Quick Review: “A Small Place in Italy” (1994) by Eric Newby

Author Eric Newby (1919- 2006) is one of the more notable twentieth english travel writers. I have long been aware of his name, but up to now I hadn’t read any of his books. When I saw a copy of A Small Place in Italy  in a charity shop I bought it to see what I made of Newby.

The first point to make is that this isn’t a travel book as such, or at least it’s not an account of a journey. Instead it’s a memoir of the Italian holiday home that Newby and his wife Wanda owned between the 1960’s and the early 1990’s.

So the book is an account of life in this farmhouse that they owned, situated in the hills in the region on the Tuscan/ Ligurian border.

‘Colourful’ Italian characters and descriptions of rural life abound. Standout passages include a description of how the Newbys sought out and bought the house in the first place; an account of how they knocked the house into shape; and Newby’s account of his walk among the Appenines.

To be honest, I found that some of the longer descriptions of rural life (such as the grape harvest) were interesting enough but went on a bit too long. Indeed, the book starts of as a roughly chronological account of how they bought and did the place up in the 60s. After the first few chapters, though, that it gets more general, and the book becomes a series of vignettes and character sketches, intended no doubt to give a general flavour of what life there was like.

But the book retains its charm. I suppose it’s worth remembering the publishing context from the early 90s. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was a massive publishing hit, and second home ownership among Britains looking for a place on the Continent was on the rise. Tuscany was also becoming something of a holiday magnet for the British middle class. So no doubt A Small Place in Italy was aimed at that general market.

However, it stands on its own merits as a book that would make a decent read for someone wanting to get away from it all, transported by a writer who is never less than excellent company. The final sale and taking leave of their Italian idyll was clearly a great wrench for the Newbys and so this book reads exactly as what it was: an attempt to remember and portray the good times and the good life,  and a good-natured labour of love.

 

Verdict: Not the place to start if you’re a Newbie ‘noob’. If you want to get a feel for why he’s considered one the best English travel writers start elsewhere. Otherwise, though, this is a charming and pleasant book.

 

Advertisements

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa- What can you read once you’ve read “The Leopard”?

 A round-up of some of the Italian author’s less well-known work.

Italian author Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa remains justly renowned for his 1950’s masterpiece “The Leopard”. Since the book’s publication in the late fifties, a short while after the author’s death from lung cancer, it has won him a level of renown and respect that he never knew when alive. Sadly it is his only finished long work, one which demonstrates that this literary late starter had finally found his voice.  Readers who fall in love with that book (and we are legion) and who want to read more by him are therefore faced with a dilemma.  Luckily, he left behind other works, and what little else there is repays the effort for the devotee.  

For english-speaking readers there are quite a lot of editions of Lampedusa’s works around. Some of these are not in print, but most can be tracked down second hand. A very good place to start after “The Leopard” is any edition of his works that includes the autobiographical sketches usually translated under the title of “Places of my Infancy”. According to Ian Gilmour’s biography (see below) Lampedusa worked on these sketches while in the middle of writing The Leopard. The novel is based in large part on his own family’s history, so it seems that the necessary imaginative engagement with the past brought a significant number of memories to the fore. The sketches are pieces that see Lampedusa  reminiscing about the Sicily he knew in the very early twentieth century when he was a small boy.  The Leopard therefore opens a window on the world of Sicily and one of its aristocratic families in the mid- to-late nineteenth century, while the “Sketches” act as  a companion piece,  shedding light on the early influences of one particular Sicilian aristocrat. Before really getting to know Lampedusa’s work I was virtually ignorant about Sicily, having little to go on but a few cultural cliches (most of them I’m ashamed to say concerning the Mafia). While the Sketches aren’t as gory or gripping as “The Godfather Part II” perhaps, it is at least refreshing to learn that there was a part of Sicily that stood at as far and as genteel remove as it’s possible to get, while Lampedusa’s descriptions of the Sicilian landscape come close to the quality of description he attained in The Leopard. 

The short story “The Professor and the Siren” is often published together with the Sketches, and remains the other well know minor work. It’s one of my favourite short stories, and is set in Turin in the 1930s. It charts the odd friendship of a world-weary younger man and an older professor of the Classics. The Professor tells his new friend the story of a remarkable romance which occurred when he was a very young man back in Sicily, an entanglement which changed his life and influenced him even to the end of his days. As the story’s title suggests, the object of his affections was not entirely human and was a figure from Sicily’s ancient Greek past.  , The author harks back to the classical vein of storytelling, which saw gods and other immortals interact with men. It can be read as a fable, but it is just as easily read at face value as a tale of memory, love, loss, ageing, and passion. It’s quite different to The Leopard and indicates that Lampedusa was not just a one trick pony.

Less good is “The Blind Kittens”. This has been in print for years, and isn’t exactly a short story (though it can just about be read as one). It is in fact the remaining draft for the opening chapter for his next novel, which he was working on at his death. It was intended to deal with Sicilian society some decades on from The Leopard, but it doesn’t have the grace and ease of the earlier work. However, we must remember that Lampedusa was an ill man when working on it. It’s not a bad piece of work. It just suffers by comparison with a greater one. However, it continues in the vein of the author commenting on his fellow Sicilians, and echoes some of the previous novel’s wry and resigned descriptions of Sicilians and the national character.