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Reading the World: Italy

Our next stop is Italy; hopefully it will fill you with springtime joy to visit the beautiful landscapes and well-paced way of life which are evoked in the following books.

1. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (2003)
‘Meggie loves books. So does her father, Mo, a bookbinder, although he has never read aloud to her since her mother mysteriously disappeared. They live quietly until the night a stranger knocks at their door. He has come with a warning that forces Mo to reveal an extraordinary secret – a storytelling secret that will change their lives for ever.’

2. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (c. 1588-1593) 9780199536108
‘Titus Andronicus was the young Shakespeare’s audacious, sporadically brilliant experiment in sensational tragedy. Its horrors are notorious, but its powerful poetry of grief is the work of a true tragic poet.’

3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
‘A discreet advertisement in ‘The Times’, addressed to ‘Those who Apppreciate Wisteria and Sunshine…’ is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the Mediterranean spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known. First published in 1922 and reminscient of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’, this delightful novel is imbued with the descriptive power and light-hearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnin is renowned.’

4. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann 9780486287140
‘”Death in Venice, ” tells about a ruinous quest for love and beauty amid degenerating splendor. Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but lonely author, travels to the Queen of the Adriatic in search of an elusive spiritual fulfillment that turns into his erotic doom. Spellbound by a beautiful Polish boy, he finds himself fettered to this hypnotic city of sun-drenched sensuality and eerie physical decay as it gradually succumbs to a secret epidemic.’

5. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
”Look, my lord! See heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!’ The Castle of Otranto (1764) is the first supernatural English novel and one of the most influential works of Gothic fiction. It inaugurated a literary genre that will be forever associated with the effects that Walpole pioneered. Professing to be a translation of a mysterious Italian tale from the darkest Middle Ages, the novel tells of Manfred, prince of Otranto, whose fear of an ancient prophecy sets him on a course of destruction. After the grotesque death of his only son, Conrad, on his wedding day, Manfred determines to marry the bride-to-be. The virgin Isabella flees through a castle riddled with secret passages. Chilling coincidences, ghostly visitations, arcane revelations, and violent combat combine in a heady mix that terrified the novel’s first readers.’

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Classics Club #49: ‘A Sicilian Romance’ by Ann Radcliffe ***

I am sure that the eagle-eyed amongst you are noticing a theme here, but I have wanted to read Radcliffe’s work for such a long time, and thought that placing A Sicilian Romance onto my Classics Club list would be a nudge in the right direction.  First published in 1790, the novel is firmly implanted within the Gothic tradition and veers toward the melodramatic almost from its beginning.

9780199537396As is often the case with my Classics Club reviews, the following blurb of the Oxford World Classics edition illustrates the story perfectly, without giving too much away: ‘This early novel explores the cavernous landscapes and labyrinthine passages of Sicily’s castles and covents to reveal the shameful secrets of its all-powerful aristocracy. Julia and Emilia Mazzini live secluded in an ancient mansion near the Straits of Messina. After their father’s return to the island a neglected part of the house is haunted by a series of mysterious sights and sounds. The origin of these hauntings is only discovered after a series of breathless pursuits through dreamlike pastoral landscapes. When revelation finally comes, it forces the heroines to challenge the united forces of religious and patriarchal authority.’

A Sicilian Romance is most engaging from the first.  I found myself immediately spellbound, drawn as I was into the Sicilian setting.  Radcliffe moves the plot along beautifully, and the whole has been so tenderly written.  Much emphasis has been placed upon the senses and the general feel of the whole.  Radcliffe’s descriptions are often sumptuous, and the way in which she weaves in the imagined history of the castle and the Mazzinis who inhabit it is a definite strength, adding another layer to the whole.  It certainly has shades of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (review here) about it.

As one might expect from a Gothic novel, particularly one at the relative beginning of the canon, A Sicilian Romance is rather dramatic, even to Shakespearean heights in places; characters are taken prisoner and confined to dungeons, ‘cruel fate’ awaits, there are elopements, and strange goings on prevail.  The story is rather predictable in places, particularly as it nears its climax, and it certainly relies heavily upon melodramatic incidents.  A lot of opposites manifest themselves within the plot, from bravery and cowardice to the disparities between rich and poor, and from a social perspective, I found this fascinating.

A Sicilian Romance is rich and well-paced.  The third person perspective and use of the past tense which Radcliffe has made use of both work well; it is so over the top in places that the two together do not really act as distancing devices.  Whilst I was not too enamoured with the convenient ending of this moral novel, I am most looking forward to reading more of her work in future.  Ann Radcliffe’s work is a wonderful choice for existing fans of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; her writing is just as rich and descriptive, and I feel that she should certainly be more widely read.

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Classics Club #19: ‘Death in Venice’ by Thomas Mann ****

Thomas Mann is an author whose work I have always wanted to read.  Rather than starting with one of his weightier tomes, I thought I would plump for Death in Venice, one of his short yet major works.  I found a lovely old Penguin edition of the work, bound up with two other novellas (Tristan and Tonio Kroger), whilst on a mini BookTube/blogger meet-up with the lovely Katie.

9780099428657Translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter and first published in 1912, Death in Venice flows just as well as it would had English been its original language.  Such thought and intelligence has been given to both the writing and translation processes.  A short work even by novella standards, the edition which I read runs to just 78 pages.

Death in Venice‘s plot, and the way in which Mann writes of it, veers toward the psychological.  It ‘tells how Gustave Von Eschenbach, a writer utterly absorbed in his work, arrives in Venice as the result of a “youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes”, and meets there a young boy by whose beauty he becomes obsessed.  His pitiful pursuit of the object of his abnormal affection and its inevitable and pathetic climax is told here with the particular skill the author has for this shorter form of fiction’.  The craft of writing, and the way in which it can so utterly absorb one, has been woven in too: ‘… their creator could hold out for years under the strain of the same piece of work, with an endurance and a tenacity of purpose like that which had conquered his native province of Silesia, devoting to actual composition none but his best and freshest hours…  yes, even while his faithful following revelled in the characters he created, he, the young artist, was taking away the breath of the twenty-year-olds with his cynic utterances on the nature of art and the artist life’.

Mann conjures up the setting and protagonists so well from the novella’s very beginning: ‘Gustave Aschenbach – or Von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday – had set out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk…  May had begun, and after weeks of cold and wet a mock summer had set in.  The English Gardens, though in tenderest leaf, felt as sultry as in August and were full of vehicles and pedestrians near the city.  But towards Aumeister the paths were solitary and still, and Aschenbach strolled thither, stopping awhile to watch the lively crowds in the restaurant garden with its fringe of carriages and cabs’.

His character descriptions are both striking and exquisitely rendered, and they build marvellously: ‘In his right hand, slantwise to the ground, he held an iron-shod stick, and braced himself against its crook, with his legs crossed.  His chin was up, so that the Adam’s apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt: and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes, while two pronounced perpendicular furrows showed o his forehead in curious contrast to his little turned-up nose.  Perhaps his heightened and heightening position helped out the impression that Aschenbach received.  At any rate, standing there as though at survey, the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless, air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums’.  Of Tadzio, the young Polish boy whom Von Aschenbach becomes infatuated with, Mann writes: ‘The lad had just reached the gate in the railings, and he was alone.  Aschenbach felt, quite simply, a wish to overtake him, to address him and have the pleasure of his reply and answering look; to put upon a blithe and friendly footing his relation with this being who all unconsciously had so greatly heightened and quickened his emotions’.

The scenes which Mann weaves before our very eyes are often gorgeous: ‘But evening too was rarely lovely: balsamic with the breath of flowers and shrubs from the near-by park, while overhead the constellations circled in their spheres, and the murmuring of the night-girded sea swelled softly up and whispered to the soul.  Such nights as these contained the joyful promise of a sunlit morrow, brim-full of sweetly ordered idleness, studded thick with countless precious possibilities’.

Many constructs, concepts and ideas are woven into Death in Venice, causing it to feel like an incredibly rich and almost intense read.  The way in which it has been written, with the use of an omniscient narrator, adds real texture to the piece, and focuses not just upon the protagonists, but upon society as a whole: ‘A solitary, unused to speaking of what he sees and feels, has mental experiences which are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man.  They are sluggish, yet more wayward, and never without a melancholy tinge: sights and impressions which others brush aside with a glance, a light comment, a smile, occupy him more than their due; they sink silently in, they take on meaning, they become experience, emotion, adventure’.  The novella is well focused upon the concepts of beauty and art, and how they have the ability to affect every single one of us.  Death and illness, and the sheer power which they wield, are personified throughout, becoming just as important as the characters themselves.  Much Ancient Greek mythology has also been alluded to, and I loved this element of the book particularly.

The story here is well rendered, but the whole does not come across as plot heavy; rather, there is more of interest within the writing itself, and the sheer control which Mann has over the vocabulary which he has so carefully selected.  Death in Venice is almost worth reading for its exquisite descriptions alone.  Mann captures scenes and emotions perfectly throughout, and is continually aware of the influence of the outside world upon his characters: ‘With closed lids Aschenbach listened to this poesy hymning itself silently within him, and anon he thought it was good to be here and that he would stop awhile’.  Death in Venice is a tale which certainly deserves to be savoured.

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Du Maurier December: ‘The Flight of the Falcon’ by Daphne du Maurier **

The Flight of the Falcon was the penultimate book which I chose to read for my du Maurier December project.  First published in 1965, the novel is set in the fictional city of Ruffano in Italy, which was inspired by a real city, but contains a plot and characters of du Maurier’s own creation.

The Flight of the Falcon begins in the twentieth century, in an Italian city with an incredibly violent history.  The face of Ruffano is being modernised, around the focal point of its university.  In present-day Ruffano, ‘Austerity was banished.  The young, with all their fine contempt for dusty ways, had taken over’. The town has rather a sinister edge to it; there are those who follow students around at night, and a secretive society within the wider university organisation.  A student named Caterina tells our narrator the following: ‘But I’m sure of one thing.  I would never walk about Ruffano by night without at least half-a-dozen others.  It’s all right round here, and in the piazza della Vita.  Not up the hill, not by the palace’.  Parallels are drawn ‘through murder, humiliation and outrage’ from the very beginning between the present day and the story of Duke Claudio, the Falcon, who lived five hundred years before.

The narrator of the piece, Armino Fabbio – known as Beo – currently works for Sunshine Tours, and describes himself as a courier; a ‘guide, manager, mediator and shepherd of souls…  A courier can make or break a tour.  Like the conductor of a choir he must, by force of personality, induce his team to sing in harmony; subdue the raucous, encourage the timid, conspire with the young, flatter the old’.  The novel’s first main plot point comes when the body of a woman is discovered with a stab wound.  Those on the tour with Beo had seen her the previous evening, passed out drunk on a bench.  It turns out that she and Beo share a past connection, and Beo then has to deal with the fragmented memories of his childhood which become interspersed with his present: ‘I stood watching my grip, a wanderer between two worlds.  The one the via dei Sogni of my past, with all its memories, but no longer mine; and this other, active, noisy, equally indifferent.  The dead should not return.  Lazarus was right to feel foreboding.  Caught, as he must have been, betwixt past and present, he evaded both in horror, seeking the anonymity of the tomb – but in vain’.

The most interesting element of the plot comes when Beo, who returns to Ruffano and is employed as a temporary librarian, stumbles across a book which details the past of the city’s infamous Falcon, Claudio Malebranche: ‘A youth of outstanding promise, he became intoxicated by good fortune, and casting off his early discipline he surrounded himself by a small band of dissolute disciples, and dismayed the good citizens of Ruffano by licentious outrages and revolting cruelties.  No one could walk by night for fear of the Falcon’s sudden descent into the city, when, aided by his followers, he would seize and ravage…’.  The present and past stories converge through the guise of the town’s annual festival, entitled ‘The Flight of the Falcon’.

The elements of crime novel within The Flight of the Falcon tend to become glossed over after a while, and are not quite built up enough to keep the reader guessing.  Beo’s first person male narrative voice is believable, but it does not feel as compelling or as well built as those in books such as My Cousin Rachel and The House on the Strand.  I could have quite happily put The Flight of the Falcon down at any point and not picked it up again; I did not feel as though I particularly had – or even wanted – to know what was going to happen within its pages.  I did not feel an ounce of compassion on behalf of the narrator, even when he was descriving some of the sadder things which had happened to him, and there was a relatively detached air to the whole.

At first, The Flight of the Falcon is a relatively easy novel to get into, but the pace is rather slow and it does tend to become bogged down in details from time to time.  The dialogue is sodden with mundane and superfluous details.  It did not feel as though du Maurier was perhaps as comfortable with her setting as she is with those books which take place in the United Kingdom and in France.  I had the feeling throughout that something pivotal was missing from the novel.

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‘The Triumphant Footman’ by Edith Olivier ***

The Triumphant Footman is one of Edith Olivier’s five novels, and was first published in 1930.  The volume has been dedicated to war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The Triumphant Footman takes place largely within the upper-class circles in Italy.  A lot of the plot within the novel revolves around the mischievous half-French footman of the Lemaurs, Alphonse Biskin.  A case of mistaken identity ensues, confusing society to its limits, and all of which he is responsible for.  This element of the story is farcical at times, and causes the whole to become almost a comedy of manners in its consequent tone and style.

Olivier sets the scene wonderfully from the very beginning: ‘Shadows gathered in the corners of the high Florentine drawing-room, and the faded frescoes on its walls assumed a new prominence in the half-light.  The room became ghost-like, and the painted figures were ghosts among ghosts.  These shadowy forms, the gilded furniture, the heavy brocade hangings, and the curiously wrought silver goblets and vases which stood on consoles against the walls – all of those things seemed far more truly the living occupants of the room than the little pale lady who was lying near the window’.

This ‘little pale lady’ is Mrs Lemaur, a woman who decided to change her life whilst still in her teens: ‘When she was eighteen, she had decided that to be bedridden should be her role’.  She is the ‘little wifie’ to a Captain, who ‘liked looking for bargains, and he often found them’.  Both relocated to Italy – Florence, to be exact – some decades ago.  Olivier builds her characters by using the finest of details; Mrs Lemaur, for example, has a ‘little face’ which is ‘puckered and wrinkled in criss-cross squares, and the corners of her mouth were drawn down till they seemed about to slip off from the two sides of her chin’.  Captain Lemaur is a shadowy being in comparison to the descriptions of his wife; she ‘had passed her life surrounded by love and by things of beauty, but she deserved neither of these’.  Mrs Lemaur is definitely the most interesting creation in the book, and none of Olivier’s other characters feel quite as vivid or memorable as she does.

The Triumphant Footman is interesting and somewhat unexpected, and one cannot help but think that it would be a marvellous addition to the Virago Modern Classics list.  The plot, whilst not always as evenly paced as it could have been, has been well crafted, and although The Triumphant Footman is by no means Olivier’s best novel, it still intrigues.

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‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

A Love Like Blood is Marcus Sedgwick’s first novel for adults.  He is acclaimed as a young adult author, and has turned his hand to a varied range of subjects within his fiction.  The prologue of his newest offering opens in Sextanio in Italy in 1968, and its beginning is certainly intriguing: ‘Dogs are barking in the night.  He’s somewhere in the broken village on the hilltop opposite me’.  Using such prose, Sedgwick is able to set the scene within A Love Like Blood immediately.

‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick

In the first chapter, which begins in Paris in 1944, the reader is taken into the narrator’s memories.  ‘Paris,’ Charles Jackson explains, ‘was free, and I was one of the very few Englishmen to see it’.  Our narrator is twenty five years old at this point in time, and is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, an experience which he explains threw him straight into adulthood.  It is an interesting technique to begin a book close to the end of the Second World War rather than at its beginning, and it does work well here.  Sedgwick puts across the point that the city is so changed from one week to the next, and the way in which he portrays this information contributes to the strong sense of history which the novel holds.

On a trip to a chateau just outside Paris to view some artefacts with his CO, one of the items which Charles is shown is said to be one of the earliest known depictions of vampires.  He is startled and has to hurtle outside to get some fresh air.  He finds himself wandering into a bunker and there, he witnesses a man ‘drinking’ from a wound upon the body of a young woman.

Throughout, the sense of place and its importance in the grand scheme of things has been well thought out.  The book moves from Paris to Cambridge and back again.  On his second trip to Paris, Charles finds the couple whom he saw in the bunker eating in a busy brasserie, and he decides to follow them.  He is an honest narrator, but there are times at the start of the book in which he seems too preoccupied with himself and his own problems.  Just at the point that this begins to become a little wearing, it stops altogether.

Elements of mystery are tied up with those of horror in the novel, and the way in which the plot unfolds does not feel too dissimilar to that of Dracula at times.  Blood is, of course, a central theme – Charles becomes an expert in haemotology, and there is also the presence of the vampire, for example.  Although some of the elements of the plot are quite other-worldly, it is still, oddly, eminently believable.  Foreboding drips in here and there, and whilst things are able to be presupposed to a point by the reader, there are many surprising moments which aim to throw us off the track.  Sedgwick’s writing is easy to get into, and is not stylistically complex in any way.  Indeed, it does not feel too dissimilar to the style in which he writes for his younger audience.  In A Love Like Blood, he has crafted a great novel, and the plot points have been well placed into the whole so that there is not a dull moment.

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