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Surprise! Many of the Most Popular Literary Classics Were Originally Not Written in the English Language.

October 8th, 2013
Judith · Staff Recommendations

When many of us think of a “Literary Classic” we probably think of books written by an English author such as Charles Dickens during the 19th Century or books written by an American author such as Ernest Hemingway during the 20th Century; we probably do not think or perhaps realize that some of the most popular literary classics were actually translations of books originally written in a foreign language such as French.

One definition of a “Literary Classic” is a “a book that endures” and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas is certainly a book that has endured from the time it was published in 1845 until the present time. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO was published originally in serial form (many popular 19th Century books were originally published in magazines).

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO was quickly translated into English and other foreign languages. It is both a romantic and historical novel about the adventures of Edmond Dantes a French merchant sailor who was unfairly sent to jail in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. After many years he escaped from his prison and began to plot his revenge. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO is full of many characters from Edmond Dantes’s lovers to supporters of the Bourbon monarchy restoration and it will take its reader on a fantastic adventure in France and Italy during the early 19th century.

LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo was published in 1862. He also wrote historical fiction such as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME but LES MISERABLES is set in the France of Hugo’s Day. The hero of LES MISERABLES is an escaped convict named Jean Valjean who struggles to lead an honest and useful life despite the prejudices of a cruel society. The novel reflects Hugo’s faith in the individual’s power of self-determination against overwhelming odds. Perhaps Victor Hugo described his reasons best for writing LES MISERABLES when he said “…So long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty; the ruin of woman by starvation and the dwarfting of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not yet solved, books like this cannot be useless..”

AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS by Jules Verne was published in 1872 and was shortly translated into English. Jules Verne was probably one of the first writers of Science Fiction with books such as TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS is not true Science Fiction because its theme is the existing technology of the middle to late 19th Century such as trains, steam ships and the telegraph. AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS begins when an eccentric Englishman by the name of Phileas Fogg accepts the challenge of his friends to go around the world in eighty days. Everything goes against Fogg but with true British sangfroid, he prevailed and won the bet and in the process the love of a beautiful princess from India.

AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS is a good read and the reader will learn a lot about the British Empire of the 19th century and also how steam boats, trains and telegraphs made the world of the middle to late 19th century a much smaller place than the world of the late 18th century.

The 19th century was an important time for Russian Literature. Western Europe including Great Britain and the British Empire and the United States were finally learning about the very impressive works of literature in the Russian language. The wonderful short stories and plays of Anton Chekov and the very realistic fiction of Maxim Gorki were being read by Americans and British. One of the most popular Russian authors was Count Leo N. Tolstoy who lived from 1828-1910. He had two masterpieces: WAR AND PEACE and ANNA KARENINA which was published in Russia in 1877. Unfortunately, English speaking people had to wait until the early 1900’s for a translation of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece.

ANNA KARENINA begins with one of the most famous lines in literature: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This statement sets the tone for the complex plot that follows. Anna has been summoned to help her sister-in-law after Anna’s brother has been caught cheating on his wife. While helping her sister-in-law, Anna meets Vronsky, a young dashing officer. She leaves her very staid husband and young son and has a child with Vronsky but eventually commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. In ANNA KARENINA, Tolstoy attacked romantic love as self-indulgence and encouraged a sense of moral duty and love for family instead.

Thomas Mann was one of the most important and respected German authors of the 20th Century and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. Mann’s first novel published in 1901 was BUDDENBROOKS and when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee said it was partly because of BUDDENBROOKS which Thomas Mann wrote when he was still in his twenties. BUDDENDROOKS described the physical, emotional and economic decline of a North German merchant family not unlike Thomas Mann’s family.

Thomas Mann also wrote DEATH IN VENICE in 1912. DEATH IN VENICE describes a writer’s moral collapse through an uncontrollable and humiliating passion for a young boy. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN was published in 1924 and patients in a tuberculosis sanitarium represent the conflicting attitudes and political beliefs of European society before the First World War. Thomas Mann was an anti-Nazi and he left Germany for Switzerland in 1933 and during the Second World War he lived in the United States. He died in Switzerland in 1955.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Erich Maria Remarque is considered one of the greatest war novels of all time; if not the greatest war novel of all time and what makes ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT so great is that it is also an anti-war novel. Paul Baumer is the narrator of the book who enlisted with his classmates in the German army of the First World War.

These young men were enthusiastic soldiers fighting for their country but their world of duty, culture, and progress falls into pieces under the relentless bombardment of their trenches. Throughout the terrible horror of the First World War, Paul Baumer held fast to a single vow: to fight against the hatred that meaninglessly pitted young men of the same generation against each other.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT received one of the greatest compliments when “Le Monde” said it should be distributed by the millions and read in every school.” Because of its strong anti-war theme, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT was banned by the Nazis. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT was written in 1928 and translated into English in 1929.

Albert Camus lived from 1913 to 1960 He was killed in an automobile accident in France in 1960. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. He was born in Algeria when Algeria was still part of France. However, he moved to France proper when he was a young man but many of his most famous literary works take place in the Algeria of the “Pieds noirs.” The Pieds noirs (black feet in English) were those Europeans, mostly French but also many Spanish and Italians who moved to Algeria in order to better their standard of living.

THE STRANGER was published in 1942 and it was not published in English until after the Second World War. Camus was concerned with the freedom and responsibility of the individual; the alienation of the individual from society and the difficulty of facing life without the comfort of belief in God. These themes appear in many of his novels including THE STRANGER. THE STRANGER was written during the dark days of the Second World War. Camus was living in Paris when France surrendered to Hitler.

THE STRANGER tells the story of Meursault who killed an Arab in reaction to the heat and glare of the sun on the beach where he was with some of his friends. In the ensuing investigation Meursault is prosecuted more for not showing proper respect to his dead mother (the book opens with him receiving a telegram telling him that his mother had died) than for killing an innocent man who happened to be an Arab. He is sentenced to death. At the end of THE STRANGER he is waiting for the sentence to be carried out and has not yet shown any remorse for his crime.

In THE STRANGER and Camus’s other writing the concept of “The Absurd” is developed. The theory of “The Absurd” is that life has no meaning and we deal with life situations the best way we can or as in THE STRANGER, we deal with life situations the worst way we can.

In conclusion, there are so many wonderful books originally written not in English that have become “classics” and best sellers in the English language. Hopefully there will always be books that were written in another language that will become “classics” and best sellers. One fairly recent book is BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS by Dai Sijie published in 2000. This book was written in French by Dai Sijie who left China in 1984. The book deals with the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution and two boys who were sent to the countryside for “re-education.”

I feel it will be one of the next “classics” not originally written in English.


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