I couldn’t resist reading The House on Moon Lake from Italian author Francesca Duranti. The book’s protagonist, Fabrizio Garrone is an underemployed, “ill-paid” translator, hobbling together enough work to make a marginal living. Now living in Milan, once Fabrizio was an aristocrat, the much-valued son and heir of a noble estate in Genoa, but all that, apart from a couple of mementos, is now gone, and Fabrizio lives modestly, and not particularly happily, in a small apartment. Living with “humiliation, a sense of injustice impotence and rage,” he sees himself as “the unhappy incarnation of all the historic defeats of the twentieth century.” He’s just finished translating a book by Fontane and is “hunting for a new project.”
If Fabrizio could choose, he’d only work for Mario, a small-time publisher of translated work, who is also Fabrizio’s childhood friend and now his neighbour. Unfortunately, Mario cannot provide enough work for Fabrizio to make a living, so he has to hustle back and forth between several other publishers. Mario, who has for years worked as a one-man operation, recently hired Fabrizio’s luscious girlfriend, Fulvia, as an assistant. This is an interesting development as Mario, the son of the former groundskeeper of the Garrone estate, is madly in love with Fulvia, and sits in the sidelines while Fabrizio cannot commit to his long-suffering, supportive girlfriend.
The usual dilemma of deciding what was the best approach to take with Fulvia, not only a few minutes from now, when he would see her at the office, but in the future as well–how to preserve the miraculous balance that he had managed to achieve in the last two years by keeping her as though poised on a single point, a point suitable to him but not to her, where she fretted and fidgeted dangerously, constantly threatening to bring them both tumbling down.
One day by pure chance, Fabrizio picks up a book of essays penned in 1913 by a famous literary critic which refers to an obscure novel, The House on Moon Lake (Das Haus am Mondsee), written by an Austrian author, Fritz Oberhofer. Oberhofer is one of those “totally unknown” writers considered third-rate, and even that’s a generous assessment. But according to the author of the essays, The House on Moon Lake, published in 1913 is a masterpiece, a novel which concerns a “profound, delicately conceived love affair,“ with only 100 copies printed “for private circulation.” Fabrizio cannot contain his excitement:
Just when the wall of estrangement that separated him from others seemed to have surrounded him completely, lo and behold, a crack had suddenly appeared, affording him a chance to crawl through to the other side, to that happy world where people decanted the fluid transparence of their humanity into solid vessels. Fritz Oberhofer would make him a Germanist: every title, or almost every title, that ended in -ist conferred an unassailable status on its bearer, ensured his place within a given framework, gave him a recognizable physiognomy.
This ‘find’ represents a tremendous opportunity for Fabrizio. If he can track down a copy of the novel and translate it, then he will have made a major contribution to the world of literature and also will make translating history. Do all translators dream of doing such a thing? The problem is that the novel seems to have disappeared. Fabrizio even travels to the National Library of Vienna, an institution that he is sure will house a copy of this rare masterpiece, but his quest is fruitless. As the novel proves more and more elusive, Fabrizio becomes increasingly obsessed with finding one of the lost 100 copies. He becomes furtive, secretive and possessive of the novel which he’s yet to find.
And he was thrilled at the prospect that he, Fabrizio Garrone–whom fate had always taken delight in cheating, without ever bothering to compensate–would be the one to revive Fritz Oberhofer, to do him justice and win him the glory he deserved.
In his search, Fabrizio begins investigating the Oberhofer family, looking for clues regarding the existence of the book, The House on Moon Lake. Curiouser and curiouser, it seems that Fritz Oberhofer died in the same year as he self-published his book, in 1913–right on the eve of WWI. Through Fabrizio’s research as he reads letters, biographies and diaries of the times there are slight glimpses of Oberhofer and his “talent for living.” Oberhofer is universally acknowledged by his contemporaries to be a “dreadful writer,” but a man of many love affairs. Each love affair spawned a novel, and this leads Fabrizio to conclude that a very special love affair must have been the seed for Oberhofer’s last missing novel, the “masterpiece,” The House on Moon Lake. Can Fabrizio find this book, and the big question: is it as good as he’s been led to believe?
Just how Fabrizio tracks down this mysterious novel and its impact on the publishing world and on Fabrizio himself is the substance of this novel. Clever and witty, there are also disturbing elements to this tale. Fabrizio stretches the truth at times and so we are left with the dodgy knowledge that when seaming together a background story from 100 years ago, those who write the story then weave hypotheticals into certainties. The novel also explores the subject of identity and how a translator can lose himself in the character of the original author–Fritz Oberhofer, in this case. After all, the relationship between the writer, the original source material, and the translator who brings the work to new readers is a strange one. How often do we glide over the translator’s names when we consider a translated book? Translators have a way of disappearing behind the author and into the text. Author Francesca Duranti explores this symbiotic relationship, initially with a mystery and a desperate hunt, and then injecting surrealism into the tale as desire becomes reality, reality becomes fabulous ‘truth,’ growing out of control until….
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli