Sansevero, by Andrea Giovene

I’m not aware of ever having heard anyone mention Sansevero or Andrea Giovene, and yet volumes of the book can be found from time to time occupying secondhand shops. There are in fact two editions (one by Penguin, and one by Quartet), with two different translators, which is perhaps surprising for a 1,000+ page work which no one seems to read. One of the translators though is Giovene himself who (as evidenced by the penultimate section of this) lived in London for a time (in fact, areas Obooki has on occasion frequented: the Holloway Road, Archway, Waterlow Park: – more Obooki’s area than Richardson’s recent Pilgrimage anyway, which depicts poverty in regions of London (the Euston Road, Gower Street) which are these days well beyond Obooki’s means).

I started reading this a long time ago (by which I mean years), and so a lot of the early parts I have no doubt forgotten (there are events – no doubt quite crucial to the overall narrative – referenced in the later parts which I could no long remember having read about). The problem for me with the book is the dull middle section, when our hero decides to build a house in rural Italy (I don’t know, somewhere in Apulia, I guess – near where Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli is set – which I’m sure was mentioned at one point). This house-building seemed to go on forever (many months of reading time anyway) – though, as often with these things, if I re-read it, it would probably turn out to be quite short. Aside from this, however, the book is generally interesting.

The cover compares the book to Proust and Lampedusa: so you would be right in assuming that it’s long and (I’m guessing) largely autobiographical, while at the same time being about the decline of a noble family as the old order of Europe gives way to the forces of populism during the twentieth century. Our hero Sansavero grows up in a palace in Naples; his father, as far as I remember, as well as being a noble, is also some kind of architect (owns a firm of architects?); there are odd relatives; he has a sister and a brother; he’s sent away to school; he joins the military – that sort of thing. Then along comes fascism, which he forms a sort of ambivalent relationship with. He also has some relationships with women. These are all the good parts of the novel. The bits I didn’t enjoy are the bits when he decides to retreat from the world (and Italian politics). I guess I didn’t really grasp what his issues were (especially the last part of the book, which seems a terrible let-down from the penultimate part in London). After building his house in the country, he discovers that the world around him is not idyllic (in fact, people are just are devious and grasping as elsewhere), and instead he returns to life and ends up as part of the Italian occupying forces of Greece in WWII, eventually ending up a German PoW (after the Italians pull out of the war), becoming involved in the collapse of the Reich (again, he is shelled by the Russians), before returning back to Italy. This again is all interesting; and I particularly liked the final excursus into Britain near the end.

What does he have to say about all these things? – Not much, seemingly; or not that I particularly took in. There were certainly more philsophical parts to the book; but I’m not sure I took much effort to try to understand them. One thing which did stick in my mind was Sansavero’s interest in underage girls. This recurs throughout the novel, and yet (unlike say Lolita) there’s no obvious authorial comment on his behaviour, as if this were all perfectly accepted; and yet, one doesn’t feel that those were such different times.

I also liked the fact that the book was split up into 13 separate novellas. This is, of course, how all books should be structured.

2 thoughts on “Sansevero, by Andrea Giovene

  1. Your last line – yes, so true, so true.

    I’ve been reading Richardson’s The Tunnel, where she lives in her cheap little room in Bloomsbury, and I was wondering about just the thing you mentioned. Now she would have to live – I don’t know, how far away would she have to live?

  2. You will have caught me up soon. I do t remember The Tunnel so well, but Interim is all about a boarding house she’s living in, and all the various tenants who pass through. I don’t imagine such places exist anymore either. Whenever I walk along Gower Street, it always seems to be full of offices and hotels, so maybe no one lives there now. (There’s a good Waterstones). By WWII, novels (like Sansevero) about London seem to have drifted north to Islington and Camden (the fabled North London), which are probably still ok now to find cheap rents if all you want is a room (though certainly not to buy). Otherwise you’ll be out in the endless suburbia of Haringey and Enfield, which I guess should be where novels are set these days, though i can’t think of any. Maybe it’s just too dull, and there is no London world you can simply walk to, like there is from Bloomsbury. Where such people live now, you might as well be living anywhere. (this is all just North London. I don’t understand other parts, but I imagine they’re just the same).

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