Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

A tour of foreign literature

Cherwell's Books contributors take us around the world.

CW: mentions of Nazism, sexual coercion, and violence

The world of foreign fiction is diverse and rich but often underrepresented, which is exactly what we are hoping to change! Our contributors have put forward a collection of some of their favourite books by authors from across the globe. So, enjoy a ‘tour’ through some great recommendations of world literature and maybe you’ll find your next read!

Norway: Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen – recommended by Rowena Sears

Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 tragedy feels more relevant with every reading. The eponymous protagonist, an aristocrat in a loveless marriage to a mundane academic, could not be further from the angelic heroine we have come to expect of women in nineteenth-century literature. Frustrated with her lack of autonomy over her own life, Hedda seeks to dominate and destroy those around her, depriving them of their fragile happiness. However, Ibsen makes it difficult for us as readers to completely dislike her; Hedda is a victim of a society which refuses to allow women any control over their own lives, and her unwanted pregnancy, her fear of scandal, and her experiences of sexual coercion are issues which, unfortunately, we can understand and relate to over a century after the play’s first performance.

Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – recommended by Antara Singh

My Brilliant Friend is the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels; it traces the story of two best friends, Elena and Lila, growing up during the 1950s, in a poor yet lively neighbourhood in the outskirts of Naples, Italy. On the surface, it’s a coming-of-age novel, but what made it such an incredible read was how Ferrante managed to weave in a litany of other themes. It’s a story about male violence, the results of the patriarchy on women’s creativity, social class, adolescent love, left-wing politics, power, and shoes. Ferrante uses Italy’s turbulent historical and political background in the first half of the twentieth century to explore the girls’ livelihoods and uses them in turn to deepen our understanding of the social fabric of Italy itself. My Brilliant Friend is not only the story of these two girls and their transition to womanhood, but the story of a neighbourhood, a city, and a nation.

Czech Republic: The Trial by Franz Kafka – recommended by Elena Buccisano

The Trial, for me, was a charity shop impulse buy after recognising the name of its author, Franz Kafka. As the writer of the famous Metamorphosis, I had heard tales of Kafka as an elusive and mystifying writer – and The Trial certainly solidified that impression. Fundamentally, this novel relates the perplexing experiences of a man arrested on a charge which is never specified to the reader, but within this narrative Kafka is clearly trying to elucidate some of the fundamental dilemmas of human life. The novel is psychologically intense, often frustrating, but fantastic. Ultimately, you realise that what the protagonist is charged with is not really important – what is more frustrating is the mechanics of justice and the absurdity of life itself. It is almost unlike any book I have read before.

France: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan – recommended by Eliza Browning

I’ve been on a French literature binge recently, so impulse buying Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse for fifty percent off in Heathrow in December turned out to be an unexpectedly perfect decision. First published in 1954, when the author was only 18, the novel caused an instant sensation in the French media for its portrayal of sensual, amoral bourgeois intellectuals. The novella-length book is short enough that you can devour it in an entire afternoon, and is the ideal stylish beach or plane read, full of suspenseful descriptions of languid summer days and the shimmering French Riviera. Perfect for fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Elena Ferrante.

Russia: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – recommended by Anna Stephen

When our tyre burst on the M11 a few years back, I found myself stuck in a garage accompanied only by my family and a packet of McVitie’s Gold Bars. However, as luck would have it, I happened to be carrying a copy of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in my luggage. This is a story that interweaves a plot about the devil appearing as a magician in 1930s atheist Moscow, wreaking havoc upon the city, with an account of Pontius Pilate’s officiation of the trial of Jesus. The casual, happy-go-lucky attitude of the characters, the ludicrousness of events, and the totally flippant manner of narration (interpreted and conveyed wonderfully by translators Burgin and O’Connor) come together to create a healthy dose of escapism and satire that could make up for a puncture any day. I can’t remember enjoying many novels as much as I enjoyed this one.

Algeria: The Plague by Albert Camus – recommended by Matthew Holland

Going into reading The Plague by Albert Camus I was acutely aware of two things about the book: first, that this book was laced with an extended metaphor of the tyranny of the Nazi Regime as being akin to a plague-like existence, and second, that Camus is renowned principally as a philosopher as opposed to a novelist. Despite the obvious parallels that can be made between the Plague and the Nazi Regime, this book also seems scarily prophetic in our plague-stricken world, with the imposition of harsh measures to control the Plague and the separation caused by quarantining being realities which we have ourselves experienced. Ultimately, its greatest messages lie in its teaching of the selfless public servant, acting to save lives and grant humanity and dignity to a depersonalised world. The Plague should certainly be considered recommended reading for all of us who have experienced the world of this novel become reality.

India: Ecstatic Poems by Mirabai (Versions by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield) – recommended by Shayon Mukherjee

There are few poets with works so venerated that the poets themselves enjoy a deification of sorts. However, one Rajasthani princess from the 16th century, the ‘poet-saint’ Mirabai, has managed to achieve this feat. In artfully rendered English, Bly and Hirshfield choose poems from Mira’s works that, when read in the presented order, tell a secret story of a divine love lost and rediscovered. Casting aside the obligations of her caste and family, she surrenders herself physically, spiritually and sexually to The Dark One, an enigmatic figuration of Lord Krishna as a divine lover. Mira has attained a legendary status among Indians the world over. Her biographers tell us few facts about her life and tend to prefer recounting a patchwork of folkloric tales about her associates, marriage and politics, all of which draw heavily from her passionate, enigmatic poetry – poetry of love, despair, surrender and ultimately, divine reconciliation.

Japan: The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki – recommended by Serena Kerrigan

Tanizaki’s novel, The Makioka Sisters, was serialized between 1943 and 1948, charting the conflict between a traditional Edo period Japan, and a modern world emerging with the advent of the Second World War. The novel resembles Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in its concern with the vicissitudes, foibles, and joys of a group of four sisters from an aristocratic family in Osaka. Each sister is constrained by the societal injunction to succeed in the marriage market and to sustain the family name, but they are equally free spirits in their own ways. The novel’s Japanese title, Sasameyuki (細雪), meaning lightly falling snow, is given visual representation in the poetic descriptions of the falling cherry blossoms which the four sisters routinely visit in early spring. It is passages like this in the novel which capture the beauty of the Japanese landscape, and the passing of a way of life.

Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – recommended by Thomas Bristow

One Hundred Years of Solitude is perhaps the most famous work of the magical realism genre, and possibly of Latin American literature. The narrative is set in the fictional town of Macondo, and our characters are its inhabitants and the many successive generations of the Buendía family. The story is grand and mythic, involving the larger themes of time and fate. But what I loved most about it was the complete uniqueness of Marquez’s imagination. Owing to its style, this is a quite unconventional book. Bizarre and intriguing characters and witness to bizarre and intriguing events. The increasingly confusing Buendía family are timeless in their eccentricity, and the narrative tumbles until it reaches a poignant end. This is a story of one family’s presence in a rapidly changing world. With the greatest opening line of any book, One Hundred Years of Solitude is fascinating, and quite simply brilliant.

Brazil: The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector – recommended by Ned Summers

There is no other author that makes as convincing a case for the novel as a unique medium for storytelling as Clarice Lispector. In The Passion According to G.H. (A paixão segundo G.H.) G.H., the narrator, attempts to give a report of a short experience she had the previous day. The account is also an attempt to understand the shift that this experience has forced upon her and the world that she suddenly finds herself living in. It is a tortured read. Lispector writes in the introduction “I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly.” If you can give yourself over to the book, you will discover that Lispector, even in translation, distills into perfect text the disturbing moment in which someone’s world changes irrevocably. A masterpiece of Brazilian, and world, literature.

Contributors: Rowena Sears, Anna Stephen, Matthew Holland, Antara Singh, Shayon Mukherjee, Thomas Bristow, Serena Kerrigan, Ned Summers, Elena Buccisano, Eliza Browning.

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles