Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Journey by Moonlight

February 17, 2014

And while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen …

Journey by MoonlightThis is the brilliant final line of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Beginning with ‘And’, ending with ellipses (Szerb’s not mine), the novel doesn’t so much finish as keep on going. It leaves you asking what will be the next coincidence in this wonderful novel of chance, wandering and possibility.

Nicholas Lezard begins his excellent Guardian review saying that once he got to the end of Journey by Moonlight, he went straight back to the beginning. I found myself doing the same. It wasn’t that I wanted to re-read it all, but just to remind myself how it began, to try to join those dots.

The opening is nearly as good as the ending:

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

Immediately we know that the book will be about travel – train journeys, wandering through alleys – and about trouble. Szerb explains that his protagonist Mihály is in Italy because:

He was now married and they had decided on the conventional Italian holiday for their start to married life. Mihály had now come, not to Italy as such, but on his honeymoon, a different matter entirely.

So we are introduced to Szerb’s unique lightly ironic tone. He points out the flaws and shortcomings of his characters, but their marvellous eccentricities make it impossible to lose your sense of humour and feel too cross with them. He invites you to laugh at his characters rather than criticise. (One of my favourites is the Hungarian academic, who sleeps all day, has the messiest study imaginable and eats only cold meat so thoughtfully provides a banana as some variation for Mihály when he comes to dinner.) Throughout the novel, however fed up we get with Mihály, we still forgive and indulge him, just as Szerb here points out and forgives his conventional honeymoon.

Mihály finds himself wandering through the Venetian back-alleys all night. He returns to his hotel and finds that he cannot explain himself to his wife:

‘So this is marriage,’ he thought. ‘What does it amount to, when every attempt to explain is so hopeless? Mind you, I don’t fully understand all this myself.’

These wry asides are another feature of the book, which made me want to jot down line after line as the perfect comment on something or another. A real gem is:

November in London is a state of mind.

The scene is set: a new marriage, foundering even during its honeymoon, and a man who doesn’t understand himself. His attempt to understand himself – a great deal of self-reflexive wondering – is translated into his wandering feet, through the back-alleys of Venice and then further afield.

The opening is a metonym for what will happen in the rest of the novel, not only in the way it captures so many elements of Szerb’s brilliant style, but also in terms of plot. Before long, Mihály accidentally gets on a different train to his wife and instead of trying to find her again, continues his Italian wanderings alone. (His wife, meanwhile, goes to Paris, stays with a girlfriend, and becomes involved with a friend of Mihály’s and an enigmatic, tigerish, Persian.)

As Mihály wanders, he is running away from his ‘bourgeois’ present – his conventional honeymoon, his job in the family firm, his whole middle-class life – and trying to return to a period of adolescence when he was friends with a bohemian brother and sister. They used to spend their time role-playing, stealing, pretending to kill themselves and being rather too close to each other. He is haunted by his relationship with them, and the novel is a testament to the power of this nostalgia.

Mihály feels lost as to his future. His wanderings are driven by his desire for this period of his youth. He doesn’t know what to do now or next, wanting only to reconnect with his past. Perhaps this is why we feel the need to go back to the beginning of the book, once we’ve reached its end – its whole drive is pushing back into the past.

You’d have thought this might be problematic in terms of plot and pace – for surely you want to be thinking about the future, what happens next, rather than revisiting past events, but Szerb is very good at keeping us on our toes. It’s a bit like Murdoch’s Under the Net: you’re forever guessing where the protagonist will go next, who’s knocking at the door, or lurking down the alley. Somehow the elaborate chain of coincidences doesn’t feel excessively, annoyingly staged, rather it heightens the eerie dreamy feeling that pervades the book.

Szerb sets up one situation especially self-consciously, pointing out its unlikeliness:

Erzsi’s sense of unreality grew and grew … It was as if everything had been prepared in advance. Of this Erzsi no longer had any doubt.

Erszi realises she’s been manipulated and set-up by her lover. At the heart of this scene, she has an intense moment of self-realisation:

She was sobbing, and horribly tired. This was the moment of truth, when a person sees the whole pattern of their life.

Szerb draws attention to people’s vulnerability to being manipulated into situations, while suggesting that they depend on this manipulation in order to realise a truth about themselves.

It is symptomatic of the whole novel – through a series of remarkable coincidences, Mihály comes to learn about himself. Reality has to become unreal in order to grasp the greater reality. In dreams you encounter more profound truths than in waking life. Szerb uses all his coincidences to give a dreamlike feeling to the book, thereby making it a means to tackle many big truths about the human condition, such as the urge to escape mundane life, the link between sex and death, and the power of nostalgia.

Journey by Moonlight was written in 1937, at a time when Europe’s future looked increasingly bleak. (It certainly proved to be so for Szerb, who died in a forced labour camp in 1945.) It is not so surprising then that it is preoccupied with the past. In many ways it is a love letter to ancient Italian cities, with their rich Roman, Etruscan and folk history (there’s a particularly intriguing bit about Gubbio’s doors of the dead). It is also a celebration of a time when people moved freely through Europe – Hungarians coming to Italy, going on to Paris, meeting Englishmen, Persians, Americans … Szerb catches the experience of travelling through Italy just before everything changed. Incidentally, Pushkin are just about to publish Szerb’s notes on his own travels through Italy, The Third Tower.

I suppose I’ve made Journey by Moonlight sound rather heavy-going, European and serious. It is, but it is also very very funny. It is a brilliant novel – dreamy, witty, picaresque, intelligent, wry … and impossible to sum up.

Nicholas Lezard and Paul Bailey will be talking about Antal Szerb to his translator Len Rix at the Daunt Books Festival (programme here) at 12 noon on Friday 28th March. It’s going to be amazing – unmissable for anyone who is a Szerb fan, and an inspiring introduction for those new to his work. You can book here, if you scroll down a bit.

For more on Szerb, here’s my post on his first novel, The Pendragon Legend.

Antal Szerb

The King of a Rainy Country

June 10, 2013

The King of a Rainy CountryAs some of you will have by now discovered, there are few things I love more than reading a book in its setting.

So it was a wonderful coincidence that when I began reading The King of a Rainy Country on Thursday morning, immersing myself in the bohemian world of Susan ‘somewhere off the Tottenham Court Road’, I remembered I was heading down to Soho that very evening for a friend’s birthday party. I decided that if I hurried down to Soho after my day at work in the bookshop, I might just have time to sit in a café for half an hour or so and read a little bit more before joining my friends.

After work, I hopped on the tube, hopped off at Tottenham Court Road and decided to treat myself to an unbelievably expensive coffee at Bar Italia, not least because I think the till they have there is so extraordinary and I wanted to have another peek at it. You could imagine my delight when I sat down with my coffee, feeling peculiarly on holiday with the background noise of Italian radio and the unusually warm evening, when I read in the novel that by extraordinary good fortune, Susan and Neale – her sort of but not quite boyfriend – stumble into a travel agents and end up getting jobs as ‘couriers’, i.e. tour guides, and going to Italy.

I felt as though, just for a moment, my world had collided with Susan’s. Although, as I emerged from the café and headed to the party, finding that everyone was now speaking English and the temperature had dropped rather, the illusion swiftly passed.

Susan is a sympathetic character in more ways than just this accident of circumstances. At one point, she asks another character why she likes her:

O, sympathy of some sort. Tu sei molto simpatico.

It is a huge achievement for a writer to create a character who one feels so instinctively aligned to, in sympathy with. Perhaps it is helped by the honest, confiding opening:

I had been scared for a fortnight. Concentrating on my fear, I became dogged and literal. At once another fear seized me; fear that I might bore Neal.

I recognized the day, the moment I woke, as the day of the interview. Only secondly did I remember I was moving house.

Who hasn’t woken up with that stomach-clenching realisation of terror – that feeling of argh today’s the day, the horrid sweaty nerves of a job interview? And how often has that day of terror collided with a completely different reason to be nervous – moving house or some such – when the fear doubles up on itself? It made me think of the awful morning I awoke to face my final A-level exam, followed by meeting my then boyfriend, who had been wanting to break up with me but had ‘thoughtfully’ decided to wait until I’d finished my exams. The double dread of having to go into that exam hall for an English paper and then walk down to St James’s Park to face the music with him was completely horrific.

You can’t help but sympathise with poor Susan, and admire the way she gets on with it in spite of her nerves, taking a taxi to Neale’s flat, then anxiously taking a bus to the interview:

My mouth was so dry that it caused me a palpable pain to ask for my ticket.

The moment I knew I was utterly committed to her was a couple of paragraphs later when she is walking down Park Lane to the interview and gets lost ‘in autobiographical fantasy’:

I told some imprecisely imagined interlocutor that each year I hoped to have outgrown being moved by the autumn and each year I hadn’t.

It’s just the sort of pretentious idle fantasy in which I indulge when wandering along. Mine usually goes along the lines of imagining what records I’d choose for Desert Island Discs, or what I’d say when asked about the inspiration for my first novel on The Culture Show. Far too long is spent in such vain, idiotic, autobiographical fantasy, and it is cringingly embarrassing to admit to. I loved Susan’s disarming honesty in telling us this straight up.

Of course when Susan then gets a job working for a bookseller, I essentially decided we were versions of the same person, and so shouldn’t really have been so surprised by the coincidence of my going to Italy via Tottenham Court Road that evening.

On the face of it, Brigid Brophy sets up a straightforward narrative. A young woman gets a job and moves in with her boyfriend. But Brophy is too playful and clever for this. The bookseller turns out not to be just a bookseller. just as his name turns out not really to be Finkelheim. The boyfriend turns out not really to be a boyfriend. It’s not long before they move settings and go to Italy to try out a whole new scenario.

Brigid Brophy wrote The King of a Rainy Country in 1956, a time when, I suppose, people’s narratives were beginning to seem particularly changeable. Brophy’s own life certainly twisted and turned, resisting a straightforward path. She went up to Oxford only to be sent down for ‘unspecified offences’. She married an art historian, but then had an open marriage, enjoying affairs with men and women. Like her creator, Susan doesn’t settle into a straightforward life.

It is the ambiguity of Susan and Neale’s relationship and their sexuality that is so exciting. One is always wondering, are they sleeping together? Are they about to sleep together? Are they falling in love? Is Neale going to sleep with the young French man he picked up, who knows no English other than the word ‘quair’? Is Susan still in love with Cynthia, her crush from school?

There is a casualness to gender and relationships that is refreshing today and must have been strikingly unusual in 1956. Susan and Neale are trying things out for size, experimenting with different roles, finding their feet with an innocence and naivete which is very endearing. It is no coincidence that the other works alluded to in the novel include As you Like it and The Marriage of Figaro – with their cross-dressing and ambiguous, playful treatment of gender.

I shall leave you the enjoyable, twisty-turny plot to discover for yourself. Be assured that it is peppered with very funny moments, as well as acute observations. There is an overarching poignancy for being that age, so free and open, and the vulnerability which that entails.

When they pass through Paris, Neale looks up at the shuttered windows:

“Anyway, what is it about the shutters?”

“The slats,” I said.

“Yes, it’s clever. They give an impression you can see in, though in fact you can’t. And isn’t that the whole of romance?”

Perhaps, then, this is the ultimately romantic book, teasing us with its subtle, playful opacity. You think you can see in to Neal and Susan’s relationship, but in fact you can’t. You think you can see into Susan’s feelings about Cynthia, but you can’t. It isn’t that Susan is wilfully hiding from the reader – as I said, she is winningly sympathetic – but she is still discovering her feelings and sexuality herself. We join Susan as she gradually prises open the shutters, and share the spirit of discovery, excitement and pain that it brings.

We should all be grateful to The Coelacanth Press for prising opening the shutters on Brigid Brophy herself. This remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life and, if this is anything to go by, wrote wonderful novels, is almost forgotten. The Coelacanth Press have republished The King of a Rainy Country as a labour of love – it being the only book they’ve published. I urge you to buy it and keep Brophy on the bookshelves. It might even encourage The Coelacanth Press to publish more work by such wrongly neglected, brilliant writers.

Brigid Brophy

The Enchanted April

April 15, 2013

The Enchanted April pbkIt would seem that English women in the 1930s were all in desperate need of a holiday. As Mrs Wilkins explains to Mrs Arbuthnot in The Enchanted April:

Why, it would really be being unselfish to go away and be happy for a little, because we could come back so much nicer.

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are miserable middle-class Hampstead wives, stuck in loveless marriages. Going into town to buy fish for their husbands’ dinners is more-or-less the highlight of their days.

We could add to Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, E.M. Forster’s earlier middle-class women Lilia Heriton and Caroline Abbott from Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Margaret Kennedy’s Florence Creighton from The Constant Nymph. This dire need of a holiday was not, however, just a middle-class thing; it was also felt by wealthier ladies. In The Enchanted April there is young, beautiful Lady Caroline Dester, worn out from too many parties. Or in Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge there is Lady Grace Kilmichael, who is fed up with her husband and children and wants to travel around the Mediterranean and paint.

Nearly a century later, not much has changed. We all could do with a nice long holiday. If I were to happen along the following advertisement, as Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot do at the beginning of The Enchanted April, I too would long to go:

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

For our 1930s fictional counterparts, this advertisement proves to be a rare catalyst for independent action. They quietly defy their husbands, recruit two more women to their cause (the aforementioned Lady Caroline Dester, and formidable elderly dowager Mrs Fisher, who doesn’t stop banging on about her friendships with all the great, dead Victorian intellectuals), and rent this castle, San Salvatore, for April. As the name ‘San Salvatore’ might suggest, this holiday will indeed be their ‘saviour’, their salvation, from the dreariness of London life.

The Enchanted April hbkThe Enchanted April could easily be a delightful, soppy story about women going on holiday and being transformed by joy. Mrs Wilkins, on her first morning in San Salvatore looks out of the window and feels utterly overcome with emotion:

Happy? Poor ordinary everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light.

I have a weakness for this kind of sentimental gush, but for those of you who are a little tougher, fear not, for The Enchanted April is brilliantly balanced by Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful sense of humour. She is forever poking fun at her characters, wryly observing their habits, putting them in awkward situations and watching them stew. Take this, for instance, perhaps my new favourite literary food quotation:

Mrs. Fisher had never cared for maccaroni [sic], especially not this long, worm-shaped variety. She found it difficult to eat, – slippery, wriggling off her fork, making her look, she felt, undignified when, having got it as she supposed into her mouth, ends of it yet hung out. Always too, when she ate it she was reminded of Mr. Fisher. He had during their married life behaved very much like maccaroni. He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified, and when at last she had got him safe, as she thought, there had invariably been little bits of him that still, as it were, hung out.

Perhaps you need to have more of an idea of pompous old Mrs Fisher before really getting the hilarity of it. Think Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, all dressed up in lace, sitting down to lunch, bang on time, by herself, in a gorgeous yet shambolic Italian castle, and being confronted with a rebellious plate of pasta.

Needless to say, when I told the husband that he might be compared rather unfavourably to macaroni, he was a little troubled.

There are other very funny moments too. Mr Wilkins (summoned to San Salvatore by his wife) can’t handle the Italian plumbing. On arrival, the first thing he tries to do – in true English fashion – is have a bath. But he manages to blows up the stove. Then:

Mr Wilkins leapt out of the bath and rushed to the door, and only the instinct born of years of training made him snatch up a towel as he rushed.

He manages to run straight into Lady Caroline, a.ka. ‘Scrap’, who he is keen to impress because she is so posh. Indeed he has spent hours on the train carefully choosing his words of greeting, and yet here he cries out, ‘That damned bath!’:

No, it was too terrible, what could be more terrible? Only a towel on, water running off his legs, and that exclamation … Rarely did Mr. Wilkins use that word, and never, never in the presence of a lady or a client. While as for the towel – why had he come? Why had he not stayed in Hampstead? It would be impossible to live this down.

But Mr. Wilkins was reckoning without Scrap. She, indeed, screwed up her face at the first flash of him on her astonished sight in an enormous effort not to laugh, and having choked the laughter down and got her face serious again, she said as composedly as if he had all his clothes on, ‘How do you do.’

Some might dismiss this as no more than farce, but surely Von Arnim uses this comic instance to capture the essence of her characters. Here is Mr Wilkins, whose deepest instinct is for modesty and decorum, so of course he is excruciated by his improper behaviour to a Lady. Scrap manages to fall back on her impeccable manners. Mr Wilkins, amazed at her magnanimity, reflects ‘blue blood, of course.’ It is a perfect distillation of two different English classes.

These English women who go on holiday – usually to Italy – seem to flourish in their new setting. They are exhilarated and liberated by it and so are able to act independently, free from the restrictions they felt in England.

Von Arnim’s descriptions of Italy centre on the garden at San Salvatore, in a way that reminds me a little of how Vita Sackville-West wrote about the house in All Passion Spent, with its heavenly peach tree ripening in the sunlit garden. Von Arnim suggests that her female characters are not so different from flowers – one of them is even called ‘Rose’ – but most unexpected is the transformation of old Mrs Fisher, with her:

curious sensation, which worried her, of rising sap … a ridiculous feeling as if she were presently going to burgeon.

The plant metaphor is extended: ‘she might crop out all green … come out all over buds.’ Mrs Fisher, like the other three women, blossoms in the Italian Spring. They are able to be at their most natural and beautiful. All the lovely descriptions about the flowers blooming in the gardens come to be a reflection of the blossoming women who happily laze around in them. I’ve not read Elizabeth Von Arnim’s other famous book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, but I imagine something similar happens there.

The novel ends with a gorgeous description of the flowering acacias. And then:

When, on the first of May, everybody went away, even after they had got to the bottom of the hill and passed through the iron gates out into the village they still could smell the acacias.

The implication is that, having blossomed abroad, these women can return to real life still touched by the holiday. That scent of the acacias will stay with them, as will the transformative power of the Italian Spring. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot have been reunited with their husbands and will go back to London feeling rather a lot happier. It’s not so dissimilar to the end of Illyrian Spring.

These are happy endings, but suggest that holidays are somewhat flimsy. Yes, of course everyone feels better after a nice long rest, but nothing major really changes. After all, the characters return to their old lives. For how long will they be able to smell the acacias?

Where Angels Fear to TreadWhat about fictional portrayals of holidays which have a more profound effect on women? In E.M. Forster’s  Where Angels Fear to Tread, Lilia Herriton remains in Italy, which has tragic consequences. Her companion, Caroline Abbott, eventually returns to England but her heart is left behind in Italy, and one feels she probably won’t end up living happily ever after. Or, take Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph: Sensible, likeable Florence goes off to The Tyrol where she lands a musician husband and tries to tame several wild children. She brings them all back to England, but rather than slipping happily into her old English life she struggles with these wild appendages and, ultimately, fails.

The Constant NymphA holiday can do us a world of good, yes, but sometimes the disjuncture between how one can be on holiday and how one can be at home persists afterwards. What if you can’t translate this new-found blossoming into your old life? What if a whiff of freedom only serves to poison your constrained future? Tricky questions which Forster and Kennedy were brave enough to ask.

Perhaps Von Arnim, who wrote The Enchanted April after the break-up of her second marriage, was relying on the fact that at least in fiction she could conjure a blissfully happy ending. Perhaps it’s best that we aren’t left thinking too hard about what might happen next, once Mrs Wilkins is back in Hampstead and has nothing to do other than buy fish for her husband’s dinner. Instead we are encouraged to believe in the magic of San Salvatore, trusting that the scent of the acacias won’t fade.

It was certainly a novel that I relished for its enchantment. Reading it last week, as London’s Spring at last began to stir, I felt like I was on holiday just by reading the book. I hope that the revitalising effects will last. For now, at least, the husband might be getting macaroni, not fish, for dinner.

Elizabeth Von Arnim

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.

8 1/2 – Fellini’s fantastical philandering

September 13, 2010

After a game of doubles on Saturday afternoon on Highbury’s leafy green tennis courts, the fiancé, a couple of friends and I headed back to the friends’ house to zonk out with biscuits and cups of tea in front of a film.

It was rather decadent to be watching a film, snuggled up inside, curtains drawn, on a beautiful late summer evening and so we picked a suitably decadent film to watch – Fellini’s .

It’s a wonderful film – beautiful, lush, mad, and … well soporific. We all briefly drifted off at various points. Perhaps it was the shock of an hour’s exercise followed by a post-chocolate-digestive-binge sugar low. Perhaps it was also the black-and-whiteness and the long periods of the film where the only music is the sing-song intonation of Italian voices.

But falling asleep seems like an appropriate reaction to a film which begins with a dream, and through which fantasies and memories are seamlessly intermingled with reality, giving everything a dreamlike, surreal air.

The following evening, the fiancé asked me what it had been like to watch , ‘as a woman’. Point being that the main character – Guido – is a suave film director who has several affairs as well as a wife. At the film’s climax, he fantasises about a harem of all his lover who shower him with adoration; when he needs to control his women, he does so with a whip.

‘Dream on,’ I felt like saying to the fiancé.

But although Guido comes across as a bit of a schmuck, there is something so beautiful, so opulent, so fantastical about all his infidelity that I found myself not outraged by his actions, but actually rather impressed.

It brought to mind a book I read a little while ago called In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey. This funny and poignant faux-autobiography takes the form of a middle-aged man recounting the love affairs of his youth. And, in case you haven’t guessed, he finds older women better – kinder, sexier, more fun, less oppressively serious – than younger ones.

But most of these older women of his are married. So he essentially goes through life having a series of illicit, often overlapping, affairs. And now all these women are contained within the pages of a single book – perhaps this is Vizinczey’s own version of Fellini’s harem of lovers. The women prance, preen, sprawl, splay through the pages, controlled entirely by the male narrative voice – just as Fellini’s Guido whips them into shape, or – as a director – tells them what to do.

In Praise of Older Women’s protagonist – András – grows up in Hungary, and most of his descriptions of unfaithful, thrilling liaisons take place there and (nice coincidence) in Italy, land of Fellini. But when András goes to Canada, people’s frigidity makes him lose his ‘cherished faith’ in older women. Vizinczey describes a particular episode when András goes to a residential university conference and tries to sleep with a flirtatious married woman. When they head off into the bushes, she begins to umm and ah about it; they finally get going only to hear her husband nearby, causing the woman to jump up and run off to him. The following day she is wracked with guilt until András tells her that she shouldn’t feel bad as they didn’t really do anything – they stopped before they even really started.

But instead of feeling pleased at this display of fidelity – or near fidelity – the reader’s sympathies lie with András. What a tease! What an outrage! What an idiotic housewife! There is definitely not even an inkling of good for her for returning to her husband.

Both In Praise of Older Women and are told from the philandering male’s perspective, and perhaps it is simply a mark of Vizinczey and Fellini’s achievements in constructing such persuasive protagonists that the reader/viewer sides with the man rather than the women. I think adultery is awful, vile, horrendous. But somehow, in these fictional worlds, it is transformed to something beautiful, sensuous and, well, human.

Guido’s chic and elegant wife in comes across as cold, harsh and petty when they argue about his affairs. Played by Anouk Aimée, she is certainly beautiful and stylish. But she is so cold compared to Guido, almost robotic, inhuman, unreal. Yes some of her coldness must be a protective reserve against his philandering, but take, for instance, this scene where she comes and visits him at the spa.

Her clothes are elegant but not feminine, she has short boyish hair, sensible glasses, a fragile boniness – she might break when he kisses her softly hello. She smiles when she sees him but it seems to be an involuntary reaction, quickly stifled. Perhaps this comes into relief best a few scenes later when she catches sight of one of his mistresses – an overdressed, voluptuous tart – and the two of them are portrayed side by side. One can see why Guido might want to have his tart and eat her.

I suppose the thing with is that it pronounces itself from the start as definitely not real life. Events are collaged together with dreams and fantasies. There is flattering soft focus and bleaching over-exposure; this is the world of shimmering silvery black-and-white cinema. And the cover of In Praise of Older Women is also in black-and-white. (Is it ironic that it makes adultery no longer seem such a black-and-white situation of bad philandering versus good fidelity?)

But life is in full colour, and there is no way of choosing flattering camera angles, doing clever cuts, bringing romantic music to a scene. And adultery, in real daylight, or in seedy lamplight, isn’t a beautiful thing at all. Blind eyes aren’t turned by ever-forgiving wives, and mistresses aren’t always at the man’s beck and call. Marriages are spliced in two and children are ferried from one half to the other.

So what did I think of the film, ‘as a woman’? Well, I thought it was beautiful and I thought it was bloody dangerous. It was seductive enough to make one feel that one could gracefully step into that shimmering world, cast off conventional morals, and twirl and swirl and fool around so lightly, so easily.

But, I suppose, even if one were to enter that world, there’s always the dreadful risk of ending up in a harem, being whipped around by a man wearing a bit of a daft hat.

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.


July 12, 2010

Having spent a couple of days in Florence’s nostalgia and searing heat, I am now happily stationed in a pretty villa in the Tuscan hills, surrounded by undulating shades of green.

While I am here, I will be taking part in an epic game of Cluedo.

Now this isn’t the Cluedo that immediately springs to mind – the board game involving Mrs White in the Library with the Lead Piping. This is a far more devious game.

In this Cluedo, everybody writes down an object which can be found somewhere in the villa or nearby – a weapon – and also a location, again in the villa or nearby. Then we all draw slips of paper out of various hats – the name of someone else here, a weapon and a location. Over the week’s holiday it is our mission to murder that person in that location using that weapon.

Now, luckily, I won’t actually have to club someone over the head with a bottle of sun lotion under the sun umbrella until they die. To kill somebody, one has to get them to take hold of the object, in the correct location. So, I might need to make a certain person eat spaghetti in the shower, or take a nail file into the swimming pool, or carry a book into the rosemary bush … Then I just need to shout ‘Die die die’, and I will have succeeded in my mission. I would then take on their assassination task and continue until there is only one survivor.

At first glance this might have no more literary resonance than an overambitious murder mystery novel. The scene is set – a group of friends in luxurious isolation in Tuscany – but rather than one sinister murder, there are a spate of them, and several different perpetrators.

There are, indeed, several red herrings – essential to any murder mystery worth its salt. Whenever anyone asks anyone else to pass them anything, eyebrows are raised, breath is held – is it really ok to pick up the blueberry jam or will that moment of holding it, while seated at the breakfast table, be the death of you? The seemingly innocent, ‘Let’s go for a wander into town,’ becomes thick with the insinuation of being lured into the correct location, especially if you set off carrying an incongruous object – ‘would you mind carrying this onion for me?’ Twitchy paranoia is quick to take hold.

So yes, it is a little bit like reading an Agatha Christie. A murder is going to take place and one’s eyes are peeled for clues, so much so that it is easy to be taken in by red herrings, to treat every slightly suspicious circumstance as a serious threat. The air is filled with expectation – when’s it going to happen, who’s going to die first, who’s going to be the most canny killer?

But it’s also a bit like writing a story.

You see, you have picked up three pieces of paper, which provide the very rudiments of plot. And somehow, you have to engineer everything to make that situation a likely one. A narrative must be constructed to plausibly conclude with that person in that place holding that object.

It has to be a convincing narrative. If you were to just suddenly ask someone to carry a bowl of spaghetti into the shower they’d never do it. They’d be too suspicious. So, over the next few days, you need to weave the background – the back story. Perhaps you might place a bet with the victim that food tastes completely different depending on where it’s eaten. Or, you might try to get them to eat pizza in the pool first – as a decoy – so that spaghetti in the shower seems like a natural successor.

It needs to be convincing and it needs to be subtle. The victim can’t know what you’re planning on doing to them, just as, when writing, whatever’s going to happen can’t be too obvious. And all the better if something intriguing happens along the way. I suppose, even if you failed to get them to eat spaghetti in the shower, it would be quite a jolly Bildungsroman to seem them eat pizza in the pool, tiramisu on the roof of the car and garlic bread while doing a handstand.

So we’re all here, idling around a swimming pool, spinning our own fictions. One person is suggesting to everyone that it would be a good idea to go into town, and to take a Frisbee along. Another person is suggesting a walk in the hills, with a pot of coffee. And someone else is trying to get a certain person to go and see what’s poking out from behind the rose bush.

I suppose the only problem is that everyone is weaving their own story and so, of course, they get tangled together. Everyone has a different main character, a different objective, conflicting narrative arcs. It is getting rather knotted and messy.

What we need is some kind of omniscient narrator to create a masterly web of intrigue, drawing out particular threads at different times, knotting strands together to make mini climaxes, letting something hang free when our attention should be elsewhere.

Instead, the week will be spent with everyone trying to engineer very peculiar situations indeed. And everyone doing it at once. Brits abroad … I wonder what the neighbouring Italians will think.