Author, Book review, Books in translation, Domenico Starnone, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone


Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 173 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer, rumoured, at one stage, as being Elena Ferrante, the writer of the Neapolitan series of four novels — My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — whose identity has remained secret. Having read My Brilliant Friend (yet to be reviewed) I can see how that theory might have come about.

Starnone’s novel, First Execution, posits the idea that education shapes our world view, just as Ferrante does in My Brilliant Friend. He also depicts a relatively violent world, where emotional restraint is in short supply, one that is deeply divided between the rich and the poor. This is something Ferrante does, too. Are they one and the same author? Who knows? To be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The Execution is a brilliant novel brimful of ideas and theories about politics, education, terrorism, war and justice — among others — and I came away from it feeling as if my mind was slightly blown. This is a good thing.

Mild-mannered man caught up in bigger events

The book opens with a retired teacher, 67-year-old Domenico Stasi (note the similarity to the author’s own name) finding out that Nina, a former pupil, has been charged with “armed conspiracy”. Stasi, who taught his students to fight for what they believed in, feels partially responsible — did he contribute to Nina’s desire to become a terrorist?

To appease his own sense of (misguided) guilt, he visits her — they have coffee together in a cafe — but then finds himself caught up in Nina’s world:

She asked me to go to the apartment of a friend of hers. The apartment had been empty for some time, her friend was overseas, she handed me the keys. On the bookshelves in the living room I would find a copy of The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch. On page 46 a few words had been underlined. I was to transcribe those words and place the sheet of paper in an envelope. Soon, someone would show up and ask for the envelope. That was all.

This puts Stasi in a difficult position: should he do it, or say no?  Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he declined, but the narrative that unfurls from this one decision is quite unexpected, for the author inserts himself into the story — Paul Auster style — and we learn how he struggles to write the very pages we are reading. It’s slightly disconcerting and disorienting to suddenly have Domenico Starnone tell us about his creation Domenico Stasi, but it’s a clever device for exploring the lines between fiction and reality and how the two can sometimes mix.

As the narrative slips backwards and forward between the two voices of the two Domenicos — sometimes this is seamless, at other times it’s quite a jolt — we are taken on an electrifying ride that feels like a psychological thriller on one level and a deeply philosophical mediation about the state of the world on another. Indeed, it’s a weird kind of page turner in the sense that you want to find out what happens next — will Domenico get himself arrested or badly hurt or perhaps even killed? — but at the same time you’re forced to contemplate all kinds of issues, including war, violence, capitalism, socialism, religion, education, what it is to get old and the lines between guilt and innocence.

Personal responsibility

A constant refrain is to what extent we bear personality responsibility for the state of the society we live in. If we are unhappy about the divide between the rich and the poor, or the injustices that go on around us, do we become complicit if we do nothing about the situation? And if we do decide to do something, is it ever okay to be violent, to rise up against the powers that be and perhaps take innocent people’s lives to make a point?

Stasi, in particular, often muses about the need to make a decision, because indifference simply breeds more problems down the line — in other words, the past always catches up with the future.

I spent a lot of time underlining lengthy paragraphs in this book because they so eloquently captured my own thoughts about justice and poverty, for instance, and I came away from this rather clever novel feeling a slightly richer person for having read it.

Finally, I should add that if you liked Laurent Binet’s HHhH, then you may well enjoy this one too.

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Everyman's Library, Fiction, Italo Calvino, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’ by Italo Calvino (translated by William Weaver)


Fiction – hardcover; Everyman’s Library; 304 pages; 1993. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler was Italian author Italo Calvino’s much-lauded 16th novel. A rather clever, knowing book, it pokes fun at reading, writing and publishing. From its opening passage, I suspected it was going to be a rather enjoyable read:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

But sadly, I found this book so clever as to be pretentious, and so contrived as to be patronising. Most of all I just found reading it an incredibly frustrating experience.

The nub of the novel, which was first published in 1979, is this: a reader tries to read Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler but discovers that the book is faulty. He takes it back to the shop for a replacement, only to discover the replacement book is also faulty. And therein lies the pattern: in alternate chapters we follow the reader’s adventures as he tries to track down a perfect copy of the book. This is interspersed with the actual text of the books he acquires, none of which turn out to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.

Confused yet? I found it excruciatingly perplexing in places, particularly as the reader’s side of the story is told in the second person, so the “you” feels like it is being addressed to you personally, even though it becomes increasingly clear that that is not the case. It gets worse when characters associated with the reader, including the enigmatic Ludmilla who also bought a defective copy of the book, cross over so that they also appear in the text the reader is reading, blurring the lines between the reader’s life and the fiction he reads.

Essentially, this is the type of novel that just gets your brain in a complete muddle. And while I’m not averse to this kind of post-modernist technique, where the author also appears as a character (think Paul Auster or J.M. Coetzee), and where different literary styles and genres are “sampled” in the one novel (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), I found If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler rather exasperating.

It doesn’t help that the alternate chapters of the book, which are presented as opening chapters of what is supposed to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (but never are), is that they all end abruptly at a climactic moment, so you are left dangling and never find out what happens next. This happens 10 times. (At one point Calvino compares sex to reading, so perhaps these abrupt endings are his idea of a joke about failing to climax.)

Each of these 10 chapters is written in a different style or genre, so Calvino gets to show off his ability to write a satire, a romance, a thriller and so on. But unfortunately, each chapter does not feel sufficiently different to the one that precedes it, so the “trick” failed to truly work.

The saving grace is the illuminating insights and ideas Calvino presents about the intertwined and ever-changing relationships that authors and readers have with books. He makes it clear that every author is looking for the perfect reader, and every reader is looking for the perfect book.

He makes other statements about different readers wanting different things from books, and that every time we read a book we bring with it our own prejudices based on our life experiences. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that our enjoyment of reading a book can be influenced by something as inconsequential as where we are sitting (or lying) when we read it and what is going on in our personal lives at the time.

While I admire Calvino’s ambition, his ideas and his ability to turn our notion of a novel on its head, this book clearly wasn’t for me. The elegant prose and the courageous experimentation (with its nod to James Joyce), couldn’t make up for its lack of narrative drive, detailed descriptions and rich characterisation.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is one of those books that takes you right out of your comfort zone; it’s intelligent, a little bit witty, a little bit cynical but ultimately it’s too emotionally shallow to offer any real insight into the human condition.

‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino, first published in 1979, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a ‘novel about the urgency, desire and frustration bound up in the practice of reading novels’.

Aidan Higgins, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘Langrishe, Go Down’ by Aidan Higgins

Langrishe, Go Down

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 320 pages; 2007.

First published in 1966, Aidan Higgins’ first novel, Langrishe, Go Down, is regarded as an Irish classic. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Academy of Letters Award, and was later made into a television movie based on a screenplay by the great Harold Pinter.

It is by no means an easy read — it features literary flourishes characteristic of high modernism and a narrative that switches between third person and first person seemingly on a whim — but it is a rich and rewarding one. I also found it profoundly moving.

The story is set in Ireland in the 1930s. Four middle-aged sisters live in a crumbling estate set on 72 acres in Celbridge, County Kildare. They are unusual in that they are landed Catholics, but their parents are dead and the money has long since run out. But their social standing remains, even if the only way they can pay their bills is to cut down a stately ash tree in the garden for two quid (a trend started by their late father, who felled trees and sold them for firewood when he was desperate for cash).

The book opens with the older sister, Helen, taking a crowded bus journey back home from an outing in Dublin. It is evening and the bus is awash with “circles of bilious light” and “warm gusts of sweetish nauseous air”, all brought incredibly alive by Higgins’ masterful writing. Without any mention of time or date, we get an immediate sense of period by the Evening Herald lying open on Helen’s knee:

Well muffled up against the elements, the passengers read that the Italians were arming, that Herr von Ribbentrop had made a provocative speech at the Leipzig Fair, that the Pope had graciously given audience to Monsignor Pisani, Archbishop of Tomi. General Franco had spoken on the destined march of free Spain. At Melbourne, in cool summer weather, Australia had retained the Ashes.

By the time Helen gets home, we know the world is in a dire situation, that the Spanish Civil War is in full swing and the trouble is brewing in Germany. But the home front isn’t much better. Helen’s younger sister, Imogen, is prone to hypochondria and spends her days in bed, not wanting to rise, and her diet, comprising thin omelets sprinkled with parsley, has left her pale and weak. But what led to this situation?

The answer is revealed in part II, when the story jumps back in time, to 1932. In just over 150 pages, Higgins details the secret affair Imogen leads with her German lover, Otto Beck, a mature-age student who lives on the Langrishe farm. Otto is an intellectual, well read, well travelled and prone to talking endlessly about himself and his studies. (He is working on a thesis entitled The Ossianic Problem and the Actual Folk Sagas and Customs in 17th Century Ireland with special reference to the work of Goethe and the Brothers Grimm: a sociological-philological-critical study, a title that Imogen so deftly points out is “a bit of a mouthful”.) Imogen, a 40-something virgin, sees him as her last chance to experience love.

They embark on a passionate affair — which lasts “two springs, two summers, three autumns and two winters” — and suddenly Imogen’s rather routine domestic life takes on a new exciting element. But when she begins to realise that self-absorbed Otto is taking her for granted, that he is only interested in her body and not her mind, the relationship hits rocky ground. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say it ends badly, but it is heart-rending to read.

The breakdown of their relationship is perhaps a metaphor for the tragic decline of the house in which Imogen was raised. As the property falls into ruin, so, too, does Imogen’s simple, chaste life. Similarly, the ties that bind the sisters together begin to fray until very little love or friendship between them remains. And we could take it even further and suggest it mirrors the demise of Ireland’s old order of power, too.

If this sounds like a terribly melancholy story, then you’d be right. It’s heart-breaking in places, particularly when you realise that much of Imogen’s behaviour is characterised by small acts of desperation in order to escape her dull, dreary life. But there’s other emotion here, too, including love, passion and sexual desire, which balances the despair.

While this novel won’t be to everyone’s tastes — too literary, too modernist, too experimental — I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least because it took me right out of my comfort zone and introduced me to a novel regarded by so many as a masterpiece.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, literary fiction, New York, Paul Auster, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘Invisible’ by Paul Auster


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I think I may have developed a wee bit of a literary crush on Paul Auster, although our relationship took a little while to develop. Indeed, I was ready to dump him before it even began, because our first meeting in which I read Oracle Night, back in 2005, was not a particularly pleasant one: I simply didn’t get what he was all about. But then I gave him a second chance and read the New York Trilogy and suddenly it all began to make sense. Auster is a novelist who plays with the format, concentrates on recurring themes (for example, coincidence, writing and story-telling, truth and memory) and often makes himself part of the action.

This novel, his 16th, is one of his more accessible, and would make the perfect introduction to anyone who has yet to try Auster for themselves.

It’s told in four interlocking parts. The first introduces us to Adam Walker, a 20-year-old poet and literature student at Columbia University, who meets Frenchman Rudolf Born, a visiting professor, and his seductive young girlfriend, Margot, at a party. The chance introduction is to have a long-lasting impact on Adam’s life. Initially it all seems rather positive, because Born is a rich man and he’s keen to employ Adam as the editor of a new literary magazine he wants to launch. But then it all goes terribly wrong, for reasons I won’t divulge, and Adam finds himself wishing he’d never met Born, who comes across as quite a creepy, violent, narcissist capable of the most hideous crime.

The second part is told from James (Jim) Freeman’s perspective. He once attended classes at Columbia with Adam, although they were never close, and went on to become a very successful writer. The pair fell out of touch, but then 38 years later, Jim receives a part-written manuscript from Adam and asks for his honest opinion of it. The manuscript, entitled Summer, is included, and forms the bulk of this part of Invisible. It tells the story of what happened to Adam after his falling out with Born in the spring of 1967, and includes an eye-opening, somewhat racy, account of Adam’s incestuous relationship with his sister.

The third part is again told from Jim’s perspective, with the second part of Adam’s manuscript, entitled Fall, included. This details Adam’s move to Paris and his half-cooked ploy to extract revenge on Rudolph Born on home turf. It also recounts his friendship with Born’s step-daughter.

The fourth and final part has Jim meet Adam’s sister, Gwyn, a 61-year-old beauty, to discuss whether the manuscript should ever be published given it has quite damaging revelations about her in the text. Born’s step-daughter also has her chance to tell her side of the story.

As you can tell, there’s quite a lot of jumping around of perspectives, although it’s all told in the first person. It’s only Adam’s manuscript that switches around. But this is fairly typical Aster fare, because he has a penchant for including a book within a book, so what you end up reading is a multi-layered narrative. It’s a bit like sitting in front of a mirror with a mirror behind you reflecting a never-ending set of images of a person looking in the mirror looking at a person looking in a mirror and so on.

There’s no denying I loved this book. I raced through it in just a matter of days and found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it. There’s something about Auster’s work that unsettles the unconscious mind, so that certain scenes and characters will pop into your head unannounced. I have only read a very small selection of his extensive back catalogue but Invisible is one of the better ones I’ve had the joy of reading. Definitely recommended, regardless of whether you’re an Auster virgin or not.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Solid Mandala’ by Patrick White


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 316 pages; 1977.

In Jungian psychology a mandala is a symbol that represents the effort to reunify the self.

In Patrick White‘s novel twin brothers, Arthur and Waldo Brown, cannot seem to reconcile the fact that they once shared a womb, the two of them being so different in temperament and personality. And yet, there’s a strange kind of reliance on one another, especially in old age, when the two share a bed and often walk about town holding hands.

Even their lack-lustre love lives (neither of them get married) are remarkably similar, when, as teenagers, they both fall for Dulcie Feinstein and then, as adults, when they strike up a close friendship with their neighbour, Mrs Poulter.

But despite their differences and their tendency to secretly loathe one another, they cannot escape their lifelong familial bond. It is their ongoing struggle to find a balance between intimacy and independence that marks the lives of these two very different men.

Arthur, the older of the two, is good-natured, if a little simple, and is content with his lot in life, working as an assistant to Mr Allwright, the grocer. But Waldo, the bookish one who works in a library, has literary aspirations and thinks himself superior to most people but lacks the confidence to chase his dreams.

First published in 1966, The Solid Mandala is Patrick White’s seventh novel (he wrote 12 in total, along with two short story collections, a memoir and a bunch of plays) and is set in Sydney, Australia, in the early part of the 20th century.

The Browns are recently arrived immigrants from England and the twins are already marked out as different by the mere fact that the family refuses to go to church like every other good Australian citizen. This effectively sets a pattern for the rest of their lives, because neither Waldo or Arthur ever really fit in. Even as retired gentlemen their appearance on the street, walking their dogs and holding hands, causes a stir.

“I never saw two men walkin’ hand in hand,” Mrs Dun murmured.

“They are old.” Mrs Poulter sighed. “I expect it helps them. Twins too.”

“But two men!”

“For that matter I never saw two grown women going hand in hand.”

The Solid Mandala follows the day-to-day lives — from cradle to grave — of these seemingly unremarkable men. Both twins have a chapter each in which to narrate the story. This makes the relatively drab subject matter come alive by showing how alternative perspectives on the same events and incidences can be vastly different from one person to another and how those said perspectives are coloured by individual prejudices, personalities and beliefs.

Ruthless and brutal in places, the prose is also illuminated by White’s distinctive literary flourishes — the tendency to drop punctuation when he wants to convey a character’s excitement, for example — and wonderfully descriptive passages about Australian life and landscapes:

It was really the grass that had control at Sarsaparilla, deep and steaming masses of it, lolling yellow and enervated by the end of summer. As for the roads, with the exception of the highway, they almost all petered out, first in dust, then in paddock, with dollops of brown cow manure — or grey spinners — and the brittle spires of seeded thistles.

There is much grace and beauty here and plenty of laughs, but in places I felt overwhelmed by the sadness that effuses the story, the sense of loss and regret and the inability to escape the past and to truly grasp life by the horns. And the near-perfect ending, I have to say, came as somewhat of a shock, so much so it’s taken me a month to write this review, because I wanted to think about this book before I put pen to paper.

Ultimately, The Solid Mandala is a very human book about how two people living one life can grow apart but never grow away from each other. I very much enjoyed it.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Paul Auster, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Oracle Night’ by Paul Auster


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 207 pages; 2005.

Up until now I have been a Paul Auster virgin. I have seen him interviewed several times on television, and appreciate that he is an interesting and accomplished and much heralded author. Whenever I hear his name I automatically think of New York, because he seems synonymous with that city.

Recently, when browsing a local bookstore, I picked up Oracle Night and was charmed by the coverline on the front of the book: “If you have never read Auster before . . . this is the place to start”. I weighed the pros and cons, and then thought, why not?

Essentially Oracle Night is about a novelist recovering from a near-fatal illness. He lives with his wife in New York, and while she’s at work, he spends his days touring the city on foot. One day he buys a notebook from a stationary shop run by a little Chinese man. He brings it home and finds that as soon as he opens it the writer’s block that has plagued him for months completely disappears. Suddenly his imagination comes alive and, in doing so, his own life takes on a surreal, larger than life edge that has him questioning the very essence of who he is, where he’s come from and where he’s going. He begins to scrutinise his relationship with his wife and his friend in ways he had never contemplated before.

Did I like this book? I am still in two minds. It throws normal novel writing conventions out the window. There are stories within stories within stories – and many of them don’t come to any satisfactory conclusion. There’s no real plot to speak of, although the strong characterisation and the hypnotic writing, holds it together. And, in many cases, it asks more questions than it answers. I am still wondering “what the hell was that all about?”

If anyone who has read this book can enlighten me, then please do. In the meantime, let me say it was a fascinating novel, but I wouldn’t rave about it and I have no immediate plans to rush to the bookstore for a feast of more Auster. Although I would never say never.