Monday, January 31, 2005

painting by Gino Severini Posted by Hello
'>Italian Tales:
An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Fiction

Massimo Riva, editor
Yale University Press. 272 pages, $30.

book review by William Severini Kowinski

My mother was born in Italy, although this fact was kept from her children for years, ostensibly to forestall any question of her citizenship (she arrived at the age of 4) but her reticence was probably due to her mother's residual caution. In the 1930s and 40s, Italians weren't universally popular in America. Then came Joe DiMaggio and Perry Como, and in the 50s Italian language songs were top forty hits.

More recently, I read somewhere about a common experience of Italian-Americans returning to the old country. Steeped on their grandparents' tales of escaping poverty and gratitude for generous American G.I.s, they visited Italian relatives who turned out to be more prosperous and urban than they, and not so impressed with America. Why should they be? Despite more obvious government corruption, they have better health care.

Italian literature has also changed with the times, as '>Massimo Riva tells us in a fascinating introduction to this anthology specifically meant for an American readership. Italian literature is as old as the classics of Rome, yet comparatively young in that Italy has existed as a united country for only about a century and a half, and at the time of unification in the 1860s, most people spoke regional dialects. Three quarters of the population did not speak or write Italian.

Even today, with Italian as the spoken standard and much greater literacy---but with the explosive growth and influence of mass media--- the readership for literature written in Italian within the country, Riva says, is still small. But Italian writers have been influential in world literature, especially since World War II. Ernest Hemingway, who wrote A Farewell to Arms based on his World War I experiences in Italy (and wrote about Venice in a later novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, which I read on my only visit to Venice), wrote a fulsome introduction to Elio Vittorini's novel, Conversations in Sicily. This was published in 1949, so it is impossible to say who influenced who, but quite a bit of the book reads like vintage Hemingway.

Two anthologies published by Penguin in the 1960s (Italian Short Stories, with parallel English and Italian text, and Italian Writing Today) contain work by authors who were then world famous, or who soon would be: Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia, Natalia Ginzburg, Ignazio Silone, Carlo Gadda, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Italo Calvino. (Silone's Bread and Wine was the only modernist Italian I was asked to read in college, although I recently read Fontomara, his novel about the Abruzzi region where my mother was born, with great pleasure.)

In the past several decades, it was Calvino and Umberto Eco who became the best known in America. Eco doesn't do much for me, but I consider Calvino one of the greatest of his time in the world. In imagination and style he ranks with Marquez, and his intellect and literary taste are unparalleled. I find his fiction wondrous and his nonfiction singularly stimulating.

According to Riva, Calvino cast a long shadow in Italy as well. While some of the writers in this anthology are actually Calvino's contemporaries, they and others represented here are also Calvino's literary children. I don't want to characterize Calvino's writing, because that is to unfairly limit a protean body of work. But in his thoughtful approach to literature, he does represent a certain consciousness about process and possibility. He also linked traditional stories (as in Italian Folktales, which he edited) to more fabulous forms (like his own brand of science fiction in Cosmicomics) and concerns with contemporary life. Another strand in Italian writing may be more clearly represented by Pasolini, who is best known for his neo-realist films.

So even though Calvino is deliberately left out of this anthology, his spirit pervades it, especially as the man of world letters who nevertheless was consciously Italian. In his work as a publisher in a literary community based in Turino, Calvino had what few Americans ever do, even in universities: a life centered on literature. That sense of literature seems present to these writers, though their circumstances differ. (Some have had teaching careers in America.)

These writers and their short stories, novel excerpts and nonfiction pieces, are of the 80s and 90s (there are notably more women writers than in those past anthologies.) Many are trying to reconcile contemporary Italy with its past and traditions, including its landscape, using various literary strategies. These writers seem to me to be writing about Italy for a world audience, perhaps even for that timeless audience of unknown and unborn readers that defines literature. That is, regardless of their relationship to the Italian readership of today, they are writing of Italy today.

So Giorgio Manganelli tells a story from the point of view of a labyrinth, Fabrizia Ramondino describes a neighborhood over time, while Erri De Luca presents a poor adolescent's journal in almost a neo-realist style. Time is a central concern for Pier Maria Pasinetti looking at history, and Pier Vittorio Tondelli, looking at his old room.

Editor Riva divides these pieces into sections with themes keyed to Italian life and concerns, such as the presence of ruins, the persistence of the piazza and the opera of life. He provides useful glosses on each piece and each writer. I hope to read more by several of them, including Gesualdo Bufalino (his story concerns a man who treats dead cars as Coliseum-like ruins), Daniele Dei Giudice (whose excerpt about a lost pilot is a cliffhanger) and Antonio Tabucchi, who seems to apply magic realism to film noir.

Riva, who is professor of Italian studies at Brown University, has collected tales that curious and casual readers can enjoy, while supplying helpful background and point of view for both interested readers and scholars of literature and culture. Bravo!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

job mob Posted by Hello

Monday, January 17, 2005

review by William S. Kowinski
'>Just Work
by Russell Muirhead. Harvard University Press, 204 pages, $24.95.

For all the time and energy we devote to work, there are surprisingly few books dealing with it. Work is often much less important in the lives of characters in novels and movies than in our own. Perhaps that's part of their appeal.

But for most people, work is a central fact and daily preoccupation. Though parents may have counseled us to "just do it," and the responsibilities of earning a live are paramount, some latitude of choice (or at least the illusion of it) has combined with the sense that self-fulfillment in work is a goal if not a right, and that our responsibilities in the work we do go beyond self and family to society and the planet.

It's not an easy time to be dealing with these issues. While New Age success mystics preach that self-fulfillment is within our grasp, more people are working harder under greater pressures for less income, as the gap between rich and poor grows to an abyss. People feel stuck in alienating or dishonest jobs that require them to not only act inauthentically but seem to demand their hearts and souls as well as their minds and bodies. They spend too much time on the job, where they are required to lie to each other and to themselves, while pretending they don't know they are being lied to.

The title of '>Russell Muirhead's book is an obvious pun that speaks to this situation. It's just work, after all, it says, the most mundane part of our lives, yet so important than we deny it, especially in the throes of shame for not having fulfilled our dreams, or outside expectations. But is it also asks if justice is served: is it just work, fair to us and to the world around us? And where do we get the idea that work should be or can be just?

An Associate Professor of Government at Harvard, Muirhead examines some of these knotty common issues ("Can we each get our due while at the same time contributing to the common good?" ) as problems in political theory. This book examines philosophical approaches to the issues of work, the individual and society, from Plato and Aristotle, through John Stuart Mill and Betty Friedan. This is basically a scholarly work, well-organized and quite readable in style. It is a solid contribution, a thorough background that raises the pertinent issues, though few readers are likely to find it the last word on their own concerns.

I especially enjoyed the treatment of Mill, who seems to get short shrift these days, but I remember being intensely interested in him as I was about to enter college, and forming my ideas about my place in the larger world. It's also interesting to see the Protestant work ethic, more often referred to than explained, more fully described in a larger historical context. In an economy that is enlarging the proportion, numbers and categories of "service" occupations, a history of service (or servants) in America is very enlightening. The servant class existed before the working class, and apparently has returned in force, though changed.

Other books on the subject of work offer complementary approaches and perspectives. Among those emphasizing the personal experience of work are'> Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by David Whyte, a poet who works with corporations. In recounting his own journey, Whyte offers perspectives on career and its place in a well-lived life, where personal and societal meaning are important considerations. It's appropriately the most literary of the books mentioned, with the best storytelling, and so brings that power and complexity to its effects.

Lewis Richmond's '>Work as a Spiritual Practice is pretty much explained by its subtitle: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job (Broadway Books, $13). These stories, observations and suggestions apply to almost any job, though the relationship of personal values and societal values are always a concern, especially considering the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood. Like a lot of writing from the Buddhist perspective, the content is worth considering for non-practitioners as well as those who follow that path.

As an example and perhaps an exemplar of books that attempt the difficult dance of examining personal values and experiences within a larger societal context is '>The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time by Matthew Fox. Though Fox is an advocate for meaningful work and societal change that might make that more possible, to the benefit of individuals and society as well, he is also broadly informative on present conditions (into the late 90s anyway)---in some ways, more informative than the strictly scholarly presentation of Muirhead.

Though not in book form, author '>Thomas Moore has issued an audio work called '>On Meaningful Work (Sounds True) that should appeal to readers of the above named books.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Marquez Posted by Hello
What thou lovest well is remaindered #1

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Living to Tell the Tale

by William Severini Kowinski

Though this is out in paperback now, I waited until I could get a bargain copy of the hardback. This is one of my favorite authors--- and always my favorite when I'm reading him.

Author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and other novels, stories, reportage and screenplays, this is his first memoir (with perhaps two more volumes to come.) The framework of the first two chapters or so is a trip Marquez took as a young impoverished writer with his mother back to his childhood home in Aracatata, Columbia to sell their house. As I read his narrative of revived childhood memories, I had a curious sense of recognition, and finally a kind of shock. Marquez achieved international fame with One Hundred Years of Solitude, probably the greatest novel of the second half of the twentieth century, which sparked a fashion for Latin American fiction and sired an entirely new genre, called magical realism.

But according to his memoir, many of the enchanted characters of mythical singularity in that novel were actual people, and many of the transcendent and dreamlike events really happened. It wasn't a magical realism, it was realism about an innately magical reality.

Can you believe it? The shy girl who didn't speak or take food, but silently stole into the garden at night to eat earth, was real. The noble Colonel in his workshop between wars, fashioning little gold fishes, was his grandfather. The sons who show up from all over the country on the same day with ashes on their foreheads---that happened. Even the moment of seeing ice for the first time that opens the novel happened to young Gabo, though a little differently. The girl so beautiful and pure that one day she simply ascends into heaven while hanging clothes was only a slight exaggeration. Even Macondo existed, although it was the name of an abandoned banana plantation rather than his town.

It also turns out that another of his novels, Love at the Time of the Cholera, is an almost exact account of the courtship of his parents. It seems that Marquez was a bit more of a magical journalist than many readers might expect.

It was almost disillusioning. But fortunately, when his account turns to his days as a young writer and earlier as a student, the narrative breaks new ground and we are free of comparisons. Of course he is just as much a word magician in memoir as he is in novels and stories.

I am as transported by his accounts of his student days, his love of poetry, his skill at song (I knew he had to be musical; the mystery for me is how his translators, Gregory Rabassa and now Edith Grossman, can transpose his sonorous Spanish into English sonatas, cantatas and symphonies.) And then there are the blazing sentences that come out of almost nowhere, that transcend any possible specific, earthly meaning: " The boarders from the coast, with our well-deserved reputation for rowdiness and ill-breeding, had the good manners to dance like artists to popular music and the good taste to fall in love forever."

He poured out his heart in song but as a poet he was more scholarly, first memorizing and then imitating the poets of the day, become skilled at form and expressing sentiments he hadn't yet experienced. But his elders encouraged him, as did his schoolmates, as besotted with literature as he was. Even as an adolescent student he met some of the poets he read, and they also encouraged him. Sounds magical to me.

In both the childhood and student memoirs, something that is added to the worlds built in the novels is a more specific sense of place within the real geography and history. And the quality of otherworldliness of the novels, even with the violence and death that is nevertheless on an otherworldly scale and told in the rhetoric of wonder, is grounded in recognizable references, as in his young fascination with Flash Gordon serials, or his spontaneous schoolboy oration at the end of World War II in which he praised FDR as being "like El Cid, who knows how to win battles after death."

I am writing this when only halfway through the book, not because I'm abandoning it, but because I intend to savor the rest for as long as possible.

UPDATE: Alas, I've finished it. The second half is fully as absorbing as the first, which is interesting because the narrative interest must carry it completely, as there is little reference to incidents that recur in some form in his fiction. These pages are about his life as a young man, practicing journalism of the time (and place) while learning to be a literary writer. (Marquez has always maintained there is a close connection, not a widely held sentiment here these days.) He continued to be blessed with friends, a necessity in the political chaos of Colombia. His literary talent was recognized early, another near necessity for a young man from a provincial area and a family that slips in and out of near-poverty. There are more wonderful sentences and observations. But Marquez takes nothing for granted, even as an eminence writing his memoirs: he ends this first volume with a cliffhanger.

Hardcover edition by Knopf, 2003. Paperback is Vintage 2004.