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Stabat Mater Paperback – August 1, 2011
A heady tale of music and foundlings in Vivaldi's Venice * Sunday Telegraph * Disquieting, lyrical and intensely authentic -- Michelle Lovric It always feels as if there's an extra sense available to Tiziano Scarpa, one that fuses perception and emotion. He calls it a scrittura totale, total writing. I just think it's genius. -- Michelle Lovric, author of The Book of Human Skin
About the Author
Tiziano Scarpa was born in Venice in 1963. He is a poet, novelist, playwright and essayist. He has written a number of acclaimed novels including Eyes On the Broiler and Western Kamikaze. Serpent's Tail have published his 'cultural guide to Venice', Venice is a Fish. His radio play Pop Corn received international critical acclaim and was aired by the BBC and other European radio stations. He regularly speaks at creative writing conferences and writes for Italian national newspapers. In 1997 he won the 49th Italia Prize for his writing. Stabat Mater won the 2009 Strega Prize, the Italian equivalent of the Booker. He lives in Venice.
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Translated by Shaun Whiteside from Scarpa's 2008 Italian original, "Stabat Mater" is set in a Venetian orphanage for girls run by nuns in what would have been around the 1700s. The girls at the "Ospedale" are trained as musicians and singers who play from a hidden gallery in the adjoining church for the patrons of the Instituto della Pietà. However, this is a highly stylised little book, bordering on the almost poetic, narrated from the point of view of one of the orphans, a young violinist named Cecilia who goes on to tell of the impact of the appointment of a new in-house composer, one Don Antonio, or Vivaldi as most of us know him.
This is rather the strength and weakness of the book. On the one hand, it's a fascinating story with the young Vivaldi composing classical standards for his young orphans - he introduces himself to the girls with a series of compositions based on the four seasons. Not only that, but the whole thing is set in the fascinating glamour of Venice. Add in the strange and peculiar world of a church-based orphanage for young girls and there are stories, you feel, just bursting to be told. And yet, rather like the audience to the performances, the reader only gets tantalising glimpses of the orphans and the narrative thread in Cecilia's story.
Scarpa's Cecilia is a troubled young girl who cannot sleep and appears to have an eating disorder. At night she creeps to a hidden place to write `letters' to her unknown mother even though these are never sent. The narrative consists of these notes to her mother, strange internal dialogues with a `snake-haired woman' representing death and slightly more conventional journal like entries of events as they unfold. However, there is no clear distinction between these and they all roll into one stream of writing. Once Don Antonio arrives we also get snatches of conversation between the him and Cecilia. This short book concludes with some more translated comments from Scarpa on his admiration of Vivaldi.
It's all rather esoteric which is frustrating when the story and setting is so intrinsically interesting. There is very little of the feel of Venice, nor of the life of the orphans, let alone the impact of Vivaldi's arrival on the scene. In fact, I found myself re-reading the cover blurb around a third of the way in just to make sense of what was going on. While conceptually it's clear that Cecilia has had a tough life which ought to garner the reader's sympathy, her self-pitying tone becomes depressing to read and she does little to win the reader over.
I would guess that if you were skilled enough to read the original Italian, the experience might be more beautiful. That's in no way a negative comment about the quality of the translation, but I wonder if the Italian language lends itself better to the almost poetic quality of her musings. Scarpa has Cecilia noting that words are inferior to music in explaining her feelings and somehow his book rather supported this comment in this instance for me.