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Writing the World in the 21st Century

by Adam Kirsch

Pub Date: April 25th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-9977229-0-1
Publisher: Columbia Global Reports

A critical appreciation of “world literature,” highlighting works that combine specifics of locality with global reach.

Like “world music,” the very notion of world literature has become problematic, weighted with notions of cultural imperialism, dilution, elitism, and what Kirsch (Jewish Studies/Columbia Univ.; The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, 2016) terms “the original sin of translation itself.” Does simple translate better than complexity? Do novels that appeal to the lowest common denominator stand a better chance of crossing borders than ones that are unique to the culture that spawned them? Is the whole issue “just another way of asking whether a meaningfully global consciousness can exist”? A poet and critic, the author finds plenty of literary value in novels that have found a readership well beyond the author’s homeland. He matches six of the books that he surveys into pairs, and some of these pairings can initially seem arbitrary. Sure, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island might both be categorized as “dystopian,” but even Kirsch admits that “writers more different than Atwood and Houllebecq can hardly be imagined—the Canadian feminist and the French misogynist,” although he makes a case for some sort of shared moral vision and social criticism. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Roberto Bolaño's 2666 are both epic, doorstop volumes with numbers in their titles, though the critical receptions to the two were very different. Kirsch is shrewd on what he terms “a new genre of English-language fiction…call it migrant literature,” which is less about an immigrant’s arrival than a transitional passage, one that reinforces the notion of globalization in novels whose cultural roots are tougher to untangle. The author finishes with the popular and critical triumph of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which are so personal and specific to Naples yet so universal in theme.

An insightful addition to the Columbia Global Reports roster.