Spanish edition of an autobiographical novel by Natalia Ginzburg, published by Flavia Company
This past week I received 17 new followers to this blog. I’m attributing this to Sam Rasnake’s (editor of the Blue Fifth Review) recent acknowledgement of my writing over Twitter. Thank you, again Sam. For any curious new followers, I’ve decided to post the first chapters of my soon-to-be published novel. This blog revolves around this work of fiction and various unrelated pieces of flash fiction I’ve written in the three years since this blog began.
Natalia Ginzburg in black and white
As regards the novel, from a stylistic perspective, it was inspired by the non-traditional novels of the Nouveau Roman movement, a French style of literature made famous in the late 1940s and 50s which diverged from classical literary genres. Some of the literary inspirations for my first novel include Alessandro Barricco’s Silk, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and Natalia Ginzburg’s novel, La Strada che va in la citta, published in English as The House and the Street. The latter is a narrative composed of letters between friends which span many years. The letters are intimate and captivating, introducing readers to a series of characters, exploring the most operatic and mundane aspects of their lives.
I discovered Ginzburg and read The House and the Street after an extended stint in Turin. Several years after reading Ginzburg, I was seated by Iseo Lake (about an hour and a half from Milan). It was early afternoon. After a couple of cafe macchiatos, I heard the voice of Sophie Rowe, the young woman who would turn out to be my main character, in my head. She was seated in a bar at the Johannesburg airport preparing to board a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Shortly before she boarded the flight, she would send a text message to her best friend, a character I would soon come to know as Vincent Lee. That afternoon, in a bustling lakeside cafe, I wrote:
From: Sophie 27. 83 520 5327
To: Vincent 13 June 2006 9:07 p.m.
Using my old South African SIM card and it feels weird. Sitting in a bar in the Jo’burg airport. Bad service. Their fault. Too much wine. Definitely mine. We board at 9:55. Love night flights. Can’t wait to see you.
From: Vincent 84. 4 334 718655
To: Sophie 13 June 2006 9:15 p.m.
Asia and I are waiting for you and with open arms. Rest on the plane. You are well on your way and to a new life!
My main character’s story would essentially begin with a text message and end with one. For inspiration, I have Natalia Ginzburg to thank. Below is the opening narrative to my novel, formerly titled, From the Journals of Sophie R. The title is currently in revision.
FROM CATALOG 002 (E) FOLDER OF PRINTED EMAILS
From: Sophie Rowe to Vincent Lee
Monday, 14 June 2006
Subject: From Ho Chi Minh City with Love
Finally, I have arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Where is the lost Vietnam of Marguerite Duras? In its place I find a sweltering metropolis.There are all these people lunching on noodle soups, clustered on urine-stench sidewalks. There are all of these overpriced Western shops. Louis Vuitton. Hermes. Prada. I hate to harp on consumerism but I expected something more poetic.
I will be in Saigon for three days. I am scheduled to photograph a Singaporean pop star who looks a bit like a porn star. She will be famous very soon. I just met her agent, a coltish Brazilian with whom the pop star is rumored to be having a desperate affair. I must say, they don’t look like lesbians but then again what do lesbians look like?
I had lunch with them this afternoon at that Vietnamese fusion restaurant you recommended, Highway 4. We ordered a huge plate of the catfish spring rolls that far exceeded even your ravings. After lunch the pop star took me on a tour of the city, during which I witnessed people on motorbikes carting large television sets, small sofas and pig carcasses gutted, iridescent and leaking blood all over the city streets. After that impromptu tour, I was more than happy to retreat to the relative peace of my hotel, just down a shaded alley off Le Than Ton.
I did not want to get into it by phone but in case you have not picked up on it yet, I am miserable. When I got on the plane in Johannesburg, I was a bit drunk. I am surprised I was allowed onboard. I didn’t think they let intoxicated people on planes these days.
I hope to find some peace in Hanoi. I look forward to seeing this Hoan Kiem Lake you have spoken of so fondly. The river in Ho Chi Minh City, is it the Saigon? I have found to be egregious, its cesspool waters grey and putrid. I am now what I claimed I would never become: jaded and provincial. After all, I have been in Vietnam for two days and I complain. I was not in South Africa long but as you well know, I complained there too. I guess this does indeed make me jaded, provincial and certainly petulant. I escaped the States to buck these trends entirely. Mark my words: I have failed to do so and with distinction.
Maybe my mood will hit an upswing once I reach Hanoi. People keep describing it as a bustling village with lots of green space, quite unlike Ho Chi Minh City. I hope I find these assertions true. It sounds like I might very well find some of Duras’ charm in a place like this.
Back to the Singaporean. She showed up for our meeting in a periwinkle tank top, tiny denim shorts and skyscraper heels, a la racy American pop star. During lunch her nipples raised to the surface of her t-shirt like the pursed lips of tiny fish. I thought of you as I observed this. She is the type who would enthusiastically sit for one of your portraits.
P.S. I am due to arrive in Hanoi at two o’clock on Sunday. I have booked a room at the hotel you recommended in the city center. At eight o’clock, I shall meet you on the terrace of its famed Bamboo Bar, the one you say will remind me of a posh African restaurant. I do not think this is a good thing. I should not have to remind you, I came here to forget Africa.
From: Vincent Lee to Sophie Rowe
Subject: The Singaporean Pop Star, the Brazilian, the Fish
Thursday, 14 June 2006
God, you do sound miserable. It sounds like you need a break. You’ve been through a lot and Saigon can be a tough adjustment.
As for Vietnam, I think you’re the only one holding on tight to Duras’ rendition, but at least you’re not like the Americans who think of Vietnam as a war, not a country. I’ll stop now. I won’t complain about Americans. It would be a bit like you complaining about South Africans.
Yes, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Hermes, Saigon is full of all that shit and I hate it. I’m still working in Seoul two weeks out of the month. Then I come back to Hanoi, to settle into my father’s studio in the Old Quarter. It’s a dilapidated French villa, sectioned off into apartments. It’s a great place to paint. The light during the afternoon is fantastic. Hanoi is exactly as I described it. We’ll go down to the lake just like we did that fall I came to San Francisco and we just walked around the city and talked in the rain.
As for the pop star, I’ve googled her. You’re right. I’m salivating. Nipples like the pursed lips of fish? Really, Sophie that is ridiculous. As far as the secret lesbian relationship with the Brazilian, what man wouldn’t love that?
The Bamboo Bar, Sunday at eight and yes, it will remind you of a posh place in Cape Town or Nairobi or some far-flung, cool African city, sorry but it’s true.
With love (whatever that means),
84.4 434 621988
15 June 2006 4:28 p.m.
Just met a jazz singer from NYC. She sings at the Bamboo Bar. Told her we may be there tonight. Maybe we’ll get a chance to hear her sing.
84.4 334 718655
15 June 2006 4:37 p.m.
Ok. Sounds great. Can’t wait to see you.
From: Sophie Rowe to Vincent Lee
Monday, 16 June 2006
Subject: About Last Night
It was wonderful to see you last night. As for this hotel, it is absolutely lovely. I never want to leave. I will see Lili again soon. I guess I should stop calling her the pop star. She does indeed have a name. I have asked her to meet me for breakfast tomorrow morning. She travels back and forth between Singapore and Saigon. She is, rather shockingly, the daughter of an esteemed classical pianist and a Taiwanese politician. Interesting family back-story. I am due to shoot her in one of those lavish upstairs suites, beloved by Queen Noor, Catherine Deneuve and Angelina Jolie. Apparently if one is some sort of dignitary or actress, the Metropole is definitely the place to be.
Back to last night: sitting across from one another, catching up in person was great. All of our usual territories were mapped out, covered. The only thing that shocks is the curiously blank canvas of your love life. I’ll expect some eventual details. Speaking of love life, or should I say potential love life, not long after you left this Russian gentleman arrived at our table. He simply walked up and introduced himself. I must admit he seems interesting. He spoke at length about architecture, urban planning, emerging markets. It was difficult to pin him down on the specifics of his employ. He will be in Vietnam indefinitely. I saw a ring on his finger. I assume he is married. Would you speak to me again if I told you I agreed to get together with him?
You are in Seoul at the moment. I wish you weren’t. I really wish you hadn’t rushed away for another one of your commissions, but you always were a workaholic.
On to other things, did you hear about the death of that stunning actress from Seoul? You know the amazing Korean girl who committed suicide? I have no idea why, but it seems if you are beautiful and young and rich and Korean, it is suddenly in vogue to kill yourself.
Was I ever reduced to thoughts of suicide at twenty? Fortunately, or shall I say unfortunately those did not come until far later. At twenty I was terrified of not making it to Monaco. I wanted to visit the Monte Carlo cemetery where Josephine Baker was buried. I wanted to figure out a way to be both an actress and a writer. I had a lot of ideas about how my life would be. I imagined I would live in New York City and somewhere around the age of twenty-eight, marry a man far older than myself. At twenty you confused me endlessly. You walked up to me in Golden Gate Park. You told me you were from France but you spoke English with a seamless American accent that you claimed to have picked up courtesy of an American school. You said your mother was from New England and claimed she met your Vietnamese father as a student in Paris. After we had walked along for some time, rambling on about God knows what, you pulled a battered copy of Malady of Death from your backpack and insisted that I read it. You introduced me to Madeleine that afternoon and the two of you took me to an old art house cinema to see Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘The Double Life of Veronique.’ I thought you were the most fascinating person I had ever met. I never imagined all these years later we would be meeting up in of all places, Vietnam.
I must go. The Russian has phoned three times during the course of this email and I have failed to pick-up. Mio Dio, he is insistent. If I don’t respond soon, he may soon be at my door.
Yours as always, Sophie.