The latest addition to my website is Paolo Cognetti‘s Le otto montagne (The Eight Mountains), which won the prestigious Strega Prize in Italy. It tells the story of Pietro, only child of two mountain lovers. His father, in particular, is very keen on climbing at high altitudes in the Italian Alps and Pietro gets the bug. His mother, who prefers the lower reaches, persuades the father to rent a small cottage in Grana and the father and then, when he is older, Pietro go up the mountains. It is in Grana that Pietro meets Bruno, a boy of his own age and they become lifelong friends. Bruno is a mountain man and their close relationship helps Pietro develop his love of mountains. There is a falling-out between father and son, and between the friends when Pietro becomes a teenager but Pietro rediscovers his love of mountains with the help of Bruno.
The latest addition to my website is Nicola Pugliese‘s Malacqua (Malacqua). It tells a story of Naples over four days when it rains continually and heavily. While this could have been a straightforward catastrophe novel, Pugleise’s superb writing gives it an aura of a religious apocalypse, with cars disappearing into a chasm, a haunting screeching noise which turns out to be coming from a doll, with other identical dolls found at other catastrophe locations, and a house collapsing, killing the inhabitants. All the while we follow a journalist, a passive observer, as much concerned with his own issues as with the rain, we also follow a succession of other characters, all of whom seem to be living in a strange world of their own. It is a brilliant and very original novel, Pugliese’s only novel, and we must be grateful to And Other Stories that it now appears in English. Already – yes, early November – in the Spectator’s Best Books of the Year, Anna Aslanyan describes it as this year’s strangest and most seductive book. I can only agree with her.
The latest addition to my website is Claudio Magris‘ Alla cieca (Blindly). This is another highly inventive work from Magris, telling the story of man who thinks he is two different people – the fictitious Salvatore Cippico (born 1910) and the very real Jørgen Jørgensen (born 1780). Salvatore is recounting his tale to a psychiatrist in Trieste. He has fought for the Communists in Australia, Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia and has been imprisoned for his beliefs in all but Spain. Jørgen helped found Hobart but was later sent there as a convict and, in between, was briefly King of Iceland, served time in Newgate prison and fought at the Battle of Waterloo. Both had highly colourful lives, made more colourful by the two lives being conflated in Salvatore’s account, which is long, verbose and often confused. It is a wonderful tale, more in the realm of legend than history but the better for it.
The latest addition to my website is Claudio Magris‘ Un 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.