Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Giorgio Scerbanenco, dark maestro of Italian noir

I can't quite figure out whom Giorgio Scerbanenco reminds me of most. He can be as dark as Leonardo Sciascia, as deadpan realistic as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, as probing in his observation of people as Simenon, as humane as Camilleri, as noir as Manchette, as hope-against-hopeful as David Goodis, but with a dark, dark humor all his own.

In short, the first-ever English translation of his 1966 novel A Private Venus (Venere Privata) has to be the year's biggest event yet for readers of translated crime fiction, and I hope its status as a new book in English makes it eligible for the big crime-fiction awards in the U.S. and U.K. next year.

Here's a passage that sums up the novel's intriguing mix of involvement, alienation, social observation and wry, dark self-awareness:

"Everything was going wrong, the only thing that worked was the air conditioning in those two rooms in the Hotel Cavour, cool without being damp and without smelling odd; everything was going badly wrong in a way that the confident, efficient Milanese who passed, sweating, along the Via Fatebenefratelli or through the Piazza Cavour couldn't begin to imagine, even though they read stories like this every day in the Corriere. For them, these stories belonged to a fourth dimension, devised by an Einstein of crime, who was even more incomprehensible than the Einstein of physics. What was real was going to the tobacconist to buy filter cigarettes, so that they didn't feel so bad about smoking ... "
***
Not much is available about Scerbanenco in English.  This edition of A Private Venus, from Hersilia Press, includes a short autobiography called "I, Vladimir Scerbanenko." This outline of Italian crime fiction includes a few remarks. If you read Italian, Wikipedia offers a detailed summary of the novel. The Italian Mysteries Website offers a brief discussion of Duca and the Milan Murders, a 1970 translation of Traditori di tutti, second of Scerbanenco's four novels about the defrocked Milan physician Duca Lamberti. (A Private Venus is the first.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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9 Comments:

Anonymous solohoh said...

I can't quite figure out whom Giorgio Scerbanenco reminds me of most

Who? Whom? Whom gives a shit.

Simenon and to a lesser extent Camilleri are close to a gold standard for me. I'll definitely pick up a Scerbanenco whenever I come across one.

June 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Whom gives a shit, indeed. But that's my point: Scerbanenco calls all those authors to mind without, however, reading just like them. I'm reaching for superlatives, and Scerbanenco is an original. And add Friedrich Glauser to the list of authors whom Scerbanenco might call to mind.

If you plan to read in English, the only Scerbanenco books you'll find, at least in the Duca Lamberti series, are this one, which is to be published in the UK later this summer and the US in the fall, or an old translation of the second in the series, called Duca and the Milan Murders. I started reading that one quite some time ago, but I put it aside. I don't remember why, but I'll certainly take another look.

June 26, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I seem to have developed, if not The Hands of Orlac, at least the fingers of Orlac. With all due sheepishness, I must confess the last commenter 'solohoh' was me. I think the mistake was due to the intimidatory nature of those anti-robotic gatekeepers of yours or more precisely of Blogger's.

Looking forward to trying Scerbanenco.

I can't quite figure out whom Giorgio Scerbanenco reminds me of most

My grasp of who/whom is limited but in my innocence I got confused by object and subject in that sentence. Straighten me out, Peter!

June 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm mildly disappointed. I thought "solohohoho" was meant to signify mocking laughter.

The who/whom distinction is an easy one to figure out, if one chooses to try. Take the clause in question, rearrange it in normal subject-verb-object order, then replace who/whom with either he or him. If him is the correct choice, the original clause takes whom. So:

Scerbanenco reminds me of HIM most ... and thus whom is correct.

My word choice is not sexist, by the way. She/her would work just as well. But since him and whom both end with m, him works better as a mnemonic device.

June 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, did you see that no less a personage than Stephen Sartarelli weighed in on your question about cursing the saints?

June 27, 2012  
Anonymous Howard Curtis said...

Thanks for the attention paid to Scerbanenco.

As translator of A Private Venus, let me just clarify for your readers: This is indeed the first in a series of four novels based around the character of Duca Lamberti, an ex-doctor turned police consultant - a series that was immediately greeted in Italy as a turning point in crime fiction in that country. Scerbanenco had plans to continue the series, but died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 58.

Duca and the Milan Murders is the title of a 1970 translation, which I haven't read, of the second in the series, Traditori di Tutti. I am currently retranslating this book, for publication next year. (Title yet to be decided.) I hope to then translate the last two in the series, again for Hersilia Press.

Scerbanenco was indeed enormously prolific, though it's worth noting that not all of his 100-odd novels and 1,000-odd short stories (nobody's sure of the exact figures - he used a lot of pseudonyms)are in the crime genre. Most, in fact, were romantic fiction: for a long time, his "day job", so to speak, was as editor and agony uncle on women's magazines.

June 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I’m a trifle embarrassed that you commented on this post rather than on the previous day’s post about A Private Venus; I mentioned the translator in that one.

I knew Scerbanenco had written for women's magazines, but I didn't know he was a Miss Lonelyhearts. And I wonder why English translations of his work have been so sporadic, especially if he was recognized immediately as a trailblazer. Maybe that's because, at least to judge from the evidence of this one book, he did not pay forthright homage to American predecessors the way French filmmakers and crime writers did.

June 29, 2012  
Anonymous Howard Curtis said...

I suspect that 1970 translation didn't do well, so nobody bothered after that. It was an odd choice, anyway, to select the second in the series: this is very much a series, with each volume referring back to the one before, and there are definitely things in the second book that don't make much sense if you haven't read the first.

Also, the Scerbanenco estate doesn't seem to have been in any hurry after that to release the English-language rights. I know of at least one publisher that has tried to get the rights over the years, without success.

In France, on the other hand, quite a lot of Scerbanenco has been translated.

June 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It figures. Just when we were getting over our Francophilia, one more thing to envy the French for.

I hope these English translations of Scerbanenco do well. I really do think we who read in English will have to add him to the list of great noir authors. Rewriting history is an exciting prospect.

June 30, 2012  

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