Category Archives: Italy

Summer Reads: A Double Header: Italy and Maine

Destinations: Italy and Maine

Books: Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen (NEW in June, 2015)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (originally published 1922, NEW in Penguin Classics in June, 2015 with introduction by Brenda Bowen.)

Four women who are strangers come together to rent a vacation home for a month. They become friends, renew romantic attachments with the men left at home and experience the magic of place.

That describes both of these books. The venerable The Enchanted April (Penguin Classics), first published in 1922 by Elizabeth Von Arnim and the new book inspired by that one–Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen.

I realize that the style of Elizabeth Von Arnim can seem a bit dated–the book is, after all, 83 years old. But I enjoy the trip back in time and a refresher course in the dry wit and emphasis on propriety of manners seen in books from England in the 20s.

Of course, the thing that everyone enjoys about this book is not the time travel, but the travel to a gorgeous piece of the world–Italy–somewhere near a coastal village, in a mansion practically smothered in flower beds, where flowers bloom all summer, presenting a constantly changing foreground for the mountains and the sea.

I had seen the movie (1992), but not read the book. I remembered gorgeous scenery, but not much more.

I am very glad I had this opportunity to read Von Arnim’s original book. Two women meet in a private club in London where they both have noticed an ad for an Italy villa for rent in Italy. Lottie Wilkins persuades Rose Arbuthnot to join her there, and they recruit the beautiful and well-born Caroline Dester. The fourth character, Mrs. Fisher, is an older woman who likes to name drop about famous people she knew, and judge everyone around her.

 There were many things she disliked more than anything else, and one was when the elderly imagined they felt young and behaved accordingly.

Von Arnim’s well-crafted sentences of description are what was missing from the movie, although the movie showed us the scenery that we can only imagine in the book, as when Lottie first looks out her bedroom window in Italy.

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet.  The sun poured in on her.  The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring.  Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violet and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

As I rewatch the movie on Netflix, Joan Plowright, as the very proper Mrs. Fisher, recruited to help pay the rent, still cracks me up. Mrs. Fisher’s mannered observations bring to mind Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.  And lo and behold, Elizabeth Von Arnim makes an appearance in Downtown Abbey, so perhaps the writer was influenced by her as he penned the character of Violet.

Please don’t skip the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Enchanted April.  It frames the book perfectly, and sets the scene for the time and the style. Perhaps it will lead you to Brenda Bowen’s book, Enchanted August

Bowen, who obviously adores Von Arnim, updates the 1920s book’s concept, placing it firmly in the 20th century. Playing to an American audience rather than the British home of the other author, the book is set in Maine. The two women who launch the idea–Lottie and Rose, and the woman trying to escape all her adorers, Caroline Dester, share the names and character traits of the matching characters in The Enchanted April.

Class disparities in the American version are  based on occupation and celebrity rather than inherited titles.  Lottie and Rose meet at their children’s upscale preschool in Brooklyn rather than in a private club in London. Caroline is a movie star instead of a titled wealthy woman

Lifestyle changes in the past 80-plus years are striking. The large cottage in Maine has no servants. Unlike their predecessors in that isolated Italian villa, where they had only each other, the ladies interact with other summer residents on the small island somewhere near Mount Desert.  The two younger women have children–an encumbrance that would merely have cluttered the lives of the women in Von Arnim’s book. And of course they must worry a great deal about computer reception and cell phones with no signal.

While the women in the English book take advantage of the isolation to contemplate their lives, the American women busy themselves with projects–Rose in the village library and Caroline with a teen age drama group. Is this lack of introspection an American trait, or a casualty  of the cultural changes between 1920 and 2015?

Admittedly, in 1922, Caroline Dester also has no desire to tax herself with introspection as she lies in the sun in the Italian garden:

It was very curious, and no one in the world could have been more surprised than she herself, but she wanted to think. She had never wanted to do that before…She had not been there more than a few hours when this strange new desire took hold of her.

I found one other difference to be perhaps whimsical but. to my mind unnecessary. One of the characters–the fusty older woman, Mrs. Fisher– became a fusty older gay man, Beverly Fisher, grieving the passing of his partner, a famous poet.  At the risk of sounding incredibly politically incorrect and insensitive, I have to ask,”Why has it become obligatory to include at least one gay character in every book, movie, and TV show?” Does that make up for pretending they did not exist for the past 200 years of American literature and entertainment? I don’t think so. The question should be, what does this sex change of a character add to the book?

Answer: The character of Beverly Fisher is pivotal to Enchanted August, replacing the cook in the original version with his gourmet creations, eliciting much more sympathy than the older woman in the original, and in general practically stealing the show. But it takes away the intimacy of a women-only retreat and their sharing of knowledge about their own development and the men they deal with or have dealt with.

In general, Enchanted August presents a lovely escapists novel for summer reading. But Brenda Bowen’s writing is uneven. She took a great chance in allowing her first adult novel to be compared to the seasoned writing of Elizabeth Von Armin. There are times when Bowen rises almost to the eloquence of Von Armin, although she is writing about a much less eloquent age. And through most of the book I was eagerly turning pages to see how things would turn out for one of the characters, who were appealing each in their own way.  However, there were also times when the plot seemed to bog down in trivia and the unnecessary intrusion of subplots concerning the island’s summer crowd.

Which place would I most want to go for a month?  If I could travel back in time, as well as distance (and at 1920’s prices), the Italian villa would be a dream.  But all things considered, I have to admit that I would probably be most comfortable in a large cottage on an island in Maine.

How about you?  Would you like to inhabit the world of The Enchanted April, or that of Enchanted August. Or does a month away with three other women sound awful. Or if you’re a guy–would you join these four women if invited?

Questionable History, But Reasons to Travel to Italy

Destination: Italy (Rome, Campagna and other towns)

Book: It Happened in Italy (2009) by Elizabeth Bettina

True, it is the marketers who generally write the blurbs for books, so you might give Elizabeth Bettina a pass for the subtitle that appears on the front cover: “Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust.”  You might, except that phrase reflects the message pounded home in It Happened in Italy.

Campagna Italy, map
An idea of the remoteness of some of the villates, including Campagna.

There is a fascinating story here–of how hundreds of Jews survived the Holocaust in small towns like Campagna and Potenza in the South of Italy during World War II. The author and her collaborator in a planned documentary, Vincent Marmorale, met with and interviewed more than fifty survivors–people who were in their eighties at the time of the interviews, and took several of them to Italy on three visits to the towns where they were interned during the war.

There are truly emotional moments of reunion and recognition, which could have made a dramatic book.  However, despite the good deeds that Bettina did, her book fails in several ways.

Show Don’t Tell

I longed to know more about the experiences of the survivors and the people who helped them, but their stories are a minor part of the book, obscured in the unfortunate self-congratulatory tone as Bettina tells us about the miracles she was able to bring about in arranging the trips to Italy.  She constantly TELLS us how incredible and miraculous the story is instead of showing us the everyday life  during the war, or the communities as they are today.

When she does spend some time on a survivor’s story, she inevitably interrupts with “That was right next door to where my grandmother lived,” or other unnecessary information.

And is it really necessary to have 26 pages of two appendices devoted to “thank you” letters congratulating Bettina?

Vatican City
“Vatican City at Large” by Sébastien Bertrand from Paris, France – Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It struck me as odd that the most exciting things that happened seemed to center around the Catholic Church.  Did surviving Jews really get as much thrill out of meeting Cardinals and the Pope as did Catholic Elizabeth Bettina?

Give us Context

Background information is scanty.  If you take everything in the book at face value, you would believe that the people of Italy were uniformly broad-minded and charitable. Of course human nature being what it is, we know that is not true. And just telling us the Italians were wonderful is not enough. What about the “why” and “how?”

Bettina focuses on several camps in the south, like in Campagna where her family is from, and only mentions in passing that the situation in the north was different once Italy surrendered and became Germany’s enemy. Unless you know your World War II history well, you may forget that when Italy capitulated to the Allies, the Germans marched into Italy and started exporting Jews to the concentration camps where they were killed. In the South, the Allied forces controlled the area so the Germans could not get at the Jews.

The question still rages of whether the Pope and the church in general were complicit in the murder of the Jews.  There is no hint of that debate in this book.  Mussolini becomes a sympathetic character for allowing Jews to emigrate into Italy after other countries closed their borders, and for not setting up concentration camps.  But orders against Jews proliferated and Jews were banned from working, could not live in their own homes, and had to check in with the police every day.  Better than being killed, I grant you, but not an indication of the openness of Italian society.

What about the history of the treatment of Jews in Italy? Particularly in those towns where they were interned? Because the immigrant Jews were treated better than they would have been in Auschwitz, does that mean Italy was a paradise?

Several times Bettina mentions internees in the town of Eboli, with no recognition of the classic Christ Stopped at Eboli which describes a man “imprisoned”in 1935 by Mussolini’s government, in much the same way (internato libero) the Jews were during World War II.

Wikipedia says: “The southern half of Italy was not completely on board with Mussolini and his fascist government. The southerners were looked upon as inferior citizens. Levi recalls one local man’s view that he and his fellow people were not even considered humans, rather dogs. He tells another Northerners view of the southerners ‘inherent racial inferiority’.”

His description of the attitude of the people in Eboli, who have no strong ties to church or state and their extreme poverty would add to our understanding of the circumstances during World War II. But this classic is ignored, even in the bibliography of It Happened in Italy.

The southern part of Italy is known for marching to a different drummer, and on top of that, the people of Italy in general did not agree with alliance with Germany, or with Fascism.  (Ironically, Jews could join the Fascist party until 1938, and some rose to high positions.)

A look at the historical and cultural context, would have created a much richer book, than the gee-whiz-aren’t-these-people-great version of history presented.

It is encouraging to know that there were individual acts of compassion and courage and that some lives were spared because of those acts.  It is lovely to know that a handful of Jewish survivors were able to return to Italy from the United States, and that they have such warm feelings about the Italian people. However, a bit of context would help.

A Book for Travelers

All doubts about the conclusions of the book aside, it will introduce you to some places in Italy that you may want to add to your itinerary for a visit to Italy.  With the exception of Sicily and perhaps Naples, Southern Italy is generally lowest on the wish list of people heading for that country.  Certainly travelers interested in history, and particularly Jewish history, will find the book a useful guide.  But anyone who wants to learn about possible destination beyond the Big four–Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan–will welcome this introduction to some smaller towns.

Other Sources

One of the survivors featured in the book, Ursula Korn Selig, when interviewed in 1905 in the New York Times, had a more balanced view than is presented in the book.

For a complete history of Jews in Italy, see the website of the United States Holocaust Museum.

A review that perhaps goes overboard in shedding light on the historic facts omitted or distorted by Bettina can be found at the website for Italian-Americans.

Note: I have included links to Amazon.com for your convenience.  You need to know that when you buy anything through the links on this page, I make a few cents. Thanks for supporting A Traveler’s Library.

War and Murder in Florence

Book Cover: The Light in the Ruins
Destination: Florence, Italy

Book: The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian (July 2013) (read on a Kindle for this review)

I didn’t want to put this book down while I was reading it, and I didn’t want it to end. It is a delicious mystery novel set in recent history of Florence, Italy, one of the most glorious cities in the world.

Florence bridges
Florence bridges by Bob Tubbs View from Piazzale Michaelangelo from Wikipedia FR.

What magnetic force has made the city of Florence, both rich in art and plagued with political and social uproar?  Of all the places I visited in Italy, it was Tuscan Florence I felt I could settle in to. And yet, as The Light in the Ruins illustrates, there has been a price to pay for all that beauty.  Real life is not as orderly as impressive architecture.

It is impossible to read about the fictional murders in The Light in the Ruins without thinking of The Monster of Florence, a book about a real life serial killer. (See my review here.)

However, when I think of upheaval in Florence, I tend to think of the early Renaissance, the Medicis and the “mad monk”, Savanorola. But in The Light in the Ruins, Chris Bohjalian unfolds more recent history–the horrors of World War II as it affected Florence and the surrounding countryside.

 villa outside Florence
“View of a villa outside Florence” by bongo vongo from Flickr with Creative Commons license.

His book segues between 1943 and a murder case in 1955 that illustrates how the divided loyalties during the war had a lasting effect.  ( I’m reminded of another book I reviewed some time ago, The Sadness of the Samurai, about the long-lasting effects of Fascism and the Spanish Revolution.)

In the flashback, Bohjalian creates characters that personify the Germans–some repellant and some sympathetic; and  the Italians divided between collaborating (forced or voluntary) and secret and violent resistance. Among other moral dilemmas, he delves into the complex decisions of those Italians who wanted to protect their national art treasures and the Germans who wanted to confiscate them. Were the Italians and Germans allies or were the Germans occupiers? How far should one go in order to survive? What was acceptable collateral damage?

The book starts with the murder of a widow of a member of the wealthy Rosati family, holders of a title that is a relic of the glory days of Italy. The family has fallen on hard times since the war, accused by locals of too much coziness with the Germans, and by the Germans of failure to cooperate fully.

Sarafina Bettini, the only female police detective in the region, is scarred physically and psychologically from the war because of her actions as part of the resistance. She methodically tracks down leads in the case while discovering flashes of a part of her life that her mind has refused to face.

Etruscan painted tomb
Etruscan painted tomb from Flickr with Creative Commons License.

The ruins of the title most obviously refer to the underground Etruscan tombs on the Rosati estate, but symbolically link to the lives and property left in ruins by first the war and then a string of horrific murders.

The police work presents the reader with enough false leads to keep things interesting. The killer, who speaks directly to us from time to time, makes the spine tingle. The scenes in the 1943 with the specter of the Allies arriving and the Nazis fighting what they know by now is a battle in which they have nothing more to lose paints a heartbreaking picture of the despair in Italy.

Besides the gruesome murders, there is a verboten love affair, universal distrust of neighbors, revenge motives galore, pondering of social classes and of course the who-is-next suspense of a killer on the loose.  It is rather amazing how much delightful reading is crammed in to this fairly short book.

If the traveler who reads has been to Florence, or is yearning to go, the alluring descriptions of countryside in The Light in the Ruins will definitely appeal. But you don’t have to be in love with Tuscany to love this book. In fact, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Bohjalian’s prolific output of novels.

Note: The photos above are all used with creative commons or common use licenses.