The latest addition to my website is Dušan Šarotar‘s Panorama (Panorama). This is a superb meditative novel, along the lines of the work of W G Sebald and Claudio Magris, though very much of its own kind. It is more poetical work than those, and makes extensive uses of photographs. Our narrator travels to Galway Bay, where he focuses on the terrible weather but also meets Gjini, an Albanian immigrant to Ireland who will act as his guide/alter ago both here in Galway and later in Belgium, specifically Ypres. He takes his photos, describes what he sees and listens to Gjini and others talk about issues such as language, belonging, identity, homeland and, of course, war and death. His travels (and the travels of others he recounts) take him to Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, Ypres, Sarajevo, Maribor and Mostar, where he takes his photos and meets others, particularly Eastern Europeans, who have often fled their homeland. He often sees the dark side but is not entirely negative by any means. It is a superb poetical work, the first work of Šarotar to be translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Yordan Radichkov‘s Les récits de Tcherkaski [Tales from Cherkazki]. As you can see I read the French translation of a selection of these Bulgarian tales. Though there is an English version, it is very hard to obtain. These are linked stories about the Bulgarian village of Cherkazki. The tales are often absurd, such as the story about the monster called a verblude which can take any form, from a smiling woman to a tree and can do lots of thing from creating the Sahara Desert to causing Noak’s Ark to appear. Sometimes, the absurd stories are very funny such as Gotsa Gueraskov’s trip to the Moon. He did not like it, as it was too dusty and made him sneeze, so he came right back. He was not much more impressed with Paris when he went there. Some are just plain funny, as with the account of the men trying to take their animals to market, with the animals naturally being reluctant to go, while the events are interspersed with the story of a man looking for his escaped Serbian pig. Barrage balloons, flea-sized spies, termites, leg warmers, strange wolves and hieroglyphs are just some of the subjects of the other stories. They are very well told, in the oral/folk tradition, very funny and very unpredictable.
The latest addition to my website is Abdulrazak Gurnah‘s Gravel Heart. Salim is a Tanzanian, living in Zanzibar. He lives with his parents but, when he is seven, his father moves out and lives in a small room. He also leaves his job at the water company and works at a market stall. Salim naturally does not know why this has happened. Part of the book is the explanation of why the father moved out. However, though the father explains all to Salim at the end of the book, we have more or less learned well before this the reason and the big revelation is not a big revelation but merely a filling in of details. In between we follow Salim’s life, first in Zanzibar and then in London and, finally, his return to Zanzibar to hear all from his father. It is an enjoyable enough book, following Salim’s life, but given that the big revelation occurred about half way through it is not terribly exciting as we follow his fairly mundane love, social and professional life.
The latest addition to my website is Wright Morris‘ Ceremony in Lone Tree. This is a follow-up to his The Field of Vision, but, in my opinion, a much better book. It features much of he same cast but with a few extra, who will, in the second part of the book, attend the eponymous ceremony, namely Tom Scanlon’s ninetieth birthday party, in the now almost deserted town of Lone Star. Scanlon spends most of the book asleep but his two daughters, Lois and Maxine, and their husbands and children feature, as does Gordon Boyd, friend of Walter McKee (husband of Lois). Boyd travels around, finding the A-bomb tests and a young woman he calls Daughter before arriving, almost inadvertently, in Lone Star. The others come from nearby but still carry as much emotional and mental baggage as Boyd, not least Lee Roy, nephew of Bud, Maxine’s husband. He is one of two murderers in this book – the other managed to kill ten, but Lee Roy only two. The ceremony itself is chaotic – a madhouse as Maxine describes it – but takes its course. It is an excellent novel, showing Morris as an excellent portrayer of the foibles and problems of the people of Nebraska.
The latest addition to my website is Martin Wickramasinghe‘s ගම්පෙරළිය (The Uprooted) Part 1: (The Village). This is the first novel in a trilogy which, though translated into English, is very difficult to obtain in the UK/US. It tells the story of how, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the feudal classes fell into decline, relying too much on the income from their land and marrying only their own class, while the middle classes rose. Don Adirian Kaisaruwatte Muhandiram and his family are the case in point. They reject the suit of Piyal, the young man teaching their daughters English, and, instead, marry their daughter Nanda to another impoverished gentleman. Piyal goes on to make his fortune in Colombo with army contracts, while Nanda and her husband become more and impoverished. Muhandiram dies, leaving his family almost completely broke. The novel had considerable success in Sri Lanka so it is difficult to see why it not readily available in the West.
The latest addition to my website is June Allison Gibbons‘ The Pepsi-Cola Addict. The novel was published by a vanity press and is now virtually impossible to obtain. June Allison Gibbons and her identical twin, Jennifer, were born on an RAF base in Aden. Their parents were from Barbados. They grew up in the UK, particularly Wales. From an early age, they had their own private language and rarely spoke to others, including their family, except in grunts and monosyllables. This fact and the fact that they were the only black children in the school, meant that they were bullied. June wrote this book as a teenager but it had no success, so the girls turned to crime. Thy were caught and sent to Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane. The day they were released Jennifer died. June is still alive at the time of writing.
The book tells the story of a fifteen-year old American boy who is addicted to Pepsi-Cola and has an on-again, off-again relationship with his girlfriend, Peggy. He is seduced by his (female) teacher, homosexually assaulted by his best friend and goes to prison for a botched robbery. (He was too busy drinking Pepsi in the shop to notice the arrival of the police.) In prison, a guard makes a homosexual approach to him and he sees a guard stabbed to death. Things do not go much better once he is out. It is not great literature but not a bad book though, admittedly, its interest is in part due to the life of its author.
The latest addition to my website is Claudio Magris‘ Danubio (Danube). This is not really a novel, though Magris himself calls it a drowned novel, and the introduction to my Italian edition calls it part novel/part non-fiction. It describes a journey from the source of the Danube (which is disputed) to its outlet in the Black Sea (also disputed) and also discusses the division between the Upper and Lower Danube (also disputed). It also discusses Strauss’ contention that the Danube is blue (not true and not invented by Strauss, either). However, what makes this book a classic of modern European literature is Magris’ brilliant discussion of and ruminations on the culture, history, literature, politics and habits of the people who live, fight and write around the Danube. The novel is full of stories about individuals, dead and alive, but also ruminations and discussion on major philosophical, literary and political questions, from the Holocaust to what makes a good work of literature. It is a superb book which not only will you not fail to enjoy but from which you will learn a lot you did not know about the history, literature and people of Mitteleuropa.
The latest addition to my website is Jane Bowles‘ Two Serious Ladies. The story mirrors, to a certain degree, Bowles’ own life and the life of her husband, Paul Bowles. It is also her only completed novel, published when she was twenty-five. It is a decidedly strange novel and got very mixed reviews when first published and had very limited success. The two serious ladies are Christian Goering and Frieda Copperfield though, throughout the book, they are usually referred to as Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield. The two meet briefly early in the book, and right at the end but, apart from those meetings, follow their own path. Miss Goering has generally been disliked by others, both as a child and as an adult. She does not particularly care, as she is well-off. She takes in a companion, Lucie Gamelon, in her expensive New York house, before moving to a house on an island, with Lucie, Arnold, a man she met at the same party where she met Mrs Copperfield and Arnold’s father, before going off with a rough man who thinks she is a prostitute. Mrs. Copperfield goes to Panama with her husband and has a Lesbian affair with a teenage prostitute, before falling to pieces though this is something, she says, she always wanted to do. The book is essentially about women leading their own life in their own way, however wrong or unconventional that way may be. It is not to everyone’s taste but is certainly an original, modernist work.
I shall not describe writers associated with Venice, as I did with Trieste. Suffice it to say that many, many writers have been inspired by Venice. Goldoni, Marco Polo and Casanova were born here, Shakespeare was influenced by it and, more recently, a whole slew of writers, from Henry James to Hemingway, from Goethe to Thomas Mann, from John Ruskin to Mary McCarthy, have been inspired by it. My list of books set in Venice shows that a lot of writers wrote about it.
I only managed one bookshop visit as, for obvious reasons, there are not many bookshops in the tourist areas. The front window displaying new books in the Toleta bookshop shows an alarming lack of Italian works, with only books by Sveva Casati Modignani, Lorenzo Marone, Luigi Malerba and Primo Levi. The latter two are dead, the first is a husband and wife team – he is now dead and she is seventy-nine. Only Marone is (relatively) young at forty-two. Do I need to tell you that he has been translated into French and German but not English? Inside, things were not much better for relatively recent authors. Ferrante was, of course, on display, as was the new novel by Silvia Avallone, author of Swimming to Elba (described by Amazon as The provocative international bestseller about two young girls growing up fast in a failing industrial town on the coast of Italy, and which was called Acciaio (which means Steel) in Italian. Maybe the Italian novel is in the post-Ferrante doldrums.
No matter because, as the title says, I want to talk about Armenia here. San Lazzaro is an island South-East of Venice. It had been a leper colony. In 1701, an Armenian monk, Mekhitar founded a religious community in Constantinople. His community was driven out by the Ottomans and went to Morea in Greece, then a Venetian colony. There he met various Venetians, including Alvise Mocenigo, later to be Doge of Venice. They helped Mekhitar and his community set up on San Lazzaro and the community is still there, albeit much reduced. It should be noted that the community is a Catholic and not Orthodox community. You can visit it once a day (tour start at 3.25 p.m.).
The community is interesting from the literary point of view for two reasons. One regular literary visitor to Venice I did not mention above was Lord Byron. Byron also visited San Lazzaro and, as a man who supported the cause of the underdog, he soon became interested in the situation of the Armenians. He stayed at the monastery, started learning Armenian and helped one of the monks compile an Armenian-English dictionary and an Armenian grammar.
As the major location of the Armenian diaspora in Western Europe, the monastery attracted a lot of support from exiled Armenians. This involved both gifts in money and gifts in kind. The gifts in kind were quite varied and included a variety of artefacts and books/manuscripts, some of which were related to Armenia and some of which were not. As a result, the monastery is now a museum. It also holds one of the finest collections of Armenian manuscripts and books outside Armenia. The book just above to the right, for example, is the first book printed in Armenian. It was not printed in Armenia but in Venice, in 1512. Most of the early manuscripts held by the monastery are religious texts but this is not. It is called Ուրբաթագիրք (Urbatagirk), which translates as The Friday Book (not to be confused with the John Barth book of the same name). Friday is traditionally an unlucky day for Armenians, particularly for travellers. This book offers spells, incantations, advice and so on to help Armenian travellers on Fridays. If your Armenian is up to it, you can read the entire book. Sadly, it has not been translated into English or, as far as I can see, any other language.
The library was helped by the generosity of the Cairo-based Armenian antiques dealer Boghos Ispenian, whose picture you can see at the left (his picture is over one door and Byron’s over another). The books and manuscripts are in a variety of languages and not just Armenian, including, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Persian (a copy of the Shahnameh) and even Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language. While you cannot view most of the manuscripts, there are a few on display, such as the The Friday Book mentioned above. There are also many strange objects on display, including a very well-preserved Egyptian mummy. Well worth a visit if you are in Venice.
Our annual spring trip this year took us, among other places, to Trieste and Venice (the latter will appear in a separate blog post). It is many years since we had visited these two cities. Trieste has been home to quite a few worthwhile writers. Several worthwhile writers were born in Trieste. These include Claudio Magris, who will shortly be appearing on my site. Umberto Saba is best known as a poet (at least in Italy) but he did write some prose, including the novel Ernesto, which has been translated into English, with a second, different translation appearing later this year. You can see places associated with him in Trieste in this guide. Scipio Slataper is best-known for his Il mio Carso, which has been translated into English but only in a very obscure edition. It is an autobiographical novel, which I hope to get round to one of these days. He was sadly killed in World War I, aged twenty-seven. Susanna Tamaro is another novelist I hope to get round to soon. Her best-known novel is Va’ dove ti porta il cuore (Follow your Heart), which is readily available in English and lots of other languages. Franco Vegliani is not well-known even in Italy, except, perhaps, for his biography of Curzio Malaparte, though his novel Processo a Volosca [Trial at Volosca] was described by Claudio Magris as one of the best post-war Triestine novels.
Though not born in Trieste, Fulvio Tomizza was born some thirty-five miles way in what was then called Giurizzani (in Italy) but is now Juricani, as it was ceded to Yugoslavia (now Croatia) after World War II. His best-known novel, of which I have a copy, is La meglior vita [The Better Life], which, like many of his works, deals with the issue of identity, with the changing political situation in Europe. It has not been translated into English though is, of course, available, in French, German, Spanish, Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish and probably a few other languages. Paolo Rumiz is best known as a journalist and his writing is mainly about his travels. His The Fault Line : Travelling the Other Europe, from Finland to Ukraine is available in English. Like Magris, he has done a Danube book, even with the same title as Magris’: Danubio (Danube). Mauro Covacich is, despite his name, Italian. He has written novels and short stories, none of which has been translated into English.
Italo Svevo is the first Triestine novelist I read because of his obvious connection with James Joyce. He was taught English by Joyce. He wrote two novels which were completely ignored till Joyce came across them and it was Joyce who helped promote him and made Svevo famous. He sadly died in a car crash but his two novels are still very much read in Italy and the English-speaking world. Here is a guide to places in Trieste associated with him. Then there is Roberto (Bobi) Bazlen, the writer of footnotes (really!) who appears as a key character in Daniele Del Giudice‘s Lo stadio di Wimbledon [Wimbledon Stadium] (not available in English but available in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian and Serbian). Finally, I picked up a new book by a new writer. The book is called Bibliopolis – Trieste, città dei libri perduti, which means Bibliopolis – Trieste, City of Lost Books. The author is Edoardo Triscoli. This is his Facebook page. He is a bookseller by profession (since 1975) and currently works at the Libreria Lovat (where I bought the book). The book is a book-selling thriller. It quotes Paul Valéry: Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.
It is not just Italian writers who were born in Trieste. Vladimir Bartol is a Slovenian writer born in Trieste, best known for his novel Alamut, which is available in English. Another Slovenian writer born in Trieste is Boris Pahor. His books have been extensively translated into French and German but only two are available in English: Necropolis and A Difficult Spring, though the latter was published only in Slovenia and is not easy to obtain.
There are several other writers associated with Trieste, who were not born there. James Joyce is the obvious one. Here is a guide to places in Trieste associated with him. Rilke stayed at the the Castle Duino near Trieste, where he began but did not finish his famous poem cycle The Duino Elegies. I have a soft spot for Fausta Cialente and a couple more of her works will be appearing on my site soon. She is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, though one of her novels, long since out of print, was translated into English. She is not too well-known In Italy, either. Though born in Cagliari, her mother was from Trieste and she spent a lot of time there.
Stendhal served as French consul in Trieste. Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor) and his wife lived for a long time in Trieste. Jan Morris lived for a time in Trieste and wrote an excellent work on the city. Though he was not born in Trieste but in Budapest, Giorgio Pressburger spent much time in Trieste, directing operas and plays and he is considered Triestine by the locals. His new novel Don Ponzio Capodoglio was in all the bookshops. Several of his novels have been translated into English.
There is a Joyce/Svevo Museum in Trieste. The building is not associated with either of them. It has been, amongst other things, a women’s prison and a police station. However, it has some interesting exhibits on the two writers. I spoke to Riccardo Cepach, the curator of the museum, (who, interestingly, wrote his Master’s on Daniele Del Giudice, mentioned above and his doctoral thesis on Casanova). He mentioned that Italians come to learn more about Svevo and discover Joyce while English speakers come to learn about Joyce and discover Svevo, which seems a worthwhile exchange but he did not seem too impressed with Fausta Cialente.
Castello Miramare is a few miles outside Trieste. It was built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his Belgian wife, Queen Charlotte, before they became Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota of Mexico, a failed imperialist plan which ended in Maximilian’s execution, while Carlota lived another sixty years. Literature loves a tragic heroine and if you have ever looked at My Lists page, you might have seen a list of novels featuring Carlota.