Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

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


How to be Both

September 22, 2014

Outside the Piazza dei Diamante post-fountain dunkSome of you might remember my passing through Ferrara a few months ago, at the end of the Italian adventures of Emilybooks. I say passing through because we literally parked the car (rather too far out of the centre thanks to my misunderstanding of the map’s scale), walked up the main street which stretched on and on and on, reached a castle, turned right, saw the Palazzo dei Diamante (thank you architect husband), dunked my head in a fountain, ate two ice creams, and then returned to the car via a prettier windier route, and drove onwards to Vicenza.

I wish we had stayed a little longer, but we had to get to Vicenza in time to meet our Air BnB host. I was so excruciatingly hot that all I can really remember from our couple of hours in Ferrara was the sudden joy of having my head covered in cold fountain water, vastly overriding any embarrassment caused by the amused looks we got from nearby Italians. I wished we had stayed longer as I love the work of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some very poignant, very brilliant novels (or perhaps technically novellas) set in Ferrara, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which I’ve written about here and here. And now I wish we had stayed longer because just around the corner from the Palazzo dei Diamante is the Palazzo Schifanoia where I have just learned there are some extraordinary frescos by Francesco del Cossa. Frescos so extraordinary that one of the main characters in Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel How to be Both goes all the way to Ferrara with her Mum just to see these paintings, and the other main character is Francesco del Cossa the artist. How could I have missed them?!

How to be Both by Ali SmithAt least I haven’t missed the book. What a book! You must all read it. It must win the Booker. But how on earth to begin to write about it?

Ali Smith does a clever trick with How to be Both. The novel is split into two halves: part one set in the present day about smart, precocious teenager George (short for Georgia) whose mother has died; and part one about the fifteenth-century artist Francesco del Cossa. Half the print run of the novel has the George part one as its first half, and the other half has Francesco del Cossa’s as its first. It is a canny way of dodging Forster’s assertion:

it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel

which Smith rails against in her previous book Artful. Forster points out that prose must be one word after another, but with this trick the words come simultaneously before and after. It just depends on which copy you pick up.

So, let’s pause to reflect for a moment about how clever someone is who can write two halves of a novel, twist them around each other with connections and parallels and then engineer the plot to work both ways you encounter them. Right. And let’s not dismiss it as a gimmick, because really it is a signposting of Smith’s ongoing attempt to push at the very boundaries of what fiction can achieve, how narrative linearity can be bent and played with, made pliant to her demands.

The thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it’s always very clever, but never at the expense of the work itself. You don’t pick up the book and think Christ what a smart-arse. And, frankly, you might be forgiven for anticipating such a reaction. I mean, what if you just want to read an enjoyable novel but instead find yourself landed with some extraordinarily clever modernist work which grapples with huge questions of form and gender and linearity, striving for a unique and wonderful ‘bothness’ which has never before been achieved. You could be forgiven for feeling somewhat put out by having bitten off more than you’d bargained for.

But Smith’s prose is so alive, vivid, enthusiastic, energetic and engrossing, dancing with possibilities, that within a page or two you forget that you’re reading a great modernist challenge, and are every bit as caught up in the pleasure of the story as you might be in a more straightforward novel. There are moments when the bright ideas leap out at you, but they never pull the fabric of the story too far out of shape.

She has it both ways.

So, back to Forster’s assertion and Smith’s tackling of it. How then can a novelist deny time and its linearity? Aside from publishing two different versions at once.

Memory. In both halves of How to be Both Smith weaves memories through current events so that they occur simultaneously. George, grieving for her mother’s death, is in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve:

She sits down on the floor, leans back against her own bed and eats the toast.

It’s so boring, she says in Italy in the palazzo in the mock-child voice they always use for this game.

Just like that, from one sentence to the next, we are transported back in time to when George and her mother are in Ferrara.

There are photographs – moments captured outside of time. George has stuck photos of her mother above her bed; the photograph on the cover of the book surfaces a few times within it. And, by extension, there are films. George starts obsessively watching a porn film of a drugged girl and an older man. As she explains to her father:

This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

And there are works of art, including Francesco del Cossa’s frescos. Surviving through time, beyond death, inspiring people over centuries. And even these paintings have different, troubling, layerings of time. We are with George and her mother in Italy again:

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean that the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Again and again, we are asked to question which came first, what keeps coming, looking at the limits of time, and how they might be overcome.

George and her friend have to do a project on empathy for school. They decide to do it about Francesco del Cossa. Trying to imagine what the artist would be like, her friend says:

He’d speak like from another time … He’d say things like ho, or gadzooks, or egad … He’d be like an exchange student, not just from another country but from another time.

Then George:

He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague

George thinks:

She thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.

For alongside this preoccupation with cheating time and its insistent linearity, comes cheating death – the ending of someone’s time. Perhaps above all How to be Both probes the way that the dead and living exist alongside each other, overcoming their obvious beginnings and endings and times.

In the other part of the novel, Francesco del Cossa comes back from the dead. The artist has a peculiar invisible connection with George, watching over her, involuntarily following her about as though attached by a rope. Looking back at George’s musings above, one wonders, is this indeed the kind of stunt her mother would pull from the dead?

Or perhaps this is George’s empathy project for school writ large. For How to be Both is a startling exercise in empathy – a rendering of this silent strange connection between two people separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Another George – George Eliot – thought that the function of art was empathy:

to amplify experience and extend our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

Well then, How to be Both is a giddy, dizzying, mesmerising piece of art. Read it and I dare you to disagree.

Francesco del Cossa's fresco

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.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

June 24, 2014

Emilybooks’ days in Lucca are coming to an end, alas. On Thursday we will depart and head northeast to Ravenna, Vicenza, perhaps Venice, and then retreat rapidly through France, arriving back in London next Tuesday night.

The pain of leaving has been lessened somewhat by having some friends to stay for the past few days, accompanying us on jaunts up into the mountains, and to Viareggio, a rather haunting seaside resort of strange faded glamour. We also made another little excursion, pre-visitors, to Florence, namely to go on a tour of the ‘secret passages’ of the Palazzo Vecchio, as recommended by a friend, but key to the trip was also the desire to revisit a particular gelateria where we discovered the unparalleled joy of peanut ice cream. (It’s on Via Tornabouni, by all the designer shops, should you happen to find yourself there and in need of some refreshment.)

Dante by BotticelliThe Palazzo Vechhio tour was very interesting. We were shown various secret rooms, hidden inside the breadth of the enormous walls, and taken to the space above the ceiling of the hall of five hundred, where we could see all the clever workings of the beams and rafters. But it was most compelling for two reasons. Firstly, the lady began by asking the group if anyone had read the Inferno. I felt a little sheepish, for much as I would like to have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, perhaps even with facing page translation so that I, like Mrs Fisher in The Enchanted April could excuse myself by saying ‘I speak only the Italian of Dante’, that was a book that didn’t make it on to the Emilybooks travelling bookcase. My sheepishness deepened into extreme AppleMarkshame when about half of the tour group nodded and said they had indeed read it. Who were all these scholarly folk, so convincingly disguised in the t-shirts, shorts, functional sandals and backpacks of the quotidian tourist? But then all became clear when the guide elucidated – by Dan Brown, yes, not Dante? It transpired that Mr Brown’s book was all set in the Palazzo Vecchio, hence why they all wanted to see its secret passages.

Cosimo de Medici's tortoiseBut the tour’s MOST compelling discovery was the symbol of Cosimo de Medici, which cropped up in various paintings throughout the richly adorned apartments: a tortoise!!!!!! But not just any tortoise, a tortoise with a sail on its back, signifying, apparently, his belief that when doing anything one must first be slow and thoughtful – like a tortoise – and then go full steam ahead, as it were (or, back then, full sail ahead). I thoroughly approve, and have been considering the logistics of rigging up a little sail on Daphne’s thoughtful shell.

So the books now being read take on the added weight of being THE LAST BOOKS to be read in Lucca. It is almost as hellish as deciding what to have for our last supper here, or which flavour combination in our last gelato. I knew, however, that I had to re-read EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. I last read this (and wrote about it) a few years ago, and knowing it to be slim but potent, and of course set in Italy, I thought it a perfect choice.

It is, however, almost impossible to write about, mostly because it is too slim to be able to tell much of the plot without ruining it. So I shall try to evade any massive spoilers, but do look away now if you really don’t want a whiff of any of it.

Where Angels Fear to TreadEven though this was my second time around, Forster still managed to wrongfoot me. Where Angels Fear to Tread seems, to begin with, to be about Lilia Heriton – a widow, who breaks off the stuffy bonds of provincial life and her snotty in-laws by travelling to Italy (with a companion, of course), and then falling in love. (So far, so similar to A Room with a View.) Her brother-in-law, Philip, is speedily dispatched to rescue her, for she has fallen for an Italian and not even a member of the Italian nobility, but Gino, the handsome son of a provincial dentist. There is a wonderful moment when he is eating spaghetti:

When those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times – seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.

It’s brilliant! I love this idea of the spaghetti transforming him, that there is something quintessentially Italian about it. Indeed, Forster stresses the link between Gino and the Italian land elsewhere too, using the same adjectives ‘mysterious and terrible’ both for him and for the Tuscan landscape, as seen by the English. Here, Philip can see the charm and beauty of this Italianness, while snobbishly seeing that it is not of a gentleman.

Philip tries to buy him off, but discovers it is too late, for Gino and Lilia are already married. Then:

At no one moment did Lilia realize that her marriage was a failure; yet during the summer and autumn she became as unhappy as it was possible for her nature to be.

Then poor miserable Lilia is killed off, dying in childbirth. This all happens before we even get half-way through the book. So evidently it isn’t going to be another Room with a View – our subject isn’t the English middle-class lady exhilarated by the Italian landscape. It gradually becomes clear that Forster’s subject is Philip. Indeed, in a letter to his friend RC Trevelyan, which is printed in the back of this Penguin edition, he says:

The object of the book is the improvement of Philip, and I did really want the improvement to be a surprise.

Sorry for ruining the surprise, and I shall indeed stop with the plot synopsis now in order to avoid any greater spoilers.

So Where Angels Fear to Tread is about the improvement of Philip, but at the same time, I felt it to be about the futility of that improvement. So long as there are people about like Harriet – Philip’s awful, moral, pious, didactic sister – English snobs who are so convinced of their being right that they will force their view on others, rather than, like Philip, be improved by exposure to a new culture – then the English will only do harm. Any goodness that develops in Philip is rendered useless by Harriet’s actions (don’t press me on the plot details if you don’t want me to give it away!). Essentially, the goodness of a quiet observer is never going to have so much of an effect as the badness of a loud doer.

This is made all the more troubling by the many parallels between Philip and Forster himself. If Forster, in his first complete novel, was already gesturing towards the feebleness of the gentle, male, sexually ambiguous observer – however great his ‘improvement’ as the novel progresses – then it doesn’t show a great vote of confidence in his own role as writer-observer. This male observer figure was to reappear in many of his books, such as Mr Beebe in A Room with A View, and even Fielding in A Passage to India, who fails in his attempt at a friendship with Aziz.

Forster is one of my very favourite writers, so of course I would never dream of calling him a failure, but perhaps he felt this to be the case himself, and was too aware of the limits of his work. He wrote, after all, only six novels, stopping after A Passage to India, even though he lived for nearly another fifty years. It is a great shame, and all the more so for there being this portrait of the powerlessness of an observer even in his very first, and very brilliant, novel.

The Portrait of a Lady

June 16, 2014

What is it about Italy and its views?

Having first been struck by Forster’s A Room with a View, which seemed to me to be all about the importance of a good view and being able to see clearly – something which Italy can give the English traveller, if he or she is sufficiently open to it – now I’m struck by the same thing in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Only James’s book, written thirty years earlier, has a rather sadder conclusion.

The Portrait of a LadyIsabel Archer is American. Young, intelligent, pretty, she has been taken up by her aunt and brought first to England and then to Italy, though she has so many suitors falling at her feet it is somewhat remarkable that she is able to move anywhere at all. First there is strong, hard Caspar Goodwood – an American heir to a cotton mill; next there is ridiculously English Lord Warburton. There is also the rather wonderful Ralph Touchett – Isabel’s cousin – who knows his is a hopeless case as he is dying of consumption, but contents himself to watch Isabel blaze her path, persuading his father to leave her half of his own fortune in his Will:

‘I shall have the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who won’t marry Lord Warburton.’

He goes on to add:

‘There will be plenty of spectators!’

Indeed, we readers are of course amongst the keen spectators, wondering what it is that Isabel Archer will do with her life, now she has become a woman of independent means.

She tells us, simply:

‘I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.’

When Ralph says, ‘You want to see life – you’ll be hanged if you don’t, as the young men say,’ she counters:

‘I don’t think I want to see it as the young men want to see it. But I do want to look about me … I only want to see for myself.’

James conjures a kind of double vision around Isabel: there are all her ‘spectators’ – those who are watching her – and also what she can ‘see’, her desire to ‘look about me … to see for myself’.

So off she goes to Italy to broaden her horizons. Unluckily for Isabel, the sinister Madame Merle, a friend of her aunt’s, has taken an interest in her – and in her newly acquired money – and introduces her to villainous Gilbert Osmond. Osmond and Madame Merle are thick as thieves, and we soon gather than he will be Isabel’s next suitor. We fear the worst. Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood both turn up again and are turned away. Ralph, who we feel has the best chance of making her, literally, see sense, fails too, and we soon gather that Isabel has accepted Gilbert Osmond.

How can our heroine, seemingly so keen on independence, on seeing the world, be so taken in by Osmond? Perhaps the best light is shed on him by Ralph:

Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his eye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was pose — pose so subtly considered that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived so much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world’s curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It had made him feel great, ever, to play the world a trick.

So Osmond is another double vision – one who ‘lived with his eye on’ the world. We know him as a great aesthete, a collector of things which are pleasing to the eye. He looks at works of art, however, only to become a work of art himself.  In contrast to Isabel’s innocent openness to her spectators, Osmond is all ‘pose’. Constantly aware of those who look at him, he poses with sufficient skill to take them in – well, perhaps not such a sharp observer as Ralph, but certainly poor wide-eyed Isabel.

In Claire Messud’s brilliant essay on re-reading The Portrait of a Lady, published in the Guardian, she describes Osmond’s ‘ability to reflect light so that he may appear to shine’. Is it really so surprising that naïve Isabel, who is so keen to see ‘the world’, is taken in by this man of the world, a trickster who has perfected his illusion?

When we rejoin Isabel three years into her marriage, we learn that it is a very unhappy one. Tellingly, they live at the Palazzo Roccanera in Rome, meaning ‘black rock’, and images of darkness persist. Osmond once reflected light, but now he has plunged Isabel into the dark depths of misery.

I shall go no further with the plot, for this is when all the twists and turns and revelations begin, and I hate to be a spoiler. We wonder, along with the other characters who are all keen observers of Isabel’s fate, will she ever be able to see clearly? Will she see through conniving Madame Merle and cruel Gilbert Osmond? Will she see her way through to freedom?

A Room with a ViewLet us jump forward a few decades to EM Forster’s A Room with a View, which I wrote about in more depth here. Like Isabel Archer, Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy wanting ‘something big’. She wanders through Florence reflecting, ‘The world … is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ Then she is mesmerized in the Piazza Signoria, as it transforms itself into a true chiaroscuro in ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’. She sees a man killed in a duel and thinks it is her fault for wishing to see something so big:

‘She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Lucy Honeychurch sees Italy and so sees the world, and so – and this is the most important thing – is eventually able to perceive the truth about herself and the other characters who exert influence over her, such as the oddly compelling Charlotte Bartlett. For a while it seems as though she might not succeed, but the comic muse wins out and all ends happily ever after. How tragic, that poor Isabel Archer, whose trajectory appears to be at first along such a similar path, is taken in by a fiendishly well-executed trick and plunged forever into darkness.

Reading through Henry James’s notes and Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, I was struck by how much he employs the language of vision here as well as within the novel proper. It is in his Preface that he so famously wrote about ‘the house of fiction’, which has:

Not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its very front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine … [the windows] are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher.

He really knows how to string out a sentence! I can just tell that hundreds of pages have been spent arguing about the particular meaning and relevance of this passage, and I can’t hope to begin to do justice to it here. All I will say, however, is that readers and characters have become watchers, each perspective is unique and, vitally, limited – windows are a somewhat treacherous aperture through which we must perceive.

Interesting, then, at the end of A Room with a View, when George and Lucy return to the Pension Bertolini in Florence, George:

strolled to the window, opened it (as the English will), and leant out.

I somehow feel that Henry James didn’t want anyone to open his windows and lean out of them. His spectators are stuck behind the rigid panes of glass – indeed, sometimes even further stuck behind field glasses! Perhaps this is where he achieves such brilliant tension in The Portrait of a Lady. Everybody is able to look, but they are limited in their observations and unable to reach through the glass and do anything. Isabel Archer might have looked out of the window – indeed, in the chilling denouement scene, Henry James pictures her doing exactly this, and she sees the truth ‘as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass’ – but unlike George and Lucy, she could not open the window and see ‘all the view’.

Perhaps she was just thirty years too early.

Incidentally, you might like this piece I wrote for The Junket for some more thoughts about windows, including this beautiful one by Ravilious.

Belle Tout Lighthouse by Ravilious

Pride and Prejudice

May 12, 2014

Emilybooks’ Italian adventures continue apace. This has been a week of travelling and seeing things, thanks to the husband doing a great deal of driving (we have even purchased him a peaked cap), while I somewhat uselessly map-read and look out for road signs. Driving in Italy is both puzzling and terrifying. There appears to be a completely different attitude to things like roundabouts, sliproads and pedestrian crossings. Indeed crossing the road, at a crossing, is so alarming that I can only manage it by closing my eyes before stepping out into the traffic, which does grind to a halt but with extreme reluctance and only just in time.

The Etruscan tortoiseWe went to Volterra, where we met a dozy hot tortoise in the garden of a charmingly old-fashioned Etruscan museum, filled with urns on which were carved scenes from the Odyssey and the Underworld. Then we hopped on to San Gimignano, where we found a pretty square with herringbone paving remarkably free of the tourist hordes. Another trip took us to Orvieto, where I loved the alabaster windows in the Duomo. There, we went underground to see two of the city’s hundreds of man-made caves. There are paths from each cave up to a house, and the city’s inhabitants still use them as cool places to keep things like food and wine, as has been the case since the Etruscans! We stayed with Emilybooks in-laws not far from Orvieto, and they took us on a breathtaking long hot walk up a mountain, where there were an astonishing number of tiny wild flowers, including beautiful orchids. As we sat and ate sandwiches on a grassy bank, two cows and their calf padded past us rather nervously, their bell ringing with each faltering step, and it seemed serene and quite poetic, before I discovered the ants that were scurrying their way into my pants.

Beautifully displayed classicsOn the way back to Lucca, we stopped at Pienza, a beautiful Renaissance town, with an especially lovely Duomo. There was some absolutely terrifying subsidence, however, and I was almost too scared to stand in the cathedral’s sloping half, as the cracks on the floor and walls were so extreme that you felt that it might slip off the cliff at any given moment. Then on to Sienna, where we sat on the Campo with a slice of pizza and watched Italian schoolboys dressed up in the green, white and red costume of their Goose Contrada as they paraded around with drums, flags and a brass band. We also stumbled upon a sweet little bookshop, where all their classics were displayed as so.

Heart-shaped grassIt has not all been travel, however, and there have been some lovely afternoons picnicking and reading on the walls of Lucca, where I discovered this peculiar, pretty grass with heart-shaped leaves. It seems particularly apt company while reading Pride and Prejudice.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice is such an enjoyable experience, that I am caught in that push-pull of wanting to consume it very rapidly indeed and feeling the panic of the end getting closer and so only allowing myself a few short chapters per sitting.

Pride and PrejudiceLast year was the 200 year anniversary of its publication and I’d thought it would be the perfect excuse to finally get around to re-reading it. I’d last read it as a cynical, precocious and, no doubt, proud and prejudiced fourteen-year-old, who couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. I was aware that my silly teenage self was far more likely to be wrong about it than the millions of people who declare it one of the best books ever written. Added to which, Penguin have published this completely beautiful, and gloriously yellow, hardback edition. But the year slipped past without it ever being quite the right time to read it. Perhaps one’s brain has to be in a more languid place to read classics, rather than full of London’s hectic hurrying about.

Pride and Prejudice, read out here during long lazy afternoons and evenings is, of course, wonderful. I am particularly enjoying Austen’s rather personal and eccentric approach to spelling, with her cavalier attitude to rules like i before e except after c, and feeling free to just miss off a letter or two, should she feel like it. While I am usually a stickler for correct spelling, hers is so dotty and unexpected that it makes me sit up and look at each misspelt word afresh. I find myself surprisingly happy that Penguin, for whatever reason – the note on the text doesn’t make it clear – has decided to keep her spelling as is, as so many words that would normally drift past jolt me to attention. I wish I knew more about spelling in the early nineteenth century. Could everyone afford to be quite so lackadaisical with it? Was it a time when any spelling would do so long as the reader understood the meaning rather than everyone getting so het up about it? If someone would care to enlighten me, I’d be fascinated and very grateful.

I am struck by how well Austen moves between the heads of her various characters. I’ve grown so used to the various screen adaptations that I’ve come to think of Pride and Prejudice as entirely Lizzy Bennet’s story: she is our heroine and so everything must be focalised through her. While she is undoubtedly the main character, and the one to whom we – and Austen – pay the most attention, Austen also flits between the minds of her other characters in a manner that seems to me not dissimilar to Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for instance, which comes at the end of volume ii, chapter ix. Elizabeth is staying with her friend Charlotte, who has married Mr Collins, and the two friends are puzzled as to why Mr Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam visit them quite so often:

It was plain to them all that Colonel Fitzwilliam came because he had pleasure in their society; a persuasion which of course recommended him still more; and Elizabeth was reminded by her own satisfaction in being with him, as well as by his evident admiration of her, of her former favourite George Wickham; and though, in comparing them, she saw there was less captivating softness in Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners, she believed he might have the best informed mind.

But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice – a sacrifice to propriety, not a pleasure to himself. He seldom appeared really animated. Mrs. Collins knew not what to make of him. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s occasionally laughing at his stupidity, proved that he was generally different, which her own knowledge of him could not have told her; and as she would have liked to believe this change the effect of love, and the object of that love, her friend Eliza, she sat herself seriously to work to find it out.

Austen nimbly switches from Elizabeth’s opinion of Fitzwilliam and recollection of Wickham to Charlotte’s musings on Darcy. In between the two of them are a few sentences (‘But why Mr. Darcy … He seldom appeared really animated.’) which could belong to either of them, or indeed both. This ambiguity conjures a conversation between the two friends, as though they’ve spent hours puzzling over the mystery together and this is the resulting opinion shared by the pair of them.

Austen’s is a very clever and very satisfying manner of storytelling, which enables the reader to dive into various consciousnesses and come away with nuggets of information of which other characters remain ignorant. The most obvious example is of course Darcy’s attraction towards Elizabeth Bennet, to which we are privy, while she remains ignorant. It has also made me look at the infamous first line in a new light:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I had always thought this was one of those arch statements after which everyone laughs or tuts knowingly at Austen’s wit and knowledge. But perhaps it isn’t the authorial narrator speaking here. Indeed, it seems more likely that it is actually in Mrs Bennet’s consciousness that we begin the book. She is the first person to speak, just a paragraph later, and as her husband teases her (Austen would have spelled it teazes) into conversation, she soon says that Bingley is:

“A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

It is such a close echo of the opening line, that it does suggest that the truth universally acknowledged is silly Mrs Bennet’s opinion, rather than Austen’s.

Austen’s moving between her characters’ consciousnesses, thereby revealing aspects of them to the reader, is particularly apt given that Lizzy, our heroine, as Bingley says of her, ‘is a studier of character.’ She is a studier of character who, in spite of assiduous observation, completely miscomprehends both Darcy and Wickham. If only she were to have the benefit of dropping into other characters’ minds enjoyed by us readers. So then, Austen’s storytelling technique encourages us all to become studiers of character. She has certainly given us some wonderful ones with whom we can begin.

By the way, I realise that my photos tend to be of tortoises or books, rather than beautiful cathedrals and piazzas. Sorry. I shall attempt to mend my ways.

A Room with a View

May 6, 2014

A Room with a ViewOne of the greatest reading treats for my Luccan adventure is a selection of Forster’s works, which made their way into the travelling box of books as essential re-reading. I had initially thought I’d begin with Where Angels Fear to Tread – his first novel, but after my mentioning A Room with a View last week met with such a warm response, I found myself itching to read it instead.

And it was bliss. For what could be better than reading of the liberating, exhilarating affect of Italy on stuffy English people while being a stuffy English person being happily liberated by Italy? And oh how I felt thankful to be in Italy with my equivalent to George Emerson, rather than dreadful Miss Bartlett.

Perhaps it’s unfashionable now, but still I really like the way Forster’s novels engage so openly with ideas. A Room with a View is essentially a playing field for England versus Italy: self-consciousness, snobbishness and constraint versus sunshine, passion and instinct. It is also – clue’s in the title – about views. Forster stresses the importance of being able to see clearly, whether that’s Santa Croce, the Sussex Weald, or, more profoundly, being able to perceive the truth within oneself. Most English people, Forster suggests, are so tied up in social conventions, Baedeker guidebooks and worrying about what one is supposed to see, that they cannot see the truth. Italians are the opposite. George Emerson and his father are exceptions to the rule, as they are able to follow their instincts and speak the truth rather than following social convention, so they are looked down on by most of the other characters. The great question for the plot is: can our heroine Lucy Honeychurch also see a true view?

The signs are positive, as the Reverend Beebe observes when Lucy plays the piano, especially Beethoven, with such instinct and passion:

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’

It all seems to be going rather well, with Lucy fainting into the arms of George Emerson after witnessing a deathly duel in the Piazza Signoria, and then being kissed by him among the violets of Fiesole. But dreadful Miss Bartlett is forever getting in the way and steering her onto a more respectful course of action. We leave Italy behind after this dramatic kiss and return to England several months later where we see Lucy accepting a proposal of marriage from awful Cecil Vyse. Cecil is as English as they come – all pomposity, snotty snobbishness and selfishness. (He won’t even make up a tennis four, which seems to Lucy to be the height of bad manners!) Poor Lucy, we despair for her, for while she seemed to be on the verge of seeing everything, now her vision has clouded over. Luckily the comic muse intervenes and, without wanting to give everything away, we can rest assured that, unusually for Forster, everything works out very pleasingly indeed and Lucy struggles through the darkness and manages to see exactly what it is that she does want.

Another thing I love about Forster is his talent for creating moments when the surface reality of the scene peels away to something quite horrific and profound beneath. In A Passage to India, it happens in the resounding empty ‘ou-boum of the Marabar Caves. In A Room with a View, it is there in the duel in the Piazza Signoria. Lucy, tellingly diagnosed by Mr Beebe as having played ‘too much Beethoven’, decides to go out alone that evening:

Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big…

Forbidden to go on a tram alone, she goes to a shop and buys photographs of various works of art. Now I better quote at length, as it really is such an extraordinary moment that I’d hate to paraphrase:

But though she spent nearly seven lire the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. She was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. ‘The world,’ she thought, ‘is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ It was not surprising that Mrs Honeychurch disapproved of music, declaring that it always left her daughter peevish, unpractical and touchy.

‘Nothing ever happens to me,’ she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.

She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace, which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky. Its brightness mesmerized her, still dancing before her eyes when she bent them to the ground and started towards home.

Then something did happen.

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. ‘Cinque lire,’ they had cried, ‘cinque lire!’ they sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

That was all. A crowd rose out of the dusk. It hid this extraordinary man from her, and bore him away to the fountain. Mr George Emerson happened to be a few paces away, looking at her across the spot where the man had been. How very odd! Across something. Even as she caught sight of him he grew dim; the palace itself grew dim, swayed above her, fell onto her softly, slowly, noiselessly, and sky fell with it.

She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Isn’t it extraordinary!

Here we have a cave, years before Forster wrote about the Marabar caves. Instead of the paintings of which she purchases photographs, the square becomes a true chiaroscuro, all encompassed in shadow and twilight except for the blazing tower of the palace, ‘a pillar of roughened gold … some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky’. It is ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’, the hour when wishing something hard enough can prompt it to happen. ‘Oh what have I done?’ thinks Lucy as she faints after witnessing the duel, the man killed in front of her, the blood trickling out of his mouth. It is as uncanny as a dream.

A little later, once recovered, she walks with George back to their hotel and he throws her photographs into the Arno. Understandably, a little ruffled by this, she asks him why, and he tells her they were covered in blood. It’s a potent symbol: these purchased views of works of art – the things one is supposed to see in Italy, written about in guidebooks – stained with the blood of a dead man, the real drama of the uncanny view she has just experienced. The blood makes the photographs seem trivial, staining them with its evidence of life and death. Evidently, art is not life.

Gosh EM Forster is wonderful. A Room with a View risks being dismissed as too ‘nice’, (indeed Forster himself called it his ‘nicest’ novel), little more than a social comedy, some brilliantly observed portraits of silly English characters let loose in Italy. Of course it is all this, and there are many moments when chuckles escape, or when one is so pleasingly carried away by the sunny plot. But Forster was also writing having read Freud, at the time when the Moderns were beginning to push at the limits of narrative. While he would never be as experimental as Joyce or Woolf, or even DH Lawrence, how can we overlook these cave-like moments where we encounter something uncanny, shocking and profound?

Alas, I have been so carried away by Forster that I’ve written little of my off-page adventures … so here is a rather less dramatic, but splendidly bookish view I encountered while wandering around Lucca last week.

Books in Lucca


Chop Chop

April 28, 2014


Emilybooks has arrived in Lucca! Here she will stay for the next two glorious months – reading a great deal, writing – let’s hope – something, gazing at the many beautiful old buildings (while the architect husband sketches and is inspired by their brilliance), eating a colossal amount of pasta, and trying her hardest to speak Italian.

So far the attempts at the latter have met with a mixture of bemused smiles, answers in English, and occasional kind efforts to help. Yesterday morning, we stumbled into a café for a quick coffee before getting the train to Florence. I was busy eyeing up the croissant selection, so it fell to the husband to order his own coffee.

‘Caffe … con … um … what’s milk again Ems?’


‘Caffe con latte … oh yeah, caffe latte.’

The man laughed, concocted a powerful coffee, and then said, as he gave it to him, ‘anche, cappuccino’.

‘Caffe latte,’ the husband repeated, bewildered.

‘Si, anche cappuccino.’

‘He says it’s also called cappuccino,’ I translated.

The husband smiled vaguely, ‘Si, grazie.’

I tried to explain that he was ‘stanco’, tired, and the man looked non-comprehending so I wonder what I actually said. Then I said that my chocolate croissant was ‘delicioso’ and he looked rather fond of us, I thought. He must have realised we were English as he tried to talk to us about the weather, but unfortunately my vocabulary doesn’t stretch far in that direction. If only he’d got me on pizza toppings.

As we hurried to the train station, the husband woefully rubbed his head and said, ‘I’ve got to get some Italian in there.’

‘Well caffe latte is definitely a good start.’

‘That’s French anyway. He said it’s cappuccino.’

So we have a long way to go. I am determined that by the end of our trip, we will go into that same café, and have a lovely, fluent conversation with the kind man which goes beyond different names for a white coffee.

Italy books

We drove here through France, which meant that we could bring rather a lot of stuff. When I say stuff, I mean books. A huge box of them clogged up the boot, promising many happy hours spent with my head between their covers, and, on arriving, you can see I swiftly colonised a bookcase. I thought this the perfect opportunity to re-read some classics; I long to go back to various EM Forsters, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and The Portrait of a Lady. I’ve also brought a few of those books that I’ve long meant to read and never quite found the time: The Sound and the Fury, The Rings of Saturn, The Grass is Singing (swapped for The Golden Notebook on a dear colleague’s fulsome recommendation), plus of course a couple of Persephone Books and a few other novels that look promising. We also have a great many guidebooks and then there are all the husband’s big architecture books. (When I say ‘we’ drove, I mean the husband did, while I ‘map-read’.)

Really, I suppose my first post should be about something like A Room with a View. I certainly felt a little like I’d stepped out of it, when we went to Florence yesterday to meet a couple of friends who happened to be staying there, at the end of their holiday. We met in Piazza della Signoria, and I had to stop myself from exclaiming, ‘Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker.’ I suppose the hordes of tourists somewhat lessened the feeling of being quite so grand, but no matter.

Chop Chop

But no, my first post is a week overdue (apologies…) and is in fact about the last book I read in England, over the Easter Weekend, which I spent with friends, including its author. Chop Chop is Simon Wroe’s first novel. He is a former chef – which was an added treat for the weekend – and has written this darkly funny book about what goes on in a Camden gastropub’s kitchen. I think the weekend was a rather unnerving experience for Simon, as Chop Chop seemed to be the only book that people were reading (apart from, coincidentally, A Room with a View, which someone else had brought along); I counted five copies on the go in total… We tried to persuade him to give us a little reading, but to no avail.

So now, as I think back to reading Chop Chop, I leave the domes and towers of Tuscany behind and am transported back to seedy Camden Town. I have to say it does make me feel rather smug to be away from it.

What struck me as most impressive about the book is its energy. It is so punchy, grabbing you by your jacket collar and mouthing off in your face. It’s full of banter, rough jokes, loud voices, noise, heat … Essentially Simon does a stupendously good job of capturing the atmosphere of a busy kitchen in the very texture of his prose.

It is impossible not to be caught up in this hot whirlwind, as we follow the fate of our naïve bookish protagonist, nicknamed ‘Monocle’, as he attempts to survive in the brutal world of the kitchen, replete with vile characters, for whom one ends up feeling a surprising amount of affection.

Beneath all the noise, heat and pressure of the kitchen, are rather more sinister undertones. Gradually we piece together Monocle’s past … We also venture into the seedy underworld of Camden Town, through the unforgettable character of The Fat Man:

The Fat Man eclipsed all else as he ate. And how he could eat! Three or four starters, and every main going. Tremendous amounts were consumed, seemingly without limit or pleasure. Despite his booming bonhomie and the sharp smiles he flashed at Bob or the nervous front-of-house staff, his face bore no trace of joy or appreciation as he ate … Yet every morsel was devoured, every plate wiped clean. He treated food as billionaires treat money, as showgirls treat presents from admirers. An entitlement he claimed even though it disgusted him

There are rumours that The Fat Man controls the Camden underworld. He is a man who commands a certain disgusted respect, a man to whom one cannot say no. He seems peripheral to the plot – just one of many well-drawn Camden characters – until Monocle, finds himself having to sous chef at a special dinner at his residence. The money is good, the task awful, as becomes clear as soon as they ask what they’re cooking:

‘A special something, my boys. A special something.’ He leaned in, eyes wide. ‘Have you ever heard of the ortalan?’

We had not.

‘It’s a tiny, rare songbird,’ The Fat Man explained. ‘You drown them in brandy and roast them in a clay pot. They’re so little you can crunch the bones.’

So the poor chefs must drown twenty songbirds, pluck them, and roast them. They are instructed to bring them to the diners when the bell is rung three times. Then, on carrying the birds into the dining room:

Five figures sat around the table, the head of each one bowed and covered by a sheet of black silk. Their faces were hidden, from God or from us, from both. They neither moved nor spoke. Fun or fulfillment was not their intent. Pleasant company had not brought them here. Theirs was a grimmer ceremony: of blood letting, of sin, of guilt and taking away.

Even in Italy, I am still haunted by this image of silk-draped sin. This is just the beginning of our view into The Fat Man’s sinister world – I will leave it there for fear of spoilers… I still shudder to think of it, this horrific man with so many people in his thrall, guzzling his food ‘as showgirls treat presents from admirers’. It’s almost enough to put me off my huge plates of pasta. (Although Simon, being a very well-informed foodie, has kindly sent me a list of restaurants in and around Lucca which sound so delicious that they are sure to eclipse the ghost of The Fat Man…)

Chop Chop is a terrific book. Its energetic prose pulls you into the fast, tough world of the kitchen, then reveals the dark secrets behind the bravado and banter, what lies beneath all the steam and the smoke. It’s exciting to discover a new voice, especially one so fresh that packs such a punch … I can’t wait to discover what he might write next.

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.


March 3, 2014

How I love Penelope Fitzgerald!

I have Hermione Lee’s – apparently glorious – biography of her sitting here, which I look forward to undertaking, though I have to admit to being a little daunted by its immense size. Rather uselessly, whenever I reach for it, I find myself picking up one of her slim, genius novels instead. I have re-read Offshore several times now, and am forever going back to the perfect opening to The Blue Flower and the beautiful ending of The Beginning of Spring.

Innocence by Penelope FitzgeraldLast week, I picked up Innocence. The more astute readers among you might have noticed something of an Italian theme in my reading of recent weeks. Innocence, which takes place in and around Florence, comes after The Leopard and Journey by Moonlight. It hasn’t so much been an intention, as an inescapable tug, for at the end of April, Emilybooks plus husband will be moving to Lucca for two months! So how can I resist these literary inklings of what is to come? I even made the husband watch the very old film of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April – one of my favourite novels. (You see, I pointed out emphatically as the credits rolled, we will be having our very own enchanted April! This is what you’ve been making everyone read? he asked. Everyone must think you’re mad.)

Well, I’m certainly not as mad as the wittily named ‘Aunt Mad’ in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Italian novel Innocence. Her eccentricities extend to setting up the ‘Refuge for the Unwanted’ – a place where lonely old women look after homeless infants. Sweet idea, but in reality it’s a run-down hovel, where the old women have sold the brass taps to buy presents for the babies, many of whom they’ve hidden away to try to avoid handing them back to the authorities.

One of the great pleasures of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are the wealth of endearing, eccentric characters, such as Maurice in Offshore, or Selwyn in The Beginning of Spring. Innocence offers especially rich pickings. As well as Aunt Mad, there is reclusive cousin Cesare who manages the family vineyard, brilliantly forthright British boarding-school friend Barney, nobly impoverished Count Giancarlo Ridolfi, and die-hard old Communist Sannazzaro – ‘thought to have only one idea in his head, not just one idea at a time, but the same idea for many years’, and many more. At the heart of the novel are Chiara Ridolfi, an Italian aristocrat who has just left her convent school in England, and Dr Salvatore Rossi, an older neurologist from the South, son of a Gramsci-worshipping communist. They meet at a concert and fall violently in love with each other, but being rather hopeless in effectively acting on their feelings, there follows something of a rocky, if short, road to their marriage.

With this ‘marriage plot’, Fitzgerald weaves many stories which show failed love affairs. Chiara’s father, the Count, married an American heiress, who disappeared back to America, leaving him with Chiara. Aunt Mad married an Englishman, who returned to England. Barney’s English romantic ‘He’ becomes her ‘Disaster’, whom she resorts to stabbing in the leg with her fork at dinner. Then she declares her love to silent Cesare but to no avail. Even the seemingly happy marriage of Gentilini – Salvatore Rossi’s great friend – is shown to be far from perfect when his wife faints at Chiara’s wedding, revealing herself to be so ‘downtrodden’ (in Barney’s words) that she is never allowed out and so is overwhelmed by the social exertion.

Most affecting, and most subtly written, is Cesare’s unspoken love for Chiara. It brings a painful angle to his enduring silence. Our real clue to this love is when he buys four sheets of paper and an envelope from a tobacconist. Fitzgerald tells us all the things he doesn’t write, but, teasingly, not what he does. Then:

However, he went on writing with increasing speed and concentration, until all the paper was used up … When he had finished he read the letter through. Then he took the four sheets of paper, tore them into a number of pieces, and threw them away.

‘At least that’s something I haven’t done,’ he said aloud. It was irritating, though, to be left with the unused envelope.

Nothing is spelled out; we are asked to read between the lines. It would be easy to miss this torn-up love letter, and to think of Cesare as no more than a strange silent recluse, rather than a heartbroken proud man. It makes the moment at Chiara’s wedding, when Aunt Mad asks him to say a few words about the groom, almost unbearable:

‘But I don’t speak,’ said Cesare. ‘You know that, aunt.’

‘You could say something pleasant about Salvatore, a kind of introduction.’

‘I don’t know anything about him,’ said Cesare mildly.

‘I certainly don’t want to be described,’ said Salvatore. ‘That’s one thing I hope to be spared, to know exactly what kind of a man I am.’

‘Well, I should be glad to know what kind of man you are,’ said Aunt Mad.

‘The kind that loves your niece Chiara, and would give his life for her.’

In the atmosphere of wine and winter sunshine, it sounded not at all absurd, in fact it was not absurd and no-one thought it was. Aunt Mad seemed moved, others sitting nearby also seemed moved and began to clap their hands in frank admiration. Mad looked up again at Cesare, who said calmly, ‘You see how much better he speaks than I do.’

It’s only unbearable if you’ve twigged that Cesare is love with Chiara, otherwise he just seems obtuse. With this knowledge, those adverbs – ‘mildly’, ‘calmly’ – become weighted with heartbreaking, painful restraint.

In asking us to read between the lines like this, rather than laying it on thick, Fitzgerald fosters a spirit of empathy in her readers. She warns us off quickly dismissing people, asking instead for our sympathy, for our understanding that there are reasons for people’s seemingly odd behaviour that deserve respect.

Innocence begins with a disturbing story about the Ridolfi family in the sixteenth century, when they were a family of midgets. They went to great pains to ensure that their midget daughter thought she was normal-sized, so the garden steps were miniature, the statues too, and they only employed midgets and dwarfs. Catastrophe strikes when Gemma, the daughter’s midget companion, has a growth spurt. The daughter ‘was not in the least concerned about herself, only about her friend’, thinking she’ll be treated as a monster in the outside world, where she thinks everyone is midget-sized. She thoughtfully ‘took to walking a few steps ahead of Gemma, so that their shadows would be seen to be the same length’.  She prays to be shown a solution for her friend’s plight, reflects that ‘it was worth suffering to a certain extent if it led to something more appropriate or more beautiful’, and then:

Since Gemma must never know the increasing difference between herself and the rest of the world, she would be better off if she was blind – happier, that is, if her eyes were put out. And since there seemed no other way to stop her going up and down the wrong staircases, it would be better for her, surely, in the long run, if her legs were cut off at the knee.

So we see the terrible violence that can spring from innocence.

This story, almost a parable really, echoes through the rest of the narrative; we keep an eye out for examples of pain unwittingly caused. I’m not sure if it isn’t a bit too obvious for so subtle and understated an author. Could we not have seen all the unknowing violence wreaked by innocent Chiara without such an obvious pointer? Could the pointer at least have been worked into the main body of the text, rather than standing out so sharply at the beginning? As it is, this opening, powerful though it may be, somewhat undermines the deft brilliance of the rest of the novel.

This is but a quibble. Innocence is a wonderful novel, revealing much about naivete and love, and about Italy, and the English in Italy. I loved its cast of dotty characters, all rendered so perfectly that they have stepped off the page and into my life. When we go to Tuscany, I shall keep my eyes peeled for them all, and try not to be too like good old blustering Barney, or, for that matter, Aunt Mad.

Penelope Fitzgerald with her reassuringly messy bookshelves

And you – are you a Penelope Fitzgerald fan? Of course I would love to know your thoughts on any of her wonderful novels, or indeed of the biography.