Category Archives: Italian Literature

Ernesto: The Unfinished Novella of Umberto Saba

Umberto Saba’s unfinished novella Ernesto, published this year in a new English translation by The New York Review of Books, is part of an ever-growing body of recent literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels to which we assign it. The latest novels by Bae Suah (A Greater Music), Andre Aciman (Enigma Variations), and Anne Garreta (Sphinx and Not One Day) have also opened up important conversations about experimentation with sexuality. But what sets Ernesto apart and makes it stand out among the works of these other authors is that it was written in 1953, a time in which many considered homosexuality scandalous, or often illegal.

Born in 1883, in the Mediterranean port of Trieste, Italy, Umberto Saba is best known for his deeply personal and honest poetry. Written at the age of seventy when, after suffering one of his many nervous breakdowns, and confined to a sanatorium in Rome, Ernesto tells a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a boy’s burgeoning sexuality. Estelle Gilson, the translator, writes in her introduction to the NYRB edition, “What he was writing was for himself alone—his adolescent experiences in Trieste as they suddenly welled up within him and demanded release.”

Like his teenage protagonist in Ernesto, Saba was abandoned by his father, raised in Trieste by an aunt and a single mother, worked in a flour factory at the age of sixteen, and had serious questions about his sexuality. Because of the autobiographical and sexual content of Ernesto, Saba showed his drafts to a few carefully chosen confidants. In addition to his doctor at the sanatorium, one of the only other people to read Ernesto was Saba’s daughter, Linuccia, to whom he would send parts of the manuscript with very strict instructions about keeping his writings secret. In his letters to Linuccia, Saba requests that his daughter keep his drafts in a locked container and that she send his writing back to him immediately after reading it. Linuccia took her father’s instructions seriously and didn’t publish Saba’s novella until 1975, nearly twenty years after the author’s death.

Composed in five “Episodes” with an additional section entitled “Almost a Conclusion,” the strength of Saba’s writing lies in the bold and, at times, brutally honest language that he employs throughout his text. Set in Trieste, in the last few years of the nineteenth century, the sixteen-year-old protagonist is raised by his single mother and his elderly aunt. Ernesto’s world reflects the diversity of Trieste which, because of its location in northeastern Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia, was influenced by Italian, Slavic and German cultures. During this period of time, Trieste is an Imperial Free City within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had been under Hapsburg rule since the fourteenth century. Although most of its citizens were Italian and loyal to an Italian Republic, Germans controlled the bustling business and commerce of the city and held positions of power.

Ernesto works as an apprentice in a German flour factory where he meets a laborer, a lower-class Triestine, identified as “the man” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. Ernesto’s erotic exploits with the man leave him bewildered, ashamed and confused not only because of the illicit nature of his experiences, but also because he is still sexually attracted to women.  Ernesto’s sexual encounters with the man take place in the first Episode but the emotional consequences linger with Ernesto throughout the narrative. The language of Saba’s Ernesto is candid, especially when describing the titillating and erotic first sexual encounter between Ernesto and the man. The two negotiate the intimate details of what the sex will be like as Ernesto is both excited and scared about this new experience:

“There’s a lot of things you can do in an hour,” the man said urgently.

“And what do you want to do?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about yesterday? That you almost promised to do. Don’t you know what I’d like to do with you?”

“Yeah, put it up my ass,” Ernesto replied with quiet innocence.

In an essay entitled “What Remains for Poets to do,” Saba argues that “It remains for poets to write honest poetry.” Saba applies this pursuit of literary honesty to his prose as well when he inserts his own commentary into the text to explain and justify Ernesto’s explicit language. Saba’s interjection of his own voice into the narrative are some of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces of writing in the novella:

With that brief, precise utterance, the boy unwittingly revealed what many years later, after many experiences and much suffering would become his “style;” his going to the heart of things; to the red-hot center of life, overriding resistance and inhibitions, foregoing circumlocutions and useless word twistings. He dealt with matters considered coarse, vulgar (even forbidden) and those considered “exalted” just as Nature does—placing them all on the same level. Of course, he wasn’t thinking of any of that now. He had blurted the sentence (which practically had a laborer blushing) because the circumstance warranted it.

The episode ends with an act that deftly mixes emotions of both tenderness and shame: the man kindly turns over the stained sack of flour at Ernesto’s request so that no one will be suspicious of what happened between them.

Shame is a theme that Saba returns to repeatedly in his narrative as Ernesto attempts to find fulfillment, pleasure and love with a man and a woman. The fact that the man is never given a name is perhaps significant because Saba, likely through his own sense of shame at recalling these events, can’t bring himself to give Ernesto’s seducer a true identity. After two months, Ernesto decides that he can no longer keep having these sexual encounters with the man because they make him feel dirty and keeping such a secret from his mother feels shameful and wrong. After his trysts with the man, Ernesto has the overwhelming desire to prove himself a man and is impatient to have sex, for the first time, with a woman. He is ashamed because all of his friends have bragged about sleeping with women and the only sex he has had is with a man. Shame is what motivates him to seek out sex with a prostitute which erotic scene in the book is equally as tender and explicit as the one with the man. This time, however, he gives the prostitute a name because sex with a woman, even though it is a prostitute, is not as shameful as having sex with a man.   Once Tanda undresses Ernesto, she finds the best position that will give Ernesto the most pleasure for his first time. And after he climaxes she washes him with a disinfectant and his sense of shame and embarrassment cause him to excessively overpay her and leave suddenly.

Themes of loneliness, alienation and sadness—demons with which Saba himself wrestled throughout his life—also pervade Saba’s coming-of-age narrative. Ernesto is initially drawn to the man who propositions him with sex because the man loves the boy. Because of the absence of a father in his life, Ernesto wants to please the man who shows him affection and adoration. He likes the prostitute because she is warm and tender with him and this causes him to eagerly anticipate his next visit with her. Ernesto’s mother is stern with him and shows him little affection although affection is something he craves more than anything. Like many young people inexperienced with matters of intimacy and sex he mistakenly equates physical attention with emotional connection and love.

Some of Ernesto’s sadness, alienation and even shame is relieved by the unlikeliest of characters, his dour mother. Ernesto’s mother is a presence that lingers throughout the entire story and even when the man is trying to seduce him, Ernesto mentions his mother and the guilt he feels over keeping a secret from her. The woman, who was abandoned by Ernesto’s father before the boy was born, is overbearing and overprotective of her only child. Yet, she believes that she must be harsh in her rearing of the boy and must not show him very much affection. When Ernesto no longer wants sex with the man, he gets himself fired from the factory so he never has to see him again. The loss of his job devastates Ernesto’s mother and he feels compelled to confess his true reasons for not wanting to return to the factory. When Ernesto tells his mother in great detail about the whole affair with the man, the full force of the emotional connection between mother and son is fully revealed. Saba writes a touching scene that is sympathetic to both the character of Ernesto and his mother:

With his mother’s kiss and the sense that he would be forgiven, Ernesto felt himself reborn. It was one of the few kisses she had ever given him. (The poor woman wanted so much to be, and even more to be seen as, a “Spartan mother.”)

The narrative structure of the novella centers around a triangulation of people—the man, the prostitute and Ernesto’s mother—who provide the boy with affection and comfort.

We can’t help but wonder if Saba’s own sense of shame and loneliness haunted him for the rest of his life and was the reason, at least partially, for his many depressive and nervous episodes for which he was hospitalized. He was married for many years, and although they remained married, the couple’s relationship was troubled and they spent quite a bit of time living apart. It is fitting that Saba writes Ernesto in the last few years in his life as part of his therapy in the sanatorium. But it appears that so many years of shame and hiding who he truly was became too exhausting for the author because he can’t gather enough strength to finish writing Ernesto. Saba writes about his decision to leave his novella unfinished: “Add to those pages Ernesto’s breakthrough to his true calling, and you would, in fact, have the complete story of his adolescence. Unfortunately, the author is too old, too weary and embittered to summon the strength to write all that.”

Even though Saba’s text is incomplete, he gives us enough of a glimpse into pivotal events in the life of Ernesto to make his novella an important, historical piece of gay and bisexual literature. It also helps us better understand Saba’s poetry which writing is equally as personal and intense as Ernesto. To this end, I include a particularly apt final poem of Saba’s called “To the Reader” filled with all the conflict and terror that Saba perhaps felt in composing Ernesto:

This book, Good Reader, though a balm to you,
shames its creator and should go unread.
Although he spoke as a living man, he was
(or should have been, for decency’s sake) dead.

 

(This review first appeared in the July issue of Numero Cinq.)

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

If Only Sleep Would Come: One Night by Umberto Saba

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan, 1878

One of my favorite literary bloggers, Tom from Wuthering Expectations, did a post on Modern European Poetry with a focus on the Greek poetry contained within this wonderful volume.  If you haven’t had a chance to read Tom’s posts then please do yourself a favor and peruse his blog.  His analysis of literature is full of what the Roman poet Catullus would call facetiae (wit) and lepida (charms).

As I was reading through this collection of modern poetry, I was happy to find poems by Ingeborg Bachmann whose name I have seen many times on bloggers’ personal canons.  A few poems by the Italian author Umberto Saba also captivated me.  I thought I would share one particularly short yet moving piece (Catullus would definitely approve!)

One Night

If only sleep would come, as it has come
on other nights: already slipping through
my thoughts.

Instead now,

like an old washerwoman wringing clothes,
anguish wrings another pain from my heart.
I would cry out but cannot. As for torment—
suffered once—I suffer on in silence.

And that which I have lost, only I know

Translated by Felix Stefanile

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Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, Poetry

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