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“Italian Short Stories” ed. by Jhumpa Lahiri

Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories ed. Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated from the Italian by Various
528 pgs. | hc | 9780241299838 | $30.00
Penguin Random House
Review by Jeanne Bonner

 

Novels and memoirs often become labors of love for the authors who birth them. But what about an anthology? How often do we imagine the editor of a large, door-stopper compilation of, say, short stories, calling the arduous task of sorting and selecting the entries a labor of love? And what if the short stories are in a foreign language and the editing also involved commissioning new translations and tracking down old ones?

Author Jhumpa Lahiri, who edited the new Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, doesn’t use those exact words in the anthology’s introduction, but she comes pretty close as she describes what inspired her to want to curate such a collection. It’s of a piece with what inspired her in 2012 (a dozen years after winning the Pulitzer Prize) to move her family to Rome so she could surround herself with the Italian language: “I surrendered to an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself and to acquire a second literary formation.” That second literary formation she mentions (it makes me think of “formazione,” which in Italian means training or education) has been fruitful. In addition to publishing two books in Italian, including In Other Words, based on the Italian diary she kept in Rome, Lahiri has translated Domenico Starnone’s novels Ties and Trick, and now the short stories of underappreciated or overlooked authors such as Corrado Alvaro, Aldo Palazzeschi, and Fabrizia Raimondo—all of which appear in the anthology.

It’s not unprecedented for an author to go abroad and lose her head over a language and a country (James Joyce also decamped to Italy, and would converse with his children in Italian; James Baldwin lived for decades in France, as did Mavis Gallant). But how often does such an author—especially one gifted enough to receive this country’s highest literary honor—master the new language enough to write in it or translate important works, as she has done? Indeed, Lahiri’s role as not only a booster of Italian lit, but also a practitioner arguably transformed the process of editing and curating the Penguin anthology (just as, in her diary, she wrote how Rome had transformed her). The result is a primer on short fiction from Italy that, given its thorough and nuanced selections, will likely be used as a college text. Indeed, Lahiri’s inclusion of a side-by-side chronology of Italian literary and historical events—a copy of which may go up on my wall—is peerless in a general interest book of this kind.

With works by 40 writers whose stories were published over the span of 100 years, the anthology appears at a time when so-called #FerranteFever remains high. Indeed, a new novel by Elena Ferrante, the author of the spectacularly successful Neapolitan Series of novels that begins with My Brilliant Friend, has already been published in Italian and will arrive in American bookstores next year, not a moment too soon for fans of the reclusive writer. It can sometimes seem like everyone in America knows Italy—and everyone knows someone who has just returned from Italy, aglow in Mediterranean reminiscing. But beyond Ferrante and a handful of other authors (Dante? Andrea Camilleri?), what does everyone know about Italian literature? Not a whole lot. And perhaps with good reason: translations of books originally published in Italy continue to trail translations of books from France, for example, according to Three Percent’s Translation Database, now hosted by Publisher’s Weekly.

Lahiri’s anthology will help, with short stories from some of the peninsula’s most important classic writers (Luigi Pirandello, Primo Levi, Antonio Tabucchi, Leonardo Sciascia, Cesare Pavese, Grazia Deledda, Alberto Moravia, et al) as well as a host of lesser-known authors (Anna Banti, Luce D’Eramo, Goffredo Parise, Beppe Fenoglio).

Lahiri uses her learned introduction to trace the trajectory of the Italian short story back to its origins beyond the well-known Boccaccio, namechecking Matteo Bandello and Masuccio Salernitano. Both of these authors (along with Boccaccio) composed what was known as novelle or short tales, stories that often had a moral slant or fable quality to them. They sometimes introduced characters and locales from faraway, and could be quite ribald, as they reveled in deconstructing male-female relationships.

It’s in the introduction that we also learn how Lahiri specifically sought out women writers, lesser-known writers, and overlooked writers in compiling the anthology. She says she selected stories with an eye particularly toward the experiences of women, as written by women or men. It is gratifying to find works in the anthology by Lalla Romano, Anna Maria Ortese, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg and Fausta Cialente—five writers whom author Dacia Maraini, one of Italy’s greatest living novelists, has identified as so significant as to be her “literary mothers.” (Maraini is not included in the anthology because Lahiri decided to feature only the work of deceased authors). The inclusion of these five writers, as well as other women, is critical because women authors are often passed over for prizes and less appreciated in Italy, and correspondingly less translated than their male counterparts abroad (according to Three Percent’s Translation Database, of the 45 books originally published in Italy that were translated from Italian into English in 2018, only seven were by women authors). Moreover, there are quite a few anthologies of Italian short stories where women writers are given scant attention. But not this anthology.

The Penguin work distinguishes itself in other ways, most notably by including more than a dozen works that have never been translated into English, such as “The Ambitious Ones,” a gem of a story by Elsa Morante, and “Dialogue with a Tortoise” by the much-celebrated Italo Calvino. That’s the power of an anthology like this: not merely compiling in a new place what already existed (which has a value in its own right, particularly here with literature not native to America), but indeed commissioning translations of works that heretofore were unavailable to the vast majority of Anglophone readers, since they do not read Italian.

Also of note among these new translations is “Invitation to Dinner” by Alba de Cespedes, which is narrated by an unnamed woman and which brings us the story of a dinner with an English officer in wartime Italy who helps transport the narrator’s brother back to Rome after the liberation of Northern Italy. The officer smugly tells them the world won’t automatically welcome Italy back into the fold after 20 long years of barbarous Fascism. The narrator seethes in silence, lamenting that:

… it wasn’t enough, as proof of civilization, to have manufactured that porcelain or to have written those books squeezed into the shelves that lined the walls of the library. We had to demonstrate once again, to prove, to pass, all forty-five million of us together, a lengthy exam.

 

The anthology also includes new, updated translations, and among those stories, Elio Vittorini’s “Name and Tears” feels like a revelation. It’s a fable and a mystery wrapped in one, with an extremely fluid translation by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. The story is about a man searching for a woman. Is she real? He hears her sobbing, and at the end of the tale is left only with a “handkerchief, damp with her tears.” The book features a new translation of “The Long Voyage” by Leonardo Sciascia, a pivotal twentieth century Sicilian author who was the first to write incisively about the Mafia but whose prose style, as translator and scholar Frederika Randall has remarked, hasn’t always been served well by English translations.

The anthology caps a wave of newly translated works and retranslated works from Italy in recent years, that’s been fueled in part perhaps by interest in Ferrante’s works (and the furor over her identity; Ferrante is a pseudonym). For example, some of the novels of the seminal Ginzburg have been re-translated in recent years, including Jenny McPhee’s wonderful translation of Family Lexicon, published in 2017 by NYRB. Primo Levi’s oeuvre has also received the attention it deserves through the tome The Complete Works of Primo Levi, which was edited and translated by Ann Goldstein—a.k.a. Ferrante’s translator.

It is unsurprising, then, that the anthology reprints excerpts from some of the more notable translations appearing in recent years, including the stunningly good translation of Anna Maria Ortese’s “A Pair of Eyeglasses” by the Italian translation dream-team of McPhee and Goldstein (it appeared in the collection Neapolitan Chronicles, published by New Vessel Press in 2018). Ortese’s influence on her peers and on contemporary writers has been keenly felt, with an echo of her candid descriptions here of an impoverished neighborhood in post-war Naples, and the singular combination of superstition, fate, and politics that reigns over the characters’ lives evident in the works of Ferrante, among others. Ortese’s characters come alive in wonderful and wretched ways, in particular Eugenia, the innocent girl whose family’s poverty deprives her of glasses, leaving her practically in the dark for years, and Nunziata—the nagging, morose, unmarried aunt biding her time until death and who utters the unforgettable line, “My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it.” The anthology also includes a short story by Levi about a centaur (as Lahiri notes in her preface to the story, Levi defied categories).

Equally as good is a story from Ginzburg called “My Husband,” expertly translated by Paul Lewis. Ginzburg always writes perceptively about family dynamics and here she has applied her skills to exposing some of the less savory aspects of marriage. When she writes about male-female relationships, she often exposes male infidelity or indifference but without any feminist grandstanding or judgement (she was a better person than I ever will be). In this short story, the husband rather boldly confesses that his surprising indiscretions have continued after the birth of the couple’s first child, in a scene that is nothing short of breathtaking:

He knelt down in front of me and kissed my bare arms. ‘Help me, I’m begging you,’ he said. ‘What am I going to do if you won’t help me?’ ‘But how can I possibly help you?’ I screamed, pushing him away and bursting into tears. Then my husband picked up Giorgio, kissed him, gave him to me and said, ‘Everything will be easier now, you’ll see.’

 

 

Reader, I will only tell you that “easier” would not be the word I’d have chosen to describe the finale of this stunning short tale of Ginzburg’s.

There are many theories about how translations should sound. Some translators and publishers prefer works that retain a trace of foreignness, while others say the translated works should read no differently than a work by an American author. These stories for the most part, like Lahiri’s translation of the Starnone novels, read so fluidly that you forget they are works in translation. Theory aside, there’s no arguing that these crisp translations will have the reader eagerly turning pages.

Those of us who have immersed ourselves in Italian literature face a particular conundrum: love of Italy and Italian culture seems to be ubiquitous in America these days, but knowledge and appreciation of the peninsula’s literary output is, in reality, quite limited. This is partly because other countries subsidize translations with prizes, grants and fellowships, and Italy does not. This is not a recent problem, and as a result, there’s long been a familiarity with, in particular, French and German authors. Americans know Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Herman Hesse, Bertolt Brecht, W. G. Sebald, Gunter Grass and so on. But do they know Sciascia? Are Morante’s books taught widely in high schools and colleges here?

Here’s to that familiarity extending to Sunny Italy. Indeed, here’s hoping if the anthology is updated in the future, American readers will be arguing over whether it should have included a short story by Maraini or Niccolo Ammaniti or Donatella Di Pietrantonio. As Lahiri notes in her introduction, English-language literature dominates literary discussions far beyond the borders of Anglophone nations—something that “few, on the English-speaking side of the border, stop to question.” Perhaps they should. Lahiri, in her Rome diary, had described the sensation that the Italian language and its literature inspired in her as nothing short of “rapture.” Here’s hoping that rapture is catching. For she’s understood that Italy produces something even more satisfying—far more so, in fact—than a caffelatte or a slice of Neapolitan pizza.



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