Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Camilleri's settings, human and geographic

Clive James, whose views on international crime fiction I have not always endorsed, was right about Andrea Camilleri.
"Montalbano’s bailiwick is Sicily," James wrote in 2007. "If mainland Italy is corrupt, Sicily is corrupter, and Montalbano has some plenty-mean streets to walk down. He does so at a brisk pace, and it is because Camilleri knows his background too well to be impressed. He speaks the language. ... Camilleri can do a character’s whole backstory in half a paragraph ... "
I like that because it recognizes that setting, such a big part of the attraction of crime novels from outside the reader's home country, is human as well as physical. Two gorgeous bits of setting, one of each kind, from Voice of the Violin (English translation 2003), the fourth of Camilleri's novels about Inspector Salvo Montalbano, reminded me of this.

One bit describes a road from Vigàta to Calapiano,
"a sort of mule track that received its first and last coat of asphalt fifty years ago in the early days of regional autonomy, and finally reached Calapiano via a provincial road that clearly refused to be known as such, its true aspiration being to resume the outward appearance of the earthquake-ravaged country trail it had once been."
And this:
"`Are you cops?'

"The inspector laughed. How many centuries of police tyranny had it taken to hone this Sicilian woman's ability to detect law-enforcement officers at a moment's glance?"
Where does the human stop, and the geographic and historical begin? In Camilleri, nowhere. For him, the three are mutually inextricable.

And now a question perhaps harder than the usual questions for readers. Who else does what Camilleri does? In what other crime writers are the characters inseparable from their setting and its history?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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34 Comments:

Blogger Simona said...

I remember reading that article on the New Yorker. I like your question, though I don't have an answer. I also like your choice of excerpts. I often find myself, while reading Camilleri, pause at passages like those, when a whole "entity" (I can't find a better word) of people and places and their history is presented in a few lines.

September 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A whole entity or complex, one might say. Happily, I will get to explore that entity in person soon.

I once wondered if Camilleri has an especially sharp and deep feeling for Sicily since he moved to Rome.

September 20, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'm on book two of Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. I get the sense she's doing the same thing there.

September 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What this has to do with Leon's sense of place I don't know, but I've always found it interesting that she has not allowed her novels to be translated into Italian. I'd say that shows commendable humility on her part.

Clive James has a few things to say about Donna Leon in the article to which I linked. Among them is this: "Non-Italians are prone to find Italy too fascinating (a temptation that Donna Leon only just avoids)."

September 20, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

According to an interview linked from Wikipedia, she doesn't want them translated because she doesn't want to be "famous where she lives."

Interesting.

September 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That is interesting. I'd assumed she simply did not want to presume to describe Venice and Italy for people who lived there.

September 20, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

She's been living there for 30 years herself.

Her commentary about Americans on their bases in "Death in a Strange Country" is spot on from my perspective. I've seen it myself. Many Americans stationed overseas can live in a state of almost complete isolation from the country in which they are visitors if they so choose, and many (particularly the ones with families) do. When I was in Japan I lived off-base the second year, and I got a lot more out of my experiences than many of my fellow shore-stationed sailors.

September 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So she probably knows Venice as well as an outsider can.

Her take on Americans living on base is the sort of observation someone with a foot in two worlds, such as Donna Leon herself, might be especially likely to make.

September 20, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, are you going to Sicily? Lucky you! I wish I had read Camilleri before we went a couple of years ago. Now I want to go back. In retrospect, there are many descriptions in the novels of the Sicilian landscape that I can bring to my mind's eye when reading them. I like the "little white die" that is a house, a drive out to the Saracen olive tree for a period of reflection, and Salvo's attempts to show Livia why he loves the landscape of the island's dry interior. Some regional roads *are* little better than a "mule (or goat) track" and we wandered off onto one in the countryside while looking for the mosaics site of Piazza Armerina. We spotted a man in a Mercedes coming out of a gate to his farm and asked for directions. "Follow me, I'll show you." For several miles we did and he stopped to point out the very tricky entrance to the road leading to the site. This was just one of the many examples Sicilian hospitality we experienced.
Sicilian towns, sites, and the landscape play a large role in the Italian TV series, too. Almost too much so, as the director and production designer made a point of sweeping the streets, beaches, etc. free of cars and people for many scenes for the explicit reason they wanted Sicily to be one of the show's main characters. I think this approach shows real understanding of Camilleri's purpose.
Buon viaggio!

September 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I plan a visit in November, and Piazza Armerina will be on my list of places to visit. I was impressed with the earlier mosaics at Fishbourne Roman villa in England, and I've always been drawn to Late Antique art. There's something fascinating about periods of declne or, as we are trained to call it in the United States, change.

September 21, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, we went to Sicily in November; the weather was sunny and comfortable nearly every day.
I understand what you mean about your fascination for the Late Antique as I am drawn to periods of transition for, I suspect, many of the same reasons. I wanted to see the great Siculo-Norman mosaic cycles in Palermo, Monreale, and Cefalu' in particular.
Sicily is one of those incredible places on the planet that I suspect one could return to again and again and discover wonderful things every time. For example, one could "re-tour" the island's architectural legacy by period if so inclined: Greek (I've read there are more extant Greek remains in Sicily than in Greece, if that's possible), Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Baroque, Art Nouveau.
I'm pea-green with envy over your trip; I know you'll provide us with some vicarious experiences through your blog, however. And you'll have lots of Camillerian references to tell us about, too, I hope.

September 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that news about the weather. I was a bit apprehensive that November might be rainy in Sicily. Palermo, Monreale, and Cefalu' are high on my list.

In Istanbul, I used to go look at the sculpures on the base of the Column of Theodosius in the Hippodrome. In Rome, the Sala dei imperatori, with its portrait busts from the Republican period through late antiquity is an eye-opener both for what it reveals about the continuity of the portrait tradition and for the change from gritty realism in the Republican age to wide- and blank-eyed otherwordliness by the fifth century.

I'm sure I'll think about the Normans and their astonishing adventures, too. I always liked the severity of the Tower of London; now I'll get to see what they came up with under all their the influences they ran into in Sicily.

September 21, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Peter, I don't know if you took up my suggestion to try Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series. If you haven't yet, then maybe Denis Lehane can provide some encouragement: http://www.michaelconnelly.com/Book_Collection/NineDragons/Lehane/lehane.html
No one has so completely fused with his city of Los Angeles as Harry has.

Another Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, has written crime novels set in Sicily that read like journalism.
Have a great trip!

September 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Pat. I'm about to begin my Michael Connolly reading with The Closers. And I'd discovered that essay by Dennis Lehane and saved a copy.

The first chapter of Sciascia's The Day of the Owl is one of the most chilling in all of fiction.

September 22, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love the Montalbano series, happy to see Camillieri and Sicily getting the respect they deserve. To answer your original question, it's got to be the Marseilles trilogy by Izzo. Those books are so beautiful and from reading them I feel like I could step off the boat in Marseilles and know exactly where i'm going and what i want to do. It goes beyond description...something much more than that.

September 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have written several times about Izzo, occasionally in posts that mention Camilleri as well. The two were united by their politics, by their love of food and certainly by the vivid settings they create.

September 22, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

That's good to hear, Peter. You won't regret it. I think I'll steer clear of Sciascia for the time being - a bit too real for me, but I will enjoy visiting with Montalbano (The Scent of the Night) while I wait for the next Harry Bosch. Sometimes it's so nice to be able to go on holiday without leaving home! Bon Voyage!

September 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I met Michael Connelly at Crimefest in England this year. I walked into his session just as he was talking about how the closing of an American newspaper forced a last-minute change in one of his novels. I work for an American newspaper that is in the terminal stages of bankruptcy proceedings. After his session, I told him: "Thanks for getting me depressed." He was pleasant about it though.

Sciascia's books are exceedingly short and do not require much of an investment of time. I recommend them.

September 22, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i read "echo park" by Connelly and thought it was a dud. To me it doesn't connect to the noir i love.

September 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll get back to all of you when I've read some Connelly. I'm moderating a panel at Bouchercon that includes Connelly's French translator, so I should come out of the experience knowing more about his work than I do now.

September 22, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, I think you're very probably right when you "wondered if Camilleri has an especially sharp and deep feeling for Sicily since he moved to Rome." I believe he only began writing novels (in his early 70s) after a lifetime and career in the theater, teaching, and other pursuits. And nearly every novel has been set in Sicily. I'm just guessing, but I also think the Genovese Livia may be partly drawn from Camilleri's Milanese wife. The North vs South that is at the base of so much Italian conflict to this day becomes an amusing battle of the sexes in the Montalbano novels. As an example, sometimes, when she is very angry, Livia will call Salvo "You Sicilian asshole!"

Pat, I must respectfully disagree that "no one has so completely fused with his city of Los Angeles as Harry [Bosch] has." That role I think belongs to Philip Marlowe. In fact, I thought PM was too obvious a choice to add to this topic at first. You don't have to be a Chandler fan to see the impact Marlowe's thoughts on and descriptions of LA had on the wider culture. I think it could be argued that Chandler's/Marlowe's LA is the predominant vision of LA in the minds of most people, even people who've never read a Chandler novel or even been to Los Angeles. Connelly himself has noted his debt to Chandler on many occasions and even took the title of one of the Bosch novels ("A Darkness More Than Night") from the sentence in Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder" that speaks of an LA where "the streets were dark with something more than night." I’ve enjoyed some of the Bosch novels but have never felt like re-reading one nor do I turn to Connelly when I want to find that perfect quote/passage about LA.

September 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There's a delightful example of Italian regional rivaly in The Paper Moon when Montalbano tells Augello: "Mimi, you're more thickheaded than a Calabrian" (and I bet that sounds even better in the original than in English).

Perhaps James Ellroy is another contender for heir to Chandler when it comes to describing Los Angeles.

September 23, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Remember, at the beginning of the first Montalbano, "The Shape of Water," when the 2 young trash collectors are trying to decide to whom they should report the death of Silvio Luparello, "the thought of going to the carabinieri didn't even cross their minds, since they were under the command of a Milanese lieutenant. The Vigata' police inspector, on the other hand, was from Catania, a certain Salvo Montalbano, who, when he wanted to get to the bottom of something, he did."
I was hooked for life at the end of Chapter 1.

James Ellroy's vision of LA really is something straight out of Hieronymus Bosch. It does make Chandler's view seem almost antiseptic.

September 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's been a while since I read The Shape of Water, but I may read it again soon.

My knowledge of Ellroy's L.A. comes from L.A. Confidential, the book and the movie. Both had the feeling of works from the time period they depicted, but they said things that works from the time would nove have said. That's an impressive achievement, I think.

Hieronymous Bosch is another connection with Michael COnnelly, of course.

September 24, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Elizabeth, I certainly agree with you about the status of Chandler's impact on the way the world views Los Angeles and I don't for a minute undervalue his legacy. I do, however, agree with Dennis Lehane's comments regarding the difference between the "mean streets" of Marlowe's era and the ones that Connelly has defined for Bosch. Bosch is a protagonist for today's LA, the one I'm most familiar with. The LA of the 1950's and 60's is only known to me through the works of Hammett and Chandler and all the wonderful films of that era.

September 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, I heard that L.A, wildman James Ellroy read at the public library in Philadelphia tonight. Someone asked him why L.A. is such an archetypal location for crime stories. He gave two reasons: because Raymond Chandler wrote about Los Angeles and because, since that's where the studios were, the great films noirs were made there.

September 24, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Wow! Noir films - now that's a whole new territory to explore! And although I thought of Ellroy as I posted my last message, I haven't read enough of his work to comment on it. But I've heard that The Black Dahlia is pretty noir - both the book and the film.
I'm a bit more familiar with French film noir. Le Samourai is one of my favourites. Senses of Cinema has LOTS to say on the subject if anyone is interested: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/
Now back to the books!

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I liked Ellroy's answer because it was so practical and unromantic. The person who asked the question probably expected a bit more dead-end romance: L.A. is the end of the frontier, the city of broken dreams and so on. Ellroy did say L.A. was where one went to reinvent one's self after World War II, but it was the practical part of the answer that made the biggest impression.

Some of the Melville films on DVD come with entertaining extras. One includes a television interview with Melville and Alain Delon, in which Melville talks about the movie while Delon stares into space and blows cigarette smoke.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Yes, sounds just like Delon. He doesn't have to do much in the way of acting to clinch that role. Just putting on his fedora did it for me!

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One might also say that he never stopped acting even when on television. I don't remember if he wore a fedora amid all the smoke-blowing, but the interview certainly induces grins today. The cool on the movie screen has dated a lot better than the self-conscious cool of the interview.

September 25, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Faulkner. Both his literary fiction and, what some crtics call, his detective stories. The detectuve stories were collected in "Knights Gambit." His characters speak and act as though they are the very product of the soil on which they live and will eventually return to.

Cormac McCarthy's characters often do also.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Those Faulkner stories have recently come up for discussion on another blog. Perhaps you came here from there. I am endlessly impressed when an author can root his characters in their setting. Jean-Claude Izzo is among the crime writers who was able to do it.

That sort of rootedness may be something readers (well, OK, me) associate more with "literary" than with genre fiction. Whether the association is valid or not, it's one of the things that can expand the appeal of an author such as Camilleri or Izzo beyond genre boundaries -- whatever those boundaries may be.

September 29, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter.

I just left the Faulkner comment and I didn't come here from the blog you mention, but just browsing your blog. I will sign up shortly, so excuse the anonymous comment for now.

I agree about Izzo. I recently found a Europa edition (at Barnes & Noble of all places)of "Total Chaos" and will have to finish the Marseilles Trilogy. And read Massimo Carlotto. I want to pursue more of what is now called Mediterranean Noir.

Europa Editions website has a nice article about Med noir.

Thank you for a most wonderful site.
David

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And thanks for the kind words. If you like Europa Editions, you might also enjoy Carlo Lucarelli's "De Luca" novels: Carte Blanche, The Damned Season and Via delle Oche. (Read my review of Via della Oche here.)

September 29, 2009  

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