January 24, 2009

From the just-returned shelves

The just-returned shelves at the Library always remind me of the great movie classic Grand Hotel, the shot of the bustling lobby and the revolving door, with the famous voiceover “Grand Hotel. People come, people go...” In the movie the people all turn out to be stories, and on the just-returned shelves the stories are like people. There are the return guests (Oh look, there’s On Chesil Beach back again!) and the new guests, from all over the world, accompanied by a reputation or maybe not. Like the Grand Hotel, the just-returned shelves are a cosmopolitan spot.

It was on the just-returned shelves that I recently picked up a little white book, started to leaf through as you do at the just-returned shelves, and was stopped in my tracks by the dedication, collector of fine dedications that I am. "To British Airways", it read. The book design was decidedly old-fashioned and for a split second I entertained the thought that perhaps the book dated back to some Pleistocene epoch of travel when British Airways might have been synonymous with glamour and adventure. Alas, no. In smaller type below the author continues, "I owe the illumination that led me to this novel to a delay in the Palermo-London flight of 2 September 2000."

syndetics-lcShe, the author, is Simonetta Agnello Hornby, a pipe-smoking Sicilian from the "lower aristocracy" -- her term -- who went to London to study, married Mr Hornby (no, not Nick) and worked as a children's lawyer until being inspired at Palermo Airport to write La Mennulara, "The almond picker", which became a bestseller in Italy. It's the story of a clever peasant girl who gets taken on as a servant by a rich family and ends up ruling the roost. There's also a mystery but it's not the real point of the book, whose little chapters with long names make up a series of miniature paintings of Sicilian village life, layered archaeologically back to feudal times.

I learned about the pipe from an article about her in The Independent (it's described as "Maigret-style"), which also contained these deathless lines: "As a young girl, one of her summer jobs was to 'beat the books' in her grandmother's library. Permitted to dust, but not to read the family's eclectic collection - which included her uncles' 'naughty books' - she confined herself to speed-reading the prefaces.”

The prefaces? Is this an error of translation? And why wasn't she allowed to read the books? Was the prohibition on literature in general, or because she might stumble on one of the naughty ones? What were they anyway? Fanny Hill, Ulysses? I put this to my Italian husband, who shared with his uncle a passion for Joseph Conrad, or Honrad, as it is pronounced in their Florentine tongue. “Well, careful,” he said. “At school our copies of The Iliad had a little skip where lines had been chopped out. Of course we went to look it up. It was where Hecuba rips open her dress and takes her breast in her hand to show Hector how she, who gave him her milk, will mourn him. That's all it was, the word 'breast'!"

syndetics-lcOne way or another, a sense of the power of words came through to the young Simonetta Agnello. Listen to this from La Marchesa, the sequel to La mennulara: "Amalia was trembling. Billowing, tender waves of pleasure possessed her, like the rollers that break on the rocks and caress them before ebbing back into the surf." What is Amalia doing? Amalia is sitting fully dressed listening to Don Paolo tell her the story of King Ferdinand I of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. All right, we have seen him lay his hand over hers, midway through his three-page story. But just a hand, I swear!

Next post: What is the great Sicilian novel?

The books: The almond picker and The Marchesa by Simonetta Agnello Hornby

January 01, 2009

What books? Papeete stopover

I love ports, I collect them like poets collect rivers or some women collect shoes, but they have to be working ports, none of those docks redeveloped into shopping malls for me. I want cargo ships, dirty water slapping on wood pylons, the smell of tar. Papeete, where I was lucky enough to have a stopover this week on my way back from a California Christmas, has always been one of my favourites. I love its gorgeous inhabitants, its slightly shabby air, the sidestreets with the dimly lit haberdashery shops run by incredibly old Chinese couples and bars exuding French pop ballads, the rusting iron work of the waterfront balconies, the market with its tables of pies and rows of pig heads in plastic sacks, bedecked with tinsel now for the holidays.

Whenever I go to another country, I always buy a local paper to read over my first coffee. This can drive people who are with me crazy, for instance if the newspaper is in Greek and they have to listen to my enthusiastic etymological detective work. On this trip, I stopped in Papeete both coming and going, so on my return leg, having already read up on the fisherman who got bitten in the face by a shark and the Tahitian boy who won the French National Under 10 Chess Championship, I went out hunting larger prey. And reader, I found it. La Maison de la Presse, with its natty storefront advertising Tabac-Cigars, Curios-Photos and so on, down to the intriguing Press-Wines.

Inside, behind the calendars and souvenir cigarette lighters, were two stands of very dusty books. Incredibly, it was a Papeete version of the Take 5 promotion we have going at the library over the holidays, where you check out a bundle of 5 books and see what surprises you get. In La Maison de la Presse the books were all tied together in pairs with string. In Take 5, we like to tempt readers with a theme, like “Great love stories”. I couldn’t tell what strategy lay behind these bundles. I noted Gide’s Les Caves du Vaticane tied to Post Mortem by Patricia Cornwell, Treasure Island tied to a Victoria Holt novel; and Voyage au bout de la nuit, Celine’s dark masterpiece, tied up with Rendezvous a New York by someone named Veronica Bald (if I read my scrawl correctly), a “danseuse francaise” who according to the back cover, had made the bad choice to take risks "that had nothing to do with the professional". Celine loved a couple of dancers; in fact, "Voyage to the end of the night" is dedicated to one. Was this intelligent design?

I asked the French shopkeeper sweeping the footpath outside if I could take a picture of the books. “What books?” he said. It was like the “What hump?” moment in Young Frankenstein.Those interesting books over there, I said, pointing. “Oh no no no” he said, clicking his tongue. “Go to Vaima (the big shopping centre in Papeete, where I have never set foot) if you want to take pictures of books”. I thought, what am I not getting?

A few things, I guess, here and there. “Did you go to a porn shop in Papeete?” asked my husband looking at my just downloaded photos on my return. I went to look over his shoulder. It was a photo I’d taken of the back room of another dusty little tabac-curios shop further up the street, where two blond female mannequins trapped in plastic boxes were stacked one on top of the other. I snapped it because it looked so surreal, a parable for token wives or sports girlfriends. In the foreground, unnoticed by me at the time, loomed a cardboard box bearing the words “Exciting love cushion”, complete with bright red illustration. And all I had been looking for was a pack of tissues to deal with the congestion the vicious airplane air conditioning had brought on.

The best part is that I had thought "Isn't it lucky I remembered the word "mouchoirs" so I don't have to mime it". Who knows what I might have been offered. Anyway the mouchoirs were great, folded origami-like in tiny cubic packs. "I love travelling" I thought, and bought two.

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