10 European Modernists for Your Reading List

There is a reason why you may have never heard of many of the Modernist authors in this post.  They are European.  Meanwhile 90% of 95% of the must-read lists on the web are geared towards English language readers reading English language writers.  This is unfortunate for two reasons: they ignore a vast ocean of excellent writing; they also inculcate insularity in the English reading public.  There are tremendous books out there that have been well-translated into English.

If you haven’t already, you might want to read this post to get an idea about how hard it was to write about these authors.  To come up with these particular writers, I took a few dozen titles off the shelf and picked more or less randomly (except in two cases) so there would be a good mix of regions and styles.  I have read and can personally recommend most of the titles below.  Now, on to the writers!

[To save some space, all the authors works are listed under the translated titles.]

Edouard Dujardin-1861-1949-French.  Dujardin only wrote a handful of plays and novels.  His major contribution is the small novel, We’ll to the Woods No More, which introduced the technique of interior monologue or stream of consciousness writing which a number of other modernists used to great effect.  Not only creating the style, but employing it to great effect, the reader truly gets to see the character from the inside out.

Robert Musil-1880-1942-Austrian.  First trained as a mathematician and engineer and later studying psychology and philosophy, Musil wrote a number of short story collections and almost wrote two novels.  The first novel being The Confusion of Young Torless, but it is the second which is his greatest work.  The Man Without Qualities is one of the most important books written in the 20th century, which I believe outshines Joyce, Proust and Mann, but like many important novels, especially novels of ideas, it goes largely unread. The first two parts of his magnum opus had been published in 1930 and 1932.  He left Germany at the beginning of WWII for Switzerland, thinking he had plenty of time to finish his lifes work (what had become an obsession).  He was wrong.  He died in 1942 leaving the novel unfinished.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky-1887-1950-Russian.  Concentrating mostly on short stories and novellas, most of his work was passed around from reader to reader being considered to subversive to the new communist regime to even think about publishing it.  Ranging from philosophy to allegory to fantasy, he only came into the light of day in the 1970s.  While his writings have been published in a number of Russian anthologies, the book Memories of the Future, is the best collection of his writing.

Andre Gide-1869-1951-French.  Perhaps the best known author on this list.  Gide is the only one whose writing spans the entire period of Modernism.  Gide supported the Communist party until his visit to Russia in 1936 after which he disavowed his connection to them.  His best known work in English is the novel The Immoralist.  I have read it as well as The Coiners and Lafcadio’s Adventures.  Gide is always exploring boundaries, identity, freedom and mores.  Out of his dozens of titles in fiction and non-fiction, only a handful have been translated.  This is something that needs to change and this writer is the single reason why I am learning French now.

Louis Aragon-1897-1982-French. Yes, another French communist, but this one was a founding member of Surrealism.  Aragon, his nomme de plume, was a novelist, poet and editor.  His writing career lasted over fifty years.  I have read two of his, Telemachus, a story of Odysseus’ son and The Libertine (again, only a minor percentage have been translated), one of the seminal texts of Surrealism.  Both of these works are short but a joy to read and are skull packers.  He broke with the Surrealists before the war and with Stalinism much later.  Aragon fought with the resistance during WWII, returning to writing after the war.

Italo Svevo-1861-1928-??(at the time of his birth, Trieste belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  Best known for his novel Zeno’s Conscience, (his third novel) he should be a beacon to all writers out there who self-publish.    He did so at the age of 62.  Zeno went on to become a darling of both French and Italian critics and influenced Joyce in writing Ulysses.  Svevo (another pseudonym) went on to write 20 books.  This is the funniest masterpiece I have ever read.

 J.K. Huysmans-1848-1907-French.  The oldest of the writers listed here, many of his works come before the Modernist period began.  Huysmans’ first works fell in line with Naturalism that was in vogue in mid-century.  That was all to change with the 1884 publication of Against the Grain.  Emile Zola denounced Huysmans as undermining the Naturalist movement. Huysmans came to represent the decadent movement and the book named was used in Oscar Wilde’s trial as it had been a large influence on that writer’s own work.  He later moved onto symbolism.  Against the Grain is a fantastic book and even though I think there are many excellent examples of writing in this list, if you were to only read one, this would be one of my top recommendations.

Elias Canetti-1905-1994-Bulgarian.  We go from first to last as most of Canetti’s works were written after the war, but there is one title I want to bring to your attention.  Auto da Fe was published in 1935.  Another that was banned soon after publication, this time by the Nazis, it went largely unnoticed until 1960.   This is a masterpiece of character psychology.  Sharp, concise writing provides views into all the characters motivations and behavior.  This is at times hilarious, frustrating, poignant.

Andrei Bely-1880-1934-Russian.  Another pseudonym, Bely was a novelist, poet, theorist and critic.  Best known for his novel, Petersburg, it was published in 1913 and a revised edition in 1922.  In many ways it precedes Joyce’s Ulysses in style but went largely unnoticed and wasn’t translated into English until 1959.  One of the second generation of Russian Symbolists, Bely came to be considered one of the masters of the Russian language along with Pushkin and Gogol.  Petersburg is much more accessible than Ulysses, a romping exercise in rhythmic writing, and is just a lot more fun to read.

Knut Hamsun-1859-1952-Norwegian.  This is the last entry and the last writer to use a pseudonym (until the next list).  With a career spanning over 70 years, Hamsun wrote both fiction and non-fiction.  His first book and still his most well known is Hunger, about a starving writer.  He was very much a (neo-) Romantic.  In 1892, he picked up Dujardin’s use of the interior monologue and ran with it in the book Mysteries.  The style in this is very different than Hunger and gives the reader the sense they are riding a very fast, very rickety wooden roller coaster.  Hamsun is one of those examples of a good writer doing stupid things.  He presented Herman Goering with his Nobel prize medal when Hamsun met with him and Hitler during WWII.  Despite that, his work is very much worth reading.

If you want more information on any of these writers, please see this site.  It is interesting to note that many of these writers had studied mathematics and science, perhaps trying to make sense of the ways in which the world was changing during the early part of the 20th century.  But they all threw that over to devote themselves to fiction instead.  I hope you have enjoyed this brief foray into European Modernism.  Look for more entries soon.




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