Aracoeli by Elsa Morante
I scanned my remaining Open Letter books to see which seemed most intriguing and settled on #113) Aracoeli by Elsa Morante translated by William Weaver (hard copy).
This slightly-puppy-chewed book was written by an Italian novelist. It is the story of a gay, ex-drug addict, Manuel, relationship with his mother, Aracoeli. In the beginning, the narrator is returning to Spain to visit his mother’s village. She died when he was an adolescent. It is clear he loved her very much and misses her deeply. The book moves back and forth in time chronicling his childhood and coming back to his adult years and his trip. It covers the 30s, 40s, and 50s. His mother became pregnant with him by an Italian lover and subsequently relocated there. When the narrator was four, his parents married. His mother was beautiful, but of peasant origins. His father was wealthy and, not unexpectedly, his parents disapproved. Over time, his mother becomes ill and moves into extreme behavior tied to her illness. She was always capricious – vacillating between very loving and distant.
Some of the book reminded me of Proust’s first book in the Remembrance series. Proust also lovingly details a mother of whom he could never get enough although he was writing decades before Morante. I enjoyed the beginning of the book and tried to just let the rest roll over me, absorb it, and try to figure out why anyone would find it interesting enough to go out of their way to translate it. I never did really figure that out. It is a sad story – this young boy goes through a lot and doesn’t have parents who are conscious of his pain in the way that they should have been. If you want to read a review by someone who appreciated the book more (and wonder if we read the same book) go here to The Believer.
I’d concluded that Open Letters chooses to translate books that they define as having great literary value. And I enjoy books of great literary value. But of course, we all have different definitions of what this is and we all enjoy different things. I think the press emphasizes books that faculty in literature departments appreciate because they push the boundaries of literature, creating new styles and techniques. These are not always the same books enjoyed by broad audiences. And perhaps that is part of the point – I guess if they were choosing books of broader accessibility, they’d likely already be translated. I’m going to try reading one or two more of these books and after that, if they continue to disinterest me, I’m donating them to our university library. There are lots of books in the sea!
The Warden by Trollope
I figured that I’d better move onto something I knew I would enjoy – for my sake and for yours! I’ve had a few less than favorite books in a row and I need to move on to an easy winner. I was considering #48 S.J. Watson’s Before I go to sleep. This first-time novel is a mystery that has gotten a lot of attention.
But then I read a post by my favorite book blogger, Book Snob where she is talking about the challenges and enjoyments of being back home in England – one of her great recent joys has been discovering Trollope. She made such a convincing argument that I thought I’d find what I had for Trollope on my shelves and I found #121) The Warden by Anthony Trollope. It is a story of a warden for a charity “hospital” which is a small charity set up to house and support 12 impoverished tradesmen from the local village. I am enjoying the story very much. The book was written at a time when many political issues were being raised about church spending and charities. This charity was set up centuries before to use the income from some properties to support these 12 men at a given amount with the remainder going to the warden who oversees them. Time has gone by, inflation has occurred, the value of the properties has gone up as has their income. The 12 men are making just a bit more than centuries before (due to the generosity of the present warden) and the warden’s income has gotten to a point where it is making him very comfortable – not wealthy per se, but upper middle class. A local “radical” is making a point of challenging this. There were larger court cases and policy debates about this issue in the country at the time that Trollope was writing, so the book raises an important issue of the time.