Italian Literature

Celebrating the Human Need to Explain the Inexplicable

Umberto Eco

Ever since the first hominids developed language, humanity has felt the need to fill in those blank spaces on the map.  Whether that terra incognita was just across the next ridge or somewhere in the south seas, the profusion of legendary lands created to explain what might be there is stunning.

In fact, we still do it today: science fiction writers fill the darkness of space while, more metaphorically, spiritualists and fantasy writers try to satisfy people’s need to know what, if anything, happens when we die.

One of our favorite subjects here at CE is Umberto Eco (don’t believe us?  Look here or here or here) so we’re glad to say that he’s tackled the subject of legendary lands in his own inimitable fashion–namely in a medievalist and exhaustive way.

The Book of Legendary Lands - Umberto Eco

In The Book of Legendary Lands, he defines “legendary” as an inexistent place that, nevertheless, contemporary people actually believed in.  So you get an analysis that goes from the Garden of Eden to Hyperborea, from Atlantis to the Aryan kingdoms the Nazis wanted to believe in.

Now this is a hefty book, and Eco can often be quite… how to say this diplomatically?.. obscure in his wording when he wants to be, so I was expecting a long, plodding–albeit ultimately rewarding–read.

On that front, I was pleasantly surprised.  Eco, by his own admission, has a passion for the medieval that drove him in his career, and it comes through in his prose when working in that era.  The Name of the Rose became a bestseller not only because it was brilliant but because it was written in accessible (all things being relative, of course) language that allowed everyday readers to connect with the era and the characters.  It’s a beautiful book.

This one is also beautiful, with the added benefit that it’s lavishly illustrated.  As the text advances, you get contemporary illustrations, everything from medieval manuscript illuminations to paintings by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  It’s quite the mix, but it works.

Of course, this is a book aimed at popular consumption, but it’s a scholarly work at the same time, researched by an expert whose loss the field won’t easily recover from.  Eco famously collected books of  what he called “fakes”, or things that were demonstrably untrue–this volume draws a lot from this.

Finally, perhaps most delightfully, Eco gives his own opinion on the wisdom of certain beliefs.  He’s understandably easier on the ancients–after all, science was still embryonic when they were creating Atlantis–but he comes down pretty heavily on Victorian mystics and Aryan cultists, as well as other modern actors.  Deservedly so.

In conclusion, find a copy of this book.  You will enjoy it, you will learn from it, and you will like the pretty pictures.  You can thank me in the comments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several novels set in places that don’t exist (or that don’t exist yet).  His novel of an Earth changed beyond recognition by humanity’s conscious choice to evolve, Outside, can be purchased here.

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When Italians Look Back

Ferrara Jewish Ghetto

Our Italianite period continues today with the review of one of the great Italian books of the 20th century.  Now, other than Umberto Eco, I haven’t read that much modern Italian literature but, falling victim to the Folio Society’s beautiful marketing pitch and the fact that their books are utterly wonderful, I decided t purchase The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani.

When reading the description, I expected to find a book very similar to Brideshead Revisited, which I loved.  Instead, I found a book with a darker edge and an utter lack of the poetry of elegy.  Of course, that might be down to the translation, but I didn’t feel that Waugh, as a writer and evoker of feelings, has anything to fear from Bassani.

Nevertheless, the book, which starts somewhat slowly, does become engrossing by the end, when things begin to unravel for the protagonists and the relationships between the young characters become a little more muddied.

Of course, we are told on the first page that the story has a sad ending, as it deals with a group of Jewish families on the eve of the Second World War.  The impact was lessened in my case because it became impossible to fall in love with–or even to truly sympathize—with the mercurial Micòl, the narrator’s love interest.  I generally have no problem falling head over heels for this kind of character, and what is basically a Holly Golightly character should, in my opinion, have been much more compelling.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

But if the characters left me a bit cold, the same can’t be said of the setting.  While the city of Ferrara as described by Bassani is unremarkable, the walled home of the titular family becomes a kind of unforgettable wonderland which lives on in memory long after the foibles of the characters are forgotten.

I haven’t seen the film based on the novel, perhaps it is better than the book when it comes to characters–what Micòl lacks in writing can be fixed by any decent casting director (sadly, it wasn’t… just did a google image search)–and I’d love to know what those of you who’ve seen it think.

Anyhow, if you enjoy unforgettable settings or different takes on the Holocaust, this one may be for you.  Others might prefer to read Brideshead Revisited for the elegiac content or Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Micòl done right.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of Siege, a far future science fiction book which explores what it means to be human–and why that definition matters.  Buy it here!

The Italians, by an Italian

castello-banfi-montalcino-tuscany-italy

We have a thing for Italy here on Classically Educated.  Whether it’s because that’s where a lot of the “Classic” part of our moniker took place or whether we simply like the idea of Tuscan sun falling on a suitably hilly vineyard, it’s the one modern nation (along with England, of course) that we can’t get enough of.

We’ve discussed Italy’s literature, their participation in WWII and even encouraged people to take the Grand Tour (which, back when it was a thing, was essentially a jaunt around Rome, Venice and Florence).  But the links above are just the tip of the Iceberg.  Search for the keyword Italy on this blog and you’ll be bombarded with entries.

So you can get a pretty good idea of what both I and our contributors think of that boot-shaped appendage to southern Europe, but what do Italians think about themselves?

The Italians - Luigi Barzini

To get an idea of that, I heartily recommend reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians.  Part history lesson, part politico/philosophical tract and part meditation on the national temperament, it delivers the goods.

Like most peoples, Italians are quite conflicted.  On one hand, the modern people are the inheritors of a glorious past of which they are justifiably proud.  On the other, the really glorious part took place about two thousand years ago, and the more recent past has been more of a mixed bag in which a general lack of distinction has been peppered with certain bright moments, occurrences and individuals.  The years after the Florentine renaissance ended, in particular, were grim ones.

Barzini, despite his often caustic look at his countrymen, also harbored a geniune affection for their foibles.  Reading between the lines, he seems to be telling his readers that the idiosyncrasies are what makes Italians Italian, and you can’t have one without the other.  In this, though less overtly humorous (and much more critical), he reminds me of the portrait of the English that Bill Bryson painted for us and which we discussed earlier.

The cover of the edition I read portrays this beautifully.  The man shown is not a Medici (or even a Borgia) but a mercenary who later took over a town and ruled… in a hugely humanist and enlightened way.  The perfect symbol for the people described in the text.

Oh, and you won’t forget that nose very soon…

Verdict on this one is: pick up a copy, you’ll probably enjoy it (and learn new stuff while you’re at it).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is about insane Greeks.  He promises to insane Italians next, if enough people pester him to.

Eco on Literature – An Acquired Taste

I love Umberto Eco’s fiction.  I believe The Name of the Rose is utterly brilliant (to the point where I actually bought a pretty edition of the thing.  And we’ve discussed Foucault’s Pendulum here before.

Eco’s essays, for me, were a different story.  At first reading, I found them a bit dry and boring.  Perhaps a little too philosophical for their own good.  They are certainly well thought out, but you need to be very awake to fully process them.  He was not a big believer in delivering easy to understand wisdom.

Umberto Eco on Literature Cover

So the first time I read Umberto Eco on Literature, I had to read it when I was fully awake and alert, despite finding the subject matter, for the most part, absolutely fascinating.

But then, I discovered the secret to unlock the full enjoyment of this volume.  The trick lies in undersanding that these essays were actually speeches that Eco gave in different elite literary places: universities, institutes and such.

They are meant to be heard, not read.

Therein, however, lies another problem: most of these aren’t on YouTube.

No matter, I disovered.  All you need to do is to watch any English-language interview with the great man – I recommend this one – to see what he sounds like, just before starting one of the essays and, magically, as you read, you will read them in his own accent. That makes them utterly perfect.

Umberto Eco shouldn’t be anything less than brilliant.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, will likely make a lot of Greeks angry, while making other Greeks laugh.  People from other nationalities will invariably enjoy it.