Scott Esposito: Before Compass, Enard’s best-known work in the States was Zone (which you also translated), famously a one-sentence novel of about 500 pages in length, delving very deeply into the life, culture, and history of the “Mediterranean zone,” more or less North Africa and Southern Europe. Could you talk a little about what this new book is, and how it compares to Zone?
Charlotte Mandell: Zone was narrated in a stream-of-consciousness narrative while the narrator was in an enclosed space (on a train from Milan to Rome); Compass has a similar constraint in that the narrator is also in the enclosed space of his bedroom, and the entire book is narrated during one night of insomnia while the narrator, Franz Ritter, looks back over his life and travels and pines for his lost love, Sarah. The scene of Ritter’s travels centers not on the Mediterranean basin this time but on the East — on Syria, Iran, and Turkey mostly. It’s a kind of melancholy ode to the Orient, to an East that exists only in the narrator’s mind now that most of the places he has visited have been ripped apart by war and revolution.
SE: What are some of the challenges and pleasures of translating this book?
CM: Since Ritter is a very well-read Viennese musicologist focusing on the influence of the East on the West, he refers often to Arabic-language and Persian books and poems with which I am unfamiliar; it was a challenge tracking down all the references to books and musical pieces Ritter makes. The challenges were curiously like the pleasures, since I love classical music and grew up listening to it, but many of the pieces Ritter mentions (Félicien David’s symphonic ode Le Désert, for instance) were unfamiliar to me, so I grew to know them — fortunately YouTube was a huge help. Fitzcarraldo has posted a playlist to most (but not all!) of the musical pieces mentioned in Compass:
SE: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the geographies of Zone vis a vis Compass. These are places that will exist very differently in the mind of a Frenchman versus an American. Could you tell us a little about why Enard chose to center a major novel around nations like Syria, Iran, and Turkey, and what the reception was like from the French reading public and the critics?
CM: Énard teaches Arabic at the University of Barcelona and has lived for long periods of time in both Syria and Iran. Compass is dedicated to the people of Syria; just as Europe looked on while Yugoslavia burned in the 1990s, a similar thing is happening now with Syria. While the narrator of Zone was half-Croatian and fought in that Yugoslav war, the narrator of Compass is half-French, and speaks both German and French fluently. One of the themes of Compass is the importance of the Other and the danger of over-identifying with one particular nationality; the only way we as humans can grow, spiritually and emotionally, is to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures and to realize that nationalism is a construct — there is no such thing as a fixed identity. I think this message resonated with the French reading public, since Compass received glowing reviews and won the Prix Goncourt in 2015, France’s highest literary honor.
SE: Could you talk a little more in-depth about the relationship of the musicology to the concerns of the novel at large? Reading your response, I’m instantly reminded of Mann’s great Doctor Faustus, where of course the ideas behind twelve-tone music become enmeshed with the long history of the Germanic people and their fall into Nazism. I’m quite intrigued to know more . . .
CM: Franz Ritter is interested in the influence of Eastern composers on Western music; we tend generally to think of the two traditions as being completely separate and as developing independently of each other, but his argument is that throughout the nineteenth century, and even before that, Western composers like Liszt, Félicien David, and Rimsky-Korsakov incorporated Eastern themes and musical tropes into their work. Some examples: Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, which incorporates a Turkish march into it; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, based on The Thousand and One Nights; Schubert, who set to music some poems of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, itself based on the poems of Hafez. And then in the other direction there’s Giuseppe Donizetti, brother of the famous opera composer Gaetano; in the Levant he was called Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha and became the music teacher to the Sultan of Constantinople Mahmud II from 1828 on.
Thomas Mann is an important figure in Compass as well, since Ritter holds a long conversation with him in his head at one point; he comes up with a very funny division of all European artists into two kinds: the tubercular, or the public, the social; and the syphilitic, or the private, the shameful. He also inveighs against Wagner for his racism and isolationism, and for his poor treatment of the great Jewish composer Meyerbeer — whom he imitated in his early works.
SE: One aspect of Zone that was fascinating was all of the little- known historical episodes that Enard weaves in. What are some of the episodes here from Eastern history that might surprise people?
CM: This isn’t Eastern history, but at one point Ritter quotes from a text written by Sarah (another great Orientalist scholar, with whom he is in love) about Balzac’s friendship with the Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, which led to a text in Arabic being included in the second, 1837, edition of La Peau de chagrin; this text was not present in the first, 1831 edition.
Another surprising historical tidbit is that the Germans and Austrians launched an appeal for global jihad in 1914 — they wanted Muslim troops to rise up against their enemies, the English, French and Russians. The Germans actually created a camp for Muslim prisoners of war outside Berlin; it was called the Camp of the Crescent, or the Halbmondlager — you can see the Wiki entry for it here:
SE: This book starts in the deeps of night and ends just before daybreak. Would you call it a hopeful book?
CM: The book ends with the “sunlight of hope” filtering through. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that against the hopelessness of death and war there is the profession of love, which is always a hopeful (and timeless) thing.
SE: What do you make of the titular metaphor, a compass that points not North but East, and which was owned by Beethoven?
CM: One of the themes of the book is the importance of learning that one’s identity is not fixed but fluid; a person is not defined by his or her nation or genes but by their openness to the other, to the seemingly foreign, to the new and strange. Beethoven broke new ground in his music, as in his Opus 111 which Franz points out has only two movements instead of the usual three, and features an incredible syncopated section in the second movement that heralds the rhythms of jazz. By owning a compass that points east instead of north, Franz (and Beethoven) show us that everything is relative: nothing is absolute, since everything is filtered through the subjectivity of each individual consciousness. In a Tibetan mandala, for instance, the main gate of the palace always faces east, not north. The important thing is not to take anything for granted, to keep one’s mind open to other realities and not to posit one’s own reality as the only one, since that way madness (or terrorism) lies.