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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Mathias Énard

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To purchase Compass

Title: Compass
Author: Mathias Énard
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 451 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Compass - US
Compass - UK
Compass - Canada
Boussole - Canada
Boussole - France
Kompass - Deutschland
Bussola - Italia
Brújula - España
  • French title: Boussole
  • Translated by Charlotte Mandell
  • Prix Goncourt, 2015

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Our Assessment:

A- : rich and fascinating mind- and (Oriental-)world-tour

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 8/4/2017 .
Financial Times . 10/3/2017 Tobias Grey
The Guardian . 7/4/2017 Steven Poole
Harper's . 3/2017 Christopher Beha
Irish Times A+ 1/4/2017 Eileen Battersby
The LA Times . 24/3/2017 Justin Taylor
Le Monde . 3/9/2015 Raphaëlle Leyris
The Nation . 24/8/2017 Jesse McCarthy
NZZ A+ 8/9/2016 Vanessa de Senarclens
New Statesman . 6/4/2017 Leo Robson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/7/2017 Joshua Cohen
The Spectator . 8/7/2017 Ruth Scurr
TLS . 17/5/2017 Jessica Loudis
Wall St. Journal A 24/3/2017 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 3/4/2017 Andrew Ervin
Die Zeit . 24/11/2016 Ijoma Mangold

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel offers both a celebration and interrogation of the Orientalist imagination. (...) For all its sandstorm of scholarship, translated with tireless eloquence by Charlotte Mandell, Compass aches with that simple yearning." - The Economist

  • "Ritter’s perception of himself as a socially awkward, underachieving mummy’s boy is the joke of the novel. (...) Enard (...) occasionally overstuffs Compass with the kind of Orientalist arcana that might be better suited to a scholarly essay. However, when he concentrates on storytelling, as he does in the novel’s second half, there are passages of pure delight with rare insight into the human condition. " - Tobias Grey, Financial Times

  • "The author could certainly, if he had chosen, have written a different novel: one less intent on formally mimicking the pains of lengthy rumination and less determined to demonstrate the pleasures of erudition. There is material here, for instance, for a brilliant tragicomic cosmopolitan campus novel. (...) Compass, in its relentlessly discursive impressiveness, embodies an uncompromising vision of the novel as relatively static political and cultural essay -- at least until the final few pages" - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "There is something Sebaldian in Ritter’s encyclopedic erudition and the seamless way that he shifts between personal and historical memory. (...) Compass stands a fair chance of finding the wider American audience it deserves, if only for its timeliness." - Christopher Beha, Harper's

  • "Few works of contemporary fiction will yield as much pleasure as Compass. Reading it amounts to wandering into a library arranged in the form of an exotic sweet shop, full of tempting fragments of stories guaranteed leaving you wanting more. Quite an achievement for a novel approaching 500 pages. (...) Compass may be a cerebral book, but it is not oppressively polemical. (...) Compass is beautiful, engaging and self-indulgent." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "(A)s much an essay, a compendium, a rant and a polemic as it is a work of fiction. (...) This novel contains many books and all of their counter books. Ritter himself is a knot of contradiction (.....) Compass is as challenging, brilliant, and -- God help me -- important a novel as is likely to be published this year, but there was more than one occasion on which I had to stop myself from throwing it across the room." - Justin Taylor, The Los Angeles Times

  • "On retrouve quelque chose de cet effet dans le très hypnotique Boussole, dont chaque page sort le lecteur de lui-même, le confronte à une infinité de sujets et de personnages dont il ignore tout pour les lui rendre proches." - Raphaëlle Leyris, Le Monde

  • "The plot of Compass is really more of a frame, an anchoring point for a series of loosely strung, impressionistic fugues that follow the streams of thought of one man over a single night. (...) ne begins to get the sense that there’s another game at play, one that was perhaps not Énard’s intention when he set out to write Compass, but that a reader can’t resist surmising in the wake of its publication. (...) In Compass, Énard has created a giant fresco, a dream sequence parading the history of cosmopolitan Europe before us. But even as we crane our necks to stare in awe at his creation, it is hard not to notice the cracks in the ceiling, fissures that go right to the foundation and may bring the house down sooner than we think." - Jesse McCarthy, The Nation

  • "Mathias Enard ist mit seinem Goncourt-Preis-gekrönten Kompass ein Meisterwerk geglückt -- er verschränkt akademisches Wissen mit einer aussergewöhnlichen Liebesgeschichte." - Vanessa de Senarclens, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "In addition to being gloomy, dense and, though more or less conventionally punctuated, light on paragraph breaks, Compass refuses the reader various basic co-ordinates, erecting a barrier to comprehension that touches almost every line. " - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "Compass, Mathias Énard’s masterly new novel that attempts to redeem the specter of the Orient (.....) Ritter inflects his fictional peregrinations with nonfictional prose-flights concerning musical Orientalism, which read like Thomas Bernhard editing Wikipedia, or a Levantine-themed edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music." - Joshua Cohen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In Charlotte Mandell’s elegant translation, Mathias Énard’s humane and erudite novel reminds the anglophone world of what it owes to Islam. (...) For a book structured around a dark night in the soul of a musicologist, it is surprisingly delicate and humorous. (...) Énard’s Franz is a storyteller in the grand tradition of Scheherazade." - Ruth Scurr, The Spectator

  • "While the book could perhaps be read as an elegy for empire, it is primarily a meditation on a forgotten globalism. (...) Compass, while expansive and multivalent, is also a study in distancing: Franz keeps at arm’s length the kinds of exchanges the book itself celebrates." - Jessica Loudis, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mr. Enard fuses recollection and scholarly digression into a swirling, hypnotic stream-of-consciousness narration. (...) So this sad yet invigorating novel is both a love letter to a vanishing discipline and an elegy. Franz’s mental circumnavigations constitute a celebration of the civilizing power of knowledge and "the beauty of sharing and diversity."" - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "There’s an apt symphonic quality to Charlotte Mandell’s translation. Themes appear and return, often in variations. Motifs -- illness, dread, shame -- lots and lots of shame -- return us to Ritter’s bed and his long, dark night of the soul. The genius of Énard’s composition lies in the seemingly random organization of Ritter’s thoughts. (...) Énard has written a masterful novel that speaks to our current, confused moment in history by highlighting the manifold, vital contributions of Islamic and other Middle Eastern cultures to the European canon." - Andrew Ervin, The Washington Post

  • "Kompass ist das Antidot zur identitären Bewegung, die davon überzeugt ist, dass es ursprüngliche, reine Identitäten gibt, zu denen die Völker zu ihrem Heil nur zurückkehren müssen. Énard erzählt hingegen davon, wie unsere Identitäten immer schon Ergebnisse des Austauschs und der Vermischung sind." - Ijoma Mangold, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mathias Énard's Zone was just a(n essentially) single-sentence flow of story; Compass is slightly more conventional in appearance and structure, but is also essentially a stream-of-consciousness narrative in real time, a largely sleepless night suffered by Franz Ritter, spent mainly in reflection of times gone by and of Sarah, half a world away (in Sarawak, Malaysia). Franz Ritter is an Austrian musicologist, long drawn to the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian worlds -- 'the Orient', for convenience sake, here -- , but now more comfortable in his domestic Viennese retreat -- "even if it means suffering from insomnia, illness, and Gruber's dog". He is apparently seriously ill -- the (unspecified) diagnosis now made, though still awaiting further confirmation, but inevitable terrible decline looming all too closely. The new, official death sentence weighs on him, as does the other news of the day: a twenty-page article he's received -- an old-fashioned offset -- from Sarah (that begins with a discussion of Sadegh Hedayat and his The Blind Owl (a memorable book his thoughts return to elsewhere too, in this swirling narrative)).
       Franz is in the here and now -- listening to the radio, reading through Sarah's pages -- but drifts off in various speculations, memories, and the occasional actual dream (sleep is elsuive but not entirely out of reach). He recalls his own time in Turkey, and traveling in Syria, and Iran (during the revolution, no less) -- including some adventures shared with Sarah. He acknowledges, with some regret, a momma's-boy passivity that has held him back -- reflected even in his profession: "I ... I don't play any instruments. I just study. I listen and write, if you prefer" -- and while he has retreated to his hometown Sarah has moved on -- even: "reconstructed herself by going further east, more profoundly into herself".
       Franz discusses Sarah's thesis -- he was present when she defended it -- and the resulting book, tellingly titled Désorients. And there's also another: "Dévorations, her book on the eaten heart, the revelatory heart and all kinds of joy terrors of symbolic cannibalism". Much of what goes through Ritter's mind is about his complex relationship with Sarah -- which also reflects the larger theme of the work, his -- and indeed the historical European -- relationship with 'the Orient'.
       Franz saw Iran transformed under the revolution, and now he hears of the destruction in contemporary war-torn Syria -- worlds (and pasts) further lost. They also reflect his personal condition, as he apparently stands at the precipice of disastrous physical decline (before his illness actually kills him).
       Much of the novel has Franz go over old accounts and approaches, of varying sorts, to 'the Orient' -- though as Sarah insists:

     The Orient is an imagined construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.
       Franz/Énard's tour of orientalists and their (mis)adventures -- including Franz's own -- make for fascinating stories. The often colorful cast of historical characters, which include Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, Marga d'Andurain, and Robert Musil's cousin Alois, make for entertaining fun, but there's also a great deal of thoughtful consideration of connexions, especially of how 'the Orient' has played into Western thought and, especially, art.
       Occasionally, Franz/Énard can overwhelm in their quick leaps and layering of references:
[...] but in fact the Orient of Madrus, still a reflection, another Third-Orient; it's the Orient, when all is said and done, of Mallarmé and L:a Revue blanche, the eroticism of Pierre Louÿs, a representation, an interpretation. As in Joseph Roth's Tale of the 1002nd Night or Hofmannsthal's Scheherazade, the motifs of the Nights are used to suggest, to create a tension in a European context; the shah's desire, in Roth's novel, to sleep with Countess W. sets off an entirely Viennese intrigue, the way Rimsky-Korsakov's ballets in Scheherazade or Mata Hari's dances serve to arouse the Parisian bourgeoisie: in the end, any relationship they had with a so-called real Orient matters little.
       This is a literary, reverentially referential work -- not only with its nods towards the Arabicists or Hedayat, but having Franz also read and return to the likes of Fernando Pessoa, Balzac, and all the predictable Austrians (from Grillparzer through Musil to Bernhard). Franz has his limits -- Freud is dismissed as a charlatan -- but he's a cultured scholar who roams with easy facility across centuries and cultures, weaving this colorful tapestry.
       A commentary on the conflicts, new and old of West versus East, but cleverly, sharply focused on the cultural rather than more overtly political (or religious -- even as these, of course, also play their roles), Compass is a novel for, more than of, our times, often comic but ultimately deeply serious in its considerations of cross-cultural influences, and a reminder of the significant roles (and many misinterpretations of) of 'the Orient' in European culture.
       So much now weighs on Franz -- inescapably, all the history he's accumulated, but personally, too, his own confrontation with mortality (and, before that, the promise of what should be, medically, an ugly decline) as well as the literally out of reach woman whom he can't get out of his thoughts, a debate-partner (among much else) debating now at such a distant remove. Énard manages to make what is essentially this sleep-deprived protagonist's monologue consistently entertaining -- no wonder he can't sleep, with all this bubbling in his mind -- with enough of the human to the story to make even the more obscurely scholarly go down comfortably easily.
       A fine piece of writing, and a very enjoyable work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 March 2017

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Compass: Reviews: Other books by Mathias Énard under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Mathias Énard was born in 1972.

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© 2017-2018 the complete review

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