The Reading Cure: A European Literary Remedy For Brexit

Surveying independent publishers and booksellers, Jen Calleja collects a spectacular Eurocentric reading list for the disenfranchised 48%

One of my favourite books of the last year – Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Lina Wolff, translated from Swedish by Frank Perry, published by And Other Stories – brought me to a seedy Spain via a Swedish sensibility.

Like many people, I went through the five stages of Brexit – ‘oh well’, manic laughter, crying, rage, existential despair – in one day, and in the days that followed felt numb, nauseous, in doubt. But now it’s time to climb out of the mourning pit and work even harder than before at holding on to a European identity and keeping channels open to personal and literary dialogues with our European neighbours.

Independent publishers that take the biggest gamble in publishing translated literature, and the bookshops that risk heartily stocking it, need us more than ever: let’s give them some support. I asked a few great shops what they’ve been recommending to customers, and a few of my favourite publishers to recommend a title they publish, along with a title by another publisher working equally tirelessly to bring us literature in translation from the continent.

Stefan Tobler, publisher, And Other Stories (Oxford)

Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques, translated from Portuguese by Julia Sanches is the most moving, formally surprising book of reportage / personal essay / oral history you could want to read; it touched me and many people deeply, and even made us want to visit the barren Trás-os-Montes region she conjures up so deftly.

Alphabet by Inger Christensen, translated from Danish by Susanna Nied and published by New Directions (US) and Bloodaxe (UK). For this translation, necessarily imperfect as it must be, because English is not Danish and because this is an extraordinary poem in which words make up our world, Susanna Nied deserves fame and fortune. Or: apricot trees, bracken, blackberries, cicadas, citrus trees and all the glorious world herein.

James Tookey, publishing assistant, Peirene Press (London)

In September, Peirene will publish The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift, translated from Austrian German by Jamie Bulloch, a subversive, fast-paced thriller which deals with obsession, addiction and celebrity. This is a book which is constantly one step ahead of the reader, until you catch up with it; then you feel a tap on your shoulder and it’s behind you, pulling a face.

Not a new book, but I just read The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan (Peter Owen publishers), which was first published in 1966. Two eleven year old girls living in a rural community in Norway develop an intense bond. When one of them goes missing, the book becomes a lyrical prose-poem on fidelity and grief. It’s majestic and terrifying and completely gripping.

Daisy Kidd, Comma Press (Manchester)

Berlin-born Larissa Boehning has already received high critical acclaim in Germany and has also being nominated for the 2015 European Literature Prize (among others). Swallow Summer is her debut collection of short stories, and we’re delighted to be able to publish it in English for the first time translated from German by Lyn Marven.

We’d also like to recommend Trieste written by Daša Drndić and translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, published by MacLehose Press.

Jacques Testard, publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions (London)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire and out in October tells various stories from the underbelly of a fictionalised Leipzig in the former GDR. It tells the stories of men and women in the sex trade and charts the development of the industry from absolute prohibition to full legality in the twenty years following the reunification of Germany. Meyer pays homage to modernist, East German and contemporary writers like Alfred Döblin, Wolfgang Hilbig and David Peace but uses his own style and almost hallucinatory techniques. Time shifts and stretches, people die and come to life again, and Meyer takes his characters seriously and challenges his readers in this dizzying eye-opening novel that also finds inspiration in the films of Russ Meyer, Takashi Miike, Gaspar Noé and David Lynch. This novel, harking back to a more fragmented, divided Europe, couldn’t be more topical when the EU is under serious threat from within. And what better way to banish the Brexit Blues than by reading something deeply, deeply German?

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, translated from French by Jessica Moore and published by MacLehose Press is a novel about a heart operation, following the heart itself as it is transplanted from the body of a recently deceased teenager into that of an older woman in dire need of a new one. Read in light of Brexit, the metaphorical possibilities are endless. But more to the point, Maylis de Kerangal is one of the very best contemporary French writers.

Eric Lane, publisher, Dedalus Books (Cambridge)

From Dedalus we recommend The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi, translated from Italian by Judith Landry. Judith Landry so brilliantly captures the narrator’s voice and the feel of Antonio Pennacchi’s novel that one can easily forget one is reading a translation and not the original. It is like eavesdropping a private conversation and lets you know what it is like to be an Italian.

And from another publisher, The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy, translated from Hungarian by Patrick Thursfield and Katalina Banffy-Jelen and published by Arcadia, comprising They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Divided. The trilogy has a Tolstoyan grandeur as Banffy charts the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War and the tensions in the multi-ethnic Kingdom of Hungary which lead it to fall apart.

Jo & Ollie, Pages of Hackney (London)

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by Atlantic Books is an apocalyptic, sprawling mountain of a novel from Hungarian visionary and winner of the 2015 International Man Booker. At once crushingly bleak and relentlessly humorous. A must read.

Ross Bradshaw, Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham)

Our best-selling book in translation is My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante published by Europa Editions and translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein which is probably the case with most bookshops! This novel is set in post-war Naples and is the first of a set of four. The book describes the relationship between two girls as they grow up within, and in one case out of a tightly-knit Neapolitan neighbourhood. It’s patriarchal and violent and you find yourself willing the girls on.

Ukrainian-born Belarusian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s latest is Second-Hand Time translated from Russian by Bela Shayevich and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, which looks back on the ruins of the former Soviet Union. Neither of these are fiction of course, but people seem to look for her books there so that’s fine. This writer’s favourite Russian writers are from the Soviet period, Isaac Babel and Vasily Grossman. Life and Fate…

And finally Desire for Chocolate by Care Santas published by Alma Books and translated from Catalan by Julie Wark, since I was recently in Barcelona… and love chocolate.

Will, Burley Fisher Books (London)

We recommend Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard, translated from Austrian German by James Reidel and published by Seagull Books. The four short fictions collected here show Bernhard at his best: brutal, bleak and unyielding. A true miserablist, Bernhard refuses to wrap the world in beautifying lies. But reading him is nonetheless a delight, because through the musicality and manic loquacity of his prose, he turns apathy into revolt, misery into exuberance.

Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator from German, editor and musician. Her debut poetry collection Serious Justice is published by Test Centre. She is currently translating Dancer on the Canal by Kerstin Hensel for Peirene Press. She is editor of Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt and acting editor of New Books in German. She is translator-in-residence at the Austrian Cultural Forum London. She plays in Sauna Youth, Monotony, Feature and GOLD FOIL. @niewview

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