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!

Submit your question for book clinic below or email bookclinic@observer.co.uk

Contributor

Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Book clinic: excellent shorter novels
Great literature isn’t all weighty tomes, as this selection from novelist Ayòbámi Adébáyò proves

Ayòbámi Adébáyò

18, Jan, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: novels to unwind with
From Anna Karenina to a bank manager’s adventures with his eccentric aunt, our expert selects the best escapist reads

Rachel Joyce

19, May, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which modern novelists could rekindle my love of fiction?
From Barbara Kingsolver to Julian Barnes, our expert picks the best storytellers for someone who has given up novels for gardening

Alex Clark

29, Jul, 2018 @10:47 AM

Article image
Book clinic: which fiction best depicts therapy and therapists?
Incisive novels from the psychiatrist’s chair and beyond

Bijal Shah

20, Jul, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: can you recommend modern fiction to replace my love of classics?
Francis Spufford and Michèle Roberts will satisfy a classical bent, or try going cold turkey with a graphic novel

Claire Armitstead

21, Sep, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: can you recommend adventure novels for adults?
Tales of derring-do for the grown-ups

Andrew Martin

07, Sep, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what contemporary literary fiction is uplifting?
From tales of older people achieving extraordinary things to a redemptive quest, our expert picks titles that offer hope

Alex Preston

19, Jan, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: can you recommend novels and nonfiction books about cats?
There are so many literary felines to savour

Jessie Burton

10, Aug, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: are there any novels about the climate crisis?
Novelist Melissa Harrison recommends climate-change fiction

Melissa Harrison

21, Mar, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what are the best novels about ancient Greeks and Romans?
From the Odyssey to a toga-clad detective, Natalie Haynes picks her favourite fiction about classical antiquity

Natalie Haynes

14, Jul, 2018 @5:00 PM