Transparency would require full disclosure of the fact that Alessandro Baricco’s name is certain to appear towards the top in a list of my favourite writers. Over the years, I have kept coming back to my tattered copies of his thin novels that I carry around in suitcases, bags, moving boxes. I own the indispensable Ocean Sea in three exemplars – Italian, French, and Bulgarian, with the latter (the first one of these acquired) bearing his signature and a date and place: London 2014, from the time I saw him speak at an event at the London Review Bookshop. Since then, having acquired an academic taste for literary theory, and especially reader response criticism (venturing into offshoots of “The Intentional Fallacy,” as well as the infamous “death of the author”), I have toned down my fascination with authorial intentions and writer memorabilia. Regardless, there is something about Baricco’s books that remains tied up with a desire to take sentences out of their context, to plaster them onto social media, note them down, in the process associating them with a particular name, with a style of writing. “It’s a strange grief […] To die of nostalgia for something you will never live,” goes a line in Silk (translated by Ann Goldstein), another of his works, and words like these are infinitely quotable. These types of observations, which I can see being perceived as too pretentious or too sentimental, used to be one of my biggest pleasures in reading Baricco. They would strike immediately, suddenly, come back unexpected, unaccompanied, divorced from their surrounding stories. As Nabokov has admonished, only a second reading of a book counts as a true one – and I would continue: the true reading is a repeated reading, after time has passed, when life is different, the setting has changed, and both stories – the one written, the one lived – can become new. Rediscovering new meanings for the individually significant on the basis of a new reading of the whole is the payoff from these quotes.
The Young Bride, like quite a few of the other novels by Baricco, is set in an unnamed place and time, although it seems to be somewhere in Italy and many of the references point towards the end of the 19th century. At the start of this novel, the reader is swiftly introduced to a number of unnamed characters. The young Bride of the book’s title is a girl of 18 who (unexpectedly for the others) arrives at the beautiful and imposing villa of the Family, which consists of the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Uncle. There is also the Son, but he is away, having set out a while ago for England (also known as the Island). The young Bride is already engaged to him (Ann Goldstein’s translation adds a nice touch when she translates “i promessi spossi” as “the betrothed,” in a nod to Alessandro Manzoni’s classic novel). The Bride has returned all the way from Argentina for the Son, but finds the prolonged absence unexplained. She remains in limbo, obediently occupying her allotted place of uncertainty in this strange house where the night is feared and no books are allowed: a rigid rule, formally delivered, absurdly broken. Only the supporting cast possess names: Modesto, the servant; the idiosyncratic guests (Bertini, the notary; Dr Acerbi, the cardiologist, to name a few) attending the Family’s decadent breakfasts, with the plural “colazioni” being intentional so as to underline their abundance, the excessive luxury, the gift of surviving yet another night.
Incidentally, this was the first book of Baricco’s that I read in English – previously, I had only focussed on the translations into Bulgarian, the original Italian, and the odd translation into French. This English version is published by Europa Editions, translated by Ann Goldstein, who has become well known for her immensely popular renderings of Elena Ferrante (and previously of Primo Levi) into English. Goldstein’s translation of The Neapolitan Novels works well because of the more conventional storytelling methods of Ferrante – linear, straightforward, (more or less) realistic. Already on the first page of The Young Bride, however, a couple of sentences lead with the verb in Italian: “è l’alba, appena,” then straight after, rhythmically: “Si ferma, il vecchio, perché ha una sua numerazione diaggiornare.” The English translation reads: “It’s just dawn,” followed by “The old man stops because he has a tally to update.” (The French translation also keeps the focus on the verb at the start, the Romance languages being generous to this structure.) The Bulgarian translations usually keep a similar word order: in fact, that is what initially drew me to Baricco’s books. The undercurrent of the Italian sentence becomes a perceptible novelty in another language and consequently creates the impression of a particular atmosphere, a world made special precisely for its selection to be a subject to this type of storytelling. And yet, keeping the structure in English would mean using something like: “He stops, the old man, because…,” the need to add the personal pronoun that the Italian, French (and yes, the Bulgarian) do not need making it clumsy. At the same time, Goldstein sometimes does retain the exact sentence structure, even when it is incomplete, as in this example: “Mentre la figlia, dalla sua sedia al fianco del Padre, guardava, silenziosa” is “While the Daughter, on the chair next to the father, watched, silently.” The persistence of these occasional word order mirrorings (another one: “That she was beautiful I must have already said…”) may be inconsistent, but it manages to occasionally maintain the rhythm of the sentences close to the original, which in combination with the many enumerations of details typical for the prose of Baricco gives parts of the novel the semblance of incantations to be mouthed, strings of words carrying a ritualistic significance.
The way the narrative unravels can sometimes be confusing, especially for anyone not familiar with Baricco’s earlier books. It combines storytelling (a linear recounting of the events accompanying the Bride’s waiting for the Son) and digressions. Events may seem strange, outright impossible, with the complication that it is unclear whether they can be put in the category of Todorov’s fantastic or of magical realism, notoriously hard to distinguish. To go back to the Family’s fear of the night: early on, the narrator declares: “For a hundred and thirteen years, it should be said, all of us have died at night, in our family”. This refers to the actual, physical death of people throughout the years. However, the preceding description of the lavish breakfasts, their definition as a thanksgiving, “the escape from the catastrophe of sleep,” the strangeness of the ceremonious awakening, the nakedness of the bodies as they emerge from the rooms: all of this is so improbable and yet juxtaposed with the specificity of English Stilton cheese, that it becomes hard to decide what this story of death truly is. If all of them really died in this manner, is that not too unlikely, supernatural even, but presented matter-of-factly (hence the magical realism)? Or is it not merely a strange occurrence in an otherwise probable story (thus making the reader hesitate between the real and the supernatural explanation, resulting in Todorov’s liminal, fragile fantastic)? How does the authorial position relate to all these elements – are they to be seen as seamlessly integrated or as hostile? The lines are blurred – at the end of the day, one analysis can choose to focus on some narrative elements, omitting the rest. But countless other versions can be defended, disrupting and amending ascribed meanings.
Baricco also tends to build books by accumulating vignettes, scene after scene, with no chapters, sometimes following one character, sometimes another, forwarding and rewinding their stories, occasionally throwing in a new character’s perspective which remains a mystery until much later. In The Young Bride, he once more moves from one frame to the next, offering glimpses into different characters, all the while managing to keep them rudimentary, barely hinted at, revealing just enough to pique curiosity, whet the voyeuristic appetite of the reader, sometimes indulge it, sometimes frustrate it. This is done almost by means of a chameleonic game of hide and seek, where a change in narrative voice can occur halfway through the page, so that one section begins with a “she” and suddenly becomes an “I”. Thus, the third person switches into the first of the Bride, but also of the other characters, without it ever being entirely clear whether this is an omniscient narrator, the Bride herself, her projections of the others, or their actual monologues. Because it does occasionally shift into a meta-narrative of a person who appears to be writing the Bride’s story itself, an author of sorts, there may appear to be a supervising (yet unreliable) authority, but it remains unclear what the reader is to make of him, his own hinted at story, and the one he is allegedly writing. In this way, the novel becomes an exploration, a question mark, on the author’s creative and reactive role, on the way stories work, the reasons (or lack thereof) certain subject matters become obsessions. It is as if a grand 19th century novel about a dysfunctional family has been split up and stitched back together, some passages omitted, but as compensation directly acknowledging its subversive questioning of topics such as gender and sexuality, provoking engagement through its explicitness. Why did the Bride dress as a boy? Why exactly is the Son away? What was the meaning of the shared desire the reader sees minutely explored?
It is no wonder it appeals to someone interested in narrative, in questions of interpretation, in the interplay between our private, conflicted selves and the way we can create, manipulate, seek comfort through the stories provided to us by others. It is especially hard to write a review of Baricco’s books precisely because of this – even retelling the story means you bare yourself just a little bit, you provide a view into your own wishful thinking, but also declare allegiance to the shapeshifting quicksand of postmodern narrative. The greatest risk in espousing this interpretative freedom lies in its destruction of stable meaning, of the single rational foundation of an enlightened world. It ventures into scary territory, never fully charted, where empathy can transmogrify into kitsch, and understanding can be taken for unequivocal acceptance. Its very real dangers notwithstanding, it also offers words for what defies coherence, like selves across time. It gives the narrative possibility of voicing the “good” and the “bad” and the massive shifts of perspective in between, a grey zone of sorts. It allows literature to become a refuge for complexity.
Just like that, nothing in Baricco’s The Young Bride is easy or simple. There are the occasional bursts of humour but as with anything, they are inscrutable, impervious to a static significance to last them forever after. Instead, the words come together in a playground for contemplation, where minds seeking to penetrate a story can grasp at meaning: the fresh, the familiar, the ebb and the flow.