CategoryItalian

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.

Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.

My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.

The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…

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A Peirene Press round-up

Claudio Morandini, Snow, Dog, Foot (2015)
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

Peirene’s series theme for 2019-20 is ‘Closed Universe’, and this first title takes us into the troubled mind of one old man living in the Alps.

Adelmo Farandola (always referred to by his full name) spends the winter up in the mountains away from people, and the summer even further up in the mountains. When we meet him, he goes down to the village to stock up on supplies for the winter. The shopkeeper is surprised to see him because (she says) he visited only last week. Adelmo has no memory of that.

For most of Morandini’s novel, it’s just Adelmo, his dog, and the young ranger who goes by from time to time. Adelmo is snowed in for months, then has to decide what to do when he sees a foot poking out of the snow.

What makes Snow, Dog, Foot so compelling is the ambiguity running through it. Reality is fluid for Adelmo, so there’s no fanfare when (for example) the dog starts talking to him, because that’s just the way things are. Adelmo has complete trust in his senses, which means we have constant mistrust. The book grows ever more poignant as the layers of perception peel away and we understand what’s happening.

Emmanuelle Pagano, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (2012)
Translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis (2019)

Part of Peirene’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series, this is a collection of linked stories set in rural France. These are vivid tales of character: the hitchhiker who stands in drivers’ blind spots. The old man near the holiday rental who’ll tell stories of the local area to anyone who will listen. The father remembering his daughter’s childhood through an old jigsaw puzzle.

Characters and images recur, not least the roads that link up places but also lead away from them. The repeating references to individuals and events serve to remind how small a community can be. But the details of the stories reveal how even familiar faces may be unknown or forgotten.

Birgit Vanderbeke, You Would Have Missed Me (2016)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2019)

Another title from the ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Vanderbeke draws on her own childhood for this tale of an East German refugee trying to settle into West German society in the 1960s.⁣

I particularly like the childlike tone of the narration: the hurried gabble of this happened and then that and this and you know what else, as though the narrator wants to tell us everything.⁣

The Measure of a Man – Marco Malvaldi: a European Literature Network review

On the table today, an Italian novel: The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi (translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor). If you like the idea of a Renaissance murder mystery featuring Leonardo da Vinci, with added political intrigue and a few sly nods at the present day… you’ll want this book in your life.

Click here to read my review of The Measure of a Man for European Literature Network.

Book details

The Measure of a Man (2018) by Marco Malvaldi, tr. Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor (2019), Europa Editions, 272 pages, paperback.

Voices in the Evening – Natalia Ginzburg (#WITMonth)

After a few contemporary books for Women in Translation Month, today I’m looking at something a little older, from 1961. Voices in the Evening is one of three (so far) works by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg (1916-91) that have been reissued by Daunt Books. It tells of a town’s inhabitants in the years after World War Two, in particular 27-year-old Elsa (whose mother desperately wishes to see her marry) and the De Francisci family, who own the local cloth factory.

What stays in my mind the most about Voices in the Evening is the dialogue. It starts off innocuously enough: Elsa and her mother are returning from the doctor’s, and the conversation is distinctly one-sided:

‘One can see that there is a party somewhere,’ [Elsa’s mother] added, ‘at the Terenzis’ very likely. Everyone who goes has to take something. Nowadays many people do that.’

She said, ‘But they don’t invite you, do they?’

‘They don’t invite you,’ she said, ‘because they think that you give yourself airs.…’

(translation by D.M. Low)

But, as the novel progresses, its conversations become increasingly barbed, until we have characters literally talking themselves out of their relationships:

‘Formerly,’ he said, ‘I told you everything that came into my head. Not any more, now. Now I have lost the wish to tell you things. What I think about now, I tell a little of it to myself, and then I bury it. I send it underground. Then, little by little, I shall not tell things any more even to myself. I shall drive everything underground, every random thought, before it can take shape.’

Overall, it’s as though Ginzburg is exploring the effects of the war on people’s lives at the level of dialogue, more so than the level of event. Reading Voices in the Evening is like eavesdropping on a community that’s been worn down by everything it has been through.

Book details

Voices in the Evening (1961) by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M Low (1963), Daunt Books Publishing, 157 pages, paperback.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia

Sometimes only a sharp burst of crime fiction will do. Pushkin Press have just launched a new imprint for 20th-centurycrime in translation, Pushkin Vertigo. I tried one of their first titles, Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia.

The respected lawyer Esengrini, confides in Commissario Sciancalepre, that his wife Giulia – 22 years his junior – has vanished. Sciancalepre investigates, following up a lead suggesting that Giulia may have been seeing another man – but it comes to nothing; and several years go by, with progress on the case piecemeal at best.

Despite the lengthy duration of its narrative time, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is only 120 pages long, and so has no room to hang about. Chiara’s novel has the efficiency of a well-run investigation, and there’s also a cool and business-like tone to Jill Foulston’s translation from the Italian. One thing I particularly like about the book is that, for all its twists and revelations, the full truth still feels elusive. Something has happened beyond the confines of the narrative, and we’re left in a similar position to a detective plunged into another person’s life, having to piece together incomplete information. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia turned out to be just the brisk literary walk that I needed, and I’ll be keen to see what else Pushkin Vertigo has to offer in the months ahead.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia (1970) by Piero Chiara, tr. Jill Foulston (2015), Pushkin Vertigo paperback

Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (2012/3)

Ferrante2I am relatively late to reading Elena Ferrante compared to many book bloggers I know, but here (in Ann Goldstein’s translation) is the second of her ‘Neapolitan’ novels, chronicling the friendship of Elena and Lila. The Story of a New Name begins where My Brilliant Friend left off, with Lila’s wedding; and treats the two women’s late adolescence in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s a time when the friends’ paths start to diverge more solidly than before: Elena the steady narrator, full of self-doubt, who nevertheless gets into university; and Lila, dazzling to Elena from a distance, who married into money as a way to transcend her origins, but who never quite seems to find contentment.

It’s the emotional set-pieces that draw me the most to Ferrante’s work, especially the complexities of the protagonists’ friendship. Here, for example, is Elena after she has been invited to a party by Professor Galiani (a high-school teacher whom she admires), and Lila has offered to accompany her:

I was afraid that Stefano [Lila’s husband] wouldn’t let her come. I was afraid that Stefano would let her. I was afraid that she would dress in an ostentatious fashion, the way she had when she went to the Solaras. I was afraid that, whatever she wore, her beauty would explode like a star and everyone would be eager to grab a fragment of it. I was afraid that she would express herself in dialect, that she would say something vulgar, that it would become obvious that school for her had ended with an elementary-school diploma. I was afraid that, if she merely opened her mouth, everyone would be hypnotized by her intelligence and Professor Galiani herself would be entranced. I was afraid that the professor would find her both presumptious and naïve and would say to me: Who is this friend of yours, stop seeing her. I was afraid she would understand that I was only Lila’s pale shadow and would be interested not in me any longer but in her, she would want to see her again, she would undertake to make her go back to school. (p. 151)

This is quite a lengthy quotation, but it illustrates the density that Ferrante’s prose can reach, and the ambivalence that’s at the heart of Elena’s and Lila’s friendship. Elena doesn’t know whether to be more worried that Lila will embarrass or overshadow her; and, though so many of Elena’s thoughts on this party come back to herself, she’s also afraid that going there may end up with Lila losing what makes her brilliant.

Social and political change are in the background of The Story of a New Name, but decisively so: being exposed to new political ideas drives Elena down her career path; and a desire for betterment is behind Lila’s choices – though her position in society doesn’t make it easy. As with My Brilliant Friend, this second novel ends on something of a cliffhanger – a reminder that the story of these women’s lives will continue, and a suggestion that there are more changes to come.

IFFP 2015: Fois and Mortier

FoisMarcello Fois, Bloodlines (2009)
Translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella (2014)

Bloodlines is the story of a Sardinian family through the first half of the twentieth century – but not a family linked by blood. Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai were both orphans, and, even though he was adopted by a local blacksmith, Michele Angelo kept the surname given to him at the orphanage. So the Chironi family starts at the turn of the century, and the story of Bloodlines is the story of its first faltering steps through war, mortality, and socio-political change.

Though there are tumultuous events in the background, the focus is always on what they mean for the Chironis, and there is a sense that the family’s struggles are a reflection of wider Sardianian society coming to terms with the changes of modernity and gradually becoming more of a part of Italy (if I were more certain of the history, I might suggest that the family’s seeking to establish itself from effectively nothing reflects the coming together of Italy as a nation-state). There are frequent reminders from Fois’s narrator that this is a story, and therefore selected and shaped – there are many other stories that could be told about other families. Silvester Mazzarella’s translation captures the tone of being slightly distanced from events that occasionally – often tragically – come close to home. All in all, I very much enjoyed Bloodlines and I’d be happy to see it progress to the IFFP shortlist.

Mortier

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (2008)
Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (2014)

Belgian author Mortier  offers another personal approach to the early twentieth century, this time through the eyes of Helena Demont, an old woman in the present looking back on her life before and during the First World War. It begins as a comfortable bourgeois existence, before the German invasion sends Helena to France,, and the farm of her mother’s family. The experiences of Helena’s brother in battle and convalescence, and her journeys with an English photographer whom she falls for, will bring Helena – and us – closer to the horrors of the war.

Paul Vincent’s translation is rich and dense – indeed, at times (especially towards the beginning) I found the prose a little too over-egged. But the realities of war-ravaged Flanders are rendered vividly indeed, and Helena’s emphasis on the nature of memory underlines that even such dark moments of history will eventually fade into shadows and exist, for good or ill, only in our recollections. It wouldn’t at all surprise me to see While the Gods Were Sleeping make the IFFP shortlist, and I don’t think I’d mind if it did.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

Reading round-up: early December

Catching up on some of the books I’ve been reading lately…

FerranteElena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (2012)
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the first of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym; the author’s true identity remains unrevealed), chronicling the lives of two friends: Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend follows the two girls through to their mid-teens in the 1950s; it captures the complexity and uncertainty of childhood friendships. Elena (the narrator) is by turns drawn to Lila and intimidated by her. Lila (whose viewpoint we never witness) remains a mysterious figure, moving towards Elena, then away, taking unexpected paths in life and love. The girls’ story is played out against the background of Naples at a point of change, and with the desire to escape their poor neighbourhood, ready or not. It’s an intriguing start to Ferrante’s series.

My Brilliant Friend is published by Europa Editions.

Tore Renberg, See You Tomorrow (2013)
Translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (2014)

This hefty (550-page) novel chronicles three days in the lives of a varied cast of characters, including Pål, a civil servant mired in debt; his daughters; some of their friends and acquaintances; and the gangsters whom Pål has turned to in the hope of resolving his situation. Renberg creates a web of almost a dozen viewpoint characters, many with secrets to guard. See You Tomorrow feels to me a little too long for the story it’s telling; but it’s testament to Renberg’s skill that he manages such a large cast of characters and keeps up no small amount of momentum.

See You Tomorrow is published by Arcadia Books.

Schalansky

Judith Schalansky, The Giraffe’s Neck (2011)
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside (2014)

In a school in the former East Germany, Inge Lohmark surveys her new class. She thinks she has the measure of them; indeed, she thinks she has the measure of most things. Lohmark’s worldview is informed by the biology that she teaches, and can come across as cold (she has little time for her colleague’s more informal, friendly approach to teaching, for example). But what The Giraffe’s Neck reveals is a character trying to hang on to what she has as the world changes around her. By novel’s end, we start to see through Lohmark’s façade, as she realises that perhaps even she must evolve.

The Giraffe’s Neck is published by Bloomsbury Books.

Andreas Maier, The Room (2010)
Translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle (2014)

The Room is a fictionalised study of Andreas Maier’s Uncle J. Exactly what might be fictional, and what real, becomes something of a moot point in the face of such a larger-than-life character as J – he’s smelly, prose to outbursts of temper, forever tinkering away at the machines in his room. Maier’s portrait of Uncle J can hardly be called sympathetic; but perhaps there is ultimately some light in this tale of a man and his place in a small community.

The Room is published by Frisch & Co.

Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor (1999)

This was a book group choice, and my first Palahniuk novel. Over the past year-and-a-bit, the book group has given me my first experience of Dave Eggers and A.M. Homes, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. Reading Palahniuk was better, but still left me feeling frustrated. Survivor concerns one Tender Branson, whom we first meet as he’s recording his story into the black box of a crashing aeroplane. Branson is the last survivor of a death cult, which led him to become quite the media concern. I appreciate how Palahniuk underlines the superficiality of the celebrity machine (fifteen years on, it feels right on the money in many ways). But I got annoyed that this ostensibly spoken text was peppered with repeated phrases that felt more like self-consciously ‘literary’ writing. I suspect I’m becoming more attentive to the prose of what I read, and reactions like this may be the price to pay for that.

Survivor is published by Vintage Books.

Reading round-up: early September

Time for another round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately.

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace (2014)

Nikesh Shukla’s follow-up to Coconut Unlimited is another exploration of how personal identities are shaped, this time revolving around the online world. Kitab Balasubramanyam is a writer who performs better on social media than he does in real life. Having lost his job and girlfriend, he’s drifting along – until a namesake who’s found him on the internet pays a visit, and his brother goes off to the US to find someone with the same tattoo. Shukla gradually reveals just how much Kitab is struggling to find stability for himself, and the lengths to which he’s prepared to go for it. Published by The Friday Project.

MalvaldiMarco Malvaldi, The Art of Killing Well (2011)

Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis, 2014

In 1895, Italy’s first cookery writer, Pellegrino Artusi, takes a break from his travels at the castle of Barine di Roccapendente – only for his rest to be disrupted when a body is found in the cellar. This is a rather jolly and enjoyable murder mystery, whose waspish third-person narrator takes swipes at the aristocratic characters, and makes arch comments about writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. The tongue-in-cheek quality of Marco Malvadi’s prose keeps it on the right side of charming, and I definitely want to more by him. Published by MacLehose Press.

Annie Ernaux, A Woman’s Story (1988)

Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie, 1990

This is a short book about the life of the Annie Ernaux’s mother, but it’s not a straightforward memoir. It engages with the author’s deep-seated feeling that she needed to write about her mother, and the inevitable limits to what she could achieve by doing so. There’s a real power in the underlying themes of change and loss. Published by Quartet Books.

Royle

Nicholas Royle (ed.), The Best British Short Stories 2014

The fourth entry in Salt Publishing’s annual anthology series. It’s a varied mix: there are writers whose work I’m familiar with and admire, such as M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, and Stuart Evers. Then there others who were unknown to me: there’s David Grubb, whose ‘Roof Space’ tells poignantly of the relationship of a father and son by way of their model railway. In ‘Ladies’ Day’, Vicki Jarrett examines how a group of young mothers are searching for a new sense of direction in life, focused through a day at the races. ‘Guests’ is Joanne Rush’s first published story, and I hope there will be many more, as this one is superb: the tale of a woman whose house becomes filled with the ghosts of war dead while her husband is working in Bosnia. Whatever your taste in short fiction, there should be something to intrigue in here.

José Carlos Llop, The Stein Report (1995)

Translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis, 2014

1960s Majorca: Guillermo Stein is a newcomer at school, mysteriously different from the other boys. A group of his schoolmates tries to find out more about him; what they discover goes far beyond the life of one individual. What makes The Stein Report work for me is the sense of friction between the worlds of adults and children. The schoolboys’ world is complete to them; they know its contours. But when investigating Stein gives them a partial window on the adult world, we see just how much they still have to learn. Published by Hispabooks.

MaineSarah Maine, Bhalla Strand (2014)

In 2010, Hetty Deveraux visits her inheritance – an old house gone to seed in the Outer Hebrides – and uncovers human remains while repairing the place. A hundred years earlier, Hetty’s ancestor Beatrice marries the owner of Bhalla House, painter Theodore Blake. An intriguing mystery unfolds between the two timelines, but perhaps strongest of all is Sarah Maine’s evocation of the raw Hebridean landscape and the lives of its inhabitants. Published by Frieght Books.

Andrew Crofts, Confessions of a Ghostwriter (2014)

I really liked the idea of this latest title in The Friday Project’s Confessions series; it promised to open a part of the book world that we don’t usually get to see. And so it does – though only to an extent, naturally. Andrew Crofts mixes tales of his encounters with celebrities, politicians, and others with a story to tell; and entries on the day-to-day of the writing life. It’s an interesting combination that reveals a varied professional life; Crofts’ enthusiasm for what he does is palpable.

Neil Williamson, The Moon King (2014)

I reviewed Neil Williamson’s debut story collection way back in 2006; now he’s followed it up with a first novel. The Moon King looks rather different from much of Williamson’s short fiction, but it has the same dextrous approach to the fantastic. In a city whose inhabitants’ temperaments change with the phases of the moon, Anton Dunn wakes one day to find himself closer to the centre of power than he ever thought he’d be. There’s a vein of strangeness running through this novel that adds an extra dimension to an already intriguing story. Published by Newcon Press.

Sworn Virgin and Bonita Avenue

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin (2007)
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (2014)

edsvIn 2001, Hana Doda flies from Albania to the US, where she has been invited to live with her cousin’s family – but her neighbouring passenger calls her ‘Mr’, and Hana is travelling as Mark Doda. Hana is a ‘sworn virgin’: a series of events in 1986, including her dying uncle’s demand that she abandon her studies in the city to marry a village boy, led her to follow an ancient custom which allowed her to live as and have the status of a man, on condition of lifelong celibacy. Now, in America, Hana has the opportunity to leave Mark Doda behind – if she can learn how.

Elvira Dones is an Albanian writer and film-maker who now lives in the US and writes in Italian; she has previously made a documentary about sworn virgins, but this novel is very much a study of Hana’s character specifically. Dones makes the complexity of Hana’s situation clear: it’s not just that Hana doesn’t want to lose her independence by marrying; it’s also that she loves her uncle deeply, and doesn’t want something to happen which would put that love at risk.

Hana’s gender identity also remains complex for her. Clarissa Botsford’s translation shifts between ‘she’ and ‘he’ at times, emphasising that Hana cannot settle into one persona. Though it seems clear enough that Hana was uneasy in the role of Mark (‘that man was only a carapace,’ p. 178), she also finds it difficult to establish a new self-identity as a woman. And she has to adjust to life in a new country: the life of her cousin’s daughter Jonida may be as remote from Hana as Hana’s life studying in the city was from her uncle’s in the village.

So, Sworn Virgin digs deeply into its protagonist’s psychology, and delineates the contours of her world in some detail. Strikingly, though, there are some key aspects of Hana’s life that we never see; for example, she kept a diary of her years living alone as Mark – but we don’t get to read any of it. Even after all that we’ve seen, the novel seems to say, the true heart of a person must remain private.

Sworn Virgin will be published by And Other Stories on 13 May.

***

Peter Buwalda, Bonita Avenue (2010)
Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder (2014)

pbbaFrom the outside, Peter Buwalda’s Bonita Avenue may appear to be a fairly straightforward family saga: a great slab of a book (538 large-format pages), which begins with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. And the young news photographer, Aaron Bever, is as intimidated by the celebrated mathematician, Siem Sigerius, as you might anticipate. But Aaron swiftly notices the cauliflower ears which are a mark of Sigerius’ past commitment to judo; this is the first of many details that set the book off kilter. Then this meeting becomes a memory, occasioned by the now-single Aaron seeing his ex Joni’s barely-recognisable mother on a train some years later – and that indicates something of how Bonita Avenue will be told: in a complicated knot of perspective and memory that mirrors the knots whose mathematics Sigerius studied.

So Bonita Avenue isn’t quite what it appears to be at first; which is appropriate for a novel whose characters pretty much all have their secrets. We discover, for example, that Sigerius is really Joni’s stepfather, and has a biological son who’s in prison; and that Joni and Aarojn were not quite as squeaky-clean as Sigerius liked to think. These (and more) revelations are handled very well indeed, as Buwalda piles layer upon layer of story, constantly reconfiguring what we thought we knew. Jonathan Reeder’s translation is also key to this, as it dances back and forth between past and present tense, first- and third-person narration, without missing a step.

Perspective in Buwalda’s novel is constantly being destabilised: we read from the viewpoints of Aaron, Sigerius, and Joni; but we know something about each of them that causes us – for at least part of the book – to question the truth of what we’re reading. Bonita Avenue twists and turns and shifts to the very end; it’s such an intriguing delight.

Bonita Avenue is published by Pushkin Press.

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