Almost as a throwaway line in a thread I saw recently, someone listed their five favourite books about Italy.
Which naturally enough got me thinking what would be included on my list. And what wouldn’t.
So no Under the Tuscan Sun or Dark Heart of Italy because in neither do I recognize the Italy in which I live.
What do make my list – and of course there are more than five (although I can justify that by saying I’ve only chosen five authors) – are books that provide recognisable echoes of the Italy I experience on a daily basis here in Abruzzo.
That they’re also well-written and entertaining is a given.
Let’s start with a book that’s kind-of in the Tuscan Sun genre. Notes from an Italian Garden by Joan Marble. This chronicles a move north from Rome to Etruria and a home restoration. Gentle, unpretentious and involving – especially as characters and situations here mirror our own experiences, even though the events described took place some forty years ago.
At the book’s heart, with endless little diversions along the byways of building a home and a life in rural Italy, is Joan Marble’s passion for plants and transforming a stretch of bare countryside into a garden. And from my own experiences in Abruzzo, I can rather relate to that…
Hearteningly, a highly-scented Etruscan Honeysuckle, sought and bought solely after reading about it here, flourishes in our Abruzzo garden. And simply-put, at its basic level, this is the best and most informative guide to gardening in Italy you’ll ever come across.
Ironically, (sadly), a later prequel to this – Notes from a Roman Terrace – written to capitalise on the success of Notes from an Italian Garden, is little more than the poorest and palest of imitations. One to miss.
A lot grittier are Tim Parks’ duo Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education.
Hard to believe these were written in the 90s, as worryingly, (or reassuringly ?), so little seems to have changed; and while both books centre on Tim Parks’ life in a village just outside Verona, daily-encountered situations, characters and attitudes are all pretty-well interchangeable with our own.
And, if you live in Italy, yours too ?
You’ll learn some useful colloquial Italian phrases here and begin to grasp the unique and particular mix of kindness, cynical expediency, rule-bending and bloody-mindedness that makes Italians Italian.
More of which in a moment.
Incidentally, a final book in this series – A Season with Verona – goes deep inside the Italian – or rather, the Italian male – obsession with football.
If you’ve read and enjoyed The Glory Game and All Played Out, you’ll appreciate A Season with Verona too.
Another duo. Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines and its sequel, dealing with events nearly a quarter of a century later, A Small Place in Italy.
The former is a gripping adventure story which satisfyingly combines life on the run as an escaped PoW, peril, bravery, betrayal and love in wartime Italy.
Along the way, the seeds of Eric Newby’s love affair with Italy are imperceptibly sown – but these have to wait until the late 1960’s to reach fruition, with the purchase and restoration of I Castagni – a village house near the coastal borders of Liguria and Tuscany.
A Small Place in Italy is the most forgiving, affectionate and accepting of all the inevitable trials of living in Italy. Small village life is wholeheartedly embraced; those who seek to make life difficult are tolerated. But although much-visited, I Castagni was never a permanent home. And there are unquestionably times when knowing you have the ability to simply walk away and come back another day must make life easier.
If you see a trend developing in my choices – alien survival in an Italian landscape – you’re not wrong. There are times, the ones when you stare bleakly out of the window wondering why it was you ever chose to live in Italy and whether you’ll ever truly get to get to grips with all that living in Italy entails, you just need that calming reassurance that comes with the knowledge that you’re not the first to struggle with the mass of contradictions that is life in this most infuriating, yet endearing of countries.
And if the source of that reassurance makes you smile; involves you; soothes you; satisfies you; encourages you; and also happens to be well-written, there isn’t much more you can ask of it.
Unless of course you want it to feed you. Which is why Twelve by Tessa Kiros – a (fairly hefty) book of Tuscan recipes, divided into twelve chapters to use ingredients at their peak in each month of the year – makes my list.
True, there’s a bit of arbitrary selection here which makes you wonder just why certain recipes are attributed to certain months, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker, because these are recipes that work; taste wonderful; aren’t especially demanding or time-consuming to prepare; described simply, yet beguilingly, and photographed beautifully.
And why is it better than the endless shelf-miles of other Italian cookbooks ? Because of its sheer unpretentiousness, practicality and delight in simple, traditional recipes.
As I write, Teglia di Patate con Cipolle bakes in the oven to go with tonight’s roast chicken supper. It’s a January recipe – but what’s a few months between friends on a chilly, drizzly May evening ?
And so to the fifth and last choice – which actually is a huge cheat, because it’s not really a book about Italy at all. Though it is written by my favourite Italian author, Primo Levi.
The synopsis of The Periodic Table isn’t instantly engaging. Twenty-one essays; short stories; autobiographical snippets; and fantasies, each based on a particular chemical element.
Stick with this…
Because although the book isn’t about Italy, little vignettes illustrating life in Italy during the 1930s and 1940s casually leak into the narrative.
A little earlier, I mentioned the “particular mix of kindness, cynical expediency, rule-bending and bloody-mindedness that makes Italians Italian.” These are factors of Italian life so ingrained into society; so naturally and casually employed as to be bewildering to an outsider.
And you can’t help but wonder why. And how these attitudes became so universal and so accepted. What was the tipping-point at which Italians not only began to resent the intrusions of authority, but also realise that head-on confrontation was far less productive than guerilla warfare ?
It’s late 1941. As a Jew, Primo Levi is virtually unemployable in Fascist Italy. And yet, as a skilled chemist, he has talents that are in demand by the Italian army to help extract nickel from rocks left over as a by-product of mining.
Practicality wins out over dogma. To circumvent this…inconvenience, the army furnishes Levi with a false name and false identity papers which allow him to work. The ‘difficulties’ associated with employing a Jew simply disappear.
And if such rule-bending pragmatism, (which wouldn’t be out of place in 21st century Italy), was employed 70 years ago, it prompts a question. Were these ‘expediencies’ a direct reaction to the constrictions imposed by Fascism ? The first stirrings of today’s attitudes ? Or do they date even further back ?
It’s no bad thing to have curiosity about your newly-adopted country. Any book that encourages this surely deserves a place on any bucket list.
(So much for my 5 favourite books – OK, five favourite authors – about Italy. Now tell me about yours.)