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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