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Category Archive for 'Coming-of-age'

Only thirty years old when Villa Triste hits the Parisian literary scene, Modiano reveals his continuing belief in “writing about what you know.” Here his main character betrays a palpable sense of loss, a lack of understanding about who he is and who he might become. A man alone, he yearns for deep, long-time relationships. Calling himself Victor Chmara, a name he tells us is invented, the main character in Villa Triste is eighteen as the novel opens in 1960, and Modiano’s development of the intimate details of his thinking and his emotional states attest to the powerful influence his own past must have had in the creation of this realistic character. Victor does not connect effectively with the rest of the world, and his uncertainty about how to deal with issues of life, love, and the ghosts of his past lead to his pervasive loneliness and sense of isolation. As he reveals in the quotation which begins this review, he avoids the big issues, keeping himself moving, living in the moment, and losing himself in films, books, and romantic attachments – anything to avoid thinking about the uncertainties of French life, which add to his own tensions. The “action” here is internal action, related from the point of view of Victor. Most of the outside action is superficial, deliberately so, a way for the wealthy and would-be wealthy to avoid thinking about their own problems and the problems of the country. Those who have never read Modiano would do well to start with SUSPENDED SENTENCES.

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In the Strandja Mountains, where Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece come together, a young graduate student, who left Bulgaria for the United States as a boy, reconnects with his grandfather, from whom the family has heard nothing for the past three years. Unsuccessful in his college studies and desperately in need of funds to pay off some loans, the youth has come to Klisura in southeast Bulgaria hoping to sell some family land and also to spend time with the grandfather he has not seen in fifteen years. Written by debut novelist Miroslav Penkov, who lived in Bulgaria until he was nineteen, the narrative breathes with the kind of exuberant realism which distinguishes the writing of someone who has actually lived through certain events, as opposed to the writing of someone who is “writing about” events which he may have observed but not fully lived. Specific, often charming, detail accompanies the descriptions of many events and cultural traditions, giving a new kind of liveliness to the story of the youth’s return to his homeland and to his meetings with the people who live there. Among them are the nestinari, men and women, often quite young, of priestly importance, who walk on red-hot coals without being burned during the once-a year religious celebration. The overwhelming presence of storks in the spring and summer also adds to the spiritual tone of everyday life in Klisura. An unusual – possibly unique – combination of coming-of-age novel and epic of Bulgarian history and culture, the narrative has the small focus of a young man with limited goals and the grand scope of a culture which has incorporated elements from its Christian, Muslim, and even pagan past over many centuries.

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Following the crushing defeat of the Italian army in 1917 by the Germans during World War I, the Villa belonging to the Spada family in Refrontolo, just north of Venice, is requisitioned by the German army and stripped of all its valuables. Crude victorious soldiers, drunk on their power, delight in tormenting the owners, tearing up cupboards and smashing the contents and even riding horses inside the Villa until they are stopped by officers in charge. The safety of young females is constantly at risk if they are caught out alone. As one character says, “War and loot are the only faithful married couple.” Living at the Villa which the family has occupied for generations, are the speaker, Paolo, age seventeen, an orphan who has lost his parents and other immediate family in the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914; his grandfather Guglielmo Spada; grandmother Nancy; unmarried aunt, Donna Maria, who acts as the house manager; Teresa, the imaginative cook; and Loretta, her daughter, in her early twenties. Living in a house nearby are the red-haired Giulia Candiani, who has returned to her place of birth because of an indiscretion, a twenty-five-year-old who has bewitched Paolo; and her tenant, Grandma Spada’s “third paramour,” Pagnini, who occupies a basement room there. Author Andrea Molesini, who has lived in this area of northern Italy for much of his life, has absorbed every aspect of its history and is uniquely qualified to describe the effects of the German, and later, the Austro-Hungarian occupation on the lives of the inhabitants, not just of the Villa but of the surrounding area, during the final months of World War I.

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I for Isobel, written in 1979 and first published in Australia in 1989, focuses on a tough main character, a child who fills the novel with a kind of mental violence against both herself and those who “cross” her, as she endures a coming-of-age essentially alone. All her possible role models – parents, teachers, family, and contemporaries – damage her more than aid her as she grows up. “Her mother’s anger was [like] a live animal tormenting her,” and when Isobel says she knows her mother hates her, the reader will have no problem actually believing her – her mother does hate her, for reasons unknown. The one area in which Isobel is able to achieve some kind of escape and happiness is through books. Even as a nine-year-old, she is a voracious reader, and the reading gives her a kind of personal outlet, too, when she soon turns her attention to her own writing. As Isobel slowly begins thinking beyond the specifics of her day-to-day life, she comes to conclusions about the grand themes of life, death, friendship, creativity, and social responsibility. A classic novel by one of the grandes dames of Australian writing.

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Though Modiano has insisted many times that his novels are fiction, they all have direct parallels with his own life, and as he visits and revisits his own difficult and tormented childhood and teen years in the plots of his novels, he often introduces events in one novel and then returns to them again and again in other novels. Pedigree, his autobiography (in which he confirms the reality of specific events and traumas which dominate his novels), remains a straight-forward presentation of his real life up to his early twenties, almost journalistic in style, with little elaboration and even less emotion. Ironically, it is his “novels” – like this one – which most clearly reveal the horrors of his early life, his emotional torments, his incredible resilience, and his amazing ability to come to terms with his past and use these events to provide insight not just for himself but for his legions of fans. After the Circus begins when the narrator, identified as Jean, not yet of legal age, is interrogated by the police regarding any knowledge he may have about two people engaged in criminal activity, not the experience of a typical college student, but then, Jean’s father, like Modiano’s, has been involved in big-time crime syndicates throughout Europe, so it is not surprising that the police investigate Jean when his own name is found in an address book belonging to this couple.

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