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