"I haven’t read a modern French novel that didn’t make me recoil"

From an interview with Boston Globe books columnist Katherine Powers:

Do you read translated foreign fiction or what is popularly called literature in translation? Name me a couple of titles you have enjoyed in the past.

I do, but most have been nineteenth-century Russian and French novels—the usual suspects—and some truly great twentieth century ones: Halldor Laxness’s Independent People (translated from the Icelandic by J.A. Thompson), Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally), and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (translated from the German by Michael Hofmann; titled Alone in Berlin in the U.K. and perhaps other parts of the world) and Wolf Among Wolves (translated from the German by Philip Owens). As for the present century: I recently read Leif GW Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (translated from the Swedish by Paul Norlen), a splendid crime novel based on the assassination of Olof Palme, and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer), the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning novel, another fine book. The absolutely best novel of any sort I read all year was in fact translated from the Swedish—though in the 1950s and published first in two parts in the 1940s, now republished by New York Review Books—Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships (translated by Michael Meyer). It is a simply brilliant novel about the Vikings at the turn of the millennium, late 900s to 1000s. I know no Swedish, but it seems to me that this is one of the very great translations, so subtle, so witty. As for the literature of rest of the enormous world: I am lamentably ignorant—and Asia is, alas, a closed book to me. (You know my tastes now, so put me on it.) And in some other cases, I don’t seem to be on the right wavelength. I haven’t read a modern French novel that didn’t make me recoil: Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, for instance, practically made me throw up.

While I can’t disagree with the take on Hedgehog, and while I think Powers has good taste overall, modern French literature has been done a great disservice here. Powers might look here, or here, or here, or here, for starters.

And I imagine that some of you have your own titles to recommend to Ms. Powers.

Recent Posts

Criticism Isn't Free

CR is dedicated to thoughtful, in-depth criticism without regard to what's commercially appealing. It takes tens of hours each month to provide this. Please help make this sort of writing sustainable, either with a subscription or a one-time donation. Thank you!

You could also purchase one of my acclaimed ebooks.

1 Comment

Got Something To Say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Salut to Katharine Powers, who does battle for both readers and authors!

Living in France for five years now, I read French fiction. I agree that the Hedgehog has no clothes: it is a purile confection. (Novels touted in the US as the Second Coming also often disappoint.) And yes, I periodically need a hit of Maupassant to clear my airways. But there is good original fiction happening here. The question is, where are the publishers to translate? From recent novels here are a few ‘tips chauds’for risk-loving editors, if these novels aren’t yet available in English:

– Un Roman Russe (2007) Emmanuel Carrere — a broad-palette, brilliantly wrought, cynical, personal, moving discovery of self and Russia
– any of the many hilarious, generous and incredibly inventive novels of Didier Cauwelaert — an entertainer of the first water
– La Ritournelle de la Faim by J.G. M DeClezio (the biography of his mother, a girl in Paris in the Occupation–the disappearance of a bourgeois family into sheer hunger) He got the Nobel in in 2008 but what does that prove?

As for this year’s Goncourt winner, I am slogging through the glittery merde of the modern art world laid out in Michel Houellebecq’s newest, The Map and the Territory. I would rather recommend his fierce first novel (Extension of the…) and second (The Elementary Particles), easy to find in English in paperback.

Now, if you would like to hear about some astonishingly rich new German fiction…


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2019. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.