Category Archives: Italian Literature

Nil de Nilo Fit: A Different Sea by Claudio Magris

ἀρετή τιμὴν φέρει, (excellence brings honor), are the first words spoken by Magris’s protagonist in A Different Sea.  Enrico has graduated from the Royal Imperial Staatsgymnasium of Gorizia and has decided to set sail for Patagonia in an attempt to live an authentic life, free from material items, worry,  and The Great War which is about to break out in Europe.  His mind has been shaped by the Ancient Greek texts that he and his friends Nino and Carlo are so fond of reading in Nino’s attic room:

Up in Nino’s attic in Gorizia they would read Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer—also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.  They used to exchange their thoughts and describe the day’s events, like that story of Carlo and the dog, in ancient Greek, and then translate them into Latin for fun.

Enrico has an existential crisis in his youth as he is trying to decide what, for him, constitutes excellence in his life.  To the Homeric heroes he is so fond of studying, excellence comes in the form of success on the battlefield which, in turn, brings them honor.  Enrico’s search for purpose in life seems to have more elements of Epicurean philosophy than Homeric values.  He feels the most content when he is with his friends, in the attic, discussing life and Greek philosophy.  Epicurus himself achieved ἀταραξία (a lack of disturbance) sitting in his garden and contemplating human existence with his friends.

The Epicurean elements of Magris’s text continue as Enrico traverses the ocean in order to reach South America.  Enrico craves simplicity, has no interest in politics, avoids pain and has no fear of death.  On board the ship, when he is told the story of a famous captain who dies at sea Enrico remarks: “Nil de nilo fit et nil in nilum abit” (nothing happens from nothing and nothing will go into nothing).  Once he reaches Argentina he spends weeks and months alone herding his flocks and living in a modest hut with only a bed and a few Greek books.

When Enrico finally returns home he settles in Salvore and also lives a modest life in a small house and rents his land out to tenants.  But he still remains unhappy and unfulfilled since his friends have all died and he fails to make connections with anyone else in his life.  Every time he has the chance to get close to someone, especially a woman, he ends up driving them away.  His poor relationship with women begins early in his life with his mother whom he feels favors his younger brother.  He finds comfort in having a woman with him who can also fulfill his sexual needs but he treats each woman he lives with very badly.  Even his niece, for whom he at first develops a fondness, is treated poorly and verbally abused by Enrico.  In the end Enrico’s loneliness and his failure to achieve ἀταραξία are due to his inability to make emotional connections with other people in his life.  He never finds his excellence, his reason for living, something that can bring him honor and self-satisfaction.

I found Magris’s writing in A Different Sea as enjoyable as his longer novel Blameless which I recently reviewed.  He is fond of weaving images of the sea into his stories, imbedding stories within stories in his texts, and portraying flawed characters who are searching for meaning in this random, crazy life.

Here is a link to a recent interview with Claudio Magris whose English translation of Blameless has just been published by Yale University Press: http://blog.yupnet.org/2017/04/13/writing-as-witness-a-conversation-with-claudio-magris/

For a more detailed discussion of excellence and honor in Homer see my thoughts on Logue’s War Music: https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2017/03/23/excellence-and-honor-in-logues-war-music/

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella, World War I

Review: Blameless by Claudio Magris

I received a review copy of this title from Yale University Press.  This book was published in the original Italian in 2015 and this English edition has been translated by Anne Milano Appel

My Review:
The unnamed protagonist in Blameless has been obsessively collecting items associated with fighting and warfare for decades in order to establish a war museum in his native home of Triste.  His collecting began shortly after World War II, during which time he helped negotiate the liberation of Triste.  He gathered so many items throughout the course of these post-World War II years that they could only be stored in a hangar.  His entire life was consumed with establishing his museum to the point that he even slept among his objects and papers.  When he dies in a fire that consumes him and some of his precious objects in the hangar, it is a woman named Luisa that is tasked with curating the museum and organizing his notes, objects and stories.

The novel is not easy to read and both its images and its disjointed structure make it disconcerting, but also appropriate for a story that deals with the violence and atrocities of war.  While he was collecting items for his war museum, the narrator also kept copious and detailed notes in a series of journals, some of which were presumed lost in the fire that killed him.  The narrative alternates between pages from the narrator’s journal, descriptions of items that are to be displayed in the museum, and Luisa, the curator’s, own story as a child of a Jewish woman and a black man.  The most difficult parts of the narrative to read and grasp are the narrator’s thoughts in his journal.  There are layers of stories within stories, personal reflections, and names of spies, informants, victims and those involved with perpetrating war crimes.

Magris does not shy away from describing atrocities of war.  Scenes of torture, for example, and descriptions of the last moments of victims who are sent to the gas chambers at the Risiera are described.  The unnamed narrator’s collection culminated with his copying into his journals the words written on the walls of the Risiera by victims who were about to be murdered by the Nazis.  But the notebooks in which he transcribed these horrors go missing and Luisa is left to speculate what mysteries they contain about the horrific evens that occurred  in Triste during the war.

There is a constant tension in the book between images of love and death.  Items of war—guns, tanks, axes and bullets are meticulously described as Luisa plans how they will be displayed in the war museum.  The final, violent days of the liberation of Triste are related by the narrator in great detail.  And the violent death of Lusia’s aunt, a nurse serving in the war, who  is kicked to death by a band of racist thugs is found within the pages of this war novel.  But there are also glimmers of love and even hope.  Luisa’s mother Sara, orphaned when her own Jewish mother is killed during the war, comes out of her deep depression when she meets her husband, a black American who comes to Europe for the liberation.   Together they bond over the persecution that their ancestors have suffered through the course of many generations.   They find a deep level of comfort in one another’s company that sometimes not even their daughter cannot penetrate.  Magris eloquently relates their first night together in his lyrical prose:

Every sunset is different, in all the thousands of millennia no two evening’s glowing embers have been identical; the switch instead wastes no time with lighting effects, its’ not a huckster trying to lure mothers with glittering trinkets for their children, but always turns on the same light and turns it off to the same darkness, like someone who takes his job seriously.  But one night, that night, when the dark hand—dark on the back, the palm was lighter—which had gently touched her arm helping her up the poorly lit stairs had reached to turn the handle and open the door, Sara, looking at the strong, powerful brown hand, had felt that even a small mundane gesture can reveal a man and that something can change, suddenly, in your heart.

One image that struck me which is ubiquitous in Magris’s narrative is that of the sea.  The sea is presented as both a source of comfort but also something that can consume, overwhelm and suffocate.  The book opens with a description of the narrator’s acquisition of a submarine and his of his fear of the sea.  By contrast, Luisa’s mother has fond memories of Salvore, a town by the sea on the other side of the Gulf of Triste where her mother safely hides her during the war.  In these scenes Magris writes about a sea that is calming and beautiful:  “The sea is blue, a dazzling light;  when it reverberates in the fierce noonday heat its brilliance is blinding, a darkness in which you cannot see anything, like at night.”   Luisa’s mother uses the blinding, white light of the sea as a shelter from the war that is being waged around her.

In the very last scene in the book. however, Magris returns to the image of the all-consuming sea and the submarine.  As the narrator is suffocating in the conflagration of his hangar and hallucinating, he conflates his own death scene with the deaths of those who were suffocated and burned at the Risiera.  As he is dying he has the chilling and horrific sensation that he is sinking in one of those submarines along with the other victims in the war.  As the sea is swallowing him he sees the remnants of his war museum:

I must have entered the submarine that I had the Navy give me.  Yes, I’m going under; through the porthole I can see the white pages with those numbers and names sinking to the bottom.  They dumped the waste into the sea, into the gorge, they dumped us here, between the Patoc and the sea, the water can’t be very deep, but we’re going down, down, throwing garbage into the sea is a crime and so is throwing men in, but the judge declares there is no cause to indict.

I was impressed with the high level of Magris’s erudition mixed with his poetic language and intriguing plot.  Much like Compass which I recently finished,  is not an easy read, but for those who enjoy a literary challenge then I highly recommend Blameless.  Has anyone else read any other Magris books?  I also have Danube sitting on my “to read” pile.

About the Author and Translator:
Claudio Magris has been a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Trieste since 1978. He is the author of Danube, a best-selling novel now translated into more than twenty languages, and in 2001 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize. He has translated into Italian the works of such authors as Ibsen, Kleist, Schnitzler, Buchner, and Grillparzer.

Anne Milano Appel is a professional translator. Her translation of Stefano Bortolussi’s novel Head Above Water was the winner of the 2004 Northern California Book Award for Translation.

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

My Reading List for Poetry Month

Since April is poetry month I thought I would share a few of the poetry collections that I intend to read and write about this month.

I have two poetry books from my favorite small press, Seagull Books.  The first is a collection entitled in field Latin by German author Lutz Seiler and translated by Alexander Booth.  Seiler grew up in the former East Germany and his poetry is full of images that deal with the borders and boundaries of landscapes.

Things that Happen and Other Poems by the Bengali poet Bhaskar Chakrabarti , also published by Seagull Books, has been translated by Arunava Sinha. A deep sense of melancholy pervades Chakrabarti’s poems.

I am especially looking forward to the collection of poetry entitled 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. This volume was edited by Boris Dralyuk whom I had the great fortune to interview about his translation of Odessa Stories.

I also have a collection of poetry from Ugly Duckling Presse entitled The Happy End/All Welcome by Monica de la Torre. The setting for these poems is a job fair by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika. So far I have found the first few poems to be both clever and witty.

Finally, I intend to read Dante’s The New Life translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti which was reissued by The New York Review of Books Poetry. I have not taken the time to read any Dante in quite a while so I am particularly looking forward to reading this work.

What is everyone else reading for poetry month?

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Filed under German Literature, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017

books-2017

I have the privilege every day of going to work at a place that I love and that has a long and rich tradition of education.  The Woodstock Academy, founded in 1801, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and it has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum– “Look back at your future.” (For the philologists out there, respice is a present active imperative, a compound made up of the prefix re (back, again) and the verb spicio (to look) and futurum is the accusative, singular of the noun futurum which is formed from the future active participle of sum.)

These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past.  My husband likes to say that this motto is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.  I thought Respice Futurum is apt for a reflection on books as well;  it seems fitting to look ahead to my reading plans for 2017 while also reflecting on the types of books I have encountered over the past year and how they will influence my reading choices moving forward.

According to my list on Goodreads I read 105 books, a total of 24, 484 pages in 2016.  A few books were left off this list such as Pascal Quignard’s Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night. The Goodreads list also doesn’t include a few volumes of poetry I’ve read and some collections of essays.  And my list does not include any of the Latin or Greek authors I’ve translated or retranslated in 2016.   This was not a bad year for me, but not my best either.   The books in translation I have read have come from the following languages:  French, German, Spanish, Estonian, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian, Korean, Malayalam, Kannada, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Slovene, Icelandic, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese.

In looking at this list of lit in translation, I would like to explore more books from Asia and Africa which are not well-represented on my list.  I would also love to explore more books translated from Arabic which is a huge gap in my translated fiction.  If anyone has suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Almost all of the books I have read have been published by small presses which will continue to be my main source of reading: Seagull Books, New Vessel Press, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, Archipelago, New York Review of Books and Persephone Books. 

My first read of 2017 has been The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospondinov.  This is #29 in the Cahier Series and the first one I’ve read from this series.  I loved it so much that I went back and bought six more titles from the series, so there will be more Cahier titles in my future.

Gospondinov’s book The Physics of Sorrow is my favorite book from the Open Letter Catalog and one of my first reads in 2017 that I just started is another title from Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup. 

A book that I have already started in 2016 and will finish in 2017 is The Collected Prose of Kafka from Archipelago Press.  This is a title that I am slowly making my way through and savoring.  Archipelago has managed to collect some of Kafka’s best short pieces into one volume.

I have discovered the works of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy this year and reading his extensive backlist published in English should keep me busy for a very long time.  Next up on my list of books written by him is his title on Sleeping.

Speaking of French writers, I am eager to read Pascal Quignard’s Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings in 2017.

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of  Russian author Sergei Lebedev’s The Year of the Comet which is being published in 2017 by New Vessel Press.  I am very excited that I will have an interview with Lebedev coming up in an issue of Numero Cinq, for which literary magazine I am also privileged to continue to do production editing, to scout and recruit translators and to write reviews.   I am also looking forward to two additional lit in translation titles from New Vessel:  Moving the Palace (from Lebanon) and Adua (from Italy.)

I am always eager to read whatever Seagull Books publishes and thanks to their wonderful catalog I have discovered some classics of Indian literature.  I am also looking forward to reading Goat Days by Benyamin which is already sitting on my bookshelf.  I also understand that Seagull is publishing more works from Tomas Espedal in English translation which I am very eager to get my hands on.  A long-term, very long-term goal of mine is to read the entire backlist from Seagull Books.  I will do my best to put a large dent in that list this year.

This year I discovered Ugly Duckling Presse and I am eager to explore their backlist of poetry as well as their essays.  I have a copy of To Grieve by Will Daddario on my shelf already.  I would like to read more essays this year, so please leave suggestions for essays in the comments!

Finally, I would like to read more classics in 2017, especially Tolstoy, Pushkin and other Russian masters.  I have a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and a copy of The Complete Prose of Pushkin sitting on my shelf that I have yet to read.  I also look forward to the reissues of classics from NYRB who is publishing more books my Henry Green.  I am hoping to have read all six reissued Green books by the end of 2017.  And, as always, I look forward to whatever classics from British, (mostly) female authors that Persephone Books has in store.

And as far as posts on my blog are concerned, I have always shied away from writing about Latin and Greek and classics, but my reading of Logue’s War Music has inspired me to continue writing about The Iliad and to do some of my own translations and interpretations of various Latin authors.

classics-booksA sampling of some of my most cherished classics books; the Loebs are nestled snugly on the bottom shelf.

Well, I could go on and on about my reading plans for 2017 or I could just go and actually get to reading.  Happy new year to all of my fellow bibliophiles.  I hope you also get a chance to Respice Futurum.

chair-bookroomThe cozy spot where much of my reading takes place.  It is overlooked by a print of The Roving Shadows cover done by Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books artist.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, French Literature, German Literature, Hungarian Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Persephone Books, Seagull Books

Review: Distant Light by Antonio Moresco

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Press.  The original novella was published in Italian in 2013 and this edition has been translated into English by Richard Dixon.

My Review:
Distant LightThis is a short yet powerful book that raises many more questions about the mental state of the main character than it answers.  We are led to understand from the beginning that the narrator is living alone in the mountains in what is now an abandoned village.  The only time he has interaction with other human beings is when he drives his car down the mountain to another small village.  He seems to do this only when he needs food or supplies.

The narrator spends quite a bit of time interacting with nature and even talking to the swallows, the fireflies and the trees that surround him.  Since he lives in complete solitude without an trace of another human around, he is captivated by a light he sees in the distance at the same time every night.  He spends a lot of time speculating what the light could be and it takes him a while to work up the courage to investigate the light.

I won’t fully give away what he finds when he investigates that light, but I will say that it brings him into contact with another person.  His interaction with this person makes us question the narrator’s mental state and what circumstances have brought him to live alone on that isolated mountain.  There is one sentence, which one could easily miss, in which he does say that at one point he was in the military but now chooses to live in complete solitude.  We are left to speculate if was his experience as a soldier that forced him to reject all human contact.

The book has an eerie and mysterious feeling to it, especially when the narrator figures out what is causing that light in the distance.  I would go so far as to even categorize the book as magical realism.  The narrator seems calm as he is relating his matter-of-fact existence among the foliage and animals on the mountain.  But there is an underlying uneasiness about him the punctuates the story and keeps us turning the pages to finds out what happens to this strange narrator.

This is a very quick read, one that can be finished over the course of an afternoon. I would love to hear what others think about this story since there is quite a bit of symbolism in this book that would make excellent topics for discussion.

About The Author:
A morescoAntonio Moresco did not find a publisher until late in his career, after being turned down by several editors. His output is centred on the monumental trilogy L’increato, whose three volumes are: Gli esordi (Feltrinelli 1998, republished by Mondadori in 2011 – 673 pages), Canti del caos (part 1 by Feltrinelli in 2001, part 2 by Rizzoli in 2003; republished by Mondadori in 2009 – 1072 pages), and Gli increati (Mondadori 2015).

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella