Tag Archives: Literature in Translation

The Years by Annie Ernaux (tr. Alison L. Strayer)

Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).

The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.

In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)

By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.

Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.

She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)

Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.

But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)

Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.

There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)

As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.

In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.

The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes.

The titles of these individual chapters mostly refer to various physical spaces – ‘On the Street’, ‘In the Piazza’, ‘At the Ticket Counter’, ‘By the Sea’ etc. Nevertheless, the novella is as much a reflection of the narrator’s emotional mindset as it is of her physical location. The Italian title Dove Mi Trove (‘where you find me’ or ‘where I find myself’), can be interpreted in two different but closely connected ways, encompassing the narrator’s situation physically and emotionally. While three chapters carry the title ‘In My Head’, explicitly referencing the narrator’s inner thoughts, this emotional dimension is detectible throughout the book, like a thread or undercurrent running through the text.

As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, avenues left unexplored or chances that were never taken.

Now and then on the streets of my neighbourhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap. (p. 5)

We learn about this woman’s childhood, the tensions that existed between her parents, the devastation she felt when her father died relatively suddenly some thirty years earlier – a loss that has left its mark on her life. While the narrator seems relatively comfortable with her solitary existence, knowing that she has chosen freedom and independence over a different type of path, there is a sense that she has disappointed her mother in some way – failing perhaps to live up to the traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood, the more expansive kind of life these experiences would have granted. Consequently, there is an unspoken sense of guilt or resignation in the narrator’s interactions with her mother – a somewhat oppressive elderly women who also lives alone.  

When I was young, even when my father was alive, she kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly. She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp. We were an unhealthy amalgam until I left to lead a life of my own. Was I the shield between her and her terror, was I the one who kept her from sinking into the abyss? Was it the fear of her fear that’s led me to a life like this? (pp. 29–30).

I love the way Lahiri uses this collection of fragments – there are around forty-five in total – to build up a picture of her narrator’s life, her emotional frame of mind and quotidian existence. As a result, we get the sense of a woman who is aware of her solitude – her aloneness – without feeling weighed down or oppressed by it. Someone who feels resigned to living a solitary life despite the odd regret or tinge of anxiety.

Occasionally, there are social situations she finds stressful – overwhelming, even – inducing a kind of claustrophobia alongside the feeling of exclusion. It’s a state that Lahiri eloquently captures in ‘By the Sea’, which features a celebratory dinner for the baptism of a colleague’s child – a situation that prompts the narrator to seek solace on the adjacent beach, complete with the sea in all its restless magnificence. At other times, however, she takes comfort from her sense of separateness when surrounded by others, sometimes forging unspoken connections with like-minded souls.

In ‘At My Home’, we see how protective she can be about her privacy and how violated she feels if someone invades it. When an old school friend and her new husband come to visit, the narrator finds the latter arrogant – a pompous, self-centred man who looks through the narrator’s bookshelves, eats all the best pastries and bemoans the untidy state of the city. Later, after the family’s departure, the narrator discovers that the couple’s toddler has drawn ‘a thin errant line’ in ballpoint pen on her white leather couch. It’s as if the visitors have left an indelible mark on the narrator’s privacy, a violation that proves impossible to erase or cover up. 

At heart, the protagonist is a people watcher, a consummate observer of others, often wondering about their lives, their current preoccupations and concerns, maybe even their desires. In one fragment, which appears towards the end of the novel, she sees a woman who seems to be very similar to herself – their clothes and body movements are virtually identical, mirroring one another in a ghostly sort of way. Who is this other woman? she wonders. An alter ego, perhaps? A more purposeful or determined version of herself? A figure with ‘a sprightly step’ who ‘clearly knows where she is going’.

Has she always lived here, like me? Or is she just visiting? If so, why? Is she meeting someone? Is it something for work? Is she going to visit her grandmother, a woman in a wheelchair who can no longer come downstairs and sit in the piazza? Is she a woman with millions of things to do? Is she anxious or carefree? Married or alone? Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? (p. 151)

It’s a passage that feels indicative of the slightly elusive nature of this central figure, conveying the air of mystery or privacy that surrounds her existence.

There is a luminosity to these vignettes, a beautiful dreamlike quality that runs through the text. Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world. This is a quietly reflective novella, the sort of book that benefits from close attention and the focus of a single-sitting reading. I’d love to see it on the longlist for the International Booker Prize, which will be announced next March.

Whereabouts is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti among others in the 1940s and 50s. Moreover, it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast, which she viewed as her spiritual home. In his excellent afterword to the novel, Sapienza’s husband, Angelo Pellegrino, conveys the history behind Meeting in Positano and his wife’s relationship with the region, offering us a window into the past. The novel was written in 1984 but failed to secure an Italian publisher until 2015, nearly twenty years after Sapienza’s death. All credit then to Other Press for issuing this radiant translation by Brian Robert Moore – it really is a very evocative read.

The novel, which is narrated by a young woman named Goliarda, has a semi-autobiographical feel, tapping into Sapienza’s world of 1950s Italy. During a visit to Positano, while scouting for locations for a film, Goliarda glimpses a beautiful woman, flitting around the café bars and restaurants of the village, holding onlookers in her sway. The woman in question is Erica Beneventano, known locally as ‘Princess Erica’, a charming widow from a (once) very wealthy family. While Goliarda doesn’t meet Erica in person during the trip, she remains captivated by this vision of loveliness, like a destiny she is yet to meet.

…that curious creature whom everyone in Positano loved—something already rare in and of itself—always fluttered at the edges of my imagination, like a meeting that I could not miss. (p. 15)

Sometime later, when Goliarda returns to Positano for a break, she comes across Erica on the beach, sparking a friendship that ultimately lasts for several years. Following their chance encounter on the beach, Erica invites Goliarda to her housea luxurious mansion with a secret bolt-holewhere the two women talk about culture, politics and art, the latter being a topic particularly close to Erica’s heart. Unsurprisingly, Goliarda is enchanted by her intelligent companion, leading to an intimate (although not explicitly sexual) bond between the two women.

Like that sunset or Giacomino’s personality, she too is eternal—with her timeless gesturing, her melancholy as old as the world itself. Or her beauty, which every hour is renewed and changes its appearance: sometimes a slightly withered flower, sometimes a soft cloud, or—as it is now—a beautiful, colourful orange, pulsing with a joy for life. (p. 78)

During their discussions, Erica shares with Goliarda the story of her rather eventful life, with Sapienza skilfully shifting her focus from one central character to another as the novel unfolds. Erica, it seems, is the middle sister of the Beneventano family, whose wealth and land were lost by the men of her father’s generation. Rewinding to the time of their parents’ deaths, we find the sisters have been left virtually penniless, necessitating their move to a small apartment in Milan, where Erica and her older sister Fiore must work to earn a living. Tragedy strikes when Fiore commits suicide, no longer able to cope with the narrowness of her life. It’s a development that acts as a clarifying filter for Erica, revealing the misguided nature of their previous highly privileged lives, cocooned from the realities of the outside world.

A reconciliation between Erica and her estranged Uncle Alessandro swiftly follows, ultimately resulting in her marriage to Alessandro’s business associate, Leopoldo; not out of love but for financial security, leaving Erica’s younger sister, Olivia, free to marry for more romantic reasons.

Erica reveals her previous experiences of love as largely unhappy ones, highlighting her marriage to Leopoldo as a prime example of this emotional state. To say anything more about the nature of the couple’s marriage would be unfair of me at this stage (I’ll leave you to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read this excellent book). Suffice it to say that the relationship contributes to the air of darkness surrounding Erica, a hint of something unsettling that Goliarda clearly detects. As Goliarda notes at one point, Erica seems distanced from those around hera sense of being dignified and deeply troubled at the same time.

As it so happens, I’m generally not shy with men or with women, so why this deranged feeling of uncertainty every time I see her? Is she too beautiful? Too full of passion? It’s fear, I conclude in a flash, remembering the near whiteness that gleaned from her eyes yesterday in front of the window. Am I afraid for her, or for myself? No, it’s for her that I fear something. (p. 32)

As the friendship between the two women evolves, Erica is reunited with Riccardo, her first love from the adolescent days of her youth. It’s another development that signals heartache for Ericaand ultimately for Goliarda, tooas events from the past come back to haunt her.

Sapienza has written a beautiful novel here, full of nostalgia and yearning for the enchantment of the past. It is at once a paean to the allure and intimacy of female friendship and a love letter to Positano itself, a village that exerts its pull over those who visit.   

“Positano can cure you of anything. It opens your eyes to your past suffering and illuminates your present ones, often saving you from making further mistakes. It’s strange, but sometimes I get the impression that this cove protected by the bastion of mountains at its back forces you to look at yourself square in the face, like a ‘mirror of truth,’ while this vast sea, usually so calm and clear, similarly inspires self-reflection…” (p. 130)

With its long sunsets, shimmering sea and rusted red cliffs, Positano is almost another character in the novel, casting a languorous spell over inhabitants and visitors alike. Again, there is a sense of the village exerting a kind of dominance or hold on people— ‘the more you solemnly announce your departure—the harder it becomes to leave’. As a former actress and a writer, Sapienza has a filmic eye for detail, conveying the Positanesi with ease and authenticity.

Giacomino Senior—legendary cook of Positano, who at ninety-five years old still basked on the sunny steps next to one of the large stone lions, at times looking like an in-the-flesh copy of those statues, especially when he’d doze off— (p. 9)

Her prose, too, is evocative and sensual, perfectly capturing the allure of Positano as the setting for this radiant narrative. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy. Meeting in Positano is a wonderfully elegiac book, full of subtlety and complexitythe more you read, the more profound it reveals itself to be.  

It’s also my first read for Meytal’s Women in Translation (#WITMonth) event, which takes place every Augustmore details about that here, along with my previous recommended reads for #WITMonth.

Spanish Lit Month – some reading recommendations for July

As some of you may know, July is Spanish Lit Month (#SpanishLitMonth), hosted by Stu at the Winstonsdad’s blog. It’s a month-long celebration of literature first published in the Spanish language – you can find out more about it here. In recent years, Stu and his sometimes co-host, Richard, have also included Portuguese literature in the mix, and that’s very much the case for 2021 too.

I’ve reviewed quite a few books that fall into the category of Spanish lit over the lifespan of this blog (although not so many of the Portuguese front). If you’re thinking of joining in and are looking for some ideas on what to read, here are a few of my favourites.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow Spanish Lit Month veteran, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This intriguing, elusive novella by the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, uses various different forms to examine a timeless story of love and misunderstandings. We hear accounts from three different individuals embroiled in a love triangle. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail – and we are never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists. Who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others? This is a thoughtful, mercurial novella to capture the soul.

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina McSweeney)

A beautiful collection of illuminating essays, several of which focus on locations, spaces and cities, and how these have evolved over time. Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle) as we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts. A gorgeous selection of pieces, shot through with a melancholy, philosophical tone.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another wonderful collection of short pieces – fiction this time – many of which focus on the everyday. Minor occurrences take on a greater level of significance; fleeting moments have the power to resonate and live long in the memory. These pieces are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed, highlighting situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. While Fraile’s focus is on the minutiae of everyday life, the stories themselves are far from ordinary – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play, one of my favourite pieces from this selection.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

My first Marías, and it remains a firm favourite. A man is stabbed to death in a shocking incident in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes an immersive meditation, touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. Those long, looping sentences are beguiling, pulling the reader into a shadowy world, where things are not quite what they seem on at first sight.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the pieces in this volume of forty-two stories, drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing – the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory as they progress. Several of them point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday, the sense of strangeness that lies hidden in the seemingly ordinary. Published by NYRB Classics, Thus Were Their Faces is an unusual, poetic collection of vignettes, many of which blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Best approached as a volume to dip into whenever you’re in the mood for something different and beguiling.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he previously spent in this city, trying to live the life of an aspiring writer – just like the one Ernest Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable FeastVila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’; and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during the month, possibly more if the event is extended into August, as in recent years.

Maybe you have plans of your own for Spanish Lit Month – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book, first published in Spanish or Portuguese? Feel free to mention it alongside any other comments below.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones)

Drive Your Plow… , the 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. I loved it.

Central to the narrative is Janina, a highly intelligent, idiosyncratic woman in her sixties who lives in a remote Polish village near the border with the Czech Republic. Janina – who narrates the novel – is a marvellous creation, the sort of woman who sees the world in a very particular way, standing up for what she believes in without being willing to compromise her intrinsic values. She invents names for everyone around her, eschewing the lacklustre nature of formal names in favour of more appropriate epithets that capture something fundamental about a person – typically a particular aspect of their appearance or personality. Consequently, we have characters named ‘Big Foot’, ‘Good News’ and ‘Black Coat’, to name but a few.

I believe each of us see the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names of the number of people with whom we interact. My name for Świerszczyński is Oddball, and I think it reflects his Attributes well. (p. 30)

In winter, there are only two other residents besides Janina who remain in this remote, snowbound area – Janina’s neighbour, Oddball, and one of the local hunters, Big Foot, whom Janina despises, the source of her hatred for this man ultimately revealing itself as the story unfolds.

One night, having noticed something strange about Big Foot’s house, Oddball discovers the hunter lying dead on the kitchen floor, so he calls on Janina for help. Even though Janina knows it is wrong to disturb a body before the police appear on the scene, Oddball insists on making it look more respectable, and it is during this process that the presence of a clue emerges. There is a bone lodged in Big Foot’s mouth, ‘long and thin and sharp as a dagger’.

At first, it appears as though Big Foot simply choked on the bone while eating his dinner; however, as Janina examines the contents of Big Foot’s kitchen, another theory begins to seed itself in her mind. On the windowsill she spots a deer’s head and four trotters, presumably the spoils of a kill that Big Foot had carried out before his death. Moreover, other deer are visible in the vicinity that night – Janina and Oddball see them clustered together outside Big Foot’s house on their approach.

What if the herd have taken revenge for the slaughter of their sister? Are animals seeking vengeance on the hunters of the district, striking back against the perpetrators of these inhuman acts? ‘Animals have a very strong sense of justice,’ Janina muses at one point – while humans merely have a view of the world, animals have an innate sense of it.

As other deaths swiftly follow, Janina becomes increasingly convinced that her theory holds water, particularly when deer prints are found near the body of the second victim – another hunter, the Commandant – who is found dead in a shallow well.

One of the many things that Tokarczuk highlights in this endlessly fascinating novel is the invisibility or dismissal of women, especially when they reach middle age. Janina writes impassioned letters to the local police, outlining her theories on the ‘murders’, which she backs up with supporting evidence, such as the deer prints and the alignment of the celestial planets. Astrology is a major area of interest for Janina, and her belief in its influence over our lives is fervent and unwavering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given society’s attitudes to ladies of a certain age, the police swiftly dismiss Janina as a nut job, a ‘crazy old crone’ with nothing better to do with herself. Would a young man or an attractive woman be treated differently, Janina wonders? Almost certainly, yes.

Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us. In the past, I was never aware of the existence and meaning of gestures such as rapidly giving assent, avoiding eye contact, and repeating ‘yes, yes, yes’ like clockwork. Or checking the time, or rubbing one’s nose – these days I fully understand this entire performance for expressing the simple phrase: ‘Give me a break, you old bag’. I have often wondered whether a strapping, handsome young man would be treated like that if he were to say the same things as I do? Or a buxom brunette? (pp. 38-39)

Central to the novel are issues of animal rights. Does man have a greater right to life than an animal? Where do animals sit in the hierarchy of society? Who sets these ‘rules’ and parameters, and are they correct? Who deems whether someone is useless or unimportant, and by what criteria?

Naturally, Janina is a fierce defender of animal rights – the belief that animals are just as important as her fellow humans, if not more so, is fundamental to her actions. As far as Janina is concerned, the way a society treats its animals speaks volumes about its values, potentially undermining any notions of justice or democracy.

‘You have more compassion for animals than for people.’

‘That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people,’ I told the City Guard that same evening. […]

‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a form of resolution to the mysterious deaths which feels satisfying and appropriate, especially given the novel’s inherent themes. Nevertheless, that’s far from being the most interesting thing on offer here. Alongside the moral and ethical issues of animal rights, Tokarczuk casts her eye over a myriad of fascinating subjects from the poetry of William Blake to the challenges of ageing to the frailties of the human body – ‘fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There’s no instruction manual.’

She also manages to fit in some time for a brief digression on one of the major failings of men, how several of them succumb to ‘testosterone autism’ as they age and regress. (For the interested, the major symptoms of this condition include: ‘a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication’, the development of an interest in various tools, machinery, WW2 and ‘the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains’. In parallel, the capacity to read novels almost entirely disappears.)

In summary then, Drive Your Plow… is a wonderful metaphysical noir, one that subverts the traditional expectations of the genre to create something truly thought-provoking and engaging. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the novel’s luminous quality and mood.

Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons. (p. 14)

Drive Your Plow… is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

Central to the first novella is Valentino, the much-fêted son of an impoverished family who have collectively sacrificed everything to invest in this young man’s education. The father, a retired school teacher, is convinced that Valentino is destined for great things, a belief borne out of a combination of pride and delusion. While the father dreams of a time when his son will be a famous doctor, Valentino himself is lazy, vain and self-absorbed, content to neglect his studies in favour of idle pursuits. It’s a situation typified by the following passage relayed by Caterina, the mild-mannered younger daughter of the family.

My father spent his days in the kitchen, dreaming and muttering to himself, fantasizing about the future when Valentino would be a famous doctor and attend medical congresses in the great capitals and discover new drugs and new diseases. Valentino himself seemed devoid of any ambition to become a man of consequence; in the house, he usually spent his time playing with a kitten or making toys for the caretaker’s children out of scraps of old material stuffed with sawdust… (p. 9)

One day, entirely out of the blue, Valentino announces his engagement to Maddalena, an older woman whose age and appearance cause consternation within the family. Gone are the teenage girlfriends of Valentino’s youth, only to be replaced by this unattractive yet wealthy woman whose looks are marred by her ‘hard, round eyes’ and noticeable facial hair. Catarina wonders how on earth she will explain the situation to her elder sister, Clara, who, despite being married with three children, still relies on her family for financial support.

It was not easy to explain to my sister Clara the turn that events had taken. That a woman had appeared with lashings of money and a moustache who was willing to pay for the privilege of marrying Valentino and that he had agreed; that he had left all the teenagers in berets behind him and was now shopping in town for sitting-room furniture with a woman who wore a sable coat. (p. 12)

Even though relations between Valentino’s mother and Maddalena are strained, the marriage goes ahead, prompting the family to get into debt over the wedding preparations – new clothes must be purchased to avoid losing face in front of Maddalena’s relatives, an expense Valentino’s father can ill afford. Unsurprisingly, Valentino remains largely blind to the impact of his actions on the rest of the family, preferring instead to squander Maddalena’s money on unnecessary luxuries.

When both her parents die in relatively quick succession, Caterina takes up residence with Valentino and Maddalena, promoting the story to take a couple of interesting turns – unexpected developments that would be unfair of me to reveal here. Ultimately though, we are left with a striking picture of Caterina, a young woman who has been taken for granted all her life, sacrificing her own happiness for her selfish, feckless brother; and yet, she manages to retain an underlying sense of loyalty to Valentino in spite of his many failings.

Interestingly, Sagittarius is also narrated by a daughter in a dysfunctional family; however, in this instance, it is the mother whose actions prove toxic and disruptive, rather than those of her children.

The narrator’s mother, whose name we never learn, is a bossy, self-absorbed widow who moves to the city in the hope of opening an art gallery frequented by cultured intellectuals. To help finance the move, the mother bullies her two sisters into a loan and then swiftly makes a nuisance of herself by interfering in the running of their china shop, much to the sisters’ dismay.

Her sisters dejectedly sought refuge in the stock-room, sighing as they listened to the imperious clatter of her high heels. Long familiarity had made words almost superfluous: a sigh told all. The two of them had been living together for more than twenty years in the dark, old shop frequented by a handful of regular customers, elderly ladies whom they regarded almost as friends and whom they would engage from time to time in little whispered conversations between the glove trays and the tea services. They were genteel and timid and dared not tell my mother that her presence disturbed and irritated them and that they were even a little ashamed of her, of her brusque manner and vulgar moth-eaten fur coat. (pp. 54–55)

Joining the mother in her new home in the suburbs are the narrator’s sister Giulia, who remains poorly following an earlier bout of scarlet fever, Giulia’s husband, Chaim Wesser, whom the mother dislikes intensely, a maid, Carmela, and a young relative, Constanza. While Chaim is a qualified doctor, he earns little in the city, lacking the resources to establish his own practice. The fact that Chaim is well-liked and caring counts for nothing in the eyes of his mother-in-law, a woman who has never considered him good enough for her daughter due to his lack of wealth and good looks.

With the possibility of acquiring a gallery seemingly out of reach, the mother considers herself to be the victim of some big injustice, choosing to blame others for the unfairness of the situation. Once again, Ginzburg captures the measure of this woman so effectively in her characteristically perceptive prose.

And when she compared her lively fantasies of the past with her monotonous existence, she felt herself to be the victim of some great injustice. She was unclear as to whom to blame for this injustice, but vaguely attributed it to her own lack of money, to Dr Wesser’s earning so little and to Giulia for having married him; and she became irritated with Carmela who was stupid and dirty and left her filthy aprons draped over the armchairs, and with Constanza who was extravagant with the jam, and with cousin Teresa who didn’t pay enough for her daughter’s keep. (p. 76)

Out of sheer desperation, the narrator’s mother latches onto a somewhat shabby woman named Scilla whom she meets at the hairdresser’s, viewing her as someone who might prove useful in the future. As luck would have it, Scilla appears willing to go into business with the mother, meaning those dreams of an art gallery or shop might finally come to fruition. However, there is something odd about Scilla, a nagging doubt that the narrator finds hard to figure out…

As with Ginzburg’s other novels, Voices in the Evening and Happiness, As Such, these stories rely heavily on family tensions, highlighting the chaos and destruction such relationships can provoke. Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward on the surface, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running through the text. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. There’s a wonderful darkly comic note to many of Ginzburg’s observations too; it’s there in the passage about Maddalena, the second quote in this piece. In summary, then, Valentino and Sagittarius form an excellent introduction to Natalia Ginzburg, a writer whose insights into the minor tragedies in everyday life are remarkably astute. For the interested, there is an excellent article about this writer here, published in The Guardian in 2019.

The Evenings by Gerard Reve (tr. Sam Garrett)

First published in the Netherlands in 1947, The Evenings is a difficult book to describe, so please bear with me while I endeavour to give it a go!

This brilliant, strangely compelling novel revolves around the life of Frits van Egters, a twenty-three-year-old office worker who lives at home with his parents in a small flat in Amsterdam. The story, such as it is, unfolds over the ten days leading up to New Year’s Eve in 1946, as Frits struggles to fill the interminable downtime that falls between Christmas and the New Year.

Frits is a master in the art of procrastination, content to fritter away great swathes of time in the act of thinking about something without actually doing it. At one point, he notes that now would be an excellent time to have a tidy-up, only to spend the next couple of hours doing nothing in particular. Similarly, a pause to look at a newspaper becomes two hours staring out of the living-room window – not a word is read during this interlude on a sleepy Sunday morning.

“I just sit here and sit here and don’t do a thing,” he thought. “The day’s half over.” It was a quarter past twelve. (p. 14)

For Frits, the atmosphere at home is severely strained, dictated as it is by relations with his parents. While Mother tries to maintain some semblance of order around the flat, her tendency to fuss and prattle on leaves Frits in a perpetual state of irritation. The situation is compounded by the predictable nature of her conversation, so predictable in fact that Frits takes a kind of perverse delight in goading or prompting his mother down a particular path, just to provoke the expected response. In this scene, Frits has cajoled Mother into looking for the previous day’s newspaper, knowing full well that Father is currently reading it.

“Well, Mother,” he said, “it’s not here on the table. If you think that I am incapable of searching, why don’t you try?” “It’s as though the two of you were morons, as though no one in this house has any sense,” she said. “Don’t you two have eyes in your head?” What’s all this screaming?” his father asked. “Nothing,” Frits said, “there is no conflict whatsoever. It is a friendly debate. Later on there will be an opportunity for you to pose a few questions.” (p. 269)

Father is another source of exasperation for young Frits, courtesy of his dodgy hearing and annoying personal habits. ‘Fire a cannon beside his ear for a joke, he’ll ask if there’s someone at the door,’ Frits muses at one point as he ponders his father’s deafness. Other regular irritations include breaking wind, slurping while drinking and asking Frits whether he has anything new and interesting to report on his return from work. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before something awful happens to Mr and Mrs van Egters, as Frits half-jokingly remarks to his friend Viktor.

“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that. So why hasn’t it happened yet? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.” (p. 120)

Frits is equally provocative, if not more so, when in the company of his friends. (The trouble is, people never quite know whether he’s kidding or being serious.) Baldness is something of a preoccupation for Frits, and he proceeds to point it out in others at every possible opportunity. There are multiple examples in the book, not least in the gleeful taunts Frits throws at his brother, Joop, when he drops by for a visit.

Early death or degradation is another running theme, frequently cropping up in Frits’ dreams and conversations, steadily infusing the narrative with a palpable sense of bleakness. While some of Frits’ friends find his disturbing jibes somewhat uncomfortable, others know he is only joking, responding with their own equally controversial comments. There is a seam of mordant wit running through this novel, an air of gallows humour that permeates throughout. (It is worth recalling at this point that The Evenings was published just two years after the end of WW2, and while the war is barely mentioned explicitly, the sense of darkness clearly remains.)   

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way Reve give us access to Frits’ thoughts alongside his speech, so while Frits often seems to be engaging in fairly banal conversation – typically with his parents – the running commentary on what is going on in his head tells a very different story. While some of these inner thoughts are peppered with dry humour, others are imbued with a feeling of desperation, a kind of existential angst that typifies Frits’ existence.

Suddenly the kettle began singing in the kitchen. “Make that noise stop,” he thought, “for God’s sake, make it stop.” (p. 20)

As Frits tries to make it through the evenings without killing someone or losing his mind, life goes on in the van Egters household. There are bland meals to be cooked, coal to be fetched, fires to be lit, keys to be found and the radio to be turned on and off (a particular bone of contention between Frits and his father). The way Reve manages to make the mundane feel stealthily compelling is an art form unto itself.  

A few minutes later his mother came in with the dishes. “I’m going to Bep Spanjaard’s,” he said, “and from there we’re going to a midnight showing at The Lantern, at eleven thirty.” “What time will you come home then, for God’s sake?” she asked. “It will probably be around two o’clock,” he replied, “be sure not to bolt the door.” “One of these days you’ll go completely mad,” she said. “True,” Frits said, “I am already moving in that direction, by leaps and bounds. But don’t tell anyone.” (p. 224)

As the novel moves towards its undeniable conclusion – a New Year’s Eve that Frits seems destined to spend with his parents – there is a growing sense of dread. A fitting note, perhaps, for an evening that often seems like an anti-climax, such is the pressure to enjoy oneself irrespective of circumstances. There is a marvellous scene in which Frits’ mother produces a bottle of apple-berry cordial, thinking it is fruit wine, while a ‘non-stop programme of Hawaiian melodies’ plays out on the wireless. Needless to say, the evening is excruciating, all the more so for Frits, who is desperate just to get through it.   

In summary then, The Evenings is an excellent novel, by turns savage, hilarious, poignant and biting.  Who knew that a narrative about the mundanities of everyday life, the interminable passing of time and our endeavours to idle away the hours, could be so darkly comic and oddly touching? Bravo to Pushkin Press and the translator Sam Garrett for rescuing Reve’s text from obscurity and publishing the first English translation in 2016. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.)

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the futility of Frits’ life. Perhaps we are all just shuffling paper, taking cards out of a file and putting them back again to little or no avail, steadily dispensing with the days until our time on this planet is over…

“I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.” (pp. 53–54)

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the collection conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. It’s a powerful and evocative read, enhanced considerably by Ortese’s wonderfully expressive style.

Evening begins with three fictional pieces – the first of which is A Pair of Eyeglasses, an excellent story in which a young girl, Eugenia, is eagerly anticipating her first pair of glasses. Eugenia lives with her parents, spinster aunt and two younger siblings in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. Partly in return for their basement-level accommodation, Eugenia’s parents are at the beck and call of the Marchesa, the rather demanding and thoughtless owner of the dwelling, who thinks nothing of doling out casual put-downs at various opportunities.

Ortese skilfully captures the inherent spirit of the neighbourhood, complete with a multitude of vivid sights and animated sounds.

When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. (p. 22)

Nevertheless, it’s an environment that Eugenia is unable to see clearly, particularly as she is virtually blind. Only with the aid of glasses is the true horror of the environment revealed – an experience Eugenia finds utterly overwhelming, shattering her previous perceptions of life in the bustling courtyard.

…the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. (p. 33)

The contrast here is particularly striking, pitting Eugenia’s blurred, almost rose-tinted impressions of her surroundings against the brutal reality of the situation. It’s a memorable story, effectively setting the tone for the collection as a whole.

In Family Interior – probably my favourite of the three stories – we meet Anastasia Finizio, a successful shop owner, who has worked tirelessly to support her mother, spinster aunt and younger siblings for several years. At thirty-nine, Anastasia is vaguely aware that her life is slipping by – a realisation brought into sharp relief when she hears news of the return of Antonio, a man from her youth. This development rekindles dormant feelings within Anastasia, prompting her to dream of the kind of life she might have had – and may still to be to have? – with Antonio.

What Ortese does so well here is to convey the power dynamics within the family, particularly in relation to Anastasia’s mother who sees the danger in any disruption to the present equilibrium.

It seemed to Signora Finizio, sometimes that Anastasia wasted time in futile things, but she didn’t dare to protest openly, for it appeared to her that the sort of sleep in which her daughter was sunk, and which allowed them all to live and expand peacefully, might at any moment, for a trifle, break. She had no liking for Anastasia (her beloved was Anna), but she valued her energy and, with It, her docility, that practical spirit joined to such resigned coldness. (p. 48)

In truth, Signora Finizio is a selfish woman, one who takes a perverse satisfaction in hurting Anastasia – effectively humiliating her to keep everything in check. It’s an excellent story, subtle and nuanced in its exploration of Anastasia’s position, highlighting the tension between familial responsibility and personal freedom.

After The Gold of Forcella – a vividly-realised story of a pawnshop in the heart of Naples – the focus shifts to non-fiction pieces, essentially conveyed in a reportage style. The Involuntary City is the most powerful essay in this section – a candid account of Ortese’s visits to Granili III and IV, a sprawling shelter for those made homeless by the devastation of war. Initially intended to be a temporary solution for the displaced and dispossessed, The Granili is ‘home’ to some 3,000 individuals (approximately 570 families), with an average of three families per individual room. The conditions are horrific – damp, cramped and filthy – particularly on the lower floors of the building where the most impoverished residents are housed.

In a few homes someone was cooking: smoke, which had the density of a blue body, escaped from some doors, yellow flames could be glimpsed inside, the black faces of people squatting, holding a bowl on their knees. In other rooms, instead, everything was motionless, as if life had become petrified; men still in bed turned under grey blankets, women were absorbed in combing their hair, in the enchanted slow motion of those who do not know what will be, afterward, the other occupation of their day. The entire ground floor, and the first floor to which we were ascending, were in these conditions of depressed inertia. (pp. 86-87)

There is a sense of desperation about the existence in these squalid, smoke-ridden conditions, almost as if the building’s lower echelons are representative of a race’s demise following the destructive impact of war.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a form of class structure has developed within the Granili, separating the displaced into different social strata, largely according to status. Some of those on the higher floors have jobs – consequently their days are structured, and this sense of order tends to be reflected in the immediate surroundings. In short, these individuals have adapted to reduced circumstances without giving up their sense of decorum. Nevertheless, there is a widespread understanding of the precarious nature of this situation. On occasions a random stroke of bad luck, such as an illness or the loss of a job, will force someone on the third floor to give up their lodgings and descend to a lower one, usually to move in with another family member. For the most part, these people are destined to remain in their relegated positions, despite harbouring hopes of regaining their previous status.

In the final section of the book, Ortese recounts a series of journeys to visit former colleagues from Sud, the avant-garde cultural magazine where she worked in the late ‘40s. There is a melancholy, elegiac tone running through these pieces, a sense of alienation from those who have become indifferent or embittered.

In summary, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a fascinating collection that blurs the margins between fiction and reportage to paint a striking vision of post-war Naples, vividly capturing the city’s resilience in the face of poverty, suffering and corruption. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

The collection comes with an excellent introduction by the translators which outlines the reactions to Ortese’s candid (and sometimes brutal) vision of Naples following the book’s initial publication – the author was subsequently banned from the city for several years. Also included is the preface from the 1994 reissue, in which Ortese reflects on how her disoriented state of mind may have influenced her picture of post-war Naples, as captured in the original book.

In short, this is very highly recommended indeed – particularly for fans of Elena Ferrante, who has cited Ortese as a key influence on her work. My thanks to Pushkin Press and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

First published in German in 2018, Twelve Nights is the first work by the Swiss writer Urs Faes to be translated into English. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric novella set in the midst of the Black Forest during the dark, eerie period between Christmas and Twelfth Night. A lovely wintry read, exquisitely produced by Harvill Secker as part of their ‘Leopard’ series of translated literature. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.)

As the book opens, Manfred is trekking through the snow, returning to the village of his youth after an absence of forty years. A longstanding feud exists between Manfred and his younger brother, Sebastian, who effectively inherited the family farm back then, despite his lack of aptitude or training for the role.

At the time, Manfred felt betrayed by his parents’ and brother’s actions, prompting a dreadful act of revenge which still haunts him to this day. Also relevant here is Minna, the love of Manfred’s life, who went on to marry Sebastian as a consequence of this sequence of events. Minna is no longer alive; but once again, her presence hangs heavy over Manfred as he seeks some kind of redemption – ideally a reconciliation – with his brother.

There is a timeless feel to this haunting, dreamlike novel that draws on elements of folklore and superstition to augment the shadowy atmosphere. The period between Christmas and Epiphany is rumoured to be one of peril, where dark forces and spectral figures have the potential to usher in disaster. As Manfred makes his way across the landscape, he is reminded of his mother and her time-honoured rituals for banishing evil spirits.

She would put juniper berries in the incense burner, adding fir and spruce needles, an activity that seemed to calm her, as though it gave her stability and certainty. No misfortune could strike her then, neither her nor her family (p.8)

Underpinning the narrative are themes of loss, regret, and the possibility of reconciliation. While the overall tone is nostalgic and melancholy, there are glimmers of hope amidst the heartache as Manfred hopes to reconnect with his brother.

The prose is spare yet evocative, perfectly capturing the magic of the natural world at the mid-point in the season.

Outside, through the window, the snow was falling once more, in dense flakes on this early evening; a creeping dusk blurred the contours, turning the trees into wizened forms, the stream to a taffeta-grey ribbon, the farmhouses to shadowy distorting mirrors. The street could no longer be seen in the leaden gloom, which was tinged blue towards the forest, black down into the ravine. (p. 11)

This is a wonderfully atmospheric read for a dark winter’s night, one that will likely resonate with anyone who has loved and lost at some point in their life. There is a degree of ambiguity to the ending that might frustrate some readers, particularly those who like a tidy resolution to events; nevertheless, the mood conveyed in the story is likely to endure.

Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

Last August, for Women in Translation Month, I read Voices in the Evening (1961), an episodic, vignette-style novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s one four books by this writer recently reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books (you can find more details here). While Happiness, As Such is a later novel than Voices, it explores similar themes – centred as it is on the lives and loves of the members of an Italian family in the mid-20th century. If anything, I think it’s an even stronger (better integrated?) work than Voices. Nevertheless, both books are well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the messy business of families and the insights into humanity novels can offer us.

Set in the early 1970s, Happiness, As Such takes the form of a series of letters interspersed with brief passages of exposition written in the third person. Central to the novel is Michele, the grown-up son of an Italian family, his parents having separated some years earlier. Michele – who appears to have been actively involved in politics – has fled to England leaving several loose ends in his wake. His mother, Adriana, writes letters to her son, berating him for various things – not least the fact that his former lover, Mara Martorelli, has turned up with a son who may or may not be his. The default tone of these letters is passive-aggressive, highlighting Adriana’s disenchantment with her former husband as well as her son.

If this Martorelli baby is yours, what will you do, you don’t know how to do anything. You didn’t finish school did you. I don’t think your paintings of owls and falling-down buildings are that good. Your father says they are and that I don’t understand painting. They look to me like the paintings your father did when he was young, but not as good. I don’t know. Please tell me what I should say to this Martorelli and if I need to send her money. She hasn’t asked but I’m sure that’s what she wants. (pp. 8–9)

Mara for her part is a bit of a mess – careless, unreliable and promiscuous, she flits from one place to another, unable to settle or establish any degree of stability.

When Michele needs to call in various favours, he writes to Angelica, his long-suffering sister and closest confidante within the family. At various points in the narrative, there are books to be sent, papers to be procured and guns to be disposed of – the later adding to the possibility that Michele’s disappearance may well have been politically motivated.

Also in the mix is Osvaldo, Michele’s close friend and possibly lover – there several reflections on the ambiguity surrounding Osvaldo’s sexuality throughout the book. Through his relationship with Michele, Osvaldo is drawn into the extended family, supporting Mara by finding her a job and a place to live, neither of which last very long due to Mara’s inherent fickleness and instability. Furthermore, Osvaldo proves himself to be a strange kind of comfort for Adriana when her former husband dies, particularly as Michele fails to return home for his father’s funeral.

Like Voices, Happiness, As Such can be though of as a novel of tensions – in this case between former lovers and the different generations of an extended family. On the surface, Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running underneath. Evasion, resentment, grief, spitefulness, confession and compassion all come together to form a richly textured, multi-faceted narrative. Moreover, the nature of the largely epistolary form means that many of the novel’s key incidents and conversations take place outside of the letters, requiring us to read between the lines of the various missives to piece together a more nuanced picture of the family dynamics.

While Ginzburg’s tone is often very amusing – there is a wonderfully rich vein of wry humour running through the book – the impression we are left with is one of palpable melancholy. There is a sense that we are all fragile and at risk of finding ourselves stuck in a form of stasis, unable to break free without assistance.

[Letter from Angelical to Michele:] Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back. (p. 153)

At the heart of the book are various reflections on happiness, particularly the idea that we may not be cognisant of this feeling as and when it is happening to us. Happiness is often fleeting and best appreciated in retrospect when we can look back on events from a distance. In other words, ‘we rarely recognise the happy moments while we’re living them. We usually only recognise them with the distance of time.’

In creating Happiness, As Such, Ginzburg has crafted a beautiful, wryly humorous, deeply melancholy novel of family relationships. Her characters are complex, flawed and nuanced – qualities that make them feel real and humane as they navigate the difficulties of family life. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates something of the book’s biting humour as Adriana passes judgement on her sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Cecilia, following the death of their brother, Michele’s father.

[Letter from Adriana to Michele:] Your father left you a series of paintings, the ones he did between 1945 in 1955, and the Via San Sebastianello house, and the tower. I get the impression your sisters are going to come out of this with much less than you. They’ll get those properties near Spoleto, many of which have been sold off, but there are some left. Matilde and Cecilia are going to get a piece of furniture, that baroque, Piedmontese credenza. Matilde immediately observed that Cecilia gets the better end of that deal because Matilde wouldn’t know what to do with a credenza. Can you just imagine. What joy will half-blind, decrepit Cecilia get from a credenza? (pp. 94–95)

My thanks to the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).