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:

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:

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

Last week I mentioned the indulgence of good friends, so this week I thought I would look at novels capturing female friendships. I’ll try and redress the balance at some point by looking at male friendships, but this week, in the words of Lesley Knope, its ovaries before brovaries 😀

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My future – I sincerely hope

Image from here

Firstly, Animals, the second novel from Emma Jane Unsworth, described on the cover by Caitlin Moran as “Withnail with girls”, which pretty much sums it up. Laura lives with her friend Tyler, a one-woman tornado:

“She didn’t just change the temperature of rooms, she changed their entire chemical make-up so that anyone in the room would only be aware that the room was an extension of her and she was the thrumming nucleus.”

Tyler is indulgent, defensive, funny, clever – a total nightmare with whom Laura feels an immediate bond:

“Someone who sees right to your backbone and simultaneously feels their backbone acknowledged.”

But Laura is in love with Jim and is planning to get married, introducing a tension into the women’s friendship.  Tyler wants life to continue as it is, Laura is not so sure. It’s not plot-heavy, as Tyler and Laura ricochet from one substance-fuelled experience to another, it’s funny and sad and so very believable:

“And there it was, as always, swinging my way: The Night. With its deals, promises and gauntlets, by turns many things: nemesis, ally, co-conspirator, master of persuasion. It tosses its promises before you like scraps on the road, crumbs leading into the forest: pubs, parties, booze, drugs, dancing, karaoke…”

Amongst all this eventful partying, there is an elegiac quality to Animals: both the women are in their thirties and there’s a sense that their life together cannot continue for much longer, and that it might not be so entertaining if it did:

“Next to the sink, two folded banknotes balanced on a rung of the towel rail, drying. I stood and looked into the bowl before I flushed, recalling the adage of a girl I’d once worked with: White piss good; amber piss bad. Orwellian in its visceral simplicity. Meanwhile the liquid I had dispatched into the toilet bowl was almost ochre.”

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A great film, but not a wise lifestyle choice, kids

Image from here

The bawdy chaos of Animals is presented through considered, inventive storytelling; Unsworth’s voice is compelling and like Laura on a night out with Tyler, I found myself carried along for the ride.

Secondly, the publishing phenomenon that is Elena’s Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (tr. Ann Goldstein, Europa editions 2012) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. This is the first in a quartet known as the Neapolitan novels which have sold millions worldwide, no doubt to the chagrin of authors everywhere stuck on a PR treadmill, as Ferrante remains determinedly anonymous. The novels detail the friendship between Elena and Lila from the 1950s onwards.

“She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.”

I’m grateful to Kate’s recent review which tempered my expectations somewhat. While I did like the novel, I think had I gone in with the astronomical expectations created by all the hype I would have been disappointed. As it was, I went in with moderate expectations and enjoyed being pulled into the poor Neapolitan neighbourhood Ferrante so vividly evokes. Elena summarises: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.” She’s not wrong. Violence between strangers, friends and families seems to be constant. The poverty and accompanying lack of horizons takes its toll:

“At the Bar Solara, in the heat, between gambling losses and troublesome drunkenness, people often reached the point of disperazione – a word that in dialect meant having lost all hope but also being broke – and hence of fights.”

Within this environment, Lila and Elena form a friendship that is full of the unspoken. Elena is mesmerised by Lila, who is tough, independent, and highly intelligent. Despite the time they spend together, the core of Lila – what she really wants, her hopes and dreams – remain mysterious to Elena.

“Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?”

It is this competitiveness, this desire to be like Lila, which spurs Elena on, to the point where this motivation becomes indistinguishable from her own preferences. She continues at school long after Lila leaves, her academic commitment a mixture of wanting to outstrip Lila, wanting to do well because it is what Lila wants, and wanting to do well for herself. Ferrante has an excellent understanding of how these early friendships are so vitally important, how they form us in ways we barely understand and how quickly it is impossible to say what feels intrinsic to us and what is the influence of others. She captures the ambivalence of friendships that are formed out of deep love and conflict:

“When school started again, on the one hand I suffered because I knew I wouldn’t have time for Lila anymore, on the other I hoped to detach myself from the sum of the misdeeds and compliances and cowardly acts of the people we knew, whom we loved, whom we carried – she, Pasquale, Rino, I, all of us – in or blood.”

While I’m not quite ready to proclaim myself a fully paid-up Ferrante acolyte, the quartet supposedly gets better as it goes along, so by book four I could well be (Marina Sofia has written a really interesting review of the quartet here).

To end, two celebrities (one of whom plays the aforementioned Lesley Knope) who claim to be BFFs and I actually believe them: