Tag Archives: Italy

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.

Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi

Earlier this year I read (and loved) Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, a delightfully playful and witty mystery set in the Tuscan countryside in 1895, published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Malvaldi has also written the Bar Lume mysteries set in present-day Italy, and Game for Five (published by Europa Editions, World Noir) is the first novella in this series.

Game for Five takes us to Pineta, a fashionable seaside resort near Pisa. Here we meet Massimo, long-suffering owner of the Bar Lume and unofficial guardian to four old-timers in their 70s and 80s who spend their days winding one another up and playing cards at the venue.

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One of the most delightful aspects of this novella stems from Malvaldi’s descriptions of the characters and the banter between the main players. At an early stage in the story, we are introduced to the four elderly gentlemen, each of whom has his own individual habits and mannerisms. Ampelio, who also happens to be Massimo’s grandpa, is like a child who has escaped from the watchful eye of his mother, always on the lookout for ice cream and unsuitable drinks – unsuitable for both the sweltering heat, and his state of health. In this scene, we get a sense of the other characters and their activities at the bar:

The first to open his mouth is retired postal worker Gino Rimediotti, who looks all of his seventy-five years, and who now says, as he usually does, “I’m fine with anything. As long as I don’t play in a pair with him there.”

“Listen to him! As if it’s always my fault…”

“Yes, it is your fault! You never remember what cards have been dealt even if they bite you.”

“Gino, listen, I’m fond of you, but someone who winks like he’s swallowed gravel the way you do should just keep still, OK? When you’re dealt a three anyone would think you’re having a heart attack. Even the people inside the bar know what cards you have.”

The name of the fourth man is Pilade Del Tacca. He has watched seventy-four springs glide pleasantly by and is happily overweight. Years of hard work at the town hall in Pineta, where if you don’t have breakfast four times in a morning you’re nobody, has formed both his physique and his character: apart from being ill-mannered, he’s also a pain in the butt. (pg. 24, Europa Editions)

Life in this small town is disturbed by news of a murder. Very early one morning, a local guy discovers the body of a young girl dumped in a parking-lot trash can by the side of a wood, and he stumbles into Bar Lume to raise the alarm. Having spent the night at the disco, the man is as drunk as they come, so Massimo accompanies him to the crime scene, confirms the presence of the body and calls the police. Into the fray comes the insufferable and bumbling Inspector Fusco, a man who Massimo and Dr. Carli, the police doctor in attendance, consider ‘prickly, arrogant, pig-headed, conceited and vain.

Game for Five is a hugely enjoyable book full of wry humour, and much of the story’s wit derives from the interactions between characters, especially those involving the inspector. Here he is interviewing Massimo about events on the night in question:

“Right, you live in the city. Simone Tonfoni, the person who found the body, maintains that he entered your bar at 5.10. Can you confirm that?”

“Yes.”

“After he entered, he says he phoned this station to report finding the body. The officer on duty at the switchboard thought it was a joke and hung up. Then…”

“Then I asked him to show me where the body was. We went to the parking lot, I saw the scene, went back to the bar and –”

“Please just answer my questions and don’t interrupt,” the inspector said calmly. “Did you phone the station at 5.20 A.M.?”

“Yes.”

“Did you go back to the parking lot immediately after the phone call?”

“Yes.”

“Was the scene of the crime exactly as it had been the first time?”

“Yes.”

“Did you wait for the police to arrive, without leaving the spot?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure about what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

“Is yes the only word you know?”

“No.” (pg. 42)

It’s not long before the old-timers at Bar Lume start gossiping about the murder, speculating – often rather wildly – on events and possible suspects. Nevertheless, Inspector Fusco could probably do a lot worse than pay a visit to the bar should he wish to get to the bottom of the case:

“You know the neat thing about this whole business, my dear Massimo? It’s that the town already knows more than the inspector. Firstly, because Fusco is a fool” – all those present nodded in unison – “and secondly, because if something happens in this town, to someone from the town, then someone else must know something about it. Maybe someone who saw something but doesn’t know what it meant. In my opinion, Massimo, Fusco should come to the bar and talk to all the people who drop in here, then go to see all the women in their homes, then go to the market, and so on. Nobody’ll go straight to him…” (pg. 39)

Due to his involvement in the discovery of the corpse, Massimo gets drawn into the investigation. He soon realises that Fusco has jumped on the obvious suspect – a young boy who had been seeing the victim – despite the absence of a clear motive or any evidence linking this individual to the crime scene. While Massimo longs for a quiet life and would prefer to leave matters to the authorities, the more information he uncovers, the more the case niggles away at him. Underneath Massimo’s slightly weathered exterior lurks a natural empathy for others, and he takes it upon himself to talk to those who knew the dead girl in an attempt to solve the crime. Aided and abetted, of course, by his grandpa and fellow frequenters of the Bar Lume.

Game for Five is great fun. It’s an enjoyable mystery, but what really elevate this book, making it such a delight to read, are the characterisation and different shades of humour Malvaldi brings to the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, each of the old-timers comes with his own individual idiosyncrasies and ways to infuriate to others (many of which are unconstrained by political correctness). Inspector Fusco is well-drawn, as is Dr. Carli, the police doctor. And as the novella progresses, Malvaldi reveals more of Massimo’s character adding depth to our image of the protagonist. The banter amongst the old-timers and their exchanges with Massimo are a joy: some scenes are pure comedy; others peppered with slightly sardonic wit. And the interactions between Massimo and the inept Inspector Fusco bristle with prickly humour.

All in all, Game for Five is a thoroughly enjoyable book. The mystery is resolved, but you’ll have to read the book to discover how much of a part Massimo plays in the outcome. My edition comes with an endorsement from Andrea Camilleri on the rear cover, and I can see Game for Five appealing to fans of the Inspector Montalbano series.

This post is my contribution to to Petrona Remembered, a blog dedicated to honouring the memory of blogger Maxine Clarke, a passionate advocate of crime fiction. You can read more about it by clicking on the link.

Game for Five is published in the UK by Europa Editions, tr. by Howard Curtis. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

She [Lila] answered: “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.”

As summer draws to an end, I’ve been reading a couple of chunksters: one of my own choosing – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante – and one selected by a member of my book group; the latter shall remain nameless (for now at least) as I’m still deciding whether or not to review it. Anyhow, let’s return to the Ferrante…

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third volume in Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels. As I’ve already reviewed the first two books in the series (My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name) in detail, I’m going to cover book three more briefly, especially as some of you may be reading the earlier volumes at the moment.

Warning: In order to review this third volume, I need to mention a few details from the first two books and the third novel, too.

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This third instalment in the series picks up where book three left off: the period is the late sixties, and Elena and Lila are in their early twenties. Elena’s first novel has just been published and Nino Sarratore is back in her life (albeit briefly), coming to her aid when a critic attacks her work. Despite the fleeting reappearance of Nino, Elena goes ahead with her marriage to Pietro, a rather dull but steady junior Professor and the couple settle down to life in Florence. Elena’s novel is a commercial success, but critical responses are mixed; one critic describes it as ‘a cheap version of the already vulgar Bonjour Tristesse.’ Harsh words indeed.

Elena struggles to write especially once children arrive, and she feels trapped by her marriage, isolated by a decline in her relationship with Pietro and the demands of motherhood. Having recently read The Days of Abandonment, I can now see clear links between the Neapolitan novels and the raw candour of Ferrante’s earlier work (there are other quotes I could include here, but I’d like to avoid revealing too much about the plot):

I felt abandoned but with the impression that I deserved it; I wasn’t capable of providing tranquillity for my daughter. Yet I kept going, doggedly, even though I was more and more frightened. My organism was rejecting the role of mother. And no matter how I denied the pain in my leg by doing everything possible to ignore it, it had returned and was getting worse. But I persisted, I wore myself out taking charge of everything. […] I thought: I’m becoming ugly and old before my time, like the women of the neighbourhood. And naturally, just when I was particularly desperate, Lila telephoned. (pg. 240 Europa Editions).

Meanwhile, Lila becomes involved in a left-wing movement, and the novel has much to say about the socio-political turmoil and unrest in Italy at the time (specifically The Years of Lead). In this scene, Lila describes the repressive and abusive conditions in the sausage factory in which she works:

Can you imagine, she asked, what it means to spend eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella cooking water? Can you imagine what it means to have your fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones? […]The women have to let their asses be groped by supervisors and colleagues without saying a word. If the owner feels the need, someone has to follow him into the seasoning room; his father used to ask for the same thing, maybe also his grandfather; and there, before he jumps all over you, that same owner makes you a tired little speech on how the odor of salami excites him. […] The union has never gone in, and the workers are nothing but poor victims of blackmail, dependant on the law of the owner, that is: I pay you and so I possess you and I possess your life, your family and everything that surrounds you, and if you don’t do what I say, I’ll ruin you. (pgs. 121-122)

Essentially, though, Those Who Leave focuses on Elena and the development of her character during the period, her direction and ambitions in life, and naturally a comparison with Lila is never far away:

Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her. (pgs. 346-347)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is another very good instalment in this epic story, perhaps not quite as compelling as the first two novels, but a necessary step in the overall journey from the girls’ childhood to middle age. That said, Ferrante’s writing is as rich in detail as ever, and the stage is most definitely set for a terrific fourth (and final) novel…but we shall have to wait until 2015 for that one to be published. I for one am looking forward to it immensely.

Tony Malone (at Tony’s Reading List) has also reviewed this book.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (review)

I’ve already reviewed My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s recent series of Neapolitan novels. The Days of Abandonment, a stand-alone novel, was first published in Italy in 2002 and translated into the English in 2005.

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The Days of Abandonment is narrated by Olga, a thirty-eight-year-old woman originally from Naples, now living in Turin. She has been married to Mario for fifteen years, and they have two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. In a quietly devastating opening paragraph, Mario informs Olga that he wants to leave her:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink. (p. 9, Europa Editions)

At first, Olga is convinced that Mario isn’t serious; after all, this has happened before. Six months after the couple got together, Mario suddenly announced that he no longer wished to see Olga, only to return five days later claiming ‘there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense.’

Consequently, in the early stages of their separation, Olga continues to behave affectionately towards Mario ‘ready to sustain him in his obscure crisis’ as he returns periodically to visit the children. But Olga soon feels a sharp animosity growing inside her, a bitterness only heightened when she learns Mario has left her for another woman, and her demeanour starts to alter:

I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully. I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.

Obscenity came to my lips naturally; it seemed to me that it served to communicate to the few acquaintances who still tried coldly to console me that I was not one to be taken in by fine words. As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut. I hated the idea that he knew everything about me while I knew little or nothing of him. (pg. 26)

In an effort to calm herself, Olga begins to re-examine her relationship with Mario in the minutest detail in an attempt to understand where she has gone wrong and why her husband has left. But it’s not long before her need to self-analyse gives way to feelings driven by resentment and rage:

A tangle of resentments, the sense of revenge, the need to test the humiliated power of my body were burning up any residue of good sense.  (pg. 48)

As Olga struggles to maintain a grip on her life, those around her bear the brunt of her frustrations; she strikes out at Mario, strangers who cross her path, and she comes perilously close to abandoning her children in the gardens of the local museum (near a statue of Pietro Micca):

And I began to shout that, if in their opinion I was no good, they should go to him [their father], there was a new mother, beautiful and smart, certainly from Turin, I would bet she knew everything about Pietro Micca and that city of kings and princesses, of haughty people, cold people, metal automatons. I screamed and screamed, out of control. (pg. 65)

And a few lines later:

Ah yes, I wished to wound them, my children, I wished to wound above all the boy, who already had a Piedmontese accent, Mario, too, spoke like a Turinese now, he had eliminated the Neapolitan cadences utterly. Gianni acted like an impudent young bull, I detested it, he was growing up foolish and presumptuous and aggressive, eager to shed his own blood or that of others in some uncivilized conflict, I couldn’t bear it any more.

I left them in the gardens, beside the fountain, and set out quickly along Via Galileo Ferraris, toward the suspended figure of Victor Emmanuel II, a shadow at the end of parallel lines of buildings, high up against a slice of warm cloudy sky. Maybe I really wanted to abandon them forever, forget about them, so that when Mario finally showed up again I could strike my forehead and exclaim: your children? I don’t know. I seem to have lost them: the last time I saw them was a month ago, in the gardens of the Cittadella.

After a little I slowed down, turned back. What was happening to me. I was losing touch with those blameless creatures, they were growing distant, as if balanced on a log floating away upon the flow of the current. Get them back, take hold of them again, hug them close: they were mine. (pgs 65-66)

From here, Olga descends into a deep depression and finds herself staring, falling even, into the darkest recesses of a terrible abyss. There is an excruciating scene in which she seeks sex with one of her neighbours, not out of any feelings of desire (in fact she finds this man quite repulsive) but out of a desperate need to negate the insult of being deserted by Mario.

Tormented by thoughts of Mario and his new life, Olga is unable to think clearly or concentrate on anything else. Confusion and disorientation reign as this woman’s previously ordered life crumbles around her. Having neglected to pay the bill she finds the phone is no longer working; ants infest her apartment, and there are a couple of scenes involving door locks which I’ll avoid discussing for fear of revealing further details about this section of Olga’s story.

I had only to quiet the view inside, the thoughts. They got mixed up, they crowded in on one another, shreds of words and images, buzzing frantically, like swarms of wasps, they gave to my gestures a brute capacity to do harm. (pg. 93)

While the title, The Days of Abandonment, clearly refers to Mario’s desertion of Olga, there’s also a sense that the phrase refers to Olga’s surrender to her own state of mind:

Something in my senses wasn’t working. An interruption of feeling, of feelings. Sometimes I abandoned myself to it, at times I was frightened…I didn’t know how to find answers to the question marks, every possible answer seemed absurd. I was lost in the where am I, in the what am I doing. I was mute beside the why. (pg. 107)

At various stages of her abandonment Olga is hounded by her memories of a once contented woman from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman whose husband ran away to Pescara for the love of another. This woman’s husband ‘had abandoned her, had cancelled her out from memory and feeling’ leaving her with nothing, not even her name; she became known as the ‘poverella,’ a poor woman torn to pieces by the loss of her husband. At one stage, Olga even questions her own identity as she struggles to separate reality from the imaginary: is she becoming the ‘poverella’ of her childhood?

Occasionally though, Olga regains a sense of proportion, a feeling that she can recover from this terrible experience and pull herself out of this place. Will she succeed? Well, that’s not for me to say, but if you read this exceptional novel, you’ll find out for yourself.

I was expecting The Days of Abandonment to be very good, but it is extraordinarily good. This is no-holds-barred fearless writing, a novel that delves deeply into the human psyche. Ferrante writes with devastating candour, exploring our perceptions of a woman, a mother with responsibilities, who finds herself face-to-face with a crisis. The story is shocking and violent in places, and the language explicit at times, but my word it feels necessary to convey the intensity of Olga’s story. A disturbing, but utterly unforgettable and compelling book, admirably translated by Ann Goldstein.

Biblibio and Tony Malone have also reviewed this novel, which I read as part of August’s Women in Translation #WITMonth, championed by Biblibio.

The Days of Abandonment (tr. Ann Goldstein) is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.