Tag Archives: Non-fiction

The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Dick Davis)

I have written before about my love of Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction – most recently, All Our Yesterdays, a rich, multilayered novel of family life spanning the duration of WW2. The Little Virtues is a volume of Ginzburg’s essays, and what a marvellous collection it is – erudite, intelligent and full of the wisdom of life. Ginzburg wrote these pieces individually between 1944 and 1962, and many were published in Italian journals before being collected here. In her characteristically lucid prose, Ginzburg writes of families and friendships, of virtues and parenthood, and of writing and relationships. I adored this beautiful, luminous collection of essays, a certainty for my end-of-year highlights even though we’re only in January – it really is that good.

In the opening essay, ‘Winter in the Abruzzi’ (1944), Ginzburg describes the time she and her family spent living in exile in a village in Abruzzo during the Second World War. It’s a poignant, melancholy piece, particularly given what happens to Natalia’s husband, Leone – a Jewish anti-fascist activist – at the hands of the authorities.

There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realised and as soon as we see them betrayed we realise that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by. (pp. 12–13)

This palpable sense of melancholy is carried through to ‘Portrait of a Friend’ (1957) as Ginzburg reflects on her home city, the city of her youth, a place haunted by ‘memories and shadows’. Here she likens the area to an old friend, a poet who is now deceased.

Written in the immediate aftermath of war, ‘The Son of Man’ (1946) develops these themes further, with Ginzburg conveying how her generation — effectively the fugitives of war — will never feel safe in their homes again, where a knock in the middle of the night will almost certainly instil fear in the soul. In essence, the war has exposed a brutal truth, the darkest, ugliest sides of humanity in all their horror and cruelty. There’s a sense that the young have had to find a new strength or toughness to face the realities of life, something different from the previous generation – and hopefully the one to come. It’s a mindset that has led to a gulf between Ginzburg’s generation and that of her parents, especially in their respective approaches to parenthood.

They would like our children to play with woolly toys in pretty pink rooms with little trees and rabbits painted on the walls. They would like us to surround their infancy with veils and lies, and carefully hide the truth of things from them. But we cannot do this. We cannot do this to children whom we have woken in the middle of the night and tremblingly dressed in the darkness so that we could flee with them or hide them… (p. 83)

In ‘England: Eulogy and Lament’ (1961), the author relays her impressions of England and its people – a nation whose characteristics she documents with the directness of an outsider.

To Ginzburg, England is a civilised country, well governed and organised, serious and conventional, gloomy and dull, with occasional glimpses of beauty amid a largely homogenous environment. Many of these qualities are reflected in how the English dress – a style showing little imagination or individuality with the majority dressing alike. For women, the norm seems to be ‘beige or transparent plastic raincoats which look like shower curtains or tablecloths’, while businessmen opt for pinstripe trousers and black bowler hats. Moreover, Ginzburg is adept at capturing the demeanour of the English, how in conversation, they tend to stick to the superficialities of life (such as the weather and other banalities) to avoid causing others offence.

I couldn’t help but raise an ironic eyebrow at some Of Ginzburg’s observations about England’s principles. Oh, how this country has changed from the version portrayed here – in some areas for the better, in others for the worse!

It [England] is a country which has always shown itself ready to welcome foreigners, from very diverse communities, without I think oppressing them. (p. 36)

In ‘My Vocation’ (1949), one of my favourite pieces in this collection, Ginzburg traces her approach to writing over the arc of her creative life, from composing juvenile poems and stories in childhood to her maturity as a writer of the female experience in adulthood. It’s a fascinating piece detailing how her relationship with writing has changed through adolescence, marriage and motherhood. This beautiful, thoughtful essay also captures how the tenor of Ginzburg’s work is affected by her mood, especially the balance between her use of memory vs imagination.

When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality. Suffering makes the imagination weak and lazy; it moves, but unwillingly and heavily, with the weak movements of someone who is ill… (p.104)

Here, along with several other articles in this collection, we get the sense Ginzburg approaches her subjects obliquely or at an angle. In short, by writing about one aspect of a topic, she triggers reverberations elsewhere – like an echo amid the landscape or stone skimmed across a pool – adding a broader resonance to her insights beyond their immediate sphere or focus.

‘Human Relationships’ (1953) is another piece that follows a timeline, tracing the nature of our relationships with others from childhood and adolescence to adulthood and parenthood. Ginzburg is adept at capturing how the subtleties of our interactions change as we move through each of these phases. As our values, needs and priorities shift, so do our thoughts and emotions, frequently manifesting themselves in our attachments to others. While all stages are brilliantly conveyed, Ginzburg writes especially well about the mysteries of the adult world from a child’s point of view, highlighting the joys and anxieties that consume us at this age. In addition, her reflections on finding a life partner in adulthood are just as insightful and beautifully expressed.

After many years, only after many years, after a thick web of habits, memories and violent differences has been woven between us, we at last realise that he is, in truth, the right person for us, that we could not have put up with anyone else, that it is only from him that we can ask everything that the heart needs. (p. 141)

Central to some of these essays are our relationships with others. In ‘He and I’ (1962), Ginzburg describes the relationship with her partner in terms of their many differences, from their personalities and character traits to their interests and pursuits. It’s a beautifully written piece, tinged with touches of poignancy, especially towards the end.

Finally, in the titular essay from 1960, Ginzburg sets out her approach to parenthood, arguing that we should put more weight behind the ‘great virtues’ of life, several of which spring from instinct, and less on the ‘little virtues’, typically born from a defensive spirit of self-preservation.

As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know. (p. 151)

Moreover, she argues that by focusing too much on the little virtues, parents are in danger of fostering a sense of ‘cynicism or fear of life’ amongst their children, particularly if the great virtues are missing or downplayed.

While we might not necessarily agree with everything Ginzburg sets out in her essays, there is no denying her commitment to these principles and the reasoning behind them. There is so much wisdom and intelligence to be found in these pieces.  A fascinating collection to savour and revisit, a keeper for the bedside table as a balm for the soul.

The Little Virtues is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Books of the year 2022, my favourites from a year of reading – recently published books

2022 has been another excellent year of reading for me. I’ve read some superb books over the past twelve months, the best of which feature in my reading highlights.

Just like last year, I’m spreading my books of the year across two posts – ‘recently published’ titles in this first piece, with older books (including reissues) to follow next week. Hopefully, some of you might find this list of contemporary favourites useful for last-minute Christmas gifts.

As many of you know, most of my reading comes from books first published in the mid-20th century. But this year, I’ve tried to read a few more newish books – a mixture of contemporary fiction and one or two memoirs/biographies. So, my books-of-the-year posts will reflect this mix. (I’m still reading more backlisted titles than new ones, but the contemporary books I chose to read this year were very good indeed. I’m also being quite liberal with my definition of ‘recently published’ as a few of my favourites first came out in their original language 10-15 years ago.)

Anyway, enough of the preamble! Here are my favourite recently published books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the books I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but you can find my full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Like many readers, I’ve been knocked sideways by Claire Keegan this year. She writes beautifully about elements of Ireland’s troubled social history with a rare combination of delicacy and precision; her ability to compress big themes into slim, jewel-like novellas is second to none. Set in small-town Ireland in the run-up to Christmas 1985, Small Things is a deeply moving story about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Probably the most exquisite, perfectly-formed novella I read this year – not a word wasted or out of place.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Another very impactful, remarkably assured novella, especially for a debut. (I’m excited to see what Natasha Brown produces next!) Narrated by an unnamed black British woman working in a London-based financial firm, this striking book has much to say about many vital sociopolitical issues. Toxic masculinity, the shallowness of workplace diversity programmes, the pressure for people of colour to assimilate into a predominantly white society, and the social constructs perpetuating Britain’s damaging colonial history – they’re all explored here. I found it urgent and illuminating – a remarkable insight into how it must feel to be a young black woman in the superficially liberal sectors of society today.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell

Last year, Lucy Caldwell made my 2021 reading highlights with Intimacies, her nuanced collection of stories about motherhood, womanhood and life-changing moments. This year she’s back with These Days, an immersive portrayal of the WW2 bombing raids in the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of a fictional middle-class family. What Caldwell does so well here is to make us care about her characters, ensuring we feel invested in their respective hopes and dreams, their anxieties and concerns. It’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes her portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting to read. A lyrical, exquisitely-written novel from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

At first sight, the story being conveyed in Cold Enough for Snow seems relatively straightforward – a mother and her adult daughter reconnect to spend some time together in Japan. Nevertheless, this narrative is wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface, yet harbouring fascinating hidden depths within, a combination that gives the book a spectral, enigmatic quality, cutting deep into the soul. Au excels in conveying the ambiguous nature of memory, how our perceptions of events can evolve over time – sometimes fading to a feeling or impression, other times morphing into something else entirely, altered perhaps by our own wishes and desires. A meditative, dreamlike novella from a writer to watch.

Foster by Claire Keegan

I make no apologies for a second mention of Claire Keegan – she really is that good! As Foster opens, a young girl from Clonegal in Ireland’s County Carlow is being driven to Wexford by her father. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple has chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home. Keegan’s sublime novella shows how the girl blossoms under the care of her new family through a story that explores kindness, compassion, nurturing and acceptance from a child’s point of view.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve read a few of Ernaux’s books over the past 18 months, and Happening is probably the pick of the bunch (with Simple Passion a very close second). In essence, it’s an account of Ernaux’s personal experiences of an illegal abortion in the early ‘60s when she was in her early twenties – her quest to secure it, what took place during the procedure and the days that followed, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just unflinchingly honest reflections on a topic that remains controversial today. A really important book that deserves to be widely read, even though the subject matter is so raw and challenging.

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

I adored this haunting, beautifully-crafted story of love, trauma, and the creation of art, all set against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic. Hall’s novel explores some powerful existential themes. How do we live with the knowledge that one day we will die? How do we prepare for the inevitable without allowing it to consume us? And what do we wish to leave behind as a legacy of our existence? Intertwined with these big questions is the role of creativity in a time of crisis – the importance of art in the wake of trauma, both individual and collective. In Burntcoat, Sarah Hall has created something vital and vivid, capturing the fragile relationship between life and death – not a ‘pandemic’ novel as such, but a story where a deadly virus plays its part.

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

When we hear the word ‘flâneur’, we probably think of some well-to-do chap nonchalantly wandering the streets of 19th-century Paris, idling away his time in cafés and bars, casually watching the inhabitants of the city at work and play. Irrespective of the specific figure we have in mind, the flâneur is almost certainly a man. In this fascinating bookthe critically-acclaimed writer and translator Lauren Elkin shows us another side of this subject, highlighting the existence of the female equivalent, the eponymous flâneuse. Through a captivating combination of memoir, social history and cultural studies/criticism, Elkin walks us through several examples of notable flâneuses down the years, demonstrating that the joy of traversing the city has been shared by men and women alike. A thoughtful, erudite, fascinating book, written in a style that I found thoroughly engaging.

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

First published in Chile in 2013, this memorable, shapeshifting novella paints a haunting portrait of a generation of children exposed to the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s – a time of deep oppression and unease. The book focuses on a close-knit group of young adults who were at school together during the ‘80s and are now haunted by a jumble of disturbing dreams interspersed with shards of unsettling memories – suppressed during childhood but crying out to be dealt with now. Collectively, these striking fragments form a kind of literary collage, a powerful collective memory of the group’s absent classmate, Estrella, whose father was a leading figure in the State Police. Fernandez adopts a fascinating combination of form and structure for her book, using the Space Invaders game as both a framework and a metaphor for conveying the story. An impressive achievement by a talented writer – definitely someone to watch.

The Colony by Audrey Magee

Set on a small, unnamed island to the west of Ireland during the Troubles, The Colony focuses on four generations of the same family, highlighting the turmoil caused when two very different outsiders arrive for the summer. Something Magee does so brilliantly here is to move the point-of-view around from one character to another – often within the same paragraph or sentence – showing us the richness of each person’s inner life, despite the limited nature of their existence. In essence, the novel is a thought-provoking exploration of the damaging effects of colonisation – touching on issues including the acquisition of property, the demise of traditional languages and ways of living, cultural appropriation and, perhaps most importantly, who holds the balance of power in this isolated society. I found it timely, thoughtful and utterly compelling – very highly recommended indeed.   

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Another excellent novel set during the Troubles, Trespasses is a quietly devastating book, steeped in the tensions of a country divided by fierce sectarian loyalties. It’s also quite a difficult one to summarise in a couple of sentences – at once both an achingly tender story of an illicit love affair and a vivid exploration of the complex network of divisions that can emerge in highly-charged communities. The narrative revolves around Cushla, a young primary teacher at a local Catholic school, and her married lover, Michael, a Protestant barrister in his early fifties. Here we see ordinary people living in extraordinary times, buffeted by a history of violence that can erupt at any moment. I loved this beautifully-written, immersive page-turner – it’s probably one of my top three books of the year.

Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

In Dandelions, the Italian-born editor and writer Thea Lenarduzzi has given us a gorgeous, meditative blend of family memoir, political and socioeconomic history, and personal reflections on migration between Italy and the UK. Partly crafted from discussions between Thea and her paternal grandmother, Dirce, the book spans four generations of Lenarduzzi’s family, moving backwards and forwards in time – and between Italy and England – threading together various stories and vignettes that span the 20th century. In doing so, a multilayered portrayal of Thea’s family emerges, placed in the context of Italy’s sociopolitical history and economic challenges. Another book I adored – both for its themes and the sheer beauty of Lenarduzzi’s prose.

So that’s it for my favourite ‘recently published’ titles from a year of reading – I’d love to hear your thoughts below. Do join me again next week when I’ll be sharing the best older books I read this year with plenty of literary treasures still to come!

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute by Lauren Elkin

Earlier this year, I read and loved Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s fascinating exploration of notable flâneuses down the years, a book that celebrates various women walkers in touch with their cities. Elkin’s latest book, No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute, shares something with its predecessor – a curiosity and a sense of engagement with the inhabitants of a metropolis.

From September 2014 to May 2015, while teaching at a Paris university, Elkin jotted down various notes during her twice-weekly bus journeys to and from work (the numbers 91 and 92 refer to the bus routes she used). These diary-style entries are presented in No. 91/92 with very few edits, preserving the spontaneous, unfiltered feel of Elkin’s impressions. The initial aim was for Elkin to observe her surroundings from the position of a commuter, using her phone to note these thoughts and observations; however, as the project progressed, a more personal record emerged – something I’ll return to later in this review.

Elkin openly acknowledges a debt to Georges Perec here. His book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (a collection of observations which Perec wrote as he sat in a café in Saint-Sulpice Square for three days in 1974), is clearly a touchtone for Elkin, as is the work of Annie Ernaux. Like Perec, Elkin is interested in capturing the regular rhythms of everyday life – not the big dramatic events or occurrences, but the small micro-observations that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The individual entries vary in length from just a few sentences (often unpunctuated) to a couple of paragraphs – few vignettes extend over a page. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elkin’s fellow commuters feature heavily in these notes, highlighting a sense of curiosity about other people’s lives and the stories we imagine from the clues and hints we can see.

I clamber into a seat and move aside the coat of the man sitting next to me to keep from sitting on it. Excusez-moi I say politely. I have a headache. He is wearing too much cologne. When this man gets off the bus I notice his head is completely bald under his blue woolen beanie. Not the kind of bald that comes naturally for some men with age. I don’t know how I know he’s been sick, it’s just something I feel I know. (p. 17)

Some passages are playful, almost like flash non-fiction or poetry, often demonstrating a sharp sense of wit.

Blue tutu Chanel bag fake lashes girl you look amazing. (p. 35)

Your glittery sandals are awful but the rest of your outfit is good. (p. 27)

Occasional flashes of anger and frustration burst through, especially in Elkin’s observations of other commuters’ treatment of their fellow passengers, particularly women. Bus etiquette and common codes of courtesy feature regularly in these notes. For instance, the reluctance of some passengers to slide over to an adjacent window seat when another person wishes to sit, forcing the latter to clamber over them to reach the unoccupied space.

When Elkin falls pregnant, she starts noticing different things on her journeys, such as the practicalities of getting on and off the bus with toddlers in strollers, what children do on the bus, and how pregnant women are treated – sometimes very poorly.

A pregnant woman tries to get on but another woman nearly throws her off the step in her hurry to get on the bus first. She finally makes it on but the only open seat is inhabited by a woman’s bag. The pregnant woman is able to make her move it but only with effort. The woman thinks her bag needs her seat more than a woman with a soccer ball for a stomach. (p. 82)

It’s a revealing picture, highlighting how, in our rush to save time, we often lose sight of general pleasantries towards others, especially those who may be more vulnerable or fragile than ourselves.

As the diary progresses, the tone changes somewhat as we realise both Elkin and the city of Paris are dealing with the fallout from loss. For Elkin, it is the loss of an unborn child due to an ectopic pregnancy, an experience that leaves her feeling shattered – both physically and emotionally.

The days have come apart. I don’t leave the bed. Don’t use my phone except to write this. Check email on my laptop. I can’t answer any messages though people send nice ones.

I watch television, I lose myself in other people’s plot lines, I watch people who exist pretend to be people who don’t exist. (p. 101)

For Paris, it’s the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices which prompts the city’s inhabitants to reflect – an incident that ultimately leads to twelve deaths and the injury of several others. As Parisians try to process the impact of the attack, a delicate balance emerges. While most people feel anxious, as if their world has shifted in some terrible, uncontrollable way, this is balanced by a sense of defiance, a necessity to carry on as normal to get through the days.

20/01/15

Tuesday morning

We’re all thinking the same thing, it’s the first day back to work since it all happened and it feels like we swallowed something down the wrong pipe and we’re just starting to be able to take regular breaths again we came out of our houses ok I came out of my house and we marched in defiance but the defiance has taken a backseat to our commute as we try to get on with things even though there are seventeen fewer Parisians than there were this time last week. (p. 50)

What works so well here is Elkin’s ability to capture the sense of togetherness that stems from the regular commute, especially in a time of crisis. While each individual traveller is alone with their own thoughts and preoccupations, they are also united with several others through a shared activity and spirit.

The penultimate entry in the book is one of the most thoughtful and reflective. Writing in November 2015, a day or two after the Bataclan attacks, when the mundanity of everyday life was so cruelly interrupted, Elkin begins to see things in a slightly different light, one that emphasises the fragile nature of our existence and how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments. A train caught or missed; a decision to go out or stay in; the choice of one concert over another. These reflections and more highlight the importance of appreciating our surroundings, the sense of wonder to be found in the ordinary and everyday.

In summary then, a really interesting book that may well inspire readers to look at their immediate world with a fresh perspective, ready to jot down whatever catches their eye.

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute is published by Les Fugitives; personal copy.

Clouds Over Paris by Felix Hartlaub (tr. Simon Beattie)

When I was casting around for something suitable to read for Lizzy’s German Lit Month, Clouds Over Paris (The Wartime Notebooks of Felix Hartlaub) caught my eye. It’s a series of vignettes and observations penned by the German-born historian and fledgling writer Felix Hartlaub, who was posted to Paris in 1940 as a researcher for the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During his time in the French capital, Hartlaub recorded his impressions of a city under occupation, frequently finding beauty amid the harsh realities of war. As such, Clouds Over Paris offers readers the opportunity to see the city through the eyes of an outsider, a man who felt somewhat uncomfortable about his presence as a German national.

Hartlaub’s style is wonderfully impressionistic (almost stream-of-consciousness in style), and the notebooks are full of evocative imagery, capturing the feel of a city under siege. With an artist’s eye for detail, he writes vividly of soldiers hanging out in cafés and bars, Parisians queuing for food at a butcher’s shop, and anglers fishing in the Seine, their wives desperately waiting to bag any catches. The night-time scenes are particularly atmospheric, with the eerie silence accentuating the sound of soldiers’ movements through the streets.

Blackout. There is an eleven o’clock curfew for Parisians. Only occupying forces are left on the streets, which are deathly quiet. Military boots, solitary or in groups, the odd civilian scooting past, the brim of his hat pulled down low. A breezy night, some big marauding clouds float past at a reasonable height, a burnt-brownish colour. In a patchy bank of cloud, scattered spots of moonlight. Further south, in the rough direction of the Dôme des Invalides, a searchlight shoots up, fixing on a low, ragged cloud, which appears to stop, stretching out paws anew.  The searchlight, cut off from the ground, dies away in a fraction of a second. (p. 59)

Something that comes across very strongly here is the sense of discomfort Hartlaub feels about his presence in the city. Unsurprisingly, he is met with suspicion by the French – as an outsider and an occupier, there is an air of isolation surrounding him as he goes about his day.

The icy ring of alienation and mistrust he has cast about him. He is firmly pinned down within it, his gestures winning no space, his words lacking the air to carry. […]

A couple in the neighbouring séparé, back-to-back with him. Muffled words into each other’s shoulders, the silence of long kisses. The couple leave, eyeing him as they go past, in his empty red mirrored compartment. He returns their gaze: benign, full of admiration, and at the same time veiled, not quite there. (pp. 36–37)

Journeys on the Métro only heighten this sense of unease, especially when Hartlaub is required to show his travel pass, the distinctive colouring of which clearly reveals his nationality. Interestingly though, he is equally uneasy in the company of German soldiers with whom he feels ‘no connection whatsoever’ as his eyes land on their epaulettes.

Alongside the fragments of encounters between soldiers and various ladies of the nights, there are some marvellously evocative descriptions of the buildings in Paris, ranging from views of the city’s streets to a sequence of sketches of a once-glamorous hotel, now a little careworn in the midst of occupation. Night-time trysts are a regular occurrence here, as are minor infringements of the blackout regulations. Nevertheless, the staff go about their usual business as far as possible, from the three lift operators, each with his own distinctive personality, to the room service staff, expertly manoeuvring their trays with precision.

Room service staff scoot across the carpets: a hive of activity, as nearly all the milords and ladies breakfast in bed. The heavy tray clamped at shoulder height, head tucked at an angle. The other hand is for opening doors. The long coat-tails like the wing-cases of giant beetles. One, with thick horn-rimmed spectacles, sweaty red face, a strong smell of wine sometimes trailing behind him, is a farmer’s boy from Picardy. The stiff curved shirt front, clippers for ration cards in his pocket on a silver chain. (pp. 114–115)

Hartlaub writes particularly vividly about the skies over Paris, capturing the various colours, the shapes of clouds and the contrast between light and shade with consummate ease. (The notebook entries cover the period from March to August 1941, with Hartlaub taking the opportunity to record a wide range of impressions, reflecting seasonal changes and variations in weather.) Despite the trials of war, he clearly finds immense beauty in the Paris skyline, especially in spring.

The reflection of the Seine carries the pale brightness of the western sky away to the left, to the east. Approaching frost spices the air, yet the weeping willow which leans out over the river from the Square Notre-Dame is already covered with green. The thick, broad crowns of the chestnut trees, which, neither discoloured nor deformed, have managed to retain all that frost and moisture and hold up the snowy sky, are now seized with white foam, pale bursting stars. (p. 43)

Sadly, Hartlaub died in 1945, disappearing from Berlin just days before the war ended. As such, he never had the opportunity to see his work in print. In fact, it’s not entirely clear whether he thought of these fragments as notes for a future novel or a private record of his time in Paris. Many of the passages break off suddenly, and there are a number of omissions that give some of the vignettes an unfinished feel. Nevertheless, the book offers a fascinating insight into an occupied city glimpsed from the perspective of an outsider who felt uncomfortable about certain aspects of the war.

Clouds Over Paris was translated by Simon Beattie and published by Pushkin Press in 2022 – making the book available in English for the first time. My thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

In 2020, the Italian-born editor and writer Thea Lenarduzzi won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize with her proposal for Dandelions, a gorgeous, meditative blend of family memoir, political and socioeconomic history, and personal reflections on migration between Italy and the UK. The book has now been published in full, and it’s a thoroughly captivating read. Elegant, thoughtful and exquisitely written, Dandelions spans four generations of Lenarduzzi’s family, partly crafted from discussions between Thea and her paternal grandmother, Dirce (aka ‘Nonna’). This beautiful meditation touches on so many of my favourite themes – family stories, memory, identity, belonging, migration, displacement, loss, grief, language and regional culture – all set against the fascinating backdrop of a time of great sociopolitical change.

The book begins with one of Thea’s prevailing images of Nonna, picking dandelions to accompany the family’s dinner – bobbing and weaving “between the flowers’ perky heads, dotted like asterisks on a densely annotated page.” The setting is 1950s Manchester – home to Dirce, her husband Leo, their two children, Manlio and John, and Dirce’s mother, Novella. From this springboard, the book moves backwards and forwards in time – and between Italy and England – threading together various stories and vignettes that span the 20th century. In doing so, a multilayered portrayal of Thea’s family emerges, placed in the context of Italy’s sociopolitical history and economic challenges.

The dandelion motif, which we see in these opening passages, recurs throughout the book as a metaphor for several aspects of the family’s story – from the way the seeds travel from one place to another, aided by the wind, to the plant’s ability to take root and grow pretty much anywhere, irrespective of circumstances. There’s also a sense of time passing through the generations, with each seed being a descendent of the ‘parent’ flower and the beginnings of the one to come. (The prose is superb throughout.)

Each seed, white and wandering, is a ghost of the flower that once was, and an apparition of the flower to come, looking for a place of rest. (p. 15)

The dandelion’s tenacious nature and its role in healing and medicine are significant too, adding further layers to the plant’s relevance as a title for the book.

Natalia Ginzburg’s novel-cum-memoir Family Lexicon is clearly a touchstone for Thea – a text in which well-worn tales and phrases become triggers for specific memories, passed through the generations entwined with identity.

Experience becomes language becomes story becomes identity… (p. 13)

Central to Dandelions are the various stories of migration (some successful, others less so) – many featuring Dirce, now ninety-five and living in Campagna, Italy. So, it’s rather appropriate that the name ‘Dirce’ has two roots: ‘cleft’ and ‘dual’, especially for a woman who feels she has lived two lives – one in Italy, the other in England.

We hear of Leo’s persistent and touching courtship of young Dirce, initially frowned upon by Novella, and the couple’s marriage and move from Italy to England in the early 1950s, mostly for its opportunities. Then there are Dirce’s jobs as a seamstress, which Thea captures as a series of trends, from ‘the quick-fire cushion-cover years’ to ‘the little-goes-a-long way hot pants years’.

Hardship is a vital part of the narrative, too – money is scarce, and Dirce’s health suffers due to overwork, poor diet and stress. A breakdown prompts a three-month recovery in Italy, but Dirce returns a new woman, ready to face the challenges ahead.

During their time in England, the family experiences the same things again and again: love, gaiety, acts of kindness, trust, superstition, hope, disappointment, homesickness, loss, hardship, prejudice, anxiety and fear. While the context and magnitude vary, the underlying emotions remain the same. And as Thea sets these stories alongside one another, we begin to see how they link together, forming a richly-textured portrait of family life.

In 1971, Leo, Dirce and their adopted daughter, Lucia, move back to Italy, prompted by Leo’s desire to build a house in his homeland in Campagna, much to Dirce’s initial reluctance. Nevertheless, there’s a lovely vignette here, a story of Leo returning to Dirce’s old house in Maniago to take cuttings from her father’s old grapevines – now wild but still strong. An intermingling of the families and generations duly results.

He [Leo] will plant these old vines among the new ones, alongside the roses and the dandelions, and, in time, create a blend that belongs to this family alone – the taste of two families, in fact, with all their stories combined – nurtured by the soil and the air he knows they have always belonged in, really. (p. 166)

Significant time is also devoted to Dirce’s parents, Angelo and Novella, and their move from the family’s home in Maniago Libero in Friuli, north-eastern Italy, to Manchester and Sheffield when Friuli’s steel industry died away. One of the things Dandelions captures so well is how the process of delving into her family’s past raises further crucial questions for Thea to consider.

When he [Angelo] took his young family to England in 1935, did he feel like things were opening up, getting better, or did he feel cornered, as if the choice to go were only an illusion? Did he tell his wife Novella that everything was going to be fine – you’ll see – and did he believe it himself? […] Did he feel in control of his own situation? (p. 81)

Moreover, given the political situation in Italy and the need for people to toe the line, Thea wonders whether Angelo harboured any fascist sympathies. There is no direct evidence to indicate so, and Dirce is careful to brush any suggestions aside. But if this were the case, would Thea still wish to tell his story and associate it so closely with her own? 

The book also touches on Dirce’s grief for the loss of her father, who died shortly after the move to England, prompting Novella’s return to Friuli with the remaining family. Dirce was nine when her father, Angelo, passed away in 1935 – a life-changing event that led to subsequent losses as her childhood and the chance of a proper education slipped away.

The one person Dirce is reluctant to discuss is her mother, Novella, whose legacy still casts a discernible shadow some forty years after her death.

In the story Nonna tells about her own life, Novella is less a person than the aftermath of a person, more atmosphere than flesh and blood. She is absence accumulated to form a presence. (p. 183)

Through little glimpses here and there, Novella emerges a woman who bore grievances and misfortunes very heavily, primed to see the worst in people and situations in place of virtues and light.

She wore calamities like rosettes and regularly presented them to her daughter one by one, each narrated with vivid feeling as though the events had just occurred. (pp. 191-192)

The story of Thea’s parents, and their move from England to Italy in the early ‘80s, is beautifully told. By comparison to those of the previous two generations, it’s a journey of relative ease, excitement and contentment – more optimistic and brighter in tone.

Thea also writes movingly of her own fractured sense of belonging, her dual citizenship and ‘hyphenated identity’ – not quite English enough to call herself English but not Italian enough for the opposite to apply either. Consequently, she ‘feels’ different in each country, which manifests itself in her everyday behaviour.

Emigration splits the individual, too. I am a different version of myself in Italy to the one I am in England. I’m not sure how discernible it is to others, but I feel it in my bones, in my skin, in the way I hold myself and speak to people. In Italy, I am quieter, more timid and awkward. (p. 94)

As Dandelions draws to a close, Thea comes to a realisation about her family and their stories – and perhaps, her reasons for embarking on this quest. It feels like a fitting place for me to finish my account of a book I absolutely adored. A beguiling combination of the personal and sociopolitical – and the stories we tell to live.

I thought, in short, that my dead needed me to remember them and tell their stories, to try to work out who they were and what challenges they faced. Really, it is I who needs them. (p. 281)

Dandelions is published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

Personal Pleasures by Rose Macaulay

This is a lovely book to dip into, a compendium of short essays and sketches on the things that gave Rose Macaulay pleasure during her life, covering a wide variety of subjects such as Bathing, Candlemas, Chasing fireflies and Driving a car. There are around sixty pieces here (mostly two or three pages in length), arranged alphabetically with a handy index at the front. Originally published in 1935 to sparkling reviews, Personal Pleasures has recently been reissued by Handheld Press (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy).

Although Macaulay was in her mid-fifties when the book was first published, some of the most vivid entries reflect her childhood in Italy in the late 19th century. Chasing fireflies, for instance, recounts a midsummer eve tradition in the Macaulay family, high up in the Italian hills, the violet sky glittering with golden stars. Here we learn of summer nights, the air fragrant with the scent of citrus, with fireflies dancing around like ‘leaping gems’, flying amidst the myrtle shrubs and juniper by the light of a golden moon. These reflections on childhood pleasures are especially enjoyable, capturing a time of happiness in the sizeable Macaulay family.

Macaulay’s style is evocative and erudite – quite ornate at times, but always resplendent. In this passage, she is writing about beauty of seeing a flower shop at night, softly lit yet empty of customers, glowing mysteriously like a magical fairyland.

Golden baskets are piled high with pink roses; crimson roses riot in curious jars; hydrangeas make massed rainbows beneath many-coloured lights; tall lilies form a frieze behind, like liveried, guarding angels. […]

It is a scene so exquisite and so strange that it might be a mirage, to melt away before the wondering gaze. We will leave it, while it is still clear and brilliant; turn away and walk down the cold, empty, and echoing street, looking not back lest that bright garden be darkened and fled like a dream before dawn. (Flower shop in the night)

Even relatively simple pleasures, such as soaking in hot bath in winter, are elevated to the status of exalted rituals through Macaulay’s expressive prose – enhanced in this instance by the aroma of pine-scented bath salts.

Soaked in green light, with two small red ducks bobbing about me, I lie at ease, frayed nerves relaxed, numbed blood running round again on its appointed, circular mortal race, frozen brain melting, thawing, expanding into a strange exotic effervescence in this warm pine forest. Bare winter suddenly is changed to spring, (Hot bath)

While many of the essays revolve around familiar pleasures (experiences that will resonate with many of us), others are more unusual or specific to the author, perhaps. Few of us could argue with the joy of things such as Walking, Reading, Meals out and Christmas morning, however, certain entries are more individual. In Taking umbrage for instance, Macaulay waxes lyrical about the experience of being ignored by shop assistants while other shoppers are given precedence, even when it’s not their rightful turn in the queue. For Macaulay, there is something pleasurable about rehearsing a cutting retort in her mind, ready for when the shop assistant finally approaches. Whether or not she ultimately decides to use it is another matter altogether! Other eclectic essays focus on Bulls, Disbelieving, Fire engines and Cows.

Several of the pieces demonstrate Macaulay’s sense of humour, reflecting a wry, witty approach to various aspects of life. In Shopping abroad, she muses on the peculiar lure of searching for tat that many of us succumb to when visiting other countries, falling for various trinkets we would swiftly ignore at home.

How strange it is, this passion that assaults the breast when the foot treads foreign earth; this lust to acquire, to carry away, to convey home in suitcases wretched pelting trifles which in our native land we should be the first (or so we hope) to disdain! (Shopping abroad)

Perhaps it’s the thrill of bartering with the stallholder, the illusion of securing a bargain, that drives us forward in this quest for ‘alien trifles’. All of which have to be transported home, of course, often at the expense of purchasing extra suitcases – ‘cheap exotic suitcases, more, and more and more…’

Ignorance is another very amusing piece, covering various subjects including neighbours, gossip, wickedness and current literature. I couldn’t help but laugh at Macaulay’s dismissal of the latest books, a view that will likely resonate with those wary of the media hype surrounding certain new releases.

 No, I am afraid I have not read that either. It is good, you say? I am sure you are right. But I have no time for all these novels and things. I cannot imagine how you make time for them. You find they are worth it? They do not look good. Not that I see them; but they do not sound good, from the advertisements and reviews. Not that I read advertisements and reviews. I like to keep myself clear from all this second-rate stuff. (Ignorance – 2. Of current literature)

As an aside, lovers of literature are well served with this collection, with entries on Reading, Writing, Finishing a book, and Booksellers’ catalogues, to name but a few. Oh, the joy of booksellers’ pamphlets flopping through the letter-box, ‘alighting like leaves on the passage floor’!

In a book devoted to a surfeit of pleasures, Macaulay remains mindful of the downsides involved in over-indulgence, that a pleasure overdone can tip over into excess – or might be taken for granted if repeated too often. As such, several essays come with a slight sting in the tail, a note of realism to temper the joy. In Hot bath, for instance, the water will cool if one soaks for too long, with fresh water from the taps feeling tepid rather than hot. Similarly, in Abroad, the thrill of travelling overseas is clipped by increasing bureaucracy and suspicion, a fact that will resonate with many current travellers whose journeys are hampered by cancellations or long delays.

In summary, this is an enjoyable, erudite compendium of pleasures, best experienced in small doses, maybe two or three essays at a time. Collected together like this, these articles give readers a fascinating insight into cultural life in the early 20th century, together with snapshots of various aspects of Macaulay’s life. As ever with Handheld Press, the book comes with an excellent introduction by Kate Macdonald, placing the book in a wider context. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here, but it’s a delightful read for any Rose Macaulay fan – and for lovers of literature from this period in general.

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

When we hear the word ‘flâneur’, we probably think of some well-to-do chap nonchalantly wandering the streets of 19th-century Paris, idling away his time in cafés and bars, casually watching the inhabitants of the city at work and play. Irrespective of the specific figure we have in mind, the flâneur is almost certainly a man – a well-dressed dandy, possibly like the central pen-and-ink sketch on the cover of this Vintage edition of Flâneuse. The flâneur is a consummate observer, looking without participating, preferring to remain somewhat distanced from the action in his leisurely pursuits.

In this fascinating book, the critically-acclaimed writer and translator Lauren Elkin shows us another side of flâneusing, highlighting the existence of the female equivalent, the eponymous flâneuse. While the male flâneur has been well documented over time, much less has been written about his female counterpart, possibly due to the social restrictions placed on women’s movements around the cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, as Elkin eloquently argues, women walkers have often been present in cities; they just haven’t been identified or mythologised as flâneuses.  

To suggest that they couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.

If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street. (p. 11)

Through a captivating combination of memoir, social history and cultural studies/criticism, Elkin walks us through several examples of notable flâneuses down the years, demonstrating that the joy of traversing the city has been shared by men and women alike.

Each chapter highlights a different female walker in touch with her city. So, we have Virginia Woolf walking through London’s Bloomsbury, an experience vividly portrayed in the writer’s evocative essay Street Haunting; George Sand, who has to dress like a man to roam freely in 19th-century Paris; and Martha Gellhorn, the journalist and travel writer who captures the Civil War through a series of remarkable reports, straight from the front line in late ‘30s Madrid.

Elkin also explores leading cultural figures that fit the bill, most notably the acclaimed writer Jean Rhys and the legendary filmmaker Agnes Varda – two of my favourite artists in their respective creative fields.

Many of Rhys’ early novellas and stories feature desolate women marginalised from society through poverty, abandonment, banishment and ageing. They drift around the Left Bank of Paris, frequently shuttling from one down-at-heel boarding house to another, totally reliant on men for clothes, meals and drink. It’s a solitary and painful existence, brilliantly conveyed through Rhys’ laconic, incisive prose.

Varda, on the other hand, shows us how a woman in the city – essentially a flâneuse – can move from being the object of someone’s gaze to the one doing the looking. In one of her most famous films, Cléo de 5 à 7 (shot in 1962), the camera follows a young woman as she moves around Paris, nervously awaiting the results of a biopsy, naturally fearing the worst. Elkin posits that the film challenges the view that a woman could not traverse the streets of Paris the way a man does – i.e. anonymously, observing without being seen. However, by shifting Cleo’s status from object to subject – i.e. the one doing the looking as opposed to being watched – Varda is portraying a new sense of liberation for women in the city.

As Cléo stops thinking of herself purely in terms of how others see her, the camera stops watching Cléo only from the exterior, and begins to represent the world from her point of view. The film specifically challenges the idea that a woman could not walk the streets the way a man does, anonymously, taking in the spectacle; a woman is the spectacle, goes this argument. Looking, not simply appearing, signals the beginning of women’s freedom in the city. (p. 220)

Interspersed with these portraits from cultural history are Elkin’s own thoughtful reflections on her explorations of various cities around the world. Flâneusing is Elkin’s preferred method of getting to know a city, exploring its geography on foot, crossing through different areas and neighbourhoods, and ultimately connecting them together to build a mental picture or map. It’s her way of feeling more at home in a new territory, grounding herself in its physical spaces, urban geography and, importantly, the attendant social culture.

Having grown up in the Long Island suburbs – an environment she found somewhat stifling and restrictive – Elkin moved to New York as a student, revelling in the freedom and diversity this metropolis represented. Over the past twenty years, she has spent time in Paris – the city she now considers her home – Venice and Tokyo, the latter proving particularly challenging to the habitual flâneuse.

I had been trying to find the city on street level, but that’s not where it was. To flâneuse in Tokyo I had to walk up staircases, take elevators, climb ladders, to find what I was looking for upstairs, or on rooftops. You can’t just walk through the city waiting for beauty to appear. This isn’t Paris. (p. 180)

The move to Tokyo is dictated by external influences when a change of role for Elkin’s boyfriend, a successful banker, prompts a transfer to Japan. Sadly, it’s a step too far for Elkin, ultimately exposing the fault lines in the couple’s relationship, culminating in a permanent split and Elkin’s return to Paris.

In Flâneuse, Elkin has given us an elegant meditation on women traversing the urban landscape on foot, exploring the geography, boundaries and cultural ‘feel’ of various cities through the wanderings of the flâneuse. As she remarks towards the beginning of the book, once you start looking, it’s possible to spot the flâneuse pretty much anywhere, typically in a state of ‘in-betweenness’, coming or going from one place to another.

She [the flâneuse] gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it. (p. 22)

Elkin is a marvellous companion – articulate and informative without being didactic, likely to inspire readers to embark on a bit of flâneusing of their own. This is such a thoughtful, erudite, fascinating book, written in a style that I found thoroughly engaging – probably my favourite non-fiction read so far this year.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve been meaning to try more of Annie Ernaux’s work for the past six months, ever since I read her hugely impressive memoir, The Years, published in France in 2008. It’s a fascinating, distinctive book, a kind of collective biography in which the cultural and social history of a generation – Ernaux’s generation – is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. So, with the imminent release of Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Ernaux’s Happening (another memoir), I was galvanised into action. (The film picked up the prestigious Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and I’m very eager to see it.)

First published in French in 2000, and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was twenty-three, studying literature at Rouen University and living in the college halls of residence. Like most young women of her day, Ernaux uses the Ogino (or ‘rhythm’) method of birth control to minimise the chances of conceiving. (Other, more reliable forms of contraception were not legally sanctioned in France until 1967, four years down the line.)

Unfortunately for Ernaux, she falls pregnant, something she resists naming explicitly as this would feel like a validation of her status – for example, why use the word ‘expecting’ when she has no intention of giving birth? It’s a pregnancy that Ernaux is determined to terminate, partly due to the restrictions it would impose on her day-to-day life and partly for the associated stigma and sense of shame. (Ernaux’s desire to distance herself from her working-class background – her parents run a grocer’s shop – remains an important theme in her work.)

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureate nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure. (p. 23)

Abortion was illegal in France in the early ‘60s, and the penalties for any involvement in such a practice were widely known to be severe. Consequently, Ernaux must find someone who is willing to perform a backstreet termination – something she manages to do through a contact of a friend. The abortionist is a nurse, a plain-speaking woman in her sixties who will conduct the procedure at her home in Paris, a small flat in the 17th arrondissement. Interestingly, there is a quiet determination about this woman who simply focuses on the essentials at hand. She makes no judgments about Annie’s decision to abort; there are no awkward questions or feelings to be explored, just the practical details of what needs to happen and when.

In essence, Happening is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of the abortion – her quest to secure it, what took place during the procedure and the days that followed, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. While Ernaux wishes to convey a steady flow of unhappiness during this time in her life, she remains mindful of not clouding her experiences with any emotional outbursts – outpourings that would signal either anger or emotional pain.

What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. Ernaux spares us nothing about the messy details of the procedure itself and what happens in the aftermath. As such, readers need to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of some of the content in this book. Happening is a searingly honest account of a taboo subject, but it may cut too close to the bone for some readers depending on their own views and experiences.

Interspersed throughout the text are some of Ernaux’s reflections about writing the book, ruminations on what she is trying to achieve by exploring these events. There is a sense of her trying to immerse herself in a particular section of her life to learn what can be found there. It’s an experience that comes with its own challenges, forty years on. For instance, she talks about the process of accessing various memories, how certain objects such as a basin of water in the woman’s apartment remain vivid in her mind while specific emotions are much harder to recapture. Nevertheless, some general feelings remain accessible even if the finer details do not.

(To experience anew the emotions I felt back then is quite impossible. The closest I can get to the state of terror thrust upon me that week is to pick out any hostile, harsh-looking woman in her sixties waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office and to imagine that she is going to rummage around in my loins with some foreign object.) (p. 51)

By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. Towards the end of Happening, she wonders whether the true purpose of her life is to channel various experiences – both physical and emotional – into her writing. There is a desire to create ‘something intelligent and universal’ from her existence, reflections that may prove useful to others – an aim I think she has achieved with this powerful, uncompromising book.

Happening is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks for the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Described by Lahiri as a kind of linguistic memoir, In Other Words is a beautiful, meditative series of reflections on the author’s quest to immerse herself in the Italian language – a passion she has nurtured since her days as a college student. It’s a fascinating volume, presented in a dual-language format showing Lahiri’s original Italian text on the left-handed pages with Ann Goldstein’s English translation on the right. Thematically, the book has much in common with Lahiri’s fiction, tapping into subjects such as identity, alienation, belonging – and, perhaps most importantly, how it feels to be in exile, an outsider as such.

This love affair begins in December 1994 when Lahiri takes a short trip to Florence in the company of her sister. While there, she feels an immediate connection with the Italian language, which seems foreign yet also strangely familiar – a paradox of sorts, a simultaneous closeness and remoteness.

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment, a closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight. (p. 15)

Following her return to America, Lahiri begins to study Italian – partly for her doctoral thesis about the influence of Italian architecture on English playwrights and partly to feed a personal passion for the language, a desire ignited by the trip.

In time – and as her writing career takes off – Lahiri continues her relationship with Italian, working her way through a series of private tutors, learning enough to converse, albeit somewhat hesitantly. Nevertheless, she feels limited by her lack of knowledge and familiarity with the language – a feeling that prompts a move to Rome on a semi-permanent basis, uprooting the family to accompany her in this quest. Only by living in Italy and continually conversing in Italian can Lahiri fully immerse herself in the language – and hopefully fulfil her aims.

Naturally, there are practical obstacles to be overcome when the family arrive in Rome, especially given their lack of friends or acquaintances in the city. But this is not Lahiri’s main focus here; instead, the book is an intimate series of reflections on Lahiri’s relationship with a new language – the painstaking process of learning and immersion, with all the attendant emotions this transformation involves.

In the six months leading up to the move to Italy, Lahiri reads solely in Italian, mainly as a way of preparing herself for this new world. Then, on her arrival in the city, she begins a new diary in Italian – a spontaneous impulse, despite her uncertainties with the language and a tendency to make mistakes.

In Rome, however, writing in Italian is the only way to feel myself present here—maybe to have a connection, especially as a writer, with Italy. The new diary, although imperfect, although riddled with mistakes, mirrors my disorientation clearly. It reflects a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment (p. 57)

In effect, this whole expedience prompts a kind of renewal for Lahiri as she rediscovers her reasons for writing – more specifically, what drives her interest in language and how she uses it to understand the world.

Despite the limitations imposed by a reduced vocabulary and her concerns about grammar, Lahiri finds the process of writing in Italian very liberating. There is a sense of freedom about it, a kind of permission to be forgiving and accepting of imperfections. It’s a tension that underpins many of Lahiri’s meditations in this book, a paradoxical link between liberation and restriction (or, in other instances, between closeness and remoteness).

How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect. (p. 83)

Identity and belonging are prominent themes here too, mirroring the preoccupations of much of Lahiri’s fiction. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, Lahiri was born in London and raised in America, following the family’s move to the US when Jhumpa was aged three. Consequently, English is her second language, the one she learned in school and by reading voraciously as a child. At home, however, the family spoke only Bengali – Lahiri’s first language and her only way of communicating until nursery school at the age of four. In some respects, Lahiri has always felt a sense of divided identity. As a girl growing up in America, she wanted to assimilate and be considered American, a citizen of her adopted country, while also wishing to please her parents by speaking perfect Bengali at home. Perhaps because of this duality, she strongly identifies with life on the margins – individuals who find themselves on the edges of countries and their cultures.

I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures. A peripheral zone where it’s impossible for me to feel rooted, but where I’m comfortable. The only zone where I think that, in some way, I belong. (p. 93)

The sense of affinity Lahiri experiences with the Italian language prompts her to question the nature of her identity, stirring feelings of dislocation and a degree of estrangement. The more she immerses herself in the Italian language, the less comfortable she feels about returning to English, prompting her to write professionally in the former. (Her latest novella, Whereabouts – which I loved – was also written in Italian and subsequently translated into English, in this instance by the author herself.)

Why don’t I feel more at home in English? How is it that the language I learned to read and write in doesn’t comfort me? What happened, and what does it mean? The estrangement, the disenchantment confuses, disturbs me. I feel more than ever that I am a writer without a definitive language, without origin, without definition. (pp. 129-131)

In Other Words is a very intimate and personal book – a meditation on finding a sense of freedom through the creative process, however uncomfortable that might feel. Lahiri writes openly about the experiences of learning a new language, complete with all the challenges and frustrations this creates. Nevertheless, these difficulties are balanced by the author’s passion and determination; the liberation she experiences is beautifully conveyed. One gets the sense that writing in Italian has given Lahiri a new sense of direction with her work, prompting a creative rejuvenation that is fascinating to observe.

Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone interested in writing, translating and learning a new language – or Lahiri’s fiction, particularly given the resonances with the book’s themes.  

In Other Words is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy. 

Excellent Women: The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher and I Used to be Charming by Eve Babitz

Two terrific books for you today – by prose stylists of the highest order. Enjoy!

The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher (1943)

This is a book for anyone who enjoys food – not the fancy, pretentious kind of food the word ‘gastronomical’ might suggest, but honest, simple, good quality fare, typically fashioned from flavoursome ingredients.  It is, in essence, a blend of memoir, food writing and travel journal, all woven together in Fisher’s wonderfully engaging style.

Backlisted listeners among you may have encountered Fisher through How to Cook a Wolf (1942), her wartime guide to keeping appetites sated when decent ingredients are in short supply. In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher looks back on some of the most symbolic meals and food-related experiences of her first three decades – the quality of the dishes consumed, the people who shared them and the memories they evoked. She writes lovingly of her early life, the most notable culinary occasions, irrespective of their simplicity, and the way our feelings towards certain foods are often entwined with memories of people, places and key moments in time. There is a sense of meals being part of the fabric of a person’s life here, inextricably linked to love, friendship and family – encompassing both happy times and sad.

Throughout the book, Fisher relates her most memorable food-related experiences, from her first taste of the frothy ‘skin’ on her grandmother’s homemade jam to the trepidation of swallowing a live oyster at the high-school dance. We learn of her travels from California to France, following her marriage to Al Fisher, an academic studying for his doctorate at Dijon. On their arrival in France, the Fishers were eager to experience the European lifestyle, delighting in simple yet flavoursome food, courtesy of their boarding house and the city’s modest restaurants.

The memoir gives us snapshots of Fisher’s life, mostly from the late 1920s (when Fisher would have been around twenty) to the late ‘30s, when Europe was in the grip of a tumultuous war. Various sea crossings are dotted throughout the memoir – as are various friends, family members and other eccentric acquaintances the Fishers meet on their travels. Naturally, there are affairs of the heart too, particularly when M. F. K. falls for the American writer and artist Dillwyn Parrish (or Chexbres as he is affectionately known) in the mid-1930s. In time, he becomes the love of her life; although sadly, their time together is very short, cruelly curtailed by Chexbres’ suicide, prompted by the debilitating impact of Buerger’s Disease.   

Where the book really excels is in Fisher’s ability to convey a genuine love of food. Not in a way that reeks of privilege or pretentiousness; just warmth, passion and enjoyment, laced with an admiration for the people who prepare it. In this scene, Fisher recalls a meal of freshly caught trout, potatoes and hot buttered peas from the garden of a Swiss guesthouse near Lucerne.

It was, of course, the most delicious dish that we had ever eaten. We knew that we were hungry, and that even if it had been bad it would have been good…but we knew, too, that nevertheless it was one of the subtlest, rarest things that had ever come our way. It was incredibly delicate, as fresh as clover.

We talked about it later, and Frau Weber told us of it willingly, but in such a vague way that all I can remember now is hot unsalted butter, herbs left in for a few seconds, cream, a shallot flicked over, the fish laid in, the cover put on. I can almost see it, smell it, taste it; but I know that I could never copy it, nor could anyone alive, probably. (p. 217)

It’s a glorious vignette, beautifully conveyed in Fisher’s elegant, eminently readable style.

I Used to be CharmingThe Rest of Eve Babitz (2019)

I’ve written before about Eve Babitz, the American writer, journalist and album cover designer who died last December. Her 1974 collection, Eve’s Hollywood, could be described as autofiction or maybe a semi-fictionalised memoir. Either way, it’s a luminous book – like a series of shimmering vignettes on bohemian life in LA.

Slow Days, Fast Company followed in 1977, cementing Babitz’s reputation as a leading documenter of the Californian lifestyle/counterculture. Both books are currently in print with NRYB Classics, along with a third volume of Babitz’s work, I Used to be Charming – The Rest of Eve Babitz, compiled in 2019.

Charming comprises some fifty articles/essays, mostly published in magazines between 1975 and 1997. Far from being a collection of odds and ends, Charming contains some of the very best of Babitz’s writing – the titular essay, recounting her recovery from life-threatening third-degree burns, is worth the cover price alone. It’s a searingly honest yet funny piece, conveyed in Babitz’s thoroughly engaging style. Also of particular note is a sixty-page essay on the ethos of Fiorucci, the pioneering Italian fashion brand based. Much to my surprise, I found this absolutely fascinating and immersive!

As in the earlier books, Babitz turns her eye to various topics here – mostly related to California with the occasional sojourn to New York. She writes beautifully about men, relationships, actors, musicians, locations, fashion, body image and various personal experiences. Her style is naturally breezy – conversational, almost – both easy-going and whip-smart. It’s a tricky blend to pull off, but to Babitz it seems intuitive, as in this 1979 piece titled Gotta Dance.  

Once you feel what it’s like to dance with someone who knows how to dance, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You may even come to realize, as I have, that dancing is better than sex. I mean that, I really do. It’s better because it’s a flirtation that can go on forever and ever without being consummated; because you can do it with strangers and not feel guilty or ashamed; because you can do it outside your marriage and not get in any trouble; and because you can do it in public, with people watching and applauding. And when you’re doing it right, you can’t think about anything else, such as what you forgot at work or that the ceiling needs painting.

Which is why women love to dance. (p. 203)

Babitz can be funny too, as in Tiffany’s Before Breakfast, an article about coping with an impending crisis. Here, she has arranged to meet her friend Tina to make plans to avert a collapse.

So we met at Nickodell’s, a thirties Hollywood restaurant which has stuff like “turkey croquettes” on the menu, it’s so Mildred Pierce. Nickodell’s – it’s sort of the only place in L.A. you can go without accidentally bumping into an alfalfa sprout. It makes you feel grounded. It’s a good place to discuss your nervous breakdown. (p. 136)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Babitz writes evocatively about cities, neighbourhoods and locations – not just her beloved L.A. but also the more friendly San Francisco.

Here, it seemed to me, was the essential San Francisco: a city of lights, a city of radiant beings, a city of taxis and tourists and back alleys, a city of crazily shaped enterprises, of too-high hills and too much romance from long ago, where the past and the present blur into each other… (pp. 315-316)

I’ve merely scratched the surface of this beguiling collection of pieces, which I read over several weeks during the dark days of January. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in California, especially during this era.   

Both of these books qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event in support of Independent Publishers. The Gastronomical Me is published by Daunt Books, I Used to be Charming by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing review copies.