Monday, November 11, 2013
A Very Late Review: Ernesto by Umberto Saba
This is a quite remarkable book. Usually billed as an unfinished novel, the novella-length story is divided up into five chapters headed first, second, third... 'episode'. Each episode is a little piece of Ernesto's life. Ernesto is sixteen and a couple of the episodes deal with his relationship with an older man, in his late twenties, and so the book has become a part of the gay 'canon' and deservedly so. But for all its brevity and simplicity it is actually a complex and multi-layered masterpiece which is just as much concerned with Ernesto's first sexual experiences with a woman as with a man. The relationship with the older man (only ever referred to as 'the man') is not by any means the most important in the story which examines just as closely and intensely Ernesto's relationships with his mother and extended family, with his boss at work in the flour mill and even with his former nanny.
As you read, you soon begin to realise that you can't consider Ernesto without considering Saba himself. The story is set in the 1890s, the time of Saba's own adolescence: it was written in the 1950s but Saba knew it would be unpublishable in his lifetime, which indeed proved to be true: it was finally published for the first time in the 1970s. It is certainly a piece of confessional writing and the occasional references in the narrator's voice to the fact this story may never be read by anyone heighten that sense that the reader is being let into a secret. It is not a conventional piece of autobiography for many of the things that happen to Ernesto did not, as far as we know, happen to Saba: and yet some certainly did. It is not a coded roman a clef in the traditional sense where we are to read off the characters against the real people in Saba's life. Instead I would suggest that Ernesto is actually Saba's alter ego, another self: both real and fantasised. This is an idea reinforced in the Paladin paperback edition by the translator's inclusion of a letter Saba wrote in response to an admiring and perceptive letter he received from a University professor in 1932, after Saba had abandoned the idea of finishing the novel. The letter is dated 1899 and is from Ernesto who refers all the way through to Saba in the third person. The letter carries on Ernesto's story after the end of the last 'episode' and so, in a peculiar way, becomes a part of the novel.
Above all, the thing which makes the episodes that Saba did write so powerful and striking is the character of Ernesto himself. Part wish-fulfilment, part autobiography, Ernesto is not, as in many coming-of-age stories and films, a stock character, he is not a cipher for a troubled adolescent. He is not, in fact, really very troubled at all. The reason Ernesto stays with you after reading is that he is a real person: contradictory, odd, sometimes lovable, sometimes irritating, capricious, he is written without any sentiment and with, at times, a shocking candour. The author makes a lot of the fact that one of Ernesto's personality traits is that he says exactly what he thinks, openly and sometimes at the expense of the composure of the people around him: it is no accident that the narrative has exactly the same quality. Saba's great gift is his psychological realism. He is able to present, in the simplest terms, a whole raft of interconnected and complex emotional currents between people without overburdening his language or his reader. The relationship between Ernesto and his mother is couched, at various points, in terms of hatred, and also of great tenderness, without either seeming to contradict the other. Despite the fact that the story describes only a very few, very simple elements of Ernesto's life, the intensity is kept at fever pitch within the simplest of styles.
Without giving away the ending that this unfinished novel doesn't have, it is also worth noting that unlike nearly every gay-themed piece of writing of the early twentieth century, the central character does not in this instance end up dead at his own hand or someone else's: that by itself would make this a piece of gay fiction worth reading.