Italy in books – Reading challenge 2011

Thanks to the Brighton Blogger (on Book after Book) for this great idea.  She has set out the details as follows:

The details of the challenge “ITALY IN BOOKS”

  • The challenge will run from January, 1st 2011 to December, 31st 2011.
  • The aim of the challenge is to read at least 12 books that are set in Italy. Whether written by Italian authors or not, it doesn’t matter. They don’t have to be set exclusively in Italy but this country needs to play a significant role in the book. The challenge can include non-fiction books about Italy. You can also review Italian learning books but this is limited to a maximum of two titles. See the section “Resources” below for some suggestions.
  • The challenge is open to bloggers and non bloggers alike.
  • There will be monthly prizes for participants.

I think it’s very easy to read the headlines about Italy and make a lot of assumptions about the political situation there, and, seen from the outside,  we tend to overlook the very real concerns expressed by many Italians.

This can be illustrated by a recent example.  A couple of weeks ago, Roberto Saviano (author of Gomorrah, and as a result of his outspokeness now on the Mafia hitlist) appeared on a new TV show Vieni via con me hosted by Fabio Fazio, a brilliant presenter.  The audience figures broke all records.  Why? Because, for once, the show actually provided top quality content – all too rare in a country where the media is largely controlled by Berlusconi.  One need only remember that Italy was put on the amber list for having “a partly free” press last year (Freedom House, May 2009) – this was widely reported in the press and also commented on in my blog.  But to return to Vieni via con me, there’s a good article here on the extraordinary viewing rates achieved by the show.

So please, sign up for the Reading Challenge here – bearing in mind, yes, that we all enjoy reading a little “escapist” fiction set in Italy, but that we also need to get up to speed on contemporary Italy and Italian society.

The problem here is also the age-old one of the availability of books in English translations.  I’ll do my best to make suggestions as well, and will blog about books that I have enjoyed or new books that I discover.

Thanks again, Brighton Blogger – roll on 1 January!

PS If other bloggers want to follow suit and join in the reading challenge, I get the impression from Brighton Blogger’s website that “the more, the merrier…”.

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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.