Book Review

Compass by Mathias Enard

A beautiful novel for an ugly world.

Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow wow wow.


Mathias Enard (beautifully translated by Charlotte Mandell) has written another, irrevocably masterful, novel, that has again been – here in the UK – published by the near-flawless literary publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Enard’s Zone (my hugely positive blog review here) was the most impressive book I’d read in a very, very, very, long time, so I went into Compass (published in French as Boussole in 2015, but a 2017 release in translation) with expectations higher than [insert someone else’s name or “I”] at [insert anecdotal drug reference].

In fact, I loved Zone so much that my effusive review had a paragraph pulled and included at the front of this edition of Compass. Not only was I nervous about reading more Enard in case I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d enjoyed Zone, but I was also aware that my name – and the name of my website – was being used as part of Fitzcarraldo’s marketing campaign. My love of Zone – and thus Enard & Mandell – is evidenced, not just online but in print, in the text itself. It felt like I was being told to like Compass, told to love it, and not just by a sale-hungry publisher, but by MY OWN WORDS. Fitzcarraldo, setting a “literary lifestyle blogger” to catch a “literary lifestyle blogger”. Would I fall for their ploy? Would I love Compass like I loved Zone? Let’s find out, reader, as we delve the fuck in…

Photo on 03-11-2017 at 10.35 #2.jpg
There I am, my words published in a book by Fitzcarraldo Editions ON A PAR WITH the words of the New York Times. It marks how serious my breakdown was that I didn’t celebrate this – for me – huge achievement at the time it happened.

Enard’s text is gorgeous, beautiful and moving. It is intelligent and humane, complex and base. At its centre, it is a love story, but one that contains echoes of deeply significant contemporary events and the historical forces that caused them. It is about exploration – both geographical and intellectual – and, much like Zone, it offers a reader a somewhat educational experience alongside the deeply affecting rendering of a human mind.

The protagonist of this novel is Franz Ritter, a musicologist based at the University of Vienna who specialises in the study of music from the Middle East. As he tries to fall asleep one Viennese night, he ruminates on his past, due to a double whammy over the past few days of a diagnosis of a potentially terminal, degenerative, disease, and the receipt of a letter and article from Sarah, a woman – and fellow orientalist academic – who he has been in love with for many years.

Ritter ruminates on his and Sarah’s first encounter at an academic conference in a Austrian castle, before they bonded more closely in Syria at a later date. He recalls later visits she made to Vienna and alludes to – but only focuses on at the novel’s end (setting up its conclusion) – a highly significant evening in Tehran. His memories move backwards and forwards through time, circling both this night and the letter he has just received. Both what happened in Tehran and Sarah’s words in her missive were shattering for Franz, and we fear (particularly reading Compass when I did, in the midst of myriad international sexual harassment scandals) that what will be revealed will be something truly awful. But Enard is clever and human, rather than shocking, and the Iranian night and the contemporary letter – when they are finally, inevitably, revealed – are even more moving and arresting and satisfying than I had hoped. I wept reading this book, copiously, wetly, repeatedly.

Enard’s evocation of a life in reflection – a similar conceit to Zone, but a very different life – is tender and charming, is articulate and wise. Mandell’s translation deserves to be wildly applauded because the prose here is award-worthy in itself (the French original won the Prix Goncourt, like Proust did), it is rich and succulent and its meanings swing through long sentences into deep paragraphs and it is a pleasure, a joy and a treat to read.

Compass dramatises the wonder of travel, the joy of study and the intensity of love. Enard discusses changing notions of gender roles in a way that doesn’t – to me1 – feel heavy handed, as (for example) Sarah’s career and personal development is much more successful than Franz’s. We see stunning, historic, cities and are forced to confront how war has changed them (many parts of the novel are set in Syria, including significant portions in Aleppo), and the growth and destructive/tragic rise of ISIS is discussed many times. There is a deep personal – though acknowledged outsider – connection to the Middle East, to Vienna, to Paris, to India and Sarawak (Malaysia) too, and Enard’s novel weaves a rich presentation of someone’s life, and the people and events that mattered to the person living them.

Ritter, as an academic, is not a “typical” person, I suppose – his interests are more intellectual than the average person’s, and his insights into music and culture are informed by study, not instinct. There is, like in Zone, biographical information about significant political and cultural figures, and Enard traces the lives and careers of multiple people who enagaged – as Ritter did, as Enard himself has clearly done – with the Middle East. Compass is an unashamedly clever book, but one where its intelligence never overshadows its beauty. Compass is an intellectual book, but rather than the bad books written by self-consciously intellectual [male] authors like Will Self and James Joyce (both of whom, tbf, have written good books as well as bad), Enard’s knowledge never feels forced, and never feels unnecessary. I never got the impression, reading Compass, that Enard was showing off. He (and full credit to Mandell, obvs) have rendered this highly intelligent depiction of the intellectual life of a highly intelligent man without being boring, without being smug, without being clever for being clever’s sake. Enard’s intelligence is undeniable, but rather than use it to bolster his own image, he puts it to devastating literary use. Compass, in no uncertain terms, is a PHENOMENAL novel.

Despite its weighty discussion of the history of music, the history of international relations and also often the history of literature (including much about Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which I read when a bit too young to appreciate it properly), Compass is not a dry text, it is one deeply infused with a tragic, and moving love affair, and one that was made even more heartbreaking for me due to my own personal history. Vienna, where this book is set, was the first city I ever visited with my ex partner, when we were young and passionate and in love (and I had beautiful, floppy, rich hair), and it was a place where, in many very traditional ways, I experienced one of the best times of my life. We weren’t arguing, we weren’t tired of each other, we hadn’t discovered irrevocable differences that would simmer and explode as time went on, we were just two people at the energetic end of their twenties who were enjoying themselves and each other.

It’s been easy for me, over the past few months – particularly given the fact that the break-up occurred while I was in the midst of a serious breakdown – to focus blindly on the bad parts of that relationship and on the very real damage it did to me, psychologically (and the blame is as much mine as it was hers, I’m not trying to apportion blame, please don’t read this as that, anyone, a bad relationship takes two people, yadda yadda yadda. Four months on and I’ve just had my antidepressant dose increased AGAIN and have newly been prescribed valium, so things really aren’t going great for me, lololololololol. But that’s an aside.) So, the streets Enard has Ritter describe as streets filled with memories of romantic excitement and desire are streets that I have wandered too, filled similarly with romantic excitement and desire. But unlike Ritter, I didn’t have sadness in Vienna, but did have a lot of it later on, in many other European cities. Reading Compass (a book that is, in essence, a beautiful story about love), and being reminded about visiting Vienna as a youth while living through this confusing period of transition in my life, combined to make me cry a lot, to dwell on happy memories, when for many months I’d been forcing myself to dwell on sad ones.

Enard’s book about love shows the beginnings and the collapse of love, the ripples and the power and the joy of desire, and also too the sadness and regret of rejection. While I may be in a period of my life where it is only the sadness of lost, fallen, love that chimed with me, Enard has reminded me that this is a part of life, a part as essential as the beginnings of love. A few weeks ago, I said to a long-term single friend, “It’s bullshit to say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved, I’d rather be like you, no great love affairs but no big fucking break ups like mine”. Enard has made it clear to me that that was self-pitying bullshit. Just because one relationship is over (a relationship that, really, hadn’t made me happy for a very long time) doesn’t mean that love is forever lost. In fact, it means the opposite: without the strictures of a flawed relationship, I am able to find love in a way I haven’t experienced it since I was young, dumb and filling condoms with cum.

This may sound overblown, but Mathias Enard and Charlotte Mandell have made me believe in love again. The way Enard describes Ritter thinking about kissing Sarah as the sun rises above a fort in rural Syria before they are interrupted; the way Enard describes a decades-long friendship that flirts with flirtation in an unproblematic way; the way Enard writes of people and life and living is magical, magical, magical. Wow.

Enard’s book is another wonder, a delight from start to finish and I found myself wanting it to never end but also not wanting to put it down. There’s a whole fucking Enard book published by Fitzcarraldo that I haven’t read, Street of Thieves. Maybe I should order myself a copy of that, maybe I can swing a free review copy if anyone’s reading this with those powers, ey, ey?

Compass is truly masterful, truly gorgeous, truly what I – fucked up and confused – needed right now. A book that not only reminded me why it is that I read with wild abandon, but what it is everyone lives for. Life is for living, and learning and love are two of life’s greatest pleasures. It’s time for me to do more of both, I think. Let’s strap in; let’s fill a bag with books and run off to the dating scene.

1. I am a man, though, remember (albeit one who reads a lot about gender identities lolololololol). 

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4 comments on “Compass by Mathias Enard

  1. Love Enard (though like you haven’t read “Street Of Thieves” yet. Congrats on being quoted in the book itself!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Scott Manley Hadley’s Triumphant 2017 – Triumph of the Now

  3. Pingback: Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard – Triumph of the Now

  4. Pingback: Death In Venice by Thomas Mann –

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