March Summary: Books and Films

I’m on holiday for the next two weeks and not sure how much time or internet access I will have for posting anything new (other than Friday Fun posts, which I’ve scheduled already). So here is a quick summary of the month of March and see you in mid-April!

Reading

Not a massive quantity of books this month (eleven rather than the twelve shown in the picture, because I read the Doina Rusti in both Romanian and English). I decided somewhat upon a whim to dedicate this month primarily to the small number of contemporary Italian books I have on my shelf (I’ve read hardly anything published after Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and most of the translations were in Romanian rather than English, because I believed the cultural and linguistic similarities would be helpful). I read a total of six Italian books, which I divided up into two blog posts of mini-reviews:

Non-fiction: Alberto Prunetti’s Down and Out in England and Italy (trans. and Natalia Ginzburg: The Little Virtues

Fiction: all very moving in different ways – Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins (trans. Elizabeth Harris), Concita de Gregorio’s The Missing Word (trans. Clarissa Botsford – which I think is more fictional than non-fictional, although it is based on a real case and real people), Italo Svevo’s A Perfect Hoax (trans. J. G. Nichols) and Claudia Durastanti’s Cleopatra Goes to Prison (trans. Christine Donougher).

Not sure I can generalise about modern Italian literature on the basis of just a few books, but all of the ones I seem to have picked have been remarkable in their acute observation and restrained style. Quite, quite different from the exuberant, virtuoso storytelling style of The Book of Perilous Dishes, which makes 18th century Bucharest really leap off the pages.

To finish off my Italian sojourn (and because finally my library reservation arrived, after several months), I loved reading about Alan Taylor’s account of his friendship with Muriel Spark when he met her at her house in Arezzo. I love Spark’s writing, but was always doubtful I’d have enjoyed meeting her in person – but this is a loving (not gushing) memoir which slightly changed my mind about her.

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms was very well written and subtle – but oh boy, if you English consider that a difficult mother-daughter relationship (when they only see each other once a year in London for their birthdays), you have no idea how difficult the parent-child relationship can be in other cultures!

I had seen the film adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, but of course with Humphrey Bogart in the main role, it was never going to be as dark and mean as the book. Remarkable depiction of psychological self-justification and unravelling – perhaps the book that American Psycho wanted to be but didn’t quite manage.

Although I wished Down and Out in England and Italy could have had more wit and depth, the only book that disappointed me this month was The Twyford Code (I loved the unusual storytelling style in the first book The Appeal, but the audio transcripts here got annoying and repetitive rather quickly, and it was trying a bit too hard to be clever).

Films

The eight films I’ve watched this month can be divided into :

  • heartwarming (Studio Ghibli to the rescue once again, with a rewatch of Howl’s Moving Castle and wistful new entrants From Up on Poppy Hill and The Tale of Princess Kaguya)
  • sinister (featuring strong-minded and cruel female leads: Lady Macbeth and Black Medusa or dodgy, damaged male leads in The Master)
  • ‘talkie’ comedies (where the script and dialogue are the most important components, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

Other Activities

This month I got a chance to remember how rewarding but also energy-consuming it is to work with primary-school children. I ran an assembly and a couple of translation workshops for six and seven-year-olds, introducing them to my favourite little penguin, Apolodor, an intrepid but not very bright traveller from a well-loved Romanian children’s book in verse by Gellu Naum. As students during Communist times, we adapted the story for the stage… and promptly got censored for daring to talk about travelling abroad. But this time, the story had a happy ending and the children enjoyed it a lot (although not necessarily the ‘having to translate it’ bit).

After a brief hiatus while we were all busy translating and working on other projects, Corylus is now back on track with editing and finalising our next two titles, which should be out before the summer. I sent out our very first newsletter, and there was so much I wanted to say that I had to be really, really selective, so as not to make it an overlong reading experience. In future months, I hope to talk about international crime fiction more widely, have guest contributors, cover reveals and exclusive additional material (such as short stories). If you think you’d like to be part of the Corylus family, you can sign up for the newsletter on our homepage.

The Ides of March: Two Italian authors

There’s a tenuous explanation for why I decided to read mainly Italian literature during the month of March – namely, the famous Ides of March assassination of Julius Caesar, and generally an important ‘adminny’ type day in the Roman Empire, the day of settling debts (filling out your tax returns?), as well as the start of a number of religious festivals. But the truth is that I have a bit of a gap in my literary knowledge when it comes to modern Italian literature, so I thought it was high time I did something about it.

I am also publishing this a day early (on a Tuesday instead of a Wednesday), to fit in with both the Ides of March and with the last day of the #ReadIndies initiative launched by two of my favourite bloggers, known on Twitter as @kaggsy59 and @LizzySiddal. Both publishers featured here are small independent publishers based in London (and Melbourne).

Natalia Ginzburg: The Little Virtues, transl. Dick Davis, Daunt Books.

I knew more about Ginzburg’s life as an anti-Fascist Jewish intellectual and activist rather than her literature, but it’s a delight to discover her writing now. Perhaps her cool, limpid style (with anger or sorrow always brimming just below the surface) suits our angry times. There is something of the self-contained, understated and clear-eyed attitude of Joan Didion about this collection of essays, but there are plenty of hints that there are deeper, more emotional currents underneath.

Not all of the essays in this collection are entirely successful. I thought she was in danger of stereotyping and being judgemental in the two essays written during her stay in England (she is particularly scathing about English food, which possibly was quite dreadful in the 1960s). ‘Winter in the Abbruzzi’ is perhaps her most personal one, describing the period when she and her husband Leone Ginzburg had to go into internal exile in a remote countryside location during WW2 and ending with one of the most heartbreaking final paragraphs I’ve read in a long while (her husband was tortured to death in 1944).

My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us—to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever—only now do I realize it.

As a parent, one of the most interesting essays for me personally was the titular ‘The Little Virtues’, an appeal to parents to cultivate the riskier but far more important humane virtues in their children rather than the practical little ones. You may raise misfits who cannot duck and weave their way in society, but wouldn’t it be a much better society if we all had those virtues? I remember someone telling me soon after my arrival in the UK that English politeness was a stand-in for genuine empathy (although I have experienced both here).

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; not 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.

Ginzburg had five children, three with her first husband and two with her second (one of them died in infancy), so she is more aware than most about domesticity encroaching upon one’s art. What I love particularly is her not at all romanticised view of the relationship between parents and children, which must have been quite revolutionary for post-war Italy. In ‘Human Relationships’ she takes us full circle from adolescent rebellion to friendships, to love, marriage and parenthood – and then being rejected by one’s teenage children, pricking the pomposity and stubborn beliefs of the various ages with her dry wit. At other times, her words sound like advice imparted by a gentle, wise mentor:

Our relationship with our children should be a living exchange of thoughts and feelings, but it should also include deep areas of silence: it should be an intimate relationship but it must not violently intrude on their privacy… We must be important to our children and yet not too important; they must like us a little, and yet not like us too much… for them we should be a simple point of departure, we should offer them the springboard from which they make their leap… they must realise that they do not belong to us, but that we belong to them, that we are always available, present in the next room… And if we ourselves have a vocation, if we have not betrayed it, if over the years we have continued to love it, to serve it passionately, we are able to keep all sense of ownership out of our love for our children.

Still trying to achieve all of the above, but it’s easier said than done!

The most interesting essay of all for a writer (or artist of any kind) is ‘My Vocation’, which seamlessly combines self-deprecating humour (when describing her early attempts at literature, for example) and wise counsel about the social and historical role of a writer, as well as the challenges of keeping the personal and the artistic in balance. She compares the ways she was writing when she was happy and when she was grieving, and there were so many instances where I gasped at how well she had nailed it:

When we are happy we feel that we are cooler, clearer, more separate from reality. When we are happy we tend to create characters who are very different from ourselves… What we lack is compassion. Superficially we are much more generous in the sense that we always find the strength to be interested in others and devote our time to them – we are not that preoccupied with ourselves because we don’t need anything… When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality.

As far as the things we write are concerned there is a danger in grief just as there is a danger in happiness. Because poetic beauty is a mixture of ruthlessness, pride, irony, physical tenderness, of imagination and memory, of clarity and obscurity – and if we cannot gather all these things together we are left with something meagre, unreliable and hardly alive.

This applies equally well to those who live in poverty and therefore have little energy or appetite left for creativity (which creates a link with the Prunetti book below).

I can see how Elena Ferrante was inspired in her essays by Ginzburg, and I am glad that Ferrante’s popularity has led to a rediscovery of this opinionated but always extremely precise writer. Ginzburg said she originally wanted to write like a man, which is why she steered clear of any hint of emotion in her work. After she had children, however, she started allowing more of her whole self to seep in, much to the delight of her readers. Yet she remains unsentimental, deceptively simple in style, unadorned like an early Byzantine icon, not at all like the stereotype we have of the expansive, baroque Italian exuberance.

Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy, transl. Elena Pala, Scribe.

Prunetti is also politically left-wing and this book is largely autobiographical, but otherwise he is about as different from Ginzburg as a writer as it is possible to get. (And I think he would be the first to acknowledge it). In contrast the well-educated middle-class background of Ginzburg’s family in Milan, Prunetti grew up in a steel town in Tuscany at a time when the steel industry is in steep decline and unemployment among Italy’s youth is at a record high. He is the first in his family to go to university but fails to find a job upon graduation. So he decides to come to England and work in various low-paid jobs (pizza chef, cleaner, school canteen worker) to learn the language properly.

He finds he has a lot in common with the English working classes (‘the oppressed are the same everywhere’, as his father taught him) and beyond, for his workmates are quite an international bunch. His often quite graphic descriptions of the humiliations of the job, the supercilious and absurd bosses, customers who are either too fussy or ignore them, as well as the petty revenge these workers sometimes enact may not be to everyone’s taste. I didn’t mind them that much, but they didn’t always sit comfortably in juxtaposition with literary references and quotes, from Shakespeare, the Angry Young Men, A Clockwork Orange, R. L. Stevenson and H.P. Lovecraft.

Above all, of course, this book is a recreation of Orwell’s famous Down and Out in Paris and London for the 1990s. But I think there are significant differences too. I am always one to appreciate a sympathetic description of life on the margins of society, showing that there is far greater humanity and diversity there than generally portrayed in the media. I certainly liked the fact that the author does not see himself as ‘superior’ to the other workers he encounters (neither does Orwell), but I felt there was a lot more of ‘I, I, I’ in this story than in Orwell’s work and that certain characters were potentially exaggerated for comic effect. In other words, he has a ‘spillage’ of words and he doesn’t know the meaning of understatement – far closer to the cliché image of Italians.

Yet the final chapter, with his return to Italy for his father’s death, and witnessing the final closure of the steelworks, is quieter and all the more moving for that. A bit of a marmite book, but an interesting look at low-paid work in Britain from the perspective of an outsider.

Monthly Summary and Reading Plans for Start of 2022

You can see that December included holidays, a mood of hibernation and about 10 days without the children, because I read an inordinate amount of books and saw many films as well. I also managed to do some translating (about 28000 words, which brings me to just over a third of the way through the novel I’m working on). It was all rather cosy, but I hope to get more physically active in the New Year, as well as work on my own writing (no submissions at all this month).

Reading

18 books (although one was a DNF), of which:

  • 8 were for the Russians in the Snow theme of the month. I particularly enjoyed a return to the classics, such as Gogol and Turgenev, but I also enjoyed discovering new authors such as Victor Pelevin and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I’ve failed to review the Bulgakov short stories or the memoirs about Marina Tsvetaeva by her daughter. And who would have thought I’d also find a retro-detective crime series set in St Petersburg and written by a Russian?
  • Two books were for the Virtual Crime Fiction Book Club: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which I found rather harsh on the emotions, and John Banville’s Snow, which was not as cosy as I expected and just a tad overwritten.
  • There were several other books with a rather grim subject matter: In the Dream House (about an abusive lesbian relationship), Godspeed (about losing your youthful dreams and wasting your life chasing the impossible), mothers and sons and coping with lockdown in The Fell, and A Man (trying to disappear from your old life and forge a new identity). With the exception of the last of these, which felt rather stiff and pedestrian in its prose (not sure if that is the author himself or the translation), they were all very well written, which made the dark subject matter worth reading about
  • I tried to counterbalance this with lighter, escapist reading, such as Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis, The Pact by Sharon Bolton and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden.

Overall, I read 170 books this year, which is perhaps understandable since I had nowhere much to go and a couple of weeks without the children. However, it’s not even in the Top 3 of my years of reading (since I started keeping track of the books on Goodreads in 2013). Top place goes to 2014 (189 books), followed by 2015 (179) and 2016 (175). Unsurprising, perhaps, since those were the three years of marriage breakdown and lots of anxiety about the future, so I was looking for escape in books. This year also had its fair share of escapist reading, but felt much more grounded in good literature, in books that I truly enjoyed or authors I wanted to explore.

Reviewing, Blogging, Writing

Needless to say, with so much reading, I was unable to keep up with the reviewing, especially since I went a little wild with no less than six different categories for Best of the Year summaries: Modern Classics, Rereading, New Releases, Newly Discovered Authors, Deep Dives into Favourite Authors, and Page Turners.

Nevertheless, I managed an astounding 180 blog posts this year, writing nearly 150,000 words in the process. As a friend of mine says: ‘Why do you waste so much time crafting blog posts instead of working on your novel?’ I suppose it’s the instant gratification of receiving likes and comments. That is partly the reason why I submitted various shorter pieces (poetry and flash fiction) – you win a few, you lose a lot, but at least you get feedback a bit more quickly than when you work on a novel in isolation for years and years. In February 2022 I will be coming up to ten years of blogging and maybe it’s time I thought more carefully about what I want to achieve with it and if it’s worth continuing (at this pace).

I submitted about 40-45 times this year, got 24 rejections and 8 acceptances, but I got very discouraged when my novel didn’t get long or shortlisted at any of the various competitions I entered, so stopped working on it for several months. I hope to come back to it in 2022 – and make it a crunch year. Either I complete the novel to my satisfaction and start submitting it to agents, or else I ditch it and get started on something else.

I’m also working on another translation from Romanian and find that it helps my own writing, because I keep trying to figure out sentence structures and how to make them sound more natural in English. Plus I keep wanting to edit other people’s work, as if I could do any better! 😉

Films

I can’t even begin to review all the films I watched this month – no less than 19 (and there might be 1-2 more before New Year). Some of them were rewatches, typical of the Christmas holidays, like My Fair Lady, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, L’Avventura and Desperately Seeking Susan. Others were family films to watch with the boys – a very few Christmassy themed, like Tokyo Godfathers or Klaus, but mostly just films that have become classics, such as Fargo or The Usual Suspects. I also had fun watching Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse or Vivo or Inside Out or Tick Tick… Boom! (I was not a huge fan of the music of Rent, but I liked what Rent set out to show, and the film itself about the constantly thwarted creative artist or whether art serves any purpose nowadays rang a lot of bells, of course!)

The two that surprised me most were:

1) West Side Story, the new version, which I had initially dismissed as an unnecessary remake and probably doomed to failure. However, I really liked the way it stuck to some of the most loved aspects of the original yet also brought in some new elements quite successfully.

2) Winter Nomads – a documentary about shepherds who practice transhumance over the winter months, when the fields lie fallow, in the Valais and Vaud region of Switzerland.

Reading Plans

I will continue my eclectic mix of approximate planning, yet leaving plenty of room for serendipity. I also plan to focus a lot more on what I currently have on my bookshelves, as I prepare to move abroad (and have a thorough clearout of my books) in a couple of years.

January will be dedicated largely to Japanese literature, as usual. I have already started reading in preparation for that (A Man by Keiichiro Hirano) and it will be a mix of old and new, perhaps a reread or two: Tanizaki Junichiro, Endo Shusaku, Nakagami Kenji, Yosano Akiko, Miura Shion, Murakami Haruki and Natsume Soseki.

February I am thinking of going to the southern hemisphere and reading mostly Australian literature (or NZ or Indonesia if I have anything from there). The list of authors is still to be determined, but at first glance I see I have one unread Shirley Hazzard there, plus Elizabeth Harrower, Romy Ash, Miles Franklin and Frank Moorhouse. It’s a part of the world about which I know very little, so it’s bound to be a surprise.

In March I will explore Italian literature – although I am learning Italian and love the country, language and culture very much indeed, I haven’t read all that much Italian literature. I have built up a small collection of modern classics and contemporary literature that I can’t wait to try: Massimo Cuomo, Claudia Durastanti, Andrea Bajani and Alberto Prunetti, as well as better-known ones such as Italo Svevo, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese and Curzio Malaparte.

Finally, I want to read more poetry and weave it throughout everything else I do. Random opening of volumes of poetry, using favourite poets to ‘fortune-tell’ what my day or week might be like, close reading of an unfamiliar poem and discovering new poets: I want it all.

There Are Bored Foreign Teenagers Too!

I recently came across this feature in The Guardian about bored teenagers in literature as selected by John Patrick McHugh – and really liked many of the titles listed, some of which deserve to be better known. However, we come up against this problem over and over again in the Anglo-Saxon world: very little awareness of literature that is not written in English.

Much as I love the ‘Write Around the World’ literary travels with Richard E. Grant currently showing on BBC4, and much as I appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patricia Highsmith to have only two foreign writers out of seven in both the episode on Italy and the one on the South of France feels rather… provincial. My blogger friend Emma in France is always puzzled why there is such reluctance to read books in translation in the Anglocentric world and has a Translation Tragedy category on her blog. (This applies also to English books that haven’t been translated into French, but more often books in other languages that haven’t been translated into English).

Anyway, back to stroppy teenagers (a subject which has somewhat incensed me this week, I have to admit). There are so many superb books about teenagers in world literature – and a few of those have made it into the English-speaking world too. So here is my correction to that Guardian list. Quite a few of these titles also fit into the #WITMonth project, if you are looking for inspiration.

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse, transl. Heather Lloyd, Penguin Modern Classics

The quintessential story of a bored wealthy teenager who cannot resist manipulating all the people around her, especially the women who seem to be gravitating around her father. Written when the author was still in her teens herself, this short book scandalised French society at the time (1950s) and led to a life of success and excess for Sagan. (This would also have fit in perfectly with the Write Around Episode set in France and has had a Hollywood adaptation).

Jean Seberg giving the evil eye to David Niven and Deborah Kerr in the 1958 film directed by Otto Preminger.

Trifonia Melibenia Obono: La Bastarda, transl. Lawrence Schimel, The Feminist Press at CUNY

The teenage protagonist here is anything but privileged: Okomo is an orphan, raised by her grandmother in Equatorial Guinea. She longs to find her father and in doing so gets involved with the illicit gay subculture in her country, which she finds far more welcoming than her own mainstream culture. It is also the first novel from that country to be translated into English.

Faiza Guene: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, transl. Sarah Adams, Harvest Original/Harcourt.

Again, a marked contrast to the genteel, wealthy French teen described by Sagan: this is the France of the banlieue, those ghetto-like suburbs of Paris. The heroine Doria is determined to prove that not all that comes out of these estates is crime and rap although all the odds seem stacked against her: her father has abandoned the family, her mother has to do cleaning jobs to make ends meet, the boy she loves doesn’t seem to notice her, and she has just about had enough of school…

Janne Teller: Nothing, transl. Martin Aitken, Strident Publishing.

Denmark may often be touted as the happiest country in the world, but for Pierre Anthon, the teenager at the heart of this book, it is most certainly not the case. One day, he has an existential crisis ‘he realized that nothing was worth doing, because nothing meant anything anyway’ and climbs up a tree. Nothing that his classmates say or do can convince him to come down again. Philosophy is clearly important to Scandinavian teenagers (remember ‘Sophie’s World’ by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder), and this is a very interesting attempt to counteract teen nihilism.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis, Jonathan Cape (no named translator!)

At the start of this autobiographical graphic novel, the authors is a child, but in the subsequent volumes she grows up and describes both her daily life in Iran in a time of Islamic revolution and war with Iraq, as well as her difficulties in adapting to life in exile.

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, transl. Jamie McKendrick, Penguin Modern Classics

A will-they, won’t-they teenage love story set in 1930s Italy, when the anti-semitic laws introduced by Mussolini means that the young narrator of the story is kicked out of the local tennis club in Ferrara and is invited to play tennis in the private garden of the wealthy Finzi-Continis. Elegy for a lost world, with the author telling us early on in the book that the glamorous family he so admired were deported and killed in concentration camps during the war.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick, transl. as ‘Why We Took the Car’ by Tim Mohr, Scholastic

Mike and Tschick are two German teenage boys – or rather, Tschick is the nickname of a Russian immigrant boy, whose surname is too complicated for anyone to even attempt to pronounce. They feel like outsiders, never get invited to any of the cool parties and during the summer holidays, they take an ancient Lada for a spin and end up making a road trip out of it.

Tschick has also been adapted for film as ‘Goodbye, Berlin’ directed by Fatih Akin.

Makoto Shinkai: Your Name, Yen Press.

This YA novel was released around the same time as the animated film directed by Shinkai, describing two teenagers, a boy and a girl, bored of their daily routines in the city and the countryside respectively, who end up switching bodies periodically. They communicate through notes and text messages on their phones, but when the boy makes an attempt to visit the girl in the countryside, he discovers that her village has been obliterated by a falling comet.

Tsugumi Oba & Takeshi Obata: Death Note, Shonen Jump.

I cannot avoid mentioning Death Note when I talk about Japanese teenagers: this is a very different kettle of fish than the romantic and sweet Your Name. It is a manga that became an hugely successful anime series and a (somewhat less superlative) film. It’s the story of cocky teenager Light Yagami who finds a mysterious, dark notebook, which confers the ability upon the owner to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages. And so Light becomes a vigilante, initially planning to create a more just world by killing all criminals, until the power goes to his head…

Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, transl. Christopher Moncrieff & Christopher Bartholomew, Istros Books.

Mircea Eliade became a revered (although controversial) professor of world religions, but this is a fairly autobiographical novel that he wrote as a teen and never published in his lifetime. Although it takes place in Bucharest a hundred years ago, it is a universal story of the monumental egoism but also lack of confidence, search for identity and everyday failure of teenagers everywhere. Although there are shades of the insufferable Holden Caulfield here, this book doesn’t try too hard to be clever. The strength of the book lies in precisely those passages where the narrator unwittingly reveals all of his adolescent naiveté and doubts which are both funny and touching.

I could have made a much longer list, but the original had ten, so these ten will do for starters. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent French novella that we published at Corylus Books Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy, transl. Graham Roberts, in which we spend some rather tense time with disaffected teenagers in a run-down school and a French literature class. A guest author is visiting, the ineffectual teacher is ogling at her much to the amusement of his pupils, and then the school enters lockdown because of a potential terrorist attack…

Very good timing to talk about teenagers in literature: wishing you success to all the UK students getting their GCSE results today!

Can You Hear Me by Elena Varvello #EU27Project #WITMonth

How nice to find a book which fits in perfectly with two reading challenges! A contemporary entry for Women in Translation Month and for Italy in #EU27Project.

Elena Varvello is an Italian author from Turin and this is her first novel to be translated into English by Alex Valente. It has been described as a coming of age story and a thriller, but it is far more of the first, although it does have its suspenseful moments. It is also the story of the fissures tearing apart a family (or even two families) and a description of an individual mental breakdown and its effect on others.

The narrator is sixteen-year-old Elia Furenti, who lives with his mother and father on the outskirts of a small town in northern Italy, in a valley with a river, surrounded by forests. Despite its seemingly idyllic location, the town has fallen on hard times. The local factory has closed down and his father has lost his job. His father could be humorous and lively, but also a bit odd, yet the relationship between his parents has always been very loving. Yet after the closure of the factory, his father’s eccentricities have taken a turn for the worse. He seems to think there is a conspiracy against him and disappears for hours at a time. When a local boy goes missing, Elia can’t help but feel his father is somehow involved. And there is worse to follow…

If I have made this sound like a thriller, I am misleading you. Yes, there is a sense of foreboding and ‘what will happen next’. Especially in that part of the book which alternates chapters between Elia’s experience – how he befriends a boy his own age Stefano and his mother Anna, who have also been let down by a man – and his father’s attempt at kidnapping the girl who minds their neighbour’s daughter. (I am not giving away anything, as the author baldly states it in the very first sentence.)

But overall, it is far more about the unspoken, about all the things that crack open a facade and leave people broken, even though they pretend to be resilient. It is about people hiding the truth even from themselves. It is clear that Elia’s father suffers from some form of schizophrenia and/or paranoia, but everyone refuses to acknowledge it or seek help. This might seem infuriatingly obvious to readers, but from personal experience of friends with schizophrenia, I have seen families denying the fact for years, even decades.

Valley around Turin. From Tripsavvy.

With its ability to capture the tormented adolescent soul, it reminded me of Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but this is far less idyllic and nostalgic. The tense, moody atmosphere, conveyed not through purple prose, but through a very restrained, economical style, is more reminiscent of Alberto Moravia. There are also hints of that author’s disenchantment with human nature, modern life and that elusive myth of finding happiness.

The book cover of Can You Hear Me captures that one moment of unalloyed happiness in the whole story. Yet even that is tinged by the discovery of some squashed beer cans in his one place of freedom and happiness. The idyllic valley becomes claustrophobic and Elia can’t wait to grow and move away… to another valley, another river, another forest just like the one he can’t quite leave behind.

Feverish after Ferrante?

ferrante1I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.

But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.

The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’.  After the next few chapters, I paused:  ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.

Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other.  Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.

Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.
Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.

She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.

One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:

…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.

Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:

Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.

elenaferranteI’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.

At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.

Coming of Age: Then and Now, in Many Countries

I was amused and charmed by the somewhat meandering vignettes of the millenial generation in Lisa Owen’s recent release Not Working. As luck would have it, I had just recently read some other books about growing up and youthful malaise, although all of them took place in other countries and other decades, so I decided to have some fun comparing all of these.

notworkingLisa Owens: Not Working

I expected this to be a bit aimless and self-pitying – the comparison with Bridget Jones did it no favours in my eyes. But I found it sharply observed, funny and perfectly encapsulating the vacancy and emptiness of much of what we take for ‘desirable, sensible goals’ in contemporary life. It is a great portrait of a generation who has (had to?) become cynical before its time.

Claire is in her mid 20s and has quit her meaningless office job to find her ‘true passion’ in life. The problem is, she is not quite sure what that might be, and fears that she may not be cut out for ‘great passions’ at all. Content to amble around, stay in a reasonably comfortable relationship, not embark on anything too adventurous, procrastinate for hours – Claire is our own worst self, someone we can all relate to (if we are being completely honest). She is also much brighter and more self-aware than the hapless being she appears to be, which makes her self-mockery endearing rather than infuriating.

The book has no plot to speak of (although there is some character development, as Claire realises just how important her family is to her and makes up her own mind about the buddleia in her garden), but it really is fun to read, full of acerbic observations, great wit and accurate observations, such as:

Economics
What actually becomes of all this terrible art for sale in cafes, costing the earth?

Job description
Words like ‘maestro’ and ‘superstar’, twinned with ‘administrator’ and ‘volunteer’.

I spend the morning planning an elaborate meal for Luke, composed of recipes from five different websites.
‘So, what have you been up to today?’ Luke asks through a mouthful of Slow-cooked Pulled Pork and Super Zingy Slaw, breaking off a chunk of the Best Jalapeno Cornbread to mop up what’s left of the sauce from the Mac ‘n’ Cheese With All the Bells ‘n’ Whistles.

The same, single article ‘How to Find Your Dream Job’ advises me to: burn all my plans, tear up the rulebook, shop around, try on different hats, county my blessings (and gifts), be kind to myself (yet realistic), listen to my dreams, follow my heart (ditto the path less travelled), move the goalposts, change gears, consider my options, watch out for signs, test the water with a toe before diving in headfirst, take the economic pulse, listen to my elders, ignore all advice.

Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / www.paulwf.co.uk
Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / http://www.paulwf.co.uk

Jean-Michel Guenassia: Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes

It’s 1959 and young Michel is discovering rock’n’roll, the first tremors of love and the war in Algeria. In the back room of a Paris bistro, he gives in to his passion for table-football and meets anti-Communist refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, as well as left-leaning philosophers such as Sartre. They loosely form a club, and they might be called optimists because, despite all the terrible news which engulfs them (deaths and desertion in Algeria, poverty and loss of trust and family in Russia and Hungary, broken dreams and love stories), they still hope in a better future.

Although we do hear details of Michel’s family and school life, his preparation for the baccalaureate, losing and making new friends, this is not so much the story of an individual coming of age. Instead, it seeks to paint a fresco of the times (late 1950s to early 1960s) and is framed by the story of the narrator meeting one of the former club members in the present day for the funeral of Sartre. Many poignant and sad personal stories are contained in its pages, but I have to admit this took me longer to read than normally. Not just because it is quite a chunky book, but it didn’t have me rushing back to it every time I put it down (although I did enjoy being transported into that world whenever I picked it up).

diaryeliadeMircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent

By way of contrast, there is very little to place Eliade’s teenage narrator within a specific historical context, although the sense of place – a more leisurely-paced Bucharest – is beautifully conveyed. Surely post WW1 Romania was a hotbed of political and cultural turmoil, but the author does not choose to explore that at all. The narrator shows all the geekiness, neediness and self-absorption typical of adolescents everywhere, and anyone who has been young will recognise many of the problems he describes with school, approaching girls, grandiose plans for becoming famous, procrastination when it comes to revision, and beating one’s self up for all sorts of failures. So far, so similar to Not Working, except that the protagonist here is 15, studies insects and discusses philosophy and French romantic poets.

The spice of the story comes from the contrast between the erudite and polyglot Mircea Eliade, philosopher and professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, and the awkward, geeky adolescent he portrays in this lightly disguised memoir of his high-school years. Although Eliade himself never considered the book worthy of publication (only a fragment was published during his lifetime), it is fun and remains surprisingly fresh after all these years (although the English translation tends to reinforce the ‘period feel’ rather than the timeless nature of the story). A full review of this will appear in May on the Necessary Fiction website, but this is the nearest in spirit (and self-mockery) to Lisa Owen’s book.

storynewnameElena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name

It’s hard to remember that the girls populating this second volume in the Neapolitan series are only adolescents themselves as the novel opens. Just 16 and already married, Lila soon discovers her mistake. She has given up her education and ambitions for financial security and involvement in the family business. Meanwhile, the narrator Elena struggles to live up to her teacher’s expectations at school and escape from her working-class neighbourhood in Naples. So this too is very much a coming of age story, coupled with loss of innocence and expectations.

I was impressed with Elena Ferrante’s standalone novel Days of Abandonment, but resisted this tetralogy for quite some time. I was afraid that it would be the kind of ‘family saga’ of working-class girl made good type (Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford) which I enjoyed in my teens, but don’t read much now. After reading this book (without reading the first in the series, so perhaps I am coming to it ‘cold’), I am not quite as won over as all the hype of ‘Ferrante Fever’ would have us believe.

Not that it is bad – certainly not trashy, throwaway fiction. I loved the realistic descriptions of the ebb and flow of female friendships, the need to both escape one’s background and yet never quite fitting in anywhere else, women giving up on their dreams and yet persevering, the resilience and vulnerability of youth. What is perhaps startling and new to English readers is the passion and candour that comes across, as well as all the exotic detail of life in poor neighbourhoods of Naples in the 1950s/60s. For someone who has heard and seen first-hand the rural poverty that my mother was trying to escape from (very similar story to Elena but in Romania of the same time period), and who has listened to many similar stories of macho men and resilient women, this is all familiar ground. Furthermore, Romanian women writers of the 1930s whom I devoured in high school had already opened the way to exploration of feelings, sexuality, self-improvement and even feminism. Authors such as Cella Serghi, Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu, Martha Bibesco, or later ones such as Gabriela Adamesteanu, Dora Pavel, Doina Rusti or Nora Iuga have a similar ability to bring unbridled passion and unfettered feminine wit to a story. I’m not claiming that all these writers are better or even equal to Ferrante – merely that they are treading similar paths.

 

Why Translate?

This is a summary of the hugely entertaining and interesting session on literary translation that I mentioned earlier. Margaret Jull Costa (award-winning translator from Spanish and Portuguese, of José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa, Javier Marías, Bernardo Atxaga and many more) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including Primo Levi, Leopardi, Pasolini and most recently Elena Ferrante) were moderated by Boris Dralyuk (himself a translator of poetry and prose from Russian, including Andrei Kurkov and Tolstoy).

Margaret Jull Costa
Margaret Jull Costa

How did you get started in translation?

MJC: I was always useless at most subjects at school but fell in love with the translations I had to do for my Spanish A Levels and discovered I could do them. I then went on to study Spanish and Portuguese at university and was asked to translate some Garcia Marquez for a Granta magazine project – so I started at the very top.

AG: I fell into it more by accident. I fell in love with the Italian language and wanted to read Dante in the original. So I had Italian classes and at some point in 1992 was asked to read an Italian novel in the original by my boss, purely in order to reject it. But I loved it and translated part of it.

BD: My family was Russian-speaking, from Ukraine, but we came to the UK when I was a child, so I forgot all about Russian until I rediscovered it when I was 14. I then fell in love with the beauty of it, especially the poetry.

anngoldsteinWhich has been your most challenging translation project?

AG: All of them! There’s no such thing as an easy book – even the ones that seem easy are deceptive. Simplicity is sometimes harder to translate, because it can sound pedestrian and banal, while a difficult writer is easier to render into another language.

MJC: Poetry is very challenging. Especially since Spanish and Portuguese are very flowery languages and English isn’t at all, so you have to ‘unflower’ the lines. The syntax and grammar are much more rigid in English, too, while in Romance languages the place of words is more fluid, the pronouns are often dropped and so on.

BD: Dialogue is really hard to get right, to make it sound natural. You have to hear it in your head. I am currently translating stories by Isaac Babel set in my home town of Odessa. And it’s all this jargon and slang (this is where local knowledge really helps), but just so difficult to capture that flavour into English. I’ve gone for a slight American gangster tone.

Do you have a set routine?

MJC: I just sit down at my desk and work. I’m fortunate enough to be doing translations full-time – that’s my day job. I don’t know how you guys manage to do it on top of other jobs, because it can be quite exhausting. My desk is a mess, I surround myself with dictionaries, papers, notes.

AG: It is time-consuming and tiring. I work in the early morning, weekends and during my vacations, sometimes a little bit in the office. I use the internet a lot, not so much for dictionaries, but for extra research, Google images to see what an object might look like, or for further research.

dralyukborisBD: I work on it whenever I’m supposed to be doing something boring in the office. I too use the internet a lot, but I print out and edit on paper, it reads very differently then.

MJC: It is physically exhausting, playing with someone else’s words all day  – which is why interpreters at the UN get paid a lot.

Do you prefer living or dead authors?

We all prefer dead authors, because they are very quiet. But we have developed some lovely relationships with living authors – it is such a privilege and relationship of trust. I suppose they like talking to someone who knows their work so well and many are grateful to be translated into English – as long as they don’t think they know English better than you.

Do you read scholarly/critical works?

MJC: Only if I have to write an intro.

AG: I’m not scholarly at all, I don’t even have a degree in Italian. I know nothing at all about translation theory. But sometimes it can be helpful – for instance, I did ask the experts at the Primo Levi Centre in Turin.

BD: I would only read after doing the translation, so as not to taint my feelings.

What would be your dream project?

MJC: I’ve been lucky enough to have already worked on that – a 19th century Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz. I translated all his ten novels.

AG: I’ve fallen into everything by chance. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to translate Pasolini, but I became fascinated by him. And, although Primo Levi has been translated, I was delighted to become involved in a project to translate all of his oeuvre.

Who do you wish would get more attention?

AG: Leopardi – a few of his poems are well-known, but his quasi journal filled with philosophical observations Zibaldone is a massive work which deserves to be read more widely. Out of the contemporary writers, I’ve most enjoyed Alessandro Baricco. But let’s face it, translated fiction in general doesn’t get much attention.

Do you have a target audience in mind when you translate?

MJC: No, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I translate what I enjoy reading.

How do you feel about retranslating the classics?

AG: After 50 years even very good translations can seem dated. There is always room for a new translation – the differences between the various versions can be astonishing. You have to approach your translation as if it will be the definitive one.

King's Place
King’s Place

Would you translate something you’re not passionate about?

Yes. [Laughter – implication being that it pays]

BD: I’d try to work up some passion about at least some aspects of the work and its author.

MJC: It can be hard if you don’t like the writer at all, but you don’t have to think he or she is a good writer, you can still do a good job.

AG: And you learn something even in those cases, something which will help you in those projects that you are passionate about.

How does your own style influence your translation?

MJC: That’s my greatest fear – that all the authors I translate will start to sound like me. Ultimately, it’s a little bit like being an actor – the charm of doing all the different voices.

 

The Fiction of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Tamaz Chiladze’s The Brueghel Moon are both about the breakdown of marriage and the disastrous effects this has on the psyche of the person who is left behind. Both of them also show, with devastating clarity, how the abandoned partner then proceeds to wreak havoc on the people around them as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and identity. They are anything but dry reads with a thesis, however.

BrueghelMoonChiladze is a Georgian poet, novelist and playwright and comes from a notable literary family: his mother was a poet, his younger brother was also a poet and journalist, credited with playing an important role in the resurrection of Georgian literature in the post-Stalinist era. Have you ever read a Georgian author before? No, neither have I – so it’s kudos to Dalkey Archive for opening up this chapter and this world for us. And it’s clearly a very different world indeed.

However, I can now add Georgia to my Global Reading Challenge – as an unexpected (and controversial) entrant for Europe. Yes, there has been some debate whether Georgia, which is located on the Caucasian peninsula, is in Europe or in Asia, but the population certainly considers itself more European than anything else.

‘Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it,’ Chiladze says in an interview – and he certainly succeeds in that. It’s the story of a psychotherapist, Levan, who is suffering a mid-life crisis and starts blurring the borders between his personal and his professional life. His wife leaves him just as the novel opens. Levan is baffled but emotionally frozen, yet soon embarks upon illicit relationships with not just one but two of his patients – the enigmatic Nunu (an astrophysicist who appears to know some state secrets and who perhaps was involved in her husband’s death) and the fragile, depressed Ana-Maria, wife of the French ambassador, who attempted to commit suicide. The points of view shift between these three main protagonists, sometimes within the same chapter, from 1st to 3rd person, so it’s not always easy to tell who says what. The voices themselves are not distinct enough. These are all intellectually gifted people perpetually on the edge of a breakdown.

I found the perpetual shifts confusing: just as I was warming to one particular voice, I had to acquaint myself with a new one. I also found the monologues of Levan at times a little too self-referential, too didactic. For example:

My composure is an act, a ploy. My professional mask. The questions asked by my patients might sound abnormal, but are deeply human and only someone hiding behind the mask of composure can ward them off… I have erected a lofty wall around myself, which means not only that it’s impenetrable for others, but that my essence can’t get out either, being confined within, unable to splash in the stormy waves of what’s called Life…

A contrast to the ‘splashing’ in emotional and stormy waves in Ferrante’s book, obviously. There was something a little arid about The Brueghel Moon, which didn’t quite allow me to fully engage .I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the lack of contextual knowledge on my part. Nevertheless, this was an interesting depiction of a country and period in recent history about which I know very little.

daysabandonFerrante’s book has the upper hand when it comes to reader engagement: by focusing on just one narrator, one side of the story, we have a coherent, undiluted dramatic monologue. And what a monologue it is! It sweeps the reader (and all else before it) away in a relentless turmoil and maelstrom of emotions. This is bold, brassy, uncensored description of wallowing in self-pity, anger, desire for revenge, confusion and loss of self-esteem. And it’s all described in Technicolor, not in a genteel, quiet way. This way of handling emotions is not that unfamiliar to me coming from a Latin culture: we are noisy and expressive and shameless. Think of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother – or indeed pretty much any Almodovar film. Think of the impassioned gesticulation of Camilleri’s characters in his Montalbano novels.

Yet the narrative is tightly controlled. It all starts in a matter-of-fact way. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Olga is thirty-eight, tidy, neat, precise, the kind of woman who always puts in commas and avoids the melodramatics of her family back in Naples. She is married to Mario, lives in Turin and has two young children, a girl and a boy. So Olga’s descent into a messy hell of bereavement is all the more shocking.

The author knows exactly what she is doing, however, how much to reveal and how she wants us to view her main character, even though the language and thoughts seem to flow so naturally and uncensored. Olga behaves erratically, sometimes descending into farcical situations (the shards in the pasta sauce) or tragicomedy (being locked inside the house, unable to open the door, with a dying dog, a child with a high temperature, and no telephone connection).

Her  internal monologue appears to be captured in a literal transcription, with no filter, admitting even her most bizarre, unsayable thoughts: what if she just left her children in the park? what if she were to use her neighbour as a sexual prop? I could not help but feel sorry for her, deeply empathetic to her plight, yet also faintly repulsed and wanting to shake her out of her stupor. Olga has given up her own ambitions and career for marriage and motherhood, and now is furious at the double betrayal: by societal expectations, but also by biology. Her chilling condemnation of maternal instinct is miles away from the cosy pictures we get to see elsewhere.

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.

Ultimately, both of the main protagonists of these novels are self-centred, self-absorbed, but not really self-aware. That’s why I suspect they are quite credible descriptions of the despair of abandonment, even if they manifest themselves in different ways. I would certainly pick the Ferrante book over the other, partly because I can relate better to a female character, but also because on this occasion I prefer my emotions out in the open.