From Les Miserables to Madame Bovary, here are seven classic European novels you should add to your reading list.
It took seventeen years for Hugo to write this epic novel set in impoverished 19th century Paris. Made up of interrelated stories that follow his characters’ lives, Les Miserables explores how deprivation leads to crime, and ends with the Paris Uprising of 1832. Using big theatrical scenes, extremes of characters, and a fondness for ‘The Fallen Woman’, Hugo’s novel has a fairytale quality which delivers his left-wing message with a punch.
This tale of three murderous, ultra-masculine, womanising soldiers using their wit and brute strength to defeat the enemy became one of the first truly popular novels in literary history, and was translated from French countless times within its first year of publication. Although The Three Musketeers was written in the 19th century and set in the 17th century, it has all the ingredients of a modern gripping novel.
Flaubert’s powerful leading lady shook 19th century France by searching for romance outside her unsatisfactory marriage. The portrayal of her erotic behaviour challenged the meek, submissive expectations society had of women and was considered immoral and blasphemous, creating a national scandal which resulted in the book being banned. Although the story line is no longer as shocking to a 21st century audience, the tale of a woman looking for a way out of a loveless marriage is still incredibly relevant.
One of the most famous novels to come out of Austria, The Trial is a story of crime and authority - topics both glaringly relevant almost 100 years on. This profound psychological horror has an experimental style, teetering between reality and fantasy throughout. Kafka’s Czech, Jewish, German-speaking heritage left him alienated in the Austro-Hungarian empire, a feeling he reproduces in the reader through uncertainty, leaving us hungry for answers until the very last page.
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Cervantes’ satirical observation of the human condition is classed as Europe’s first ‘modern’ novel and has sold over 500 million copies since it was first published in the early 17th century. We follow Don Quixote and Sancho Panza - one of the original comedy duos - as they journey through 16th century Spain in search of adventure. Cervantes words were celebrated in 2005 on the 400th anniversary of publication, where the Prime Minister of Spain claimed that the book expresses ‘the basic law of life’. Keep your eyes peeled for a film adaptation by Terry Gilliam, entitled ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ which is coming to screens in 2018.
Written in German, set in Italy and influenced by Plato and Nietzsche, Death in Venice follows a character with writer’s block who becomes obsessed with a beautiful boy, resulting in an unlikely love affair which is considered by many to mask the author’s own homosexuality. Mann’s distinctly ironic narrative voice has been transformed into opera, radio, ballet, theatre, and film, and won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929.
Spyri’s best loved children’s novel depicts an idyllic life in the Swiss alps for orphan Heidi and her Grandfather, a previously secluded and embittered man until influenced by his Granddaughter. Spyri’s simple construction of Heidi’s moralistic world is one of the best known works of Swiss literature, and even has a tourist destination named after it. If you’re ever in Eastern Switzerland, be sure to visit Heidiland.