19th Century, Arabic Literature, Charlotte Mandell, classical music, Compass, Levant, Literature, Man Booker Prize Short List, Mathias Enard, Middle East, musicology, novel, Orientalism, Persian Literature, persian music, Philosophical literature, Prix Goncourt, Religious Literature, Translated Literature
Non-Fiction and fiction are fused in Mathias Enard’s “Compass”, a complex visitation of 19th Century Orientalism told through the relationship of an emotionally sedentary Austrian musicology professor and his intellectually adventurous, but distant, love interest whose esoteric academic interests border on the morbid. This immensely researched novel is today arcane. Its breadth is jaw-dropping: music, history, literature, philosophy, religion, anthropology, archaeology, and biography. A recipient of the Prix Goncourt Prize and Short-Listed for the Man Booker International Prize, this novel is not an easy read, and probably warrants a second-reading.
I looked at other published reviews of this book as I am not sure anyone could capture it and I did not think I could do it justice. One reviewer suggested that you might need a PhD in the subject area and the L.A. Times’ reviewer (Justin Taylor) summarized my feeling about the book.
“Compass‘ is as challenging, brilliant, and – God help me – important novel ans is likely to be published this year, but there was more than one occasion on which I had to stop myself from throwing it across the room.”
You might want to read Joshua Cohen’s New York Times review of the book as it is a fair synopsis: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/books/review/compass-mathias-enard.html.
Mr. Enard is coming to my local bookstore at the end of the month and I hope to see him. I cannot find his biography and I would like to know if this novel was a product of life long interests and intellectual study or of having the benefit of researchers. French by birth, fluent in Arabic and having traveled throughout the Middle East he has some background, but his enterprise required more than this.
Orientalism is an anachronistic description of a world where the Levant for Europeans was an exotic escape. The search for “otherness” was not possible then, nor now, except for the few remaining remote tribes yet touched by civilization. There is relativity to culture. It both escapes as you try to approach another society, and infuses itself in both. The novel’s principal characters would argue that the Arab/Persian cultures had a strong influence on the development of Europe’s, despite the colonial perceptions. This was particularly true for the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Germany and France.
I was intrigued and overwhelmed by “Compass”, but have not decided whether it is an excellent work of literature, or a non-fiction mind-dump within a fiction vessel. I am leaning toward the former. You will have to judge for yourself. It is worth the try- but in small doses.