Tag Archives: Italy

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Archibald Colquhoun)

What can I say about this remarkable novel – undoubtedly a true classic of 20th-century literature – that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot. But as it’s our book group choice for May, I feel the need to jot down a few thoughts, if only to remind myself of what I loved about it for our discussion via Zoom later tonight.

The Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi based The Leopard on the life of his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, the Prince of Lampedusa, whose life spanned much of the 19th century. Like his esteemed ancestor before him, the author was also a prince, the last in the line of aristocracy that was ultimately swept away during the carnage and social change that ripped through Europe during WW2. This context is important for any reading of The Leopard, as Giuseppe Tomasi’s protagonist, Don Fabrizio, the charming Prince of Salina, finds himself caught up in a period of great change, one ushered in by the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy, whereby the various states of the southern Italian peninsula were incorporated into a united Italy in the mid-19th century.

The novel opens in the summer of 1860 at the time of Garibaldi’s advance on Sicily. An intelligent, charismatic nobleman at heart, Don Fabrizio knows that the old way of life is changing. The current principality is unlikely to survive, certainly not in the manner to which the old guard has become accustomed. As such, future generations of Don Fabrizio’s family will not to be able to enjoy the same privileges as the Prince during their own lifetimes. Moreover, the Prince’s nephew, the much-loved Tancredi, has broken with tradition, joining the Redshirts in their quest for change and unification. In his discussions with Don Fabrizio, it is Tancredi – a highly spirited young man – who sees the need to be part of the revolution, influencing the outside from within, in the hope of maintaining some semblance of authority.

“Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change…” (p. 19)

Don Fabrizio, for his part, tries to balance the preservation of his noble values with the need to adapt, thereby securing some degree of continuity for his family’s influence. He recognises Tancredi’s potential as an influential player in the politics of the future – the young man is much better placed in this respect than any the Prince’s seven children, Paolo, the natural bloodline heir included.

At first, Tancredi is attracted to Concetta, the most alluring of Don Fabrizio’s daughters and also the Prince’s favourite. Concetta too is in love with Tancredi, so much so that she asks the family’s priest, Father Pirrone, to tell her father she believes a marriage proposal is imminent, hoping the latter will be happy for her to accept. Donna Fabrizio, however, realises his daughter’s dowry will be insufficient for Tancredi, potentially stymieing the boy’s future political ambitions. Somewhat fortuitously for the Prince, Tancredi soon falls under the sway of Angelica, the heart-stoppingly beautiful daughter of Don Calogero, one of the up-and-coming landowners in Sicily, whose newly-acquired wealth bestows on him significant influence. With an eye on the future of his extended family, the Prince encourages the blossoming romance between Tancredi and Angelica, viewing it as a desirable move in light of the broader socio-political developments, even though Don Calogero and his daughter are from a much lower social class than the Prince himself.

There is a distinct air of melancholy surrounding the character of Don Fabrizio as he observes the inevitable decline of the old ways of life. At forty-five, he seems jaded, something of a loner in a bustling house. Stagnating in a marriage with an indifferent, highly religious wife, the Prince secretly despairs of the fading beauty that surrounds him – a feeling that applies to both the physical beauty of the women he meets at society balls and the intellectual beauty of the world as he perceives it. A love of astronomy and mathematics provide the Prince with some form of solace, the stars in the night sky representing a sense of constancy and stability that is lacking elsewhere. There are also the night-time visits to lovers in the nearby brothels, another source of pleasure for the Prince, albeit a more furtive one.  

The novel is rich with the fabric of life in this privileged sector of Sicilian society, from the sumptuous meals at Don Fabrizio’s Palazzo in Palermo to the glamorous balls taking place within the Prince’s social set. Tomasi’s prose comes into its own here. The language is gorgeous – sensual, evocative and ornate, frequently tinged with an aching sense of sadness for the tragedies destined to follow.

Tancredi and Angelica were passing in front of them at that moment, his gloved right hand on her waist, their outspread arms interlaced, their eyes gazing into each other’s. The black of his tail-coat, the pink of interweaving dress, looked like some unusual jewel. They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script. (p.172)

There are also trips to the family’s country estate at Donnafugata; discussions between Don Fabrizio and various local influencers; reflections on various affairs of the heart, most notably those involving Tancredi and the rather crushed Concetta. All these threads come together to form a picture of Sicily which, for all its artistry and elegance, is also characterised by something much darker – a deep-seated seam of violence and fascination with death.

“This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like a lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from all directions, who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood; their sole means of expression works of art we found enigmatic and taxes we found only too intelligible, and which they spent elsewhere. All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.” (p.138)

This beautiful, elegiac novel will transport you to the sensuality and heat of Sicily, an island at a time of great revolution and social change. I found it such a poignant and affecting read, all the more so for the fact that the author was unable to secure publication before his death from lung cancer in the summer of 1957. Thankfully for us, the book was edited by the eminent Italian writer Giorgio Bassani and published posthumously in 1958. What a marvellous gift this has turned out to be, a richly rewarding book of immense grace and beauty. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates the sublime nature of Tomasi’s prose.

Before going to bed Don Fabrizio paused a moment on the little balcony of his dressing-room. Beneath lay the shadowed garden, sunk in sleep; in the inert air the trees seemed like fused lead; from the overhanging bell-tower came an elfin hoot of owls. The sky was clear of clouds; those which had greeted the dusk had moved away, maybe towards less sinful places, condemned by divine wrath to lesser penalties. The stars looked turbid and their rays scarcely penetrated the pall of sultry air. (p. 61)

The Vintage edition comes with an excellent forward on the novel’s publication and the political context at the time of its setting, primarily the early 1860s.

(For the interested, I’ve also written about Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, another classic Italian novel which shares something of The Leopard’s wistful, elegiac tone and sense of yearning for the halcyon days of times past. Finally, here’s a link to my review of a slim collection of Tomasi’s short fiction, The Professor and The Siren, which includes the first chapter of an unfinished novel, The Blind Kittens – also highly recommended.)

Trick by Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

Published in the UK by Europa Editions, Trick is the most recent novel by Domenico Starnone, an Italian writer, screenwriter and journalist of some repute. (One of his earlier books, Via Gemito, won the Premio Strega, Italy’s foremost literary prize, back in 2001.) Trick is an excellent book – a rather touching story of the fractious relationship between a grandfather and his young grandson, all played out within the claustrophobic atmosphere of a city apartment over the course of a few days.

On the face of it, the premise of Trick is a deceptively simple one. However, as is the case with much of the best fiction in translation, there is a great deal going on under the surface here, giving rise to a narrative that can be read on more than one level.

The story is narrated by Daniele, a moderately famous illustrator in his mid-seventies, currently in recovery following a recent surgical procedure. As the novel opens, Daniele has reluctantly agreed to travel from his home in Milan to his daughter’s apartment in Naples to take care of his four-year-old grandson, Mario, for a few days. Daniele’s daughter, Betta, and her husband, Saverio – both academics – are planning to attend a conference, hence their need for Daniele to look after Mario in their absence.

Daniele is reluctant to come to Naples for a number of different reasons. Firstly, he is struggling for inspiration on his current project – a commission to illustrate a new edition of the Henry James ghost story, The Jolly Corner. Secondly, having lived a relatively solitary life since the death of his wife, Daniele doesn’t really know Mario very well, and the prospect of taking care of an energetic toddler is somewhat irritating to say the least. Finally, there are other, more subtle factors at play, but these only become fully apparent to Daniele once he returns to Naples and his old childhood home.

Right from the start, the sense of tension in the family’s apartment is patently apparent. Relations between Betta and Saverio have deteriorated and are presently rather strained. In short, while Saverio believes his wife is having an affair with another, more senior member of their department, Betta fervently denies there is anything untoward going on. As a consequence, both parents are somewhat distracted, giving them little time for a handover or consideration for Daniele’s wellbeing.

The characterisation here is superb, particularly in relation to the two main players in the drama, Daniele and Mario. For a four-year-old-boy, Mario is a fully-realised creation – precocious, inquisitive, playful, and delightful. Perhaps most importantly, he is also unintentionally annoying, especially as far as his poor grandfather is concerned.

To demonstrate his knowledge of the household, Mario proceeds to show Daniele how to make breakfast for everyone in the apartment, complete with their personal preferences for different coffees and teas. Much to Daniele’s surprise, the toddler’s visual memory and ability to carry out certain familiar tasks are very well developed indeed.

He [Mario] proceeded to show me where the oranges were, where the juicer was, how to toast the bread so that it wouldn’t burn and emanate a foul odor that disgusted his father, which shelf held the bags of black tea and green, which cupboard contained of the coffeepots, where the teapot was since the saucepan I’d chosen was inadequate, where the placemats were for the setting the table. Oh, the quantity of things he said that morning, and with such command. (pp. 41-42)

Once Betta and Saverio depart for the conference, the action – such as it is – gets going in earnest. While Daniele tries to concentrate on his work, Mario wishes for nothing more than to play with his grandfather, urging the latter to join him in his games. There are strained exchanges between the two as Daniele tries – rather unsuccessfully – to convince his grandson that Grandpa must work. Naturally, Mario is too young to understand the importance of this, and his actions result in frustration for Daniele at an already stressful time. As such, a sort of battle of wits plays out between the two individuals as Daniele constantly tries to outmanoeuvre the youngster, albeit with limited success.

I whipped around, I burst out:

– Who said you could take over the remote, who said you could change the channel?

Mario was scared. He replied:

– I asked you, Grandpa, and you said yes.

I extended an angry arm and he immediately handed back the remote control. I tried to go back to my friend, muttering, disgruntled, all the while, but I couldn’t remember the channel.

– You have to put in the number, the child said, agitated.

– Quiet.

I skipped from one channel to the next, I found the right one, but my friend wasn’t on anymore. I threw the remote onto the sofa and said, with fake calm:

– Go to bed right now, right away.

But I did nothing to see this command through. Instead I left the room, I roamed through the house, I turned on lights, I heard myself muttering disjointed sentences in dialect. I was now not only spent to the point of instability, but unhappy, as if every unhappy moment in my life had decided to gather together in that house, in that moment. (pp.101-2)

As Daniele struggles with his drawings for The Jolly Corner, there are other ghosts for him to contend with too – those from his own childhood in Naples many years ago. The return to his old family home – the apartment once belonged to Daniele’s parents – forces Daniele to reflect on his youth and the relatively humble nature of his upbringing. The local neighbourhood was a frightening place back then; gambling and corruption were rife, as were looting, theft and violence. Daniele has always considered himself lucky to have escaped the poverty of his childhood, securing a release from an impoverished life by way of his artistic talents and ambitions. Now the city is alive with ghosts for Daniele, powerful reminders of the path he may well have taken had he not been so keen to break away.

In essence, Mario’s boundless energy and intelligence come together to act as a catalyst, forcing Daniele to confront his own inadequacies and limitations. He feels old, jaded and somewhat obsolete, superseded by younger, more proactive artists who are eagerly snapping at his heels. A phone call from his disgruntled publisher – unhappy with Daniele’s initial drafts for the book – exacerbates the situation, leaving Daniele with a need to feel respected and valued at a vulnerable time.

Here though – I said to myself – are signs of decline I can’t ignore any more, as violent as dreams that crack glass: the offensive call from my publisher; the worn-out imagination I couldn’t manage to revive; and my daughter, my only daughter, who’d ensnared me, unawares, in the role of the elderly grandfather. (p. 72)

A pivotal scene brings everything to a head, prompting Daniele to use all his ingenuity and skill in an attempt to get Mario on side, particularly in this moment of crisis. To reveal too much about this aspect of the book would spoil things; suffice it to say that the sequence in question is tense, compelling and ultimately satisfying.

I loved this thoughtful, thoroughly engaging novel, and would highly recommend it to book groups and individual readers alike. There are some striking insights into the human condition here, particularly around our fears of ageing, the ways our lives are shaped by the choices of our youth, and our need to feel worthwhile and appreciated, irrespective of our age or personal circumstances.

My thanks to the lovely Marina Sofia, who gave me a copy of this book as a present; I definitely owe her something special in return.

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

I have long wanted to read the Italian writer Elsa Morante, ever since I learned of her influence on Elena Ferrante (you can find my reviews of Ferrante’s work here). Arturo’s Island was Morante’s second novel, originally published in Italian in 1957, and now freshly translated by Ann Goldstein for this Pushkin Press edition (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). It is a beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style.

The narrative is told from the viewpoint of Arturo Gerace as he looks back on his teenage years spent on the remote island of Procida in the Bay of Naples – a tumultuous, troubling time in this young individual’s life.

At fourteen, Arturo spends most of his days roaming around the island, dreaming of great adventures with pirates, kings and other enigmatic figures from tales of fantasy. His father, Wilhelm, is a restless wanderer who frequently leaves the island for long periods with no planned date of return. With his unpredictable nature and temperament, Wilhelm is prone to frequent outbursts, displaying little thought for the feelings and sensitivities of those around him. In spite of this, Arturo idolises his father unquestioningly, eagerly anticipating the day when he is old enough to join Wilhelm on his seemingly intrepid travels.

Every act of his, every speech, had a dramatic fatality for me. In fact, he was the image of certainty, and everything he said or did was the verdict of a universal law from which I deduced the first commandments of my life. Here was the greatest seduction of his company. (p. 24)

Life for young Arturo is a solitary one, with his father often away and his mother no longer alive following her death in childbirth. He yearns for some much-needed love and affection, the kind fuelled by his romantic imagination – the absence of Arturo’s mother is very keenly felt.

She was a person invented by my regrets, and so she had, for me, every wished-for kindness, and different expressions, different voices. But, above all, in the impossible longing I had for her, I thought of her as faithfulness, intimacy, conversation: in other words, all that fathers were not, in my experience. (p. 44)

Moreover, young Arturo is largely in charge of the Geraces’ home, a somewhat run-down, castle-like building bequeathed to Wilhelm by an old friend – a man with an intense dislike of women and their ‘ugly’ appearances. As such, Arturo has had very little exposure to girls or women during his life, particularly given the isolated nature of his upbringing.

One day, Wilhelm returns unexpectedly to Procida with his new bride, Nunziata – a rather hesitant young girl from Naples who has been pushed into marriage by her mother, Violante. At sixteen, Nunziata is barely older than Arturo, a situation that leaves our protagonist struggling to understand this sudden change in dynamics and everything it represents. For the first time in his life, Arturo has a rival for his father’s affections, one who is almost as inexperienced and naïve as the young boy himself.

When I passed my father’s room, I heard from behind the closed door an excited whispering. I was almost running when I reached my room: I suddenly had the sharp, incomprehensible sensation that I had received from someone (whom I couldn’t yet recognise) an inhuman insult, impossible to avenge. I undressed quickly and, as I threw myself into bed, wrapping myself in the covers up to my head, a cry from her reached me through the walls: tender, strangely fierce, and childlike. (p. 124)

Virtually as soon as he has arrived home, Wilhelm becomes restless again, seeking the company of Nunziata and Arturo one minute and then shunning it the next. It’s not long before Wilhelm begins to view Nunziata as an appendage, akin to a tiresome relative of little interest or importance. Consequently, Arturo and Nunziata – the latter now pregnant with Wilhelm’s child – are left mostly on their own at the Casa dei Guaglioni while Wilhelm continues his erratic travels abroad.

At first, Arturo wants as little as possible to do with his new stepmother, shunning her company in favour of wandering around the island.

My antipathy towards my stepmother, meanwhile, didn’t diminish but became fiercer every day. And as a result of the life she led with me during my father’s absence from the island was certainly not very happy. I never spoke to her except to give her orders. If I was outside and wanted to summon her to the window to give her some command, or warn her of my arrival, I used to simply whistle. (p. 158)

Then, all of a sudden, he experiences a dramatic change of heart, prompted by the belief that Nunziata’s life may be in danger during the birth of her child, Carminiello. From this point onwards, Arturo begins to see his stepmother in a new light, viewing her as more beautiful and graceful than before. Meanwhile, Nunziata devotes herself to caring for the new baby, mainly at the expense of any consideration for Arturo or his potential needs – a situation that leaves Arturo feeling somewhat jealous of his new stepbrother.

I felt I could never have peace if she didn’t return to being, toward me, at least, the same as she had been before the fatal arrival of my stepbrother; and yet at no cost did I want to betray that longing to her. So I looked desperately for a means that, without wounding my pride, would force her to be concerned with me, or to manifest once and for all, her irredeemable indifference towards Arturo Gerace. (p. 233)

As the months slip by, Arturo must try to make sense of his emotions as they oscillate between an idealised form of first love for Nunziata and abject disillusionment – his demonstrations of affection are swiftly rejected. He tries, somewhat in vain, to grapple with new and confusing situations in this abrupt exposure to the complexities of the adult world.

Arturo’s Island is an emotionally-rich novel, frequently punctuated with passages of profound depth. Morante skilfully captures the vulnerabilities of youth, the maelstrom of emotions that characterises Arturo’s adolescence – the young boy’s experiences are very keenly felt. The author’s style is perfectly matched to the subject matter at hand: lyrical, intuitive and painfully perceptive. While the main thrust of the narrative takes places in the run-up to WW2, there is a timeless feel to this story, akin to a classic myth or fable.

With its imposing penitentiary, Procida is painted as an isolated, mysterious place, one with elements of menace and darkness, albeit lightened by the allure of the natural world. Morante’s descriptions of the island’s environment are beautifully expressed.

As this excellent novel draws to a close, Arturo must contend with emotions of antipathy, lust, jealousy and disillusionment. Morante’s portrayal of the young boy’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. Alongside the struggle to reconcile his feelings for Nunziata, Arturo must also come to terms with a new, rather disturbing vision of his father – a discovery that will leave a mark on his character forever.

This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.

I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth, which is running throughout August. For an interesting companion piece dealing with similar themes, see Agostino (1944) by Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante’s husband – also very highly recommended indeed.

Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. D. M. Low)

Born in Palermo in 1916, the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is perhaps best known for her autobiographical novel Family Lexicon, winner of the Strega Prize for fiction in 1963. Voices in the Evening is an earlier novel, first published in Italian in 1961 and translated into English in 1963.

In many respects, Voices is an episodic work, a series of interconnected vignettes depicting the lives and loves of various members of one particular family, all set in a small Italian village, viewed from the perspective of the years following WW2.

Central to the novel is Elsa, an unmarried twenty-seven-year-old woman who lives with her parents in the watchful village community, a place where gossip and arbitrary judgments are prevalent, adding colour to the inhabitants’ day-to-day activities. The narrative is bookended by two ‘conversations’ between Elsa and her mother. I use the term ‘conversation’ with caution as the dialogue is in effect a monologue with Elsa remaining silent in the face of her mother’s barbed musings and pointed observations.

‘One can see that there is a party somewhere,’ she added, ‘at the Terenzis’ very likely. Everyone who goes has to take something. Nowadays many people do that.’

She said, ‘But they don’t invite you, do they?

‘They don’t invite you,’ she said, ‘because they think that you give yourself airs. You have never been to the tennis club either. If one does not go about and show oneself, people say that such a person is giving himself airs, and they don’t seek one out anymore…’ (p.4)

These opening and closing vignettes set the tone for the novel, emphasising the sense of distance between Elsa and her mother, a feeling of separation between the generations. There is a touch of wry humour in these passages too, a note of irony in Ginzburg’s prose as Elsa must endure her mother’s complaints.

Voices can also be thought of as a novel of conflicts or tensions – conflicts between mothers and daughters, men and women, and ultimately those between different values and ideals. The first half of the narrative explores the troubled lives and loves of the most influential family in the village, a household headed up by old Balotta (or Little Ball), the owner of the local cloth factory where Elsa’s father works as an accountant. Old Balotta has five children, most of whom are unlucky in love. There is also another family member to contend with: Purillo, the patriarch’s adopted son.

Gemmina, Balotta’s eldest daughter, is in love with Nebbia, a man who rejects her advances in favour of marriage to a foolish young girl from a nearby village. Next in line are Balotta’s sons, Vincenzio and Mario – the former a bit of a misfit, the latter cheerful and sociable.

The Balotta family dynamics are disturbed when Mario decides to marry Xenia, an artist he meets during a business trip to Munich. Xenia appears somewhat aloof with her expensive tastes in clothes, food and other accoutrements. There is even a concern on the part of Balotta that Xenia might be a spy – the girl’s lack of interest in learning Italian is another point against her.

The family’s relationships are characterised by various flaws and failings – more specifically, unrequited love, marriages of convenience, and unions founded on acceptability at the expense of emotion.

The final vignette is the most emotionally compelling in the sequence, the story of a doomed love affair between Elsa and the last of Old Balotta’s sons, a young man by the name of Tommasino. Every Wednesday afternoon, Elsa and Tommasino spend time together in a nearby town, a place where they can experience a sense of freedom, unburdened by the weight of familial ties or expectations. Their meetings are conducted in secret, mostly in a rented room on the Via Gorizia.

At heart, Tommasino is not a romantic; his demeanour is a solitary one, reflecting a reluctance to be tied down. However, everything changes when Tommasino visits Elsa at home one evening, a move which soon results in the young couple’s engagement. As Elsa’s family begin to make preparations for the wedding, Tommasino glimpses the life of responsibility and domesticity that lies ahead. It is a world that does not appeal to him, far removed from the atmosphere of Via Gorizia with all its simplicity and seclusion. As a consequence, Tommasino cannot help but make his true feelings known to Elsa.

There was something, all the same, something intimate and delicate, and it had its own fulfilment and its own freedom. You and I, up there in the Via Gorizia, alone, without any plans for the future, without anything at all, have been happy in some fashion of our own. We had something there; it was not much but it was something. It was something very slight, very fragile, ready to break up at the first puff of wind. It was something which could not be captured and bought to the light or it would die. We have brought it to the light and it is dead, and we shall never recover it any more. (pp. 142-143)

Voices in the Evening is a simple yet subtle novel, one that explores the tension and discontentment in relationships between men and women, particularly those living in a small, close-knit community. There is a strong sense of estrangement running through the novel, a feeling of separateness and isolation in a shifting world. The shadow of war also looms in the background, accentuating a feeling of unease and instability.

Ginzburg’s prose is direct and unadorned in a way that leaves quite a bit of space in the narrative, maybe too much. If I had a criticism, it would be to say that the novel as a whole feels a little slight, particularly given the episodic structure and shift in focus from one character to another. Nevertheless, in some instances, what is left unsaid between individuals can seem just as significant as what is shared. Plus, I’m significantly impressed to want to read Ginzburg’s highly-regarded autobiographical work, Family Lexicon.

This is my first post for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event, which is running during August. (It just so happens that my #WITMonth has started a little early this year.)

Voices in the Evening is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

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. Tomasi 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 Tomasi’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, Tomasi 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 Tomasi 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.