Book clinic: which European fiction will revive my love of modernist novels?

Author and critic Alex Preston recommends fiction for fans of modernism

Q: I read Joyce and Beckett as a young man, and reading Milkman by Anna Burns recently and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders has reawakened my interest in modernist novels. European literature in translation is of particular interest.
Retired health professional, 70, Toronto

A: Alex Preston, author and critic, writes:
Far from being a “dead hand” (thanks for that, Ian McEwan), modernism, the “make it new” spirit of experimentation and risk-taking, is the engine that drives literature forward. If you haven’t read him already, there’s Roberto Bolaño. OK, so he’s not European – he’s from Chile – but his two greatest novels, The Savage Detectives and the epic 2666, will blow your mind. They are both rendered in luminous English by Natasha Wimmer.

I’ve recently fallen in love with the work of the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. Start with the Man Booker International-winning Flights, then move on to her masterpiece, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Unusually, Tokarczuk has two translatorsFlights was Jennifer Croft while Drive Your Plow... was Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Annie Ernaux’s The Years, translated by Alison L Strayer, is ostensibly the author’s autobiography, but if a book can be both sinuous and fragmentary, this one is, circling around the truth, presenting a collage of images, episodes, memories and flights of imagination. The narrative voice moves between the first person plural and the third person. It’s just a glorious novel – think JM Coetzee meets Joan Didion.

A few more, both translated and otherwise: how about the genius that is (or, sadly, was) José Saramago? Start with Blindness and move on to Seeing, the former translated by Giovanni Pontieri, the latter by Margaret Jull Costa. I’ve been raving to everyone about Marlon James’s latest, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, but if you’re into work that pushes at the boundaries of language and form, you should go for two earlier novels – the Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings and the devastating The Book of Night Women. Finally, Ali Smith is one of our greatest living novelists, the Virginia Woolf of our times. Read her seasonal quartet (never have I longed for a novel like I’m longing for Summer), read How to Be Both, read The Accidental, read everything!

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Alex Preston

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