BOOK 3. which connects to book 1 and book 2 in the most irrelevant manner

I have been struggling for a long time – I can’t do it. Write about The Cloven Viscount, that is. I blame it on my curiosity.

Interested to learn what other people had thought about the book, I did a Google search and thus found a blog post that made it impossible to write my own. There they were: my own thoughts, the connections I noticed or suspected, images I loved… all the things I wanted to write about plus much more. 

It has been more than four months since then. There’s really no point in torturing myself further when one can simply head over to A Just Recompense and read her text instead. I liked it very much and I am glad to have discovered the blog!

Phew, now I can relax and continue my journey.


About the irrelevant connections... The Cloven Viscount is a kind of a book that is really a cornucopia of symbols, references, winks to many historical events and literary works, connections of both the insignificant and meaningful kind.

Still, I was amused by the fact that the book had something in common with precisely the two books I began this Italian journey with.

The connection with The Betrothed – brigands:

That day there was to be a trial of a band of brigands arrested the day before by the castle constabulary. The brigands were from our estates and so it was for the Viscount to judge them. The trial was held and Medardo sat sideways on his chair chewing a fingernail. The brigands appeared in chains. The head of the band was the youth called Fiorfiero who had been the first to notice the Viscount’s litter while pounding grapes. The injured parties appeared: they were a group of Tuscan knights who were passing through our woods on their way to Provence when they had been attacked and robbed by Fiorfiero and his band. Fiorfiero defended himself saying that those knights had come poaching on our land and he had stopped and disarmed them as poachers, since the constabulary had done nothing about them. It should be said that at the time assaults by brigands were very common, and laws were clement. Also, our parts were particularly suitable for brigandage, so that even some members of our family, especially in these turbulent times, would join brigand bands. As for smuggling, it was about the lightest crime imaginable.

The connection with Levi’s The Periodic Table is more interesting. There’s a a character in both of these books that confines himself to a room. Here’s Calvino’s:

… old Viscount Aiolfo, my grandfather, who had not been down to the courtyard for ages. Weary of worldly cares, he had renounced the privileges of his title in favor of his only son before the latter left for the wars. Now his passion for birds, which he raised in a huge aviary within the castle, was beginning to exclude all else. The old man had recently had his bed taken into the aviary too, and in there he shut himself, and didn’t leave it night or day. His meals were handed through the grill of the cage together with the bird seed, which Aiolfo shared. And he spent his hours stroking pheasants and turtle doves, as he awaited his son’s return.

And here’s Levi’s:

Remotest of all, portentously inert, wrapped in a thick shroud of legend and the incredible, fossilized in his quality as an uncle, was Barbabramín of Chieri, the uncle of my maternal grandmother.

[..] Now it happened that his mother, Aunt Milca (the Queen) fell sick, and after much argument with her husband was led to agree to hire a havertà, that is, a maid, which she had flatly refused to do until then: in fact, quite prescient, she did not want women around the house. Punctually, Barbabramín was overcome with love for this havertà, probably the first female less than saintly whom he had an opportunity to get close to.

[..] He did not say anything to the girl but told his father and mother that he intended to marry her; his parents went wild with rage and my uncle took to his bed. He stayed there for twenty-two years.

book No. 3

The Cloven Viscount
Italo Calvino
translated by Archibald Colquhoun (English),
Jugana Stojanović (Serbian edition)

R.U.R. #1920 club

Introductory Scene. Helena comes to free the robots.

Only, for someone who is advocating for robot’s rights, she doesn’t seem to know much about them. Indeed, she comes across as pretty ignorant, naive, incoherent and insecure. Is this a satire or is her ignorance just a tool, a means of getting us acquainted with the story? I am willing to believe it’s the former. It could also be said that I’m not inclined to believe the latter, being familiar with Čapek’s reputation, but who knows.. It is a possibility.

She thinks that robots are people, just as good as we are – but robots do not feel, do not have senses, do not have interests, do not have needs, do not have thoughts of their own. What is she basing this opinion of hers on then?

When told that the best robots last up to 20 years she says And then they die, do they? Yes, they get worn out, responds her soon to be husband. She doesn’t know that machines wear out?

Upon learning that Sulla, the robot employed as typist, can speak four languages she is convinced that they are all playing games with her, that it’s impossible that Sulla is not a living girl just like I am. So, she doesn’t know that robots store and use information? What kind of robots has she even met? Prior to introducing Sulla we learn that the factory never really makes individual robots, but we do have some that are better than others which means that she’s one of the special ones. So, other robots, that are out there in the world, have presumably less knowledge…

It seems that the only thing her activism is based on is the appearance – robots look like people and that makes it hard to believe that they are not human in other ways too.

When asked to explain her stances she can only speak in generalities, abstractions – no concrete issues.

Helena: What I mean is … (in an outburst) … this is all horrible, it’s vile! The whole of Europe is talking about what’s going on here and the way you’re treated. That’s why I’ve come here, to see for myself, and I find it’s a thousand times worse than anyone ever thought! How can you bear it?

Alquist: What is it you think we have to bear?

Helena: Your position here. You are people just like we are, for God’s sake, just like anyone else in Europe, anyone else in the world! It’s a scandal, the way you have to live, it isn’t worthy of you!

We never learn what this positions is – what is it actually that is horrible and vile? how is it they are treated?

1920-clubI’m late to the party. Indeed, the party’s over. Nevertheless, I want to note that I picked this book for Karen’s and Simon’s The 1920 Club. I read a Dover Thrift edition (in retrospective – why???) which turned out to be a bad one. The translators have cut the original play severely. I’ve started reading David Wyllie’s translation (citations I used are a work of his) and there is a whole story about schooling of the robots that is nowhere to be found in Dover. I understand that another good translation has been done by Claudia Novack-Jones (can be found here and compared directly to the original).

BOOK 2. in which there are monsters

The Periodic Table. Primo Levi

What’s with the librarians in this book?

Why are they Cerberi?


First, there’s a woman, Paglietta:

The librarian, whom I had never seen before, presided over the library like a watchdog, one of those poor dogs who are deliberately made vicious by being chained up and given little to eat; or better, like the old, toothless cobra, pale because of centuries of darkness, who guards the king’s treasure in the Jungle Book. Paglietta, poor woman, was little less than a lusus naturae: she was small, without breasts or hips, waxen, wilted, and monstrously myopic: she wore glasses so thick and concave that, looking at her head-on, her eyes, light blue, almost white, seemed very far away, stuck at the back of her cranium. She gave the impression of never having been young, although she was certainly not more than thirty, and of having been born there, in the shadows, in that vague odor of mildew and stale air. Nobody knew anything about her, the commendatore himself talked about her with irritated impatience, and Giulia admitted that she hated her instinctively, without knowing why, without pity, as a fox hates a dog. She said that she stank of mothballs and looked constipated. Paglietta asked me why I wanted the Kerrn in particular, insisted on seeing my identity card, inspected it with a malevolent air, made me sign a register, and reluctantly surrendered the book.

She’s not exactly intimidating, but her presence is unpleasant. Malevolent air – better to be on guard. She might be toothles but she’s been sitting on those books for a long time now. They are her purpose. She doesn’t read them, I should say – she’s a miser. She’s surrendering them (after a ‘fight’ – why, identity card) reluctantly.

Her colleague, on the other hand, a man, seems a bit more energetic:

an incompetent, insolent boor of exceeding ugliness, stationed at the threshold to terrify with his appearance and his howl those aspiring to enter.

This description doesn’t leave much to ponder or build upon. It’s very straightforward.  The library in which he works is equally unwelcoming:

the venerable library of the University of Turin’s Chemical Institute, at that time, like Mecca, impenetrable to infidels and even hard to penetrate for such faithful as I. One had to think that the administration followed the wise principle according to which it is good to discourage the arts and sciences: only someone impelled by absolute necessity, or by an overwhelming passion, would willingly subject himself to the trials of abnegation that were demanded of him in order to consult the volumes. The library’s schedule was brief and irrational, the lighting dim, the file cards in disorder; in the winter, no heat; no chairs but uncomfortable and noisy metal stools;

The Ambrosian Library, described in The Betrothed – founded by Federigo Borromeo after he became the Archbishop of Milan – stands in sharp contrast. The librarian there

was instructed to draw the attention of students to works which they did not know and which might be useful to them. The Archbishop laid it down that everyone, whether a citizen or a foreigner, should be allowed opportunity and time to use the library, according to his need.

the books in this library, which had been built by a private citizen and almost entirely at his expense, were exposed to the view of the public and given out to anyone who asked for them; and [..] visitors were actually given somewhere to sit, and writing materials, so that they could make any notes they needed;

Who wouldn’t felt the urge to spend days there, reading and discovering and copying? What Borromeo did was unheard of at that time. Biblioteca Ambrosiana was a rule breaker (and an inspiration, a role model for the Bodleian, and libraries all over the Europe):

in every other famous public library of Italy, the books were not even on view, but shut up in cupboards, from which they could only be extracted by special favour of the librarians, when they happened to feel like giving someone a glimpse of them for a moment. The idea of giving rival scholars convenient conditions for study never crossed their minds. To give books to those libraries was in fact to take them right out of use. It was one of those systems of cultivation, of which there were many examples then, and still are today, which convert fertile land into desert.

Book 1. The Betrothed

I’ve never, in my whole life, read a book with as many typographical errors as in this one. Almost every page contained a typo. Astonishing and annoying.

Next, there were some weird phrases that made me question the quality of the translation so I checked Penman’s translation to English and discovered that the book is 100 pages longer than the one I’ve read and has a different feel to it. A warmer atmosphere.. Now I’m curious about the original.

Manzoni writes with lot of adjectives and similes. This one was especially delightful:

So the count said no more, and the mayor, like a ship that has got clear of a sandbank, swept ahead on his eloquent course, with full sails.


The Count-Duke, gentlemen,’ went on the mayor, still sailing with a fair wind, but beginning to feel a little surprised himself at the total absence of obstructions,[..]

And then:

Heaven knows when the mayor would ever have reached port.

Made me laugh out loud.

Penman’s translation offers words sandbank and obstacle. The Croatian translation uses sprud (sandbank) in both sentences – it’s a bit dull, but assures the continuity of the simile, while the word obstructions breaks it. In Italian, it’s secca (shoal, bank) and then scoglio (rock, cliff, skerry). More reason to read the original one day…

The humor in The Betrothed is often ironic and delicious. At one point I was taken aback because it tasted British:

And you can see what it’s going to be like, from now on – everyone’s going to pair off. The biggest mistake Perpetua ever made was to die when she did, for this is just the moment when she’d have found a customer herself.

The book is a treasure trove. There’s a lot to talk about: Manzoni’s acute observations of the power dynamics between different classes, crowd psychology, descriptions of riots, famine, plague, the perils of the lack of education, pseudo-intellectuals, the neglect that the government shows in relation to the most vulnerable, the cloth-heads, the entitlement of Don Rodrigo, Abbondio’s hypocrisy,  the portrait of the nun Gertrude (compared to the main characters, which can feel flat, especially Lucia, Gertrude is vivid, and shows just how insightful Manzoni was), the question of Lucia’s beauty and its critics (that made Renzo bitter so it was luck that the couple never meant to stay in the village but move to another one where people had no expectations of her appearance!!!).

And in fact the trouble that he had experienced in the other village had taught him a useful lesson. Up till then he had been a bit free in expressing his views, and had often allowed himself to criticize other people’s womenfolk, and that sort of thing. But now he realized that certain words make one effect when they go out of the mouth, and quite another one when they come in at the ear; and he got a lot more into the habit of listening to the sound of his remarks inside his own head, before he opened his lips.

The novel is relevant (not least because of the coronavirus pandemic). It pains me to see how slowly people, societies change.

On to Primo Levi.

first stop

There are many approaches to this traveling-around thing. One could read one continent at a time, or do one group of countries that share a similar language/culture at a time, for example… Or maybe choose a biome and explore its influence on the people and their literature. I’ve always thought it an intriguing option, wanted to get to know the life in a desert, in tundras, tropics…

While there would be advantages to having some kind of a structured reading I am opting for no restrictions. With such a large project I feel that the freedom to just go where my curiosity should take me would be essential in keeping it alive. I might enforce one rule though – every next country should be from a different continent than the previous one.

I’ve decided to begin with Italy. (Yes, I too am laughing at myself – first stop: Europe!)

The list:

  • The Betrothed. Alessandro Manzoni
  • The Periodic Table. Primo Levi
  • The Cloven Viscount. Italo Calvino
  • A Girl Returned. Donatella Di Pietrantonio
  • Troubling Love. Elena Ferrante
  • The Profesor and the Siren. Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

The first three are the ones I really want to read not just because they’re good books but also because I would like to actually start reading the books I own again. I have been reading on my phone and Kindle a bit too much lately…

Diving into The Betrothed!

Around the World in 800 Books

I’m finally setting my sails!

This journey has been long in the making and I think that there’s no reason good enough to keep postponing it. Time flies. One should make the most of it. Or, rather, one should make time for things one cares about!

The goal is to read at least two books from every country in the world.

I have decided upon some general principles concerning this journey. I might come up with some additional ones once it catches the wind. So:

  1. I want to read both canon and contemporary literature from the country of choice.
  2. Read both women and men.
  3. The author has to be from the country of choice and
  4. writing about that country. That is to say, the story has to be set in that country.
  5. If possible, I want to read in the original language of the novel.


It is a huge project. I don’t have any time frames. My calculations are that it should take 10 years, at the very least, to finish it… Nevertheless, I feel enthusiastic because this is something I’ve been wishing to do for a long time now.  

Fair winds and following seas!

(new?) beginnings

Well, it’s been a while…


I feel like I have forgotten how to think and write about books. Still, I want to get back to it.

It feels like I should start a new blog but there’s also uneasiness about leaving this one.

I feel the need for uncharted territories but I also crave coziness.


This is a reflection of my life in general at the moment. New things hooking onto the established ones without creating ample, substantial change.


For now, I am accepting this.

Cheers for a new? beginning!


(the line between the new? and the old)

Women in Translation Month

Drafts are piling up. At the moment there are six of them, all in different stages of writing/editing. One of them is just a sentence long…

I’ve been away from the blog and the community for more than ten weeks now, and it’s harder than ever to come back to it. Plans and schedules for regular posting and reading/commenting on other people’s posts fell short. They started wilting as soon as I put them on paper.

I will obviously need more time before properly returning to blogging, but, in the meantime, since it’s August, I would like to try my best and take part in reading women writers in translation. I picked four books off of the shelf:

Mr Darwin’s Gardener. Kristina Carlson

Berlin lies in the East. Nellja Veremej

The Ant Heap. Margit Kaffka

The Vagabond. Colette


To manage at least two of these would be an achievement!


Two weeks ago, while running some errands, I stopped by the bookshop. I thought it would be a short visit since my only intention was to return a collection of Turgenev’s stories that I borrowed more than two months ago. Last time I was there, their used book stock was disappointingly thin. The category ”used books” no longer existed on their web page so I feared that they were planning to cut it out completely.

What a pleasant surprise it was to see the shelves full! Naturally, I had to stay and check what was on offer. I found quite a number of wonderful titles, among them Durrell’s Menagerie Manor (for a ridiculously low price) and The Shipping News.

  • Look at Me. Anita Brookner

When books are cheap, I tend to grab any available title by an author of interest. Particularly when a twentieth-century British woman writer (that I am yet to discover) is in question.

  • The Bell. Iris Murdoch
  • The Philosopher’s Pupil. Iris Murdoch

I have only read (and loved) the first couple of pages of The Sea, the Sea, but I have read a lot about her writing during my final year at the university. It’s the philosophy of morality that attracted me to her. Looking forward to exploring!

  • Menagerie Manor. Gerald Durrell

The best kind of comfort read – British humor and animals!

  • A Peppered Moth. Margaret Drabble

After reading four of her books I can say I have mixed feelings towards Drabble. If I’m to be honest the feelings are slightly leaning towards the negative side… Still, my hand automatically reached for this book and I concurred with it.

  • The Shipping News. Annie Proulx

I have read it some time ago, but certain images of the sea come back to me fairly often. I always knew I would like to reread it so here it is…

And at last!!… My first Virago Modern Classic! I felt such a rush of excitement upon spotting the green spine that it did not matter which author or which title it was. I am content with it being Stead’s The Salzburg Tales mainly because she is Australian – having it near will be a reason more to build up my laughable knowledge of the literature of that country.

When books are cheap, I tend to grab any available title by a publisher of interest… Well, in any case, this is certainly true of Virago. I found a collection of stories, Close Company: Stories of Mothers and Daughters, and decided it’s coming home with me.

The next day, my sister invited me to a birthday shopping spree and, after purchasing a dress and some flowers for the balcony, we ended up at the Here I lost my restraint and bought all the books I saw (and put on hold) the previous day.

  • Her People: Memories of an Edwardian Childhood. Kathleen Dayus

Another Virago… The subtitle offers all the explanation needed.

  • Eminent Victorians. Lytton Strachey
  • Orlando. Virginia Woolf
  • The Life of Samuel Johnson. James Boswell

These three books share a connection. I wrote my master thesis on Orlando following my interest in Woolf’s understanding of the art of biography. The Life of Samuel Johnson was the book which she praised and held in high regard so it was essential to read it as part of the research. Eminent Victorians I haven’t read but always wanted to since it occupies a significant place in the history of biography as well.

  • Master Georgie. Beryl Bainbridge

This one came as a surprise since I did not notice it the day before. Bainbridge belongs to a group of writers I am looking forward to getting acquainted with. I read Master Georgie is brilliant.

  • Lorna Doone. R.D. Blackmore

It’s a classic I knew nothing about. The name was faintly familiar, but nothing else. The time will come to change that.

  • The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien

I haven’t read it in the original language. Soon, I hope…

  • The Angel’s Game. Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The second book of the serial I am eager to dig into. Now I only have to get the other three!

Last but not least, A Gardener’s Guide to Herbs. I dwelled for a long time whether to buy this one or not since information on any possible herb is readily available on the internet at any given hour. However, I prefer having them in the form of a book and so the preference sealed the deal. Great photos, short instructions on sowing, caring for and harvesting 60 herbs; the book also states some culinary, medicinal, cosmetical and fragrance uses of these herbs. There are some craft ideas as well. Wonderful!

That was it.

A Book Fair and Presents from Far Away

April’s Sarajevo Book Fair was as uninspiring as the previous one. Usually, I visit it on the first day, with Joanna – it’s been our tradition for the past eleven years. This year, however, she had better things to do, and I went, feeling no excitement at all, two days before the closing day with another friend of mine.

I had a faint hope of finding some of Aitmatov’s novels and I actually did find one – The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years. It was so ridiculously expensive that even dwelling on whether or not to buy it was out of the question. Here’s what I ended up buying/getting:

  • Satantango. Laszlo Krasznahorkai
  • The Ice Palace. Tarjei Vesaas
  • Dani u Valhali. (The Days in Valhalla) Refik Ličina
  • The Puppet Master. Jostein Gaarder
  • The Golovlyov Family. Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin
  • Tužne šansone. (The Sad Chansons) Dušan Gojkov

Last year I bought Vesaas’ The Birds and was thrilled to learn that Dereta was planning to publish The Ice Palace as well. I’ve been searching for this book for ages! It finally came out and of course, I had to have it. Satantango was another book of theirs that drew my attention. Kraszahorkai’s has been on my reading list for years, so this was an easy choice. (I love Dereta’s covers – very simple, minimalistic, still very beautiful and effective.)

Digging through a bunch of red ”Reč i misao” (A Word and a Thought) books, I stumbled upon The Golovlyov Family. Karen opened my eyes to Saltykov-Shchedrin’s work when she wrote about The History of a Town. I looked up the existing translations to Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian and learned that there are seven books in existence (which is not a wonder at all). I made a note to myself to pay closer attention when browsing old, used book boxes and shelves. It has paid off. I am happily looking forward to reading it.

Gaarder’s latest novel was an early birthday gift from a friend and another book I know I shall enjoy reading. (Even though I have a hunch it will not be in the league of his earlier novels.)

Not sure why I bought Dani u Valhalli. It’s a kind of a fictionalized memoir about the author’s life in exile (in Sweden)… While I was checking a box with used books in English, at the same stall, the vendor asked if he could give me a gift, picked Tužne šansone and gave it to me for ”being pretty”. He also had Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Maugham’s stories (very cheap, forgot the title), but I had no cash left, and when I came back the next day both titles were gone. Just my luck. I still can’t get over them, especially Aristophanes…

In the end, it should be said that I am relatively satisfied with what I managed to get out of the Fair.

Next, I need to record the books sent by a dear friend in Malaysia. They have given (and continue to give) me so much pleasure. Just the sight of them is spirit-lifting.

A Nature Journal. Richard Mabey (Pure joy! Gorgeously illustrated by Clare Roberts. After reading it, I felt even more inspired to continue observing life in my small corner of the Earth.)

A Buzz in the Meadow. Dave Goulson (Another delightful title! I’m still reading it. Goulson knows how to tell a story.)

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. Sun-mi Hwang (A short and sweet novel about a hen who took things in her own.. wings.)

Pennine Way Companion. Alfred Wainwright (I love the visual aspect of this book – lots of beautiful illustrations and the font resembles handwriting. If I ever set my foot on England’s first continuous long-distance path for walkers, it will come very handy.)

So, that was April. On to write about the May book haul…