Tommaso has escaped discovery for thirty years but a young private investigator, Will, has tracked him down. Tommaso asks him to pretend never to have found him. To persuade Will, Tommaso recounts the story of his life and his great love. In the process, he comes to recognise his true role in the events which unfolded, and the legacy of unresolved grief. Now he’s being presented with a second chance – but is he ready to pay the price it exacts? That Summer In Puglia is a tale of love, loss, the perils of self-deception and the power of compassion. Puglia offers an ideal setting: its layers of history are integral to the story, itself an excavation of a man’s past; Tommaso’s increasingly vivid memories of its sensuous colours, aromas and tastes, and of how it felt to love and be loved, eventually transform the discomforting tone with…
A presentation of That Summer in Puglia took place on 16 April in the elegant surroundings of the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. The Institute is a governmental organisation dedicated to promoting knowledge of Italy’s language and culture and to encouraging cultural and scientific collaboration with England and Wales.
My interviewer was Rosie Goldsmith, the acclaimed journalist, presenter, literary critic, Chair of the EBRD Prize, and much more! I’m so grateful to Rosie for her perceptive, engaged and knowledgeable questions.
Our discussion was introduced by Marco Delogu, Director of the Institute, under whose stewardship the organisation has hosted an exciting line-up of events across the arts and sciences. Check out the Institute’s rich schedule of forthcoming and past events here. Guests on the Literature side of the programme have included Roberto Calasso, Sandro Veronesi, Domenico Starnone, Ali Smith, Elif Shafak, Ben Okri, Jhumpa Lahiri… to name but a few.
Todd Swift, Director of Eyewear Publishing, spoke briefly about That Summer in Puglia before leaving Rosie and me to discuss the book in detail. Our conversation touched on plot, characters, setting, themes and structure, but also on aspects of various literary traditions (English, yes, but also Italian, German and French) which have flowed into it because of my personal history.
Many of the questions from the public were focused on the cross-cultural aspects of the novel and on the writing process: why had Puglia inspired me? Why is it an ideal setting for this particular story? Where does my detailed knowledge of Ostuni stem from? Which language do I consider to be my “mother tongue” and why? Having grown up in various countries, what are my views on cultural identity? How long did it take me to develop the plot, and how did I go about it?
Meeting people after the talk was a real joy. It was lovely to discover the variety of emotional resonances the book has for different people. I had been prepared for the fact that each reader will respond to certain aspects of a story more than to others, but I hadn’t expected how warmly people would share profound reflections and anecdotes from their lives. I’m very grateful to them.
The photos ‘Valeria and Rosie’, ‘Signing books’ and ‘Book display at the Institute by The Italian Bookshop’ are courtesy of Rosie Goldsmith, and reproduced with kind permission.
Rights to the photos ‘Marco Delogu’s introduction’ and ‘Todd Swift’s introduction’ are my own.
Waterstones Kensington launch – Valeria Vescina and Rachel Seiffert
Valeria Vescina and Rachel Seiffert in conversation
Waterstones, Kensington, hosted the London launch of That Summer in Puglia on 27 March, just four days after the Oxford Literary Festival debut. The launch took the form of a conversation with award-winning author Rachel Seiffert (A Boy in Winter, The Dark Room, The Walk Home), after an introduction by Alexandra Payne, Managing Editor of Eyewear Publishing. I’m very grateful to Rachel for her support: one of my tutors on the Goldsmiths MA in Creative Writing, she saw the novel develop from its early stages.
Her interview centred on three extracts from That Summer in Puglia, to introduce the audience to the principal characters and their relationships as well as to the book’s style and themes. Our discussion flowed naturally from there. The public contributed questions, comments and personal experiences. The book is set in the southern Italian region of Puglia, but its themes are universal: the perils of unresolved grief; the importance of all forms of love; the relationship between love and virtue.
Launch of ‘That Summer in Puglia’ at Waterstones, Kensington
Waterstones window for ‘That Summer in Puglia’
The Waterstones event being only the second on my schedule, it was heartening to spot in the audience a great number of familiar faces: friends, and Goldsmiths MA faculty and colleagues. I’m so grateful to them all for sustaining me during the process of writing the novel. The Mayor of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Cllr. Marie-Thérèse Rossi, and Cllrs. Addenbrooke and Pascall attended in their official capacity, as a gesture of civic gratitude: I was touched, as I’ve taught creative writing workshops at Kensington Central Library since 2013 on a pro bono basis, but hadn’t expected special thanks. I’m grateful also to Waterstones, and especially to its Kensington events manager, for the organisation and publicity. As a debut author, seeing the shop window filled with my books felt slightly surreal.
The Mayor of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Cllr. Marie-Thérèse Rossi
Valeria Vescina reading from ‘That Summer in Puglia’
The next London presentation of That Summer in Puglia will be at the Italian Cultural Institute on 16 April at 7 pm. The interviewer will be Rosie Goldsmith, the acclaimed journalist, presenter, literary critic and Chair of the EBRD Prize.
Press enquiries: please email publicist Helen McCusker, Booked PR (tel: +44 (0) 7951 078388), or you may contact me here.
That Summer in Puglia had its debut at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on 23 March. This was Italian Day, when the Festival – in co-operation with the Embassy of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute – annually showcases Italian culture. My interviewer at St. Cross College was University of Oxford academic and Il Sole 24 Ore Arts & Culture contributor Teresa Franco – sensitive, knowledgeable and insightful. We were introduced by poet Todd Swift, Director of Eyewear Publishing. The audience was large, warm and engaging.
Publisher Todd Swift introducing author Valeria Vescina and interviewer Teresa Franco
Oxford Literary Festival – Valeria Vescina and Teresa Franco
The day closed with a memorable Italian Gala Dinner at Lincoln College, hosted by the Director of the Festival, the College Rector and the Italian Embassy. The latter was represented by Minister Counselor Vincenzo Celeste and Head of Culture Federico Bianchi, both of whom had attended the launch of That Summer in Puglia, an honour for which I’m grateful. The Gala Dinner menu was devised by acclaimed chef and cookery writer Eleonora Galasso.
I wrote That Summer in Puglia in English, my literary mother tongue, but the story is set mostly in Puglia (southern Italy), where I was born and grew up. I was educated in Switzerland and the UK, and today live and work in London, but I’ve spent the holidays with family in my native region every year.
Puglia offered an ideal setting: its visible layers of history are integral to the story, a man’s excavation of his past. The region’s distinctive culture provided a framework for testing the characters and exploring the main themes: the role of all forms of love in human life; and the relationship between love and virtue.
I also hope the novel will help readers discover the cultural richness and variety within Southern Italy, by immersing them in an authentically Apulian atmosphere. In Puglia, traces of the past surface in unexpected ways: from the art of its early, Hellenised Illyrian settlers, to Byzantine paintings, Norman churches, and the palaces and fortifications built under the Anjou, the Aragonese, the Venetians and the Spanish. The region’s cuisine and inhabitants bear living testimony to the passage of all these cultures.
Blackwell’s bookshelves at the Oxford Literary Festival
‘That Summer in Puglia’ on Blackwell’s Oxford Literary Festival display
The moment of That Summer in Puglia’s debut is also one of gratitude for and to all those who have sustained me throughout the process of writing the novel: family, friends, colleagues, teachers… and the authors and publisher who have encouraged and championed my work. To you all, my deepest thanks. A book about the importance of all forms of love would not have been possible without you.
Press enquiries: please email publicist Helen McCusker, Booked PR (tel: +44 (0) 7951 078388), or you may contact me here.
‘There is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.’ Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
Throughout the writing of That Summer in Puglia, I aimed for lightness of touch as a contrast to the intensity of my protagonist’s narration and to the themes’ depth. I am not suggesting that the pull of gravity characterising many outstanding novels is unwarranted, but that it is not a ‘must’ in order to tackle universal themes. In fact, much great literature – from Cervantes and Sterne to Kafka – results from an author’s leap above reality to render it from a refreshing perspective.
‘Lightness’ can take many forms, being shaped by countless combinations of the elements of writing. Calvino cites examples as diverse as the work of Ovid, Lucretius, Boccaccio, Emily Dickinson, Henry James… Yes, the very Henry James who coined the phrase ‘solidity of specification’ to extol the virtues of realism in fiction. So how does solidity square with lightness? Well, not only it can, but I find that it’s when this challenge is most successfully met that the author shifts my perception of everyday life. Gabriel Josipovici, in his outstanding The Teller and The Tale, makes the case for Muriel Spark’s ability to convey ‘the broad and humane vision of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare’ through ‘novels of incomparable lightness’. He also cites the ‘plethora of tiny details’ in a paragraph from À La Recherche which puts half-known sensations into words, altering for ever how you think of a pillow: ‘I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and fresh as the cheeks of my childhood.’ To me, this too is an example of lightness – emerging out of material detail, no less than the more famous ‘madeleine moment’. In Proust’s hands, it’s a kind of alchemy.
Sleeping Child, by John Singer Sargent
When I began writing the novel, I felt the need to suffuse it with lightness – but how to go about it? Each story presents a unique set of challenges. I trusted that I’d find answers to my question during the process of writing, which for me is a combination of the intuitive and the analytical – and therefore an exciting quest, as I don’t know exactly where it will lead even as I seek to steer my way. My protagonist Tommaso is passionate about ancient classics – he becomes a tutor in Latin and ancient Greek. Yet, for all his knowledge of Plato or Lucretius, he is incapable of absorbing and transmuting their teaching into practical wisdom – until he learns of a transformative act of compassion by the young woman he loved. Various people offer him chances of viewing others and events from a different perspective, but for a long time he is ‘stuck’, mired in heaviness, the legacy of unresolved grief. Tommaso thus presented me with a double challenge: he is a narrator whose classical points of reference wouldn’t necessarily be familiar to all readers; and I needed him to convey that for years he actually didn’t understand the essence of his beloved classics.
I decided that Tommaso’s mental images would draw on his classical points of reference, but that these would appear unobtrusively: his erudition should feel natural in view of his personal history, but it should not intrude on the reading experience. For example, a sentence like ‘The owl, the brittle coins, and row upon row of my father’s tomes, looked on – my faithful guardian spirits,’ carries echoes of domestic lares and columbaria; whether readers recognise this or not is unimportant: what matters is that the sentence should still evoke the feelings and atmosphere of moments described elsewhere in the novel and which Tommaso is re-experiencing. Similarly, his great love’s waist being ‘sculpted more delicately than in my waking dreams’ should work in its own right, even though the suggestion is that he unconsciously sees her as his Galatea come to life. Where references are more explicit, such as his in-passing thoughts about Plato’s treatment of love, I have left it for the reader to decide what Tommaso may have grasped and what he may have missed. Throughout, I sought to strike a balance between clarity and ambiguity so as to set readers free to fill in the blanks based on their own perspectives, everyone a unique person engaging with the characters.
Allusions to fairy tales fit within the same principle of lightness. A local folktale which features in the novel is a reminder of the persistence of human ideals and limitations – of the humanness Tommaso struggles for a long time to accept in himself and others. It also foreshadows events and feelings in his life. And although the symbolism of the owl in the fairy tale could vary depending on iconographical settings, here it points to the value of wisdom: Puglia, where the story unfolds, was colonised by Greeks and Illyrians for centuries before their capitulation to Rome, but whether they called the goddess of wisdom Athena or Minerva, the owl was her attribute.
Tetradrachm, Athens, 480-420 BC
Elements as disparate as humour and food also present possibilities for lightness of touch. I introduced humour wherever possible, partly because it bridges the ‘extremes of despair and futility’ (Comte-Sponville), and partly for variety of tone. I also gave prominence to memories of food, which convey an embodied knowledge of culture, identity, and relationships. One of my future blog posts will be on Apulian recipes – four thousand years of history revealed by the region’s cuisine.
Artefacts were present even at the embryonic, instinctive stage of drafting That Summer in Puglia, and this I ascribe to their mnemonic resonances. I then focused on artefacts in my quest for lightness. The oil lamp and the casts of ancient coins in the novel drive forward the action, but they are also witnesses, recurring motifs and symbols of lost worlds (ancient and personal for Tommaso); they illuminate key themes by suggesting that people can be as fragile as plaster casts. In summary, artefacts help define characters and relationships in ways we can all sense, without any need for the author to convey them pointedly through dialogue or musings.
The setting helped, though my choice of Puglia, where I was born, was intuitive. Puglia offers a ‘framework’ which shapes and tests the characters; and the legacy of its disparate historical eras invites awareness not only of the ebb and flow of generations, but also of the possible happy bridging of different perspectives. The fictional protagonists walk through the streets of Ostuni, where past and present collide and combine – and with them tradition and modernity, religion and secularism…
It’s impossible for authors to know the ways in which their work will be perceived – and there’ll be as many ways as there are readers. I hope my pursuit of lightness will have created space for others to fill in with personal meaning.
Sleeping Child by John Singer Sargent, 1872-73, The Met. Reproduced under CC License.
Owl standing right, head facing. Reverse of a silver tetradrachm from Athens, ca. 480–420 BC, Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Reproduced under CC License.
I’ve long been intrigued by authors’ creative choices, so I’m always grateful for glimpses of the process involved in the birth of a novel. Examples of such glimpses might include: how Marilynne Robinson constructed the character of John Ames in her wise and lyrical Gilead – of which she speaks in a Paris Review interview; where the roots of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard are to be found – which transpire from his Places Of My Infancy; or how Vladimir Nabokov arrived at the voice of the eponymous protagonist of Pnin – as revealed in the autobiographical Speak, Memory. Of course the books hold their own as narratives – I don’t need more, in order to enjoy and appreciate them – but insights into the inspirations, challenges and decisions behind them never fail to enrich the experience for me with the unique perspective they offer.
So I thought readers might be interested to know how I had reached one of the key decisions for any novel: that of narrative form, which impacts how we respond to a text. That Summer in Puglia is in dramatic monologue form, which is rarely used in novels, unlike in poetry and drama. So why, you might ask, did I opt for it?
First, it may be helpful to clarify a couple of common sources of confusion. A dramatic monologue is a variant of first-person narrative. It’s distinct from interior monologue, as it involves the narrator speaking to an interlocutor, or ‘narratee’. Interior monologue tends to give readers access to the narrator’s uncensored thoughts, including those unlikely to be divulged to anyone. By contrast, narrators in dramatic monologues may or may not state facts and opinions – purposely or unwittingly.
This means that as readers we find ourselves in the interlocutor’s seat: it’s for us to shift between one moment judging the narrator’s actions, intentions and reliability, and the next empathising with him or her, as if we were listening to a human being sitting right across the table. That quality can give rise to a drawback: the tension between judging and empathising means that stretches of absorption in the protagonist’s narration will alternate with moments of distance from it as we seek to read ‘between the lines’ of what is being asserted and omitted. The author has to fine-tune this alternation of intensity and detachment – which often coincides with that of past events and of the present-tense ‘frame’ – in order to avoid the flow being interrupted too often for the reader.
The narrator’s voice involves many considerations too, such as: how can his tone and register convey his character and background? (I’ll use the pronoun ‘he’ on this blog post, as my protagonist is a man.) How should it change to reflect his evolution from the first to the final page? And that of his relationship with the interlocutor? And to signal when he is in control and when instead the intensity of re-living past events makes him barely aware of the other’s presence? I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence to attempt a novel in dramatic monologue form, and to persevere, without the encouragement and feedback of great writers on my MA at Goldsmiths – I mean ‘great’ in every sense: admirably able, for sure; but also insightful, generous, enthusiastic… Writing may be solitary, but few communities involve the closeness and trust which comes with mutually exposing your work for constructive criticism.
So why did I go for the dramatic monologue form for That Summer in Puglia? Recklessness? Too much time on my hands? (I wish!) The challenge? None of these. After experimenting at length with third-person narration, I opted for dramatic monologue because of its coherent linking of several aspects of the work.
I wanted Tommaso’s narration to expose not only his own fragility, but also that of the young private investigator, Will, as the latter’s tale eventually emerges. I was both encouraged and intimidated by the fact that also the narrator in The Fall senses that the narratee has a secret, and yet that Camus leaves it undisclosed. However, I soon realised that his interlocutor has to be faceless because the eponymous fall is that of humankind – the canvas couldn’t be larger. In my novel, Will has to be an individual for at least two reasons: his story accounts for why only he has succeeded in tracking down a man long presumed dead; and he and Tommaso offer each other real possibilities of positive transformation – at real cost, and demanding real choice. By contrast, the name of Camus’ protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, hints at clemency and salvation but he entraps his prey without mercy.
I thought a dramatic monologue would be ideal for a narrator who, despite his knowledge of the ancient world, is only now engaging in an overdue ‘excavation’ of his past: his unreliability would heighten the tension between sympathy and judgment. Readers could identify with the empathetic listener, who catalyses and facilitates Tommaso’s growing awareness of the actual course of past events. Ostensibly, Tommaso longs for Will to let him go, but his unconscious yearning runs deeper: at stake is his chance to come to terms with his past and to move on. The dramatic monologue form had two further merits: it conveys a sense of isolation; and it plays on the irony that it is a dialogue of which readers ‘hear’ only one side, while Tommaso unwittingly caused a tragedy by denying others the opportunity for dialogue.
In an excellent article about his writing of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid points to the dramatic monologue’s power to engage readers as ‘co-creators’ because it prompts us to develop our own versions of the characters and events: they reflect our personal perspective when we fill in the gaps, make connections or interpret the action.
To help readers settle into the role of ‘co-creators’, I needed to put them in the position of inferring what Will is saying and doing at specific points. I therefore studied rhetorical devices used in dramatic monologues (e.g. Browning’s My Last Duchess, in addition to The Fall and The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and other relevant forms (e.g. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Julian Barnes’ Talking it Over, Rousseau’s Confessions). In none of the former did the authors develop the narratee’s own story arc (Camus and Hamid hint at his background/occupation). However, there was no doubt in my mind that my novel’s coherence demanded it. In the event, some of it flowed intuitively as I got to know my characters, while feedback from tutors and colleagues was invaluable in identifying and addressing sections where the information to be conveyed about Will presented a tougher challenge. I think Camus or Hamid would have chosen to do the same, had the stories they were telling required it – but theirs called for different sets of creative decisions and solutions.
I considered but eventually sacrificed metafictional opportunities, in order to keep readers immersed in the realism of Tommaso’s narration. I aimed for ‘solidity of specification’ and for psychological truthfulness. The multi-sensorial rendering of the settings, for example, is based on my own experience and research. I consulted books, maps and videos, and took photographs and notes. I walked in-situ like a ‘Method actor’, striving to take in the landscape through the filter of the protagonist’s perception. Psychological truthfulness came largely intuitively, but some aspects of it were enhanced by reading and by others’ feedback.
Tommaso’s language is characterised by the formality of his Italian linguistic roots, and by the faintly archaic tone of foreigners who learnt much of their English from literature. As part of my research, I attended a one-day translation masterclass held by Tim Parks, in order to become aware of linguistic idiosyncrasies which would impact Tommaso’s tone and register – unlike him, I did not learn English as an adult, but have been bilingual since my early teens. I also fine-tuned Tommaso’s use of emotionally charged key words. For example, he says ‘my father’ when he begins talking about him, but then repeatedly slips into ‘Dad’ and ‘Daddy’. For the handling of his lapses into Italian, I referred to Simonetta Wenkerts’ The Sunlit Stage and Marina Warner’s The Lost Father.
These are just a few glimpses into an aspect of writing and into the creative process behind That Summer in Puglia. I hope you’ll have found them interesting, whether you’re a fellow author or reader.
In one of my favourite books of literary criticism, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk says that ‘Often the centre emerges as the novel is written’. This was my experience with That Summer in Puglia. I started drafting a story, and trusted that I’d gradually discover what I cared most deeply to communicate. The themes and the connections between them surfaced as the plot and character sketches became a narrative. The entire process was thus partly intuitive, partly analytical – what Pamuk calls being ‘the naïve and the sentimental novelist’.
The main theme of That Summer in Puglia is the timeless value of compassion – not ‘pity’, but the ‘feeling with’ suggested by its Latin root – towards others and oneself. Other themes feature prominently: the perils of unresolved grief; the power of love in its many forms; the importance of dialogue and mildness. However, compassion is notable for playing a vital role in them all.
It’s one of the strands running through every form of love: from a stranger’s kindness, to the affection of parents and children; from profound friendship, to romantic love, and all the way to the concept of agápē. I hope that as you read That Summer in Puglia you’ll find yourself moving from judging Tommaso to really caring for him, and that his tale will remind you of something truly marvellous: that not just in fiction, but everywhere around us, acts of love great and small can transform lives.
In the story, unpredictable combinations of factors impact the characters’ internal worlds, relationships and actions. In the process, a theme closely related to compassion is explored: the need to test the goodness of any action by asking whether love for fellow human beings would enjoin us to take it. As philosophers have cautioned since ancient times, certainty of one’s own virtue can too easily slide into self-righteousness.
This is where the theme of the importance of mildness and dialogue comes in. We live in times where the need for them at societal level is more evident than ever.