Sunday 29 November 2015

Some books I read, summer 2015

Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to read because of the move. Nevertheless I enjoyed a few books, mainly Italian books this time.

I read three books by the same author, Cesare Pavese, that I found while I was unpacking the boxes and organizing the bookcases. They are: La bella estate (the fine summer), La casa in collina (the house on the hill) and La luna e i falo` (the moon and the bonfires). I also read a poetry pamphlet, Clay by Elizabeth Burns, a dear friend and exquisite poet who died last August.

La bella estate is part of a trilogy (the other two books of the series are Il diavolo sulle colline, The devil in the hills, and Tra donne sole, Women on their own). It was published in 1949, a definitely modern work for the time. The point of view is strictly limited to the protagonist (Ginia), a sixteen-year-old working class girl. The story is about her life, friends and loves, especially about her initiation to sex in a world of painters and models she is eager but afraid to join. Considering the setting (Turin before WW II, during Fascism), it is a very unconventional, edgy story. The way the protagonist describes her own feelings is rather demure, according to the conventions of the time. The contrast between what she says and thinks and what happens is crucial to the unfolding of the story. She follows her dreams, or instincts, ‘spoiling’ herself, as she says, with her fist lover, a painter. The urge to live, to become a woman is stronger than anything else. She starts a new life when the book ends, we don’t know if it will make her happy or doom her but it doesn’t really matter. The story is there, well-written, effective and open like life.

La casa in collina is a beautiful book centred on the life of a teacher involved in politics (but without taking direct action) during the final year of WW II in the north of Italy (Turin and the area of the Langhe, where the protagonist, and the author, comes from). The theme of finding a safe shelter (the house in the hills in his home village, hidden in woods, or a sanctuary, a church, where he can finally find peace) recurs throughout the whole story. The trouble of the civil war between Partisans and Fascists that raged in Italy during the last year and a half of WW II is the background of the story. The protagonist, Corrado, meets a group of Partisans at first but when they are arrested he manages to escape and takes shelter in a convent. His loneliness, his refusal to commit himself in the war or in a relationship, makes him live an existential problem. He can’t find the courage or the reason to change his attitude and his destiny. The fury of the fight and the thirst for blood seem to belong both to the Partisans and the Fascists. His only positive relation, with a boy he believes is his son, ends when he runs away and joins the Partisans, leaving Corrado alone with his remorse and pointless reasoning. The hopeless conclusion drawn by the book seems to be that there is no part to take, only wait for the storm to pass.

La luna e i falo` is the best of Pavese’s work. The book is so well constructed: the characters so vivid, the language new and rich, the story gripping, a true masterpiece. The story is set before, during and just after WW II and develops in a world of farmers where there is a clear class division between the rich owners and poor peasants who had barely enough to survive. Life was simple but genuine, a kind of life that was typical of that period in time all over Europe. The protagonist is an illegitimate child brought up by peasants in the Langhe (Piedmont hills). After the war he returns to his village from America, where he became rich selling illegal whisky. The frequent flashbacks to his life as a boy interweave with memories of the rich farmers’ family he used to work for. The narration is not necessarily detailed as it follows the protagonist’s thoughts; it often hints to sensations, outlines events, alluding to what had happened. The plot is superbly constructed, going onwards and backwards, maintaining the reader on the edge till the end. Sadness, disappointment, frustration, the urge to live life in full and ideals vs hypocrisy inevitably mix in a superb scenario.

Clay is Elizabeth Burns’ last pamphlet, she died last August of cancer but it didn’t stop her from working on her wonderful poems. She produced beautiful spare, poignant verves in this last book, most of them short meaningful poems. The central theme is the importance of cherishing the essential in life, taking care of what is inside the bowl instead of what is outside. The description of different vessels and pots, porcelain and china refers to the fragility and beauty of the material, precious but ephemeral. The extended metaphor of a vessel being equal to the human body develops in poem after poem. It is a bowl that contains the light of life, the energy that makes us human. The container can be enchanting, embellished with delicate spirals, enriched with corals, created with the finest clay, but it is still only a container. Its emptiness needs to be filled, replenished, as she says.

The last poem clearly refers to death, the bowls become urns for ashes, a reminder of the body and its spirit, now free for ever:
The bowl a small circle of sun
which will become
spring-light –

a hymn to everlasting life.

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