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The Enigma of Arrival: Ten Must-Read Works of Fiction for Anyone Living Abroad

November 13, 2010

Georges Perec

Lonely Planet and Rough Guides and the CIA’s World Factbook may give you extremely useful practical information, but the project of long-term displacement, the demands of living outside your country of origin for extended periods of time, often requires a different order of know-how and an approach that hard facts alone can’t explain.

Fiction is invaluable for learning to see yourself and what you’re up to more clearly, and understanding how other people see themselves and what they’re up to. The very finest fiction also takes you where you didn’t know you wanted to go. What follows is a list of ten books, in alphabetical order, that we consider among the best for taking you there:

Joan Didion

Democracy, by Joan Didion

Inez Victor gets around.

The Vietnam War nears its disastrous end. Post-colonial discontent convulses Southeast Asia. Inez travels a lot with her pompous husband, a senator aspiring to the presidency, and takes some side-trips with Jack, her tight-lipped intermittent soulmate who shares her uncanny knack for “interesting times.”

Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese. The American evacuation dissolves into anarchy. Inez loses patience with her countrymen’s faith in their specialness — an insight that ushers her story toward its ineffably sad, almost hopeful, conclusion.

This is perhaps the funniest work in all of American 20th century literary fiction, and after turning its last page, you’ll forever miss Inez, Janet, Harry, Jack, Billy, Dwight, Ruthie, and, yes, even Frances.

Elizabeth Bishop

Geography III, by Elizabeth Bishop

Bishop’s father died eight months after she was born. Her mother lost her mind a few years later. Bishop spent her life wandering — Europe, North Africa, Latin America — staying the longest, twenty-six years, in Brazil.

She was never ambitious about her career as a poet. She spent years, sometimes decades, reworking a single poem. Her humility was uncompromising: she refused to use her work for confession or self-disclosure. She took a dim view of poets who thought they were prophets and of poems that smacked of oracular self-importance. Bishop wrote about what she’d directly observed in the world outside herself, and referred to her personal life, her emotions, only rarely, and with a diamond cutter’s precision.

Small, witty, a frequent hostage to asthma and alcohol, Bishop wondered what travel meant and why she never felt at home in the world. And she was always dazzled by nature’s ability, through its beauty and oddness, to lift her above the loneliness that followed her everywhere. She’s now regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, and Geography III represents her finest work.

The Good Terrorist, by Dorris Lessing

Lessing seems to be coolly examining a group of politically minded misfits who coalesce long enough in London to dream up and execute a fatal plan.

But she’s less interested in politics than in the specific deficiencies that make a person so despise and reject his own country’s liberal democracy that he’d do it harm.

Ticking away at the heart of this novel is an ingenious technique so covert and subversive in its cunning that you may never quite figure out just why The Good Terrorist haunts and unsettles you long after you’ve read it.

VS Naipaul

Guerrillas, by VS Naipaul

The English-speaking world’s most famously merciless writer fixes his eye on moth-to-the-flame characters drawn to a revolutionary movement on a Caribbean island.

Dread, doom, and folly are as thick in the air as the bauxite dust covering the island’s roads. Something sinister announces its approach with flashes of surprising violence.

Pay close attention to the game Harry de Tunja introduces to his guests after brunch at his beachfront home. It’s a booby-trap Naipaul has set for his characters, but you, the reader, are an intended target, too.

How German Is It?, by Walter Abish

The past is a slow-acting venom that causes dreamy stupor leading to moral paralysis.

Abish had never visited Germany before writing How German Is It?, but readers and critics agreed that he captured the essential essence of post-war Germanness better than any native-born German.

His characters, including the son of a German officer involved in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, can’t wake themselves from the nightmare of history. Terrorism and its origins flicker throughout the story until the unforeseeable revelation at its end.

In a Free State, by VS Naipaul

The novella’s pretext is a road-trip through troubled East Africa.

But Bobby and Linda aren’t just hapless characters Naipaul has set up to take a fall. With a light touch and singular economy, Naipaul makes the two live and breathe as much as Flaubert does Emma Bovary.

And just as Flaubert set out to describe and indict mid-19th century France, Naipaul, with far fewer words, makes the entirety of Western colonialism his target and, with a ruthlessness and speed that will leave you gasping, pulls the trigger.

Life: A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec

To live abroad successfully, you ought be able to pay close attention to the fine details of how other people live their lives — their habits, customs, histories, pretensions, and vulnerabilities. But this attention must also be the sort that can be focused quickly and remain acute despite frequent, and arbitrary, interruption.

Life: A User’s Manual moves forward and backward in time, in fits and starts, in 99 chapters, as it obsessively scrutinizes the fascinating inhabitants of a fictional Parisian apartment block.

Since the novel’s clever puzzle-like structure doesn’t march orderly from beginning to middle to end, you can open to any random chapter, or read them all in their given sequence, with equal pleasure. Which makes Life: A User’s Manual perfectly suited for reading while traveling, and for the distractions and disruptions of living abroad.

Marguerite Duras

The Sailor From Gibraltar, by Marguerite Duras

The French often think of travel as pure escape, and find whatever’s exotic in the foreign to be elegant, as opposed to alienating.

In The Sailor From Gibraltar, Marguerite Duras gives us a sun-struck narrator who, while on vacation in Italy, abandons everything to follow Anna, a seductive American who plies the Mediterranean in her gorgeous yacht, perpetually searching for her lost great love, a sailor from Gibraltar.

The sunshine. The sea. Life at sea. Pleasure. All the necessary romantic elements appear to be in place. Yet Duras isn’t handing you romance, but mystery.

The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles

A friend once described Without Stopping, Bowles’ globe-trotting name-dropping memoir, as a “very meaty People article.” You wish there was more to it, but what you have is satisfying enough that you’re willing to accept it on its own terms.

Bowles makes a similar demand of his readers in The Sheltering Sky, the story of a well-heeled intellectual couple, Port and Kit, who wander into North Africa, incautiously looking for answers to some unstated questions they have about their lives.

Yes, of course, self-absorption can be addictive and dangerous. Had Kit been less distracted, however, she’d have never drifted away in the amazing “vision quest” that makes up the final third of the book.

Vladimir Nabokov

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov said he never wanted to return to Russia because he’d kept everything worth keeping from his homeland in his memory and in his heart.

If you’ve ever wondered what you might take with you from the places and people who formed you, long after those places and people have vanished, Speak, Memory will show you how the world’s greatest connoisseur of the irretrievable past guarded his treasures against the predations of time.

Never intended as a literal account, or a document of historical accuracy, this is a lifetime transformed into something greater than a confection of the factual and lyrical…

Nabokov’s pretty mother returning home after a morning of mushroom hunting. His handsome father returning home after a close-call with an assassin. Biarritz in the summer. A lovely little girl rolling a hoop through a Parisian park. It’s all there. All of it. Luminous, distinct, and eternal.

(Editor’s note: Casa Catherwood was generous enough to create an Amazon iBookstore where you can purchase nine selections from this list.  You can find it here.)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Maja permalink
    November 13, 2010 7:59 pm

    This is an excellent shopping list. Thank you.

  2. November 14, 2010 10:29 am

    I am wondering if this collection of books (or a part thereof) is available at the English library here in sunny Merida? I shall have to dust off my membership card and go find out. Thank you!

  3. Ye Olde Gringoe permalink
    November 15, 2010 11:55 am

    This is a spectacular reading list, Hugo!

    And it’s a very sneaky one, too!

    The books you have chosen are also like a “slow-acting venom” because they are books that, after you read them, gradually make you start looking at yourself and at your life and at what you’re doing in an objective, thoughtful way.

    Maybe you’ll like what you see, or maybe you won’t!

    It’s like that famous poem by Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo:

    We cannot know his legendary head
    with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
    is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
    like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

    gleams in all its power. Otherwise
    the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
    a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
    to that dark center where procreation flared.

    Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
    beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
    and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

    would not, from all the borders of itself,
    burst like a star: for here there is no place
    that does not see you. You must change your life.

  4. November 17, 2010 8:21 pm

    Gringos, by Charles Portis. But only for those living abroad in Merida.

  5. November 17, 2010 11:44 pm

    @ EJ Albright


  6. November 26, 2010 1:27 am

    Casa Catherwood set up an Amazon iBookstore for this list. You can find it here:

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