A woman’s secret, a moving epic, and a glacial adventure

Five years ago, I began reading international literature and never stopped, having discovered an abundance of unforgettable stories, fine writing, and absorbing plots. The three novels here are written by Cuban-Italian, Polish, and French authors. They are where I’m imaginatively traveling right now.

I’ve read several pages of Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes. What has quickly drawn me in is the narrator’s private voice, as well as her perspective of how she is perceived by her loving family, that is, how they expect her to behave. I say “private voice” because she’s writing her thoughts and feelings in a secret notebook that she hides in the linen closet, or inside the sewing basket, or in a drawer under the letters her husband Michele wrote to her before they married. The setting is post-World War II Rome. Valeria Cossati is 43 years old. She works in an office to supplement Michele’s modest income as a banker. Her son and daughter are independently minded, in their early 20s.

“They all, including Michele, began laughing at the idea that I might keep a diary. ‘What would you write, mamma?’ said Michele. Mirella, forgetting her resentment, also laughed. I continued to speak without paying attention to their laughter.”

Valeria bursts into tears, and they all hug her, but it’s clear her husband and children think she’s incapable of having her own thoughts, let alone an inner life. The prose is so very personal. You can feel Valeria relishing her time alone with the notebook, the relief of being able to express her concerns, wants, hopes, and ideas without worry she’ll be teased about them, or questioned. Forbidden Notebook was first published in 1952. This new translation, released last week, is the work of Ann Goldstein. If you’ve read Elena Ferranti’s Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, etc.), you’ll have experienced her expertise.

Last November, the publisher Archipelago Books held a 40 percent off sale on their entire backlist. I learned about it from a Twitter thread that included readers’ recommendations of what to buy. I’ve long wanted to read more books published by Archipelago and so jumped at this opportunity. One novel that stood out among the recommendations was Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated by Bill Johnston. When I researched the title online, I found continued high praise in its mentions and reviews.

The story focuses on life in a Polish farming village before and after World War II through the eyes of the narrator Szymek Pietruszka. He’s described as wise, impetuous, plainspoken, and compassionate on the book’s dust jacket. The book’s plot summary says his narration recalls his youth in the village and his time as a guerrilla soldier, wedding official, barber, policeman, lover, drinker, and caretaker for his invalid brother. All this sounds so inviting to me. Szymek’s stories are described as both hilarious and moving. Also, the “narrative exudes the profound wisdom of one who has suffered, yet who loves life to the very core.” The book is a doorstopper in page count, at more than 500 pages, but that doesn’t for a moment make me hesitate.

I came to A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea, translated by Sam Taylor, via a review of the author’s newest novel, Devils and Saints. It was just a mention, that his previous novel was well loved, yet it was enough to capture my interest. It’s an adventure story that’s described by many as gorgeously written with vivid scenery. The plot summary tells of a university professor who in 1954 hears about a dinosaur fossil buried in an Alpine glacier. With three other men — his loyal friend Umberto, Umberto’s eccentric young assistant, and expert guide Gio — he sets out to find it. I’ll mention it’s a slim novel, so a nice balance to the epic length of Stone Upon Stone. According to the book’s description: “Time is short: the four men must descend before the weather turns.” It then proceeds:

As bonds are forged and tested on the mountainside, and the lines between determination and folly are blurred, the hazardous quest for the earth’s lost creatures becomes a journey into Stan’s own past. 

France’s newspaper Le Figaro said this about the novel, which was shortlisted for French awards: “Using beautiful imagery and poetic language, Andrea takes us to the mountains for an adventure that is as cruel as it is magical.”

Correction: I originally described Valeria Cossati’s children as independently minded teenagers. They are in their early 20s.

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