Alessandro Baricco first found fame with his novel Silk, published in 1996, translated into English a year later, and made into a film in 2007. Since then his work has regularly appeared in English, generally, but not exclusively, translated by Ann Goldstein. Baricco is a restless writer, difficult to pin down to a particular style or subject. (This might partly explain the number of publishers: he is now in the safe hands of Europa Editions). The historical setting of Silk is replicated in a number of his novels, from his retelling of the Iliad in the voices of its protagonists in An Iliad to the Victorian setting of Lands of Glass, but other novels such as Emmaus and Mr Gwyn, have a more contemporary setting. They also vary widely in length: Silk and Without Blood are little more than long short stories. What they perhaps share is a sense of the story being more important than the reality created around it – in other words there is something of the fable about them – and this can be seen clearly in The Young Bride.
It has a historical setting but one which is vague and undefined. Its characters are known only by their label – the young Bride, the Father, the Mother, the Son – with only their servant, Modesto, granted a name, albeit one which refers to his primary quality. The family have a strict routine which begins when Modesto wakens them with a weather report, and continues with a lengthy breakfast:
“The usual practice keeps them at the table for hours, crossing over into the zone of lunch (which in fact in this house no one ever gets round to), as in an Italian imitation of the more stylish ‘brunch’.”
This routine is disrupted when the young Bride appears (“She wasn’t expected that day, or maybe she was, but they had forgotten about it”), promised to the Son in marriage three years earlier, now eighteen, the age at which it was agreed they would marry. In the meantime, however, the Son has been sent to England to study the textile industry, and needs to be summoned by telegram.
The novel, then, is set up very much like a 19th century novel (I couldn’t help thinking, for example, of The House of Ulloa) where a stranger (acting as the eyes of the reader) is introduced to the household of an eccentric and isolated family, the primary concern being marriage. Two aspects, however, make it very clear that this is a contemporary rendering of an old tale: one is the sexual awakening of the young Bride; the other the self-reflexive commentary by the writer (not Baricco, but a character he has created) on the process of writing. The novel also has an unusual style where it drifts into first person at points in the story, frequently, but not only, with the young Bride:
“…writing about the young Bride, I more or less abruptly change the narrative voice, for reasons that at the moment seem to me exquisitely technical, or at most blandly aesthetic, with the obvious result of complicating the life of the reader; that in itself is negligible, yet it has an irritating effect of virtuosity that at first I even tried to fight, before surrendering to the evidence that I simply couldn’t hear those sentences unless they slipped out that way…”
The writer, though female, is not the young Bride looking back on he life When she reflects on being that age she remembers “only a great confusion but also… the waste of an unprecedented and unused beauty,” whereas the story of the young Bride is very much about learning to use her beauty.
Her grandmother tells her at a young age that her beauty is a danger to her:
“Forget that you’re a woman, don’t dress like a woman, don’t move like a woman, cut your hair, don’t look at yourself in the mirror, ruin your hands, burn your skin, don’t ever wish to be beautiful, don’t try to please anyone, you mustn’t please even yourself. You have to inspire disgust, and then they’ll leave you alone…”
It is only when she arrives as the young Bride that she allows herself to feel like a woman again, encouraged by, first of all, the Daughter, who teaches her to masturbate. This is followed by a sexual encounter with the Mother, who herself possesses beauty of great power – an index of the ‘incidents’ it has caused follows. (The Father limits his input to taking her to a brothel). As its title suggests, the novel is also an erotic story (when the writer is asked what attracts her to writing about sex, she replies, “That it’s difficult”) where sex is seen as a liberating force.
The contemporary female writer telling the story of a young woman’s coming of age set in a now-distant past couldn’t help but remind me of Elena Ferrante, but what we have is in fact a riposte to Ferrante’s work:
“I’ve never though the job of writing could be resolved by wrapping one’s own affairs up in a literary package, employing the painful stratagem of changing the names and sometimes the sequence of events when, instead, the more proper sense of what we can do has always seemed to me to put between our life and what we write a magnificent distance that, produced first by the imagination, then filled in by craft and dedication, carries us to a place where worlds, non-existent before, appear.”
This is what gives The Young Bride its fable-like quality, its refusal to entirely imitate reality, moving in single sentence from the everyday detail to the echo of a dream. It is both enticing and elusive at the same time, leaving the reader seduced but also teased, delivering a series of climaxes but never satisfying. As it says at the end:
“The young Bride knew the answer with absolute precision but she kept it to herself.
“Here I ask the questions, she said.”