Dispatches from 21st-Century Europe

As a specialist in the literature of Britain’s Romantic period, I had little occasion during graduate school or the first twelve years of my professorial career to venture outside the Anglophone world in my teaching and research. This suddenly changed, though, in 2012, when I began a five-year stint running BYU’s European Studies program. Besides providing regular opportunities to learn more about the history and politics of individual nations and the continent as a whole, this position brought new course assignments requiring me to expand my literary horizons in a hurry.

Eight years later, I am now teaching my fifth iteration of a European Studies course that uses contemporary fiction as a lens for examining major social, political, and aesthetic trends in modern Europe. Although I still have much to learn on the subject, I thought I would use this crack at writing the Humanities Center blog to recommend five newish titles that my European Studies students have especially appreciated. Here they are, then, in descending chronological order:

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009 in Polish; English transl. 2018). Few contemporary writers better illustrate the hit-and-miss nature of what gets translated and when than Tokarczuk, whose works were only just beginning to appear in English when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Along with her memoir-fiction hybrid Flights (also published in English in 2018), Drive Your Plow has been one of the breakout books of European “literary” fiction in recent years. A thoroughly engaging “eco-thriller” – and an all-too-rare example of a tale narrated by an elderly woman – this is a must-read for fans of William Blake (the protagonist is a Blake translator and aficionado) and those looking for smart and compelling dramatizations of modern environmental crises.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (especially Books 1 and 2) (2009–11 in Norwegian; English transl. 2012–19). One of the landmark artistic undertakings of the new century, Knausgaard’s six-part, 3,600-page autobiographical “novel” ranks among the most least likely literary sensations of any age. Although controversially titled Min Kamp in the original Norwegian, this series avoids referencing Hitler’s similarly titled memoir until its final installment. Until then, My Struggle painstakingly retraces both mundane and momentous scenes from its forty-something author’s largely unexceptional life. What would quickly grow tedious in most writers’ hands is inexplicably enthralling, as evidenced by the consistent levels of Knausgaard-mania among the students I have assigned to read Books 1 and 2. Contrary to my expectations and theirs, my students have consistently reported that the middle-aged Knausgaard’s neo-Proustian musings trigger a flood of reflections about their own childhood experiences, family relationships, and current place in the world.

Laurent Binet, HHhH (2010 in French; English transl. 2012). Were I to poll my present and former students, the likely winner of the “People’s Choice” award would be HHhH. This riveting postmodern historical novel retells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the 1942 Czech Resistance plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious SS commandant then serving as the Governor of Prague. Taking his title from the German aphorism “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich” (“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), Binet recaps Heydrich’s rise, the atrocities he oversaw, and the heroism of Jozef Gabčik, Jan Kubiš, and other “parachutists” tasked with killing him. More than just a thrilling war story, though, HHhH offers extended meditations on the methods and ethics of historical fiction. Binet regularly pauses to detail his research process, question his assumptions, and interrogate the efficacy of the historical novel in general. As a result, this winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt for 2010 has been widely hailed as a prototype for twenty-first-century historical fiction.

Jáchym Topol, The Devil’s Workshop (2009 in Czech; English transl. 2013): Another novel exploring the legacies of World War II, The Devil’s Workshop holds particular appeal for those with a taste for black humor. From his early years contributing to Communist-era Prague’s underground press and the Velvet Revolution, Topol has been among the most influential Czechs of his generation. In The Devil’s Workshop, he eschews the bleak realism of much contemporary European fiction, embracing instead absurdism to satirize the ongoing contest among Eastern European nations to attract Holocaust tourism by self-representing as the ultimate victims of Nazi atrocities. While not for everyone, this Winner of the 2013 English PEN Award for Writing in Translation seems destined to go down as one of the most original depictions of the Holocaust’s lingering effects on the Central and Eastern European psyche sixty years after the fact.

Geert Mak, In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century (1999 in Dutch; English transl. 2008). As the most catastrophic century in European history drew to a close, the Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak sought to chronicle and make better sense of this epoch by visiting the sites of its greatest triumphs and disasters. The resulting 900-page journey through the twentieth century crisscrosses the continent, alternating between sites synonymous with culture (London, Vienna, Paris) and barbarism (Verdun, Guernica, Srebrenica). Along the way, Mak interviews scores of living eyewitnesses to the century’s great events, making this perhaps the most affecting and personal history of modern Europe.


This post was written by Nick Mason, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

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