As that time of year is here again, I’ve put together some reading go with the ultimate musical event. Here’s a selection of books that are set in a major European city (or multiple ones) that I think provide a memorable snapshot of their setting in some way. They’re all either in English or read in an English translation—I welcome other people’s additions regardless of language.
- The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (Gdańsk, formerly Danzig) – A combination of politics, magical realism, and a distinctive and unreliable narrator, The Tin Drum isn’t a story about a city, but its setting is important and very memorable when I think back on the novel.
- Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Paris) – Baldwin’s hugely famous novel about a man having an affair with a guy called Giovanni has a Parisian backdrop for the highs and lows of their time together and as the world outside the room in which they spend so much time together.
- N-W by Zadie Smith (London) – The London conjured up by Smith in this novel is so real, a snapshot of particularly the north-west of the city as shown through four intertwined characters whose experienced are shaped by class, race, and opportunity.
- ABBA ABBA by Anthony Burgess (Rome) – Perhaps an odd suggestion for a Rome novel (unlike Angels and Demons), but Burgess’ novel about Keats’ last days—part of which is a load of dirty sonnets—is both distinctive and does give a real feel of the city. Read alongside canto IV of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage for the full Romantics in Rome effect.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Prague) – Kundera’s novel about intertwined characters and their loves during the Prague Spring is both hugely quotable and moving and an interesting look at a political situation and a city.
- A Guide To Berlin by Gail Jones (Berlin) – A novel about a group of strangers—all travellers who love Nabokov in some way—who meet weekly in Berlin to share stories and talk about the city, until a shocking event occurs that changes their meetings.
- Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (Paris, Berlin, Vienna) – Get in many cities at once with Barnes’ short and punchy novel about Europe between the wars and how expression of sexuality, religion, and class was suddenly very different.