Just a quick review today, as I’m writing something on The Recognitions and hard as it is to figure out what’s going on in that novel, it’s beyond me to make it palatable for general consumption. So for this blog, a brief word about Laurent Gaudé’s novel, Le Soleil des Scorta, widely available in translation as The House of Scorta. This novel won the Prix Goncourt in 2004, which is the equivalent (more or less) of the Booker Prize. It was a hugely successful novel, critically and commercially, and it is an extremely easy read epic narrative concerning the fortunes of a cursed family in a small Italian village.
The start is absolutely cracking. One day, under the thankless Italian midday sun, a man returns to Montepuccio after spending years in prison nursing his grievance. He is determined to have the woman who had been denied him back in the past, a feat he accomplishes with surprising ease. As he leaves her house, he knows the news of his return will have spread, and indeed the village men have gathered on the outskirts of the settlement and he is stoned to death, finding out just moments before he dies, that the woman he has just claimed is in fact the sister of his lost love. Oops. The baby born from this union was never going to be well-starred and, when his mother dies giving birth to him, the local priest spirits him away to a nearby village to grow up in safety. But this is Italy, where vengeance is laced into the DNA, and Rocco Scorta Mascalzone turns into a regular bandit, terrorizing the area and growing rich on his ill-gotten gains. But life tames him, even if it cannot heal his angry rage. He marries a deaf and dumb woman and produces three children, and, after the intercession of the priest who saved him at birth, he leaves the village of Montepuccio in relative peace. Then, in a final twist of fate, when he dies he bequeaths his fortune to the church, disinheriting his children and abandoning his family to poverty.
So the family begins in violence and crime, set up in conflict with Montepuccio and defiantly shunning the conventions of religion, family and community. But if this novel begins in the spirit of Zorro, it melts gently over its course into the spirit of Miss Read. Rocco Scorta’s children must learn to make their way in the world, free of their father’s blood money, but poor, uneducated and isolated. The rest of the story charts their various stories and the transformation of that wild, fierce will into a strong work ethic and deep bonds of family. There’s an existential thread woven into the narrative, as befits a classic French novel, but one that questions the worth of the simplest pleasures in life – good food, bonds of friendship, hard work – only to reaffirm their centrality and their value. In the tradition of Balzac or Zola, this novel is interested in the characters of its protagonists only to the extent that they negotiate the legacy of their doomed parents. These are people drawn with thick, bold lines, the harshness of their lives foreclosing the detail and nuance that only introspection and leisure can allow to flourish. What is of interest in this story is how the patterns of a family repeat themselves with strange and unexpected variations. How each individual contributes to the ongoing flow of history as it weaves in and out of the changing generations. I don’t know how this novel sounds in English, but the French is simple, vibrant and powerful. It has an elegiac quality that softens into a gently legendary tone, as if the novel were recounting an updated version of a myth. It was a tremendously easy read, and on the whole an uplifting one, as the family finds its own forms of happiness and comes to terms with the negativity of its origins. Not for those who are seeking an intellectual challenge, but a fine, almost old-fashioned tale with, it turns out, a lot of heart.