Tag Archives: Italy

Recent Reads – Elaine Dundy, John Le Carré, Cesare Pavese and Winifred Holtby

There are times when I don’t want or feel the need to write a full review of a book I’ve been reading, when I’d just rather experience it without analysing it too much. Nevertheless, there are still things I might want to say about it, even it’s just to capture an overall feeling or response before it disappears into the ether. So, with this in mind, here are a few brief thoughts on four books I’ve read recently – mainly for my own benefit, but some of you might find them of interest too.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

I really loved this novel of the young, adventurous American innocent abroad. It’s smart, witty and utterly engaging from start to finish, a rare delight.

When we first meet the book’s heroine, the wonderful Sally Jay Gorce, she is walking down a Parisian boulevard on her way to meet her Italian lover when she runs into Larry, an old friend from home in the States. The fact that she’s still wearing last night’s evening dress in the middle of the morning does not go unnoticed by Larry – nor does her hair which has recently been dyed a rather striking shade of pink.

What follows is a series of exploits for Sally Jay as she mixes with the bohemian artists, writers and creative directors of Paris. There are various parties, romantic dilemmas and the occasional encounter with a gendarme or two along the way, all conveyed through Dundy’s sparkling prose.

This is a book which eschews plot in favour of tone and mood. Instead, it’s more about the experience of living, of self-discovery and adventure, of making mistakes and wising up from the consequences. Above all, it’s a pleasure to read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes – the first two are archetypal Sally Jay.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way? (p. 180)

It’s amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

While the whole novel is eminently quotable, I couldn’t resist including this final piece from the closing section of the story when Sally Jay returns to New York. Dundy has a wonderful way of describing things, a skill which I hope you can see from the following passage.

We went into a cocktail bar just off Fifth Avenue on Eighth Street. One of those suave, sexy bars, dead dark, with popcorn and air-conditioning and those divine cheese things.

“What’ll you have?” he asked. “Champagne? Have anything. Money’s no object. Look. Wads of it. Ceylon. Can’t spend it fast enough. We photographers are the New Rich.”

We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air. (p. 244)

Finally, for those of you who might be thinking that The Dud Avocado is too ditzy or sugary, let me try to reassure you that it’s not. There are touches of darkness and jeopardy running underneath the surface of some of Sally Jay’s adventures, especially towards the end. Moreover, Dundy’s writing is so sharp and on the money that it elevates the novel into something with real zing. Highly recommended – in retrospect, I actually preferred it to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Simon has reviewed this book here.

The Spy Who Came into the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

Another brilliant book that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long.

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the narrative may appear to be rather confusing at first, everything becomes much clearer by the end. Crucially, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing that their perseverance will be rewarded as the action draws to a close.

It’s also a book that seems to perfectly capture the political distrust and uncertainty that must have been prevalent during the Cold War years of the early ‘60s – the tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war. (pp. 6-7)

While the first two Smiley novels are good, The Spy Came in from the Cold is in a totally different league. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese (tr. by W.J. Strachan, 1955)

This is a slightly curious one – not entirely successful for me, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Set in 1930s Italy in the heady days of summer, this short novel focuses on the life of Ginia, a rather sheltered sixteen-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood.

When she meets the more sophisticated, self-assured Amelia, Ginia is quickly drawn into an intriguing milieu of bohemian artists and everything this new culture represents, including some brushes with the opposite sex. It’s not long before Ginia falls in love with Guido, an attractive young painter who responds to her innocence and youth while remaining somewhat emotionally detached. What follows is a fairly painful introduction to the fickle nature of human emotions and the duplicities of the adult world, at least as far as Ginia is concerned.

In short, this is a delicate story of a young girl’s loss of innocence and sexual awakening, themes which usually hold a great deal of appeal for me, especially in translated literature. However, while I really liked the overall mood of this novel and Pavese’s depiction of the conflicted emotions of youth, I wasn’t quite as taken with the writing, some of which felt a bit flat or clunky to me. (The following quote is intended to convey something of the novel’s tone and mood as opposed to the quality of the prose.)

Ginia slept little that night; the bed-clothes seemed a dead weight on her. But her mind ran on many things that became more and more fantastic as the time passed by. She imagined herself alone in the unmade bed in that corner of the studio, listening to Guido moving about on the other side of the curtain, living with him, kissing him and cooking for him. She had no idea where Guido had his meals when he was not in the army. (p. 49)

Overall, I was left wishing that Penguin had commissioned a fresh translation of Pavese’s text instead of running with the original from 1955. Others may have a different view on this, so I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the book, particularly in the original Italian. Grant and Max have also written about it here and here.

For a sharper, more insightful take on the loss of a teenager’s innocence, albeit from a male character’s perspective, try Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, also set in the heat of an Italian summer – this time in the early 1940s.

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

(Don’t worry, my comments on this last novel are going to be relatively brief!)

While I liked this novel, I didn’t love it. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story of Muriel, a young girl struggling to find her place within the confines of a restrictive Edwardian society in a small Yorkshire village, a world where marriage seems to be the only option available to ladies of her class. That said, it lacks some of the bite of other stories I’ve been reading lately, particularly those by women writers from the mid-20th century, a favourite period of literature for me.

The latter stages of the novel are the most interesting, mainly because the advent of WW1 provides new opportunities for women like Muriel, encouraging them to spread their wings by gaining some much-needed independence.

Holtby’s prose is good but not particularly spectacular. That said, I loved this next passage from the end of the book – it really stood out for me.

I used to think of life as a dance, where the girls had to wait for men to ask them, and if nobody came – they still must wait, smiling and hoping and pretending not to mind.

How tragic is that?

The Dud Avocado is published by NYRB Classics, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Beautiful Summer by Penguin, and The Crowded Street by Virago; personal copies.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (tr. William Weaver)

First published in 1962, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the probably the best-known novel in the Italian writer Giorgio Bassini’s series of works about life in his native Ferrara, a city in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romana. You can find out more in these introductory pieces by Dorian and Scott who are co-hosting a readalong of the book over the course of this week.

The story opens with a prologue set in 1957 in which the novel’s unnamed narrator is out for the day with friends. On their way back from the seaside, the group decides to stop at an Etruscan necropolis near Rome, and a young girl named Giannina asks her father why these ancient tombs do not seem quite as melancholy as more recent ones. Her father replies that it is because the Etruscans died so long ago, almost as though ‘they had never lived, as if they had always been dead’. By contrast, we can still remember the people who died fairly recently; hence we feel closer to them and miss them more acutely. Giannina then points out to her father that by virtue of their conversation, she has been reminded that the Etruscans were also alive once – and so their lives are given weight and recognition in her mind, just as much as those of the more recently deceased. It’s a poignant scene, one that triggers a series of memories for the narrator as he reflects on the time he spent in the company of his own lost loved ones, the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family from Ferrara, who played an important part in his youth. There was the kindly Professor Ermanno and his wife, Signor Olga, their rather sensitive son, Alberto, and, most importantly of all, the beautiful, mercurial daughter, Micòl, with whom the narrator (also Jewish) was so tragically in love.

At the end of the prologue, Bassani reveals that all the remaining members of Finzi-Contini dynasty perished at the hands of the Nazis in 1943, deported to the concentration camps where they were unlikely to have received any kind of burial at all. Hence the stage is set for this deeply poignant and elegiac novel, a beautiful hymn to a lost and gilded world, one that was ultimately swept away by the dark forces at play during WW2.

Winding back in time to the late 1920s, the Finzi-Contini household seems to have set itself apart from the rest of the Jewish community living in Ferrara at the time. The family are wealthy, privileged and rather aloof – or at least, that’s how they are perceived by others, most notably the narrator’s father who, among other things, pours scorn on Alberto and Micòl’s playful behaviour during services at their local synagogue. While the narrator and his contemporaries attend the public school, the young Finzi-Continis are privately educated at home, to be glimpsed only occasionally at exam time and, during the early years, at their place of worship. The family estate is magnificent, a large house surrounded by acres of land – the famed garden of the book’s title – all enclosed within a vast protective wall. To the narrator, there is an air of separation and rejection about the Finzi-Contini estate; and yet there is something fascinating and intimate about it too. Oh to be admitted to the secluded garden of Eden, what a privilege that would surely turn out to be!

Well, the young narrator almost gets his chance one day in 1929, while seeking an escape after a poor result in his maths exam he encounters Micòl Finzi-Contini peering over the top of the garden wall. It’s a glorious moment, one that lives long in his memory for many years to come.

How many years have gone by since that far-off afternoon in June? More than thirty. Nevertheless, if I close my eyes, Micòl Finzi-Contini is still there, leaning over the wall of her garden, looking at me, and speaking to me. She was hardly more than a child, in 1929, a thirteen-year-old, thin and blond, with great, pale, magnetic eyes. I, a little boy in short pants, very bourgeois and very vain, whom a minor scholastic mishap was enough to plunge into the most childish desperation. We stared at each other. Above her, the sky was a uniform blue, a warm sky, already of summer, without the slightest cloud. Nothing could change it, and nothing has changed it, in fact, in my memory. (p. 33)

In spite of Micòl’s encouragement to join her in the garden, the narrator never manages to make it over the wall that day, a point that foreshadows the arc of his future relationship with the girl. Instead, the narrator has to wait almost another ten years before being invited into the grounds, this time by Alberto, largely on the assumption that he has been forced to resign from the local tennis club on account of his status as a Jew. The time is October 1938, around two months after the declaration of the racial laws which, among other punitive measures, prohibit Jews from frequenting recreational clubs of any kind. What follows for our narrator is a luminous Indian summer, a glorious sequence of days spent playing tennis, relaxing in the sunshine, and exploring the Finzi Contini’s garden largely in the company of the alluring Micòl.

We were really very lucky with the season. For ten or twelve days the perfect weather lasted, held in that kind of magic suspension, of sweetly glassy and luminous immobility peculiar to certain autumns of ours. It was hot in the garden; almost like summertime. Those who wanted could go on playing till five thirty and even later, with no fear that the evening dampness, already so heavy towards November, would damage the gut of the rackets. At that hour, naturally, you could hardly see on the court any longer. But the light, which in the distance still gilded the grassy slopes of the Mura degli Angeli, filled, especially on a Sunday, with a far-off crowd (boys chasing a football, wet nurses seated knitting besides baby carriages, soldiers on passes, pairs of lovers looking for places where they could embrace), that last light invited you to insist, to continue volleying no matter if the play was almost blind. The day was not ended, it was worth lingering a little longer. (p. 56)

Earlier I alluded to the tragic nature of the narrator’s love for Micòl: tragic because we know from the outset that Micòl dies at the hands of the Germans; and tragic because this love is never reciprocated (or so it appears in the novel). There are times when the narrator could make his feelings known to Micòl, most notably when the pair seek shelter from the rain in a secluded coach house in the estate’s grounds; and yet he fails to seize the opportunity until it is too late. Like her family and everything they seem to represent, the beautiful Micòl remains somewhat elusive and out of the narrator’s reach.

Countless times, in the course of the following winter, spring, and summer, I went back to what had happened (or rather, had not happened) between me and Micòl inside Perotti’s beloved carriage. If on that rainy afternoon, when the radiant Indian summer of ’38 suddenly ended, I had at least managed to speak to her—I told myself bitterly—perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they went. Speak to her, kiss her; it was then, when everything was still possible—I never ceased repeating to myself—that I should have done it! (p. 81)

I don’t want to say too much more about the narrative. After all, this is not a plot-driven novel. It’s much more about character, atmosphere and mood; the recreation of a rarefied and evocative world, made all the more poignant because we know that virtually everything we see is about to be destroyed. Bassani’s prose is wonderfully evocative, rich in detail and ambience. There are some long, looping passages here which at times reminded me a little of some of Javier Marías’ writing.

While the novel has at its heart an intensely personal love story – imbued as it is with a strong aura of fatality – it is also a reflection of life for the Jews of Ferrara during the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. We gain an insight into the political developments of the day, particularly through the character of Giampiero Malnate, a Communist friend of Alberto’s from Milan, who debates politics with the narrator during their visits to the Finzi-Contini household.

All in all, this haunting novel encapsulates the loss of many things: the loss of a love that was never meant to be fulfilled; the loss of a sheltered world of innocence and sanctuary; and perhaps most tragically of all, the loss of virtually a whole generation of humanity. While the overall mood and tone remain dreamlike and elegiac, Bassani never lets us forget the terrible impact of events to come. I’ll finish with a final passage, one that captures a sense of that feeling. In the following scene, the narrator is attending a Passover supper with his family – the racial laws have been in place for a number of months.

I looked at my father and mother, both aged considerably in the last few months; I looked at Fanny, who was now fifteen, but, as if an occult fear had arrested her development, she seemed no more than twelve; one by one, around me, I looked at uncles and cousins, most of whom, a few years later would be swallowed up by German crematory ovens: they didn’t imagine, no, surely not, that they would end in that way, but all the same, already, that evening, even if they seemed so insignificant to me, their poor faces surmounted by their little bourgeois hats or framed by their bourgeois permanents, even if I knew how dull-witted they were, how incapable of evaluating the real significance of the present or of reading into the future, they seemed to me already surrounded by the same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now, in my memory; (pp. 124-125)

Other bloggers participating in the readalong include Dorian, Scott, NathanielGrant, Max, Bellezza, Frances and Anthony – I’ll add links to their reviews as and when they become available.

My copy of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was published by Harcourt.

The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Stephen Twilley)

Shortly before his death in 1957, the Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote The Professor and the Siren, a beguiling short story published here alongside two additional pieces: a brief sketch entitled Joy and the Law, and the opening chapter of an unfinished novel, The Blind Kittens. Lampedusa is best known for his landmark historical novel, The Leopard, a book I have yet to read (it’s on my list for the Classics Club). In the meantime, I’m treating this slim collection as an appetiser, a little taste of things to come.

The titular piece, The Professor and the Siren, is the star of the show here, an enigmatic story of great elegance and beauty. Set in Turin in 1938, it is narrated by Paolo Corbera, a young journalist and a bit of a womaniser who is now seeking a brief respite from the fairer sex; unfortunately for the journalist, his attempts to maintain two separate lovers at the same time have recently come to the attention of the ladies concerned. In search of a retreat from his usual lifestyle, Corbera starts to visit a café in the heart of Turin, a traditional place frequented by members of the city’s old guard – colonels, magistrates, academics and suchlike. One evening, he notices a man at the next table, and his interest is immediately piqued.

On my right sat an elderly man wrapped in an old overcoat with a worn astrakhan collar. He read foreign magazines one after another, smoked Tuscan cigars and frequently spat. Every so often he would close his magazine and appear to be pursuing some memory in the spirals of smoke; then he would go back to reading and spitting. […] Once, however, he when he came across a photograph in a magazine of an archaic Greek statue, the kind with widespread eyes and an ambiguous smile, I was surprised to see his disfigured fingers caress the image with positively regal delicacy. (p. 3)

The two men strike up a conversation with one another, a dialogue that continues to develop over the course of a few weeks as the pair return to the café on a nightly basis. Corbera’s new friend is Senator Rosario La Ciura, an eminent professor in the field of Hellenic Studies, a somewhat grumpy and insolent man who eschews pretty much everything to do with the modern world and the permissive society therein. In many ways, the two men are complete opposites: one is young, the other old; one is liberal in his views, the other scathing, particularly when it comes to the young women of the day. And yet they have one vital thing in common: both men hail from the beautiful, mythical island of Sicily.

So we spoke about eternal Sicily, the Sicily of the natural world; about the scent of rosemary on the Nebrodi Mountains and the taste of Melilli honey; about the swaying cornfields seen from Etna on a windy day in May, some secluded spots near Syracuse, and the fragrant gusts from the citrus plantations known to sweep down on Palermo during sunset in June. We spoke of those magical summer nights, looking out over the gulf of Castellammare, when the stars are mirrored in the sleeping sea, and how, lying on your back among the mastic trees, your spirit is lost on the whirling heavens, while the body braces itself, fearing the approach of demons. (pp. 10-11)

One evening, the professor decides to tell Corbera the story of an idyllic summer he spent in Augusta, Syracuse, many years earlier in his youth – a story he hopes will explain some of the reasons behind his rather idiosyncratic behaviour and philosophy towards life. While in Augusta, the young La Ciura spent many hours studying on a boat, gently rocking to and fro on the peaceful waters. One morning, ‘the smooth face of a sixteen-year-old emerged from the sea’, a movement that was accompanied by a pull on the side of the craft as the youngster gripped the gunwale. Naturally, the budding professor was transfixed by this image, one he describes to Corbera in intimate detail.

This, however, was not a smile like those to be seen among your sort, always debased with an accessory expression of benevolence or irony, of compassion, cruelty, or whatever the case may be; it expressed nothing but itself: an almost bestial delight in existing, a joy almost divine. This smile was the first of her charms that would affect me, revealing paradises of forgotten serenity. From her disordered hair, which was the colour of the sun, seawater dripped into her exceedingly open green eyes, over features of infantile purity. (p. 29)

What followed was an intensely passionate encounter between the pair, one that undoubtedly left its mark on the professor for the rest of his life.

This is a very sensual story of eternal love, yearning and loss in which Lampedusa’s use of language perfectly matches both the subject matter and the setting. It ends with a slight twist, finishing on a bittersweet note which leaves the reader with much to ponder, particularly about the intensity of certain moments in life. At times, I was reminded of some of the scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s beautiful film L’Avventura. It has a similar tone, I think. There are nods to classical Greek mythology too. Either way, this is an excellent story, worth the entry price of the collection alone.

The next piece in the collection, Joy and the Law, is a brief tale with a moral message at the centre. It features a hard-up accountant, struggling to keep himself and his family afloat in the face of mounting debts. Luckily, as it’s Christmas, our protagonist has just received his annual bonus, something that will keep the wolf from the door at least for the immediate future.

Contained in the wallet was 37,245 lire, the year-end bonus he’d received an hour earlier, amounting to the removal of several thorns from his family’s side: his landlord, to whom he owed two quarters’ rent, growing more insistent the longer he was thwarted; the exceedingly punctual collector of installment payments on his wife’s veste de lapin (“It suits you much better than a long coat, my dear, it’s slimming”); the black looks of the fishmonger and greengrocer. (p. 40)

In spite of this, the accountant seems more chuffed with his fifteen-pound panettone, a gift he has received for being the most deserving employee in the business. Nevertheless, our protagonist’s joy is somewhat short-lived. When he arrives home with his bounty, the accountant is reminded by his wife that there are also other debts to pay, those of a slightly different nature but equally important. This is an enjoyable little sketch, ironic in tone, a pleasant interlude between the other two stories in this volume.

The final piece in this collection, The Blind Kittens, was originally intended to form the opening chapter of a follow-up novel to The Leopard. Consequently, it is best viewed in this context – as an introduction that was to lay the groundwork for an epic story to follow. Sadly, Lampedusa never had the opportunity to develop the narrative any further due to his untimely death (he was just 60 years old when he died). Nevertheless, The Blind Kittens is well worth reading in its own right. As an opening passage, it sows the seeds of a tale of intrigue set within the context of the Ibba dynasty, an influential Sicilian family headed up by the rather formidable and unscrupulous virtual baron, Don Batassano. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that Don Batassano has just acquired another property to add to his empire. As Batassano’s lawyer, Ferrara, peruses a map of the Ibba family holdings, he reflects on the underhand means behind the various acquisitions over the years.

Ferrara stood up to take a closer look. From his professional experience, from countless indiscretions overheard, he knew well how that enormous mass of property had been assembled: an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of the laws, of implacability and also of luck, of daring as well. (p. 52)

Once again, this piece is very different in tone from the preceding two. It is sharper, more cutting in style, rich in both detail and texture. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s wonderful classic, The House of Ulloa, a novel I reviewed last year. What a shame Lampedusa never got the opportunity to finish this work – it could have been another masterpiece.

Guy and Karen have posted interesting reviews of this collection, just click on the relevant links to read them.

The Professor and the Siren is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Divertimento 1889 by Guido Morselli (tr. Hugh Shankland)

When Guido Morselli took his own life at the age of sixty, Italy may well have lost one of its finest writers. Up until the time of his death in 1973, not one of Morselli’s novels had been accepted for publication; all seven were subsequently published in Italy, where Morselli now seems to have gained the recognition he so richly deserved at the time. Sadly for us, only one of his books appears to be available in English: Divertimento 1889, an utterly charming story of an escape from royal life during the Belle Époque period of the late 19th century.

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Morselli uses Umberto I, King of Italy from 1878 to 1900, as a model for his fictional protagonist. As the novel opens, we find the King in his office in Monza (the Royal Place in the North of Italy), weighed down by a mountain of paperwork and official duties. His mood is somewhat dispirited as he reflects on the tedium of life as a royal, a role that offers him very little satisfaction or sense of achievement.

This futile slavish job of his, condemned to trail the length and breadth of his ungrateful land – dusty, disjointed Italy – with no power and no responsibilities and yet pursued everywhere by papers and couriers, as though it all depended on him, as though he could alter a thing. Still, nothing but trials and tribulations. One headache after another. And his Household to think of, his family. Two households, two families. And himself caught between the two of them, bored stiff with both, and with his need for freedom, for seclusion. (pg. 5)

It soon becomes clear that the King is living beyond his means. He is married, there is his lover to think of, plus the estates to maintain, all of which means that his outgoings have been exceeding his incomings in recent years. Luckily for the King, a solution may be close to hand. When one of his advisers, the rather dashing Vigliotti, informs him that a lady has expressed interest in purchasing one of his properties – a rustic castle in Monferatto – the King sees an opportunity to solve all his financial problems. With this in mind, he dispatches Vigliotti to Switzerland to sound out the lady in question, a certain Frederika von Goltz. As Frau von Goltz is currently convalescing at home in Wassen, the King wonders whether this development might not present another lucky break. Why not accompany Vigliotti to Switzerland so as to be on hand if required during the negotiation of the sale? Furthermore, as The King is keen to keep any potential deal under wraps, a plan begins to hatch in his mind – why not travel incognito? It would be a chance to experience life as an ordinary human being, even if only for a week or two. All at once his mood lightens considerably.

Adventure? Why yes, in so far as it was a complete novelty. In his line of business the most appropriate description for time off, even a vacation, would be hard labour. On holiday at Racconigi or San Rossore he would be lucky to get three hours a day to call his own. The Royal Palace at Monza was no better than a branch office of headquarters in Rome. Journeys by land or sea, visits to friends, hunting or fishing parties, all came down to strict timetables and fixed itineraries, more or less official engagements. But this was right out of the ordinary. An incognito which was not a joke. Turning himself into Signor X or Y or Z would be like being born again, or living in a different world. And outside Italy as well, where it need not be a delusion, it might even last. (pg. 20)

Once the requisite preparations have been made, the King and a small group of his most trusted advisers set out by train, the ‘official’ reason for their visit being a hunting trip to the Swiss Alps. The King, who is travailing under the alias of Count Moriana, is delighted to arrive at his destination in Goeschenen; the Hotel Adler is simple yet comfortable.

The next afternoon, the King discovers one of the small pleasures in life as he takes a leisurely walk by himself. Unlike all the other foreign visitors who stop to gaze at the landscape surrounding Goeschenen, the King is lost in his own thoughts; nothing else exists outside the private happiness of his world.

Girls up from the valley of the Reuss with baskets of bilberries and cyclamen still had things left to sell, laid out beside them in the backs of carts where they sat, in their black flower-embroidered skirts and white stockings, their legs dangling. He was alone, praise God, in the midst of these people who knew nothing of him. No escort, no bodyguard, no police commissars clumsily got up as civilians for a man who normally could go nowhere without outriders and a whole ‘train’ of swallow tailcoats and kepis festooned with gold braid – guarded, insulted, assaulted, or acclaimed and showered with flowers. He felt no temptation to take the mountain road, happy to promenade up and down between the hotel and the post-station, passing the occasional tourist armed with guidebook and binoculars or country folk making their way home from market or returning with full panniers from their mountain-pastures. (pg 42-43)

Other pleasures await the King while he remains undercover: a spot of shopping in the town; a quiet game of cards now and again; there is even time for a dalliance or two. The King is rather taken with Clara Mansolin, Vigliotti’s beautiful young fiancée who is also staying in the hotel. The attraction is mutual. In this scene, one which illustrates the wonderfully comic tone of this novella, the King is running through his moves in preparation for a secret rendezvous with Clara.

And as he undressed in his room preparatory to taking a bit of a nap he mentally reviewed the ritual objections, and the time-honoured replies. ‘But sir, you propose to rob me of the most precious thing I have.’ Reply: ‘You will be rewarded.’ ‘But sir, you will get me into trouble.’ ‘Never fear, I’ll defend you.’ There was a third possible line of resistance, and here the appropriate peremptory reply was suggested to him by a distant Savoy forebear, Prince Eugene. ‘But sir, I am the wife of one of your officers.’ ‘Madam, I do not detract from my officers’ honour by bedding their wives. I enhance it.’ (pg. 110)

Perhaps inevitably, certain developments threaten to disturb the King’s escapade. An inquisitive journalist happens to recognise Clara, an old flame from his past. Closer inspection of the party reveals the true identity of the Count, leaving the journalist with a potential scoop on his hands – what is the King of Italy doing on an undercover mission in Switzerland? Secret talks of a political nature, perhaps? Furthermore, the King’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, appears to be threatening to pay him a visit, a development that causes no end of confusion among the royal advisors. The King has absolutely no time whatsoever for his zealous young cousin, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the following passage.

To come charging up into these mountains to turn the whole place upside down for one day, for two days, affronting Swiss neutrality with his performing troupe of bodyguards in silver breastplates and gilt helmets, his generals and his ministers, preceded by an advance party of swallow-tailed flunkeys and aides, secretaries and sundry other hangers-on – the notion would have crossed his mind, without a doubt. And he had to thank all the saints in heaven that some graver task, some bolder project, had driven it out of his head. (pgs. 105-106)

Divertimento 1889 is a captivating story, a celebration of the joys of freedom and the need to escape from one’s duties every now and again. Morselli’s sprightly prose, with its lively humour and somewhat farcical tone, mirrors the delights of upping sticks and going off on a lark to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. On the surface, it may seem a touch frothy, an entertaining tale with no real wisdom to impart. Dig a little deeper, however, and there are other insights to uncover. Morselli’s story touches on the development of technology, echoing a theme that remains all too relevant today – can we ever truly escape from all forms of communication – in the King’s case the telegraph – when in need of a little solitude? Perhaps the novella’s most poignant message relates to the passing of time. I loved the following quote, a passage that encourages us to savour every moment of life before it slips away.

For a long time the Chief had not picked up a newspaper or looked at a calendar, and yet with every nerve in his body he felt time passing. In a way he had never felt it before, so remorselessly fast and elusive, and for the simple reason that it would have been wonderful to be able to slow it down, and hold it. (pg. 136)

I’m delighted to have discovered this little gem via Scott’s excellent review over at the seraillon blog. The book is currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online. It would be wonderful to see it back in circulation with a publisher such as Pushkin Press or NYRB – I’d like to think that it’s just their type of thing.

Divertimento 1889 was published by EP Dutton (Obelisk). Source: Personal copy.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (tr. Avril Bardoni)

The thirteen pieces in this excellent collection of Leonardo Sciascia’s short stories, The Wine-Dark Sea, were written between 1959 and 1972. Collectively, the author considered these stories – which are arranged in chronological order – as a kind of summary of his work up until that point in time. As such, the pieces are somewhat diverse in nature, and yet there is something inherently Sicilian in each and every one, a reflection of a certain aspect of the island’s soul and character. As with other collections I’ve covered here, I’m not going to review each individual story. Instead, I will focus on my favourites, the ones that made the greatest impression or spoke to me in some way.

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The collection opens with The Ransom, Sciascia’s retelling of an old folk tale he first heard during a visit to the capital as a young boy. When Don Nicola Cirino, the Procurator General of Palermo takes a fancy to a beautiful girl named Concettina, he sees an opportunity to strike a bargain with her father, Don Raimondo. If the father allows him to marry Concettina, Don Nicola will arrange for the release of the man’s son-in-law, currently serving a prison sentence for killing a peasant with a single kick of his foot. Despite the young girl’s concerns, the father agrees to the union, and so Concettina has to marry the old judge; in effect, the innocent must pay the price for the release of the guilty. However, the story doesn’t end at this point; there are further developments to come, events that add a touch of irony to this old tale.

Many of the stories in this collection are underscored by a sense of rivalry between factions, whether it be clashes between husbands and wives, conflicts between separate branches of the Mafia or tensions between local neighbourhoods. This quote from The Ransom captures it nicely as Sciascia reflects on the differences between two neighbouring towns, Grotte and Racalmutto.

In truth, the two towns, although only separated by a couple of miles, were as different as could be. Grotte had a Protestant minority and a Socialist majority, three or four families of Jewish descent and a strong Mafia; it also had bad roads, mean houses and dreary festivals. Racalmuto staged a festival that lasted a whole week and was splendidly colourful and extravagant; the people of Grotte flocked to it in their hundreds; but for the rest of the year the town was tranquil and trouble-free, being electorally divided between two great families, having a handful of Socialists, and army of priests and a Mafia  divided against itself. (pg. 5)

Perhaps somewhat inevitably, the Mafia feature in quite a few of Sciascia’s stories. In Philology, two men discuss the origins and meaning of the word ‘mafia’, but their reasons for doing so only become clear as the story unfolds. Another story, the aptly named Mafia Western, features two rival Mafia cells that have been in conflict with one another for many years. When a third cell is suspected of killing several members of both factions, not even the patriarchs of the Mafia hierarchy can solve the issue through the usual declaration of a truce; so they leave it up to the two cells to resolve things as swiftly as possible.

The mafiosi of the town began to make their own investigations, but fear, the sense of being the objects of an inscrutable vendetta or homicidal whim, and finding themselves suddenly in exactly the same position in which they themselves had placed honest people for so long, left them bewildered and robbed of much of their will to act. They were reduced to imploring their political members in their turn to implore the carabinieri to mount a real, thorough-going and efficient investigation—even though they suspected that the carabinieri themselves, having failed to smoke them out by legal methods, might have resorted to this shadier, more secure one. (pg. 169-170)

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, The Long Crossing, a group of peasants board a ship on the promise that they will be taken from Sicily to New Jersey, where life in the land of hope and glory beckons. The story opens with this wonderful passage which sets the scene perfectly.

The night seemed made to order, the darkness so thick that its weight could almost be felt when one moved. And the sound of the sea, like the wild-animal breath of the world itself, frightened them as it gasped and died at their feet. (pg 17)

Several of the men have sold virtually all their possessions to pay for the trip, a journey they understand will take twelve days, give or take a day or two, But when they arrive at their destination, all is not quite what it seems at first sight. This is a mournful story of faith and duplicity, one that will stay with me for quite a while.

Betrayal also rears its head in another excellent story, A Matter of Conscience, in which a woman who has committed adultery with a relative is wracked with guilt at the thought of continuing to deceive her husband, a loyal and loving man. Even though the affair is now over, the woman, who loves her husband very much, feels the urge to confess everything to clear her conscience. With this in mind, she writes a letter to a woman’s magazine asking for advice. When the letter is printed, it catches the eye of one the local lawyers. Consequently, it’s not long before the men of the town are caught up in the process of trying to guess the identity of the woman (and therefore the husband) in question. When one man, Favara, becomes the focus of attention, he is both amused and anxious:

Amused, because the bachelors, the widowers, the old men and those fortunate enough to have a wife without relatives, could afford to feel highly entertained; anxious, because those who fulfilled Don Luigi’s conditions were now seriously alarmed and were studying Favara’s reactions minutely as if he were offering a kind of sacrifice on their behalf which, once accomplished, would restore their shattered sense of security. (pg. 148)

Like a number of the stories in this collection, A Matter of Conscience ends on understated but poignant note.

Interestingly, I found Sciascia’s stories more humane than I had anticipated. When I think back to my previous readings of Sciascia’s novels Equal Danger and The Day of the Owl, it’s the biting combination of crime, corruption and political intrigue that I remember rather than a sense of compassion. Perhaps the best example of this feeling of humanity is encapsulated in the titular story, The Wine-Dark Sea, in which Bianchi, an unmarried engineer from the North of Italy is travelling to Sicily by train, sharing a carriage with a husband and wife and their two boys. The family, who are returning from a wedding in the capital, are accompanied by a relative, an attractive young girl named Dina. As the journey progresses, Bianchi – a man who has never been particularly fond of children – finds himself warming to the young boys despite their rather unruly behaviour. Further, Bianchi is clearly attracted to Dina, a girl of few words and profound feelings. As a consequence, these two developments prompt him to re-examine his own life. At just shy of forty pages, this is the longest story in the collection and deservedly so. It touches on the joy of family life, the tensions between the people of the North and those of the South (the Sicilians, in particular), the values of society, so many things. It’s my favourite piece in the collection.

A similar humane quality comes through in The Test, a story in which a Swiss engineer named Basler travels across Sicily from town to town, recruiting young women to work in a factory producing electrical goods. On the engineer’s arrival in an isolated village, his driver is approached by a young man whose girlfriend is one of the candidates. The young man wishes to marry this girl, and so he implores the driver (a fellow Sicilian) to help him by persuading the engineer to reject her, thereby ensuring she remains in the village. This story touches on several things: the economics of life in a small town; the dignity that comes with work and being able to provide for a family; questions of trust and loyalty. It’s another fine story.

Other stories worthy of a mention include:

  • Demotion, in which the head of the local Communist cell berates his wife for joining a demonstration against the removal of a statue from the local church, the statue of a saint whom the priests have now declared as never having existed in the first place. This is a story with an ironic sting in its tale, best left for readers to discover for themselves.
  • End–Game, the story of a man who is sent to eliminate a woman. But who holds the balance of power here? Is it the assassin, his potential victim or the man who commissioned the kill (the husband of the woman in question)?

In summary, this collection of stories would make an excellent introduction to Leonardo Sciascia’s Sicily, a place characterised by a compelling fusion of raw beauty, dignity, suspicion, brutality and sly irony.

Update: Grant (1streading) has reviewed this collection – click here to read his excellent review.

The Wine-Dark Sea is published by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.

Agostino by Alberto Moravia (tr. Michael F. Moore)

First published in the mid-1940s, Alberto Moravia’s novella, Agostino, is a striking portrayal of the passing of a young boy’s innocence over the course of a seemingly idyllic summer.

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Thirteen-year-old Agostino and his widowed mother are spending the season at a seaside resort in Italy. As the story opens, we can see how Agostino looks up to his mother, a strong, attractive and serene woman who remains in the prime of her life. He enjoys spending time by his mother’s side catering to her every need as the pair soak up the sun and swim in the sea.

Agostino would see the mother’s body plunge into a circle of green bubbles, and he would jump in right after her, ready to follow her anywhere, even to the bottom of the sea. (pg. 4)

One morning, a tanned, dark-haired young man appears on the beach and invites Agostino’s mother to join him on a boat ride out to sea. Agostino is convinced that his mother will politely turn down the invitation as with the others that have preceded it, but much to his surprise she is quick to accept. Left alone on the beach, Agostino feels a mix of annoyance, disappointment and humiliation at his mother’s actions; it is as if he has been abandoned at the drop of a hat.

What offended him most wasn’t so much the mother’s preference for the young man as the quick almost premeditated joy with which she accepted his invitation. It was as if she had decided not to let the opportunity slip away and to seize it without hesitation as soon as it presented itself. It was as if all those days on the sea with him she had been bored and had only come along for lack of better company. (pg. 7)

The following day the young man returns to invite the mother on another boat trip, but this time she insists that Agostino join them on the pattino. Agostino, who has always viewed his mother as dignified and serene, is surprised to see her behaving in a playful and flirtatious manner in the company of this interloper. The mother seems blind to her son’s presence; meanwhile Agostino is left feeling uncomfortable and confused by this apparent change in his mother. At one stage during the trip, the mother’s belly brushes against Agostino’s cheek and this seemingly insignificant moment (certainly in the eyes of the mother) stirs a deep sense of repulsion in the boy.

She lowered herself awkwardly onto the plank, brushing her belly against her son’s cheek. A trace of moisture from the wet bathing suit was left on Agostino’s skin and a deeper warmth seemed to evaporate the moisture into steam. Although he felt a sharp stab of murky repulsion, he obstinately refused to dry himself off. (pg. 12)

In the days that follow this image remains in Agostino’s mind and it comes to represent the sense of revulsion he now feels towards his mother.

Shortly after this incident Agostino comes into contact with Berto, a rough, aggressive local boy who lives in an impoverished part of the town. Coming from a wealthy and sheltered background, Agostino is not used to mixing with coarse boys like Berto but events with his mother have left him in need of an escape. Agostino is drawn towards Berto despite the boy’s savage nature, a quality that becomes apparent when Berto picks a fight with him.

He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality. It seemed incredible that he, Agostino, whom everyone had always liked, could now be hurt so deliberately and ruthlessly. Most of all he was bewildered and troubled by this ruthlessness, a new behavior so monstrous it was almost attractive. (pg. 22)

Berto introduces Agostino to his friends, a collective of streetwise working-class kids presided over by a local boatman, Saro. The boys have been watching Agostino’s mother and her new admirer, Renzo; they know Agostino has been playing the ‘third wheel’. The crude banter comes thick and fast as the boys speculate about the nature of relations between Agostino’s mother and her dark-haired friend. Once again, Agostino experiences a mix of emotions: embarrassment, confusion, but also a strange sense of gratification almost as though some of his past humiliations have been redressed.

He felt as if he should object, but these uncouth jokes aroused in him an unexpected, almost cruel feeling of pleasure, as if the boys had unknowingly avenged through their words all the humiliations that his mother had inflicted on him lately. (pg. 29)

Prior to meeting Berto and his companions, the naïve and innocent Agostino had little understanding of sex, but recent events and discussions with the gang have roused a strong sense of curiosity in his mind. He wonders what his mother and Renzo have been getting up to in his absence – something of a sensual nature he suspects – so he goes looking for clues.

The truth is, he might not have been seized by a desire to spy on his mother and to destroy the aura of dignity and respect with which he had viewed her if, on that same day, chance had not set him so violently on this path. (pg. 41-42)

Agostino’s mother, however, is blissfully oblivious to her son’s awakening sexuality. She has no awareness of the emotional turmoil unfolding in Agostino’s mind, no idea of the provocative nature of her sensual behaviour. In her eyes, he remains an innocent child.

She walked back and forth in front of him as if he weren’t there. She would pull her stockings on and off, slip into her clothes, dab on some perfume, apply her makeup. All of these gestures, which had once seemed so natural to Agostino, now seemed to take on meaning and become an almost visible part of a larger more dangerous reality, dividing his spirit between curiosity and pain. (pg. 69)

Agostino is a novella of juxtapositions and tensions. Alongside the boy’s struggle to come to terms with the maelstrom of emotions evoked by his mother’s behaviour, Moravia also exposes Agostino to another facet of sexuality through his interactions with the local gang. Even though they expose his naiveté and gullibility, Agostino longs to be accepted by Berto and his gang and he continues to seek them out. In a memorable scene, the boys are preparing to go skinny dipping in the river. While Agostino is shy and somewhat reluctant to expose his body, the other boys are eager to strip – they boast of their virility and measure one another up in the process. Presiding over events is Saro, is an utterly nasty piece of work, a man who exerts his power and influence over the boys at key moments in the narrative. The toad-like description is very apt here:

The boys, getting ready to dive in, acted out hundreds of obscene gestures, tripping, pushing, and touching each other with brashness and an unrestrained promiscuity that shocked Agostino, who was new to this type of thing. He too was naked, his feet bare and caked with cold mud, but he would have preferred to hide behind the cane, if only to escape the looks cast his way through the half-closed eyes of Saro, crouching and motionless, like a giant toad who dwelled in the canebrake. (pg. 61)

Agostino is a short but very powerful novel full of strong, sometimes brutal, imagery. The murky, mysterious waters of the settings mirror the cloudy undercurrent of emotions in Agostino’s mind. Ultimately, this is a story of a young boy’s transition from the innocence of boyhood to a new phase in life. While this should be a happy an exciting time of discovery, for Agostino, the summer is marked by a deep sense of pain and confusion. His feelings towards his mother have changed; reverence and affection have morphed into a swirling and disturbing mix.

As the novella draws to a close, Agostino seeks to insert something akin to a psychological buffer between himself and his muddy feelings towards the mother. He longs for an alternative outlet for his awakened sexuality, freedom from the dark obsessions that have tainted his summer. To discover whether or not Agostino achieves these aims, I would urge you to read this excellent book for yourself.

I bought this book on the strength of two trusted recommendations: Guy’s review and an endorsement from Scott (of Seraillon). Thank you, both.

Agostino is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

Cà dei Frati Lugana – a wine match for Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant

Last month I reviewed Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant, a beautiful novel of love, art and Venice. (You can read my review by clicking on the link.) I don’t need much of an excuse to open a bottle of Italian wine, so I rummaged through the bottles at home in search of a suitable match. This Cà dei Frati Lugana caught my eye. It comes from a family-run estate on the south banks of Lake Garda near the northern Italian town of Sirmione – the vineyards are situated about 150 km from Venice, so that’s near enough for me.

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Lugana is a white wine is made from a grape variety known locally as Turbiana (previously thought to be Trebbiano di Soave). The Cà dei Frati is a personal favourite, the best example of a Lugana I’ve tasted. It’s fresh, rounded and very moreish – think baked apples, a squeeze of lemon and a whiff of thyme. Perfect for a warm summer’s evening and a vicarious trip to Venice/the Italian Lakes.

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Wine stockist: I bought my bottle of Cà dei Frati Lugana, 2013 from The Wine Society, priced at £12.50 per bottle. (No longer available, but the 2014 vintage is in stock.) It’s relatively widely available elsewhere – you can check stockists via wine-searcher.

Rendezvous in Venice (tr. by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press.