So, see here. You’ve offered me the chance to give one book a little extra shine by publishing my thoughts about it. It’s a basic building block of my character to want to big-up something that may’ve gotten less attention than I felt it deserved, and I also tend to reach for something non-recent when asked for a recommendation. Recent stuff everybody can already hear about through all the usual channels.
So while William Gass’s Middle C was probably the most eventful read for me this year — a new novel (2013, anyway) by one of the two or three best writers living, one as good as anything he’s written — the book I want to tell you about is Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel, which I finished near the beginning of the year. I learned about Morante through Open Letter, a translation house in Rochester that published Aracoeli, her astonishing last novel. It’s dark and thorny; History is quite different, tracking the lives of a mother and her son through the rise and fall of the fascist era in Italy. It is all heart — sometimes a little too much (there are maudlin moments here and there), but the characters are so lovingly drawn, the scenes so richly sketched, the moments so vividly conjured, that I ended up loving even the flaws. Morante’s vision is sweeping — that title, for a book essentially about two people’s insignificant interface with local and human history! — and specific; her identification with the central characters, Ida and Giuseppe, seems so deeply felt — it’s the sort of book one finishes and immediately feels certain even the middling scenes will stick in one’s mind for years. Giuseppe’s friendship with the poet/junkie/dreamer Davide, for example — there’s something so gorgeous in it, so illustrative of the way people take different things from the same experience. Davide is marginal, both in life and to the story…and yet, he breathes, he bleeds.
It’s a big book, by design — it’s trying to accomplish rather a lot. I’m not sure how successful it is all the time, but I know that I’ll remember its characters forever, and the moments that meant the most to them are, for me, instructive: Ida’s thirst for a better world for her son, Giuseppe’s fierce love for those who’ve proven friends to him. I don’t say “read this!” about a lot of things that I read, because I read a lot of odd things that not everybody would like. But it’s hard for me to imagine a reader coming away from History: A Novel unmoved.
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