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The One Hundred Best Novels in Translation, by Boyd Tonkin

The 100 Best Novels in Translation, by Boyd Tonkin, Galileo Publishers, 303 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1903385678“In literature,”

As Boyd Tonkin writes in his introduction to this volume, “prescriptive canons have rightly lost much of their lustre.” Tonkin makes a defence of the genre, however, not on the grounds that anyone is really qualified to set himself or herself up as an arbiter of taste and insist that these – and not those – novels, or poems, or plays are the ones that have stood the test of time as others have fallen away, but rather by citing an historical exemplar which did not seek to batter students into obedience but to raise horizons and stimulate debate.

That exemplar was a lecture delivered by the Victorian educational reformer Sir John Lubbock in 1886 to the London Working Men’s College on the subject of the ideal hundred-volume library. Lubbock’s list seems to have been rather wide-ranging, and certainly not Anglocentric, including as it did the Analects of Confucius, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata and other works from Persian and Sanskrit literature. Tonkin, a distinguished journalist and critic who was for seventeen years literary editor of the London Independent and is closely associated with the Man Booker International Prize, cites a similarly high-minded and democratic cultural project as a significant influence on his own intellectual development..

As with many teenagers in the Great Britain of the late 1960s and 1970s, a blessed combination of well-stocked public libraries and the widespread availability at low prices of the Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics series offered me a parallel education. Whatever might happen in school and, later, university classrooms, the local library shelves and those black- or grey-uniformed ranks of Penguins opened the doors onto a global literary landscape. Only translation could unlock them. At that stage I had no idea that, in the 1820s and 1830s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had theorised, and idealised, the notion of “world literature” ... In a project such as the twin Penguin lists, created in large parts by veterans of the Second World War and by publishers and editors affected in some way by the chauvinistic madness of the Third Reich, Goethe’s flame of transnational Enlightenment still burned bright.

As Alena Dvořáková has recently pointed out in a review-essay in the Dublin Review of Books (http://www.drb.ie/essays/life-death-clean-water) such idealistic notions of the universality of literature are in practice qualified by the relative lack of enthusiasm of London publishers for novelists writing in “minor” foreign languages – German and French publishers seem on the whole to be more adventurous. Tonkin would also admit that, in spite of a succession of fashions for foreign writers (“Latin” in the early 1980s following the success of Márquez and central European a few years later with Kundera, Škvorecký, Klima, Miłosz, Márai and others) there are still huge gaps on the map.

Especially in English, which has tended to give a tardy and tepid response to literature from elsewhere, the topography of translation still resembles the late 19th century atlas we had at home. In it, vast expanses of non-European land were no longer filled with quaint doodles of monsters but simply left blank.

And although this situation has begun to change and translations have emerged of works produced outside the European and American heartlands, the silences persist.

As an anthologist therefore, Tonkin is somewhat constrained in the degree to which he can be an innovator: if the work hasn’t been translated (or if the translation, as is sometimes the case, is a poor or very old-fashioned one) it can’t be included. And so we have many familiar names, and there is nothing wrong with this. We must assume that they are worth reading and many or most of us, unless we have had the untypical experience of spending a long stretch in prison, will probably not yet have read them, or all of them.

Tonkin, reasonably enough, confines himself to one work per author. Thus, while several Dostoevsky novels might feature in a top hundred, we have to be content with an account of one (though we can always read others): The Brothers Karamazov. Balzac is represented by Old Goriot, Zola by Germinal, Flaubert by Madame Bovary and Sartre by Nausea (rather you than me). Of the Germans, Goethe is there with Werther, Mann with The Magic Mountain, Döblin with Berlin Alexanderplatz and Grass with The Tin Drum.

Summaries of the novels come in at around a thousand words and are exactly what you would want them to be: clear, informative and unpretentious, with a brief note in each case on the qualities of the translation. And minor nations fare reasonably well – or at least European ones do: four Czechs, two Portuguese, two Norwegians, an Albanian. The exception – or almost exception – is of course ourselves, who chose, or were fated, to make ourselves at home in a neighbour’s language rather than broadcasting to the world in our own. Perhaps in some future edition Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, which has had two recent translations into English, might be considered. Until that time our blushes are spared by the inclusion of the trilogy Molloy/Malone meurt/L’Innommable and so we must be grateful to the Francophile Samuel Beckett, who, it is said, when asked if he was an English writer, replied “Au contraire.”

9/5/2019

Enda O’Doherty

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