The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim

I read this lovely book in April because of its title, and really wanted to put up my thoughts in that month as well, but alas, it was not to be.

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy.

We are introduced to Lottie Wilkins, who married to a city lawyer, feels bogged down and stifled by their humdrum existence in Hampstead. Her husband Mellersh is an intelligent, respectable, good-looking man, highly regarded by his senior partners, but rather something of a bully at home. In their social circle, when pitted against him, Lottie pales in comparison and her careless style of dressing only adds to the general consensus that she should stay home. Mellersh is cautious with money and the daily drill of having to strictly live within their means with no room for wasteful expenditure begins to take its toll on Lottie.

While on one of her shopping trips, she spends a miserable afternoon at a women’s club, and there chances upon an advertisement in the newspapers that sets off a chain of thoughts. The ad is addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine and proposes to let furnished for the month of April a small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean.

At first, with a resigned air Lottie dismisses the idea, she grudgingly tells herself that such delights exist for the privileged. But Lottie loves wisteria and sunshine and so the idea of spending a month at the castle begins to take hold on her.

Rose Arbuthnot’s circumstances are a source of heartache for her too. Being an extremely religious woman, she is disturbed by her husband Frederick’s success as a writer of trashy but popular memoirs of the mistresses of Kings. This vocation brings him money but Rose feels guilty and dirty touching it and so she immerses herself in charity work, with the fervent hope that it will cleanse her and ease her conscience. As a couple both Rose and Frederick have drifted apart and this hurts Rose a lot given that they were so in love in the early days of their marriage.

When Lottie spots Rose also staring at the ad wistfully on that same dreary afternoon, an idea begins to take shape in the former’s mind. She approaches Rose, the two strike up an earnest conversation and Lottie gradually convinces her that if they in turn advertise for two more companions, the four of them could split the costs of staying at the castle so that the individual burden will be considerably reduced.

Using their saved nest-eggs, the two women begin the process of renting the castle. Also, with respect to their ad for more companions, two women express interest – Lady Caroline Dester and the older Mrs Fisher. Caroline Dester is a stunning woman with many admirers at her beck and call but having tired of all the attention, she is craving to get away and do some soul searching in a restful place, and Italy fits her bill perfectly. Mrs Fisher is a catankerous, old-fashioned woman who still lives in her past and reminisces about her illustrious friends and acquaintances of yore in the literary world.

These women come from completely different backgrounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations of Mrs Fisher and Caroline Dester to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other.

As soon as her stay at the castle begins, Lottie’s personality undergoes a sea of change. Mesmerized by the gorgeous views, Lottie is immediately rejuvenated and her perspective of the world around her alters dramatically. Stunning vistas of the bay, jaw dropping sceneries, abundance of pretty secluded spots and the enchanting feel of the castle all combine to work their therapeutic magic on her.

Something was wrong somewhere. Wonderful that at home she should have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish.

Now she had taken off her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy. She was naked of goodness, and was rejoicing in being naked. She was stripped, and exulting.

So much so that Lottie’s powers of perception sharpen considerably, and her otherwise timid, resentful personality gives way to a charming, carefree and benevolent demeanor. Indeed, she then comes up with another audacious plan that could disrupt their present idyll or will it?

The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Some of the set-pieces in the first few pages in the novel are hilarious – particularly the one where Lottie and Rose are being driven by the gardener to the castle past midnight, and there is no effective way of communicating with him because they can’t speak the Italian language.

The two men opened their umbrellas for them and handed them to them. From this they received a fair encouragement, because they could not believe that if these men were wicked they would pause to open umbrellas. The man with the lantern then made signs to them to follow him, talking loud and quickly, and Beppo, they noticed, remained behind. Ought they to pay him? Not, they thought, if they were going to be robbed and perhaps murdered. Surely on such an occasion one did not pay.

Von Arnim explores how an invigorating holiday is a much needed respite from mundane routines of everyday life. The novel was penned in the 1920s when there were hardly any career opportunities for women and their role was largely restricted to the household. In the novel, Arnim does not aim to depict how their Italian sojourn alters the circumstances of her characters, but rather to capture the perceptible shift in how they view it.

Lottie and Rose are housewives and will continue to play that role, but there’s something to be said for how a holiday can energize and recharge one’s batteries. Beauty of nature and the wonder of a new place can be a tonic for a tired mind…Lottie and Rose are certainly transformed by the magic of Italy, it is an apt place for some semblance of a rebirth.

“Were you ever, ever in your life so happy?” asked Mrs. Wilkins, catching her by the arm.

“No,” said Mrs. Arbuthnot. Nor had she been; not ever; not even in her first love-days with Frederick. Because always pain had been close at hand in that other happiness, ready to torture with doubts, to torture even with the very excess of her love; while this was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.

Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

Family Lexicon – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. by Jenny McPhee)

Italian author Natalia Ginzburg’s work has been getting quite a revival in recent times with publishers such as NYRB Classics, Daunt Books and New Directions Publishing at the forefront in this regard.

If the quality of Family Lexicon is any indication, more of her books getting translated into English is indeed a big boon.

Family Lexicon

This is how Ginzburg’s preface to Family Lexicon begins…

The places, events, and people in this book are real. I haven’t invented a thing, and each time I found myself slipping into my long held habits as a novelist and make something up, I was quickly compelled to destroy the invention.

When the book opens, Natalia is a child, and she recalls the skiing holidays that her tyrannical father – Giuseppe Levi (affectionately called Beppino) – greatly enjoyed but that her siblings and her mother had to endure much against their will.

Beppino is Jewish and quite a dominant personality, a respected scientist but prone to ranting and raging. He admonishes his family members often calling them ‘nitwits’, has a decided opinion on the friends they should keep, and has expectations from his children, at least the boys, on the careers that they should pursue. He is also a man who has no sense of money although he is averse to reckless spending.

Natalia’s mother Lidia is a Catholic and quite the opposite. She has a cheerful disposition. And while the family having to relocate often (due to the demands of Beppino’s career), always unsettles her in the beginning, she can never stay morose for long and reverts to her cheerful self again.

The truth was, even if my mother grumbled and complained in Sassari and Palermo, she’d been very happy there because she had a joyful nature, and no matter where she was she found people to love and to love her. Wherever she was, she always found a way to enjoy places and things around her and to be happy.

Natalia, meanwhile, is the youngest in the family and has four siblings. Her brother Gino is the eldest and shares his father’s passion for skiing. He is also Beppino’s favorite. There’s Mario and Alberto and her elder sister Paola.

Paola and the mother get along very well and share a special bond, a bond that Natalia is too young yet to appreciate.

Mario is more of a rebel and abhors his father’s tyranny and hold over the family.

In the earlier sections of the novel, Ginzburg does a wonderful job of portraying the dynamics in the relationships between the children, how they have a form of communication that is unique and their own.

If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they’re like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world…

The personalities of the parents never waver. But the children as they grow up into adults see a dramatic change in their alliances and personal relationships.

For instance, in the earlier pages, we learn that Mario and Paola are quite similar in many respects and have quite a close bond, which never really lasts into adulthood.

Lost in their melancholy, Paola and Mario exuded a profound intolerance for my father’s despotism and for our family’s simple and austere habits. It seemed they felt themselves exiles in our family, dreaming of an entirely different homelife and lifestyle. Their intolerance manifested itself in great pouts and moon faces, listless looks and impenetrable expressions, monosyllabic responses, angrily slammed doors that shook the building, and curt refusals to go to the mountains on Saturday and Sunday.

Despite Beppino’s rants and set opinions on their careers and his persistence on them not marrying, the children refuse to get cowered. They go on to marry the partners of their choice and to pursue the careers that they wish.

But despite the personality clashes, there is one thread that unites this family of intellectuals. All of them are anti-Fascists.

It is also a stark reminder that while this novel is a portrait of a family, it is set against the darkening and terrifying backdrop of Fascism.

Anti-fascism is the prism through which Beppino evaluates his acquaintances, friends and his family. He is ready to overlook flaws and overturn his opinions on his circle of acquaintances if it is revealed to him that they are anti-Fascists.

Beppino and his sons actively engage in various resistance activities underground which frequently lead to their arrests. It’s something that Beppino greatly prides in, even if the terror at being imprisoned is immense.

There is a great set piece in the middle section of the novel when Mario is almost caught smuggling anti-Fascist propaganda literature into Switzerland. While Mario and Beppino are continuously at loggerheads with each other, this one act of resistance earns Mario the grudging respect of his father.

Of course, while the core of the novel revolves around Natalia’s family, it is also very much about Natalia herself. Natalia goes on to marry Leone Ginzburg also an anti-Fascist and revolutionary in his own right.

She has three children with him, but the terror of Leone’s death at the hands of Fascists is never far behind, and a burden she must bear.

Family Lexicon, then, is about family, rebellion, the ties that bind them together and how each member goes on to lead a life of his or her own choosing.

Ginzburg’s writing is addictive and she adopts a lighthearted, satirical tone that is effective in downplaying the darker elements in the story, especially the grim prospect of Fascism looming large. Her narrative wonderfully brings out the colorful personalities and eccentricities of every family member. Indeed, the most striking of the lot is Beppino, who despite being a tyrant, comes across as an absurd and sometimes sympathetic figure thanks to Ginzburg’s flair for comic storytelling.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Family Lexicon. It’s the only Ginzburg I have read so far, and is widely considered to be her masterpiece. Even if I have that nagging feeling that I’ve probably read her best book first, I am still quite keen to explore and hopefully savour more of her work in the future.