The Lover of No Fixed Abode is impossible to categorize. Is it a crime story? A love story? A biblical story?
It is all of these, as well as a luscious story about the “fundamental question of time.” In this beguiling novel, time is liquid, like the waters of the Venetian lagoon, moving with the tides, in constant motion. It is also a story of place, Venice is ever present, amidst the chiaroscuro light of a wet November.
The Italian authors, Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini, penned the mysterious novel in 1986. In January 2024, Gregory Dowling’s lyrical English translation will be published by Bitter Lemon Press. Dowling, a professor of American Literature at Ca’ Foscari and author of 6 novels, wrote in 2020 that English readers who love Venice should not be deprived of this intriguing work. Now, we no longer will be.
In a fortunate sequence of events, your English translation of 1986 novel, The Lover of No Fixed Abode will finally be published in 2024. Prior to this book, you had translated two other novels by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini, The D. Case: Or The Truth About the Mistery of Edwin Drood, and An Enigma by the Sea. Can you explain how The Lover of No Fixed Abode is demonstrably different from the first two books you translated?
The Lover of No Fixed Abode was their fourth novel and preceded the other two that I translated (La verità sul caso D was first published in 1989 and Enigma in 1993). Their three previous novels (they published six in all) had all been essentially detective stories, with a crime to be solved, and the same is true of the last two (The D. Case is really an investigation into Dickens’s last unfinished novel, one of the most famous detective stories of all time). And so, The Lover is something of an anomaly, since it is not really a crime novel, but more (as the title suggests) a love story. However, it’s worth saying that, with the possible exception of their first two novels, both set in Turin with the same protagonist, each of their novels is highly distinctive, with its own flavour, setting, and cast of characters. Fruttero and Lucentini never wanted to repeat themselves.
I’ll just add that The Lover does contain a strong element of mystery, mainly concerning the protagonist, which provides a sort of connection with their other novels.
Translating any book is a meticulous process of finding the essence of the author’s writing and transforming it into a manuscript that honors the original intent. Fruttero and Lucentini were a rarity in literature, writing as a literary team. Did their process create a book in which you found two companiable but separate voices or was the integration of their writing completely seamless? Did their writing process influence the way you translated their work?
Some time ago I read an interview with Fruttero’s daughter, in which she said that she was unable to identify any passages that were clearly written by one or other of the two writers. It seems that the integration of the two voices was seamless, as you put it. Each of the two writers did publish books individually but I confess I haven’t read them (they were never so successful as their joint ventures). In life, Fruttero was very outgoing and sociable, while Lucentini was a more retiring and scholarly figure. But I would be hard put to point to a single scene, or even a single sentence, and attribute it to either of them on that basis. In any case, when translating the novel, I never posed such questions and so this aspect of their writing method had no influence on the way I translated their novels.
The Lover of No Fixed Abode is deliciously witty. Translating humor is extremely challenging and for you in addition, there is also an almost 40-year gap between when the novel was originally written and published in English. How were you able to keep the witticisms so fresh and lively for contemporary readers?
I’m very glad you think I succeeded in this. Although they wrote a good deal of humorous journalism, which inevitably has not survived quite so well, the wit in their novels is of a timeless sort, principally concerned with puncturing pretentiousness and pomposity, and taking an ironic look at the minor (and sometimes major) deceptions and self-illusions so many of us are guilty of in our social interactions. This kind of humour doesn’t date.
Perhaps there are one or two moments in the novel when characters say things that might strike a modern ear as inappropriate, but I guess that is inevitable.
I found the prose to not only be impeccable but the rhythm to be beautifully expressive. Italian is a more lyrical language than English, and so I’m wondering how you retained the vivacity in English without losing the mellifluous cadence of the original Italian. Does your immersion into poetry help in this instance?
Thanks for this. I often spent a good deal of time on individual sentences, trying to create rhythms that would give some notion of the elegant cadences of the original Italian; perhaps my constant immersion in poetry paid off in this respect. I would certainly like to think so.
Fruttero and Lucentini lived in Turin, but they write about Venice as if they’d lived there all their lives. Their nuanced descriptions of the city and her history are resplendent and evocative, it feels as if they have experienced every dank corner and mullion. As someone who has lived in Venice for 40 years what is your impression of their Venice? Is there a particularly eloquent descriptive phrase you can share with us that deciphers one of the city’s secrets?
It’s very clear from the novel that they must have spent a good deal of time here, exploring every angle of the city. Some of their best descriptions are of little-known corners of the city, like the Campo dell’Abbazia in Cannaregio, which acts as the setting for a wonderful love-scene late in the novel:
Mr. Silvera (leaning back on one elbow, while she entwines her fingers around his knee) can think of no other spot in the world, among the many it has befallen him to see, where artifice attains such heights of naturalness, radiates such a sense of fullness, a fullness that cannot be perfected or increased – like the sea, a forest, a desert. The best – he reflects – that could be achieved by the sweat of the brow after man’s banishment from the Eden of divine fabrication.
This rather large reflection on Venice’s curious combination of artifice and naturalness is followed by a beautiful sentence capturing the sounds of the city late at night:
From the water they hear occasional subdued thuds, as the moored boats bump into one another, and friendly creaks, light metallic arpeggios of chains. Opposite them, a small wooden bridge extends its humble planks over the canal.
I love that you had the opportunity to meet the authors when you translated, La verità sul caso D, in 1993. Does it change your feeling of responsibility when you’ve sat across from the authors you are translating and discussed their work?
It was quite an experience; I sat in Lucentini’s study (smoke-filled, as they were both inveterate chain-smokers) while he and Fruttero read every single page of my translation, passing each sheet between them, and making the occasional comment and suggestion. I was fairly new to translation at the time and so occasionally the precise meaning of an idiomatic phrase had got past me – especially when they were playing on the double meaning of words. There were also moments when I had slightly altered the structure of the sentence, which they questioned; sometimes I felt I was right, and when I explained my reasoning, they accepted my judgement; in other cases, I fell in with their suggestions. We never talked in English, so I have no idea how good their spoken English was, but they certainly had a fine grasp of the written language. (Lucentini apparently could read as many as 17 languages.) So, yes, when I translated this novel, I bore in mind that experience and did my best to live up to their standards.
Several poetic phrases are integrated into the story however it was, “She walks in beauty, like the Night…” that caught my breath. As a Byron scholar, what was your impression of the authors’ choice to include these 7 words?
That is Byron’s most famous lyrical poem and works beautifully in the context of the novel. I always look with favour on writers who quote Byron appropriately…
Jhumpa Lahiri, who also translates from Italian to English, feels that “translation has transformed” her relationship to writing. Has your work as a translator changed the way you approach writing your novels?
Jhumpa Lahir is something of a phenomenon in that she has actually begun to write her own creative works in Italian. I can’t imagine doing that myself. When people ask me if I write in Italian, I usually reply by saying that I find it hard enough to write in English, and so see no reason to hobble myself with an extra obstacle.
In any case, I think I have to answer no; I don’t think it has changed my approach to writing my own works. I suppose (or perhaps better I hope) that, as with all creative work we undertake, the labour of seeking the right words to match the Italian ones adds to my overall sensitivity to the language, but I don’t think I can point to any specific instances of this.
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