Even if you're not spending the summer (a la Frances Mayes) in your Tuscan villa, you can still get a taste of life abroad in these editions of Italian and Russian literature in translation.
The Eternal City
During his first sojourn in Italy, the American writer and translator William Weaver didn't find la vita there quite so dolce. It was World War II, and he was driving an ambulance "in a limited area between Naples and Monte Cassino, along bumpy, pocked dirt roads, through sodden, depressed little towns, past makeshift army field stations or British-held Italian hospitals."
Quite a downer for a young American dreaming of Rome and "dinner-parties and smart cafes." A few years later, arriving at last in the Italian capital as "a wide-eyed witness," Weaver found not only a career as a writer and translator but also a happening post-fascist literary and intellectual scene, as he recounts in his introduction-cum-memoir to Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome (Steerforth, $19).
Elsa Morante, Ignazio Silone, Natalia Ginzburg, Alberto Moravia, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Giorgio Bassani and Carlo Levi: Weaver picked seven writers as representative of the "varied, urgent spirit of that time." He knew several personally (they make for lively reading in his introduction) and has translated a number of their works into English. Bolstering his memories are biographical/critical notes by Kristina Olson.
Weaver includes some of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Bassani's well-known novel about a family set apart from the rest of society by choice, background and history: "Who knows how, and why, a vocation for solitude is born?" Ginzburg's novella "Valentino" tells, from the point of view of a long-suffering sister (a classic live-for-others Ginzburg protagonist), the tale of a brother favored for no good reason by his parents, wife and sibling, all of whom let him get away with being as feckless as he pleases. Morante's "The Nameless One," taken from her novel House of Liars (in Italian Menzogna e sortilegio -- the other titles mentioned here are literal versions of the Italian), offers up a dark fable about a Mephistopheles-like young man who delights in tormenting his earnest friend Francisco: He insults his pal's mistress, secretly seduces her -- and then anonymously reveals her infidelity, all while finding time to be cruel to his own inamorata.
Open City, which kicks off Steerforth's elegantly designed Italia series, excerpts Carlo Levi's The Watch, which the series also offers in its entirety (Steerforth, $16). A study in postwar life and its miseries, the novel begins in 1948 in Rome, a place lovely and menacing: "At night in Rome one seems to hear lions roaring . . . that sound, at the same time vague and wild, cruel but not without a strange sweetness, the roaring of lions in the night desert of houses."
Mad About Moravia
First among equals in Weaver's assortment is Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), the Augustus Caesar of postwar Italian writers. His first novel, Gli indifferenti (The Time of Indifference), came out when he was in his early twenties, marking its youthful author as a controversial and influential lite-rary figure. Throughout his career, Moravia returned to the same tangle of themes that appears in "Agostino," the selection in Open City: sexuality, class consciousness, the modern mind searching for the roots of its elusive unhappiness. As he said, "Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. Their truth is self-repeating. They keep rewriting the same book. That is to say, they keep trying to perfect their expression of the one problem they were born to understand."
Moravia's enjoying a vogue at the moment, as he should. Steerforth Italia has brought out his 1949 novel La romana, published here as The Woman of Rome (Steerforth, $16), about a woman named Adriana whose career as a painter's model and prostitute is not quite what she had imagined for herself. And the venerable journal (and my former employer) the New York Review of Books, has included two Moravia novels in the book imprint it's launching in September: Boredom and Contempt, both translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson (New York Review Books, $12.95 each).
Contempt, which inspired a Godard film, could be called "Anatomy of a Marriage Gone Wrong." A husband tries to pinpoint the moment when his wife ceased loving him: Did her ardor really cool, or did he merely imagine that it had? Did he kill her affection by thinking it already dead? Tim Parks, like William Weaver a longtime devotee of Italian literature, sketches out the emotional unraveling that takes place in Contempt and in many of Moravia's other books: "A melancholy, alienated, disturbingly lucid individual seeks to identify the source of his unhappiness, perhaps in some primary experience from infancy, perhaps in his relationship with mother [see the opening of "Agostino" for a study in Oedipal attachment] or wife; a Freudian anxiety fuels his reflections. . . . an accelerating series of events . . . makes a mockery of all his reflection, all his yearning for comprehension and control. . . . It is here, in the collision of reason with bewilderment, that Moravia demands and gets recognition from his readers."
As Molteni, the morbidly sensitive husband in Contempt, observes, thinking back on his newlywed days: "The less one notices happiness, the greater it is. It may seem strange, but in those two years I sometimes thought I was actually bored. Certainly, at the time, I did not realize that I was happy. It seemed to me that I was doing what everyone else did -- loving my wife and being loved by her; and this love of ours seemed to me an ordinary, normal fact, or rather, to be in no way precious -- just like the air one breathes, and there's plenty of it and it becomes precious only when it begins to run short. If anyone had told me, at that time, that I was happy, I should have even been surprised."
Found in Translation
It's an eclectic selection, the New York Review Books lineup: In addition to the two Moravia novels, it features Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica, some J.R. Ackerley and Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, edited by the old master W.H. Auden, a relatively obscure Henry James work (The Other House), and a collection of lesser-known (to this reader at least) tales by Anton Chekhov: Peasants and Other Stories, selected and with an introduction by Edmund Wilson (New York Review Books, $14.95). This is Chekhov with his eye on the big social picture. Wilson notes, "In the later years of his Chekhov's life -- 1894-1903 -- he was occupied mainly with a series of works, plays as well as stories, that were evidently intended to constitute a kind of analysis of Russian society, a kind of Comedie humaine."
Longer than his earlier stories, these late works have more in common with "The Sea Gull" and "The Cherry Orchard" than with, say, "The Doctor"; depending on your taste, these stories may be most filling from a social observer's point of view. "I am not an educated man," says one toadying house servant to his employer in "A Woman's Kingdom," "but I do understand that the poor must always respect the rich. It is well said, `God marks the rogue.' In prisons, night refuges, and poorhouses you never see any but the poor, while decent people, you may notice, are always rich." Subtlety isn't exactly the driving aim here.
More of a greatest-hits collection is a new edition of The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated and annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage, $15). Divided between "Ukrainian Tales" and "Petersburg Tales," this volume includes "The Overcoat," about a St. Petersburg bureaucrat whose tribulations will find an echo in the bosom of many a Washington pencil-pusher. Our hero is "a not very remarkable clerk, one might say -- short, somewhat pockmarked, even with a somewhat nearsighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles on both cheeks and a complexion that is known as hemorrhoidal. . . . As for his rank (for with us rank must be announced first of all), he was what is known as an eternal titular councillor, at whom, as is known, all sorts of writers have abundantly sneered and jeered, having the praiseworthy custom of exerting themselves against those who can't bite."
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.