Widely scattered reading, sometimes heavy, with occasional posts diminishing towards the end of the year, threatening drought.
As Seraillon enters its fifth year of existence, I thank all of you who have visited the blog despite sometimes lengthy periods between posts. Even if I only reviewed a fraction of what I read, my reading in 2014 provided me with magnificent new discoveries, further explorations of some writers I knew, plus visits with a few old favorites.
Italian literature dominated the year. Nearly a third of the books I read in 2014 were by Italian writers or set in Italy. This was not primarily due, as one might suppose, to three weeks in October I spent in Naples and in Sicily (where apparently I just missed Himadri of The Argumentative Old Git). Rather, I owe my Italian focus to four works read in relative succession that simply made me want to read more Italian literature: Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, perhaps my favorite book read in 2013; Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, certainly my favorite book read in 2014; a reread of Dante’s Inferno in a startlingly original translation by Irish poet Ciarin Carson; and a reread of Manuel Mujica Láinez’s extraordinary Bomarzo, Italian even if not by an Italian writer. The bookends of travel, anticipation and aftermath, spurred further reading of Italian, and particularly Sicilian, writers.
I hope to post about more of these Italian works, so I’ll hold off on discussing them here except to single out a few as among my favorite books read in 2014.
Topping the entire list would be Orlando furioso. Ariosto’s 16th century epic poem, depicting the defense of Christendom from Muslim invaders in the 9th century and recasting, with generous charm and wit, the chivalric tales of Orlando (Roland) and his fellow knights, proved to be an tremendous breath of fresh air, unexpectedly modern and deeply humanistic, with an affable narrator, memorable heroic characters on all sides of the conflict, a strong feminist angle, and wildly entertaining fantastical elements, including around-the-world travel on a hippogryph and a voyage to the moon to rescue the frenzied Orlando’s lost wits. The nearly 40,000 lines of the poem, which Voltaire without exaggeration described as “the Iliad, the Odyssey and Don Quixote all rolled into one,” were not nearly enough; I did not want Orlando furioso to end.
A visit to the village of Aci Trezza on Sicily’s eastern shore provided incentive to read Giovanni Verga’s I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree), a work I’d long awaited reading. Verga’s portrait of the poor Malavoglia family’s seemingly endless series of setbacks is biting, tragic and comical at once, and an unforgettable portrayal of the human struggle against adversity and poverty. I know of nothing quite like Verga’s brand of realism, the manner in which he depicts human dignity in the face of tragedy so movingly, yet with such droll, fine humor - and with such a deliberate attempt, in trying to represent reality, to strip away that all the rest that is literature.
I'd been awestruck in 2012 by Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt, but The Skin, Malaparte’s series of semi-fictionalized essays set mostly in American-occupied Naples in the waning years of World War II, has absolutely haunted me, especially while in Naples. The Skin depicts the absurdity and horror not only of the war, but of the victory as well. No one writes like Malaparte, one of World War II’s great witnesses; his fictional, surreal embellishments of grim, often horrific situations, instead of rendering them unbelievable, manages to make their reality even more tangible.
Having previously read only two works by Sicilian writer and activist Leonardo Sciascia, his crime novel The Day of the Owl and his strangely obsessive inquest into the suicide of Raymond Roussel, I was blown away by The Council of Egypt, a novel set in 18th century Palermo involving forged books, the traitorousness of translation, the impact of history on the living, and providing, in a surprising turn at the end of the novel, a powerful indictment of torture.
Among the non-Italian highlights of the year (not strictly Italian anyway), I include three for which I’ve written posts: Bomarzo and two 19th century Spanish novels, one fat and one thin, that fit well together: Leopoldo Alas’ La Regenta and Benito Pérez Galdós’ Tristana. One about which I have not yet written is Richard Harris Barham’s The Ingoldsby Legends. I was unfamiliar with this work, yet in the 19th century Barham’s collection of legends, poems and songs, published under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby, was the most popular work of fiction in Great Britain, even surpassing works by publisher Robert Bentley’s other best-selling author, one Charles Dickens. Barham’s linguistically wide-ranging prose and brilliantly rhyming poetry, put to work whimsically and ferociously in darkly humorous, grotesquely gothic folkloric tales full of cruel chastisements and bad (very bad) ends, kept me entertained for weeks. The extensive annotations by Carol Hart in my Spring Street Books edition are nearly as entertaining as the work itself. And hey, there’s a whole second volume to go.
Among authors I happily revisited were E. M. Forster, Raymond Roussel, Willa Cather, Colette, Anita Loos, Roberto Bolaño (a 2666 group read sponsored by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos), MacDonald Harris, Conor McPherson, Kingsley Amis, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, Ann Radcliffe, José Saramago, Boris Vian, Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s ever enthralling and elegant Wind, Sand and Stars, Joan Aiken’s superbly entertaining children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and cartoonist Roz Chast in her brilliantly funnynotfunny account of taking care of elderly parents, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Dora Bruder marked my return to Patrick Modiano after a number of years. This work, straddling fiction and non-fiction, makes for a compelling rejoinder to those who’ve scoffed at Modiano’s having been awarded the Nobel Prize. I’d include it on a short list of crucial works about the Holocaust. Modiano tugs on a loose thread, an old newspaper clipping, and unravels a devastating history all the more affecting for our knowledge that there were millions of such singular stories, such promising lives, each so individual, each so terribly alike in their end.
As for authors new to me, I dusted off a few books long in the queue, including Helene Hanff’s charming, hilarious epistolary work, 84, Charing Cross Road. I tackled the first volume of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, but preferred the pseudonymous Harry Kressing’s almost undoubtedly Peake-inspired, comic novel of calculated nastiness, The Cook. Another pulled from the pile, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s 1872 novel, Who Would Have Thought It?, proved far more fascinating than its sometimes leaden sentences initially promised. Considered the first novel written by a Mexican-American woman, Who Would Have Thought It? explores complications of race, gender, power and politics in the American Civil War period by an unusual writer and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. One of the few other U.S. writers I discovered this year was playwright August Wilson. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and its predecessor, Gem of the Ocean, look at African-Americans in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the 20th century, exploring the tensions between those unable to put the atrocity of slavery behind them and others all too eager to move on, oblivious to the past. These are riveting plays, rich in language and nuance. And though I’d probably first encountered Njal’s Saga in some form in grade school, a group read led by the Wuthering Expectations blog made it a new and bloody rewarding experience.
A collection of short stories, Things Look Different inthe Light, introduced me to late Spanish writer Medardo Fraile, whose sly tales take slices of daily life at an oblique angle. Thanks to Miguel of the St. Orberose blog, I got a tantalizing introduction to another Spanish writer, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester. 2014 is also the year I discovered Rodrigo Rey Rosa, a Guatemalan protégé of Paul Bowles. Two of Rey Rosa’s short novels – Severina and The African Shore – whet my appetite to read more of this remarkable writer and his distinctively lucid, penetrating prose. Regrettably, I read few books from beyond Europe and the Americas, but two were real standouts: Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat’s La Chouette Aveugle (The Blind Owl), and Touareg writer Ibrahim al-Koni’s desert novel, Gold Dust, which pairs nicely with Rey Rosa’s The African Shore as excellent short novels with animals at the center of their stories.
I might have missed Fog Island Mountains, by Michelle Bailat-Jones, but for her interest in and translation of Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz having alerted me to her own writing. Fog Island Mountains, Bailat-Jones’ first novel, takes an old Japanese folktale and spins on top of it a contemporary story of coming to terms with terminal illness. The mythological quality of the tale permits some liberties with coincidence and dramatic effect, resulting in a beautiful and moving book structured around stages of a typhoon that spans the compressed time frame of the story.
My favorite new discovery among contemporary writers is John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun (for its American edition re-titled by some marketeer as the hum-drum By the Lake). Magahern’s deceptively simple subject – the return to a lakeside Irish village of a couple who’ve left behind their professional lives in London – is developed into an exquisite portrayal of small town life, the tensions between progress and tradition, the effort to make a good life in the face of mortality, the inexorability of time. Sparkling with witty Irish crack and peopled by a cast of characters one comes to know intimately, MaGahern’s novel subtly and richly weaves in politics, manners and culture such that I felt upon emerging from the novel that I might need no other guide to visit its setting and have a grip on the place.
Putting aside Ariosto, I read slightly less poetry than in past years, but what I read I liked very much: Louise Labé’s 16th century love poems, a selection of Spain’s Siglo de Oro poets, Frank Kuppner’s idiosyncratic and irreverent collection of 500+ quatrains devoted to Chinese painting in A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty, Chris Abani’s harrowing prison poems in Kalakuta Republic, and, among the Italians a sampling of Salvatore Quasimodo, Umberto Saba, and Danilo Dolci. In the final days of the year I discovered the irreverent sonneteer Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, whose work I’m continuing to read now, and about whom I expect to have more to say later.
I read slightly more detective/thriller/polar novels than usual, including several of Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano books, Ariel Winter’s adept and entertaining impersonations of Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson in the trilogy of novels entitled The Twenty Year Death, and, uh, one or two others. Most mysteries slip through my memory like sand.
I don’t expect my exploration of Italian literature to slow down in 2015, especially as I’ve begun the year reading nothing but works by Italians. Plus, how fortuitous, the Wuthering Expectations blog has picked Italian literature as the focus for its annual reading challenge. I do have a few non-Italian works I plan to read, though, and as always, I remain open to whatever other glittering thing might flash before my wandering magpie eyes. Thank you again visiting Seraillon, and to you all I wish a year of abundant humor, happiness, love and peace – and rewarding reading, of course.