Mathias Enard: Boussole (Compass)


The latest addition to my website is Mathias Enard‘s Boussole (Compass). This is about one man, an Austrian musicologist called Franz Ritter, who is currently ill with an unspecified disease, who throws away the tablets his doctor gives him and lies awake at night, thinking about various things. These include his unrequited love for the French woman Sarah, his wide-ranging knowledge and views on primarily Western classical music but also some Middle Eastern music and, above all, on matters relating to the Middle East and, in particular, the relationship between Europe and the Middle East. He himself has travelled extensively in the Middle East (though not as much as Sarah) and is very knowledgeable about the subject and about the various Westerners who travelled there and were influenced by that part of the world. He gives us a wide-ranging selection of often highly opinionated anecdotes on the topic, from the various European women who travelled and lived in the Middle East to those writers and musicians who were very much influenced by it, from Balzac, the first Western novelist to insert a piece of Arabic into his novels to composers such as Liszt and Bartók whose music was influenced by the Middle East. He damns Wagner and praises Beethoven (not least because he left Germany, preferring to live in Vienna) and even receives a compass modelled on Beethoven’s as a gift from Sarah, a compass which points not North but East. Above all it is a wonderful and learned recitation of the intellectual history of Europe and its association with the Middle East, told in a non-learned manner, as well as a discussion of music and musicology, as Ritter lies in bed in his flat in Vienna, listening to his neighbour, Herr Gruber, wandering around.

9 thoughts on “Mathias Enard: Boussole (Compass)”

    • Sebald is more measured than Enard. Zone is more concerned with conflict. While conflicts do make a brief appearance in this one, it is much more about the intellectual life and travel, as well as his unrequited love.

  1. Having read ‘Boussole’ with enormous pleasure, I am waiting impatiently for an English translation to be able to give — or at least recommend — it to non-francophone friends. It is, as you say, a beautifully if rather convoluted piece of literary craftsmanship, erudit without being pedantic ( the protagonist even manages to make fun of himself). You need be neither a music-lover nor interested in the Middle East, but if you happen to be one or the other, or both, you will find yourself in literary nirvana — like me.
    p.s. I didn’t see Franz’s love as unrequited; he was vanquished by his timidity and didn’t have the guts to live up to his desires.


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