5 Key 2022 Books: Democracy in Literature

Kasia Krzyżanowska, RevDem editor of the Review of Books section at the Review of Democracy, presents five key books in democracy in literature in 2022.

Thea Lenarduzzi, Dandelions, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2022

An editor and broadcaster at the Times Literary Supplement, Thea Lenarduzzi wrote a debut book — an essayistic family memoir — which is a gem. Drawing on the conversations with her own grandmother, Nonna, Lenarduzzi recounts a story of a family stuck between the Great Britain and Italy, never fully belonging anywhere. But this book is also more than just a simple memoir of “all our yesterdays” (a reference to Natalia Ginzburg is intended, as Lenarduzzi is deeply inspired by the great Italian writer). The author aptly depicts the legacy of fascism manifested in everyday Italian life and ponders on the Italians’ readiness to forget about the totalitarian and unpleasant past.

In Lenarduzzi’s prose, full of metaphors, the title dandelions are not mere healthy plants typically eaten in the north of Italy, but are loaded with symbolic meaning. Their seeds denote emigrants, who might (or might not) adapt to the new life conditions in a foreign land. Lenarduzzi utilises this metaphor to speak about the past and current fate of immigrants: Italians, once perceived as a danger to a British society, now apply the language of threats to newcomers from abroad. A book worth reading, especially for those interested in the recent socio-political history of Italy.

Lea Ypi, Free. Coming of Age at the End of History, Penguin 2022

Probably this books does not need an introduction for our readers — this award-winning memoir has been praised all over the English-speaking world for its captivating depiction of an Albanian girlhood in shadow of the Cold War and domestic civil war. Lea Ypi, herself a political philosopher at the LSE, discusses the classic concept of freedom on her own example, growing up in an authoritarian collapsing regime, in which no liberal institution was taken for granted but rather literally fought for. 

This memoir is also an account of an epistemological clash between Eastern and Western Europe. On the last pages of “Free”, Ypi retells her experience of coming to Rome’s La Sapienza University and being lectured by the Western students about the “true” communist rule. Anyone disappointed with not taking Eastern European historical experience seriously would immediately find a connection with the author. A must-read.

Listen to our conversation with Lea Ypi here.

Colm Tóibín, The Magician, Penguin 2022

Was really Thomas Mann a political hero as much as he was a great writer? In his fictionalised biography of Mann, Colm Tóibín doubts so. The Irish author offers a compelling story from cradle to death, putting Mann’s life into a socio-political perspective. A German Nobel-prize winner’s position as a secular patron of democracy is deconstructed: it is shown in light of his long-lasting complexes vis-á-vis his older brother Heinrich and eldest son Klaus, whereas his political choices are depicted as enforced by the environment rather than driven by conscious political conscience. 

Approaching the centesimal anniversary of the publication of The Magic Mountain (1924), Tóibín’s biography is one of the books announcing a paradigmatic shift towards the studies of this literary masterpiece (more on this book you can find in our conversation with Karolina Wątroba on her recent book). The Irish author forces the readers to ask the questions like: why do we so easily assume that mastering a craft of writing enables one to address the democratic world? Where does this entitlement come from?

Read our review of The Magician here.

Margaryta Yakovenko, Descencajada (Przemieszczenie), 2020 (2022)

Though not yet translated into English and available in Spanish, Catalan and Polish only (pity!), this book is a powerful testimony to labour migration from Ukraine to Western Europe. Daria, an alter-ego of the author, a Ukrainian from Mariupol (a city destroyed completely by the Russian forces, what adds another symbolic layer to the novel), because of the economic reasons moves with her parents to Spain. Her father and mother, both qualified workers (an engineer and a nurse) are unable to find jobs corresponding to their experience and take three shifts of simple jobs to make ends meet. The better wage is traded for a loss of social life; a child fluent in Spanish becomes for parties a translator of official documents. An unequal fates in Europe preaching equality as its most precious treasure.

Yakovenko’s novel is a story of a lost identity — her trip to Mariupol in search of roots ends up with a bitter disappointment. For this book published in 2020, the Russian aggression wrote yet another chapter: no homecoming for the author, nor for the many other Ukrainians, will be the same as before 24th February 2022. 

Andrea Wulf, Magnificent Rebels. The First Romantics and the Invention of Self, Knopf 2022

This book is not fiction nor a memoir, but it is about literature. And more precisely: about a group of playwrights, writers, and poets who invented the way we speak and feel our emotions today. Wulf, a brilliant author of the bestseller “The Invention of Nature”, in her newest sparkling publication focuses on a intellectual center of that time world — Jena — in the turn of 18th century and its vivid inhabitants: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm Schlegel, as well as Caroline Schlegel, who was the spiritus movens of this intellectual circle.

Spanning on over 500-pages and describing 16 years only, Wulf depicts a story of the invention of “Ich”, the self. The circle, later to be known as romantics, inspired by the French Revolution, worked with classic philosophical ideas just to reject them at once: they challenged the authorities and conventions, earning disproval, but also paving the way to our modern egos.

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