Compass, a long and erudite novel by Mathias Enard, is the surprise novel of the summer. Winner of the most prestigious French Prix Goncourt, named for the two Goncourt brothers who lived around the time of Proust, and known for their extreme aestheticism (and, alas, for their anti-Semitism) and magnificent taste in literature, Compass is not for the feint of heart, because of the breadth of knowledge of nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, music and travel that the writer displays.
The novel takes place in the mind of one German musicologist, who’s a terrible insomniac, as he reviews his career as a German Orientalist and his love affair with Sarah, a French Orientalist whose career parallels his, and with whom he often found himself in the same cities and/or conferences and the like. I’d mistakenly thought, for years, that Orientalists were scholars of China and Japan, in particular, but realize from this novel that they are those fascinated by what we call the Near or Middle East, particularly by countries such as Syria, Iran, Turkey (and, formerly, The Ottoman Empire), and into Lebanon and Palestine (in this novel, their interests and studies did not include the modern state of Israel). The narrator, Mr. Ritter, is probably twenty-five years or so older than Sarah, and his shy attempts to win her affections as well as her esteem form a long subplot of the novel.
The novel/protagonist are particularly interested in the influences, back and forth, between European music (Lizst; Berlioz; Beethoven; Schubert and Schumann) and the music of Turkey/The Ottoman Empire. Sarah and Ritter are both, in their ways, trying to prove, through scholarly research, that those influences worked both ways, not just moving from Europe (Lizst, in particular, played many a concert in Turkey), but from Turkey/The Ottoman Empire into Europe. Characters like T. E. Lawrence
(Lawrence of Arabia) and strong Englishwomen like Gertrude Bell, who actually drew the map of Iraq after the end of World War I, make fascinating appearances in the novel as examples of Europeans and/or British with longings for the exoticism/eroticism of the Middle East. Sarah, in particular, is fascinated by European women who’ve traveled the Middle East in the latter parts of the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth century. (Hippies, during the ’60s , would travel similar
routes, and further, into Afghanistan and India, often looking for opium and other such drugs, which do make their appearance amongst the scholars in this novel. Arab and Muslim poets are often quoted, along with obscure (to us) poets from France, Germany and England, as the novel crisscrosses cultures (painters of that era were fond of painting exotic scenes of the Near East; these were, in a sense, early travel paintings, which would be replaced by photography soon thereafter). The sheer brilliance of the novelist in making all these people and their scholarship zoom to life is astonishing; this novel is never, ever boring, but it’s a long and sometimes difficult read, and needs to be read slowly, with plenty of time at hand. And from a scholarly perspective, the author takes his characters and their research (archaeology is much mentioned in the novel, too) from the kinds of things modernism brought to the fore, and then into early postmodernism, as Sarah herself forwards her interest in a feminist perspective on scholarship and post-colonial tropes and idioms.
The approximately 450 page novel, as stated above, all takes place in Ritter’s mind as he braves it through another insomniac evening/night. (He seems to be suffering from some unknown malady, which may well be his partially unrequited love for Sarah). Because these scholars tend to run into one another in different countries, their experiences together form a strong backdrop to the novel, as the author probes the types of characters who are/were drawn into the Middle East; he reminds us how many of them served as spies for Western powers before and during World War I, in particular, as well. These Orientalists make a fascinating study; they are, in a sense, exiles in their own lands, and certainly in their own minds. Poets such as Rimbaud, in particular, make frequent appearances, and their poetry and lives make sense to a reader not terribly familiar with their Symbolist works.
If you try this novel, which I highly recommend, you’ll learn an amazing amount about the Middle East, its histories, its own languages, literature and arts as seen through the eyes of people who are fascinated by their cultures, and if you follow Sarah’s arguments about how cultures hybridize, you’re in for some riveting reading and learning; the characters themselves are never less than fascinating. Compass (one is encouraged, in this novel, to keep going “east of east”) is entirely Proustian in sensibility and in how the writer uses memory, and that’s no mean feat. For those who enjoy novels with so much erudition , I recommend Compass entirely; it’s completely brilliant and written with extraordinary prose.