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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 13 July 2015

A tale of Clapham Public Library and a bunch of neo-realist partisans

Clapham Library, plus Andrew Logan's mirrored R
The new Clapham Public Library: that mirrored "R" is part of the word  "LIBRarY", a massive sculpture made for
the site by the amazing Andrew Logan
It might not be the Bodleian, but Clapham Public Library does a remarkably good job at catering for the ridiculously wide tastes and demands of locals. As well as covering all the essentials (computers, wi-fi, dvds, storytelling, etc, as well as those old paper things, books) it also still has enough elasticity in its acquisitions policy to allow that occasional moment of discovery. A new author to love, an unthought-of literary connection, a sudden blinding light thrown on something only dimly understood.

This has happened to me several times over the past three decades, but it seems to be happening even more now that the library is in its smart new premises.

Cheerfully mocking my default pessimism, the library has grown into its trendy new building very well. I have to admit that re-development has really worked here - you get a new library, and a load of new flats (most of them definitely not affordable though). You also get a much-needed performance space in the old library building on North Side, now known as the Omnibus Arts Centre.

You have to wonder if the spiral ramp feature - a very, very distant echo of the Samuel R Guggenheim museum in New York - is really much more than an architect showing off . The limited seating and study areas are nearly always packed - which is certainly better than their being empty, who could not agree?

The Library shares the first three floors of an apartment block on Clapham High Street with an NHS GP surgery/health centre (the Mary Seacole centre). The building looks like it was designed by someone who'd just flicked through a modern classics picture book and seen the NYC Guggenheim on one page, and Frank Gehry's "dancing house" apartment block in Nove Mesto, Prague, on another. There are obvious, if much simplified, references to both buildings - Gehry's wonky windows outside, Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral inside.

Well, why the hell not? It's a lot less ghastly than most of the new apartment blocks in London, especially all the ones going up along the south bank of  the river.  Anyway, the real point of this was to remind myself of various lucky finds on the spiralling shelves of this strange tower.

The beautiful serendipity of a good public library worked a treat for me about a month ago. I had just returned Marguerite Yourcenar's The Memoirs of Hadrian (a book I'd promised my dad I would read a few weeks before he died, in 1984, and didn't pick up again til this May, and now I know why he loved it).

Looking for something to fill the big reading void this wonderful book left me with,  I saw a new translation of a novel by an Italian author of the 1940s about the resistance. I'd never heard to the book nor its author, so I had lots of reasons to pick it up, especially as I could not find the book I really wanted ( Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, another paperback on my father's bookshelf, and one which always seemed rather salacious and therefore all the more attractive).

So I borrowed this Italian book - A Private Affair, by Beppe Fenoglio - and read it in a couple of days. It was one of those books which acted like literary superglue. I could not tear myself away from its pages. And, even in its (very good) translation, it was as delightful to read as a good strong red wine from Piedmont is to drink. It made me think of those other Italians of the neo-realist school, Moravia yes, but especially Cesare Pavese, and the film-makers Rosselini, de Sica etc, as well as  Primo Levi and Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginsburg, and yet its author was clearly out on his own.

Fenoglio's novel, which was not published until after his death (aged only 40) in 1964,  had a very different feel. This was much more internal, it was  the personal rather than the political which drove this narrative, one very man's slogging away at his life, which just happens to have turned him into a freedom fighter existing in the hills above his home town, longing for the spring, and longing for his lover, whom he fears he has lost to his best friend, another partisan, who is fighting in another branch of the local resistance.

Like all the best books this one grew in my imagination in the weeks after I returned it. Meanhwile I was reading another library find - the beautiful  This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz, all about about a young Dominican boy living in New Jersey and dealing with his family and the various young women he meets and loves and loses over an indeterminate period. It's a hilarious and very sad and you learn a fair bit of colloquial Dominican-Spanish argot in the process of reading it.

At the same time I'd borrowed another Italian novel, a new Penguin Modern Classics edition of Italo Calvino's first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno - which translates neatly as The Path to the Spider's Nests. This edition contained Calvino's 1964 preface in which he provides a deeply personal overview of  the novel and how it stood in relation to the work of his contemporaries, the neo-realists, who
Penguin edition of The Path to the Spiders' Nests by Italo Calvino, borrowed from Clapham Public Library
between them helped to define the politics and culture of post-war Italy.

He reflects on the way a literary movement became almost a creed, and how in reissuing the novel over a decade later he'd wanted to re-visit the great tangle of literary, political, ideological and sexual politics that infected the movement, much as it did with the post-war writers and film-makers in France.

And then he points to a novel of the Italian resistance that remained unpublished until 1964 (the date of Calvino's revision of this novel). It was of course Beppe Fenoglio's book, which was, he says, "the novel that we had all dreamed of, when no-one had expected it any more".

He adds that , "Only now, thanks to Fenoglio, can we say that cycle is complete, only now can we be certain that such a cycle existed, the cycle that goes from The Path to the Spiders' Nests to Una questione privata." This book, he said, was  also "a more authentic portrayal of the  Resistance than has ever been in print, preserved with a great clarity  over many years by a faithful memory, and retaining all its moral values (which are all the stronger for being under-stated) as well as its emotions and frenzies".

Some praise: but I'd never have read either novel if someone at Clapham library had not stuck them in front of my nose, or at least not until I entered another phase of Italophilia, if ever that happens.

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