Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best of 2019, Part 2: Everything Else

Ellen Cantor, from "Prior Pleasures," 2017

A couple of days ago I wrote about highlights from Italian literature I read in 2019; now for the best of the the rest of my reading from this past year:

Daphnis and Chloe, Longus
George Thornley, Pantheon
Eating my way through Thanksgiving weekend, I also devoured Longus’ 1,800 year old Daphnis and Chloe in George Thornley’s 360-year-old translation, the first into English. The book immediately shot to the top of my best of 2019 list, not least of all thanks to Thornley’s charming, idiosyncratic language. Though I was familiar with Maurice Ravel’s symphony, I did not know the early Greek novel that had inspired such a magnificent piece – a good thing, as my not knowing how things would end made Daphnis and Chloe hold as much teasing suspense for me as the best thrillers. The story of separate foundlings raised by neighboring families on the Greek island of Lesbos, Daphnis and Chloe has a little bit of everything: whimsical gods, pirates, conflicts that end peaceably, intimate details of island traditions, fresh discourses on love, and above all the exquisite pastoral romance between these two innocent young herders. The goats and sheep they tend also play well and charmingly beyond their goatness and sheepdom in this bucolic tour de force. Almost as charming as Longus’ story itself was William E. McCulloh’s book-length study, Longus, a work that certainly belongs on this year’s “Best of” list: scholarly, erudite, warmly conversational, often hilarious, and an assessment that emphatically underscores just what Goethe said of Daphnis and Chloe, that one should revisit it every year “so as to learn from it again and again, and to sense freshly its great beauty.”

Illustration from Daphnis and Chloe, Aristide Maillol

Paul et Virginie, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (in French; many English translations available)
Éditions Garniers Frères
My path to Daphnis and Chloe had come from Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s 1787 pastoral tale Paul et Virginie, long on my radar but unread until someone mentioned it offhand one day while talking about Mauritius (formerly Île de France), where the story is set. Paul et Virginie borrows heavily from Longus as well as from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but Bernardin, a confrère of Rousseau, turns his tale into a paean for the glories of man’s natural state. These two children grow up together in an idyllic mountain refuge in the island’s interior, where their respective mothers, exiles from unfortunate marriages and from France, have taken up residence together with a trio of servants. Much of the book’s first half consists of revels concerning Paul and Virginie’s playful cavorting around the forest and salutes to their sterling virtues, pure as rain. Civilization, melodramatically represented by the evils of France, intrudes, disrupting this state of grace. A roman à l’eau de rose, as the French would call it, but nonetheless entirely captivating, Paul et Virginie has been a staple in French literature since it first appeared. Its influence has served not only to promulgate Rousseauian philosophy, but also to inspire hundreds of artworks, musical compositions, movies (including kitsch 1980’s film The Blue Lagoon), textile designs, and products and services ranging from Mauritian guest houses to a style of men’s board shorts. Something of an institution, the book has also figured into works by Hugo, Dickens, Maupassant, Flaubert, even Jorge Luis Borges and Alejo Carpentier. Bernardin lavishes a good deal of attention on books himself, with passages extolling the instructive and moral qualities of those like his own while decrying the pernicious literature of urban France, where authors seem actually to enjoy their sordid lives. One shudders with mischievous delight to think what Bernardin might have made of Zola or Baudelaire.

Paul et Virginie, by Henri Pierre Léon Pharamond Blanchard, 1844

Sens-Plastique, Malcolm de Chazal
Irving Weiss, translator, Green Integer
In my log-rolling between Daphnis and Chloe and Paul et Virginie, I also stepped inadvertently onto Malcolm de Chazal. Though the author’s name had swum into my ken a few years ago via Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the Spanish writer whose “greguerías” were an aphoristic poetic form much like those that the radically more sensual and imaginative de Chazal uses in his lengthy Sens-Plastique, I’d not been aware at the time that de Chazal was from Mauritius. The link from Paul et Virginie, or perhaps the magic worked by this Indian Ocean island, seems clear in de Chazal’s statement that his work is derived “from the principle that man and nature are entirely continuous.” The book, a world unto itself,  attracted the attention of Andre Bréton, W. H. Auden, François Ponge, Georges Bataille and a legion of other writers. Of the more than 2,000 strikingly poetic aphorisms collected here, a selection just of those referencing light and color (i.e. "Blue catches cold in blue-green and sneezes in gray") were they to be extracted and compiled together, would be of interest to any visual artist.

Alamut, Vladimir Bartol
Michael Biggins, translator, Scala House Press
As the world spun towards World War II, Vladimir Bartol, author of this novel hailed as the pinnacle of Slovenian literature, holed up in a remote mountain village. Ten years later he emerged with this vast, singular work set not in Slovenia, but in 11thcentury Persia. This aspect caused no little bewilderment among the Slovenian literati and reading public; at least one reader stopped the author in the street to ask where he’d managed to find such an old manuscript to translate. But the story is Bartol’s own, based on that of the powerful warlord Hassan-i-Sabbah, notorious for training his fedayin to believe in a total self-sacrifice that would land them in paradise, and developing, through a carefully created, elaborate ruse involving hallucinogenic drugs, the means to give them a taste of what awaited them in the afterlife. As an adventure story Alamut is a masterpiece, featuring an intoxicating atmosphere, tremendous narrative drive and multiple unexpected, even shocking turns. What might easily have developed into an entertaining historical romance keeps spiraling tighter and tighter, carefully coalescing into a powerful, dark, even ominous work about totalitarianism. As a parable of faith and fanaticism, Alamut resonates perhaps more with today’s religious wars than with the events that propelled Bartol to write the book, which he dedicated, sarcastically, to Benito Mussolini. Tremendous. 

Alamut Castle ruins, Iran

Anniversaries: A Year in the Life of Gesine Cressphal, Uwe Johnson
Damion Searls, translator, New York Review Books
At nearly 1,700 carefully-crafted pages, Anniversaries (for short) merits far more attention than the paragraph-long treatment I’ll give it here. I spent months reading Johnson’s opus, one of the more memorable reading experiences of my life. Written in 366 chapters, each covering a single day from August 21, 1967 to August 21, 1968, Anniversaries stars 35-year-old Gesine Cressphal and her 10-year-old daughter Marie, formerly of East Germany and now residents of New York for the past six years. Converging, overlapping narratives look retrospectively to the past – specifically the rise of Nazism in Germany – and to the future as the young Marie begins to leave the cocoon of childhood and question the world about her. A curiosity concerning her absent father and her mother’s origins has suddenly sparked, and Marie daily demands of Gesine, born the day of Hitler’s assumption of the Chancellorship on March 1, 1933, to record her personal history on tape, “for when you are dead.” The book’s vast scope and formal structure give Johnson ample room for experimentation. One chapter, for example, simply features a grocery shopping list, while others spin into a dozen pages of realist narrative detailing some nuance of life under the rise of Nazism in Jerichow, a small town in northeastern Germany. As a work about the daily, lived experience under Nazism, the book is stunning; at the same time, Johnson gives us a terrific New York novel from the perspective of immigrants, and somehow manages (no small thanks to New Yorker Damion Searls’ remarkable translation) to make his long tale immediately fresh and relevant. Anniversaries has as much to say about the U.S. as it does about Germany, featuring, as backdrop, a year that saw the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the growing toll of the Vietnam War, the march of Civil Rights, and the impending election of Richard M. Nixon. The book is a vast collection of mini-essays on just about everything (the New York Times, for example, gets pretty much dismantled in every chapter). The ingenious device Johnson has hit upon to explore the mechanisms and obligations of memory and memorialization is to link generational lived experience - that of Marie, Gesine, and Gesine’s parents - in order to explore the difficulties of transmitting one generation’s history to another, particularly where a trauma as vast as the Shoah is concerned, while the future is busy running off to pursue its own life, those projects of a precocious 10-year-old already adamantly opposed to the Vietnam war and embarked on a personal mission to ride every mile of the New York subway system.

The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra
John Rutherford, translator, Penguin Classics
I’m not about to try to squeeze out a pithy paragraph here concerning Don Quixote. I read Book One in 2018 and returned this year to re-read that and finish Book Two as well, all in the John Rutherford translation, the first time since university that I’d returned to the work in its entirety. I also poked around a bit in the vast literature about the work, at first blown far to leeward by Vladimir Nabokov’s chilly grey provocations, but then finding a propitious, righting breeze in Belgian critic Simon Leys, who called the book “one of the greatest works of fiction of any age, in any language…also, quite literally, a pot-boiler concocted by a hopeless old hack, at the end of his tether.”

The Book of Communities, Maria Gabriela Llansol
Audrey Young, translator, Deep Vellum Publishing
Anthony at the Time’s Flow Stemmed blog has been writing enthusiastically about late 20thcentury Portuguese writer Llansol. I read but one of the three novels that makes up her Geography of Rebels trilogy, finding it challenging, confounding, mesmerizing and unlike anything I’d read before. The narrative disorients right away via fragments and sentences that stop abruptly halfway across the page; text that splits into columns, sometimes parallel, sometimes sequential; quotations and numbered lists; texts like strips of paper cut from paragraphs; shifting points of view and unidentifiable narrator(s); and above all disruption of linear time, with figures from different ages co-existing both simultaneously and anachronistically. Severed heads and hands and headless bodies show up throughout, mirroring the disembodiment of the text. What disorients as well is the ostensible subject matter, so distant from the fiction of our time, a convocation of religious and philosophical rebels: Spanish Golden Age mystic poet St. John of the Cross, German Reformation iconoclast Thomas Müntzer, Frederick Nietzche, Meister Eckhart (as a pig – the work also features a menagerie of other animals including a bear, a dog named Maya, a fish named after a Dominican friar, an insect, a tiger). Much of the narrative seems to slip in and out of a writer’s identification with Ana de Peñalosa, the widowed rich patron to St. John of the Cross, who is sometimes viewed in third person and sometimes (perhaps) identified with a first-person narrator. Concentrated, evocative images create an overarching mood of grief; early on there’s a hint at the loss of a son, and throughout suggestions of distance and separation. References abound to the difficulty of writing, to the nightwork of solitude and contemplation, and to a conception of writing as writ broadly across the universe by the tracks of horses’ hooves, the sinuous lines traced by the swimming of fishes, other natural processes and human efforts, such as the “inverse” writing of embroidery. The “places” in Llansol’s “Geography” are not really identifiable as such, or rather, are encompassed by an extremely broad definition; they might be might be in a room, in front of a mirror, or just there, that place on the page you’re reading right now. I’ll almost certainly return to finish the trilogy this coming year.

Wives and Lovers, Margaret Millar
Syndicate Books
I’ve now read five of Canadian/Californian writer Margaret Millar’s novels and have caught the bug. While I’d already been a fan of the work of her husband Kenneth (a.k.a. Ross MacDonald), Millar takes a more conceptual approach to her mysteries. In Beast in View, my first Millar, she hides the mystery in plain sight, but I still fell right into her trap. In The Listening Walls, she ties up her mystery nicely with a bow, only to have hidden a needle right there in the knot for unsuspecting readers to prick themselves. But I felt the greatest enthusiasm for Wives and Lovers. If one were to take the vast world of noir fiction at face value, the world must be a terribly murderous place, and private detective one of its most common occupations. But Millar appears to have gleefully set for herself the task of writing a noir novel without a noir crime or detective. She pulls it off beautifully, with the potential for crime constantly simmering beneath the surface throughout this classic California tale of an estranged married couple. If the five works I’ve now read are any indication, the corpus of Millar’s literary output, taken together, may also rank among the great literary vivisections of marriage. 

Book spines of the five volume Collected Works of Margaret Millar

The File on H, Ismail Kadare
David Bellos/Jusuf Vrioni, translators, The Harvill Press
This, my first foray with Kadare, whose reputation precedes him, turned me into a fan.  While the book’s title calls to mind Kafka, and its subject is the paranoid surveillance state under Hoxha’s Albania, the “H” of the title surprises: it’s ancient Greek poet Homer. Kadare’s inspiration for this short novel came from his encounter with Alfred Lord, who recounted to the writer the experiences he and fellow scholar Milman Perry had while traveling through Albania in the 1930’s to record oral poets who were the improbable last vestige of the Homeric oral tradition. Kadare’s novel juxtaposes a fascinating exploration of this tradition as carried out by his fictional stand-ins Max Ross and Bill Norton, two Irish scholars from Harvard who hole up in a rural inn with a tape recorder, and the state’s paranoid suspicion that the two are spies. At once hilarious and a serious examination of the roots of Western literature, The File on H is also marked by Kadare’s utter fearlessness; few writers among the many brave souls who have stood up to dictatorship have done so with such intelligence and unmasked derision. A delight and a revelation, one that, with its interest in recording of disappearing cultural production, paired nicely with Antonio Tabucchi’s Et enfin septembre vint

The Swedish Cavalier, Leo Perutz 
John Brownjohn, translator, Arcade Publishing
Another eastern European writer I discovered this year is Leo Perutz, author of superlative novels of adventure and imagination that take place in obscure corners of history. I hadn’t heard of him, but the Czech-Austrian writer had garnered high praise from writers as diverse as Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges. I read four of Perutz’s works, starting with the one I most admired, The Swedish Cavalier, a richly atmospheric adventure story of a thief and a nobleman during the 18th century’s First Silesian War, and that includes a concealed identity conceit suggestive of The Count of Monte Cristo and Janet Lewis’ The Wife of Martin Guerre. Yet the insertion of improbable, mystical elements puts Perutz’s work in an entirely different realm, one that certainly explains Borges’ attraction. These are adventure tales of high caliber: intelligent, immersive, surprising.

Götz and Meyer, David Albahari 
Ellen Elias-Bursać, translator, Harcourt
Earlier this year, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau blog featured an invaluable list of selected works concerning the Holocaust. Among them was Götz and Meyer, by Serbian writer David Albahari. Albahari limits his scope to a small dark corner of the Shoah, the use of gas trucks as literal vehicles for extermination. Daringly, he focuses his attention on two drivers of one of these trucks and their terrible daily task of hooking up the tube to recycle exhaust into the back of the truck, into which men, women and children had been crammed, and then having to pull the bodies out once the truck had reached its destination. Grim work and grim reading, unimaginable, yet Albahari is interested in how people could perform such work, how they transform into mere functionaries, the psychological barriers they must erect to treat human beings with such utter disregard. An extremely powerful work, one kept aloft by a steady ironic tone that renders Götz and Meyer as figures at once tragic and comic, monstrous and terribly banal.

Rapport sur moi, Grégoire Bouillier (in French; currently unavailable in English)
Éditions Allia
This exquisitely written slim memoir/bildungsroman recounts the Algerian-born Bouillier’s tumultuous youth in the outskirts of Paris and his attempts to come to grips with the calamities of an extraordinarily, extravagantly outsized family dysfunction. Bouillier’s short, staccato-like paragraphs detailing his emergence from a childhood of violent and ferocious tendencies into his own formation as a writer are rapid-fire, fierce, shocking, at times laugh-out-loud funny. Looking for information on the author after finishing the book, I was startled to learn that he’d been the man behind the break-up-by-email missive sent to French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who then turned the communication into her highly amusing installation Take Care of Yourself, in which Calle invited 107 women (including “two made of wood and one made of feathers”) to interpret and explain the letter in whatever form they wished. Following up Rapport sur moi with Bouillier’s comic novel The Mystery Guest (read in English translation), I was equally startled to find Calle figuring prominently in the story as the narrator’s former lover, chosen to invite one “mystery guest” (the narrator) to a glamorous annual dinner. I suspect that these two extremely talented artists may be delighting in elaborate and impressive mutual jokes.

Les Ritals, François Cavanna (in French; currently unavailable in English)
Le Livre de Poche
Another childhood memoir, Les Ritals, by Cavanna, co-founder of the notorious French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, came to my attention thanks to an enthusiasm for Fernet Branca by the French-Italian daughter of a friend in Paris who read aloud to me Cavanna’s memorable description of the liqueur. Struck by the language, I asked her about the book, which she kindly gave me to help cultivate my knowledge of French idioms and slang. Les Ritals (1978) proved a coup a lot stronger than Fernet Branca, and if I’d had this book when I was first learning French god knows what I’d be speaking now. In Les Ritals, Cavanna recounts his childhood and adolescence during the 1920’s and 1930’s in the Italian community of Nogent-sur-Marne, just east of Paris’ Parc de Vincennes. A natural raconteur, Cavanna relates his anecdotes in a casual, energetic, irreverent style, displaying a capacious memory that lovingly recalls “all those little annoying details that make one feel right at home.” This is one funny book, but also one that occasionally turns to its darker historical context: the shadow of Mussolini. But for me the book’s chief enjoyment lay in the purpose for which I’d been given it. I found it a treasure trove of invaluable cultural references, such as a discourse on the convoluted conventions for counting ronds and sous and francs and thunes and measures of weight, ending in perhaps the most useful advice I’ve ever been given for approaching the perplexities of France: “Why? Because it was like that…no one was capable of explaining it.” Even more valuable were the idiomatic expressions and - mostly outdated but no less fascinating for that – vernacular terms, not to mention the linguistic delights Cavanna culls from the collision of French, Italian and admixtures of the two within his household. While this might sound like a daunting work for a non-native French speaker, Cavanna is encouraging; in a footnote regarding his father’s “Gvardez-moi ça,” Cavanna comments: “’Regardez-moi ça, obviously. You’ve understood, right? Don’t count on me to translate every little thing. If I, a poor little child, could understand, then you should be able to do as much."

After She Left, Richard Brickner
Henry Holt and Company
Searching for information on The Story of Harold, the cult classic by Terry Andrews (a.k.a George Selden Thompson), I stumbled upon only a single review from the time the book had been published - perhaps because few reviewers in 1974 were willing to touch a novel in which a famous children’s book writer also happens to be a suicidal, bisexual S&M adventurer. Writing in the New York Times, Richard Brickner generously commented that Andrews’ novel was “a work about almost everything important that happens between people,” which was enough to pique my curiosity about Brickner himself. Brickner had been a beloved creative writing teacher and had written a few novels of his own as well as a memoir of living as a paraplegic following a terrible accident at age 20. After She Left (1988) is a beautifully executed psychological novel, a subtle take on Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady transposed into 1970’s New York and to a young woman wrestling with the her mother’s having abandoned husband and child during the war only to perish in China helping Jewish refugees in Shanghai. I can think of few novels I’ve read – including James’ own – that enter so penetratingly into the tensions between independence and relationship/marriage, or that so well dissect the psychological scars that can govern the direction of a life. This is a fine, overlooked American work ripe for re-issue (I’m looking to you, NYRB).

Carnival of Crime: The Best Mystery Stories of Frederic Brown
Southern Illinois University Press
When I was about 10 years old I went nuts over a two-page story entitled “Wide O.” In it a woman at home alone listening to the radio panics when an alert about an escaped murderer in the vicinity is broadcast. Nervously, she goes around making sure the doors and windows are tightly locked up. The story ends with her feeling a draft, wandering into the kitchen, and asking herself, “Now how could I have left that back door wide o-“. This was not, to my knowledge, a Frederic Brown story, but it’s wholly in the vein of the tales collected in Carnival of Crime. I only wish I’d discovered Brown back then; I could just envision the delirious titillation such tales would have provoked in me at such an early age. Even as an adult I still felt sucker-punched by some of Brown’s twisted endings; the mystery stories in Carnival of Crime work almost like long jokes with morbid punch lines, almost always a surprise revelation, a point of shock. Brown’s output ranged from mysteries to horror to fantasy to science fiction (the latter including a story adopted for a “Star Trek” episode). Amazingly, I have Primo Levi to thank for my first encounter with Brown; Levi included  one of the author’s science fiction stories in The Search for Roots. Not long after finishing Carnival of Crime, I heard tittering laughter coming from the next room and poked my head around the corner to find my spouse curled up with Brown’s collection. She looked up and asked, “What is this demented thing?” A carnival indeed.

Honorable mentions: 

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by Otto Dov Kulka, one of the most affecting books I’ve read about Auschwitz/Birkenau, from a writer incarcerated there as a boy; 

Holocaust, Charles Reznikoff’s exceptionally raw and direct poems addressing the Shoah;

Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit, a strange set of prose poems exploring the psychological terrain between Rembrandt’s refinement and Jacques Callot’s depictions of violence, between the elegant and the tenebrous, which led Bertrand’s little book to have a powerful influence on subsequent French writers and artists, particularly Baudelaire and Ravel;

Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House (thanks to Wuthering Expectations’ posts about the book);

Patti Smith’s poet-detective dream rumination Year of the Monkey, which uses dreams, the altarpiece of Ghent and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, among other things, as touchstones for her own wanderings about the west during the year she turns 70;

Fire, by George Stewart, which I started reading just before California’s terrible November fires and which, despite being rather dated, offers some exciting and intense depictions of what it’s like when humans engage natural calamity;

Abundant Beauty, selections from the travel diaries of extraordinary Victorian botanical artist Marianne North; and

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes, a reread, because I cannot seem to get enough of this audacious, splendid book.

Dear thanks to all who stopped by seraillon in 2019, and felicitous reading in the new year! 

Ellen Cantor, from Prior Pleasures

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Best of 2019, Part 1: The Italian Story

Books suspended from the ceiling of the Café Tettamanzi, Nuoro, Sardinia

This December marks the ninth year of seraillon, which has admittedly been limping along a bit these past few years. My reading, though, has continued almost apace and with some tremendous discoveries this year, so I’ll share more than just a few highlights from works I read in 2019, particularly given how few of them I’ve actually written about to date. Perhaps you might consider this like one of those summary annual holiday letters from a remote relative that superficially fills you in on the past year’s goings-on among people you may or may not know.

Instead of the usual year end “best of” list, I’m making two lists. Beginning with my reading of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso midway through 2014 - so for approximately half of the blog’s existence - I’ve turned a good part of my reading attention to Italian literature in translation. Today’s post will feature Italian literature highlights. A second post, to follow, will feature highlights from everywhere else.

Borgo Vecchio, Giosuè Calaciura (French translation; currently unavailable in English)
Lise Chapuis, translator, Notabilia
The inhabitants of Borgo Vecchio, a quarter in an unnamed coastal Italian city, live the same entrenched poverty, entrapment and urban violence one can find in Pasolini’s novels of street life in Rome or the Neapolitan works of Elena Ferrante. But Calaciura’s cruel world is also saturated in ineffable beauty. If there’s one contemporary work, Italian or otherwise, that sent me over the moon this past year, it’s this one. Calaciura’s short novel burns like ignited magnesium, an operatic opus of violence and tenderness that glitters with flashes of wings and knives to illuminate this forgotten quarter, where bitter realities gust into magic and lift the Borgo Vecchio off its weary feet for instants now and then. Told with minimal dialogue – there are probably fewer than a dozen spoken lines in the entire work – Borgo Vecchio is a fugue of poetry wrapped around resolution of a simple and terrible problem articulated in the first chapter: the savage nightly beatings suffered by poor young Cristofaro at the brute hands of his drunken father. The matter runs from the beginning of the novel to the end like a taut clothesline on which Calaciura hangs his phantasmagoric portrait of Borgo Vecchio. His cast of characters is small: Cristoforo and his best friend Mimmo; Celeste, their female friend and daughter of the religiously devout prostitute Carmela; and the pistol-packing thief Toto, whom all of the children wish to be their father and who himself wishes to marry Carmela. And then there are the nameless or scarcely-named people of the quarter who serve as a kind of Greek chorus, recoiling behind closed doors and shutters at Cristoforo’s nightly “howl like that of a sick dog,” raining bottles and stones down on the cops whenever there’s a raid, going about their daily business with little hope or expectation of change. Calaciura works his tale into a kind of generalized fable into which any such neighborhood in any such city might fit, and which borrows from a long fabulist tradition in Italian literature. Beneath the dust jacket of the beautifully designed French edition from Notabilia one finds the image of a broken Pinocchio, which gives one some idea of Calaciura’s world, one not so different, really, from that of Carlo Collodi. The author has yet to be translated into English; I expect to hear a great deal more about him when he is.

The Day of Judgment, Salvatore Satta 
Patrick Creagh, translator, Apollo
Satta’s The Day of Judgment stood out among an already outstanding selection of novels from Sardinia I read this year. It’s also one of the finest 20thcentury novels I’ve read in any year. An autobiographically-based work, The Day of Judgment paints a profound portrait of the author’s hometown of Nuoro in the inland Barbagia region of Sardinia. Recounted in a stoically ironic tone combining bitterness, humor and an almost irrepressible compassion, Satta’s novel limns his fellow citizens in this place where one is “only in this world because there’s room for you,” and where the inhabitants go about their lives in a kind of torpor, more dead than alive, their actions accruing to little more than “the usual story.” But The Day of Judgment is anything but the usual story; the title refers to the biblical day of judgment, here a kind of tallying up of the town’s lives (and lifelessness) - as well as of the life of the narrator himself. Satta’s novel is a stunning portrait not only of his hometown, but also of an intellectual estranged from family and community and held fast by his origins. The renowned jurist’s only work of fiction, on which he worked in secret for 30 years, is also memorable for its depiction of a vanishing way of life, comparable to Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

L’île, Giani Stuparich (in French; currently unavailable in English)
Gilbert Bosetti, translator, Éditions Verdier
I’ve already written about Giani Stuparich’s short novella L’Île here. In this gem of concision, the restrained text seems an island itself within a vast sea of psychological affect surrounding the novel’s subject: the difficulty of speaking, of finding the words to say it, “it” in this case being the impending death of a father, ill with esophageal cancer, on a final visit to the island of his youth in the company of his estranged son. An unforgettable, deeply moving book, one I returned to repeatedly throughout the year.  

Et enfin septembre vint, Antonio Tabucchi (in French; currently unavailable in English)
Martin Rueff, translator, Éditions Chandeigne
It would hardly seem credible to have on a “best of” list like this a 20-page fragment of an unfinished work. Such a book, even from an author I admire so much as Tabucchi, might seem but a publisher’s completist effort to capitalize on whatever scraps the writer might have left behind. Au contraire. Tabucchi’s little book, four rough chapters of a planned novel dating from 2011, succeeds in giving enough shape to the anticipated finished product that I found myself despairing that he’d been unable to complete it. Tabucchi bases his narrative on a visit he made in the waning years of the Salazar dictatorship to a remote Portuguese village in the company of a group of linguists determined to preserve and document a dying language. Their arrival coincides, however, with that of news of a native son’s death in one of Portugal's colonial wars in Africa, which unleashes the village’s collective grieving centered around the young soldier’s bereft mother. Despite its brevity, Tabucchi’s sketch is of a remarkable complexity, exploring the destruction of and pernicious effects of fascism on language. I read the book while in Sardinia, just prior to a visit to Antonio Gramsci’s home, and was surprised to find Tabucchi turning away from his typical engagement with Fernando Pessoa and towards Gramsci, in particular his theories on language and literature. The edition itself, from Éditions Chandeigne, is a lovely book containing the original Italian with Martin Rueff's French translation on facing pages, and a Portuguese translation by Tabucchi’s widow, Maria José de Lancastre.

Birth and Death of the Housewife, Paola Masino
Marella Feltrin-Morris, translator, SUNY Press
Massimo Bontempelli, the modern inventor of “realismo magico,” one of the 20thcentury’s most recognized literary genres, made my 2018 “best of” list. I’d been unaware that his spouse, Paola Masino, had been an author of perhaps even greater daring (at age 16, Masino had approached Luigi Pirandello to ask him to produce a play she had written). Masino’s originality is in full display in her best-known work, Birth and Death of the Housewife (Nascita e morte della massaïa, 1945, first published in installments in 1941-42). This dense, lyrical, disturbing, stylistically inventive, even lacerating novel employs the narrative advertised by its title to engage in a borderline surrealistic dissection of the Fascist ideals of womanhood and the centrality of family. The novel opens with the housewife as a child, living inside of a trunk filled with books, bits of bread, spider webs and moss, desperately consumed with the idea that she is doomed to kill her own mother with heartbreak. The housewife emerges from her trunk, is presented to the world at a coming-out party, meets a dark-haired suitor who kisses her and disappears, then marries a distant cousin who plops her into a “wretched” life of idleness and management of servants. Linearity then takes a detour, as the housewife voyages through often nightmarish scenes of domesticity via diary entries, dreams, letters, a dramatic play set within the novel, all the while shifting between acquiescence and rebellion, a journey through a twilit landscape which at times resembles the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, Masino’s colleague and friend, or the lugubrious, stark atmosphere of Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies. Masino’s protagonist is a stunningly compelling character - disquieting, uncontainable, ferocious and sympathetic at once. “This story has no room for general ideas,” states the housewife. The particulars, one must admit, are quite enough. The novel is not easy to find, but well worth the trouble. 

The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
Raymond Rosenthal, translator, Everyman's Library
I read this in conjunction with a blogging event proposed at Dorian Stuber’s Eiger, Mōnch & Jungfrau blog to mark the centennial of Levi’s birth, but I never got around to posting anything (sorry Dorian!). While Levi’s If This is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz in the American version) is required reading for most Western European schoolchildren, those who fail to explore Levi’s other works will have a skewed impression of this giant of world literature, who here uses a series of pieces each named after an element of Mendeleev’s periodic table as launching pads for…what exactly? Written in an almost indefinable genre - part autobiography, part collection of essays, part novel, part philosophy, all intelligence and probing - The Periodic Table ought to be added to those required reading lists. Levi uses his training as a chemist to explore notions of matter and spirit, purity and impurity, difference and similarity, affinity and repulsion, reaction and stasis – forces present in all human relations, “and not only the chemist’s trade.” The book’s 21 chapters weave autobiography with observations on science and on the rise of Fascism, culminating in an ending like something Italo Calvino might have written. Could there be any greater modern example of the persistent legacy of the Italian Renaissance, of the blending of science, art and humanism as means for seeking both truth and humanity? I also reread Levi’s The Search for Roots, a book of literary excerpts that helped form Levi’s world view, and which has provided a path, directly or indirectly, to more than a few other works I read this year. 

Partisan Diary: A Woman’s Life in the Italian Resistance, Ada Gobetti
Jomarie Alano, translator, Oxford University Press
A few names mentioned in Levi’s The Periodic Table seemed awfully familiar to me when I read anti-Fascist Ada Gobetti’s Partisan Diary: A Woman’s Life in the Italian Resistance. The title delivers precisely what it promises: an almost daily account of the work of the woman at the heart of the resistance effort in Italy’s north where the Gobetti and Levi, both Torinese, knew many of the same people. A woman of extraordinary political and tactical acumen, Gobetti allowed her home to become ground zero for the movement. Despite an utterly frenetic level of activity devoted to publishing leaflets, organizing operations, rescuing partisans trapped behind enemy lines, ensuring safe houses and keeping up a steady and determined self-education in politics, Gobetti managed to pass herself off as an ordinary housewife. At the sentence level, the writing of Partisan Diary can at times seem pedestrian;  but small matter - the suspense Gobetti brings to each ordinary day under such perilous conditions made this a book I felt compelled to rush home and read each evening. 

The Sergeant in the Snow, Mario Rigoni Stern
Archibald Colquhoun, translator, Marlboro Press
Among many pieces of writing included in Primo Levi’s The Search for Roots, a short but riveting excerpt from Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel, The Story of Tonle, prompted me a few years ago to read the whole book, a terrific fictionalized account of war in the Tyrol. An Italian bookstore owner this year recommended The Sergeant in the Snow as the last novel she’d read that had left her in tears, so I took her up on what I'm pretty sure she meant as a recommendation. Stern’s novel belongs with the best of fiction about WWII. Specifically, it recounts the harrowing retreat of the AIRAM (the Italian Army in Russia) from positions along the Don River near Stalingrad in the terrible winter of 1943-44. This is about as raw as war fiction comes, which is not to say that it’s all blood and gore. Rather, for some 150 pages, Stern conveys the relentless obligation of soldiers to keep placing one foot in front of the other, literally, in order to survive their 300 mile march through deep snow, carrying heavy equipment, under fire, in temperatures that dipped as low as -40 C. But Stern’s narrative offers a steady reckoning of the capriciousness of war against such resilience: that one can take precautions, do everything in order to live, and still lose one’s life in a split second – or find the most unexpected kindnesses. I also read Stern’s short non-fiction work Arbres en liberté. Translator Monique Baccelli claims the Italian title, Arboreto salvatico (1991), with its deliberate corruption of the second word into something suggesting “wood,” “wild” and “rescue,” might be approximated as “arboretum sauvage à sauver” – a wild arboretum to save. This is as lovely an appreciation of trees as one is likely to find in any language, consisting of short essays about individual tree species growing on Stern’s land, most of which he’d planted himself.

Bloodlines, Marcello Fois
Silvester Mazzarella, translator, MacLehose Press
Of the two novels I read this year by contemporary Nuorese author Marcello Fois, the powerful Bloodlines (Stirpe, 2009) impressed me most (which implies no disparagement of the other excellent work, The Advocate [Sempre Caro, 2004]). Bloodlines is not an easy book; borrowing from Dante’s Divine Comedy to portray the history of the Chironi family of Lollove, a small village on Nuoro’s outskirts, Fois holds back nothing in relating one terrible hardship after another extending across three generations. But no one would mistake this for pure realism; Fois is self-consciously literary, taking an approach which mixes elements of crime fiction with cultural ethnography while also engaging directly with his literary predecessors, particularly Salvatore Satta. In fact, in both novels, Fois references episodes in The Day of Judgment, a way of paying critical homage to his predecessor and, in building on a foundation already laid, pulling Sardinian literature into a new register while at the same time grounding his work in Sardinian particularities that convey a high-resolution picture of village life in the Barbagia.

Honorable mentions go to: Piero Chiara’s The Bishop’s Bedroom and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, Michela Murgia’s Accabadora, Antonio Moresco’s A Distant Light and Ann Cornelisen’s Torregreca, about as deep into Italy as a non-Italian can go, a profound immersion into mid-20thcentury village life in Basilicata. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

"Lost between Europe and Africa, and belonging to nowhere" - Some Novels from Sardinia

Capo Caccia, Sardinia

A few months ago, all I’d read of Sardinian literature was 1926 Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda’s Reeds in the Wind (Canne al vento, 1913), which came to my attention thanks to a mention in a short story by Antonio Tabucchi. I’d relished Deledda’s novel despite finding the conceit behind its title – that people “are like reeds in the wind…we are the reeds and fate is the wind” – a bit trite. But then the wind in Sardinia was something I’d never experienced. Visiting the island for the first time this October, I caught the tail-end of a three-day Mistral. My respect for Deledda and for the Sardinians who must contend with such elemental forces deepened considerably. 

My appreciation for Sardinian literature also deepened considerably, thanks to sampling a handful of other Sardinian works. This small effort, further limited by the paucity of titles available in translation, seemed almost mocked by the sagging shelves of the Sardinian literature section of the Mondadori store in Alghero. But just considering the few works I’ll discuss here, I might dare some generalizations. Each work engages a life shaped by forces no less powerful or fateful than Deledda’s winds and also possesses, as one might expect, a strong regional emphasis, delving deeply into Sardinian culture, history, tradition and landscape, as well as the lasting impact of 19thcentury land reforms. Each of these authors mixes Sard with Italian, with translators choosing (or requested by authors) to retain some Sard words even in translation. Another commonality: each of these works casts a retrospective glance, as though the past, with its deep traditions, occasional barbarities and commonplace cruelties continuing well into the 20th century, has an especially strong hold on the present. And finally, all of the authors here spent extended periods on the continent or, among those still living, make their homes there today, underscoring the peculiar tension between the island, the most isolated major island in the Mediterranean - closer to Africa than to the Italian mainland - and the rest of Italy. 

Most Sardinian literary activity appears centered in Nuoro, largest town of the rugged and rocky interior known as the Barbagia, and in the surrounding villages with which Nuoro carries on a vigorous intercourse. In fact, of the five Sardinian authors I’ve now read – Deledda, Salvatore Satta, Marcello Fois, Michela Murgia and Milena Agus - all but Agus, from Cagliari, hail from this cultural capital. Dominated by one of the island’s highest peaks, Mount Ortobène, Nuoro is something of a geographical peculiarity, sloping from the summit of a high hill down to a valley below, with social implications all along the differential. Despite the city’s commanding setting, cheap modern apartment blocks hem in the historic center, making for a less than spectacular first impression. But the town, known as “the Athens of Sardinia” in Deledda’s time, still wears its literary past on its sleeve. Many of its numerous piazzi pay homage to literary figures, as do plaques on walls marking homes and haunts. Deledda’s house is now a museum. Even today an undeniable poetry hangs about the place, often explicitly scrawled on walls. Books hang from the ceiling in the town’s most famous literati gathering spot, the Café Tettamanzi. A reputable annual literary fair occurs in a neighboring village. Of the more contemporary writers I read, most are tied to or on the periphery of the “Sardinian Literary Spring” that began in this city in the 1980’s and still continues as one of Italy’s most notable contemporary literary schools. 

 Ceiling decor in the Café Tettamanzi, Nuoro, Sardinia

On to the books themselves:

Milena Agus, From the Land of the Moon 
Ann Goldstein, translator, Europa Editions
The original Italian title of Agus’ 2006 novella, Mal di pietre, might be translated as “Stone Pains” or “The Aching Stones” or “Sick of Stones.” My own failed effort to find a non-jarring English equivalent seems to have been shared by translator Ann Goldstein, who avoided a literal translation altogether. The original title references Sardinia’s most evident geological feature - the rocky, barren, moonlike roughness of the place - as well as the kidney stones that plague Agus’ main character, the narrator’s paternal grandmother. Deeply troubled as a girl, the grandmother’s arranged mariàge blanc is little more than the family’s effort to wipe their hands of her. Sent to a spa outside Rome after WWII for treatment of her kidney problem, she meets a man referred to only as “The Veteran,” and their meetings blossom into a passionate and temporary affair resulting, nine months after her return to Cagliari, in a son. A hyper-romanticized 2016 film adaptation capitalizes on the more schmaltzy aspects of this story: and, bizarrely, rips the action completely out of its critical Sardinian context by transporting it to France. Agus’ novel actually proves to be a fairly grim view of the position of Sardinian women. Contradicting an intentionally ironic comment in another of these novels that “Women don’t exist in Sardinia,” Agus may amply demonstrate that Sardinian women not only exist, but possess extraordinary qualities; however, these often lie buried beneath circumscribed roles that, at least up until the recent past, could easily consist of an unending succession of oppressive, destructive trials. Her main character is pulled out of school at an early age for fear of the unhealthy influence of literacy, passes through an adolescence of self-mutilation and neglect, and enters a madness that, in the novel’s twist ending, lays waste to the romantic elements that have pulled the reader along, leaving exposed the rocky contours of a culture that could facilitate such oppression. 

Michela Murgia, Accabadora
Silvester Mazzarella, translator, MacLehose Press
A more in depth look at the lives of women in Sardinia is provided by Murgia’s 2009 novel, which delves into some particularities of roles women play in Sardinian culture. I particularly liked Murgia’s honing in on these almost ethnographic Sardinian details, which she uses to unlock a wealth of observations about social life and practices on the island. She begins on the first page by revealing that the narrator, an impoverished 8-year-old girl when the novel opens, has been “conceived twice, from the poverty of one woman and the sterility of another,” a “fill’e anime” or soul-child essentially sold by her family to a relatively wealthy spinster in order to serve as help-maid. This was apparently not an uncommon practice in rural Sardinia up into the last century, and the book’s dedication - “To my mothers, both of them” - suggests Murgia may have a more than passing familiarity. The book’s title, key to the plot, is omitted from the glossary of Sard words Murgia includes at the beginning of the book, but refers to another covert and remarkable social role practiced by the girl’s guardian, and which serves as the driver for the plot unfolding around the child’s growth into adulthood and discovery of her guardian’s secret life, with attendant consequences. I found this a terrific short novel, particularly for the light it shines on traditional aspects of life in the Barbagia and for the way Murgia uncovers the tension between tradition and modernity in this deeply entrenched culture. 

Supramonte mountains, near Oliena, Sardinia

Marcello Fois, The Advocate
Patrick Creagh, translator, The Harvill Press
Marcello Fois is probably Sardinia’s pre-eminent living writer. In his novella The Advocate (Sempre caro, 1998), Fois deftly employs a concentrated style that nonetheless manages to convey the Sardinia that, in an epilogue, Fois calls both “my joy and my torment.” At 117 pages in Patrick Creagh’s English translation, Fois’ tale of a stubborn lawyer pursuing justice for a young man fleeing an alleged livestock theft and then consequently suspected of a murder possesses the suspense and tension of a fine mystery (one strongly reminiscent of Sicilian writer Gaettano Savaterri’s La Congiura dei Loquaci, another tale of a young man accused of a crime and forced into hiding). But Fois uses this vehicle, and its giallo qualities, to evoke the whole world of late 19thcentury life in the Barbagia, using carefully placed details to replace the laundry lists one finds in fat realist novels and creating space for the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. A trio of different narrators helps to expand the novel’s perspectives.  

Marcello Fois, Bloodlines
Silvester Mazzarella, translator, MacLehose Press
Fois’ The Advocate had me wanting to read more of this exceptional Sardinian author, so in Nuoro, in a bookshop across from the city’s infamous Café Tettamanzi, I purchased an English translation of Bloodlines (Stirpe, 2009). This proved a considerably more ambitious work than The Advocate, with a more daring narrative style and a far grander sweep, an epic account of the Chironi family of the small village of Lollove on the slopes of Mount Ortobène just outside Nuoro. Stretching over a period of some 50 years – and with backwards glances to the family’s origins via a Spanish envoy, Don Gaspar de Quiéron in the 17thcentury – the novel describes the family’s passage through a kind of hell arranged, in fact, in a three-part structure referencing Dante, only Fois’ work starts with Paradiso and ends with Purgatorio, with Inferno occupying the lengthy middle. 

The novel opens with young Michele Angelo Chironi, the novel’s protagonist, falling in love with Mercede Lai during a church service. Marriage follows, then a large number of children, a good half of whom die before or shortly after birth. These seem to be the luckier ones, since great trials await the poor family, and if Fois’ novel were a straight linear narrative, tragedy would pile upon tragedy in an unbearable manner. But Fois is interested largely in how people cope with trauma and history, and the narrative form, within its structure of a rearranged Divine Comedy, further breaks up linearity and instead seems to turn in spirals, perhaps an echo of Dante’s multiple circles. Fois’ omniscient narrator breaks in frequently to cut off a story or defer it until later. An incident is indicated, then fully revealed only further on in the work, as stories build upon one another, get truncated by other events, come back around like eruptions of memory, the full tale dependent upon the proper time for its telling. In the background, the first half of the 20thcentury - with the intrusions of two world wars and of Fascism – unspools around a scouring portrait of Sardinian village life. Unlike the treatment of adversity in Agus’ novel, kept under a romantic veneer for much of her book, Fois offers little in the way of consolation aside from the beauty of his writing and the courage of his good people. Bloodlines is the first of a trilogy exploring the Chironi family up to the present day; all three volumes are now available in English translation.

Nuoro, night

Salvatore Satta, The Day of Judgment
Patrick Creagh, translator, Apollo
As a motto, “My glass may be small, but I drink from my glass,” might fit Salvatore Satta’s The Day of Judgment (Il Giorno del giudizio, 1979), a deep quaff taken of the author's native Nuoro. The glass through which he viewed his city (darkly) almost certainly rested on his regular table in the Café Tettamanzi, just a few steps from the author’s home. But this is no small novel, as suggested by the scores of international editions of it on display today in the café and which point to the eminent place Satta’s novel occupies in Sardinian literature and beyond. The debt to the work owed by his successors is strikingly obvious in all the contemporary Sardinian literature I read, Fois in particular, as he engages with The Day of Judgment to the point of referencing specific scenes and lines, in Bloodlines even modeling Satta’s novel in using the family patriarch’s life as a temporal measuring tape. 

Curiously, however, despite the many translated editions of the book and high praise from influential critics in Italy and abroad, Satta’s novel seems to have flown largely under the radar; the otherwise excellent Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel (2003), for example, omits mention of the work and of the writer entirely, rather odd given his prominent role in Italy. “Writing is not my trade,” confesses the modest, unnamed narrator of this largely autobiographical work, and indeed Satta spent his public life as a renowned jurist and legal theorist, responsible for expunging the Fascists’ emendations from the Italian legal code following World War II. His juridical works remain standard legal references in Italy today. The manuscript of The Day of Judgment, Satta’s only novel, was discovered unfinished only at the author death. He had worked on it in secret for some 30 years. 

And what a manuscript. Though the book’s title may suggest something in the mystery genre, the biblical connotation is operative here, or rather what that might mean in Nuoro’s fundamentally “pagan” environment where religion seems merely incidental to ways of life in some ways unchanged for millennia. Recounting the life of town notary Don Sebastiano Sanna (obviously modeled on Satta himself), the narrator’s stoic, panoramic portrait of his Nuuro is an attempt, in his narrator’s words, to summon together, like a “ridiculous god,” its people “for the day of judgment, to free them forever from their memory.” The narrator’s attitude towards his hometown edges on resentment (“Nuoro was nothing but a perch for the crows”), his project no less a critical, careful reckoning than the one a judge like himself might levy on trying a case – or on weighing his own life. In notes appended to the end of the unfinished manuscript, Satta wrote that he created his characters perhaps not to free them from their lives, “but to rid me of mine.” 

Such a treatment seems at times almost pitiless; this a book draped in black crêpe and written in ashes and dust - “a cemetery of living beings.” More than fifteen references to death appear even before one reaches the end of the third page. Comparisons might be made to other works in which an author measures his fellow townspeople’s lives against the inevitability of death, such as Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood or Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust. At times the narrator’s take on his fellow citizens is withering - “Anyway, they had all grown old, in Nuoro, and no one remembered anything anymore, partly because there was nothing to remember” – but his inescapable need to come to grips with the circumstances of his origins betrays a grudging affection, even a loving one, the appreciation of an intellectual rendered alienated and apart from the community that nonetheless produced him (the social impact of reading and intellect in such a community as depicted in a chapter focused on the arrival of books into the Sanna household is particularly memorable). Satta’s refined, penetrating intelligence and bone-dry ironic tone also give the novel a subtly comic cast that betrays his narrator’s repeatedly grim pronouncements. The ambit of the author’s gaze radiates out from family to town to region to island to encompass the whole of life and death, alighting here and there to ponder some corner of Sardinian life, some practice, some recalled person, some great troubling question, all in the process of receding into the past and vanishing from memory. In the notes appended to the novel’s last page, Satta appears to view judgment not as punition, but as a creative imperative: the need for “someone to gather us up, to revive us, to speak about us both to ourselves and to others, as in a last judgment.”

Like Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), The Day of Judgment depicts a disappearing way of life – di Lampedusa on Sicily, Satta on Sardinia - and if I were stuck on an island and could choose only one of these books, my decision would almost certainly come down to which island I happened to find myself on. I hardly expected to find a novel of such monumental stature in Sardinian literature, but this is certainly among the finest of the many Italian novels I’ve read. Maybe just throw out the qualifier “Italian” – The Day of Judgment gave me the same excited sense of stumbling upon a little known classic that I experienced in finding Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy

From the Castello dei Doria, Castelsardo, Sardinia

Before I leave off this brief commentary on Sardinian literature, I feel a mention of Antonio Gramsci is warranted. Though his former home in Ghizeria, a small town in the middle of the island, was closed for renovation, a small and friendly visitor center provided information about this extraordinary 20thcentury figure, whose notebooks and letters are nearly as valuable as literature as they are for 20thcentury political philosophy. It felt remarkably fitting that the last book I read in Sardinia, a newly-issued unfinished work by Antonio Tabucchi entitled Et enfin septembre vint (E finalmente arrive il settembre) unexpectedly turned directly towards Gramsci and to the disappearance of local languages like Sard. I felt as though I’d come, via a path strewn with extraordinary treasures, full circle.