IWhen I was growing up, my family lived in a community of 20 identical yellow houses on the outskirts of Copenhagen. We dined six days a week at the “common house.” Neighbors also shared maintenance duties, prepared after-school snacks, ran a shop without a merchant, and celebrated most holidays together. We were the only non-Danes in the commune, and our arrival was both exciting and disconcerting for the group. We were too noisy, our house was too bright, we had family and friends from Turkey for months. But we were also the most beloved cooks in the commune, spending out of pocket, beyond dinner budgets, to make roast lamb and feta puff pastry. The commune was an experience of living together, as equals, even if for me it was also an education in all our differences.
I am fascinated by the lives that unfold nearby. What leads me to contemplate life as a model of fiction is the intersection of intimacy and distance, the way lives interact, intertwine or intersect. Neighbors provide a unique perspective in fiction, as they witness much of life on the surface but can be blind to the depths. The friendship of neighbors also interests me: neighbors must maintain a delicate balance of courtesy for all the living together that awaits them.
In my novel Blanc sur blanc, the painter Agnès begins to tell pieces of her life to the art history student who rents the apartment below her studio. At first, the student is fascinated by Agnes and eager for her friendship, but as Agnes becomes unhinged, the student chooses the anonymity of being a neighbor, choosing to avoid emotional responsibility.
The following books investigate near lives, both familiar and distant.
1. The magic mountain by Thomas MannTranslated by John E Woods
Hans Castorp arrives at a sanatorium to visit his cousin and ends up staying there for a very long time. It’s a book about time and about death, but it’s told through interactions with sanitarium patients over dinner and conversation lunches. Everyone is sick, and like well-behaved neighbors, everyone avoids the subject. But the common destiny of the inhabitants creates an unspoken bond and a powerful backdrop for the novel.
2. A house in Norway by Vigdis HjorthTranslated by Charlotte Barslund
Alma, an upholsterer, rents the annex of her house to a Polish family, which she assists from her own window for six years. The novel’s premise puts the artist’s liberal views into difficult practice. Alma has always been proud of her progressive values, but discovers, as soon as the Polish family moves in, that they are not as tolerant as they thought. It’s a brilliant book about immigration, what it means to live together and the fragile ideals of the European project.
3. Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos
This atmospheric novel embodies the intimate distance of being a neighbor. Mira returns to Athens after the death of her parents and, on her first night, meets a captain who lives in the apartment across from hers. Both cry in different ways and they form an unusual friendship, swapping nighttime stories across their balconies. Mira’s walks in the city, her dinners and drinks with friends and her swimming afternoons are punctuated by the nocturnal return home, on the balcony, to confide in a virtual stranger.
4. My heart surrounded by Marie N’Diaye, translated by Jordan Stump
Nadia and Ange are teachers who have built a respectable and bourgeois life. One day, a strange wound appears on Ange’s stomach. While the whole community is gradually running away from the teachers, a neighbour, Nogent, whom they had always disdained, comes to help them in their fragile state and settles in to take care of them. Marie NDiaye is a master in the art of creating threatening and offbeat worlds that speak to the truth of the human experience.
5. Friends and Dark Forms by Kavita Bedford
This book, about a group of housemates in Sydney, beautifully maps spaces of solitude and intimacy amid gentrification, temporary work, personal grief and collective joy. One of the pleasures of Bedford’s novel is following the housemates through their daily routines, going to gallery openings for free drinks, hanging out aimlessly in the garden, discussing the best ways to stock up on paper bathing and going to the ocean pools.
6. monkey handle by Helene Garnier
“In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from downtown, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for all of us to sit at home. meal table. So begins Monkey Grip, another novel about community life, this time set in 1970s Melbourne. Nora is a single mother and in love with Javo, addicted to slaps. She changes houses and partners, in new reconfigurations exploring what it means to live together.The loose, diaristic style of the novel perfectly captures the fluidity of friendships, love, sex and cohabitation.
7. By the sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah
One afternoon, Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick airport from Zanzibar, asking for asylum. He is taken to a B&B where other men, from Kosovo and the Czech Republic, are staying. Although they share the same strange dwelling, they know little of the stories that brought them here. The only person in England who knows Omar is the son of the man Omar took his name from, once a neighbor in Zanzibar. When the two meet, a story from the past is revealed, both intimate and mysterious, the fates of the men deeply entangled.
8. Borrowers by Mary Norton
How not to include this enchanting book, which I read and reread in the years when my family lived in the Danish commune. This must, in part, be responsible for my fascination with neighbors and their secret lives. Borrowers are tiny people who live within the walls and under the floors of an English house and “borrow” from large humans. Although the tenants of the house ignore their miniature neighbors, a boy befriends the young borrower, Arrietty Clock.
9. A bright republic by Andres BarbaTranslated by Lisa Dilman
Thirty-two children appear in the jungle-bordering town of San Cristóbal, speaking a strange language all their own. Nobody knows where they come from or where they disappear every night. The novel taps into our fears of the other, the way we draw rigid boundaries, and our desire to tame nature. A deep work on the sharing of the physical and psychological universes.
ten. free love by Tessa Hadley
Hadley’s latest novel, set in 1960s London, is about 44-year-old Phyllis, who lives in the suburbs with her husband and children. One night, at the edge of a pond, she kisses a young friend of the family: her life is turned upside down. Two sets of neighbors brilliantly portray Phyllis’ divided existence. There’s the Holmes across the street, at whose party Phyllis feels smothered. And there is Barbara, the nurse from Grenada, who is next door to Phyllis’ young lover in Ladbroke Grove. These neighbors embody not only the radically different social worlds that Phyllis inhabits, but also what it means for a woman shaken from her assigned roles to be watched by society.