VINTAGE European Classics

Spain, 16th century
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, with the literary ambition to match. He fought in the Spanish militia, spent four years at sea, was a slave of Barbary pirates and, after he was ransomed by his family, found himself in debtors’ prison. It was here that he began to write Don Quixote, the adventures of a noble knight and his faithful squire as they travel through sixteenth-century Spain. Except the knight is not really a knight, his princesses are servant girls, his enchanted castles are inns and his giants are windmills. Don Quixote’s goodness is real however, and his wish for the world to be full of adventures and passion is so profoundly human that, four hundred years after its first appearance, his story still crackles, beguiles and inspires.

France, 19th century
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

From Europe’s southern-most reaches to its heart, with a forerunner to Lady Chatterley’s Lover in that its author narrowly escape conviction for immorality. Emma Bovary is fond of books: they let her wander in foreign lands and take part in passionate love affairs, but reading proves poor preparation for the realities of life as a country doctor’s wife. She launches herself into a search for the passion and thrills she had experienced vicariously through romantic literature, trying to find meaning. Perhaps the problem lies in the limited opportunities for self-expression granted to women of her province and era, or perhaps Emma is doomed by her character never to be quite satisfied. Either way, she is not easily forgotten and her plight is as familiar today as it was in the nineteenth century.

Italy, early 20th century
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s only novel pops up everywhere – The Leopard inspired Rick Stein’s recent Long Weekend in Palermo; it inspired Dolce & Gabbanna’s 2017 Alta Moda show, the centrepiece of which was an dress fit for an Sicilian principessa in a fashion ode to the character Angelica from the novel; and the famous line ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’ is (mis)quoted almost weekly in reference to the ever-changing stasis of the political scene. If you’ve managed to avoid all these cultural signposts and still not indulged in the seductive morbid glamour of this Italian masterpiece, then please, borrow a little of the grand appetites of the Prince Salina, and read it, pronto.

Germany, early 20th century

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Ageing writer Gustave von Aschenbach is disappointed by Venice. The skies are leaden, the air is thick and sultry, and a sickening stench emanates from the murky labyrinth of canals. It would hardly be sensible to stay, especially not when rumours of a ‘sickness’ spread through the city. And yet Aschenbach cannot leave: he has seen an entirely beautiful young boy and has fallen under an enchantment. He must stay near the boy, though never speaking to him, even until it is too late. Thomas Mann’s first major novel, Buddenbrooks, was banned and burned by Hitler – but not before it had sold over a million copies in Germany alone. It marked the beginning of the career of one of Germany’s leading writers who would go on to win the Nobel Prize and become one of the first to write about homosexual desire.

The Netherlands, late 20th century
In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak

This final book comes at the end of the century and, unlike the rest on this list, is a work of non-fiction. In 1999, journalist and historian Geert Mak criss-crossed the continent in the simple yet monumental quest to trace European twentieth-century history as the world slipped into the twenty-first. In Europe is his account of that journey, interspersed with the larger story of Europe. It is also now a poignant reminder that the European project was then and is still an unprecedented experiment; that we still have ‘a great deal to tell each other and a great deal to explain.’

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