An Italian Education by Tim Parks

I’m working my way through Tim Parks’ books, this being my third. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as his Italian Life, but the circumstances were invidious as I read the whole thing during several weeks spent at my mother’s bedside in hospital. It’s really hard reading in that environment, it’s all so noisy and there are constant interruptions. Ostensibly it’s about his children growing up in Italy. But is it they, or he, who are receiving the education? Both I suppose. There are some hilarious scenes – when his son takes it upon himself to learn to fish stands out.

On the more sociological side, the extraordinary, and I thought rather repellent, relationship between children and mothers, even adult children and aging mothers is discussed at length. The Madonna statues littering the countryside. Small children refusing homework answers from fathers. ‘I said I wanted mummy to answer’. Fathers might just as well not bother knowing what 7 x 3 equals. And then as adult children sharing beds with mothers. Mothers overprotecting their children in ways that we’d think of as neurotic, but apparently normal there.

There are no families in the way one thinks of Catholic Italy. Apparently one child families are the norm. Tim Parks and his wife are considered crazy by their friends and neighbours as they go ahead with child two.

The portrayals of school life are interesting and funny in a depressing sort of way. There is a nice example of rules, getting around rules, and expanding to how that affects government at a wider level.

I hope I haven’t made this sound dry, it isn’t. I’m looking forward to my next – I still have a few on the shelves.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

Oh, I could easily give this five stars. I’d say it’s the most readily accessible of his books that I’ve read thus far. Short stories, no real room to get Off Topic, these are tight and ‘enjoyable’, a word that doesn’t seem suitable for his books in general.

If you are thinking of trying this celebrated Italian author, this really does make sense as the way to start. Dip your toes….into the water of The Wine-Dark Sea.

Sicilian Uncles by Leonardo Sciascia

I’m slowly reading all of Sciascia’s work insofar as it’s available in English.

Like John Berger’s fiction, there’s an urge to put Sciascia’s into sociology or some such category. Absolutely not because it’s a historical fiction, padded out with stuff about How Things Used To Be Done, but because they are political. This could be bad, but it isn’t. Although Berger and Sciascia have hearts and consciences, above all they are not proselytisers but observers. And if your observations are acute enough, there is no need to state the obvious.

In this set of four stories, described on the cover as ‘novellas’ but they are not that to me, the stages for the first three are small town Sicily, Sciascia’s usual backdrop.

But the fourth begins in that way, before diverging, with a poor labourer who decides that joining the army to go to fight with the Fascists in Spain is the way out of his terrible predicament. Perhaps predicament isn’t really the right word when you are simply talking of the normal, dreadful life of such exploited people. Life as a miner was awful enough that the army was a step towards something better – or so he hoped, like so many who were tricked or forced by economic circumstance into doing this. Only to discover, when he got to Spain that the good guys were the ones on the other side. He was fighting against peasants and labourers, he was warring against his own. This is a truly great story – Antimony.

Yes, you should read this. I can’t believe not one of my GR friends has.


The Day of the Owl and Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia

I don’t know if there is more I can say about Sciascia than I’ve already said…and surely it’s been said better by others. It’s a surreal world he describes, and to think in actuality it is the real world.

I recommend to anybody who has read the Neapolitan series by Ferrante to read these. It gives a different perspective on the corrupt and violent society which is the source of her writing.

The Moro Affair by Leonardo Sciascia

The affair in question was the kidnapping of Moro in 1978. The Red Brigade tried him, in their own fashion, and sentenced him to death. Although they then offered a trade, thirteen of theirs in exchange, the ruling Christian Democrats refused. Actually, even the Pope refused. It must have been truly shocking for Moro to realise that his colleagues and friends, not to mention the head of the Church, had no intention of trying to save him.

And it shocked Sciascia: hence the book. In main part it looks at the letters Moro sent to his family, his colleagues, the Press and the Pope during the two months he was kept alive. And it examines them in a literary way, searching for clues in a way perhaps only Sciascia could. He brings in Borges, Cervantes, and Pirandello amongst others. He believed that Moro must have hidden hints as to his whereabouts in these letters. He talks of the incompetence of the police and the unChristian-like behaviour of the ruling party.

He talks of the indirect way Moro had of talking and how this played out. And I couldn’t help wondering if Sciascia was himself writing like Moro in this regard. I knew nothing of the story other than what I read in these pages. But it felt obvious to me from the start that the whoever was running the Christian Democrats was probably quite happy with how things were going. Not to mention it explained the way in which the police set about the task of finding him – or as seems actually to have been the case, set about the task of looking like they were trying to find him.

At one point in the letters he sent, Moro asks if his betrayal is actually something decided by the Americans. Since then, it transpires that yes, this is the case. From Wiki:

In 2005, Sergio Flamigni, a leftist politician and writer, who had served on a parliamentary inquiry on the Moro case, suggested the involvement of the Operation Gladio network directed by NATO. He asserted that Gladio had manipulated Moretti as a way to take over the Red Brigades in order to effect a strategy of tension aimed at creating popular demand for a new, right-wing law-and-order regime.[40][41]

In 2006, the Harvard and MIT educated American psychiatrist and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Management, Steve Pieczenik, was interviewed by Emmanuel Amara in his documentary film Les derniers jours d’Aldo Moro (“The Last Days of Aldo Moro”). In the interview, Pieczenik, an expert on international terrorism and negotiating strategies who had been brought to Italy as a consultant to Interior Minister Francesco Cossiga‘s Crisis Committee, stated that: “We had to sacrifice Aldo Moro to maintain the stability of Italy.”[42][43]

Pieczenik maintained that the U.S. had had to “instrumentalize the Red Brigades.” According to him, the decision to have Moro killed was taken during the fourth week of his detention, when Moro was thought to be revealing state secrets in his letters,[44] namely, the existence of Gladio.[43] In another interview former interior minister Cossiga revealed that the Crisis Committee had also leaked a false statement attributed to the Red Brigades that Moro was already dead. This was intended to communicate to the kidnappers that further negotiations would be useless, since the government had written Moro off.[45][46]

The kidnapping could scarcely have taken place under more dramatic circumstances as Moro had created a truly historic agreement to bring the Communists into the governing fold. Wiki continues:

The early-1978 proposition by Moro of a Christian Democracy-Italian Socialist Party cabinet supported also by the Italian Communist Party was strongly opposed by both super-powers. The United States feared that the collaboration of an Italian government with the Communists might have allowed these later to gain information on strategic NATO military plans and installations, and pass them to Soviet agents. Moreover, the participation in government of the Communists in a Western country would have represented a cultural failure for the USA. The Soviets considered potential participation by the Italian Communist Party in a cabinet a form of emancipation from Moscow and rapprochement to the Americans, therefore also opposing it.

I think that Sciascia part knew, part surmised, part imagined all this – it isn’t hard. Within Italy itself, like any comprise, many remained opposed. Was the Red Brigade at any time even doing its own bidding, or that of the Americans – or Russians – without even realising it?

How it must have hurt Moro that he was conveniently disposed of with the notion that he was no longer himself. To me the letters read like the philosophising of an ancient Greek, explaining to a recalcitrant audience, why it was right for these lives to be exchanged for his. He tragically changes the tenor of what he is writing as he realises they aren’t recalcitrant, but complicit.

A gripping literary excursion into an extraordinary situation. Highly recommended.

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!

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…..