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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.

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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.

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[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.

VERTIGO BY W.G. SEBALD

I find the wonderful German writer W.G. Sebald so difficult to review that my treatment of his second novel, The Rings of Saturn, was no more than a long story about a trip I once made with my then partner to her home in Cornwall, during which, mostly on account of her parents, I lost my mind and my girlfriend. I’m not, of course, going to go over all that again, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to, for I have forgotten much of what took place; yet the disquieting thing is that what I can recall or bring back I now doubt the veracity of. For example, my girlfriend’s parents were very rich, but I am sure that it is not the case that their admittedly large home was backed by an even larger field, in which wild horses ran; yet that – the field, the horses, the house – is my strongest memory of the week I spent in Cornwall.

Some years ago I was at college and my philosophy teacher told me a story about how he moved to the Czech Republic, on a whim so to speak, in order to be with a Czech girl he had met whilst she was on vacation in England. When he arrived at her house she showed him in and explained that he ought to say hello to her father. My friend agreed and so she directed him to climb the stairs, where her father could be found in the first room on the right. My teacher may have found this odd, but in any case he climbed the stairs and entered the room and there he saw the old man, sitting in a chair, listening to Wagner, with tears streaming down his face. Now, this did not happen to me. I know that well enough, so why is it that this memory now seems as though it belongs to me? Why is it that I am able to put myself in that situation, in place of my teacher, and see, not what he saw, but my own version of it, with as much assurance as anything that has actually happened to me in my life?

As I sit here and think about those two trips, one to Cornwall and one to the Czech Republic, both of which are a strange mixture of fantasy and fact, the proportions of each unknowable to me, I feel extremely disorientated. This disorientation is, I believe, what Sebald called vertigo, a state that is characterised by the difficulty, or a belief in the difficulty, of putting one’s feet on the ground, of being sure of yourself, and of the world around you. It is this mental, and physical, state that Sebald writes about in this book, the first of his four great novels. In it he tells a series of anecdotes and stories, involving both fictional characters and real people, including himself.

Lunchbasicversion

Sebald’s first vertigo-sufferer is Marie-Henri Beyle, who we are told was a soldier in Napoleon’s army; he was also a writer, and is better known as Stendhal. Throughout his life Beyle’s memories and perceptions, according to Sebald, consistently played tricks on him. For example, he was convinced that the town of Ivrea, through which he once passed, would be indelibly fixed in his mind, only to find, some years later, that what he actually remembered was nothing but a copy of an engraving called Prospetto d’Ivrea.

“Beyle writes that even when the images supplied by memory are true to life one can place little confidence in them.”

For Beyle, the distinction between truth and fiction, reality and imagination, was tenuous at best. Probably the most wonderful, the most moving anecdote Sebald shares with us in this regard involves Beyle’s relationship with a possibly imaginary woman, La Ghita. Beyle, writes Sebald, claimed to have been travelling with La Ghita, to have had involved conversations with her, and to have eventually broken from her, and yet there is no definitive proof that she ever existed; in fact, the likelihood is that she was a composite of numerous women the Frenchman had known.

As with all of Sebald’s work, in Vertigo he is concerned with melancholy outsiders, or eccentrics. Most people do not have a troubled relationship with reality, like Beyle does, but the few that do tend to not be particularly happy [or mentally stable]. This appears to be borne out when, at the beginning of the second section of the novel, Sebald, or the narrator who so closely resembles Sebald, discusses his own mental breakdown, which occurs when travelling through Vienna, Milan, Verona, Venice and Innsbruck. The narrator’s vertigo manifests itself as a kind of dread or neurotic fear, and by a sense of the uncanny. For example, at one point he tells the story of Casanova’s imprisonment and notices that the day the Italian had set for his escape is the day that he [Sebald] had visited that same prison, Doge’s Palace. When he leaves each town or city he does so as though trying to outstrip his anxiety, as though he is on the run from himself [and possibly the two shadowy figures he believes may be following him]. In the second half of this long second section, Sebald returns, seven years later, to make the same trip and visit some of the same places. This trip is a tour of his memories of those places as much as it is an actual tour of them.

Like Beyle, Sebald is hyper-sensitive; the things that he reads and the art that he engages with often break into reality, the everyday world is often transformed by his imagination [or madness]. At one point in the book he thinks that he is following Dante, at another he mentions that he was once convinced that a black limousine driver was Melchior, one of the three magi [or wise men]. Throughout, there hangs over the book the question, What is reality? Are Sebald’s strange experiences reality? Instinctively one would want to say no, because Dante was dead at the time the narrator claims to have seen him, and yet, for me, the issue is far from clear-cut; what someone experiences, regardless of how impossible it may may seem, is their reality, is as real as anything we would accept without raising an eyebrowThe truth of the world, I once wrote, is like a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day.

“Over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, i said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past actually happened in this or that way.”

According to many of the reviews and articles I have read, Vertigo is the weakest of Sebald’s four novels, but that is not an opinion I share; for me The Emigrants is the least engaging of the bunch. However, what does distinguish this novel from the others, and perhaps accounts for some of the indifference towards it, is that it wears its influences more brazenly. Sebald’s other work all tastes subtly of Marcel Proust and Jorge Luis Borges, but here the flavour is very, very strong. The prose style, involving long complex sentences, with multiple clauses, is recognisably Proustian; and some of the ideas contained within Vertigo are not only similar to some of those found in In Search of Lost Time, but actually appear in it. Furthermore, the structure of this book, in comparison with Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in particular, is far from sophisticated. For example, while the opening Beyle section is thematically connected to the rest of the work, it still essentially stands alone. Later in his career Sebald would work his anecdotes and stories into his overall narrative and that gave them a satisfying flow that Vertigo does not have.

Yet there are also positive aspects of the book that one will not find in Sebald’s more sophisticated work. First of all, it is at times pretty funny. There is a refreshing lightness of touch, or lightheartedness, in certain passages. Two incidents stand out or me in this regard, there is Sebald getting hit on in a bar in Italy and a scene on a bus when he spies two kids who he thinks are dead-ringers for Franz Kafka. Here, our intrepid narrator approaches the boys and their parents, but receives a frosty reception; he asks for a photograph of the children but is turned down. They probably thought I was a pederast, Sebald notes. Ha! Martin Amis once said that all great writers are also comic writers, and I believe there is some truth in that. A comic writer does not have to mean someone like P.G. Wodehouse, but, for me, and Amis too, includes the likes of Tolstoy and Kafka. The idea is that if you understand the world, and the human condition, you cannot help but be, on occasions, funny, because life is funny; so it pleases me that Sebald showed that he, too, could be humorous. The story of the Kafka kids also highlights another pleasing aspect of Vertigo, which is that it is more obviously fictional than the novels that came after it. One may in fact see that as a negative, but it was nice, in my opinion, to encounter a more relaxed Sebald, one trying stuff out, even some goofy stuff.

THE AENEID BY VIRGIL

Canto I

One day, although not yet half way through life’s journey,
I found myself in a forest dark, having wandered
From the path intended. Poor me! This wood, so foreboding,
Promised me evil beyond telling. So, must I tell then
Of what I saw, though in telling my fear would return anew?
With three savage beasts, at my heels attending,
I trod with heavy heart deeper into the leafy labyrinth.
I spent the night without even fitful sleep, hour upon hour,
My eyes open and turned towards the pitch-dark abyss
Above my weary head. Is this what death holds, I wondered,
To wander, hopeless and hunted, without our natural rest?
With daybreak I took up my peregrinations, until upon
A mountain I there came. No way over or around; and so
The beasts closer came, encircling, with stern attention.
All lost, thought I, but, at that moment, I beheld a figure
Of human form. ‘Save me!’ I cried, ‘Be you man or shade.’
Man I am not, yet once I was. Augustus I served, in Rome
I dwelt, as a poet. I, it was, who once famously sang of
Mighty Aeneas, the Trojan prince.’ What good fortune!
‘I too am a poet!’ I said, at which the great man chuckled.
‘Your poetry, I am aware of, but please let us not speak of it.
You know my name and my work?’ ‘You are Virgilius, author
Of The Aeneid, which I recently read, although you look
Like Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo!’ The poet smiled,
And said, ‘I took the form of famous footballer, peerless Pirlo,
Because you know not what Virgil looks like. Now let’s
Take a stroll; no harm will befall you while you walk with me.’
And so we moved off, with Virgil leading; the way now clear,
And fear from my heart cast. ‘Where are we going,’ I asked
My guide. ‘Down we go, to a place terrible and frightening.
Many things you’ll see, and lessons learn, if that world
You can bear.’ ‘I’ll bear up, master, but please, do not
In darkness leave me. What’s the name of this awesome place?’
‘It is Book-Review Hell, son. Look!’ And before me I saw
A dark opening, a door, with these words above:
Abandon perspective, humility,
And conventions of grammar,
All who enter here.

description
Andrea Pirlo as Virgil, painting by Gustave Dore 1874

Canto II

Inside, in fear, I clung to the hard wall as we descended deeper,
Despite the poet’s promise that no harm would me befall.
‘Tell me, master, as a distraction, about your hero Aeneas;
Isn’t he but one-dimensional? No personality has he to speak of.’
The poet puffed with indignation, ‘What know you, boy,
Of personality?’ A low-blow, I thought. ‘Aeneas is a hero;
Don’t they almost always blandly embody traits like courage,
Honour and so forth? If one-dimensional bothers you,
I suggest from epic poetry, impertinent youth, you keep away!’
For the offence I begged his pardon. The poet softened slightly,
And went on to say, ‘He may not, on the surface, be compelling,
But of interest there is much. He is a man burdened by destiny,
With no control over his life. By divine will he’s pushed forward,
Away from his new wife Dido and into a great and bloody war;
And his brutal frustration is murderously poured out in the end.’
At that, reticent to enrage him further, I fell silent, despite
Being eager to speak about the structure of the poem;
How episodic The Aeneid is! How I often felt like I was
Playing Zelda: at every plot point, crucial, there is an obstacle to
Overcome, or a task to complete, to pass to the next stage!
O sage, do not think this is a criticism, if you are reading this.
‘Look!’ he said, to regain my attention, and before me now I saw
Many men, all alike, with dress identical, moving one to another.
As one spoke, the other listened, then stepped away towards
The next man, to repeat what he had just heard. ‘What is
This place?’ I asked great Virgil. ‘This is Plagiarism,’
He replied. ‘To avoid a stay here, one must never take
What isn’t yours and pass it off as original thought.’
I nodded, seriously. ‘Master, I agree, but some claim
Your poem is but Homer’s work, re-written.’ ‘Listen,
[P], I’d never deny the influence of the Greek genius,
But his work I used as a launch-pad for my own. I did not
From him steal; the aims, the style, etc, are different,
The similarities between our poems are superficial only. Tell me,
Have you heard Be My Baby?’ I told him I had, that I love
That song. ‘The drumbeat, how many times have you heard it,
In how many songs throughout the years? Homer is like that
Beat; he’s the foundation upon which many build their own work.
Now, come, let us proceed.’

description
Zelda, illustration by Gustave Dore 1880

Canto III

As we penetrated deeper, I pressed the poet further, ‘Master,
Would it displease you, if we speak more about The Aeneid?
At least allow me to say how much I enjoyed your poetry,
Your graceful lines, your use of extended metaphor and simile;
But by far my favourite aspect of your work was how dark
And gothic your presentation of events, your Cyclops,
For example, and how Dido meets her end. And what about
the work of Allecto? Pure horror’.’Now is not the time,
But, speaking of gothic, of dark and unsettling, turn your eyes
Towards what stands before them now.’ I raised my eyes as
I was bidden, and there I saw a room. From floor to ceiling,
From wall to wall, were crushed, or packed tightly together,
Men and women, with no space to move in, each groaning,
Some dead, some dying. ‘O master, what is this awful place?’
‘This is Personal Anecdotes, [P]; somewhere I thought you’d well
Know. Here one is forced to struggle for breath in a room
With all the people one has used in one’s reviews.’ I now saw
I thought, the error of my ways, and so asked my guide
To please take me away, for I could not bear any longer
To gaze upon the terrors of that room.

Canto IV

My guide obliged and swiftly showed me to the next,
A place where silence reigned. A relief for my ears,
After all the ungodly groaning. ‘Where are we now?’
I asked my companion. The room in which we stood
Was dust-filled, sported spider webs a-plenty, and on
Hard wooden benches sat large groups of men, all seemingly
Asleep. Without answering Virgil held a finger to his lips,
The universal request for quiet. But I could not hold my
Tongue, I was consumed by curiosity, and so I whispered,
‘Tell me, master, what goes on here?’ And at that the men
Awoke, and as they moved great clouds of dust ascended
Into the air. The men, in panic, screamed and shouted,
‘I can’t breathe, please save me!’ The dust, it seemed,
Was choking them; their eyes streamed, their skin
Itched, and loud sneezes erupted from all noses, bringing
Further dust down from the rafters.’These men cannot die,’
My guide proclaimed, ‘But suffer greatly, they must. The dust!
The dust! O until it again settles it will stop-up their throats,
Obstruct their breathing.’ I could not prevent a tear, for
So much woe had I this day witnessed. The poet continued,
‘This is the room of Over-long, Dry, and Academic Reviews.
There is no humour here, no lightness of touch; here you’ll find
the plot-summarizers; and tedious explorers of character,
Motivations, their words taken from University lecture notes.
Review, you must, The Aeneid, but beware do not devote most
Of your review to explaining how Aeneas is a Trojan, who
Fought for Troy in The Iliad, although he was only a small-time
Player; or how The Aeneid begins with survivors of that war
Looking for a new land on which to settle; don’t tell readers
All there is to know about their travels, their travails,
Or Aeneas’ ultimate victory over the Latins, or the short but
Exciting Arrans and Camilla episode.’ I felt as though I must
Interrupt, briefly, ‘Should I not mention how Camilla fights with
Her breast exposed?’ My guide laughed and smiled benignly.
‘I think that is fine; a quite titillating detail, excuse the pun.’
‘She is my favourite character, tits aside,’ I told the eminent poet;
For a female warrior one doesn’t expect to find,
In an ancient epic.

Canto V

‘How much more, master, must I endure, how many
Rooms are left on this tour?’ Virgil patted my shoulder,
Paternally, and said, ‘No more, [P]. The tour has come to
An end.’ I expressed surprise, although not disappointment,
For Dante had been accompanied through nine circles in all.
‘You are correct,’ said Virgil ‘but in order to visit the rest of
The rooms you must buy my tour-guide.’ I grimaced and mumbled
Something about forgetting my wallet; at this, the poet rolled
His eyes. ‘So, what now?’ I asked, for the subject I sought
To change. ‘Now, back you must go, to the world above,
To write a review for The Aeneid.’ I said I would most
Gladly return, but could I first run by him some more ideas.
The poet nodded, and I then commenced, ‘The translation,
Master, whose would you recommend? Latin, most no longer
Comprehend. I read Fitzgerald, and was satisfied. No
Lombardo-like modern phrases, no Fagles-mangling of
Famous lines.’ The poet chimed, ‘Fitzgerald is fine; I approve
Of his work. He did not impose his own style on my poem
Like Fagles did. No translation is perfect, of course, none
Can capture all aspects of my genius. But Fitzgerald, at least,
Makes no glaring errors or missteps. His poetry is fluid and
Most readable.’ I demonstrated my agreement and begged
To raise one last point, which I voiced thus, ‘The Aeneid
You wrote as propaganda, this almost everyone knows;
Your aim to tie the Roman people to the legendary Trojans.
Caesar Augustus is even by name mentioned, as the one
Who will bring an age of gold. And yet, I found it to be
Not as tub-thumping as I had expected. Of course, Aeneas,
It was clear, would be victorious in the end, but still he
Suffers painful losses.’ The poet replied, ‘Good points, [P],
You please me greatly, for I am a poet first and foremost,
political puppet I was unwillingly. But now I have my own
Burning question: how will you review The Aeneid?
My mind you must put at ease, and promise
No poem of your own.’

Yeah, right.