Books: Words coming in from the cold: Timothy Garton-Ash on the new European classics

ONCE UPON a time, when there was still an iron curtain, we set out to discover the great works of literature hidden behind it. Were it not for the cold war, for 'Yalta', British readers could perhaps have found classic Polish, Hungarian or Czech novels in good paperback translations as readily as they could find French, German or Italian ones. After all, writers of the quality of Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky or Czeslaw Milosz did not come from nowhere. They were obviously part of a rich literary tradition, of which most people in the West knew nothing.

Years later, the first fruits of our quest have just appeared. Jan Neruda's Prague Tales and Deszo Kosztolanyi's Skylark, in new translations, with new introductions by contemporary Czech and Hungarian writers, inaugurate a series of Central European classics published by Chatto. 'Yet another series of classics?' you may well ask. Beside the Penguin Classics, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, Oxford World Classics, Everyman's Library, Virago Classics, Virago Modern Classics, Wordsworth Classics . . .

Yet in all these admirable series of classics (generously defined), the literature of the peoples between Germany and Russia, Austria and Turkey, is woefully under-represented. In the Penguin Classics, for example, we have Bram Stoker's Dracula and nine volumes of Karl Marx, but not a single title from non-German Central Europe. In the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics we do have single titles by Tadeusz Borowski, Witold Gombrowicz and Jaroslav Hasek, but that is all. Pablo Neruda, by contrast, is represented by two titles.

Now the Chilean writer, whose real name was Nefteli Ricardo Reyes, actually adopted the pseudonym Pablo Neruda after being entranced by our 19th-century Jan Neruda's stories from Mala Strana, the 'little quarter' of Prague. But in the meantime the original Neruda, the Czech Dickens, has been forgotten - except by the Czechs. In the wider world, and the Penguin list, his name lives on only as the pseudonym of a Chilean communist poet. A very Central European fate.

I don't want to overstate the case. It is, no doubt, the fate of most national literatures to be unjustly neglected. No doubt there are also buried Portuguese, Spanish or Swedish masterpieces crying out for translation. Moreover, there were not a few disappointments on our long search. Many books highly prized in their own countries turn out on closer examination to be too much of their time, too introverted, obscure or allusive to be translatable into readable modern English. This is perhaps particulariy true of literature from Central Europe, where writers have so often been called upon to be moral and even political authorities, yet, by the same token, have often had to smuggle their message past the censors in oblique or allegorical forms.

Perhaps the worst thing that has happened to them is not sheer neglect but bad translation - literature's 'fate worse than death'. Thus one of the greatest 20th-century Polish novels, Witeld Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, is available only in a translation which appears to have been made from the French, not the original Polish, and which starts by simply omitting several lines of the book's virtuoso opening.

Richard Aczel's vivid new translation of Dezso Kosztolanyi's Skylark is thus a double discovery: of a superb, deeply poignant short novel, but also of a gifted translator. Michael Henry Heim is already well known for his translations of Central European writers. (Some say his Kundera is better than the original.) His new translation of the Neruda stories rescues them from the cloying, saccharine sentimentality of earlier versions. Introductions by Ivan Klima, for Neruda, and Peter Esterhazy, for Kosztolanyi, explain why these books have a firm place as classics in their own countries.

Once again, I don't want to claim too much. The modifier 'Central European' is important, although itself raising problems of definition. There are some particular and, in the broadest sense, regional themes that distinguish and link these books: an often ironical alienation from the imperial power (Austrian, German, Russian or even Ottoman), the clash of nationalities and identities (Slav, Magyar, German, Jewish), a highly developed sense of the absurd, and, not least, a consciousness of the importance of language and literature itself in the process of nation-building.

Yet nor do I want to understate the claim. In fact, there are probably very few books that really deserve the title 'Twentieth Century' or 'Modern', let alone World classics - and certainly fewer than are sold under such labels. The status of most classics depends on some history being shared between writer and reader. The classic quality of some classic English authors can be mysterious even to the best informed and most sympathetic of foreign readers. John Bayley quotes the Polish-born Joseph Conrad writing to a friend: 'What is all this about Jane Austen?'

I believe that anyone can enjoy, say, Skylark as literature in English, even if they have no special knowledge of, or interest in, Hungary and the lost world of the Habsburg monarchy. This is partly because that culture is not so astronomically remote from our own - we are, after all, part of Europe - but also because Kosztolanyi's writing is good enough to transcend the cultural difference that does exist. (The more remote the culture, the greater the writing must be to bridge the gap.) And I am confident that the same will be true of the next two titles in our series: Zsigmond Moricz's Be Faithful Unto Death, in a new translation by Stephen Vizinczey, and Boleslaw Prus's The Doll, a great, panoramic novel of 19th-century Poland.

Of course, all this costs money. The 'we' in my first paragraph is not merely the royal we of a General Editor but refers also to the Central and East European Publishing Projects, a small Oxford-based charity, with a distinguished international board chaired by Ralf Dahrendorf.

It will finance the first six titles in the series. After that, the future of the series will depend on you, the reader.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker