Dan Rhodes’ Marry Me (2013), just out in the U.S. from Europa Editions, is a collection of around 80 short — very short — stories focused on, says Michael Dirda in his exciting review for The Washington Post (here), love, marriage, infidelity, divorce, and death. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, right?
I actually do not have this book. Earlier in the week, Europa Editions emailed folks and gave permission to post a few of the stories from this book on their blogs. I read the three stories they sent, and now I’m kicking myself for not getting the whole collection. After reading Dirda’s review, which contains several of the stories as well as his astute analysis, I kicked myself even harder. These understated — often unstated — stories are funny and biting as they eschew conventional views of love and even masculinity. I’m rereading Jane Austen this year, and even before Dirda made the comparison I was thinking how much she’d love these pieces.
Anyway, here are three of the stories (though not three that particularly remind me of Jane Austen), presented in increasing degrees of dread, the first being the most lovey I’ve seen from the collection.
I asked my girlfriend to marry me, and she said yes. I couldn’t afford a diamond, so instead I handed her a lump of charcoal. ‘It’s pure carbon,’ I explained. ‘Now, if we can just find a way to rearrange the atoms . . .’
She stared at the black lump in her palm, and I began to worry that ours was going to be the shortest engagement in history. She smiled. ‘We’ll put it under the mattress,’ she said. ‘Maybe we’ll squash it into a diamond over time.’
It’s been there ever since. We check up on it every once in a while, and it never looks any different. I think we would be disappointed if it ever did.
My fiancée suggested we get married while strapped together and falling ten thousand feet from an aeroplane. I wasn’t nearly as interested as she was in that kind of thing, and suggested we have a more conventional ceremony. She dismissed my misgivings. ‘Feel the fear,’ she said, ‘and do it anyway. That’s my motto.’ Not wishing to appear unmanly, I went along with her plan, and I have to admit that in the event it was a lot of fun exchanging vows in mid-air while a vicar plummeted alongside us.
Unfortunately, our parachute has failed to open, and our marriage is looking likely to prove shortlived. She’s screaming in terror, and I’m wondering whether this would be a good moment to remind her that it had been her idea.
A week before our wedding day, my fiancée suggested I go into suspended animation and leave all the last-minute preparations to her. At first I wasn’t sure about the idea, but she soon convinced me that it would be best for both of us if I was to take something of a back seat. She took me to the local cryogenic freezing centre, and told me she would thaw me out on the morning of the big day. She kissed me goodbye, and shut the door to the chamber.
When I unfroze, there was no one there to meet me. I walked over to her place to see how things were getting along. She saw me coming down the past, and called out, ‘Look everyone, it’s the Iceman.’ As I got closer, I noticed she looked a bit different, in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A tall, handsome man I had never seen before came out of the house, followed by a group of children, and they all started pointing at me and laughing.
She explained that she’d gotten cold feet, and hadn’t been able to resist setting the time for fifteen years. Then she stopped laughing, and her face turned to stone. She told me she hardly remembered me, and that it was time I left. She said I was trespassing, and that she would be well within her rights to call the police.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Earlier this year, Europa Editions, one of my favorite publishers, launched a new series of books: Europa World Noir. They’ve always published crime novels, but with this new imprint they show their commitment to the genre and their hope to print even more. One of their first titles is Maurizio de Giovanni’s introduction to Commissario Ricciardi, I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi (Il senso del dolore. L’inverno del commissario Ricciardi, 2007; tr. from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel, 2012).
Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.
I want to start this review with a bit of disclaimer: I’m not much of a crime reader, though I’d like to be. The genre appeals to me, for some reason, yet in the few times I’ve ventured into it I haven’t been fully pleased with the results. Too often I’m disappointed by the resolution, which felt rushed and convenient. For some reason, I do not have this same reaction to film. I haven’t thought this enough to know why this is, but I’m sure some of it has to do with inexperience. Having read only a few, I’m hoping that this new imprint will introduce some fine examples of World Noir to me, and that I’ll finally find a way into this world of literature.
I’m sorry to say that I Will Have Vengeance didn’t do it for me, though I did enjoy the book enough to feel some excitement at the next installments of the series.
This book introduces us to a new series of novels surrounding Commissario Ricciardi. There will apparently be only four titles: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall (Blood Curse: The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi is coming out from Europa World Noir in May). Commissario Ricciardi is 31 years old and lives in Naples in 1931 under the reign of Il Duce. Interestingly, this detective has a unique malady, the same malady that afflicted his mother, who was frail and white haired at only 38.
When the book begins, we see Ricciardi suffer from this affliction: he can see the dead, or, to be more exact, he can see the shade of someone who was recently, violently, killed in the moment of death. They sit there, complete with wounds and deformities, emitting the emotion — “the sudden energy of their final thoughts” — they felt when they died, whether that was fear, anger, sadness, or even love. As the book begins, he sees a young child who was just killed in the road. He wanted to go play marbles with two boys, and Ricciardi sees him, deformed by the impact, saying, “Can I go down? Can I go down?” Ricciardi thinks about the sorrow of the young mother, but:
She’s better off, he thought. All this anguish.
As we might expect, Ricciardi is a bit of a strange case himself at this point in his life. He’s basically alone and has dedicated his life to solving crimes, trying to find some way to use his affliction for some good. But the gruesome images and sad insights into human nature have made him distant.
In fact, one of the strongest aspects of this novel is its examination of Ricciardi’s few relationships, all of which develop nicely and left me anxious for the next novels. First, there’s Brigadier Maione. Maione is completely devoted to Ricciardi since Ricciardi helped solve the murder of Maione’s son. Now Maione almost takes a fatherly role with Ricciardi, assisting him in his crime solving but also remaining with him when he’s alone in the office, worrying about him even as he marvels at his ability to single-mindedly solve crimes:
Maione suspected that Ricciardi went in search of death, of its quintessential meaning, with an inquiring frenzy, as if to define it, to reveal; with no particular interest in his own survival.
Besides Maione, Ricciardi has what might be called a relationship with the young woman he can see from his window, Enrica. However, he’s never spoken to Enrica. He has no reason to think she even knows who he is, nor does he care if she does. He’s content to watch her quiet routine play out across the way in the evenings.
Another relationship that begins in this book but will hopefully continue is the one with Father Pierino, a lover of the opera who explains the plots of the operas to Ricciardi, who has never cared.
The reason don Pierino and Ricciardi meet, and why don Pierino has occasion to explain opera to Ricciardi is that Maestro Arnaldo Vezzi, the world’s best tenor, Il Duce’s favorite, has just been found dead in his dressing room. His neck was cut by his mirror and blood was all over the place. When Ricciardi enters the room, he sees Vezzi with his clown makeup, crying and singing the words to the show: “I will have vengeance.”
Don Pierino says Vezzi was not great, he was celestial. “I like to think that the angels have voices like Vezzi’s, to sing praises to the Lord in heaven. If that were so, no one would be afraid of dying.” However, through the investigation, Ricciardi learns most people hated Vezzi, though so great was Vezzi’s voice and Vezzi’s earning potential that everyone did whatever he wanted. Ricciardi wonders what life must be like “if your surrounded by people who hate you, yet who depend on you.”
While the book continues to develop the characters in interesting and insightful ways, I felt it was hampered by a mediocre mystery with, to my disappointment, a rushed, explain-all resolution.
Still, I’m intrigued by this detective who can see the dead while wandering the streets of 1931 Naples. I’m hopeful that, now that the ball is rolling, the series can dwell in the dark places it’s obviously trying to infiltrate.
I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to old-fashioned shipwreck stories. The Island of Last Truth (L’illa de l’última veritat, 2011; tr. from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin, 2012) hits the spot: it’s the story of a man who is the sole survivor of a pirate attack and who ends up being marooned on a small island for years, at first struggling to survive and then to remain sane. Knowing that premise, it might be striking to find out that this book takes place in the contemporary world of GPS travel, satellite phones, etc. But the world is a big place, and if we want a story that examines identity, veracity, and life and death, there is no better place to do this than on an island.
Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.
When The Island of Last Truth begins, we meet Phoebe Westore, the woman who will actually be taking us through this story, becoming another layer over the underlying text. In the prologue, she’s looking back to the first time she met Dr. Mathew Prendel. Phoebe had heard about the legend surrounding Prendel: some four years earlier he had returned to New York, unrecognizable after being lost at sea. Somehow, due to their reclusive natures, Prendel and Phoebe are attracted to each other and become lovers until, seven years later, Prendel dies. Until the end, Prendel didn’t talk about what happened during the years he was lost. No one really knew, and Phoebe wasn’t the type to attempt to bring it out of him. However, before he died, he told her it was a secret he could live with but that he could not die with. Would she please write down his story? Of course.
Phoebe is a scholar, used to delving into texts and remarking on their layers, so she is nicely suited to convey a story that has this kind of disclaimer:
When all is said and done, Phoebe, the only lies that matter are those that have the power to transform your life, don’t you think?
We move to Prendel’s story. He was relatively young, in his mid-30s, when he decided to go on sabbatical for a year with a couple of friends. They’d simply sail. One day during their journey from Jamestown to São Tomé they saw a ship on the horizon which turned out to be the Solimán, a pirate ship. Though this segment is brief, Company controls the pace nicely, allowing us to think while the ship approaches and these three friends wonder — without really believing it — whether they will die.
Sadly, two will. Prendel himself may be the cause. Acting quickly, he pulls out a pistol and shoots one of the pirates, who falls into the water. Then Prendel himself dives in just as the bullets start to fly and he sees his friends gunned down. Over the next who-knows-how-long, he floats and swims, drifts in and out of consciousness, wishes he’d died but unable to actually kill himself, until he finally washes up on a small island. Someone gets him water and tends to him while he recovers. He is surprised to find out that the man who is tending him is the very pirate he shot, a man named Nelson Souza. Souza has full control of the situation, being the one with a gun and several other supplies; Prendel has nothing. Why doesn’t Souza just kill him? Souza says, “You don’t kill a man who may be useful to you.”
Prendel doesn’t know how he might be useful to Souza, and Souza doesn’t say. Perhaps worse, Souza effectively locks Prendel onto one half of the island. His rules are that Prendel cannot come into his territory, nor can he attempt to flag any passing ships (his reasoning is that any passing ship will be like the Solimán, which Souza himself was trying to escape.
It’s a quick book, coming in at around 120 pages, and Company keeps us moving forward constantly, even when we are just floating around in the ocean. I was completely engaged and along for the ride. Where the book falls a bit flat, though, is when you close the cover and realize it could have been something more. Though familiar (Prendel himself gets the feeling that he’s mimicking a desert island story), the setting and the ideas explored in this novel are still fascinating, and Company has some unique perspectives. After closing that last page, though, I couldn’t help but think it could have sacrificed the quick pacing a bit to allow these ideas to develop a bit more. Still, a great read for people like me.
Last week I wrote about Revenge, the first book I read by Yoko Ogawa, a name I’d heard many times over the past few years and had always felt I should read. This week I’m writing about Amélie Nothomb’s latest in English, Life Form (Une forme de vie, 2010; tr. from the French by Alison Anderson, 2013). It’s my first time reading Nothomb, a name I’ve heard even more and for an even longer time than Ogawa and whose books I’ve picked up time and time again to read only to put them down again thinking, I’ll get to her soon. I knew she was an author I didn’t want to miss. Perhaps another reason I’ve hesitated to jump into her work is because of how prolific she is. Since the early 1990s, she’s been publishing one book every year, and we actually have many of them in English. Where to start?
Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.
Since I have read only Life Form, I cannot answer that question definitively, but I can say that this short, fun book is a joy. If you also start here, I think you’ll want to read more. I do. That said, from what I know of her other work, Life Form seems to be one of her lighter pieces, a sort of comedic, headlong romp that reminded me at times of Philip Roth’s The Prague Orgy (my review here).
The book begins with a letter Nothomb received from a Melvin Mapple, who claims to be a private in the US Army stationed in Baghdad. It’s a “new sort of letter,” she says. In it, Melvin writes:
I’m writing to you because I am as down as a dog. I need some understanding and I know that if anyone can understand me, you can.
Nothomb, both in this book and in real life, corresponds via traditional letters to various people across the globe. She assumes this private simply knew this and decided to write to her, though she cannot understand why he chose her as a “wartime pen pal”: “Assuming he had read my books, were they any sort of solid proof of human compassion and understanding?”
In some ways, that’s what this book is about: relationships through writing, the illusion of proximity, of intimacy, and the great potential for error. Can she honestly hope to help this man as he suffers in a war? And has he actually read anything she’s written? It turns out that yes, he has. He’s read everything she’s written.
Touched and a bit thrilled at the attention, she asks Melvin about himself, offering hope that he’d soon be home again since the day she wrote the letter was the same day of Obama’s inauguration. She asks Melvin to tell her a little about himself. This is where their relationship gets strange and the book, for me, got feverishly paced.
He tells her he’s obese. Eating is the main pastime where he’s stationed. Oh, tell us more, Melvin. He has enough weight on him to be two people. In fact, he calls his other half Scheherazade. He feels it is a punishment for killing an Iraqi woman:
No way I can go on a diet. I don’t want to lose Scheherazade. If I lost weight it would be like killing her all over again. If my punishment for this war crime is to carry my victim with me as a mound of flesh, then so be it.
Astonished and disgusted, Nothomb suggests he keep gaining weight. Make of his obesity a piece of art, take pictures every day as he gets larger — she will help him find the perfect venue to display his body art. Melvin find his purpose:
My obesity is anything but gratuitous, because it has carved my commitment into my body: to make the entire world see the unprecedented horror of this war. Obesity has become eloquent: my own expanse reflects the scale of human destruction on either side.
It’s passages like that (and where Nothomb describes with gusto the physical appearance of Melvin) that reminded me so much of Roth. Passages like that and sentences like this: “Human fat will be for George W. Bush what napalm was for Johnson.” There’s also the fact that this story is presented as something that actually happened to Nothomb. For example, she refers to real newspaper articles that the real Nothomb wrote during this time period. For all we know, this may very well match up some real experience in Nothomb’s own life. That verisimilitude is part of the fun.
Now, it’s safe to say that, as both Melvin and Nothomb write back and forth, drawing each other out, feeling closer and closer, things with Melvin are not as they seem. Life Form is clever, fun, and full of energy.
Late last year I saw a review for Richard Beard’s Lazarus Is Dead (2011) on John Self’s blog (here). John was surprised to find this book quickly become one of his favorites of the year. Knowing only what is recorded in the book of John, I was curious about a book focused on Lazarus, however it portrayed him. Consequently, I was thrilled to see Europa Editions publish the book here in the United States.
Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.
And I’ll second John (the blogger John, in this instance): this is a surprising book, and one of my favorites of the year. I think I expected some kind of spoof or anti-religious statement (“Lazarus is dead.”), and that’s absolutely not what this is (rather, I found it completely respectful of its biblical source, and I say that as a religious person). Or perhaps, if not a spoof, I expected some kind of interrogation into the life and death and life of Lazarus, and that’s only partially what this is. Mixed here are fiction, biography, scripture, art and literary history, peppered with humor – all coming together to form an interrogation on the nature of story-telling and authority. For me it is all of these things and an interesting story in and of itself.
A fan of the Oulipo (a group of authors who set up structural constrictions — sometimes simple, like retelling a simple event 99 times in a variety of styles, as Raymond Queneau did in Elements of Style; sometimes elaborate, like writing a whole book without ever using the letter “e,” as Georges Perec did in A Void– and then create a literary work within that frame), Richard Beard has set up his own structure here. The first section is “7,” and it contains seven subsections; the next is 6, with six subsections, and so on, each section representing one of Jesus’ seven miracles recounted in the Gospel of John (and bringing Lazarus visibly closer to death), until we get to 0 and begin counting back up to seven, bringing the book closer to Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
In the first half of the book, as we circle closer and closer to death, we learn about the past Jesus and Lazarus share. Beard posits, and presents as narrative fact (though fully aware that his standing is just as firm as any of a number of other guesses), that Jesus and Lazarus were friends from birth. Both were born in Bethlehem, under that star. When Joseph learned of Herod’s plot to kill all of the male children, Joseph told Lazarus’s father, so both families escaped to Egypt and eventually came back to settle in Nazareth (so, as surely as we have Jesus of Nazareth, we also have Lazarus of Nazareth). But then, what was once a firm friendship between Jesus and Lazarus begins to crumble, and Lazarus, wanting to get away from the small-town life, moved away to Bethany, a village just outside of Jerusalem, to sell sacrificial lambs to patrons of the Temple.
Well, now Jesus is back in his life, though they don’t visit one another. Lazarus hears that Jesus has turned water into wine at some wedding in Cana, and Lazarus begins to get sick. It’s a minor miracle, and most don’t believe it anyway; nevertheless, it has caught the attention of both the Sanhedrin and the Romans. A Messiah is most inconvenient. Lazarus feels it too: besides getting more and more sick with each miracle Jesus performs, his livelihood is threatened when people seek Jesus for healing rather than going the more traditional route of purchasing a pure lamb and sacrificing it at the Temple. It’s an annoyance in the life of someone who has deliberately moved away from Jesus: “His life is ordered, successful, unusual; he doesn’t need enlightenment.”
Beard presents such an interesting tone as Lazarus sinks to near decay. It’s most human. Lazarus’s sister Mary implores him to go to Jesus. Lazarus doesn’t want to go to Jesus, who didn’t seem all that special and who offended him greatly once in their youth; plus, what would this say to his business associates, let alone to the elders in Jerusalem who can make or break him. No. Lazarus will not listen to Mary. Martha, always more pragmatic, sees both points of view, but she’s also annoyed that Lazarus is suffering so while Jesus is off healing others, even bringing a few back from the dead. Beard intersperses these snippets of fiction with looks at scripture and even tidbits of the Lazarus tradition as shown through art and literature, going on to analyze these artifacts and either use them or discard them as he sees fit. It is important to note that while Beard creates this pseudo-biography, the book is set up in such a way that we question the foundation of the very story we’re reading. Lazarus Is Dead questions the story’s sources, from as far back as the Gospel of John itself to more recent “accounts” such as Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and even Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; then the book proceeds to rely on those very sources. Even assertions are sometimes doubted soon after they’re made; for example, the opening of the book:
Lazarus is dead.
There is no room for doubt. He died, he came back to life, but then he died again. If he were alive today, we would know. I think.
And questioning is an important aspect of the story. Lazarus, unsure why he has to die, wonders why Jesus is using him so. Mary trusts Jesus’ motives, but Lazarus and Martha are less sure. The questions don’t go away when we get to the second half of the book and Lazarus is back from the dead after four days in the tomb. If anything, the questions get even harder.
When Lazarus comes back from the dead, he is amazed. He knows he died and he knows Jesus brought him back to life. He may have stepped out of the tomb tentatively (as the stick figure does in the U.S. edition’s cover), but he wants to help. Then Martha makes him think:
‘I died and came back to life.’
‘Yes,’ Martha said. ‘But what for?’
Yes, Lazarus is back, but now what? Jesus has already left for Jerusalem (and Beard shows how humorous this book can be when, as he walks out to find Jesus, Lazarus hears a few women drawing water from the well complaining about a stolen donkey). Jesus left without a word, and even Jesus’ disciples seem to mistrust Lazarus. Worse, now the Sanhedrin is after his life — again; after all, it’s not much of a miracle if the person raised from the dead is, well, dead. And the Romans have their own ideas about how they can use Lazarus to quell any inconvenient religious uprisings. The story gets thicker
The second half of the novel shines as a friendship once lost begins to be rekindled, but with so many questions that never get answered. The book ends with Beard coming out and questioning it all again: “Lazarus may never have died.” This at once questions the legends concerning Lazarus’s second life and his second death, or his death in the middle of the book, or the title and the book’s opening lines: “Lazarus is dead. [. . .] If he were alive today, we would know. I think.”
I read Jane Gardam’s Old Filth before I started this blog, and it occurs to me now that, since starting this blog, I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone else reading her. This surprises me, because Gardam is phenomenal, at once tender and biting. I was very happy when I saw that Europa Editions was bringing back to print Gardam’s own favorite novel (according to her new introduction, “by far the favourite of all my books”), Crusoe’s Daughter (1985). Boy, this is a lovely book, perfect for a long summer day when you’re looking to brush against loneliness.
Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.
Our narrator is an old woman named Polly Flint. She’s lived out most of her life and we benefit from her reflection, which has a purpose: “Bringing the years to an end as a tale that is told.” This is a book about a life and a book about narrative, and it succeeded beyond my expectations in both regards. In fact, each level is complementary to the other; the sum is greater than its parts.
The book takes us back to 1904, when six-year-old Polly Flint is delivered by her sea-faring father to her two aunts. They live at Oversands, the yellow house on a sand-marsh in Yorkshire. Her mother died years before, and her father, unbeknownst to anyone, has two months until his own death at sea, effectively leaving Polly stranded. It’s to Gardam’s credit that the sense of being stranded is mixed in with the genuine love and affection Polly feels toward her new life and her two aunts. Emotion, and its many layers, is handled well throughout.
On one level, this is a book about a woman’s life in England throughout the twentieth-century; abandonment and loneliness, introduced in the first pages when Polly’s father dies, flare up all the time, even amidst joy. In fact, maybe it’s the loneliness that makes any joy feel more pronounced, though Gardam never flirts with sentimentality. On the narrative level, then, it’s the compassionate story-telling, the subtlety of the emotions, and, perhaps particularly, the wry humor that make this book a pleasure as we move with this stranded soul through the century and its atrocities.
And the humor comes often. One of my favorite passage occurs early on when Polly explains that even as a young girl she didn’t feel any need to follow her aunts’ religious devotion. They are indignant when she rebels (as someone explains to Polly, what else do they have, these two old maids?). Still, despite her affection for them, Polly cannot bring herself to be confirmed. It may have all started when she was young and misunderstood what “suffer the little children” meant:
For perhaps five or six years — perhaps many more — I thought that ‘suffer the little children’ meant that Jesus had been all for measles and mumps, and this made me thoughtful. In spite of all the care and generosity and approbation and the lovely security that breathed everywhere in the compelling yellow house, I became wary of God there. Oh very wary, indeed.
Maybe I’m the only one who finds that humorous. Most often, humor comes with the characterizations. A bit later in the book, Polly moves in with the Thwaite family for a time. Many artists find refuge with the Thwaites, the Lady being a great patron of the arts, but, where Polly hopes to experience invigorating conversations about art, she instead finds a bunch of pretentious imbeciles — and it’s a lot of fun! Yes, a lot of fun, even while we see its effects further isolating Polly.
Sadly (but in a good way) the book is not all humor. Polly is denied most things in which humanity conventionally installs value (reminding me, somewhat, of Alice James (my thoughts Jeane Strouse’s magnificent biography of Alice James here)). Besides that, there’s a string of deaths that threaten to obliterate Crusoe’s Daughter itself as we wonder just how much this narrative can take before capsizing. But the narrative overcomes.
In fact, it’s the book’s examination of narrative itself that I found most compelling, and it certainly strengthens the story. Here we have a girl whose earliest memories are of staring at the row of books in Oversands. As we can glean from the title, one book had a particular influence on Polly: Robinson Crusoe. When Polly feels abandoned in real life, it’s with Crusoe she finds companionship, and not really just as a literary friend. It becomes a conscious choice when she is twenty and her childhood crush, Theo, leaves.
Monumental, godlike Crusoe. Monumentally and deistically taking control of his emotions. And I, Polly Flint, after the knowledge of my loss, set out to be the same. Theo’s face and being and presence at her shoulders, Polly Flint blots out, and lets the noble and unfailing face and being and presence of Crusoe become her devotion and her joy.
Crusoe is her idol and her king.
Crusoe’s mastery of circumstances.
Crusoe, Polly Flint’s father and her mother.
Polly looks back on this time and her elderly perspective kicks in, still a bit in shock:
Sitting in the yellow house with nothing in the world to do. Polly Flint. Twenty years old. Might there be time?
I became very odd. Oh, really quite odd then.
By the end of Crusoe’s Daughter, the narrative, which has been flirting with Robinson Crusoe from the beginning, merges with that early novel. It is less clear whether Polly herself has ever achieved the virtues she instills in Crusoe himself. Certainly, both are stranded, abandoned, lonely, and both step back from the situation to get some perspective and control, but while Crusoe could manipulate his environment to overcome some of his problems, Polly can only change herself.
Really, a sublime book. Let’s stop being silent about Jane Gardam.
Europa Editions is getting quite a bit of publicity these days for publishing Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid. I had never ran into them before, but then suddenly I saw their attractive books popping up all over the bookstores! Which is great news for those of us who love literature in translation. I received a few review copies (all look excellent!) and decided to start with the young Valeria Parrella’s second book of short stories For Grace Received (Per grazia ricevuta, 2005; tr. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar, 2009).
Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.
It’s always impressive when a young author enters with such a mature voice and style, not to mention substantial depth of analysis in some fairly complex social and psychological topics. Parrella has set the bar high for her future in literature. The book contains four short stories: “Run,” “Siddhartha,” “The Imagined Friend,” and “F.G.R.” (that’s from For Grace Received, if you didn’t catch it).
My favorites were “Run” and “The Imagined Friend.” Here’s how “Run” begins:
Every time I cross this street, I always choose the same spot: I walk sort of kitty-corner from the traffic island, or straight as an arrow along the crosswalk, as if the cars had stopped to let me pass. Or else, stepping down from the trolley, without an umbrella, I run to take shelter under the awning outside the pharmacy. But I always cross Via Marina at this same spot, I don’t do it on purpose — that is, I do it on purpose, but without wanting to. And when I cross here, I image it.
What she imagines every time she crosses this street, at this location, is the terrible scene when the man she was living with was stabbed by thugs trying to intercept some money he was transporting. Why was he transporting money? Well, this is a look at the seedy side of Naples. I’ve never been to Naples before, but even if I had, I doubt I’d get a glimpse at this side of this city. If you notice the subtitle on the book cover, you’ll see it says, “Four Stories of Modern Naples.” Parrella’s look in “Run” are definitely disillusioning for those of us whose thoughts are more romantically inclined when Naples is said.
The tragedies in “Run” don’t stop at the stabbing of the money courrier. He lies crippled and dying for weeks, their young son rushing in to his bed to play with him. One of the most affecting scenes is after his death when the narrator sees the young child looking at the empty bed. It gets worse, though, because the narrator herself is forced to work for those who ran her boyfriend’s life, ending in her going to prison.
If it looks like I’ve given away the whole story in “Run” in that last paragraph, rest assured that I did not. There is much to this story. I haven’t even mentioned the man who witnessed the stabbing and what role he plays in the after effects of the tragedy. This was just an excellent story. If anything, its fault is in taking on too much. Parrella is dealing with several weighty themes in a short story. For the most part, though, it works and left this reader with that devastated, empty feeling I don’t necessarily like but certainly appreciate.
My other favorite, “The Imagined Friend,” also involves a woman rolling with punches as her young child drifts around the periphery. Fortunately, this woman is not involved in Naples’ underworld, but her life is still tragic. She’s involved in an unconsummated extramarital affair, dealing with the guilt but also dealing with the apprehensiveness brought on by a fear of getting hurt. Here’s a line Parrella’s prose here that might appeal to some and not to others.
She moved toward him like a blank sheet of paper, with the expression that she used to wear at university on exam days, as she walked into the hall and focused on a sheet of white paper to keep from focusing on anything else. Like actors when they tire themselves out before the curtain, to keep from feeling the fear.
While that particular writing doesn’t necessarily appeal to me (it feels a bit forced, as if the idea were better than the execution), this metaphor does give a nice look at our narrator’s approach to this potential lover. Though a short story, encounters with this lover are few and far between but always just around the corner, a great representation of the narrator’s disturbed frame of mind as she deals with that and her family.
For me, “Siddhartha” and “F.G.R.” were less successful. At least, they didn’t affect me in the same way as the two I discuss up top. However, For Grace Receivedis a great introduction to Parrella’s abilities and promise. If you’re looking for a small collection of slightly longer short stories, this is a great place to go. If you’re looking to take a trip to Naples, perhaps this will give you a healthy dose of disillusionment.