The Beautiful Summer

The second offering in Penguin’s new European writers series is Cesare Pavese’s short novel The Beautiful Summer originally published in 1949. The translator is unnamed – it’s not a new translation but one that was originally published by Peter Owen in 1955, though possibly under a different title. (The Beautiful Summer was actually a collection of three novellas – also including The Devil in the Hills and Among Woman Only, which Peter Owen published as single volumes. The original title of this novella is possibly The Curtain). The novel centres on the life of sixteen-year-old Ginia, and is a classic tale of lost innocence.

Pavese captures the excitement of youth on the novel’s opening lines:

“Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.”

Ginia has an advantage over her girlfriends of no longer living under the parental roof. She lives with her older brother, Severino, who works night shift, and does not suffer the same curfews or critical comments as her peers:

“In that wonderful year when they began living on their own account, Ginia had soon realised that what made her different from the others was having the house to herself – Severino didn’t count – and being able to live like a lady at her present age of sixteen.”

When her friend Rosa tells her she fears she is pregnant, however, she feels “cheated and left out of it as if she was a child.” Though she is adamant that “sixteen’s too soon” she is also “unable to think about it without feeling humiliated.” Here we already see Pavese’s great strength, his ability to pinpoint the contradictory feelings which will accompany Ginia throughout the novel: her fear and desire.

Ginia’s conflicted attitude to the opposite sex is displayed in her friendship with a woman a few years older, Amelia. She is both jealous and disapproving of Amelia’s carefree morality, which Pavese exemplifies in her work as an artist’s model. Ginia is fascinated: while commenting to herself that, “If I led her sort of life, I’d be more discreet,” she asks to see her pose. Pavese uses Ginia’s progress into the world of artists’ studios to chart her loss of innocence. When she first sees Amelia pose naked her reaction is again contradictory:

“It was the sort of foolish excitement she would have felt if they had been alone, the excitement at the discovery that they were both made in the same mould and whoever had seen Amelia naked was really seeing her. She began to feel terribly ill at ease.”

When Ginia first meets the painter Guido, whom she will fall in love with, Pavese has Amelia put out the light, leaving Ginia sitting in the dark, “terrified”, a suggestion of the moral darkness she is facing. Though Ginia is warned abut Amelia (her brother tells her, “You be careful…Amelia is pretty smart; you’re just the stooge”), her deepening feelings for Guido give her another reason to rely on her friendship, though she still resists what she sees as the more vulgar of her suggestions, such as when she ask Ginia to pose with her:

“They argued as far as the tram and Amelia asked her what she thought she had under her clothes to preserve like a holy of holies.”

Even when she is sleeping with Guido she retains a self-respect which she regards as missing in Amelia: when Amelia displays her breast to show Guido and Rodrigues they are better than Ginia’s, she refuses to join the competition, differentiating between such casual nudity and the love she feels for Guido. This is why, when she eventually poses naked for Guido, Rodrigues presence in the room is so important.

For a novel by a male writer, the male characters are strangely absent, only visible when Ginia and Amelia are present. Guido is at least honest, telling Ginia:

“You’re not the summer. You don’t know what it is to paint a picture. I ought to fall in love with you and teach you all about it. Then I should be wasting my time.”

Pavese’s attitude to this might be seen in the fact that Guido rarely paints, but he also captures the pleasure Ginia takes in her self-sacrifice, telling Guido, “I realise you have your own life. I don’t want you ever to find me a bore when we are alone.”

“Saying things like that gave Ginia acute pleasure, comparable to the pleasure of being locked in his arms.”

The reader may not be surprised at Ginia’s final fate, but The Beautiful Summer is an acute observation of the pleasure and pain of first love; the maelstrom of Ginia’s feelings is likely to be recognisable to any sixteen-year-old today.

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11 Responses to “The Beautiful Summer”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Oh a clever repacked of something older I have a collection of the four pavese from peter Owen

  2. Jonathan Says:

    I read this the other day and although I thought it was ok it didn’t really click with me. The style was too bland, there was no descriptive writing, few thoughts of the characters and no real background to any of the characters—of course none of these things are essential but in this case it fell a bit flat. There were some nice touches though and the female characters sounded realistic to me. I thought it might work better as a film.

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree with most of that, though I think we have a lot access to Ginia’s thoughts, and I thought the descriptions of the artists’ rooms, while repetitive, suggested the morally lax world she was entering. I also liked the way that modelling was used as a moral touchstone. I suspect, though, that its simplicity just suited me at that moment.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I love the sound of this. In fact I was eyeing it up in Waterstones the other week, desperately trying to resist! The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. Stories like Alberto Moravia’s Agostino and L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between really strike a chord with me, so I’m sure this would be a good bet.

    I’m a little surprised there’s no mention of the translator. Is the same true of the first title in this Penguin series or does this appear to be something particular to this book?

    • 1streading Says:

      As I was reading it I was thinking of you – I do think you would like it, and it did remind me of Moravia as well. It is a classic loss of innocence story.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just bought this the other day, so I started your review with a bit of trepidation. I’m glad you took to it, though I do note Jonathan’s comments which interest me (particularly the film comment).

    Re translators, I often find I have to hunt with Penguin books to find out who the translator was. They tend not to give prominent credit. Giving no credit though seems a bit far.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’ll will be interesting to hear what you make of it. The lack of credit for the translator is partly down to the translation’s age, and the fact that the translator does not hold copyright. Still, that’s no excuse

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