January 24, 2009

From the just-returned shelves

The just-returned shelves at the Library always remind me of the great movie classic Grand Hotel, the shot of the bustling lobby and the revolving door, with the famous voiceover “Grand Hotel. People come, people go...” In the movie the people all turn out to be stories, and on the just-returned shelves the stories are like people. There are the return guests (Oh look, there’s On Chesil Beach back again!) and the new guests, from all over the world, accompanied by a reputation or maybe not. Like the Grand Hotel, the just-returned shelves are a cosmopolitan spot.

It was on the just-returned shelves that I recently picked up a little white book, started to leaf through as you do at the just-returned shelves, and was stopped in my tracks by the dedication, collector of fine dedications that I am. "To British Airways", it read. The book design was decidedly old-fashioned and for a split second I entertained the thought that perhaps the book dated back to some Pleistocene epoch of travel when British Airways might have been synonymous with glamour and adventure. Alas, no. In smaller type below the author continues, "I owe the illumination that led me to this novel to a delay in the Palermo-London flight of 2 September 2000."

syndetics-lcShe, the author, is Simonetta Agnello Hornby, a pipe-smoking Sicilian from the "lower aristocracy" -- her term -- who went to London to study, married Mr Hornby (no, not Nick) and worked as a children's lawyer until being inspired at Palermo Airport to write La Mennulara, "The almond picker", which became a bestseller in Italy. It's the story of a clever peasant girl who gets taken on as a servant by a rich family and ends up ruling the roost. There's also a mystery but it's not the real point of the book, whose little chapters with long names make up a series of miniature paintings of Sicilian village life, layered archaeologically back to feudal times.

I learned about the pipe from an article about her in The Independent (it's described as "Maigret-style"), which also contained these deathless lines: "As a young girl, one of her summer jobs was to 'beat the books' in her grandmother's library. Permitted to dust, but not to read the family's eclectic collection - which included her uncles' 'naughty books' - she confined herself to speed-reading the prefaces.”

The prefaces? Is this an error of translation? And why wasn't she allowed to read the books? Was the prohibition on literature in general, or because she might stumble on one of the naughty ones? What were they anyway? Fanny Hill, Ulysses? I put this to my Italian husband, who shared with his uncle a passion for Joseph Conrad, or Honrad, as it is pronounced in their Florentine tongue. “Well, careful,” he said. “At school our copies of The Iliad had a little skip where lines had been chopped out. Of course we went to look it up. It was where Hecuba rips open her dress and takes her breast in her hand to show Hector how she, who gave him her milk, will mourn him. That's all it was, the word 'breast'!"

syndetics-lcOne way or another, a sense of the power of words came through to the young Simonetta Agnello. Listen to this from La Marchesa, the sequel to La mennulara: "Amalia was trembling. Billowing, tender waves of pleasure possessed her, like the rollers that break on the rocks and caress them before ebbing back into the surf." What is Amalia doing? Amalia is sitting fully dressed listening to Don Paolo tell her the story of King Ferdinand I of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. All right, we have seen him lay his hand over hers, midway through his three-page story. But just a hand, I swear!

Next post: What is the great Sicilian novel?

The books: The almond picker and The Marchesa by Simonetta Agnello Hornby

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 05:30


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