Tag Archives: Italian literature

Recent reads: Elena Ferrante and Rónán Hession

Over the Easter week I read a couple of books that had been sent to me as gifts, and so I’m taking a break from my formal reviews this week to talk to you about my two “holiday reads” – one of the best-known works of contemporary translation, and the follow-up to a brilliant debut.

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, tr. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2020; originally published 2012)

Okay, I’ll admit it: I didn’t especially want to like Ferrante. I’m not generally drawn to already-famous authors, and (possibly because whenever I say I read “women in translation” the stock response is often “oh, so you must like Elena Ferrante?”) I felt obstinate and contrary about reading Ferrante’s work until Europa sent me The Lying Life of Adults last year. I enjoyed the stand-alone novel and my introduction to Ferrante, but it’s no exaggeration to say that embarking on the Neapolitan Quartet is something I’ve been putting off for years. So… how did it go?

Well, if you’ve ever watched The Big Bang Theory, my experience of reading My Brilliant Friend was something like the time Sheldon tried to ramp up his irritation levels by listening to Taylor Swift but…

“turns out I love her”. Indeed. Turns out My Brilliant Friend is entirely deserving of all the hype. The storytelling manages to be both intimate and vast, focusing on individuals and relationships but spiralling out towards an entire community and city, and locating the region within its country’s history. After the prologue (set in the present, with the narrative then rewinding by several decades – a technique I particularly enjoy) it took me a while to get properly into the story – there is an impressive cast of characters (and, mercifully, a handy character guide at the start of the book) and though the childhood sections were necessary for background and introduction to the characters, their way of life, and their place on a generational continuum within the community, the point when I really got immersed in the story was when the two protagonists Lenù and Lila start to grow up. This is when Lenù, the narrator, begins to develop an awareness of the boundaries of her world, and the ways she both does and does not want to escape. The true focus is, of course, on Lenù’s “brilliant friend” Lila, a girl whose presence makes Lenù feel that she is truly present in the world, for “only what Lila touched became important.” This is a beautiful story of friendship and rivalry, working-class hardship and middle-class aspiration, social expectation and adolescent desire: if you’ve already read it then I can only add to the superlatives attributed to it and if, like me, you’re late to the Ferrante party, then I highly recommend you head on in.

So there it is: I’m a Ferrante convert. There is a small catch: I’ve written before about Ann Goldstein’s translations, which I find linguistically rich but occasionally jarring. It was in reading My Brilliant Friend that I realised why: at times I feel as though the story is being told to me by an Italian who hasn’t quite grasped English syntax. This clearly isn’t an impediment to communication of the story (or worldwide success), but in terms of translation it’s not my preferred approach. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful and (mostly) engagingly narrated story, heartbreaking in its daily sorrows and told with a keen eye for both intricate detail and general observation. My experience of reading it was true escapism; I felt quite bereft when I reached the end, and will certainly be reading the rest of the quartet.

 

Rónán Hession, Panenka (Bluemoose Books, 2021)

A rare thing for me: reading a book that’s not a translation, and not written by a woman. For this to happen it has to be a pretty special book, and if you haven’t already discovered Rónán Hession, he’s certainly a pretty special writer. His debut novel, Leonard and Hungry Paul (Bluemoose Books, 2018, reviewed here), was a runaway success, and deservedly so: its gentle warmth and understated humour were absolutely delightful, and it’s no surprise that it found its way into so many readers’ hands and hearts. With Panenka, Hession gives us something very different but no less remarkable. The heart of the novel is Joseph, a former footballer whose nickname “Panenka” is “his sadness and his story.” We meet him as he is in the grip of a debilitating headache attack that he calls “the iron mask”, and it is quickly revealed that this is a symptom of a terminal illness. In the time he has left, Panenka carries on with what he has made of his rather unspectacular life – a renewed closeness with his daughter Marie-Thérèse (an anxious supermarket team leader recently separated from her husband Vincent), an affectionate relationship with his seven-year-old grandson Arthur, a (non-football-related) job that we don’t discover much about until a dazzling final scene, and a group of affectionately antagonistic acquaintances he meets with regularly at Vincent’s, a café-bar run by his ex-son-in-law. This is a small town, and Panenka stayed there even after his footballing career was cut short by a mistake to which fans – then and ever since – have attributed the decline of the local football team, whose glory Panenka had apparently been destined to secure.

Hession’s passion for football shines through, but in a way that is entirely inclusive, and not at all off-putting to those of us less well acquainted with the beautiful game. The dissection of match performances between the gang at Vincent’s is, like all of Hession’s dialogue, perfectly observed – one of the great strengths of his writing is that it always makes me feel I’m amongst friends. In fact, if there was one criticism I could make (and you’d have to push me hard to make it) it would be that the dialogues are so perfect – none of the retrospective “why did/didn’t I say that?” angst is necessary for these characters (but then, inarticulate dialogue wouldn’t make for great reading, so this isn’t really a criticism at all). In fact the characterisation is superb, with plenty revealed about the characters but much also held back, in a way that reflects how we’d get to know people in real life. When I read Hession’s writing I can’t help imagining him observing conversations and behaviour as the years go by, so recognisably human are his characters and their interactions. There would have been plenty of opportunity for facile or schmaltzy resolutions to the various broken or fragile relationships, and Hession steers clear of this in a way that shows great tenderness for his characters. And the final scene… no spoilers, as ever, but you might want to keep a tissue handy.

 

 

Review: FAREWELL, GHOSTS by Nadia Terranova

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Seven Stories Press, 2020)

This week the new UK imprint of Seven Stories Press releases Nadia Terranova’s English-language debut, a coming-of-age story with a family tragedy at its heart. Ida Laquidara is a 30-something writer living in Rome with her husband, the dependable (if not exactly passionate) Pietro. This apparently contented equilibrium is disrupted when Ida’s mother calls her back home to Sicily to help her sort out the family home before she sells it; Ida’s mother wants Ida to go through her childhood possessions and decide what to do with them. Yet this will prove an emotionally intense task, for the house and all Ida’s former belongings are heavy with the memory of her father’s abandonment: when Ida was 13, her father left the house one morning at 6.16 and never returned. Though Ida starts the novel by stating that “there’s always a reason that memories should remain memories and not come to disturb the present”, in the end her return to Messina makes the memories surge and threaten to engulf her if she does not finally confront them.

We learn little about Ida’s father, Sebastiano, other than that he was depressive and that Ida had to care for him while her mother went out to work. The abandonment is what remains: the unanswered questions, the life interrupted, the unexplained departure that leaves Ida “the daughter of the absence of Sebastiano Laquidara.” As for Ida’s relationship with her mother, it is fraught and tense: reigning over the household is the silence of a pain that they both had in common but never shared. The two women are “a family that was maimed and full of silences”, bound together by a mutual rage and an inability to move on from a morning in the 1990s that has defined their life.

Twenty-three years on, the rooms in the family home are “saturated with unused hope” just like Ida and her mother, and the house itself is on the verge of falling apart. The walls, floors, plumbing and heating look in order but all threaten to give way at any time, and the metaphor is not much of a leap: Ida and her mother stay upright but brittle, silently imploding and never far from collapse. The clock, too, symbolises their life together: it is, Ida says, stuck forever at 6.16 – and so are they (she notes that “inside me the clock had never signaled afternoon”). The unresolved trauma of Sebastiano’s disappearance weighs heavy on the household, the women and their emotional lives, both of them turning into fortresses who refuse to open up but are eroding on the inside. The Sicilian landscape also comes alive in Ida’s story, aesthetically beautiful and dramatic but unwelcoming to her. Messina is her father’s city, its shoreline walked by him so often, and her certainty that he has returned to the sea both evokes images of the (overtly referenced) mythological creatures hiding in the deep and provides the turning point for Ida’s voyage back into her past.

Ann Goldstein’s translation successfully conveys the melancholy that treads a delicate path between concision and self-indulgence. The language is suitably limpid, refusing to descend into melodrama even as dramatic events unfold: “Death is a full stop, while disappearance is the absence of a stop, of any punctuation mark at the end of the words.” This considered, almost detached narration makes the heart of the story is all the more effective (for example, in the observation that “a depressed man had consciously and forever left life and the two of us.”) There aren’t so many of the syntactical or collocational calques that characterise other translations of Goldstein’s that I’ve read, and those that are there are slightly less noticeable, such as “My mother and I didn’t know how to repair the damage and so we lived it”, or they simply add to the way in which the narrative voice is constructed (“Twenty-three years ago I put in here the proofs of the existence of a man named Sebastiano Laquidara, in this red box I buried the smell and voice of my father.”)

Though Ida at times appeared a self-absorbed narrator, the defining moment in her emotional journey is realising that this is what she has become: someone so consumed with the pain of her own grief that she is no longer alive to the grief of others. Ida’s pain has taken up so much space that there was no room for anyone else, and this realisation may just be the key to letting it go – not to making amends, or to making good on the past, but to releasing her ghosts and allowing the living to take their place: Farewell, Ghosts is a melancholic and reflective novel that swells with intelligence and heart.

Review copy of Farewell, Ghosts provided by Seven Stories Press

Review: THE LYING LIFE OF ADULTS, Elena Ferrante

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2020)

I’m going to start this review with a confession: until last month, I had never read anything by Elena Ferrante.

Okay, I’ve got that off my chest.

The Lying Life of Adults is a stand-alone book that has yet to receive the attention and hype of the Neapolitan Quartet: I approached it as a blank slate, hoping for an engaging and engrossing story that would sweep me away into its universe. And, for the most part, that’s exactly what I got.

The Lying Life of Adults is narrated by Giovanna who, at the time the narrative is set, is a thirteen-year-old girl from an affluent family, living in a beautiful home high above Naples. Her parents are successful yet modest, and their house filled with love. Yet this idyllic appearance masks hidden truths that Giovanna unravels slowly after overhearing a chance conversation between her parents that sets her on a path down to the depths of the poorest areas of Naples, where she meets her estranged aunt Vittoria and is drawn into Vittoria’s brash, chaotic and passionate life.

Giovanna’s father, Andrea, distanced himself from a family that he has always depicted as an emotional succubus, determined to control him and hold him back. When Giovanna, on the cusp of an uncomfortable transition into adolescence, overhears him telling her mother that Giovanna is getting “the face of Vittoria”, she becomes obsessed with her appearance, brooding over a genetically unavoidable meanness of spirit that she feels certain is becoming etched on her face so that she will resemble the caricature of the aunt she has never met. Vittoria is presented as a shadowy and malevolent figure who presides over all Giovanna’s childhood fears, and Giovanna’s decision to confront Vittoria does nothing to free her from this reign of terror: instead she is drawn into another version of events, one in which her father is not the honest, kind, upstanding man that she has always believed him to be. Giovanna’s decision is the catalyst for an irrevocable shift in the lives of the whole family: caught between two versions of truth, two versions of Naples, and two versions of herself, Giovanna’s comfortable world will be rocked to its core and life changed forever.

I’ve come to realise that Goldstein favours a translation that lets the original language show through: I confess that syntactical or lexical calques can jolt me out of the storytelling universe, but given how accomplished the rest of the translation is, I can only assume that these are deliberate choices. Conversely, I greatly appreciated Goldstein’s approach to dealing with places and dialect: I much prefer for street names and, for example, the names of dishes or delicacies, to remain in the original language, and this is the method that Goldstein favours. As for the instances of dialect, I don’t know whether or not they appear in Neapolitan dialect in the original text, but Goldstein deals with conversations in dialect very sensitively, avoiding any kind of adaptation and instead dealing with them in a more subtle way (I can’t give examples as I was reading an uncorrected proof, so you’ll just have to either trust me or read it for yourself and see if you agree!)

In short, The Lying Life of Adults offers a maelstrom of affairs, unrequited love, beauty, death, promises broken and appearances shattered – and, to top it all off, a bracelet that could be either a lucky charm or a curse. It is, purely and simply, a “good read” – fun, engaging, but also with some serious edges and reflections on adolescence, relationships, loss of innocence and the shifting notions of “truth” and “memory”, highlighting how these are always subjective and never the same for two people. It’s sure to be a great success, and deservedly so.

Review copy of The Lying Life of Adults provided by Europa Editions

 

Review: Donatella di Pietrantonio, A Girl Returned

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2019)

A Girl Returned is an intense and affecting account of how a life can change forever in a single day. The unnamed teenage narrator leads a happy and harmonious existence with her affluent parents in a nice neighbourhood of an Italian city. Or, rather, this was her life: it is recounted in flashback, as we meet the narrator when she arrives at a rundown house in the country. This is her new home – though, as we learn, it was in fact her first home. Her parents were living in poverty when she was a baby; they had three older children already, and then found out that the mother was pregnant again. Meanwhile, the refined Adalgisa, wife of the father’s cousin, was miserably childless and wanted a little girl of her own… you can fill in the gaps. Indeed, this narrative is pieced together in half-conversations and the silences between them: the narrator finds herself suddenly transplanted back into the heart of the family who gave her away, unwanted on both sides, and with no idea why her existence has been uprooted so suddenly. She is hampered in her desire to understand by the adults who decide for her that she is too young to know the truth: she is left wondering why her mother gave her up and when she might come to take her back, constructing her own less painful version of reality in the absence of a truth that will be revealed in two key scenes towards the end of the novel.

Meeting the “girl returned” at this pivotal point plunges us straight into the most turbulent moment of our young narrator’s life: “I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother”, she tells us by way of introduction to her story. Gone is the happy bourgeois life of music lessons, elegant meals, a nice apartment and a full social life – now the girl is sharing a bedroom with three siblings she never knew she had, awakening to the rhythmic sound of her older brothers masturbating and sharing a bed with a younger sister who has yet to master night-time bladder control. Attitudes from the new family range from indifference to overt hostility, and in the village and at school there are frequent displays of resentment towards l’arminuta, the girl returned. She finds an unlikely ally in her older brother Vincenzo, a tearaway who frequently runs away with the gypsies, and he awakens in her the first flames of adolescent desire. Yet he too is wrenched away from her in one of the most painful episodes of the story, and she is left with only her younger sister Adriana for companionship. Adriana is wild and impulsive, but capable of great compassion, and gives depth to a family unit that could otherwise potentially fall into clichés of “rich girl meets poor family who despise her for having opportunities they never had.” Indeed, in a book where the narrator feels so little love and warmth, one of the most remarkable feats is that it spills over with warmth and heart. Donatella di Pietrantonio gives depth and substance to an eclectic cast of characters, many of whom (including l’arminuta herself) remain unnamed. The “other mother” speaks infrequently, and when she does it is in a rural working-class dialect that l’arminuta barely understands. She is “the mother”, “the woman who conceived me” or “the other mother” – always distanced from and by the narrator, who explains that “from the moment I was given back to her, the word “mamma” had stuck in my throat like a frog that wouldn’t jump out.”

One of the reviews on the book cover describes the author’s “feverish prose”, so I was expecting this to be a defining feature of the narrative, but this wasn’t my impression of A Girl Returned. I found it much more considered and languorous, though of course this may be a difference between the original and the translation. Ann Goldstein is, as the blurb notes, Elena Ferrante’s translator: this is marketed as a selling point, and for long stretches, in fact for the majority of the book, the translation is pitched beautifully. I liked the less frenzied pace and delivery, and Goldstein strikes an excellent balance between the intensity of the narrator’s feelings (“she reopened my memory with a lash of the whip”) and the understatement with which certain scenes are narrated (“I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen.” The occasional flash-forwards that show us the resolution of particular characters’ stories are also offered with a detached melancholy that is all the more moving for remaining unembellished. However, I was frustrated at times with calques from Italian that disrupted the syntax for me or stood out as unusual (second-verb infinitives rather than gerunds, use of nouns where English would use a noun phrase, and some literal translations of vocabulary that do not have the same general field of usage in English). It’s possible that I’m more attuned to such nuances in translations from romance languages, which are my language area, but if the translator is mentioned as one of the reasons why the book is so excellent, then it does invite certain expectations. I imagine that Goldstein has to produce translations under time pressure as she’s so prolific, and if my appreciation seems mitigated, then let me be clear: I loved A Girl Returned. I even loved most of the translation. I hope that other readers will just skim over the words and phrases that made me pause, and I certainly hope that this book will find its way into your hands: it’s a gripping story, a fascinating telling, and will linger in my mind a long while.

Review copy of A Girl Returned provided by Europa Editions