I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
The teacher sits on the edge of his desk, slouching jauntily, maybe with one foot perched on a chair. He’s wearing khakis and a tweed jacket. His tawny hair sweeps back from his forehead. He is One of Us but also so, so much wiser.
“Today,” he announces, “we’re starting a unit on Shakespeare.” The class groans. “Hear me out,” Teacher Dude says. “Shakespeare was a man of the people,” he says. “He’s writing for and about young people just like you.”
Think Daryl Mitchell’s Mr. Morgan rapping Sonnet 141 to Julia Stiles’s delight in 10 Things I Hate About You. Michael Vartan in Never Been Kissed, drawing parallels between Rosalind in As You Like It and Drew Barrymore’s Josie. Look no further than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s substitute teacher sketch in a recent Saturday Night Live to see the cliché get called out for what it is.
The students in this stereotypical story, of course, will be writing or acting out some scenes from the chosen play, and, inevitably, our young protagonists will learn something about themselves over the course of the assignment.
If this ubiquitous Hollywood English-class scene teaches us anything, it may be an illustration of just how much the plays of Shakespeare — not to mention talking about Shakespeare, making comparisons to Shakespeare, re-examining Shakespeare in another light — has become so ingrained in our folklore. The Bard appears so often in either the foreground or background of our narratives that we hardly notice anymore.
Part of that storied tradition, the Hogarth Shakespeare Project pairs eight well-known authors with one of the plays. The latest entry, Margaret Atwood’s fun, quirky Tempest adaptation, Hag-Seed, toys with this foregrounding and backgrounding, as well as taking on the literal, figurative, critical, and sociological aspects of the story. Rather than The Tempest Retold it might be more aptly subtitled The Tempest: Engaged.
Set in present-day Ontario, Hag-Seed takes some key motifs from the play — theatre as magic, the island as a prison — and literalizes them, even while acknowledging and pondering the metaphors.
Our protagonist, Felix Phillips, is a theatre director known for his avant-garde takes on Shakespearean classics. Soon after the sudden death of his four-year-old daughter, Miranda, Felix sets out to mount a fantastical version of The Tempest starring himself as Prospero, robed in a cloak made from stuffed animals and wielding a fox-headed walking stick as his wizard’s staff. But before the show opens he is unceremoniously fired by his erstwhile business partner, Tony.
Felix exists in self-imposed exile until he gets a new job, teaching English at a local prison. Going by the pseudonym “Mr. Duke,” he directs the inmates in a different play each spring, teaching them skills like costume design and video editing as well as improving their often woeful literacy rates.
When Felix gets word that Tony and a politician, Sal O’Nally, are coming to the prison to see his latest play, he seizes the chance to stage his long-lost production as well as get revenge for his ousting. Tony and Sal will become prisoners of Felix’s enchantments, even while the inmate-cast is performing the very same story on the prison’s closed-circuit TVs.
From the beginning, the parallels to the original are obvious and noted. Felix, in his role as Artistic Director, is “the cloud-riding enchanter.” Tony is undoubtedly the villainous Antonio who usurps Prospero’s throne and sends him away in a leaky boat. That Felix’s daughter was named Miranda is entirely conscious: “What else would he have named a motherless baby girl with a middle-aged doting father?”
The first book in the Hogarth series, Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, has a quality of predestination about it. The characters have to follow a path laid out for them hundreds of years ago. Atwood hangs a lampshade on this idea in Hag-Seed. Felix leans into his role as Prospero, literally and figuratively. He lets slip that he’s in on the joke…and barrels ahead with his plot-reenactment anyway.
As Mr. Duke, Felix pitches the plays to his students as stories they can relate to: betrayal, murder, revenge, and comeuppance. He sells The Tempest along those lines, and Atwood follows the same tack, focusing on the character of Prospero and his revenge plot rather than on the story’s fantastical elements. But revenge hardly makes The Tempest unique in the Shakespeare canon. As a reader, I found myself hoping for more of the spirits and magicians and mysterious islands. Perhaps Atwood dismissed such approaches as too obvious.
Instead, we get the sociological angle of teaching Shakespeare in prison, in the context of a play about prisoners. As a metafictional conceit, it’s clever. As a real-world endeavor, it’s admirable. But as drama, it fails to completely connect. Perhaps it’s because none of the numerous characters get as much attention as Felix, and thus are largely reduced to their one or two recognizable characteristics. We don’t get to know them as people. At one point, Tony actually utters the uber-villain line, “You’ll pay for this!”
The title Hag-Seed comes from Felix’s class rule that the students can only swear if they use a word or phrase from the play itself. This results in chapters of playful dialogue full of “poxy” this and “whoreson” that. Perhaps a fun idea in a real-life Shakespeare class, here it comes off a bit gimmicky.
“Hag-Seed,” the term itself, refers to Caliban, the lone native inhabitant of the island, Prospero’s slave. He is the character the inmates relate to most, but for a book named after him, he is left oddly obscured. Neither the idea of Caliban, with all its ripe postcolonial and racial implications, nor the character himself have much impact on Atwood’s story.
The book is fun and readable. There are some delicious turns of phrase — “He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled” — but it doesn’t necessarily draw new conclusions about its source material. Rather it suggests angles you might not have considered since freshman-year World Lit. Did you know The Tempest used to be performed as an opera? How many different prisons can you find in the text? At times the book feels more like a thought experiment than an immersive novel.
Thanks to its taking place in an actual English class, Hag-Seed becomes the latest entry in that parade of pop-culture English classes with surprisingly literal correlations between the characters’ lives and their reading material. The difference here is that the character whose story most closely aligns with the play is the teacher himself. Felix achieves what he set out to do and learns something about himself along the way. By the time he’s ended his revels, he is free from the thing that was holding him prisoner.
César Aira is probably as known for the sheer volume of his literary output as he is for any individual masterpiece in his immense oeuvre. Aira publishes an average of two novels a year, in a career that has produced over 70 books, a staggering feat of perpetual fecundity. His newly translated novella Varamo takes place over the course of one evening in 1923, and follows the exploits of a government worker in Panama. After leaving his office with a pair of counterfeit bills received as his monthly salary, the novel’s eponymous character, through a series of uncanny circumstances that stem from the anxiety that the possession of the counterfeit currency engenders, ends up writing, in the hours before dawn, “that celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy.”
Like some of those fabricated writers pulled from the South American air by Roberto Bolaño in Nazi Literature in the Americas or those fictional Bartleby’s that Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas created to accompany the real writers who preferred not to in Bartleby & Co., Aira’s Varamo has a story that seems too good to be true, and is. Varamo is a Kafkaesque civil servant and, in his spare time, an amateur embalmer — but one thing he is not is a writer, for “never, in all his fifty years, had he written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry, nor would he ever again.” Though Varamo only creates one work of art, he does so feverishly, over the course of that evening, and thus embodies, if not Aira’s unending output, at least his method of fuga hacia adelante (which roughly translates to: “fleeing forward”).
Aira’s fuga hacia adelante technique is a method of writing that avoids revision. What he has written remains, and the next day’s task is to take what he wrote the previous day, and, whatever box he has written himself into, improvise a way out of by fleeing forward through propulsive improvisation. This concept of improvisation is central to Aira’s work, and takes a thematic forefront in Varamo:
Intending to be natural was, in itself, contradictory and self-defeating. In his case, it was condemned to failure from the outset, because if he intended to improvise his course of action, he would have to act as if he were really improvising, and at the same time he would, also, really be improvising, which was no more feasible than moving in two opposite directions at the same time.
This is precisely what Varamo does: it moves in two opposite directions at the same time. The titular character’s inspired night, which begins, as only an Aira novel could, with counterfeit bills and an undead fish, and ends with an avant-garde poem, reads as an explication of the fuga hacia adelante method:
In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections.
And yet, throughout the book, it becomes obvious that Aira is not merely using Varamo’s story as a guidebook describing his literary method, but rather that Aira is mocking these radical ideas of textual production in the same sentences in which he is defending them.
In addition to this complicated two-way view of textual production, Aira also posits an equivalent muddle of interpretative technique. As an improvised and counterfeit example of literary criticism (of a non-existent text by a fabricated writer), Varamo idealizes the notion that a true account of the producing mind can be discovered through a thorough reading of the text which that mind produced. Halfway into the 88-page novella, the narrator embarks on a lengthy aside, proclaiming that Varamo is “a work of literary history, not a fiction,” and explaining why the “free indirect style” is useful in his presentation of the “facts” of that evening in Varamo’s life:
But our invasion of Varamo’s consciousness is not magical or even imaginative or hypothetical. It is a historical reconstruction. The difference is that we have presented it backwards, starting with the final results of our research. All the circumstantial details with which we have been coloring the story of the character’s day and making it credible have been deduced (in the most rigorous sense of the word) from the poem that he finally wrote, which is the only document that has survived.
However, the obvious impossibility and imprecision of such a herculean task undermines this proposition, and instead of critical sincerity, humor pervades the pages. After all, how could it be that “all the critic has to do is translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang?” Could a “true” history ever be created through interpretation by working backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang? It depends on a definition of the word “true,” as later a definition of the word “realism” becomes important in an interpretation of Varamo as well.
Jorge Luis Borges and (Aira’s mentor) Osvaldo Lamborghini are the touchstones here, of course, but the most interesting influence may be found in the way the writing of Polish émigré Witold Gombrowicz, who lived nearly half his life in Aira’s home country of Argentina, sneaks into Aira’s internal landscapes. A reimagined Gombrowiczian obsessional fantasy underpins Aira’s Varamo. Bolaño, who called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today,” also saw this Gombrowicz connection, writing: “His novels seem to put the theories of Gombrowicz into practice, except, and the difference is fundamental, that Gombrowicz was the abbot of a luxurious imaginary monastery, while Aira is a nun or novice among the Discalced Carmelites of the Word.”
Varamo has been cast as a lesser work in relation to some of the other Aira already in English translation — namely How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter — and though this may be true, to overlook Varamo would be a mistake.
As other great Spanish-language writers like Borges, Bolaño, and Vila-Matas have done, Aira shapes new worlds with his fiction — but he does this in a unique style that is full of infinite possibility. As is written in Varamo, “Everything was possible, as in a world about to take shape.” Aira sees the world, and reality, in his own idiosyncratic way, and fashions the worlds of his books through the filter of that perspective, but as with all great writing, there is still an important component connecting it to reality, to “realism.” Though something like “free indirect discourse” may seem like a move toward the “magical,” and away from conventional realism, it is merely an attempt to get at a “truer” reality. This is the kind of “realism” we find in the novels of César Aira:
Perhaps, said one, “the time has come for realism.” The other two disagreed vehemently: the time for realism would never come. To which the reply, and here they were all in agreement again, was that it depended on how realism was defined. The time for realism in that sense (to be defined) was always now.
Hercules, as Mark Braude tells us in his sprightly history of Monte Carlo, was supposed to have stopped in Monaco en route to completing his 10th labor. This feat involved stealing a herd of cattle from Geryon, a six-limbed giant who was assisted in his shepherding duties by a two-headed hound, and ferrying the herd back to Greece as various gods, including Hera, sought to sabotage him. All told, he had better odds than the average visitor to a Monte Carlo casino, the wealth of which is, as Evelyn Waugh put it, “derived wholly and directly from man’s refusal to accept the conclusion of mathematical proof.” Unlike even the most powerful and vindictive of Greek gods, the house always wins.
In Making of Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle, Braude describes how savvy impresarios actualized an illusion of their own devising: Monaco as a glamorous oasis in which “sun-kissed lives played out on clay courts and under canvas sails.” Monte Carlo was a creation of modernity and myth. Braude writes early on that his book is about “how we create places largely through the stories we tell about them, and about how places can in turn be made to suit those stories.” The original casino-resort, which began to take shape after Monaco legalized gambling in 1855, depended on new forms of mass advertising — color posters “featur[ing] fast men and fast women doing fast things in fast machines” — to entice visitors and new rail routes to deliver them to the casino entrance. But as Braude wryly notes, the real Monte Carlo only began to resemble this fantasy land of careless pleasure when “enough people had passed through and lost enough money.” To tweak the famous line from Field of Dreams, if you pretend to build it, they will come.
Braude outlines Monaco’s ancient history as a Phoenician, then Grecian, port and the importance of its fortress, constructed on its cliffs in 1215 to deter pirates. In 1297, an exiled Genoan clan, the Grimaldis, who disguised themselves as Franciscan monks, gained entrance to the fortress and slaughtered its guards. Monaco had its new ruling family. Skipping ahead several half a millennium, the Revolutions of 1848 left the Grimaldis hurting financially. Mentone and Roccabruna had declared their independence from the barren Monaco, taking with them 80 percent of the principality’s territory and, with it, considerable agricultural revenue. (A local saying: “I am Monaco upon a rock. I neither sow nor reap. But all the same I want to eat.”) The reigning monarch’s wife, Princess Caroline, heard of the profits generated by German spa and gaming towns such as Bad Homburg and urged her husband to legalize gambling. In 1855, the SBM, or Société Anonyme des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Étrangers à Monaco (the Sea Bathing and Foreigners’ Circle of Monaco Company) was created, its namers taking great pains to obfuscate its central mission: “to oversee the gambling concession in Monaco.”
There were some hiccups. Because Princess Caroline wanted the casino far from the palace, a site was chosen at Les Spélugues, a secluded network of grottoes:
Bandits were spotted there from time to time, holed up in the dark caves, coming out to rob anyone foolish enough to wander into that wild stretch of land, where the normal rules didn’t apply.
Should a foreigner wish to be robbed by these cave-dwelling brigands, or by the fledgling casino for that matter, he would have to endure a “nauseating three-hour carriage ride from Nice along the narrow Cornice mountain road, littered with highwaymen, followed by an hour’s walk down rocky hills.” No wonder then that Les Spélugues casino opened in February of 1863 “with little fanfare and to near-universal indifference.” In the early days of Monaco’s gaming industry, customers were so scarce that croupiers “install[ed] a telescope in their smoking spot so they could check every so often to see if any player came down the road, which sent them scurrying back to their posts.” Even a loafing employee can keep his eye on the prize.
Shortly after its opening, the rumor that a bank-busting gambler, Thomas Garcia, was headed to Monaco caused the SBM to panic. They reached out to François Blanc, the man who had turned Bad Homburg into an immensely profitable resort. François was a cardsharp-turned-stock trader who, operating with his twin brother Louis, made his first fortune through illegal machinations that seem almost quaint by today’s standards. Operating from Bordeaux, the Blanc brothers would bribe officials along the telegraph route from Paris to pass on coded messages about the day’s bond activities, thereby giving the provincial traders an edge. François then apprenticed in gaming management in the clubs, called enfers (hells), lining Paris’s seedy Palais Royale — the arcaded palace once belonging to the Duc D’Orléans. When François was approached by Monaco’s SBM to take over its gambling concession, he deployed a curious strategy to maintain the upper hand in negotiations: “He acted aloof and irritable, blaming his mood on a nagging boil that made it impossible for him to sit, due to its unfortunate placement.” Whether the boil was real, or he was merely bluffing, is a mystery the old gambler took to his grave.
Blanc was responsible for transforming the sleepy outpost into a world-renowned luxury resort. Thereafter Monaco became a kind of dual monarchy: “True power in Monaco dwelt not in the House of Grimaldi but in the House of Blanc.” Blanc urged Prince Charles to rename the resort to give it a loftier name, which he did, naturally, after himself: Les Spélugues became Monte Carlo. Blanc also exoticized Monaco, importing vegetation “from Africa and the Americas, turning this gambling town at the fringe of Europe away from the continent and toward the Mediterranean and the New World.” His well-trained staff kept out all the undesirables — criminals, prostitutes, French and Italian officers, priests — and enforced a strict dress code, though some superstitious players managed to sneak in their preferred talismans, including live pigs, cooked pigs, bat’s hearts, and turtles.
Blanc also mobilized the press, “pay[ing] newspapers to present whatever they wanted publicized within the guise of a regular article.” The SBM, Braude calculates, “spent…roughly one franc on publicity for every two francs spent on wages.” As Blanc and his successors would realize, the “tourist trade…was just another form of storytelling,” and Monte Carlo naturally produced great ones: lurid tales of crime; aristocratic extravagances; and “morality tales” involving “the ruin of the beautiful young bourgeoisie, or the seemingly contented patriarch, or the promising and dutiful officer.” (Stefan Zweig’s typically wonderful story, “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” tells of one such fall.)
Blanc peddled the myth that social mobility was only one roll away for anyone who dared chance it, all the while taking pains to emphasize the exclusivity of its clientele — “equal parts access and intimidation” is how Braude glosses this mix of populism and elitism. Braude is excellent on how Blanc used “culture in the service of commerce,” welcoming guests to enjoy free concerts at the first-come, first-seated Salle Garnier:
Such seemingly populist strategies actually lent the performances an air of exclusivity. No money changed hands, freeing some people to believe they’d come to the casino only out of a genuine love of music, and that by doing so they’d be accepted as equals among fellow amateurs of culture
Las Vegas has done away with that pretense. (Of Atlantic City, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.)
During the 1920s, Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes took up residence in Monte Carlo, “developing new works in the resort [that] built anticipation for their metropolitan debuts.” Monaco, jarringly, was now an incubator of avant-garde, if kitschy, culture. Braude devotes a chapter to a work written by Jean Cocteau and performed by the Ballets Russes, Le Train Bleu, named for the luxury train, equipped with a live eel tank, that ran from Calais to the Cote d’Azur. Coco Chanel dressed the dancers, Pablo Picasso supplied the overture curtain, and the “frothy score” was written by Darius Milhaud. Braude describes the confection spun out by these luminaries as a
…collection of moments, an onrushing flood of pleasures, of posing and of being posed for, of showing off one’s body and the things it could do, of getting into and out of dangerous and brief liaisons, of being entertained by the sight of something shiny and new rushing by and then running off to be distracted by the next novelty.
This is excellent, and strikes me as equally descriptive of Braude’s book, the strength of which lies in a similarly diverting “collection of moments” rather than a sustained narrative. Making Monte Carlo’s short, punchy chapters are usually broken into short, punchy sections with a self-contained anecdote or two, most of which are sufficiently contextualized. The only time Braude missteps is when he attempts to raise the stakes by adopting a sensationalist tone, for example setting up one chapter by intoning that “these same golden years were also marked by scandal, violence, and tragedy.” That may be true, but it is all so breezily recounted that the portentous set-up rings hollow.
The primary pleasure in Making Monte Carlo comes from watching the various eccentrics, lowlifes, high-rollers, and famous artists stroll in to take a seat at the table. Edvard Munch uses his government scholarship money, generously provided to help pay for art classes in Paris, though he did have the decency to produce a painting from the experience, “At the Roulette Tables in Monte Carlo.” Karl Marx, following the advice of his doctor, who espoused the benefits of “heliotherapy,” finds himself frequenting the same resort as sybaritic Russian royals who, “after growing bored with their caviar tasting, made a game of smashing champagne bottles” against the walls. Elsa Maxwell, the American publicity maven known for trotting out trained seals during the fish courses of her parties and traveling with 14 trunks for her press clippings and one hat box for a change of clothes, swoops in to reinvigorate Monte Carlo in the post-WWI years.
Francois Blanc was a rather colorful figure, but he pales in comparison to Sir Basil Zaharoff, an international arms dealer living in a Parisian apartment fortified by bullet-proof glass. Known as “The Merchant of Death” and fictionalized as Basil Bazarov in the popular comic Tintin, he wrested control of the SBM in 1923 for mysterious reasons, then refused ever to set foot in the casino. When one guests interrupts his sun-bathing session to ask for gambling advice, he curtly obliges: “Don’t play.”
Zaharoff brought in his friend Réné Léon, who was terrific at running the casino but had the unfortunate habit of occasionally running over pedestrians in his car. And then there’s this little bit of tax-shelter trivia: In a bid to ease tensions with his perpetually poor Monégasque subjects, who resented the influx of foreign casino workers, Prince Charles abolished the income tax in 1869, a move that “unknowingly set Monaco on the course to becoming the world’s first modern tax haven.” Perhaps we could call this trickle-up economics?
Braude aptly concludes with the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix in 1929, a motor race that wound its way through the principality’s streets, an account chosen for thematic rather than dramatic reasons. The race was relatively uneventful, but Braude sees in the speedy cars circling round and round an “endless loop of self-regard” typifying Monte Carlo’s strenuous commitment to dizzying frivolity.
The women in Francesca Marciano’s globe-trotting new book of short stories are in search of transformation. They buy new clothes, remodel houses, look up ex-boyfriends, and travel to foreign countries as they attempt to change their lives. They don’t always know why they hunger for change. In the collection’s moving title story, “The Other Language,” a young Italian girl, Emma, feels compelled to learn English after her mother’s death. She hears “the clipped authoritative language” while on vacation with her newly-widowed father and bereft siblings and begins to spend all her time with two English boys in her effort to learn what she thinks of as “the other language.” When she finally speaks English it comes “like a flow, an instantaneous metamorphosis.” She experiences English as a means of escape: “She didn’t know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on.” Years later, as a naturalized American, Emma wonders how much the trajectory of her life is owed to a childish impulse.
“The Other Language” may well be the most autobiographical story in this collection, because for Marciano, writing in English is a kind of freedom. She’s Italian, a screenwriter who writes for film and television in her native tongue, but for novels and short stories, she uses English. In a recent interview for Publisher’s Weekly, she said the practice began when she had trouble writing her first novel, Rules of the Wild. A friend suggested that she try writing it in English, a language Marciano knew well, and which made sense for Rules of the Wild, a story about English-speaking journalists living in Kenya. Three novels later, Marciano is still writing in English, and she’s still writing about foreigners living abroad.
The Other Language is Marciano’s first collection of short fiction, and it was my introduction to her. A friend recommended the stories to me, and I fell for them immediately, parceling them out, one a day, to make the book last longer. Part of the appeal is the glamorous subject matter. Marciano has lived all over the world, and her stories encompass her experiences, taking place in Africa, the U.S, India, and of course, Italy. Her protagonists are usually women who are alone in some way, untethered from their domestic routines, if only temporarily. This collection often reminded me of Andrea Lee’s short story collection, Interesting Women — a title that could have worked for this book, too. Lee, who is around the same age as Marciano, also writes about women living abroad, and both women have a sensual, casually graceful prose style. But the strongest parallel between these two writers is autobiographical: their lives are, in a way, mirrors of one another. Lee is an American writer who has lived most of her adult life in Italy, while Marciano is an Italian writer who has lived her much of her life abroad, including a decade-long stint in the U.S.
These days, Marciano lives in Rome, and Italian culture remains her home base, even as she clearly admires and even revels in the American way of life. American writers have long had a love affair with Italy (Henry James, Edith Wharton, and John Cheever, to name just a few) and so it’s interesting to witness that love (or is it infatuation?) from the other side. Here’s Emma, from “The Other Language” during her first extended visit to America:
She admired the ease Americans had with their bodies, how they used objects and moved around the furniture with a freedom Europeans never had. How they took their work to bed, ate take-out food in the car, how they put their bare feet on the table, walked inside a bank in their shorts, used their cars as a cluttered closet where they could toss in just about everything.
In another story, “Quantum Theory,” an Italian woman visiting Manhattan feels welcomed in a Starbucks, of all places, where “sleepy youths in cotton T-shirts lounge in the ample armchairs holding laptops on their knees, busy with their Facebook pages, their backpacks and jackets spread on the floor as if it were a living room.”
To me, an American who has been smitten with Italian culture since a freshman-year screening of Fellini, images of messy cars, soiled take-out containers, baggy shorts, and the hot mess of freelancers and teenagers that is a New York City Starbucks only conjure up feelings of American self-loathing. But Marciano seems sincere in her appreciation of our American informality. At the same time, she’s well aware of the way Americans fetishize Italian style. In one of her funniest stories, “The Italian System,” an ex-pat Italian teacher decides to author a self-help book for Americans who want to live like Italians. The book, which sounds a bit like French Women Don’t Get Fat, educates Americans on the Italian way of life, one that embraces fresh ingredients, fresh air, wine, ritual, and above all, nonchalance: “Nonchalance is the key factor: the less you try, the easier it will be to feel as stylish and charismatic as the Italians are, deep down in their skin.” The irony is that the Italian teacher is writing the book at a time when she feels deeply vulnerable. After seven years in Manhattan, a place that initially made the Italian teacher feel “light, full of promise,” she feels lost, her ambitions stunted by her ex-pat status: “After all these years, [she] still felt self-conscious, afraid of making a faux pas.” She writes the book as a way of regaining confidence, and her tactic works — until she returns home for a visit. Back in Rome, she finds that her ritualized, traditional version of Italy is a product of her own nostalgia. Even her mother has embraced new customs, drinking Diet Coke with lunch instead of wine.
In another story about wavering self-confidence, “Chanel,” a documentary filmmaker, Caterina, buys a Chanel dress she can’t afford while visiting Venice with her roommate Pascal, who is about to leave her to pursue a love affair in Paris. Caterina’s nature is pragmatic while Pascal’s is optimistic to the point of delusional, and she buys the dress as a way of emulating his free spirit. She plans to wear it to an awards ceremony, where she will receive a small prize for one of her films, but in an O. Henry-ish twist, she can’t wear the dress after all, and it hangs in her closet unworn for years. The dress, at first a symbol of hope and positive changes to come, becomes a reminder of missed chances and lost opportunities. Caterina grows to hate it, likening it to a corpse and “an old virgin — untouched but no longer fresh.” But Caterina cannot bring herself to get rid of it, and in the story’s final scene, the dress’s true value is revealed to her.
A new dress, a change of scene, a spontaneous invitation — Marciano understands that these are the superficial actions people take in order to get at the deeper impulses they cannot name, and which perhaps have been developing for years. Her characters are often surprised by the way their lives are overturned, even as they are the ones to initiate the upheaval. In “An Indian Soiree,” a divorcing couple looks back on their out-of-nowhere break-up as “like being a dream.” In “The Club,” a Scottish widow, describing her happy marriage to a Kenyan man, finds she is still angry about the prejudice she and her husband endured, the years of being excluded from country clubs, restaurants, and even hospitals: “It struck her how certain feelings, no matter how deeply buried, would still come up in a matter of seconds, as if woken up by a siren.” And in “Quantum Theory,” Marciano’s most shamelessly romantic story, one that turns on repeated chance meetings between long-lost lovers, a woman is shocked by the immediacy of her feelings: “Nothing has changed — the excitement, the fear, the desire — it’s all still there, unevolved, unexpired. Still dangerously alive, as if it has only been asleep inside her.”
Reading Marciano, I was reminded of an old writing teacher’s adage, “Bewilderment is the most human of emotions.” Marciano allows her characters their bewilderment, their curiosity, and above all, their vulnerability. The result is a collection of stories that is as entertaining as it is humane.
John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.