Sunday, November 10, 2019

"A game of light: elusive, vague and improbable" - Piero Chiara's The Bishop's Bedroom

Vllla Castelli, Lago Maggiore, thought to be the model for Villa Cleofe in The Bishop's Bedroom

My third outing with Piero Chiara (1913-1986) dropped into my lap via an unsolicited advance copy from New Vessel Press, which arrived just as I'd been bemoaning the scarcity of English translations of this exceptional Italian writer. While Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed may forever remain the great novel of the Italian lake country, Chiara has, in The Bishop’s Bedroom (La Stanza del vescovo, 1976), almost certainly produced the great novel specific to Lake Maggiore, on the shores of which the author grew up. 

The year is 1946. Amid the ripples of recently concluded war, an unnamed narrator, home after spending two years in a Swiss labor camp, idles about the lake on a small sea-going yacht, putting into port for food, drink and girlfriends. A chance meeting draws him into the world of one Signor Orimbelli, himself back from ten years passed chiefly amid the tatters of Italy’s failed Ethiopia campaign. The pull for the narrator is a certain fascination for this pudgy, well-dressed, 40-ish gentleman, who, despite a glibness with personal history, remains impenetrably opaque. Partially in exchange for allowing Orimbelli to accompany him on his journeys around the lake, the narrator is provided lodging in the villa owned by Orimbelli’s wife, Signora Cleofe, specifically in the “bishop’s bedroom,” a kind of ecclesiastical cabinet of curiosities once inhabited by the signora’s deceased uncle, a papal bishop. Also living in the villa is the attractive young Matilde, left essentially widowed by the disappearance of her husband, Signora Cleofe’s brother, in Ethiopia 10 years before.  

As might be evident already, Chiara’s novel features a lot of lost time and lengthy distances between his characters, setting the stage for vacuums to be filled. As Orimbelli draws the narrator closer during their dinners at the villa and trips around the lake, primarily to pick up women, the narrator begins to piece together bits of his host’s story. But the pace is as leisurely as the boat’s tours about the lake, providing no clear notion of where the situation might be heading. 

In fact,  Chiara might have contentedly sailed his away around his entire novel and still left us a pleasing and intensely atmospheric travelogue of Lake Maggiore, its shoreline towns and islands and inlets, natural and human history, tales of its shipwrecks, abandoned castles and churches “perhaps full of skeletons,” details of the customs controls in the lake’s small Swiss arm, of markets selling discards from the departed American military. Featuring prominently are the many winds that blow across the waters: the TramontanaInvernaMontina, the rare Munscendrin, as well as “those mysterious breezes that come from who knows where, sudden small flurries that dimple a short stretch of the lake and then disappear, only to reappear a little later from another direction, like sprites or jesters,” which the skilled narrator catches by tying small strips of gauze and birds’ feathers to the rigging with silk string. The Bishop’s Bedroom might well have stood on its own as a terrific work about sailing,

Still from Dino Risi's 1977 film adaptation of La Stanza del vescovo

But three-quarters of the way through the work, Chiara goes giallo. Subtle, careful touches - the frequent presence of shadow and shade whenever the narrator finds himself with Orimbelli and frissons of local rumor about the latter’s louche past - have built up a malignant tension which suddenly gives way in dramatic fashion: Signora Cleofe is found drowned in front of the villa. A ruling of suicide clears a too convenient path for Orimbelli to marry the young Matilde, recently free to remarry given that her husband’s disappearance has, during the course of the narrator’s stay, attained the ten-year statute of limitations required under law.

It may seem as though I’m about to give away the whole cannoli here. But Chiara gives the impression of having sailed into the mystery realm almost on a whim, tying elements of the genre onto his narrative rigging to catch whatever light puffs might aid his story’s propulsion. His concern for plot seems relegated to the simple importance of making sure its well-structured frame functions to hold his other interests, which include the depiction of psychological tension, family relations and their perturbation by outsiders, the subtle dynamics of power, the games of shadow and light that go on between strangers who meet.

More specifically, Chiara depicts the fraught territory of such encounters following the devastations of war, the psychological geography of the immediate post-war period:  “That long, unbroken rest discharged soldiers seemed to long for as balm for their hidden injuries – a welcome daze, within which to conceal themselves for the rest of the lives.” In the microcosm of relations between these two men, one finds echoes of the macrocosm of reconciliation (or its absence) between those perhaps on opposite sides of the conflict, or more accurately, of divergent moral sense and sensibility. The jockeying for position that goes on between the two thrusts the narrator into a furtive dialectic with Orimbelli’s hidden motives that forces a questioning of the aimlessness and torpor into which the war has deposited so many. Where will the world go after the terrible convulsions it’s just gone through? What has this cataclysm done to social relations? How will people reconstruct their lives, much less a society? The entwining of mistrust and curiosity forces the narrator to measure the ways in which he himself has been changed:

I knew it wasn’t easy for him – or me, for that matter – to be any other way , or to be better. In recent years we’d seen the world overturned. Between combat and prison, escapes and rescues, it had changed in our hands, without giving us time to understand the simple truth, which was that, having been present at these events and taken part in them - sometimes against our will - we had been enriched rather than damaged. We were convinced, instead, that we’d been robbed of our best years, and when the war was over we wanted to reinvent our youth.

I’ll not spoil where these ruminations lead, or the direction this gem of late 20thcentury Italian literature takes following the signora’s death, but suffice to say that the past returns like a ghost to upend the present, alter the future and impact “an adolescence not even the war had managed to cast off.” Taking an indirect approach to the thriller genre, Chiara has created a softly seductive narrative filled with nearly as many subtle mysteries as a gothic novel: the true nature of Orimbelli, of the relationships going on at Villa Cleofe, of the events that may have transpired in Ethiopia, of the bizarre “bishop’s bedroom” with its locked trunk bearing Orimbelli's initials, and of course of the narrator’s own dissipation and inertia. 

I’ll also note that while Chiara keeps a weather eye open to larger existential questions as well as to his country’s failings, the underlying seriousness of these concerns benefits from a gentle touch; in between the novel’s several literal and figurative squalls, the tone turns as light as some of the lake’s breezes. The narrative also sparkles with a bemused, ironic and piquant humor not unlike that of Chiara’s Lombard compatriot Giovannino Guareschi, author of the satirical Don Camillo stories, and which is most often directed at the small-minded, the corrupt and the pompous. If Signora Cleofe’s family name, Berlusconi, raises an eyebrow for the reader, it may well be more than coincidental, even given that Silvio Berlusconi had not yet entered politics at the time the book was written. But the young Berlusconi’s crass reshaping of Milan’s real estate landscape would surely have caught Chiara’s attention given his time spent in Milan. That Chiara identifies one member of his fictional Berlusconi family as “one of Milan’s most eligible bachelors” and represents him as physically emasculated seems precisely the kind of prankish nose-thumbing displayed in each of the works I’ve read by the author, as well as, apparently, beyond his writing. While employed as a clerk in the Special Fascist Tribunal in Varese in 1943, Chiara had been forced to flee, like his narrator in The Bishop’s Bedroom, into exile in Switzerland until the war’s end. His terrible crime? Sticking a plaster bust of Mussolini into a box of case files awaiting prosecution. 

The Bishop’s Bedroom, translated by Jill Foulston, is published by New Vessel Press.  

 Piero Chiara

Friday, June 21, 2019

"A bizarre plant, solitary and covered in bristles" - Borage, Bonaviri and a Recipe

Borage, from the Voynich Manuscript, 15th century

This will be a peculiar post for this site, but for a while I’ve been wanting to relate a literary something about borage, that most peculiar plant, about which I have developed my own peculiar obsession. A couple of years ago, I’d been immersed in Giuseppe Bonaviri’s 1969 novel La Divina Foresta (The Divine Forest), which features a chapter related to the plant, when, by sheer coincidence, European visitors pointed out some borage growing wild in San Francisco. They spoke of its various uses in France and Italy: in making medicinal tea from its leaves, a refreshing wine from its flowers, a ravioli from both. The next day, I spotted the plant’s distinctive star-like blue flowers in an “edible bouquet” being sold at a farmer’s market and inquired about the possibility of acquiring more borage, which resulted in a wonderful person showing up at my door a few days later with a great, beautiful plant, which I stuck in vase. For a full eight days the borage produced scores of new flowers each day, which I culled to make vin de borrache, and also picked the leaves to make a borage pesto for a pasta recipe I’ve included at the end of this post. 

But first, a little more about Bonaviri’s The Divine Forest, followed by some amateur translations of excerpts from the third chapter of the novel. Fair warning: these translated passages are my own, based not on the original Italian, but on a 1975 French translation by E. E. Torrignani. I only hope to give a flavor of the work; the translations are for non-commercial, educational purposes only.

Like most of Bonaviri’s works, The Divine Forest is emphatically and profoundly Sicilian, but it also borrows from Primo Levi’s chapter in The Periodic Table detailing the story of a carbon atom’s eternal journey and frolics in the same space as Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. The first two chapters of the novel might have been grafted from one of Calvino’s tales: they are told from the point of view of a particle floating in space, beginning at what is presumably the birth of the universe. As becomes quickly clear to the reader, the action of The Divine Forest spans billions of years. In the second chapter the unnamed particle-narrator experiences an elective affinity with another particle, Grumina, and the two find themselves pulled by gravity to one of the coalescing spheres of fire in the process of cooling and hardening into planets. The narrator and Grumina split apart upon landing on this new planet’s surface, along the slope of a ravine in what will one day come to be known as the Camuti mountains near Bonaviri’s hometown of Mineo, Sicily – the center of the author’s literary universe – and the narrator soon finds himself[1]undergoing a new and unexpected transformation. 


I came to as a borage plant, my will having had no say in the matter. 
It just happened.
I shoved up through sharp, black outcrops on which the first lichens had already begun their assault. I devoted my full attention to cultivating those moods most propitious for swelling, to just the right limit, certain burgeons that, according me no respite, were already pushing out along my now bristle-covered flesh. I longed to know something about how I’d managed to pass from one inception to another, some understanding of this new sphere of my existence, but it was impossible to make sense of the past given my complete engagement with my new and urgent tasks. 
One day, while a profound calm extended over everything, I heard someone calling.       
“Senapo! Senapo!”
I didn’t turn around, as I had of course no reason to think the call had anything to do with me. I remained bent over my new blossoms, counting them even – one, two, three, four, etc. – conducting a fairly serious calculation of myself, when I heard the same voice call again. 
“Senapo! Senapo!”
Looking over to the point from which the sound seemed to be emanating, I saw the rocks entirely carpeted by an overwhelming infinity of little plants and bushes, among which scattered flowers, alone or in bouquets, had spread out – I kid you not -  over the whole vast expanse reaching all the way to the gorge from which poured forth the torrent’s waters, replenished and multiplied.
Perplexed, I asked myself, “Who could be calling me?” 
Nearby stood a plant of the type I would soon come to know as a lily of the valley, and which leaned towards me, carefully presenting its corolla. 
“What is it you want?” I asked.
“Hey! Senapo, hey! Senapo!” it called once again.
This was a joyous call without the least variation in tone, and only afterwards did I discover that this tentative effort at conversation had not stemmed from some amorous inclination, but found its inspiration simply in the pleasure, senseless or stupid perhaps, of feeling alive.
“I’m Fiordimaggio, you know.”
I felt a bit put out, being little disposed to conversation due to all the inner work I’d been giving my blossoms, so I responded, “Sure, sure.” 
In fact, I looked rather disapprovingly over the irregular patchwork of plants and flowers that for the most part were sprouting from the mountain before me, henceforth to be called Mineo. Perhaps I was being eaten up by an excessive and destructive pride in feeling myself surrounded by this teeming swarm of inferior forms, multiplying and diminishing in succession, and of which I was, after all, but a simple variant. 
But whatever the case, I made do. We were alright down there. We started to get to know one another, in a discreet manner, of course. We chatted a bit, mimicked one another as the occasion allowed or exchanged observations about things that had happened during the day. I mostly kept to myself, at all times a bit aloof, perhaps due to my vice of thinking. 
Of course, we did not speak in the way one commonly conceives of speaking, I mean to say the way you do it. We communicated in another, certainly more primitive manner, perhaps owing to the narrowness of the space we occupied. Our dialogues consisted of nothing but vague babblings or changing displays of simple colors that only a practiced eye could decipher with any precision.

The tide of little plants remained unchanging, awash in the light, overwhelming to look at, traversed by murmurings and little buffetings of one stem against another, all caught up in a joyous vibration of leaves and nothing else, as though some self-contained world composed of an immutable substance of color and mood was stretching itself.

[Time passes; the plants survive a terrible heatwave that dries up the plants and ruptures their sense of community, leading the narrator to experience the first fear of a cataclysm that could end the world. The wind arrives, creating swirls of pollen.]

…a new chapter began for us. There where we had stood, other plants came up, though apparently we were still ourselves, only multiplied in many ways, despite the exhausting and painful ravages we had been through. During these transformations, I continued to recognize myself easily: I was me, with my leaves, my buds, my stamens, etc., without much alteration.
At the same time, one had to admit that something had changed in the way we felt, as though in that society an elementary form of consciousness had begun to develop. 

Now there appeared the first bees and butterflies, and the first flying beetles with their chitinous shells. For me, just before my “borage” phase ended, this was the most beautiful of times. 
Everywhere was movement, not just empty air resonating with the blowing wind.

I especially loved certain solitary bees who, in whizzing about, frightened the butterflies. These would move away in enigmatic flights like piteous winged bugs.

Absorbed in these games, I forgot about my own problems – was I not in the midst of a decline in my basic material state? – and little by little these bees no longer appeared to me like tiny little pinpoints, very far away and lost in the air, but like curious beings whom I’d have liked to get to know.
And in fact, one day, a bee (whom I called Irrumina), weary of the solar dust and the comings-and-goings in the valley of Fiumecaldo, alighted on me. 
Establishing an amical relationship was no easy thing, because as you know I was spiny and urticant, and Irrumina was obliged to push aside one leaf after another before being able to attain the violet well of one of my flowers. 
I felt that a new frontier had been crossed. Around me there were no longer just plants and flowers, among whom my own daily regeneration operated along more or less equivalent equations; I now sensed a hitherto unknown zone being activated.
To me at that time an object was an object, consisting of a mass of color from which luminous rays emanated, always in the same way; these reflected onto me through upper, lower and central zones such that I could apprehend them in their entirety. Thanks to the motionlessness of plants, this had been easy. But now that bees and other insects had appeared on the scene, I perceived that their radiant vibrations spread around me in a very soft and concentric manner, like circles of waves. I thus turned from my common occupations with other plants, and I can’t deny that I amused myself with this ample oscillation of waves that gently tickled me and lulled me into a pleasant sleep. 
“Well,” I thought to myself, “This is new.” Winged creatures, as everyone knows, move about ceaselessly, and their displacements from one point to another created bands of light and dark. My leaves became quite invested in this medley of varying colors.
Simultaneously, my astonishment grew as my field of vision became null - that is to say, empty space. 
Within the limitations consigned me by my nature, I attempted to engage with these quite distinct fringes which, to put it another way, were nothing but the result of the beating wings of the butterflies and other flying insects and the traces of their sinuous flights. 
Out of this surfeit – but didn’t I already mention this? – I felt drawn to concentrate my attention on Irrumina, whom I perceived as the source of a most lively and penetrating light, and who from time to time wheeled around me. 
One morning, after having buzzed about, she entered into my hole – what better way could I put it? – where she danced about, probed me within and sucked at me to the point of giving me a singular pleasure of the sort that only a sweet, illusory adventure could engender. 
That first time, I think that she fertilized me.
As soon as she flew off, disappearing from my view, there remained with me a sort of astonishment, and it’s from that moment, I believe, that I’ve come to see the necessity of knowing the world in another way, by accepting colors, lines and tones as repeating variants of ourselves.
Our relations continued.
I learned to recognize Irrumina, even from a long way off, from the particular way she had of furrowing the air; to be more specific, rather than descend by tracing little spirals, she swept down upon me a quite joyous vibration of her antennae, and, after having established a kind of parallelogram of her forces, she entered me, filled her wings and her little body with pollen, then rooted about within my flower. 
What was this sensation I experienced? I wouldn’t know how to express it. I remained astonished, and at that moment ceased to be conscious of the sun, the torrent, even of the butterflies.
This was an extremely pleasurable encounter that the passage of time has done nothing to erase or diminish. 
One time Irrumina even fell asleep inside me, tuckered out perhaps from all of the constant trouble she took over me, and rested stretched out in my innermost parts, her wings folded by her sides. I rocked her gently, anxious all the while that the parietaria, the valerians, the nettles, etc., were spying on us – whether perplexed or horrified, I don’t know. Meanwhile, evening had fallen, and the darkness, extending over everything, was invaded by a wave of clarity.
Irrumina awoke and asked, “Senapo, what’s going on?”
I told her that I’d enclosed her inside my flower, embracing some elementary rapport with life, and my friend replied that she’d like to stay with me, where no one would ever think to look for her, since borage was a bizarre plant, solitary and covered in bristles.

Unfortunately, I soon realized that Irrumina knew nothing other than how to fly and love, knew no means to try another adventure, nor even how to alter her ways over time.

During the night, while the bushes, plants, and even the frogs were resting, abandoned to their deep sleep, I followed their thoughts. What I mean to say is that I tried to make the case that each living thing, rather than going through a banal death, must perish according to its own law of metamorphosis. How could I possibly convey this to my friend, who knew nothing but brief flights and buzzing?
For this reason I felt contemptuous towards the idiocy of preferring the ephemeral to the truth that I was pursuing – later, quite a bit later, I would come to view everything as false or vain. 
I had decided to destroy myself in silence, without drawing attention to those I could have called my neighbors, who, seeing my state, might have tried to console me.
There would be no point in that, I muttered.
I wanted at all costs to end my time in order to take on a new nature. 
I could not bring myself to accept that everything could simply be reduced to these reflections of light, these particles activated by very compact movements and to this vacuous dialogue with the shrubs, the bees, the waterfall, the boulders and the tumult of the wind.
“I’m going to do it,” I told myself.
I began by drawing in my leaves more, such that the wind struck them with less force and that no gas exchange could occur; by this method I was able to reduce my exterior body by half. This was by no means easy, and I could not control the form that I would assume as a result. I required very numerous hours to secretly prepare these traps - studied in minute detail - against myself.

 “Be strong,” I whispered to myself.
This made for a quite difficult enterprise, as it meant retracting my roots from the particles of earth, which I could not do other than with an extreme slowness, a good deal of pain and a corruption of my soul. 
I proceeded as follows: as soon as the moisture tried to give me drink, I would render a filament of root impermeable and twist it in a direction contrary to that of the little vein of water. This caused me great suffering, a mortal sickness. At times I became discouraged and thought that my efforts would go nowhere. My lymphatic vessels retracted, then ended up becoming blocked by a gelatinous material. I becalmed myself and concentrated all of my forces, always increasingly oblivious to the thousand appearances of reality and to the vast expanse of plants tortured by the heat.
I believed that the intensity of the air would diminish and soften from day to day, but clearly my senses had deceived me, as I began to be liberated from the burdens of my body. Whatever else was happening, my tumescence was weakening minute by minute. In sum, I’d discovered the right path.

Deep down, I had succeeded in isolating myself from the earth by secreting certain viscous liquids, and managed in this way to reduce myself, not without great fatigue, to a brittle and somber tangle.
From time to time, from the slopes of the ravine, I’d hear someone call my name. Attentive only to my total destruction, however, I barely heard these voices.
Irrumina went away, but a little while later she returned with a fleet of companions who swarmed all around me. 
I perceived a new development in myself, that is to say of the impossibility of making sense of my chronological rhythm; it seemed to me that the flowers, the bees, the air and the heat were nothing more than phenomena emptied of all meaning.
“What’s happening to you?” I asked myself.
Now my first leaves began to drop freely, prostrating themselves on the ground or turning about ceaselessly in the ravine.
As I’ve intimated, I was neither contented nor discontented; I was simply closed up within an immutable index of luminous refractions and in a centrifugal movement of myself.
If anyone had viewed me from outside, he would have believed that I was shrinking in volume more and more, as it was true that little remained in the way of petals, spines or leafstalks. Actually, though, I felt dilated, inside a new gravitational field. Something was accelerating within me, in my very substance; perhaps this amounted to nothing more than a simple deformation of the space that I determined.
Whatever was happening, the others perceived me as reduced to a tiny semblance of dying stems and leaves.
I could no longer call to mind the humming of Irrumina, nor her flights all about me, but only sensed a thin, hued trajectory where she had passed, like a perturbation of the air in this ravine where I’d been born. At times I perceived a susurration, possibly coming from Irrumina or the others, and I could not tell whether it was a kind of music, of strange tintinnabulations, or just a droning; I remember only confused or barely perceptible sounds.
“Necmihiconsuetosamplexunutritamores…amores, Senapenecnostradulcisimauresonat…”
This was the culmination of a soft-sad-flatulent dirge that came and went, but I was too caught up in my search for an ideal structure that could upend my past and all the relations that had governed it to follow it with any attention.

Near the end, I might have been able to take advantage of a thin vein of water which had managed, I don’t know how, to trickle its way beneath me, between two fissures, but I avoided it to the ends of my utmost roots, thus rejecting forever the loveliness of the flowers that had been so much a part of me.

I was at the end, down to my last ragged roots, razed to the ground, distinguishing nothing but an abstraction of forms and, rarely, some incomprehensible voices. 
I don’t know whether, in my final tatters, I’d been carried off by some gust of wind, but I do know that for a long time I remained emptied of all thought. At the same time I believed that I was destined to become something else, maybe even just some thickening of a material, or a movement of pure air.
I continued in this state for a long time. Then, bit by bit, falteringly, I began to recognize myself and was pleased, as something was resonating within me in a new way.
“Oh! Oh, oh, oh!” I cried out.
And in this way I found myself transformed into a bird, and I began to move through a very high, very white space.

La Divine Fôret, French translation by U. E. Torrignani, 1975, éditions Denoël, Paris; excerpted and translated here for non-commercial, educational purposes only)

[1]There is obviously some question as to the narrator’s gender, though the French translation and presumably the Italian original use the gendered pronouns I have employed in the present translation. 

Borage, from the kitchen counter

Before the recipe, a warning: The verdict seems to be out on whether occasional consumption of borage products can adversely affect one’s health; to be on the safe side, pregnant or nursing women and those with liver disease should probably avoid it. Parts of borage contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be toxic to the liver and may be carcinogenic. At the same time, borage has been used for centuries to treat a variety of disorders including depression, arthritis, psoriasis, sexual dysfunction and relief of stress, and has even been used in infant formula to promote development of fatty acids in pre-term infants. Those contemplating culinary or medicinal use of borage products (includingin the recipe below) should do their own research and determine whether to consume or not. In any event, moderation seems well-advised – especially with regard to that borage wine.

Bucatini di borragine


12 ounces bucatini pasta
Fresh borage leaves – about two fistfuls of the youngest and most tender you can get off the plant.
1 small glove garlic, minced
A bit of a small dried red chile pepper, seeded and chopped
¼-1/3 cup shelled raw or roasted pistachios (pine nuts would be good too, but I chose pistachios in homage to Bonaviri, as they’re such a staple in Sicilian cooking)
A piece of country bread small enough to fit in your closed hand, with crust removed
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
~1/3 cup olive oil
Zest of one lemon (or more – I really liked the lemon flavor)
2 tablespoons fresh ricotta cheese
6 mint leaves, chopped
~10 borage flowers
Salt and pepper

Pick two fistfuls of borage leaves, discarding any that are too large/rough. Wash thoroughly in cold water and drain. Add to boiling salted water and cook for three minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as possible. You should end up with about 3-4 tablespoons of borage, all in a lump (I found that you could probably get by with two big tablespoons for the recipe, so you might reserve some for another purpose). Chop the borage roughly and put aside while preparing the other ingredients. If you like, open a bottle of dry white wine. Pour yourself a glass.

In a couple tablespoons of olive oil, briefly sauté the clove of garlic and add the chile pepper. Remove from heat and allow garlic and chile to infuse the oil.

Add to the bowl of a food processor the pistachios, the bread (torn into small pieces, soaked in water and squeezed dry), the tablespoon of breadcrumbs, the infused oil along with the garlic & chile, a half-teaspoon or more of salt depending upon taste, the drained, chopped borage leaves and the rest of the olive oil (about a quarter cup or so, which you can add slowly while mixing the ingredients in the food processor). The result should be not too homogenous, and not too liquid-y. You should end up with a paste of about one half to two-thirds cup of borage pesto.

Cook bucatini as directed on package until al dente. Drain (reserving at least one cup of the pasta water), then serve in bowls, adding some pasta water to moisten. Quickly, add a good dollop of the pesto on top of the hot pasta, and on top of that, put a tablespoon of fresh ricotta cheese, then on top of that the zest of the lemon, on top of that the mint, and finally a few lovely borage flowers sprinkled about.

Buccatini di borragine

Vin de borrache (Borage wine), in preparation

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Lost World: The Work of Marianne North

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

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

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

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

Bay of Rio de Janeiro

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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

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

Milan (photographer unknown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giorgio Scerbanenco