In Other Words

Summer Reading of Our Discontent

Global escapism is flourishing in the Great Recession.

Cate Gillon/Getty Images
Cate Gillon/Getty Images

As the long, hot summer of our discontent came to a close, vacationers the world over reluctantly reshelved the books they had dipped into during their precious days of leisure, as they sought escape from the anxieties of the global recession. In the best of times, such reading is more attentive and suffused with wish-fulfillment than the harassed skimming that book lovers manage during the busy work year. But these are far from the best of times. This year, as Italians, French, and Spaniards drove to the mountains or to the Mediterranean; as Russians with rubles headed to Sochi and Cyprus; as Germans flocked to Baltic Sea cottages; as the Japanese jetted to America or Europe or trained to Tokyo’s Shonan beach; and as Britons went anywhere with a forecast for sun, they packed engrossing reads they hoped would plunge them into imagined worlds more satisfying than the reality outside the printed page.

Rarely has this kind of distraction been more needed than now, in the midst of an economic annus horribilis that has seen inflation, unemployment, and fiscal crisis rise and spread across the globe. Americans had a great hand in causing this tumult, but it was an American author, the Mormon fantasist Stephenie Meyer, who was most useful in beguiling both overseas and American readers away from their troubles — at least for a while — as they devoured the four volumes of Twilight, her red-hot, cold-blooded teen vampire series. Those books were bestsellers on every continent that has a bestseller list — even if the euphemistic French romantically rechristened it Fascination and the Germans called it Bis(s), meaning "bite."

It’s interesting to see, through Twilight‘s global reach, that American cultural hegemony persists, even as the economic catastrophe Americans helped feed has taken a bite out of everyone else’s peace of mind. But despite the vampire’s lure, international bestseller lists and literary experts reveal that each country also produced its own regional or national favorites this year — books steeped in nostalgia for easier or more valiant times that offered a localized prescription for relief. Examining these homegrown contenders produces a sort of Rorschach portrait of different notions of literary escape that prevail worldwide at this unsettled moment.

In Italy, for example, which has one of Europe’s lowest per capita book-buying rates, reading as a hobby has never really caught on except among elites (one specialist blames Italy’s late industrialization and the attraction of the abundant 3-D sources of inspiration there: art, landscape, architecture, and caffè society). But the credit crunch has prompted anxious Italians to buy nonfiction books that analyze the economic meltdown. The most heralded novels there this year have been consoling fictions set in bygone eras, like Tiziano Scarpa’s Stabat Mater, in which Antonio Vivaldi comes to the rescue of an orphaned Venetian cello whiz, and Cesarina Vighy’s L’Ultima Estate, a coming-of-age story that follows its female lead from the struggles of the Italian dopoguerra, through the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, and on to the safe harbor of the 1990s.

In Russia, reading is a favorite national pastime even in the age of biznesmeni, and headings on Web sites like Moi Lyubimi Knizhki (My Beloved Little Books) reflect the earnest Russian passion for letters. Despite the switch to the market economy in the 1990s, which brought pulp fiction to the masses, high-quality literature lives on. Muscovites and St. Petersburgers can be seen on the subways reading classic fiction year-round — Twain and Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Gogol — so caught up in their pages that they miss their stops.

And for every Russian you spot reading a cheap edition of Odin Raz Ne Dostatochno (Once Is Not Enough, by Jacqueline Susann), you might see another reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova or the cynical but emotionally charged novels of Sergei Minaev, New Russia’s Jay McInerney. In Dukhless (meaning soulless), he presented a coke-dusted portrait of greedy, lustful, aspirational Moscow-in-the-’90s, while in his new novel, R.A.B. (which means slave), he indicts corporate dystopia. Although Meyer’s quartet is popular in Russia, too, her books are among the top 50 bestsellers, not the top 10. Minaev’s R.A.B. beat the vampires to the dachas, as did Lyudi v Golom (People in the Nude), by Andrei Astvatsaturov, a wry, brainy novel about present-day St. Petersburg intellectuals (Russian critics compare the author to Henry Miller and Woody Allen, his characters to Mikhail Lermontov’s cad Pechorin), and The Falcon and the Swallow, the newest installment in a historical-fiction series by Boris Akunin about a detective named Erast Fandorin. (Boris Akunin is a pen name, coined in honor of the revolutionary philosopher Mikhail Bakunin.)

Russians use the word kulturny — cultured — more freely and less self-consciously than people in any other country, and they love books that remind them of their country’s august imperial and cultural heritage, particularly at the present moment, when national pride is high and when recently attained economic prestige is under threat. One nonfiction book in the Russian top 10, however, points to present practical concerns: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, in translation. Not content to take refuge in the fantasy of past triumphs, Russians bent on future greatness are reading Outliers to ferret out the secrets to success that Gladwell has unearthed and see if any might work for them.

Germany, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, also finds itself in the midst of a surge of patriotic fervor, and German authors are riding the wave. Last fall, a Nobel Prize judge offended many book lovers when he suggested that American fiction was too self-absorbed to interest readers in other countries. However graceless the imputation, it touched upon an underlying truth: Some writing appeals chiefly to a national audience, over whom it holds greater sway than over readers outside the author’s borders. Certainly, the current craze in Germany for detective novels set in rustic Alpine locales may not travel well beyond the Schwarzwald. In this year’s hit version, Föhnlage, by Jörg Maurer, a man tumbles to his death during a concert at a Bavarian resort.

Lately, Germans also have been stirred by the emergence of a domestic literary wunderkind, Daniel Kehlmann, whose much-translated 2005 novel, Measuring the World, a playful, entwined biography of the 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, sold a million and a half copies in Germany alone. Kehlmann’s new novel, Ruhm (Fame) brings together the stories of nine disparate characters, and the author’s fame excites prospective readers as much as his fiction. Two other big German books hint at the thought that nobody needs to leave Germany these days to have a thoroughly excellent adventure: Tilman Rammstedt’s Der Kaiser von China (The Emperor of China), in which a German boy uses a Lonely Planet guide to write letters home from an imaginary trip to China, and Thomas Klupp’s Paradiso, a sinister road trip that takes its characters from Potsdam all the way to Munich (a distance of some 400 miles, about the mileage between New York and Pittsburgh).

In France, nostalgia for the past has fueled the engine of the country’s identity for centuries. The priority isn’t to move forward, but to enjoy the luxurious amenities of the wagon-lit while admiring the scenery and the players. As such, France is well positioned to ride out the economic downturn, drawing down the blinds to block out unwelcome sights. The most popular book touching on the financial crisis in French librairies this year was Émile Zola’s novel Money, written in 1891, about 19th-century speculation and fraud. "I’m not one of those who rails against money," Zola wrote. "I support the principle that money, well-used, profits all humanity."

This year, Americans were able to sample the redolence of French denial in the movie Summer Hours, about three busy French grown-ups who sell the family country house after their mother’s death and consider too late the value of the tradition they’ve discarded. But in France, that was last year’s cinematic reverie. In July, a film opened there, Le Hérisson (The Hedgehog), adapted from Muriel Barbery’s 2006 novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which more than a million French readers bought in hardcover. The French publisher Gallimard produced a paperback timed to the film’s release that topped the French list that month. A witty, intricate portrayal of the inner lives and interactions of the residents of a Parisian apartment building, The Elegance of the Hedgehog centers on two wise, world-weary females: the 54-year-old concierge, Madame Michel, who considers herself "one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn … according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered," and a precocious preteen named Paloma, given to wry observations like, "He’s so conservative that he won’t say hello to divorced people." Halfway through the novel, an observant Japanese man named Kakuro Ozu moves into the building and helps Madame Michel and Paloma embrace joie de vivre, as proper French citizens should.

It’s fitting, somehow, that in Barbery’s novel it takes a Japanese newcomer to remind two Frenchwomen of the art of living. The genius of great contemporary Japanese writers for grafting Western sensibilities to their own ends was apparent long before Kenzaburo Oe won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature. The undisputed literary main event in Japan this summer partook of that hybrid tradition; it was the June release of Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, its title a play on George Orwell’s 1984. The book — which is not available yet in English — sold more than a million copies in Japan in the first two weeks of its release.

Why has this book succeeded so well in Japan? For one thing, before the book’s release, the author closely guarded details of its contents to increase its mystique and build buzz, having learned a lesson from publicity campaigns past. For another, as a New York-based Japanese book designer who read it explained, its setting in a not-too-distant halcyon era removes it from the commotion of the present. Japan suffers from the global crisis like other countries, even if the yen’s comparative strength means that more Japanese than usual have been traveling abroad. On a flight to Chicago in June, two Japanese tourists were observed sharing one copy of 1Q84, the man reading the first half as his female companion held the book open to her place. Presumably, by the time of Japan’s August Obon holiday (a little like Thanksgiving combined with Memorial Day), more copies were on hand for readers who hungered for Murakami’s surreal, fusiony nostalgia and whose appetite for his book had been fanned by the shrewdly engineered scarcity of the commodity.

If the Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro’s moody novel The Remains of the Day, set at a hinge moment of British imperial decline, had come out this year instead of in 1989, it would have satisfied a contemporary British taste for retrospection. Britons began the summer in an indignant mood, outraged by news that their elected officials in the House of Commons had been billing their luxury expenses to voters and fiddling with the accounts of their second homes. A nonfiction book that benefits from the current rancorous British mood is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which debunks unscientific hokum with scorn and humor, attacking the villains who manipulate the common people.

A more cool-tempered nonfiction pick was Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, which has pleased those Englishmen who like to imagine that 1944 never ended (there are more of them than you might think). And two fictional books set at a useful remove from the present crisis made it on to EasyJet: Me Cheeta, an uproarious fake autobiography of the chimp who acted in the old Tarzan movies (it sends up tell-all celebrity memoirs as it revisits Hollywood’s golden age), and Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, set five centuries ago, which reimagines the life of Henry VIII’s powerful minister Thomas Cromwell. After wielding enormous influence for more than a decade, Cromwell fell under suspicion, was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and was executed in 1540 — his head boiled and set upon a spike on London Bridge. Wily MPs, take note.

The book Britons, and all of us, probably should have been reading was Anthony Trollope’s 1875 page-turner, The Way We Live Now, his searing indictment of a corrupt society caught up in a Bernard Madoff-like British Ponzi scheme. (In July, Newsweek put that book at the head of its "Books for Our Times" list.) And yet, at home and abroad, most of us were looking for a refuge from unquiet headlines, not a reminder of them.

It’s not that anyone was necessarily craving pabulum. In Israel, for example, the hot book has been Alon Hilu’s controversial historical novel about a Palestinian boy, The House of Dajani, which won a prestigious literary prize but was delaureled after it was discovered that a judge on the jury was related through marriage to the author. In Chile, dutiful literati set themselves the task of reading Roberto Bolaño’s lengthy novel 2666, less because they wanted to (according to one Chilean poet and novelist) than because foreign acclaim made them think they ought to. And in Spain this year (as every year) the Holy Bible was a big seller — and nobody would call the Bible a light read.

Still, is it so surprising that Italian, Russian, German, French, and Japanese readers mostly are choosing to fill their reading hours with visions of balmy decades and glorious traditions past? And is it so surprising that, around the world, vampires fueled daydreams, not nightmares? A vampire saga will never win a Nobel Prize, but vampires, having no nationality, need no passports to cross international borders, no excuse to find an audience. A vampire doesn’t need to worry about retirement. And falling under the spell of terrifying creatures that don’t exist, if only for a few hours on a lakeside hammock, just may have made the reemergence into the twilight of 2009 a little bit less hair-raising.

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based journalist and translator, and teaches at the New School in New York. She is the author of the book of neologisms, Wordbirds.

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