There Are Bored Foreign Teenagers Too!

I recently came across this feature in The Guardian about bored teenagers in literature as selected by John Patrick McHugh – and really liked many of the titles listed, some of which deserve to be better known. However, we come up against this problem over and over again in the Anglo-Saxon world: very little awareness of literature that is not written in English.

Much as I love the ‘Write Around the World’ literary travels with Richard E. Grant currently showing on BBC4, and much as I appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patricia Highsmith to have only two foreign writers out of seven in both the episode on Italy and the one on the South of France feels rather… provincial. My blogger friend Emma in France is always puzzled why there is such reluctance to read books in translation in the Anglocentric world and has a Translation Tragedy category on her blog. (This applies also to English books that haven’t been translated into French, but more often books in other languages that haven’t been translated into English).

Anyway, back to stroppy teenagers (a subject which has somewhat incensed me this week, I have to admit). There are so many superb books about teenagers in world literature – and a few of those have made it into the English-speaking world too. So here is my correction to that Guardian list. Quite a few of these titles also fit into the #WITMonth project, if you are looking for inspiration.

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse, transl. Heather Lloyd, Penguin Modern Classics

The quintessential story of a bored wealthy teenager who cannot resist manipulating all the people around her, especially the women who seem to be gravitating around her father. Written when the author was still in her teens herself, this short book scandalised French society at the time (1950s) and led to a life of success and excess for Sagan. (This would also have fit in perfectly with the Write Around Episode set in France and has had a Hollywood adaptation).

Jean Seberg giving the evil eye to David Niven and Deborah Kerr in the 1958 film directed by Otto Preminger.

Trifonia Melibenia Obono: La Bastarda, transl. Lawrence Schimel, The Feminist Press at CUNY

The teenage protagonist here is anything but privileged: Okomo is an orphan, raised by her grandmother in Equatorial Guinea. She longs to find her father and in doing so gets involved with the illicit gay subculture in her country, which she finds far more welcoming than her own mainstream culture. It is also the first novel from that country to be translated into English.

Faiza Guene: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, transl. Sarah Adams, Harvest Original/Harcourt.

Again, a marked contrast to the genteel, wealthy French teen described by Sagan: this is the France of the banlieue, those ghetto-like suburbs of Paris. The heroine Doria is determined to prove that not all that comes out of these estates is crime and rap although all the odds seem stacked against her: her father has abandoned the family, her mother has to do cleaning jobs to make ends meet, the boy she loves doesn’t seem to notice her, and she has just about had enough of school…

Janne Teller: Nothing, transl. Martin Aitken, Strident Publishing.

Denmark may often be touted as the happiest country in the world, but for Pierre Anthon, the teenager at the heart of this book, it is most certainly not the case. One day, he has an existential crisis ‘he realized that nothing was worth doing, because nothing meant anything anyway’ and climbs up a tree. Nothing that his classmates say or do can convince him to come down again. Philosophy is clearly important to Scandinavian teenagers (remember ‘Sophie’s World’ by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder), and this is a very interesting attempt to counteract teen nihilism.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis, Jonathan Cape (no named translator!)

At the start of this autobiographical graphic novel, the authors is a child, but in the subsequent volumes she grows up and describes both her daily life in Iran in a time of Islamic revolution and war with Iraq, as well as her difficulties in adapting to life in exile.

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, transl. Jamie McKendrick, Penguin Modern Classics

A will-they, won’t-they teenage love story set in 1930s Italy, when the anti-semitic laws introduced by Mussolini means that the young narrator of the story is kicked out of the local tennis club in Ferrara and is invited to play tennis in the private garden of the wealthy Finzi-Continis. Elegy for a lost world, with the author telling us early on in the book that the glamorous family he so admired were deported and killed in concentration camps during the war.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick, transl. as ‘Why We Took the Car’ by Tim Mohr, Scholastic

Mike and Tschick are two German teenage boys – or rather, Tschick is the nickname of a Russian immigrant boy, whose surname is too complicated for anyone to even attempt to pronounce. They feel like outsiders, never get invited to any of the cool parties and during the summer holidays, they take an ancient Lada for a spin and end up making a road trip out of it.

Tschick has also been adapted for film as ‘Goodbye, Berlin’ directed by Fatih Akin.

Makoto Shinkai: Your Name, Yen Press.

This YA novel was released around the same time as the animated film directed by Shinkai, describing two teenagers, a boy and a girl, bored of their daily routines in the city and the countryside respectively, who end up switching bodies periodically. They communicate through notes and text messages on their phones, but when the boy makes an attempt to visit the girl in the countryside, he discovers that her village has been obliterated by a falling comet.

Tsugumi Oba & Takeshi Obata: Death Note, Shonen Jump.

I cannot avoid mentioning Death Note when I talk about Japanese teenagers: this is a very different kettle of fish than the romantic and sweet Your Name. It is a manga that became an hugely successful anime series and a (somewhat less superlative) film. It’s the story of cocky teenager Light Yagami who finds a mysterious, dark notebook, which confers the ability upon the owner to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages. And so Light becomes a vigilante, initially planning to create a more just world by killing all criminals, until the power goes to his head…

Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, transl. Christopher Moncrieff & Christopher Bartholomew, Istros Books.

Mircea Eliade became a revered (although controversial) professor of world religions, but this is a fairly autobiographical novel that he wrote as a teen and never published in his lifetime. Although it takes place in Bucharest a hundred years ago, it is a universal story of the monumental egoism but also lack of confidence, search for identity and everyday failure of teenagers everywhere. Although there are shades of the insufferable Holden Caulfield here, this book doesn’t try too hard to be clever. The strength of the book lies in precisely those passages where the narrator unwittingly reveals all of his adolescent naiveté and doubts which are both funny and touching.

I could have made a much longer list, but the original had ten, so these ten will do for starters. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent French novella that we published at Corylus Books Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy, transl. Graham Roberts, in which we spend some rather tense time with disaffected teenagers in a run-down school and a French literature class. A guest author is visiting, the ineffectual teacher is ogling at her much to the amusement of his pupils, and then the school enters lockdown because of a potential terrorist attack…

Very good timing to talk about teenagers in literature: wishing you success to all the UK students getting their GCSE results today!

27 thoughts on “There Are Bored Foreign Teenagers Too!”

    1. I notice that quite a few of these are marketed as YA literature – so perhaps the YA genre is more adventurous and willing to publish literature in translation at the moment…

  1. I somehow missed this Guardian article. Off to hunt it down soon … And from your list, I loved Kiffe Kiffe Demain. I’m sorry to have lost my copy, because it’s one I loved to lend out (how I lost it, I suppose)

    1. Ah, lending books can be fatal to friendships and to one’s library. I was very disappointed that my son didn’t get to study Kiffe Kiffe Demain for his French A Levels – it was one of the options. Instead the teacher opted for yet another WW2 book…

      1. Yes. Each time I see a reading list in a British or American article I notice that there are very few foreign books.
        I’ll add Agostino by Alberto Moravia to your list.

  2. I’m quite intrigued by the book by Janne Teller as you describe it. Do you think it’s a nod to Calvino’s The Baron in the Tree, or is there a literary tradition that I’m not aware of, of climbing up trees with no intention to come down?

    1. Ah, good point, I’d forgotten about that book… If there isn’t a literary tradition, maybe it’s time we started one. I could do with some tree-climbing and being as far away from earth as possible… If there are any trees left for us to climb, of course.

    2. By the way, one of the books I was planning to read for #WITMonth was The Girl in the Tree by Şebnem İşigüzel – so yet another country and book about a teenager who takes to the trees… It must be a growing metaphor, if you’ll pardon the pun!

  3. Such a great list! I know from my bookselling days how difficult it is to persuade many British readers to read fiction in translation but there’s not much chance of changing that if those paid to write about them are so woefully ill informed. And that’s where bloggers come in…

    1. Exactly! Can you imagine how powerful it would have been to have more lists displaying international authors (or TV series featuring a larger proportion of foreign books). How could they miss out Bonjour Tristesse when it takes place on that very French Riviera they are roaming about in?

      1. It’s dismaying to say the least. Crime fiction seems to be an exception both for books and TV but as a regular Walter Presents viewer, I’d welcome the chance to watch more European drama outside of the genre.

        1. Even crime fiction in translation seems to be limited to certain geographical regions… with a slightly wider spread perhaps on TV.

  4. What an excellent post, Marina Sofia! And you’re so right, too, about books that ought to be translated but aren’t. There is so much excellent fiction out there that should be more widely read, and I’ve often wondered about the way it’s decided what will be translated and what won’t, and whose work gets attention and whose doesn’t. And now you’ve got me thinking about some of the great ‘bored teenager’ crime novels out there…

    1. Oh please do! Let’s keep this conversation going! Maybe I will do an update to this blog post as well, with others suggestions. Lawrence Schimel, one of the translators mentioned above, has just suggested a Latvian novel Doom 94 by Jānis Joņevs, and I instantly bought it. It’s a fascinating topic!

  5. Really interesting post, Marina – thank you! Totally agree about the Richard E Grant series – so Anglocentric! But I suppose it was made for the BBC! I have only read two from your list (the Sagan and the Bassani – so you’ve given me plenty more ideas to explore!

    1. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a lovely series and I’m always there for ANYTHING linking literature to travel and enticing people to read more books. But they could also have included Mistral, Marcel Pagnol, Jean Giono, Jules Verne… Even Chekhov spent some time in Nice! As for Jean-Claude Izzo – I mean, he makes Marseille come to life like no one else!

  6. The premise of the Bassani work sounds so familiar though I don’t recall having read it at any point. And I have Persepolis on my shelves, just haven’t got round to it yet, but I hold my hand up and admit to a surfeit of Anglophone reading.

    I agree the Richard E Grant series is frustrating, not least because in amongst some interesting tidbits his luvvie persona intrudes overmuch and irritates. At least we got some Ferrante and Süskind thrown in amongst him fawning on Carol Drinkwater and chatting to his donkey…

    1. The expats writing about their adopted country irked particularly – although there could have been a much more exciting session about Peter Mayle of A Year in Provence fame. Apparently, the locals in Ménerbes were NOT amused by his depiction of them and the onslaught of tourists following in his wake. It would have been interesting to include some of that in the programme. But I suppose it was more about a gentle stroll through beautiful locations rather than digging any deeper. Still, better than nothing!

  7. When I heard Grant was going to Marseille I was SURE he would be talking about Jean-Claude Izzo – got that wrong didn’t I??
    I’m enjoying the series though I don’t understand why he needed to spend so much time with Drinkwater. She didn’t really give me much insight into the region or way of life

  8. I’m so sorry it took me so long to read this, Marina, especially when I think it was I who pushed you into doing it!

    I’m so impressed that you could write this so quickly, and with so much fascinating and inspiring content.

    The only two books I have read are Persepolis and Bonjour Tristesse (the latter as a teenager myself, so I should reread it – I bet I’d have a very different take on it now.)

    I’m going to look for some of these.

    Sent from my iPad

    1. Thank you for encouraging me to write this – I had great fun doing so (anything is better than work, right?). I may very well write an update as well, as I’ve been getting such a lot of great suggestions, and wasn’t even able to include all of my favourites in the original ten.

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