The Polish author Bolesław Prus has been likened to both Chekhov and Tolstoy. Born Aleksander Głowacki (Prus was a pen name), at the age of 15 he joined the 1863 Polish Uprising against Imperial Russia, in which he was badly injured. Later he became an influential newspaper columnist with a particular interest in science and technology, and published many keenly observed, often humorous short stories. He also wrote four novels on the ‘great questions of our age’, of which THE DOLL was the second. Czesław Milosz, the Polish Nobel laureate, held it to be the greatest Polish novel and an outstanding example of nineteenth-century realistic prose.
Set in 1878, THE DOLL paints a panoramic picture of late nineteenth-century Warsaw society, its tensions, politics, class divisions and attempts at social reform. It tells of an energetic young entrepreneur, Wokulski, who becomes infatuated with Izabela, the daughter of a bankrupt aristocrat. The title refers both to an incident with a stolen toy and also, by implication, to Izabela herself. THE DOLL has been translated into 21 languages and filmed several times. This link provides a wealth of further reading about the book. Although a classic in Poland, it was almost a century before it was published in English in 1972, in a translation by David Welsh.
1972 was a great year all round for literature in English translation. FAMILY TIES, a collection of short stories by the grande dame of Brazilian literature, Clarice Lispector, first appeared in a translation from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero. (You’ll hear more about Lispector and Pontiero in #TA60 1992!) Other first translations into English that year include MY MICHAEL by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange (more on this author-translator team in #TA60 2002), and Halldór Laxness’ magnum opus UNDER THE GLACIER, translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson (cf. THE FISH CAN SING, #TA60 1966).
For almost 300 years Norway and Denmark were united kingdoms, and Danish was the sole official language. When the two countries separated in 1814 a linguistic struggle ensued in Norway with different versions of written and spoken Norwegian competing for official recognition. The heavily Danish-influenced Norwegian of the 19th century urban and educated classes evolved into what became known and sanctioned as Bokmål, or ‘book language’, while Nynorsk, or ‘new Norwegian’, predominated in the rural west. Nynorsk is based on the ‘people’s language’ (Folkespråk) proposed by the 19th century linguist Ivar Aasen, assembled using Norwegian dialects that had retained their regional character. The Norwegian language conflict is still a politically contentious issue today; variant spellings are allowed, people are encouraged to speak their local dialect, and there is no officially sanctioned spoken language.
The great Norwegian author Tarje Vesaas wrote in Nynorsk, contributing to its acceptance as a medium of world-class literature. Vesaas’ works are characterised by their rural settings, spare, evocative prose, and the sensitive depiction of characters’ psychological trauma. His masterpiece THE ICE PALACE, which takes its name from the caves of a frozen waterfall, tells of an intense friendship between two young girls, one of whom carries a dreadful secret. Doris Lessing described it as ‘unique… unforgettable… extraordinary’. THE ICE PALACE was translated into English by Elizabeth Rokkan in 1966.
Another Nordic novel first published in English in 1966 is THE FISH CAN SING by the Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author Halldór Laxness. It was translated by Magnus Magnusson. Best known in the UK as the presenter of the long-running television quiz show Mastermind, Magnusson was also a journalist and author, and a prolific translator of Icelandic and Old Norse literature, including other works by Halldór Laxness and several classic Norse sagas.
Julio Cortázar’s ground-breaking novel HOPSCOTCH can be read in different ways. It is divided into 155 chapters and employs a variety of different perspectives and non-linear narrative techniques. The author invited his readers to read the episodes consecutively, or to ‘hopscotch’ through them according to his ‘table of instructions’, which shows the events in a different light. Alternatively, readers may choose their own paths through the book, playing on the idea of the reader as the author’s ‘co-conspirator’. Like Carlos Fuentes (cf. #TA60 1964), the Argentine novelist was part of the huge international success of modernist writers from his region in the 1960s and ‘70s known as the Latin American Boom. HOPSCOTCH is often regarded as the first ‘Boom’ novel. It first became accessible to English readers in 1966 in a translation by the great Gregory Rabassa.