After the Divorce.

Italian author Grazia Deledda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, the second woman to win that honor, the second Italian to do so, and the first Italian prose writer to win it. (There have been 113 winners, six of them from Italy, but four of the winners won for poetry or drama.) Her work focused largely on portraits of regional, peasant life in her native Sardinia, a Mediterranean island that is an autonomous region within Italy, with its own indigenous language and unique history, and a relatively strong economy today that, prior to World War II, was poorer and more driven by agriculture and mining. Deledda’s works, including her 1902 novel After the Divorce ($2 on Kindle), tend to put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances so Deledda can display or criticize social mores, such as the economic disadvantage of being a woman in Italy at the center of this book.

Giovanna and Constantino are a young, happily married couple with an infant son whose unremarkable lives are shattered when Constantino is arrested for and convicted of the murder of his cruel, abusive uncle. A new law passed in Italy shortly after the trial allows a woman to divorce a husband who has been convicted of a crime and jailed, so Giovanna does so, under duress, and marries the neighboring landowner who has been lusting for her for years but whom she rejected prior to marrying Constantino. The marriage is a disaster, of course, and eventually the truth of the murder comes to light and Constantino is released to return to his village, where he and Giovanna begin an affair that leads, almost inevitably, to tragedy.

Although the end of After the Divorce doesn’t quite match the common ending of early novels on the same theme – Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Anna Karenina all mine somewhat similar material – the novel is still at heart about how women of that era lacked economic power. When Constantino was jailed with no real hope of parole or acquittal, Giovanna has no way to feed herself or her child, and becomes a burden on her own money-obsessed mother.

Deledda never blames her protagonist, instead creating the framework of Shakespearean tragedies to put her core characters on a collision course with each other that you know will end badly for at least one of them. There’s no real way out of the mess short of someone dying; under the law, Giovanna is married to the vile neighbor, Brontu, who, along with his mother, treats her as a servant, and can’t divorce him to return to her first husband now that he’s free. Yet the culture of the time presented no avenue for her to earn any living, and the trial wiped out her family’s only source of income. It’s a feminist novel that predates most feminist literature; even The Awakening, which I think is one of the earliest examples of that genre, has a protagonist driven to infidelity by boredom (inflicted on her by a society that won’t let her do anything with her mind) rather than economic need. Deledda here seems to be describing an injustice of the time, one that might feel a little quaint today but was a real issue in much of Christendom before the post-World War II liberalization of laws around marriage and civil rights.

I’ve seen a few references to this book or Deledda in general as antecedents of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, but I didn’t see the similarity; Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym and has avoided nearly all media, hasn’t mentioned that this was an influence, and other than the setting there doesn’t seem to be a common thread here. If you liked Ferrante’s novels, you could certainly give Deledda a spin, but I wouldn’t say liking one indicates that you’ll like the other.

Next up: I’ve finished Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, a Puliter winner, and am now reading Anna Smaill’s weird, dystopian novel The Chimes.

The Doxing of Elena Ferrante.

It was a bad weekend for American journalism, by which I mean it was kind of an atrocious weekend because the standard is already fairly low, with a TIME Inc. division firing its editor-in-chief for, apparently, hiring an adult film actress to write about sports, creating a fake columnist to argue with her, and then lying about the whole thing; and now a New York Post columnist saying Derrick Rose has made a bad first impression on Knicks fans with the “noise of a rape trial.” But all of that is sort of par for the course, especially in our little corner of the journalism world.

The real atrocity, however, was the soi-disant “premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language,” the New York Review of Books, choosing to out pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante (whose best-selling novel My Brilliant Friend I reviewed this summer) by, among other things, combing through financial and real estate records. It was a malicious, tawdry exercise in placing money over integrity, the sort of yellow journalism we might expect from the Drudge Report or an alt-right site, doxing a woman who’d make it clear she wanted to remain out of the public eye.

The column, written by an Italian journalist, claims that Ferrante, by writing a quartet of bestselling novels, “has in a way relinquished her right to disappear,” while making no actual argument to support this claim, probably because the author – and the NYRB editors who must have died on the way to work that morning, given their abdication of their responsibilities by letting the piece run – can’t do so. There was simply no public need to know at work here. Ferrante is not a public figure, not a politician, not a businessperson seeking tax breaks or handouts, not claiming to be anything at all that she’s not. She’s a successful author who sought to speak through her writing, and to barely speak at all through any other medium.

Outing an author who sought anonymity for its own sake would be bad enough, but here a male reporter has chosen to reveal the identity of a female author who may have (or have had, I suppose) motivations for her secrecy that should, if nothing else, have kept this article from seeing the light of day. What if Ferrante is a victim of domestic abuse, hiding from her former partner? Or a rape or sexual assault victim doing the same? Whatever her reason(s) for choosing to write and remain behind a pseudonym, it is not for any of us to choose to unmask her, to decide that this reason isn’t good enough to maintain the veil … but a woman may choose to hide her identity out of fear of physical harm. This muckraker, with the help of a periodical that aspires to intellectual superiority, has put this woman on blast for no discernible benefit to anyone but the writer and the publication, with no apparent concern whatsoever for whatever physical or emotional consequences Ferrante herself might suffer. Ferrante appears to have been simply too successful for this man or the New York Review of Books to allow her to succeed in peace.

(As of 11 am on Monday, I haven’t heard any response, via email or Twitter, from NYRB. I will update if one appears.)

UPDATE: The woman outed as Ferrante has confirmed the account (in Italian), and has opened a Twitter account (same) to say she will never speak about Ferrante’s books and to call the revelation a “vulgar and dangerous … violation of privacy and norms.”

My Brilliant Friend.

I’ve been guest-hosting the Baseball Tonight podcast this week during Buster’s absence; today’s show featured Eric Karabell and Tim Kurkjian, and yesterday’s show featured Jayson Stark and WATERS singer/serious Dodgers fan Van Pierszalowski, whose newest single, “Fourth of July,” came out last month.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a quartet of books documenting the lifelong friendship between two women, from early childhood in Naples onward, have sold over a million copies in the U.S. since their translation into English in 2012. All four novels ended up on various bestseller lists. And yet their author is unknown, writing only under a pseudonym, while the stories themselves are mundane, devoid of the violence or suspense that tend to dominate fiction sales. The tetralogy, which Ferrante considers one novel published in four installments (a true bildungsroman), tells a very ordinary story in compelling, realistic detail.

I was aware of the books – it’d be hard to be a bookworm without encountering them at some point – but hadn’t picked one up until Lindsey Adler (writer for Deadspin) recommended them, saying she couldn’t put them down. My Brilliant Friend, the opening novel in the series, did not grab me quite to that extent, but it is a superb work of modern realism and characterization, especially of the two women, who get the kind of depth rarely given to female characters in fiction, even contemporary fiction.

Those two characters, the narrator Elena and her friend Lila, are two halves of a whole, different in many fundamental ways but complementary in times when they’re close to each other. (Like any friendship between kids, this one has its vicissitudes, including periods where they’re not really speaking to each other at all.) Elena is booksmart but has to work to get there; Lila is precocious, autodidactic, but has a devil-may-care attitude to schoolwork and life. Both girls come from poor working families averse to continuing their education; Elena’s family reluctantly permits her to continue her schooling thanks in part to the efforts of her teacher, while Lila’s family won’t hear of it and Lila has to continue her learning on the sly. The possibilities of their lives seem limited to them at an early age, and while Elena has at least the sliver of hope provided by an education, Lila’s only real way out of poverty appears to be through marriage, even though she has the idea for a business and the spirit of an entrepreneur.

The novel lacks the intrigue of a modern bestseller. There’s a murder in their town, but it’s tangential to the main characters and only seems to exist to set up some later circumstances. There’s an affair, with consequences, but again it’s sort of off-screen and serves as backdrop for the younger generation of girls and boys. The town itself is tiny, like Jane Austen’s three or four families in a country village, and the social circle of Elena and Lila is small and constantly rotates them back into view with the same handful of kids. Lila’s withdrawal from school when Elena continues sets them on distinct paths that strain their friendship but, apparently, don’t break it, even when the way the two girls are treated by others starts to change.

My Brilliant Friend is definitely an incomplete story; I haven’t bought the next book yet, although I will at some point because I’m interested in what the future holds for the two characters and found Ferrante’s spare, descriptive prose highly readable if a bit dry. The novel doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, which would be untrue to its spirit as a story of two ordinary lives and the bond between these two women. It just leaves you wanting to know where they’re going next.

Next up: I just finished Olja Savi?evi?’s strange postmodern novel Adios, Cowboy and have begun Michael Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table.

Einstein’s Cosmos plus seven other books.

I’ve fallen way behind in book reviews, so rather than procrastinate further and get upset with myself for letting this many pile up, here are my thoughts on eight books I’ve read recently.

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku does a remarkable job of taking a dense scientific topic and making it accessible in Einstein’s Cosmos, part of the same Great Discoveries series that includes Everything and More by David Foster Wallace and Incompleteness by Rebecca Goldstein. Part biography of Einstein, part survey course in theoretical physics, Einstein’s Cosmos takes the reader back to Einstein’s childhood, dispelling some myths about his youth and eventually leading to the best lay explanation of special relativity I’ve come across. Kaku doesn’t stint on some of Einstein’s less flattering moments, such as his early opposition to quantum field theory, but presents him as a man of great principle as well as an uncommon ability to visualize difficult problems in physics, a skill that first allowed him to formulate the theory of special relativity by asking what would happen if he could chase a beam of light while he himself was traveling at the speed of light. Kaku has to give the reader a substantial amount of information to get to the point of special relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy, including a basic discussion of Maxwell’s equations, four partial differential equations that describe the formation and behavior of electromagnetic fields (above the quantum level, which Maxwell’s equations can only approximate). None of this is easy, but Kaku’s explanations are accessible even if you’ve never taken calculus, because his focus is on the meaning of these formulas and theories rather than on their precise functions. He also gives color the portrait of Einstein, who was an eccentric and widely beloved figure, without reducing him to caricature by repeating old tropes about him being a terrible student (he was a superb student when he cared about the subject) or a mere patent clerk (university politics kept him out of academia at first, not a lack of skill or background). I recommend it very highly if you’re at all interested in the man or his discoveries and, like me, are a long way removed from any coursework that might otherwise be necessary to understand it.

Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief tells the story of rare map dealer turned thief E. Forbes Smiley III, and follows in the footsteps of an earlier book about another crook who cut rare maps from ancient atlases, Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps. While Blanding’s book is better written and organized, giving a breezy history of cartography and explaining why some of these maps are so rare, the subject of the book, Smiley, is a fairly milquetoast character, even when Blanding tries to give him more dimension by talking about his attempts to remake a small town in rural Maine. This sort of non-fiction book tends to work best when the central narrative involves a literal or figurative chase, but Blanding spends scant time on the portion of Smiley’s story between the discovery that he may have taken some maps (or even that maps were missing) to his arrest. Harvey’s book, on the other hand, tells the story of the appropriately-named Gilbert Bland, an antiques dealer with no apparent personality, by turning into more of an old-fashioned crime book, documenting his crimes and the process of tracking him down in a way that covers up Bland’s lack of character. Both books are solid reads in their own rights, with Blanding’s shorter and more tightly organized, while Harvey’s has more narrative greed.

I’m still gradually working my way through the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners, and read two winners from the 1990s that were good-not-great, although in one case I could at least easily understand why it won. Steven Millhauer’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer reads like a fable, detailing the titular character’s rise from his youth as the son of a cigar-store owner to successful hotelier and entrepreneur, only to find with each new venture that his ambition is unsated, eventually pushing himself to build a hotel so grandiose that it fails. Along the way, Dressler marries the wrong woman, an entirely unconvincing subplot that undermined much of the novel’s narrative force. I could see the Pulitzer committee loving the book for its exploration of the superficiality of the American Dream.

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, later adapted into a Best Picture-nominated film that starred three of the best actresses of its specific time (Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman, who won an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf), seemed to fit the Pulitzer Committee’s loose standards less, but was a more literary, well-rounded work. Cunningham crafts three vaguely interconnected novellas and weaves them together with frequent shifts between them, setting them in three different times, with the only overt connection via Mrs. Dalloway: one story follows Woolf as she’s writing it, the other two revolve around women who’ve read the book and felt a deep connection to it. I would probably have enjoyed or appreciated The Hours more if I’d actually liked Mrs. Dalloway or had at least read it more recently, although the way Cunningham eventually connects the two non-Woolf stories, while somewhat predictable, is touching without devolving into mere sentiment, and still left me wanting more of that unified storyline.

I love Evelyn Waugh’s novels, but Helena, a short work of historical fiction, did nothing for me. It’s missing most of his trademark humor, instead telling a fictionalized version of the life of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, who made a pilgrimage to Syriana and, according to legend, rediscovered the True Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Waugh converted to Catholicism after writing his first novel, Vile Bodies, and while there are strains of his religious belief through all of his later works, Helena feels maudlin and ends with a passage that you might characterize as magical realism depending on your point of view on Christianity. Waugh apparently considered this one of his best novels, but since his satirical prose and eye were what made him a great novelist, Helena feels inconsequential in comparison.

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, winner of a National Book Award in 1982, came recommended by my friend Samantha, an avid bibliophile who favors shorter fiction where I go for novels. So Long is a 135-page novella that explores loss and memory through the eyes of an old man remembering his broken connection with a friend when the latter’s father committed a shocking murder. The narrator goes back to the time of the murder and recounts the circumstances that led up to it, although I imagine his account is supposed to be unreliable (as with the imagined recollections of the narrator of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime). Maxwell depicts the life of the small town in Southern Illinois in often painful detail, walking through the minds of the three principals in the affair that led to the murder, and actually devotes little page time to his friend, the unfortunately-named Cletus, whom I couldn’t picture as anything but a slack-jawed yokel.

Dodie Smith’s name may not be familiar to you, but you know her work: She wrote the children’s book that Disney adapted for 101 Dalmatians. She also wrote a novel, I Capture the Castle, that’s highly regarded in England but seems to have never caught on here, perhaps because its subject is so very British. The 1949 novel starts out like a Jane Austen book: Two sisters move into a remote castle with their author father, who subsequently falls into severe writer’s block and finds himself unable to produce another novel – or any income, with the girls’ stepmother only barely more able to provide. A wealthy family moves into the neighborhood, with two very eligible bachelor sons, one of whom takes a fancy to the narrator’s sister … but Smith avoids the predictable and crafts a compelling narrative by having the younger sister, Cassandra, tell the story through her journal, with scrupulous honesty. I was hoping for a little more humor, but the seventeen-year-old narrator’s voice doesn’t have Austen’s wry comic style. The descriptions of the family’s privations early in the book wore on, but the denouement justified much of the time spent to get there.

The final book in this list gets the shortest writeup. Cesare Pavere’s The Moon and the Bonfires tells of an Italian expatriate’s return to his hometown after the devastation of the Mussolini regime and the second World War, and the tragedies he uncovers while obviously hoping to return to a town unchanged. Without any knowledge of the specific history of Italy under fascism, however, I failed to connect with the story or any of the characters. The isolation of the protagonist and the sparse prose reminded me of Camus, and not in a good way.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

The Italian physicist Paolo Giordano became the youngest winner ever of the Premio Strega, Italy’s equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, when his debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, took the award in 2008. It became a feature film in Italian in 2010 and made its way here in an English translation that same year, earning very positive reviews around the world for its prose and the development of its two central characters. It is a beautiful rendering of those two horribly broken individuals, and one of the saddest novels I have ever read.

Giordano begins the novel by breaking those two characters in harsh, haunting ways. Alice, pushed too hard by a father whose impetus is never quite clear, suffers a horrible accident while skiing that leaves her scarred, disabled, and bitter. Mattia, meanwhile, is saddled with a twin sister who is severely developmentally disabled, and one day, while taking her to a birthday party to which they’ve both been invited, he leaves her in a park and tells her to wait there for him rather than taking her to the party. She vanishes and is never seen again, leaving Mattia a shell who fears the outside world and inflicts compensatory punishment via self-mutilation.

Solitude cover The two end up meeting in secondary school and forge a friendship based on their mutual recognition of each other’s willful isolation. Mattia is a math genius who has a single friend, Denis, who himself is gay and in love with Mattia but, of course, closeted and himself ostracized from the cruel society of his classmates. Those same classmates taunt or ignore Alice, and eventually the school’s mean girls clique targets her, both because of her disability and her late entry into puberty – the result of her anorexia, which worsens as she gets older. Mattia and Alice seem like a perfect couple, the two peas in the pod on the paperback’s cover, but Giordano argues through his prose that people this detached from others cannot be together. They are twin primes: Two prime numbers with a difference of two, like 11 and 13 or 59 and 61, as close as a pair of odd primes can get, but never actually adjacent. (Only 2 and 3 are neighboring primes. Because 2 is the only even prime, all other pairs must be separated by at least two places on the integer scale.)

Eventually, other circumstances drive Mattia and Alice apart, both as a couple and as neighbors, as Mattia takes a job in Germany and Alice ends up in another relationship. But a strange coincidence, one that Giordano wisely never confirms in full, brings them back together for one final attempt at … something, a connection if not an actual romance, because Giordano hasn’t given us any reason to believe these two broken people can heal themselves enough to be with each other. If this were Hollywood, they’d promise to fix each other (with Coldplay softly playing in the background) and that would be the ending. Giordano gives us ambiguous realism rather than pat endings, and while it doesn’t offer the catharsis a book this sad might call for, it keeps the ending in tune with the remainder of the story.

Alice’s character felt more familiar than Mattia’s, probably because we’ve all known someone who had one of her major issues – a physical disability, leading to social isolation; or an eating disorder. Piling both on Alice might have made her more pathetic, yet Giordano gave her more strength of character, more forcefulness than Mattia, to balance the scales. Mattia’s disappearance into math, especially into research on prime numbers (and specifically Riemann’s zeta function, a key component in the search for a proof or disproof of the Riemann Hypothesis, an unsolved problem detailed extremely well in the book Prime Obsession), further underscores his difficulty with communication – as if a man that comfortable with numbers and order could ever be comfortable in the subjective, anarchic world of words and feelings. He comforts himself by counting objects or looking for familiar shapes or structures in the world, but eventually ends up hurting himself or drawing his own blood in almost every disturbing situation. Is it really right to expect two “primes,” two loners whose self-inflicted solitude has become inescapable, to be able to save each other when neither is capable of helping him- or herself?

As gorgeous as Giordano’s rendering of his characters, even secondary ones like Denis or Alice’s housekeeper Soledad, can be, Solitude can also be intensely painful to read because of the damage he inflicts on them, as if he were pushing and prodding them to see how far they can bend without breaking. Where Alice responds with anger, Mattia responds by becoming increasingly insular, as if even the solitude he finds in numbers isn’t alone enough for him. I was also a little surprised that none of Mattia’s or Alice’s parents seemed to take an active role in trying to draw their children out, showing more resignation, perhaps provoked by guilt (on Alice’s father’s side) or shame (for Mattia’s parents). The only hints of this come with the primes’ rejection of their parents as adults, something I found even more painful now as a parent – to love and raise a child, only to find that child has no use for use once she’s grown, would be the dementor’s kiss of parenthood.

If you’ve already read Solitude, Giordano’s second novel, The Human Body, will be released in the U.S. on October 2nd.

Next up: J.K. Rowling’s first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy.

Persecution.

I posted a new projected first round for next week’s MLB Rule 4 draft yesterday, with a new name up top, and did a brief Klawchat as well. I’ve already heard some fresh things since that mock went up, including that the Astros aren’t entirely off Bryant after all.

I enjoyed Alessandro Piperno’s debut novel, The Worst Intentions, even though it often turned crude, because it was funny and featured so many cleverly crafted characters. His second novel, Persecution, shows far more polish and greater empathy with its flawed protagonist, with Piperno’s dry wit now applied to a tragic story, the fall from grace of a pediatric oncologist whose aloofness leads to his undoing.

Dr. Leo Pontecorvo had what he thought was a perfect life – a loving wife, two sons, a lucrative job with meaning as well as social importance, a freelance gig writing about health issues for a major Italian newspaper – until it is shattered by two accusations of wrongdoing, presented to us in reverse order. The novel opens with the Pontecorvos sitting down to a family dinner with the TV news on in the background, only to have the broadcaster announce that Leo stands accused of a sexual relationship with his 13-year-old son’s girlfriend, Camilla. Through flashbacks, Piperno’s unnamed yet omnipresent narrator leads the reader through Leo’s rise and fall, including allegations of financial impropriety and the disastrous consequences of his mishandling of Camilla’s crush on him, as well as the less-than-perfect truth below the surface of his marriage and family life, so that he is by turns sympathetic and deserving of his fate.

Pontecorvo’s emotional immaturity mirrors that of the lead character in The Worst Intentions, but without the earlier book’s emphasis on sexual immaturity (although Leo has his moments). He’s never quite cut the cord with his domineering Jewish mother, and has floated through so many difficult situations through either the force of his intellect or the power of his personality that he’s unable to cope with actual crises, often leaving the management to his doting wife. He’s hopeless when faced with people who have competing agendas because he assumes others will be rational and thoughtful, and can’t imagine them pursuing actions that might do him harm. That gullibility leads him to lend money to a wayward student who tricks him into appearing to commit usury, which also points to the scientific, rational-minded Leo’s inability to responsibly handle anything to do with money. It also means that when Camilla’s crush on him first takes form, he has no concept of how others might perceive his responses, and walks right into what might have been a trap – although the reliability of the narration is an open question even as the book ends.

At heart, Leo believes himself to be a good man, but his actions speak to a superficial and pretentious inner character. He loves to take photographs, but refuses to take family pictures, even on vacations, because they’re not artistic:

Her husband only photographed dead things. And, even worse, he lavished all the care in the world on doing it. But ask him to take a “normal” photograph, who knows, the boys learning to ride a bicycyle, his wife in evening dress or posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or wherever the hell he wanted? Certainly not, not a chance. When you asked him, the artist felt outraged.

He’s not an artist in any sense of the word, of course, but the aspirational nature of his behavior in every one of his endeavors, even in parenting (which leads to acts of emotional cruelty toward his sons), reveals his own insecurity – which becomes fully apparent when his reaction to the public nature of the scandal is to hide, literally and figuratively, in the basement, abandoning his wife and children while believing they’ve actually abandoned him. He’s an overgrown child, incapable of handling true adversity in an adult fashion, of proclaiming his innocence to his wife, or working to regain the trust of either of his sons, or doing much of anything to fight the charges against him. He goes underground – ironic for a man whose surname begins with the Italian word for “bridge” – and never emerges.

Piperno’s strongest resemblance to Philip Roth and other Jewish-American writers – Piperno’s father is Jewish, and both of Piperno’s protagonists are Italian Jews – lies in that strong sense of irony evident in Leo’s name. (His actions don’t reflect the courage of the astrological lion of his first name, either.) The pediatric oncologist undone by the accusations of a child, the

The main weakness of Persecution is the depiction of Leo’s wife, Rachel, although she may get a fuller treatment in the sequel, The Inseparables, still unpublished in English but intended from the start as the second half of this diptych. Rachel Pontecorvo has much in common with her Biblical namesake – married to a doofus who is so naïve that he’s tricked by his brother and then father-in-law, she bears him two sons, and ends up suffering for her choices – but she’s a shadow in the book, nearly always the voice of reason when Leo is acting like a child. She’s never given the chance to reject him outright after the allegations, and we don’t see any curiosity about whether they’re true. Giving her character a third dimension would have improved the book beyond the study of Leo’s character, although I’ll reserve judgment until I read part two, which won the Italian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize last year.

If you appreciate Roth, or Joseph Heller, or the more mundane elements of Kurt Vonnegut’s works (as opposed to the sci-fi trappings around them), you must give Persecution a shot. Even during the moments when you’d like to give Leo a hard slap across the face, this portrait of a man whose superficially perfect life has lost its veneer to reveal an empty interior is searing, bitter, and funny.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m reading, but not enjoying, A Game of Thrones.

The Worst Intentions.

I had two pieces go up late last week for Insiders – one on the Yankees’ dimming future and another on Josh Beckett and Lance Lynn.

I’ve been blogging a little out of order (and often late) recently, but before I forget I wanted to throw a quick post up on Alessandro Piperno’s 2005 novel The Worst Intentions (Con le peggiori intenzioni), a huge best-seller in Italy that won several major literary prizes there and appeared in English in 2007. Piperno, an Italian writer and literary critic born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, has produced the Italian equivalent to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, equally crude and funny but without Roth’s trademark self-indulgence and with a more satirical eye turned toward the hypocrisy of the protoganist’s family members and friends.

Piperno’s narrator, Daniel Sonnino, is the sexually immature 33-year-old heir to a nonexistent family fortune, squandered by his extravagant and crooked grandfather, Bepy, who, along with Daniel’s father, believes in keeping up appearances over all else. The novel eschews the traditional narrative for a stream-of-consciousness approach to the family history of the Sonninos, chronicling their decline from his grandfather’s bankruptcy and flight from debtors, leaving his family to clean up the mess, to his father, mother (who views the Sonninos as frauds), uncle, and his grandfather’s one-time business partner, cuckolded by Bepy, and whose granddaughter, Gaia, becomes the object of Daniel’s puerile obsessions.

I’m not a fan of Roth’s writing, primarily because I find his central characters so self-absorbed despite their development being so arrested, but Piperno’s Daniel, while still immature both emotionally and sexually, is better able to observe his family from a detached perspective, and can even turn the lens on himself and recognize the impacts of his own failures and his inability to form meaningful relationships. His own worst trait is a sometimes-subtle misogyny that often bubbles over into not-subtle forms, particularly with Gaia, who enjoys having Daniel as a follower but dates the most popular boy in the school – one of the only other Jewish students and Daniel’s best friend. The entire final chapter is devoted to this triangle and its devolution, including Daniel’s own destructive action that follows him for years afterwards, which, given Gaia’s name, is fraught with metaphorical implications as well.

Piperno also separates himself from Roth by populating his book with enjoyably quirky side characters, similar to the way the TV series Arrested Development acquired such a devoted cult following – its narcissistic characters helped create a new genre of television comedy. Piperno’s characters aren’t all so awful; some are merely amusing, such as the Arab waiter who only reads Tolstoy’s War and Peace, over and over, reading nothing else over the last thirty years:

But every time, as he returned those old familly volumes [of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust], the Arab’s face displayed a slightly fastidious expression, as if to say: “Thank you for the suggestion, my friend, but, you see, once you’ve read War and Peace you are condemned to read nothing else all your life!” And who’s to say that he wasn’t right?

Piperno’s previous book was a work of nonfiction looking at anti-Semitic elements in Marcel Proust’s work, and the Proust influence is strong here both in word choice and in the meandering flow of the story, although Piperno’s sentences and paragraphs aren’t quite so endless as Proust’s. Here he’s taken Proust’s narrative style, merged it with the neurotic realism of Roth, and produced a slightly difficult but clever and incisive work that was worth the effort required to get through it. His subsequent novel, Persecution, was just released in English in July, and its sequel, Inseparabili, won this year’s Premia Strega, the Italian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so it appears that this book may just be a taste of his capabilities as a writer and satirist.

The Baron in the Trees.

I want to thank all of you who’ve reached out via one medium or another to offer your prayers, positive thoughts, or best wishes on my upcoming thyroid surgery (one week from today). It’s supposed to be routine, but I admit I’m having a hard time thinking of it as such.

Yesterday’s chat was abbreviated, but I tried to plow through as many questions as I could in that short time.

I was introduced to the Italian novelist/fabulist Italo Calvino in college, in that “Comedy and the Novel” course (taught by the now-retired Prof. Donald Fanger) that also brought me to The Master & Margarita and The Charterhouse of Parma, among other titles. I’ve read other Calvino works, including Inscrutable Invisible Cities, but it wasn’t until I tackled The Baron In The Trees that I found something that lived up to the standard of the first novel of his that I’d read.

The Baron in the Trees is a fable, built on a plausible-but-not-really premise about a young man named Cosimo who, after a squabble with his sister that leaves him on the wrong side of the ledger with his parents, decides to climb one of the many trees on his family’s estate … and never comes down. He adapts to life in the trees, learning to navigate them all over their Ligurian village, ignoring property lines while, Omar Little-style, developing his own code of behavior and straddling the lines between outlaw and vigilante, and between folk hero and village idiot. He falls in love, develops da Vinci-like contraptions, crafts a philosophy (and sends it to Diderot), fights battles, meets Napoleon, and becomes a topic of discussion in the great salons of Europe.

While it’s not quite as imaginative as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, one of the best and funniest novels I’ve ever read, The Baron in the Trees contains a more straightforward narrative and doesn’t lack for humor. Cosimo (who becomes a baron after his father dies) sees the world differently, figuratively and literally, from his new vantage point, and necessities like food and hygiene force him to conceive new and unusual solutions to keep himself in the trees. He can also better understand the consequences of his actions, such as his response to the discovery of a traitor amongst his father’s retinue, and the development of his philosophy, while obviously satirizing some of the political philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th century, is built on solid foundations, such as his understanding that “association renders men stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts,” while living a solitary, hermit-like existence in the trees was more likely to lead to bitter disagreements borne of a lack of trust between Cosimo and everyone else in the village. (I thought I also detected some elements here satirizing utopian movements of the 19th and even 20th centuries.)

The last third or so of the narrative starts to slow down as Calvino plunges Cosimo into more situations grounded in European history, thus reducing his interactions with members of the village and his own family, but the fact that he maintained a strong plot through a fable without having it fall apart at the end (or having to tie it up with an absurd plot twist) is a testament to his skill as a fabulist. I’d still recommend If on a winter’s night a traveler… (#20 on the Klaw 100) to a reader who has yet to read any Calvino works, but The Baron in the Trees would be an excellent second choice.

Next up: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Christ Stopped at Eboli.

I’m starting to fall behind here, so this will be a quick writeup. Carlo Levi was a doctor and political activist in fascist Italy who repeatedly fell afoul of the Mussolini regime, and one of his sentences was to spend a year in exile in the very poor Lucania region of southern Italy. His book about that experience, Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, is a memoir that doubles as a sociological treatise with a subtle air of protest at the existence and treatment of this Italian underclass (although the subtlety disappears in the last five pages, where Levi shifts voice from narrator to activist.) The title refers to the local saying that Christ stopped at the town of Eboli and never made it to the poorest villages of the hinterlands, where the people are more pagan than Christian and are treated as less than human by the various governing authorities of the region and of Italy.

It’s not quite a nonfiction novel because of the lack of any singular plot strand, but instead works as a series of anecdotes and observations of peasant life in grinding poverty and under various forms of oppression, from direct government action to government inaction on issues like the rampant malaria that affects the region. Levi takes the ideal path of the neutral, objective observer, so that the peasants and their stories come through rather than Levi’s judgment on their customs and superstitions. The stories range from heartbreaking (there are a lot of dead children and husbands who left for the New World and never returned) to humorous (the fatuous mayor is almost too absurd to be true), but I did find the absence of some narrative force or unanswered question made the reading slow, especially in the final third or so of the book.

Next up: I’ve already finished Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

The Klaw 100, part five.

Part one (#100-81)
Part two (#80-61)
Part three (#60-41)
Part four (#40-21)

I doubt there will be too many surprises here, as I’ve discussed most of these last twenty books somewhere before. The complete list of 100 is available as a spreadsheet at Google Spreadsheets. But don’t click now or you’ll spoil the top 20…

20. Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett. Dark and violent and completely gripping, Red Harvest was Hammett’s first novel and established the format of the hard-boiled detective novel with its sparse style and unblinking descriptions of bloodshed. It may have been the basis for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as well.

19. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. Perhaps the archetype of the brooding male hero, although I kind of felt Heathcliff was just an asshole. It’s a tremendous story of anger, vengeance, and cruelty, unfolding in layers as one might peel back an onion. Also available in a much-beloved semaphore version.

18. If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino. If you love inventive or just plain weird books, this is for you. The subject of the novel is the reading of a novel. Alternating chapters show a dialogue between the Author and the Reader, interlaced with opening chapters from various fictional novels. Calvino, one of the great fabulists of the twentieth century, takes his inspired silliness to a new level.

17. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s all about the green light. Jay Gatsby’s ill-fated chase of the American Dream, set in the Jazz Age as the automobile begins to make its presence felt on our culture. It ranked first on the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, and second on the Modern Library’s own list.

16. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. A classic English novel of betrayal, The Good Soldier describes a web of infidelities that destroys the lives of five people, with incredible dialogue and the powerful, recurring symbol of the human heart. I’m pretty sure that at $2.50 it’s the cheapest book on this list.

15. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter , by Carson McCullers. Full review. An amazing achievement of prose and of literary introspection. McCullers looks into the human soul and finds a lot of dusk, if not dark night.

14. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Like stepping into a lucid dream, and indeed, the protagonist finds the line between reality and dreams blurring while searching for his wife, who has either left him or is being held against her will. You’ll have a hard time putting it down, although there is one scene of graphic torture that was tough to get through.

13. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Ignatius J. Reilly with his dyspeptic valve is one of the great hero-antiheroes in American literature as he’s forced to get his lazy ass a job. The book was published posthumously after Toole’s suicide through the persistence of his mother, who is portrayed in an unflattering light in the book, and novelist Walker Percy; twelve years after Toole’s death, Confederacy won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

12. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Hated it in high school … okay, that’s not fair, I hated the first twenty pages and rented the movie. I went back for a re-read 16 years later and saw what I’d missed: One of the greatest ironic novels I’ve ever read. It’s bleak in its portraits of English society and its strictures, of human emotions, and of fate, but Hardy (who also was a noted poet) writes beautifully and slips numerous bits of wordplay into the text.

11. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. Collins, a protégé of Charles Dickens, believed that nothing in the novel was more important than the plot, and he wrote perhaps the first suspense novel in this story of mistaken identities, ghost sightings, and the unctuous, nefarious villain Count Fosco. Its use of multiple narrators was revolutionary for the time, and while it has the potential to be confusing, it’s critical for the way Collins wants to unfold the plot before the reader

10. Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Full review. A hilarious and absurd satire of the news media that was written in the 1930s but is just as relevant today, as a man who wants no part of the job becomes a foreign correspondent to an African state on the brink of civil war.

9. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding. Fielding made his bones as a novelist by parodying Samuel Richardson’s Pamela with his own work, Shamela, and then moved to a broader satire with Joseph Andrews before stepping out with an entirely original work, the comic picaresque Tom Jones. The story is built around Jones’ romantic pursuit of the daughter of Squire Western, who is constantly trying to pair his daughter up with the villainous son of Jones’ foster parents. Along the way Jones is arrested, accosted, consorts with prostitutes, and runs into no end of conniving, selfish secondary characters.

8. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. The history of Colombia told as the history of one family, with a heavy dose of magical realism and the sweeping feel of an epic despite the focus on individual characters. The Buendía family plays a role in the rise of the fictional town of Macondo until a banana plantation, owned by foreigners, arrives and triggers a lengthy and ultimately complete collapse.

7. Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner. The history of the American South told as the history of one family, mostly limited to the decline of the region after the Civil War. Patriarch Thomas Sutpen builds his fortune, but sets the seeds for his family’s downfall through his greed and racism. Told in Faulkner’s usual style of multiple perspectives and winding prose.

6. Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. The best book ever written about Africa was written by a white South African, decrying the country’s apartheid system while offering threads of hope for its future once the system is dismantled. Preacher Stephen Kumalo leaves his rural village to go to the city to help his dissolute sister, Gertrude, and find his son, named Absalom, who went to help Gertrude earlier but never returned and ends up in jail.

5. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. And here we have African-American history, dating back to their emancipation from slavery. Sethe and her daughter Denver are trying to establish a live for themselves as free women when a young woman, known simply as “Beloved,” arrives at the house. Is she the reincarnation of the child Sethe killed to keep her out of slavery? Sethe’s obsession with Beloved opens the door to a host of questions – are African-Americans held down by the weight of their past, or are they complicit in allowing their past to weigh them down? No one writing today does so with prose like Morrison’s or with as much literary depth.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The greatest one-hit wonder in literature and perhaps in the arts. The story alone makes it a classic, but Lee’s use of language, combining a Southern dialect with the unmistakable voice of a child, elevates it to its legendary status.

3. Emma, by Jane Austen. Austen herself wrote that she didn’t expect anyone to like her meddling, imperious protagonist, but nearly two hundred years after publication the book remains extremely popular, and the title character is a major reason. Character development was never Austen’s strength, but Emma grows up across the book’s 400-odd pages, with the usual cast of comic-relief supporting characters, including her worrywart father and the garrulous Miss Bates.

2. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. To the reviewer who called Lolita “the only convincing love story of our century,” I submit Tender is the Night, the story of the gradual, inexorable breakdown of the seemingly perfect marriage between two beautiful people by way of infidelity, drink, and mental illness. If Fitzgerald had to go out early, he could not have gone out on a higher note.

1. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. An absolute masterpiece, banned by the Soviets for decades for its subtle yet severe indictment of communism’s many, many failures. The Devil comes to Moscow and exposes its society for all its vapidity, running into the frustrated author The Master and his faithful girlfriend Margarita, a story intertwined with a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, all stacked with allusions to the Bible and major works of 19th century Russian literature. It is a work of unbridled genius, of acrimonious dissent, and most of all, of hope and faith in humanity.