Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Lost World: The Work of Marianne North

In the middle ground, sharply-defined blue mountains that stretch to masses of snow in the distance. A stand of palms in a swamp, above them the new moon in earthshine before the fading orange of sunset. A riot of otherworldly jungle flowers, some hanging on the vine, some clearly arranged for compositional purposes. These are but a few of the treasures to be found in Marianne North – The Kew Collection (Royal Botanical Gardens, 2018), a fairly constant companion since a friend introduced me to the book this past January. This large volume consists almost entirely of reproductions of the 848 oil paintings by North now hanging in London’s Kew Gardens in the pavilion the artist commissioned before her death. These extraordinary pictures, created between 1871 and 1885, revel in a world filled with marvels, bursting with colors and strange forms, integrated into their native environments. North painted these exotic flowers, trees, plants, landscapes and occasional human settlements during travels to the Canary Islands, Brazil, California, Japan, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Singapore, Chile, Jamaica, the Seychelles, Australia and New Zealand. Having already voyaged extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East with her father, the 41-year-old North began these mostly solo journeys after his death, hoping to capture images of flora and landscapes that were, in the words of her friend James Hooker, “already disappearing or [were] doomed shortly to disappear before the axe and forest fires, the plough and the flock, or the ever-advancing settler or colonist.” 

North is well-represented on the Internet (I especially like this site revealing contemporary views of some of North’s Brazilian subjects), so I’ll just briefly touch on North’s paintings in conjunction with Abundant Beauty: The Adventurous Travels of Marianne North, a selection from North’s journals edited by Laura Ponsonby (Greystone Books, 2010). This engrossing accompaniment to the Kew book offers glimpses of North’s itinerant life, a fuller measure of her human engagements and a valuable record of a Victorian mind at once uncommon and of its time. Though catapulted into an almost singular obsession with painting the world’s exotic plants by being given a Burmese Amberstia nobilisas a gift, North shows in these journals a range of interests extending to everything she experiences. Letters of introduction, a large inheritance and resolute confidence allowed her almost unfettered access wherever she went. Though plagued by travel ailments which contributed to her early death at 59, North’s intrepidness comes through again and again. She shrugs off hardships, declaring some infirmity or injury “worth bearing for the sake of the many wonders and enjoyments of the life I was leading,” such as stings by fascinating wasps in Brazil she saw clumped together “like a bit of black coal” atop a plant. One shares North’s awe in her discoveries, such as of a large South African caterpillar that retracts its head to imitate a local snake via a corresponding snake-eye marking on its body, or a multi-colored bird with green wings lined in a deep magenta color that curiously washes out in water and then regenerates itself. 

North might well have fit among Lytton Strachey’s “eminent Victorians”; she seems to have known everyone of her time and to have been sought out by many. Among her closest friends was the poet Edward Lear. Charles Darwin admired her work and encouraged her to go to Australia. She may even have served as the model for Helena Parry in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The darker side of her Victorian mindset appears in some casual attitudes towards the cultures she visits, which might today at best be described as orientalist or colonialist. However, her appreciation of individuals regardless of ethnicity or station is gracious and generous (one notable exception being her meeting with Brigham Young: “horrid old wretch! – my hand felt dirty for a week after shaking hands with him”). North seems to have been a true citizen of the Empire, claiming an almost inherent privilege to poke about the world; like other Europeans she encounters, she often came home laden with cultural and natural artifacts, such as the 300 samples of wood also housed at Kew, and even live animals (I lost count of how many souvenir specimens taken by North and others died in transit). 

Still, North’s paintings and travel writings, nearly 150 years after she launched her project, come across as a mesmerizing, utterly invaluable record, an almost painful depiction of a lost, Edenic world. Many plants painted by North have already disappeared, and her work adds moving context to the U.N.’s recent report concerning the imminent extinction of up to a million species. One grieves at the thought of such diminished abundance, at what medicinal applications, inspirations for new materials and novel insights into natural mechanisms we miss without our ever even knowing what we’ve lost. But beyond any such practical concerns, North’s seductive, glowing work collectively conveys an overwhelming, enchanted world of which today we can glimpse but lingering traces, and tomorrow perhaps not even that.

Bay of Rio de Janeiro

"It was a perfect fairyland. The great blue and opal morpho-butterflies came flopping their wide wings down the narrow lanes close over our heads, moving slowly and with a kind of seesaw motion so as to let the light catch their glorious metallic colours, entirely perplexing any holder of nets, Gorgeous flowers grew close but just out of reach, and every now and then I caught sight of some tiny nest, hanging inside a sheltering and prickly screen of brambles. All these wonders seeming to taunt us mortals for trespassing on fairies’ grounds, and to tell us they were unapproachable."

Thursday, May 2, 2019

“He was pleased; at least there was something here that wasn’t nasty” – Giorgio Scerbanenco’s Milan

Milan (photographer unknown)

When it comes to Ukrainian-born Milanese writer Giorgio Scerbanenco, my own embarrassment in discovering him only now might be weighed against the Anglophone publishing industry’s having issued, so far as I can tell, only two of his works in translation. This paucity might be understandable were Scerbanenco a nobody, but Italians know him as the father of Italian crime fiction, the country’s premier literary prize in the genre carries his name, and his literary output ran to some 71 novels and 19 short story collections. The two English translations both come from his Duca Lamberti quartet, a.k.a the Milano quartet. The first of these, A Private Venus (Venere privata, 1966, translator Howard Curtis, Hersilia Press), called to me from the library shelf. I read it in a single sitting. 

A Private Venus introduces Scerbanenco’s memorable protagonist, disgraced doctor Duca Lamberti, as he’s leaving prison following a three-year sentence for having euthanized an elderly cancer patient. A sympathetic local police superintendent, Luigi Càrrua, has arranged a post-prison job suited for a doctor now stricken from the medical rolls:  to wean Davide Auseri, 22-year-old son of a prominent industrialist, off alcohol, which the young man has been guzzling morning to night for a year. Alert to possible complications for his own future, Lamberti nonetheless accepts the task, recognizing the drinking as a symptom of something more troubling. Under Lamberti’s tough love, Davide quickly divulges his secret: he feels responsible for the death of a young woman, Alberta Radelli, a prostitute he had left on the side of the autostrada after being alarmed by her desperate plea that he take her away from Milan, and whose body had been found later with her wrists slashed. Davide’s story adds up; the rest of the picture does not. A careful investigation would have indicated that this was no suicide. And so Lamberti finds himself drawn into a role of the sort once played by his late father, an anti-Mafia detective.  

A Private Venus is the kind of Italian noir I relish: sharp, intelligent, unmistakably Italian, unmistakably its own thing, its teeth nipping into real-world problems. The narrative brims with dark, deadpan humor and a barely restrained indignation, and brings to mind Leonardo Sciascia and Georges Simenon, to whom Scerbanenco gets compared, as well as American writers such as Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler. 

While Scerbaneco’s earliest models were American detective stories (his first works used an American-sounding pseudonym), an insistence on Italian particulars characterizes A Private Venus. The Milanese specificity of the book seeps onto every page, such that one could trace on a map many of the novel’s locations and follow the characters’ movements almost to precise addresses. The grittiness of the city often comes through, as when Lamberti mentions the “double supply of cockroaches” in his sister’s apartment, which “come in from the street and also the courtyard.” A broader Italian context appears in the book’s mix of characters from across the country, as when Lamberti is warned off by Càrrua not to get too involved: 

“’Why?’, he asked, almost respectfully; he was from Emilia Romagna, he knew how to keep a cool head. 
“’Two girls have already been killed,” Càrrua said. He was from Sardinia, red-blooded and calculating. 

The country’s north-south divide serves as a key thematic element, as is an ambivalence concerning America, seen in an offhand, Malaparte-esque comment about American soldiers after the war caring primarily about beer, as well as in the way Scerbanenco seems to deliberately underscore the Italian context of his work in relation to his American models, as when Lamberti and a detective show up to interview Alberta’s sister:

The police had already been there a year before, about poor Alberta, so what could have happened now? If she had been an American she would have replied, “How can I help you?” in a polite, concerned tone, but she was an Italian from the south who the year before had been on the verge of losing her job with the phone company because her sister had killed herself and had been in the newspapers, so she didn’t say anything, not even “Yes,” just let them in, ran awkwardly across the little room to turn off the television set, blotting out Milva completely, and turned to look at them: one rather tall, rather thin, rather unpleasant-looking – that was him, Duca – the other short and stocky, and even more unpleasant-looking, and she didn’t even ask them to sit down, just as she didn’t tell them it was illegal for the police to enter a citizen’s home after sunset, because she didn’t know the law, not that anyone did know it, and even if she had known it she still wouldn’t have said anything.

Perhaps the most distinguishing quality of Scerbanenco’s work, aside from his grim Milanese milieu, may be an idiosyncratically feminist bent, no doubt influenced by the author’s years of writing for women’s magazines, including a long stint as an agony columnist. This shows up not only in the criminal pursuit with which A Private Venus is concerned – the trafficking of women – but also in a sensitivity to the ways male privilege and violence constrain and even condemn women. Scerbanenco’s female characters tend to be independent, resourceful and intelligent; two of them are masterful chess strategists. When Alberta is found dead, she’s carrying a novel by Alberto Moravia (one of Scerbanenco’s chief influences) in her purse. Scerbanenco’s most singular character, Livia Ussaro, a friend of the murdered girl, is a non-nonsense intellectual with a fierce moral outlook, like Lamberti himself but made of stronger stuff. Lamberti initially mistakes her for a lesbian given her short hair and pronounced independence, but Livia, who describes herself as cold, nonetheless attracts both sexes.[i] An interest in feminist sociology has led her to perform her own empirical experiment:  is it possible for a woman to succeed in being her own boss in conducting a private prostitution? Livia’s street smarts, academic education and wit show up in a subtle illustration of the Pareto Principle in her account of her disappointing first client when she observes that “four-fifths of human experience is based on something so quick, something that flashes by in an instant.” But such wit is bitter: in 1960’s Milan, Livia has found, the answer to her question appears to be a resounding no.

I wrote in my notes that a woman is a piece of merchandise that’s too much in demand, she represents a financial and social element that’s too large for a whole structure of interests not to be created around her. 

As in the works of other Italian crime writers whose works delve into questions of justice – perhaps especially the Montalbano novels of Andrea Camilleri, on whom Scerbanenco’s influence is obvious and deep[ii]- the difficulty of ever finding it forces the protagonist to find a different way around. Lamberti himself notes early on that his mistake in his own trial was in trying to tell the truth: “the truth is death, anything but the truth in a courtroom, in a trial. Or in life.” Later, meditating on revenge against the type of criminals who had stabbed his father, consigning him to a fate as “grey clerk” behind a desk, Lamberti admits that rather than seeking justice, he had “only wanted to see some of them face to face, and speak their language to them because that way you understood one another immediately.” This is not a work drenched in blood, but the violence, when it comes, is brutal. 

I’m not always a fan of this genre, but I’m already well into the next volume and eager to see more of this unusual writer’s work translated. I’m particularly intrigued by a quartet of noir novels set in New Mexico, and perhaps equally curious to sample another significant vein of literature mined by Scerbanenco: romance novels.

Addendum May 4, 2019: Having now finished the second of Scerbanenco's novels translated in to English, Traitors to All (Tradittori di tutti, 1966, translation by Howard Curtis, Melville House), I feel obliged to make a couple of clarifications. First, while a A Private Venus does contain one gruesome scene of torture, the violence in Traitors to All is significantly more horrific, with Lamberti's own violence amped up considerably. Second, the deficiencies in the "idiosyncratically feminist bent" I'd noted in A Private Venus are more evident in Traitors to All, with one especially improbable female character whom even Scerbanenco seems to recognize as pure fantasy, since he has Lamberti think of her as an almost supernatural "goddess of vengeance." 

[i]A distaste for homosexuality appears in A Private Venus, which features an odious homosexual character and an almost risibly over-the-top passage equating homosexuals with mutants. At the same time, Scerbanenco has Livia at one point express a “theoretical” opinion that “there are dialectically irreproachable reasons why parisexualism should have the same rights as heterosexuality.”

[ii]Even Inspector Montalbano’s companion Livia is likely an admiring gesture to Scerbanenco’s Livia Ussaro. 

Giorgio Scerbanenco

Sunday, April 21, 2019

"A little nest of pebbles in the immensity" - Giani Stuparich's Transcendent "L'Île"

Alexey Vasilyevich Ganzen, "House on the Dalmatian Coast," c. 1900

Triestan writer Giani Stuparich’s L’île (translator Gilbert Bossetti, Éditions Verdier, L’Isola in the original Italian, The Island were there an English translation, which there is not) originated in a personal experience so frightening the author works it into his book twice. I’ll provide the first: 

In passing through the streets of the town, his father at his side, he had had the impression that the world of men had been cleft into duplicate in an ultra-incandescent atmosphere. Advancing before him, he saw phosphorescent skeletons, while behind, within another atmosphere, as though superimposed on the preceding one and in a light at once dramatic and unnatural, the coverings of the flesh trailed behind. This impression had been so forceful and upsetting that he feared he might never free himself from it. 

The vision haunted Stuparich for a decade until, seated at his desk one morning, he discovered that it “had lost all its horror” and become “full of poetry, steeped in poetry, bathed in poetry,” a transformation the author seems to have carried over wholly into L’île (1942); my admiration for this short novella grew by magnitudes as I found myself returning again and again to its elegant, moving narrative. Employing a formal, strikingly lucid style, Stuparich maintains intense focus on his subject: the confrontation with mortality in the story of a son whose terminally-ill father has invited him to journey together, “perhaps for the last time,” to the island of his ancestors.[i] 

The arc of the story, a graceful parabola with a short tail at one end, traces the voyage to the island, the stay there, and the departure. The island itself serves as a kind of oasis, a crucible in which the two men must deal with the weight that hangs above them. Yet despite this exigency and the displays of mutual affection between father and son, a palpable distance exists between them, emphasized by the narrator’s contrast of the son’s mountains with the father’s sea, “those two marvelous rivals,” as the son calls them. A few lines reveal the father’s absence during much of his son’s life, his having left behind a family towards whom he had felt “a reciprocal indifference” in order to pursue the life of a sailor. One rare visit home, he had felt a connection with the boy, “whom he discovered a bit by chance; it had happened as though he’d discovered something in himself he didn’t know.” Undertaking the task of helping his son “learn to walk into existence,” the father had sent the 10-year-old to the island for a time, an initiation from which the timid child had returned transformed.  

Now on the boat 20 years later, burdened by the diagnosis of esophageal cancer, the son regards his father and reflects on the past: 

He had seemed to him then like a god, powerful, his face luminous, his voice resounding, with the manners of a conqueror: upright, simple, gay… And now this god here leaned his back and neck against a wooden railing, letting himself be lulled, in his lassitude, by the movements of the ship.
His melancholy eyes followed the distant profile of the coast, softened by blue and pinkish lights, of small houses dispersed here and there around their church tower like herds, reflecting on the mirror of inlets. This was no more than a tired man, face profoundly wrinkled, mouth bitter and slightly open, as though it pained him to breathe. 

These contrasts of gaiety and gravity take on increasingly sharp definition, with the island - first viewed as an indistinct haze on the horizon - serving as an idyll enclosed by the parentheses of the voyage and offering occasional, temporary respite: 

All of a sudden, they reached the end of the path where an admirable view presented itself to the eyes of the two men who, as though in perfect accord, halted together. Above the water, a tufted garland of tender green, light and undulating, crowned a large bay, a perfect semi-circle of golden sand before an amethyst sea of an enchanting clarity, which had just given birth to the curling hem of a wave of smiling sea spray. The entire pine forest twittered with the drunken sound of cicadas, their song rivaling the multi-sonic agitations of the sea.

Stuparich sensitively contrasts the son’s dire presentiments with the constitutional rejection of death by a man filled with life and capable of drawing out, even from those cast off and discounted, the “joyful side of their nature, long beaten down by the blows of fate.” A use of free indirect discourse quietly shifts between father and son across the difficult terrain of communication about death as they face “the exasperating sentiment of impotence” over their final parting. The father’s already tightening esophagus finds parallel in this constricted communication, a subject treated with enormous and forgiving tenderness by the author. Male reticence and rehearsed speeches, conveyed in internal monologues discarded for their inadequacy before being uttered, impose themselves on the reunion, forming a strained dialectic that yearns for comforting synthesis.

L’île is intimately concerned with finding the right words, both in its concentrated style and in its characters’ own vigilant attention to language. Mere phrases, even single words, can perfuse the story like drops of dye in water. The son’s glimpse of La Croda Rossa as he departs identifies his home as Italy’s Dolomites. The old man’s joie de vivre is communicated by his “solar manner of drinking.” An offhand comment that the son “did well not to marry” opens a world. When the father says, “I don’t really believe in doctors. Up until now, I haven’t counted on the slightest improvement,” the response underlines the tremendous weight words can carry: “The son, who watched for the least intonation in the voice of his father, trembled: with what intense color the words ‘up until now’ had vibrated in the middle of that grisaille of all the rest.” 

L’île contains great silences, raising a host of questions about what lies beyond its crystalline circumference: Why is the son away in the mountains? What does he do in life? What relationship did he have with his mother (referred to but once, leaving one to wonder about her story)? What of the novella’s war-time publication, by an author active in the anti-fascist cause no less? Though the work displays no overt relation to the global events then unfolding, it nonetheless seems to contain the tensions of its time.

Deftly balancing granularity with expansiveness, despair with the imperative to defy it, the  cruel inevitability of death with the exaltation of “a life solidly and justly lived,” L’île is a work of exceptional beauty. In the last glimpse of the island, one senses not only the extreme poignancy of impending separation, but also that, slipping below the horizon, an entire way of life is about to disappear. 

Alexander Gubarev,  2000

[i]Identified by Bosetti as Lussino (Lošinj) off the Dalmatian coast. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Big Sheep

To anyone reading this post’s title and clicking on it hoping for a review of Rob Kroese’s dystopian LA novel or commentary on a parody of Raymond Chandler: my apologies. Dear reader, you will need to look elsewhere, as here I plan to write briefly about the pernicious influence of Italian literature, or at least of the subset of it sampled, translated and introduced by Janet Levarie Smarr in her delightful Italian Renaissance Tales (Solaris Press, 1983). 

About that pernicious influence, Smarr quotes 16thcentury British writer Roger Ascham:

These be the inchantementes of Circes, brought out of Italie, to marre men’s manners in England; much by example of ill life, but more by preceptes of fonde books, of late translated out of Italian into English, sold in every shop in London… 

Consider my manners marred. Although I had read Giambattista Basile’s Pentameron, a tremendous collection, Smarr addresses the larger Italian Renaissance phenomenon of such story collections and offers up samples from a dozen of them. These begin with the only pre-Decameron example, the anonymously-authored The Hundred Old Tales, and end with the “baroque extravagance” of Basile, who introduced to the genre a new degree of literary inventiveness. In between we find such works as Sacambi’s Tales, Sacchetti’s Three Hundred Tales, Straparola’s The Entertaining Nights, Bandello’s Novellas, Masucio’s The Little Storybook and Manetti’s Fatso the Carpenter.  

The book’s table of contents gives a good sense of what to expect. Among the forty some-odd stories here, we find such catchy titles as: 






A few titles all but give away the whole story:


I was particularly taken with one tale that predates Marshall McCluhan’s cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall by nearly 600 years. The title of the Renaissance version gives away the gag:


While the stories themselves are entertaining enough beyond their titles, with complex framing arrangements and tricks and turns of fate, I found the real treat here to be Smarr’s introduction, a treasure trove of information that obliquely makes the strongest case I’ve yet encountered for according Italian literature a particularly prominent place in Western literature. Smarr succinctly traces the rivers of narrative that poured from the Middle East and Orient into Europe and gives several examples of the evolving lives and transmissions of these tales in response to shifting moral and didactic needs. For instance, she describes how the 6thcentury life of Buddha, written in Sanskrit, passed first into Arabic, then into Greek and Latin as The Life of Josafat, and later manifested itself in French, Italian and Spanish chronicles of the saints’ lives. Other tales made their way into Petrarch, Dante, Ariosto, Rabelais and Cervantes. The premonitory position the collections have had over the subsequent centuries is evident in their influence on works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, inspiration for a number of Shakespeare’s plays, altered appearances in the works of Charles Perrault and the brothers Grimm, and significant contribution to the development of the modern novel. 

Smarr also marvelously decocts the various terms used to describe what are now generally referred to as “novellae,” noting the mix of histories, chronicles and fantasies used to point out the foibles and follies of the great and small. She sets these collections in the context of plague, war, political unrest and “individual melancholy,” and shows how the Counter-Reformation resulted in suppression of some of the tales’ more libertine aspects and a shift from comedy to tragedy, balanced by an increasing incorporation of fantasy elements and fairy tales as a way to avoid church condemnation, with far-reaching impact on later strains of European narrative.

Several fundamental characteristics link these works. These include the use of framing devices; a deliberate low style with popular appeal; a link with oral storytelling and preaching, since many such tales were performed; the use of dialect; an emphasis on variety (Smarr cites a theoretical view of Boccaccio’s The Decameron as being a display of narrative styles); and a combined purpose of didactics and carnival-like play – “amusement for the sake of…health and lives.” About the last, she writes that “it is peculiar to the novella to discuss within the fiction itself whether or not it ought to have an ethical function,” noting that the “exemplary” function is more often than not also being satirized simultaneously. Another characteristic is the sense of completeness and wholeness of these collections as reflected in the round numbers employed in many of their titles, with Bandello, who extended the novella into longer narratives with recurring characters, calling his work “a theatre of the world.” This wholeness works in tandem with the framing devices, as Smarr notes in quoting Millicent Marcus’ observation of The Decameron: “For the dialectic between the cornice and the tales is an attempt to define a space, bounded by reason, with which man may exercise his passions and appetites onestamente.” 

I’m going to leave off with one endearing characteristic of these narratives that I’ve also noted from Ariosto to Manzoni to some contemporary Italian literature: the frequent apologia issued by authors and/or narrators for their stories. Smarr theorizes that such humility may have indicated the difficulty such collections had in gaining acceptance as literature, but also notes a similarity to French court poetry that largely addressed itself to women, likely the chief audience for these Italian tales. Smarr concludes there may be no single explanation for the phenomenon, but it’s clear that artifacts of it still crop up in Italian literature.

I see no better way to end this post than by quoting in its delightful entirety what may be the ultimate example of this sort of apologia. There is more where this came from, and so I bid you farewell in commending Smarr’s book to you with her translation of the opening of ser Giovanni Fiorentino’s 14th century collection entitled Il Pecorone, or The Big Sheep

                                    Thirteen hundred and seventy-eight years
had passed when this book
was written and put into order,
as you see, by me, ser Giovanni.

And I had no trouble in baptizing it,
for a dear lord of mine gave it its title;
and it is called the Big Sheep
because it contains strange dolts.

                                    And I am the chief of such a group,
who go bleating like a sheep,
making books when I don’t know a thing about it.

                                    Let’s say that I made it early in life,
and so that my reputation might be honored,
as it will be, by boors.

                                    Don’t marvel at that, reader,
for the book is made just like the author.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Best of the Year of the Dog

Wall Clock, bar, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Happy… Chinese new year? We’re already well into February, so I might as well use that as an excuse for my tardiness in putting up this end-of-year post. These annual exercises, alas, seem increasingly to be turning into poor stand-ins for the whole concept of blogging. Nevertheless, I had a great year of reading and will pass along some highlights, presented here without further ado except to note that names of translator(s), as appropriate, are provided in parentheses. 

Les Nuits de Sertão, by João Guimarães Rosa (J.-J. Villiard)
I was transfixed by this French translation of Buriti, the last of the seven novels that make up Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa’s great cycle of novels, Corpo de Baile, which are set in various areas of the vast sertão of Brazil’s interior and can be read in any order. I won’t discuss Buriti at length here as I am determined to write a more detailed post on it, but suffice to say that I reveled in this return to Guimarães Rosa: his constantly inventive prose, which seems to grow organically like some wild, incredibly ornate plant; his rich evocations of the natural world and the cultures of the sertão; his complex explorations of human relations; and his grand, singular vision. Guimarães Rosa sets his novel around a remote fazenda where a worldly-wise woman from the urban coast, abandoned by her faithless husband, has been brought to live with her husband’s father and family. A giant buriti palm serves as a silent, imposing sentinel around which the action dances. Having now read four of the seven novels of Corpo de Baile in French (it hasn't been translated into English), I'm coming around to a view that the cycle may be an even greater achievement than the author’s celebrated Grande Sertão Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands).

Middlemarch, by George Eliot
The New Yorker magazine once featured an anecdote describing someone coming to the end of George Eliot’s Middlemarch while riding  on a public bus and being confronted by another passenger who exclaimed through frustrated tears, “You’re actually going to finish it, aren’t you!” Far from finding completion of Middlemarch the hard-won accomplishment it’s sometimes rumored to be, I reveled in Eliot’s language and almost fairy-tale like framing of her novel, and laughed aloud at her fine-grained sense of humor as she tracks the changing fortunes and enlarging capacities of her marvelous creation, Dorothea Brooke. Eliot examines the position of women and queries the institution of marriage while simultaneously creating a catalog, almost a sophisticated zibaldone, of aspects of English provincial life. This first reading seemed a mere casual introduction; I look forward to a return visit.

Kolymsky Heights, by Lionel Davidson
Thanks to Dorian of Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau, I read five books last year written by this British writer previously unknown to me but whose work I am now determined to read in its entirety. Kolymsky Heights was by far the best of the five and almost certainly the most purely enjoyable escapist reading pleasure of the year, but I greatly enjoyed Davidson’s other books too (Making Good AgainThe Night of WencelasThe Rose of Tibet and his imaginative young adult fantasy novel Under Plum Lake). Kolymsky Heights, Davidson’s final work, appeared after nearly a dozen years of silence from the writer. The pay-off for that wait is a genuinely exciting, smart spy thriller that unfolds across the frozen landscapes of eastern Siberia and features the Chukchi people of the region. And since I just happened to have another book about the region sitting on the shelf unread, Chukchi writer Yuri Rytkheu’s fascinating novel A Dream in Polar Fog, I hauled it down and read that too. This made for a terrific pairing of the kind I’d only once before experienced: with Guimaraes Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and Euclides da Cunha’s Backlands: The Canudos Campaign. Maybe someone oughta write a blog post about great book pairings like this.

The Children’s Crusade, by Marcel Schwob (Kit Schluter)
I turn now to a book of only 50 or so pages. I took up several of Marcel Schwob’s works in 2018, including his Imaginary Lives in both the original French and in an outstanding new translation by Chris Clarke, as well as some of his essays on poet François Villon. But the Schwob that really wowed me was his concentrated, slim book The Children’s Crusade, in which the author employs the fictional portraiture he exhibited in Imaginary Lives to create characters peopling the route taken towards the Middle East by children enlisted in one of the medieval crusades. Schwob blends innocence and depravity to forge a dramatic, rich and disturbing prose poem.

The Sioux, by Irene Handl
A similar mix of innocence and cruelty appears in British character actress Irene Handl’s nearly uncharacterizable novel The Sioux, which I reviewed here. I read Handl’s campy, Southern Gothic tale (and its sequel, The Gold-Tipped Pfitzer) open-mouthed, not quite believing what I’d stumbled upon. Handl’s funny/not-funny, part English/part French tale of the sordid complexities of a filthy rich French family who shuttle between Paris and New Orleans dragging about their leukemia-stricken adolescent dauphin provided one of the more insolite reading experiences I’ve had in years, a work to  shelve next to Terry Andrew’s The Story of Harold, two smart, singular novels that cut sharply through American niceties and made me laugh and cry in nearly equal measure. 

The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore
Remarkably, The Sioux was not the only novel I read in 2018 written in Franglish, as Endore’s 1933 novel mélanges a lot of Français avec his Anglais, including a number of words completely new to me. Also new to me was the book’s author, an American communist who worked in Hollywood and later became an activist known for his successful work to free 17 Mexican-American youths falsely accused of a crime. If asked to rank the works in which some of the Famous Monsters of Filmland got their start, I’d be obliged to put Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the top, but Endore’s weirdly entertaining, sometimes genuinely chilling romp might well edge out Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to take second place. Told in a conversational tone by an engaging, sometimes erratic narrator, The Werewolf of Paris unfolds against the backdrop of the Paris Commune and features some terrific evocations of the Commune’s chaos. 

The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola (Brian Nelson)
I’d been attacked by Endore’s werewolf on my way to a group read of The Belly of Paris, and so only got to Zola’s novel later. But once I did, I gorged myself on his indelible portrayal of late 19th century life in and around Les Halles, today a commercial shopping zone utterly void of character but for more than a century the great food market of the city. What delicious fun, from start to finish! Zola serves up catalog after catalog of the market’s gastronomical offerings with indulgence and delirium and, in a few scenes, a decadence that almost certainly inspired Raymond Roussel’s surreal, over-the-top creations. Amid the novel’s dazzling showiness one almost forgets that there’s an actual plot.

The Fortunes of War, by Olivia Manning
Olivia Manning’s massive The Fortunes of War is another work I read thanks to Dorian, who kindly invited me to join him in reading and writing about The Levant Trilogy, the second half of this sprawling work that stretches across six novels and almost as many countries. The story follows English teacher Guy Pringle, his intrepid young wife Harriet, and a coterie of Brits and others as they are pursued from Bucharest to Athens to Cairo by the darkening, encroaching events of World War II. I had a blast reading these books and will be living with Manning’s memorable characters for a long time.

A View of the Harbour, Elizabeth Taylor
Taylor’s novel is a departure from the other works I’ve read by her, all set in London. Here Taylor appears deliberately to evoke Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but I have not been able to tease out whether she intended homage, a realist reaction against Woolf’s experimentalism, or a bit of both. I’m going to go with the last. Like Woolf’s novel, Taylor’s focuses on a family and the people around them in a small seaside town. It’s a place remote in time and space, where the enforced intimacy of small town life generates its own hidden yearnings and secrets. A visiting painter, Bertram Hemingway, substitutes here for Lily Briscoe, as he’s engaged in painting a view of the harbor from the novel’s opening until at the end he achieves his own vision (and Taylor hers). Taylor’s characteristic lightness of touch and tender humor are knitted with an unsparing honesty as her own lighthouse beam illuminates her characters in a work quite a bit darker than its airy seaside setting might suggest. Jacqui over at the Jacquiwine blog has been burning through Taylor's corpus of work, and also wrote about A View of the Harbour. 

Robertino, L’Apprenti de le Corbusier, by Louise Doutreligne
This creative-non-fiction “récit” by French author Doutreligne takes on an unusual subject: the sponsorship by a great artist of a young person, in this case the architect Le Corbusier’s “adoption,” encouraged by his wife Yvonne, of Roberto (Robertino) Rebutato, a 12-year-old who worked in the humble seaside restaurant that furnished meals during Le Corbusier and his wife’s stays at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It’s a beautifully-told story of mentorship, commitment and attentiveness, of the impact opportunity and a great mentor can have on a young life, particularly since young Rebutato developed into a well-known architect in his own right. The book has been adapted into an acclaimed theatre piece by Doutreligne and her partner, Jean-Luc Paliès.

Le Croissant et la perle, by Dominque Fernandez
This terrific volume takes first prize in this year's non-fiction category. French art historian Fernandez provides an illustrated overview of the baroque from Naples to St. Petersburg. As a guide to the Baroque, Fernandez is witty, smart, knowledgeable and full of gems of observation, such as his view of Viennese pastries as a delectable example of the Baroque continuing into the present day. All required in the way of confirmation is to turn one’s gaze from Graban’s Plague Column in the center of Vienna to the pillar of cream on one’s own dessert plate.

Cappella Carafa, Rome

Italian Literature
I realize I’ve yet to mention any Italians, even though Italian literature remained a major focus of my reading this past year. I read 14 Italian works to completion, plus a few others concerning Italy. Favorites this year included Sicilian writer Gaettano Savatteri’s La Conjuration des loquaces (Claude Galli), the title here given in French since that’s the language in which I read it - another novel unavailable in English translation. I fully shared the enthusiasm of reader JLS, who’d kindly recommended the book. Leonardo Sciascia’s The Moro Affair (Sacha Rabinovitch) remained one of the few books I had not yet read from this great writer, also Sicilian, so I was pleased finally to get to it. Italian politician Aldo Moro had been a fixture in my head since my first trip to Rome, when I had to pass by the memorial of his 1978 assassination twice daily to get to and from my hosts, who lived just down the street. This short work, an extended essay more like a novel, is quintessential Sciascia: unsentimental, rigorously methodical, ferociously moral. He dissects Moro’s kidnapping by the Red Brigades during Italy’s Years of Lead, carefully examining and weighing the response of negotiators and the failure of the government, the press and all of Italy to liberate Moro. The result is little less than a vivisection of the state of Italy, a careful picking apart of the inept arguments and the abdication of democratic principles that led to Moro’s killing, and also a sharp rebuke to expedient and facile arguments that one should never negotiate with terrorists. I read two works by Swiss/Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy, including her own inventive take on Marcel Schwob, These Possible Lives (Minna Zelman) and Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks), an intimate novel of female friendship, alienation and the exercise of authority in a Swiss boarding school. I found Domenico Starnone’s Trick (Jhumpa Lahiri) a delight, another great literary pairing since it engages deeply with Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (I had little enthusiasm, however, for Ties, another of Starnone’s works). I’ve seldom felt more ambivalent about a novel than I did about Luigi Malerba’s jolie-laide, slightly dated tale The Serpent (William Weaver), with its memorable narrator, an unreliable madman/cannibal whose observations are as imaginative as his actions are execrable. I loved Piero Chiara’s Le 28 Octobre (Marie-Françoise Balzan), a spry, wry, witty novella with echoes of Fellini’s Amarcord and which itself might make a great short film if for no other reason than to capture its grand, cinematic denouement, a mocking of Mussolini’s pomp and fascism on the order of Bernini’s famous elephant ostentatiously presenting its derrière to the seat of the Papal Inquisition in Rome. 

Bookstore, Brașov, Romania

Honorable mentions go to Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the ArchbishopBrian Merriman’s The Midnight Court, a bawdy, free-wheeling 17thcentury poem translated from the Gaellic into modern English by acclaimed contemporary poet Ciaran Carson; J. L. Carr’s concentrated, elliptical novella A Month in the Country, which touches obliquely on the devastation of WWI; Jules Verne’s atmospheric South American work Magellania (Benjamin Ivry), which had me poring over maps of Patagonia; a non-fiction trilogy of essays about art and nature in Nevada’s Great Basin, The Void, the Grid and the Sign, by William Fox, whose book I’m happy to add to my list of great works about the desert; a reread of Miklós Bánffy’s They Were Counted (Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen) while on a visit to Transylvania that included a stop at the Bánffy family’s ruined castle outside of Cluj-Napoca; and Javier Marías’ Berta Isla (Margaret Jull Costa), a work in which a character’s job consumes his personal life and thus seemed a little too relatable. 

Mystery Hotelby Louisa Mae Johnston
Finally, I wish to acknowledge the passing of my dear friend Louisa last spring just before her 92nd birthday and highlight her delightful children’s novel, Mystery Hotel, which I finally got around to reading last year. In addition to a long career in editing, Louisa had also been an author in her own right. Besides writing several mysteries and romances while in her eighties, she also put out a few books of children’s literature, including Mystery Hotel (1964), which is set in a Chicago hotel and involves a jewel theft. There are also cookies. The book beautifully conveys Johnston’s warmth, generosity and playful wit, as well as her love of all things French; she was learning the language in her final years.

Inside book cover, Mystery Hotel

Many thanks to everyone who stopped by seraillon in 2018, and happy reading to all in 2019  - and all through the Year of the Pig. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

"A survivor of myself" - Luce d'Eramo's Deviation

If Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (1979, first English translation 2018 by Anne Milano Appel; publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux) proved difficult enough to read, it’s been even more tough to write about. This is not your typical Holocaust book, if any such work could be described as typical. D’Eramo begins her story literally in the shit, with a matter-of-fact description of a Dachau work crew assigned to clean out Munich’s sewers and the toilets in factories and public buildings. 

But the worst was when they brought us in to rural villages to empty the cesspools: out there, there are no sewer pipes, When  the black holes fill up you have to empty them with buckets and eventually climb in yourself. Only then did they give us masks and rubber boots, and we worked covered in shit until we finished.

A lot of people got sick and there were some who died from toxicity. 

The tone here - flat, direct, unemotional, notably understated – seems off-kilter, as though d’Eramo might have been writing about household chores: ”Cleaning out sewers is a more varied job than it may appear at first: there are assorted chores involved.” 

This is hardly the only time that d’Eramo will use understatement in a forceful way, nor is it the only time the reader will be confronted with bodily wastes in Deviation, a narrative of “shit, urine and gangrene” that places a heavy emphasis on the corporality of experience, of the factuality of the human body faced with monstrous indignities. At the same time, the sang-froid with which d’Eramo seems to weigh her terrible experiences extends throughout Deviation’s 350 pages, a troubling work of searching retrospection written across a quarter century, from 1953 to 1977. Deviation’s four parts, each focused on a distinct period of d’Eramo’s war-time and post-war life, read like memoir or a collection of autobiographical writings, with all but one written in first person (the other cleverly employs third person to emphasize how d’Eramo is perceived by others). That the book is labeled a novel and referred to as such its author is a confounding ascription to which I’ll return later. 

The author herself seems like someone out of a fiction: the 18-year-old daughter of an official in the Fascist puppet government of Salò, herself a Fascist, whose fealty to the cause leads her to travel to Germany in the winter of 1944 out of a refusal to believe the rumors of deportations and atrocities in German camps. Arriving as a volunteer worker in the Westerners’ section of alagerat the vast IG Farben facility outside of Frankfurt, d’Eramo comes face-to-face with  the wretched realities of camp life and begins to fight against Nazi oppression as well as other internees’ wariness, given her credentials as a Fascist, an intellectual, a member of a privileged economic class and possibly even an informer. Adept at languages (she notes her fluency in Italian, French, German and Russian; a knowledge of Latin and Greek; and conversant in a host of other languages), d’Eramo becomes a conduit for linking the displaced diaspora of Europe she encounters wherever she happens to be, a skill that earns her a role in the unsuccessful strike she helps organize at IG Farben. Although Deviation’s curious structure mixes up chronology (one of multiple resonances of the book’s title), the reader can loosely piece together a path from the author’s time at IG Farben to her departure, possible return to Italy and subsequent capture by the Gestapo, a chain of events that takes her through 12 weeks in Dachau, from which makes a daring escape during an air raid then   finds her way to a transit camp. She eventually lands in Mainz, where on February 27, 1945, while helping dig out survivors in a building bombed by the Allies, she is crushed by a falling wall, her spine and pelvis shattered, her forehead split, the injuries to her back so severe that her lungs can be seen through her gaping wounds. The cataclysm forced upon d’Eramo by her decimated body entwines with that imposed by the Nazis to form the subject of Deviation’s challenging narrative. 

Taken strictly as a work about the Nazis, Deviation gives further evidence of the necessity of such works to help shine light into every corner of that history, to flesh out details. I learned, for example, of the differences between the various camps set up by the Nazis:

There are five types; in addition to the transit camps for everybody (Durchgangslager), there are the camps for free workers where volunteers are sent (Freiarbeitzlager); camps for prisoners of war (Kriegsgefangenenlager); labor camps (Arbeitslager), where those deported following a roundup are interned along with hostages, the families of political prisoners, partisans, and foreign deserters; and finally there are the concentration camps (Konzentrationslager), which hold the victims of the racial purges – namely, Jews – as well as political suspects, saboteurs, illegal prostitutes, pimps and lesbians, common criminals, thieves, murderers, fences, rapists, and the list goes on, “which is not to mention the so-called final solution camps, you get me? Annihilation.” 

D’Eramo also reveals a corner of Holocaust history new to me concerning those who volunteered to work in German factories, and delves into the enforced stratification of various ethnic and national groups as well as the varying conditions both between and within the camps. In contrast to the Westerners wing of the work camp, for instance, Russians and Eastern Europeans suffered under dramatically different conditions with regard to hygiene, overcrowding and the quantity and quality of food rations. D’Eramo expresses astonishment that no one has yet written about the presence of some three million escapees circulating in the Third Reich, but unfortunately fails to fill in this story. She has an eye for catching memorable detail: the SS tattoos found in the armpits of the unit’s members; the bizarre apparel among some refugees who picked through ruined homes of the wealthy; a “lake of suicides,” so named because of the many young women who drowned themselves rather than face the shame of having gone with Nazis; and particular indignities she suffered herself, such as burns she received on her chest and hands from being assigned to carry blocks of frozen sulfuric acid. There are grim descriptions more common to such works, of the journey to Dachau in a cattle car, and a memorable account of lice in the Dachau barracks:

Most our time, however, is spent at the camp, where we pass the long hours of the day killing body lice.
            We strip and, by the feeble light that filters through the windowpanes, the grayish light from the yard, we search through our clothes, all of us women in the corner, hunting for those repulsive insects; we ball them up between our fingers like children do boogers, and crush them. I have a smooth rock I use for the purpose.
            Some are very swollen, gray with pale streaks, their step wobbly from their big bellies; others have dark spots, some intensely brown; the ugliest, the most sprightly, splatter like worms. There, in the cobwebs of light in the mud-colored shadows of the large room, those multipedes clinging to the fabric of our clothing and blankets gleam like bronze.
            …I’ve also discovered that body lice keep you warm. 

Not all of d’Eramo’s commentary is descriptive; she engages philosophically with the “why” of the Holocaust, the reasons people submitted, how they acted with cruelty out of a sense of being automatons or simply reacted without caring at whose expense. She rages against “the social circumstances that allow some people to pass through war unscathed” and at economic discrimination, which she identifies as the basis for racial discrimination. She comes to see the Nazis as having nothing behind their masks of authority and intentional cultivation of a fear so great that “even our morale is in their hands,” and initially tests her theory on the camp’s German Shepherds by learning how to tranquilize the dogs by mastering her own fear. 

The second section of Deviation focuses on d’Eramo’s catastrophic injury and long, slow return from what her doctors assume will be certain death. A part of this section entitled “As Long as the Head Lives” refers to d’Eramo’s having been left paralyzed by her accident. Emerging at last into an ability to communicate with others, d’Eramo painfully adapts to her new reality, becoming a formidable force despite and due to her infirmities. In one hospital, she and a 16-year-old Polish orphan set up a “Good Mood Room,” a black market operation accepting cash, food and alcohol for other patients to gain admission to parties and to get advice, comfort or a boost of encouragement. She discovers a sustaining religious faith, but a harsh one in which God is “perfect, owing to the detachment that left Him objective; that is, owing to his indifference,” and only half-jokingly chastises him as “Dieu Nazi!” for his having taken her desire for a sacrifice too literally, wondering whether “we might one day find out that God is paralytic.” Such musings are often delivered with a dirt-dry humor tinged with bitterness, but following a failed suicide attempt, d’Eramo acquiesces to a lifeforce so engrained in the body that her tissues appear to be regenerating as though themselves engaged in activism. We learn later that she earns a doctorate in philosophy, marries, has a son, and commences a writing career encouraged by the likes of Alberto Moravia, Elio Vittorini and Ignazio Silone.

Either of d’Eramo’s traumatic confrontations - with Nazism and with her destroyed body - could have made for an independent, powerful narrative, but to these d’Eramo adds an unexpected third that makes Deviation’s difficulty not simply one of subject matter. The last section of the book, from which the novel takes its title, details a ruthless self-examination, a scouring of ideas and presumptions in d’Eramo’s “thirst for the depths” to get at the veracity of her own experience. She battles against what her friend Vittorini calls “the oppression of memory,” an effort to tease out fact from fiction, exclaiming “To hell with literature” and making determined attempts not to allow her undependable memory or the desire to whitewash her own actions get in the way of arriving at the truth. 

One might query the need for such justification given the wrenching and wretched trials through which d’Eramo passes, but her questions are hardly idle: behind her she leaves a trail of others who did not get out, of those who, lacking her intellectual aptitude, ferocity, and access to resources of privilege - and/or simply because of the deliberate, capricious and arbitrary cruelties created by the Nazis and occasioned by war - ended up raped, tortured, shot, gassed. The “literature” that d’Eramo seeks to tamp down keeps interfering, presumably one reason she refers to Deviation as a “novel.” Beset by traumas external and internal, her struggles with memories repressed and fractured from psychological and physical pain as well as by a cascade of drugs to which she becomes addicted. Trying to avoid her own “swerves” and “obstinacies” and discover which among her memories actually occurred, d’Eramo seeks all the while to find some conviction that she did right rather than profit from the privilege granted to her by politics and class, which occasionally intervene behind the scenes to rescue her from lethal punishment. She also employs the word “deviation” to refer to a specific memory she claims to have repressed, that surrounding her return to Italy between the IG Farben lagerand her arrest and incarceration in Dachau.

D'Eramo’s wrestling eventually settles into a truce between warring sides of herself.  

It seems incredible but what saved me from the silence of the rationality I was striving for – so that I finally said to myself , if I have to be my own Gestapo, I give up – in short, what unexpectedly saved me (an unhoped-for intervention) was the literary compartment of my brain.
            “What are you complaining about?” it asked me, as it usually does, telepathically, to soothe me. “If things are really as you fear, from a compositional point of view you can only rejoice: you don't have to understand the repression – your search fails, and that’s that. You even have a nice conclusion: you reveal to the reader that the story of your deviation was a dream in which your imagination enacted one of the most tenacious (and vain) aspirations of all mortals, the eternal human dream of correcting the past

Almost needless to say, though, the “nice conclusion” is not the end of d’Eramo’s restless efforts with regard to uncovering memory. 

This constant revising of the past, however, makes d’Eramo’s story, for all of its striking indignation and vivid testimonial contributions to grasping the Holocaust, a problematic narrative. What is one to believe from “a woman who’s always told herself imaginary stories,” as d’Eramo calls herself, and who expresses an existential need “for things not to have gone any differently”? What to make of omissions and elisions with regard to her relationship with her family, or with such a relentless focus on d’Eramo’s own internal struggles with memory? It’s small wonder that Deviation is such a difficult narrative. Towards the end of the book, d’Eramo finds strips of paper, cut-up letters she wrote back to her family revealing the conditions of the lager, which she takes as concrete evidence of the factuality of her experiences and of her having acted in good faith with regard to her democratic ideals and commitment to life. But even this evidence – almost certainly a deliberate literary allusion to Gabriel D’Annunzio’s writing of his poem “Nocturne” on strips of paper following his own near-death accident and lengthy, bed-ridden recovery - raises questions for the reader as to what is and isn’t fiction here. Given the enormity of suffering within Deviation's pages, perhaps that's irrelevant.

Deviation became a bestseller when it appeared in Italy, and I wondered whether some of its appeal might have been in the tortured manner with which d’Eramo confronts her own history, a soul-searching no doubt common (albeit probably to a less extreme degree) among millions of Italians who subscribed to Fascism. It would obviously be outrageously facile for a reader of today - at a distance of 75 years, good health, and freedom from the horrors allowed by the political structures of Nazism - to second guess what he or she might have done in d’Eramo’s grim circumstances. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a Holocaust narrative so knotted, so deviant in the multiple positive and negative resonances of the word, or that has left me so exhausted by its ruminations. Deviation, like “Nocturne,” is undoubtedly a remarkable text, a work to appreciate for the fierce determination and intelligence of its author, for its poetic phrasing and challenging construction, its insights and testimonials to a tale that must be told. It is also a book I’m rather relieved to be done with. 

I read Deviation along with Dorian Stuber of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog

Luce d'Eramo