Who am I to disagree with Giuseppe Verdi? I am, in fact, in total agreement and have been for, oh, more than half a century. And every year, usually in spring, I long to be there. These days, however, I don't manage to visit as often as I would like so have to settle for spending some time with my nose in a book, or books, about Italy. This year, the Italy-yearning surfaced in late September and certain books in the waiting-to-be-read pile beckoned . . .
The first, a novel set mainly in Rome and which had garnered enthusiastic reviews, was somewhat disappointing, with characters whose dialogue I never found wholly convincing. I won't name it, not least because I do appreciate the effort that goes into writing a novel and then actually having it published, although you may be able to work out the title from the 'Read 2015' list on the right.
So I moved swiftly on to Elena Ferrante, for whom I had been saving myself - and I was holding my breath. There had been so much publicity and speculation about the reclusive author and so much praise heaped upon her novels that I could hardly bear the thought of a second disappointment. My relief, as soon as I started to read My Brilliant Friend was palpable. I loved it and have ordered the second, third and fourth of the Neapolitan novels from my local library; Ferrante, I feel sure, will carry me through an English winter.
I did have one or two qualms about the occasional Americanism in Ann Goldstein's translation but, having read this interview with her on Lizzy's Literary Life blog, I now appreciate the challenges she faced in translating Ferrante.
My Brilliant Friend is a wonderful evocation of adolescence - and adolescent friendships - in post-war Naples. Some of its themes are particular to the time and the place; others are universal and I can understand, completely, how Ferrante's work has suddenly captured the imagination of so many readers beyond Italy.
Although I try to avoid too much self-referential thinking when reading, the setting for some of the most significant moments in the narrative - the shoeshop owned by Lila's father - took me straight back to a particular time in my own post-war adolescence. It was 1961, I was 14, staying in Liguria in northern Italy, and made friends with a girl of my age called Marisa. Her family owned a shoeshop in a narrow street in the centre of the town and I had visited the shop with my mother to buy some sandals. Marisa served us and we embarked on a fractured conversation, she in her limited English and I my limited Italian. But the spark of friendship was there and I was soon spending every spare moment that I could with Marisa, initially at the shop, and then with some of her friends and family, including Alfredo, who worked at a nearby hotel and, a cousin, Giacomo, who was a student at the University of Turin. We went to an open-air cinema and although I can't remember what film we saw - and my Italian certainly wasn't up to the task of following the dialogue - it was all very heady romantic stuff for a impressionable young teenager from the west London suburbs . . . and it left an indelible mark.
I had grown up listening to fragments of Italian; my father had been a prisoner of war in Italy during WWII. He and his sergeant had escaped after bribing a guard, then lived a hand-to-mouth existence in the mountains, moving from safe house to safe house, sheltered by partisans for four months - until they sought shelter in a house that turned out not to be safe. (They ended up in another prisoner-of-war camp, this time in Germany.) It's amazing how proficient one can become in a foreign language when it is a matter of life or death.
So, I was already familiar with a cluster of familiar words and phrases, although 'we're exhausted'; 'is there somewhere we can sleep?'; 'we are very, very hungry'; 'can you spare something to eat?', and 'we have nothing' were not going to get me very far on the Italian Riviera in 1961 . . .*
I learned more with Marisa and, at 16, I had the opportunity to study Italian O-level and A-level at school. If it is possible to fall in love with a language, I did; I'd already enjoyed studying French and Spanish but Italian was something else. It became a passion. Something similar happened to my daughter a couple of decades later when she spent a summer as an au pair in Florence and took Italian language classes; she went on to read Italian at university.
I try not to let my Italian turn to rust and, despite Ann Goldstein's mention of the challenges of Ferrante's language and sentence construction, I'd like, some day, to attempt to read Elena Ferrante in the original.
Reading about Lila and her family and the calzature made me wonder what had happened to Marisa; we stayed in touch for a while, via postcards but, by the time my Italian was up to letter-writing standard, we had lost contact. However. . . it seems that the family still has a shoeshop in the same town but it is larger, grander and in a more fashionable location. A very smart sign hangs above the entrance to the shop.
*Although I was aware of the bare bones of my father's escape from the prisoner of war camp, I knew few of the details, and I certainly did not appreciate how gruelling those four months hiding out in the mountains would have been. Not until, that is, I read Iris Origo's War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944 a few years ago. I realised that I had had no idea but, by then, it was too late to ask the questions . . .