Molly Recommends 2 Books Set in Italy


Dear readers,

To quote Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka:

Hold your breath/Make a wish/Count to three/Come with me and you’ll be/In a world of pure imagination.

Instead of touring a surreal chocolate manufacturer today, we’re wishing ourselves to someplace much realer and saltier, which is … Italy! I was fortunate enough to travel to lovely Parma last month on assignment for this newspaper. That article isn’t print-ready yet, but I will alert you when it’s out. Until then, we can armchair-travel together through the power of text.

The only thing I read while in Parma was a phrasebook that proved indispensable for ordering cornetti and requesting napkins after being aerially struck by an Italian pigeon. But the real gold was what I read before the trip, in anticipation.

Buon divertimento,

Dino is an Italian layabout who dawdles through life on a steady cash drip from his wealthy mother. Sometimes he paints. Mostly he experiences boredom, which he defines as “the obscure consciousness that between myself and external things there was no relationship” — so, as he defines it, less a mood or an affect than an intermittent sensory disorder. Interesting!

The boredom is dispelled when Dino begins an affair with an enigmatic teenager named Cecilia. Her erotic enchantments provide the painter with a frequent and vigorous form of “contact,” shall we say, with reality. All is well until Cecilia’s eye roves to a new man and Dino goes insane with jealousy. Amid manic bouts of spying and interrogation, he discovers a new stage of boredom: that of helpless repetition and obsession.

Moravia’s prose is formal here, even starched. Remember the kid who sat next to you in math class and primly guarded his test paper from cheating eyes with a bent elbow? That is the way Moravia writes — except that you, reader, have been granted omniscient privileges to sit on his shoulder and copy all the answers!

Read if you like: Philip Roth’s novel “The Dying Animal” or the Yeats poem from which Roth mined his title, the painter Lucian Freud, ironing clothes
Available from: A good bookstore or library, or from New York Review Books

Nonfiction, 2009

What you want in a travel writer is a superb noticer of things. In this chronicle of a summer in Italy with her family, Cusk notices the “tiny crescent smile” of a nun on a train and the “slender, murderous shoes” of women in Naples. She notices that great artworks, when surrounded by throngs of ogling tourists, can emit a sense of being “victimized.” What she notices about pizza is that pizza “is like a smiling face: It assuages the fear of complexity by showing everything on its surface.” (What a weird thing to notice about pizza! a reader thinks. And yet, not untrue, I suppose…)

On a personal note, “The Last Supper” marked the final step in my summiting of Mount Cusk, as I have now read all of the author’s books. Among the conclusions reached were these three:

1) Cusk is fond of the word exiguous (meaning paltry or inadequate), which appears in multiple books.

2) Her “Outline” trilogy of novels is the best place to begin if you’re Cusk-curious.

3) She is a writer for those who admire prose that is rich in ideas, granular in detail and spare in syntax.

Read if you like: Pizza, the painting of Raphael, the travel writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor, being imperious
Available from: Check your library or local bookstore, or buy from the publisher

  • Conspicuously read Italo Svevo’s 1898 novel “As a Man Grows Older” in a public place if you are, in fact, a man growing older — partly in order to see if it prompts interesting conversations with strangers but mostly because it is simply a funny thing to do?

  • Voyage to the Vatican with Patricia Lockwood for a meeting with Pope Francis? Sample quote: “Before leaving that morning, we stuffed my bag with all sorts of objects, reasoning that if the pope blessed me, anything on my person would be blessed as well. It now has to go through the metal detector, a tense moment.”

  • Leap aboard the Donna Leon train with a detective story about death in Venice? (Not the Thomas Mann novella but an actual murder. Well, a fictional murder.) Those who cherish an atmospheric and well-executed potboiler will be delighted to know that this is only the first installment in the Guido Brunetti series, of which there are now more than 30 (!).

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