Place: Italy

Recovery in Ruins: A Review of Bella Mia

Caterina has always identified herself in relation to her sister; she was the ‘other’ twin.

In the wake of the more recent earthquakes in central Italy it seems painfully appropriate that Calisi Press should choose to release the English translation of Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award winning Bella Mia, set in the aftermath of the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aqualia in 2009, the deadliest Italy had seen since 1980.

In the early hours of 6 April, 2009, amidst the chaos of the tremors, one woman dies. She leaves her only son behind, left in the care of her surviving twin sister, Caterina, and their elderly mother. The broken family becomes the center for Pietrantonio’s moving tale of recovery. Set in the ruins of a family and the wreckage of the city, the story details the delicate stages of grief as each character moves to re-build their lives after the disaster.

Caterina’s sister Olivia was a constant presence in her life, and one cannot help but think of the powerful female relationships depicted in Ferrante’s novels when reading Caterina’s memories of the two as children, surviving the complex and riddled world of the schoolyard and vying for attention from their peers. In her death, Olivia becomes omnipresent in the lives of those she has left behind: her son blindly chases cars driven by women who look like her; her mother builds her day around visiting her grave, her sister still wears her clothes for good luck. Caterina’s survival guilt is evident—she is ‘alive by mistake’ as far as her nephew is concerned—and the constant expectation that she ‘should be his spare mother’ rather than his grieving aunt torments her. ‘We could have swapped deaths, as we’d always swapped clothes, books, occasions,’ Caterina obsesses. She dwells on the inevitable, unanswerable question: why her? Why was fate kind to her and not her twin? For two people so tightly bound for so many years, why at this point in time were they so violently torn apart?

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Book Recommendations for the New Normal

Suggested reading for the fast-approaching U.S. Presidential Inauguration and our changing world politics

This Friday, real estate mogul Donald Trump will be sworn is in as the 45th President of the United States. Last month, Italy’s citizenry voted effectively for the resignation of its Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in a referendum applauded by France’s right-wing, nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen, while another far-right conservative, Francois Fillon, is expected to win the French presidential election in May. Last summer, the world watched the historic Brexit vote, and Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who ran on the promise of an Austrian Brexit, lost the nation’s vote by a very close margin last month.  

The political climate all over the west is profoundly changing, and those who failed to predict the current developments are scrambling to make sense of them. Book proposals by diplomats, pundits, and economists are flooding publishers’ inboxes, all claiming to have the most accurate analysis of the causes of Trump’s win or Britain’s isolationism. But a look at the past, and some past literature, suggests that perhaps we should be surprised at our own surprise. We gathered some book recommendations to prepare you for this Friday and the vast challenges ahead because—wait for it—knowledge is power (sorry!) and there are many already-published texts, many in the history category, with a wealth of relevant knowledge to impart.

Asymptote’s Marketing Manager David Maclean suggests you check out:

Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday , translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press, 2013)

“As a great many political pundits have pointed out, the resurgence of nationalist and far-right movements throughout Europe has more than a passing resemblance to the initial rise of fascist groups prior to the Second World War. Disguised as an autobiography, Zweig’s The World of Yesterday offers a coruscating portrayal of the idealism of pre-war Europe and the European cross-cultural project, as well as the fragility of the ideals of Enlightenment in the face of (dangerously) cynical realpolitik, ignorance, and the fostering of prejudice. The nation cannot be loved above all else, warned Simone Weil, since it has no soul—and indeed it is the balkanization of Europe that Zweig portrays as a logical result of nationalist movements that propagate loyalty to the nation above all else. His book is also one of resistance, of the possibility for literature and art to resist the totalitarianism of thought imposed upon us through exercising our creative imaginations—an understated but underestimated daily act of resistance.”

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula le Guin (Tor Books, 2010)

“I had thought to include Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book The Silent Spring, which arguably thrust eco-criticism and global conservation into the mainstream debate, but since the United States’ president-elect seems intent on living in a fantasy world regarding man-made climate change, I decided to be magnanimous and stick with his chosen genre. The novella details a logging colony established on the fictional planet of Athshe by Earth’s military-industrial complex, which is slowly but surely denuding the planet of its primary resources and leaving vast swathes of it barren and lifeless. The novel hinges on a conflict of ideologies between the native population, which may be well be seen as a surrogate for nature, and ourselves (the Terrans) who view nature as a disposable resource for immediate consumption and have little to no regard for the long-term consequences. In the Athshean language, the word for “forest” is also the word for “world”, showing the dependence of the Athshean culture upon the forest, much as we all depend upon a fecund, hospitable world that continues to dance on the brink of ecological ruin.”

Blog Editor Madeline Jones found pertinent wisdom in:

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to Present by John Pomfret (Henry Holt, 2016)

“We all know that the U.S. president-elect likes to make China a scape goat for basically whatever he thinks is unsatisfactory about American affairs that he can’t conceivably blame on Crooked somebody or Lyin’ somebody else. Of Trump’s targets of aggression now that he’s been elected, China perhaps comes in second only to FAKE NEWS (caps his). We’ve all heard the “Gina” jokes. His lack of understanding of diplomacy generally but particularly regarding China is near-comical, so it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around the implications of his attitudes toward the world’s largest economy, but it is vital that at least someone in his administration does. In the meantime, I decided to try to understand the nuances of the relationship better myself. This book is invaluable—and highly readable—to that end. It’s not short, but it’s a one-stop shop.”

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2016)

“Pointedly drawing inspiration from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ward has gathered responses from her generation’s most eminent voices on race in the form of critical essays, personal reflections, and poetry. From Jericho Brown to Daniel Jose Older, Claudia Rankine to Clint Smith, the contributors make this a worthwhile read for its own, aesthetic sake, but it’s also an emotional and timely reminder of the ways in which society has not changed since Baldwin was writing, the areas in which there is still vital need for improvement. While newspapers and magazines have been praising J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy since Trump won the Republican nomination as the book to understand America today, I found Ward’s book to be an important counterargument to that narrative, especially given Jeff Sessions’s imminent confirmation by the Senate. Vance’s book has merit, certainly, but the current focus on “understanding the white working class” cannot be emphasized at the expense of a focus on race relations and the continued economic and privilege gap between white Americans and black and Hispanic Americans. Reading Hillbilly Elegy is a worthwhile exercise in empathy, but it’s no more important than reading Ward’s collection. Baldwin wrote, ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ There is plenty of pain and heartbreak in The Fire This Time, too.”

Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen recommends:

The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It by Owen Jones (Penguin, 2014)

“British journalist and writer Owen Jones (b. 1984) hasn’t made a secret of his political inclinations (very left-wing, in case you haven’t heard), and he was a staunch critic of Donald Trump throughout his election campaign. His 2014 book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, which was met both with great praise and criticism, zooms in on the power structures of British society and is now more relevant than ever. Owen claims that while the people continue voting in elections, behind the scenes, a network of the unelected, unaccountable, and immensely powerful advisors and diplomats control our lives and steer decision-making. Though Jones’s book focused on the UK and some of its seemingly unique features, such as the grooming of the new ruling class at top universities, or the privatisation of public services, its fundamental premise applies to almost any country you could point to on the map. Whether you grew up in a Nordic welfare society or listening to stories about the American Dream, this makes for a relevant, albeit depressing, read.”

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848, 2015 Penguin)

“It might be old, and many would say old-fashioned, but the grand ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, capitalism and communism, continue to have an undeniable impact on our societies and politics. Many have explained the rise of the far-right and nationalist sentiments around the world with the collapse of traditional industries that would have supported generations of working families who now feel unnecessary or displaced. Now, with the rise of China as a world power, as well as a future in which robots will take over an increasing number of tasks from humans, Marx’s writings suddenly don’t seem as outdated anymore.”

And literary critic Harold Bloom offered:

“The only thing I can think of right now is Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’.”

*****

Read More Book Recommendations:

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Flies in Winter” by Eugenio Baroncelli

Some said he suffocated on a mischievous piece of meat… some said he died of solitude, which is no less mischievous.

Eugenio Baroncelli’s macabre, erudite vignettes of 271 historical and literary deaths won the 2011 Premio Supermondello, one of Italy’s highest literary awards. He catalogues accidental and premeditated deaths, illness, hypothermia, suicide. Each of his sly, epigrammatic sketches of dying is an object lesson in living.

Umberto Boccioni

Sorte, Verona, 17 August 1916. Never end up in a place called Sorte, or Luck. War had thrust him there, only for him to die in a stroke of misfortune. He had enlisted voluntarily, dressed hurriedly in uniform, and now he was dying, aged thirty-four. He had fallen from the horse he was learning to mount, struck his head full of colours, and would never get up again. That was how Maria Malibran died, and she was barely more skillful than he was; Genghis Khan, too, and he was born on a horse. He died with a dream: not of vanquishing his enemy on the battlefield, but of riding with her under the moon that bleached the lake white.

The gods looked down at him from the sky. He had the distinctive hand of a future great artist and the agile body of a seducer. A vexed Margherita Sarfatti, who had been in bed with him, would deplore the sharp escalation of his targets, from seamstresses to the wives of bank managers.

Three weeks beforehand, on the bank of Lake Maggiore, he had met Vittoria Colonna and fallen in love for the last time. Beautiful, married, impulsive, and greedy for life, she fell in love instantly too. They went swimming in a lake filled with water the hue of cobalt blue, the same colour his palette was wandering towards when he painted the master Busoni. Lazy as cats, they sunbathed on the terrace of the villa, that little strip of earth that she had transformed into a Garden of Eden. They dined alone by candlelight. Her last letter was found on him. He had taken it with him from their paradise.

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Todd Portnowitz on Music, Language, and Italian Literature

Ultimately I end up translating most of what I write into Italian, as a way of workshopping my own writing.

Todd Portnowitz is a poet and translator from the Italian, and the recipient of the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets which allowed him to translate the work of Pierluigi Cappello (featured in the Asymptote Winter 2015 issue). In this interview, he converses with our Educational Arm Assistant, Anna Aresi, about how his love for language and music converge in the writing of poetry and how speaking a foreign language can make you a better poet.

The following interview was conducted via email and over Skype.

Anna Aresi (AA): You work as a translator, poet, editor, and musician. I was wondering how all these are related for you, especially if and how your work as a musician affects your writing.

Todd Portnowitz (TP): My sense of music determines my syntax, where I choose to break a line, what vocabulary I use—sometimes I grope for a word by its syllable count or shape. This is particularly useful in translations of poetry, where a definite syntax and vocabulary are already there before me in the original text and hunting for the right words and rhythms is the central activity. Writing poems, translating poems, editing poems—all are an art of decision making, and music best informs those decisions. What a writer has read of others’ work, her knowledge of cultures, histories, languages, politics, family, love, death, faith, all of that comes to a terminus in the language, the sequence of words chosen—music best reflects the sum of that knowledge in verse.

Apollo could slay/flay on the lyre for good reason. Not every poet has to also be a musician, but a poet with an untrained ear, with no cultivated sense of phrasing or meter, is like a basketball player who has never practiced dribbling: able to shoot, but immobile.

AA:  What sparked your interest for Italian literature? What has your journey been like?

TP: My interest in Italian literature began with an interest in the Italian language. I took Italian 101 my sophomore year of college, and the language made immediate sense to me, most of all the pronunciation: the purity and regularity of the vowels, the value of every consonant on the page (penne [pens] is by no means pene [penis]). I was writing songs and singing for a band at the time and Italian expanded my cultural knowledge, my linguistic knowledge (in English as well, because of the Latin roots), my historical knowledge—all of which helped with lyric writing—while also challenging my vocal abilities, cleaning up my vowels, forcing me to roll my r’s and make whatever you want to call the sound that “gn” makes (as in gnocchi). It was fun, in other words. After a study-abroad in Italy, the decision to stick with Italian got easier. I got a minor in Italian and took as many classes as I could. When I graduated, the department named me Italian Graduate of the Year—one of those awards that might look banal on a CV but that has since determined the course of my life. Maybe this is what I’m best at, I started thinking. READ MORE…

On Frantumaglia and the Real Mystery of Elena Ferrante

Nice little stories with happy endings or some kind of moral resolution? Not for La Ferrante!

As an Italophile and an Elena Ferrante fan, I’m thrilled to see her nonfiction work, La Frantumaglia, finally making it into English in the form of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, published this fall by Europa Editions.

I know the book will intrigue American readers with the backstory of her novels and her life as a writer (I’m also thrilled that the original title has largely crossed the Atlantic intact, particularly given the unusual provenance of the Italian word, “frantumaglia,” which Ferrante culled from her mother’s speech and which she defines as a jumble of ideas or thoughts).

One could nonetheless argue, given the nature of the book—a collection of manuscript drafts, interviews and letters—that it will surely fail to stir up the same excitement as did the Neapolitan series or her earlier novels. This is the author, after all, who launched her novel, The Days of Abandonment, with the line: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Boom! Not to mention the creator of the frenzied, passionate scene between Nino and Elena in the bathroom of the house she shares with her husband, Pietro, from Book Three of the Neapolitan quartet (a scene Elena rushes into after rushing out of the arms of her young children). Whoa! How do you top that?

And of course, it’s not like Frantumaglia confirms (or denies) what Italian investigative reporter Claudio Gatti recently sprung on the literary world (if for no other reason than it had already gone to print). Gatti, as anyone remotely following Italian literature knows, believes he has pulled off an expose by studying real estate records and other documents to deduce that Ferrante is actually a translator named Anita Raja. (Edizioni E/o, Ferrante’s Italian publisher, has denied the claims.)

Yet I can confidently say the Ferrante lines that have made the biggest impressions on me are in La Frantumaglia, which was first published in Italy in 2003.

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Asymptote’s Pushcart Prize Nominations

It's that time of year, and we're proud to recognize six wonderful pieces of literature!

We are thrilled to nominate the following six articles published during the past year for the Pushcart Prize. Please join us in giving a round of applause to both the authors and translators behind these incredible pieces.

At 997 words, Pedro Novoa’s devastating short story, “The Dive”, won Peru’s “Story of 1,000 Words” contest. Translating this nautical thriller cum family saga into English, George Henson made it an Oulipian exercise by keeping the English text under 1,000 words as well. Shimmering with poignancy, the multi-layered story delivers a powerful allegory about the blood ties that bind even when broken—the concatenation of islands we will nevertheless always be.

“To translate means, therefore, not only to exercise extreme vigilance over the movements of the original text, but above all to scrutinize the limits of one’s own language, as it creeps up to the original.” Via co-translators Rebecca Falkoff and Stiliana Milkova, Anita Raja’s magnificent essay frames “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance ” and argues that the translator’s greatest resource must be her own inventiveness.

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Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

I’d much rather they stuck J.K. Rowling’s name on my book than insisting on mine. We might even sell a few copies.

Our resident translation expert Daniel Hahn is back with a response to the hotly debated issue of how and where to credit translators’ work. This question comes from Michelle Loh in Singapore.  

Why aren’t translators’ names on most book covers? Are you for or against this practice of keeping translators’ names hidden?

Some people believe that readers are scared of translations. They assume—whether rightly or wrongly—that a reader is more likely to pick up a book whose front jacket reads

Title of Great Novel!

by

Name-Of-Awesome-Novelist

than a book whose front jacket reads

Title of Great Novel!

by

Name-Of-Awesome-Novelist, but actually not really because I’m afraid it’s been translated by Unrecognisable-Translator-Person so it’s probably quite obscure and kind of foreign and anyway you know what translations are like (LOL!) and tbqh you can’t even really be sure of what you’re getting…

(I paraphrase, slightly.)

Their argument, then, is that translations are hard enough to sell as it is without your having to remind people that the book is a translation before they’ve even picked it up. There are plenty of publishers I like very much who make this argument, and I do understand. I do think it underestimates our readers, but where most publishers are concerned I really don’t see this as a lack of respect for the translator’s work.

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The Belarus Free Theatre takes its highly politicized “Burning Doors” on the road

In order to transmit the trauma experienced by Pavlensky, Sentsov, and Alyokhina, playwright Nicolai Khalezin also traumatizes the audience.

This hell-bent play by what The New York Times has called “[t]he world’s most visible and lionized underground theater” keeps finding ways to pull the rug from under the feet of astonished audiences. 

“It will not be his balls, but ours, behind the door,” a buffoonish technocrat rants to his doppelgänger, as the two leisurely defecate in their ministerial toilets, in unison. Moments later, the other one expounds on the evils of modern art: “Before Picasso, art was normal.” (As it turns out, he owns two of the deviant’s paintings.) When they finish shooting the shit, and shitting, they pull up their government-issued trousers to discover a lack of toilet paper. Following the pair’s exit, masked bandits inexplicably slip onto the stage to replenish the needed supplies in a sort of winking parenthetical—or, better still, a puckish middle finger.

These gag lines satirizing the absurdities and hypocrisies of dictatorships—specifically the Putin regime—are the sort of irreverent zingers that some of us relish: comedic relief with a reactionary backhand, using both shock and shtick to slice through inaction and fear. It’s a particular specialty of Burning Doors, performed by the UK-based Belarus Free Theatre, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year despite being banned in its home country. Currently in the second staging of its UK tour at the Soho Theatre, one of London’s essential performing arts labs, the show is a wielding and warped montage of vignettes based on the testimonies of artists targeted by Putin. These include the Russian artist Petr Pavlensky, who nailed his own testicles, referenced above, to the cobblestones of Red Square; the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is currently serving a twenty-year prison sentence in the Russian Far East; and the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Something Written” by Emanuele Trevi

For the entire duration of my last meeting with Laura, in her office, the sharp blade of a box cutter quivered a few millimeters from my jugular.

Via Ann Goldstein, also the translator of Elena Ferrante, here is a colorful extract from Emanuele Trevi’s Something Written, winner of the 2012 European Literature Prize and finalist for Italy’s Strega Prize. In a few deftly executed strokes, the literary critic recreates the cutthroat atmosphere presided over by a former boss (aka “Madwoman”), and mulls over what he took out of that period of “extravagant daily persecution”.

Among the many—too many—people who worked for Laura Betti at the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation in Rome, all of them endowed with a colorful store of more or less unpleasant memories, I believe that I can boast of, if nothing else, above-average endurance. Not that I was at all spared the extravagant daily persecution that the Madwoman (as I soon took to calling her, in my own mind) felt it her duty to inflict on her subordinates. On the contrary, I was so irredeemably odious to her (there is no more precise word) that I succeeded in plucking all the strings of her protean sadism: from the ceaseless invention of humiliating nicknames to real physical threat. Every time I entered the offices of the foundation, in a dark, massive corner building on Piazza Cavour, not far from Castel Sant’Angelo, I sensed almost physically the animal hostility, the uncontrollable rage that flashed, like the zigzag lightning in a comic book, from behind the lenses of her big square sunglasses. The standard greetings immediately followed. ‘Good morning, little slut, did you finally figure out that it’s time to GIVE HIM YOUR ASS? Or do you think you can still get away with it?!? But you don’t fool ME, you sweet-talking little slut, it takes a lot more than someone like you’—and this first blast of amenities was ended only by the eruption of a laugh that seemed to come from a subterranean cavern, and was made more threatening by the counterpoint of an indescribable sound halfway between a roar and a sob. Very rarely could the avalanche of insults dumped on the unfortunate victim be traced back to meaningful concepts.

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“Tu vuo fa’ l’americano”

If Italy were my child, I’d fear he was unable to properly love his own identity.

My partner travels a lot for work and whenever he goes somewhere that he can snag Italian pubs, he brings me back an armload. Usually two editions of an Italian newspaper (La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera), one or two of the news weeklies and a lifestyle or travel mag like Bell’Italia.

I array them all on the dining table and prepare to immerse myself in an Italian mag reading marathon. It’s a ritual we’ve been performing ever since leaving Italy years ago to come back to the States.

Yet in the past few years, there’s been a fly in my spaghetti, so to speak. My beloved Italian periodicals are littered with English words and phrases. That complaint can extend to many of the news articles I see online or in my inbox on a more-or-less daily basis.

Recently, a promotional email from the Italian women’s magazine “Io Donna” about an article on swimwear caught my eye (I love swimming). The email read, “4 accessori must have per la spiaggia.” (Four “must-have” accessories for the beach).

Something snapped—and I began writing this essay. Or really, this rant. It’s one I’ve been honing in my head, if one can hone a rant, for years. I’ve held off on sending this thought out into the wider world because it somehow felt churlish, as if I were a Luddite.

At first blush, the complaint has nothing to do with the literary world or the world of literature in translation that Asymptote celebrates and chronicles. An ad for swimwear: of all the silly things to write about!

But who learns a foreign language only to read, say, Dante? I want to read Dante and the Italian newspaper and the weeklies and advertisements on the Metro and the underground comic books and so on. I want to know the Italian equivalent of “must have.” READ MORE…

Elena Ferrante’s real identity? I don’t really care

"Right, because it’s the work that matters, no?"

I don’t care who Elena Ferrante is. I know some people really, really care, including some folks at The New York Times, which just published an article on the Italian author’s mysterious identity. Some people, it would appear, won’t let it rest until they know the name of the author behind the so-called Neapolitan series of novels, which has rocked the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic.

But not me. Every time it comes up, I think, “I don’t care.”

And it’s not because I’m only slightly interested in Italian literature. Oh no. Italian literature is my life. My idea of paradise is being in a room in Italy—any room—where I’m so surrounded by the Italian language, I feel submerged. I read the Ferrante books one after another in the original Italian. I even have a copy of the Italian newspaper article about Ferrante’s identity that inspired the article in The Times. (My partner happened to be in Switzerland the weekend it appeared in an insert to Il Corriere della Sera, and he brought it home for me).

It’s not because professional nosiness is foreign to me. I’m a journalist, in fact. READ MORE…

Elena Ferrante in Slovak(ia): In Conversation with Ivana Dobrakovová and Aňa Ostrihoňová

"Although Slovak authors do give interviews and appear in public, events where the author is represented by their translator are very rare."

My Brilliant Friend is the 30th book to be published by INAQUE, a small independent publisher in Bratislava, and one of very few in Slovakia to specialise in translated literature. Elena Ferrante’s books appear in INAQUE’s Women’s Fiction series, which features stories by Jamie Quatro and Tessa Hadley, among others.  Titles planned for 2016 include The Story of a New Name, part two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga, Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days and Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, life stories of distinguished and unjustly forgotten women who lead a full and fascinating life without the need for fathers, brothers or husbands.

***

Julia Sherwood: Sometimes an encounter with a book or an author is almost a story in its own right. Where did your own stories intersect with those of Elena Ferrante’s novels?

Aňa Ostrihoňová: Sometime in 2006 in Villerupt in France, I went to see Days of Abandonment during a festival of Italian cinema. A friend was keen to see the movie because, like three other movies shown that day, it starred her favourite actor Luca Zingaretti. I was struck by one scene in particular, in which Olga, the protagonist, is talking to the editor of a publishing house who has asked her to translate a novel. The editor tells her that the manuscript she delivered is a great story but it’s not the book she was supposed to translate. Later I realized this was a ploy the scriptwriter used in order to include in the movie the story of La Poverella, which comes back to haunt Olga in hallucinations from her Naples childhood. The scene doesn’t occur in the book.

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Is Italian Literature Having Its Moment?

"...it’s worth noting that Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, a writer for the New Yorker, has become a household name among literary types."

Last year, a hashtag became wildly popular in the American literary scene for an author no one has seen and who writes in a foreign language.

This year, a different author—one whom everyone knows because she’s won a Pulitzer Prize, among other honors—is taking the nearly unprecedented step of publishing a memoir called In Other Words in dual language format. And—wait for it—the part of the book that contains her original manuscript isn’t in English.

The two authors have something in common: they both write in Italian. That, and they could be presiding over a renaissance in Italian literature (Well, they may be, if publishers, cultural organizations and/or the Italian government exploit this convergence. More on this later).

The first writer is the mysterious Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, celebrated on Twitter by the slogan #ferrantefever, and the second is Jhumpa Lahiri, a British-born, American citizen who decamped to Rome in 2012, with the unusual project of ceasing to read and write in English. (The two have something else in common: Ann Goldstein is their Italian-English translator).

One author shooting to prominence, and shining a spotlight on Italian literature from the inside, the other already enjoying almost unparalleled prominence in American letters, choosing to embark on a courageous path—one which will almost certain provoke curiosity about Italian among non-Italian readers.

Is Italian literature, both in translation and in original form, having its moment? Oh gosh I hope so.

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Bicycle Thief Lunch

"The diners leave concern and worry outside as they pass through the restaurant doors."

Father and son stand on the quay of the Tiber, contemplating their next move. Antonio’s thin and wavering form towers over his baby-faced son. The pair has failed to find Antonio’s stolen bicycle. Both wear defeated expressions.  The future looks grim. Antonio cannot work at his job plastering the city in advertisements without a bike. The modern city requires mobility and his has just been taken.

They stand in front of a restaurant, a proper place with coiffed children eating pasta and waiters in button down shirts and aprons. Antonio knows he cannot afford lunch out but offers his son a pizza nevertheless. As they walk towards the restaurant he says, “Why should I kill myself worrying if I just end up dead?” He is desperate but refuses to give in to misery. Bruno lights up. The two enter excited to forget for a while both the bicycle thieves and the eventual return home empty handed.

A band plays perky tunes while bourgeois diners sit around in fine hats smoking, eating and drinking red wine. Antonio bursts into the restaurant. He hesitates in the entryway for a second, soaking in the line he has just crossed with his son in tow. They exchange a few glances—Bruno uncomfortable and unsure only proceeds after his father assures him that they can sit at a table in this restaurant. Antonio and Bruno take a table without a tablecloth. Behind them, a family eats lunch. The youngest son sits back-to-back with Bruno, hair greased just so in a crisp white shirt and button down. He pulls a melted cheese sandwich away from his mouth, stretching the curds to their limits.

Antonio tries to order a pizza. The waiter says, “This is not a pizzeria.” The distinction between pizzeria and restaurant surprises Antonio: a reminder, a gentle nudge, that this establishment serves other food to other kinds of people. Unlike the terraces and zinc bars in Nadja, the public at this restaurant is selective. The family just behind father and son serve as a counterpoint. That lunch is big and festive: pasta, sandwiches, abundant wine, laughter, tablecloths and clean hands.  The diners leave concern and worry outside as they pass through the restaurant doors. They have the luxury of time and money, both of which buy them prolonged distance from the war-torn city beyond the restaurant walls.

Instead of pizza, Antonio orders mozzarella on bread and a whole bottle of wine, despite the waiter’s suggestion of a half. He tells Bruno to save room for dessert. Antonio beats along to the music while Bruno looks lost. Antonio gulps down his first glass and says, “We can do anything we want, we’re men.” He will not be restrained by social position. Eating lunch in this restaurant is a quiet provocation. They push the physical boundaries of the city by sitting at a table in such an establishment. In his choice to forget and to ignore his material circumstances, to indulge in the luxury of not working, Antonio insists on his and his sons’ right to the same spaces and food as the classes who have the permanent luxury of selective vision. (It is true that his wife is at home working throughout this whole scene, and whole film: the fact that they can do whatever they want because they are men is critical.)

The boy behind Bruno eats mozzarella on bread as well (what looks like a grilled cheese sandwich to me) with a fork and knife held properly and managed with grace. When the food arrives at his own table, Bruno tries to manage the fork and knife, oversized and awkward in his small hands. Antonio says that they will be happy for now. Bruno gives up with the cutlery and takes up the sandwich in his hands, pulling it and stretching the melted cheese to an impressive distance. He checks to see if the boy behind him has noticed—no. He sees what he wants to and when he wants to. Bottles of champagne arrive at that table while Bruno keeps pulling his sandwich, gobbling up the cheese, and pulling again, racing before the mozzarella gets too cold to stretch.

The floating pleasure of eating and drinking together lasts about a minute before Antonio remembers that his bicycle was stolen, they will have to pay the bill and leave the restaurant without the insurance of work the next day.  He begins a set of sad calculations of the money that could have been were his bike locked up safe outside. An otherwise ordinary lunch scene displays the social and economic divisions of a city torn apart by war, struggling with development designed to leave certain people behind while others turn a blind eye. Through eating something different somewhere different, Antonio takes himself and his son on a brief trip to an alternate reality. It works for a short time. The mozzarella gets cold, the numbers add up, and they reenter the public.

*****

Nina Sparling currently lives in Paris where she is a middle school English teaching assistant. Between classes, she writes, waits tables, and bicycles to pass the time. After a year and a half working as a cheesemonger in Brooklyn, she likes to surprise people with fun facts about curd and convince the French that Americans can make cheese too.  She also keeps an irregular blog, Salt to Taste, about cooking and eating without regard for details or Instagram.

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