Grand Tour #12 – Malta. The Misfit / Oliver Friggieri

June 3, 2017

What do we know of Malta? It’s a small island nation in the Med, its people were awarded the George Cross for resisting the Nazis, and its footballers are called things like Mifsud and Carabott and Camilleri and Buttigieg. What about the language – they speak Italian, right? Well, no. There’s a fair amount of English and Italian spoken, but the primary language is Maltese, and it’s a language like none I’ve ever seen before. It resembles a mixture of Italian and Arabic with a dash of Albanian thrown in. The autobiography of Oliver Friggieri, whose 1980 novel The Misfit (L-Istramb) I have just read in a recent translation by Charles Briffa, is called Fjuri li ma Jinxfux. Let’s just pause to take that in.

Turning to the novel, the eponymous misfit is Baruch, a young man whose life lacks purpose. The novel opens with him running through the rain to a cemetery in order to visit the grave of the professor whose funeral he attended a week earlier. The death of this young professor, a man Baruch idolised but never dared to approach, is one factor in Baruch’s current crisis. The others: his loneliness, his remote relationship with his parents, a feeling of detachment from the world.

After some months of introspection, Baruch decides to enter a seminary to train for the priesthood. It’s not that he feels a religious vocation, but he does want something that will give his life purpose and make his heartbreak go away. The seminary is strictly run and Baruch is stifled. He kindles a tentative friendship with a like-minded young man, Anton, but this is stamped out by the authorities. And so on.

I won’t continue with this synopsis because it’s a short book and I’ve revealed most of the plot already, and anyway you can probably tell what kind of book it is and what’s likely to happen. The moments that pleased me most were those that fleetingly recalled books I have loved: Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, with its concept of people as satellites whose orbits occasionally cross; the totalitarianism of Antonia White’s Frost in May (I feared Baruch’s frank diary entries in the seminary would be discovered and lead to expulsion); Lindsay Anderson’s film If….

Existential crisis, anger, disillusionment, loneliness, angst, directionlessness, self-deception. I think if these are the primary concerns of your protagonist, you ought to add at least a sprinkling of jokes as a compromise. There’s certainly some comic mileage to be got out of Baruch’s hopeless parents, his mother fussy, his father uninterested.

His mother and father had two main principles: that their son was not like other young men and that the blame lay completely on him.

Not much beyond that, though. Does the novel offer psychological insight? Well, it rings true enough, and Baruch’s journey follows a trajectory that is credible to the point of predictability, but exactly why he’s fucked up isn’t clear. Maybe that’s the most impressive thing about it.

Given the depth of Baruch’s feelings for the professor, and his later relationship with Anton, I wondered if this might count as what some would call a ‘gay novel’ – and there is a nice passage where Baruch asks God to forgive him for transgressing the rules of the seminary but fails to find any feeling of guilt inside himself – but I think that would be overstating the importance of sex and sexuality here. Baruch’s sexual hang-ups, whatever they may be, are but one facet of his malaise.

What does this novel tell us about Malta? That misanthropy is not an exclusively British trait, which perhaps we already suspected.

As someone who can’t speak any language well enough to translate anything from it into anything else, I am loath to criticise any translation. I can only tell if a translation is good or not at the most basic level, i.e. are there mistakes in it? There are mistakes in this one, typos and tense shifts and infelicities, that might have been eliminated. A great shame to go to the trouble of making a translation and not to take the simple step of running it past a native English-speaking proof-reader. By way of example, a muddy sentence from the introduction:

The Misfit contains an internal perspective which shows that the story concentrates on the character through whose consciousness the narrative is presented.

I feel I’ve been mean to a novel that, thrill me though it didn’t, was basically fine; perhaps that’s the worst thing you can say about a book, though. If only it had been awful, I’d have had something to write about.

Ten random books

May 31, 2017

Courtesy of Simon, another getting-to-know-you exercise, the gist of this one being that you pick at random from your shelves or (more likely, in my case) piles ten books, and write a bit about them. Well, lookee here.

1. The Witch and the Holiday Club / Margaret Stuart Barry

I’m going through a Simon and the Witch phase at present. The BBC adaptation by Valerie Georgeson was my most beloved programme when I was about six, and I am belatedly reading the eight books. Most of them I have sourced from Cambridge University Library (finally proving its worth after several fruitless centuries), but the BBC tie-in editions I wanted my own copies of. Elizabeth Spriggs on the cover, squee! I also bought a copy of Joan Sims’ autobiography. What superb actresses they were. How I love them.

2. The Norman Conquests / Alan Ayckbourn

The sort of book one likes to have handy in case of emergency, not that I open it very often. This trilogy of plays was my introduction to Ayckbourn, twelve or so years ago, and their ingenuity and fun are enduring. Perhaps it’s because of Norman that I became an Assistant Librarian. But probably not.

3. Anybody: Poems / Ari Banias

A present I received for Christmas and read in March. Some lovely writing.

And the tree is a television
where the president appears in the form of a finch
(‘The Feeling’)

4. Transgender History / Susan Stryker

A birthday present last year from my brother. He knows what I like (because it was on my Amazon wish list). And I will definitely read it one day.

5. The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles With America / Joseph Berger

Staying in a largely Hasidic Jewish area of Brooklyn for a week last year made me curious about the lives of Hasidim, and this book looked interesting. I haven’t read it yet.

6. Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories / Robert Walser

I saw a pile of copies of this book in McNally Jackson and fell in love with it. I couldn’t afford it at that moment, but bought it on my return to the UK. It consists of fragments – ‘Some dwell on childish or transient topics – carousels, the latest hairstyles, an ekphrasis of the illustrations in a picture book – others on the grand themes of nature, art, and love.’ (Publisher description.) I love and covet these NYRB editions, and I expect one day I’ll read it.

7. The Book of Daniel / E.L. Doctorow

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Whenever anyone trots out the old question about what the best opening line is, I think of that sentence, from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I’m sure I hadn’t heard of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg when I read it, but they later turned into a fascination. This novel inspired by their story is a book I bought as long ago as 2008, but I will finally read it soon because it ties in neatly with Tony Kushner’s brilliant Angels in America, which I’m going to see in a couple of months at the National Theatre.

8. Four English Comedies

The four comedies in question being Volpone, The Way of the World, She Stoops to Conquer and The School for Scandal, of which I’ve read the first and third. I used to love these 1990s-era Penguin Classics editions, the colour-coded spines, the larger-than-usual format. The first copy of Pride and Prejudice I read was in the same edition, with a red stripe along the top. I don’t remember She Stoops to Conquer one bit, but I know I enjoyed Volpone. Maybe it had some jokes in.

9. The Girls, Vol. 1 / Henry de Montherlant

The encapsulation of a recurring theme: I bought this beautiful two-volume set dirt cheap on eBay in about 2003, and I haven’t opened it yet, put off, possibly, by its reputation as a repository of misogyny. Still, the bright orange and pink are nice, and there are other Montherlant books (the homoerotic ones) that I have read and loved. Perhaps next year’s reading project, Proustathon aside, should be to resist buying books where possible until I’ve made inroads into those I own. I tried that once before, in 2011: I ended up buying 24 books that year, of which I have to date read only 12.

10. Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks / Fiona Maddocks

A perk of being a librarian is that there’s some scope for buying books you yourself want to read. This ‘conversation diary’ is one such book, though it fitted neatly into our collection or I wouldn’t have chanced it. On first impression it appears immensely approachable. Opening a page at random, you find Birtwistle and Maddocks playing ‘horse, bird, muffin’.

Beethoven is the horse. So Mozart’s the bird and Brahms is the muffin … I think Stockhausen is the muffin and Boulez is the horse. [and so on]

Do post your own!

Grand Tour #11 – Italy. The Betrothed / Alessandro Manzoni

May 27, 2017

When I asked him for ideas of books to read for this project, an Italian friend suggested Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), which he had read at school and enjoyed. (All Italians read this book at school: it’s the classic Italian 19th-century novel.) I’d heard of the book, albeit primarily as an opera title (Ponchielli’s is the most famous adaptation), and was attracted by the idea of reading a substantial book for a change, most of those I’ve read so far being on the thin side. I read an anonymous 1834 translation of the novel’s original version from 1827 (it was revised by Manzoni in 1842). I’d like to say I chose it carefully, but in fact it was the only one on Project Gutenberg.

Just because a book’s long, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily long-winded, but this is both. The plot is minimal. It is 1628, and the intended marriage of two young peasant lovers, Renzo and Lucia (called Lucy in this translation; the fashion among translators of the time was clearly for Anglicisation), is stopped by the intervention of a corrupt baron, Don Rodrigo. The lovers, under threat, separate, throwing themselves on the mercy of well-wishers. Following nearly two years apart, each of them having suffered the privations of e.g. bread riots and plague, Renzo and Lucia are reunited and get married at last. (Spoiler alert.)

The secondary characters are more intriguing than Renzo and Lucia, who are open books, the former good-hearted but overly rash, the latter good-hearted but overly pious. The Nun of Monza, who takes Lucia under her wing but is herself under the power of shady forces, is a fascinating character, a woman living as a nun almost by mistake, and has a personal story related with great compassion, but is abandoned when her part in Lucia’s rescue and capture has been completed, her eventual fate related in a few brief paragraphs towards the end. The conversion to Christianity of the enigmatic character called L’Innominato is also involving, and might be the model for similar twists in more recent works of fiction.

Among the comic characters, the priest Don Abbondio is a success, if rather one-note, making every decision according to what will cause the least inconvenience for him. The scene where Federico Borromeo (the real-life Archbishop of Milan) attempts with limited success to show him the error of his ways is very amusing. Satisfying too, if not to the same extent that similar talkings-to in other books (I thought particularly of Trollope) are.

(The presence of Borromeo is restrictive: as a real-life character, moreover a documentedly heroic one, Manzoni cannot treat him as anything other than a saint, nor would he wish to. Other religious characters are morally flawless, most notably Fra Cristoforo, the protector of Renzo and Lucia. They cannot be otherwise. When Oscar Wilde wrote there was no such thing as a moral book, he presumably hadn’t read this. Almost without exception the good end happily and the bad unhappily.)

The most satisfying moments tended to be those where I was able to join dots between The Betrothed and other books. I thought most frequently of Candide, a book that packs ten times the action of this book into a fifth of the space. The moving reunion of Renzo and Lucia amid the devastation of the plague of Milan (the plague scenes are quite harrowing, which is to Manzoni’s credit) is like one of the unexpected reunions in Candide, both characters changed by their experiences but evidently meant to come together once more. Just as Cunégonde becomes ugly in Candide, there’s a nice detail about Lucia losing her looks after her recovery from plague (or perhaps never having been a looker in the first place).

The reports the Bergamascans had heard of Lucy, together with Renzo’s extraordinary attachment to her — perhaps, too, the representations of some partial friend — had contributed to excite an extravagant idea of her beauty. When Lucy appeared, they began to shrug their shoulders, and say, “Is this the woman? We expected something very different! What is she, after all? A peasant, like a thousand others! Women like her, and fairer than she, are to be found every where!”

Unfortunately, some kind friends told Renzo these things, perhaps added to what they had heard, and roused his indignation. “And what consequence is it to you?” said he. “Who told you what to expect? Did I ever do so? Did I tell you she was beautiful? She is a peasant, forsooth! Did I ever say I would bring a princess here? She does not please you. Do not look at her, then: you have beautiful women; look at them.”

I was quite touched by this, though I’m not sure quite why. Elsewhere, Don Ferrante is a character straight out of Voltaire: he surrounds himself by books and thinks himself a scholar, believes the plague is caused by planetary motion, takes no precautions against it, and dies. You see, the book’s not without humour. Manzoni even knows he’s a bit of a bore, and that the chapters giving historical context derail the narrative rather too much. ‘Don’t be alarmed, reader,’ he writes at one point in a paragraph about the progress of the plague, ‘our design is not to relate its history.’ I just wish he’d practised this abstemiousness a bit more elsewhere.

Grand Tour #10 – Austria. Magdalena the Sinner / Lilian Faschinger

May 12, 2017

For Austria, I had in mind Joseph Roth’s classic The Radetzky March, which I’ve been intending to read for some years; only I foresee quite a lot of grimness ahead once I reach Eastern Europe (it’s what publishers seem to think we want to read), and, all things considered, prefer not reading about social unrest to the alternative. Call me an ostrich if you will.

Not that the book I settled on, Lilian Faschinger’s 1995 novel Magdalena the Sinner (Magdalena Sünderin), translated by Shaun Whiteside, sounds light-hearted exactly. Magdalena abducts a Catholic priest at gunpoint during a Mass for Whitsun, drives him off into the countryside in her motorbike and sidecar, ties him to a tree and gags him, and proceeds to confess to the murders of seven ex-lovers.

Although ostensibly narrated by the priest, who comments periodically on his reactions to Magdalena’s confession, the novel’s real voice is that of Magdalena, who talks uninterrupted for the best part of 300 pages. At times it resembles another novel in the form of an extended monologue, Philip Roth’s filthy masterpiece Portnoy’s Complaint, although Magdalena rants less than Portnoy, and rarely if ever reaches his pitch of self-righteous anger. Perhaps ranting is the prerogative of men; certainly one recurring theme is the unrealistic demands men make of women.

Magdalena’s irreverent tone is established early on, as she compliments the priest for his response to being kidnapped, while critiquing the performances of the panicked server and organist. She proceeds to tell the story of her life, and there is a pleasingly absurd strain running through her recollections – a food-related dream in which Magdalena’s family house is surrounded by a moat containing a series of sauces; her sisters protesting Magdalena’s attempts to emancipate herself with entreaties to ‘declare your aunthood!’; a delightful description of her escape from the stifling pretensions of middle-class existence …

You must try this recipe that we found in southern Burundi, the cosmopolitan academics cried; you must listen to these songs performed only in a little mountain village in the interior of Sardinia during Easter week by three ninety-year-old women, which have thankfully been made accessible to us by the tireless efforts of a Viennese ethno-musicologist; you must try on this mask carved from the wood of a two-hundred-year-old sequoia by a Shawnee tribesman directly descended from Chief Tecumseh.

Magdalena’s relationships with her seven lovers overlap, so that often one will provide a refuge from her present relationship before becoming a problem himself. They’re a motley bunch, each from a different country, each with his own particular flaw (self-absorption, violence, philandering, vampirism, etc.), each dispatched in a different way, often pleasingly. Highlights? You have to go some way to beat a Transylvanian Jehovah’s Witness, I think, but the Bluebeardesque Baron Otto is an engaging character, as is the swimming instructor Karl Danzinger, who spends most of the duration of his relationship with the preternaturally patient Magdalena observing the various ways in which his three ex-wives are her superiors. Magdalena brokers peace between the wives, but there comes a point when Karl has to go the same way as the rest.

You come to love Magdalena. The reason she has gagged the priest is that she needs her story to be listened to in its entirety, something no man has ever been able to do. There’s a certain element of danger involved: I can’t be the only reader who has wondered if the nasty twist at the end, and this is exactly the kind of book that would have a nasty twist, will be that the priest is victim number seven. You see, like all of her victims, he loves Magdalena, a love that evolves slowly but surely during their brief time together. His pious sister Maria aside (the saint Maria and the sinner Magdalena – you see the hints at religious allegory; it’s pleasing but unsurprising when the priest’s name is eventually revealed to be Christian), he has never really spent time alone with a woman before, and has led an altogether sheltered life. At first shocked by Magdalena’s crimes, he comes to feel compassion for her, taking her part against her victims, and even begins to desire her. He compares her beauty favourably with a number of artistic depictions of her namesake Mary Magdalene, and, as the end of her narrative approaches, appears to be on the verge of throwing over the priesthood to run away with her.

Twenty-four hours ago I had been feverishly wondering how I could free myself from the power of my abductor, but in the meantime our relationship had changed so drastically that I was already yearning for her return. I realized that it was a scandal, and not only from the point of view of Catholic doctrine, for a consecrated Catholic priest, a man respected and popular both in his parish and beyond its borders, to be on the point of entering a frankly erotic relationship with a woman leading an extremely indecent life in comparison to the overwhelming majority of her sex, who had abducted him at gunpoint, but that it also, from the perspective of so-called common sense, revealed a rashness bordering on insanity, which could lead to my excommunication. But I simply swept such considerations aside.

It is the tension of this relationship, I think, that makes the book special, and the way Faschinger resolves it is simple but undeniably right-feeling.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. To finish with another detail that pleased me, early on Magdalena recalls having fallen in love with Cary Grant and James Stewart at a Hitchcock film festival (we’ve all been there, I thought); later, Hitchcock returns, with this moment, surely intentionally, combining elements of Vertigo and Psycho.

Michael looked at me speechlessly for a minute, and then said quietly, with emotion in his voice, that it was astonishing how closely I resembled his departed mother wearing those clothes. Couldn’t I put my hair up in a bun before we set off? he asked.