Disclosures at the end. This is a long review that continues into the comments. This is a reference book; one excellently timed to meet the AnglosphereDisclosures at the end. This is a long review that continues into the comments. This is a reference book; one excellently timed to meet the Anglosphere's current expanding interest in translated fiction. And as it's a reference work, much of its audience won't be reading it cover to cover. Before Goodreads prompted the compulsion to put every book into a discrete category such as "read" or "unfinished" - and especially as a kid, I used to read lots of reference books. But unless they were short, The Usborne Guide to the Weather or something, I wouldn't read a whole one at once, rather chapters and bits over months and years as I felt like it. At some unrecorded point it became fair to consider a single-volume encyclopaedia, for example, "read". Reading The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been a nostalgic experience, taking me back to those relaxed days when at least half my book-reading was not in pure narrative, but about browsing snippets of information, lists and short articles I could always return to later. (It was an internet-like experience before most households had the internet, and without the hypnotic backlight, the hum, and the nagging feeling that I ought to reduce those 93 open tabs; the spines remained in line of sight, and in mind, whilst the books were tidily closed.)
At time of writing this post (3rd April), I hadn't read every single chapter of The Complete Review Guide: this piece isn't really finished, over and above the tweaks I make to reviews in the days after first posting. Yet I regret not having reviewed it much sooner after I got the ARC. I'm not sure if Netgalley feedback has any influence on final versions of books, but there are points below that I think someone should have been made before it went to press, pertinent to current online discussions of literary and translated fiction.
I've been aware of The Complete Review website and Literary Saloon weblog since the early 2000s. (The latter has remained a weblog in the original sense, a regular source of links and often brief and neutrally presented information - a type of content I always liked and which, after almost disappearing from the internet for maybe ten years, has made a recent and welcome comeback in regular "links" posts on some blogs.) But for a long time that awareness of the site meant a handful of visits a year, and without a feel for how the place worked. In the mid 2000s, exasperation with Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and its sameyness relative to so much other English language fiction, made me decide to read mostly translated fiction; then a couple of years later, having not acted much on that, there was a repeat of the epiphany when reading some now-unremembered book in a station. Not long afterwards, I took a different diversionary route and read mostly non-fiction for a couple of years. Around 2010-11, I became interested - as a lot of British people did - in Nordic books. Rather than looking to The Complete Review, I dug up university Scandinavian Studies reading lists online - and hummed and hawed over the type of specialist reference books that Orthofer refers to in his introduction. (i.e. There are plenty of academic texts in English about the literature of particular regions or countries, but there has been no comprehensive overview of fiction translated to English.) Volumes from the Histories of Scandinavian Literature series have been sitting in my Amazon 'saved for later' for most of the current decade, because in both cost and format, they're a bit much. So I think Orthofer's book is an excellent idea. Even more so because the paperback edition is reasonably priced where sold online, not far off the price point of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, as it should be, to be useful to a similar audience.
It was only circa 2012-13 that I finally gathered up various blogs, including the Complete Review, into an RSS feed, and they became a regular part of my life. These days, unrelated links to pdfs often smilingly evoke Orthofer's regular phrase "warning: dreaded pdf format!" Though the purchase most directly related to his recommendation, and his alone, wasn't a book at all, but a re-subscription to Eurosport. (Something had prompted me to look at his Twitter feed in December; it turned out that he also likes watching skiing, and seeing the tweets about it made me miss it so much, that despite scrimping, I gave in and renewed my subscription as a treat for a month over Christmas.) I've reflected more than once that The Complete Review's inception was well timed. (And given the publication of this guide, just when popular sites like BookRiot are opening up to translation coverage - a field which used to be of interest mostly to broadsheets and lit journals - I think Orthofer may have a knack for cultural timing.) It's a niche site, and its founder has a Twitter following currently just under 5000, but the fact that it's Orthofer who's writing this book, and not one of a hundred others with similar interests and reading speed, reminds me of the observation in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that, on a far larger and wealthier scale, the founders of IT and internet companies which have become institutions, the plutocrats of the Gilded Age, or key pop bands whose best albums appeared just when the landscape was ripe for a new scene, were who they were not because they were more talented than absolutely everyone else in their field, but because they were in exactly the right place at the right time, and made some significant choice. Starting a few years later, the same guy would have been one among many bloggers, and maybe the normality of posting book reviews in one's own space online would have meant he used a different format that didn't give the detached, authoritative air which prompted the then-youthful writer of this New Yorker piece to assume it was a journal similar to the NYRB - and so would it have been someone else writing this book instead? On the other hand, blogger John Self's move into reviews for the British broadsheets suggests that it's not entirely about being the first: expertise and style are what they are whenever they come along. I don't read as fast as Orthofer, nor can I read serious fiction in three languages. Knowing people on here who read in more languages nevertheless grants perspective, and this post is less reverent than other reviews and comments I've seen so far. To me, his lit-news posting on the Saloon is invaluable and unparalleled. I love the little eccentricities of the site, and its quiet web 1.0 design; I'm delighted that the site has kept its original look, and I hope it never changes. (Incidentally, I've been waiting years for web 1.o style to come back into fashion, and for there to be lots of layout options that use it.) However, I consider the reviews as the work of one good book blogger among many, albeit one remarkable in consistency and duration. The Guide is not perfect - none could be all things to everyone - but it's very useful as is, and was much needed to fill a gap in the market.
I'm glad of my familiarity with the website in writing this review (of this review), but on the other hand I haven't ever spent much time with a copy of 1001 Books, whose popularity may make it a gold standard among reading guides for approachability and readability of its own content. Its use of multiple contributors advocating for their favourites, and from the little I've seen, its slightly longer entries about each book (there are rather more than 1001 books mentioned in this one) means that it has a liveliness and passion that one individual can't transmit when aiming to be fairly objective about some titles, whilst also including some personal opinion. Although certainly, the author's favourites do stand out, receiving more space and praise. Neither have I read Steven Moore's histories of the novel, a favourite with several Goodreads friends inclined towards the more experimental and highbrow end of literature. (Actually, I'd love to see a review of this volume from Jonathan, who contributed to the 1001 and has read Moore.) In discussing genre fiction as well as modern classics and critically acclaimed contemporary lit, Orthofer aims to cover a wide spectrum similar to the 1001 -not only the complex stuff a la Moore, although as readers of the website would assume, there is no shortage of that.
The bulk of the genre fiction discussed is crime, thriller and mystery. I've noticed that, for some reason, this is the favourite popular genre for literary / experimental readers who want a break from the heavy stuff, among those who even take such breaks in the first place. The author clearly enjoys these books, and they give scope for a few amusing phrases – I liked the bit about a Spanish thriller writer taking advantage of a trend for conspiracy themes and regrettably “going full Da Vinci”. The Guide features considerably less SFF and romance, genres with histories of being taken less seriously. SFF has been making inroads into literary respectability over the last decade, its standing probably on a par with crime fiction among readers up to early middle age (meaning I expected to see a little more of it here if genre fiction was to be included). Romance readers (including those for whom it’s their favourite break from heavier reading, and those who’ve studied it academically) have been speaking out online in recent years, advocating for the equality of the genre. The handful of SFF titles are scattered throughout the Guide and the countries it covers, and some of them are, I was pleased to see, less well known than Cixin Liu and Cornelia Funke. The few popular romance titles mentioned are mostly from Asian countries: Saudi, India, Indonesia. Comics, meanwhile, as with poetry, are beyond the remit of this book about prose fiction. Given the Guide’s explicit intention to include genres, the shortage of SFF and romance is among the features that can make it sound unfortunately a little out of touch with some contemporary online and media conversations about literature, especially considering it’s a book by a blogger and website curator. I like what the New Yorker article called “the site’s endearing, Robert-Christgau-like fustiness”, but don’t think that’s necessarily incompatible with addressing a few contemporary concerns; perhaps the Guide could have benefited from a collaborator, or a few guest essays on sectors with which Orthofer is less familiar, even whilst he still wrote the bulk of the book. On the other hand, popular fiction forms like West African market literature and Japanese cellphone novels get a mention, which they may not have if the whole book was organised along Anglo genre conventions.
There's a heck of a lot of information here. The general essay at the beginning is good; for someone who, like me, already has a feed stuffed with blogs and journals related to translated fiction, not many of the points will be new: still, it's nice to see them set out in one place. In the sections on foreign countries whose fiction I know quite a bit about, e.g. the Nordic region and parts of Eastern Europe, I agree that the big names were covered, and there were a few of authors I hadn't previously heard of. Although there were others I'd have liked to see included; as this book is the work of one enthusiast, it's inevitably somewhat idiosyncratic. It aims to be comprehensive, but at the same time it can't help be reflective of its own author's personal taste.
It is not a guide to choosing between translations. The Guide covers mostly newer works with only one translation. (If you're looking for a guide to different translations, this may be what you need - thanks to Warwick for the random link - but that handbook is already seven years old, and at a time when retranslations of classics are appearing thick and fast.) Even where there are multiple translations of post-Second World War texts, these don't appear to be considered in the Guide. I recalled online discussions, source unknown, of two recent translations of Witold Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk, one supposedly terrible, the other better - although some considered the book essentially untranslatable. I'd hope this book would offer an opinion on a matter like this, but the specific title is not mentioned at all.
As part of the point of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is discovering new books to read, I was on the lookout for three things: 1) Information about books I had read - would I have been encouraged to read them (especially those I enjoyed) if this had been the first time I'd heard of them? 2) How often did it pique my theoretical interest (theoretical because I'm not sure I have the time) in unread books, either those completely new to me, or titles I knew of and had ignored or previously decided against? 3) Were there any unread books that it put me off, and why?
1) Some examples, mostly books I've rated 5 stars: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson was mentioned, as "less grim"; there was more said about his other books, summaries of which never appealed to me as much as the back-cover blurb of Horses. I would not have looked for the book on the basis of what I saw here. Likewise The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson sounded less interesting than I found it to be. I was glad to see a decent amount of space and praise for Oksana Zabuzhko, enough to interest some readers, even if it wasn't my own 6-star level of enthusiasm. Tram 83 sounded instantly intriguing via use of the word 'raucous' and mention of a bar, two features not seen a lot of in the worthy literary fiction from African countries typically found on Man Booker lists. I learnt that Amos Tutuola's work is, in Nigeria, considered “a pale imitation of [D.O.] Fagunwa's” (wording?) - which definitely makes Fagunwa worth looking out for. Orthofer still makes Tutola sound interesting in his own right, and easier to find in the US/UK. Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi now resident in Finland, whose Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning short stories I liked, is not mentioned in the Guide. I hadn't previously thought of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers as reflexive: a novel about a character learning a language and the author's first book written in a second language, but it's a great way to look at it, and one that would have interested me in Xiaolu Guo if I'd missed the press attention she had here. Big name Austrian authors were characterised as bitter (as Orthofer is of Austrian background himself, it's an informed opinion, even more than most in this book). This wouldn't be the first time I've found myself wanting to defend the work of Elfriede Jelinek, even though I've only read two of her books – a novel and a playlet – and I also enjoyed the one Thomas Bernhard I've read, it was most cathartic. Nevertheless, the criticism of these criticism-filled novels is pleasingly reflexive, and it's exactly the sort of opinion that gives commentary a welcome sense of personality whether one agrees or not. And both writers do, frankly, provoke love -em-or-hate-'em reactions everywhere. Andrzej Stasiuk is mentioned, but simply as a chronicler of post-Communist life, not for the breathtaking writing about landscapes that's made him one of my new favourites. There are a few literary translated authors whose work I've not been so fond of in the last few years, but I know I'm in a minority with regard to most of these. It's only fair that newbies hear about their merits, so I can't expect the Guide to indicate that I wouldn't get on with books by, for instance, Javier Marías, Dubravka Ugrešić or Stig Dagerman. An author I haven't read, but whose presence I couldn't resist checking as a test: Yuri Rytkheu, from an indigenous Siberian people, the Chukchi... Mentioned, although only for location rather than his own background and the mythical content, which are what got me interested.
2) Describing a literary style needs more space than some authors get here, so when I was interested in an unfamiliar book, it was usually because of appealing plot or character elements. I highlighted an awful lot of these books I may never get round to, so am taking a few examples from the beginning to show what did grab my attention. I can't be the only person who abandoned one of Julia Kristeva's convoluted theory tomes at university; it was a surprise to hear that she has also written “cerebral thrillers”. Consider me intrigued. Characterisation of Jean Echenoz as 'mischievous' made me slightly keener to get round to reading him than I was before. Lydie Salvare is a name I'd heard, but with no associations; I tended to visualise pics of Lydia Davis when Salvare was mentioned. A “satire of contemporary industrial management” - The Award - could interest me. I'd love to read material longer than news articles about immigrant experiences in other European countries, but almost nothing is translated. (Book-form commentary on race is dominated by US works, and “immigrant novels” by both the US and Britain.) I'd hardly heard of anything except Marie Ndiaye (it didn't click until a few weeks ago that she would be in this category - doh) and also a Swedish novel, Montecore. Neither of those are mentioned in the Guide, but Orthofer does include another example: Faïza Guène's Just Like Tomorrow. Some places are intriguing in themselves: "The Azores, further from Lisbon than London, are small worlds of their own in the Atlantic, and Azorean-born João de Melo's My World is Not of This Kingdom is about these isolated specks of land." I enjoyed Jáchym Topol's dark comedy The Devil's Workshop; Orthofer raves about his earlier book City Sister Silver and made me want to take a look. The Lt. Boruvka stories and novels by Josef Skvorecky are "among the few describing actual criminal police work in a Communist country". (I am, incidentally, puzzled by comments about low uptake of fiction from the former Eastern Bloc; people are still reading a fair bit that I notice. Perhaps interest was much higher in the years when I was only reading children's books, meaning I don't see the contrast Orthofer sees. The term "Eastern Europe" is used in the Guide; having grown up hearing that designation, I still find it comfortable - but plenty of people currently living in the region are among those who now consider it outmoded, and sometimes "othering" and exoticising. What counts for them is that they're west of Russia and mostly in the EU: the term "Central Europe" or being undifferentiated within Europe are variously preferred. There is, though, a different literary culture, and especially a difference in the numbers and types of books translated to English, which it's reasonable to reflect in the Guide. "Central and Eastern Europe" (CEE) is a decent compromise term and one in academic & bureaucratic use.)...more