Seems like travelling this summer is going to have to happen mostly in your head, so to help we’ve collected a list of books that will transport you to your favourite holiday destinations. Our first stop was Greece…today Italy. Spain and France to follow!
The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – For a proper summer feel, try this sensual and sensuous Italian classic set in the 1860s amongst the arid hills, frescoed palazzos and turquoise seas of Sicily. It’s the story of the aristocratic Salina family’s decline, of ageing and mortality, of politics and passionate love all mixed up into a fabulous Italian literary feast. It is the time of Garibaldi’s unification of Italy and political changes are sweeping the country. The novel centres on the House of Salina’s formidable family patriarch, Prince Fabrizio as he watches the family’s feudal power and finances slowly disintegrate. Lampedusa’s descriptions of landscapes, people, clothes, interiors, and smells are sublime.
Venice, An Interior by Javier Marias – A heavenly combination of one of my favourite authors writing about one of my favourite cities: Javier Marías’ little essay on Venice. For reasons unknown (a failed love affair?), Marías spent a great deal of time in Venice in the 1980s. His reflections on how history and geography have shaped Venice and Venetians are captivating. ‘Venetians see life from “the view point of eternity” ‘, not surprising perhaps when you grow up in place that’s hardly changed for 500 years. The decay, the dark back alleys, the smells, the sense of doom, the colours of the water (‘blood red, yellow, white’ by day, ‘like ink’ by night) combined with dazzling beauty, Marías perfectly evokes the city’s atmosphere and hands you a delicious sliver of Venice.
The Unfinished Palazzzo – Life, Love and Art in Venice by Judith Mackrell – A gloriously gossipy biography of three extraordinary women all of whom, at different points, called a grand palazzo in Venice their home. An eccentric, reclusive countess, a gold-digging seductress and an art-collecting heiress. The Unfinished Palazzo is a hugely entertaining biography which firmly sits in the ‘you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up’ category.
Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald – Chiara is the daughter of the broke Count Ridolfi, owner of a decrepit palazzo in Florence and with a family history shrouded in sinister myths. Chiara is ‘a beauty, but not thought beautiful in Florence’ (she is too fair), half-American and with no sense of dress. Enter Salvatore, a handsome, bright but emotionally lobotomised (a hint of Asperger’s?) neurologist, from a poor village in the South of Italy. Not exactly what Chiara’s parents were hoping for. There’s something seductive about Fitzgerald’s writing, it’s so gentle and light that it almost seems effortless. It’s not, of course, and that’s the genius of it. Be warned, though, Innocence, like her other books, is not action packed, but rather a funny, contemplative story where a lot more goes on than meets the eye.
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone – The Agony and the Ecstasy is a must read if you are travelling to Tuscany, Florence or Rome (your trip will be infinitely more interesting) or if you are remotely interested in art history or the Italian Renaissance. And even if you are none of the above, this is a worthwhile book. The Agony and the Ecstasy is the story of Michelangelo Buonarotti – Italian sculptor, painter, poet and architect – and a very enjoyable lesson in history.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name – A glorious portrait of female friendship that took the world by storm, written by an anonymous author whose identity still is a well kept secret. Gossipy and packed with intrigue, too much for some, this series (there are four books) is perfect escapist literature which will take you straight to the back streets of 1950s Naples. Ferrante’s books operate on many levels: the psychology of friendship, the triple curse of poverty, misogyny and domestic abuse, the social hierarchy of Naples’ slums and the almost insurmountable task of escaping it all.