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T. Allen (Liverpool)

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The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Giorgio Bassani
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A celebration of life before death, 30 Aug. 2010
This is a novel about the holocaust that barely mentions the holocaust. The setting is Ferrara immediately before the Second World War, and the main characters are Jewish Italians. We are told their fate in the opening pages: most of them will be deported to German concentration camps in 1943. They are young and daft and brave and confused and hopeful and all the things that human beings typically are, but unknown to them, the death ovens are waiting to swallow them up. The force of the work depends on our own knowledge of what happens next: its horror is all the more powerful for the death-knell being almost silent.

For example, one of the characters dies unexpectedly young: he contracts a lung disease and dies at what, in normal circumstances, would be considered a tragically young age, after several months of agony. But his ailment is only hinted at in the text: he appears here mostly as a cheerful mixture of diffidence and confidence, arguing with his left-wing factory-worker friend about the nature of justice and privilege. In an ordinary world, such a death would be a terrible and senseless loss, but here his lymphogranuloma saves him from the death camps. A few months after they have buried him, his family are deported to Germany "and no one knows whether they have any graves at all".

Jamie McKendrick's translation is excellent. Other reviewers have complained about the ponderous style, but the slow batting backwards and forwards of trivial concerns - like the endless tennis games that the characters play - is precisely what makes this novel so compelling. And McKendrick's lively version brings a freshness and immediacy to these 1930s Italians, who "skive" and "slope off" even as they fall in and out of love with each other and (somewhere in the background) worry about the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. The reader's hindsight and imagination does the rest of the work.

The novel brings to mind two other works. One is "People on Sunday", the silent film co-scripted by Billy Wilder, which shows working class youngsters relaxing at the weekend during a hot summer in Berlin in the late 1920s. What gives that film a power it could not have expected is our own knowledge of what happens next in Berlin, for the Nazis are about to destroy these ordinary people and their carefree weekends. Bassani's novel achieves the same effect, but this time on purpose. This is a post-war novel about ordinary life in pre-war Italy, but the horrors of the war itself are all the more real for their hardly being mentioned.

The second thing the Finzi-Continis reminded me of is a Gary Larson cartoon. The bombs have fallen, a city is burning, and people are running for their lives. A terrified family is driving frantically away from the devastation. On the back seat is a dog wagging its tail; the dog has noticed another dog on the pavement. Larson's caption reads something like: "Suddenly Ginger noticed something that attracted his attention."

That's a joke, but like all the best jokes there's a lot of truth in it. Most of us ignore the nightmare all around us because what really catches our eye is that other dog on the sidewalk. While the Nazis are planning their psychopathic destruction of millions of people, what their soon-to-be victims themselves are concerned with is silly and trivial, because that's what human life is like. And Giorgio Bassani celebrates that life here.

Something Like an Autobiography
Something Like an Autobiography
by Akira Kurosawa
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "But since he's a dog, he most resembles a dog...", 20 Aug. 2010
Reflecting on the question "What is cinema?", Kurosawa recalls a "remarkable prose piece" by his friend's ten year old grandchild. It was called, "My dog" and it began, "My dog resembles a bear, he also resembles a badger, he also resembles a fox..." and ended "...but since he's a dog, he most resembles a dog." Kurosawa laughs at this joke, but comments that cinema's like that too - it might resemble theatre or painting or philosophy, but mostly it resembles itself.

This book is full of that stories and asides like that one. Kurosawa has a good memory, and also a knack for finding a scene or a snapshot that can sum up a period of his life or the character of a person he once met. I would guess that he's been well served also by his translator, Audie Bock, who seems to have played a big part not only in drawing this book out of Kurosawa but also in structuring it into neat two/three page episodes that make it as easy to dip in and out of as it is to read all the way through at a single sitting.

It's not perfect, by any means - it's too short, for a start, stopping just as its author is about to achieve some success with Rashômon, and Kurosawa doesn't really give a good reason for this. (He says something along the lines of, "If you want to find me after that, look at my films." But this excuse is disingenuous, particularly given the book's opening when he tells how delighted he was to read Jean Renoir's reluctant autobiography, and how disappointed he was that John Ford never got round to writing one.)

He aims to give an honest picture of himself, showing at once the would-be tough kid who mastered Kendo and also the boy who others saw as weedy and non-athletic. Those who've watched his movies will recognise this typically Kurosawa-type way of suggesting a composite reality by showing different perspectives on it.

I learned a lot about pre-war Japan from this book, too - and it's a place that can seem familiar and yet, almost at the same time, disconcertingly "other". (There's a chilling couple of pages when he describes how close Japan came to mass suicide at the end of the war - an "Honorable Death of the 100 million" that he admits he himself would probably have joined, if the Emperor had only given the word.)

The character of his older brother Heigo figures strongly in the first half of this book. The chapter that deals with Heigo's death is one that Kurosawa calls "A story I don't want to tell", but it's clear that Heigo's life is a story that he really did want to tell. Heigo helped shape Akira, and one reason why Akira wants to tell this story is as an act of homage and remembrance for his brother.

You don't have to be a Kurosawa fan, or even a cinema fan, to enjoy this book - Kurosawa is an unusually creative man, and his story is a terrific, page-turning read. I'm docking it a star because it ends too soon, while we're still having fun. He suggest in an epilogue that "perhaps someday" he'll feel able to tell the rest of the story. Unfortunately for us, he never did.

Murder in Italy
Murder in Italy
by Candace Dempsey
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.99

22 of 50 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Backing the wrong horse, 19 Aug. 2010
It's one thing to maintain that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, but another thing entirely to maintain that suspects are innocent even after they've been proven to be guilty. And that's what's fundamentally wrong with this book - it starts from the premise that an American girl and her Italian boyfriend may have been wrongly accused (leaving the Ivorian-born Rudy Guede as the sole killer). This could have made for a great storyline if it hadn't been proven in court to be completely untrue. A succession of Italian courts has found that Meredith Kercher was indeed killed by Rudy Guede (who pleaded guilty), Amanda Knox (who pleaded not guilty) and Raffaele Sollecito (who, while formally pleading not guilty, refused to testify in his own defence).

There's plenty of evidence to show what happened that night. Sollecito, for example, left a bare bloody footprint on the bathroom mat. This author would like us to believe that this footprint must have been Guede's, although it was proven in court that it couldn't have been his, and that the footprint was made either by Sollecito or by someone with feet very like his. And so on.

There's nothing wrong with a writer taking a partisan stance on a particular crime - indeed, that can even help avoid potential miscarriages of justice. But in a case like this one, where there is copious evidence that all three suspects were directly involved in the death of the victim, it's hard to avoid the impression that this author has simply backed the wrong horse.
Comment Comments (10) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 16, 2011 7:09 PM BST

The Decameron [DVD] [1970]
The Decameron [DVD] [1970]
Dvd ~ Pier Paolo Pasolini
Price: £14.97

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Why bother finishing a work of art, when it's better just to dream about it?", 9 Feb. 2010
This review is from: The Decameron [DVD] [1970] (DVD)
Pasolini's movie presents ten stories from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. It's filmed in the old town of Amalfi, all crumbling buildings and lush green fields, which stands in for medieval Naples.

Boccaccio's Decameron consists of a hundred stories - ten stories a day, told by ten young Florentines over the course of ten days. Pasolini, with one or two exceptions, concentrates on their Neapolitan stories, and when the stories aren't set in Naples (most notably with the tale of Ciappelletto) he just uproots them and plants them there.

The movie itself begins with a murder - a young man is beating someone to death. The victim is screaming for his life from inside a sealed sack. The killer finishes him off with a big rock, carries the sack to the edge of a cliff, throws it off, and spits with contempt. Life can be short and death can be brutal. We later learn that the killer is Ciappelletto, from the opening story of Boccaccio's Decameron. (And there's an awful premonition of Pasolini's own death here, since he was murdered at the age of 53, probably in a contract killing, which seems to be pretty much what the soon-to-be-saintly Ciappelletto is carrying out here.)

The film then covers the following tales: II v; IX ii; III i; VII ii, I i, and then there's an interval. In the second half, Pasolini creates his own story, casting himself as a pupil of Don Giotto (who appears in Boccaccio's VI v), and Pasolini's invented story weaves together the remaining five tales: VI v; V iv; IV v; IX x and III x.

The Boccaccio story has Don Giotto as the greatest living artist, but Pasolini rewrites the character that he himself plays, so that he's playing not Don Giotto but the Giotto's unnamed student. But the point of Boccaccio's story remains: supposedly great artists can be caught in the rain and splattered with mud just like the rest of us. Pasolini gives the movie's final line to himself as "Don Giotto's student": "Why bother finishing a work of art when it's more fun just to dream about it?" And Pasolini's fictional addition to Boccaccio - in one of the most striking images in the film - presents a story in which the artist's dream of a painting turns out to be much more beautiful and dynamic than the painting itself, even though the public might be quite satisfied simply with the painting.

Aside from that, Pasolini tinkers about with Boccaccio's stories in ways that don't always come off. Ciappelletto, for example, in the original, is definitely short, malevolent and quite elderly - he falls sick in Burgundy and makes a false deathbed confession which results in his being venerated as a saint. Pasolini's Ciappelletto is not a Florentine in France, but a Neapolitan in Germany. Maybe there are good 1970s reasons for replacing 14th century Florence with 20th century Naples (Camorra instead of Guelphs and Ghibellines) and France's medieval military alliances with more recent Italian ones with Germany, but these allusions aren't really chased up. Also, Franco Citta's character is normal height, mid-thirties and nice-looking. It's hard to make out why he dies (it's after a long illness in the original, but he just inexplicably collapses after a cheerful meal here). Also, because his episode is so far removed from the movie's introductory murder, it's hard to associate him with the evil killer we saw at the start.

Pasolini shies away from some of the gorier bits of Boccaccio, whether for reasons of good taste or low budget I'm not sure. In the opening scene (based on II v), for example, Andreuccio exclaims, "How ugly you are!" to the corpse of the bishop (although the poor man doesn't look ugly at all) whereas in the original, the corpse is crawling with maggots, which spill onto Andreuccio when he faints and collapses alongside the dead man. Similarly, the famously severed head in the honour killing (adapted from IV v) is suggested rather than shown explicitly, while in the original, the stages of decomposition of the dead man's head form part of the narrative.

There are other slight changes of emphasis. For example, when the old storyteller tells the tale of IX ii in Neapolitan dialect towards the beginning of the film, the punchline is that all the nuns in the convent end up with lovers, which leads nicely into III i (because that's what happens in that story) but it's quite different from the original of IX ii. In that convent, although the Abbess and Sister Isabetta end up with regular visits from their lovers, Boccaccio tells us that the other nuns "consoled themselves in secret as best they could." Conversely, in Pasolini's version of III x, which closes the movie, the "sin which is not regarded as a sin in heaven" is frequent love-making - whereas in Boccaccio, frequent love-making is pretty much taken for granted, and the sin that heaven takes no interest in is that of making love to the mother of your own godchild.

Pasolini's movie is good fun, beautifully shot, and even the dentistry looks medieval. But there's a lot more fun to be had from going back to the original. For anyone who'd like to find earthier and gutsier versions of these tales, G H McWilliam's excellent translation, published as a Penguin Classic, is well worth getting hold of.

America, My Brother, My Blood: A Latin American Song of Suffering and Resistance (Ocean Sur)
America, My Brother, My Blood: A Latin American Song of Suffering and Resistance (Ocean Sur)
by Oswaldo Guayasamin
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Un librito lindísimo, 2 May 2008
This big square paperback brings together two of the great Latin-American artists of the last century. A bilingual selection from Neruda is illustrated with a wide range of paintings from Guayasamín (prints of whose work can otherwise be quite hard to find).

It makes a lovely gift for anyone who cares about Latin America, or about painting, or about poetry. If they care about all three, you should buy them this book.

It's also an accessible introduction both to the Canto General and to the work of Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse: Commentary: Commentary v. 2 (Bollingen Series (General))
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse: Commentary: Commentary v. 2 (Bollingen Series (General))
by Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £29.22

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a good substitute for the 1975 four volume addition, 31 Mar. 2008
I'd echo what other reviewers have said about the overall quality of Nabokov's version of Eugene Onegin, which combines scholarship with artistry and represents an extraordinary achievement in its own right.

But I'd like to an add an explanation of what's in this second volume - "The Commentary and Index" - since before purchase it wasn't clear to me what "abridged" meant. [For the sake of clarity, I'm calling this two-volume paperback edition Volumes I and II, while the four-volume 1975 hardback is here referred to as Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4.]

Here's what's written on the flynote of this companion volume II. It's what a prospective purchaser would be looking for if they picked up a hard copy in a bookshop: "This two-volume work is an abridgment of the four-volume hardcover edition... Volume I omits the correlative lexicon of the 1975 edition, Volume II combines the commentary, from Volumes 2 and 3, and the Index, from Volume 4, and omits the appendices and the Russian text. The pagination of the 1975 edition has been retained."

In other words, put this companion volume alongside Volume I and you've got pretty much everything that's useful and relevant from the four volume 1975 edition (at least, assuming you have your own copy of the Russian original). Volumes 2 and 3 are reproduced in their entirety.

Here's what is in Volume II. First, Volume 2 covers the Foreword, Preliminaries and Chapters One to Five of Eugene Onegin. It is 547 pages long.

Next, Volume 3 covers Chapters Six to Eight of the original, plus several addenda, including various expunged fragments, and ends with Nabokov's translation of Pushkin's lovely poem of goodbye to the work: "Trud". It is 384 pages long.

Finally, the Index of Volume 4 is reproduced exactly as it is in the original, even though this means retaining references to the omitted material (correlative lexicon and appendices). Despite these omissions, it's fairly useful at providing a way back into the text (just as an Index should be) and it's accurate, too. It is 109 pages long.

In sum: what you get for your money with Volume II is 1040 pages of most of what's useful in Volumes 2, 3 and 4 of the 1975 edition, apart from Pushkin's Russian original.

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