Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Grand Tour #19 – Hungary. Journey by Moonlight / Antal Szerb

August 11, 2017

Most of my Grand Tour books I’ve been finding off my own bat, but Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was a recommendation from a friend. When I spotted it was in the library (the only Hungarian novel in translation we have, apart from Imre Kertész’s brilliant but harrowing Fatelessness, which I read last year), I was convinced it was meant to be. I read the Pushkin translation by Len Rix.

I normally know what I’m going to write about a book before I start, but this time I’m stumped. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I did. But I found it a hard book to get a handle on. Perhaps writing a basic synopsis will help. It opens with newlyweds Mihály and Erzsi honeymooning in Italy. One night, looking for a bar where he can have a glass of wine, Mihály gets lost in the back alleys of Venice and doesn’t find his way back until the following day. This is a sign of things to come: later in their journey he gets off a train to buy a cup of coffee and boards a different train by mistake, ending up in Perugia. Erzsi and Mihály’s separation is bound up with his quest for his lost … not love, exactly, but a ghost of his childhood. A lengthy but engrossing early chapter is devoted to a description of Mihály’s teenage friendship with two theatrical siblings, Tamás and Éva. Tamás is long dead and Éva long vanished, and the appearance in Ravenna of another friend, the weaselly János Szepetneki, awakes in Mihály memories of these halcyon days.

One of the ways I understand books is to establish connections between them and other books and films – presumably there’s a knotty network somewhere in my head with strong and weak bonds between everything I’ve ever seen and read – and at moments reading this book I thought, aha! Death in Venice, or, more often, aha! Don’t Look Now. Italy, the insatiable desire to pursue the unreachable, even at the expense of your personal safety. Le Grand Meaulnes also came to mind, with its themes of nostalgia, of the folly or at any rate the impossibility of recapturing what is inescapably past. Nostalgia is a powerful pull in this book too. But none of them stayed in my mind for long: Journey by Moonlight is very much its own beast.

I wrote – well, I didn’t write it, but I thought it – that the plot is unpredictable. How is it unpredictable, you ask. Well, one thing is that its characters behave in unexpected ways that are nevertheless utterly credible. The touchingly unconventional relationship of Mihály and Erzsi is a case in point. Ninety-eight percent of the time, let’s say, a husband and wife separated accidentally on their honeymoon would make great efforts to be reunited. Here, neither does: Mihály, one of the more passive of men, has cold feet about his marriage already, feet coldened further by his having received a letter from Erzsi’s ex-husband advising him that because she is accustomed to the finer things in life he had better stop being such a cheapskate, and moreover he wants to spend time chasing his past; for her part, the pragmatic Erzsi not only loves Mihály but appears to understand him, and believes that leaving him alone for a while may optimise her chances of getting him back. She goes to Paris to visit her friend Sári.

‘Well of course you must divorce Mihály.’

‘It’s not quite so “of course”.’

‘What, after all he’s done?’

‘Yes. But Mihály isn’t like other people. That’s why I chose him.’

‘And that was a fine move. I really dislike the sort of people who aren’t like other people. It’s true other people are so boring. But so are the ones who aren’t like them.’

Separated, the unexpected (but nevertheless utterly credible) happens: Erzsi learns to embrace thrift, and Mihály has a fling with a dim American art student, Millicent Ingram (‘She knew of Luca della Robbia that it was a city on the Arno, and claimed that she had been with Watteau in his Paris studio’). There’s a freewheeling fun to the Millicent episode, with Mihály apparently liberated for the first time from his staid adult existence, but it doesn’t last, and once more he sets off in search of Éva. This is followed by further adventures with an old acquaintance, Ervin, now become a monk, and a university friend, Waldheim, now a philosopher of death (a marvellous comic creation, a man who eats only cold meat but welcomes Mihály to his house saying he’s ‘arranged for a bit of variety’ and proudly produces a banana). These characters assume a symbolic importance that was generally lost on me, but might be less so on a second reading. I sensed a spirituality to the book that was tantalisingly out of reach.

In the end Mihály’s life is redeemed by several acts of kindness, and he returns to a semblance of normality. The conclusion is beautiful in its way, though sad, a hymn to a small life. Many people whose opinions I respect not only adore this book but acclaim it as one of the great masterpieces of modern fiction. Nicholas Lezard writes that on finishing it he went right back to the beginning and read it again. I almost feel I should do the same: it’s a book that has grown in stature through my contemplation of it.

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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.