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‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco ****

I purchased The Name of the Rose, my first taste of Umberto Eco’s work, quite some time before I read it.  Whilst the plot appealed to me, and I had heard nothing but good things about the novel, I kept putting it off in favour of shorter books which would be easier to finish.  However, I picked it up over a relatively free weekend, where I was able to dedicate some time to it.

First published in Italian in 1980, The Name of the Rose is set in the Middle Ages – in 1327, to be precise.  The Vintage edition which I read was translated by William Weaver.  Of the novel, the Financial Times comments: ‘The late medieval world, teetering on the edge of discoveries and ideas that will hurl it into one more recognisably like ours… evoked with a force and wit that are breathtaking.’
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At the beginning of the novel, Franciscan monk Brother William of Baskerville ‘arrives at a wealthy Italian abbey on theological business.’  His ‘delicate mission’, which we are not at first party to, becomes ‘overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths’.  Brother William chooses to turn detective, exploring the ‘eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of the night.’  Lucky for Brother William, he has Sherlockian powers of deduction, and is able to make sense of the most obscure occurrences.  The whole is narrated by his scribe and ‘disciple’, Adso of Melk.  The novel, says its blurb, is ‘not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.’

The novel is introduced by an omniscient narrator in 1968.  They have just been handed a book which claims to reproduce a fourteenth-century manuscript in its entirety.  This narrator goes on to say: ‘In a state of intellectual excitement, I read with fascination the terrible story of Adso of Melk, and I allowed myself to be so absorbed by it that, almost in a single burst of energy, I completed a translation, using some of those large notebooks from the Papeterie Joseph Gilbert in which it is so pleasant to write if you use a felt-tip pen.’

Even Adso is not told of Brother William’s mission: ‘… [It] remained unknown to me while we were on our journey, or, rather, he never spoke to me about it.  It was only by overhearing bits of his conversations with the abbots of the monasteries where we stopped along the way that I formed some idea of the nature of this assignment.  But I did not understand it fully until we reached our destination.’  He finds Brother William rather an imposing figure: ‘… [He] was larger in stature than a normal man and so thin that he seemed still taller.  His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout…’.

The context and social conditions in The Name of the Rose are rich and wonderfully executed.  I found the novel transporting from its beginning.  Eco has included much about libraries, scribes, and manuscripts, elements of the Middle Ages which fascinate me.  Several reviews which I have seen have commented upon the complicated language and long, meandering sentences used by the author.  I personally did not find this a problem, and got into the style very quickly; I felt as though it added another layer of texture to the novel, making it feel more old-fashioned, and therefore perhaps more authentic.  Eco’s prose, and the way it has been rendered in this translation, is engaging.

Eco’s descriptions, of which there are many, also capture a lot: ‘It was noon and the light came in bursts through the choir windows, and even more through those of the façade, creating white cascades that, like mystic streams of divine substance, intersected at various points of the church, engulfing the altar itself.’  The use of colour and touch woven throughout help to build a believable, and atmospheric, sense of place.  Eco’s dialogue also has such strength to it, and never did it feel predictable.  I particularly liked the way in which William spoke.  He tells Adso, for instance: ‘The story is becoming more complicated, dear Adso…  We pursue a manuscript, we become interested in the diatribes of some overcurious monks and in the actions of other, over-lustful ones, and now, more and more insistently, an entirely different trail emerges.’

The Name of the Rose definitely feels like a good, and popular, choice to begin with with regard to Eco’s works.  I really enjoyed the structure of the novel; it is told over the course of seven days.  So many layers have been built on top of one another; its foundations are strong, and the separate strands of plot all interesting in their own way.  The novel takes many twists and turns, and is such a compelling read.  Eco takes one down so many avenues of intrigue, meeting strange and complex characters along the way.  My only criticism of the novel is that some of the chapters, particularly toward the middle of the novel, felt superfluous, and added very little to the story aside from religious context.  Some events are a little dramatic in places, but it was all drawn together well, and on the whole, I really enjoyed it.

I have read comparatively little set during the Middle Ages, despite the fact that the period fascinates me.  Reading The Name of the Rose has certainly made me want to seek out more novels set between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, and to try another of Eco’s books too.

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‘How to Paint a Dead Man’ by Sarah Hall *****

Before picking up Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2009, I was only familiar with her short stories.  She is an author whom I have heard an awful lot of praise for, although I must admit that I was rather disappointed by her collection The Beautiful Indifference.  I am thrilled that I received a copy of How to Paint a Dead Man as a gift, however, as it proved to be one of the most beautiful novels which I had read in a long time.

9780571224890Historical fiction author Sarah Dunant calls How to Paint a Dead Man ‘a stylish novel, as replete with ideas as it is technically ambitious’, and the Sunday Telegraph deems it ‘an intelligent page-turner which, perversely, you also want to read slowly to savour Hall’s luscious way of looking at the world.’

The novel has four interconnected storylines at its heart.  In Italy in the early 1960s, a dying painter ‘considers the sacrifices and losses that have made him an enigma, both to strangers and to those closest to him’.  We also meet a young blind girl, who sells family-grown flowers in a busy marketplace, and tends to the painter’s grave.  The other threads here are set in England; that of a painter in Cumbria some years later, who ‘finds himself trapped in the extreme terrain that has made him famous’, and his daughter in present-day London, who is struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her twin brother, and ‘finds herself drawn into a world of darkness and sexual abandon.’  How to Paint a Dead Man thus spans half a century, and is described in its blurb as ‘a fierce and brilliant study of art and its place in our lives.’

The varied perspectives which Hall has employed in the novel ensure that every single page is of interest, and the separate stories never become too similar.  The second person perspective which follows the daughter living in contemporary London is particularly striking: ‘You aren’t feeling like yourself.  You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident…  You’re not sure what’s wrong exactly; it’s hard to put your finger on, hard to articulate.  It isn’t grief.  Grief would be simple.  Something internal, something integral, has shifted.  You feel lost from yourself.  No.  Absent.  You feel absent.  It’s like looking into a mirror and seeing no familiar reflection, no one you recognise hosted within the glass.’

How to Paint a Dead Man is highly descriptive throughout.  Hall’s prose is highly sensual, and very evocative of place.  When introducing the painter and the limits imposed upon him by both illness and ageing in his secluded corner of Italy, Hall comments: ‘To begin each day there is only the wind, asking to come in from the north before even the daylight.  It is a rolling wind, excitable as it prepares to leave the continent.  Some mornings I will accompany the wind to the road above the town.  It helps me to unstiffen.  There is sciatica in my legs and my breathing these days is somewhat impaired.  Really I can do no more than amble.’  Nature is ever-present, and so beautifully observed, in the novel.  Hall later writes: ‘It’s apparent that this is the changeover season.  He can feel summer’s end.  There’s the memory of frost down in the earth’s membranes.  The northern rivers are carrying a message to the Solway that winter is coming.’

So many themes suffuse this novel; at its heart are art and loss, and the many forms which both can take.  There is a definite rawness to it at times, and real wisdom in what Hall considers and explores.  She muses, for instance: ‘To expose what was broken and re-cast in a composition is to reveal the fallibility of an artist.  The spilled varnish and the misaligned hand, the lost saint and the irregular ghost pavement.  All those errors and adjustments in the studies of the past.  And in us – the chips and fractures and tumours, the flaws in our exceptional design.  Truth has become a hunted thing, but it is eternally insubstantial.  The philosophers have always known this.’

Hall is so understanding of what it means to be human, and how life can affect a cast of characters in such different ways.  She is conscious of each of her characters and their troubles.  Particularly poignant are the observations which she makes about Annette, the blind girl.  ‘If,’ says Hall, she ‘did not know what people looked like, if she had not ever seen them before, she would think they were fantastical compositions – part-insect, part-crockery, with wings made of gossamer or tin, with whiskers, hooves…  so unlike tidy, soft-skinned creations do they sound.’  Hall’s prose which concerns Annette is tender and kind.  She writes: ‘Though her eyes were blind, inside a compartment of her head she could still see.  She could imagine the room exactly as it had been before the sickness, her dresser with its beaded cloth, the washstand, and the low beams in the ceiling from which Uncle Marcello had strung the honeysuckle.  She could imagine her shoes arranged neatly, side by side, their laces tucked inside the leather openings, and, on the window seat, the pot of marigolds peeking out from their green heads.’

At less than 300 pages, Hall has created a real masterpiece in How to Paint a Dead Man.  Her fourth novel is searingly beautiful, and offers so much to the reader.  The different characters, time periods and places are woven together with a strong sense of commonality – that of the art world, and what can be considered beautiful.  Whilst reading, I felt entirely present in each of the stories, and there was not a single second in which I was not entirely convinced by what Hall had set before me.

Compelling and gorgeously pieced together, How to Paint a Dead Man is a transporting novel, which strikes a wonderful balance between the natural and manmade worlds in which its characters live.  Hall’s prose is textured and precise, and this novel is a real delight to sink into.  Each of its stories are so alive and so resonant, and I imagine that they will stay with me for a long time yet.

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Favourite Books of 2018

Another year has come to an end. 2018 has been a crazy busy year and I barely managed to squeeze in 50 books, quite a few being under 100 pages. Although I read significantly less compared to past years, the books that kept me company in 2018 were primarily books I thoroughly enjoyed, which is a big win for me.

Since the ‘bad’ books were so few and since I’d like to focus on the more positive aspects of 2018, I decided to compile a list of 10 of my most favourite reads of 2018. They were not all 5 star reads, but all of them managed to amaze me in one way or another and stayed engraved in my heart and memory. With no further ado, my favourite books of 2018 were the following:

Pachinko by Min Jin Leepachinko

Whatever I say about this book will be too little, any words I choose will be too insuficient to fully express my love for this book. I read Pachinko early on in the year, in January, and it quickly became one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. It’s a family saga, a chronicle of the life and tribulations of a Korean family as they set foot on Japan after the war in hopes of a brighter future and the harsh reality that they have to face every single day. Through this novel, I learned a lot about the zainichi, the Korean expats that reside in Japan. One wonderful thing about this book is that, although it focuses on the zainichi and their experiences, the everyday struggles and hardships they go through can extend to an international scale and resonate with refugees and expats from any and every country. This book is much more than a story, a tale of loss and family, of race and nationality, of love. It is a life lesson and I really feel a much more enriched person after reading it.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

lullabyLullaby (Chanson Douce in the original French and The Perfect Nanny in the US edition) is a brilliantly crafted thriller and suspense novel that keeps you glued to every page until you reach the very last one. After hearing so much about it, I finally purchased it at the Glasgow airport during my visit in May. Its premise is rather terrifying, as it starts with a young couple finding both their children dead. Even though the novel begins with the outcome and then goes back and recounts the events leading up to this horrible event, the suspense is ever-present and Slimani’s writing is utterly captivating.

 

The Eye by Vladimir Nabokovtomati

I had wanted to read Nabokov’s works for the longest time, and even though I owned Lolita, the timing was never right for me to dive into its conflicting world. Instead, I came across this short novella in its Greek translation (where the cover is from, as I much prefered it to the English language covers I found) and it truly enchanted me. Nabokov’s writing is smart and witty and he manages to create a very interesting story through which he can critically comment on the society of his time (which, sadly, isn’t radically different from that of today), while also making the reader wonder what really happened and what was a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

conveniencestoreReading Convenience Store Woman was such an experience for me. I always enjoy reading about people who are considered ‘outsiders’ and who don’t want to conform to the society’s rules, especially when said rules go against who one is as a person. The matter of having a ‘respectable’ job and panning out your life according to certain standards is a very important one, especially since things have started changing in recent years, and people resort to non-traditional professions more and more. Murata’s protagonist is a Japanese woman who started working at a convenience store part-time but still finds herself in the same job years later. Despite her family and acquaintances urging her to find a ‘real job’, she feels conflicted, since she should abide by society’s rules, yet she feels oddly comfortable exactly where she is. It’s a novel that will certainly resonate with many young people today, myself included.

Old Magic by Marianne Curley oldmagic

To be quite honest, Old Magic is a book I would never think of picking up (at least as an adult), and yet here I am putting it in my list of favourites for 2018. My boyfriend, who never reads, had once told me that he had one favourite book he had read as a teen, and he gifted it to me so I would see what he liked back then. I was infinitely skeptical, but started reading it immediately, as I was in need of some very light reading at the time, and I just couldn’t put it down. Written by an Australian author, the book is about a young witch, her struggle to be accepted at her school since she comes from a ‘weird’ family, a journey back in time and, of course, romance. I can’t quite pinpoint why I liked this book so much – it reminded me of the fantasy books I used to read as a kid/teenager and it made me so nostalgic. I truly enjoyed reading Old Magic and I think I will try being more open to books, even if they initially seem like something I would never pick up for myself.

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

26114478A book of essays on a wide variety of topics, but mostly focusing on being a woman writer, a female geek in this (mostly) male-dominated field, something which Hurley proves is very difficult yet possible and rewarding. I haven’t read Hurley’s fiction, yet through reading her essays, some of them being quite personal ones, I felt a deep appreciation for her work and her craft. Some of the stories she told were funny, others empowering and others thoroughly moving, especially those regarding her initial financial difficulties and her health problems. Usually I’m a bit weary when it comes to feminist texts, but this one totally fascinated me and I will certainly seek out Hurley’s fiction in the future.

Το Τέλος της Πείνας (The End of Hunger) by Lina Rokou endof hunger

Once in a while I stumble upon contemporary Greek literary works that are true gems. The End of Hunger is one such example, and, sadly, not (yet) translated in English. The story revolves around a young woman who lives in Athens and, searching for ways to find some money, she starts selling parts of her body to a passing street seller. She sells him her teeth, her spleen, her old diaries and he still asks for more. Rokou’s writing is whimsical and poetic and absolutely beautiful. Her descriptions of the nonsensical and surrealistic events that occur to her protagonist are lyrical and imbued with the right dose of emotion. One could say that this entire selling process described is nothing but the process of falling in love, of giving away every last bit of your self to the other person and then ending up feeling completely empty by the end of it. This kind of blend of surrealism with reality is precisely my cup of tea and I truly hope this book gets translated soon so more people can discover the beauty of it.

A Biography of a Chance Miracle by Tanja Maljartschuk

40800042Another gem of a book which I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. I read A Biography in September and have already posted a full review of it here in case you would like to read more about it (and you should!). Maljartschuk is a Ukrainian author who created a whimsical and thoroughly witty tale full of social satire, magical realism and the cruelty of life. Lena, the main character, always has a tendency to help others and when she gets into university she decides to open her own business selling miracles. The writing is superb, and the translation by Zenia Tompkins excellent.

 

La lettrice scomparsa (The Lost Reader) by Fabio Stassi40242756

Another fabulous read, not yet available to the English speaking world. I read its Greek translation (The Lost Reader is my literal translation of the title) and was utterly fascinated. Originally written in Italian, The Lost Reader is a mystery like no other. The protagonist is an unemployed teacher who opens a booktherapy business, in which he recommends the most fitting book to his patients according to the problems they have, as he’s a firm believer of literature’s healing powers. While trying to get used to this new job and everything that it entails, an old lady from his apartment complex suddenly vanishes and he embarks on a quest to find her and uncover the secrets hidden behind her disappearance. An ode to literature, an inventive mystery and witty quotes hidden in almost every page – what’s there not to love?

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

33846708Last but not least, I have a book I read during the last days of December, proving that it’s never too late in the year to discover a wonderful book. The Black Tides of Heaven belongs to the recently invented silkpunk subgenre, as it is set an Asian-inspired fantasy world. The first of JY Yang’s short novellas set in this world, this book focuses on one of the twins that we get introduced to in the beginning of the story (and its twin novella focuses on the other twin sibling’s story). I adored the world and all of its fantasy elements and I found Yang’s writing fabulous. I’d like this to be a full novel just so I could stay more in this world with these fascinating characters, and that’s why I read its twin novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, immediately after. The fantasy elements I loved were all there, and even enhanced, but I was very disappointed in other parts of the story, a topic which I might discuss in a different post.

It was kind of difficult to choose only 10 of the books I read in 2018 to feature in this post, but I think I chose the ones that left the biggest impression on me and the ones which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, regardless of their literary merit. I hope my reading in 2019 will focus more on quality over quantity again, and I can’t wait to share my reads with you in the new year, as well 🙂

Have you read any of those books, and if yes, what did you think of them? What were your favourite reads of 2018? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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‘Madame Solario’ by Gladys Huntington ***

It is rare that an unread Persephone in my possession stays that way for more than a week, but number 120, Gladys Huntington’s Madame Solario, has been sitting on my to-read shelf for over a year.  I have been looking for just the right kind of sultry summer’s day on which to read it, when I would be able to devote a whole day to becoming fully immersed in the novel.  I finally found it in late July, on an unusually beautiful and cloudless day in Scotland, and settled down with another beautifully designed Persephone novel.9781910263105

Huntington began to write Madame Solario in 1944, but only finished it after two of her short stories were published in The New Yorker.  The novel was eventually published anonymously in 1956, and Huntington’s name was surprisingly not revealed as its author until thirty years afterwards.  Madame Solario was a bestseller upon its publication, and has been made into a film.

Madame Solario is set during the month of September 1906, on the banks of Italy’s Lake Como.  Its beginning is sumptuous, and wonderfully sets the scene: ‘In the early years of the century, before the First World War, Cadenabbia on the Lake of Como was a fashionable resort for the month of September.  Its vogue was easy to explain.  There was the almost excessive beauty of the winding lake surrounded by mountains, the shores gemmed with golden-yellow villages and classical villas standing among cypress trees; and the head of the lake lay close to the routes that connected Italy with all the capitals of Western and Central Europe, yet Cadenabbia itself was difficult to reach, which was an added charm.  Long stretches of the lovely shore were without high road of any kind, and are arrived by the little steamboat that started at Como and shuttled back and forth across the lake, calling at one dreaming place after another in a journey of incredible slowness.  It was wonderful to arrive.  As no wheels ever passed, there were no sounds except human voices, the click of the peasants’ wooden pattens, and the lapping of waves.’  There is a strong sense of place throughout, and whilst not all of the descriptions are as breathtaking as the above, they have a layering to them which is fascinating to read.

It is in Cadenabbia, at the Hotel Bellevue, that young Englishman Bernard Middleton is spending the summer, between finishing his Oxford degree and being sent to work in his family’s bank in a northern English town.  Soon after Bernard’s arrival, a previous guest of the hotel, Madame Natalia Solario, comes back.  Throughout the novel, she is a mysterious being; others who are staying in the hotel, and who met her previously, are unable to pinpoint her nationality when asked.  Madame Solario is quick and impulsive, and Bernard is drawn to her immediately.

Huntington’s character descriptions are unusual, particularly when taking Madame Solario as her focus.  She writes: ‘In those days the great, equalising power of cosmetics and beautifying inventions had not yet been let loose, and Madame Solario’s complexion and colouring, and the arc of her eyebrows, and the wave of her hair… were not being counterfeited by everyone who wished; they were rare, like noble birth.  The high rank of her beauty had to be met with something of awe.’  Although Huntington tries to pull Madame Solario apart, layer by layer, she remains a shadowy and unknowable figure throughout; I felt little more familiar with her when the novel ended as I did at its beginning.  We are given clues and hints as to her past and a particular scandal which surrounds her as the novel goes on, but sometimes these raised more questions than the novel answers.  There is an almost oppressive feeling which comes when Huntington focuses so intently upon the emotions of her characters, particularly with regard to Madame Solario and Bernard.    Huntington does, however, have such an awareness of human character throughout; her insights are often profound and memorable ones.

Madame Solario is quite an unusual novel.  I felt rather detached from it throughout, and found the second section, which is largely occupied with recounting conversations between Madame Solario and her brother, Eugene Harden, too long and involved.  The second part of the novel, in fact, feels very different, both with regard to its tone and execution.  The sense of place, which is so beautifully depicted elsewhere, is almost forgotten during this rather lengthy section of the novel, and Bernard is entirely lost, with only a couple of nods to his character throughout.  This part was rather too drawn out; whilst the conversations were lengthy, not a lot was actually said, and it began to feel repetitive after a while.

Madame Solario is not at all a predictable read; I truly had no idea whatsoever regarding its direction.  As with Madame Solario herself, there is a quality of mystery about it.  Madame Solario is a cleverly constructed novel of identity, and what it means to be human.  I did find it problematic in places, and to me, it did not have the feel of a traditional Persephone novel.  Unfortunately, I never fully got into the story, or became entirely invested in any of its characters.  Whilst not my favourite of the Persephone list, it is still a story which I will likely be thinking about for a long time to come.

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‘Innocence’ by Penelope Fitzgerald ****

I sadly only have a couple of the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels left to read, and a few of her non-fiction books.  I purchased Innocence (1986) several months ago, but chose to leave it on my to-read shelf as a special treat to snuggle down with, rather than immediately rushing into it and then having to wait an age to find her outstanding titles.  I was moderately disappointed by Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning Offshore, but have very much enjoyed the rest of her books to date.

9780544359468A.S. Byatt calls Innocence ‘exquisite’, and The Guardian deems it ‘Delightful… a bubbling and beautiful book.’  The novel begins in 1955 in Florence, and follows the once-moneyed Ridolfi family who, ‘like its decrepit villa and farm, has seen better days.’  The character whom Fitzgerald has placed most focus upon is the eighteen-year-old Ridolfi daughter, Chiara.  Her vitality is ‘matched by innocence – a dangerous combination.’

Chiara has fallen head-over-heels for Salvatore Rossi, ‘a young doctor who resolved long ago to be emotionally dependent on no one.’  Chiara, frustrated by her own progress in the matter, has to ask one of her English friends from the convent school which she attends to help her set them up.  ‘And so,’ writes Fitzgerald, ‘ensues a comedy of manners, in which lovers, with the best of intentions and the kindest of instincts, succeed in making one another astonishingly miserable…’.  Indeed, the novel feels Shakespearean in its scope, and in the witty asides made at times.

Fitzgerald makes us aware of Chiara’s limitations when at home: ‘Chiara Ridolfi was a beauty, but not thought beautiful in Florence.  Her American mother’s family had once been Scottish, her looks were northern, her delicate high colouring was suited not to a fierce climate but to the mild damp and mist of the north.  Only the lids of her blue eyes were Florentine, round and languid…  her half eager, half diffident approach to whatever came along hadn’t the ruthlessness of the ancient money-making city which in its former days had questioned the bills of the world’s greatest artists…’.  In this manner, Fitzgerald intertwines the history of the Ridolfi family, as well as the Florentine people, with the present-day stories of Chiara and her father, Giancarlo.

Fitzgerald is highly informed about Italian culture, and the differences between separate regions; this knowledge translates marvellously to the page, and makes each setting all the more vivid.  There is also a focus upon the minutiae of life, and the use of colour and sense are particularly striking throughout.  Fabric comes in shades of ‘tender grey’, the sky is a ‘darkish olive-green’, and the air is ‘damp and caressing’.   Of the Ricordanza, the secluded house in which the Ridolfis live, Fitzgerald writes: ‘The ground floor was used for storage and was lit only by two round windows.  This raising up of the front door made the whole house look unwelcoming and inaccessible.  The lemon trees in their terracotta jars, each balanced on an empty one turned upside down, dispensed their bitter green smell: their dark green leaves were startlingly fresh against the blank, bleached, cracked and faded house.’

As with her other novels, I found Innocence both shrewd and immersive.  Fitzgerald’s writing is as finely crafted as it is highly distinctive; there is a playful sharpness to it.  Full of wisdom, humour, and measured reasoning, Innocence is a wonderfully mesmeric read.

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‘Leone Leoni’ by George Sand ***

George Sand was an incredibly prolific author, and published many varied works over her career.  Leone Leoni, first published in France in 1835, was released in this particular English translation by George Burnham Ives in 1900.  The novel – or, rather, novella – is set in the early nineteenth century, and focuses upon the title character, as well as a young Belgian woman named Juliette Ruyter, and her ‘protector, the noble Spaniard’ Aleo Bustamente.

Juliette and Aleo have arrived in Venice just before its annual carnival, and receive the news that Leone Leoni is in the city ‘with his wealthy playmates’.  Juliette soon feels compelled to tell Aleo ‘the whole story of her progress of ruin and degradation at the hands of one of the most infamous and charming scoundrels of his time’.  The blurb writes that Leone Leoni ‘tells of innocence trapped by debauchery in a dazzling round of intrigue, impersonation and emotional deception.’9780648023302

Sand’s introduction to the volume has been included here, and immediately intrigues: ‘Being at Venice, in very cold weather and under very depressing circumstances, the carnival roaring and whistling outside with the icy north wind, I experienced the painful contrast which results from inward suffering, alone amid the wild excitement of a population of strangers.’  Clearly, this firsthand experience of the city which Sand had allows her descriptions of Venice to feel incredibly present and immersive.  The novella’s opening sentence proclaims the following, in what feels like an echo of Sand’s introduction: ‘We were at Venice.  The cold and the rain had driven the promenaders and the masks from the square and the quays…  It was a fine carnival evening inside the palaces and theatres, but outside, everything was dismal, and the street-lights were reflected in the streaming pavements, where the hurried footsteps of a belated masker, wrapped in his cloak, echoed loudly from time to time.’

Leoni is cocky, and filled with his own self-importance, and delusions of grandeur.  When Juliette tells Aleo of her history with Leoni, she describes the way in which she at first refused to dance with him at a ball, but was soon swept under his spell.  At first, she is not at all happy with the way in which he deceives her mother, and pushes himself into their lives: ‘By such petty agitations did the coming of Leoni, and the unhappy destiny that he brought, begin the disturb the profound peace in which I had always lived.’  As time goes on, though, her feelings for him change: ‘I was dominated by his glance, enthralled by his tales, surprised and fascinated by every new resource that he developed.’

The novella is told from the perspective of Aleo at first, and much of Juliette’s later commentary is displayed in dialogue, thus allowing Sand to use a contrast of voices.  These are perhaps not different enough, however, and do tend to blend a little, using similar phrases and exclamations.  The real strength of Leone Leoni lies in Sand’s descriptions, which pick up on the minutiae of place, movement, and character.  Of Juliette, for instance, she writes: ‘She rose and walked to the window; her white silk petticoat fell in numberless folds about her graceful form.  Her chestnut hair escaped from the long pins of chased gold which only half confined it, and bathed her back in a flood of perfumed silk.’

The prose of Leone Leoni is rather melodramatic at times, although one can rather predict this if they are at all familiar with the period in which the story was written.  Despite the sadness of her story, I felt no empathy whatsoever for Juliette, and the way in which she was treated; to me, she felt rather insipid, and seemed to spend most of her time swooning.  Aleo was not much better.  I found the plot of Leone Leoni to be rather predictable, and whilst the writing and translation are generally strong, I did feel rather disappointed with it overall.

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‘The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova’ by Paul Strathern **

With many of us dreaming about foreign shores, it seems on the face of it that The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova offers a myriad of information to the discerning traveller. Strathern outlines in his introduction that he has attempted to describe Venice’s most famous inhabitants ‘against the background of events that over the centuries forged and finally destroyed the most powerful of all Mediterranean cities’.

9781845951924Its premise is fascinating, but sadly it does not always deliver. Its introduction is incredibly short and only covers two printed pages. Whilst it is informative on the whole, there is no real reasoning which Strathern gives for wanting to undertake such a project, which is a shame as such a personal addition would have been a nice touch to the volume. The book has been split into four separate sections – ‘Expansion’, ‘The Imperial Age’, ‘The Long Decline’ and ‘Dissolution and Fall’, and it begins in 1295 with Marco Polo. Strathern has used quotes from additional sources throughout, ranging from the thoughts of Marco Polo and the unnamed ‘man to whom Polo would one day dictate the story of his travels’, to Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus and Dante Alighieri.

The historical background of Venice is set out well, and Strathern features early cases of germ warfare, slavery, a dearth of manpower in fields and homes, the doges of Venice, Cretan rebellions and travel in and out of the city. The overriding focus in the book, however, is upon battles, warfare and the use of the Navy. Whilst this is evidently important in terms of Venice as a whole, this aspect feels rather overdone. In rather an ironic consequence, The Spirit of Venice does not present the spirit of the city as well as it could.

Whilst The Spirit of Venice is an interesting volume for the most part, it feels overly academic in its style, and is rather bogged down in small details, some of which do not hold much importance in the grand scheme of things. The writing can feel dense, and at times the reader has to wade through its pages. Sadly it is rather a weighty tome and is probably not the easiest book to cart around with you whilst on your trip, but it is one which can be dipped into beforehand. As far as history books pertaining to Venice go, this is rather interesting at times, but there must be far more accessible tomes ot there, which may even be lightweight enough to take with you on your travels.

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‘Augustus’ by John Williams ***

When one adores a book as much as I did with John Williams’ Stoner (1965), it is perhaps obvious that said one will happily search out everything else said Williams has ever published.  The second of his novels, for me, came in the form of Augustus, a novel of the Roman Empire, and, according to The Washington Post, ‘the finest historical novel ever written by an American’.  John McGahern, the author of the Vintage introduction, writes: ‘Neither Stoner nor Augustus is any less or more achieved than the other: they are simply different works by a remarkable writer working at the very height of his powers’.  All high praise indeed, but could Augustus, the winner of the 1973 National Book Review, also wow me as much as Stoner?  Only an immersive Sunday morning read could tell…

First published in 1971, and reissued both by Vintage and NYRB, I have seen very few reviews of Augustus.  Before I begin with my critique, let us go over the background of the novel.  It follows Octavian, the great nephew of Julius Caesar.  After Caesar is murdered, Octavian, just nineteen, finds himself heir to the ‘vast power of Rome’.  Despite many things which were up against him, he became Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor: ‘Augustus healed the wounds of Rome and made it whole again’.  The novel is told through epistolary means – letters and fragments of memoir, for instance – and is pieced together accordingly.  Some of the extracts are short, and others are far more comprehensive.  This is a simple yet effective approach if one discounts the lack of chronological ordering, which can sometimes confuse things.
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I must admit that I do not read much set within the Roman Empire, and was drawn to this essentially just because of the author.  It is not that I have little interest in the period, for I do, but with regard to historical novels, I prefer to read those which are a little closer to our own century.  For me, novels set within Ancient civilisations can be rather hit and miss, and I never really got on with those by Mary Renault, for example, who is rather revered in the field.

From the very beginning, Williams’ sense of place is well built: ‘Dust rises in billows as the horses gallop and turn; shouts, laughter, curses came up to us from the distance, through the thud of hoofbeats’.  In fact, Augustus is a very well-written piece, but a few of the differing narrative perspectives felt too similar in their use of vocabulary and turns of phrase to have been written by different characters.  None of the voices which Williams crafts are distinctive enough to be instantly recognisable; as with the dating of each entry, one must always be on guard in the respect of attributive voices.  Despite this, the perspectives are interesting; there are friends of Octavius’, as well as those who believe him to be a ‘whey-faced little bastard’.  Marcus Antonius, for instance, writes to the Military Commander of Macedonia that Octavius ‘certainly is something of a fool; for he gives himself airs that are damned presumptuous in a boy, especially in a boy whose grandfather was a thief and whose only name of any recount is a borrowed one’.

One of my fundamental problems with Augustus was that none of the characters quite came to life, and I thus could not fully immerse myself within it.  I am unsure as to whether this was solely due to Williams’ focus upon real historical figures, or just because of the distancing, rather fragmented narrative styles into which he presents his story.  The portions of letters which featured a first person protagonist were largely not long enough to actually build anything realistic, or powerful.

I am fully aware that I should not be providing a comparison here, but for me, Augustus did not stand up to Stoner in any way.  This novel feels as though it could have been written by a different author altogether; there is none of the quiet, understanding power which fills Stoner, a facet of Williams’ work which I so admired.  Despite this, it has piqued my interest in trying another Williams novel, merely to see how it compares.  There is a lot to like in Augustus, and I would heartily recommend it for its wealth of historical detail, and the weaving together of facts, but not if you want an immersive book to lose yourself in completely.

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Italy 2016 (Naples, Rome, Capri, Pompeii)

Another grand adventure with The Beard, to one of my favourite countries.

Music:
‘St Peter’s Cathedral’ by Death Cab for Cutie | ‘Handsome Devil’ by The Smiths | ‘The Ocean’ by Manchester Orchestra | ‘To Sleep’ by Fightstar

Timings:
00.00 Naples | 00.54 Rome | 05.27 Naples | 06.58 Capri | 09.18 Pompeii | 11.23 Naples