Novella a Day in May 2022 No.29

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles – Giorgio Bassani (1958 trans. Jamie McKendrick 2012) 125 pages

I’ve been meaning to read Giorgio Bassani for a while and have The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in the TBR. This project in May seemed the ideal opportunity to read the first of his novels set in Ferrara, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. From this first encounter I can say I found Bassani to be a truly devastating writer.

The titular eyewear belongs to Dr Athos Fadigati, who has left Venice to settle in Ferrara. His story is told by a narrator looking back to when he was a young man and knew the doctor:

“It was in 1919, just after the other war. Because of my age, I who write this can only offer a rather vague and confused picture of that period. The town centre caffes spilt over with officers in uniform; lorries bedecked with flags continually passed by […] in front of the north face of the castle, a huge, scarlet advertising banner had been unfurled, inviting the friends and enemies of Socialism to come together to drink APERITIF LENIN”

The doctor is well-liked in the town, affable and competent at his work, a breath of fresh air after the old-fashioned medics previously available. In a small town though, people take an interest in everyone’s business, and no-one can work out why Dr Fadigati is single, or where he goes of an evening. When they realise he is gay, no-one cares so long as he is discreet. An insidious homophobia that can easily become explicit and threatening.  

“Yes – they said – now that his secret was no longer a secret, now that everything was as clear as could be, at least one could be sure how to behave towards him. By day, in the light of the sun, to show him every respect; in the evening, even if pressed chest to chest against him in the throng of Via San Romano, to show no sign of recognising him.”

Dr Fadigati starts commuting to Bologna along with the young university students of the town. He is such a sweet, kind man, who only wants to connect with others.

“He was happy, in the end, with the least thing, or so it seemed. He wanted no more than to stay there, in our third-class compartment, with the air of an old man silently warming his hands in front of a big fire.”

Unfortunately, the students – who have known him and been cared for by him their whole lives – do not always behave well: “little by little, without meaning to, all of us began to show him scant respect”. This includes a humiliating exchange with one of the young men, Deliliers, who doesn’t respect the doctor’s privacy and alludes to his sexuality in derogatory ways.

Things escalate during the annual family holiday to Riccione. The narrator sees the doctor and Deliliers together, and the town can no longer ignore the doctor’s sexuality. Around the same time, the narrator faces increasing antisemitism, demonstrated by fellow holiday-maker Signora Lavezzoli’s support of Hitler. The family find themselves treading a similar tightrope to the one Dr Fadigati has had to navigate, trying to stay safe amongst a discriminatory and prejudiced society.

“Romantic, patriotic, politically naive and inexperienced like so many Jews of his generation, my father, returning from the Front in 1919, had also enrolled in the Fascist Party. He had thus been a Fascist ‘from the very beginning’, and at heart had remained one despite his meekness and honesty. But since Mussolini, after the early scuffles, had begun to reach an agreement with Hitler, my father had started to feel uneasy.”

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles makes full use of the reader’s knowledge of history. It is a deeply upsetting read, showing how quickly unspoken prejudice can escalate and be supported by wider political and legal frameworks. It demonstrates how easy it is for ordinary people to become part of widespread evil – one of the narrator’s friends decides to join the government, not through any ideological belief but because it is a useful opportunity. The ease with which it happens and the casual acceptance of the racial laws, is horribly believable.

Bassani uses the story of Dr Fadigati to fully drive home the consequences of the rise of Fascism and Nazism. It’s remarkable in portraying the tragedy that ensues in a deeply emotional but also carefully restrained way.

“The setting sun, cleaving through a dark cope of cloud that lay low on the horizon, vividly lit up everything: the Jewish cemetery at my feet the apse and bell tower of the Church of San Cristoforo only a little further on, and in the background high above the vista of brown roofs, the distant bulk of the Estense Castle and the Duomo. It was enough for me to recover the ancient, maternal visage of my hometown, to reclaim it once again all for myself, that atrocious feeling of exclusion that had tormented me in the last days to fall away instantly. The future of persecution and massacres that perhaps awaited us – since childhood I had heard them spoken of as always a possible eventuality for us Jews – no longer made me afraid.”

I’m so glad I finally picked up Bassani and I’ll be returning to him for sure. Just as soon as I’ve recovered from this novella, which could take some time…

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.22

Troubling Love – Elena Ferrante (1992 trans. Anne Goldstein 2006) 139 pages

Although the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet baffled me a bit, I had better luck with her stand-alone novella The Lost Daughter.  This meant I was keen to try Troubling Love, and having finished it I did think that maybe I should give the quartet another try…

Delia’s mother Amalia has died in odd circumstances – drowned, found wearing only her bra, a glamourous one that Delia thinks it out of keeping with her mother’s style. As she returns home to Naples from Rome for the funeral, Delia finds herself reflecting on her past and trying to piece together what happened with her mother, both then and more recently.

“The streets of topographic memory seemed to me unstable, like a carbonated drink that, if shaken, bubbles up and overflows. I felt the city coming apart in the heat, in the dusty grey light, and I went over in my mind the story of childhood and adolescence that impelled me to wander along the Veterinaria to the Botanic Gardens, or over the cobbles of the market of Sant’Antonio Abate, which were always damp and strewn with rotting vegetables.”

Delia reflects on her childhood and her abusive father, who possessively and violently guarded his attractive wife. Delia’s memories of her painful home life are conflicted and contradictory. She despises her father but also harbours a lot of anger and resentment towards her mother.

“We, on the other hand, thought that our father, because of everything he did to her, should leave the house one morning and be burned to death or crushed or drowned. We thought it and hated her, because she was the linchpin of these thoughts.”

The past and present become overlaid as Delia visits her (still violent) father and meets a childhood friend she hasn’t seen in years. She chases a man through the streets thinking he has the answers as to what her mother was doing before she died. As she explores further, memory and identity become confused and less clearly delineated.

“Sometimes that place, which belonged to a less reliable memory, consisted of a dimly lighted staircase and a wrought-iron banister. At other times it was a patch of light striped by bars and covered by a fine screen, which I observed crouching underground, in the company of a child named Antonio, who held me tightly by the hand. The sounds that accompanied it, like the soundtrack of a film, were pure commotion, sudden banging, as of things formerly in order that abruptly collapse.”

Troubling Love isn’t so much a mystery story as an exploration of grief, memory, identity, and the slippery nature of all of these things. It doesn’t offer easy answers. It looks at how so much of this is bound up with family, and how this can be difficult to reconcile.

“Childhood is a tissue of lies that endure in the past tense: at least, mine was like that.”

Troubling Love was adapted to film in 1995. I’ve not seen it, but the trailer looks faithful:

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.1

It’s always with some trepidation that I start a Novella a Day in May project. Last year I couldn’t face it at all (pandemic testing my resilience, work pressure, cat deaths taking a toll – even so I know I’ve been very lucky). But I seem to be able to read more now, so fingers crossed…

Also, I never run NADIM as an event because I never thought anyone else would want to undertake such a task, but I’m delighted that this year I will be joined by Simon at Stuck in a Book! So do join us for lots of novella love 😊

Away we go!

Without Blood – Alessandro Baricco (2002, trans. Ann Goldstein 2004) 87 pages

Without Blood is a short, sharp shock. It opens with a brutal, bloody and deadly attack on Nina’s family when she is a small child.

Men arrive at the remote farmhouse where she lives with her father and brother. Her father helps her to hide  in the cellar, but she hears them accuse him of the torture of prisoners during the (unnamed) war.

“Nina closed her eyes. She flattened herself against the blanket, and curled up even tighter, pulling her knees to her chest. She liked to be in that position. She felt the earth, cool, under her side, protecting her – it would not betray her. And she felt her own curled up body, folded around itself like a shell.”

Her brother fires a gun at the men and is killed. One of the soldiers, a young man called Tito, sees Nina under the trapdoor and keeps quiet. Nina is taken in by a local man who then bets her away at cards when she is a teenager. Adult Nina devotes herself to revenging the death of her family.

Barrico raises a lot of big questions in this novella but wisely doesn’t attempt to find answers. The nature and purpose of war; who is guilty and to what extent; the brutalisation of humans; the justification and consequences of violence; revenge versus redemption…

“There were a lot of things we had to destroy in order to build what we wanted, there was no other way, we had to be able to suffer and to inflict suffering – whoever could endure more pain would win, you cannot dream of a better world and think it will be delivered just because you ask for it.”

When Nina finds Tito fifty-two years later, it is not easy to predict what will happen. They have both been irrevocably changed by the events of that night, events which have overshadowed the rest of their lives and bound them together throughout their separation.

“The man thought the way she spoke was strange. As if it was a gesture she wasn’t used to.”

It is a quick read in length but Without Blood invites longer consideration.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #25

The Beautiful Summer – Cesare Pavese (1949, trans. WJ Strachan 1955) 101 pages

Thinking back to when I bought The Beautiful Summer seems so foreign now even though it was at Birmingham New Street station. It’s unusual for me to buy a new book, I usually go to charity shops. But I’d finished my book on the train journey in so I needed something for the journey back. That book was Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, and in WHSmith I could get it with The Beautiful Summer half price (it’s part of Penguin’s European Writers Series). The thought of being in such a huge public space with people milling around, and wandering into a shop to browse and purchase on a whim seems a lifetime ago…

The Beautiful Summer opens with sixteen year old shop assistant Ginia enjoying the feeling that “Life was a perpetual holiday” in 1930s Turin. On the cusp of adulthood, she is also frustrated at knowing there is more life to be had,  most likely away from her friends.

“Rosa was indispensable; with her easy, familiar ways and her high spirits she made Ginia’s superiority plain to the rest of the company.”

Ginia takes up with the older Amelia, an artist’s model, and her free-living friends. Ginia is both intrigued and intimidated:

“the excitement at the discovery that they were both made in the same mould and whoever had seen Amelia naked was really seeing her. She began to feel terribly ill at ease.”

Ginia falls for Guido, an artist who seems to do very little painting, if at all. Her naivete is almost painful to witness:

“He likes me a sweetheart; he loves me. He did not believe I was seventeen, but he kissed my eyes; I am a grown-up woman now”

As the summer progresses, so does their affair, and Ginia grows up. The story of The Beautiful Summer is a tale oft told, of lost innocence, heartache, and learning who you are as you forge your own path. What lifts it above cliché is the compassionate characterisation of Ginia, the non-judgemental portrayals of young people who do not always behave well, and the sense of sad survival rather than devastation.

“Ginia knew he would never marry her, however fond she was of him. She had known this from that evening when she first offered herself to him.”

To end, a Brummie band in honour of my copy’s origins (OK, a blatant excuse for a Duran Duran video as I don’t generally indulge my love of 80s pop during my NADIM posts.) Apparently Simon Le Bon nearly drowned filming this; they should have strapped John Taylor to the windmill instead, I’m sure the buoyancy of his hair would have kept him afloat:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #29

Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi (1883, trans. Geoffrey Beck 2009) 160 pages

Pinocchio, like a lot of classic children’s literature, is deeply weird and dark. I didn’t read it at all as a child, despite seeing the Disney cartoon which is very different. I picked it up as an adult because its published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics, and it turned out to be an intriguing read.

The basic premise I think everyone knows: a wooden puppet comes to life, wants to be a real boy, misbehaves and every lie he tells has a very obvious effect on his physiognomy.

“ ‘Lies, my boy, are immediately recognizable, for there are two kinds: lies that have short legs and lies that have long noses. Yours happen to be the long-nosed variety.’

Pinocchio, wanting to hide his face in shame, tried to run from the room – but he couldn’t. His nose was so long that it wouldn’t fit through the doorway.”

Pinocchio isn’t very likeable. He’s totally idle and only interested in himself.

“ ‘Of all the trades in the world, there’s only one that really suits me.’

‘And what trade would that be?’

‘That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering wherever I like from sunup to sundown.’

‘For your information,’ said the Talking Cricket, with his usual calm, ‘everyone who plies that trade ends up either in a poorhouse or a prison.’

‘Watch out, you doom-and-gloom Cricket! If I snap, you’ll be sorry!’”

Pinocchio does snap, and kills the Cricket stone dead. A short-lived relationship with an insect, who is nothing like the top hat and frock coat wearing, enduring friend of the cartoon.

The story is episodic, with Pinocchio going on several adventures, invariably taking the wrong decision, and failing to learn from his mistakes. It has the feel of folk tales rather than fairy tales, being grounded in an earthy reality of poverty and banditry, even when the bandits are a fox and cat double act. Pinocchio is always appealing even though he is selfish and unheeding, but there is never any sentimentality in the tale.

However, there is the strong didactic element associated with fairy tales, and Pinocchio is constantly lectured, by the cricket, by adults, and by the fairy with sky blue hair who crops up in various guises.

“ ‘Dear boy,’ said the Fairy, ‘people who talk that way almost always end up either in a prison or a poorhouse. For your information, everyone, whether they’re born rich or poor, is obliged to do something – to keep busy, to work. Woe to anyone who yields to idleness! Idleness is a dreadful disease and must be treated at once, starting in childhood. If not, it will be too late by the time we grow up.’”

Pinocchio does eventually learn and does become a real boy, but there’s something irrepressible about him. The feeling at the end is not of conservative integration where all is right with the world, but rather that the subversive elements that have been present all along are still there, waiting to spill out at any minute.

It’s a tale that can be enjoyed by children and adults. My edition included contributions from intellectual heavyweights to say the least: an Introduction by Umberto Eco, an Afterword by Rebecca West and a quote on the back by Italo Calvino. This shows how Pinocchio has been so widely recognised and why it endures; deceptively simple, hiding its complexities in an engaging children’s tale, it can be read differently each time.

I really didn’t like the cover of the NYRB Classics edition, finding it creepy, but it captures the unsettling quality of the tale of an animated puppet perfectly:

Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.

Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.

He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.

“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”

Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.

He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.

He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:

“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”

The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.

And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:

“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”

It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.

I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.

To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:

Novella a Day in May #8

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia – Piero Chiara (1970, trans. Jill Foulston 2015) 122 pages

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia was initially published in an Italian newspaper as a serial and is now available in English translation thanks to Pushkin, as part of their Vertigo imprint. It is a quick, snappy crime thriller that does not aim for trite resolution but rather an exploration beneath the surface of a life to the murky depths.

Corrado Sciancalelpre is “blessed with a special form of intuition, that peculiar mental agility that enables great policemen to delve into the minds of criminals.”

Thankfully, he is also happy married and liked in the town in northern Lombardy where he works – no tortured alcoholic with a secret past here.

A powerful lawyer, Esengrini, asks Sciancalelpre to investigate the titular vanishing of his wife. Every Thursday, Guilia has been going to Milan to visit their daughter at boarding school, but now she has failed to return and two bags of her things are missing too. Sciancalelpre agrees and what follows is essentially a police procedural, but the short length of the story ensures the pacing remains tight.

Sciancalelpre is resolutely unsentimental but not without sympathy. The more he investigates, the more he feels for the missing woman:

“He didn’t say ‘Poor Signora Giulia to Esengrini when he visited him in his office every few days towards evening. With Esengrini, he spoke only of the undeniably disappointing results of a search conducted throughout the whole of Italy with Signora Giulia’s photo.”

It’s impossible to say much more about a crime novella without including spoilers. Suffice to say there are plenty of red herrings, people and relationships who are not what they seem. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is a diverting read, when you’re in the mood for a crime novel you’ll finish quickly. It is not a simple tale though, and the resolution is a complex one that leaves questions unanswered. This wasn’t a source of frustration but rather felt realistic.

I really enjoyed this, Chiara’s first novel to be translated into English despite his huge popularity in Italy, and I hope there will be many more translations to follow.

“I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring.” (David Bowie)

David Bowie died on 11 January (and then Alan Rickman 3 days later – 2016 is rubbish so far).  Although I have never been personally moved by a celebrity death, shocking and sad as they are, on Monday I found myself weeping in the middle of King’s Road (lesson: don’t look at the BBC News app in public).  In common with his worldwide legions of fans, Bowie had a special place in my heart and it’s a horrible shock that our hero has gone.

Consoling myself through the internet, I discovered he had listed his 100 Must Read books, so I thought I would look at two in this post. Sarah over at Hard Book Habit also wrote about this list, do pop over and read her lovely post. One of my choices is also my first stop on Hard Book Habit’s Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, which you can read all about here.

Firstly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961), probably her most famous novel.  Miss Brodie is a romantic teacher in a conservative girl’s school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. Eschewing the curriculum, she educates her girls in the ways of art, love… and fascism. Boasting “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Miss Brodie has a group of girls who form the ‘Brodie set’, and the novel, slipping back and forth in time, is told mainly from their points of view, despite a third person narrator.

“Miss Brodie had already selected her favourites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy.”

Miss Brodie repeatedly insists that she is in her prime; she is silly and vain, and the school are out to get her. But Spark does not judge her harshly, suggesting she is just in the wrong place at the wrong time:

 “It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime…there were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.”

We learn quite early on that she is betrayed, and that it one of her set who betray her, forcing her into early retirement.  Miss Brodie is a complex character: charismatic; aspirational for herself and others; entirely inappropriate towards her pupils and with truly hideous politics.  She is an independent spirit who vastly underestimates her own vulnerability.

“It was then that Miss Brodie looked beautiful and fragile, just as dark heavy Edinburgh itself could suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets. In the same way Miss Brodie’s masterful features became clear and sweet to Sandy when viewed in the curious light of the woman’s folly”

Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie in the 1969 film

Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie in the 1969 film

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel – 128 pages in my edition – which shows just how much a brilliant writer can say in a short space. Spark has created one of the legendary characters of modern fiction who truly stays with you: like her or loathe her, its almost impossible not to be drawn in, becoming one of the ‘Brodie set’.

Secondly, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set during the nineteenth century Risorgimento, whereby the different states of the Italian peninsula unified into a single state. Telling the story of the aristocratic Sicilian Salina family, particularly Fabrizio, the Prince, the novel has an elegiac quality as it documents the decline of the family and change of a way of life.

“Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.”

The Prince is surrounded by people, between political responsibilities and social engagements, yet he is an isolated figure, partly due to his “contempt for all his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism”.

But the Prince cannot resist the forces of all that surrounds him, and while the military action of the Risorgimento takes place only by report, he and his family are dragged towards modernisation, such as having his aristocratic gene pool diluted by the daughter of a clerical man who:

 “moved through the forest of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs , without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed”

The domestic is resolutely tied with the political and historical, even during the intimacy of seduction:

“he felt as if by those kisses he were taking possession of Sicily once more, of the lovely faithless land which now, after a vain revolt, had surrendered to him again, as always to his family, its carnal delights and golden crops.”

Sicily_Map

Yet while the people are tied to the land and its history, a recurring theme is of human insignificance, of the transitory nature of humans and their constructs, of all around us falling away. This isn’t depressing, and indeed there is a subtle humour in The Leopard, but it is sad and there is a sense of existential crisis. This wider theme is distilled into the Prince’s relationship with his beloved stars:

“As always, seeing them revived him; they were distant, they were omnipotent and at the same time they were docile to his calculations; just the contrary to humans, always so near, so weak and yet so quarellsome”

The Leopard is a short novel but it took me a while to read it as it so densely written, not a word is wasted. Lampedusa’s use of imagery is strikingly beautiful and he is not afraid to tackle huge ideas.

“the real problem is how to go on living this life of the spirit in its most sublimated moments, those moments that are most like death”

To end, a memory from last summer.  I accompanied my friend’s children – aged 4 and 7 – to an open-air showing of Labyrinth.  There are contradictory reports about Bowie’s feelings towards this film, but for me it has a special place in my heart because it was the point at which, aged nine, I first fell in love with him.

Prior to the showing, there were many jokes about indoctrination and my brainwashing of children, but on arrival I found my flash cards on The Life and Times of David Bowie were not needed.  There were a number of avid Labyrinth-watchers dressed up in oversized mullet wigs and inappropriately large codpieces, a la Jareth the Goblin King.  The kids squealed with delight and ran around to greet them all, crying “David Bowie! David Bowie!” When my friend’s son arrived back where we were sitting, he flopped down, breathless with joy, and simply said “David Bowie.”

“I know just how you feel.” I told him.