Roman Hoodlums: ‘The Ragazzi’ by Pier Paolo Pasonlini


When I picked up Pasolini’s ‘The Ragazzi’, I think I was expecting a male counterpart to Elena Ferrante’s wonderful Neapolitan novels (I’ve read and reviewed ‘My Brilliant Friend‘ and ‘The Story of a New Name‘ on the blog).  Like Ferrante’s books, ‘The Ragazzi’ is set in a poverty-stricken community and deals with young protagonists on the brink of adulthood.  The blurb for my copy of Pasolini’s novel was as stylishly vague as the cover, so I had little to guide me when I started reading.

The fact is ‘The Ragazzi’ is closer to Ernst Haffner’s ‘Blood Brothers’ than anything else I’ve reviewed recently.  It is about those ignored by mainstream society and the communities they end up forming for themselves.  The brutality of the lives and society depicted takes precedent over a more traditional story or message.  For one thing, although there is a smattering of Christ imagery, the book is determinedly non-literary.  Apparently the original edition contained a glossary of ‘Romano’ words for Italian readers and even in translation the focus remains on the prosaic experiences of the protagonists, consistently stripped of any comforting ‘artistic’ touches or descriptions.  Instead of a clearly structured novel therefore, ‘The Ragazzi’ is made up of episodes in a the lives of a group teenagers and boys in post-war Rome.  At times almost like a collection of short stories, we follow certain key characters through nights of crime and days of loitering, each individual episode likely to be disrupted by arrest, flight or simply a change of scene or new escapade.

Emile Capouya’s translation brings home the stifling monotony and violence of the boys’ lives, in a way that feels true to the Neorealism of Pasolini’s original Italian.  This does not always make for a pleasant read; the miserable world these young men inhabit is not one that I’d ever want to visit, and the documentary style narration feels uncomfortably unsympathetic in the face of their troubles and the torments they inflict on others.  ‘The Ragazzi’ was shocking when it was first published in 1955 and the vivid, unforgiving tone ensures it is still powerful today; a chilling novel albeit set under the Roman sun.

Posted in Italian Literature, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Reading in translation, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Loving Dostoyevsky in Winter: Summer in Badenen by Leonid Tsypkin


The title of Tsypkin’s wonderful novel may not seem terribly seasonal, but then frankly nothing about this book is quite what you’d expect.  Part of it is set in 1970s Russia, as our narrator takes a long train journey to freezing Leningrad.  Ever present in his mind: on the train, at his friend’s apartment, while walking through the city, are thoughts of that most tormented and most Russian of tormented Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Adding to the contrasts of summer and winter, twentieth century and nineteenth century, is that of Russia against Europe; the main biographical event that haunts the novel is Dostoyevsky’s 1867 visit to the spa town of Baden Baden.  Failing to manage his gambling addiction, the great writer’s time abroad is blackly comic as he fumbles his way around the ex-pat scene, trying to impress fellow celebrities, having tantrums and generally self-destructing.  Hysterical, self-obsessed and prejudiced, the man who emerges is no hero, a fact of which our narrator is well aware; Tsypkin self-consciously highlights the contradiction of the anti-Semitic Dostoyevsky’s appeal for Russian readers of Jewish descent.  One of the things I love about great Russian literature is the way it embraces complexity.  With his sensitive but exposing biographical set-pieces, Tsypkin shows himself to be consciously working within this tradition.

Providing cohesion between the different timeframes and tones are long, flowing sentences that perfectly capture Dostoyevsky’s nervous energy and the narrator’s own literary obsession.  A quotation on the cover of my edition (brilliantly translated by Roger and Angela Keys) compares it to W G Sebald’s prose, and those who like Sebald will certainly enjoy Tsypkin’s interweaving of biography and philosophy.  This review should make my own feelings clear: as a Dostoyevsky fan, it was wonderful to learn more about his life and trials; as a lover of Russian literature who’s been on nearly a year’s break, reading ‘Summer in Baden Baden’ felt like coming home after being away for far too long.

Posted in Leonid Tsypkin, Reading in translation, Russian Reading, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Bringing my Nordic reading home: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf


This year, I decided to go for a mini reading project which would take me away from the grey London winter and into the realms of ice and snow.  My January was truly illuminating as I discovered books and rediscovered authors from Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  We’re well into February now and it’s time to come home, but before I really claim the project is complete I feel the need to revisit a crucial part of my own English literary heritage.

Though set in (roughly) sixth century Scandinavia, Beowulf was written in England between the seventh and tenth century and it’s generally credited with being the longest poem surviving from this place and time.  My first real encounter with it came when I ‘read’ sections as an English undergraduate.  It wasn’t really reading though, it was a filling-in-the-gaps exercise during a unit on Old English.  Without wishing to go into too much detail, Old English really is a foreign language (unlike ‘Middle English’ as written by Chaucer or the technically-modern-but-nonetheless-archaic language of Shakespeare).   Old English looks like this:

Cóm on wanre niht
scríðan sceadugenga      scéotend swaéfon
þá þæt hornreced      healdan scoldon

I am no Seamus Heaney and I’m pleased that my scrappy attempts at translation have all disappeared.  I do think such matters are best left in the hands of experts; Heaney gives us the above lines as:

Then, out of the night
Came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift

the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts

I can’t help feel that reading this version gets me far closer to the intended suspense, tension and excitement than my own painstaking and crippling slow cross-referencing ever could.

If you’ve ever been tempted to go back to the earliest of English stories, I really recommend this modern English version.  Heaney makes use of powerful and vigorous language, echoing the formal style of the original poem (two balancing halves to each line, each half containing two stressed syllables).  Rather than rhymes, the poem is built on this pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.  Couple that with the relentlessly flowing alliteration and you’re left with a poem so invigorating and dynamic its easy to imagine listening spellbound to the bards as they wove their magic over long winter nights.

For lovers of more modern classics, Beowulf was one of the ancient texts loved by Tolkien, and its monsters, gold hoards and heroes were a template for his own larger-than-life creations.  Its legacy still holds, and on this reading I was delighted to spot several connections to Harry Potter (because underwater adventures never go out of fashion).  I may never have sat in a mead-hall terrorised by hellish monsters or been saved by ring-giving heroes, but for the 3,000 or so lines of the poem I could image that I had.  It may not be seasonally wintry, but a legend like ‘Beowulf’ never goes out of fashion and it has been the perfect conclusion to my Nordic winter reading.

Posted in Nordic literature, Seamus Heaney | Tagged , | 10 Comments

A wonderful introduction to modern Icelandic fiction: ‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjón


About a month ago, I reviewed the first book of my Nordic winter reading challenge – Halldór Laxness’s miserable Icelandic epic ‘Independent People.’  Since then, I’ve had a wonderful time reading my way around Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.  It feels only fitting to conclude by returning to my original location; albeit with a very different kind of novel.  Though set a century ago, ‘Moonstone’ is a consciously modern look at Iceland’s past.  In contrast to ‘Independent People’ it’s short, cosmopolitan and ambiguous; a wonderful introduction to contemporary Icelandic literature.

As an indication of the novel’s tone, ‘Moonstone’ begins on October 12th 1918 with a boy giving an older man a blow job on the edge of town.  Neither is named, and the anonymous act is accompanied by the throbbing of customised motorbike.  Immediately after, the rider of the bike appears in a striking pose against the volcanic sky, Sóla G – ‘a girl like no other,’ a femme fatale straight from silver screen.  The story which follows will be equally modern, industrial and ambiguous, marrying meticulously researched period details with a magical air of near-unreality.

The fluidity between the real and the hyper-real is masterfully rooted in actual history.  Thus Sóla G – ‘appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volacnic fires of Katla‘ (Katla errupted in 1918).  Then, within a very few pages, the devastation of Spanish flu renders all other plot threads suddenly un-dramatic and irrelevant.  Towards the end of the novel, the ceremonies around Iceland’s independence from Denmark become a comedy of errors implicating more characters than you might first expect.

For all of the bleakness of the period and subject matter, ‘Moonstone’ is ultimately a love story.  A love story for movement and modernity, for freedom and for illusion.  While the less pleasant sides of such ideals are never hidden, the calm delight of the boy who discovers them shines through.  A massive thank you to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog for recommending this book so highly in January.  I’m adding my voice to hers in recommending you seek out this unexpected and extremely powerful story.

Posted in Nordic literature, Reading in translation, Sjón | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Nobody does it better: ‘A Winter Book’ by Tove Jansson


I have been meaning to read Tove Jansson’s ‘A Winter Book’ for simply ages.  My excuse for three quarters of the year of course, has always been that it’s just not seasonal; then somehow my winter reading tends to get submerged in starting/ending challenges.  Fortunately in 2017 everything has converged and, as predicted, ‘A Winter Book’ was very much worth the wait.

I first learned to love Jansson through her Moomin books, and for a very long time I had no idea she wrote for adults.  Then ‘The Summer Book’ came to my attention, followed by the haunting novel, ‘The True Deceiver.’  ‘A Winter Book’ is something a bit different, made up of short, often autobiographical, stories and presented as spanning Jansson’s own life.

The first stories were probably my favourite, not just for the magically icy world they create, but because of the flawlessly childish narrative voice which seamlessly slips between an age-appropriate lexicon and phrases borrowed from adults.  The young narrator inhabits a very grown up world, and many of the stories narrate her forays into independence, such as when she decides to go on a solo sail around the Pellinge archipelago.  ‘I don’t know how it was that Mum got wind of the project; maybe she noticed I’d taken the sleeping-bag out of the tent.  She didn’t say anything but somehow she let me know she knew about it and that she was on my side as far as deceiving Dad went.  He would never have let me go.  And I’m pretty sure Mum would never have managed to deceive her own father, who never let her sleep in a tent or even wear a sailor-suit collar.  A terrible century.’

The writing is brilliantly balanced throughout.  Who but Jannson would call our attention to the fact that ‘the harbour is an ocean of blue snow and loneliness and nasty air‘, or recollect childhood with such precision as to scoff as ‘visitors hauled on the rope and were soaked to the skin in their nightshirts and had no idea what fun the whole things was, which served them right.‘  The book is not all about childhood of course, and soon maturity with its accompanying loneliness and comforts become the centre of the stories.  I suspect each reader, on each reading, will find different moments speak to them.  I certainly know that this will not be my last January spent with ‘A Winter Book’ and that it has only added to the pile of Jansson works that I’m looking forward to revisiting in the future.

Posted in Nordic literature, Tove Jansson | 11 Comments

A magical winter read: ‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas


Even within the wonderful set of wintery books I’ve been reading this January, ‘The Ice Palace’ stands out as exceptional.  For magic, fear and disturbing ambiguity, I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it into my top reads for 2017.

The book begins in the evening, as an eleven year old girl makes her way through a dark forest.  Suddenly, there’s a loud noise:

It was from the ice on the big lake down below.  And it was nothing dangerous, in fact it was good news: the noise meant that the ice was a little bit stronger.   It thundered like a gunshot, blasting long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths – yet the ice was stronger and safer each morning. There had been an unusually long period of severe frost this autumn.
Biting cold.  But Siss was not afraid of the cold.  It wasn’t that.  She had started at the noise in the dark, but then she stepped out steadily along the road.

Siss is on her way to visit Unn, a newcomer to region who lives through the forest and past the lake.  We know almost nothing about Unn, except that she has no parents, refuses to join in games at at school and exerts an incredibly strong influence over Siss.  The compelling attraction between the two girls, one an outsider the other the most popular girl in school, is what has drawn Siss into the frightening, biting cold of the icy autumn evening.

The whole of the short novella plays out as a tense psychological drama, a shattering coming of age story, and a fantastic evocation of an almost supernaturally powerful winter environment.  By the time ice melts, Siss’ apparently safe world will have been destroyed, revealed as no less permanent than the frightening night sounds it produces.

And this world is magical.  At its heart is an ‘ice palace’ created by a frozen waterfall.  The descriptions of this memorising creation are as powerful and enthralling as anything in Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus‘, and it exerts a similarly hypnotic effect on both characters and reader.  If you haven’t read ‘The Ice Palace,’ I recommend you do so immediately.  If you have, I can’t imagine you need my reminder to read it again.   It’s a frightening world, but the only possible response is to agree with the first visitor to the frozen enchantment ‘She was completely absorbed by the palace, so stupendous did it appear to her … nothing had been more right than to go there.’

Posted in Nordic literature, Tarjei Vesaas | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Some things never go out of fashion: ‘The Red Room: Scenes of Artistic and Literary Life’ by August Strindberg


It’s impossible to read much European literature from the turn of the century and not have run into Strindberg, as so many fictional characters gush and have epiphanies over his writings.  Somehow however, he’s never managed to get to the top of my own reading pile – so once again I’ve had reason to be pleased with my Nordic winter reading project; if nothing else, it would finally get me started on this Swedish literary giant. 

In England, Strindberg is best known for his plays, but he first came to fame as a novelist when ‘The Red Room’ exposed the hypocrisy of contemporary Stockholm society.  The book begins when the idealistic young Avrid Falk leaves his job as an overpaid and underworked civil servant in order to become a starving writer.  Personally, I was rather confused why he had to do both,the scathing description of his day job (hardly anyone ever shows up to work, those who do have no duties or responsibilities anyway) left me with the impression that it would be the perfect way to fund a literary career.  Forget burning the midnight oil, it sounded like he could work full time as a journalist while still picking up his pay-check as an assessor.  Such half measures will never do however, and in the company of bohemian artists Falk will spend the rest of the book bearing horrified witness to the sordid business of succeeding in the terrible modern world.

As you may be able to tell, while I enjoyed ‘The Red Room’ it was mostly because I found it silly and endearingly self-indulgent rather than actually shocking or affecting.  From what I’ve read, Strindberg was doing something very new in 1879 when he published his first novel, but I defy any modern reader to approach the book ignorant of the trials of being a starving writer in a world of hypocrites who are too ignorant and stupid to recognise artistic merit and inner goodness.  The characters are unpleasant and unsubtle: Falk’s bohemian friends are selfish and callous and his pretentious brother and sister-in-law are are larger-than-life monsters.

An implicit aim behind my Nordic winter reading was to spend my mental time away from the all too real horrors of 2017.  While ‘The Red Room’ didn’t transport me to vast icy wastes, it did succeed in helping me escape from all that frightens and disgusts me about my own modern world.  Seen in context, it gives me hope that in the future my contemporary concerns will seem petty and trite because times pass and societies change.  At the very least we can be confident there will always be a body of under-appreciated young artists out there, ready to write about their trials and tribulations.  And as my experience of Strindberg has shown, there will always be a body of readers waiting in their turn to feel empathetic, horrified or smugly superior.

Posted in August Strindberg, Nordic literature, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments