Loving translated and ‘world’ fiction as I do, I took a chance on downloading The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction from Netgalley. It is a Columbia University Press publication, and for a recommended reading book it is vast; in its physical form, it runs to almost 500 pages. The Complete Review itself was founded in 1999, and the advent of the Internet made it far easier to compile such a book, focusing as it does upon ‘global inclusivity’. This is undeniably wonderful news for the bookish amongst us.
In his introduction, M.A. Orthofer writes: ‘Because American authors provide an enormous amount and variety of work, American readers are arguably spoiled for choice even before resorting to fiction from abroad. With novels and stories set in every imaginable locale… and styles ranging from the most accessible to the wilfully experimental, American fiction could well cover it all’. The importance of fiction in translation is highlighted from the outset. Orthofer goes on to add, ‘… foreign literature can offer entirely new dimensions and perspectives’. Indeed, it is a manner with which to learn about the world, whether in terms of paths untrodden in different locales, or with regard to the history of a particular area.
The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is organised geographically – which, of course, throws up its own problems at times – but it is perhaps the best, and most comprehensive, way of arranging such a collection. Each geographical region has been split into sections; for instance, if a country had a particular literary movement as part of its history, it has been included. An introduction to each chapter has been given, which briefly discusses the literary tradition in each country or region, and leads seamlessly into the recommendations themselves. Whilst Orthofer does mention the more obvious choices, new authors are never far behind, be they cutting edge, or just forgotten in the depths of time.
A broad range of reads have been included, and the quantity of them is so vast that one wonders how Orthofer himself has managed to read them all. He often talks about 1,000+ plus works which are well worth checking out. Many different genres have been taken into account, and also included are the recommended starting points for some of the more prolific authors available in English translation.
To give you an idea of some of the recommendations, we shall take France as our starting point. A country with a rich history, one already knows that French literary output is strong within its English translations, and I am sure that many of us could name several contemporary authors, such as Muriel Barbery and Michel Houellebecq, for instance. Orthofer goes one better, drawing interesting and original novellas and short story collections by the likes of Jean-Marie Gustave de Clezio, Boris Vian, Albert Cohen, Philippe Sollers, Herve la Tellier, and Anne Garreta to the fore.
The only two discrepancies about this book are that ‘contemporary’ is used loosely, and seems to contain any author writing from the early twentieth century on, and that it places such emphasis upon translated fiction in its introduction that one would think such fiction was the only genre incorporated. Not so. In fact, there is an extensive section written about the United Kingdom, Ireland, and America, which I did not expect to find at the outset.
Despite these two small qualms which I had with the whole, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is invaluable for any serious reader. It is possible to fill rather a large notebook with its recommendations, and makes one itch to track down books which have particularly caught their attention. Clearly a labour of love, Orthofer’s book is well written and far-reaching, and will be a welcome addition to any bookshelf (or Kindle). It is in the vein of the Bloomsbury series of recommended reading books, but it goes so much further than any effort I have previously seen. The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is the perfect companion for armchair travelling, and its quirky inclusions – including such things as ‘Greek mathematical fiction’ – will make any reader want to broaden their horizons.