Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Love Stories Must Never be Left Unfinished: Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane

“Love stories must never be left unfinished and when harsh reality has cut the thread before its time, then it must be spun out artificially.” This seems to capture perfectly the sad fate that Fontane writes for the married couples in both Effi Briest and Irretrievable. Each story features a marriage in which, although a minor indiscretion has occurred, one of the spouses chooses a desperate and unnecessary end to their relationship, their family and their lives.

Set between 1859-1861 in Schleswig-Holstein, five years before the German-Danish War, the novel  deals with Count Helmut Holk who has been married to his beautiful and devout wife Christine Arne for twenty years. Even though they have very different personalities—he is easygoing, indecisive and not spiritual, she is moralistic, self-righteous and cold— their attraction, admiration and affection for one another, at first, was rather strong.  They build and move into a beautiful castle that overlooks the sea.  And they have two teenage children, a boy and a girl, for whom Christine is searching out boarding schools that will provide them the best education.  Schleswig-Holstein at this point in time is still ruled by Denmark and the Count has an important position as an attendant at the court of the Danish princess.  Just before the Count leaves his family to serve the princess in Copenhagen for several months, there are signs that the Holks’ marriage is starting to show signs of wearing thin on both of their nerves.  Fontane describes Christine’s thoughts just before the Count is called to Denmark:

In spite of having the best of husbands whom she loved as much as he loved her, she yet did not possess that peace for which she longed; in spite of all their love, his easy-going temperament was no longer in harmony with her melancholy, as recent arguments had proved to her more than once to an ever-increasing degree and even though she would strive with all her might to resist her tendency to disagree.

I felt that Holk was the more sympathetic of the two characters throughout the story.  Fontane lets us view the marriage from the outside, through the eyes of Christine’s brother and two local clergymen, who all agree that her moralizing and constant judgment of her husband is too much and is driving them further apart.  When Holk goes to Copenhagen, the time, distance and experiences with the Princess force him to realize that what he really wants is a partner who gives him warmth, affection and understanding;

Ah, all that bickering and nagging! I’m longing for a new life, one that doesn’t begin and end with religious tracts, I want harmony in my home, not a harmonium, joy and mutual understanding and air and light and freedom.  That’s what I want and that’s what I have always wanted, ever since the first day I arrived here, and now I’ve been given the sign that I’m going to be allowed to have it.

I also found the Count’s naivete, especially when he encounters the women in Copenhagen, to be amusing and even endearing.  He is especially captivated by Ebba, the princess’s lady-in-waiting, who flirts with him and uses him for one night of unbridled passion which the Count is clearly not accustomed to.  But he figures out too late that Ebba is just using him as a temporary amusement and his wife, for the better part of a year, will not forgive his indiscretion.  Holk is a character that develops a great deal of personal knowledge and growth in Fontane’s narrative so I found it disappointing that he would even consider going back to Christine; she is still the same dour, melancholy woman he married and their time apart didn’t change that.  He learns the hard way that any happy times that they had previously are irretrievable, there is no way back to the past.

As Fontane says in the novel, a love story can’t have a non-ending—the author couldn’t possibly allow Holk and Christine to live together in their castle, no matter how miserable they make each other.  It’s interesting to note that in Effi Briest, it is Effi’s husband that is the morally stringent, destructive force in the novel because in Irretrievable it is the wife that plays this role.  It is Christine that makes a fatal, ruinous decision (I won’t give it away) that brings a definitive end to their love story, their marriage and the novel.

I am thoroughly enjoying Fontane’s novels and I have a volume of his shorter works that is published by The German Library to look forward to.

(I read the NYRB Classics translation entitled Irretrievable but this novel has also been translated into English as Beyond Recall and No Way Back.)

 

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books

To Capture Someone’s Heart: North Station by Bae Suah

Korean author Bae Suah’s latest writing, although a collection of short stories, is equally as experimental, cutting-edge, and captivating as her novels. Each story in this volume, brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith, is laden with her poetic images and philosophical meditations. One theme that she returns to throughout the writing is that of reconnection after a long period of separation that involves both distance and time.  As in her previous novels her characters are consumed by wanderlust.

In the title story “North Station,” a man and a woman stand silently on a train platform in an unnamed city. As they wait for the train to arrive the gentleman has a strong desire to kiss this woman but the reason for their awkwardness is hinted at later in the narrative: “Young women of a certain type were both recurring characters in his life and predators who preyed on him, and even now he remembers them well.” As is typical with Suah’s writing, one must pay very careful attention to every detail on the page in order not to miss the most interesting parts and striking images of the story.  Daniel Green has written an insightful series of essays at The Reading Experience about innovative female authors and I would include Suah as one of the writers whom he describes as experimenting with the “Movement of Language.”  His description of the writings of Noy Holland as “using an alternative mode of composition through which ‘character’ and ‘story’ are not abandoned but emerge as the afterthought of the movement of language, the characters and plots subordinated to the autonomy of that movement” is also apt for characterizing the language of Suah’s stories in this collection and her novels.

While the narrator in “North Station” is waiting for the train, his lover’s presence causes a series of memories to invade his mind.  During his short time on the train platform, the man recalls a collection of writings by a suicidal, exiled author with whom he greatly identifies; he remembers a woman he met in a different city whose address is the only tangible thing he knows about her anymore; he reflects on the attic room he stayed at during his university days in which he reads passionate poetry.  One of my favorite passages is one in which he reflects on relationships and the metaphor of lover as hunter:

Who would have first used the expression “to capture someone’s heart?” A hunter, perhaps, who would know deeply how it feels to capture a beating heart, a living thing, how the one doing the capturing finds himself captivated, in thrall to the sense of his own omnipotence?  Like capturing a fawn or kit still warm from its mother’s heat.  Someone who, like the hunter, introduces himself into his victim’s eyes at such an early stage.  Who deploys his imagination to render in his mind’s eye that state of utter despair to which the lack of any exit, the terrible clarity of this fact, gives a paradoxical sweetness.  Who reproduces this state through what we call a verbal expression.  In such a way, the expression would have been born not through those who are captured, but through those who do the capturing.  Since the victim has no time for song.

Suah’s greatest strength as a writer lies in her ability to take what at first appears to be disjointed images and scenes and weave them together into a singularly beautiful story. The attic room, the poetry, the woman on the platform he longs to kiss are all connected in her character’s mind with a meditation on time and space: “When was it that he had last kissed a woman so ardently, his lips as passionate as when they pronounced poetry? In that city or this, at the house of his acquaintance or on the platform in the north station, while waiting for the train.”

The entire collection is as riveting and poetic as the title story: an author recalls several visits to her mentor, a young man is reconnected with a former lover while struggling with questions about his sexuality, a playwright experiments with how to portray time on the stage. These stories are a great place to start for those looking to get a taste of Suah’s innovative style of writing. For those of us already familiar with her previous novels, it is exciting to once again encounter more of the author’s intriguing and thought-provoking prose.

Photo credit:  Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Cupid, armed with a bow and arrow, flies in through the window to a room where two naked lovers lie asleep on a couch. Etching.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella

Angulus Coeli: The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The setting of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s only novel entitled The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a tropical, volcanic island in the Antilles which is dominated by an old, French, aristocratic family that is holding onto their traditional, Jacobean politics.  Not surprisingly, Fermor, most famous for his travel writing, begins his story with a detailed history and geographical description of his fictional island.  He imagines it being occupied by Arawaks and Carib natives and eventually being discovered by Columbus who annexed it for the Spanish crown; he further envisages the island being neglected by Spain and later taken over by the French whose noble families settle on the island and make it as prosperous as Martinique.  Fermor says that his island was little known and that “Cartographer and historian unconsciously conspired to ignore it.”    But he does, however, include an obscure passage, written in Latin, by an Franciscan missionary who is not at all complimentary about this tropical location.  In this addition of the text from NYRB Classics, the Latin is not translated.  I offer my own translation here because it sets up a structure for the important themes and ideas that Fermor explores throughout his narrative:

Insula Sancti Jacobi tantis opibus, tanta copia, tantaque pulcritudine ornata, sicut angulus coeli ipsius videtur, sed, ob mores improbos pravosque incolarum, ob jactanciam, luxuriam et gastrimargiam et Gallorum et nigrorum, insula Sancti Jacobi pessimam insularum aliarum omnium justius, immo, verum angulum Gehennae putanda est.

The island of Saint Jacques, with such wealth and such abundance and adorned with such beauty, seemed as if it were a corner of heaven itself, however, due to the excessive and depraved habits of its populace, due to their boastfulness, the luxury and the gluttony of both the French and the black men, the island of Saint Jacques must be more justly considered, indeed, the worst of all other islands,  a true corner of Hell.

Berthe de Rennes, an elderly woman who now resides on an island in the Aegean, tells the story of Saint-Jacques and the exciting six years she spent there in her youth during the last decade of the nineteenth century.  Her audience is an unnamed Englishman she meets on the beach who visits her over the course of a few weeks while he is vacationing in the Aegean.   Berthe was orphaned, she tells her visitor, and had been taken in by an elderly aunt in France when her cousin, Count Serindan of Saint-Jacques, invited her to come live with his family and serve as the nanny and tutor to his four children.  Fermor beautifully captures the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells of this lush, tropical place, and through the descriptions of Berthe’s paintings and drawings of the island we glimpse an angulus coeli (corner of heaven):

The sketch-books covered the entire life of the island.  All of the fine buildings of the capital were there, the statues of Plessis and Rumbold and Scudamore and Braithwaite and Schoelcher; views of savannah and volcanic ravine and stifling forest; punctilious flower-paintings of hibiscus and balisier, of looping lianas, tree-ferns and dark branches where the Night Flowering Cereus grew.  Even the monuments and inscriptions of churches were copied down.  There was an abundance of negroes and negresses in their brilliant village costumes and flamboyantly disguised for carnival.

There is, however, a darker, more sinister side to this island which appears to be a paradise on a merely superficial level.  The Count employs many mulattoes on his estate whose lighter complexions and facial features resemble the Serindans.  Fermor leaves us to imagine for ourselves whether or not the unions between employers and laborers were forced or consensual.  Perhaps the most disturbing instance of debauchery is Fermor’s hint that Gentilien, the Count’s own butler, is the same age as his master and looks enough like the Count to be his brother—a glimpse at the mores improbos (depraved habits) going on for generations on this island.  The Serindan family’s influence over the lives of everyone on the island is eerily described by Fermor as “Olympian” which reference brings to mind the many amorous conquests of the Ancient Greek deity, Zeus.

It is during a ball that the Count throws for carnival that the excess and luxury of the island is fully revealed.  The lavish, overindulgent meal—a reflection of the gastrimargiam (gluttony) noted in the missionary’s Latin passage— that the Count has prepared for his Mardi Gras party brings to mind Trimalchio’s extravagant, Roman cena (dinner) in Petronius’s Satyricon. 

In the kitchen, urchins, sea-eggs and dwarf oysters—the last still clustering in scores on lengths of mangrove-stalk—were heaped in pails.  The snow-white whorls of the conch shells (each of them opening to display a pink internal helix) were arrayed like a tritons’ orchestra announcing, in a silent fanfare, the later delights of Iambi flambe au rhum.  A swarm of little frogs swam agitatedly round their tank; the shell of a turtle had already been evacuated by its lodger.  Horny backed iguanas, trussed like captured dragons, moved restlessly in their baskets.  The Count stopped and gazed at them.

The preparations for this decadent meal are a precursor to the wild and outlandish drama that will occur later on that evening.   Fermor is a master at composing exciting stories and weaves a fist fight ending with a duel challenge, an attempted elopement, a prank involving a deadly, venomous snake, and an appearance by lepers disguised as dominoes into the events that all take place during the Count’s Mardi Gras celebration.  Fermor creates an exciting, intense, romantic plot, the pivotal events of which unfold during the ball and involve Berthe, her favorite cousin, Josephine and the arrogant son of the island’s governor.

Volcanic explosions and imagery of hell and burning all permeate the last part of Fermor’s vivid narrative.  In a final, catastrophic, natural event the island pays its cosmic debt for such opulence and becomes the verum angulum Gehennae (true corner of hell) of the monk’s earlier description.    Saint-Jacques manifests itself as a Caribbean version of Sodom and Gomorrah which Biblical locations, because of their excess, are plunged into a fiery, violent, hellish end.  Fermor’s insinuation in the text that Berthe—who now ironically lives in Mytilene, the capital of  Lesbos—is much closer to Josephine than any of her other family members, augments the image of Saint-Jacques as a nineteenth century version of these profligate cities.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Literary Fiction, New York Review of Books

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