When you think of what constitutes “great” European literature, your mind probably jumps to the 19th and 20th centuries. There are some great works from this time period, but there are also novels that were written in the decades before and after it—and these books are just as good! These gems may not be on your radar for two reasons: either because they’re incredibly obscure or because they weren’t written by white men (or both). But if you want to broaden your reading horizons beyond what’s considered “canonical,” start with these titles:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (1831)
Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, tells the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. This novel was written in the 19th century and set in 1482. It’s best known for its setting–the Notre Dame Cathedral–and it provides a detailed description of how that cathedral was built over time.
The book begins with an introduction to Quasimodo by Claude Frollo (his father), who is also a priest at Notre Dame Cathedral. In this introduction we learn about Quasimodo’s physical deformities as well as his intelligence and kindness towards children who come to play near where he lives inside Notre Dame. We also learn about Esmeralda; she is beautiful but poor so she often steals food from merchants’ carts passing through Paris streets at night time when there aren’t many people around watching her do this kind of thing because they’re asleep at home sleeping soundly without having any worries or concerns whatsoever!
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
Under the Volcano is a 1947 novel by English writer Malcolm Lowry. It was his second and final novel, following the widely acclaimed 1944 debut Ultramarine (which was also set in Mexico). The story centers on Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic former British consul who returns to Cuernavaca for his estranged wife’s birthday but finds himself unable to leave as he becomes engulfed in memories from the past.
The book was written while Lowry lived at Cabo San Lucas with his wife Jan Gabrial and their daughter Margerie (born 1948), where they survived on food stamps provided by Gabrial’s mother. After being rejected by several publishers–including Jonathan Cape who had published Ultramarine–the manuscript was accepted by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich just before Christmas 1947. Under The Volcano won The James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction later that year and has been translated into many languages since its publication.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1954)
Waiting for Godot is a play by Samuel Beckett. It was first performed in Paris in 1952, and it’s about two men named Vladimir and Estragon who are waiting for someone named Godot to arrive. They do this every day, but he never turns up. The play has been described as “the most enigmatic play ever written” because there are no clear answers given to explain what’s going on or why these characters are doing what they do; instead, we’re left with an existentialist exploration of human existence itself–and that makes it pretty hard not just for audiences but also critics!
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
Imagine waking up in hospital after an accident, only to find that the world has been taken over by plants. That’s what happens to Bill Masen in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids.
When he wakes up, there are no people around–they’ve either been killed or gone into hiding. He has no idea how long he’s been unconscious and must learn how to survive on his own in a hostile environment filled with carnivorous plants called triffids (which look like giant stalks with eyeballs). His only companion is Josella Playton, who helps him adjust as they try to figure out what happened and if there are any other survivors left on Earth…
Parable of a Small Land by Hermann Broch (1943)
It’s been said that the best way to understand a culture is by exploring its literature. If you want an intimate look at European culture in the 20th century, this novel will give it to you.
The story follows two men who fall in love with the same woman and live together as friends in Vienna during World War II. They must deal with their feelings for each other while also having to face everyday life under Nazi rule. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks detailing their pasts and how they got where they are now. The title refers both literally (to one of their homes) and metaphorically–the land itself becomes a character that represents all of humanity’s hopes, dreams and fears throughout history.
The Economist by John Banville (1998)
The Economist is a novel by John Banville, first published in 1998. It tells the story of retired economist Henry “Shank” Henderson, who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and struggles to come to terms with his condition.
The book is set in Dublin, Ireland; Shank lives on his own in an apartment overlooking the River Liffey and visits his daughter’s family every Sunday for lunch at their home across town. He spends most days reading newspapers at cafes or walking along Dublin’s quayside until he feels tired enough to go home for dinner alone with his wife (whose presence he often forgets).
Across the River and Into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway (1950)
Hemingway’s last novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, is a story about an aging war hero who falls in love with a young woman. The Colonel suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in World War II, but he doesn’t want to admit it because he feels like it would make him less of a man. His relationship with the woman is complicated by the fact that he’s married–and even though she knows this from the beginning, she still has feelings for him.
The book was written at a time when Hemingway was dealing with his own health issues: he’d been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 1956 and was given two years to live (he lived for another six). He died just four months after publishing Across The River And Into The Trees; it was his last novel before his death on July 2nd 1961
European literature can be much more than what you thought.
European literature can be much more than what you thought. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Under the Volcano are classics, but there’s a whole lot more to explore. Waiting for Godot is about waiting for Godot, which may not sound like much of a story–but it’s an existentialist play that will change your life! And if you’re looking for something with more action than philosophy, try Parable of a Small Land by Juan Carlos Onetti: it follows an author who writes about his hometown in Uruguay and then gets caught up in some shady dealings involving corruption and murder.
There are many great European novels that you’ve probably never heard of. This list is just a small sample of the amazing works that have been written by authors from all over Europe. If you’re looking for something new and exciting, try reading one of these books!