Monday, June 25, 2012

Giorgio Scerbanenco, the father of Italian noir — in English

How highly does Italian crime fiction regard Giorgio Scerbanenco? The Scerbanenco Prize honors the year’s best Italian crime novel. Andrea Camilleri’s Track of Sand has Salvo Montalbano reading a novel by Scerbanenco. And here’s what the Camilleri Fan Club thinks: “Scerbanenco is considered the master, the father, of Italian noir. A great Master, with a capital M.”

So the release of a Scerbanenco novel in English is a not just an event, but exceedingly rare and welcome. A Private Venus (Venera Privata), the 1966 novel that introduced the defrocked physician Duca Lamberti, is just the second of the series to be translated into English and the first in more than forty years.

What can readers expect? An introduction says that in the two decades after World War II, Scerbanenco was more prolific than Georges Simenon, and the mention of Simenon strikes a chord. The novel’s first ninety or so pages read like a Maigret novel might if the narration examined Maigret’s psyche as thoroughly as it did that of Maigret’s quary – or if David Goodis wrote a police procedural. And that’s good.

That psychological dissection is more to the fore so far than are the vivid evocations of Milan that those who read Scerbanenco in Italian often cite. The opening of Chapter Four, though, gives a tantalizing hint: “Even in Milan, the sun rises every now and then.” And a cover blurb from Carlo Lucarelli says that Scerbanenco wrote “Some of the hardest and darkest pages ever written in a novel.”

A thousand thanks to Hersilia Press for publishing the book, translated fluently into English by Detectives Beyond Borders friend Howard Curtis. I hope the house, which looks to be making much fine Italian crime writing available to readers of English, has plans for more Scerbanenco.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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9 Comments:

Blogger Simona said...

I have not yet read this one, but the second of the Lamberti novel, Traditori di tutti. I found Duca Lamberti to be an interesting character.

June 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This was the first in the series, so you might find it especially interesting. Lamberti is quite a character, a little bit like moody PIs, a little bit like some Scandinavian protagonsts, but really all that much like any of them. Scerbenenco gets the reader very much more inside his head, and Lamberti is very much less self-absorbed than most of those other characters.

June 25, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, the Italian and German Wikipedia articles on Scerbanenco are more informative and much less ridiculous than the English language one you linked to.

I can only imagine the following passage from Wikipedia was written by an English speaking member of the Italian Communist Party:

At odds with his placid, remissive ways was his virulent and over-the-top anti-communism which stemmed from the trauma of losing his father during the Russian revolution, the trauma of exile and the meager life in Rome which followed it. This odd trait helped his popularity among Italian low and middle bourgeoisie, who felt reinforced in their social prejudices, but hampered his critical success in Italy

Given that the communists who murdered his father for being a counterrevolutionary killed millions of people at a rate that made the Nazis look like underachievers in the atrocity business, the description of Scerbanenco as being as being virulent and over-the-top in his denunciation of communism is hilarious.

I haven't read any of his books but I've seen a couple of movies based on them. Not necessarily a good guide to a writer, but La morte risale a ieri sera presents Duca Lamberti as possibly the most caring and sensitive policeman ever to have lived. And it's not a bad movie either.

Milano Calibro 9 is a different kettle of fish. Based on some Scerbanenco short stories, it's an entertaining gangster movie that suppossedly influenced the likes of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, but I wouldn't be surprised if its mixture of sex and violence had more to do with the director than the writer. Good fun, all the same, especially if you like looking at Barbara Bouchet.

June 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I noticed the sentence you singled out. That Scerbanenco might have been anti-Communist because of his background is interesting. But the phrase "virulently over the top" probably has no place in an introductory article. My reading of A Private Venus, furthermore, suggestws no "virulenmtly over the top anti-Communism."

June 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The novel presents Duca Lamberti as caring and sensitive, though I'd say "empathetic." Lamberti is no wishy-washy guy; he suffers with his perps/subjects. And he's not a cop, by the way, at least in the novels. He's an ex-doctor just out of prison for euthanasia on a dying, suffering patient.

June 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I wavered between including Wikipedia’s article or this one for basic information on Scerbanenco, of which not much seems to be available. I went with the Wiki, though it was virulently over the top, because it included links to further articles.

June 25, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

The novel presents Duca Lamberti as caring and sensitive, though I'd say "empathetic."

Other than turning the character into Commissario Lamberti, the movie sounds like a reasonanly faithful adaptation of the book, or at least of the character. He is presented, as you describe it, as empathetic, but his empathy is for the victims of crime; he's not above planting drugs in the car of a pimp to ensure his cooperation in helping find a kidnapped girl or in allowing his subordinate use strongarm tactics to get information from one of the 'bad guys'. Of course, like most policemen he's damn sure he knows who the bad guys are.

I generally don't like empathetic investigators. An intense identification with the victim tends to produce detectives of the 'I feel your pain' variety, who quickly descend into sanctimoniousness, and sharply divide the world into the good guys, themselves, and the bad guys, the other guys. You feel the bad guys are there merely to allow the empathy of the good guy to shine all the more brightly.

I haven't read Scerbanenco, so I'm not accusing him. I'm thinking of the one Derek Raymond novel I've read, He Died With His Eyes Open, which rather got up my nose for that reason.

June 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, Scerbanenco calls any number of crime writers to mind, and good ones -- Sjowall and Wahloo, Simenon, Camilleri, Leonardo Sciascia -- without, however, resembling too closely any of these. Lamberti is not sanctimonious, like some Swedes we probably both could name. I'd day is attitude toward victims is both empathetic and respectful. I recommend this book highly.

June 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Simona, this first book is even better (its title is Venere Privata), I think. I wonder why its English-language publishers back in 1966 chose to introduce the series with the second book rather than the first.

March 21, 2014  

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