Monday, January 31, 2011

"Il Visconte Dimezzato" di Italo Calvino

A questo link è disponibile la mia recensione de "Il Visconte Dimezzato" di Italo Calvino. Se vi piace Calvino, potete anche leggere i miei "appunti di lettura" (in inglese) de "Il Barone Rampante", risalenti al lontano giugno 2008, quando il blog era appena nato (non ci credo che siamo nel 2011 e sono ancora qui!) .

Monday, January 24, 2011

"London Fields" by Martin Amis

Year of first publication: 1989
Genre: novel
Country: UK

Sometimes you say of a writer that he is “self-restrained”, meaning that he is able to control his characters, gently allowing emotions to pass only to the right extent. Martin Amis is the exact opposite: he lets his characters wander through his novel, ramble on and screw up everything they do (or maybe it’s just our existence that is just so screwed up!). Yet Amis manages to keep the book structure in its place.
“London Fields” is the story of a murder where we already know who’s the murderer and who’s the murderee (the reference to D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” is deliberate). We just have to find out how (and why, possibly) it will happen. The “actors” are three Londoners – Keith, Nicola and Guy – plus the narrator, an American writer who swapped his New York apartment with an English playwright and is now trying to write a novel based on the aforementioned threesome.
Keith and Guy couldn’t be more different and yet they go to the same pub in Portobello Road: the Black Cross. They belong to different social classes, but don’t think for a moment that the portrayal of the working class and the chattering classes is balanced in Amis’s writing. His characters are grotesque caricatures of Londoners at the end of the 20th century: he’s cruel with his characters, in a Nabokovian way that is not hard to spot (Amis is in fact a fan).
Keith Talent is a working class man who pays his bills by “cheating”, that is to say by petty crimes. Only, he really doesn’t pay his bills because all the money goes to the bets. He is ambitious nonetheless: he thinks he can become a professional dart player. He spends his days reading tabloids, drinking pints and pints of beer and fucking every girl in sight. Guy Clinch is ‘the fool, the foal, the foil’. He is from the opposite side of the social ladder (he’s upper middle-class) and has earned his money with dirty tricks, yet he is ingenuous regarding women. He gets duped by Nicola, a femme fatale and a former stripper who is disillusioned by life and knows she will get killed by the end of the book. Nicola Six (savour the details, Nabokov would say) is a male fantasy figure and the author admits this in a exquisite post-modern way, by making his character discuss it in a conversation with Guy. The title evokes a pastoral landscape, when in fact London Fields is just a city park in East London. The reference is not randomly put there: Keith, Guy and Nicola live in a claustrophobic city, almost on the verge of collapsing into what looks like climate change (except the book was written in 1989). I perceive this novel as quintessentially English, a symposium on Londonness, so to say. London (maybe England altogether) has no soul anymore, it is incapable of love. Ultimately the whole novel is about the process of writing (or not writing) in a labyrinth of intertextualities. “London Fields” has no moral, only an aesthetic intent. Very Nabokovian, again.
Martin Amis has a unique style: ‘the Amis-ness of Amis will be recognisable in any piece before he reaches his first full stop’, they say of him. The rhythm of his prose, his witty remarks, his hyperbolic characters have made him one of the greatest living authors in Britain. Like many other star writers, he is also highly controversial. For instance, this book was omitted from the Booker Prize shortlist because of its alleged misogyny. Nicola, in fact, is basically a nymphomaniac, who plays the virgin with Guy and the whore with Keith, turning men around her fingers as she pleases. Amis writes a lot about sex, merely from a male perspective. Personally I find his characters just too sardonic, too exaggerated and ridiculous to be realistic, that’s why the misogyny thesis doesn’t hold for me. Nicola is mainly thought as a metaphor for this utterly materialistic, self-destructive age we live in, where love just has no place.
The idiosyncrasies of the author - the global Crisis, for once (which is mysteriously linked to the First Lady’s ill-health), but also nuclear bombs and terrible toddlers - enhance the feeling that Martin Amis wanted to give us an example of fiction (and life) at the end of the 20th century: inexplicably complex and doomed to self-destruction.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

“Everything is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer

Year of first publication: 2002
Genre: fiction, magical realism
Country: USA (the book is set in Ukraine, though)

Included in The New Yorker’s list of 20 North American writers under the age of 40, Jonathan Safran Foer is considered one of the new stars of American fiction. He started to write Everything is Illuminated as an undergraduate student, expanding it and finally publishing it at the age of 24. The book had a tremendous success and more or less the same happened with Safran Foer’s other works: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his second novel, and Eating Animals, a non-fiction book on reasons for being or not being a vegetarian. His third novel, Tree of Codes, has just come out.
The Times has stated that Everything is Illuminated is ‘a new kind of novel [and] that after it things will never be the same again’. As most writers who have achieved this kind of success so early in their career (see Zadie Smith), Jonathan Safran Foer has attracted fierce critiques (by The New York Times, for instance) and an incredible amount of jealousy and gossiping. Those who criticize Safran Foer for the faults of his writing, nonetheless, do have a point. Safran Foer’s use of modernist devices such as time shifts, mock history and fragments of various written materials are sometimes tedious. In spite of this, Everything is Illuminated is a good book, albeit not a striking work of genius, like The Times has written.
It is the story of Alex, a Ukrainian young man who speaks an awkward and hilarious kind of English. He writes retrospective letters to Jonathan Safran Foer, who in the novel is a wannabe author who visited Ukraine in order to find the small shtetl where his grandfather grew up and from where he escaped when the Nazis came to destroy it. Alex has a grandfather who says he’s blind but drives a car and he owns a dog called Sammy Davis Jr Jr. Another strand of the novel is the history of the sthetl from the end of the eighteenth century to the Second World War. It is therefore the story of the ancestors of the fictional version of Jonathan Safran Foer and a triple attempt to write a novel. One novel, in fact, is written by Alex in his broken English, another is written by fictional Jonathan Safran Foer about his trip to Ukraine and a third is a historical novel written by the author about the shtetl of Trachimbrod. This last strand is imbibed with magical realism, Rushdie-style, that is now a little worn, but still charming. The book is a curious mix of tragedy and humour: ‘Tragedy primes one for humor’, Foer said in an interview. ‘And humor primes one for tragedy. They amplify each other’. The book is very fun to read and it will keep you hooked. If you appreciate Jewish humour do read it. Jonathan Safran Foer is a talented writer – very energetic, as critics have written – but I think he can do better. Go Jonathan, go (he’s also kinda cute, nerd kind of cute, you know)!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

No glossary please!

A few weeks ago I posted a poll that asked “When reading an ‘ethnic’ novel (Indian, African, South American) do you prefer a glossary or do you like working out the meaning of the new words by yourself?”. No need to say that the word “ethnic” is misleading, tricky and ugly. What is ‘ethnic’ to me is not ethnic to you, if you’re a reader from across the ocean. I’ve recently learned that an Italian like me is ‘exotic’ to a (WASP) American. ‘Ethnic’ originally means something related to a population subgroup with a common national or cultural tradition, but we don’t consider our (read Western) culture as ‘ethnic’. This means that any ‘other’ literatures/cultures are ethnic. ‘Ethnic’ has thus become a synonym of ‘non Western’. I simply used the word ‘ethnic’ in my poll because I didn’t have much words to explain myself, the poll having a strict limit of words in this blog template.

The results of the poll: 57 % of voters opted for a glossary, 14 % think books are better without glossaries and 28 % are unsure. If I’d actually answered my own poll, my opinion would be the third, “Unsure”, but verging towards the second answer, “no glossary please”. I’ll try to explain why. Let’s pretend I’m writing a novel in English. I’m an Italian, so of course I’ll use some words related to my culture. I will not constantly think “Oh, wait, what would a Malaysian reader understand if I use the expression spaghetti alla carbonara, or commedia dell’arte?” I really need to say that to explain what I ate tonight or to define a certain action. I remember a French sports reporter commentating about an Italian footballer simulating a foul with “Voilà, de la commedia dell’arte”. How else would I write that if not using the Italian word?

Of course it’s something entirely different if I write about a mafioso who loves eating pizza while he’s playing on his mandolino and at the end of the meal he drinks a nice espresso while he’s sitting at a café and staring at the nice piazza in front of him and then he gets an invitation to an opera, but the azzurri are playing at the same time so he decides not to go. That’s spreading a thin layer of neo-exoticism on the book by using a lot of foreign words.
But let’s go back to ‘voilà de la commedia dell’arte’. Would I need a note or a glossary entry in my novel, which is going to be read by non-Italian speakers (since I wrote it in English it’s difficult to avoid)?
Jonathan Beckman in The Guardian’s Book Blog, writes about Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question” (the book has won the Booker Prize this year):

Jacobson is not alone in his reliance on cliché. It occurs in so much fiction about ethnic cultures, whether set in South Asia, the Far East, North Africa or elsewhere: the sprawling, bickering families; the cooking smells; the riots of colour; mangoes, bloody mangoes. Publishers seem to encourage novelists to produce guidebooks (as long as they don't upset too many preconceptions) rather than works of literature. Such works are easily identified by the pile-up of italicised foreign words coupled to their translations. (Want to know what a feygeleh is? Turn to p160 of “The Finkler
Question”. How about a mamzer? It's on p174) It's a shame when a novel aspires to be a glossary. Critics – especially metropolitan ones – must be more sceptical when they find such books confirming what they think they already know.

I don’t quite agree with Jonathan Beckman, for all that matters. There are bloody mangoes in India, as they are bloody spaghetti alla carbonara in Italy. I think the book shouldn’t give explanations of what things are or give couple translations in the text, because that would indeed look like a guidebook (a guidebook to Jewishness, a guidebook to Indianness etc). It’s not much different for the paratext, especially for glossaries. They also give the idea that the book is a National-geographic reportage or a ‘Insert-culture-here-ness for Dummies’. In the case of ‘ethnic’ (here again, I can’t find a better term) novels, either the writer steps towards the reader, or the reader steps towards the writer, trying to understand a foreign culture, eventually looking up the words in the dictionary or googling them. Nonetheless, these novels need to use foreign words in order to be perceived as “authentic” (my novel with people eating Yorkshire pudding wouldn’t work). Personally, I don’t want my novels to be thought for us, Westerners. I don’t want to be fed with a spoon by an Indian writer because I’m not supposed to know what a bindi is (though, I know). I prefer to be lost in the labyrinths of literature. Eventually, I could use a foreword to the novel that explains relevant cultural background, but I am almost irritated by glossaries (almost inevitable in Italian, a bit passé in English I must say), which domesticate literature for the consumption of Western culture.

Not having glossaries keeps the thrill of exploring another culture, of trying to understand it without mediations. In my opinion, something can be gained also by not having glossaries.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

"Vai a te stesso" di Moni Ovadia

Anno di prima pubblicazione: 2002
Genere: saggistica
Paese: Italia

Moni Ovadia, che nella prefazione di questo libro si definisce un “saltimbanco”, è nato nel 1946 in Bulgaria da una famiglia di origine ebraica, ma si è trasferito prestissimo in Italia. Si è fatto conoscere dal pubblico italiano con i suoi spettacoli di cabaret in musica che offrono una visione che lui definisce “ciarlatanesca” dell’ebraismo. Il più famoso dei suoi lavori è “Oylem Goylem” (che significa “il mondo è scemo” in yiddish), pubblicato anche in cofanetto DVD.
Questi sono i suoi “pensieri colti”, commissionatogli dal suo editore, Einaudi, che tentano di spezzare tutta una serie di pregiudizi riguardo agli ebrei, che vanno dal complotto, poi rivelatosi fasullo, per cui nell’attentato delle Torri Gemelle non sarebbe morto nessun ebreo (in una città che pure ne conta quasi due milioni), all’equazione che vede ogni israeliano, ma anche ogni ebreo, come un fondamentalista o un sionista. Ovadia interseca le sue riflessioni sulla religione, sulla diversità e sul razzismo, nonché le sue opinioni politiche, con una serie di storielle prese da quel tipo di comicità che ha fatto la storia dell’umorismo ebraico. Sono storielle che mettono in discussione la propria fede religiosa, ridicolizzandola, minimizzandola in quella maniera auto-denigratoria che chi, come me, è fan di Woody Allen già conosce un pochino.
Ovadia, ebreo laico di sinistra (ebbene sì, esistono ebrei di sinistra!), ne racconta alcune che lasciano interdetti ma divertiti e che, se confrontate con la suscettibilità dei permalosi credenti delle altre religioni monoteiste, suonano come barzellette venute da Marte. Per esempio:
Si racconta che nell’epoca della redazione del Talmud babilonese alcuni maestri avessero deciso di discutere l’esistenza stessa di Dio. La cosa può apparire blasfema a chi non conosca il pensiero ebraico, eppure se si considera che non vi sono dogmi nell’ebraismo, una simile discussione è del tutto lecita. Il confronto fra le opinione, viene riferito, durò molti, molti mesi. Poi come era regola i maestri votarono per potere stabilire una decisione riguardo al delicatissimo argomento. Decisero a maggioranza che Dio non c’era. La votazione si era appena conclusa quando uno dei maestri che avevano partecipato alla discussione, si rese conto che la luce del sole stava calando. Istintivamente sollecitò i colleghi: “Presto! Presto rabanim, maestri! E’ tempo di pregare arvìt (il vespro)!”. Uno degli altri maestri lo guardò stupefatto ed esclamò: “Beh! Che ti piglia, sei uscito di senno? Non abbiamo appena deciso che Dio non esiste?”. A questo punto l’altro lo guardò esterrefatto e incredulo replicò: “Che vuol dire questo? Forse noi non siamo più ebrei?”.
Moni Ovadia sarà a Venezia (all’auditorium Santa Margherita) venerdì 28 gennario alle ore 11, in occasione dell’anteprima di Incroci di Civiltà. Io ci sarò, e voi?