By Moreno Giovannoni
A Sentimental Education
My father who died a few weeks ago left me a legacy. He left me the Italian language and Italy and he left me a book.
Working backwards through that list of three, the book he left buried inside me and I had to work hard to make it come out.
The Italian language he left all around me although over time it became tarnished. But that’s OK. You can’t live in a foreign country like Australia all your life and not start to lose the pristine first language of your youth.
Italy itself has been one of those unresolved issues that I suspect is going to resolve itself by gradually vanishing, but it will remain stuck in my throat. Italy has been one of those experiences that, when cut off at the peak, remain unresolved. This can happen, especially with love affairs. It happened to Romeo and Juliet when the adults got in their way – Romeo and Juliet doubled down, as the Americans say. If they’d been left alone they might have got used to each other. Or maybe not.
The book I wrote, that I just mentioned, started growing a long time ago, in particular nurtured by particular kinds of experiences which when taken as a whole form what I call my Sentimental Education. If Sentimental Education rings a bell then I have to tell you that Gustave Flaubert’s book, L’Éducation sentimentale, the yellow Classiques Garnier edition, is still sitting on my bookshelf unread. I read his short stories and I read Madame Bovary in my youth but never L’Éducation sentimentale. What interested me about it and why I thought I would like to read it was its sub-title: Histoire d’un jeune homme.
That’s me, I thought. I’m a young man, I’d like to read that.
For a young man like me who wants to write a book a sentimental education is both crucial and inevitable. Everyone has a sentimental education whether they know it or not. The idea is to get a good one. How you do that I don’t know.
My sentimental education is my emotional response to a set of events in my life that had a lasting impact. I’ll tell you about some that influence my writing.
And, although my Catholicism has well and truly lapsed I must also acknowledge the role that some magnificent teachers played in my sentimental education: 1) Sister Paul (or was it Sister Borromeo?), who suggested I read the Wednesday edition of The Australian, which was the arts edition – I don’t know whether this is true or not, or whether it ever was, or whether I imagined sister Paul (or Borromeo) telling me that. Anyway, I read it.; 2) Mrs Carroll, who taught me French and English and said one of my compositions reminded her of the French surrealists. The last sentence of the piece was one word long: Blackout. She loved it.
I’ll start with things I learnt working as an interpreter and follow with various kinds of epiphanies. Most of the experiences I call epiphanies, but that’s just a writing trick to try to create some order. You can call them anything you like.
As an interpreter I do a lot of sitting and waiting and watching. It’s the perfect job for someone who’s writing a book about people and the things they do.
The 45 Degree Penis
The first time I interpreted professionally was for a doctor who did not speak Italian and worked in the old Commonwealth Centre (the “Green Latrine”, now replaced by an apartment block) on the corner of Spring and Latrobe Streets in the Melbourne CBD. This doctor examined applicants for invalid pensions and other government benefits. His patient was an Italian man who had had a workplace accident. The Italian was pushing a plank of timber onto a circular saw when the saw flung the plank back at him hitting him in the groin. From then on his erections were all at 45 degrees, laterally. He argued that this caused all kinds of difficulties and made his life unbearable. The only other detail I remember is that, after the patient had left, the doctor asked me if I thought he was being truthful or was making it up. In our interpreter training we had been warned that some so-called “professionals” would ask us what we thought, but that it was professionally dodgy to express opinions of this kind. I told the doctor that I didn’t know.
This incident, reinforced by subsequent examples, taught me a number of things which have found their way into the book I wrote:
1) human beings are hilarious and endearing
2) truth is much stranger than fiction (and more interesting)
3) a lot of Australians don’t trust people who speak another language, so migrants will find it very hard to fit in until they stop sounding like migrants
I’ll include one more interpreting lesson suitable as book material (out of hundreds that have affected me). This one, just the other day.
Scene: Nursing Home
An interpreter is sitting in the foyer waiting for the appointment time. He is early. The main entrance door to the nursing home is of course locked.
Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers is playing on endless repeat over the PA system as an old man in a wheelchair who has parked himself next to the door rattles the handle continuously. He wants to get out. An old woman shuffles past with her walker, travelling to the right and disappears from view. The song plays. The old man in the wheelchair rattles the handle. The old woman glides back into view, travelling to the left. The song plays. Repeat. Everything is on endless repeat.
Watch this: epiphany – epifania – befana. See? Everybody loves a good epiphany. No drugs required.
In Italian folklore there is an old woman called la befana who on the eve of the 6th of January delivers nice presents to good children and a piece of coal to bad ones. The Epiphany, as you know, is also the day the Church celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the world as a human being (incarnate is the word they use). Think of the Magi. Think of a powerful revelation.
Epiphanies are useful when you want to write a book. Epiphanies reveal something to you about existence. Epiphanies can lighten your heart, lift you off the ground, can make you sad, at the very least teach you something. I love epiphanies and actively search them out. Sometimes I think I’m a sucker for an emotional roller-coaster.
Musical Epiphanies that go Whack!
I had some of my earliest epiphanies while sitting on the back veranda at Buffalo River playing Beatles records, looking out over the tobacco growing in the paddocks on the river flat to the line of the river in the distance and the hills on the other side.
One epiphany hit me when I was about thirteen years old (epiphanies often just hit you, whack!) during the 4-minute coda of Hey Jude. I remember it even now. At one of Paul McCartney’s virtuoso screams I heard a saxophone (even though there isn’t one in the song) and saw it twisting slowly through the air. Then I got goose-bumps. The revelation from this epiphany was that if I ever wrote a book I would try to replicate that feeling. I’m not even close.
Pieces of music often produce epiphanies. Santana’s Samba Pa Ti is an instant epiphany. I had one after I got off the train at Ormond Station one day and walked down the lane behind the shops towards Malane Street. I had headphones on and was listening to music when Samba Pa Ti came on. I could say I shed an emotional tear or wept, but I won’t, I just cried when I realised how beautiful and full of hope life can be, and how sad. The Beauty, Hope and Sadness was in the music.
Puccini’s Un bel dì does it to me every time, ever since I used to pick up the turntable arm and drop it back again in the correct vinyl groove, over and over. Endless repeat.
Musical epiphanies are frustrating because they can also reveal truths that can never be matched by words alone. I am envious of those songwriters like Leonard Cohen who, for example, with four simple words – Suzanne takes you down – can tell a richer, more complex story than the words alone would suggest.
I have wanted to be the young oil company executive in the film Local Hero and return to live forever in the village with the little white houses that have chimneys that look like ears, with the red phone box on the other side of the street. I have wanted to live my life to Mark Knopfler’s Going Home, to his lead guitar and Mike Brecker’s saxophone.
Wake up Maggie, I think I’ve got something to say to you
In a seventeen year old boy’s emotional life Rod Stewart’s words in Maggie May were unforgettable.
The song was playing in the Brunswick air as he walked out of her house early that morning, jacket slung over his right shoulder, walking into the rising sun, James Dean or Albert Camus, take your pick. And yes, he was smoking a cigarette.
The powerful feeling of youthful male first sexual conquest was indelibly imprinted in my heart, a feeling never replicated until I was told my book would be published just a few weeks ago. That’s how good the news about publication was. That’s all I can compare it to.
When I am searching for courage and renewal I don’t say an Our Father and three Hail Marys – I listen to Maggie May, Un bel dì, Samba Pa Ti, Hey Jude, Going Home etc. I play the songs from the strongest, most optimistic days of my youth when I am writing.
At Buffalo River my father would pull the blind down in my bedroom before he went to bed. As soon as he had left the room I would lift the blind up again to allow the moonlight in with a view of the mountain that looked like a sleeping reptile, one heavy-lidded eye half closed. This was a gentle epiphany, a soothing revelation of peace in the world.
The Port Phillip Bay foreshore, from Elwood to Port Melbourne, does this to me too. The open space as far as the horizon on the water, the movement of the air, the sight of a ship or two in the distance. I’ll let you imagine what effect that has on a man who was a boy whose parents sailed in on that stretch of water sixty years ago.
Dark Epiphanies – the Australian Bush
Not all epiphanies are pleasant. My Epiphany of the Australian Bush unfolded thus and has ensured I will write this about Australia sooner or later.
There were houses here, a school, a post office and a general store. There were citizens, a school teacher, a postman and a shop-keeper. There is now original bush here. There is now not even a grey, dry, rotten fencepost, no fencing wire, no ornamental European tree incongruously positioned, out of place and time, no paths, no roads, no foundations, no cow pats, nothing. Nothing about which you could say a paddock has been here.
There is scrubby bush, a few trees.
Most of all there is nothing here.
The Pagan Void
There was a time as a boy when I was caught out among the trees in a gully just a mile from home late in the day, trees stuck in rolling land, sloping up and sloping down. The light had become a translucent pale brown with a darker colour arriving behind and I saw loping creatures, swinging arms with knuckles grazing the grass, breath forming puffs of mist in the Australian bush as they proceeded to the edge where the grassy open paddock began. Whatever inhabited the Australian forest was not human. God had never been here, never sent his Son or the Saints to convert the land. Its spirits were dry and thirsty for blood, a gnawing compulsion claiming them. I started running and ran and ran, glancing back over a shoulder once, then too afraid to do it again.
I exploded out of that forest and shot down the hill, scattering the herd of kangaroos grazing on the slope, to the barbed wire fence, started to scramble through, a barb penetrating the bottom of my leg just above the foot, and I tugged and tugged and I thought an Australian had caught me. Shot around a look and saw nothing, just the heartland that the city people avoid at all costs as they settle along the coast, the safe haven of the green fringe, dipping the collective toe in the outback myth occasionally for a short holiday.
If it’s not the primeval forest or the pagan void it’s the terrain swarming with grey rodents, rats and mice of all sizes, some disguised as kangaroos, some as wallabies, but all of them rodents. They are a squirming carpet laid on the Australian land, over an underlay of waterless cisterns banging hollow below.
Between Pisa and Lucca, where I was born, there is evidence of a human presence everywhere. Every inch of land has been walked on – by Visigoths, Roman legions, the Medici – and cultivated, every plant planted and pruned. Nothing is natural, everything has been touched by a human being.
I was told by a friend that I need to learn to read the Australian landscape the way the First Peoples do. I think she may be right, nevertheless my dark epiphanies are waiting there for me in a book.
The Epiphany Of Toothlessness – A Long Form Epiphany
When we arrived in San Ginese in October 1969, my grandfather Bucchione was there, age 62, toothless. He had a Tuscan cigar permanently planted in the corner of his mouth, kept in place by his tongue as he sucked the nicotine and swallowed the juice. Occasionally he spat a brown stream.
Out of Bucchione’s house came a tall, very thin woman, also toothless, a sunken mouth, wearing an apron, her hair in a scarf, shuffling in slippers on the gravel and broken concrete courtyard. She was cadaver-like, skeletal, a kind of grave-robbing ghoul. There were stringy flaps of skin on each side of her neck, the hollow of her throat was deep, her eye-sockets bony, her forehead made of hard stone and slab-like. What hair she had was thin and grey and drily flattened onto her head. She joined her hands in prayer and moved them up and down in the air, from her forehead to her belly all the while exclaiming
Within a few weeks I loved both of these people. My great aunt Gemma suffered from an overactive thyroid. She loved me to pieces.
Everything I learnt about my Italian extended family after that day can be encapsulated in the toothlessness of my grandfather and his sister.
This was a very different world and it was mine, just as the tobacco farm and the Victorian country town were. Now all I had to do was learn to love it. And I did. Toothlessness and all.
For the first time in my life I went to a funeral because someone died and the entire village knew him. All one hundred and twenty inhabitants – I counted them. We were never inside watching television because life was in the courtyard.
The surfaces of the physical world were hard, of stone, brick, marble, cement render, terrazzo tiling. There was no hessian, no linoleum, no timber, no veneers, no plasterboard, no cement sheet, no masonite, no corrugated iron, no red bricks. You could smell the stone and cement dust. The older houses had exposed beams. Upstairs, floors that had tiles laid over timber beams, bounced. House walls were reinforced with iron tie-rods inserted horizontally along their width and depth to stop them crumbling.
Less than a year later I was back in Australia, but that experience, a long-form epiphany, changed me profoundly.
Once I could have told you that I was an Australian boy whose family was Italian and that I lived on a tobacco farm at Buffalo River. For a long time I was only one thing and now I didn’t know who I was. And I never knew again.
Dear reader, these are just some of the events and experiences that have formed my Sentimental Education. They are just some of the events and experiences that have had a long-lasting impact on me and the book I have written and the next one I will write. I could go on but I can’t go on.
There is one last thing I have to say. And I think it applies to you too.
My life is a book, just as your life is a book. All my life I’ve felt like I’m writing a book. The book of my life is inside me and, really, I can only get small bits of it out. My life is too big and beautiful to get it out properly. This conclusion, the one I have arrived at, is the result of my Sentimental Education.