Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Obsession - when the past or the future coopt the present (A Private Affair by Beppe Fenoglio)


Unwittingly, I seem to be on a theme. Beppe Fenoglio's A Private Affair, which I am reading thanks to an enthusiastic response from Dovegreyreader, is also set during war, but this time it is World War II. And, as its title suggests, the story he tells does not so much take war as its subject as use it as a backdrop for a much more, well, intimate matter. Italy has surrendered to Germany. Milton, a member of the Partisans who are resisting the fascists, comes across the house where the lovely and willful Fulvia had lived before the war. While their relationship seems to have been chaste, it was clearly the formative love relationship of Milton's life. He takes a moment to visit the house, intensely reliving his memory of Fulvia and their friendship. This is one place where Fenoglio's writing excels. He skims lightly in and out of the past like a dragonfly. You barely know when he's shifted, the one realm is as richly experienced as the other:

The woman had lit just one bulb of the chandelier. The light fell on the inlaid table without casting a reflection, and in the surrounding gloom the white cushion covers on the armchairs and sofa glimmered like ghosts.

'Don't you feel like you're entering a tomb?'

He laughed stupidly, like someone forced to conceal a serious thought. He obviously could not tell her that to him this was the brightest place in the world, that there was life here, rebirth.

'I'm afraid...' the woman began calmly.

He ignored her, perhaps did not even hear her, saw Fulvia, curled up in her favourite corner of the sofa, with her head tilted back slightly so that one of her plaits hung in the air, glistening and heavy. And he saw himself sitting in the opposite corner, his long thin legs outstretched, talking to her, talking on and on for hours while she listened so attentively she hardly breathed, her gaze almost always somewhere in the distance. Her eyes would soon mist over. And when she could no longer hold back the tears, she would turn her head abruptly to the side, hiding her eyes, fighting the emotion. 'That's enough. Don't talk any more. You're making me cry. You're wicked. You talk to me like that, you look for that kind of subject to talk about, just to see my cry. No, you're not wicked. But you're sad. Worse than sad, you're sullen. If only you cried, too. You're sad and ugly. And I don't want to become sad like you. I'm beautiful and happy. I was.'

'I'm afraid,' the housekeeper was saying, 'Fulvia will never come back here again when the war's over.'

'She'll come back.'

'I'd be happy if she did, but I'm afraid she won't. As soon as the war's over, her father will sell the villa.

[...]

He walked to the little table against the back wall, next to the fireplace. He bent a little and with his finger traced the outline of Fulvia's phonograph, 'Over the Rainbow,' 'Deep Purple,' 'I Cover the Waterfront,' Charlied Kunz's piano medlys and 'Over the Rainbow,' 'Over the Rainbow,' 'Over the Rainbow.'

'She really played that gramaphone a lot,' the woman said, waving her hand.

'Yes.'

'They were always dancing, they really overdid it. And dancing was strictly forbidden, even indoors. You remember how many times I had to come in and tell you to keep quiet, because they could hear you outside, halfway down the hill?

'I remember.'

'You didn't dance, though. Or am I wrong?'

No, he didn't dance. He'd never tried it, never event tried to learn. He'd watch the others, Fulvia and her partner, he'd change the records and rewind the machine. In other words, he was the technician. That was what Fulvia called him. 'Wake up, technician! Long live the technician!' Her tone of voice when she said that was not exactly pleasant, but he would rather hear that voice than all the voices in humanity or in nature. Fulvia often danced with Giorgio Clerici, they would dance five or six records in a row and hardly separate during the pauses. Giorgio was the handsomest boy in Alba and also the richest, which meant of course that he was the best dressed. No girl, in Alba was good enough to be seen with Giorgio Clerici. Then Fulvia arrived from Turin and the perfect couple was formed...

Milton becomes obsessed. His visit to the house creates an urgent need to know, right now although war is raging, what happened between Giorgio and Fulvia. He is driven on the one hand by his memories and on the other by that day in the future when he will be able to know the truth. The present seems to all but disappear for Milton. The writing has an odd tone that communicates that narrowed focus, driven by an inner rather than an outward vision. The narrative uses simple language. It darts forward, then stops and focuses with a sharp lens on a detail - the brown water in a river - yet seeing it as having meaning related only to Giorgio and Fulvia; and then it makes the next lunge forward. I would like to find a copy to read in Italian too. The novel is short and written in simple prose so I could probably get through it especially having read it in English. It would give me some sorely needed practice.

To add to the pleasure of reading good work by an author I'm unfamiliar with, the book is published by Hesperus with a great cover design on a heavy-weight paperback cover, and really lovely paper, that's creamy smooth to the touch. To keep in the Italian theme, this paperback would be gelato to your ordinary ice cream. They are a new press to me and apparently specialize in works by great writers that are unfamiliar to readers of English - Imani, check them out for authors for next year's outmoded challenge if you haven't already!!

3 comments:

Matt said...

Yours is an enthusiastic response as well. I'll check out the book. Thanks. :)

verbivore said...

Loved the excerpt and your thoughts on the book in general. I will try and find a copy here.

Ted said...

M & V - I'll be interested in hearing two close readers' responses.