The Knight and Death & One Way or Another by Leonardo Sciascia

Having discovered Sciascia for the first time a few months ago, in a chance encounter at a Leiden bookshop, I grabbed four more in London, wrapped them up for Christmas and waited….

This slim volume is in the same vein as To Each His Own. Both contain murder, but one wouldn’t recommend them to a crime fiction aficionado. Nothing is solved, the stories stop and some observations about the human condition have been made. The first of these two stories, some fifty pages, is a reverie by a dying detective, who is on his last case whilst reflecting on life, death, and setting about some of the things one might do in the face of a rapidly and permanently closing window of time.

The second story, One way or Another, is the more substantial of the two, around one hundred pages.  An artist happens upon a most peculiar hotel, run by priests and about to host some of the movers and shakers (as they would no doubt now be called) of Italy. Industrial and political leaders rubbing shoulders with cardinals. It’s a yearly spiritual retreat. Fine food is eaten, the best wine drunk and five mistresses are lodged there, though they never appear in company. Deaths – murders – begin to take place. But whereas in the average murder mystery such occurrences are at the heart of the story, here they are – not incidental – but merely part of the story. The priest who organises the event and the curious artist who is permitted to stay, verbally joust with each other throughout. Interesting thoughts about religion consequently abound. Poirot it is not.

I suspect that both of these stories may be allegorical, but I’m way too literal to get that. On a concrete level, Sciascia deals with the realities of institutionalised corruption in Italy. Can one do that and be allegorical as well? I don’t know.

At any rate, I strongly disagree with the way these stories are presented on the cover of my edition:

The Knight and Death follows an unnamed detective, investigating the killing of a prominent lawyer named Sandoz. A terrorist group, the ‘Children of the Eight-Nine’, are the convenient prime suspects. But hours before his death, Sandoz was exchanging cryptic notes at a dinner party with Aurispa, the president of a large corporation, and the detective believes that Aurispa knows more about the death than he is letting on.

In his troubling and mysterious One Way or Another, the narrator chances on a cement palace in a square surrounded by beautiful oak and chestnut trees. The palace is filled with the great and good of Italy, making deals, making conversation and seeking spiritual respite. It is an idyllic, idealistic scene – until the murders begin.

Interesting that this is so accurate and yet so misleading. I suppose this is deliberately trying to give the impression that these are typical murder genre fiction – that will sell some copies. (I can’t help thinking of James Thurber at this point.) I will end by countering this with the start of One Way or Another. The cover blurb makes it sound like an episode of Midsomer Murders. Please judge for yourself:

The greatest Italian critic of our time has written: If, as a famous definition puts it, the Kantian universe is a chain of causalities suspended on an act of freedom, we could likewise say that the Pirandellian universe is endless slavery in a world devoid of music suspended on an infinite musical potentiality – on the unimpaired fulfilled music of an isolated man.

I believed I’d retraced a whole chain of causalities. Reached, an isolated man, the infinite musical potentiality of those childhood or adolescent experiences when, in the summer in the country, I used to retire for long hours to some spot which became in my fantasy remote, inaccessible, full of forests and streams and my whole life, its brief past and long, long future, merged musically and endlessly with my present freedom. And for a number of reasons – not least that I was born and had lived for years in Pirandellian landscapes, among Pirandellian characters, with Pirandellian traumas, so that between the author’s text and the life I’d led till I grew up there wasn’t a gap either in my memories or my feelings – for a number of reasons, that critic’s words rang in my head (with such persistent clarity that I can now transcribe them from memory without checking) rather like a phrase or a theme of that infinite musical potentiality I’d achieved. Or thought I’d achieved.
 

Highly recommended!

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Conversations by Primo Levi and Tullio Regge

An erudite and entertaining exchange between two notable Italian minds. Is it relevant that they are Italian? Yes, since one of the things discussed is the impact of Fascism on education and science in particular. And yet here they are, survivors in more ways than one, in the case of Levi.

Primo Levi explains why, at the age of past sixty, he felt he must learn to write with a word processor – and this was in the late seventies/early eighties.

I read Pozzoli’s book Writing With a Computer, and it had on me the effect of the bugle call that wakes you up in the barracks. I realised that today one can certainly live without a computer, but one lives at the margins and is bound to become more and more detached from active society. The Greeks said of a person without culture: ‘He can neither write nor swim.’ Today one should add: ‘Nor use a computer’.

I’m surprised that one could say this so early. I got my first computer around 1988 and this was scarcely a common thing to do yet. And a person may be living on the margins with one – I can see that in the case of my mother, for example, who sees them as the work of the devil – but she is very cultured. The connection isn’t one I see, any more than thinking swimming is a cultured thing to do. Full disclosure – neither my mother nor I know how to swim.

Regge on how he became a physicist despite the best efforts of his father.

‘Get a serious degree, my father kept saying. Physics isn’t serious. If you want to do physics, get a degree in chemistry too, because put together they are like a degree in engineering. And when I got my degree in physics with the highest marks and I was given a teaching fellowship, he still insisted. At a certain point I went to Russia and Pravda published my photograph. I cut it out and sent it to my father. “So he’ll stop telling me to get a degree in chemistry,” I explained to my Russian friends who asked me why. This anecdote is still in circulation even now. I always run into somebody who asks me if my father is still insisting.’

Levi on the way in which his training in chemistry influenced how he wrote. And on becoming free of it as his job.

I spent the day after my resignation strolling through the streets of Turin on a working day: a working day – do  you realise what that meant? No more office hours, no more crossing town during the rush hours; and every blessed day, no night calls because a valve has broken or a rainstorm has flooded the cable beds. I felt I had avalanches of free time at my disposal: if before I had written three or four books, working in the evening and on Sunday, now I would write another twenty or thirty. Instead it didn’t go like that: a friend of mine used to say that in order to do things, ‘one mustn’t have time.’ Time is an eminently compressible material.

Scientists discussed include Einstein – this might seem to be a given, but in fact Regge’s important contributions to theoretical physics included work on Relativity – Hoyle, Dyson, Wheeler, Everett, Oppenheimer. And Gödel, this from Regge:

Very shy. Once I met him at a dinner, and I think I’m one of the few people who spent a few hours at table with him. I managed to extract something from him; not very flattering comments on Bertrand Russell, a few more benevolent opinions on Peano. I asked him whether he had been part of the Vienna Circle: he answered with a dry and conclusive ‘no.’ He was a close friend of Morgenstern, the economist, who one day went to see him but found the house deserted. A pot was boiling on the stove but of Gödel not a trace. Knowing what he was like, Morgenstern began to inspect the house and found him in the cellar hidden behind some sacks of coal, his phobia of visitors was so great.

In fact, a lot goes into this little book, even though it feels like a natural meander in the way a conversation should. Anybody interested in history of science will love it.

 

 

 

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

Spoilers abound.

The good: there are far fewer of those make-you-want-to-vomit-your-last-feed comparisons she makes. The ones she does make are fabulously ludicrously inept.

For instance: she describes stealing a doll from a little girl who is extremely attached to it as ‘A gesture like you make in sleep, when you turn over in bed and upset the lamp on the night table.’ Huh?

And here: she has decided to leave her husband and children to hang out with an old heavyweight academic who has the hots for her. She describes that as ‘I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning herself.’

One can see – again – why Ferrante wanted to be anonymous. I’m kind of amazed and impressed that a person can proclaim to the world how completely repulsive she is. She does it over and over again and there can’t be anything she is holding back. Not from somebody who is willing to talk about the things of which she writes. I wonder how many women and mothers are really like this? Are we supposed to think that she is neurotic, mentally ill, way out there? Or normal, this is what it is like for women?

I love, again, her depictions of ordinary people. But as I have complained about elsewhere, she falls down in her constant obsession with herself. I keep wanting to say, every time she starts on about her ghastliness, enough already. We get it. Yet, take it away and she doesn’t have a story.

I want to ask ‘Who wants to read over and over again her maudlin reveries about her own inadequate existence?’ I suppose the answer could be ‘Me’, apparently. But to be fair, I started with the Neopolitan series. It has a proper saga-like story line. I bought up a few more in Rome a few months ago and here I am. Stuck with them. But this excuse will only work if I don’t buy any more and my sneaking suspicion is that I would buy another one. Just to complain about it again. I seem to be trapped in this woman’s life as much as she is. Damn it.

To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

I’m completely taken aback that I’ve never even heard of Sciascia before. I’m particularly surprised since my father was a fan of ‘crime’ fiction and built up an enormous library of them including much that was quite obscure, yet I see on our old database that we never stocked this author.

Lots has been written about his work – see Penkevich’s review on GR for a nice discussion of this particular book. I was particularly interested to see Vincenzo Salerno’s comment that ‘His rough and tumble literary style is not always captured in the English translation of his works, but the spirit is there.’ Certainly I admired the elegance of To Each His Own as I read it – my copy being the translation by Adrienne Foulke. And it may be relevant to note that the present translations of Ferrante have received similar criticism. I’d really hate Salerno’s observations on Sciascia to go missing, please do read them all, not just the start which I reproduce here:

“The conscience of Italy. Defiant by definition.” That’s how the late Leonardo Sciascia, one of the most popular authors of postwar Italy, has been described by his fellow Sicilians. In the words of Gore Vidal: “What is the mafia? What is Sicily? When it comes to the exploration of this particular hell… Sciascia is the perfect vigil.” To know the man one must know his world. It is the complicated world of Italian public opinion, in which Sciascia was novelist, polemicist, occasional politician, and perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize. In a philosophically eclectic environment typified by intolerant Leftist journalists and, at the opposite extreme, right-wing politicos, he was unafraid to write about moral and ethical issues. Not rarely, Sciascia took stands which were decidedly unpopular in late twentieth century Italy. If, like many prophets, he sometimes seemed more popular outside his own country, one should realize that, despite Sicily’s remarkable literary heritage, true intellectuals themselves are rarely respected, or even recognized, by the Sicilian public. Ethics and politics aside. In academia and in the press, six decades of sometimes hostile influences, ranging from Existentialism to Catholicism, from Communism to Neo-Fascism, have eroded the popular appreciation of objective social commentary. Even a superficial glance at Italian newspapers is sufficient to confirm that journalists in this country are obsessed with their own opinions, engaged in a bizarre egocentric ritual that takes precedence over unbiased reporting.

That Leonardo Sciascia transcended this violent maelstrom, subtly revealing society’s greatest challenges in Everyman’s life, leaves us with the impression of a master critic. Amidst a sea of pseudo-intellectual charlatans, his shone as an illuminated and creative talent. The essence of human insight. The real thing. It would not be unfair to say that Sciascia’s brief was to “set the record straight.” The young Italian student of political science, philosophy or law might well study something at university, thinking that she had finally reached one of life’s junctures in the quest for understanding its mysteries, only to have to reconsider those notions after reading a Sciascia novel. To his great credit, this most singular of authors was not particularly popular with Italian university professors. His greatest audience was, and is, the honest intellectual.

This was a speculative purchase at Antiquariaat Klikspaan in Leiden. In a town spoilt for choice bookshop wise, this one stole my affections, being splendidly old-fashioned. Piles of books everywhere. A bookcase just on chess. A really interesting array of literature. And prices which permit one to explore – much of the fiction is listed at between three and ten euros. I shall be forever grateful that it was here I discovered an author I will be sure to read in his entirety.

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

Oh, if only Elena Ferrante’s books were written by somebody else. Not My Brilliant Friend and its companions, but the rest. She always writes about herself and she is truly the most boring person, with – for me – the least interesting problems, about whom I have ever read so many words. She gets away with it in the series because Lena is extraordinary, and because they are surrounded by people who are interesting. But in both this and The Days of Abandonment it becomes frustrating. The more so because she captures how I perceive the Italy she lives in should be and her portrayal of others around her is terrific. Why does she have to make herself the centre all the time? It does her work no favours.

I have an idea I am stuck in some vortext [I made that up] where one is tossed about between these two things, the good and the bad; and I have an idea that I’m going to keep tormenting myself with more of it. I was so relieved to get to the end of this one, so it’s doubly irritating to think I will be drawn to do it again…..

 

 

 

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

She’s such a shit, Olga. Don’t get me wrong, everybody is, with the possible exception of the downstairs neighbour. The kids are shits. The ex-husband, his shag, the friends, the vet, the locksmiths. But as we enter the falling-apart world of Olga, and we do so from the perspective, impossible to escape, of The Neapolitan Novels, it’s an echo. Her female narrators are repugnant. In this case it’s not because she’s disintegrating. It’s just because. I suppose because she’s talking of herself. If that is so, Ferrante is a particularly honest writer. One hopes never to meet her.

I’m also not sure how long she can get away with writing books with the principle character a writer who isn’t really very good. Any writer who needs to keep explaining to their audience ‘as if it were’, ‘it was like’, ‘like’ but above all, ‘as if’ ‘as if’ ‘as if’. Such a lazy way to write. And almost every phrase that comes after the big sign – simile coming – is dreadful.

On the plus side, full marks to her for recording surely the most disastrous excruciatingly embarrassing (for the reader) sex scene ever. In minute detail. I will present this for you, it gives a good idea of the book as a whole. She has come downstairs on purpose to have sex with her rather retiring neighbour, whom she scarcely knows. Lucky Carrano. He has just kissed her, understanding that this might be the right thing to do….[The square brackets comments are mine, once or twice I couldn’t resist.]

At that instant I had only an unpleasant impression, as if he had given the signal and from then on all I could do was to sink by degrees into repugnance. In reality I felt above all a blaze of hatred towards myself, because I was there, because I had no excuses, because it was I who had decided to come, because it seemed to me that I could not retreat.

‘Shall we begin?’ I said with a false cheer.

Carrano gave an uncertain hint of a smile.

‘No one is forcing us,’

‘Do you want to go back?’

‘No…’

He again brought his lips to mine, but I didn’t like the odor of his saliva, I don’t even know if it really was unpleasant, only it seemed to me different from Mario’s. He tired to put his tongue in my  mouth, I opened my lips a little, touched his tongue with mine. It was slightly rough, alive, it felt animal, an enormous tongue such as I had seen, disgusted, at the butcher, there was nothing seductively human about it. Did Carla [the shag] have my tastes, my odors? Or had mine always been repellent to Mario, as now Carrano’s seemed to me, and only in her, after years, had he found the essences right for him?

I pushed my tongue into the mouth of that man with exaggerated eagerness, for a long time, as if I were following something to the bottom of his throat and wished to catch it before it slid into the esophagus. I put my arm around his neck, I pressed him with my body into the corner of the sofa and kissed him for a long time, with my eyes wide open, trying to stare at the objects arranged in one corner of the room, define them, cling to them, because I was afraid that if I closed my eyes I would see Carla’s impudent mouth, she had had that impudence since the age of fifteen, and who could say how much Mario liked it, if he had dreamed of it while he slept beside me, until he woke and kissed me as if he were kissing her and then withdrew and went back to sleep as soon as he recognised my mouth, the usual mouth, the mouth without new tastes, the mouth of the past.

Carrano sensed in my kiss the sign that any skirmishing was over. He put his hand on my neck, he wanted to press me even harder against his lips. Then he left my mouth and planted wet kisses on my cheeks, on my eyes. I thought he must be following a precise exploratory plan, he even kissed my ears, so that the sound echoed annoyingly against my eardrums. Then he moved to my neck, he bathed with his tongue the hair at the nape, and meanwhile he touched my chest with his broad hand.

‘My breasts are small,’ I said in a whisper, but immediately despised myself because it sounded as if I were making excuses, excuse me if I can’t offer you big tits, I hope you enjoy yourself anyway, idiot that I was, if he liked little tits, good; if not, the worse for him, it was all free, a stroke of luck had fallen to this shit, the best birthday present he could hope for, at his age.

‘I like them, ‘ he said in a whisper, while he unbuttoned my shirt and with his hand pulled down the edge of the bra and tried to bite my nipples and suck them. But mu nipples, too, are small, and the breasts eluded him, falling back into the cups of the bra. I said wait, I pushed him away, I sat up, I took off the shirt, unhooked the bra. I asked stupidly: do you like them, anxiety was growing in me, I wanted him to repeat his approval.

Looking at me he sighed:

‘You’re beautiful.’

He took a deep breath, as if he wished to control a strong emotion or nostalgia, and just touched me with his fingertips so that I lay on the sofa with my chest bare and he could gaze at me more easily.

Lying there, I saw him from below, I noted the wrinkles of his aging neck, the beard that needed a shave and showed flecks of white, the deep creases between his eyebrows. Perhaps he was serious, perhaps he really was captivated by my beauty, or perhaps they were only words to ornament a desire for sex. Perhaps I remained beautiful even if my husband had rolled up the sense of my beauty into a ball and thrown it into the wastebasket, like wrapping paper [one of her many likes….if only she could resist them.] Yes, I could still make a man passionate, I was a woman able to do this, the flight of Mario to another bed, another flesh, had not ruined me.

Carrano bent over me, licked my nipples, sucked them. I tried to abandon myself, I wanted to eliminate disgust and desperation from my breast. I closed my eyes cautiously, the warmth of his breath, the lips on my skin, I let out a moan of encouragement for me and for him. I hoped to notice in myself some nascent pleasure, even if that man was a stranger, a musician perhaps of little talent, no quality, no capacity for seduction, dull and therefore alone.

Now I felt him kissing my ribs, my stomach, he stopped even on my navel, what he found there I don’t know, he moved his tongue in it, tickling me. Then he got up. I opened my eyes, he was rumpled, his eyes were bright, I seemed to see in his face the expression of a guilty child.

‘Tell me again that you like me,’ I insisted, short of breath.

‘Yes,’ he said, but with a little less enthusiasm. He put his hands on my knees, parted them, slid his fingers under my skirt, caressed the insides of my thighs, lightly, as if [warning, bad simile coming] he were sending a probe into the dark depths of a well.

He didn’t seem to be in a hurry, I would have preferred everything to proceed more quickly. Now I thought of the possibility that the children might wake up or even of the hypothesis that Mario, after our tumultuous encounter, frightened, repentant, had decided to return home that very evening. It even seemed to me that I could hear Otto barking joyfully, and I was about to say the dog is barking, but then it seemed to me inappropriate. Carrano had just raised my skirt and was now caressing the crotch of my underpants with the palm of his hand, and then he ran his fingers over the material, pressing, pushing it deep into the fold of my sex.

I moaned again, I wanted to help him take off the underpants, he stopped me.

‘No,’ he said, ‘wait.’

He moved aside the material, caressed my bare sex with his fingers, entered with his index finger, murmured again:

‘You’ve really beautiful.’

Beautiful everywhere, outside and in, male fantasies. Was Mario doing that, with me he had never taken his time. But maybe he, too, now, in the long night, somewhere else, was spreading Carla’s thin legs, letting his gaze rest on her cunt half covered by the underpants, lingering, his heart pounding, on the obscenity of that position, making it more obscene with his fingers. Or, who knows, maybe it was I alone who was obscene now, abandoned to that man who was touching me in secret places, who, in no hurry, was bathing his fingers inside me, with the casual curiosity of one who isn’t in love. Carla, on the other hand – Mario believed this, I was certain that he believed it – was a young woman in love who gives herself to her lover. Not a gesture, not a sigh was vulgar or sordid, not even the coarsest words had any power against the true meaning of their intercourse. I could say cunt and cock and asshole, they were not marked by it. I marked, I disfigured, only my own image on the sofa, what I was at that moment, rumpled, with Carrano’s big fingers rousing in me a fund of muddy pleasure.

Again I felt like crying, I clenched my teeth. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to burst into tears again, I reacted by moving my pelvis, shaking my head, moaning, murmuring:

‘You want me, it’s true that you want me, tell me…’

Carrano nodded yes, pushed me onto my side, pulled down my underpants. I have to leave, I thought. Now what I wanted to know I knew. I am still attractive to men. Mario took everything but not me, not m y person, not my beautiful charming mask. That’s enough with my ass. He was biting my buttocks, licking me.

‘Not my ass.’ I said, moving his fingers away. He touched my anus again, I moved him away again. Enough. I drew back, I stretched a hand toward his bathrobe.

‘Let’s get it over with,’ I exclaimed. ‘Do you have a condom?’

Carrano nodded yes but didn’t move. He took his hands off my body, showing a sudden sadness, and leaned his head on the back of the sofa, stared at the ceiling.

‘I don’t feel anything,’ he murmured.

‘What don’t you feel?’

‘An erection.’ [Well, who would after ‘Let’s get it over with’?]

‘Never?’

‘No, now.’

‘Since we started?’

‘Yes.’

I felt myself flare up with shame. He had kissed me, embraced me, touched me, but he hadn’t gotten hard, I hadn’t been able to make his blood burn, he had roused my flesh without rousing his, ugly shit.

I opened his bathrobe, now I couldn’t leave, between the fourth floor and the fifth there were no longer stairs, if I left I would find the abyss.

I looked at his small pallid sex, lost in the black forest of hairs, between the heavy testicles.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘you’re upset.’

I jumped up, I took off the skirt that I was still wearing, I was naked, but he didn’t even realise it, he continued to look at the ceiling.

‘Now you lie down,’ I ordered him with false calm. ‘Relax.’

I pushed him down on the sofa, supine, in the position in which until that moment I had been.

‘Where are the condoms?’

He gave a melancholy smile.

‘It’s useless at this point,’ and yet he pointed to a chest of drawers with a gesture of discouragement.

I went to the chest, opened one drawer after another, found the condoms.

‘But I was attractive to you…’ Again I insisted.

He hit his forehead lightly with the back of his hand.

‘Yes, in my mind.’

I laughed angrily, I said:

‘You have to like me everywhere,’ and I sat on his chest, turning my back to him. I began to caress his stomach, going slowly lower and lower along the black track of hairs to where they were thick around his sex. Carla was fucking my husband and I couldn’t fuck this man, a man alone, without opportunities, a depressed musician for whom I was to be the happy surprise of his fifty-third birthday. She ruled Mario’s cock as if it belonged to her, she made him put it in her pussy, in her ass, which he had never done with me, and I, I could only chill that gray flesh. I grabbed his penis, I pulled down the skin to make sure there were no lesions and put it in my mouth. After a while Carrano began to moan, it sounded like braying. Soon his flesh swelled against my palate, this is what the shit wanted, this is what he was waiting for. Finally his prick emerged strong from his belly, a prick to fuck me with, to make my stomach ache for days, as Mario had never fucked me. My husband didn’t know what to do with real women: he dared only with whores of twenty, without intelligence, without experience, without teasing words.

Now Carrano was agitated, he told me to wait: wait, wait. I moved backward until I was pressing my sex against his mouth, I left his penis and turned with the most disdainful look I was capable of. ‘Kiss it,’ I said, and he kissed me literally, with devotion, I felt the shock of the kiss on my pussy, old food, the metaphoric language I used with Mario evidently wasn’t his, he misunderstood, he didn’t realise what I was really ordering him to do, I don’t know if Carla was able to decipher my husband’s suggestions, I don’t know. With my teeth I tore open the condom wrapper, I put it on his prick, come on, get up, I said to him, you like the asshole, deflower me, I never did that with my husband, I want to tell him about it in every detail, put it in my ass.

The musician struggled out from under me, I remained on all fours. I laughed to myself, I couldn’t contain myself thinking of Mario’s face when I told him. I stopped laughing only when I felt Carrano pushing forcefully against me. I was suddenly afraid, I held my breath. A bestial position, animal liquids and a perfidy utterly human. I turned to look at him, perhaps to beg him not to obey me, to let it go. Our glances me. I don’t know what he saw, I saw a man no longer young, with his white bathrobe open, his face shiny with sweat, lips pressed in concentration. I murmured something to him, I don’t know what. He unclenched his lips, opened his mouth, closed his eyes. Then he sank down behind me. I supported myself on one side. I saw the whitish stain of semen against the wall of the condom.

‘Never mind,’ I said with a dry explosion of laughter in my throat, and I tore the rubber off his already limp penis, threw it away, it stained the floor with a viscid yellow stripe. ‘You missed the target.’

They don’t call him Lucky Carrano for nothing. Not only does he get this great sex scene, but he ends up with the chick. In between the two he is roundly abused by Olga whenever possible, which doesn’t stop her getting him to dispose of her dog when it dies, probably because she doesn’t get the vet in to look at it. It could have been worse. Her son seems quite ill while the dog is dying and she doesn’t get in the doctor either – well, not until he’s on the mend again.

I do get cracking up. But somehow, in the end I don’t really feel like she’s really telling it how it is. She’s telling us what she wants us to know. And I’m not sure whether that’s Olga’s fault or Ferrante’s. I wonder if it matters?

 

 

 

 

 

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

When I was seven my father disowned his family. It was, he explained at the time, because he did not want us to be raised in the culture of violence and ignorance that made his family what it was. Although from the stories I heard from him, I had some picture in my mind of what that meant, it was really only upon reading this series that I have a clear sense of what we escaped. In fact, my father’s family is Calabrian from the area where John Paul Getty III was held after being kidnapped. Far more violent than the pussy Neapolitans.

So, on a personal level what I got from this was an inkling of what my life might have been like, had my father not made that decision. The culture is violent, the people, all relationships on all levels. The language is not violent, it is violence. That is the purpose of dialect, to express violence and threats and anger and powerlessness and vitriol and abuse.  It is a weapon. Having read these books and lived through the sometimes terrifying behaviour of my father I wonder whether it is learned or genetic. I do so hope it isn’t something I can’t undo in me.

I felt part Elena so often I stopped counting. Not just because my father, despite his best intentions, could not save us entirely from this life because he could not save us from himself, but for so many decisions she made as a child, growing up, and then as an adult. It’s an excruciatingly painful business, watching a person in a book do incredibly idiotic things as she does in her personal relationships all the time, knowing that one has done them all with no better capacity to explain than this series does.  How could she have got involved with Nino, even as a teenager, let alone as an adult. The only thing that makes me realise that it is permissible within the constraints of the book is that I’ve done the same stupid, stupid things.

I was unable to put down the first volume until I’d finished it. The most fantastic end to a book I’ve ever read by the way, and endings are impossibly hard to do. Two weeks in Melbourne, back to Adelaide and I discover that there is one shop where I can buy them. Imprints Booksellers, thank you! I bought the other three volumes and read them back to back over the course of a week. Does one need a review after that statement? A friend in Melbourne who is an Italian literature academic started reading the first and called up uni to say she wouldn’t be in that week. Unputdownable does not in the slightest exaggerate the effect of these.

Peter at East Avenue Books put me onto this series. It’s a secondhand bookshop in Clarence Park specialising in literature – if you live in Adelaide you must go there!