The World's Best Unknown Books
24 11 2014

The Finnegan's List asks for Schwob titles

Are the names of Melpo Axioti, Knud Sønderby and Marek Hłasko familiar to you? If not – which is probably the case for most of us – on October 29, 2014, there was an opportunity to change that.
Three contemporary authors from Finnegan’s List juries met at the Public Library in Amsterdam to speak about these three modern European classics. For the evening, Christos Chrissopoulos, Jens Christian Grøndahl and Arnon Grunberg played the role of ambassador for these relatively unknown writers.

The adventurous life of Melpo Axioti (1905-1973) reflects symbolically the tumultuous history of Greece. Melpo Axioti grew up on the island of Mykonos, a place where many layers of languages and cultures entwine. She won an award for her first novel Difficult Nights (1937), became a member of the Greek Communist Party and was forced into exile in 1947 (first in France, later in the GDR).

Christos Chrissopoulos presented the novel-memoir My Home, a work exploring a number of stylistic techniques: dual narrative, intertextuality, mise en abyme, self-reference, etc., thus constituting, according to Chrissopoulos, one of the earliest examples of Greek post-modernism.
Axioti began to work on this novel in exile as a way to analyse her attachment to the Greek language and her birthplace but also to interrogate her own consciousness, a “courageous self-exploration”, said Chrissopoulos. The book acts as a mirror and, particularly in the current political and economical context, this palimpsest is an example of how culture and language can be “a common good.”

Some people in the public were quite impressed by the presentation, so, acting spontaneously, Arnon Grunberg launched a crowdfunding initiative to publish the novel in a major European language (an excerpt in Dutch can already be found here).

And it is still time to join the crowd-funding campaign!

Arnon Grunberg presented the James Dean of Polish letters – Marek Hłasko and his short novel Killing the Second Dog. It is the story of two Polish emigrants who try to seduce rich, elderly American ladies on the beach of Tel Aviv, a book full of black humour and brutal realism. This “born rebel and troublemaker of immense charm” (Roman Polanski) was recently rediscovered in the United States (*Killing the Second Dog *was published in March by New Vessel Press). From next year on – thanks once again to Arnon’s engagement – Hłasko will also be available in the Netherlands (publisher Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep).
In homage to Marek Hłasko, whom Czesław Miłosz called the “idol of Poland’s young generation in 1956”, and who died prematurely at the age of 35 in Wiesbaden (he most probably committed suicide), Arnon Grunberg and Polish-Dutch translator Karol Lesman agreed that if they ever committed suicide, it should also be in Wiesbaden! Thank goodness, they are still here with us, and Karol Lesman worked on the upcoming Dutch translation.
And last, but certainly not least: Danish author Knud Sønderby and his novel *Two People Meet *(1932).

The author was born in 1909 and is best known for his novel Midt i en jazztid (From the Jazz Age), published at the age of 22, in 1931.

In a very personal, touching speech entitled “One in a Thousand”, Jens Christian Grøndahl spoke in favor of Sønderby’s second book, a novel about being young, longing to live and to love but also about the insurmountable gap of two lovers from different social classes.
Like Hans Christian Andersen in many ways, Knud Sønderby creates a world out of ephemeral everyday details, showing us Danish society before the establishment of the welfare state.
To “have met one in a thousand” might not be enough. Social and personal circumstances will alter the feelings of the two young people, or as the male protagonist says at the end of the novel: ”We can choose one another and then we will have to give up everything else, or we can give up on each other and have all of the rest.”

But the end is open, and this is the true beauty of Sønderby’s art. Along with the presentations of each author, the three ambassadors also spoke more generally on the importance of translations. Chrissopoulos, Grunberg, and Grøndahl all have experience translating, and each measured what translation can do for a readership in a given national context. Translations, according to Grøndahl, have the infinitely valuable capacity to “carve out” space. Regardless of the subject or language of origin, translated books push the boundaries of an otherwise limited national production, breathing new life into literature and making the unknown known.