Tag Archives: Italian fiction

Valentino and Sagittarius: Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg’s 2 novellas Valentino and Sagittarius both focus on the magnetic pull of family–even if a family member is toxic. It often occurs to me that we tolerate certain toxic behavior in family members and relatives, while we would distance ourselves from others if they behaved in the same way. This can certainly be argued for both of Natalia Ginzburg’s stories, told by narrators who are blindly accepting of the horrible behaviour of family members who drag them to the ground.

In Valentino all the hopes for the rise of family fortunes is invested in the sole ne’er do-well son. The tale is narrated by Caterina, Valentino’s sister who lives with her brother and parents in a tiny rented apartment. There’s also Clara, a married sister, who also needs support, a woman with “constant toothache” who has three children. Caterina attends a teacher training college and tutors children in her spare time. Valentino’s expenses are “never-ending” and never questioned as he is “destined to become a man of consequence.” Valentino’s father believes his son will become a world-famous doctor:

Valentíno himself seemed void of any ambition to become a man of consequence; in the house, he usually spent his time playing with a kitten or making toys for the caretaker’s children out of scraps of old material stuffed with sawdust, fashioning cats and dogs and monkeys too, with big heads and long, lumpy bodies. Or he would don his skiing outfit and admire himself in the mirror; not that he went skiing very often, for he was lazy and hated the cold, but he had persuaded my mother to make him an outfit all in black with a great white woolen balaclava; he thought himself no end of a fine fellow in these clothes and would strut about in front of the mirror first with a scarf thrown about his neck and then without and would go out on to the balcony so that the caretaker’s children could see him.

Valentino, a self-centered peacock, has a constant stream of girlfriends; “Teenagers wearing jaunty little berets and still studying at high school.” Imagine then the shock experienced by Valentino’s family when he announces that he’s going to get married and then brings home his fiancée, Maddalena, an extremely ugly, “short and fat” much older heiress.

It’s clear that Valentino’s motives are venal, and he really can’t stretch out the ‘famous doctor’ fantasy for much longer. While you might imagine that Valentino’s family would be relieved that he’s marrying money, they are hostile to the match. Even though Maddalena is extremely generous to her husband’s family , they never forgive her for marrying Valentino–as if somehow she’s ruined his potential.

Sagittarius is narrated by an unmarried woman who lives with her impossible widowed mother. There’s another daughter at home, Guilia, who, after a failed romance, marries a Jewish doctor on the rebound. The mother quarrels with her husband’s family after selling off some family land, and so she moves, daughters in tow. She imposes herself on her sisters who’ve managed to run a china shop quite efficiently without her help. The bombastic widow who has an overinflated idea of her competence tries to muscle in on the shop to no avail. And then the widow meets the shady Signora Fontana, a woman whose tatty glamour appeals to the widow, and the two women plan to open an art gallery together.

Both darkly humorous novellas focus on the way the main characters mistreat their families–Valentino is a sponger, controlling everyone in his life with his dubious, superficial charm, and he transfers his appalling behaviour from his family to his wife. He’s never held accountable for his fecklessness, and so we see how someone who is a User carries on being such for the rest of his life. In Sagittarius, the widow controls everyone by nastiness; she’s abrasive to her family and yet bends over backwards to accept so much rubbish from Signor Fontana. Again: that truism of how we can be considerate to others while treating family like indentured servants who are expected to tolerate bad behaviour. Both novellas had a 19th century feel to them, so much so that modern references were a bit of a shock.

Translated by Avril Bardoni

 

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The Bishop’s Bedroom: Piero Chiara

I still think about Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signor Guilia, so I was delighted to see a translation of The Bishop’s Bedroom. The New York Times Book Review compared the book to a Patricia Highsmith novel, but I basically ignored and forgot that comment. But it’s a well deserved comparison, and I wasn’t too far into the novel when Highsmith popped into my head. This is a suspense/crime novel set against post war Italy. The dreariness and deprivation of war is over, and those who have survived, at least most of the characters in the book, are approaching life with new attitudes. There’s a sense that leisure and pleasure are to be valued above all else. The war is in the past, a shadow that still can be seen with a backward glance.

The Bishop's bedroom

It’s 1946, and WWII has ended, yet the ripples of the conflict still extend in Italian society in spite of the book’s emphasis on relaxation, leisure, and sun. The unnamed narrator, a man in his 30s who has recently returned from Switzerland, has a sailboat and he spends his life sailing around putting off the day he must pick up responsibilities again. The narrator is a consummate bachelor (lothario), and with a knack with women, some of them married, he picks one up, takes her for a sail and then drops her back home. There are no commitments, no broken hearts, and no demands.

One day he sails into the port of Oggebbio on Lake Maggiore and a local man named Orimbelli, who reminded me of an oily Peter Lorre, strikes up a conversation. The narrator finds that he can’t quite read his new acquaintance:

He smiled often, sometimes for no reason, as if to seem obliging, but with the world weariness of a gentleman, or a man who’s lived a lot. His voice was somewhat nasal and yet not the least bit affected. He wore a gold ring on his little finger, and a fancy wristwatch, the kind that tells the day and month as well as the hour. It was immediately obvious that he was someone of a certain refinement, but it wasn’t easy to pin down his class. Clearly, he wasn’t a businessman or industrialist. Perhaps a doctor or notary, or just a rich idler who had established himself by the lake before the war, someone who’d stuck his head out after the army had gone by, to see which way the wind was blowing. 

One thing leads to another and Orimbelli, who tells his story of how he spent some of the war in Ethiopia,  followed by a stay in Naples for health reasons,  invites the narrator to his villa for dinner. Orimbelli lives at the Villa Cleofe with his older “very thin, schoolmarmish” wife and his sister-in-law, the lush widow Mathilde. While the villa is gorgeous, the atmosphere around the dinner table is suffocating, so it seems no surprise that Orimbelli should want to lighten the domestic atmosphere with the diversion of a guest. And neither is it too surprising that Orimbelli expresses an interest in sailing away with the narrator.

Over time, the narrator and Orimbelli, who connect over the pursuit of women*, make a number of sailing excursions together with the narrator sleazily picking up various women for himself and Orimbelli. If the idea is that Orimbelli needs to escape from his wife’s scrutiny for a while, then Orimbelli, once off leash, knows no restraint. Orimbelli has the annoying habit of shamelessly poaching the narrator’s women, and in spite of the fact that he’s not particularly attractive, he’s remarkably successful with women, perhaps because he’s so persistent.

While the story is set mostly in sun-filled days spent on the water, there’s a dark thread which runs through the plot. Is Orimbelli just the overweight, harmless married man he appears, or is there something far more sinister afoot? After a few incidents, the narrator, who calmly observes Orimbelli, decides he’s a “well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but even after that recognition, Orimbelli’s deviousness still catches the narrator off guard.

The Bishop’s Bedroom, incidentally, the room in which the narrator stays in at the Villa Cleofe is a lavish red and gold bedroom–a creepy shrine like room with a morbid atmosphere.

Soon the sun would flood the bishop’s bedroom, rendering it violet rather than red in the first light, and transforming it into a first-class mortuary with its canopy, the altar-like chest of drawers, the walnut wardrobe with large panels. the prayer stool and crucifix between two purple festoons.

*It’s possible to say the two men also connect over sailing, but IMO, the boat is a means to an end.

translated by Jill Foulston

Review copy

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For Isabel: A Mandala by Antonio Tabucchi

A mandala, a colourful circular design, represents unity, the idea that life is never-ending. Definitions include the idea that a mandala reinforces one’s relationship to infinity, and can also symbolise a journey through life. Taking these definitions, Antonio Tabucchi’s novel: For Isabel: A Mandala is the narrator’s search for a woman he knew long ago.

For Isabel

Tadeus, a writer over age 50, says he’s travelled to Lisbon to search for Isabel, a woman from his past. While he’s driven by “private obsessions, personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river,”  we never quite know what his relationship was with Isabel–although there’s a clue early on. As he seeks the truth, he instead finds conflicting stories about Isabel. The book presents nine interview-style chapters, called “circles,” as various people give their stories of Isabel, or their version of events. Those who offer Tadeus information include Mónica, a school friend of Isabel,  Isabel’s old nurse, Beatriz Teixeira, a photographer, a female saxophonist, a prison guard named Uncle Tom, and a dying poet called “The Ghost Who Walks.”

Over the course of Tadeus’s journey, he discovers that Isabel, who “came from an old Portuguese family that had nothing to do with Salazarism, a family in decline,” was radicalized in university. Mónica claims that Isabel had a great love affair that “was the ruin of her,” and that she was mixed up in triangular affair with a Spaniard and a Polish writer (possibly the narrator?). While Mónica says that Isabel, who lived an “underground existence,” hiding from the secret police, was pregnant and subsequently died, Isabel’s old nanny thinks she is still alive. ..

In this esoteric mystery, while the big question seems to be: will Tadeus find Isabel, other questions emerge. Narrative strands offer multiple versions of Isabel and her life. What is the truth? The narrator sets out on a journey to find Isabel, but in the end, while the journey, which becomes increasingly surreal, involves travel, it’s essentially a spiritual journey towards a central truth.

Tadeus’s search for Isabel is complicated by the fact that she became a communist and was hunted by the secret police. Was she “disappeared” while incarcerated? Now the political times have changed, but Tadeus still has to find and question former subversives who are suspicious of his motives. In the “fifth circle,” for example, Tadeus questions a photographer named Tiago who asks Tadeus what he hopes to achieve in trying to discover what happened to Isabel:

I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center,

To what end? he asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.

The photographer doesn’t answer directly, but instead shuffles around some photos. Then he has an enigmatic reply:

Do the photographs of a lifetime represent time divided among several people or one person divided into different times?

It takes a while to ‘break into’ this thoughtful, dreamlike novel, but I found myself being submerged by its elusive mystery. The conclusion is stunning, brilliant and well worth the read.

Translated by Elizabeth Harris

review copy

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The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

A writer writing a novel is like a serial killer who’s keeping a victim locked in the cellar. Every evening, he slides under the cellar door a tray with a little water and stale bread, just enough to keep his victim alive, anticipating the moment when he descends the cellar stairs to have his fun with her.”

As readers, we pay attention to those who carry off the coveted literary prizes in the publishing world. Those who directly benefit are probably the most interested in following the Trail of the Winners and the Losers. I note who wins this or that prestigious prize, but mostly my interest stops there. I don’t have any interest in reading a book just because it’s a prize winner, and I tend to be skeptical of the entire selection process. Nonetheless, I appreciate the efforts of those who try and read the short list for themselves prior to the announcement of the prize, and I also empathize with authors who wait for the news only to hear they’ve been passed over. It would be tempting (and also torturous) for those who didn’t win to read the prize-winning novel and chew over the reasons why this one won while theirs didn’t.

The ParrotsI’ll admit that the nasty side of me wonders what goes on in the minds of the contenders. The healthy thing, of course, would be for any nominee to cross fingers, ignore the process, hope for the best, and then behave gracefully when the prize falls to someone else. Sometimes it’s just not that easy to lose, and stories of rival authors attempting to sabotage each other through Amazon reviews give me hope for humanity. And that brings me to the Italian novel, The Parrots by Filippo Bologna, the cynical, but very funny story of three authors in Rome all competing for the same prize. These authors are known as The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master–all men at different stages of their lives and their writing careers. They are men who want/need that prize for a range of reasons, and given that I love to read books about people who behave badly, it was almost guaranteed that I’d like this.

The Writer, on his second unhappy marriage, and plagiarizer of his mother’s work, badly needs the prize. He tried writing novels “filled with love affairs, lonely desperate men throwing stones at the stars, missed dates, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette ends and women dragged by their hair, raincoated figures waking the night streets, cars speeding by beneath the streetlamps, the glances of strange women behind the windows of buses: that was how he imagined the stories he would one day write.”  But “his stories had kept slipping away from him, his sentences had jammed like rusty revolvers.”  

The Beginner turns out to be a tough contender, and according to The Writer’s publisher, The Beginner’s first novel may win the prize because it’s a “first book. And when it’s your first book, they forgive you everything.”

The Master plagued with bills, is convinced that other writers have the edge due to computers, if he could just “plug his technology gap,” he’ll be able to “rival other writers in creativity.” Facing cancer, he mulls over the “prizes he hasn’t won, the recognition he hasn’t obtained” and he sees the prize as “the only way to take leave of the world with dignity.” This drives him to desperate measures.

The Prize is organized and financed by The Patroness who as “the lines on her face crease a moment like a ruff, then relax” conjures up the image of an aging fashion model.  Votes roll in. The Publisher tells The Writer that he’s behind in the prize voting which he explains is due to the death of voters they used to count on. The rash of deaths has lowered the age of the typical voter on the panel:

The older they are, the better. What little time they have left isn’t enough to read all the books in the competition. So they have to choose: read or live. They can’t do both. That’s why they have to trust what we tell them.

On the other hand, there’s The Beginner:

They’ve had him park his arse on the right sofas, on TV and in drawing rooms, they’ve stuck him on the covers of women’s magazines. He isn’t very intelligent but it’s not vital for him to be intelligent–on the contrary. He’s polite, good-looking, blue eyes, women have a soft spot for him.”

“I don’t think he’s that good-looking, he has a stupid face.”

Of course, you get the idea that it isn’t about the books, it’s about the projected personalities, the PR campaigns, vote rigging, and  the pathetically unattended book events in provincial towns in which The Beginner offers “himself as a sacrifice to a handful of torturers who have emerged from their houses.” And of course, that’s taking the optimistic look that anyone will even show up. But there’s worse: “the neglected provincial writer chosen to chair the debate”:

Because he could well imagine ending up there himself. The Beginner had immediately recognised the type, universally knows as “provincial writer who hasn’t made it”.  It was a very specific, widespread and in no way innocuous, anthropological and literary category. Poisoned by the suspicion, if not the contempt, of their fellow citizens, hurt by the smugness of literary society towards them, worn down by rejection and their own inadmissible lack of talent, such people spent their wretched days exiled to their desks, writing imaginary reviews, updating their blogs, working away at novels doomed to the eternal darkness of a drawer. With the passing of the years, they ended up suppressing their feelings of failure and converting them into a sense of martyrdoms. They constructed vast conspiracy theories in which powerful publishers, ensconced in the centre of things, did all they could to crush anyone outside their own charmed circle–the only proof of this conspiracy, of course, being their own misfortunes. They founded small and apparently crusading publishing houses in some cellar, or directly in their own homes, clandestine distilleries where they got drunk on the very spirits they sold under the counter. By so doing, they were finally able to realize their dream and see some of their own manuscripts in printed form, just for the fetishistic orgasm of touching the cover, leafing through the pages, arranging them on display on the mantelpiece in their best room. The most enterprising of them even managed to found schools of creative writing–on the pattern of the more famous ones–in premises placed at their disposal by cooperatives or local authorities, more as an opportunity to exchange a few words with some human beings on autistic winter evenings than as an assertion of their own debatable teaching skills.

Ouch! That long quote gives a sense of the novel’s tone. Caustic, merciless, and cynical, this clever novel pokes fun at the publishing industry, and apart from the occasional sink into farce, this mostly works. I found the objectification of the three authors: The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, a bit wearying at times, and asked myself why the author chose to write the novel like this. Why not give his characters names instead of leaving them as types? But after concluding the novel, it seems fair to argue that individualism doesn’t count–identity beyond production doesn’t matter as in many ways. The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, while three separate human beings plagued with their own issues, are arguably the same person at different stages of their careers in this grubby cannibalistic industry.

The Parrots is a good companion read to Gert Loveday’s very funny novel, set at a writers’ workshop: Writing is Easy.

Review copy/own a copy. Translated by Howard Curtis.

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