Friday, June 16, 2017

10 Novels for Fans of Fellini's Films

There's no denying that Federico Fellini was among the true maestri of Italian cinema. Plenty of filmmakers have aspired to emulate Fellini's style - one thinks of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, with its teasing autobiography, a deliberately tacky sense of pizazz, and surreal musical numbers, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, with its flamboyant dreams that ooze a distinctly queer-inflected straight sexuality and its bamboozled, confused male protagonist, Wes Andersen's The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its layer-caked strata of eccentric and hat-wearing hotel denizens and its hapless hero gazing with puppy-dog-eyed adoration at a man who wears perfume, not to mention Pedro Almodóvar's entire filmography - but Fellini remains irreducibly Fellini.

Pressed to offer an opinion, I would say that I love Fellini's films, but that wouldn't be strictly true. Unlike the films of Visconti, say, or Lina Wertmüller, I don't consistently love Fellini's films. I adored La strada, Amarcord, and Nights of Cabiria, but loathed Satyricon and Juliet of the Spirits, while The White Sheik actually bored me and I could literally shred apart Roma into two equally sized films, one I hated and one I loved, the bits and pieces all jumbled together as is. His two most celebrated films, 8 1/2 and La dolce vita, left me with a heap of disparate reactions that I can't manage to amalgamate into a coherent critical opinion. Fellini was enamored of shooting scenes of people eating that are so disgusting that after watching them I gag at the thought of food for days. Yet, in the end, Fellini offers so much that I love, from a fashion parade of priests in neon-lighted vestments to a mascara-stained tear rolling down Giulietta Masina's face, a mad uncle camping out in a tree shouting "Voglio una donna!" (I want a woman!) to Anita Ekberg swooning over a white kitten, the Nino Rota scores, the tinsel, Marcello Mastroianni in sunglasses, and the endlessly glorious hats.

Here, then, are ten novels for the Fellini fan:

Collected Fictions - Jorge Luis Borges
The dizzying, mind-bending, intellectual games of Borges's fiction, which strays through infinite libraries and labyrinthine gardens, are not merely inventive, as stunning as their inventiveness may be. Borges's understanding of the book, as a talismanic object, a world unto itself, the essence of possibility, has much in common with Fellini's understanding of cinema, its open-endedness, circularity, and perverse traversing of the space between artificiality and realism. The dream, as subject, texture, and medium, saturates both men's work. Among my favorites of Borges's stories are "The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," about a biographer's investigation of an Irish nationalist's Shakespearean murder, "Emma Zunz," Borges's only story with a female protagonist, a woman who plots a queasy revenge, and "Deutsches Requiem," written as the final confession of the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp.

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Bulgakov's wicked sense of political humor, twisted and yet ultimately quite evocative and devout Christianity, and self-reflexive explorations of what it means to be a man and a writer make him something of a more tortured and distinctly Russian Fellini of literature. Both were masters of playfulness deployed in the service of political and social critique, whether sly or brutal, and both obsessed over the grotesque. In The Master and Margarita, Professor Woland arrives in Moscow with his cronies, including a vodka-swilling, pistol-waving black cat and an angel of death, to put on a magic show and recruit a lovely young witch to host Satan's Grand Ball. The witch in question is Margarita, the grieving lover of a politically dissident novelist, the Master, whose novel about Pontius Pilate landed him in an insane asylum. This is a superlatively great book.

The Adventures of Pinocchio - Carlo Collodi 
Forget the Disney adaptation: The Adventures of Pinocchio is bizarre, creepy, riotously illogical, and nearly as terrifying as Struwwelpeter. In a sinuously plotted story that defies cause and effect and whose morality is both Manichean and constantly slipping sideways, Pinocchio isn't an innocent learning right and wrong; he's a nasty, stealing, selfish, unpleasant little brat who is not only the cause of his mother's death, but dies himself multiple times in gruesome ways, including being hanged. Despite the darkness and horror, Collodi's book has a robust, and distinctly Florentine, sense of humor. Add in its fascination with traveling performers, circuses, freaks, and overeating, and one must imagine this was one of Fellini's favorite books. 

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel García Márquez
A surreal recreation of family history threads through both the writing of García Márquez and Fellini's films, most obviously in Amarcord. One Hundred Years of Solitude is very specifically local, even as it has become the most famous and critically well-regarded work of Colombian literature, its sprawling story of the Buendía family, founders of Macondo, an attempted jungle utopia, metamorphosing into a reflected national history. Fatalistic and dream-like, sparkling with gems of wit and astonishing beauty, this book enchants and mesmerizes, even as it embraces a rather pessimistic view of humanity's inherent flaws.

The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
This impressionistic and at times almost hallucinogenic novel recounts the unification of Italy, distilled through the morbid and resigned reflections of the aristocratic Prince of Salina, the aging, leonine patriarch of a decadent family, moldering away in a crumbling palace. The Prince, confronted with revolution and class upheaval, sees the monumental changes with which his nephew is so enamored, as he is of the gorgeous but bourgeois Angelica, with a gimlet-eye. The novel's world-weary conclusion that everything must change, so that everything can stay the same, is compounded by the hothouse effect of Lampedusa's descriptive powers; long after reading the book, one will be able to smell the rotting corpse of a soldier in a blooming garden. Luchino Visconti's epic film adaptation is brilliant, with its painterly compositions, but doesn't quite capture the moribund magic of the novel.

Doctor Faustus - Thomas Mann
Leaping into the interstices between reality and madness, labor and creativity, Mann adapts the legend of Faust in this deeply intellectual saga of a composer's quest for musical greatness. Adrian Leverkühn's simultaneous striving for a new music beyond any music yet composed and descent into corruption, madness, and cruelty is mirrored in the cultural and political history of Germany, the philosophical decadence of Nietzsche's Superman and bewitchment with death and the shrieking nationalism of the Nazi Party. Mann's resistance to delineating what is 'reality' and what is the product of Adrian's syphilitic imaginings echoes Fellini's openness to the surreal, strange, and magically true.

Ada, or Ardor - Vladimir Nabokov
This, my favorite of Nabokov's novels, is written as the unfinished, heavily annotated memoirs of Van Veen, a famous psychologist whose lifelong love affair with his sister, Ada, obsesses him in his old age. Set in an alternate Earth, called Demonia or Antiterra, the novel's world fuses together diverse aspects of the 19th and 20th centuries, an uncanny blend of the familiar, the historical, and the purely fictive. Ada, or Ardor could thus be classified as science fiction, but it reaches far beyond one genre, encompassing erotica, family saga, scholarly treatise, poetry, and suicide note, and its devilish linguistic complexity requires a cursory knowledge of Russian and French. The novel is cosmopolitan, campy, lurid, ethereal, punning, and as literarily incestuous as its characters. Pair it with 8 1/2 for a potent head-trip, LSD not needed.

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie's magical realist history of India's independence owes as much to Bollywood films as it does to postcolonial theory. Saleem Sinai is one of the blessed, or perhaps cursed, children born in the first hour of India's existence as an independent republic, each endowed with a magical gift. Saleem has a powerful sense of smell and the telepathic ability to bring all of these children together to plot and plan, but his nemesis Shiva seems determined to destroy the bond they all share. Rushdie has a bouncy sense of fun, even as he sends Saleem out into repression, poverty, and war in India and Pakistan. Like Fellini, he refuses to take his country's history too seriously, while making an impassioned and pained gesture of love for that country, its culture and its values.

Higglety Pigglety Pop!; Or There Must Be More to Life - Maurice Sendak
Sendak's picture book may be less than seventy pages long, but in it one finds a rich and nuanced philosophical story, a rare book for children that doesn't cling ghoulishly fast to optimism. Jenny, a shaggy white dog, has everything there is in life, but it's not enough, so she sets out to be the star of the World Mother Goose Theater, only to discover there is something she lacks: experience. So, she seeks out experience and it takes her to some very dark places indeed. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is infused with an agonized sense that there really might not be more to life and yet its whimsy, sweetness, and puzzled curiosity keep it from getting bogged down in pure pessimism. As complex as any weighty tome by Kant, Hegel, or Schopenhauer, but much more fun to read!

Conversations in Sicily - Elio Vittorini
Written in simple, colloquial Italian, Vittorini's experimental novel follows a man in a profound and quiet despair, for he sees humanity as hopelessly lost, hopelessly irredeemable. A southern migrant working in the north, Silvestro heads home to Sicily to visit his mother on her saint's day, encountering strangers and family members, some of them dead or perhaps not there, and engaging in conversations that operate almost like a secular catechism. Usually interpreted as a veiled critique of fascism - and indeed, Vittorini would be imprisoned by the fascists for his political writing and resistance work - the book adheres to a dream-like sense of stasis, echoing repetition, and meandering forward movement and anticipates post-modernism. Silvestro's journey, his encounters and observations, the strange, highly localized, and yet, for me at least, comfortingly home-like details such as a frittata in the shape of a fish, form a quiet, calm, and still insistent protest against the pain of poverty, oppression, and the impossibility of truly knowing another human being.

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