Posts Tagged ‘Carlo Levi’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

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Christ Stopped at Eboli

April 14, 2014

Christ Stopped at EboliThe Heath could not have been more beautiful yesterday, washed in the spring sunshine, all the green fresh and bright on the trees. Best of all, everyone in the walking book club loved the book! And while I had been a little anxious about how easy it would be to discuss, given that it doesn’t have the plot or characters of a novel, my fears proved happily misplaced as everyone was keener than ever to chat away about their many favourite moments in this wonderful book.

Christ Stopped at Eboli was written by Carlo Levi in 1944 as an account of three years spent as a political exile in the deep south of Italy from 1935. The curious title is explained immediately:

‘We’re not Christians,’ they say. ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.’ ‘Christian’, in their way of speaking, means ‘human being’, and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We’re not Christians, we’re not human beings; we’re not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden, or even less than beasts, mere creatures of the wild.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this could be a depressing book about these peasants, who think of themselves as sub-human ‘beasts of burden’, but while Levi’s tone remains quite cool and detached, he is clearly fascinated by their way of life. Indeed, when he is at last allowed to return home, Levi finds he ‘was sorry to leave and I found a dozen pretexts for lingering on’. We felt the same yesterday, and the discussion of this special place in Italy came to an end rather reluctantly.

The village, Gagliano, is a strange place, entirely of itself. It is so cut off from the rest of Italy, that it has more ties with America than with Rome. Various villagers have emigrated there, and pictures of Roosevelt adorn the walls. There is just one rarely used car, little medicine, and not much food. I was surprised by the minimal presence of religion – the Church is usually empty and baptisms occur only at the point of death. In part this is due to a useless priest, but surely, in the face of such deprivation, people need some system of belief?

Well there is belief, just not in Catholicism. (What would the Marchmains think!?) There is a great belief in magic, which pervades every aspect of village life. As soon as Levi arrives, he is warned of the love potions:

Don’t take anything from a woman. Neither wine nor coffee; nothing to eat or drink. They would be sure to put a philtre or love potion in it.

Levi takes little notice:

Every day I braved the peasants’ coffee and their wine, even if a woman made them ready for me. If there were philtres in it they must have counteracted each other.

These philtres are shown to be potent, however, as in the case of the poor widow with whom Levi stays when he first arrives:

Her husband had come to a bad end three years before. A peasant witch-woman had drawn him into her toils by means of love potions, and he had become her lover. A child was born to them, and because at that point he wished to break off their sinful relationship, she’d given him poison. His illness was long and mysterious; the doctors found no name for it. Gradually his strength melted away; his face grew dark until the skin was the colour of bronze and finally quite black; then, at last, he died. His widow was left with a ten-year-old son and very little money, and so she rented a room to strangers.

A bleak and terrifying tale indeed.

Levi trained as a doctor, and although he is no longer practising when he comes to Gagliano, he is prevailed upon to take it up again in order to help the villagers. He does so, doing what he can to tackle the malaria and other illnesses that are rife, with little medicine or equipment. During his time there he develops an understanding of the village magic to the extent that his cook and cleaner Giulia, who he fondly refers to as a ‘witch’, tells him he should be a sorcerer. Rather than dismissing the villagers’ belief, he respects it:

Magic can cure almost any ill, and usually by the mere pronouncement of a spell or incantation … The most common of all was the abracadabra. When I went to visit the sick I often found hung around their necks a tiny roll of paper or a metal plate bearing the triangular inscription. At first the peasants tried to hide their amulets or apologised for wearing them, because they knew that doctors despise such superstitions and deplore them in the name of reason and science. This is all very well where reason and science can take over the role of magic, but in this remote region they are not yet, and perhaps never may be, deities which enjoy popular worship and adoration. I respected the amulets, paying tribute to their ancient origin and mysterious simplicity, and preferring to be their ally rather than their enemy.

He also makes the point:

The custom of prescribing some medicine for every illness, even when it is not necessary, is equivalent to magic, anyhow, especially when the prescription is written, as it once was, in Latin or in indecipherable handwriting. Most prescriptions would be just as effective if they were to taken to the druggist, but were simply hung on a string around the patient’s neck like an abracadabra.

Magic serves instead of medicine, and isn’t always less effective. The belief in magic is so strong because medicine, or ‘reason and science’, is scarcely available, and, one feels never will be.

At one point, Levi makes various suggestions for preventing against malaria – ‘simple precautions and, according to law, they were compulsory’. He mentions them ‘over and over again’ to the mayor, who does nothing. Then he writes a detailed twenty-page memorandum, which he gives to the mayor. The mayor says he’ll show it to the prefect. The prefect is enthusiastic, but then just a few days later a telegram came from the police saying that Levi is forbidden to practice medicine in Gagliano, under penalty of prison. He notes, ‘as the peasants would have it’:

‘We’re saddled with our malaria and if you try to do anything about it they’ll drive you away.’

So Gagliano is completely resistant to change. It is cursed to have malaria forever, just as the land will always be barren, the peasants poor, food scarce. Levi attempts to bring some reason and science but is halted. Medicine can only go so far, and so it is magic that must prevail. It is much the same with religion.

Perhaps this belief in magic is felt in the magic of the place, the strange hold that it has over the people who live there. Some leave for America, but most return. One young man who has grown up abroad writes to his mother, instructing her to find him a woman who he can return to marry. Levi himself struggles to depart at the end, is tempted by the villagers’ suggestions of marrying one of them and remaining. While it is a poor place, it is a good one, and, evidently, its inhabitants have fallen under its spell.

As you might remember, Emilybooks is off to Italy in just over a week for a two-month sojourn. Perhaps I’ll make a trip to the deep deep south and search out Gagliano. I am curious to see if it remains much as it was nearly a hundred years ago. Who knows … but I will be sure to keep the husband away from any love potions.