Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NYRB Challenge #5: Cesare Pavese. . .

Over to Italy now. My next author choice came about because I've been slowly working my way through the films of the great Italian director Michangelo Antonioni. I was watching a DVD of 1955's Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) and the credits announced it was based on a novel by Cesare Pavese. I hit the pause button and immediately went to my shelves as I knew NYRB published him. Sure enough, the short novel that was the inspiration for the film is part of The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese, under the title Among Women Only. I love the cover of this collection - it could almost have been a still from the movie. Both versions of the story are great. It follows a woman who comes to Turin from Rome to oversee the setting up of a new fashion boutique shop and gets caught up in the lives of a group of rich but bored and shallow women. In the novel, the main character has more bite and worldly cynicism than her movie counterpart, but the ending of the film is terrific and all Antonioni. But unfortunately this NYRB edition does not have Canadian rights (although you can read Among Women Only in other editions). So it didn't count for this challenge.

So my NYRB Challenge Book #5 is another Pavese work that is available in Canada - his novel The Moon and the Bonfires, translated by R.W. Flint. It was published in 1950, just before the author committed suicide. The narrator, known only by his nickname "Eel", has returned to the small Italian town he grew up in. He has been away in America for many years - including those of the Second World War - making his fortune and trying to put his past behind him. (Incidentally, Pavese worked as a translator on many American classics by Melville, Gertrude Stein and Faulkner). Eel grew up in poverty, never knowing his parents and reliant on a family who takes him in for the few lire that the orphanage pays each month. He feels the stigma of his illegitimacy all his life. Later he goes to work on the Mora estate, a nearby vineyard, where he spies on the three daughters of his master as, desperate to leave their farm, they chase the attentions of any available bachelor - with tragic results (unhappiness and hopelessness seem positively glued to Pavese's female characters despite their defiant posturing). While wandering the familiar landscape of his past, and reconnecting with an old friend, Eel becomes interested in the family now eeking out a living on the poor parcel of land where he grew up, and also in finding out how the youngest Mora daughter died during the war.

This is a heartbreaking novel very much about wanting the unattainable yet never truly being able to escape from your past. Eel may have made money in America, but he's restlessly wandered that country for years, never content. The repetitive human cycles of inevitable despair mirror, and are very much embued with, the changing seasons - the promise of sown crops and the disappointment when harvests are poor. The title refers to the folk superstitions practised in hopes of cultivating the land, now sneeringly dismissed by the older, wealthy Eel. His wise friend quietly corrects him:

[he] told me that superstition is only what does harm, and if someone should use the moon and the bonfires to rob the peasants and keep them in the dark, then that man would be an ignoramus and ought to be shot in the piazza. But before I spoke I should become a peasant again. An old man like Valino might know nothing else, but he did know the land.
One small quibble that I have with the NYRB edition is the introduction by Mark Rudman which has plenty of interesting background information on the author but contains far too many plot spoilers. This novel is filled with a lot of shocking and emotional revelations. If you want to be surprised, skip the introduction until after you've finished the book. It really should have been an afterword.


Brian Busby said...

My thanks for the warning about the Rudman introduction. I do like the NYRB books - and have no reservation in recommending them - but many of the introductions do a disservice to readers not yet familiar with the title in hand by going into too much detail about what is to come.

Maylin said...

Yes, it's always a bit unfortunate when that happens. I feel like I want to put the book down for a month and then pick it up again when I've hopefully forgotten what I was told in the introduction. In this particular case, even the last paragraph was revealed - and it's a shocker.