French writers, Balzac and Flaubert. I also touched on German and Italian, as well as Homeric Greek as mentioned at the beginning.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke****
Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of letters written by Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) to Franz Xaver Kappus (1883–1966), a 19-year-old officer cadet. Kappus compiled and published the letters in 1929 – three years after Rilke’s death. It was translated from the German to English by Charlie Louth in 2011.
Rilke generously gave much advice on writing and life. Because they were letters, we as readers could only hear one side of the conversation and every now and then it left me wondering what he was on about, but generally speaking, it was accessible. I’d be happy to read more of Rilke.
In his letters, he highly recommended Jens Peter Jacobsen, a Danish author, and Niels Lyhne, an 1880 novel of his. I’ve searched it since and glad to report it’s in print and very interested to read.
How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing by Michel de Montaigne***
This book include six essays by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. His essays were written and revised between 1570 and 1592. This version was translated from Middle French to English by M. A. Screech in 1991.
I first heard of Montaigne in a wonderful 2016 fiction A Gentleman in Moscow. The Russian nobility decided to devote his time and solitude under house arrest to read Montaigne. But he was always distracted, by a visitor, a memory or a clock. When his attention wandered back to the paragraph, ‘the context seemed utterly unfamiliar; as did the paragraphs that immediately preceded it. In fact, he had to turn back three whole pages before he found a passage that he recalled well enough to resume his progress in good faith.’ Now I have tried Montaigne myself, I have to say, philosophical essays are really not for the fainthearted (or easily distracted mere mortals).
Montaigne’s essays were not only difficult but also many. The volumes were thick like dictionaries. The Count compared it to the Sahara desert – it was endless. His friend a few chapters later found it under the table leg, ‘the perfect height’. Further on the tome played an even more crucial and unexpected role in the story. I’ve completely lost Montaigne now, but A Gentleman in Moscow is really worth a read.
The Atheist’s Mass by Honoré de Balzac****
The Atheist’s Mass a short story by French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), published in 1836. The book also includes The Conscript (1831). Both were translated from the French to English by Sylvia Raphael in 1977.
My first introduction to Balzac. What an emotional rollercoaster, especially the second story. Both fabulous! I will certainly be hunting Balzac’s works in secondhand book shops.
A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert****
A Simple Heart is a short story by French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), published in 1877. It was translated from French to English by Roger Whitehouse in 2005.
‘Flaubert’s most famous short work meditates on the unexamined, futile life of a servant and her beloved parrot.’ (Penguin Little Black Classics NO.45)
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino**
Invisible Cities is a novel by Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985), published in 1972. It was translated from the Italian to English by William Weaver in 1974.
This one was odd too. There was not much story happening. In it, Marco Polo described 55 cities to Kublai Khan. I’m terrible at imagining landscapes or cityscapes while reading a description, so not a big fan. The most original to me is Trading Cities 3: Eutropia, where the whole population move to a new city periodically, find a new job and marry a new wife!
Odyssey by Homer***
Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer (circa 750BC). It was originally composed in Homeric Greek in around the 8th or 7th century BC. It was first published in English in 1614. I read a new translation by Emily Wilson in 2018. The new translation alone triggered my reading of Odyssey. I heard it was very easy to follow and it was! If you’ve always wanted to read it but are nervous, this translation could be your friend!
The story has an unexpected narrative structure and the proportion of each section of the journey was also a surprise to me. For example, there were only four chapters (out of 24 in total) which were dedicated to the famous encounters with mythical creatures on the sea and a whopping 12 chapters about what happened at home. If you’re interested in the non-linear narrative structure, head to my post here.
That’s the end of our world literature tour.
However there are two more books I read this month. We had a holiday in Bath. I thought it fitting to read a Jane Austen while we were there. The last book was published this year and was just too intriguing to put it off.
Emma by Jane Austen****
An 1815 novel. Miss Emma Woodhouse was ‘handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition’. She was probably the only heroine of Austen’s who did not need to find a wealthy husband for her future’s sake or even want to. Her old father loved her dearly and could not bear the thought of parting with her, and Emma has been in charge of Hartfield for many years. In her own words, ‘I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.’ Truth be told she was a bit spoilt, but how fortunate she was compared to all the other poor and desperate heroines.
A Brief Theology of Periods (Yes, Really) by Rachel Jones***
A 2021 Christian non-fiction book. It’s a unique book about periods, not period-of-time periods, but the bloody ones. The sub-title is ‘an adventure for the curious into bodies, womanhood, time, pain and purpose – and how to have a better time of the month.’ It just proves wonderfully that you can talk about anything and it will eventually lead you to God. That’s not weird at all and you don’t have to force the conversation to go a certain way. Because God is in every aspect of our life, he’s involved and cares about everything.
Looking ahead, I began my second year of my Reading Oxford project in September, starting with Jane Austen. I’ll hopefully finish all her six major novels soon and read some of her minor stories, her letters and a biography.
November is my least favourite month of the year: it’s cold and dark and it’s not yet Christmas. But I’ve decided to try change that by dedicating the month to reading speculative fiction, e.g. fantasy and sci-fi, which I haven’t touched for a long time. So this year I’m actually quite looking forward to it!
Have you got a reading plan upcoming? Happy reading!