Initial impressions are important. And we can't do much about them. The problem is they often set us up for a fall once the wrapper comes off and we see what we have to contend with. Or it can work the other way, we can be pleasantly surprised by what we find inside. So, before I tell you what my initial impression of this book was let's jump to the chase and I'll tell you what I thought about the book after I'd finished it. Okay? It's a lovely book. There, that's out of the road. I feel better.
Now I can tell you what I thought about the book when I opened the padded envelope. I thought it was a lovely book. And it was. It felt – and I freely admit that this is a word I overuse but in this case it is the perfect word as long as you relish it when you say it – nice. It felt nice to hold. And I don't care how true the old adage is people will always, always judge a book by its cover. But I've not even got to the cover – which was lovely by the way – I'm still on about how the book felt in my hand. The cover is smooth and cool like a pebble from the beach before your hand warms it, the card is extra-thick and is French folded and the individual pages are on slightly heavier than usual paper which makes the 157 pages feel more like 200.
Now the artwork – did I mention it was lovely? – is a reproduction of Quatre Temps by the Bavarian-born artist Alfons Alt. What writing there is on the cover is kept to a minimum and does not detract from the painting, the only comment on the front cover (apart from the author's name and the book's title) is this:
"A perfect book."
Ah, now, for the first time someone else is foisting their opinion on me. Now I find myself with expectations that are not my own and I have to think what was the last perfect book I read? Hm, that's a hard one. That is a very hard one. The author Pietro Grossi is still a young man and this is only his second book. Has he peaked too early? The only way you can go once you've climbed that peak is down and gravity usually lends you a hand on the way.
Actually that's a lie. I did have an expectation. When I was first offered the book, which, incidentally, is a collection of three novelettes, I wasn't too keen. The title of the collection itself, Fists didn't appeal and then when I found that the stories were called 'Boxing', 'Horses' and 'The Monkey' respectively I was going to pass until I read what 'Monkey' was about. Now that story piqued my interest and I wrote back to the publisher and asked him to send me a copy. I just hoped that the boxing story wasn't too graphic; I am not a fan of the gentleman's art.
As it happens it was the third story that was a disappointment. This was not the story's fault – I'll get to the story in a minute – it was my fault. I'd expected . . . well, 'hoped' is a better word . . . that it would be one thing and it didn't live up to those expectations. So, reader be warned.
The title of the book is appropriate. Each of the three stories involves two males. In 'Boxing' it is two very different young fighters, in 'Horses' it is two very different brothers and in 'The Monkey' it is two different friends (they don't get a 'very'). The unifying theme is a universal one, growing up. Stylistically, rather than being compared to European writers, it is Americans, like Hemingway, Faulkner and Salinger, whose names crop up although it has to be conceded that Grossi has now taken his place in a long line of Tuscan novella writers dating back to the sixteenth-century. I can see the Hemingway connection especially in the first two stories (which reek less of testosterone that you might imagine), Salinger is stretching it a bit for me but he did write the quintessential coming-of-age novel so I won't squabble over that but I don't see Faulkner's influence here at all, although he is listed as one of the writers Grossi is passionate about, so I expect there will be some of him in there somewhere.
There is a common expression, "There but for the grace of God…" and it generally tails off like that, unfinished. It's usually uttered when observing some unfortunate soul but the underlying sentiment is that there are lots of alternate versions of 'you' wandering around the planet, some having more success than you and some having considerably less. There is another expression, "Be the best you that you can be," and it seems like sound advice but how do you know how good you could be if you don't have another 'you' to measure up to?
This is the problem faced by Mugnaini ('The Goat') and the story's narrator ('The Dancer') two junior-welterweights each of whom is viewed by their opposing camps as the best. They seem poles apart. 'The Dancer' comes from a privileged background. He talks about himself as, "the perfect son – studious, nerdy, conventional, obedient, who went to bed early and who, if you asked him, even said his prayers before going to sleep. But he didn't want to play the piano." And so, pretty much on a whim, one day he informs his mother: "If I play the piano I also want to learn to box." For the first time in his life "the nice, disciplined little boy [is] fighting for something" but, in the end, his mother acquiesces as long as his studies don't suffer. He is not your typical boxer – "no one had ever seen a boxer with a more unsuitable body" – and yet he proves to be a natural and in no time his trainer, "Gustavo, a thin old guy with a voice like a black jazzman" is showing him off "to everyone has if [he] was a new car."
'The Goat' couldn't have been more different, in build, technique or personality. He's called 'The Goat' "[b]ecause he always keeps moving forwards with his head down." He's also a deaf mute, something Buio, the owner of the gym he trains at, never noticed until there was a bit of a kerfuffle with Masi, "a decent middleweight [and] maybe the great white hope of the gym at the time." Basically, Masi approached him from the rear and Mugnaini, startled, turned and flattened him. From that day on everyone sat up and realised that this is someone who deserved special attention. Which he got:
Buio's attitude changed so that the squat, fair-haired boy with the forehead like a wall and the shadow over his eyes that looked like a mask. He took him under his wing and turned him into a great boxer [whose] talent was second only to his dedication.
There are a couple of other differences between these two. They both have mothers who are clearly interested in their sons' futures, however, whereas 'The Dancer's' mother was against his starting training in the first place – and subsequently vetoes any request to fight competitively – 'The Goat's' mother personally goes to the gym after the incident with Masi and begs on her son's behalf recognising the importance of boxing in his life.
But you know what has to happen; these 'superheroes' have to meet. 'The Dancer' actually thinks of himself "like a superhero, Spiderman or something." He has his secret identity as a weedy schoolboy but his true identity is 'The Dancer'.
I can’t tell you the result. Or how that result affects these two young pugilists. Suffice to say this match puts life very much in perspective for both of them. Winning is a relative term. Both win something and both lose something. Growing up is like that. A lot of this dawns on 'The Dancer' during the big fight itself:
I realised suddenly that we were both the same breed: both outcasts, both uncool, two boys who were fighting for their lives, for that dirty, square fragment of reality where things happened the way they were supposed to and everything fell into place.
Nathan and Daniel are brothers and if they are laconic individuals their father is positively terse. One day, out of the blue and for no good reason that the boys can divine, their father asks them to follow him:
Outside, the sun was playing a strange early spring game with a couple of clouds, and the wind raced through the tall pines round the farmyard.
There were two horses tied to the fence, a bay and a chestnut. Their long necks were bent towards the ground and, as the boys and their father started crossing the gravel, the horses turned their big heads. The boy's father stopped in the middle of the farmyard and the two boys came level with him.
"They're for you," he said. There was no warmth in the words; they seemed to come from some cold valley in the north.
And that's that. This is a significant moment for both boys but not in the way you might expect. I missed a sentence out from that quote above because I wanted to highlight it here:
Over the years, Nathan would come to miss that farmyard and those giant pines.
Towards the end of this chapter we get this from his brother:
It's always the same: you don't know what you have until you've lost it. That was what Daniel thought years later, whenever he remembered that moment.
The horses are a catalyst in the same way as boxing is in the opening story and each brother tackles the problem in his own way:
Some of us use a knife to kill, others to peel an apple. The same knife, but it makes the world different for each of us.
The horses are not quite tame according to their father and so one morning they walk them down to old Pancia's to ask if he can "see to them". It's not that easy though. Old Pancia says he can but he tells the boys, "I don't come cheap," which is a problem because they have no money. He does agree to help them if they work on his farm which they reluctantly agree to do and, once he thinks they've "paid off most of their debt, old Pancia [takes] them aside one evening and [tells] them to go and take their horses." Over the following months "Daniel had learnt everything there was to know about horses. Nathan, on the other hand, had been content just to learn what he needed."
Here the story of the two brothers begins to diverge, each finding his own path. Nathan is restless and starts riding west to the city. "They'd heard a lot about the city, even though no one really seemed to know much about it." He discovers the way to get there "through the hills at the far end of the valley and [keeps] going back."
Just as with 'Boxing' one protagonist takes the lead in this story and that's Daniel. We learn little about what his brother gets up to on his travels or how he makes a living. He finds the pull irresistible though and can barely hang around his father's farm for more than a couple of days before he wants to saddle up and head back.
Daniel uses his growing knowledge to acquire another horse and aims to start breeding them. He's becoming settled. There is no conflict between these two as in the first story. They accept the paths each other has taken for the most part although Nathan does paint a pretty picture of the city.
The story is not without its conflict however. The only way Daniel could afford a second horse was to take a chance on a sick mare he runs across while visiting a neighbouring farm. He persuades one of the men to let him have her for the same price the abattoir would pay him. When he does manage to make the horse better Daniel is accused of cheating and eventually things come to a head but that's as far as I'm going down that road today.
The format to these first two stories is quite similar, they rise to a climax and then everything winds down gently after that. Men dominate the stories. All the protagonists are searching for something and they all find their separate somethings or, at least when we leave them, they’re well on the way to finding them.
Nico is on his own playing Subbuteo when the phone rings. The game was a present from his sister. He never had one as a kid growing up and has always felt he missed out on something. "You're not really a man if you can't play Subbuteo and table football, he had always thought, and it was a complex that had somehow stayed with him all his life." Now there are many ways I could end a sentence beginning with, "You're not a real man unless…" with but the ability to play Subbuteo would not be at the top of my list. Or possibly even on it. But it is significant that Grossi decides that this is how he's going to introduce this character to us.
Nico's been waiting on a call from his agent. What he gets is a call from Maria, his friend Piero's sister:
"Listen, Nico, I need to talk to you about my brother."
"Yes, of course. What is it, has he run away again? I haven’t seen him. Haven't even heard from him for about a month-and-a-half. I know you two were supposed to be going on a holiday together."
"Yes . . . No . . . The thing is . . . Listen, Piero has started acting like a monkey."
"Started doing what?"
"Acting like a monkey."
"Like a monkey? I'm sorry, how do you mean?"
"I mean some time this summer he started bending double and grunting like a monkey. It was funny at first, we thought it was a game, but then he wouldn't stop.
Piero and Nico are different to the other four boys in this book in that they're clearly older. Rather than boys you could call them young men but clearly both are uncomfortable in their own skins. We don't know why Piero has run away in the past but clearly he wants to escape.
Nico agrees to go and visit his friend but before he does so he has to phone his agent and girlfriend both of whom he tells about Piero, he calls his ex-wife (a gynaecologist) and tells her, he tells the taxi driver and he tells his mum and the cumulative answer of them all could be boiled down to a great big, "Oh, well." His mother probably says it best:
Nico's mother looked at her son with her mouth open in surprise, and Nico caught himself thinking that it was her most genuine expression since she had opened the door. Then she started stirring the vegetables again.
"I always said he was a strange boy," she said.
To compare this piece to Kafka is too much but one has to wonder if Piero had woken up one morning and found he had been transformed into a giant beetle whether the reactions would have been the same: "Oh, well, a shame and all that. Glad it's not me."
This was my least favourite of the three stories. I think there are three main reasons for this: firstly, 'Boxing' and 'Horses' are cut from the same cloth, 'The Monkey', although it a similar dynamic, the meeting between Piero and Nico is fairly brief and the story really dwells on society's response to things it doesn't understand; secondly, the two men in this story haven't grown up, they have not embraced adulthood (the best you could say is that they've been going through the motions), and thirdly, it wasn't a simian Birdy which is what I was hoping for. We learn very little about Piero other than he comes from a privileged background and has a dotty mother; if the thing is ever filmed actresses of a certain age will be falling over themselves to play her.
Let me just make it clear that 'The Monkey' is far from being a bad story. It is anything but. But it's different from the other two and suffers from being placed last. And the other two are very good stories indeed. His style is considered and unhurried. His language is straightforward, plainspoken and yet there are touches of poetry to be found (e.g. the sentence about the sun and the clouds). In each story I had the feeling that what I was working my way through was a giant metaphor – hey, I'm reading about boxing and horses and crazy friends but there's something else in here, a deeper meaning.
I don't do stars, you can't boil a book down to marks out of ten. I disagree with Il Sole 24 Ore – I don't think this book is perfect but who am I to say what perfection is? Let me just say that it's the best bit of contemporary writing I've read for a very long time and I would be genuinely excited to hear about something new by him.
As always I am in no position to comment on the translation other than to say I would never have noticed had I not started researching Grossi online. Howard Curtis is clearly an experienced and capable translator. His many translations include three novels by Georges Simenon, Night in the Afternoon by Caroline Lamarche, the trilogy Heroines of the Bible (Sarah, Zipporah and Lilah) by Marek Halter, and a new edition of The Way of the Kings by Andre Malraux. His translation of Marc Dugain's The Officers' Ward was nominated for the 2001 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and his translation of Edoardo Albinati's Coming Back won the 2004 John Florio Italian Translation Prize of the Translators' Association of Great Britain. You can read a short interview with him here and he takes part in an interview along with three other translators here.
Pietro Grossi was born in Florence in 1978. After his school-leaving certificate, he decided to take a holiday and travel around the world. Back to Florence and after studying a year at the Faculty of Philosophy, which confirmed his dislike for the academic world, he set off again, first to Turin, where he attended Baricco’s Holden School of Creative Writing, and then to New York where he spent one year studying cinema, translating a novel, working for production company. He made his debut in 2000 with Touché and in 2006 followed this up with Pugni [Fists].
Fists is being released in the UK by Pushkin Press and the RRP is a nice round ten quid.
Other dates in the blog tour:
Alma Books Bloggerel
|Thursday 20th||Bibliophilic Blogger|
|Friday 21st||Nihoni Distractions|
|Wednesday 26th||The View From Here|
|Friday 28th||Notes in the Margin|
Lizzy’s Literary Life