Italian literature

THE MOON AND THE BONFIRES BY CESARE PAVESE

Some years ago I decided that I wanted to go back to the place where I had been raised. Just for the day. Or for an hour or two, at least. I had been away at university, and although that had changed me, had helped me to come to terms with many of my childhood experiences, I was still aware of it – my home town – creeping around, spider-like, in the corners of my mind. I arrived by bus around midday, and I stood at the bottom of the hill, gazing up at the gloomy council estate in which I had spent so many unhappy years, and something unexpected happened: although I had come to say goodbye, to bear witness, I actually felt as though I was reacquainting myself with an old, much-missed friend. How peculiar nostalgia is; it is like an amiable old cleaning lady who is able to remove the most stubborn, unpleasant stains.

“One needs a town, if only for the pleasure of leaving it.”

The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese begins with a similar scenario, which is to say that the nameless narrator has returned to the place where he grew up after a period of living elsewhere. He is, therefore, obviously trying to reconnect with the past, or with his past self; yet, crucially, he doesn’t know whether he was born in the region, being a bastard who was left on the steps of a cathedral as a baby and later taken in by a local couple. In this way, what he is actually searching for is a home; he is wanting to claim a piece of land for himself, despite an overriding feeling of rootlessness; he wants to feel part of something, and yet, simultaneously, feels alienated, or distant, from almost everything.

This sense of rootlessness pervades the novel. As a young man, the narrator moved to America, a land, he says, where everyone is a bastard. It is, moreover, a land of opportunity, and yet, despite making his fortune, he didn’t fit in, or feel at home, there either. It is only when another Italian enters the restaurant where he is working that he feels a connection to something. They talk, critically, about the lack of good wine, and about American women, and the narrator points out that it isn’t their  – the Americans’ – fault; this is their home, he says, indicating, of course, that isn’t his. Ironically, on his return to his home town, the locals call him the American, which only further emphases his exclusion. To them, he is a foreigner, a stranger. Even the dogs mistrust him, and bark and pull at their leashes when he passes by.

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As he wanders around Gaminella, the Belbo, and the Mora, the narrator is on the look out for the familiar, while, at the same time, acknowledging that he will not find it. Things change. The past cannot be recreated. The people that he knew in his youth – Padrino, Giulia, etc – have died, or moved on [if not literally then symbolically]; they have got married, had new experiences, become different people. Even the ‘pine tree by the fence’ has been cut down. One of the locals that he does reconnect with is an old friend, Nuto. Indeed, one of his functions in the novel is to contrast the narrator, for Nuto stuck around, stayed in the town. But he too has changed, of course. He was once a musician – an activity that suggests freedom – but gave that up in order to concentrate on being a carpenter, a steadier occupation for someone with responsibilities.

“What use is this valley to a family that comes from across the sea and knows nothing about the moon and the bonfires? You must have grown up there and have in in your bones, like wine and polenta, and then you know it without needing to speak about it.”

At one stage the narrator says to Nuto that he too ought to leave; and he says the same thing about Cinto, a lame boy he attempts to befriend. It is an interesting psychological quirk that he appears to want the locals to behave as he did, although one gets the impression that it is not necessarily because he thinks it is the best thing for them, rather because he wants them to be like him, to mirror him; it is further evidence of the narrator trying to find himself in a place. Indeed, his relationship with Cinto is fascinating. On one level he is used by Pavese to point the finger at Italy and the way that it mistreats its poor, in the same way that Dickens used his chimney sweeps, etc; he is an innocent victim of his circumstances, for his condition is credited to a mother with bad milk, who didn’t eat enough and worked too hard.

However, he is also the person with whom the narrator most intensely identifies, who he sees himself in. This results in one of the novel’s finest passages, which is when the two first meet. Cinto looks at him ‘in the sunlight, holding a dried rabbit skin in one hand, closing his thin eyelids to gain time.’ He is barefoot, with ‘a scab under one eye and bony shoulders.’ This vision, this vulnerable boy, reminds the narrator of ‘how often I had chillblains, scabs on my knees and cracked lips.’ It is a strangely tender, touching piece of writing, as, for the narrator, it is almost like a meeting with himself, like looking at and speaking to himself as a child. Indeed, he tries to convince Cinto that he was once a child himself, a child just like him, as though he needs the boy’s recognition.

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As always, there is more that could be discussed; war plays a part in the narrative, as does politics; there is, furthermore, the dual, repeated symbolism of the moon and fire, one of which represents home and the other faraway places. But, in all honesty, I don’t find any of that particularly stimulating, and I am sure other people have, or will, labour over it in my stead. One thing I do want to acknowledge, however, is the number of lukewarm reviews the book has garnered; from those floating around the internet it seems as though very few people fall in love with Pavese’s most famous work; it is, they often state, plotless and tedious. Well, for what it is worth, I loved it the first time I read it, and I appreciated it even more the second time around. Yes, it is unceasingly ruminative, and therefore low on high octane thrills; but I have never chased after that kind of thing, myself. What I want from a book is quality writing, insight, and an emotional punch; and this one has each of those things in abundance. In short, The Moon and the Bonfires is, for me, a masterpiece; it is a powerful, near-flawless novel, that so resonated with me that, appropriately, reading it felt like finding a part of myself, it felt like home.

THE TARTAR STEPPE BY DINO BUZZATI

Generally speaking, I am laidback, to the extent that people often accuse me of not caring about anything. That isn’t the case, but it is true that very little ruffles me. I might be wrong, but I put this down to an upbringing during which there was the constant threat of disaster, such that I became passive, by virtue of over-familiarity, in the face of hardship or bad luck. However, there is one kind of situation in which I consistently, unnecessarily, become agitated, and that is when waiting for something. I am, for example, terrible in queues. I tap my foot, glance at my watch every few seconds, sigh loudly, turn in circles, etc. People eye me suspiciously. I must give the impression, the perhaps accurate impression, of mental instability.

If I had to guess as to why this kind of situation bothers me I would say that it is because it is dead time. Time passes, as it always does, with oppressive relentlessness and speed, and yet it is not being filled with anything productive or worthwhile. For someone who is so concerned about death, about the eternity of nothingness that awaits me, it is absurd, even tragic, that so much of the life afforded us is wasted in this way, by which I mean twiddling our thumbs waiting for something to happen. For me, it is an extreme form of boredom, but, more than that, it is a forced confrontation with the meagreness of existence, with the reality that life is slipping through your fingers.

There are a number of novels that are [at least partly] concerned with these kind of feelings or predicaments, but the most notable, the most moving, is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, which was published in 1940. Buzzati’s protagonist, Giovanni Drogo, is a young and inexperienced lieutenant who has just received his first posting. From the beginning there is an unremitting gloominess and weariness hanging over the text. Drogo had, we’re told, looked forward to this day for years, it was to be the ‘beginning of his real life,’ a break from the dreadful days of studying and being at the academy. Yet while he acknowledges that the posting presents an opportunity for exciting new experiences, Drogo fails to find ‘the expected joy’ in putting on his uniform, and laments the passing of what were, he thinks, probably his ‘best years.’

One sees in this defining aspects of Drogo’s character, and the novel as a whole. He is indecisive, unsure of himself, and he constantly worries, while engaged in one activity, that he ought to be doing something else, or that he ought to have made a different decision and is now missing out. As a result, he nearly always feels unsatisfied and melancholy and disappointed. For example, when he arrives at Fort Bastiani he almost immediately wants to leave, to return home, and yet he allows himself to be persuaded to stay, for four months at least, and then persuades himself that he actually wants to stay. Indeed, throughout the the text there is this back and forth, this vacillating between going and staying. Of course, we can all relate to this, to the anxiety and doubt that accompanies our choices, but for Drogo it becomes paralysing.

Consider his behaviour towards Maria, a young woman for whom he has, or once had, feelings. Around two thirds of the way into the book, Drogo is on leave from the Fort, and he goes to see Maria in an attempt to reconnect with his previous life in the city. She is obviously still keen and tries to elicit from him some sign of his enduring affection; in short, she wants him to vow to not return to the Fort, in order to be with her. Drogo is aware of this, and at least some part of him wants to give her this assurance. He contemplates it, acknowledges that this is his chance, then ‘suddenly he lost all desire.’  So instead of acting, instead of making a decision, either one way or the other, he does nothing. He does not tell Maria that he wants to be with her, but neither does he tell her that he isn’t interested. What he does, in typical fashion, is defer to some future time, when all might resolve itself satisfactorily, without him having to make a choice.

“Twenty-two months are a long time and a lot of things can happen in them- there is time for new families to be formed, for babies to be born and even begin to talk, for a great house to rise where once there was only a field, for a beautiful woman to grow old and no one desire her any more, for an illness- for a long illness- to ripen (yet men live on heedlessly), to consume the body slowly, to recede for short periods as if cured, to take hold again more deeply and drain away the last hopes; there is time for a man to die and be buried, for his son to be able to laugh again and in the evening take the girls down the avenues and past the cemetery gates without a thought. But it seemed as if Drogo’s existence had come to a halt. The same day, the same things, had repeated themselves hundreds of times without taking a step forward. The river of time flowed over the Fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and the chain, but over Drogo it passed in vain- it had not yet succeeded in catching him, bearing him with it as it flowed.”

The nature of Time [yes, with a capital T] plays a significant role in the book. First of all, The Tartar Steppe exists outside of time, which is to say that there is no indication as to when it is set, in what period. Furthermore, as previously noted, at the beginning of the book Drogo is a young man, so it is natural that he would feel as though he has many years ahead of him, as though life was inexhaustible. Yet he frequently uses it – an abundance of time – as an excuse, as a reason for putting things off [as seen with Maria] or as a way of giving himself false hope. In terms of plot, The Tartar Steppe is about the possibility of a war. It is, one must remember, the job of the soldiers in the Fort to defend it, that is why they [including Drogo] are there. However, it quickly becomes clear that there is no threat, that the men will not see action.

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[Il deserto dei Tartari, directed by Valerio Zurlini]

Far from a important military stronghold, Bastiani gives the impression of being neglected, of being on the verge of ruin. It is ‘small’ and ‘unimposing’; it is a melancholy place surrounded by featureless desert and wrapped in almost permanent mist. Indeed, it is said that while once it was a honour to be posted there, it is now more of a punishment. Again, it is important to point out that the nature of this punishment isn’t related to how dreary the place is, not entirely, it is due to the very slim chance that the soldiers will ever get to test themselves, will ever be allowed, in the midst of fighting, to honour themselves and display bravery, etc. To return to Drogo, he understands that Bastiani is a dead-end place, literally and in terms of his career, but, because he feels as though he has all the time in the world, he is prepared to wait, to hold on, to put off doing something else [i.e. going back to the city, where excitement is largely guaranteed]  in the hope that one day soon something worthwhile will happen there. The tragedy is, of course, that while you are doing this, while you are waiting, time does not stand still, it carries on, life leaves you behind.

One of the most impressive features of the novel is that, for all the glum and gloominess, or perhaps because of it, The Tartar Steppe is as funny as it is moving and beautiful. First of all, the situation the characters find themselves in, that of soldiers wasting their entire lives at a Fort in the desert where there is little likelihood of action, is as absurd as anything in Beckett or Kafka. Large parts of the novel are given over to men looking through telescopes at the monotonous surrounding landscape, and periodically convincing themselves that the ‘little black spots’ they spy in the distance are an approaching enemy army. This makes me chuckle just writing about it. There is a particular scene, featuring Tronk and Drogo, where they discuss one of these black spots in the distance [one saying it is a stone, another saying it is mist], that could have been lifted from Waiting for Godo. I was also greatly amused that, in the absence of an enemy, they end up shooting at one of their own.

It is troubling that, for a book so concerned with time, and wasting your life, and so on, I have managed to spend a couple of hours, and multiple paragraphs, writing a review that, I now realise, has not engaged with half of the ideas that I wanted it to. Drogo’s fear of the unknown? His reluctance to move out of his comfort zone? No. Maturity, and the responsibilities that come with being an adult? No. Loneliness? No. Monotony? Death? I guess, in a way. I could devote another 1000 words to all that, and other things. But the sun is shining, in a fashion, and it is the weekend, so, bearing in mind Buzzati’s warning, I ought to go do something that doesn’t involve a computer screen and a [now almost empty] packet of cigarettes.

EDIT: In the time it took me to post this review the sun has disappeared and it has started to rain. So I might just stay in and watch football and drink tea. YOLO.

THE SKIN BY CURZIO MALAPARTE

Curzio Malaparte and I have a strained and complicated relationship. It is natural, of course, to have a number of different emotional responses when reading, but Kaputt, the most well-known work by the oddball Italian journalist and novelist, is the only one to ever make me angry. This was not because I thought the novel bad, but because I found it to be, in places, unpleasantly smug. One passage sticks out in this regard, which is when Curzio [fictional or not, the main character shares the author’s pseudonym] takes a walk around a Jewish ghetto in the 1940’s, commiserating with and comforting the inhabitants.

To understand why this upset me you have to bear in mind that Malaparte wrote the novel while all this stuff [i.e the Holocaust] was actually going on, that he did meet and travel with high-ranking Nazis, and that his own stance was at the very least questionable. So that he positioned himself in his work as some kind of Mother Teresa figure was a bit hard to take; at best it is insensitive, at worst exploitative and horribly self-serving. As a result of this previous experience, I have long been putting off reading The Skin, even though there is much about it that appeals to me, so much, in fact, that I actually bought it on the day of its release. I finally picked it up a few days ago, more in hope, the hope that it would contain the things I liked about Kaputt without featuring the things I didn’t, than the expectation that I would enjoy it in its entirety.

The Skin is set in war-ruined Naples, in late 1943, at a time when Allied soldiers have entered the city. These days we tend to talk of liberators, but Malaparte is keen to stress that the American and British troops are conquerers. Italy, which fought on the side of the Germans, has lost the war, and the people now in control, now being welcomed, were previously its enemies, were the people they were, until recently, trying to kill. Malaparte emphasises the absurdity of this situation by reporting that he and other Italian soldiers are dressed in the uniforms of dead Brits, which are still blood-stained. This perspective is one of the things that makes The Skin so attractive, for there aren’t many novels that deal with the experience of, and consequences for, the defeated; indeed, the author states that anyone can win a war, but not everyone can lose one.

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[Priests inside the ruined church at Benevento, Naples, October 24, 1943]

Malaparte’s Naples is a re-born, or re-enacted, Sodom and Gomorrah, it is a Boschean hell, where starvation, death, slavery, cruelty, suffering, prostitution, and, well, all forms of deviancy are rife; it is, in the author’s own words, ‘in the throes of the plague.’ This plague is a moral one, with an emphasis upon the sexual [he doesn’t use the term syphilis, but it is clear that he is referring to that disease]. Indeed, sex plays a central role in the novel, in Malaparte’s vision of a world going to shit, presumably because promiscuity is, generally speaking, seen to be [more so then, than now] an explicit sign of moral degradation. In the opening couple of chapters alone there are dwarf whores, a teenage virgin who, for a dollar or two, will let you ascertain if she is legit, and both male and female children, aged 8-10, who are offered up to soldiers by their parents.

One of the questions that the book inspires you to ask is why has this happened, why is Naples like this? First of all, if you are defeated or conquered then you have, in a sense, been shamed, and so one could understand the disreputable behaviour as being a consequence of this feeling of national shame. More significantly, and more interestingly, the author argues that there is a difference between fighting to avoid death, which is a war situation, and fighting to stay alive. If you are engaged in a war, in an effort to avoid being killed, then, he states, qualities such as honour and justice and nobility and so on are possible, even likely. However, if you are fighting simply to stay alive, i.e. if you are starving, which the people of Naples are, then one becomes capable of every kind of infamy.

“The price of freedom is high — far higher than that of slavery. And it is not paid in gold, nor in blood, nor in the most noble sacrifices, but in cowardice, in prostitution, in treachery, and in everything that is rotten in the human soul.”

It is necessary to point out that Malaparte appears to blame the Allied troops, particularly the Americans, rather than the ‘dreadful Neopolitan mob’ themselves. One knows this because throughout the book he relentlessly, sarcastically, mocks them, calling them things such as the ‘loveliest, kindest army in the world’ and making statements like ‘only Americans can move with such easy smiling grace through crowds of starving people.’ He talks repeatedly about their child-like simplicity, their goodness, their purity. He also points out that Naples, prior to the arrival of these tall and handsome victors, was not what it has become, suggesting, in a not-so-subtle fashion, that they are, therefore, responsible. I imagine that if you are American some of this stuff might sting or rankle, although I have to admit that I was, at least in the early stages, rather amused by it, as I tend to enjoy unsophisticated sarcasm and bitter pissiness, if not lazy stereotyping.

There is no question that Malaparte is fond of generalisations and stereotypes and that this does present problems for the text as a whole. Indeed, at the beginning of this review I touched upon the aspects of Malaparte’s previous work that I objected to, and wrote that I had hoped that The Skin would be free of similar unpleasantness. In this regard, it would be remiss of me not to mention that this particular book is frequently criticised for its homophobia and racism, amongst other things. However, while I felt no desire to defend the Italian previously I do think one can do so with a clear conscience in terms of some of what we encounter here.

I imagine that one of the passages that most upsets readers is that in which Malaparte describes black soldiers as being enslaved by the locals. At first glance what this seems to suggest is that the author believes black people to be born slaves or easily enslaved due to their own stupidity. However, I would argue that this is not the case, that he is mocking the stereotype, not the race, and that, if anything, the objects of his disdain are the Italians, or more specifically the corrupt and degraded state of Naples, a city where morality has broken down to the extent that people are engaged in buying and selling other human beings. What one finds is that throughout the novel it is the group that he showers with the most exuberant praise – i.e. the Americans – that he is most opposed to, and that those who he openly appears to criticise or make fun of are invariably the ones with whom he sympathises.

Having said that, there is a significant section of the novel, including The Rose of Flesh chapter, that left a bad taste in my mouth, what with the repeated use of the words ‘mincing,’ ‘inverts’ and ‘fairies’, but that is not to say that the ideas previously discussed cannot be applied to it. Malaparte initially presents homosexuals as predators and pederasts, yet later explains that it is the men who pose as homosexuals, the ones whose response to war is to reject heroism and resort to decadence, not only sexual but political also, that he has a problem with. So, once again, he appears to be using a stereotype in order to make a critical point about some other group or type of people [in this case leftist-Communist bohemians, who are using the state of the world as justification for indulging themselves].

Of course, this defence of Malaparte can only be taken so far, it is only a theory. You might think that my argument does not hold up; and I certainly would not sneer at any reader for abandoning the book on the grounds of it being intolerant and offensive. What I would say, however, is that this, a lack of common decency, and compassion and tolerance, is one of the book’s major themes. In any case, although at times this stuff acts like speed bumps, which is to say that it slowed me down and took some of the energy and enthusiasm out of my reading, it is not, in my opinion, the book’s biggest flaw.

For me, the biggest problem with The Skin is the repetition. Despite some reservations, I flew through the opening 60-70 pages, enjoying them immensely, but what I found as I made my way through the rest of the text is that Malaparte often makes the same points, sometimes in almost the same words, again and again. For example, the whole thing with the American soldiers, and how much he loves their apple-pie awesomeness, becomes tiresome the 7th, 8th, 9th, 20th time around.

I feel as though I have dedicated more of this review to the negative or questionable aspects of the book than I intended. On this basis, I want to finish with something positive. The Skin is full of memorable lines, and memorable scenes, and is worth reading for those things alone. But that is not all. As a portrait of a city, a country, a civilisation collapsing under the weight of its own faeces, it is as powerful, challenging and moving as any I have encountered. Yes, read it for that reason.

THE LEOPARD BY GIUSEPPE TOMASI DI LAMPEDUSA

The other day I found a grey hair, by which I mean on my own head, of course, not on the floor. If I was in my forties, or upwards, I may have anticipated such a thing, but, in my naivety, I didn’t think it possible at my age. Yet there it was, gesturing to me in an offensive manner; it was like staring at a crowd of people and suddenly spotting, deep in their midst, a child looking my way and insouciantly giving me the finger. I’ve been, it is fair to say, somewhat perturbed ever since; I keep checking the backs of my hands, and around my eyes, for signs of wrinkles, and any slight twinge or ache strikes me as the inevitable, irrevocable, breaking down of my mechanism.

This is, and always has been, my worst fear. Decline, old age, and their tyrannical father: death. How on earth do you face up to that? You haven’t got much of a choice, I guess. How awful! Some people are blasé about it; ‘it’s fine,’ they say, ‘ageing is a positive thing’; ‘I’m not afraid of death,’ they say, ‘I’m more concerned about how I will go.’ I’ve never understood all that. I’m don’t care one bit about the manner of my death, it’s the fact that it is going to happen at all that bothers me; it’s the not-being that terrifies me. ‘But wouldn’t it be terrible to be immortal, to remain young, while all your loved ones, your family and friends, age and pass away?’ No, it’d be glorious! Make no mistake, I’d gaily skip down the street as the last man on earth.

There have been many fine novels about all of this – Samuel Beckett, for example, wrote reams of them – but I think my favourite is Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Don Fabrizio, the Sicilian aristocrat who dominates the book. The imposing, heavy-set, Prince of Salina is an old-fashioned sort, conservative in values where his family are concerned, but more than willing to give himself major leeway. For example, he demands the utmost respect and propriety from his children, and yet brazenly cheats on his wife and, on one occasion, drags Father Pirrone along on one of his amorous escapades, almost as a display of his power. The children are, of course, petrified of him; it is noted that the household cutlery has had to be straightened numerous times, for their father, in moments of anger or irritation, has a tendency to grasp knifes and forks and spoons in his heavy paws and bend them.

“Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.”

In contrast to his outward displays of strength, the domineering Fabrizio is, privately, prone to melancholy and self-pity. He may rule his children and wife with the proverbial iron fist, but this does not stop them from disappointing him; in fact, almost everything disappoints him. His son, Paolo, is referred to as a ‘booby,’ and is less than favourably compared with the Prince’s nephew, Tancredi. Fabrizio appears to have more affection for his daughter, Concetta, but even she frequently irritates him, and is, sadly, no match, in terms of looks, for Angelica Sedara, the daughter of a nouveau riche Mayor, whom Tancredi wishes to marry. His wife, on the other hand, is a woman of strained nerves, who is no longer sexually alluring to him; indeed, her pious reserve [Fabrizio claims to have never seen her navel] is used as justification for infidelity. This disappointment also extends to himself, or at least his own mortality, and to the state of the country.

The Leopard is set in the years 1860-1862, 1883 and 1910, during a period in history known as the Risorgimento, the aim of which was the unification of Italy. It was, then, a time of revolution, change, and unrest. On this basis, one could legitimately call The Leopard a political novel, but the politics feed into the broader and, for me, more important and engaging themes of decline and death. In the most literal way, war or revolution drag death and destruction in their wake, of course, and this is brought into sharp focus when the mutilated body of a soldier is found in the Prince’s garden. But what the Risorgimento really represents, what it brings home to Don Fabrizio, is that the old ways, his ways, are numbered. Indeed, one of the aims of the Risorgimento was a levelling of the classes, so while the rich and powerful Don Fabrizio is not directly involved in the conflict his kind are, in a way, a target, and therefore they are, culturally-socially, on borrowed time.

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[A still from the 1963 film of the same name]

Unfortunately, the Prince, like all of us, is also on borrowed time physically. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is how the decline of the old ways of Italy are actually mirrored in Fabrizio’s own personal decline; the two reflect each other. Despite being only in his forties, from the very beginning there is a sense that the Prince is no longer at his peak, that he is not staring proudly from the heights of physical perfection, but is steadily making his way back down the mountain. For example, Don Fabrizio’s sensual-sexual nature is frequently alluded to; as noted, he cheats on his wife, and he is struck by, and excited by, Angelica’s attractions [her beauty, her body, etc]. However, he is also fully aware that he is no longer in the running, so to speak, that the vibrant young woman will prefer the charming, and also young, Tancredi. This is not the same, alas, as saying that he is happy about it. Far from it; he feels, rather, a twinge of jealousy, a sexual jealousy that is not particularly admirable, of course, but is understandable.

“To kneel before Angelica would be a pleasure, but what if he found it difficult to get up afterwards?”

To say that the Prince is not as vital as he once was, and that Italy is at war and going through important social-political changes, does not do justice to how deeply ingrained the book’s preoccupations and themes are. I said before that it is perhaps the greatest novel about death and decline, and to understand this one must read it, because these things are present in the text on almost every page. Indeed, Lampedusa’s work is so rich in allusions and references to them that the atmosphere is of a unrelenting gloominess, almost regardless of the main narrated action. For example, it is at one point noted that the Prince’s initials on a wine glass have begun to fade; Bendico, his dog, noses his way through the garden smelling of ‘dead lizards and manure’; Fabrizio goes hunting at Donnafugata, but hardly ever shoots anything, because there are scant targets; as payment for rent he is given slaughtered lambs; stories are shared about poisoned holy water and people cut up into little pieces, and so on.

“As always the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him: was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?”

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian aristocrat, only ever wrote one novel; and even this was rejected numerous times and was published only after his own death. If I had to guess as to why it wasn’t instantly appreciated I would perhaps point to the intricate, detailed prose as being something of an acquired taste. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it; in fact, I consider Lampedusa to be one of the very finest prose stylists; his extended metaphors alone make reading the book worthwhile. But it is decidedly Proustian, perhaps more so than any other that gets lumbered with that tag, and his prose, by which I mean Marcel’s, is also an acquired taste [it seems]. Moreover, Lampedusa’s novel lacks the emotional sturm and drang of certain parts of In Search of Lost Time, is just not as viscerally exciting as, say, Sodom and Gomorrah. The Leopard is a slow book, a deeply ruminative book, with very little action. It is, the author himself claimed, not very good. He was wrong, of course; it’s a masterpiece. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to listen to Frank Sinatra’s It Was a Very Good Year, and then go quietly weep in a corner.

THE DAY OF THE OWL BY LEONARDO SCIASCIA

It is an often expressed opinion that overtly political novels become dated very quickly; in fact I read just that the other day in relation to Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge. Things change, is, I think, the general idea. Yet, while there may be some aspects of political fiction that, if you were not around at the time, or you’re not an expert on the subject, will be confusing or seem alien to your experience of the world, I do not accept that this means that it is unable to resonate with you. Yes, things do change, but one thing that doesn’t change is humanity. As far as I am concerned, behind all political systems, ideologies, and conflicts are pretty basic, universal, human motivations, such as greed and a desire for power. So, for me, political novels, or the good ones anyway, which would include the work of Leonardo Sciascia, are as much a study of humanity as anything else.

Sciascia’s Il giorno della civetta, or in English The Day of the Owl, is a short literary crime novel that deals with multiple murders in Sicily, Italy. It starts, quite literally, with a bang, as Salvatore Colasberna, the owner of a small construction company, is gunned down while running for a bus. The first hint that things are not going to be easy for those charged with investigating the crime is when the passengers on the bus flee before the Carabinieri [Italy’s national military police] arrive, and the conductor and driver play dumb when questioned. Something has them spooked. That something becomes clear [if it isn’t already] when the weapon used in the murder turns out to be a lupara, or sawed-off shotgunthe kind traditionally used by Mafia hitmen.

500px-Il_giorno_della_civetta-3

[From the film Il giorno della civetta, dir. by Damiano Damiani] 

What is strange about Sciascia’s novel is that the point at which all the tension goes out of the work is when it becomes most compelling. What I mean by this is that you know, especially if you have read any of his other novels, that as soon as the Mafia are fingered [or at least suspected] as the perpetrators of the crime that they will not be punished for it, that people will be paid off or things will be covered up. In an ordinary crime thriller the mystery, the clues, the pursuit, and expectation of the eventual reward of seeing the bad guys getting their comeuppance, are the things that pull you along; the reader is essentially manipulated in order to create excitement. However, The Day of the Owl pretty much dispenses with all that; as a mystery, as a thriller, it is a total anti-climax. The Mafia will not be brought to justice, because, well, it’s the Mafia, and they are more powerful than the Carabinieri.

In the absence of traditional crime-thriller dynamics, what The Day of the Owl becomes is a book about futility. Bellodi, the investigating captain, is either naïve or an idealist. He thinks that the people responsible for a crime ought to be punished for it; and he isn’t afraid to arrest and interrogate members of the Mafia. The flaw in this admirable approach is that most people refuse to acknowledge that the organisation even exists. Indeed, throughout the novel it is described as the so-called Mafia; the native Sicilians, either due to a fear of reprisals or because of wanting to protect their own financial interests, consider the Mafia to be akin to the loch ness monster; it is a myth, a legend, and even a borderline racist slur. I found all this stuff fascinating. How can you challenge something that does not exist? That is Bellodi’s biggest dilemma.

In this way, The Day of the Owl, like 1984 and many great Russian novels, explores the nature of reality and truth; it shows how one’s understanding, one’s experience, of those two things – reality and truth – are not as concrete as many people believe. If you have read my other reviews you will know that this is something that plays on my mind quite a lot. As far as I am concerned there is no reality, or no concrete, unchangeable, unchallengeable reality, merely perception and interpretation; what you are told, what you are allowed to see, that is your reality. Furthermore, not only are many of the characters in Sciascia’s novel keen to disparage the idea that there is such a thing as the Mafia, they are equally keen, in an act of misdirection, to blame the murders, and in fact nearly all murders, on affairs of the heart. Indeed, Bellodi is criticised, at the end of the novel, for ignoring this possibility and instead going in search of a mythical bogey-man. The key point is, of course, that the murders are not affairs of the heart; but if the police, politicians, and the media push that interpretation then that is, in a sense, what they become. It may not be exactly the same thing, but this put me in mind of recent articles about manipulation of statistics in this country, about how a crime is only a crime, or only a certain kind of crime, if the police actually decide that it is.

In terms of Sciascia’s style, it is mostly tough and straightforward, but does also have lyrical moments. It is not, however, in any way similar to the classic hardboiled noir of Chandler or Hammett, or even Simenon, but that, for me, makes a refreshing change. Also unlike the work of those more famous authors, there is no charismatic central character; in fact, there really isn’t any great character depth or development at all, to the point that I was sometimes confused as to who was speaking, as everyone is essentially interchangeable. This is, of course, more of a problem, but not every writer is Tolstoy, and, besides, I think the Italian would have himself admitted that character wasn’t really his concern. He wanted to highlight what he saw as the problems facing Sicily, and Italy as a whole, with corruption and violence and avarice, things that, as I pointed out in my introduction, are by no means particular to a certain time or place. In this way, Sciascia’s small, potent anti-thrillers are the cold showers that are sometimes needed in order to wake you up not only to what has happened in the past, but what is still happening right now.

INVISIBLE CITIES BY ITALO CALVINO

You: What is Invisible Cities?

[P]: A short Borgesian novel by Italo Calvino in which the traveller Marco Polo describes a series of [mostly fantastical] cities for the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan.

You: What’s it all about?

[P]: I just told you.

You: No, you gave me a synopsis. What’s it really about? What was this Calvino guy trying to say?

[P]: Ah, shit.

You: You don’t know?

[P]: I’m not sure. It’s hard to explain. Marcel Proust once wrote, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

You: Is that relevant?

[P]: Yes, of course.

You: How so?

[P]: Ah, shit.

You: How many times have you read the book?

[P]: Twice

You: And you still can’t say anything meaningful about it?

[P]: Well, one man’s meaningful is another man’s rambling incoherent bullshit. I’m wary of rambling.

You: It has never worried you before.

[P]: That’s a good point.

You: So proceed.

[P]: Well, the reader is told in one of the linking narrative sections that the two men don’t speak the same language, that they actually communicate via signs and objects. One imagines that as a consequence of speaking different languages, and the subsequent miscommunication between them, that both have a different conception/understanding of the cities being ‘described.’ The cities of Kublai Khan’s mind, then, could be the invisible [non-existent] cities of the title, as he, unlike Polo, has never seen them but only ‘heard’ of them from someone else.

Yet while this idea of an elaborate Chinese whispers appeals to me, I am not certain that there is enough evidence to support a claim that it was Calvino’s intention to explore it. Indeed, that something, like a city, can exist in two different forms in the imaginations of two different men, that it can change in appearance as it passes from the mind of one person to the mind of another, throws up interesting questions about the nature and reliability of knowledge, and also, if one ignores for a moment the claim that the two men are communicating via signs etc, touches on the merits and otherwise of oral storytelling. Yet, it is Polo’s descriptions that are fantastical, we are not privy to Kublai’s interpretations. To give weight to the idea that this is really a book about communication, about building images in one’s mind, there would need to be some sense that Polo’s descriptions are at odds with his listener’s understanding of what he is told, and there isn’t.

You: So you’ve told me what you don’t think the book is about?

[P]: Yes.

You: Are you always like this?

[P]: No, but…

You: If someone asks you for directions to the supermarket do you tell them how to get to the library?

[P]: No, but Invisible Cities suggests many interpretations.

You: Does it? On the reverse of the novel itself there is a quote by Paul Bailey who claims that it is a paean to Venice, that the descriptions of seemingly distinct places are actually descriptions of that one city.

[P]: I’m aware of that. But doesn’t that indicate that knowledge of Venice would be necessary in order to understand or fully appreciate Calvino’s work?.

You: I guess so.

[P]: I just don’t quite buy that, as it seems extraordinarily cheeky of a writer to expect his readership to hop on a plane to Italy in order to be able to make sense of his book.

You: You’re not much of a traveller, then?

[P]: I…well…the thing is, whenever I go anywhere I find that the place was more romantic, more beautiful, more special in my mind, in anticipation, than it is in reality. I am always disappointed whenever I go anywhere.

You: Life must be a real bitch for you.

[P]: Yes, but I think that might be what Calvino was getting at. My favourite interpretation of Invisible Cities would be that Kublai Khan knows that Polo is not telling the truth when he recounts his tales of marvellous places, but prefers these wonderful imaginative cities to the actual cities over which he rules, that like Don Quixote this magical world is more appealing to him than the real thing.

You: So there you are, you do know what the book is about.

[P]: No. Because I am not totally convinced of this interpretation either. Indeed, the thought that struck me with the most vehemence whilst reading it was that this is a novel about understanding the essence of cities, rather than their purely physical appearance. I wrote something about myself…

You: Ah, shit.

[P]: Is that objectionable to you?

You: [Sighing deeply] No, no. Go on then, what did you write…[almost indistinctly} about yourself?

[P]: I wrote…

To understand my home city I have to understand another, to see it I have to see another, for it is that other city that gives this one, my home, existence; it is that other city that brought me here, that made here possible. That other city is London. When I try to see London, I see:

A photobooth in Paddington station, that might not exist anymore, that might never have existed in Paddington station, for maybe it was in Marylebone station. Or Kings Cross. But for me it is there in Paddington station, forever.

A girl in a red coat, fairytale-like, emerging out of the crowd on Camden High Street; opposite, across the road, is a megastore, the name of which is obscured; behind me is Camden tube station.

The girl: Jemmia, two weeks before she tried to kill herself for the first time. Or three weeks. Or maybe even four. And who is to say her coat was red? And yet I see it with the same kind of certainty and assurance as if the image of her in it is tattooed on my arm.

My London is an imaginary London, it exists only within me. I trace it not with my feet or my hands or my eyes, but ghost-like through my memories. And yet this dream of London has a pull and an influence on me stronger than the four walls that will keep me tonight or the street I’ll tread tomorrow.

It is times like this that you start to realise that your whole life is a dream, an unmanageable and complex web of dreams and imaginings.

You: Y’know, that’s not half as bad as I feared.

[P]: Thanks, I guess.

You: But still you’re mostly just stalling for time.

[P]: Maybe. Thing is, we could do this forever and I will still probably be unable to adequately describe, sum up, or understand Invisible Cities. In fact, it occurs to me now all I have done is to essentially outline a series of Invisible Novels. At the very least, I hope one of them inspires you to read to Calvino’s.

You: I’ll get back to you on that.

THE GOLD-RIMMED SPECTACLES BY GIORGIO BASSANI

Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is one of the greatest Italian novels; more so it is one of the greatest holocaust novels, not because it documents or lingers over, as many of them do, the persecution suffered by certain groups of people at the hands of the Nazis or the horror of the camps etc, but because it presents a beautiful, elegiac story of adolescent romance and then points at it and says: this, this is what the Fascists were so hell bent on destroying. Being so impressed by that book [his most well-known] I was eager to read more of Bassani’s work; this one, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, is not only considered to be one of his very best, if not the best, but is also part of the Ferrara Cycle, a series of loosely inter-linked novels to which The Garden of the Finzi-Continis also belongs.

Without wishing to jump right in with the negatives I can certainly say that The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is not the equal of Bassani’s most famous novel. It does, however, have much in common with it. First of all, the book has the same wistfully melancholic, nostalgic tone. While The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is centred around the title family, this one is concerned with Doctor Fadigati, a successful man, but a lonely man, and a homosexual. I really liked the opening of the book, which tells of his arrival in Ferrara and early lofty status amongst the locals, and, subsequently, the rumours concerning his private life. I especially enjoyed what Bassani had to say about how the people of Ferrara were none too concerned about his homosexuality, it being at least something, something concrete, after years of speculation. The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is also like its more renowned bigger brother in that it appears to be about one thing – something local, domestic –  but, in the background, there looms a larger, more politically-charged theme, which is its real focus.

It is the point at which Fadigati makes friends with a group of students on a train that the novel starts to go awry for me. To some extent I can understand why the doctor moves from the empty second class carriage to the students’ third class carriage; it speaks, of course, of Fadigati’s loneliness. Here is a man who never got married, who hides his liaisons, if indeed there are any, from the general public and so, the implication is, he lacks company on a regular basis. Yet, I can’t help but find Fadigati’s behaviour creepy, although I am not convinced that is what the author intended. Earlier in the book, Bassani makes a point of explaining how Fadigati keeps himself to himself, so why does he, in effect, impose his company on a group mostly made up of young boys? I imagine some of you might be rolling your eyes, seeing in this some subtle form of homophobia. That is not the case. I have no issue with homosexuality, but I do have issues with anyone, male or female, straight or gay, hanging around a bunch of people half their age. As I said, I’m not sure this creepiness is intentional; you could argue that Bassani simply wanted to find a way to bring together the narrator and the doctor, and this was his solution. In any case, it has, for me, unfortunate consequences for the story, it takes it in a direction that does not sit well with the idea that Fadigati is a sympathetic character.

An even bigger concern, for me, is that Fadigati takes one of the students as a lover. This is a problem in two ways. Firstly, it exacerbates the creepiness I spoke about in the previous paragraph; it makes, again I think unintentionally, Fadigati seem like some kind of sexual predator. Look, I’m not saying that the boy in question did not know his own mind, and he is legally of age, but, still, one cannot overlook the fact that it is Fadigati who forces his company on the group in the beginning [which is, in fact, something that he does more than once throughout the story, always with younger people] and seeks to ingratiate himself with them. The second problem I have with the relationship is that, according to the author, Fadigati was discreet, in terms of his private life, so much so that the locals in Ferrara found no evidence of who he was seeing despite him living amongst them for a decade. And yet we are meant to believe that this man, this paragon of discretion, will suddenly take up with a young boy and flaunt the affair in public, will take him on holiday and buy him a car etc. Fadigati’s character is way too inconsistent for him to be believable, and far too odd to be sympathetic.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the work are the parallels the author invites us to draw between homosexuality and being a Jew under a Fascist government. Bassani was both a Jew and a homosexual so it is difficult to accuse him of making light of anti-semitism, and I can certainly understand his point, but for me there is really no comparison. Fadigati is whispered about and subtly ostracised, he is looked upon as something other, something not normal, and you can see how Jews in Ferrara are treated in a similar manner. However, that Fadigati is whispered about, and looked down upon, for dating a boy half his age, for essentially buying his affections, is hardly akin to persecuting someone on the basis of their race or religion. Whether you believe that Fadigati has done something wrong or not, and I think even these days many would find his behaviour distasteful, one cannot complain about being whispered and gossiped about, and even excluded by others, when you do something that is clearly, predictably, going to upset people. You cannot, for me, start an affair with someone significantly younger than yourself and pay for their company and not expect a backlash. I dunno, maybe I am being harsh, but the two situations seem completely different to me, because Fadigati freely chooses his partner [although he doesn’t, of course, choose his sexuality], and he is therefore at least partly responsible for what happens to him [which is not the same as saying he deserves it]. Having said all that, I did enjoy the book. It’s not great by any means, and I would struggle to recommend it, but Bassani was a stylish and evocative writer and I don’t think I will ever tire of reading about his Ferrara.