Claudio Magris: Un altro mare (A Different Sea)

The latest addition to my website is Claudio MagrisUn altro mare (A Different Sea). This novel tells the story of the very real Enrico Mreule. He is friends with two other young men, including the philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter, in Gorizia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The three friends spend their time discussing philosophy and the classics. But, in 1909, Enrico emigrates to Patagonia, where he lives an ascetic and solitary life. He returns to a much-changed world in 1922, partially because of his scurvy but partially because of Carlo’s suicide. Carlo has essentially passed his mantle on to Enrico. Back in what is now Italy, Enrico keeps his ascetic life style and moves out to the coast to a village in Yugoslavia. He continues his solitary and ascetic life, even after World War II and the advent of Communism in Yugoslavia. It is a very interesting story about a man who is not part of the modern world but lives in his own world of philosophy and the classics.

Claudio Magris: Danubio (Danube)

The latest addition to my website is Claudio MagrisDanubio (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.

Sibilla Aleramo: Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman)

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The latest addition to my website is Sibilla Aleramo‘s Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman). This is an early Italian feminist literary autobiographical novel, written nearly a hundred years before Elena Ferrante. The narrator tells of her upbringing in a house with a dominant and, at times, bullying father, whom she dearly loves, and a mother with severe mental problems. When she is older, the narrator goes to work in the office of the factory her father manages. While there, she gets to know a male colleague who is clearly attracted to her and eventually rapes her. As a result, she feels that she has to marry him and, though they do have a son, the marriage remains unhappy, not least because he does not have her intellectual interests. She goes to work in Milan for a feminist magazine and becomes involved in the early Italian feminist movement. What makes this book so worthwhile is her deep self-analysis and her analysis of the poor position of women in Italy. And, yes, I thought it was a better book than Ferrante but Aleramo would have undoubtedly considered Ferrante a worthy successor.

Paola Capriolo: Una di loro [One of Them]

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The latest addition to my website is Paola Capriolo‘s Una di loro [One of Them]. This is another excellent novel from Capriolo, sadly not translated into English. The unnamed narrator has gone to stay in an idyllic Alpine village, in order to wrote his book on aesthetic theory. While initially, everything meets with his expectations, when out walking he starts noticing strange people who are clearly very poor and who seem different form the locals. He also meets his chambermaid, who is called Iasmina but clearly foreign and not very talkative. However, he watches her every evening as she leaves and becomes somewhat obsessed with her. One day, out on a long walk, he is surprised to find a sign to the Grand Hôtel d’Europe, a hotel of whose existence he was unaware. He follows the signs and sees a group of the poor people near a bridge, including a woman playing with children who is completely naked. The woman is Iasmina. He is so perturbed that he heads back to his hotel. However, he visits the Grand Hôtel d’Europe another day and tries to find out who the poor are, who Iasmina is and what the hotel is. Capriolo tells her story very well, undoubtedly influenced by her knowledge of the German novel.

Paola Capriolo: Il doppio regno (The Dual Realm)

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The latest addition to my website is Paola Capriolo‘s Il doppio regno (The Dual Realm). This is another strange novel from Capriolo. It is a diary written by an Italian woman aged around thirty who does not remember her name and has something of a hazy recollection of the events that led to this situation. She does remember that she was at a seaside resort towards the end of the season when she saw a tidal wave approaching the shore. She fled the town, up a hill, and came to a large, single-storey building, which turned out to be a hotel. She finds it difficult to communicate, because of her stress and cannot report the tidal wave. She is offered a room and lies down on the bed, not waking up till the next morning. Then she finds that she is the only guest at the hotel, that no-one seems to know what happened in the town, there are no newspapers and none of the staff seems to know where the exit is. She stays there for what seems a long time, gradually losing her memory of her previous life and her sense of self, till, one day, three other guests arrive. She eventually tells them of her situation and when they plan to leave, they offer to take her with them. But can she leave and will they be able to do so? It is a fine if disturbing novel about identity and reality and who we are and how we communicate and has actually been translated into English.

Paola Capriolo: Il nocchiero (The Helmsman)

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The latest addition to my website is Paola Capriolo‘s Il nocchiero (The Helmsman). This tells the story of a helmsman, Walter. The job consists of driving a barge from a port, nominally containing animals, though he has never seen the cargo and does not know what is really in the hold. He takes it to an offshore island, where there is a villa, which once had been grand but is now boarded up and closed to visitors. There, he is given charge of an empty barge, which he takes back. This happens every night. In the evening, before work, he goes and sits on the terrace of a café and has a drink, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. One day, when alone, he notices through the window of the café, the arm of a woman wearing a bracelet that looks to have the form of a snake. He sees the arm again and, eventually, enters the café but the woman has gone. The waiter tells him that she has been sitting with a man and he called her Carmen. She does not reappear for a few days. When she finally does reappear, he again enters the café. This time she is there but he is not convinced that it is Carmen, particularly when she says that she is called Linda. They talk, then meet regularly and, finally, he proposes and is accepted. The marriage does not go well but, at the café, he meets a man claiming to be a count and the nephew of the former owners of the villa. He had been at the café previously with a woman called Carmen, but he has lost track of her. But is he really a count and their nephew? Is Linda Linda or is she Carmen? And who is Carmen? What is really in the hold of Walter’s barge and what is on the Island and in the Villa that the company is so determined no-one should see? Capriolo keeps us guessing and gives no easy answers but she tells a good tale of mystery.

Elena Ferrante: Storia del nuovo cognome (The Story of a New Name)

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The latest addition to my website is Elena Ferrante‘s Storia del nuovo cognome (The Story of a New Name), the second in her L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) series. This novel starts exactly where the last one ended, at the marriage between Stefano and Lila, with Lila incandescent with rage at seeing the shoes she designed and then made with her brother, on the feet of the hated Marcello Solara, instead of on her husband’s. Though she later calms down, this sets the tone for the marriage and, indeed, the rest of the book, as the marriage both begins and ends during the course of this book. Lila is a fiercely independent young woman (she is only just seventeen when she marries) and is not going to tolerate any opposition to her point of view. The second major conflict occurs on the wedding night, when she refuses Stefano sex and he beats and rapes her. Most people seem to think that he was justified. The conflict between Stefano and Lila, which worsens throughout the book, is just one of the many conflicts and fights during this book. Indeed, it is fair to say that this book is a soap opera of an extended dysfunctional family, with no-one coming out of it happy or even vaguely content.

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In a previous blog post, I I commented on the success of Karl Ove Knausgård and was somewhat mystified by it. While I think Ferrante is by far the better writer, and that she has a far more interesting story to tell, I still do not fully concur with the general view that her books are of unsurpassed brilliance. I still prefer imaginative fiction to autobiographical fiction and, while I certainly enjoyed this book, it certainly will not feature on my all-time great novels lists or even my all-time great Italian novels list. This is undoubtedly a weakness on my part but one I certainly will not apologise for it. As I said in the Knausgård post mentioned above, give me real fiction any time.

Elena Ferrante: L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend)

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The latest addition to my website is Elena Ferrante‘s L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend). This novel has had considerable success, both in English and Italian and, with the fourth in the L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) series) coming out in English next month, I felt that it was time I read it. The first reason for its success may be because of the mystery surrounding the author. Her identity is unknown and she has made it clear that she intends to keep it that way. It would appear, from what information we have, that she is from the Naples area, grew up there in the 1950s/1960s and is a mother. Of course, all this is supposition and she may well be a twenty three year old man from Florence or even Silvio Berlusconi. Authors whose identity are not known are not unheard of. We do not know who wrote the Gospels or who Sir Thomas Malory is. For some time there was a lot of speculation about the author of the novel Primary Colors, though his identity has now been revealed. Similarly, we now know who wrote Robert Galbraith is. We have an idea who B Traven is but it is not certain. And who is James Church? The second reason for the book’s success is the excellent publicity that the English-language publishers, Europa Editions, have given the book.

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The third reason is the story itself. The book is about the friendship between two girls – Lila and Elena (the narrator). They met when they first went to school and have remained friends till later in life. (The book is a flashback from when they are much older.) Elena remains in awe of Lila. It is Lila who is brave and tough as well as being very clever. As a young child, Elena follows Lila in somewhat brave and occasionally foolhardy adventures, even if it may be against Elena’s better judgement. At school, Elena does very well but Lila does better. She teaches herself to read and write and later will teach herself Latin and then Greek, primarily in order to help Elena learn. While Elena reaches puberty earlier and has large breasts and therefore is initially able to attract boys before Lila, Lila soon reaches puberty and it is she who has more success with the opposite sex. This story is told against a background of continuing conflict, which often breaks out into violence, as families and individuals assert themselves, control their children and openly fight. Somehow the two girls triumph and, by the time the book ends, when they are sixteen, have more or less come through.

Sebastiano Vassalli: Le due chiese [The Two Churches]

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The latest addition to my website is Sebastiano Vassalli‘s Sebastiano Vassalli: Le due chiese [The Two Churches]. This is set in a fictitious part of Italy but what seems to be the Valle d’Aosta. Most of the action takes place between World War I to a period soon after World War II and focusses on the inhabitants of the village of Rocca di Sasso, with no individual hero. Vassalli describes many of the inhabitants, with their aspirations, foibles and faults. Two of the main characters are Ansimino (his nickname – everybody in the village has to have a nickname, either one they acquired or one they inherit from a parent) and Luigi Prandini, later known as Black Hand, when he loses a hand in World War I and wears a black glove to conceal it. Ansimino is the smith and the bus driver, an important post as he brings up the news and gossip from elsewhere in the valley. Luigi is the schoolmaster. Initially, he is a socialist and atheist but later gives us his socialist ideals and, as World War I approaches, he favours war. He will later become a Fascist when he becomes disillusioned after the end of World War I. When World War I comes, thirteen men are called up and they hold a symbolic last supper. A small church is built for them and then another one to celebrate their return, hence the title of the book. Some of the men are killed, some wounded and one is taken prisoner and it seems likely that he will never return. Spanish flu, development and the rise of Fascism are the key events after World War I, with the book ending after accounts have been settled after the war and the churches have been knocked down to build a car park. It is an enjoyable book, even if not, perhaps, as enjoyable as some of his other ones which focus on one or two people. It has not been translated into any other language.

Sebastiano Vassalli: Marco e Mattio [Marco and Mattio]

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The latest addition to my website is Sebastiano Vassalli‘s Marco e Mattio [Marco and Mattio]. Like other Vassalli novels this one is based on a real story, in this case a nineteenth century Italian shoe mender and charcoal burner called Mattio Lovat. Most of the action takes place at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century in and near Pieve, in the Zoldo valley, then a fairly remote area, with Belluno as the nearest town, but now a ski area. We first meet the Marco of the title, a smooth-talking German, who turns out to be the devil (or something akin to the devil). He will pop in and out of Mattio’s life. We meet Mattio as a twelve year old, when he shows Marco around the area for his nature studies. However, Marco leaves the area as winter comes, though Mattio is sure that he saw him and two others fleeing from the town, after a vicious assault on the local archpriest, his niece and his house. The key issue in this novel is pellagra, a disease caused usually by niacin deficiency. It is a disease that affects many of the people in the area who have a poor diet. They are aware of the disease but not that it is diet-related. One of the effects of the disease is for the victim to show symptoms of insanity. Mattio’s father, also called Marco, is the first to be affected in the family but then Mattio’s younger brother shows signs of being possessed by the devil and he is exorcised. We follow Mattio’s career as he follows in his father’s footsteps as a shoe mender and charcoal burner. However, it is a time of great political upheaval with the Napoleonic Wars and then the Austrian occupation of Northern Italy and Mattio gets involved in politics. But he, too, suffers from pellagra and it affects him profoundly, as he believes he is the Christ born to suffer and he does in a cruel way. Vassalli tells a superb story of a period of political upheaval, of the effects of pellagra and how it famously affected one man, Mattio Lovat, and of how the devil plays his part. It made the list of the 100 Best Italian novels but has only been translated into German, not English.