Recently the European Literature Network published The Swiss Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary fiction, poetry and memoir from Switzerland. It contains essays on Swiss literature’s richness and diversity, as well as reviews and extracts, including an exclusive English excerpt of Peter Stamm’s The Gentle Indifference of the World (to be published this year in Michael Hoffman’s translation) and an essay by Swiss-British writer Alain de Botton.
My review of Pascale Kramer’s Autopsy of a Father (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017) appears on pp. 56-57. Kramer won the Grand Prix Suisse de Littérature in 2017 for her oeuvre. Autopsy of a Father is a powerful novel for our times: it tackles xenophobia, racism and nationalism. You can access the review here.
The European Literature Network promotes literature in translation. The Swiss Riveter was produced with support from Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK, Arts Council England and ELit Literature House Europe. Sections of it are now available also in digital form here.
This is the fifth 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. The fourth covered the Baltics, the focus of the 2018 London Book Fair.
The Polish Riveter
The Russian Riveter
The Nordic Riveter
The Baltics Riveter
Images courtesy of The European Literature Network.
The Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre is ‘the home of new writing, debate about literature and more’, so the questions from writer and lecturer Ardu Vakil, our interviewer, were duly stimulating. My thanks to Prof. Blake Morrison: it was an honour to be invited to Goldsmiths, having been there years ago as a Creative & Life Writing MA student, and a pleasure to see some of my former tutors, including Ardu. This blog post is in response to requests, on the night and subsequently, to make available online my own reflections on history in fiction.
Why weave history into fiction? Because it does something which really matters: it raises awareness of the legacy of history in our present day and of the fact that history is narrative. Novels can alert readers to these two issues and their consequences in ways which imprint themselves in our minds more deeply than intellectual notions alone.
The past conditions our present everywhere, but there are places where this is more evident than in others. My native Puglia, the region located in the ‘heel’ of Italy, is one such place. Part of the Ancient Greek world since the Bronze Age, it was eventually conquered by the Romans. The Via Appia soon stretched all the way from Rome to the port city of Brundisium (modern Brindisi), carrying armies and goods to this natural ‘Gateway to the East’ (‘Porta d’Oriente’). A succession of conquerors followed: Byzantines, Berbers, Normans, Swabians, French, Venetians, Spaniards… Over the centuries, they left an abundance of visible traces. First-time visitors to Puglia today are astonished by the sight of Ancient Greek or Roman ruins side by side with Norman churches, Swabian castles, Anjou palaces, Venetian loggias, Baroque jewels, the idiosyncratic ‘trulli’, whitewashed kasbahs… As a child whose bedroom windows opened onto the 11th-century round church of St. John of the Sepulchre, built by the Normans (influenced by the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) on top of a Roman house, I was conscious of walking daily where other children had walked for at least two-thousand years.
Of course, that is exactly what we’re all doing, physically or metaphorically, everywhere – but most places don’t bring us face to face with that realisation. Puglia has the power to do this also in slightly less obvious ways, and so my novel highlights the ‘living traces’ of diverse people and cultures in the region: the inhabitants’ physical appearance, which surprises foreigners; the mixture of languages which flowed into the local dialect; the cuisine; fairy tales which blend Greek myth with historical fact; proverbs where ancient gods and Christianity meet… I might write a future post about exactly how these traces appear in That Summer in Puglia. In the meantime, these sketchier references are here to help illustrate my answer to the wider question of why history in fiction – including, but not restricting ourselves to, historical fiction – matters.
Brindisi, church of St. John of the Sepulchre, with view of access to Roman domus underneath
The Appia Traiana in Egnazia
Ostuni – Old Town
Lecce – Basilica of Santa Croce
Some awareness of how dynamically history still impacts the present is salutary for at least two reasons. First, it highlights positive aspects to be grateful for and exposes toxic ones. Second, by reminding us of the transience of life, it has high ‘existential value’: it awakens in us the instinct to make our existence meaningful; and the realisation that we’re tiny drops in the flow of humanity encourages empathy towards others not merely across time but across geographies. At the very least, it’s a spur to seeking to understand our world better and to take responsibility for daily actions. At its best, it pre-empts dangerous Othering. Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy offers a memorable discussion of why intellectual awareness and courage are essential to countering the instinct to invent an enemy in the process of identity formation (individual as much as national).
Equally salutary – particularly when nationalism is experiencing a resurgence at all longitudes – is the recognition that history is narrative. All history is incomplete: the most scrupulous historians, committed to seeking the truth, are not exempt from the imperative to select the dots to connect; they have to sift through the facts and the personalities of the past in order to determine which to include or exclude. Even the most consciously unbiased will do that from a point of view inevitably tinged with the unconscious bias of their time and of other factors. And even the most balanced account can only be partial, a cross-section of reality. Think of the fils rouges running through your own life: they all tell true stories, but each thread can connect only certain aspects of your existence.
Omissions and distortions can have tragic consequences, especially when they’re wilful. That’s true both for societies and individuals and whether the narrative in question is the history of a nation or of a person. The story of Tommaso, the protagonist of That Summer in Puglia, is that of a man who unwittingly misinterprets and distorts past and present at great cost to himself and others, until the complexity of the truth catches up with him and presents him with a choice.
The link between the words‘history’ and ‘story’ remindsus that both are narratives. The distinction between them in the English language is relatively recent: it first appears only around the late fifteenth century. In some other tongues – for example Italian (storia), French (histoire) and German (Geschichte) – one term still describes both. Layers of history – and different versions of them – shape national as well as personal identities; they give rise to frameworks of beliefs and of normative behaviour. I’m intrigued by how history with a capital ‘h’ affects personal histories as well as our own times. I’ve explored some of these intersections in my first novel and will explore others in my second one, a story set in late sixteenth-century Southern Italy. I hope That Summer In Puglia shows how layers of history and of diverse cultures account for my native region’s deep-rooted contradictions, which give rise to its intense beauty but also to conflicts between and within my protagonists; ultimately, their task is that of ‘connecting the fragments’.
The word ‘history’ comes to us via the ancient Greek but derives from the proto-Indo-European ‘weid’ for ‘to see’, the root for the words ‘wisdom’ and ‘vision’. It strikes me as one of those cases in which etymology transmits a timeless truth: while knowledge and wisdom are different things, seeking ‘to see clearly’ is integral to acquiring some degree of wisdom. To ‘see clearly’ is always a challenge though, not least as it requires viewing things from multiple perspectives. An education which stresses the value of the arts and humanities encourages that, by training us to open-mindedness, empathy and critical thinking. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued the case (full text here) particularly effectively: ‘Never assume that the humanities are an optional extra, a bit of leisure-time fun, alongside the real hard-nosed human business of science, medicine or engineering. Without hard and creative thinking in the humanities, the human society in which you and I find ourselves may well go mad. Look around you at the world in which we live, and try to prove me wrong.’ Fiction and non-fiction are cornerstones of the arts and humanities.
Most novelists – I, for one – don’t write to a theme. Rather, a cluster of them tends to reveal itself only in the course of writing, and sometimes only afterwards. It’s in the nature of creative work that this remains true even when we set out to explore a specific issue. Historical novels can show powerfully how the past still affects the present. They can foreground microhistory, which is arguably as significant for our everyday as who won which battle (with some notable exceptions). They can convey people’s acceptance as givens, in their time, of rules and customs we find abhorrent, prompting us to query widespread present-day attitudes future generations will decry. They pose the question: how would you have behaved in those circumstances? The temporal distance inherent in historical novels (to varying degrees which impact the defamiliarization effect) can make it easier for us as readers to discern and engage with aspects of our own reality.
Researching the lives of ordinary people in sixteenth-century Southern Italy threw up surprises for me, such as the incidence of slavery, and the deep roots – immemorial by then – of a misogyny we’re still struggling against. The greatest challenge for me as I write my second novel is to resist all temptation to project a twenty-first century worldview onto characters from another era. As the great Carlo Ginzburg recently said in a Warburg Institute lecture: ‘history and anthropology are located forms of knowledge’, so we have to strive against unconscious bias, by listening to, and respecting, ‘the voices of the people at the time’.
That doesn’t mean that imagination plays no part in historical fiction – on the contrary. For example, my second novel is inspired by true events, but gaps in the documentary evidence call for a high degree of conjecture. My response to the challenge includes inventing protagonists who interact with real-life historical ones. They are far from being arbitrary inventions, though: rather, they’re fictional human beings who give voice to countless numbers of their contemporaries who actually experienced the situations and dilemmas they face in the story.
Is it worth all the research, all the emotional and imaginative effort to inhabit a consciousness located in a very different world, all the meticulous assembling of pieces of an incomplete puzzle? I think it is: fiction has the power to capture and communicate the narrative truth of fragments of the past – and so to illuminate the present.
Flier for ‘History and Fiction’ event: courtesy of Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre.
The festival’s name suggests a focus on travel literature but its remit defies narrow definitions. It showcases different ways of narrating places and cultures: journalism, travel memoir, fiction, photography, music, television, comics, anthropology, history, politics, philosophy… It’s promoted and hosted by the Società Geografica Italiana (founded in 1867, it’s Italy’s equivalent of the Royal Geographical Society, for those of you in the UK) in the historic grounds of its headquarters, Villa Celimontana. Journalist and photographer Antonio Politano (La Repubblica, National Geographic and much more) is the Artistic Director. Writer and broadcaster Tommaso Giartosio (author of several books, journalist and presenter of Rai Radio Tre’s literary programme, ‘Fahrenheit’) co-ordinates the talks and interviews the speakers.
The festival’s byword being ‘openness’, its atmosphere is at once relaxed and challenging. The juxtaposition of some sessions emphasises the relevance and reach of world events. An example? In their presentation of Otto Giorni in Niger (Baldini + Castoldi) a memoir of days with the UNHCR in refugee camps in Niger, acclaimed authors Edoardo Albinati and Francesca D’Aloja spoke of how the experience affected their perspectives on issues ranging from degrees of hospitality and generosity, to the wisdom of young mothers whose babies were born of rape; their talk was followed by the award of the festival’s Navicella d’Oro Prize to Aboubakar Soumahoro, trade unionist, for his work against racism and the exploitation of migrants in Italy, and to Antonio Marchesi, President of Amnesty International Italy.
The novels presented at the festival tend to be connected by a strong sense of place. The session ‘Levante Italiano’ or ‘Italian Levant’, involved a discussion of three works set in Puglia: Omar Di Monopoli’s Uomini e Cani (Adelphi), Carlos Solito’s Sciamenesciá (Elliot) and my That Summer in Puglia (Eyewear). Rino Caputo, Professor of Italian Literature at Tor Vergata, University of Rome, put them in the historical context of literature from Puglia-born writers, highlighting the similarities and differences vis a vis the experience of earlier Sicilian authors. Tommaso Giartosio pointed to the strong thread connecting our individual visions of Puglia, despite our three widely differing styles: namely, the region’s contradictions, rooted in history, which still shape its present and our imaginations.
Yesterday’s event in Ostuni was very special: after a journey begun in Oxford, my protagonist Tommaso “came home” to the beautiful city through which he and Anna “walk”.
Poster produced by the City of Ostuni
Article in La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno
I have lots of people to thank for the success of this bilingual presentation to an audience consisting, in fairly equal parts, of Italian and native-English speakers:
The authorities who took the initiative of offering a literary event for both an Italian public and the sizeable Anglophone community resident in and around Ostuni. My thanks to Mayor Gianfranco Coppola, City Councillor Antonella Palmisano and Director of Museums Michele Conte, who gave the welcome addresses, and to their wonderful team, especially City Library Director Francesca Garziano and Press Officer Paola Loparco
Francesco, Paola and Ilaria Casanova of the Bottega del Libro bookshop, whose support at the event and in the weeks leading up to it was precious
Last but certainly not least, my wonderful interviewer Francesco Dimitri, another Apulian author living and working in London. Francesco writes in both Italian and English. His most recent titles include To Read Aloud and The Book of Hidden Things (which is set in Puglia) and he collaborates with The School of Life. I can’t wait for his That Sense of Wonder, which is due out in November 2018.
Mayor Gianfranco Coppola’s welcome address
Address by Museum President Michele Conte
Assessore Antonella Palmisano’s address
Francesco and I translated – from English into Italian and vice versa – everything we discussed. We had wondered how well this would work and were delighted to hear that people loved it and that many of them actively enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand what was being said in the other language before hearing the translation into their own tongue.
Francesco’s questions were insightful and stimulating, and those from the audience showed warm engagement with the novel. As always, it was so lovely, afterwards, to meet those present, to hear their thoughts on the book and to learn of their backgrounds.
Jane Davis today continues her inspiring series on Art in Fiction with contributions from three guests: Kate Rigby, Jenny Harper and me. I’m grateful to Jane for her invitation. I’ve long been fascinated by the uses and effects of art in creative writing – my research into them goes back years and continues, and my own fiction incorporates arts and artefacts – so it’s always a joy to be able to share that interest with others. Click here to read the article.
My contribution to Jane’s article focuses on the topic of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art: how helpful do I personally find that distinction? What purposes do art and artefacts serve in my fiction, especially in That Summer in Puglia? Kate Rigby considers the related question of ‘art snobbery’, widening its scope from the visual arts to novels, and explaining why she doesn’t like strict genre classifications. Jenny Harper illustrates art’s redemptive power with an extract from People We Love.
For other articles in Jane Davis’s series, click here.
What a delight the blog tour of That Summer in Puglia has been! All authors are a little apprehensive about how their book will be received, and I was no exception: ‘Will the reviewers like my novel?’ ‘Will they care for the aspects which I care most deeply about?’ ‘Will the characters and the places transport them…?’ The answers, happily, were yes, yes, yes…
I’m grateful to those who hosted a stop on the tour and to their fellow bloggers who made the reviews travel far and fast. Literary bloggers give freely of their time. No-one can mandate their emotional engagement or their final verdict. Their chief motivation? Love of reading, writing, learning and sharing. I’d like to thank them by selecting extracts from their reviews. But first, my thanks to Aimee Coveney and Helen McCusker of Bookollective for organising the tour and to Eyewear for publishing the book.
I hope the quotes from the tour will give you a flavour of the novel. You can read additional reviews here.
Blackwell’s bookshelves at the Oxford Literary Festival
‘That Summer in Puglia’ on Blackwell’s Oxford Literary Festival display
Jo Park kicked off on 17 May by hosting an extract from That Summer in Puglia on her Over the Rainbow Book Blog. A stop with a different blogger followed each day until 27 May.
“I have an absolutely great recommendation for you today, one that will melt your heart. […] This is a stunningly beautiful story, made even more wonderful by having Tommaso as the narrator. […] I cried, I rejoiced, I held my breath – and they are just some of the ways That Summer in Puglia hit me.”
“Valeria Vescina writes beautifully. She creates an unbelievable sense of atmosphere and nostalgia. Her depictions of the landscape and architecture of Puglia have made me want to visit this region I’d heard little of but am now slightly obsessed with. […]
What I loved most about this book was that it was a very emotional read. Yes, it’s a love story but it’s so much more than a love story. It’s a reminder of how things can go so very wrong when we try so very hard to do right by those we love. It’s about communication and miscommunication and redemption. It’s about the expectations we have of our parents and those we have of our children. It’s about how we differ in our reactions to anger and grief. I could go on and on. In short, it’s about all of the things that make us fragile, vulnerable, human… […] A perfect book club choice. This book is an impressive debut and I’d certainly love to read more books by Valeria Vescina in the future.”
“I found this to be a totally absorbing debut and loved spending time with the character Tommaso as he recounted the story of his life and loves to a PI who has tracked him down 30 years later. […] The attention to detail was exquisite and the sights and sounds are brought vividly to life through the pages. It had a lovely gentle feel to it throughout and I can’t wait to read more from this author in the future.”
“It was Tommaso that stole my heart… Vescina’s writing is brimming full of emotion and tenderness.
The vibrancy of the town square, the winding backstreets, and Tommaso’s villa and its gardens, conjured up such vivid and vibrant images. I could almost smell the flowers in the beautiful gardens and my mouth watered at the descriptions of the amazing food cooked by Concetta. The whole setting was beautifully atmospheric and so befitting of this amazing love story…
I loved this novel. It had everything you want in a love story. It had passion, betrayal, grief, and loss but most of all it was about the capacity we have in all of us to forgive, to make amends and make the best of what life has to offer. […] A sumptuous, evocative and totally enthralling novel… It is just beautiful.”
“As intense as the heat of an Italian summer. […] As Tommaso and Anna roam the maze of narrow streets that make up the Old Town of Ostuni, taking delight in small things and shared places, there are beautiful descriptions of the ancient town, full of light and shade.
That Summer in Puglia provides a devastating portrait of how love can, in a moment, turn to hate if fuelled by insecurity, jealousy and an inability to trust. And how what often follows just as quickly is regret, guilt, despair and hopelessness. It also shows how a single action, even if done for what is thought are the right reasons, can have unintended and long-lasting consequences, but that sometimes there may be the opportunity to make reparation. The emotional power of Tommaso’s story and the effortless, flowing writing of Valeria Vescina are what will stay with me about That Summer in Puglia.”
“The beautiful descriptions transported me straight there, from the olive trees to the scent of the flowers. […] At its heart, That Summer in Puglia is a love story but it’s so much more than that. It’s a relatable character study full of complexities that oozes atmosphere.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The way we react to certain things in the heat of the moment can have a huge effect. It isn’t until later on, that we maybe think “I could have” or “I shouldn’t have”. As a nineteen year old boy, Tommaso makes some dubious decisions… Did he make the right choices? That’s up to you to find out when you read this novel.
With beautiful descriptions and well-developed rich characters, Valeria Vescina takes us on a moving journey through Tommaso’s life. That Summer in Puglia is a brilliantly written, poignant, thought-provoking character-driven story about young love, loss, grief, family and second chances. An absolutely wonderful debut.”
“It’s a tale touched with sadness and poignancy, tragedy and loss but also one of self-discovery and second chances… At first sight, it’s a simple tale of boy meets girl, but pull back those layers and it’s so much more – Puglia plays its role in being a mix of old and new, white architecture and old town – mixing two worlds which seem separate but which on closer inspection are very similar. The writing was very lyrical, like an ode to a time gone by, a memory – and of course this story is told by the one person who can tell it all as it happened, or at least how he thinks it all took place…”
The Book Trail also features an interview with me on its Authors on Location section. They’re creating an online guide to the real-life places in the novel, too.
I’m a hopeless romantic and I love to travel so I’m thrilled to have That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina on my TBR as I have a feeling it’s going to appeal to both aspects very effectively! Today I’m delighted to be celebrating That Summer in Puglia. by bringing you an interview with Valeria conducted by those lovely folk at Bookollective.
That Summer in Puglia is available for purchase directly from the publisher, Eyewear Books here and on Amazon.
That Summer in Puglia
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…