#RivetingReviews: Jonathan Gibbs reviews THE PENGUIN BOOK OF ITALIAN SHORT STORIES edited by Jhumpa Lahiri

It’s been wonderful to see the re-emergence of country-specific anthologies of short fiction from around the world, courtesy of Penguin Classics, one of which is The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. This is brilliantly edited – and in part translated – by Jhumpa Lahiri, who famously switched to writing her books in Italian after teaching herself the language (see the exclusive interview with Lahiri in this magazine). In her introduction, Lahiri admits to some personal tendencies to her selection, including a tilting towards forgotten and female authors over the supposedly canonical, though the forty authors included here certainly give a broad and generous view of Italian literature over the past century or so, ranging from realism to avant-garde experiment.

Lahiri focuses on the twentieth century, and although she drifts into the twenty-first she excludes living authors. All the big names you would expect to find are here, though not always with an obvious story. So we get ‘The Siren’ by Tomasi di Lampedusa, while for Italo Calvino we get a posthumously published offcut from a novel – thankfully, ‘Dialogue with a Tortoise’ is an entirely characteristic piece of absurdist philosophical rumination. There is also Primo Levi, Elsa Morante, Italo Svevo, Antonio Tabucchi and Alberto Moravia.

One disappointment, considering her recent resurgence in the English-reading world, was Natalia Ginzburg’s ‘My Husband’. I was bowled over by the expansive insight of her essay collection The Little Virtues, but found this early Chekhovian story about an unhappy country marriage rather limited. Daunt Books haven’t yet given us a collection of her stories, so there may be better ones out there. For a brighter, funnier tale, turn to Ennio Flaiano’s satirical ‘A Martian in Rome’, which sees the astounding arrival of a space visitor who all too soon is absorbed into the quotidian experience of the city:

‘Today the Martian suddenly agreed to be part of a jury of artists and writers for the crowning of Miss Vie Nuove. When they pointed out to him that the jury was made up of leftist artists and writers, the Martian showed a certain disappointment: but he had already given his word.’

That Flaiano wrote the screenplays for Fellini’s and La Dolce Vita comes as no surprise.

‘A Martian in Rome’ turned up in the all-Italian edition of A Personal Anthology (the online short fiction project I curate), which was put together by the organisers of the 2019 FILL, Festival of Italian Literature in London. This also introduced me to Anna Maria Ortese’s powerful ‘A Pair of Eyeglasses’ (also included here), in which a young girl’s receipt of an expensive pair of glasses only reveals the ugliness of the poverty she lives in, and to Goffredo Parise, whose ‘Sillabari’ are a series of miniscule ‘virtual novels’. I adore the example we get here, ‘Melancholy’, and am now itching to see the whole collection brought back into print in English. It’s one of the risks of an anthology like this that the pleasures it gives are often drastically foreshortened when you realise that the story by a writer you have discovered is the only piece of their writing you’re likely to be able to get your hands on. So, to read more by Flaiano – or Luce d’Eramo or Alba de Céspedes; both brilliant – I’ll have to wait for more translations or, like Lahiri, do the hard work and learn the language myself.

Reviewed by Jonathan Gibbs

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF ITALIAN SHORT STORIES

edited by Jhumpa Lahiri

translated by Jhumpa Lahiri and Others

Published by Penguin Classics (2019)


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Jonathan Gibbs is a writer, critic and academic. He has published two novels, Randall, or the Painted Grape (Galley Beggar Press, 2014) and The Large Door (Boiler House Press, 2019). Randall, or the Painted Grape was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and shortlisted for the Figaro Prix du Livre de Voyage Urbain.

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