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    Around Europe in 12 books

    Published on 28/05/2014 by David Birkett

    With the recent European Parliament elections in mind, I thought a literary tour of the member countries would be both educational and entertaining. So, pack your best linen suit and carefully-distressed travel journal and join me to visit a series of books representing each member state.  This is an entirely idiosyncratic and subjective selection; I tried running a proportional, aggregated transferrable cumulative ballot to select the titles, but got coalitions each time.

    Let us begin, alphabetically, in Austria and with Stefan Zweig, friend of Richard Strauss and Sigmund Freud and purveyor of intense, compelling novellas. Hats off to Pushkin Press and The New York Review of Books for their work in popularising this author in the UK.  I’m perversely recommending his Journeys, as it’s a collection of writing about travelling in Europe. My candidate for Belgium reflects my obsession with all things cycling, in the shape of William Fotheringham’s Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike, although this biography is worthy of mention for its title alone.  Bulgaria is widely held to be the inspiration for Julian Barnes’ novel Porcupine, set in a fictional post-communist state and dealing with themes of justice, morality and law.  Our Man in Iraq by Croatian novelist Robert Perišić draws comparisons between the Iraq and Balkan conflicts in 2003, taking in issues such as the media’s influence on society and the social changes caused by political upheaval.  Our only play is the Cyprus-based (yes, honestly) Othello, which probably needs no introduction, although it’s interesting to note that a board game of the same name is a simplified version of the ancient Chinese game Go.  In the grand traditions of biased Euro-voting (I’m thinking more of the Song Contest here) the Czech Republic gains a slightly longer entry, simply because the Czech outfit Twisted Spoon Press is my favourite publisher.  A Bouquet, by Karel Jaromír Erben, first published against the background of European turmoil in 1853, comprises a series of poems (translated as such) which narrate stories of piety, love, foul (including murderous) and fair deeds and miraculous occurrences.  These tales acquired tremendous significance for the Czechs' re-assertion of their national identity, and, having inspired music by Dvořák, continue to be the basis of work in various media, including the stage and the small and large screens.

    Short break for a refreshing cordial and to have linen suits dry-cleaned.


    Hurry up at the back; we’re in Denmark now, dropping in on Peter Høeg and his genre-defining metaphysical crime novel. The extraordinary, lyrical and compelling Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, features a female investigator who possesses the titular quality to a superhuman extent, and the book became a sales phenomenon and later a film (both of the major variety).  The dramatic, Estonian-set Purge, by Sofi Oksanen, charts the responses of two women – each escaping from a past of crime and violence – to the requirements of survival against the oppressive background of Soviet oppression and European war.  Finland appears in the form of Tove Jansson.  Although her adult writing has recently been reclaimed and beautifully re-presented in English by Sort of Books, my inner child is persisting with her fabulously strange Moomintroll series, including Moomins and the Great FloodGallic Books has performed impressively in bringing fine and varied contemporary French literature to the anglophone world, and their Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, was a deservedly successful example.  The novel charts, with humour and pathos, the reluctantly-formed friendship between an apparently stereotypical concierge with a secret passion for and profound knowledge of the arts and philosophy, and a disaffected teenage girl.  An everyday story of a sentient blue bear with 27 lives now takes the stage, brainchild of the German author Walter Moers.  The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear sees the furry hero get through 50% of his allocation via a series of surreal adventures, tinged with literary and satirical flavours and accompanied by excellent illustrations.  Championed by E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot and more recently, Leonard Cohen, Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy is well-worth exploring.  Cavafy – one of the defining voices of modern gay literary sensibility – wrote at what Forster described as ‘a slight angle to the universe’. Oxford World's Classics offer a fine Collected Poems.   A classic end to the first half of our tour is the thrilling French revolution adventure story The Scarlet Pimpernel, by the Hungarian-born Baroness Orczy.  You can seek it here.  Our voyages continue next week.

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