Review of Antoine Laurain’s “Smoking Kills”

ELNet review of A. Laurain

My latest piece for The European Literature Network‘s #RivetingReviews is on Antoine Laurain’s “Smoking Kills”, recently translated into English by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie for Gallic Books.

This short novel grips the reader with sharp satire and with a plot hovering between the realistic and the hilariously bizarre. French humour noir at its best.

Click here to read the review.

Riveting literature from the Baltics

The Baltics Riveter

In April, the European Literature Network published The Baltics Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary fiction from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Publication coincided with this year’s country focus on the Baltics at London Book Fair, where the magazine was widely distributed and enthusiastically received. It contains historical notes, reviews and extracts of some very exciting literature.

The Baltics Riveter is now available also in digital form here. This is the fourth of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. In The Nordic Riveter of October 2017, five countries were represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

Review of Burning Cities

 

I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Riveter asked whether I might review Estonian author Kai Aareleid’s Burning Cities, translated by Adam Cullen (Peter Owen Publishers, 2018). I’m very grateful for the suggestion: the novel weaves a powerful domestic tale within the larger tapestry of seven decades of Estonian history; most of the story unfolds in the years during which the country was part of the Soviet Union. You can find my article on pp. 58 and 59 of the magazine, or here. I hope it will encourage you to discover Kai Aareleid’s work and more of the riveting literature from the region.

Image credits:

Images courtesy of The European Literature Network.

 

Many disciplines, one opera

I recently wrote two articles which complement each other – imagine it as a diptych of sorts – on a contemporary opera, Kepler’s Trial:

  • the first is a review, for Seen And Heard International, of the work by composer Tim Watts (Cambridge and Royal College of Music)
  • the second focuses on the unusual inter-disciplinary effort behind the opera. The article, for Talking Humanities*, consists of an interview with Prof. Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge).

*curated by the School of Advanced Study, the UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of the humanities

Why write two articles about it? Because the Kepler’s Trial project is and does so much of what I think contemporary opera is capable of being and doing. It delves into the past to engage with the present.

For the review of Kepler’s Trial on Seen And Heard International, click here.

For the article in Talking Humanities on the unusual process behind the opera, click here.

Image credits:

Statue by Jakob Wilhelm Fehrle dedicated to Katharina Kepler in Eltingen (Leonberg, Germany). Reproduced under GNU Free Documentation licence.

Portrait of Johannes Kepler. Reproduced under Public Domain licence.

Image from Seen and Heard International website.

Image from Talking Humanities website.

Opera and the present

Kepler's Trial - resized

Cerys Purser (Katharina) in Kepler’s Trial © Aura Satz

My latest review for Seen And Heard International is of Kepler’s Trial by Tim Watts. You can access it freely by clicking here.

Kepler’s Trial is a remarkable example of opera firmly engaging with the present – a characteristic of this art form since its earliest days. It does so in two interrelated ways: by condensing and conveying the results of uncompromising scholarship; and by revisiting the past. It tells the story of Katharina Kepler (1546-1622), accused of witchcraft in 1615, and of her son Johannes (1571-1630), the famous astronomer, who defended her during her six-year trial. By shedding light on true historical events, it confronts us with present-day attitudes towards big themes, as if a magical telescope which can probe the past had hit upon a mirror and found its own image hazily but surely reflected back.

The panel discussion which preceded the sold-out performance at the V&A highlighted some of the themes. Prof. Ulinka Rublack, whose The Astronomer and the Witch offers the basis for the opera, spoke about old women’s vulnerability to injurious representations. Prof. Simon Schaffer provided insights into Kepler’s complexity as a man rooted in his time and yet also transcending it (no surprise the space observatory launched by Nasa to discover Earth-like planets is named after Kepler). Dame Marina Warner placed the astronomer’s youthful The Dream in the context of wonder tales and representations of ‘wise women’. The composer Tim Watts and the video artist Aura Satz shared some of the considerations which went into the music, libretto and film elements (see review).

Behind Kepler’s Trial is a multi-disciplinary effort involving scholars from the University of Cambridge and other institutions, across several faculties. A successful synthesis of that effort into a compelling outcome is worth shouting about and being brought to a wider public.

Image credits:

Photo by Aura Satz ©. Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

 

The latest ‘Riveter’ is here!

THE NORDIC RIVETER - Cover

In October this year, the European Literature Network published The Nordic Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary Nordic fiction in English translation. It’s available in bookshops, embassies, universities, libraries and arts organisations – and now also for download from http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-nordic-riveter-to-download/ . Whether you are a ‘Nordic Noir’ addict, a newbie to literature from the region, or are curious to discover its different strands and what they offer, you’ll find much to inspire and inform your reading.

This is the third of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. This time, five countries are represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Nordic Riveter asked whether I might take a look at Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, which had come highly recommended. I’m very grateful for his suggestion: the book is highly engaging and thought-provoking. You can find my review here: http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-the-core-of-the-sun-by-johanna-sinisalo/. I hope it will intrigue you and encourage you to discover this and more of the literature discussed in The Nordic Riveter.

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Image credits:

All images from the European Literature Network website.

 

What does ‘portrait’ mean?

#RivetingReview on Antoine Laurain

 

It was such a pleasure to write an article on Antoine Laurain’s The Portrait (Gallic Books, 2017) for the September issue of the European Literature Network‘s #RivetingReviews. You can find my review here.

The length and writing style of this novella might, at first, suggest a quick read, but take your time and you’ll be rewarded.  Laurain has reflected on the many profound meanings of the words ‘portrait’ and ‘collecting’, and distilled those thoughts into a literary creation of exquisite grace. Witty, whimsical, poignant, thought-provoking… Highly recommended.

 

Astonishingly modern 18th-century opera

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Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate

Recently I reviewed three operas for Seen And Heard International.  Two of them – one by Piccinni, the other by Vivaldi – date to the eighteenth century but are astonishingly modern in their questioning of gender stereotypes.  This is all the more striking, at a time when the gender pay gap at the BBC and a divisive memo by a Google employee about gender and diversity initiatives are making the headlines.

The two operas formed part of the engaged and engaging programming of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, one of Italy’s oldest opera festivals.  Located in Puglia and now in its forty-third edition, this year it adopted the theme ‘Love and Mars’ – not the more usual ‘Venus and Mars’ because one of the programme’s fils rouges was the querying of gender roles.  That querying was not an anachronistic re-interpreting of the relevant operas by their directors, but faithful to their texts and music.

The first of the two operas is Le Donne Vendicate (The Women’s Revenge) by Niccoló Piccinni (1728-1800), with a libretto derived from the Enlightenment playwright, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793).  See review here.

S&HI Le Donne Vendicate 2The second is Orlando Furioso by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), with a libretto by Grazio Braccioli (1682-1752) based on the eponymous work by the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533).  See review here.

S&HI Orlando FuriosoBoth works are steeped in the experimentation and questioning of the Enlightenment (and, in Ariosto’s case, in that current of Renaissance humanism which sided with women in the Querelle des Femmes but lost out during the Counter Reformation), but periods of significant cultural ferment have, historically, alternated with others of retrenchment, resulting in historical discontinuities.

Both operas were born of a spirit of respect for the worth of all human beings, which by definition is irrespective of gender, social class, race or religion.  The Goldoni behind Le Donne Vendicate is representative of – whilst also being influential on – that aspect of his era.  In his oeuvre, morality rests not in time-honoured hierarchies, mores and tenets, but in a psychologically profounder sense of what is just, good and wise.  Meanwhile, the hero of Braccioli’s Orlando is Astolfo, whose blend of mildness and courage enable the overcoming of all manner of obstacles.  Maybe we should be rediscovering early operas more frequently, for the shock of the old to inform the new.

The third opera reviewed at the Festival della Valle d’Itria for Seen And Heard International is Margherita d’Anjou by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) with libretto by Felice Romani (1788-1865).  See review here.

S&HI Margherita d'Anjou

Image credits:

Photo of Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate, courtesy of Festival della Valle d’Itria.

Photos of the town of Martina Franca (home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria) by the author. All rights reserved.

Images of reviews of Le Donne Vendicate, Orlando Furioso and Margherita d’Anjou from Seen And Heard International website.