Saturday 10 March 2012

What (who) I'm reading now

Antonio Tabucchi is an Italian writer who describes himself as 'in love with Lisbon'. An expert on Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa, Tabucchi spends half of each year in Lisbon and the other half in Tuscany (hmmI want his life) where he teaches Portuguese language and literature at the university of Siena. 

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Appropriately enough, then, Pereira Maintains (in the English translation from the Italian original Sostiene Pereira) is set in Lisbon, though it is Lisbon in the late 1930s, under an oppressive, fascist regime. 

Pereira is editor of the cultural pages of a daily newspaper, at a time when cultural and intellectual life is stifled, government informers are everywhere, and resistance brutally quelled. He's an entirely unlikely hero, which is part of the great appeal of his character ... an overweight widower who talks aloud to a photograph of his dead wife, harbours stoically his private losses and regrets of the past, and generally keeps his head down in the political climate, dutifully translating 'safe' French novels and writing tame obituaries of famous writers. 

His perspective begins to shift uncomfortably when he meets a young writer and his girlfriend who are involved in subversive activities, and a doctor who stimulates his political conscience through a series of conversations. Ultimately Pereira is moved to commit himself to a single act of great bravery.

It's a short but entirely memorable book, written with understatement and humanity. Even the minor characters have stayed with me. 

I'm now struggling to get hold of the film version, in Italian, with Marcello Mastroianni as Pereira and the wonderful Daniel Auteuil and Marthe Keller as co-stars. Amazon appears to be out of stock, and the best I've managed is to get onto a waiting list for it at LoveFilm ... if anyone out there knows of an alternative source to try, I'd love to hear it. 

(Photos above, except where credited otherwise, were taken by me in Lisbon last summer)

Another good recent discovery for me was Siri Hustvedt (below) - a writer (most well-known, I think for What I Loved) who I've been meaning to read for ages. My introduction came through her latest novel, The Summer Without Men, another short book with a big impact.

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Poet Mia Frederiksen's equilibrium is sent into turmoil when her solid scientist husband Boris, requests a "pause" in their 30-year marriage ... the Pause turns out to be "French with limp but shiny brown hair ... significant breasts that were real, not manufactured ... and an excellent mind."  

Mia goes briefly to pieces, then retreats to the small hometown of her childhood for the summer to lick her wounds and reflect on her past and future. There she makes unexpected connections with, amongst others, a lively group of octogenarian women (in a home for the elderly) with varied and surprising pasts, and teaches poetry to a group of pre-adolescent girls with whose personal dramas she becomes involved. The summer becomes a reflection on the stages of being a woman and a gradual reconstitution of her self. What strikes you most is the intelligence of her writing - reflecting an extraordinary breadth of knowledge and interest (this is also evident from the range of articles on her interesting website here) - and secondly, her empathy and humour. I am definitely going to read some earlier Hustvedt now.

And finally, here is her writer's room from the Guardian series, and you can read her description of her writing space by following the link below ...

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  1. so now I need to read Siri Husvedt's book.
    I heard her talk at the Rubin Museum a while ago and thought what an interesting person she is.
    Marianna Risi (of Meris's Vienna for Beginners) adores Tabucci -my particular fix is WG Sebald.
    Happy reading.

  2. Antonio Tabucchi is one of my favorite writers, one very close to my heart. I have not seen the movie, unfortunately.

    "Requiem: A Hallucination" is the one book that I would recommend to read next. I would not read anything about it, just open its pages and let myself be transported back to Lissabon, in an extraordinary voyage of the mind. Tabucchi wrote it in Portuguese. I would have a hard time to decide which book to recommend next.

    I have hesitated to read "The Summer Without Men" - somehow the idea of men turning another leaf, er, to younger women and women retreating to their childhood place did not seem to appealing. ;-)

  3. P.S.: I noticed Elizabeth's comment only now.
    I love both W.G. Sebald and Tabucchi. I love them in two languages (at one time or another I had first access to a translation then the original and somehow got caught up in reading them twice, so to speak).

  4. Thank all you ladies for introducing me to these authors. I might just manage a trip across the Park to the library tomorrow.

    (How will I find time to do all the reading that tempts me?


  5. and I love the Guardian's writer room from series...
    have loved Sebald...What I Loved too
    I love your choices K.

  6. Thank you all for the interesting comments.

    Merisi, my copy of Pereira Maintains had just arrived c/o Amazon when I read your post mentioning Tabucchi's 'It's getting later all the time' as a favourite of yours, which I took as a good omen. Thank you for the recommendation of Requiem - your description of it has really inspired me to read that next, and your comments re translations inspire me to perhaps be brave enough to read it in the original Portuguese. I agree re the theme of Summer without Men, but she broaches it with humour and intelligence that makes for good reading - give it a go!

    Elizabeth, lucky you to have the opportunity to hear Hustvedt speak, and thanks for raising W.G. Sebald, who I'm sorry to say I've never read but now fully intend to.

    Frances, I know, I feel the same way, including about all the films, new and old, I want to see - my DVD list is as long as my book list.

    Carol, my best Paris/French reads have come via you, so glad to return the favour!

  7. Karen - sorry to come late to the comments party! I am curious to know what you do with all of your books once read. Do you store them alphabetically, by date read, by subject, on a wall of floor to ceiling bookshelves? Do you recycle them? Return them to the library? Do your books, once read, look like they have never been opened or are you a turn down the corner of the page book reader. Just wondered......!

    1. Interesting questions - this could be a blog post in itself. I'm a happy recycler of many things (clothes, household stuff - Oxfam loves me) but can never bring myself to give books away. When we moved to our current house I had a carpenter make several floor to ceiling bookshelves and Older Daughter (book-obsessed and just a touch OCD like her mother) helped me unpack many cases of books alphabetically by author. The later acquisitions, however, have been stuffed in higgledy piggledy wherever they fit. I'm a turner-down of pages and a read-in-the-bath person, so most of my books look worse for wear once they're read.
      As we plan to move to a much smaller abode, however, I will soon have an uncomfortable dilemma to face, that so far I'm trying to avoid thinking about!

    2. I somehow imagined floor to ceiling would be your kind of thing - and I do prefer books with a 'lived-in' look - just wish I had more time to live in them myself!

  8. PS - Your Lisbon pics are great. They don't look like they were only taken last year.

  9. As you can see, I can't help myself, leaving traces of my enduring love affairs with Tabucchi and Sebald (I won't even start mentioning more) everywhere. Just one more link, to Gavin Plumley's blog, - he discovered Sebald not so long ago and wrote a couple of blog posts about his readings (you may find a crumb or two from my side in the comments).
    Btw, I finished Penelope Fitzgerald's "The Beginning of Spring" this weekend. Over, all too fast, that extraordinary excursion to Moscow at the beginning of spring in 1913 (only novella length, but so much more between the lines, echoes of Chekhov and Tolstoy, Fitzgerald's writing skills and wit).
    My blog friend Sonia A. Mascaro (we "found" each other in 2006 when I was looking for Whitman's "Leaves of Grass") collected a number of images of her blog friends' bookshelves:
    I have not much to add to what I said back then. Well, W.G. Sebald and Antonio Tabucchi have their own shelf spaces (there are more, but I'll spare you). ;-)

    Another bookshelf blog is here: -
    If you have not yet met Bee Drunken, you are in for a treat.

  10. P.S.: I try hard to treat my books well while reading them.
    When in the mood - or can't help myself - I scribble or underline with pencil. Lovingly, I might add ("Marginalia" by Billy Collins is not for nothing one of favorites amongst his poems - he has his own section on my shelf).

  11. Sadly, Antonio Tabucchi's passed away.

  12. Thanks (I think) to Merisi for introducing me to Tabucchi and for sending me to this interesting blog. More books to explore! (Less time to write...)

  13. Not least of the joys of reading this post are your Portuguese photos. They are so evocative of the period he is writing about, I was amazed when you mentioned they were yours and contemporary.


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