Posts Tagged ‘Giorgio Bassani’

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

February 27, 2015

Talk about best-laid plans … I had Tuesday set aside to write this, with Vita’s granny coming to look after the terrorbot for a few hours to give me a bit of time and space to think about the finer points of Italian fiction, when what happens? The lurgi strikes! And so most of Tuesday was spent asleep and the days since have been semi-asleep and semi-entertaining Vita, who is sleeping rather less than we’d like. Still, it has not been unpleasant – the husband has stepped in and taken her with him on errands (who needs Gymboree when there’s Leylands?), and even when I’ve been feeling grotty, it is terribly sweet listening to her gurgle. She is busy mastering ‘vvvvvvv’ and ‘fffffff’ and ‘boof’ sounds at the moment. If it weren’t for all the raspberries that intersperse said noises, I would have thought she might be composing her first poem.

So I hope you will excuse yet another belated post.

The Garden of the Finzi-ContinisLast Sunday, the walking book club strode across a windy and weather-worsening Hampstead Heath discussing Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The book is rather more taxing than my usual picks and there were stirrings of dissent as many walkers complained about Bassani’s never-ending, clause-upon-clause-upon-clause sentences, and how hard it had been to ‘get into’ the book. My heart sank somewhat as I listened to the grumbles for I could only agree – whilst re-reading the novel in preparation for the meeting, I’d spent the first fifty pages or so wondering how I’d managed to misremember this plodding dull novel as being poignant and wonderful.

Luckily, everyone agreed that the book gets much better, and by the time the narrator and Micol are playing tennis, they were all thoroughly engrossed. In fact, they were grateful that the book club had provided an incentive to stick with it, thereby discovering a brilliant, very moving novel that would stick with them forever. I am all for giving up on a book if you’re not enjoying it, but perhaps this is a useful reminder of the importance of giving it a good shot – 100 pages is usually a safe bet – before deciding whether or not to put it aside.

Key to the The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is its structure. It begins with a Prologue and ends with an Epilogue; the main chunk is set further back in the past and feels neatly contained within these formal boundaries. In the Prologue, the narrator visits some Etruscan tombs, which prompts him to remember the monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis:

And my heartstrings tightened as never before at the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant – of him, and his descendants – only one, of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose. Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma, whilst Micol, the daughter, born second, and their father Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother, were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.

Well, you can see why there were complaints about the lengthy sentences …

You can also see that in one sense, Bassani tells us the end right at the beginning, and the grim fate of the Finzi-Contini family falls over the whole book. So this makes us suspect, then, that it’s not going to be so much about the terrible things that history has in store for them – unless Bassani means to totally ruin the suspense – but rather what happens first, what can be salvaged from the precious years before their untimely death, the private story that would otherwise be brushed aside by history’s grand sweep.

The narrator takes us back to his youth, and after a while spent on his early encounters with the Finzi-Contini family, we hit the moment when their acquaintanceship turns to profound friendship. (This is when the book starts to pick up.) The Italian Racial Laws of 1938 prevented Jews from doing all sorts of things, and this is felt in Ferrara not least in Jews being forced to stop using the country club. So the (Jewish) Finzi-Continis invite the city’s young Jews to use their own private tennis court. The narrator comes along to play tennis and is soon in love with the daughter Micol. From this, he develops a bond with the whole family, as he uses the father’s library, and talks politics with the brother.

Bassani makes the book two things at once: a story of the tender pain of first love and a harrowing depiction of the situation of Italy’s Jews in the late 1930s. The personal is entwined with the political. This is easier said than done – it is all too easy to write historical novels in which the context weighs down the story so that you feel like you’re drowning in the author’s research notes (c.f. A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book). With Bassani, however, we are encouraged to think more about the joy of being young in the seemingly enchanted garden of the Finzi-Continis than the politics which get the narrator there in the first place. One walker said she’d had to keep turning back to double-check she’d read it correctly, as she’d been so unnerved by the way Bassani so matter-of-factly dropped in devastating instances of Jewish exclusion from society.

We discussed at length the many images of containment and circles that appear in the book. There are the walls of Ferrara, the walls of the garden, and even the ‘circolo’s – literally ‘circles’ but meaning ‘clubs’ from which Jews are being expelled. I stumbled across this very good essay by Adam Kirsch about the novel, in which he pointed to this quotation from Henry James:

Really, universally, relations stop nowhere and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, a circle within which they appear to do so.

It’s a brilliant quote!

Kirsch argues that Bassani’s very self-conscious structuring of the novel with Prologue and Epilogue is his method of drawing this circle, and the reason it is so laboured (e.g. the Epilogue begins: ‘The story of my relationship with Micol Finzi-Contini ends here.’) is because he is drawing the circumference of the novel ‘in defiance’ of the historical circumference, which ends, as we know, with her deportation to Germany and grave-less death. Bassani is drawing a circle around the precious moments of youth and first love, as a means of defying the greater circle of history.

It’s a neat argument. And yet, however well Bassani has written it as a love story, protecting it within so many defensive circles, history is still glimpsed through the chinks in the walls. For instance, when the narrator pauses on his bicycle:

I stopped beneath a tree – one of those old trees, lindens, elms, plane trees, horse chestnuts which, a dozen years later, in the frozen winter of Stalingrad, would be sacrificed for firewood, but which in 1929 still raised their great umbrellas of greenery high above the city’s ramparts.

In something as innocent as a tree, we are given a flash of the horrors that are to come.

Short, unlaboured moments like this litter the text, jolting you out of the oasis of youthful romance, and making the narrator’s loss of innocence all the more poignant for being in the context of the world’s horrific loss of innocence. The mentions of historical context feel artfully oppressive, as though the walls are closing in and the world will soon implode … as indeed it will.

As we walked across the Heath and looked down on London below, I thought that this feeling of the book was similar to the feeling I had when walking through Lucca – the Italian walled city (not unlike Ferrara), where Emilybooks spent a blissful couple of months last year. As you walk through the streets, you can never completely lose yourself in the city as the walls are always there surrounding you. You meander along, wiggling and winding and thinking you’re lost and then all of a sudden there’s the wall. It vanishes only for a moment before reappearing in the distance as you enter a square, or there at the end of an alley. When you’re in the city, you are never free of its walls. So, as we walk through his novel, Bassani never lets us entirely disappear into the love story – like the city walls, history is never out of sight for long.

The next walking book club will be a Daunt Books Festival special – discussing the wonderful Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns as we wander through Regent’s Park. You can book your place (as well as get tickets for all the other talks) here.

Giorgio Bassani


The Last Days of Italy

July 2, 2014

I have at last unglued my bottom from the passenger seat of our trusty car Beryl – so named after Beryl Markham, wonderful author, adventurer and pilot extraordinaire. I know it’s a car not a plane, but needs must. Emilybooks’ Lucca days are now over and London life will ensue once again. Though I can’t feel too glum, as  July is looking rather wonderfully full of walking book club trips – there is the Hampstead Heath meeting this Sunday to discuss Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife; then at Perch Hill Summer Feast (12th-13th July) we’ll be talking about The Leopard, and finally Deer Shed Festival on 25th-27th July brings a welcome revisit to Jane Eyre.

But first a little run down on the last days of Italy…

We set off for Ravenna – which should have been an easy three hours or so, though the husband decided to throw a bit of adventure in the mix by stopping off at an Alvar Aalto church ‘on the way’. Perhaps it would have been more on the way if I weren’t doing the map-reading and the Michelin map was slightly less complicated, but it took us about four hours just to get to the church… It was a great church, however; rather different from all the Renaissance churches we’d spent the last two months gawping over. Instead of their habit of bright white marble outside and cool dark interior, this one was very dark (and I have to say even a little dreary) on the outside, but flooded with light inside.

The bright inside of the Alvar Aalto Church

A Ravenna peacockWe spent the night at a sweet agriturismo outside Ravenna, with delicious food, where peacocks strutted decoratively. On to Ravenna the next morning where we were completely dazzled by all the mosaics, impossibly beautiful, and unexpectedly cheerful. We were to end up in Vicenza that evening, but had a quick stop-off for a gelato (of course) at Ferrara, which really was en route. I longed to see more evidence of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some wonderful novels set there, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, but alas I could discover no museum. Instead we saw a very spiky building – the Palazzo dei Diamante – where I dunked my head under a fountain to save myself from expiring from the heat, while chic Italians looked on with amusement.

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

And rather cooler after the fountain

And rather cooler after the fountain

Vicenza was a winner, with another architectural theme – masses of stuff by Palladio which was all very impressive, though not quite sufficient for the husband, who drove us off into the hills the following day to see some things by Carlo Scarpa. It was certainly ‘off the track’, and I have to say the Tomba Brion was one of the most beautiful, special places I’ve ever been.


The husband was in architectural heaven and took a million photos, in raptures over all the detailing, while I sat and read for a while and looked at the enormous fish which poked their heads out from amongst the lilly pads.

Among the lilly pads

We also saw the huge and wonderful Palladian Villa Barbaro, where we had to shuffle around in strange over-sized slippers and there were some very sweet and attentive puppies.

 Puppies at the Villa Barbaro

Then across to Milan, where we met an (architectural) friend for lunch, and wandered through some antique markets by the canals. There I spotted this rather pretty bicycle.

A Milanese bicycle

Then through Mont Blanc (aka the rather cheerier ‘Monte Bianco’) to the Haute Savoie, very close to Geneva. Typically, just as we got off the motorway and my map-reading had to begin in earnest, the most colossal thunderstorm broke, and we were unable to see or hear anything much at all. It was not helped by Google Maps telling us to go up an off-road track. Poor Beryl was rather relieved when we did at last arrive at our destination.

The next day we were to go back to Champagne to the very pretty B&B where we spent the first night of our travels. The husband thought it essential, however, to go ‘via’ Ronchamp – a Le Corbusian masterpiece. It was indeed incredible, and added a mere three hours to our journey.


We arrived at last and staggered off to Chalons-en-Champagne – the nearest town – to find something for dinner, only to arrive just as France won their World Cup match. The little, not especially charming, town was soon even less so as it became overrun with crazed football fans letting of bangers, kicking beer cans, starting fights, tooting their horns and driving around like maniacs. We tried to enter into the spirit of things but were unfortunately rather too dazed from seeing nothing but motorway for hours. We ate our quite squalid chicken and chips in exhausted silence and swiftly retreated to said B&B.

So to the final day of our travels. First we drove up the road to Verzy where we wandered through the forest to see some curious twisted beech trees. Then, instead of stopping for a delicious final lunch, we hastened towards a grimmish ‘zone industrielle’ near St Omer to try and make the half-past three tour of a glass-making factory. We pulled in at three twenty-five, after some map-reading of which I was rather proud, only to be told that in spite of what their website had said, there was no tour until six thirty – too late for us. Stuck for something to do, we found this very strange place nearby called La Coupole – a huge concrete dome half-buried in the cliff, built as a launchpad for Hitler’s V2 rockets. It was impressive and horrible, freezing cold and sinister. It made all those James Bond filmsets look uncannily realistic. We read that the hundreds of Soviet prisoners who had been made to build it had soon after ‘disappeared’. The place was filled with awful stories about life under the Nazi occupation and Hitler’s pursuit of his secret weapons. I couldn’t believe that Wernher von Braun, who was in charge of most the rocket programme, and a member of the SS, was snatched by America after the War, not for trial, but to help develop their rockets for the Space Race. He was made an American citizen and even presented a science show on the Walt Disney channel! Amongst his particular brutalities was his encouragement of the use of slave labour from concentration camps to help build the rockets. Many more people died in building the rockets and their factories than were killed by the finished weapons. Quite how this man – and many members of his team – managed to be so welcomed by America is not clear. Please could somebody write a book about it?

And then to Calais, and then on the train, and then a late-night Lebanese feast on London’s Edgware Road, and then to Emilybooks’ mother’s, where we will be staying until we move back in to our flat at the weekend…

The Inimitable Jeeves read by Martin JarvisBut what about the books, I hear you ask… Well there was little time for reading anything other than maps when in the car for so long, but what made the journey extremely pleasant was listening to PG Wodehouse audio books. I have never fared too well with audiobooks, finding that my mind wanders too much, but Wodehouse, read by the incredibly talented Martin Jarvis, was a triumph! All the way to Italy we chuckled along to Jeeves and Wooster stories about love-lorn Bingo Little, Gussy Finknottle and his newts, the various dreadful aunts, the cooly unflappable Jeeves and lovely Bertie Wooster, who will stop at nothing to get his friends out of a tight spot. I was particularly keen on the stories when everyone thinks Bertie’s a lunatic.

Heavy weather by PG WodehouseOn the way home, we listened to Heavy Weather, a Blandings tale, and were similarly entranced by the brilliantly over-complicated plot about various toffs trying to get hold of Galahad’s juicy memoirs, and Lord Emsworth thinking of nothing but his beloved pig, the Empress of Blandings. We giggled and snorted and exclaimed as the miles of motorway rolled away. Perhaps this unbelievably English story didn’t suit our surroundings particularly well, but it did conjure a feeling of immense fondness towards England – even if our little flat is rather less grand than Blandings Castle, and we have a tortoise not a pig… In any case it was just what was needed to speed us on our return.

Favourite fictional gardens

June 7, 2012

Tuesday was a garden triple whammy.

I suppose the first garden is technically a roof terrace, but still… I noticed that the rain had made my beloved raspberry bush suddenly sprout masses of berries! I even gobbled one that looked particularly ripe and it was completely delicious.

And the first hint of a rose started appearing out of one of the new rosebush buds. So that was all terribly exciting.

Then the husband and I made a little trip down the road to the Geffrye Museum. It’s a lovely museum, which I have often visited for inspiration for my novel about a derelict house. Yesterday we spent a while idling in their beautiful English gardens.

This one was my favourite. We even happened to be there when aeroplanes zoomed past en route to the flyby for the Queen! That was pretty special.

Being in this cloistered walled garden made me think of The Secret Garden, one of my favourite childhood novels and I got home itching to re-read it. Typically, having hunted high and low for it, I realised it’s still languishing forgotten at my mum’s. But consolation was just around the corner.

When hunting on iPlayer for something to watch, what did I see but the film of Tom’s Midnight Garden – which happens to be my second-favourite childhood novel about a garden. What a treat! I watched it with utter glee, while the husband sat there rather uncommunicatively. He wanted to watch Patriot Games.

In honour of this gardening hat-trick, here’s another hat-trick of some great grown-up fictional gardens:

1. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

This brilliant novel, which I first wrote about here, centres on a wealthy Jewish family’s tennis court at the time that the new Italian racial laws meant that Jews were kicked out of the country club and so had nowhere to play tennis. The Finzi-Continis’ garden is big enough to include a tennis court, and a very nice one too, with red shale and a butler who endlessly brings out delicious picnics. Although not much description is given over to the garden itself, it is on the tennis court and in the old coach house at the other end of the garden, that the narrator falls for Micòl, the daughter of the house. It’s the perfect setting for first love and a wonderful coming-of-age story.

2. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

 The gardens at Manderley seem quite as threatening to the young Mrs de Winter as the house. The description of the drive is wonderfully ominous, with the tree branches entwined overhead, making a roof so thick that ‘even the midday sun would not penetrate’. Then there are more trees, ‘trees I could not name, coming close, so close that I could touch them with my hands’. EEEK! But the trees are nothing compared to the:

wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were amongst the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me for them. They startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before.

Scary! There can be something alien and utterly terrifying about a profusion of flowers. I remember a couple of years ago getting completely freaked out by my pansies.

Incidentally, Virago (my publishing heroines) have just brought out this gorgeous hardback edition. How I long for it – and the rest of their lovely hardback modern classics, of which you might remember The Tortoise and The Hare from a few months ago.

3. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

I’m not sure a plant has ever been given so much fictional attention as deadly nightshade in The Go-Between. “Delenda est belladonna” chants Leo ominously as he uproots the deadly nightshade by the outhouses. This is a fantastic book and the deadly nightshade is utterly central to it. There is also a very tense showdown between Leo and Mrs Maudsley by the magnolia, when she catches him delivering a note that perhaps he oughtn’t …

The most exciting thing about these last two books is that I will be doing my Walking Book Club for each of them at the completely wonderful Port Eliot festival this summer. The festival takes place in the lovely grounds of a beautiful stately home, and the walks will be a perfect opportunity to natter about a couple of brilliant books and see some pretty scenery. I hope to see some of you there. You better get reading…

As for more lovely literary gardens, I would definitely plump for Lady Chatterley’s, and, of course Eden in Paradise Lost. More suggestions are, as ever, most welcome.

A Venetian Spring

May 23, 2012

A rather wonderful coincidence happened last week.

First I had better set the scene. I was in London, in my flat. It was raining. It had not stopped raining for months. In an attempt to look on the bright side I had written a blog for the Spectator about what happens when it rains in novels (here) … but I was nevertheless feeling glum. In part to cheer myself up, I began to read Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, the sort of charming, witty, graceful 1930s novel for which I have a particular weakness. Daunt Books has just republished it rather prettily. It begins with a very good line:

Lady Kilmichael took her seat in the boat train at Victoria hurriedly, opened The Times, and hid behind it.

Oh how I longed to hide behind a paper on a boat train to Venice! Lady K, as we will come to know her, sojourns at Venice before going on to Croatia. Venice is where she meets young Nicholas, who she will befriend and help to become a painter.

My thoughts right then were: 1. I bet an Illyrian spring is better than a London one, especially as I still need my winter coat outside and 2. wouldn’t it be heaven to be in Venice!

That’s when the husband said, Ems, do you think we could go to Venice on Saturday?

Now, much as I would love to be the sort of person who might just happen to pop over to Venice – or, come to think of it, Florence, Rome, Naples or anywhere else hot and foreign, preferably Italian – just for the day, I should admit that we were actually already going to Italy for a friend’s wedding. The wedding was on Friday, by Lake Garda, so going over to Venice on Saturday suddenly seemed surprisingly feasible.

It transpired that the husband had architectural reasons to be in Venice. The fact that they just so happened to coincide with my own reading was fortuitous to say the least. And so on Saturday, not unlike Lady K, I found myself on a train bound for Venice. Although I wasn’t hiding behind a newspaper. By then I wasn’t even hiding behind Illyrian Spring, having polished it off on the way to the airport; I was hiding behind Giorgio Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles.

I first came across Giorgio Bassani a couple of years ago, when I was last in Italy and read The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. (Here is my post about it.) I very much enjoyed it, with its coming-of-age story set on a tennis court amongst the Jews of Ferrara. Set in the 1930s, you know it’s only going to end badly for them – and you’re told that right at the start – but it’s beautifully written and terribly poignant.

Well evidently I wasn’t the only one to appreciate Bassani’s work, as Penguin seems to be on a drive to publish new translations of the rest of his ‘Ferrara Cycle’. First out is The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. Perhaps it’s the first as it’s so short – really more a novella than a novel – but perfect for a quick Italian mini-break (and lighter than a Kindle!).

I’ve a feeling I’m going to enjoy the Ferrara Cycle, as it seems as though Bassani does that clever and deeply satisfying thing of sharing characters between books – a character who gets the limelight in one book plays a cameo in another. (This tends to happen in the best sort of short story collections, which I wrote about here.) So in The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, originally published four years before The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, we get a mention of the F-Cs while the narrator’s non-Jewish friend is talking about the ominous Racial Laws:

That kind of policy could ‘operate’ only if there were more cases like that of the Finzi-Contini family, with their most atypical impulse to segregate themselves and live in a grand, aristocratic house. (Although he himself knew Alberto Finzi-Contini very well, he had never succeeded in getting himself invited to play tennis at their house, on their magnificent private court!)

It certainly whets the appetite for a glimpse of their ‘magnificent private court’, on which so many games of tennis will be played in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

As well as characters, the two books share many of the same preoccupations: a coming-of-age moment, Jews, bicycles, tennis and local dialects. The latter is particularly interesting for a foreigner travelling around Italy and naively imagining that everyone there speaks the same language, Italian. Not so. Bassani’s characters often have recourse to a word or expression in their native local dialect to express something more deeply felt. For instance, at one poignant moment, the narrator’s father says of Fagati – the wearer of those spectacles – ‘Puvràz’, meaning ‘Poor thing’ in the Ferrara dialect. It feels like a more heartfelt, more genuine expression than if he’d used the standard Italian term.

It’s interesting that Bassani has called his book The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, whereas of course it’s not about those actual specs, it’s about the wearer of them – Fadigati. The title suggests that those spectacles are – sorry to use a silly word – a synecdoche of Fadigati, i.e. they represent him. Indeed, a glint of the gold rims in the darkened cinema is all that’s needed to betray his presence. And, if Bassani’s saying that these specs represent Fadigati, he’s also inviting us to take it along a step and wonder who Fadigati represents.

Fadigati is rich, cultured and gay. Let me remind you that this is 1930s provincial Italy, a time and a place where being outwardly gay was socially unacceptable. Fadigati does fine while his sexuality is under wraps, but as soon as it’s out in the open he is cast out from society. Then it’s a pretty rapid downward spiral. You better read it to find out how it ends.

Given the background to the novella is the introduction of the Racial Laws, which essentially legislated to cast Jews out from society, I don’t think it’s a leap to take Fadigati as representative of the Jews. So in writing about this outsider, Bassani is obliquely writing about these other outsiders. As in the Finzi-Continis, one worries that it can’t end well.

Inevitably Illyrian Spring was a much happier book than The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. While there is a journey of realisation in both of them, things wind up rather better for Lady K than they do for Fadigati or for the narrator of the latter.

A feeling of optimism pervades the first, whereas the second is laced with doom. The self-discovery of Illyrian Spring is joyful, self-affirming, full of excitement at the future (albeit tinged with a pang of lost love), but that of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is the realisation of forever being an outsider:

The sense of solitude that during the last two months had never left me, at that very moment became, if that were possible, even more acute: absolute and definitive. From my exile, I would never return. Never.

Of course this is the opposite of Lady K, who returns from her exile into the loving arms of her husband and fond embrace of her daughter. Her exile is self-imposed, not demanded by society.

The timing of the two books is uncanny – Illyrian Spring was first published in 1935 and, although The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles wasn’t published until 1958, it is set in 1937-8, just two years later. Two novels that meander by the Adriatic in the mid-1930s could not have more different narratives. Reading them one after the other, I couldn’t help but think just how much one’s fate was determined by class and by ethnicity. Thank god that these days there’s more of a level playing field.

Holiday reading

June 21, 2011

The weekend’s Guardian review featured an illuminating article on various author’s favourite holiday reads. I was struck by how few of these memorable experiences offered any relationship between book and place. Yes, Jonathan Raban relished reading Death in Venice several times over when in Venice and John Banville loved reading The Portrait of a Lady in Florence (even though the coincidence of the book’s setting and his holiday location was purely accidental), but they are pretty much the only ones of the bunch.

Andrew Motion, who read The Odyssey on Ithaca, describes how pleasing a book-place connection can be:

Whenever I looked up from the page, I saw the ruins of Odysseus’s palace (so called), the beach where he eventually made landfall, the empty cave where his cult once thrived, the bare rocky hills described in the poem – and also saw myth and reality tumbling through one another.

Reading a book in its natural setting can be a truly magical experience.

I first came upon this realisation by going about it the wrong way round. In my GAP year, I spent a few months in Nepal, nominally teaching in a village primary school, but, as the school kept declaring impromptu holidays and the working day in any case was over by 5ish, when I returned to my room in a Nepali family home, I had rather a lot of time on my hands.

Luckily I’d had the foresight to ask for the Oxford English reading list before heading off, so the long evenings were easily filled by working my way through the Victorian canon. There were a few weeks of Eliot – Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda; then of Dickens – Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers; the Brontes were over in a flash, but Vanity Fair took a little while. All this was punctuated by the odd bit of Browning and Tennyson. I remember feeling absurdly reckless when I put down the Victorians for a week to read Satre on a friend’s recommendation.

Reading all these English classics so relentlessly in a dim, grubby room in Nepal, enclosed in a sleeping bag and having to swap book-holding hands periodically due to the cold biting at my fingers, was deeply strange. There I was, supposedly finding myself, somewhere unlike anywhere I’d ever been before, and I was accompanied by the faintly nauseating voice of Bleak House’s Esther or earnest Jane Eyre – the latter, comfortingly familiar from when I’d read it a few years previously. I spent the weekends wandering around breathtaking stupas and temples, like Boudhanath and Swayambhunath (Kathmandu’s ‘Monkey Temple’), yet my reading material was based in nineteenth-century London or the English countryside. I remember being on a bus heading down to Pokhara for a trek to Annapurna base camp, trying to concentrate on Bleak House in spite of the bumpy roads, when an American lady asked me why on earth I was reading it.

‘Oh I know it looks off-putting,’ I said, ‘but actually it’s pretty good.’

‘I know it’s good. It happens to be one of my favourite novels,’ she said, ‘but why are you taking it with you on a trek?’

‘Got to get through my university reading list,’ I explained, a bit puzzled as to why she found it so odd.

‘But it’s so thick and heavy!’

‘Well I need something to keep me going for a couple of weeks.’

‘And it’s so English. Don’t you think you should be reading something about Nepal instead?’

Until that point, it really hadn’t occurred to me that it made sense to read a book – other than the omnipresent, omniscient Lonely Planet – about Nepal. Luckily it wasn’t long before I spent a couple of weeks in a Buddhist monastery, from which I emerged wanting only to read books written by the Dalai Lama and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Oh, and (shamefully) The Alchemist came a few week’s later. I don’t mean Ben Johnson’s.

There was undoubtedly something truly special about the way in which those Victorian classics transported me back to England, about how they absorbed my imagination so fully that I really could have been reading them anywhere – that I was in a smelly sleeping bag in a Nepali village couldn’t have mattered less. But I can’t help but feel that reading some books from the subcontinent would have been even more special.

Ironically, when I finally went up to Oxford, a few months later, struck low by a bug in third week and panicking at all the reading still to do, I decided to read Kipling, thinking that The Just So Stories might be comforting for the sickbed. I zipped through them and The Jungle Books, and was on to Kim by the second day. There I was, lying in my duveted single bed in one of the most English places in England, eating toast and drinking tea, reading all about a young boy scampering through Lahore. Although I’ve never been to Pakistan (although back then, of course, it was India), it took me straight back to my time in Nepal. There followed my best essay of the term.

A couple of years later I returned, not to Nepal this time, but to India. As soon as I landed in Delhi, I bought a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, much to the Indian bookseller’s delight. Ok, I wasn’t in Bombay, but I was at least in India, and this was the perfect chutnied, chaotic, polyphonic accompaniment.

Since then, I’ve tried to match, more-or-less, book to place. Last year’s holiday to Italy, for instance, was perfectly matched with Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Forster’s Where Angel’s Fear to Tread. I’ve written elsewhere about Forster’s powerful use of landscape and setting, and it was remarkable to be reading about Gino’s sultry and indolent loggia and then to look up and see one.

The previous year’s trip around Japan was accompanied by Mishima, Soseki, Kawabata and, of course, Murukami. How incredible to be in Kyoto while reading The Temple of the Golden Pavilion! How glorious to be in Tokyo and to read Kokoro, set in the same city, a hundred years ago!

Perhaps it’s for the same reason that, when I’m not on holiday, but getting on with life in London, I particularly enjoy books in which London has a strong presence – from Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine, which I polished off in about three days straight last week, to Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, and from Iain Sinclair’s Hackney to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside.

Reading these books when in the right place, makes me feel even more there, even more part of London, or Tokyo or Tuscany. It acts as another layer of absorption – not only is everything one actually sees belonging to that place, but everything one sees in one’s mind eye belongs there too.

Next week, when I’ll be on holiday in the Outer Hebrides – so you might have to wait a couple of weeks for the next post, I’m afraid – I’ll take Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, which takes place on the remote West Coast of Scotland and is heralded as one of the greatest pieces of nature writing of all time. I might also take some Robert Burns, possibly a copy of Macbeth, perhaps something by Sir Walter Scott. And I shall definitely take the rather majestic Lore of Scotland, a comprehensive guide to Scottish myths and legends, which pinpoints each one to a place. I will keep an eye out for selkies. I suspect they might be easier to spot after a few whiskies.

I’m ever so excited.

Books on film

November 22, 2010

I have never understood why someone would watch the film of a book and then buy the book.

Any Human Heart jumped up into Amazon’s Top 100 books today, after the first part of the TV adaptation screened last night. The Guardian’s TV reviewer was just one of many who was so impressed with the film that he instantly went online to order the book.

The book is, by all accounts, absolutely superb. It’s been on my list of things to get round to reading, ever since I started working in the bookshop and noticed that several copies were piled up on the favourites table. Whenever I talk to colleagues about their best ever books, Any Human Heart is almost always up there.

I should have just bought a copy and read it straight away, but instead I read Ordinary Thunderstorms, by the same author, which had just come out. And I found it, well, somewhat ordinary. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to read another William Boyd afterwards, even if Any Human Heart is, apparently, a different, far superior, kettle of fish.

If only I had read it back then, instead of the wretched Thunderstorms book, I wouldn’t be in the quandary that I’m in today about the TV adaptation. You see, as I mentioned, I don’t understand the whole watching the film and then buying the book phenomenon. If I were to watch the film of Any Human Heart, I don’t think I’d ever get round to reading the book.

Unlike the Guardian reviewer and the other thousands of people who leapt on to Amazon to order their copy this morning, I would be holding out, waiting for the series to finish rather than reading the book as well. If the story is being told in one particular medium (on screen), then why look for the same story in another medium (on the page) too? It’s the same story, more-or-less, and it’s not especially fun playing spot the difference between the two different versions.

I don’t mind doing it the other way round. If I’ve read the book, then I’m perfectly happy to watch the film. Indeed, I  tend to try and hunt down the film, once I’ve read a particularly good book, keen to see how a director, screenwriter, or actor has interpreted it, how their ideas might differ from mine. I was positively peeved on discovering that the film of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which is apparently every bit as good as the absolutely marvellous book, is almost impossible to get hold of on DVD. (See this post for more on the book.)

The thing is, when reading a book, although the words enter one’s head through one’s eyes, it is the mind’s eye which is really active, imagining the described events, characters, situations. In my head, they may not have the sharp, high-definition outlines that they would be given on screen, but they’re still there.

Right now, I’m reading Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, and while I’m not precisely certain of exactly what Mr Biswas looks like, I can definitely picture the Tulsi store, with its flaking, faded signs on the walls, and his little shop in the Chase, with its mud walls, its counter, the old tins up on the top shelf. I can imagine him on his bicycle with his daughter, precariously peddling along the track in the dark, when he is stopped by a policeman. If a novel is good, if it is well-told, then I can picture it.

Of course, films work differently. The film pictures everything for you. And so your interpretation of the story is coloured not just by the author, but by the director and the actors too. It is no longer your own imagination that has free reign with what is written, but all these other people are busy telling you exactly how to see everything.

How tragic, for instance, to equate Harry Potter with drippy Daniel Radcliffe! How sad to think of the brilliantly geeky Hermione as home counties posh kid Emma Watson! Acting skills aside, they spend the latest film looking like they’re modelling Gap’s 1996 collection. J.K.’s original creations were so much cooler, so much more interesting, so much more different, so much more real than the film’s insipid characters.

Having said that, I loved the latest Harry Potter film. I don’t really mind about Daniel and Emma because I read the books first, so my own versions of Harry and Hermione can stand tall alongside the film equivalents. Thank god I hadn’t seen the film first and then went through the ordeal of spending 600 pages hearing Daniel Radcliffe’s voice every time Harry Potter speaks, perpetually imagining him in Harry Potter’s wizarding shoes.

Dare I even whisper it, but, despite my reservations about the lead actors, I think the Harry Potter film is better than the book. All the endless guff about the Weasley wedding preparations is thankfully condensed into a marquee being erected by co-ordinated flicks of wands. The hundreds of dreary pages devoted to Harry, Hermione and Ron hiding out in a tent in the middle of nowhere is transformed into stunning views of British countryside, and, admittedly, a rather grim cheesy dance between the two Hs, in the style of a dodgy uncle dancing with a five-year-old at a wedding. But it is worth putting up with a few rather more flawed characters in order to whizz through the boring bits of the book in a few minutes instead of painfully protracted hours.

Perhaps it was because my imagination went into overdrive while contemplating J.K.’s wonderful wizarding world, that when I was reading the books I used to have incredible Harry Potter dreams. Rather than the usual tedious anxiety ones about being late for something, or not being able to find my clothes, or being stung by wasps, or teeth falling out, my dreamscape suddenly had epic proportions. I was saving the world from evil. And I could do really brilliant magic.

It was a relief and delight that after seeing the film the other day, I once again had some first class Harry Potter dreams. And the dreams were blissfully free of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and the rest of the film gang. Otherwise they might have been a rather nasty surprise. Instead I went to work the following day feeling pleased, quite satisfied that I’d just saved the world.

I’m not sure what Any Human Heart dreams would be like. But I shall endeavour to resist the billboards, supplements and endless reviews of the TV series, and read the book first. Otherwise, without my own images of William Boyd’s story, I might find Jim Broadbent frowning at me in my sleep, and I’m not sure that would be entirely pleasant.

Playing sport and reading about it

August 2, 2010

I saw the new version of The Karate Kid the other day – the one with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan. The one that should really be called ‘The Kung Fu Kid’. (Incidentally, apparently it is called that in China, where it’s set).

The best thing about the film was that it made me leave the cinema desperate to be a Kung Fu fighter. Although the fiancé swiftly grew tired of my impro fight sequences as we wondered along the street. ‘Haya,’ I shouted, repeatedly, as I moved from punch to chop to block to push, only really succeeding in pushing myself backwards, nearly into the road. Clearly I haven’t quite got my Chi under control.

The following day I decided to satisfy myself with a far more English sport. Tennis.

Tennis always makes me think of P.G. Wodehouse. It is the perfect country house pursuit – full of chatter, a touch of mild exertion, and with huge potential for comedy moments and breaks for lemonade, and perhaps freshly cut oranges.

It’s something about the tennis whites, and tennis racquets, and the fact that everyone spends the whole time saying ‘sorry’, as well as the occasional ‘good shot’, or ‘hard luck’ or, ‘no, no don’t worry at all’. It’s so silly, so English, and so much fun.

Anyway, we weren’t, I’m afraid, playing in whites, in a country house and accompanied by a tray of lemonade and oranges. Instead we were playing on a council court and we shared a tap-filled bottle of water. Standards have indeed slipped, although I was wearing my rather snazzy seersucker shorts. And, of course, we did spend the entire time apologising to each other. Does this happen in other countries too? Is it something that is tied to tennis, or just tied to the English?

I feel that sport has only ever occupied a rather marginal part of my life and, if possible, an even more marginal part of my reading. Good books about sport? Pah.

At the bookshop, they are always threatening to introduce a sport section. A few shelves that will be filled with books like Agassi’s (very popular) memoir, Open; Lance Armstrong’s various cycling books; that newish book about Duncan Hamilton (something to do with cricket); as well as all those silly vaguely humorous sport books like Penguins Stopped Play, which are almost invariably about cricket or golf.

SNORE. How dull. Surely the only good thing about sport is playing it. Oh, and I suppose watching it – although you might remember how I feel about the World Cup (here).

It is to my constant surprise that people actually want to read some comedy book poking fun at the antiquated rules of cricket, or a semi-literate memoir about playing lots of tennis.

I think the only thing that might redeem the afore-threatened sports section is if we could include books that aren’t just purely about sport, but in which sport features. Such as The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Basani (which I wrote about here), which revolves around a summer spent on a tennis court. And, indeed, Kawabata’s masterly The Master of Go. This is about a Japanese game – a little bit like chess – and one particular match that lasts several months. It is about poise and seasons and is utterly beautiful, perfectly structured in its smallness, just like a netsuke. By the way, other suggestions for novels which feature sports are gratefully received … just leave a little comment at the bottom.

I imagine that as the 2012 Olympics draws closer, the number of books about sport will multiply, which is a shame as I don’t think sport tends to translate that well into words. And isn’t it completely self-defeating? Apparently, following publication of the final Harry Potter book in July 2007, there was a much lower incidence of children admitted to A&E. Children were sitting down and reading the book, rather than running around, climbing trees, playing games – and sport – and injuring themselves. I suppose that’s a good thing. But I also read somewhere that people (rather neurotic people, I assume) were concerned about a possible increase in child obesity for exactly the same reason. Children who were normally pretty active, especially over the summer holidays, were instead leading sedentary lifestyles, absorbed in reading a book.

If someone’s really into football, they should go to the park and play it, rather than sit on the sofa and read a book about it. (Although, I imagine most football fans sit on the sofa, drink a can of lager and watch it on telly.) But surely reading books about sport stops one actually playing it? Unless, I suppose, one reads them en route to the game.

But perhaps there could be more imaginative ways of combining the two. Perhaps there could be ‘story-runs’, where everyone jogs along, listening to the same book (I suppose, not necessarily about running) through their earphones. Or could a book (perhaps about swimming) be piped through the water of a pool, so that whenever one dipped one’s head under one got a distorted earful of it?

Going back to tennis, whenever one swaps sides, one could sit down, have a glass of water (or lemonade) and read a quick paragraph or two. Although, I’m really not sure how reading could be combined with Kung Fu or Karate. Perhaps, given my dismal attempts at the moves, it’s best to keep that one as something to watch.

The Finzi-Contini cure for nostalgia

July 16, 2010

Having already blogged about nostalgia (here) a week or so ago. I found it again reappearing, pretty much in capital letters, in Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, my Italian reading for my Italian holiday.

The narrator of the story falls in love with Micòl Finzi-Contini, a wealthy beautiful Jewish neighbour. But Micòl is characterised with her nostalgia – preferring ‘the dear, the sweet, the sacred past’ to the present moment. When the narrator realises he is in love with her and kisses her passionately on several occasions she is completely frigid. She explains that it is because they were childhood friends:

she needed me to understand – it was absolutely unnecessary that we spoil, as we were risking doing, the lovely memories of a shared childhood. For us two to make love? Did it really seem feasible to me?

For Micòl, the past is more precious than the present. She sees the narrator in sepia, steeped in memories, awash with innocence. She refuses to pollute it, to alter the image by overlaying an adult perspective.

The failed love story of Micòl and the narrator takes place in 1930s Italy and is itself one giant memory, a lengthy nostalgia-tinted flashback. For in the Prologue the narrator says the ‘impulse, the prompt’ to write about the Finzi-Continis only happened ‘a year ago, one April Sunday in 1957’. An outing to some Etruscan tombs reminds the narrator of the ‘monumental tomb’ of the Finzi-Continis. And then he says, before the main story has even begun, that only one of all the Finzi-Continis he knew had ended up in the tomb. All the others:

were deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.

The morning shadow of that tomb looms over the story that follows. We know that these hot bright moments of youth – of tennis, of gardens, of climbing walls, of reading, of love – will be extinguished before evening falls.

And, with this introductory remark about the Finzi-Continis being deported, one imagines that the following story will be all about the approaching doom. And yes, the introduction of Racial Laws are mentioned in the book and the characters discuss how they have been affected by them – being asked to leave the library, getting into a fight at the cinema – but they are really just part of the background to what is really a story about falling in love, and that love not being requited.

But the knowledge of Micòl’s forthcoming death brings poignancy and a real frustration with her insistency on a nostalgic viewpoint in which her past has more weight than her present. I want to shout at her that soon she’s going to die, that their world is vanishing, that really it is the present that is so precious, such a brief flash of daylight before the Nazi eclipse takes hold.

Of course, for the narrator, it is a different nostalgia at work. Rather than Micol’s veneration of childhood, with no regard for the present, the narrator sees that entire youthful period as precious. For he is looking back from 1957, from after the War and everything that it entailed. And that nostalgia gives a certain sepia sanctity to his memory. And while heartbreak is so exquisitely described, it feels so divorced from what is going to happen next. How can the pain of first love possibly be real, given the pain that is to follow? How can these golden days have existed so close behind the mass extermination that is to come?

How can this book just be a love story? How can it really be about a boy’s friendship with a girl, him falling in love with her and she turning him down, when it’s set in the late 1930s in Italy?

This is where real tragedy lies. Real life continues and is so normal, so completely oblivious to the horror that is to follow, the horror that is on such a different scale, the pain so incomparable. And that normality – that innocence, those days of idling around a tennis court – becomes so unbearably painful, so unspeakably poignant, in the shadow of the War, which is to come and disrupt everything, silently end it all.

So to Hell with nostalgia! Why be wistful for the past when the present, actually, is pretty amazing? Unless some colossal tragedy on the scale of The Second World War were to get in the way, we can’t really complain. The present, each moment of now, should be of absolute paramount importance. For how are any of us to know what lies around the corner? How can we know what might burst out of the shadows and change everything? Only then, once something really truly horrendously awful has happened, do we have the right to pine for the past. Just think how stupid we’d feel if in the future we looked back and saw we’d wasted the golden moments of life longing for something in sepia.