Italy is a fascinating place.
It has its habits and its customs, and they vary from region to region and town to town.
But there are two things which never change from one end of the peninsula to the other: the creativity and the ingenuity of the Italian people.
I was listening to the radio while having breakfast when a news item caught my attention. My coffee went cold, my dunked biscuit grew soggy and sank beneath the waves as I listened in awe to the latest scam in this delightfully corrupt and eternally surprising country…
Oh, I forget to say: Italian creativity and ingenuity are not always laudable.
This is what I heard: “A new scandal in Rome. Police made arrests in the ATAC company, which runs the public transport system in the capital city…”
I am always interested in scams and scandals. There’s a new one every day. As I said, there is no end to the creativity and ingenuity of the Italian people. And when it comes to anything criminal, Italian creativity and ingenuity often soar to new heights.
A scandal in Rome? On buses and trains? What might they be doing – kidnapping passengers and holding them to ransom, underpaying on fuel contracts, stealing the seats and tyres?
It was a great deal more bizarre. Italian creativity and ingenuity have a lot to answer for. The news went on “…They are accused of cloning bus tickets.” Cloning what? A strange way to make money, you might think. Especially as fare dodging on buses in Rome is commonplace, almost universal. Many Romans make a single ticket go a very long way. They simply hold it in their hand, stand close beside the franking machine, and only put the ticket into the machine if an inspector gets on the vehicle. As there are very few bus inspectors in Rome – I don’t remember ever having seen one – you can travel on a single ticket for weeks, months, or years.
So, where does the creative ingenuity come in?
Well, the men who ran the company were printing the tickets…
That is, they were cloning copies from legitimate tickets, then distributing the fakes through authorised ticket-sellers. When the cash came back, they simply siphoned off the illicit profits. It appears that this has been a standard practice in Rome for at least thirteen years. And how much were they making by cloning tickets? Well, the estimate was €70 million a year…
And where was the money going?
Holidays to Ibiza, ice-cream for the kids, fur coats for the missis?
This was much more creative, much more ingenious. The money was going into a political slush fund for the use of a still unnamed political party – probably right wing, as there was another huge scandal in the same public transport company a couple of years ago. It was discovered that the Lord Mayor was filling the management, ticket offices and bus drivers’ seats of the ATAC company with over two hundred of his relatives and friends…
False bus tickets funding political extravagance?
That’s what it amounts to, and I love it!
Just think, all that creativity, all that ingenuity.
Vivaldi, Palladio, Caravaggio, the ticket.collector...
Sometimes you have an idea, a nice idea, but a short idea…
What do you do with it? Well, you can incorporate in a novel, develop it into something longer, or you can leave it as it is…
If you leave it as it is, there’s only one thing you can do with it: give it away FREE!
If you would like to read a very short story while taking a break or drinking you morning coffee, click on this link:
I’d be pleased to know what you think…
I have been living in Italy for 33 years.
I know the language well enough to speak it and write it. I have published 2 books and a dozen articles in Italian, but I would never DARE to publish anything without asking my wife, Daniel, to check it carefully for me.
Daniela is a native. Italian is her second skin. She wears it lightly, though not when being asked to critique a piece of prose. She sees every crack and every flaw…
And so do I after 33 years, especially when reading books in English which include snippets of so-called ‘Italian.’ The Italian language seems to have become trendy all of a sudden. Many novels set in Italy, and many others set elsewhere, include totally incomprehensible strings of Italian words which show you… what?
What does mangled language show you?
It is meant to show how truly cosmopolitan the author is.
What it shows, in actual fact, is the opposite.
The fact that the errors have been ignored by agents, readers, proof readers, editors and copy editors shows you… what?
That the agents, readers, proof readers, editors and copy editors are less cosmopolitan than their cosmopolitan authors, less good at their jobs, less careful about checking errors, afraid to challenge the words of the writers in their care?
I would have thought that any bit of foreign language in a novel should be vetted by a bi-lingual reader, explained (at least within the context), or removed as being obscure, irrelevant, or both.
Daniela and I have published four novels set in Prussia in the early nineteenth century – Critique of Criminal Reason, Days of Atonement, A Visible Darkness and Unholy Awakening – and we never used a single word of German. For one very good reason. We don’t speak the language…
Last night, we were reading in bed when I came across this howler in The Given Day:
“Due caffè, per favore.”
“Si, signore. Venire a destra in su…”
That’s Dennis Lehane’s inept and literal translation of the US idiomatic phrase “Coming right up,” an expression which doesn’t EXIST in Italian. And there’s more of the same in the following pages!
We split our sides laughing (abbiamo spaccato i nostri fianchi ridendo – that British expression is untranslatable into Italian, oh-là-là), then we started thinking about other notable offenders.
Our absolute favourite is Jason Goodwin’s greeting, “Velo,” which people say as they enter a room in Venice in The Bellini Card, and which means… absolutely nothing. Velo? Velo… And in the same novel, as I recall, JG gives a Latin rendition of the Our Father prayer which is incorrect. If he really did need the Latin text – maybe, like me, he doesn’t speak Latin – all he had to do was rip it off from the Vatican internet website!
But the worst offender of all is the inimitable Dan Brown.
Both Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons are full of Dan’s weird attempts at ‘Italianising’ Italy. He has an amusing habit of always picking the most untranslatable US idioms. “Sweep the chapel for bugs” comes out as Spazzare di cappella, which means Spazzare di cappella, whatever that is supposed to mean!
Friends and fellow authors, steer clear of D.I.Y. and Google translations, per favore, and please remember my favourite quote from Alexander Pope: The Englishman Italianate/Is the Devil Incarnate.
ps: Apart from those slipshod phrases of Italian, The Given Day (Black Swan) by Dennis Lehane is a wonderful read in my opinion, quite possibly the great American epic that every American reader seems to be looking for. I enjoyed it immensely, and would advise you only to skip pages 452 and 453, where nothing happens, except for the howlers…
Yesterday an article appeared on Buzzfeed, and we were featured in it.
The brightly smiling faces of the ten successful joint-authors gave a positive ring to the notion of writing with someone else.
However, there’s more to it than just smiling for the camera…
Whenever we do a book event, three questions always come up, so it seems like a good idea to talk about them here:
a) How do you write together?
The answer to this one is simple: we really don’t know!
We started writing different kinds of fiction many years ago – Daniela liked horror and Stephen King, while I was more interested in hard-boiled crime – and nothing ever happened. We wrote a dozen novels each, and we received rejection letters on both fronts, nice rejection letters (most rejection letters are nice, a gentle let-down, rather than a kick in the guts), but they were rejection letters all the same.
Then, one day, Daniela came up with an idea for a short story, and she told me about it.
From that day onwards, we began working together on a story that would change title, style and direction may times, and which eventually emerged five or six years later in 2005 as our first published novel, Critique of Criminal Reason. It was not easy. Daniela worked mornings and afternoons, while I worked afternoons and evenings. We never saw each other! The only time we really had to sit down and work together was at the weekend. But Daniela taught on Saturday mornings, too, and our Sunday mornings were given over to antique markets, so it all boiled down to three or four hours one-to-one each weekend. We used the time to plan what came next, and then we went ahead and wrote our parts of the tale without too much idea of what the other half was doing.
In the end, of course, we did a final definitive draft.
We had both been rejected dozens of times, so we didn’t have much hope at that point of being published, but we were both enthralled by the story of a Prussian magistrate who had once been a student of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, with whom he sets out to solve a series of murders in Königsberg in 1804…
It hardly sounds like a tale to set the world alight, does it? We didn’t think so, either, but we went through the motions: we found an agent, the agent found two publishers (Faber & Faber in the UK, and St Martins Press in the USA), and the book was translated into 25 different languages. One day we were two poor teachers. The next day we were famous!
b) Do you ever argue?
Famous? We were featured in a Vanity Fair article, in Espresso and Panorama, and the novel was reviewed in newspapers not just in Italy, but across the world, as well. We also did a number of television interviews. And everyone wanted to know the secret: how do you write together? When we couldn’t come up with something sharp and snappy, the poor, frustrated journalists moved on to the next ‘vital’ question. Two people working together? They must argue.
One day we were being interviewed by RAI International, an Italian tv network. The female journalist had a theory: working together makes for happier couples. She smiled and threw in the question: Do you ever argue? Well, I smiled at the camera. “We never used to argue,” I confessed, “until we started writing together…”
That bit of the interview was edited out of the final version that was broadcast. However, what I said was true. We had never argued – we had hardly ever seen each other, we were working so hard at our day jobs! – until we began to write novels together.
So, what do we argue about? Just about everything, I have to admit, and with a passion that would astound anyone who knows us. One day, Daniela will shoot me, I think. I am too stubborn, she says stubbornly. It is, I suppose, a question of two people’s views of the same thing often clashing. We both defend our position with passion. The great thing is that by fighting passionately for a final version of our story that we both like, we achieve something that neither of us could have achieved alone. And outside the context of our writing, we still never argue!
c) Who wins?
The fact is that we both win. On individual points, one or other always comes out tops, but it is, I think, fair to say that the road to ‘success’ would have been far harder for both of us as individual authors if we hadn’t had the good fortune to write together. So, nowadays, when we smile for the camera, our smile is genuine and enduring.
We recently celebrated our thirty-third wedding anniversary, and I lost out on two counts. 1) I did the cooking, and 2) I also washed the dishes afterwards…
Now that is something worth arguing about, a question that no journalist has ever asked us: who washes the dishes?
The great thing about good books is that they live on, though sometimes the names of the authors change…
Here are a couple of examples, courtesy of The Ripster, Mike Ripley.
The Margery Allingham Society was founded 25 years ago. To celebrate the event, Ostara Publishing is releasing new editions of the two novels featuring Allingham’s famous detective, Albert Campion, which were written by Allingham’s husband, following her death in 1966.
Mr Campion’s Farthing and Mr Campion’s Falcon, first published in 1969 and 1970, were written by Philip ‘Pip’ Youngman Carter, the artist and journalist who was married to Margery Allingham for almost 40 years after a whirlwind romance and a secret engagement when they were teenagers (a concept that didn’t exist then – teenagers, not romance).
I read Campion’s Farthing just after leaving university (was it really that long ago?), thinking it was the real Allingham thing.
Youngman Carter was, apparently, an un-credited collaborator on many Margery Allingham novels and he also designed some of her dust-jackets. After her death, he completed her unfinished novel Cargo of Eagles, which was published posthumously in 1968. (I may have read that one, too).
Youngman Carter’s Mr Campion mysteries are now available in trade paperback and, for the first time, as e-books.
For full details see www.ostarapublishing.co.uk
Ps: And as for good books ‘living on,’ I say my prayers every night!