The Beautiful Summer: Elizabeth Strout Introduces an Italian Classic
A novel of lost innocence, awakened sexuality and bohemian life, set against the backdrop of an Italian heatwave, Cesare Pavese's The Beautiful Summer is a classic of Italian literature. As she presents her new introduction to Pavese's novel for the Penguin European Writers Series, author Elizabeth Strout discusses what makes this coming-of-age tale such compulsive, essential reading.
How would you describe the appeal of Pavese’s books?
I think the appeal of Pavese’s work comes from the same place most writers’ appeal comes from: the language that is used. But each writer is unique. Pavese writes densely and yet delicately, it is a style that is inimitable. And he writes about things that matter; he is serious.
Why should we read The Beautiful Summer in particular?
The Beautiful Summer is a gorgeous book that tells a story many of us know, the loss of a young girl’s innocence. But because it is Pavese telling the story, it feels as though we have never read such a story before – and we haven’t. He tells this in his own way, with an almost maniacal prose that also has the summer light pervading it.
In The Beautiful Summer, what do you think of the way Pavese ushers his protagonist out of her naïveté? How does it differ from the way you treated Amy’s sexual awakening in your first novel, Amy and Isabelle?
In The Beautiful Summer, Pavese ushers his protagonist out of her naïve state by gently and continuously having her visit the studios of the artists - and eventually we see what happens. She is alone in this; she has her friends, but she has only her brother who is not mentioned that frequently, his presence is in the book, but the book does not belong to him. So, we are aware of her aloneness throughout this experience.
In Amy and Isabelle, Amy is fighting against her mother, and this makes it a different story. She is pushing off against her mother, and the teacher is available for her. Amy is also very alone, but her mother is an integral part of this story and that makes it fundamentally different. Also, there is a graphic – brief – sex scene in the book, which Pavese, writing at the time that he did, would not be so graphic about, and in fact was not.
We’ve seen the coming of age story told again and again. What sets this one apart from others?
Yes, as I said, many of us know this story – we have seen it, and read it again and again. What makes Pavese’s story different is how he tells it, the language and way he lays it out. Also, he is telling this story at a particular time in history, when the Bohemian part of society was in some ways desperate against the oncoming fascism, and this is a part of her story as well, there is a free-for-all feel to it, nobody is interested in long-term outcomes. The times these people lived in was a desperate time. (I might add, what time is not desperate?)
Pavese was profoundly influenced by American writers (he translated lots of 20th century greats). What influence have European writers had on your work?
Perhaps the most recent influential European writer for me has been Elena Ferrante. I think there is a real possibility that reading her work gave me the courage to write in the first person, My Name is Lucy Barton. It is hard to know exactly where the influences come from, but I believe there is a good chance that reading her books helped me do that.
What are your views on literature in translation?
To read work in translation, I think, is essential. It’s essential for any writer, and for any serious reader to do as well. To ignore the works of other country’s writers is to remain provincial, and the world is getting smaller every day, so we need – even more than we used to – to be reading the works of other countries. In this way we can find ourselves, and also open our hearts and minds to the way that a variety of people have lived. It will be both unfamiliar and then surprisingly familiar, because it is people that are being written about.
What do you think about Brexit?
Brexit, quite honestly, has made me feel very sad. I think that it speaks of an isolationism that is counter-productive to the times we live in. As a writer, it is very important that we not feel isolated from other parts of the world. It is essential, as I have said.
In your books, characters such as Lucy Barton appear and reappear. What’s the pleasure in reintroducing characters and re-examining them in different contexts?
The pleasure for me re-visiting characters is not a conscious decision, I simply go where my instinct takes me, and in Lucy Barton, I was clearly not done telling her story, and felt the desire to tell it from other points of view. This has always interested me, the variety of points of view that we all have in this world, and so to see Lucy – or Olive Kitteridge – from different people’s eyes is something I felt compelled to do.
And this is one reason I support the Penguin European Writers Series, to get that other point of view. Think about this: We will never really know what it feels like to be another person. Our lives here on Earth are seen from only our own two eyes; this is so strikingly apparent to me. We need desperately to see things from another point of view, and literature is one of the ways this can be accomplished. Without this, we are going to remain small, and we have the capacity to become large.
This interview was first published in Five Dials magazine, issue no.45: Europe In Pieces
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