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Times Literary Supplement: 70% ACRYLIC 30% WOOL and THE HOLLOW HEART recommended reading!

Date: Jun 15 2015

If you don’t count the one-woman sensation that is Elena Ferrante – whose agile prose has found her not a few (well-deserved) admirers in our recent Summer Books feature – Italian literature has been having a rather tough time of it in recent years (recent decades, some would say). When I left Italy for England in 2004, Ugo Riccarelli’s Il dolore perfetto had just won the Strega prize, Paola Mastrocola had won the Campiello with Una barca nel bosco, and Franco Cordero had taken the Bagutta for Le strane regole del sig. B. A cursory search suggests that I was the only one of us to make it to England. Statistics haven't improved much in the past ten years. Of last year's winners – Francesco Piccolo, Giorgio Fontana, Maurizio Cucchi and Valerio Magrelli (joint winners of the Bagutta) – only Magrelli, and to a lesser extent, Cucchi, are likely to ring any bells among English readers (Magrelli's poetry in particular, translated by Jamie McKendrick, has been praised highly in the TLS).

Italy’s performance on the international literary scene seems generally weak, compared with, say, that of France or Spain. Why? Well – it's complicated. But perhaps we can take heart from what the publishing industry calls “Ferrante Fever”. Is this an opportunity for writers of the same nationality to win an anglophone readership?

I know which recent novels I'd recommend. If Viola Di Grado’s debut novel 70% Acrylic 30% Wool announced “the arrival of a considerable talent ” (as our reviewer put it last year), her second novel, Hollow Heart, published this month by Ferrante's publisher, Europa Editions, confirms that the author has in fact thrown open her bags and set about moving in permanently. The novel – which will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS – begins with the protagonist’s suicide and charts the decomposition of her body, as mind and matter struggle to go their separate ways. Themes from the first novel – the life/death binary, the female form (physical as well as literary) – are reprised and developed here in an extraordinary feat of linguistic gymnastics expertly captured in Anthony Shugaar’s translation.

Similar themes have long occupied the writing of Paola Capriolo, a novelist who was last reviewed in these pages in the days when Italy still had its own currency. Writing on La Spettatrice and Un Uomo di carattere – at, if you’ll forgive a little nostalgia, 26,000 Lira each – our reviewer found in the Milanese's fabulist prose “the unsettling pleasures of the perverse”; her forte, he concluded was “the exquisite philosophical game played with corrosive scepticism”. Which sounds like just the stuff of good novels, doesn’t it? Her most recent offering in Italian is the typically elegant Mi ricordo. It tells the tale of two women, from different times, whose lives are mysteriously bound together in the walls of a once-grand mitteleuropean villa (a favourite trope of Capriolo’s). We’ll be running a review of this one in the coming months, too.

Among the rest, I'd look out for The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (who actually writes in English), which appeared earlier this year, as did a dark triptych called Cocaine, featuring stories by Massimo Carlotto, Gianrico Carofiglio and Giancarlo De Cataldo; while Marco Missiroli’s fourth novel Il Senso del elefante and Alessandro Spina’s I confini dell’ombra are both due to appear in English later this summer. But perhaps I’d best keep those for a future post. Are you meant to feed or starve a Ferrante fever?