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Mathias Enard: Boussole (Compass)

Franz Ritter is an Austrian musicologist, though with a French mother and therefore speaking French fluently. He is currently ill, maybe even dying. He does not trust Dr. Kraus, his doctor. The doctor gives him medicine to sleep but he throws it away and then complains that a good doctor would know when his patient throws away his medicine. What he would really like is some opium. Dr Kraus tells him that he can write him a prescription for opium but he would have to find a nineteenth century pharmacist to prescribe it. Ritter finds out that this is not quite accurate. Doctors can prescribe opium in Austria and it is obtainable, though, interestingly enough, you can get much more if it is for an animal. He considers borrowing a dog.

Because of his health problems, Franz cannot sleep. He lies awake at night, listening to his neighbour, Herr Gruber, wandering about. However, this novel is mainly about his lying awake and reflecting on a variety of issues, including his career as a musicologist, his fascination with the East (in this case, it is primarily what we now call the Middle East) and his travels there and, perhaps above all, his unrequited love for the French woman, Sarah. Indeed, the novel more or less starts with her. He receives a copy, by post, of an article she has published in a US magazine, dedicated to him. To his surprise, she is currently in Sarawak. As he does throughout the book, he immediately thinks of related issues, in this case the gamelan, an instrument used by some Western composers.

In his ruminations, he covers a variety of subjects but the main ones are Sarah, music and musicology and the Orient, including the relationship between East and West, his travels to that part of the world and Western perceptions of the Orient. He starts off with Sadegh Hedayat, the Iranian author and his troubled life, and the Iranian musician, Shahram Nazeri (magical, musical simplicity). However, his musical interests are not just Eastern. He tells us about the underrated Charles-Valentin Alkan, who allegedly died when a bookcase fell on top of him, which leads him onto Victor Hugo, who allegedly but now proved quite falsely to have died in a similar way and onto French composers who reference steam trains in their work (Alkan’s best-known work is Chemin de fer, i.e. railway). There are numerous tangents of this nature.

What really interests Ritter (and Enard) is the East-West relationship. He criticises Claudo Magris‘ book Danube for misunderstanding the Balkans and has an argument with Sarah about it. He points out the Eastern influences on various composers, including Mozart and Beethoven (and has a dig at Germany by pointing out that Beethoven could not wait to leave Germany and come in live in Vienna, as did other German composers.) He recounts how many Westerners loved Istanbul, some of them (like Ritter himself) for the opium. He gives us numerous anecdotes about Istanbul, such as Liszt’s wanderings and how he himself had his shoes stolen when he was in a mosque, so he stole a pair of sandals belonging to someone else. He tells us about August von Adelburg Abramović, a composer who was born in Istanbul but was the first to compose Western style music there.

One of his key figures is Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an orientalist, who introduced Balzac to Arabic (making for the first use of Arabic in a French novel), who owned a fabulous private library, was fluent in several Oriental languages, which he translated, and who influenced many Western artists, from Sheridan le Fanu, author of Dracula to Hugo von Hoffmanstahl. However, he does not neglect the Western women who travelled to the Orient, from Jane Digby who lived a scandalous life till she married a sheikh; Marguerite d’Andurain, who wanted to be the first Western woman to go to Mecca and married a naive sheikh for that purpose. That did not work out and he mysteriously died. She was charged with poisoning him and the papers reported that she been hanged for the crime. However, she lived another twenty years, a life of smuggling and possible poisonings, before she was murdered; and Lady Hester Stanhope, who spent most of her adult life in the Middle East, and, among other things, read the feet of Lamartine, the French poet, to tell his future.

It is not all about these thoughts. He occasionally drifts off to sleep for a brief while, with strange dreams about Sarah (naturally, quasi-erotic) and about Dr Kraus. He wakes up, regretting that he could never have a more permanent romantic relationship with Sarah but she always seems to be on the go, emailing him from Darjeeling or Kuching. He himself, he admits, has not visited the East for many years, preferring the comfort of his teaching job in Vienna and conferences in Europe.

We learn a lot about his musical tastes. He hates Wagner – for his anti-semitism, for his Western- rather than Eastern-leaning music and for his association with the Nazis. He has a photo of a statue of Mendelssohn being pulled down, under the Nazis (Mendelssohn was Jewish) with a smiling policeman watching. The policeman is Wagner. He even blames the Allies for collaborating in this, as they twice bombed the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, where Mendelssohn had been musical director, but never bombed Wagner’s Bayreuth. He does like Beethoven and it is Beethoven who indirectly gives us the title of this work. Sarah had given him as a gift a model of a compass owned by Beethoven. This compass unusually points not to the North but to the East. Ritter is at a loss to determine how it works. (It does not, in reality, and is clearly purely symbolic.)

This is a wonderful romp through European and Europe-Middle East intellectual history. From a list of all the nineteenth century artists who either had tuberculosis or syphilis to wide-ranging discussion of the various Europeans who ventured East and (though much less so) the Middle Easterners who ventured West, from discussions of the good and not so good (in Ritter’s eyes) composers to travels through various cities, East and West, we get a superb intellectual portrait from a variety of relatively unusual perspectives, making for a book that is a real joy to read.

Publishing history

First published by Actes Sud, in 2015
First English translation by New Directions in 2017
Translated by Charlotte Mandel