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mercoledì 27 giugno 2012

Accabadora, by Michela Murgia

A few weeks ago I read "Accabadora", by Italian writer Michela Murgia, from Sardinia. The reason I became curious about this book is that it had just been translated into Swedish, getting very good praise. I'm always interested in how Italian literature is perceived abroad, and in what is translated and what is not. (In general, Sweden has a very scant selection of translated literature, for example I was recently extremely surprised to find out that only two of Yukio Mishima's works are available in Swedish, while you can find more or less his complete works both in Italian and English).

Plus, I was interested in the main character: the Accabadora. Acabar in Spanish means to finish, to end, and the Sardinian word accabadora probably comes from that, and it refers to a woman (always a woman) who puts an end to the suffering of very elderly or sick people, when the family or even the sick person demands her intervention. It's a form of euthanasia, and I thought it was fascinating to write a novel about this. Woman as giver of both life and death, the first and the last mother, a figure who is both strongly human and eerily bewitched. I bought the book in Italian and was very eager to plunge into its pages.

Sardinia is politically part of Italy but has a rich and fascinating culture of its own which you can perceive just by spending a few weeks there. It's an enchanting place. It even has its own language and folklore, and I thought this novel would bring me deep into all these things. BUT.... I was disappointed. The novel is a quick read and it has some beautiful glimpses here and there, but when it struggles to be deep and introspective, it sounds predictable and the characters's actions and thoughts often feel artificial, reminding you at every sentence that you are "just" reading a book. Most characters (the ignorant peasants, the young, sensitive Maria, the wise Accabadora, the old priest) often express their thoughts in the same way, through puns and witful jokes, and this homogeneity feels totally wrong, of course.

So, big theme, equally big disappointment. And I think it's significant that when I read readers' reviews on the Italian site ibs, the only reader from Sardinia who wrote a comment stated that she couldn't recognize her world, according to her Sardinia is something else. I can't judge this, because my knowledge of this complex island is too little, but I can say that I expected much, much more from this writer and from this novel in particular.

We are soon going to Italy for our summer holidays and I will borrow my mum's collection of Grazia Deledda's works. I think I can find much more of Sardinia in there....

domenica 17 giugno 2012

Wet sun

Today we took a walk after it had rained for hours.

The damp glow of sunshine after rain is comforting and beautiful. Nature smells damp and delicious, leaves and flowers are heavy with raindrops, colours glare and shine again and everything seems both virgin and succulently ripe at the same time.
Small creatures go out of their hiding places and enjoy the soaked earth, the fragrant wood glistening with water and the warm touch of the sun fondling plants and trees.

giovedì 14 giugno 2012

From "Requiem", by Anna Akhmatova


The word landed with a stony thud
Onto my still-beating breast.
Nevermind, I was prepared,
I will manage with the rest.

I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again. . .

But how. The hot summer rustles
Like a carnival outside my window;
I have long had this premonition:
A bright day and a deserted house.
[22 June 1939. Summer. Fontannyi Dom]

mercoledì 13 giugno 2012

Ilon Wikland and her illustrations

I have always been interested in picture books and illustrations, and after becoming the mother of the cutest little bookworm ever, my interest couldn't but grow.

All countries have peculiar traditions concerning children's literature and picture books, and Sweden is particularly fascinating in this way. If I put aside my knowledge and all I've learnt from books and just focus of the thought of "Sweden", I think of long, dark winters, short, cool summers glowing with sunlight, water and rocks and pine trees and flowers. Cosy interiors, smell of cinnamon. Space, forests, sounds of nature. I think a lot of children's picture books express in different ways all these aspects of life in Sweden, especially a strong feeling for nature, her constant presence with her beauty, mystery, power.

The Swedish children's literature tradition was initiated by the Swedish-speaking Finn Zacharius Topelius in the 19th century, though it was Elsa Beskow (1874–1953) who marked a significant turning point, writing and illustrating over 40 children's stories between 1897–1952. She rewrote classical fairy tales, from Andersen for example, and found inspiration in Scandinavian folklore.

In the 1930s a new awareness of children's needs emerged, as grown-ups started to understand the importance of imagination and subversive thought in children. This manifested itself shortly after World War II, when Astrid Lindgren published Pippi Longstocking in 1945. Pippi's rebellious behaviour at first sparked resistance among some defenders of cultural values, but eventually she was accepted, and with that children's literature was freed from the obligation to promote moralism and "rules". As her official site informs us, "her archive at the National Library of Sweden covers 125 shelf meters and contains an estimated 75,000 letters. The archive was placed on Unesco’s World Heritage List in 2005.".

My daughter loves Pippi and many other Astrid Lindgren's characters and we've read many books by this author to her, and I like them all. What I truly DON'T like and almost loathe are the Swedish TV series based on them, most of which are from the '70's and '80's and - to my humble point of view - ruin Astrid Lindgren's characters completely, creating a series of disturbed, unbearable kids, and are even potentially dangerous, showing children throwing themselves out of windows or down roofs and landing safely or with minor injuries, and countless more similar stunts. So, these TV films have all my disrespect.

But as I said, the original books by A. Lindgren are much better, and they are always accompanied by beautiful illustrations. One illustrator who worked with the writer for many years and produced wonderful pictures is Ilon Wikdal.

She was born in Estonia in 1930 and moved to Sweden as a refugee aged 14. Her collaboration with Astrid Lindgren started in 1954, when she was commissioned the illustrations for Mio, min Mio.

Her drawings are ecceptionally detailed and have a special, warm atmosphere about them. She created evocative landscapes, domestic scenes, cityscapes. Her winter scene are particularly suggestive.

This, for example, is taken from "Titta, Madicken, det snöar!" (Look, Madicken, it's snowing!) and it shows the moment Madicken looks out the window to see the first snow on a Sunday MORNING.... now, that blue, ice cold darkness is the colour of early mornings in Stockholm in the middle of the winter, when days have 5, 6 hours of light and the rest is night and snow sends its frozen glow. When I see this picture I feel a fit of anxiety remembering the neverending Swedish winter....

The following are photos I took on the day before Christmas in 2010, in Uppsala. It was late in the morning... oh my, oh my.

martedì 12 giugno 2012

To Anne Frank (1929 - 1945)

"I don't think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains."
Anne Frank

A warm thought to this wonderful person on what would be her 83rd birthday.

Sylvia Plath

I Am Vertical

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them--
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

--Sylvia Plath from The Collected Works

lunedì 11 giugno 2012

This is.....

This is what I see out of my kitchen window here is Sweden. Balloons are a common sight at this time of the year, and there are around 18 hours of light now. Better store it up for the winter...

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani

“She could sense it very clearly: for me, no less than for her, the past counted far more than the present, remembering something far more than possessing it. Compared to memory, every possession can only ever seem disappointing, banal, inadequate ... She understood me so well! My anxiety that the present 'immediately' turned into the past so that I could love it and dream about it at leisure was just like hers, was identical. It was 'our' vice, this: to go forwards with our heads forever turned back.”
Giorgio Bassani

As I said in a previous post, when I was in Italy just before the earthquake I felt a strong urge to read some Italian literature, because the summer starting to burst everywhere, with its special smells and colours and atmospheres, was so overwhelming that I could hardly stand its beauty, which felt sad, too, as I knew I would soon be going away.
So I picked Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini from our Italian-authors-shelf. I got that book when I was 14, and I was supposed to read it for a school assignment. I never read it at the time, and I'm happy I didn't, because it's a complex book that I could never have appreciated back then.

The novel focuses on the relationship between Giorgio and Micòl as the shadow of Fascism and racial laws creeps over their lives. The narration starts in 1957, when Giorgio, now a grown man, visits a Jewish cemetery in Ferrara, with some friends. Among the graves he finds the mausoleum belonging to the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy and slightly eccentric family. Only two members of the family rest in there, as all the others were killed in the Nazi camps. Giorgio remembers the years he spent close to the Finzi-Continis, his love for Micòl, his painful growing up after his unrequited love for her.

The first part of the book covers the narrator's childhood experiences, explaining also how he and Finzi-Continis eventually became close. The description of the religious celebrations in the Synagogue, when the children curiously spied on each other creating an intimate, secret game, is very beautiful. The narrator, Giorgio, is a very tender character, and the author is great at shaping all the different personalities of the the characters through the use of language and dialogue.

The next two parts of the book cover the years in which the children are in or just out of University. As racial laws have dramatically restricted the social lives of all Jews, the Finzi-Continis open their garden to their children's friends, and they all gather there and play tennis. Giorgio falls in love with Micòl (or rather, he becomes more painfully conscious of his love for her) and he mistakes her innocent and childish attitudes for signals of love on her part, too. Her brother is meanwhile getting weaker and weaker though no-one apart from Giorgio seems to notice this. He's actually ill with cancer and will die before the rest of the family is taken by the Nazis.

The last part of the book is sad and gloomy, everything falling to pieces, everything lost. Alberto Finzi-Contini dies, all the others are taken away, and I will never stop being shocked at this... people in uniform coming into your house and taking you to concentration camps. It leaves me speechless: how could it happen, how could it all happen? The book doesn't actually mention that moment, because its narrated through Giorgio's perspective, and he was not there, he didn't witness their departure.

Afterwards, Giorgio is a grown man, though so young. The cooling down of his feelings for Micòl coincide with the end of his childhood and adolescence. One evening, after coming home from an evening which marks a turning point in his life, he finds his father awake, and they start to talk. This was my favourite part, the strong intimacy unfolding out of each word they tell each other and culminating in a long, warm, unexpected hug.

I loved this book. Bassani is extremely sensitive and perceptive, and it's truly hard to "talk about" this book, because so much happens between the lines. I will never forget its characters, its atmospheres.

Vittorio de Sica turned the book into a film in 1970, and I watched it just after reading the book. Of course, the film doesn't capture all the subtle hues the book expresses, and de Sica made some gross changes in the plot that I really didn't appreciate. The author himself never forgave the director for making such changes.

Now I want to read more books by Giorgio Bassani, first of all The Gold-Rimmed Glasses....

mercoledì 6 giugno 2012

Days of Being Wild, by Wong Kar Wai

Yesterday I watched Days Of Being Wild, by Wong Kar Wai.

A few months ago I watched Happy Together by the same director, and I liked that film so much that I haven't been able to write about it yet. I can say it's one of my absolute favorite films and Wong Kar Wai is without a doubt my absolute favourite director, for his themes and the strong and melancholic way he depicts feelings. I adore everything in his films, the suggestive settings, the greenish and reddish light enveloping everything, the interior decoration details and the clothes. And the music is simply wonderful, especially what is composed by Shigeru Umebayashi.

Days of Being Wild (1990)is set in Hong Kong during the '60's and focuses on the life of Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) after he learns from the drunken ex-prostitute who raised him that she is not his real mother. He is very shocked and hurt by this revelation and he's overwhelmed by a flow of contrasting feelings. He meets two women in these wild days and makes both of them unhappy. One of them becomes friendly with a cop in the rainy nights following her final parting from Yuddy. After learning that his birth mother is in the Philippinnes, Yuddy travels there, just to be hurt once more as the woman refuses to meet him.

As is often the case in Wong Kar-Wai's films, all characters somehow hurt each other, love hurts and pierces and leaves destruction behind, yet love is all what life is about. I think this is very true, and I like extremely much the way this director can show it in his films, with a melancholic beauty that is poetic but not sentimental, tender but not sappy, "arty" but achingly true and recognizable.

sabato 2 giugno 2012

Darling Italy, and a poem by Pavese

Back to Italy. Back to Sweden. Colours, seasons, impressions and feelings melting into an intoxicating blend. I went to Italy meaning to stay there two weeks. The first days I was - as usual - struck by the gust of recognition: familiar things are both strikingly new and painfully familiar when you see them after some time. The colours slightly faded in the sun, the wild poppies and chamomile flowers, soft green maize fields. People: the loved ones, the known and unknown, a whirlpool of voices and memories that pierces the heart. The house, the silent objects that had been waiting, motionless, untouched. The spring already ripe and hot, the same smell and the same colours I breathed when I first came to the world. Everything so painfully beautiful, because I was there but I knew I would go away soon, and because I hadn't been there for a long time. I was both happy and sad, in the mood for tears and sudden smiles.

Then the earthquakes came, they accelerated time, turned hours into knots of anxiety and fearful alertness. I'm not used, I was not prepared, I didn't know what I was supposed to do. The last (relatively) big quake in my area dates back to 1570. TV and newspapers showed collapsed buildings, destroyed industrial sites with dead people under them, broken towers and crumbled churches, cracks in streets and corn fields. People living in tents, all schools closed. We slept on the sofa with clothes on, ready to run out (but is it really the right thing to do?). People were talking about it all the time, everywhere. I was afraid for my daughter. I couldn't sleep, I lost 2 kilos in 3 days.

And now I'm suddenly in Sweden again. Summer disappeared: 5 degrees and rain.

When I arrived in Italy, before the quakes, when I was still voraciously savouring the feeling of "being there", I thought I wanted to read some Italian author. So I picked some books from my shelves. Giorgio Bassani, Michela Murgia, and Cesare Pavese. All very different, all very Italian. On the plane yesterday, besides Andersen for my daughter, I read Pavese's poems. Some I liked, I found what I was looking for. I don't exactly know what it was, but I found it. I will soon write more posts about the authors I mentioned, but for now I will share the English translation of one of the poems I read and liked on the plane.

Passion for Solitude

I'm eating a little supper by the bright window.
The room's already dark, the sky's starting to turn.
Outside my door, the quiet roads lead,
after a short walk, to open fields.
I'm eating, watching the sky—who knows
how many women are eating now. My body is calm:
labor dulls all the senses, and dulls women too.

Outside, after supper, the stars will come out to touch
the wide plain of the earth. The stars are alive,
but not worth these cherries, which I'm eating alone.
I look at the sky, know that lights already are shining
among rust-red roofs, noises of people beneath them.
A gulp of my drink, and my body can taste the life
of plants and of rivers. It feels detached from things.
A small dose of silence suffices, and everything's still,
in its true place, just like my body is still.

All things become islands before my senses,
which accept them as a matter of course: a murmur of silence.
All things in this darkness—I can know all of them,
just as I know that blood flows in my veins.
The plain is a great flowing of water through plants,
a supper of all things. Each plant, and each stone,
lives motionlessly. I hear my food feeding my veins
with each living thing that this plain provides.

The night doesn't matter. The square patch of sky
whispers all the loud noises to me, and a small star
struggles in emptiness, far from all foods,
from all houses, alien. It isn't enough for itself,
it needs too many companions. Here in the dark, alone,
my body is calm, it feels it's in charge.