The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This novel by Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, published posthumously in 1958, is one I had been interested in reading for a few years, having seen lots of very positive reviews, but it was including it on my 20 Books of Summer list that pushed me into picking it up towards the end of June. I have to confess, when I first started reading it I wasn’t at all sure whether I was going to like it, but I think that was mainly because I had no understanding of the historical context. Google came to the rescue and after I’d familiarised myself with the background to the novel I found it much easier to follow what was happening.

The Leopard is set in 19th century Sicily during the Risorgimento (the movement for the unification of Italy). We explore this period of Italian history through the eyes of a Sicilian nobleman, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, who is forced to watch as the world around him changes beyond his control. Beginning in 1860, the year Garibaldi lands on the coast of Sicily, we see the gradual decline of the Prince’s family and the nobility as a whole.

While Don Fabrizio regrets the loss of values he once held dear and hopes that somehow, once Italy has been united, the class system will be able to survive, his nephew Tancredi has a very different outlook, explaining that “everything needs to change, so that everything can stay the same”. The relationship which develops between Tancredi and the beautiful Angelica, daughter of a wealthy businessman, is only possible because of the breakdown in the class structure; characters like Angelica represent the future, whereas those like Don Fabrizio are becoming part of history.

Although the novel is set in the past – and does immerse the reader in another time and place, with some elegant and vivid descriptive writing – the author occasionally reminds us that he is viewing events from a point many years in the future. For example, he lets us know that the palace he is describing with painted gods on the ceiling will be destroyed by a bomb in 1943. It all adds to the poignancy and to the atmosphere of decay and decline.

If you’re wondering about the title, it refers to the symbol of the Salina dynasty and, I think, the power and grace of the aristocracy. As the Prince himself muses, “We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas…” The whole novel is rich in symbolism: a stone leopard above the door has the legs broken off in a sign of things to come, while the initals engraved on Don Fabrizio’s wine glass are fading away and even the fate of his dog Bendico is another reminder that everything must come to an end.

The Leopard is a beautifully written book and although it’s surprisingly short, there’s so much packed into its pages I think a re-read would be necessary to be able to fully appreciate it. After an uncertain start, I was very impressed with this book and can see why it is considered a classic Italian novel.

This is Book 4/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

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The Last Son’s Secret by Rafel Nadal Farreras

This novel by Catalan author Rafel Nadal Farreras apparently enjoyed a lot of success when published in its original language in 2015 and is now available for the first time in an English translation by Mara Faye Lethem.

The story is set in the Puglia region of Italy where, in the small town of Bellorotondo, the names of twenty-one members of the Palmisano family are engraved on a memorial to the First World War. Vito Oronzo, the last Palmisano man to die in the war, leaves behind a pregnant wife, Donata. When the child – a boy whom she names Vitantonio – is born, Donata is so afraid that her son will succumb to the curse of the Palmisanos that she takes desperate measures to secure his safety.

The Last Son’s Secret follows little Vitantonio through his idyllic childhood in rural Italy, growing up alongside Giovanna Convertini, the daughter of his father’s best friend who was also killed on the same day in 1918.

They took dips in the stone laundry trough, caught crickets in the garden, ran through the fields as the farmers cleared the dead leaves from the olive trees, and they ate dinner together at the kitchen table. In the evenings everyone gathered on the threshing floor and sat in the cool air: the grown-ups sang and told stories and the children played hide-and-seek until they were so worn out they fell asleep on their aunt’s lap.

Elsewhere in Puglia, however, life is not so pleasant. A neighbour’s six-year-old son is sold into child labour, while in the nearby cave houses of Matera families live in extreme poverty. Further afield, Mussolini is rising to power and Europe is on the brink of war once more. Eventually, Vitantonio, Giovanna and their friends will be forced to take sides. Will the Palmisano curse strike again or has Donata done enough to protect her son from his father’s fate?

I enjoyed The Last Son’s Secret; despite it being set during the two world wars, it’s not as depressing as it might sound – the likeable main character and the messages of hope and optimism are enough to counteract the darker aspects of the plot. The depiction of life in Italy between the wars is beautiful and I could easily imagine I was there in Bellorotondo, harvesting olives, picking cherries and planting flowers in the garden of the Convertini palazzo. I particularly liked the descriptions of Matera, where Vitantonio hides out for a while at the beginning of the war.

The Second World War chapters are also interesting to read, and I couldn’t help thinking how rarely I have read anything that looks at the war from an Italian perspective. This is certainly the first time I have read a fictional portrayal of the chemical disaster caused by the release of mustard gas during the sinking of the American ship John Harvey in the port of Bari.

The Last Son’s Secret is a surprisingly quick read, but it did take me a few chapters to really get into the story. This is probably because it begins with a long chronicle of the deaths of the Palmisano men, which I expect was intended to be a quirky and unusual opening to the novel but didn’t quite work for me. Also, while Vitantonio’s story was moving at times, I don’t really think I would describe it as the sweeping, heartbreaking epic promised by the blurb. Maybe some of the emotion was lost in translation – although in general I did think the translation flowed well and I had no real complaints about it. If any other books by Rafel Nadal Farreras become available in English I would be happy to read them.

This is Book 3/20 for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is one of my final reads from my Classics Club list and, I have to admit, it wasn’t one that I was looking forward to, having had at least two previous attempts to read it. I did read The Idiot a few years ago (also for the Classics Club) and got on much better with that one, so I was prepared to give Crime and Punishment another chance. I’m glad I did, because I managed to get to the end this time and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, follows the actions and thought processes of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished former student living in St Petersburg. In the first chapter we learn that Raskolnikov is planning the murder of an elderly pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, a crime he proceeds to carry out, although it doesn’t go entirely according to plan. At this stage his motives are not completely clear, but it seems that he is simply in need of money: he is struggling to pay the rent, can’t afford to continue with his studies and has discovered that his sister is about to marry a man she doesn’t love for his money.

Nothing in a Dostoevsky novel is simple, however, and other motives soon begin to emerge. At one point Raskolnikov states that the old woman he has killed is just a ‘louse’ and of no use to society. He also explains that he believes in the theory that there are some people who are superior to others and have the right to commit serious crimes such as murder. He considers Napoleon to be one example of such a person and he is keen to test the theory out for himself. Are some men really so great that the law doesn’t apply to them and that they have no need to worry about the consequences of their actions because by committing murder they will have proved their greatness?

Of course, Raskolnikov does not escape the consequences and from the moment he kills the pawnbroker, his emotions are thrown into turmoil. Although he gets away from the scene of the crime presumably undetected, he obsesses over every detail of the murder, becoming feverish and causing his family and friends – who know nothing of what he has done – to worry about him. Despite taking some steps to cover his traces and remove the evidence, there are times when he seems to want to be discovered and goes out of his way to make himself appear suspicious. He becomes more and more tormented as the novel progresses and as Dostoevsky allows us to access Raskolnikov’s innermost thoughts, this is not the most comfortable or pleasant of reads! You wouldn’t really expect a book with the title Crime and Punishment to be comfortable and pleasant, though, would you?

The crime part of the novel is obvious enough, but the punishment takes more than one form. First, there is Raskolnikov’s psychological disarray in the days following the murder, which is a punishment in itself, but there is also the question of whether or not his crime will eventually be found out and he will receive punishment of a different kind. I won’t spoil things by telling you whether he is discovered, betrayed, confesses or escapes justice forever, because once the detective Porfiry Petrovitch gets involved, there is a certain element of suspense which I’m sure you would rather experience for yourself.

Although I don’t think I would describe this book as “one of the most readable novels ever written” as stated on the cover of my edition, once I got into it I found it very compelling and a quicker read than I’d expected it to be. I’m so pleased I gave it another try and that I persevered past Raskolnikov’s nightmare about a horse being thrashed to death, which was where I stopped on my last attempt. And of course, the horse dream, horrible as it may be, is in the story for a reason and its significance starts to become clear later on. I won’t pretend that I fully understood everything that happens in the book, but I can always read it again one day – after I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, which I think is going to be one of the titles on the second list I put together for the Classics Club.

Midnight Blue by Simone van der Vlugt

Midnight Blue is a novel set in the Netherlands in the 17th century and written by Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt. Originally published in Dutch, this edition from HarperCollins features an English translation by Jenny Watson.

As the novel opens in 1654, we meet Catrin, a young woman who lives in the village of De Rijp and who has recently been widowed. Hoping to make a new start, Catrin says goodbye to her family and sets out on the long journey to Amsterdam, where she has been offered work. Arriving in the city, she takes up her new position as housekeeper to the merchant Adriaan van Nulandt.

As she settles into her job and gets to know the family, an attraction forms between Catrin and Adriaan’s younger brother, the charismatic and adventurous Matthias. She also watches with envy and fascination as Adriaan’s wife, Brigitta, is encouraged to pursue her passion for painting, something for which Catrin also has a talent. It’s not long, however, before a face Catrin thought she had left behind reappears, threatening to tear apart the new life she has built for herself – and so she decides it’s time to move on again, this time to Delft and the home of another Van Nulandt brother, Evert. Evert owns a pottery workshop and it is here that Catrin finds an opportunity to put her artistic abilities to good use at last…

Although Catrin’s personal story is fictional, the world in which Simone van der Vlugt places her is grounded in historical fact. My knowledge of Dutch history is very limited, picked up mainly from the few other novels I’ve read set in the country, and it’s always good to have the opportunity to learn something new! The period covered by the novel includes such notable events as the Delft Explosion of 1654 and an outbreak of the plague. Life in Catrin’s home village of De Rijp and the cities of Amsterdam and Delft is vividly described, and as Catrin spends so much time travelling from one place to another, we are also given descriptions of the scenery seen from the canals and rivers which link her various destinations.

The time during which the novel is set – known as the Dutch Golden Age – saw art, science, trade and industry flourishing in the Netherlands, including the pottery industry which forms such an important part of the story. You can expect to learn a lot about mixing chemicals, painting designs, glazing pots and firing them in kilns…and you’ll come away from the novel with an admiration for Delft Blue, the blue and white pottery produced at Evert’s workshop. Several historical figures from the art world are incorporated into the story too, although I found it difficult to believe that Catrin would have come into contact with so many famous artists of the period – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Nicolaes Maes and Carel Fabritius all make an appearance and all have words of advice or encouragement for Catrin.

Catrin herself is an interesting character. The novel is written in first person present tense, which is not my favourite for historical fiction, but it does mean that we get to know our narrator quite well. Even so, we don’t know everything about her immediately; Catrin keeps some parts of her past hidden to be revealed later on – and when the past does begin to catch up with her, this introduces a thriller element to the novel which adds another layer of interest. I was occasionally pulled out of the 17th century by the use of a word or phrase which felt too modern, but it’s difficult to say how much of this was due to the translation and how much to the original text.

Midnight Blue is a light and entertaining novel which I would recommend to readers who have enjoyed other books with Dutch settings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Miniaturist. I read this as part of a blog tour, so if you would like to see more reviews, you can find the rest of the schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review!

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas

Louise de la Valliere Louise de la Vallière is the fourth book (or in some cases, the fifth – more on that later) in the series of d’Artagnan novels which began with The Three Musketeers. Looking at other readers’ reviews, this seems to be one of the least popular books in the series and I can understand why, even though I did enjoy it.

In Louise de la Vallière, the story is picked up directly where the previous book, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, ended and follows all the romance and intrigue of the court of Louis XIV. As the novel opens, the king’s brother, Philippe (known as Monsieur), has just married Charles II’s sister, Henrietta of England (Madame). An instant attraction has formed between the king and his new sister-in-law, so to avert suspicion they decide that Louis will pretend to turn his attentions to Louise de la Vallière, Madame’s young lady-in-waiting. Things don’t go exactly according to plan, however, and the king and Louise end up really falling in love with each other, breaking the heart of poor Raoul, the Vicomte of Bragelonne, who was hoping to marry Louise.

Apart from a few brief scenes here and there, there’s an almost total absence in Louise de la Vallière of the swashbuckling action and adventure which formed such a large part of the earlier volumes of the series. This could be disappointing if you’re expecting more of the same, but I do think the antics of Louis’ court are fun to read too. It’s amusing to watch the king’s desperate attempts to steal some time alone with Louise – passing letters hidden in handkerchiefs, climbing ladders to reach her window and installing secret staircases in her room!

What does all of this have to do with d’Artagnan, you may be asking? Well, the answer is – very little. He does appear from time to time, but this is not really his story. We don’t see much of Athos or Porthos either, although what we do see assures us that they are still the same characters we know and love: Athos is still noble and honourable, while Porthos is still the gentle giant, as good-natured and trusting as ever. I didn’t care for Aramis in this book, though – he’s preoccupied with a mysterious prisoner in the Bastille and when we do see him, he’s plotting and scheming, reluctant to confide in his fellow musketeers. His storyline ends on a cliffhanger which has left me wanting to start The Man in the Iron Mask as soon as possible!

Now, a note on the structure of this series. The first two books are The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, which I have written about in previous posts. The third book was originally intended to be one very long novel, but most publishers now split it into three: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, then Louise de la Vallière and finally The Man in the Iron Mask. Some versions (such as the free Project Gutenberg ebooks – see the notes here), split the chapters differently, including an extra volume, Ten Years Later, between The Vicomte and Louise. Be sure to check the editions you’re reading or you could miss part of the story.

This may not have been my favourite Musketeer novel, then, but I did still find a lot to like about it and can’t wait to finish the series with The Man in the Iron Mask.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat

The Travels of Daniel Ascher When I read The People in the Photo a few weeks ago for Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth on Twitter), I didn’t expect to have time to read another book for the same event, but I’ve had this one on my Kindle for a while and have managed to squeeze it in before the end of the month. The Travels of Daniel Ascher was originally published in French in 2013; I read an English translation by Adriana Hunter.

At the beginning of the novel, twenty-year-old Hélène Roche has just moved to Paris to begin studying archaeology at university. Her great-uncle, Daniel Ascher, also lives in Paris and has offered to let her rent one of the upstairs rooms in his house, but when Hélène arrives she finds that he is out of the country, on a trip to Tierra del Fuego. This is nothing surprising – for as long as Hélène can remember, Daniel has been off on his travels, visiting one exotic location or another – and actually, his absence doesn’t bother her too much as she has always found her eccentric great-uncle slightly embarrassing.

As Hélène gets to know her fellow students, she discovers that most of them are fans of The Black Insignia, a series of novels in which the hero travels the world, having exciting adventures in locations as varied as the Amazon, Machu Picchu and Pompeii. Hélène alone has never read a Black Insignia book, partly because she thinks the stories sound childish and uninteresting and partly because the author of the series is her great-uncle Daniel, writing under the name HR Sanders. Her new friend Guillaume, however, is so enthusiastic about the books that Hélène is persuaded to look at them again – and in the process she makes some surprising discoveries about the life of Daniel Ascher.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher is a very short book (I easily read it in one evening) and I think it’s probably aimed at young adults, although that’s not to say it has nothing to offer an adult reader too. When the truth about Daniel Ascher’s childhood begins to emerge (I’m trying not to spoil anything here) it’s a story which has been written about many times before, but the way in which Déborah Lévy-Bertherat chooses to approach that story feels fresh and different.

I thought the book was generally well written, although as with all translated novels, unless you’re able to read the original, it’s difficult to know whether anything has been lost in translation. I do have a criticism, though, and that relates to the dialogue, which is written without quotation marks and presented as one continuous paragraph, with what one character says separated from the next by a comma. I’m really not sure why so many contemporary authors think this sort of thing is a good idea – I find anything other than conventional dialogue very distracting and unnecessary. In this particular novel, I suppose it helped to create a dreamlike atmosphere, but at the same time it made it difficult to connect with the characters and took away some of the emotional impact of the story.

WITMonth 2016 The Travels of Daniel Ascher wasn’t a perfect book, then (at least not for me), but it was an interesting and unusual one and I don’t feel that I wasted my time reading it.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern

The People in the Photo August is Women in Translation Month and although I hadn’t made any formal plans to take part, I found myself reading a translated novel by a woman this month anyway – one I’d been interested in reading for a while. Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo was originally published in French in 2011; this Gallic Books edition is an English translation by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz.

Hélène Hivert lives in Paris, where she works as an archivist. She has never known her mother, who died when Hélène was very young, and for some reason her father and stepmother have never wanted to talk about her. When Hélène finds a photograph of Nathalie, her mother, taken at a tennis tournament in Interlaken in 1971, she’s intrigued. There are two men in the photograph whom she can’t identify, so she places a newpaper advertisement asking if anyone can provide more details.

Stéphane Crusten, a Swiss biologist living in England, responds. One of the men in the photo is his father, Pierre, who is now dead, and he recognises the other as a close friend of his father’s. What Stéphane doesn’t know is why Hélène’s mother is in the picture with them. Corresponding at first through letters and emails and later by telephone and in person, the two begin to piece together the fragments of information they have in an attempt to discover the connection between their parents. Gradually, as they delve into their family histories and more old photographs come to light, the true story of Nathalie and Pierre is revealed.

The People in the Photo is a beautiful, moving novel. The story is told in epistolary form, through the letters and emails Hélène and Stéphane send to each other, and it was nice to watch two people being drawn together in this way, forming a bond in writing before they had even had the chance to meet. The photos they discover are not included in the book, but they are described in such careful detail that I could picture them quite clearly in my mind, and I liked that aspect of the novel too.

However, this was not a perfect book; it did have a few flaws which stopped me from loving it as much as I’d hoped to. First, I thought it was very predictable – maybe not for Hélène and Stéphane, who were genuinely shocked by each revelation, but definitely predictable for the reader. This in itself wouldn’t have been a big problem, but I also found the plot very contrived and too reliant on coincidences, on photographs which turned up just when another clue was needed and on circumstances which conveniently prevented secrets from being revealed until after the next letter was received.

In the end, though, none of this mattered too much. It’s still a lovely, emotional story and once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop until I reached the final page and had learned all the secrets of the people in the photo.