Thursday, February 22, 2018

Anna Maria Ortese: Neapolitan Chronicles

Seraillon has often featured out of print, difficult to find or untranslated works, so I was thrilled to learn of New Vessel Press’ plan to publish one of these: a new English translation of Anna Maria Ortese’s Il Mare non bagna Napoli (The Sea Doesn’t Bathe Naples), to appear as Neapolitan Chronicles. Ortese herself came up with the new title; the one under which the book originally appeared came from her publishers, Italo Calvino and Elio Vittorini.

The new edition of Neapolitan Chronicles, by Elena Ferrante’s English translator Ann Goldstein and co-translator Jenny McPhee, presents more reason for celebration than simply the re-emergence of this seminal work. For one thing, until now, Ortese’s book has never appeared in English in its entirety; Frances Frenaye’s 1955 translation lopped off part of the longest of the five pieces that make up the volume and added three not present in the original. For another thing, Goldstein and McPhee have included a preface and afterword Ortese wrote for Roberto Calasso’s 1994 Italian re-issue, and these commentaries by Ortese help to illuminate her aims in writing the book as well as her feelings about its rocky reception by Neapolitans. The translators’ own introduction provides additional context. Finally, I should add that the New Vessel edition is quite nicely designed, as you may discern from the image above.

I have written about Ortese’s book before, partly in an effort to give attention to works of Neapolitan literature that could provide some framing around Elena Ferrante’s monumental and monumentally popular Neapolitan Quartet. Ferrante’s series owes a tremendous debt to Neapolitan Chronicles, the first piece of which, “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” could well have been the crucible in which Ferrante formed her own project concerning the lives of two girls from the same impoverished Neapolitan apartment building. Ortese has also bequeathed to Ferrante a refusal to accept the state of things in this city wracked by poverty, corruption and violence. When Neapolitan Chronicles first appeared, its unsparing, unblinking treatment of Naples met with indignation from many of its citizens. The response was such that, despite the book winning a prestigious national literary prize, Ortese quit the city of her youth.

In light of my earlier post on the book, I’ll just briefly note some observations after reading the new version. I won’t speak to the quality of translation or compare it to Frenaye’s, tasks quite beyond my competence, but I will say that the prism facet of a new translation brought out many details that had previously escaped my attention. For instance, in “The Involuntary City,” a casually dispensed line cements the dark, Piranesian confinement of Naples’ Granli VIII-IV apartment block, a partly bombed-out 18th century grain storage facility that at the time of Ortese’s writing housed some 3,000 people with up to five families sharing a single room. While touring the building, the narrator is shown a crib made of a Coca-Cola crate that contains “what seemed to be a newborn…perfectly skeletal,” and is told by her guide that during a recent trip to the doctor, the child “saw the sun, the air…she was stupefied.” It is clear that this tiny being - fully two years old - had never before seen daylight.

In the book’s long final piece, “The Silence of Reason,” I had not previously noticed the fictional construct of what Ortese presents as journalism: a quick trip to Naples as a reporter sent to check out the local literary scene by visiting a number of her literary contemporaries, including Luigi Compangone, Raffaelle La Capria and Dominico Rea. The tenor of Ortese’s abrupt and even scathing assessments of her colleagues, whom she charges with practicing “an art rooted in arid desperation” regarding their approach to Naples, offers insights into her targets as well as herself. However, the vehicle of these criticisms - visits to the writers’ homes and meetings in the street - also positions her subjects in their human dimension while at the same time revealing their gendered privilege and underscoring the particular attention Ortese pays to women. For instance, in the section on Rea, Ortese seems to divide her attention between interviewing the author and observing his young wife, who wanders in and out to serve the men while her husband verbally berates her.

Among the more rewarding features of the new edition is Ortese’s 1994 preface. She here announces her intention to write about her writing (implying that others have looked completely beyond it, largely for political reasons), and turns upon herself the same degree of criticism she had leveled at others. She describes her writing in Neapolitan Chronicles as having

…something of the exalted and the feverish; it tends towards the high-pitched, encroaches on the hallucinatory, and at almost every point on the page displays, even in its precision, something of the too much.

Ortese goes on to refer to it as symptomatic of “authentic neurosis,” of a “disorientation” that is hers personally, not that of the city, reflective more of her “own weakness” than of anything else. Ortese’s expression of regret makes sense, given some of her dramatic characterizations as in “The Gold of Forcella,” where she refers to the neighborhood’s citizens as “a race devoid of all logic and reason…weak, neurotic, resigned to fear and impudent joy.” Viewed from another angle, however, this distancing strikes me as odd in light of the similarly “feverish” and “hallucinatory” style that seems nearly a hallmark of much Neapolitan writing, including in works by Curzio Malaparte, Roberto Saviano and Nicola Pugliese (not to mention the even more surreal works Ortese would later produce). Ortese’s mea culpa also comes across as an attempt to soften the blows she inflicted while retaining another quality she has passed along to a new generation of Neapolitan writers: a courageous intolerance of the intolerable.

Sixty-five years after these pieces first appeared, Ortese’s book still seems remarkably timely. it’s easy to appreciate that such an unflinching gaze into a city so manifestly complex, contradictory and fantastical may be key not only to Naples’ efforts to emerge from its terrible burden of troubles, but also for the city to represent what another Neapolitan writer – also in a rather “feverish” mode - mused might well be “the last remaining hope for the human race.”[1] Whether such a grand promise may ever be fulfilled, Ortese has certainly paved the way for it. At the very least Neapolitan Chronicles makes for a terrific introduction to this singular and increasingly influential Italian writer.

Neapolitan Chronicles will be published on March 13, 2018. I am grateful to New Vessel Press for alerting me to the forthcoming publication, for offering me an unsolicited review copy and for including an also unsolicited but entirely welcome blurb from seraillon inside the book.

[1] Luciano de Crescenzo, La Napoli di Bellavista (Thus Spake Bellavista), 1979

Monday, February 12, 2018

Re-Emerging: The Best of 2017

Seraillon has been on one long hiatus. Heavy demands of a new position have pushed blogging far to the margins and have even made finding time to read a challenge. In the spirit of wanting to breathe life back into the site and in the hope that I’ll be able to pay it more attention in 2018, I here present a tardy “end of year” post. Past such posts, commenting on some works I read but about which I did not write, have occasionally felt like a form of cheating. Following more than eight months of silence, this post feels more akin to grand larceny. Nevertheless, here are a baker’s dozen or so of highlights from 2017, omitting works about which I did write as well as far too many fine books I might have substituted for some listed below (the full list is in the "Books Read" tab in the margin).

La Divine Fôret (La Divina foresta/The Divine Forest), by Giuseppe Bonaviri (René Cecetty, translator): Throughout 2017, I again kept up a keen interest in Italian literature. One Italian writer I’d longed to revisit was Sicily’s Giuseppe Bonaviri, despite having already read everything I could find in English translation. France stepped into the breach, providing two French translations. The first, L’Histoire incroyable d’une crane (The Incredible Story of a Skull), is anomalous thanks to genre and setting: a science fiction work that takes place mostly in a not very accurately-imagined Boston. A cautionary parable of scientific excess, this late career novel (2006) still features Bonaviri’s grandly humanistic spirit and characteristically warm embrace of an international melding of cultures. But Bonaviri’s early work La Divine Fôret (1969) truly grabbed my attention. Like Bonaviri’s Nights on the Heights, The Divine Forest traverses the author’s more typical geographical territory: the mountains above the Catanian plain near his home town of Mineo, and involves a quest and a generous indulgence in conveying the mysterious natural phenomena of Sicily, interlaced with numerous references to the successive waves of peoples and cultures that have crisscrossed the island. Yet the novel also borrows several pages from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which appeared just four years before, by recounting the journey of a particle from the Big Bang to a steep ravine in the mountains of eastern Sicily. Here, through successive transformations unfolding over millions of years, the particle passes through mineral, vegetable and animal states, and the consequent dizzying exploration of Sicily from its rugged soil to the highest reaches of its atmosphere makes The Divine Forest the most charming of the Bonaviri works I’ve read to date.

The Communist (Il Comunista), by Guido Morselli (Frederika Randall, translator): Another Italian I’d discovered and longed to explore further was Guido Morselli, whose short novel Divertimento1889 had proved an instant favorite. Morselli is a remarkable, deceptive writer. The Communist, for example, translated into English for the first time by Frederika Randall last year (bringing to three the number of the author’s seven novels available in English translation), has met with some lukewarm reviews in the Anglophone press. Some reviewers appear frustrated by Morselli’s slightly quizzical deviations from what in most respects appears to be a straightforward realist novel. Such deceptiveness, however, marks all three of the novels now I’ve read by Morselli, among the most innovative, deliberately literary and subtle of modern Italian authors. The Communist represents a bold and at first glance somewhat unappealing idea for a novel: a serious examination of a person’s struggle with ideology but told with an insider’s understanding of the ideology and its realpolitik workings. I have learned more about the structure and struggles of the Italian Communist Party than I ever thought I’d want to know. But Morselli never makes his subject dry or loses sight of its significance; after Russia and China, Italy had, in the post-WWII years, the largest and most important communist party in the world. At the same time that Morselli dissects the party in ways that might be of particular interest to Italians familiar with its history, he elevates The Communist into the genre of other powerful depictions of an individual’s confrontation with an ideological system. In addition, rather unexpectedly, The Communist juxtaposes the devoted efforts of Italy’s communists (and of the Soviet Union, for that matter) with the abstraction, alienation and isolation of the U.S., since Morselli’s main character, a party legislator from Emilia-Romagna named Walter Ferrarini, has in his past spent over a decade in the U.S., where he married an America grocery store heiress, a frayed relationship that will come back to demand his attention. Belonging in part to a niche of Italian literature that explores Italians’ relationship with the promise of America, The Communist struck me as far more fascinating and perceptive than, for example, Cesare Pavese’s more famous The Moon and the Bonfires. At times Morselli’s insightfulness and tone with regard to American culture approach those of Nabokov’s famous “travelogue” through the vacant landscapes of America in Lolita. What the tepid critics seem most to miss is Morselli’s subtle but often great wit. Niggling, untidy events of Walter Ferranini’s personal life tug constantly and seriocomically at the loose threads of that ideology he believes to serve as a pattern for the world’s future, causing a slow personal unraveling. Morselli also humorously questions his own literary enterprise, as in a scene in which Walter tries to get Alberto Moravia to publish an article. I know of few other fiction writers who take so seriously the personal struggles that create history, and fewer who can simultaneously convey those battles with such purpose, tenderness and sly humor.

Past Conditional (Contro-passato prossimo), by Guido Morselli (translated by Hugh Shankland): I’m clearly taken with Guido Morselli, as both novels I read by him in 2017 make this list. Morselli’s “alternate history,” Past Conditional, daringly re-envisions World War I. Using an abandoned mine, the Austrians pierce a secret rail tunnel through the Alps into Italy and quickly secure the country, leading to rapid German domination of the continent. This is not, however, a novel aimed at cheap theatrics like some “What if…?” scenario one might find on The History Channel. Simultaneously an engrossing adventure story and a serious wrestling with history as fact and field, Past Conditional posits a startling theory: that German victory in WWI might well have prevented WWII and led to a unified Europe spared the terrible extremism it went on to suffer. Despite Morselli’s occasionally grim war-time material, his humor is again what wins here; the fates he assigns to William Churchill and Adolf Hitler, for example, are particularly amusing, as is an inter-chapter in which the author painstakingly (and unreliably) tries to explain to his publisher his aims in writing the book. The protagonist of Past Conditional is an Austrian officer and painter suggestive named Walter von Allmen and who conceives of the tunnel. But it is another Walter, drawn from actual history, the unlikely German-Jewish statesman Walter Rathenau, who serves as the implied hero of Past Conditional, in which he is elevated, through a series of political convulsions, to Chancellor of Germany. Morselli’s evident idolization of Rathenau – the author wrote a rejected monograph about him – may well explain Morselli’s choice to use “Walter” as first name for most of his novels’ protagonists. Past Conditional appears to predict, among other things, the political fractures that have led to Brexit, and the importance Morselli places on a unified Europe, as though anticipating today’s rancorous debates, is a paramount thematic element. But for all its conceptual experimentation, the novel is surprisingly tender and humanistic.

Blood Dark (Le Sang-Noir), by Louis Guilloux (translated by Laura Marris): With no conscious intention on my part, I read several works in 2017 focused on World War I, perhaps due to an instinctual awareness of the war’s centennial. Does anyone else find it odd and even troubling that so little attention seems to be being paid to this anniversary? I’d never heard of Louis Guilloux, but Blood Dark fairly leapt off the shelf at me. After reading about the author, I initially put the novel aside while first taking on his Okay, Joe, a hybrid fiction/non-fiction account of his service as translator for U.S. forces in Bretagne in 1917 in court martial cases that resulted in some 170 executions of American soldiers, all but two of them Black. It is astounding that this story isn’t better known in the U.S., or that Guilloux’s powerful little book isn’t taught in American classrooms as a classic on U.S. racism. Blood Dark, while set in the same time and place, is of an entirely different caliber, again modeled on actual events in that his portrait of Charles Merlin, or “Cripure” in the novel, so nicknamed by his students as a mocking condensation of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” is partly based on Guilloux’s teacher Georges Palante, a philosopher renowned across Europe who elected nonetheless to devote himself to teaching high school. The narrowness of the novel’s temporal and geographical setting – it unfolds over a single day in 1917 in the town of Saint Brieuc in Bretagne - is inversely proportional to the great breadth of the work’s themes. A depiction of a man both embittered by life and steadfast in his defense of civilization and intellectualism despite a war ripping everything to pieces, Blood Dark presents an engrossing, eviscerating depiction of small town, bourgeois manners and mentality; a condemnation of war as scathing and indignant as anything by the War Poets; a rare glimpse into overlooked historical aspects of the war, such as the revolt of young French soldiers against an older generation sending them to die; and a devastating portrait of intellect facing age and death. The republication of this exceptional novel in a fresh English translation should count as among the literary events of the year. As some reviewers have noted, Blood Dark stands as a more humanistic companion to Céline’s Journey to the End of Night.

Benighted, by J. B. Priestly: What a thrill to discover J.B. Priestley’s Benighted and to find that it has been republished for the first time in 50 years! This title of this 1927 novel may thus be unfamiliar, but many will know the film based upon it: James Whale’s The Old Dark House. Priestley’s original story, concerning five travelers forced by a storm to spend the night in a rural Welsh house occupied by an exceedingly odd family harboring dark secrets, did not disappoint. Priestley employs an unusual use of stagecraft to construct his scenes as well as a peripatetic use of free indirect discourse, which Priestley wields like a flashlight to illuminate the inside of his characters’ heads. Priestly is thus able to flesh out his starkly memorable characters in ways the film, for all its delights, cannot. Benighted also fell within my unpremeditated focus on World War I, as Priestly amplifies the post-World War I atmosphere and themes suggested in the film. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Benighted manages to avoid much direct reference to the war while still conveying the magnitude of its impact on a whole generation.

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes: Only two years removed from Benighted but at least ostensibly far more removed from the war, Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica is a book I’ve longed to read since university after a classmate skipped a regular event he’d never missed just so he could finish reading it. Hughes’ novel - the story of the abduction of children by pirates, creating a not-so-natural version of the “forbidden experiment” of exploring what occurs in child development more or less free from parental involvement, and immersing one in the emotional lives of the young characters – must certainly rank among the pinnacles of the English novel in the 20th century: daring in concept, exquisite in language, imaginative and lyrical, a moving, thrilling and thoroughly unsparing evocation of the wildness of childhood and of the strangeness and ferocity of the world. This one I’ll be reading again.

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin: Jemisin’s novel, the first of a trilogy, kept me up reading all night (thanks to Dorian of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog for the recommendation). Jemisin has won high praise as well as the Hugo award and a Nebula nomination for this sci-fi epic concerning The Stillness, a vast continent plagued by earthquakes strong enough to produce a “season,” an extended period of hundreds of years of terrible deprivations, climactic change and tests of species survival among the continent’s diverse inhabitants. The story centers around Jemisin’s chief character, Essun, a mother who in the disturbing opening scene discovers her young son beaten to death. The trilogy follows her pursuit across The Stillness to find the killer - her own husband - and, more importantly, her missing daughter. Essun is an “Orogene,” one of a class of people deemed essential for their psychic ability to calm or redirect the tremors that plague The Stillness, yet also feared and denigrated as “Roggas” for the way in which this power can set off quakes and cause other harm. Nemisin turns the Orogenes’ skill into a brilliant metaphor for exploring the mechanisms of social oppression. I’ve never quite read anything like this set of books, in which points of contiguity with our own world are often those in which the reader can recognize elements of the emotional costs of navigating oppression, in particular but hardly limited to that experienced by African-Americans. There is nothing especially explicit about race in the novels, but rather a veiled suggestiveness woven throughout the trilogy, including via Jemisin’s use of allusive terminology and even anagrams. But Jemisin’s aim is not to offer a parable or simple parallel universe; her endlessly capacious imagination takes the reader through one highly original conceit after another, with occasional signifiers dropped in to reorient the reader to the real-world relevance of this remarkable work.

A Cup of Rage (Um copa de cólera), by Raduan Nassar (translated by Stefan Tobler): An older man, retired from political life, and his young mistress, a journalist, spend the night at the man’s country estate. A momentary explosion of rage at a servant’s oversight rips a gaping hole in the fabric of the couple’s liaison, and unsaid, pent-up tensions underlying their sexual passion erupt in furious recriminations and accusations. One quickly realizes that the first-person narrative in this 1978 novella by Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar has brought the reader inside the head of a monster, making for a highly discomfiting reading experience. However, the battle of words, wits and nerves stemming from the explosion is a masterpiece of fiercely dynamic and extreme concentration, the psychological equivalent of witnessing the unfolding of intracellular processes in vivo. In scarcely 60 pages, Nassar uncovers a whole network of social tensions, between one generation and another, men and women, masters and servants, an open society and the fascistic elements determined to stomp it out - a stunning condensation of the violent social dynamics of Brazil, and a dazzling introduction to a writer about whom I’d heard nothing. This his first work translated into English.

The House of Life, by Mario Praz (translated by Angus Davidson): What is Mario Praz’s non-fiction book The House of Life doing on this list? I have no burning desire to inflict it upon other readers, and I can guarantee it won’t be to many people’s taste. But The House of Life certainly was one singular reading experience. The book’s rather pretentious premise - a room-by-room guided tour of Praz’s private collections within his Roman palazzo - is quite nearly a literal invitation to come up and see his etchings. This does not, on the surface, sound promising. Cyril Connelly called it among the dullest books he’d ever read, "a bravura of boredom, an audacity of ennui that makes one hardly believe one's eyes." Indeed, it seems the kind of thing that only a dealer in antique furniture, clocks, decorative paintings, bric-a-brac, etc. from across Europe might find fascinating. Unexpectedly, however, so did I. Into Praz’s seemingly never-ending catalogue of objects, he weaves stories associated with or associations set off by them, and one never quite knows where he’s going to go, whether recalling an assignation, quoting Eugenio Montale on Italo Svevo or delving into some fascinating, hidden corner of history. The book itself, with several fold-out color photographs of the rooms, is beautiful. I learned a hell of a lot about European culture and more about interior decorating than I ever expected to know, from a writer widely regarded as one of the great critics of the subject. In the end, The House of Life becomes a strangely hypnotizing meditation on materiality, on beauty, on why objects matter to us and why they seem to matter so much, particularly given Praz’s observation that “with human beings, things do not go so smoothly.”

The Abyss, by Marguerite Yourcenar (translated by Grace Frick and Marguerite Yourcenar): Embarking on a long book by Yourcenar is no small undertaking; her erudition is awe-inspiring. The Abyss (Le Livre au Noire in the original French) is no exception. Its nearly 400 pages range temporally over much of the 16th century and geographically across Europe and far beyond its borders. With breathtakingly beautiful prose, Yourcenar has created an unusual historical novel, one in which her main character, Zeno of Bruges, is an Archimboldean composite of several 16th century figures, most notably the philosopher Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for refusing to recant his beliefs. Engineer, alchemist, physician and philosopher, Zeno keeps on the run from ecclesiastical and governmental authorities keen on suppressing his free-thinking, his travels unfurling Yourcenar’s splendid and intricate tapestry of the 16th century’s schisms, revolts and advances, and at the same time a riveting exploration of the mechanisms of human knowledge and the conscience of the age.

Collected Essays, by James Baldwin (Library of America): I picked this volume up early last year and have picked it up again and again ever since, reading in it wherever the book fell open. I have long revered Baldwin’s fiction, but these essays, by one of the most insightful thinkers about the “complex fate” of being an American, make for essential reading across subjects ranging from a the responsibility of the writer to a portrait of Harlem to American religion to the life of Black American entertainers in Paris to literary criticism (I will never look at William Faulkner the same way again). Baldwin’s insights into the seeming intractability of whites in America to understand the racial divide they have created are delivered with anger, disbelief, scorn, pity, generosity and humility but above all, a steady insistence that Americans dare to look at and recognize one another as human beings – or face “the fire next time.”

Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmund Rostand (Anthony Burgess, translator): Finally, I cannot leave off of such a list Anthony Burgess’ brilliant translation of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a constant companion this year, a talisman even, if not outright antidote, to the daily inanities of a darkening world seemingly intent on the destruction of language. Cyrano stands an affirmation of intelligence, wit and the glorious power of words, the embodiment of the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword (although Cyrano wields his sword pretty deftly too). While the play is a wonder in the original French, Burgess has provided an almost equally razor-sharp and deeply satisfying English version.

Thanks to all of you who stopped by seraillon in 2017 despite the long silence. I’ll have an announcement soon about an out-of-print work I’ve championed on this site that is about to hit the shelves in a new English translation, and I expect also to share a little literary and culinary inspiration from Giuseppe Bonaviri quite soon.