Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Mr & Mrs B's Battle of the Classics

Mr & Mrs B's Battle of the Translated Classics - Andric vs Alain-Fournier

Coming up with a reading strategy is always fun in the New Year but when you are a bookshop owner it presents a real challenge. Where to start with book group books, advance reading copies, brand new, fab looking titles, kids' books etc....and by the end of the year we never seem to have read enough of the classics. So this year, we have a new "classics with a twist"plan. In between the regular book group reads and contemporary titles, we (i.e. Mr & Mrs B) will each read a classic translated fiction title starting with surname "A" and working down the alphabet. And we'll let you know what we thought of them - warts and all - right HERE.

Ivo Andric vs Alain-Fournier

First up for Mr B was Ivo Andric "The Bridge over the Drina"
(Harvill, £10.99. Originally Published in 1945 in Serbo-Croat).

In 25 words: Stone bridge built by C16 Turkish Grand Vezir stands witness to 350 years of Balkan upheaval in fascinating history lesson cum epic multi-character novel.

In more than 25 words: This incredible novel is splattered with eye-opening (and often head-losing) stories illustrating the tension between Bosnians and Serbs and the Turks and then Austro-Hungarians that ruled over them during the second half of the last millenium. A biographical novel of a bridge built at the town of Visegrad by a Bosnian-born Grand Vezir in memory of his last journey from his homeland from which he was plucked by the Turks as a young boy.

Beginning with the long and bloody construction of the bridge and then moving fitfully forward through 350 years, Andric introduces us to an endless stream of sometimes loveable, sometimes roguish Visegrad residents (often cleverly linking back to their descendents who we may have encountered in previous chapters). The bridge often looms large in the stories - a Turkish bride leaps from it to avoid marriage; a comically-described gambler loses his biggest bet (and possibly his marbles) on it; the new governing forces of the Austro-Hungarian empire are met by the town's elders for the first time on it; drunks teeter across its parapet and innumerable people end up impaled, beheaded or even pinned-by-the-ear to it.

Through these vignettes of life in Visegrad and on its stone bridge across the Drina, you gradully gain an understanding of the region's tumultous history right up to the outbreak of WW1 following the Archduke's assassination in relatively nearby Sarajevo. For me the most remarkable aspect of the novel is the multitude of perspectives that Andric gives you on the momentous events taking place in the big and scary world outside Visegrad, as he shows us those events through the eyes of Turks, Serbs, Bosnians and Austrians and Jews, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Moslems.
Andric won the Nobel Prize for this novel and it really wider recongition as a genuine C20 classic here in the UK.
- v. -

First choice for Mrs B was Henri Alain-Fournier "The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes)"
(Penguin, £8.99. Originally published in 1913 in French).

Among the reviews which paper our downstairs toilet at Mr B's is an article all about this book which few English people seem to have heard of, but which to French people is as famous as "Great Expectations" is to us British. It is billed as one of the defining coming-of-age stories of French literature and the introduction draws parallels with The Great Gatsby. Every time I visit the toilet I am reminded of it and, bring half-French, feel it my duty to give it a go. felt it remiss of me not to have read it and was excited at the prospect.

The narrator is a teenage schoolboy in a French provincial town at the end of 19th Century. His routine life is turned upside down with the arrival at the school of the charismatic, larger than life Augustin Meulnes. The "Great Meaulnes" disappears one evening, returning a few days later telling of a mysterious, candlelit wedding party in a crumbling estate, with costumed guests and an impossibly beautiful girl. As Meaulnes tries to reconstruct a way back to the dreamy lost estate, he manages to alienate his schoolmates and then the visit of a strange gypsy and his friend lead to some sinister goings-on.

I won't give away any more of the plot here. It is a story of nostalgic longing for the past. On the one hand, Meaulnes' yearning to relive his magical experience means he can't move on with his life. On the other hand, he is desperate to escape his adolescence, with all its emotional constraints.

It is an intriguing read which I enjoyed immensely although I must say I think I came at it with my expectations perhaps too high. The atmosphere he creates around the lost estate and the sense of wistful longing I found superb. However it lacked the intensity of other French novels I have read. Although I found it a good translation, perhaps it is a book which should be read in the original if at all possible since its strength lies in the prose and not the plot.

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