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“An old man had sat down on the bench across from me and was looking straight at me….Then suddenly the old man spoke.  “A circle with many centers…sometimes an infinite number…[he anounced], and it’s a circle with no circumference….Not everyone can see it….You’ve got to imagine it with your own power….[The old man paused.] If you put in such an intense effort that you feel like you’re sweating blood – that’s when it gradually becomes clear what the circle is.”

cover murakamiThis image of the circle becomes the focus of  “Cream,” the first story in First Person, Singular, the newest work by Haruki Murakami.  A young man is reminiscing about the past and the piano recitals he once shared with a young woman, when he receives a surprise invitation to attend a concert which she will be giving at a concert hall at the top of a mountain in Kobe.  Two years have passed since he has seen her, and he decides to attend, traveling up the mountain.  The higher he goes, the fewer people he sees, and when he gets to the top, the gate to the concert hall is locked and chained.  Resting in a park there at the top, he gathers his thoughts, when suddenly, a very old man appears without warning.  The old man’s first words describe a strange circle with “many centers” and “no circumference.”  Puzzled, the young man wonders what he is talking about and asks whether it is possible ever to see such a circle.  The elderly man tells him that if he works as hard as he possibly can to understand and fully appreciate that difficult image, “it becomes the cream of your life…the best of the best, the most important essence of life.  The rest is just boring and worthless.”  Then the old man vanishes.

author photoIn what is the most engrossing collection of stories I have read in years, the author introduces and continues to focus, as he does in “Cream,” on the very meaning of reality and how one approaches it, participates in it, and finds ways to survive and enjoy it – through love, hope, trust, friendship, and any number of other imaginative ways. Though this may seem an esoteric and complex philosophical set of ideas, Murakami’s own personality shines through here – and the resulting stories are not only surprisingly lively and enjoyable, but most often fun and funny.  The subjects – including jazz, baseball, a talking monkey, and an unattractive woman who happens to share the speaker’s deep love of Schumann’s “Carnaval,” are offbeat but so brilliantly relatable that this reader, at least, was able to put aside any qualms about the exotic content in order to see and enjoy what the author would do with these subjects.  

The imaginary album that the speaker finds in a used-record shop in NYC.

The imaginary album that the speaker finds in a used-record shop in NYC.

The stories never fail to intrigue. “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” takes place in 1963, eight years after Charlie “Bird” Parker vanished from sight.  Now, apparently, Parker has resurfaced, and once again picked up his alto sax to record an album in a studio outside New York.  He is even playing the bossa nova, a new kind of music for him.  The journalist who wrote this story published it when he was in college, and, he readily admits, there is really no such album as “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” since Charlie Parker died on March, 12, 1955.  Continuing his praise as if Parker were still alive, and commenting on Parker’s work here with Antonio Carlos Jobim, in all its detail, the author of the article nevertheless brings Charlie Parker and his music back to life.  He receives praise for it from the editor of the journal which published it – until the editor of the journal discovers that the article has all been a fantasy.  Years later, in New York, the author of the article, while shopping in a used record store, finds a remarkable album entitled “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” and it looks exactly as he described it years ago in his fantasy journal article.  Murakami has great fun playing with this journal writer, the writer’s feelings for Bird, and his love of Bird’s music in a final set of twists, as reality plays its own games, both for the writer and for the reader.

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Shinagawa monkey, one befriended by the speaker at an inn in a “hot springs town.”

“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” takes place in a Japanese “hot springs town” where the writer, a visitor, has difficulty finding a place to sleep. When he finally succeeds in finding a low cost room, he is happy to stay there,  especially so when he discovers that a shinagawa monkey, one who reads, writes and speaks Japanese fluently, gives him a massage and scrubs his back in the spa, which has been his job at the inn for three years.  After dinner the monkey brings snacks and beer and confesses that he gets along better with humans than with his own kind, as he was brought up by a professor and his wife and does not really understand the society of monkeys.  The monkey admits that he does, sometimes, feel love for human females, however, and he expresses that love by stealing the women’s names, the “ultimate form of romantic love.”  Years later, the storyteller meets a woman who tells him that, for reasons she does not understand, she often cannot remember her own name, reminding the speaker of events from his stay at the inn and raising strange questions regarding the shinagawa monkey.

The trademark of the Yakult Swallows in Japan.

The trademark of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in Japan.

In “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” the speaker, who indicates that he is Murakami himself, confesses his passion for live baseball, especially the Yakult Sparrows team.  In fact, he has chosen to live within walking distance of the Jingu Stadium where the Sparrows play so he can walk regularly to the games. As he examines why he is such a fan of this particular team, which is not a team that wins a lot, he goes over past history, his and theirs, and as he describes the ten years leading up to the first league championship of the Yakult Sparrows, he thinks back on the poems, included here, that he has written about the team and its players.  As he watches this ordinary game, he is “quietly praying that our team wins.  But at the same time quietly steeling myself for the possibility of yet another loss,” the attitude of a true baseball fan.

Quotation from Mahatma Gandhi

Quotation from Mahatma Gandhi

Filled with new ideas, exciting and unexpected twists and turns, and much to think about, First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami is the most enjoyable and eye-opening collection of stories I have read in years – a journey into new worlds of imagination and an exploration of their possibilities.

ALSO by Murakami:  Colorless Tsukura Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

PHOTOS.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.pinterest.com

The Charlie Parker record cover is from https://illustration-awards.vam.ac.uk

The shinagawa monkey may be found on https://www.literaryroadhouse.com

The trademark of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows occurs on https://www.yakult-swallows.co.jp/en/

The quotation from Mahatma Gandhi, similar to the quotations from the mysterious man in “Cream,”
is from https://quotefancy.com

 

FIRST PERSON, SINGULAR
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Japan, Literary, Short Stories
Written by: Haruki Murakami
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/06/2021
ISBN: 978-0593318072
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“My own story is [not pretty], far from it.  There are triumphs in it, a scattering of joys, but the beautiful sits side by side with the grotesque; I cannot separate them.  All the brutality is there, the hurt I’ve suffered at the hands of others, but so, too, my own mistakes, missteps, and missed understandings.  I have held it close, afraid to unleash it into the world.” – Mary Wollstonecraft, August, 1797.

cover love and furyThough Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) may have been afraid to “unleash her story into the world,” that story, however incomplete it may have seemed to the general public in her own time, has now been recreated in insightful detail by author Samantha Silva.  Using known facts and details provided by Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, following Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797, at age thirty-eight, Silva creates an intense and vibrant fictional biography of a woman many generations ahead of her time.  The feminist ideals she exemplifies in her life, which shocked the women of her own time, include her years-long relationship with a woman friend and her desire to set up a “female utopia” with her;  her establishment with others of a school for young women under the banner of being “dissenters” from the Church of England;  her flagrant affairs with two well-known writer-philosophers;  her stay in France and support of the French Revolution;  and her much-loved child from her out-of-wedlock relationship with Gilbert Imlay.  She made these and other seemingly radical choices alone at a time in which most women were completely subservient to men, the church, and the government in power.  The publication of her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), considered “one of the trailblazing works of feminism,” added to her reputation as one of the early founders of feminist philosophy, a philosophy she lived throughout her life.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

In author Samantha Silva’s hands, Mary’s story becomes completely human, with two narratives conveying her life stories from two different times and perspectives.  The first narrative, told primarily by Mrs Blenkinsop, a midwife, opens on August 30, 1797, as Mary, then thirty-eight, is about to give birth to her second child, a daughter by her husband, the novelist and philosopher William Godwin.   Her labor has been long and slow, and Mrs. Blenkinsop has suggested that she tell the unborn child the story of her life, believing that Mary might be able to “talk [the baby] into the world.”  The birth comes, with difficulty, but there are serious complications.  Mrs. B remains loyal, helping Mary as she continues to tell her story for the next eleven days, during which Mary struggles with fever and infection.  Husband William Godwin loves her and is sweetly attentive, and his revelations of their relationship show the depth and honesty of their feelings for each other, despite the past.

William Godwin

William Godwin

Mary’s own narrative, “told for the baby,” begins with the story of her childhood in which she becomes infatuated with Jane Arden, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl whose life is more elegant than Mary’s, and Mary is “determined to overcome any obstacle to possess her friendship.”  Jane’s father, a scientist, also becomes a friend, introducing the curious Mary to the magnifying glass, and even giving one to her. As for her own family, she resents her often drunk father’s heartless treatment of her mother, his brutal treatment of her handicapped brother, and his heartlessness toward her, which is so obvious that she believes she “ought to have said to him: “Look at you.  You’re less than nothing.  That’s why you hurt everyone else.” It is through Jane that Mary is first able to formulate arguments against the role of women as dependents of men, even as she is still anxious to attend a formal dance at which Jane openly admits she will be looking for a potential husband.

Gilbert Imlay

Gilbert Imlay

A series of family moves to new places in England, Mary’s ten year relationship with Fanny Blood, and her decision with Fanny to start a school continue to illustrate the differences between women and men in terms of opportunity.  It is through Fanny that she ponders the question, “What if our real power – the one we’re born with, which we so rarely assume – lies in altering our sensitivity to the things that aggrieve us.  Imagine if we could heal ourselves.”  Eventually she goes to Dublin as a governess/teacher, where she does well and enjoys her work, until the lady of the estate discovers a book Mary has been writing in which she privately questions the behavior of that lady and mocks her.  Losing her job, she again returns to writing and finds interest from a publisher.  That publisher later introduces her to other writers, and some of whom are also philosophers.  She challenges Edmund Burke in print, and it is this way that she first meets William Godwin, who disagrees with her opinions. Two passionate love affairs follow, one with Henry Fuseli and one with Gilbert Imlay, who becomes the father of her first child.  These experiences help Mary gain further insights into the complexities of  love and the difficulties of being true to herself.  Her eventual marriage to William Godwin, when she is several months pregnant by him, is the crowning touch of what has been her true awakening as a thoughtful feminist.

Author Samantha Silva

Author Samantha Silva

Without sacrificing the philosophical underpinnings of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and legacy, author Samantha Silva recognizes the effects of these same beliefs on other writers and governmental officials during the Romantic Period, while also acknowledging the conflicts that arise both for individuals and societies.  Her depiction of Mary’s time in France during the French Revolution, a turning point for Mary, makes the horrors of that time truly real, in contrast to the final chapters of Mary’s story which emphasize her passionate, romantic loves within her dedicated life.  Readers who are accustomed to regarding “feminism” as a modern meme will see Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist beliefs play out within the context of her life two hundred years ago, as these ideas come vibrantly to life among writers, publishers, and political leaders during that time.  And when Mary Wollstonecraft’s new baby is named Mary, and becomes, eventually, Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein and the wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft’s legacy truly becomes real.

340px-Mary_wollstonecraft_statue_2020

Statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, raised on Newington Green, London, on November 10, 2020. More information available at Wikipedia link.

Note:  On November, 10, 2021, a statue honoring Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled in London. It faced immediate criticism with the nude figure regarded as insulting to Mary and her beliefs.  Some supporters are working to replace it, though the sculptor, Maggi Hambling, insists that the nude is a “sculpture of an idea.”

Photos.  The portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft appears on  https://constitutionallawreporter.com

The portrait of William Godwin, Mary’s husband, is from https://wordsworth.org.uk

Gilbert Imlay, with whom Mary had a life-changing affair, is shown here: https://www.geni.com

The author’s photo may be found on https://www.chicagotribune.com

The controversial statue of Mary Wollstonecraft by Maggi Hambling, erected on Newington Green, London, November 10, 2020.  More information on this Wikepedia link:   https://en.wikipedia.org

LOVE AND FURY: a Novel of Mary Willstonecraft
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Biography, Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Psychological Study, Social and Political Issues, England
Written by: Samantha Silva
Published by: Flatiron Books
Date Published: 05/25/2021
ISBN: 978-1250159113
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This novel was WINNER of the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature.

“Even now, within this text, I can almost feel her fidget.  If she could, she would sneak between two sentences like a moth between two slats of a Venetian blind, and would finish my story off from the inside.  She would change into the sparkly rags she always liked…add some waves to her hair.  Me she would disfigure, leaving a single lock of hair on my square head…think up an inherent deformity so I keep dropping the pencil.” – Sara, referring to Lejla

cover, catch rabbitIn this absorbing and constantly surprising metafictional novel,Yugoslavian author Lana Bastašić tells the history of a complex friendship between two women from their early years as children in Bosnia through their schooling, part of their college years, and ultimately when they are in their early thirties.  Told so realistically that the narrator comes totally alive, and even inspires the reader to identify with her, the story of Sara and her friend Lejla follows a circular pattern, rotating through their lives, adding to the information the reader accepts as real, and establishing themes.  Literary references, especially to Alice in Wonderland, add depth and reflect the author’s attitudes, as the constantly changing friendship between the two young women parallels the changing times, values, and sometimes other-worldly feelings of the two women.

author

Author Lana Bastašić

Sara, who eventually leaves Bosnia to continue her college education in Dublin, settles down there, rejecting everything associated with her past, even including her native language.  She begins a new life, sharing it with Michael, a computer specialist, while she works as a writer and editor. Twelve years after she has lost contact with Lejla, she receives a surprising telephone call from her, insisting that Sara come to Bosnia immediately to pick her up so they can drive to Vienna where Lejla’s brother Armin, thought missing in the Bosnian War, twenty years ago, has been found alive.  It is the reference to Armin which makes Sara decide to help Lejla deal with this unexpected and demanding task, even after all these years. She has always had a secret love for Armin.  Almost immediately, she is packing up what she’ll need for her trip from Dublin to Bosnia and then the long drive from Bosnia to Vienna.

Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland

As she prepares to meet Lejla, the time and place shift, and Sara remembers visiting Lejla at her home a few days after Sara’s college graduation. Lejla’s pet rabbit has just died, and she wants help in burying him and in having Sara, then a budding poet, deliver a eulogy “to poisoned rabbits.”  For Lejla, “life was a rabid fox coming at night to steal your chickens…[and] writing about life meant staring at the slaughtered [chickens] the next day, forever unable to catch the beast at its crime.” For Sara, however, “The fox had already run away,” and she knows that “I couldn’t catch it.”  They are clearly operating on different planes as Lejla ultimately jokes about the rabbit that Sara remembers Lejla loving more than people.  Now what matters  most to Lejla is that “Bunny got his epilogue,” contributed by Sara. Life, death, meaning, and their interrelationships, established early, echo again and again throughout the novel, and the aphorism – “Catch the Rabbit” – not only gives life to the stories of their friendship but also illustrates their differences in goals and values.

entrance-to-the-catacombs-in-jajce-bosnia-and-herzegovina-2BKJR10

The catacombs of Bosnia, “A malificent name for a maleficent little house standing above a hole in the ground.”

When she begins her car trip from Bosnia with Lejla, Sara notes that “a road-trip story makes sense only when the travelers, albeit wrongly, believe in reaching the finish line, the journey’s end that will solve all problems and end all misery.  There’s no finish line in Bosnia, all roads seem to be equally languid and pointless; they lead you in circles even when it looks like you’re making progress.”  A stop to spend the night at the home of an older friend from Jajce leads Lejla to resort to trickery, pretending that Sara does not speak their language, and she talks over Sara’s head, making fun of her to the woman while Sara, exhausted, just wishes to find a bed and sleep.  Then Lejla decides she wants to see the catacombs, “a maleficent name for a maleficent little house standing above a hole in the ground,” a place where Tito was said to have hidden during World War II. As Lejla inspects the holes and the wounds on the walls, Sara believes it is all “crap to attract tourists.”  Another rotation of the narrative, and Sara is remembering the cruelty and bullying by young school children to each other and to animals, with the boys playing catch in the snow with an injured infant sparrow with a broken wing and a crooked leg.  When the question arises as to who is going to put the tiny bird out of its misery, none of the boys respond.  It is Sara’s behavior which permanently changes perceptions of her.

durer

“Young Hare” by Albrecht Dürer, 1502.

Sara and Lejla continue their trip as each comes to new realizations about the other, and they both recall events with which readers will easily identify – the prom, discovering sex, socializing, and working to get their diplomas.  But as they pass through the town in which they both grew up, Sara has an experience with her elderly mother which permanently affects her view of the world.  Another experience on “the island” also reminds Sara of the trauma of growing up, and she soon begins to see how different she and Lejla really are.  When Sara and Lejla finally arrive in Vienna, Sara regards the city as “swollen like a corpse,” and she does not trust it.  Ultimately, she and Lejla decide to visit the Albertina Museum in Vienna, where they are lucky enough to see Albrecht Durer’s watercolor of a hare, painted in 1502, an event which leads to the thematic climax of the novel.

Albertina Museum

Albertina Museum

It is easy to see why this novel won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature.  Though it is a debut novel, author Lana Bastašić writes with such confidence and élan, such devotion to her themes and her characters, and such intense desire to communicate her ideas, that I found myself reading much of this book twice, enjoying new discoveries upon the second or third reading about particular events.  The Bosnian War echoes throughout much of the novel, but it is peripheral to the wars that are happening within some of the characters, whose lives are so open that the reader cannot help but identify with them.  Though there are some aspects of the book that could be tightened a bit for clarity, that issue is almost irrelevant in relation to the overall grandeur of the novel and its message.  On my Favorites List for the year.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.euprizeliterature.eu

 Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland may be found here:  https://www.etsy.com

The catacombs of Bosnia, “A malificent name for a maleficent little house standing above a hole in the ground.”  https://www.alamy.com

Albert Durer’s watercolor of a hare, painted in 1502, is from https://www.wikiart.org

The Albertina Museum in Vienna appears on  https://www.ukrinform.net

 

CATCH THE RABBIT
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Bosnia, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Lana Bastašićc
Published by: Restless Books
Date Published: 06/01/2021
ISBN: 978-1632062918
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Though I was from the North of England, I stayed on in Barcelona….The quality of the light first thing in the morning, so bright and clear that the buildings seemed to have black edges.  The green parrots that flashed from one palm tree to another.  Long walks in the Collserola in April, to gather wild asparagus, or in September, to hunt for mushrooms… a city whose pleasures were simple and constant.” 

cover barcelona dreamingIn this unusual ode to Barcelona, author Rupert Thomson, who lived in Barcelona from 2004 – 2010, creates three intersecting stories with overlapping characters, each of whom gives a unique perspective on life in this city on the northeast coast of Spain.  In the first section, “The Giant of Sarrià,” Amy, a British woman in her forties, owns a shop which she describes as resembling “Aladdin’s cave of unexpected treasures,” a shop she has named “Trinket.” With her daughter at school in England, the divorced Amy has the freedom to explore the city and get to know its people, respond to the subjects that interest her, and create her own life.  One night she is awakened by the sound of sobbing coming from the car park below her apartment.  Surprised that the sounds appear to be coming from a man, she investigates and is immediately impressed by the urgency of the man’s problem.  The man is young – perhaps nineteen or twenty – and he appears to be from North Africa, probably Morocco.   She invites him to come into her apartment to get cleaned up, and afterward gives him some money to take a taxi to wherever his home is.  The next morning two of her friends are horrified by her actions. Three days later, the Moroccan man appears again outside her building, waiting for her to return from work.  He, known as Abdel ben Tajah, has come to cook her a meal as thanks.

1_Thomson_Rupert_web

Author Rupert Thomson

In a break from her narrative about Abdel, Amy also reveals her relationship with her ex-husband Pol, and when her friend Montse, also divorced, talks about her ex-husband Nacho and his infidelity, they set the scene for a broader discussion of marriage, love, and the past.  Amy soon becomes physically attracted to the Moroccan boy-man who has visited her at her apartment, and when she learns his address, she travels by metro to meet him. The difficulties of a woman alone in the city arise, however, when Amy is robbed and assaulted by a man on a motorbike as she travels through the city.  Another disaster strikes later when the old man who is her neighbor adamantly refuses to let Abdel enter her apartment with her, attacking him with his walking stick and lashing him across the face.  The issues of racism are obvious, and when Amy gets involved to stop the abuse, the situation escalates, eventually involving the police.  A seven-foot tall giant, Baltasar Gallego Magallon, from the neighborhood, was a witness and comes to her aid, and she soon becomes friendly with him, a man who is so shy that he rarely goes out except late at night.  This man, too, reappears later in the book, adding to the characters, further developing the setting, and expanding themes regarding love, how one defines it, and how one responds to it.

Famed football player Ronaldinho becomes friends with Nacho

Famed football player Ronaldinho becomes friends with Nacho. (Reuters)

The second novella, “The King of Castelldefels,” features a jazz pianist named Nacho, her friend Montse’s ex-husband, a man currently unmarried but living with a woman twenty-five years his junior and her seven-year-old son.  Alcohol plays a major role in his life, and it is not unusual for him to pass out and remember nothing about his last hours, who he was with, and how he got to where he eventually finds himself.  It is Ari, the son, who gets Nacho interested in Barça football, but when Ronaldinho, a major Brazilian football star, signs with Barcelona, Ari is interested but not excited.  Ronaldinho, Ari believes, is a “show pony,” famous for his tricks and inconsistency.  Soon Ronaldinho is celebrating life at the bar Nacho owns, where the alcohol flows freely, drugs are omnipresent, and women are available to attend to the drunks.  Nacho is passing out frequently, and his seven-year-relationship with Cristiani and young Ari are in danger.

Keith Jarrett, whose recording of Lalene inspired Nacho to play in a trance for three hours.

Keith Jarrett, whose recording of “Lalene” inspired Nacho to play in a trance for three hours.

Nacho even finds himself inexplicably naked when stopped while driving one night, and when playing Keith Jarrett’s song  “Lalene” on the piano, he goes into such a deep trance that he plays for three hours and does not realize it.  When Ronaldinho learns that his family is returning to Brazil and also learns that he is being traded to Milan, Nacho feels totally abandoned – with good reason – yet he still expects he will see Ronaldinho again. “After all, he still has a key.”

The third novella, “The carpenter of Montjuic,” a bizarre story of the supernatural, is told on several levels by a narrator named Jordi Ferrer, a man who translates books. His love interest, Mireia, is the manager of a boutique hotel whom he has known since his schooldays, though the love is not enthusiastically returned. When they meet for drinks, she confesses that she keeps finding keys belonging to her friends.  The narrative becomes more complicated when Jordi summarizes the story he is working on: one in which a mysterious person leaves presents for others, noticing their positive and negative effects, especially when the effects change dramatically.  A pig’s heart, a live bullet and a dead bird raise the tension to palpable levels. Another of Jordi’s friends has become obsessed with wooden furniture handmade by Daniel Federmann, furniture which exerts a strong pull of its own, appearing to come to life and moving around by itself. 

On a walk with Mireia, he and Jordi notice the huge 200-year-old pine tree, which inspires Jordi to "Remember this, remember everything."

On a walk with Mireia, Jordi notices a huge 200-year-old pine tree, which inspires him to try to “Remember this, remember everything.”

Author Rupert Thomson lets his imagination go in all directions over the course of the three novellas, and his ability to describe what he sees and feels makes his work come alive, even when a character may be so under the influence that nothing in his reality makes much sense.  His ability to include social issues is so natural to his writing that the reader accepts his commentary without feeling that he is “padding” to broaden his scope and his themes.  His depiction of characters who are living on the periphery is sensitive to time and place – and to the issues which have made these characters who they are.  Thomson is a writer who fascinates with his originality and his unique insights, a man whose writing is stimulating at the same time that it is thematically honest and exciting – and even sometimes confounding.

ALSO by Thomson:  NEVER ANYONE BUT YOU

Photos:  The author photo appears on https://www.allenandunwin.com

Ronaldinho’s photo is from https://www.the-sun.com

Keith Jarrett’s photo may be found on  https://www.dw.com

While on a walk with Mireia, Jordi is inspired by this 200-year-old tree, and determines to “Remember this, remember everything.” https://www.totsantcugat.cat

BARCELONA DREAMING
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Spain, Barcelona
Written by: Rupert Thomson
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 06/01/2021
ISBN: 978-1635420425
Available in: Ebook Paperback

‘Happiness,’ he said, ‘always seems nothing.  It is like water; one only realizes it when it has run away’…It is the same with the evil we do; it seems nothing, just seems foolishness, cold water, while we are doing it.  Otherwise, people would not do it;  they would be more careful.’–Vincenzino, to Cate

Icover GinzburgNatalia, Voices in the Evenngn this newly reprinted Italian classic by Natalia Ginzburg, originally published in Italy in 1961, Elsa,  an unmarried young woman of twenty-seven, realistically depicts her own life, the lives of her family, and the social scene of a small, unnamed town in Italy during and after World War II.  As the only first person speaker in the novel, Elsa guides the action in three chapters, giving personal insights and a sense of honesty to the day-to-day activity of which she is part.  Four other chapters, concentrating on the points of view of other characters, emerge from her parents’ generation – their prewar lives illustrating where they have started and their postwar lives revealing the effects that fascism, socialism, communism, and the partisanship of wartime have made on their domestic lives, family, and friendships.  Ginzburg herself, an active anti-fascist, was a survivor of World War II in Italy, having escaped military arrest and imprisonment by using a pen name while she and her husband ran an anti-Fascist newspaper. Though her husband was violently arrested and tortured to death in 1944, leaving her to care for their three children, she soldiered on.  In her dozen or so post-war novels, including this one, she remains remarkably controlled in her writing, avoiding strong flights of emotion, and the tendency to blame politics for the big issues in people’s personal lives, postwar.  This allows some of her characters the kind of privacy one might allow a friend who does not care to share details of traumatic experiences.

"Madonna of the Chair" by Raphael, a print of which Elsa had in her room at home.

“Madonna of the Chair” by Raphael, a print of which Elsa had in her room at home.

Elsa’s tendency to cherish privacy is revealed in her three chapters, which detail her life with her mother, her family, and with Tommasino, a character whose role is not fully developed until late in the novel.  Characteristically of Ginzburg, she introduces his name early – in Chapter Three – when Giuliana Bottiglia, one of Elsa’s female friends, visits, shares the romantic details of a Yul Brynner film, comments on a recent party Elsa’s family did not attend, then tries to engage Elsa in conversation about “Tommasino,” with whom Elsa was seen at night in a bar by two other young women.  Giuliana persistently “leads” Elsa with hints, then gets angry because Elsa will admit and share nothing:  “You do not tell me anything anymore,” Giuliana complains.  “I used to be your friend,” she continues, “[Now] we talk about silly little things. I bore you, I know it.”  Then the topic changes and Giuliana’s attempt to obtain gossip from Elsa is abandoned.

Cloth factory, perhaps similar to that of Old Balotta.

Cloth factory, perhaps similar to that of Old Balotta.

The remaining four chapters provide background information regarding the older generation during and after the war.  Most prominent among this generation and its descendants is the De Francisci family, which still owns a chemical-spewing cloth factory, even postwar, and still employs a large number of residents including Elsa’s father, who is the accountant, and their friend Bottiglia, a lawyer, who is the manager.  The De Franciscis,  known locally as the “Balotta” family, answer to the nickname given to the eldest member of the family, Old Balotta, or Little Ball, a short, stout man with a big paunch, “as round as round, which overflowed above the waist of his trousers.”  A socialist, Old Balotta and his family provide most of the action here – and are the source of much of the gossip – within the community.  Their five children play active roles in the social life of the younger generation and are the source of information about the war and just about everything else.  Gemmina, the oldest daughter, falls in love with Nebbia, and enjoys hiking in the mountains with him, and his later death in wartime echoes throughout the novel.  Vincenzino, a poor student, failed his father’s goals when he majored in engineering, instead of economics, which would have helped his father in the cloth factory.  His marriage to Caté is a highly detailed, personal disaster.

Many residents escaped to the Italian countryside and mountains during WW2. This is Bagnoregio.

Many residents escaped to the Italian countryside and mountains during WW2. This is Bagnoregio.

Mario, the third child, disappoints Old Balotta, when he goes to Munich and marries Xenia, a Russian girl, there, then returns to Italy with her.  Raffaella, the fourth child, “behaved like a rowdy boy”and enjoyed playing tricks on people. Living in the mountains during the war, she helped the partisans. It is the youngest son, Tommasino, who becomes linked with Elsa, thereby connecting her life, otherwise undeveloped here, with the lives of the Balottas as they deal with the war and their escapes from the war to the countryside.  Purillo, an adopted son of Old Balotta, is a fascist, but he remains loyal to his adoptive father long enough to help him physically escape danger in town, before he, too, disappears.   Still others are already out of the country, including Elsa’s sister, who married and went to live in South Africa, and her brother, who is working in Venezuela.

Italian author Natalia Ginzburg (1916 - 1991), Turin, Italy, circa 1990. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

Italian author Natalia Ginzburg (1916 – 1991), Turin, Italy, circa 1990. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

Unusual to the point of being unique, or almost unique, Voices in the Evening deals with the growth of fascism in Italy, World War II, and the postwar conditions – big, complex subjects – but these issues become almost peripheral to the everyday gossip and personal stories on which the main characters and the community depend for their daily lives.  The issue of moving from their local towns and cities for parts of the war and its aftermath is treated almost casually, with more attention paid to love and its complications, gossip, and personal tales than to the big subject of Italy during the war.  By changing the focus so significantly, the author is able to gain some dark humor while developing a creeping horror of the way in which these people allow their personal issues to camouflage the dramatic changes taking place throughout the country.   As one character sums it up late in the novel:  “The others, all those who have lived in this village before me.  It seems to me that I am only their shadow.”

ALSO by Natalia Ginzburg:  THE DRY HEART   and  HAPPINESS, AS SUCH

Photos.  Elsa has a copy of “The Madonna of the Chair,” by Raphael in her bedroom at home.  https://www.allposters.com

The old cloth factory, perhaps similar to that of Old Balotta, is from https://www.abandonedamerica.us

Many residents escaped to the Italian countryside and mountains during WW2. This is Bagnoregio.  https://www.fodors.com

The author’s photo by Leonardo Cendamo is from https://www.gettyimages.com

VOICES IN THE EVENING
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Classic Novel, Historical, Italy, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Natalia Ginzburg
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 05/04/2021
ISBN: 978-0811231008
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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