Review: Compass by Mathias Énard

The English version of Compass is translated by Charlotte Mandell and being published by New Directions in the U.S. and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the U.K.  It won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has been longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

My Review:
Compass takes place over the course of one, long night during which Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist, suffers from a terrible bout of insomnia.  The symptoms from his recently diagnosed illness, the memories of an unrequited love, and the dissatisfaction at his mediocre academic career all contribute to his sleepless night.  Instead of chapters, Énard uses time stamps to denote the hours that are slowly ticking away as Franz runs through years of memories.  Sarah, a French Academic with whom Franz has spent many years in love, sends him an article she has written from Sarawak, in Malaysia, which is her current place of residence.  It is unclear at the beginning what Franz and Sarah mean or have meant to each other, but Franz slowly unravels their complicated history throughout the course of his sleepless night.

As an academic musicologist, Franz has had a deep interest in the music of the Middle East, which studies have brought him into close contact with many orientalists, including Sarah.  Compass is a travelogue, an historical essay, a literary catalog and a music lesson on the Orient.  Franz takes us on his travels from Istanbul, to Palmyra, to Damascus, to Aleppo and to Tehran as he explores eastern music and his growing, emotional attachment to Sarah.  The Orient becomes just as beautiful, enchanting and elusive as his love for Sarah.   When Franz and Sarah are suddenly forced to end their travels together in Tehran, Franz nurses his wounds by going back home and retreating into himself and his academic career.  Sarah consoles herself by wandering father east where she ends up spending quite a bit of time in a Buddhist monastery.  But the objects in his apartment are a constant reminder of his travels with her in the east:

My glasses were under a pile of books and journals, obviously, I’m so absentminded.  At the same time, to contemplate the ruins of my bedroom (ruins of Istanbul, ruins of Damascus, ruins of Tehran, ruins of myself) I don’t need to see them, I know all these objects  by hear.  The faded photographs and yellowing Orientalist engravings.  The poetic works of Pessoa on a sculpted wooden book stand meant to house the Koran.  My tarboosh from Istanbul, my heavy wood indoor coat from the souk in Damascus, my lute from Aleppo bought with Nadim.

The disjointed and rambling narrative structure is fitting for a man whose mind cannot rest over the course of a sleepless night.  He jumps from one topic to the next: his illness, musicology, literature, archaeology and, of course, Sarah.  Some might find this stream-of-consciousness style frustrating but a more straightforward narrative would not have been as fitting or appropriate for Franz’s state-of-mind and circumstances.  One common thread that runs through his thoughts are the connections between East and West.  He has a joke compass that points east which is fitting for Franz since his thoughts are always pulled in that direction.  He discusses travelers, writers, musicians, academics and archaeologists who were fascinated by Orientalist travels and study.  One of my favorite examples Franz brings up is the Swiss author, journalist, traveler, and even occasional archaeologists,  Annmarie Schwarzenbach whose wanderlust brings her to different parts of the East.  Schwarzenbach flees the turmoil brewing in Europe in 1933-34 and travels to Syrian and the desert, where Franz and Sarah follow in the footsteps of this interesting woman’s Eastern journey.

More than any other book I have ever read, Compass made me want to travel to the Middle East, to the desert and to the ancient ruins of the Orient;  but the narrative also made me sad that such a journey isn’t feasible nowadays.  The Baron Hotel that Franz and Sarah stay at in Aleppo, and probably the entire neighborhood, has been reduced to a pile of rubble.  The descriptions of his travels in Palmyra were particularly striking to me.  Franz and Sarah, with a few other travel companions, sleep among the ruins of an ancient fort in Palmyra: “A night when the sky was so pure and the stars so numerous that they came down all the way to the ground, lower than you could see, in the summer, when the sea is calm and dark as the Syrian badiya.”

Finally, I have never read a book that has caused me to buy so many other books based on the literary observations contained within.  My “to-read” stacks have grown by leaps and bounds this past week as I made my way through Compass.  The amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this erudite book is astonishing.  Descriptions of  Pessoa, Magris, Schwarzenbach and Hedayat to name a few, have caused me to add all of these authors to my always-growing library.  Some of the writers Enard mentions are so esoteric that I was disappointed not to find them in English translation—the surrealist French poet Germain Nouveau, for example.   It is truly a great thing when one piece of literature gives one such a full list of further reading.  One could form an interesting book club to go through the volumes mentioned in Compass and spend many months exploring and discussing Franz’s syllabus.

What have others thought of Compass?  Will it make the shortlist?  How does it compare to his previous novel, Zone?

About the Author and Translator:
Mathias Énard is the award-winning author of Zone and Street of Thieves, and a translator from Persian and Arabic. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 for Compass.

Charlotte Mandell is a French literary translator who was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1968. She went to Boston Latin High School, the Université de Paris III, and Bard College, where she majored in French literature and film theory. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, the poet Robert Kelly.



Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation

25 responses to “Review: Compass by Mathias Énard

  1. The use of “Orient” so often in a modern work is almost disorienting, since it has become something of a dirty word. I guess Énard is making a counter-attack on Said? A defense of the mythical East, separate from real places?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful sounding book, and I agree about the sadness of not being able to travel to places described. I’m about to start something much lighter than this (an Agatha Christie, “They Came to Baghdad”) and I suspect many of the locations would be inaccessible nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I will be interested to hear what the MBIP shadow jury members make of it. Several years ago when I sat on the (then) IFFP shadow jury, several members insisted we add Zone to our own longlist. I found it a slog through the mid-section and felt it could have lost 200 pages without a problem. Street of Thieves and this one sound much more interesting, but given that Compass is over $35 here, I’ll wait for paper to decide if I want to read it!


    • I would like to go back now and read Zone. I have heard some readers say that they actually preferred Zone, so it’s interesting to hear that you thought it was a bit too long! Compass is long as well but I thought it merited such a length.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A book that hits 500 pages or more has to earn its merit for me. Especially if its a single sentence. The first and last 150 pages of Zone redeemed it for me as an overall reading experience, but the middle could have been trimmed.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Joe and Charlotte,
      I am compiling a Combined Reviews page listing all the reviews from the shadow jury and (as I write) there are three reviews of Compass.
      But I have just added Charlotte’s as well because I liked it so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds fantastic. I like a stream of conciousness novel and I love the idea of the chapters denoting the passing of time.


  5. When I read this book (& it took me a shameful amount of time!), I thought that it actually lacked an index! It would help navigating the book — even after having read it from cover to cover. Sometimes I read something that echoes a passage of Boussole/Compass, & I’m tempted to go back to it, but it is not easy to find one’s way back into this erudite maze. (For example, I should find my way back to the reference to Magris, because I do not remember it.)
    My to-read list was also fiercely impacted by this book, & I must confess that I am a long way from satiating the many-headed interest summoned by this reading.


    • An index would have been a great idea. I wonder if some blogger will decide to do that or do a book club! Not being able to find all of the titles he mentions, like the French surrealist poet I mentioned, was frustrating!


  6. Your review reminds me of Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence.

    I’m waiting for my copy to arrive from the U.K., and I’m half afraid I won’t understand it. Thank goodness for your post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: 2017 Man Booker International Prize Longlist- Combined Shadow Jury reviews | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  8. A wonderful review, sounds like an intriguing night of insomnia, travelling the middle east of old. Will be interested to see if it makes the shortlist. I wonder if the author actually travelled to those places or if it was based on secondary research?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list) | Dolce Bellezza

  10. Hi Melissa, do you still have the links to list of literature and music references in this book? Would it be possible to email me these? Thanks, Andrew


  11. Abdul Latheef

    Hello Melissa, thank you for this wonderful space, fan here. 🙂

    I have a small request you. I have been searching all over to find the contact details of Enard. Do you know a way to find his email ID? I have done some work on this book, Compass which I like to share with him. Can you help?

    Liked by 1 person

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