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?