The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (“Who knows how, and why, a vocation for solitude is born?”)

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To me, the image of a garden is of so much potential. Inherent to a garden is growth, beauty, and the possibility of perfection. (I think of the Garden of Eden as presented in the Old Testament.)

But there is also the possibility of everything going wrong: weeds, decay, the infiltration of parasites.

So it’s interesting to me that Bassani titles his novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Not The House of the Finzi-Continis. Not The Hütte of The Finzi-Continis. The Garden. And what an apt title it is, to tell the story of this affluent Jewish family living in Ferrara, Italy, in 1938, who can indulge in the play a lovely garden has to offer.

There is a tennis court, disappointing to the Professor’s children, Micol and Alberto, but nevertheless a gathering place for their group of friends who wish to seize the beauty of summer. Waiting by the entrance gate to this garden’s tennis court are Bruno Lattes, Adriana Trentini, Carletto Sani, Tonino Colevatti, and three or four other young men and women. They meet to play tennis, to laugh and compete and partake of Skiwasser, the beverage Micol insists on providing as she finds it the most refreshing.

Our narrator, the man who falls in love with Micol, is also an insistent one. He comes to her house to play tennis never missing an afternoon, and when she goes away to study in Venice, he goes to her home to work on his thesis in her father’s library. He has been invited, to be sure, but he seems unable to determine when he might be overstaying his welcome; he is unable to determine the extent of Micol’s affection for him, which does not seem to surpass that of friendship, even after subtle gestures on his part. (How he laments not following her to Venice, where surely, he thinks, his efforts could have changed the course of events.)

If on that rainy afternoon, when the radiant Indian summer of ’38 suddenly ended, I had at least managed to speak to her–I told myself bitterly–perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they went.

After virtually throwing himself upon her, quite literally, she is forced to tell him that she does not love him. She does not wish him, in fact, to visit as much as he has. Perhaps he should take three weeks to stay away altogether.

So much is in decline: the relationship between Micol and the narrator who loves her; her brother Alberto’s health; the strength of the Jewish position in the late 1930s. We are told from the very beginning that Alberto dies of a lymphogranuloma, and the other members of the family are all deported to Germany in 1943.

It is a story of tremendous loss and rejection: of this man’s love, as well as the injustice the Jewish people suffer during this particular time period. It is a story, to me, of our ultimate isolation and solitude; no one is able to save anyone else.

Perhaps it is all we can do, sometimes, to take care of ourselves.

(I read this novel at Dorian’s invitation, and look forward to reading the thoughts of others who have read along. Jacqui’s is here.)

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The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

 

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I began talking about The Story of The Lost Child with my  mother on one of our early morning phone conversations while I was driving to work because I couldn’t wait to talk with her about it until we were face to face. “Mother,” I said, “Elena wants it all! She wants to be a successful writer, and have her married lover, and be a good mother, and she doesn’t even know that’s impossible!” I was fuming inside over Lena’s ignorance.

“That’s why,” my mother replied, “it’s the perfect 21st century novel.”

The Neapolitan novels are so very powerful, and have been written about so voraciously, that they need little reflection from me. But I will explore my thoughts as a member of the shadow jury, and as a reader, for they are surely some of the most important works to have been published this decade.

They begin with My Brilliant Friend and end with The Story of The Lost Child, which is why for me, this cannot be a stand alone novel. Indeed the novel ends in recounting an event with which the first book begins; we come full circle through all four of the novels. So, it’s interesting that it earned a place on the Man Booker International Prize long list when surely some of its power is lost if the reader is coming to it without having read the prior three. Yet, how can the writing of Elena Ferrante not be recognized with the other important writers of our time?

The Story of The Lost Child continues the exploration of the friendship between Elena Greco (Lena) and Raffaella Cerullo (Lila), from when they are little girls until they are old women.

I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.

As I write the word “friendship” I feel it must be taken loosely, for surely these two women are almost in a combative relationship. I had been convinced that it was Lila who was the manipulative one, the conniving, charismatic, brilliant friend who got everything she ever wanted. But then I see in this last novel how Lena has published the tragedy of Lila’s girl being lost, something she promised Lila never to do. They seem to violate each other’s wishes for their own personal interests, they seem to compete at who is the most beautiful, the most successful, the most dearly loved. They fall in love with the same man, one who could commit to neither.

“Look at me,” she (Lila) whispered. “I know I’m mean to tell you these things, but he is much worse than I am. He has the worst kind of meanness, that of superficiality.”

They even become pregnant with their two little girls almost simultaneously. As if the comparisons they make to each other are not enough, their competition is carried out further in the lives of these two daughters.

The novel also shows us the violence of Naples, Italy, the passion of relationships, the turmoil of our lives even if we live no where near Italy ourselves. In reading its pages I find a tremendous connection to my own life, which perhaps other readers do as well, for who hasn’t experienced a tumultuous friendship? A disastrous love? A parent/child relationship with enormous potholes?

It took me a long time to read The Story of The Lost Child. There was much to think about, much to absorb, much to question and ponder. I love it. I love it for the questions it raises, unanswerable questions, which make the best books great as we puzzle through the enigmas for ourselves.

For thus the novel ends:

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.

Find thoughts from Tony and Clare, fellow shadow jury members who have also reviewed this book.

 

Contempt by Alberto Moravia

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“The less one notices happiness, the greater it is.”

How interesting that Moravia’s Contempt, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina should begin with the concept of happiness. It is a place to start, to be sure, for a novel about marriage. But, how often is it the place to end?

Riccardo Molteni’s marriage to Emilia quickly falters within the first few pages of the novel. A script writer without much money, he is determined to provide a home for her; perhaps unwisely he rents a flat which he cannot afford, causing him to associate with film producers and directors for work when he would prefer to write for the theater.

Emilia’s enthusiasm for her home depicts the only joy we see from her in the entire novel. Before it is even furnished, she unreservedly displays her affection for her husband on the dusty floor. But, is she loving her husband or what he has provided?

The kiss over, in a very low voice that was like an inarticulate breath and yet was melodious, melting, she murmured in my ear–or at least so it seemed to me–that I should take her; and meanwhile, with all the weight of her body, she was pulling me down towards the floor. We made love on the floor, on the dusty tiles, under the sill of the window I had meant to open. Yet in the ardor of that embrace, so unrestrained and so unusual, I was conscious not only of the love she felt for me at that time, but more particularly of the outpouring of her repressed passion for a home, which in her expressed itself quite naturally through the channel of unforeseen sensuality. In that embrace, in fact, consummated on that dirty floor, in the chilly gloom of the empty flat, she was giving herself, so I felt to the giver of the home, not the husband.

How surprised he is when not long after, she takes the pillow from their bed to the divan in the living room where she wants to sleep alone. Emilia contends that she cannot sleep with the early morning light coming in through opened shutters, with his snoring, with him next to her in bed. No matter what compromise he is willing to make, she insists on this new arrangement. And then comes fully half of the book which involves Molteni obsessing about his wife not loving him any more.

We do not know why she doesn’t love him any longer, but frankly, I didn’t find much affection for him either. He seemed paranoid and weak, whining endlessly about her not loving him as she once did, and therefore he could not love his job.

Then I understood that, during the last month, I had been seeking all the time to accustom myself to an intolerable situation, but that I had not, in reality, succeeded: I could not endure to go on living in that way, what with Emilia who did not love me and my work which, owing to her not loving me, I could not love. And suddenly I said to myself: “I can’t go on like this. I must have an explanation with Emilia, once and for all..and if necessary, part from her and give up my work as well.”

But, Riccardo does not readily get an explanation from Emilia. Nor does he give up his job. Instead, he puts up with Emilia’s indifference just as he succumbs to the will of Battista, a film producer who invites Riccardo, Emilia and Rheingold, a German director, to his villa in Capri. Battista is a large, loud, dominating man who manipulates situations to get what he wants, which happens to include the affections of Emilia.

Battista and Rheingold plan to make a film of The Odyssey, particularly the story of Ulysses and Penelope. Battista feels that it should be an adventure film; Rheingold wants it to take on a psychological perspective. Moravia draws an apt parallel between Ulysses and Penelope, and Riccardo and Emilia, through Rheingold’s point of view.

“Penelope, being proud and dignified, in the antique manner, would like to refuse their (the suitors) presents, would, above all things, like her husband to turn the suitors out. But Ulysses, for some reason that we don’t know, but that we shall easily find, does not wish to offend the suitors.

Penelope conceives a deep contempt for him. She feels she no longer loves him and tells him so…Ulysses then realizes, too late, that, by his prudence, he has destroyed Penelope’s love.”

It is a parallel story in many ways, but Riccardo does not destroy Emilia’s love by his prudence. I think instead that he destroys it by his timidity. Neither of them are willing to speak to each other in a straightforward way; neither of them tells the other what he is really feeling.

Our relationship had never been clarified right down to the bare truth, it had always been carried on by means of allusions.

Their situation rises to an enormous misunderstanding, in which the only way Riccardo’s anxiety is even slightly appeased is through his dreams of how he wants it to be. Twice Emilia comes to him as his wife; the first to be kissed on the beach where she is sunbathing, the second when she seems to be sitting in the same boat he is rowing the afternoon she has promised to leave him.

But the tragedy lies in the face of reality, that our hopes for love do not a happy marriage make. Only one of Riccardo’s last laments rings true for me, “The ambiguity which had poisoned our relationship in life continued even after her death.”

Some favorite quotes:

…thought is always more fallible, even in its apparent preciseness, than obscure, confused feeling.

But I loved her, and love has a great capacity not only for illusion but also for forgetfulness.

An uncertain evil causes anxiety because, at the bottom of one’s heart, one goes on hoping till the last moment that it may not be true: a certain evil, on the other hand, instills, for a time, a kind of dreary tranquility.

I read this novel with Frances and Richard who hosted it, as well as Ally, Grant, Scott, and Scott G. F. Bailey.

Don’t Move by Margaret Mazzantini

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This is the second Premio Strega award-winning novel I have read in as many weeks. It will be tricky to review because it made me sad, and the first half was harder to work through than the other Italian books I read in one evening.

Part of the problem could be that the narrative comes to us from a man’s perspective, even though the novel is written by a woman. That shift is almost always hard for me to believe. How does she know what a male surgeon in oncology feels for an ugly woman with a high forehead? The portrayal of their love did not at first ring true to me, or perhaps I would feel it more authentic if we were to hear their story from the woman’s point of view instead of his.

Let me back up.

Don’t Move begins when a fifteen year old girl is suddenly struck by a car while riding her scooter to school. She is barely alive when she is rushed to the hospital, and it appears that she is suffering a brain hemorrhage. While the hospital staff is administering to her, a nurse discovers her name in a school notebook. This girl is the daughter of one of the chief surgeons. He is immediately summoned from an operation he is conducting, and while waiting for the outcome of her surgery, after phoning to inform her mother who has flown to England on business, he reviews his personal life which contains a deep secret.

Before his daughter was born, Timoteo began an affair with a woman whom he happened to see in a roadside bar when his car broke down on the way to his wife at their beach house. The woman wears too much make-up, is far too thin, has heels too high and a forehead too prominent. Yet rather than repulse Timoteo, he finds himself inescapably attracted to her. She is completely different from his educated and beautiful wife, who has a shapely figure and powerful career as a journalist.

The more we read of his lover, Italia, the more waif-like she seems. She was raped when she was twelve. She works any small job that she can find and lives in a small apartment with pathetic belongings scattered about; a poster of a monkey with a baby bottle, objects cluttering the surface of her dressers, a dog who is blind. Yet she is humble, eager to please him, and unwilling to believe that she is worthy of his love.

Through Timoteo’s attentions, though, she is drawn into their relationship with abandon. Her love for him becomes real, and tender, and heartbreaking because we sense deep down that in cannot last. It cannot compete against the place of his wife. Especially when she becomes pregnant.

And yet, unbelievably, their love does last. Timoteo knows he cannot leave his lover, knows that he must be by her side, even though he is a new father. He leaves his wife and newborn daughter in the maternity ward, and drives Italia south where he plans to set up a life with her.

Tragedy has a way of intervening. It sneaks in unannounced to those who are ill prepared, and robs us of our plans. Our dreams. What we have decided, futilely, that our future should be.

I wonder if all Italian novels are so visceral. Every one that I’ve read lately: Swimming to Elba, Quiet Chaos, I’m Not Scared, and now Don’t Move have been written with barely contained emotion telling stories of our deepest pain. They are powerful novels, a welcome respite from the Japanese who tend to portray a slice of life. Or, contain elements of magical realism which seem so at odds with the characters’ ordinary lives.

I’m continuing my foray into Italian literature with another Ammaniti novel, and a third Strega award winning novel titled The Solitude of Prime Numbers. I hope to have those finished by the time the IFFP long list is announced in March, for then it will be straight march ahead toward discovering whom we, the Shadow Jury, deem the winner. Until then, and probably after then, I cannot read enough Italian literature to appease this ravenous appetite.

 

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

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A title which represents as much bravado as you might expect a nine year old Italian boy to have: I’m not scared. And while he might boldly declare he’s not afraid, the farther I read the more fearful I became. Because the subject of this book is not about ogres, or witches, or fanciful creatures. No, the fear comes from a much deeper place: the darkness and confusion of humankind.

Michele Amitrano and his friends are playing on a scorching day in the fields of their small, country town named Acqua Traverse. Inherent to the games a group of children may play, are the dares and the forfeits. “Let’s race to the top of this hill. Whoever is last has to do a forfeit.” Of course, fat Barbara is last. She can’t possibly compete in such a challenge and come out on top. Her forfeit, invented by Skull, involves taking down her pants from which Michele bravely saves her. But now he must accomplish the dare of crawling through the abandoned house behind the hill and coming out the window on the other side.

What he find inside the house is a dead boy. At least this is what he thinks. But when he comes back alone, the next day and the next, he keeps discovering something worse about what he has found in the hole of the house, a hole covered by corrugated fibre-glass and an old mattress, yet unable to conceal the truth inside.

Even though he promises his father, Michele cannot stay away. He is the one of unparalleled courage, he is the one with integrity, although he is only a child. A boy with limited power, defenseless against the very thing he calls home.

This is a shocking book, brief but unforgettable, illuminating a world of darkness that makes me thankful for the childhood that I had. That reminds me the things of our childhood stay with us forever.

Find more reviews here, here, and here.

Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi

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In my passion for translated literature first, and prize winning works next, I have picked up several books by Italian authors (shockingly obtained at our sub par library). Quiet Chaos won the Strega, Italy’s top literary prize, several years ago. It is a novel of many layers, which centers around an unexpected grief that Pietro Paladini must face in his life.

The novel begins with tremendous momentum, as if we were surfing in the Mediterranean Sea with Pietro and his brother, Carlo, caught up in waves of exhilaration and danger, racing and dueling, and then suddenly saving two women who appear to be drowning. No one on shore is willing to risk their lives to go after these two women, but Carlo and Pietro are brave. They are daring. And they venture forth, each one toward a woman who is in peril.

When the women are brought safely to shore, no one takes any notice of their rescuers at all. They return home, exhausted and unacknowledged, and there Pietro finds that Lara, his soon-to-be-wife, and mother of their ten year old daughter, has suddenly died. While he was rescuing another woman, his own woman has fallen amidst the prosciutto and melon balls that she was carrying before she experienced a heart aneurysm.

How to cope with such a tragedy? Pietro tells his daughter, Claudia, that he will wait outside of her school all day until she is let out. We expect him to do this the first day, yes, because it would be a comfort to look out of the window of your classroom after you have suddenly lost your mother to see your father still there. But, we do not expect him to do this every day for months.

Pietro’s world now becomes his car, the neighborhood in which his daughter goes to school, and all the people who inhabit this area or purposely drive to see him. For he will not leave the safe microcosm he has created for his daughter, but ultimately for himself. Into this world come his sister-in-law, Marta, who accuses him of never loving Lara. Into this world come the big important men of his company, the world biggest telecommunications group, who are involved in an enormously important merger. Into this world comes a little boy named Matteo, with Down Syndrome, who makes a friend of Pietro’s car. And ultimately, the woman whom Pietro has saved from drowning finds him there.

The novel turns from ridiculously funny one moment, to despairing the next. At times I was smiling over misunderstandings, amusing anecdotes about co-workers, or the fabulous spaghetti dinner in which an old man who has been watching Pietro invites him to partake. Yet at others, I felt I had been punched because of the violence, the darkness, the despair that Pietro feels in his very core.

Quiet Chaos is about dealing with doubt, grief, being a parent, and ultimately finding the strength to carry on. It is a book I will be thinking about for a long time.

Miss Gloria was explaining reversibility to us.

Reversibility. I’m impressed. And how did she explain it to you?

She explained that in math there are some operations that are reversible and others that are irreversible. And then she explained that the same things happen in life. And it’s a lot better to do reversible things, if you have the choice.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (Book Two of The Neopolitan Novels)

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As I write, the prisms from a crystal star left over from Christmas swirl around me in the late afternoon sun. They resemble the many facets I find in this novel, each singular yet inexorably connected.

It is the story of a friendship, the continued story of Elena and Lila which began in My Brilliant Friend. Here the terms of friendship are even more loosely defined, at least if one looks at a friend as someone who stands by you. Who encourages you, and loyally supports your goals. We can’t say that is true of either girl, but particularly of Lila.

Beautiful Lila; manipulative Lila; selfish, loud, and brilliant Lila. Much of the first half of this novel is about her stealing Lina’s love, Nino. It doesn’t matter that Lila has married Stefano, that she lives in a beautiful home with plenty of money, that she has at her fingertips the ability to design shoes beyond compare. Instead, she wants what Lila wants, even if it means taking the boy that Lila as set her eyes on.

We can’t encapsulate Lila’s manipulations into stealing a boyfriend. Her schemes are much more involved than that. She picks up, and discards people, as if they were her son’s toys. She flaunts her beauty and her wealth and her marriage as if each of these things is unimportant; they are thrown in the face of her friends who have much less.

The truth is, I don’t much like Lila. I want her to be so much more.

Instead, my affections lie with Lena. Hard-working, plain Lena has emotions which resonate deep within me. She fears she is not smart enough, even though she has come from parents with no education beyond elementary school and achieved a degree in Literature from Normale University in Pisa. Even though the outpouring of her heart, over the terrible things that happened while she and Lena were on vacation in Ischia, has resulted in the publication of a novel.

While they do not seem to foster one another’s growth or achievement, Lena cannot seem to be without Lila for long. When she finds her friend at the end of the novel, working in a sausage factory under the cruelest conditions, even then there is no rejoicing at Lena’s accomplishments.

I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that -in good faith, certainly, with affection- I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was so good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.

Perhaps in every friendship there are elements of undermining one another, or certainly of comparison. Perhaps at any time, one is more successful than the other, and friends take turns in savoring the joyous moments of their lives. Whatever the case, I am moved by this book for the friendship that it portrays, as well as revealing the inner thoughts and motivations behind the characters. I feel I live among them, even though the narration never takes me into their presence as much as observes from afar. I feel that I am walking the streets of Naples, or Pisa, or small Italian neighborhood, watching the families who can’t see me. I feel I can taste the Italian pastries, and hear the Italian language, and feel the slap of the Italian men who, though they love their wives, must prove who is dominant.

Even if only to themselves.

 

 

Seraillon mentioned on Jacqui’s blog that a friend of his has mapped the streets of the towns in this novel, and the places where the characters meet. I would love to see that. I would love to attempt it myself if I find the time to reread The Story of a New NameMeanwhile, find brilliant thoughts on this novel here, here, here, and here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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Is any friendship ever pure? Cemented in a genuine affection and admiration for one another? Or, must something impure enter in, something like jealousy or power or insecurity?

I think of my early friendships, coming into them completely trusting because of the respect I experienced in my childhood home, and feeling so betrayed at the first sign of deceit. It was inconceivable to me that someone would want to trick me, or steal from me, or lie to me. I stumbled into first grade already a bit jaded after trying to be friends with a little girl in our neighborhood who did those things relentlessly.

So it intrigues me that Elena Ferrante has written a trilogy, the Neopolitan novels, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. It’s a brilliant title, for one thing, because Lila Cerulla embodies everything that I found both alluring and daunting in my own friendships.

A brilliant friend isn’t necessarily a kind friend. She isn’t first and foremost supporting, loving, or encouraging. Instead, the word brilliant seems to imply some deviousness, some special cleverness that makes her able to succeed with the upper hand…

and yet, maybe brilliant refers to Elena Grecco. She is beautiful Lila’s friend, brilliant not in social prowess, but in Italian, Latin and Greek. In school, she is brilliant.

These two contrasting friends offer much for us to consider. We weigh the friendships we’ve harbored in the past as well as today; we review our childhood and the goals instilled in us by our parents or our own rebellious hearts.

Lila marries Stefano at sixteen years of age. She is a beautiful bride. Her friend watches the ceremony feeling plain and in many ways unequal. But, to whom can we find equality? We can only be who we were meant to be, independent even within the closest of friendships.

It was Jacqui’s review which encouraged me to revisit My Brilliant Friend when first I laid it down. Also, Nicola had a hand in my picking it up again. Now I’m eager to see where Ferrante takes us in Book Two: The Story of a New Name.

The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

“He leafed through it without interest, as if it were the phone book of a foreign city in which he did not know anybody. He looked at the pages, and they seemed to him like hieroglyphics, Sumerian tablets, Sanskrit inscriptions. However hard he tried, he really couldn’t grasp the meaning of those typographical characters lined up in neat rows. Not that this was particularly surprising, given that The Master did not have the slightest intention of actually reading the book. Heaven forbid! The only thing that intrigued him was the inscription: “with affection”, “with irritation”, “wrong direction”–he couldn’t even read what the hell was written on the inscription…With a modicum of imagination you could even read “big erection” in that rickety handwriting. Could that be the outrageous tribute The Beginner had dared pay The Master?”

How ironic to me that the Independent says of this book, “Shrewd and precise, often comic.” First of all, it isn’t often comic. It’s comic on every damn page. Secondly, what would the Independent know about the precision of a literary prize? They’re the ones who awarded The Iraqi Christ with the IFFP this May.

You know how much I loved Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost For Words, a delightful satire on the Man Booker. Filippo Bologna’s The Parrots is another parody of a literature award. Bologna’s characters, simply called The Beginner, The Master, and The Writer, are each hopeful of winning The Prize. (Could Bologna be referring to the Strega (Premio Strega) which is the most prestigious Italian literary award, awarded annually since 1947?)

The Beginner has a book so good no one needs to read it to know it’s a best seller. The Master is so old he feels he should win on the merit of his experience. The Writer will pull a ruse so over the top that he is certain The Prize will be given to him in his honor. And each of these absurd characters has others who sometimes hover, sometimes interfere, in the background. There is The Second Wife, The Girlfriend and The Publisher, each vying for his or her own agenda rather than the writer whom they allegedly support. There is also The Parrot, quite possibly the most eloquent voice of all.

While seemingly far-fetched, a parody beyond belief, one can’t help but wonder how much of this story is true at its core. With the announcement of the Man Booker this week, and my own bitter feelings about the IFFP earlier this Spring, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the satires written by St. Aubyn and Bologna.

They each deserve to win something.

Filippo Bologna was born in Tuscany in 1978. He lives in Rome where he works as a writer and score writer. His novel How I Lost the War is also published by Pushkin Press.