Classic foreign language books from around the world

07/03/2019 | Hayley
Classic foreign language books

It’s World Book Day and to celebrate, we’re bringing you our guide to some of the most popular, and critically acclaimed, foreign language novels around. So in no particular order, here is some foreign literature you need on your bookshelves…

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky

This book is heavy going but a classic. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky wrote the crime thriller and it was published in 1866 as a serial. It follows the plans of a Russian student to murder an unscrupulous pawnbroker.

In addition to being a riveting read, Crime and Punishment is an interesting work of philosophy. Throughout the novel, central character Rodion Raskolnikov muses over several theories to justify his crime. This includes using his victim’s money to do good and that he has the right to kill.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

This is another read that will put your grey matter through its paces. Milan Kundera’s existential classic is set in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and delves into society life during the time of Communism.

Interestingly, although the novel was originally written in Czech, it was actually a French translation that was published first. The Czech novel came out shortly after.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

This is actually a play rather than a novel, but it is just as enjoyable a read. It was published in 1879 and performed for the first time just a month later in Copenhagen. It was a controversial piece for the time.

A Doll’s House was ground-breaking in that it ended with a wife walking out on her husband and children to discover herself. So shocking was this pro-feminist stance at the time that Ibsen had to write an alternative ending for the German production.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Another classic with a woman at its centre, Anna Karenina is not only an intricate web of storylines but also provides rich insight into Russian high society during the 1870s. This Russian tragedy is also regarded as a work of feminist literature by some readers.

This book has been adapted several times for stage and screen, most recently by Atonement director Joe Wright with Keira Knightley in the title role. However, nothing is as intricate or hard-hitting as the novel.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

This French adventure story comes from the same author as The Three Musketeers and is one of history’s most popular works of fiction. Set just before Napoleon’s Hundred Days, it centres on Edmond Dantès’ quest for revenge after he is wrongly imprisoned.

Such is the popularity of The Count of Monte Cristo it remains just as ingrained in our culture and consciousness as it was when it was published in serial form in 1844. It continues to be adapted, most recently for the ABC series Revenge.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

From revenge to misery, Les Misérables is an epic masterpiece that spans more than 15 years and culminates with the June Rebellion that rocked Paris in 1832. The protagonist is Jean Valjean, who works his way up from a thief to a prisoner to a town mayor and industrialist to revolutionary during the course of the story.

Les Misérables has been adapted into a popular musical and film (starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hatheway). Both feature world-famous songs including I Dreamed A Dream. What fans may not know is that author Hugo wrote much of the novel while living in exile in Guernsey.

The Millennium series by Stieg Larsson

We’re cheating a bit here, as this is, of course, a trilogy of books. However, no countdown of the most popular foreign language novels would be complete without mentioning these Swedish crime thrillers.

Stieg Larsson’s first novel in the collection, Men Who Hate Women, has been adapted into a Swedish and an American movie, entitled The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The novel has sold millions around the world since its publication in 2005 and won several posthumous awards.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima

This Japanese classic by Yukio Mishima was published in 1956 and translated into English in 1959 by Japanese studies expert Ivan Morris. It is based on the real-life arson attack on Kyoto’s Reliquary of Kinkaku-ji, known in English as the Golden Pavilion.

Mizoguchi is a young Buddhist acolyte at the temple, who becomes obsessed with aesthetic beauty and a desire to destroy it. The book also includes musings on one of the Zen koans contained in the 13th-century collection The Gateless Gate.

The Odyssey by Homer

This Ancient Greek poem remains a treasured masterpiece hundreds of years after its composition. It is estimated to have been written during the 8th century BC. Following the fall of Troy, it centres on the hero Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca.

During his voyage, Odysseus meets and escapes the Cyclops Polyphemus, attempts to outsail the wrath of Poseidon, and hears the song of the Sirens. By the time he makes it back home, all of his ships are lost and all his men dead.

Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

There can be few people who haven’t enjoyed one of the folk stories collected by the Brothers Grimm during the early 19th century. Over the decades, they have been passed down from one generation to the next. Today, stories like Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Snow White are known across the globe.

However, despite being popular bedtime stories today, the tales the Grimms originally published were much darker. For instance, in the earliest version of Snow White, the wicked queen is forced to wear red-hot iron shoes as punishment for her evil deeds.

So there you have it; a selection of foreign literature for you to enjoy this year on World Book Day! If you have a favourite foreign language book then please share with us!

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