Boyd Tonkin

Foreign fields: Boyd Tonkin chooses his favourite shorter classics in translation

A wide range of authors includes Colette, Italo Calvino, Clarice Lispector, Natalia Ginzburg and Tove Jansson

Colette, author of Chéri , aged 20. Getty Images

If I had a rouble or a euro for every reader who fulfilled their lockdown promise to devour Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Proust my bank account would hardly grow by a single penny. Duty, guilt and pride never made the pages turn more swiftly, whatever a book’s length. Almost all vows to catch up on doorstopper classics from the global canon will have failed to outlast the fallen blossoms. Yet you might more realistically blend discovery and delight by exploring some of the smaller miracles of great fiction in translation.

Freshly completed, in first-rate new translations, the 75 volumes of Georges Simenon’s Maigret mysteries bear witness to a Penguin Modern Classics project of majestic scope and unflagging quality. Chaste, chiselled prose; piercing psychology; surgical scene-setting — in Paris and provincial France — of keyhole precision; gnawing moral complexities: a multi-course feast awaits newcomers to the Belgian master.

Another French-language purveyor of concentrated tastes on smallish plates, Colette may also prove addictive. I would start with Chéri and its sequel The Last of Chéri, as their imperishable — and impenitent — heroine Léa progresses from shrewd courtesan to stricken lover of toy-boy Fred to, finally, free-spirited grand old baggage. But then the modern French art of impure passion conveyed in the purest, jewel-like prose remains a thing of wonder, from Raymond Radiguet’s The Devil in the Flesh to Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.

Léa progresses from shrewd courtesan to stricken lover to free-spirited grand old baggage

When it comes to love, understatement and ellipsis has its poetry too. Although the English pride (or curse) themselves on sensitively veiled passions, no fictional tradition achieves this better than Japan’s. Sample the beautifully oblique and drily funny portrait of a marriage, and a life, in Natsume Soseki’s The Gate, or anything by Yasunari Kawabata — with Snow Country a lovely entry point.

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