There’s always a mountain of advice on what books to take with you on holiday although many of those recommended seem to have been written to be read in a deck chair and requiring minimal concentration, the theory being that if you are on holiday you will not be in the mood for serious thought. As I’m on permanent vacation I thought I would take along some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves for years, waiting for me to mature into a reader of grown-ups’ literature, as opposed to adult literature which I have been reading since the age of 14.
Gustave Flaubert, 1869
Penguin Classics 1964
Translation by Robert Baldick
When living as a student in London I formed a durable romantic attachment to a lady nearly twice my age, so I was unsurprised to learn of 14 year old Flaubert’s enduring love for Elisa Schlesinger, a married woman of 26. In ‘Sentimental Education’ Flaubert draws on his experience to tell the story of 18 year old Frederic Moreau’s passion for Madame Arnoux, a married mother of two.
While the theme is similar to Balzac’s ‘Lily of the Valley’, Flaubert’s work is much grander in scope, being set in Paris during the 1848 uprisings against Louis-Philippe and Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat that ended French monarchy, confirming the 1789 Revolution’s ideals of France as a Republic.
Frederic is on his way home to Nogent sur Seine by riverboat, when he meets Jacques Arnoux and falls instantly for his wife, feeling his world suddenly grow bigger. To pursue Madame Arnoux he leaves his widowed mother in Nogent, takes rooms in Paris and befriends her art dealer husband. The death of an uncle provides him with a small fortune, a large portion of which he squanders on a carriage, servants and fine clothes in an effort to impress her. But as for declaring himself, he does nothing, ‘paralysed by the fear of losing her forever’. ‘He envied pianists their talents, soldiers their scars. He longed for a dangerous illness, hoping that he might arouse her interest’. After learning of her husband’s infidelity and Frederic’s passion for her, Madame Arnoux finally agrees to a rendezvous. But on this special night, with Paris ‘bristling with bayonets’ as the February Revolution unfolds, her child is sick and she fails to appear. Believing he had been deliberately stood up, Frederic turns his attention to two women, Madame Dambreuse, the widow of a rich banker and Roseannette, a coquettish courtesan, the former for her wealth and influence, the latter for her beauty and accessibility. Frederic loses interest in Madame Dambreuse when she reveals her true, unpleasant character and abandons Roseannette after the death of their lovechild and her return to her former metier of demi-mondaine. There is one final meeting between Frederic and Madame Arnoux. ‘We have loved each other well’, she says. ‘But without belonging to one another’, he replies. ‘Perhaps it is better so’ says Madame Arnoux and Frederic returns home to Nogent, poorer and wiser, crushed with the understanding of the futility of his hopes.
There is a splendid cast of characters, including Mademoiselle Vatnez ‘who longed for riches simply in order to crush her rivals under her carriage wheels’, the arch-socialist Senecal, ‘who wanted to reduce mankind to the level of the barrack-room, send it to the brothel for amusement, and tie it to the counter or the bench’ and Pellerin the bitter artist, rejected by every Salon for twenty years.
A wonderful book. Madame Bovary, here I come.
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, 1958
Translation by Archibald Colquhoun
It is 1860 and Garibaldi and his Thousand Redshirts are about to invade Sicily in an attempt to add the island to a unified Italy. Sicilians, secretly, are already taking sides, preparing to resist or assist il Risorgimento. Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, ‘bound by chains of decency if not of affection’ to the ancient Bourbon regime, is ‘unsettled by the new world as well as the old’. Reflecting, in his country estate of Donnafugata, on the decline of his prestige and how the wealth of centuries has been transmuted into nothing more than ‘ornament, luxury, pleasure,’ the Prince decides in favour of unification. ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’. Among those willingly embracing change are his impoverished nephew Tancredi Falconeri and Don Calogero Sedara, the new man, clever, manipulative, but ignoble. Tancredi spurns the advances of the Prince’s daughter Concetta and marries Angelica, the daughter of Don Calogero. The Prince is resigned; Concetta’s heart, ’under her pale blue bodice, is torn to shreds’. A splendid ball, at which Don Calogero presents his daughter (‘a rat escorting a rose’), celebrates the changing order.
In a sort of ‘aside’, the Prince’s Jesuit chaplain, Father Pirrone, pays a visit to his widowed mother where he finds his sister, Sarina, in tears on account of her unmarried daughter’s pregnancy and the prospect of facing her brutal husband, a man of honour, ‘one of those violent cretins capable of any havoc’. Learning that the pregnancy was a deliberate act of revenge by the son of a neighbour cheated long ago out of his share of an almond grove by the Priest’s father, Father Pirrone successfully arranges a marriage in exchange for a portion of the disputed land. A classic tale of lex talionis, of revenge served cold, of the endless vendettas that smoulder among the families of pastoral Sicily.
Twenty-three years after unification and on his return from an exhausting trip to Naples, the Prince lies dying. His death is not described by those around him – Tancredi, Concetta, the doctor and the Priest administering the last rites – but through the dimming senses of the Prince himself as he draws up a balance sheet of his whole life. At the end it is the same handsome young woman that had attracted his attention on his recent arrival at the station in Palermo, ’the creature for ever yearned for’, who comes for him.
The events of the final chapter take place in 1910 when only the spinster Concetta and the widow Angelica are left living among the dusty portraits in their crumbling palazzos. In a last, cruel episode, much of Concetta’s vast collection of relics is declared unauthentic by the Vicar General and removed from her chapel for destruction.
The story is based upon the life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great grandfather, Prince Giulio. Donnafugata is the author’s name for the Palazzo Filangeri-Cuto, in Santa Margherita di Belice, which belonged to his mother’s family and in which he spent his holidays as a child. ‘a kind of Vatican; a paradise of parched scents’. The family palazzo in Palermo was destroyed by allied bombs in 1943.
In 1963 Luchino Visconti made a memorable film of the book with Burt Lancaster (an inspired choice) as the Prince, Alain Delon as Tancredi (‘for whom women fell like ripe pears’) and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica, ‘whose sheets smelt like paradise.’
Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy, 1895
In the last years of the 19th century, Jude Fawley, an orphan and dreamer, is living with his maiden aunt in rural England. Inspired by a local schoolteacher, Phillotsen, to read serious literature, he becomes withdrawn and introspective, obsessed with self-education, explaining to the bemused villagers that he intends to follow in the footsteps of Phillotsen, who has left to graduate from one of the colleges in the nearby University town of Christminster. While working as a stonemason and saving money for his education, Jude is seduced and tricked into marriage by Arabella, the coarse daughter of a pig farmer who soon deserts him. On moving to Christminster, Jude’s intention to enter the priesthood is forgotten in his lust for his manipulative and depressive cousin, Sue, who also deserts him to marry Phillotsen, now devoid of any ambition for tertiary education. It gets worse. Divorcing Phillotsen, who disgusts her, Sue returns to Jude, bears him two children and for a few years they live happily together until Arabella sends Jude the son she claims is his. The child, a half wit, ends his own life after terminating that of his two step-siblings. Sue, unsurprisingly unbalanced by these events, returns to live miserably with Phillotsen, leaving Jude to ‘the hell of his conscious failure’, the bottle, Arabella and an early death.
An epic story of the battle between flesh and spirit in which there are no winners. It was Hardy’s last and least appreciated novel. I couldn’t put it down; but if you are someone who requires a diet of feel-good literature with happy endings, this is not the book for you.
Italian ‘Fumetto’ (strip cartoon) containing: Fort Apache, The Scout from Fort Huachuca and Blood in the Rio Bravo.
Not exactly serious literature, but I’ve become addicted to Tex and it helps me with my Italian, especially lines like: ‘I visi pallidi parlono sempre con lingua doppia’. The first comic strips containing the adventures of Tex Willer, Texas Ranger and his three ‘pards’, Kit Carson, Tiger Jack (his Navaho blood brother) and Kit, his son, appeared in 1948 and at one point reached 700,000 copies per month; they are still selling over 200,000 monthly. The format, four friends dispensing official and unofficial justice, is inspired by Dumas Senior’s ‘D’Artagnan and the three Musketeers’. There is very little feminine presence in the stories; Tex prefers a good, strong mug of coffee on the prairie under the stars to a night with Kitty at the Long Branch. I’m still trying to figure out why I (and millions of Italians) like these stories. The Italians have always loved a Western; and didn’t Sergio Leone at least prolong its cinematic life even if he didn’t save it? I guess some Italians regret they were never represented; you never hear of Buffalo Bill Spadolini or Wild Bill Rossi, do you?