Around the world

© C A Lovegrove

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. That’s as may be but, even though I don’t believe in hell, good intentions have certainly paved my route to reading more widely in world literature of late.

If ‘Around the World in Eighty Books’ as a popular meme smacks of hubris, Around the World in a Few Books seemed more realistic as far as I’m concerned. I therefore picked a couple or more flags to wave just to signal my intentions this year. One was Gilion Dumas’s European Reading Challenge, and another was Lory Hess’s Summer in Other Languages (whether works read in the original language or in translation).

As we approach the three-quarter point of the year Twenty Twenty-one dare I pause to take stock of where I’ve got to and what I’ve achieved? Well, of course I dare, hence what follows!

I hoped to structure my response to Gilion’s European Reading Challenge 2021 by reading from at least one new and different European country on average every month. It helped that March had events featuring reads from Ireland and Wales, namely Begorrathon and Dewithon. But I also wanted to include works by writers away from mainly Anglophone areas such as the UK and North America. First, there are the authors from mainland Europe.

  • France. The medieval Marie de France wrote Breton lais which I read in translation, though a couple of the original texts were included in the edition I read and which I managed to comprehend.
  • Spain. Álvaro Cunqueiro regarded himself as Galician though he also wrote in Spanish. His Merlin and Company was my read for this part of the world.
  • Belgium. Though Belgian author Georges Simenon also spent time in France and Switzerland I counted My Friend Maigret as my read for his country of birth.
  • Italy. Italo Calvino’s essays in The Narrative of Trajan’s Column weren’t my only visit to Italy: I also read a collection of Italian short stories in parallel text, though I mostly stuck to the English.
  • Sweden. Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart was a recent read for this Scandinavian country. I have a few more Scandi titles in hand to read for January’s Nordic FINDS project run by Annabel.
  • Germany. I’m halfway through The Ghost-Seer by Enlightenment author Friedrich Schiller, but I’ve also got Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game waiting for a reread.
  • Poland. I got distracted after starting Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy Blood of Elves at the start of the year but hope to get back to it soon.

I need to add two more European countries to my tally, even though they’re either adjacent to England or have English as a main language. Wales has its own language of course, of great antiquity, and I read a piece of creative nonfiction by Angharad Price in translation, O! Tyn y Gorchudd! published as The Life of Rebecca Jones. There were also works by two writers from Ireland, Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage and Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney (who though born in Northern Ireland regarded himself as Irish and not British).

Can I count authors not born in the UK but later naturalised? Eva Ibbotson was a native of Austria but escaped before Hitler’s takeover: The Star of Kazan draws on her memories of her childhood. Meanwhile Salman Rushdie was born in India before becoming a British citizen: East, West is a collection of stories split between the eastern subcontinent and the western island.

Looking further afield, I mustn’t neglect a selection of essays by Chinua Achebe entitled Africa’s Tarnished Name. Achebe’s home country was Nigeria, and his four essays explore African countries, the world’s view of the continent, and the continent’s view of itself. Finally (for now at least) I’ve also read a selection from The Meadows of Gold by the Baghdad-born Al-Mas’udi. A much-travelled 10th-century author from Iraq (before the modern state came into being) he was passionately interested in different cultures, his account ranging from Europe across the Middle East to as far away as Korea.

Will I get to my ideal total of a dozen European countries by year’s end? Possibly: I’ve managed — or am in the process of managing — to incorporate Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Wales and Ireland. I have a nonfiction title by Antal Szerb from Hungary waiting, and a couple of thrillers from Iceland (though I hope to save one of these for Nordic January); in addition I want sometime to re-read translations of two Icelandic sagas, Völsunga saga and Hrólfs saga kraka, Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner as well as Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game — though these all may have to wait till 2022.

And now that I’ve just gone and riffled through my shelves I see I already have many unread fiction and nonfiction titles by authors from around the world: Argentina, China, Colombia, Denmark, India, Iran, Norway, Pakistan, and Turkey, just for starters, so I’m spoilt for choice for where I want to travel in the near future.

As I know that many of the authors represented are well regarded and their books very much worth picking up and opening, it’s nearing time for embarcation, methinks… but I sometimes get a little spooked when I see the range of materials other bloggers are reading for memes like Women in Translation; perhaps I need to stop fussing and just get on with it!

Is this ever a problem for you? Do you find the mountain of book choices so de-enervating that you find the first steps on Good Intentions Highway the hardest to take?

37 thoughts on “Around the world

  1. I honestly want to try and travel more in my reading; from the titles on my TBR at the moment, one that is most interesting in terms of place is The Dust Never Settles by Karina Lickorish Quinn which will take me to Lima.

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    1. Ooh, Peru! Such a magical sounding place, the Incas, the Andes, Lake Titicaca … but also the conquistadors, enforced labour in the mines, the Inquisition, wars, corruption. But your magical realist novel looks inviting!

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        1. The Bhagavad Vita? Or if that’s too lightweight, Proust’s Remembrance. But I guess you must’ve read that already, so what about The Encyclopædia Britannica, eleventh edition of 1911, which at 29 volumes is more manageable than later editions and marks the transition from it being an imperialist Britannic to an imperialist American publication. And most of the measurements are still imperial, which would please Boris Johnson who wants us to go back to miles, ounces, gills, pecks, pints, bushels, furlongs, chains, poles, none of this Johnny Foreigner metric rubbish.

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          1. My task next year is to read Remembrance of Things Past in translation. One little blue Scott Moncrieff translation per month. Fortunately there are twelve. Other Gert has of course read it in French. Don’t fancy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I shall wait for inspiration. Maybe a poet. Tennyson, T S E ??

            Boris really wants to detach you from the real world with his rods, poles and perches. Although America still uses Imperial measure.

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            1. As far as me appreciating Proust is concerned it may be that I stop at sniffing madeleines. That is if such a delicacy isn’t adjudged treasonous by our tinpot tosspot.

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  2. I always start each year telling myself I will read more widely from around the world, but I never do as well as I’d hoped. So far this year, apart from the usual British and American authors, I think I’ve only covered Poland, France, Japan, Ireland and Russia – although I’m hoping to take part in the German and Australian reading months in November, which will add to my tally!

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    1. I have to remind myself now and again what exactly my motivation is for reading more widely, Helen, and what’s not the motive! So I’m not reading because I’m obliged to, for work or to achieve an externally-set challenge, but for my own satisfaction. And I do want to experience not just the old familiar stuff, comforting though that can be, but stuff that excites, that informs, that maybe even challenges me—anything other than reveal the fuddy-duddy stick-in-the-mud I’m forever worrying I’ve turned into!

      Having said which, I’m distantly tempted to try at least one Aussie and one modern(ish) German novel in November, but as I’d like to also join in NovNov maybe I can find novellas from those countries to fulfil both briefs?!

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  3. I think you’ve done well! I always want to commit to long-term reading projects and always fail, so I mostly don’t bother nowadays. But yes – I often find myself overwhelmed with the amount of possible books to read and the pressure to get reading them. I try to keep focused but it doesn’t always work. Having said that, as well as next month’s #1976Club, I’m also lining up Novellas in November and German Lit Month, so I never learn, do I???

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    1. Thanks, Karen, and you’re not the only one who never learns! I’ve Children of Dune and The Malacia Tapestry lined up for the 1976 Club, but we’ll see; I have a handful of possible novellas for November, but I can’t quite decide about a German title.

      ‘Overwhelmed’ is an excellent way of describing one’s feelings facing a plethora of choices, though I tend to imagine myself more a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights!

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  4. You’ve done fine Chris. I may have read more in translation this year, but correspondingly fewer poetry books for instance, so things balance out as there are only so many hours in the day. I started the year well but have tailed off slightly in adding new countries to my list – I’ve crossed off 14 European countries, plus Japan essentially, but I have read several each from Japan and France, and a couple each from Germany and Norway. I’m about to devote my European reading to entirely Nordic countries for my January project looking at this region, but will squeeze in German Reading Month I hope.

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    1. Fourteen different European countries is good going, Annabel, especially with several works from individual nations—and you’ve still three months in hand! I shall aim for a Nordic fest in January, with titles from Iceland of course and Denmark, and shall seek out authors from the remaining FINDS nations before 2021’s out.

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  5. Goodness me, you’re putting me to shame. I was full of good intentions at the beginning of the year but have floundered dreadfully. My efforts to read more widely, either in translation or books written by authors of other nationalities have been derailed by the vast number of British books published at the moment. I’m going to make a list. Possibly several lists! Your organisation and this enjoyable post has stirred me into action. Even if it’s only briefly!

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    1. “Organisation”? Me?! Heh, I express intention, plough on, read whatever comes to hand, and impose seeming order on it all after the event — but it’s this bookworm’s version of creative accounting, I’m afraid!

      Still, I agree there have been a lot of good locally-grown titles around; and I have to admit to relying a bit too much on a combination of what was already on my shelves pre-pandemic and quick sorties to local charity shops where the range tends to be rather, well, safe. So don’t feel put to shame, it’s probably all smoke and mirrors where I’m concerned!

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  6. You’ve done so much better than I have this year. So far I’ve managed only 4 European countries – I thought I’d done more but then read that you can count only one of the UK nations.

    And I also thought I’d have finished my own reading around the world challenge – I’m just 4 books away from the total of authors from 50 different countries. Though I’ve read numerous titles from Japan, Korea, Pakistan I only count a country once. So this year I added Cote d”Ivoire and Vietnam.

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    1. Is that 46 of fifty different countries this year, Karen? — because if so that’s pretty good going! Yes, counting each country once is a bit trying but that the nature of some challenges I suppose. As always I shall take the easy way out… 😁 To find a novel each from Côte d’Ivoire and Vietnam is impressive though.

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      1. Oh if only… No its taken me several years to get to 46 – I keep getting distracted with other reading projects. Some countries were easy but many of the African nations have little printed literature let alone available at reasonable cost.

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  7. I get a bit flummoxed when I’ve got a lot of review books to get through but otherwise manage to stay relaxed. I am quite amazed I finished my 1976 Club book early, all 888 pages of it!

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    1. I would get flummoxed too receiving books for review at a rate quicker than I can manage — probably one or two a year is the most I could cope with — so hats off to you and all the other reviewers who keep on track with them! Ooh, and the 1976 Club titles, it’s nearly time to start on the two I hope to read, luckily less than 888 pages each. 🙂

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  8. JJ Lothin

    What a wonderful idea! Wish I could keep up anything like your reading rate, and so do a virtual tour of the world! Are the Icelandic thrillers Arnaldur Indridason by any chance? Highly recommended if not.

    One of my ‘books to re-read every few years’ is German (fortunately available in English translation): ‘Officer Factory’ by Hans Helmut Kirst. I can’t understand why he isn’t better known …

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    1. I’ve just proved your point: Hans Helmut Kirst is not a name I know … but I shall look him up now! The Icelandic authors are Ragnar Jónasson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, not Arnaldur Indridason I’m afraid!

      As for my reading rate, it’s measly compared to some bloggers I follow, but it helps that I’m retired and so have the leisure to read for hours in bed without having to rocket out of bed for work. Sorry again!

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      1. JJ Lothin

        HH Kirst was best known for his Gunner Asch series – and also the thriller, Night of the Generals, filmed in the late 60s with a wonderfully over-the-top Peter O’Toole.

        I’ve actually got a half-read Ragnar Jónasson on my Kindle – I will pick it up again when my current Ruth Rendell bout has fizzled out!

        It’s great that there are people with lots of reading time: you can alert the rest of us to what’s worth trying!

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  9. “ I have a nonfiction title by Antal Szerb from Hungary waiting . . .”

    Oh, you are in for a treat!! I absolutely love Antal Szerb — he wrote one of my all-time favourite novels, “Journey by Moonlight”. A great talent who lost his life in the most tragic way (victim of the Holocaust).

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on his work.

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  10. I’m behind on my blog reading and am amused that my coincidental decision today to take a book tour of Europe chimes with an existing reading challenge!

    You’ve read a lot of interesting titles so far, Chris, all power to you. I’ve always had a soft spot for books from non Anglophone countries since I discovered South American writers like Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges in my late teens, and then moved on to Europe and later China and Japan. I’d like to read more by writers from a wider range of African countries, not just those colonised by Britain, to get a sense of what life is like in those places.

    According to Library Thing’s new Graphs and Charts feature, over my reading life so far, I’ve read books by writers from 52 countries. I’m hoping that my European book jaunt will add to that tally. It’s good to learn about other countries, even when you can’t visit.

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  11. “Is this ever a problem for you? Do you find the mountain of book choices so de-enervating that you find the first steps on Good Intentions Highway the hardest to take?”

    Lol, I think I avoid this by not really having any intentions, good or bad, when I read. You read so widely and take on so many challenges, I am in awe. I just gambol about in the library or bookshop until I find something interesting to dip my nose into, like a kid in a sweetshop. 😊

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    1. That’s very kind of you, Jo — I can only reiterate that the combination of being retired and being in lockdown and allowed me to read more books and probably in greater variety over the last couple of years.

      Now things are opening up — as for instance today when I rehearsed with a choir and sang some sacred music for a service in an old Abbey today — I’m able to do different things and not just obsess about books and reply almost instantly to comments here.

      But I too am like a kid in a sweetshop where choosing books are concerned, so we’re not so different there!

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