From idyllic islands, to cities suffused in mythic wonder, the literary landscapes of novels set throughout Europe are nothing if not diverse in setting - and genre, for that matter. Below we cover everything from sultry summers in Greece, to romance in Rome, to magic in Prague. We offer servings of feel-good fiction, quirky classics of the twentieth-century, alluring modern mysteries - and much more besides.
Having said that, it goes without saying this is by no means exhaustive - we’ve only picked three of our favourite places, so think of these as tasters to tantalise your literary taste buds. Why not pour a tipple (maybe a glass of grappa, ouzo, or even some Czech Absinthe - if you’re feeling brave) before escaping to three European lands (Greece, Italy and the Czech Republic) through literature?
To begin at the beginning, you might want to journey back in time by taking a look at our Collection of books based on Ancient Greek myths. From Pat Barker’s inventive take on the Trojan War (The Silence of the Girls), to Margaret Atwood’s playful The Penelopiad, a veritable Pantheon of reading pleasure awaits.
Nikos Kazantzakis’s Crete-set classic Zorba the Greek comes highly recommended too. Published in 1946, set just before the start of the First World War, and based on the author’s experiences, it’s a moving, adventurous story of friendship with a fabulous sense of place. For entertaining family drama (and animal antics), Gerald Durrell’s Corfu-set My Family and Other Animals is a must-read memoir, while the richly evocative historical bestseller Captain Corelli’s Mandolin well and truly put Kefalonia on the map.
Sticking with Greece-set historic novels, how about Victoria Hislop’s The Island, Those Who are Loved and Cartes Postales From Greece? In fact, all her novels are worth investigating - they’re Greek-themed, and as gripping as they are thoughtful.
Let’s begin our Italian adventures in ancient Pompeii, as vivaciously brought to life in Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den - a fiery blend of history, harlotry and a woman’s battle for freedom. Turning now to Venice, Thomas Mann’s 19th-century Death in Venice is an evocative masterpiece, while readers wanting to appreciate Venice’s otherworldly real-world wonder would do well to read historian and travel writer Jan Mark’s stunningly immersive account of the city.
Elena Ferrante’s Naples-set novels are hauntingly beautiful, while fans of classy contemporary crime noir should read The Measure of Time - with a charismatic defence lawyer at its heart, it has an abundance of atmosphere and Italian allure.
For heartfelt contemporary fiction set in Italy, take a look at Nicky Pellegrino’s novels, especially 1950s-set When in Rome, and One Summer in Venice in which a woman facing a midlife crisis re-finds her mojo through food. And for entertaining island escapism (Sardinia and Corsica), try The Island Escape - it does what it says on its attractive tin.
Finally, to savour the thrills and spills of a real-life romantic lifestyle, Kamin Mohammadi’s Florence-set Bella Figura memoir is a feel-good feast of inspiration for living an elegant life.
Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, is as resplendent with literary treasures as it is with awe-inspiring architecture, Old Town atmosphere and momentous history, with the city itself often taking centre stage in Czech literature.
Mention must go to Prague’s most famous writer - Franz Kafka. Perhaps best known for his shrewd, uncanny short stories, his novel The Castle is a modernist classic. Talking of castles, Kafka lived in his sister’s cottage on Golden Lane in Prague’s castle complex. This quaint, cobbled alley was also home to Emperor Rudolf II’s alchemists back in the 16th-century. Though typically teeming with tourists, you can still see - and feel - how this lane might have been back in the days of Kafka and the alchemists before him. To experience that from the comfort of your own home, read some Kafka, or Sylvie Germain’s haunting, magic realist masterpiece, The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague. Related to magic, to experience Prague’s mysterious side, The Golem is a must-read. As an aside, while its author Gustav Meyrink was Kafka’s contemporary, their styles couldn’t be more different. It’s worth reading both authors to appreciate the breadth of Czech literary culture.
Moving to other significant periods in Czech history, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being offers an intellectual - and engaging - account of the 1968 Prague Spring Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (as it then was) through the lives of four Czechs - it’s profoundly thought-provoking on a pivotal period in history. The same can be said of Ivan Klima’s Love and Garbage, though this explores life in the aftermath of the Prague Spring, not too long before the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
And finally, moving beyond Prague to broader Bohemia, I adore Bohumil Hrabal’s bittersweet and often dryly amusing novels that blend the personal with the political. I Served the King of England, Closely Observed Trains, Too Loud a Solitude, and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still - joys one and all.
If these suggestions have piqued your interest, take a look at our curated Collections - a number of these explore continents and countries in detail. For example, you can uncover Caribbean writers here, head around the world through 80 historical novels here, discover elite Welsh authors here, and explore Asia here. We’ve even got you covered if you fancy taking a road-trip. Oh, and you might want to look out for our upcoming feature on French fiction with va-va-voom.
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