Italian historical novels result in animated discussion

Thanks to Rita Charbonnier for drawing my attention to this great discussion among fans of Italian historical novels and four authors – at the moment of writing this, there have been a total of 428 comments!

It was a real eye-opener to discover the buzz of excitement created by Massimo Maugeri on his blog Letterattitudine when a few days ago he launched an open discussion focused on historical novels led by Andrea Ballarini, Marco Salvador, Cinzia Tani and Rita herself.   Filippo Tuena, Andrea Frediani and Giulio Castelli later also joined in.

At this stage, I should explain that I’m the profiles editor for Solander (the magazine published by the Historical Novel Society) and I also lived in Italy for many years and work as a translator.  So that explains the twin interest in historical fiction and all things Italian! By strange coincidence – there’s obviously something in the air! – I wrote an article for the latest issue (May 2009) of Solander on Italian historical novels (you can read the  article here).   For the record though, the novels I chose were by Manzoni, Tomasi, Eco, Maraini and Monaldi & Sorti.

But back to Letterattitudine.  Here’s a quick resume of the authors’ latest works based on the reviews included on the blog – and apologies for any inaccuracies as I haven’t yet read any of the books!

Andrea Ballarini, Il Trionfo dell’Asino (Del Vecchio) – Set in the late 17th century, Giacomo Crivelli – the narrator – belongs to a well-to-do family, but instead of following in his father’s footsteps as the “Provveditore Generale” at the ducal court, he is willing to give up everything for the sake of his one overriding passion in life: the theatre.  Having joined a group of travelling players led by Aristotele  Cereri, Giacomo becomes involved in the search for the text of an ancient comedy, a quest that leads them to Paris and the court of the Sun King, and then back to Italy – clearly, with plenty of entertainment, frivolity and excitement on the way.

Rita Charbonnier, La Strana Giornata di Alexandre Dumas (Edizioni Piemme) – This is Rita’s second historical novel (see her own website for further details about Mozart’s Sister: A Novel 2008) and again she focuses on a story about women whose existence has been overlooked and marginalised by history: in this case, Maria Stella Chiappini, a woman who told her extraordinary tale to the famous nineteenth-century French author, Alexandre Dumas – a scandalous story that could have shaken to its very roots the whole of the kingdom of France.

Marco Salvador, La Palude degli Eroi (Edizioni Piemme) – Marco Salvador has written three other historical novels on the Longobards (Lombards).  The protagonist of his latest is the extraordinary Guido da Romano, the adopted son of Alberico and natural son of the great condottiere Ezzelino.   The reviewer describes the book as a “genuine work of art” that enables readers to immerse themselves in the period.

Cinzia Tani, Lo Stupore del Mondo (Mondadori) – Cinzia Tani is an award-winning writer, journalist, as well as a TV and radio presenter.  Her previous novel Sole e Ombra won the Premio Selezione Campiello 2008.  Her latest book is set in the 13th century, in Sicily under the rule of the Hohenstaufen emperor, Frederick II, and the conflicts between the imperial forces, the papacy and the Lombard League.  The protagonists are Piero, Matteo, Flora and Rashid are brought together in a story filled with “heat and colour … emotion, adventure and mystery, where passions and betrayals alternate over the course of half a century”.

I couldn’t possibly translate all the comments that have been made, but Massimo launched a few key questions to get the discussion going:

1.  What are the key characteristics of a historical novel?

2.  What should be the aims of a historical novel?

3.  On the contrary, what should it avoid doing?

4.  How do you view the market for historical novels in Italy today?

5.  And in the rest of the world?

6.  Survey question – what do you think is the greatest historical novel “of all time” (the most representative of its kind)?

In particular, I was keen to guage the general trend of answers to questions 4 and 6.

On question 4, Cinzia Tani seemed to represent a general view when she writes:  “I think that the historical novel in Italy today is in good shape, but I believe this is just the beginning. Perhaps this is a way to revive a tradition of writing/reading novels that is completely lacking here in Italy.”  Marco Salvador also echoed an opinion that was frequently expressed: “apart from the writers participating here and a few others, there is an awful lot of ‘trash’ written – not because the authors aren’t good writers but because they mainly write fantasy.”

Answers to the question of the  “best historical novel” included – among others (and I’ve only mentioned the Italian authors): Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, Sebastiano Vassalli La Chimera, Tomasi di Lampedusa Il Gattopardo, Luther Blissett Q, Wu Ming Manituana, Italo Calvino Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, Valentino Rocchi 1504-Notte all’Hostaria La Guercia, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Sciascia, Bufalino and Camilleri (not the Montalbano novels), Pirandello’s I Vecchi e i Giovani.

Thanks also, Marco, for the quote by Nathan Uglow which I didn’t know:

The historical novel is a literary genre characterized by the attempt to fuse strong dramatic plot lines and credible human psychology, within a setting constituted from specific historical detail (typically based upon diligent research into actual events, locations, and characters, as well as cultural customs, costume, and speech). [Nathan Uglow, Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds]

This highlights a recent trend here in UK for historical novels that are the outcome of years of serious research.  The question was the subject of a recent discussion by Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant and others at Birkbeck College in London.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t go but – thanks to Talking Books – you can listen to the fascinating debate here.

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About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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8 Responses to Italian historical novels result in animated discussion

  1. marco says:

    your attention on our discussion makes us happy, lucy.

  2. Thank you, Lucy!
    Massimo’s blog is growing up in unexpected ways…
    His care, his attention for the book, the authors, the quality of discussion – the policy! – are noticed more and more.
    Did you read LETTERATITUDINE CHIAMA MONDO? In this space, Massimo tries to link different experiences about Italian literature from all over the world…
    I really thank you, because I follow Massimo almost since he opened the blog in 2006. Then he published the book with a resume and a collection of the best discussions. A real interesting operation, to think about the role of Internet in literature and reading…
    Thank you again for your attention. When Massimo will publish a second book about Letteratitudine, this discussion about historical novel will be certainly put in.
    You love Italian things, and I love English literature! I’m re-reading POSSESSION, I’m in love with Jane Austen’s books and so on…

    • lucy says:

      Thanks for your wonderful comments, Maria Lucia. I love the way that these discussions open up new connections and new links between people with common interests!

  3. Pingback: Italian Historical Fiction « Rita Charbonnier's Blog

  4. Sir Robin says:

    Hi Lucy,
    I’m italian and I have a blog http://www.goodthing.it where I’ve interviewed Wu Ming about italian historical novel via Skipe.

    I think it’s a very good one:

    http://www.goodthing.it/php/wordpress/?p=980

    I really think it would be great to have an english version of it on my blog. So, I should try and then send it to you for an overview and for a correction … what do you think? If you prefer you can answer me via e-mail.

    Your blog is great!
    Best from Italy
    Sir Robin

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