Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Italian Literature - a taste.

I’ve recently returned from Italy. My third visit in as many years. The regular visits arise from my interest in exploring my Italian roots. This material has become the focus of the novel I’m writing. It’s also introduced me to some great writers.
There’s no shortage of people writing about Italy – how many more Italian travel memoirs can there be? The large number is understandable when you begin to explore the many layers of culture, history, food, language not to mention regional differences in this relatively small (compared to Australia) country.
My first forays in my Italian obsession were via travel writers/observers such as Tim Parks’ Italian Ways and his marvellous Italian Neighbours. There are many others. Even George Negus wrote one – The World from Italy. I then explored some history and politics via David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy and Australian Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily which exposes the role of the mafia in contemporary Italian politics. A great read.
I only began to read Italian-born fiction writers recently. The three of most interest to me thus far are Naples based Elena Ferrante, Sicilian Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and Italo Svevo from Trieste.
Italo Svevo, looking dapper.
Italo Svevo, looking dapper.

These three are about as diverse as you could imagine. They explore dramatically different era’s regions and themes. Ferrante sets her stories in the poverty of Naples (what a wonderfully mad city) and her quartet of novels span fifty years from 1955 to 2005. Lampedusa explores Siciy between 1860 and 1910 and Svevo‘s novels are set in Trieste in the early 20th Century.

All three writers have fascinating personal stories. Ferrante is Naples born but has never been identified. She writes under a pseudonym. Lampedusa died at the age of 61, a year before his one and only novel, The Leopard, was published in 1958. Italo Svevo only achieved literary recognition and mainstream publication in his sixties (he died in 1928 aged 67). Svevo (born Aron Ettore Schmitz), by coincidence, also wrote under a pseudonym.

Lampedusa was the son of an aristocratic family and The Leopard tells the story of the demise of the old ruling class as Italy moves towards a united country in 1860 (Gabaldi has just entered Marsala to begin his campaign). Told with an honesty and an acceptance of the inevitability of change, it tracks the decline of the House of Salina through the eyes of the Prince of Salina and the rise of his nephew, Tancredi, who opportunistically supports the new order and ‘marries down’ in marrying the beautiful peasant Angelica whose family is on the rise, thus securing his future. Written without sentimentality or nostalgia it offers a wonderful insight into power and humanity and to a Sicily still recognizable more than a century later. At its centre it is deeply poetic.

Svevo was also a late bloomer. Of German Jewish background (his mother was Italian), he was born in Trieste in 1861 and married into a business family (industrial paint). He wrote from a young age and self-published a number of novels in his twenties and early thirties but, achieving little success or recognition as an author, he stopped writing and devoted himself to the family business. It was not until his late forties that he again began writing. This occurred as a result of his chance meeting with a young James Joyce who came to live in Trieste as a twenty five year old and whom Svevo engaged to teach him English. Joyce lived and wrote in Trieste over a period of ten years where he completed Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and began early drafts of Ulysses (Leopold Bloom is said to be based on Svevo). Joyce was long gone by the time Svevo again self-published his novel Zeno’s Conscience in 1923 but it was not until Joyce’s French agent published a translation that it was acclaimed as a comic masterpiece. Svevo died soon after (1928) in a car accident. Described as a pioneer of the psychological novel in Italy, it follows the life of a hapless young man as he stumbles into marriage, infidelity, business, all the time with a preoccupation with his health and death. Written as an account as told to his psychiatrist, it is a gently self revealing portrait of a character in constant conflict with himself. It is packed with wry humour.
Ferrante, the last of the trilogy of writers, writes about the lives of two friends Lila and Elena, one bright, beautiful and feisty, the other, highly intelligent but in awe of her beautiful friend. Set in the backstreets of Naples in the 1950s My Brilliant Friend is the first of four novels which follow this pair over a fifty year period. One is destined to escape her working class origins, the other becomes a survivor in a harsh social environment dominated by family. The writing in My Brilliant Friend is rich and sensual and beautifully captures the emergence of these two girls as they grapple with the realities of poverty, family and community expectations, and the constraints of gender in their journey towards adulthood and independence. The Italy of the fifties is raw and palpable.
Of course there are many more novels set in Italy – Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms for one and our own Venero Armanno (The Volcano) another. Italy is such a great country and a country of many great reads.
© Steve Capelin 2015

The Novel - a reading from

Brunswick River - winter
Have not written here since my return from Italy but it doesn't mean I haven't been busy - including a couple of georgeous weekends at the beach.

Here's an update.

  • Wrote a review of Italian books I have read in the past while for the Avid Reader Bookshop website.https://avidreaderbookshop.wordpress.com/2015/09/09/italian-literature-a-taste/
  • Did a reading from my work in progress at Avid Reader as (part of) the support act to Gail Jones talking about her new book "A Guide to Berlin." Exerpt of my reading below.
  • Interviewed Shirley Barrett at Avid Reader about her new (first) novel, "Whale OH!", about whaling and killer whales and the Davidson whaling family set in Eden (NSW) in 1903. Very funny, touching, illuminating. Shirly has been writing and directing film and TV for the past twenty years (South Solitary, Love Serenade). This book began life as a script but she couldn't get the finance to make it so she has become a novelist. She was great to interview.
  • Have almost finished the second draft of "Paradiso". Its been a hard slog at times but I'm confident this draft is a big improvement on the first. Next draft will be even better.

Here's the piece I read at Avid. I chose a fairly quiet piece. I wanted to feel comfortable standing and reading in front of fifty people. I must say reading exerpts aloud is a great way to hear the writing clearly. I discovered that some of them were clumsy and uneven in places; in others the rhythm just didn't feel right; others were good but not stand alone pieces. It was an interesting and challenging exercise.


Papa looks at me and smiles and then looks at the bonfire which is now a raging volcano cracking and snapping as it accelerates towards its climax. I take his hand.

 ‘Look Domenico. Which way are the sparks flying?’ I look to the peak of the fiery mountain and see a spray of sparks explode from the top.

‘Which way is that?’ I ask pointing to the far side of the square. They are blowing away from us, neither towards where I know the mountains begin nor towards the sea, which I know lies to the south. ‘Is it Milano and the River Po in that direction?’ I ask.

I have learnt the geography of my country from maps on walls and views out my classroom window. Maestro Carros takes us out into the school grounds and has us face the mountains. ‘This is north,’ he tells us. He has us imagine we can see Venezia to the south. He teaches us north and south and then tells us that even further south lies Roma and the ancient civilizations. And further south still is the Kingdom of two Sicilies where Italians speak another language, eat different food and have black hair and dark skin.

To the north lies Austria and beyond the mountains, countries with many cultures and many languages until there is nowhere left to go. Only ice and frozen waste. Maestro Carros does not tell us much about the east except to say that if you go far enough you reach the lands of China and of silk and spices. And even further lie the islands of the Pacifique, undiscovered islands of mystery and magic.

He has never been east of Udine but of the west he has many stories.  He tells of getting lost in the richest streets of Milano, of travelling on steam driven trains between cities, of lakes as large as seas and of his own home, once part of Italy, now France.

‘Milano is west?’

‘Yes’ confirms my father.

‘So the sparks must be flying…’ and here I stop and face the invisible mountains and repeat my compass points mantra. If I raise my right arm it points in the direction of the disappearing sparks.

‘It’s east papa. They are travelling east.’

My father hesitates.

‘Another unproductive year with another poor harvest,’ my father observes. ‘The signs are clear. We will not be here to see another summer Domenico.’ He says this calmly. We both look towards Mamma and Marietta whose aprons swirl as they move between tureen and table, ladling out portions of hot soup. I wait, but there is no more information forthcoming. He pats me on the shoulder and pushes me towards the food.
Vecia has disappeared in the smoke and glare of the inferno. Someone calls out and we turn to see a flare of light as she is engulfed in flames and, for a moment, is lifted above the fire and she is gone.