Italian Literature: Svevo, De Gregorio, Bajani, Durastanti

It’s a shame really, because each of these books deserves a full-length review, but I am running out of time as I still have so much to do before leaving for Romania next week. I apologise to Italian literature and its many fans for shortchanging it!

Italo Svevo: A Perfect Hoax, transl. J.G. Nichols, Alma Classics.

One of Svevo’s lesser works, a bagatelle one might say, but leaving a bitter and sad aftertaste in spite of its humour. Mario Samigli is an ageing ‘man of letters’, who was never quite able to replicate the success of his first novel and is now writing very short fables about birds. He lives with his brother, Giulio, who never dares to contradict him, and they both seem to be perfectly content. Until one day a mischievous acquaintance of Mario’s, travelling salesman Enrico Gaia, tricks him into believing that a prestigious foreign publishing house wants to translate and promote that first novel.

Mario may be conceited and deluded, incredibly thin-skinned with his brother, often garrulous, but in his heart of hearts he has doubts about the value of his work, so we cannot help but sympathise with him. Meanwhile, Gaia’s motivation is cruel:

… the trick he played on Mario was loaded with real hatred. Oh yes, indeed. He had a fierce hatred of his great friend. He may not have been quite conscious of it, because he was convinced rather that he felt nothing but a deep compassion for Mario, that wretch who was so presumptuous and had nothing in the world, who was stuck in a rotten job in which he could never get on. When he talked about Mario, he knew how to look compassionate, but he twisted his lips in what could also be seen as a threat.

Yet Mario too has a cruel streak, for example when he belittles his brother’s ill health and feels that his own literary efforts are far more important. We may feel that Mario is making a mountain of a molehill when he begins to realise he has been duped, but he lives ‘in a city which is too small for him to walk through its streets safely – that is, unrecognised’. In this short tragicomedy about an average person (but one whose youthful ambitions have been reborn) in a provincial town, Svevo shows a deep insight into human frailties and fantasies, and our universal desire for some form of respect and recognition. Let’s not forget that Svevo himself only found fame for his literary work late in life (and died soon thereafter).

Concita De Gregorio: The Missing Word, transl. Clarissa Botsford, Europa Editions.

In most languages, there is no word for parents who lose children – that is the missing word of the title. And yet this was not an unusual state of affairs in the old days, when many children died during infancy. Nowadays, it is a rare event, it seems almost against nature. Yet this is what happened to Irina Lucidi, an Italian lawyer working in Lausanne. After separating from her Swiss husband, she agrees to a reasonable form of joint custody for their six-year-old twin daughters: at their dad’s every second weekend, and a couple of days during the week. One weekend at the end of January 2011, their father picks them up and they are never seen again. The father commits suicide by throwing himself under a train a few days later.

I remember this story, which was still being talked about in the Swiss press when I moved to the area in the summer of 2011. The girls were of similar age to my boys, my own marriage was not going brilliantly well, and I suppose it resonated with my unspoken fears and, now that I think about it, it must have subconsciously influenced my own writing at the time. The most obvious explanation is of course that the father harmed the girls before committing suicide, but it was quite scandalous the way in which the Swiss investigators were far more likely to believe the father and treat the mother like a ‘hysterical Italian woman’.

De Gregorio is a journalist, broadcaster and writer, and in this ‘fictional retelling’ of a true story, she imagines what it must be like to live with such grief, and what it takes to finally be able to move on. It is a short, beautifully written and heart-wrenching piece of work, hybrid or however we choose to describe it: written from the point of view of Irina herself, but also through the letters she writes and the way she is perceived by those around her.

… you know that nothing is ever forgotten and that everything should be retrievable at any moment, so that you can put it somewhere…. How could we live without placating memory, which doesn’t mean giving up, or forgetting, but allowing the heat to cool down, the damp to dry, everything to transform itself so that a beginning can be born from an end.

Andrea Bajani: If You Kept a Record of Sins, transl. Elizabeth Harris, Archipelago Books.

A story about an ambiguous mother/son relationship and an outsider looking in at present-day Romania? How could I refuse such a combination? Written in a slant, allusive style, a detachment that is perhaps more longed for than real, it’s the kind of cool storytelling that many believe is the prerogative of the millenial generation (he is more of my generation, the one before that).

Lorenzo is the young man who was come to Romania for his mother’s funeral. His mother invented a machine for weight-loss and began to travel more and more frequently to promote it. At first she tries to compensate for her absence, bringing back presents for the son she leaves in the care of his stepfather:

It grew harder and harder to find any space to put the new souvenirs you’d brought without burying the old. They were from every country, every corner on earth, my room, trip after trip, becoming the world map of your absence.

Another form of over-compensating was trying to roast a turkey every time she came back from one of her trips, ‘playing at being a wife and mother’, without bothering to find out if anyone actually wanted that turkey. Which was just as well, because invariably the turkey would end up burnt.

Roasted or burned, thought, the turkey always went on the table. And the more burned it was, the more it seemed like an act of diefiance. You’d slap it on our plates, just as it was. And we ate that turkey, the three of us, heads down, not peeling off the blackened skin, not looking each other in the eye.

As the memories come tumbling out, we discover moments of tenderness, of imagination and creativity, of promises which he never asked for… and which never quite turned out the way he expected. Inevitably, her visits got rarer and rarer, and eventually she abandoned them both in order to build her business in Romania with a business partner turned lover. Yet Lorenzo discovers his mother’s final years were miserable, that she was probably too proud to admit her mistakes and ask for his forgiveness or companionship.

As a Romanian, I naturally was curious to catch glimpses of Romanian society through the eyes of an outsider and thought he did an excellent job of reflecting the sometimes opaque, occasionally naive ambition of the Romanian employee, as well as the disparaging tone that the foreign business people use to describe them. Bajani can be excoriating, without laying it on too thick: ‘the way they looked around, arrogant and sated, with the self-importance of someone who’s twice the boss for being in a foreign country’. Echoes of the film ‘Toni Erdmann’, for sure.

Claudia Durastanti: Cleopatra Goes to Prison, transl. Christine Donougher, Dedalus Euro Shorts.

I took part in the crowdfunding campaign to get this book translated and published. Although it’s a contemporary story, there is very much a feeling of the 1960s about it, so the cover photo from Antonioni’s film The Red Desert seems very appropriate. In fact, the 1960s ‘new wave’ vibes are so strong, that it’s almost surprising when the characters use mobile phones. It also reminded me of another Antonioni film, L’Avventura, with the cool, slightly bored Monica Vitti. offering us very few clues about why she does what she does. It is the same with Caterina, the modern-day Cleopatra of the title, even though part of the story is told through her first-person point of view.

Caterina is a young Roman girl, who aspired to be a ballet dancer but ended up working as a stripper at the bar she opened with her boyfriend Aurelio. This boyfriend is now in prison for pimping, and she visits him in prison every Thursday, while working as a receptionist and cleaner at a run-down hotel with no customers. But her other lover is one of the policemen who arrested Aurelio, and she is stuck between a rock and a hard place, between him and her boyfriend’s increasing paranoia that someone set him up and tipped off the police.

Caterina is a born survivor. As she says: ‘I’ve been fending for myself ever since I was born. It’s a genetic thing. I’ll pass it on to my kids.’ Yet this survival instinct comes perhaps at the expense of any ambition or hope of escape on her part: she doesn’t believe she will be happier in another place or with another person. The last long paragraph linking Caterina to the city in which she grew up and which she will never leave is a prose poem of fury and resignation.

16 thoughts on “Italian Literature: Svevo, De Gregorio, Bajani, Durastanti”

  1. These all sound good, Marina Sofia. I’d heard about the case that’s the subject of The Missing Word, although I didn’t learn all the details. I want to read that one, but I think I need to be in the right frame of mind for it, since I’m a mother and a grandmother…

  2. Thanks, I’m going to look them all up. I don’t read much Italian lit, though I could. It’s just that English language books always seem to have it all. Have a good holiday, tell us about it after 🙂

    1. I love Italian language and culture, so I don’t know why it never occurs to me to read more Italian literature. For a long time, I preferred reading it in Romanian; I suppose I felt the language structure, the flow of the sentence, would be closer than in English.

  3. Smashing reviews, they all make me so curious about the books themselves. I too recall the story that took place in Switzerland and was horrified at the time. My daughter a very similar age.

  4. All four of these sound interesting in different ways, but it’s the Durastanti that appeals to me most, especially given your references to L’Avventura and the incomparable Monica Vitti.

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