Tourism 101, Italy

Duomo, Milan
There will be many people - often too many - from all over the world. Nearly 49 million of them a year. You are one of them, you are part of the problem. Who does not want to visit the terraces of the Duomo in Milan? The galleries in Florence? Should you leave? Find a quieter place? Is there a quieter place?

No matter where it is, chances are you will wish you could stay longer. Just when you are getting the hang of a place, it will be time to pull out.

Never mind, in Italian cities, such as Venice, instincts are more reliable than maps. It's better to keep the agenda non-demanding.

The hotel will sometimes be less than what you expect, but really, what can you expect from budget accommodations in a place as popular as the Cinque Terre? Hot water when you step into the shower? Soap for more than one day?

Hikers, many with sticks that awkwardly search for purpose among the stones, locals lugging Ikea shopping-size bags of espresso coffee up the hill to serve the terrace restaurant above Vernazza, where the price of a cappuccino is the same as it is in cities that have not been chipped out of the side of an almost vertical mountain slope. In Manarola, where fishing boats are lined up on either side of the main street, between the bars and trattorias, there are oversize black and white portraits of smiling peasants carrying baskets of wine grapes on their heads. Still, it cannot always have been fun.

"The very nature of the land has forced farmers to adopt an architectural kind of order; its narrowness has begotten quite a formal harmony.That's how things stand in the Cinque Terre. Different wines are produced there. A famous one is the Sciacchetrà, a name that is strait as a die." Corrado Alvaro

The wine Alvaro wrote about ranges from 29 Euro in a small grocery, to 40 E, beautifully boxed, in a shop in Manarola. In the same village,  a pony-tailed waiter delivers plates of olives and fresh pesto on brown bread to the drinkers gathered at the bar high above the town and the blue sea. Should we blame Rick Steeves, who attracted so many people and assures that most of them will try Nessun Dorma, perhaps even read further about Sarah, whose mother made a memorial for her rogue-wave swept away daughter just outside the entrance to the popular spot? Steeves encourages travellers to become "temporary locals," and to visit towns off the typical tourist trail. Yet, as soon as he discovers some place, his fans do too, and then it becomes another stop on the trail he encourages people to sidestep. They check out the walks he recommends, the restaurants. Try to adopt the attitude, while still keeping an eye on their wallets. Pop quiz: Who wrote, Wherever You Go, There You Are? Hint: Not Rick Steeves.

Ferrante, Knausgaard

Not far into My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante's four Neopolitan novels, it was clear that I was setting out on a journey similar to what I had started with the novels that make up My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard's hexology. The similarities astonish. Both writers address their childhood in detailed, autobiographical fashion. Both create page-turning narratives. Both address contemporary issues, especially those of gender, though Ferrante does it analytically, while Knausgaard takes the opposite tack, largely shows instead of tells. He provides a modern male perspective, while Ferrante presents the view of a woman who changed as society changed. Their approaches challenge the trope that women write about the domestic and men about the larger world. That's just one of the differences that make comparing the two novelists irresistible, and many journalists, writers, and book lovers have been compelled to do so. When I first read Knausgaard, earlier in the year, his humanity stood out as much as his wizardry at scene creation. Ferrante is direct, political. I loved it that she kept returning to the neighbourhood where she grew up, both literally and figuratively, and how she inspired me to read "neighbourhood" as Italy in general. Actually, the entire western world, as she declares in the final volume of the series, Story of a Lost Child.
Lake (MB)

Ferrante's work is dominated by Mount Vesuvius, by sun and traffic, people who yell at each other and threaten to kill each other, on one hand, and discuss splits in left-wing politics on the other. The narrator is haunted by her insecurities, childishly pleased with, but also defensive about her successes as an author. Temperatures low enough to keep beer cold, even freeze it, ice, snow, and sylvan summers on the farm weave through Knausgaard's work and feel more essential to it than the beach towns and cities of Ferrante's Italy, until near the end of the last volume, when Naples gains historical weight.

Ferrante is the author's pen name. She prefers to remain anonymous and eschews public appearances, explaining in a Vanity Fair interview that was conducted via email,
"I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what. This was an important step for me. Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful." Yet her fictional self, the narrator Elena Greco, seeks just that kind of engagement with the literary establishment and feels unsuccessful when readers, editors, journalists stop paying attention to her.

Knausgaard is famously shy. The journalist Heather Mallick suspects he agrees to the appearances he makes out of courtesy. But he isn't a complete loner. The eurozine article Mallick refers to in her piece reveals him to be dependent on his editor and a small group of friends for feedback as his novels take shape. Almost anything one reads by him reveals him to be verbose, in print if not in person.

Italy feels violent, although, despite the many threats Ferrante's characters aim at each other, the murder rate there is actually less per capita than in Canada. The violence in Norway seems sinister because, perhaps, hidden, as in the case of Karl Ove's father. I imagine glowering faces, clenched jaws, narrowed eyes.

There's a clear arc in Ferrante's novels. Although they are about much more, they focus on Elena Greco's relationship with her friend Lina. This leads to some neglected threads of other storylines and a fair bit of repetition. Since the last two novels in Knausgaard's series are not yet translated, I don't see as clear an arc and doubt there is a single one. His prose depends for its forward movement on a series of arcs. Each scene, each chapter rises and falls, and cunningly draws the reader to the next.

With eleven novels between them, Ferrante and Knausgaard provide a literary feast. Pasta? Pickled herring? It's impossible to choose one over the other. I'll take both.