My family, my wife, our three daughters, my brother, his wife and son had planned a trip to Italy in July. I was looking forward to sharing the history and beauty of Italy with our girls and helping my wife realize her dream of a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome. Of course this is now on hold. I am sharing this post as it conveys a sense of Tuscany found only in the finest literature.
The Interplay between Language, Gender, and Culture: Some Implications for English and Italian by Elizabeth MacDonald
A House of Cards (a collection of short stories) by Elizabeth MacDonald was listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize in 2007. It is an exquisite collection of short stories set mostly in the Tuscany region of Italy. I will post on a number of the stories individually and I will then attempt to make a few overall observations. Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places in the world and a strong feeling for this comes through in the stories. It is Keatsian level reflection on the nature of beauty, with Tuscany as a deeply pervasive backdrop. These stories do not just talk about the beauty of Tuscany, but rather they also create a depth wisdom of their own worthy of their setting.
The collection offers us the opportunity to ponder what it means to leave your birthland and if you go deep enough in these stories you can see a legacy of colonialism in the presence of the Irish in Tuscany, still driven from their home and making their new homes a better place. If you read the Q and A session with MacDonald you will soon see her high culture and her ability to relate the sensibility of Ireland to that of Tuscany.
"A House of Cards"
The title and lead story, "The House of Cards" is narrated by a woman who left her home country Ireland at age twenty-one. She has been living in Tuscany for twenty six years. She is now a wife and a mother and a keeper of a lovely home in the Tuscan hills. Her husband, Giacomo, is a successful engineer, a man of predictable habits, impeccable tastes, a loving if perhaps not as exciting romantically a husband as he once was. (Who is after twenty six years?) He gives her a kiss on the cheek as he leaves for work but you can see it is just past of his "going to work to do list". Her son, twenty one, is enrolled in the fine arts course at college. Her husband does not really approve of this but he does not say anything. You can see the woman still sometimes has to translate her Tuscany experience into an Irish framework to relate fully to it. MacDonald brings the beauty of the gardens of the house wonderfully alive for us and we know the woman loves her house, her garden and having them all to herself all day long.
"September in Tuscany is a time of golden sunlight and mellow stillness; of opulent bunches of grapes, opaque green and velvety purple, hanging from laden trellises throughout the countryside; then piled up in fruit bowls on kitchen tables. It is a time of sweet-tasting figs, of mushrooms, and of pumpkins. This I have come to associate with September".
She thinks back to a very different September long ago in Ireland. She thinks back to an old love, she still wanders why he left her so long ago. It was this that drove her out of Ireland to Tuscany/ She looks at herself in the mirrors and thinks about how she looked twenty six years ago. She begins to think of an event that happened many years ago, one she had almost repressed. I will leave this unspoiled for you. This is a story about memory, how the past intrudes on the future, about the nature of marriage, about living in exile from your home country and about the effects of living in a place of great beauty.
I love this story for its portrayal of an older man, once a professor now living in Italy for many years from an inheritance from a wealthy aunt. The story is set at the hottest time of the year in Tuscany. MacDonald sets the tone of the story perfectly its her sensuously rich descriptions of colors and sounds. The man is from Ireland, I think. He tells us that even after twenty years he still finds sleeping in the afternoon somehow decadent. He has been going to the same hotel for long stays for twenty years now. The man is having some difficulty dealing with the consequences of aging. He has to use a walking stick. He seems very much alone but he seems to prefer it that way. I think he has raised his level of culture so high it is hard for him to relate to most people and for sure vice-versa. He was once a professor of art history. A scene where he encounters some tourists at the hotel is really hilarious and completely wonderful. My opening quotation is taken from this story. I think if it were not for my wife I would be like the man in this story, substituting literature for art. Like him I have not worked in many years.
"Falling Stars" is about two couples, one seemingly happy and one in deep conflict. Rosemary and her husband have located a Tuscan farmhouse for Valerie and her husband to spend a week in during a holiday. The beauty of Tuscany is never far from the surface in The House of Cards and it is very much apart of this story. The dialogue between the couples is very well done. They are not actually close and you can see the two women struggle to find things to talk about. We get to see the meal being prepared and it does sound delicious. During the dinner Valerie's husband makes a cutting remark to her when she has what he thinks is too much wine and she goes from the jugular in her response. There is a very well done and subtle echo of Anna Karenina at the close of the story (I might be reading this into it but for me it is there.) This is a very real story, almost painfully so.
"New Year's Resolutions"
I guess it is reasonable to assume that if you live in Tuscany and are from Ireland you will have a lot of visitors and this story, like "Falling Stars" centers around a visit, though one of a very different sort. In this case the host is an unmarried woman and the visitor is a man she once had a long term relationship with and now hopes to have him come and live with her. You can feel her longing and loneliness. In the stories of MacDonald we are often left with the feeling that things seem like they are about to happen but then we do not know if they will or not. Life is often like that.
"In Hindsight", one of the longer stories in the collection is set in an art Gallery in Pisa. The owner arrived in Italy from Ireland with only his honors degree in art, his wife with her degree in English. He was there to purse advanced studies in his field in Florence. He decides when the time and the money are right to open an art gallery in Pisa. He struggled for a long time but is now doing fairly well. He feels an exhibit he has arranged show casing the work of a famous local artist will greatly increase his standing in the art community. You can see he and his wife still are very bonded but they do get on each other's nerves at times. MacDonald does a very good job handling dialogues between couples in which one of the couple is holding back some anger and the other is kind of submitting just to get the conversation over with. He needs an assistant for his gallery. A beautiful woman, who reminds him of the woman in the painting The Dancer by Gustav Klimt, applies for the job. At first he cannot get past her looks but he sees her qualifications for the job are impeccable and soon she is indispensable to him. The artist he will exhibit is difficult and temperamental and she can handle him perfectly. If you see trouble coming here, you are right. The more I read of MacDonald's stories, the more I see Tuscany in the background. Remember this is where the English poets and painters went to bask in the beauty. There was a time, past now, where Italy felt almost like the tropics to the English. You can see this in E. M. Foster's story, "The Story of a Panic".
MacDonald does a better job than Forster, it pains me to say this of a writer I love, of showing us how the transcendent beauty of Tuscany effects those not used to it. Maybe that is one reason MacDonald makes her characters mostly from Ireland, as outsiders they lack complacency and indifference.
"Fireworks" also centers on a couple. In this case tourists who have just checked into their hotel in Pisa, it is pouring down rain. They have just made love. The man tells the woman he is going outside for a while to look around and he will be back in time for dinner. He does not want to wait for her to get dressed so she can go with him. Pisa is an exotic destination for them and she knows in the back of her mind that the man is really desiring to go out alone so he can look at the local "talent", or so she thinks. It is poring down rain and she did not expect this. MacDonald makes excellent use of colors to set the tome for the story. I liked and think I understood what it means when we read of the "strange intimacy of a hotel room on a rainy afternoon", we can feel the void the man's walk has opened in her. She decides to go for a walk herself. Keeping in mind that she sees the Italians as somehow more passionate and "earthy" than people back home she does not quite know how to react when a man who seems Italian, he is described as dark, approaches her on the street. There is a surprise ending to this story. Maybe we see the limits of the woman's liberality and into a bit of perhaps ugly xenophobia. The ending of the story was really a lot of fun and quite smart.
"Sunday Lunch" is another superb story about the dynamics of power within families and marriages. The newly married couple at the heart of this story are an Italian man and an Irish woman, they are just back from their long honeymoon in the Seychelles Islands. In this very smart detail MacDonald sends the message that these are affluent people with very refined taste, not happy with the ordinary. One of the things this story is about is the contrast of the Mediterranean temperament of the Italian versus the constrained perceived as icy tone of the Irish. It is about the joy of the first few months of marriage. But above all it is about a poor woman who does not seem to stand much of a change against her extended in law family and especially against her mother-in-law who plays the strings of guilt with the mastery of a first violin at the Dublin Symphony. If this woman thinks she is going to take her place in the affections of her son she has another think coming! This story displays the brilliance and subtlety of MacDonald's use of dialogue and her ability to convey decades of history in just a few half spoken sentences.
There are five other equally enthralling stories in A House of Cards. Most of the stories are about eleven pages long. There is a very perceptive and passionate introduction by George Szirtes, a well known Hungarian poet and translator.
I really liked this collection and I totally endorse it to all lovers of the art of the short story. The prose is of the highest quality. There are fragments that stunned me with their beauty. The last time anyone, in English, wrote so deeply of the beauty of Italy it was D. H. Lawrence.
Elizabeth MacDonald was born in Dublin, where she studied Italian and Music at UCD. In 2001 she completed the M.Phil in creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches English at the University of Pisa, where she lives with her husband and son. Her translations of the short stories of Liam O'Flaherty were the first in Italy. She has translated the poetry of Dermot Healy, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Dennis O’Driscoll, George Szirtes, Derek Mahon, and Old Irish nature poetry. She has a special interest is the poetry of Mario Luzi. Her translations have appeared in many journals, including Modern Poetry in Translation, Poetry Ireland Review, The Cork Liteary Review and Soglie. A House of Cards was first published by Pillar Press in 2006 and a second edition will be published by Portia Publishing later this year.
“This is a tender, understated and beautiful collection of stories that will leave you longing for more. ” Emma Walsh, The Irish Book Review.
Elizabeth MacDonald is a principal in a dynamic new venture, Portia Communications which offers a diverse range of services to the book buying and producing community.