Book Launch I Melissa Ashley


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December 16, 2021                                                                             

Melissa Ashley Book Launch speech

Good evening, and welcome. It is my absolute honour and delight to speak a few words about Félix Calvino, author of the brilliant new collection of short stories, Young Love.

I first met Félix Calvino when we were postgraduates at the University of Queensland. According to Félix, one day I came out of my supervisor’s room after a meeting sobbing (I don’t actually remember this part). But I do remember that I was struggling and Félix told me to come with him, we would go for a walk. We bought coffee and drank in the fresh air and bright sun and this became our daily habit. Both Félix the man and Félix the author are excellent guides in finding practices – daily observances – that break down periods of being stale, tired, stuck. And both Félix’s need connection and friendship. Ritual and fraternity are central themes in Calvino’s stories and as proof, I have a lovely quote. He puts it far more eloquently than me. He is a poet, really. It’s from the first story in Young Love: ‘Sunday Lunch.’  

‘I said that what was good for him was good for me. We walked on under a low, bright moon. We took the long way around, avoiding the village, to reach the Hernandez watermill at the foot of the hills where the river is born.’ (18)

I had read A Hatful of Cherries (2007) before I met Félix and was much in awe of his talents and thrilled when he befriended me. Félix is one of the most generous people I know and has taught me much about writing and about life. Be kind to oneself, practice, persevere. Have faith. A change of scenery when bogged. I observed it all while I was at university with Félix in his lived example. He toiled over the collection he wrote for his degree, So Much Smoke, not unlike the rye-threshing and wheat-grinding manual labourers he was writing about. I would always ask about how his book was coming along. He usually dramatically shook his head. His answers had a similar theme: I am writing it again. I am having a tough day. It is progressing very slowly. I love Félix’s Philip Roth / James Joyce perfectionism, but it is all a humble front – genuinely so, of course. Félix has a work-ethic of stone.

Along with A Hatful of Cherries and So Much Smoke, Félix has also published a novel, Alfonso. We are here tonight to celebrate the release of his fourth book, the short story collection, Young Love. The six short stories contained in Young Love explore the demise of the – never named – Galician village that Félix grew up in. If you have read Félix, you will know that this is a literary place he returns to over and over in his stories. In Young Love, which Félix tells me has been the most difficult of his books to write, a eulogy is created for the village and its former inhabitants, its centuries of tradition, the failure of its outmoded agriculture and ensuing poverty, the migrations of its youth and families.

‘There is nothing left,’ Félix says to me, with a wistful shrug and glance of the eye that conveys so much more than a long and wordy explanation.

Galicia is a coastal region in the northwest of Spain – it has its own language – which for centuries was one of the poorest parts of the country. Waves of migration pepper its history, beginning in the nineteenth century, and continuing into the mid-twentieth century and beyond. Félix himself left Galicia in 1964 at twenty years of age, to escape military service.

Calvino uses the character Manuel, who features in five of the stories in the collection, as a metaphor for the demise of the village. We first meet him in his seventies, in ‘Sunday Lunch’. The youngest we are introduced to him is at age fourteen in 1939, after the end of the Spanish Civil War. It is the period of Franco’s authoritarian rule, which will last until the mid-1970s during which time many Spanish fled the country. When we leave Manuel, his literally the last man standing in the nameless village – despite a limp – along with his new puppy, Mateo.  

The short story genre is one of pressure, economy, strong themes and repercussions. It is a completely different beast to the novel, which relies upon the coherence of plot to bring all the ribbons of narrative into a tight package. In the short stories, the actions, thoughts and experiences of a character can be singularly explored and examined, the consequences of a choice or event stripped down to the barest of essentials. The narrative arrangement of Young Love is particularly compelling, in that all of the stories speak to one another, and in this vein, it recalls writers like Alice Munroe and Elizabeth Strout, who have written collections that span the lives of a specific character, not as a galloping plot, but a series of discrete images, memories, events, in short stories.   

I must make a little aside here and advise you to read Félix’s collection from front to the back. It is not chronologically arranged, but like Adele’s last album – she had Spotify turn off a function that let listeners hear the tracks in random order – Félix has chosen the order of each story carefully and for precise reasons. 

The first story in Young Love, called ‘Sunday Lunch’, begins on the day of the weekly meal shared by characters Amadeo, Avelina and Manuel. Loosely friendly and in their seventies, the trio are the last three inhabitants of the village. However, plans for Sunday lunch are abandoned when Manuel and Amadeo discover that Avelina has died.

‘Sunday Lunch’ unfolds as an allegory, a metaphor for Félix’s theme of the death of the village, the character Manuel personifying, embodying, the complex reasons for its end. We discover that Avelina, Manuel and Amadeo have carried on the tradition of preparing the dead for burial, and with Avelina dead, the rituals cannot be properly observed. Félix concretises the absoluteness of the abandonment of the village by its former inhabitants by closely describing the labour required to bring the body to the cemetery. The coffin cannot be carried in one piece by the men, and they must nail it together at the gravesite.

Félix uses powerful imagery to convey one of the major reasons for the village’s demise, which is poverty brought about by the failure to modernise its agricultural economy:

‘One of my vivid memories of her is the growing consternation on her face when adding a piece of salted pork from the pig killed at Christmas to the vegetable soup, and how the piece got smaller and smaller from month to month. That was only one of the things that measured the nightmare of poverty she had to contend with every day of her life.’

As with Félix’s prior work, he is a master of a compressed metaphor, combining a striking visual image with an arresting subtext or inference.

Here is another example, from ‘Sunday Lunch’:

‘Do you ever smoke / no / but you know how smokers roll their cigarettes / I do / Manuel proceeded to wrap her light and small body with great care. Both the sheet and the blanket were sufficiently wide to wrap her twice and long enough to tuck in her head and feet’

Félix’s narrators are at heart solitary, kind, stoic and fatalistic. Both Manuel and Abel – a young orphan who is treated poorly, moving from home to home – internalise their suffering, ruminating and meditating upon yearning to meet a woman, a desire for connection. A major theme in Félix’s works is a self-imposed solitude, the dignity in this, its deep and private longing. The narrator in Sunday Lunch provides a clue that perhaps the inner life is the more authentic, that we cannot judge from the self we present to others:

‘He then remembered the educated saying that in every man and woman was an internal and external individual. The external one was just appearance, while the inner was reality.’

Talk is cheap for Félix’s characters, and readers are taken on a journey into their inside lives, their confusion, desires, their suffering and the transcendence and joy they experience, when perhaps a moment exposes a coherent thread connecting all. In ‘Sunday Lunch’:

‘Once or twice, the men looked at one another and returned to the food. The tasks ahead, although in their minds, were not mentioned.’

The young Abel, in the short story Abel’s Journey is Félix’s most abject, discarded character. As a child, he is abandoned and motherless, shuffled from home to home. Later in life, when he has overcome many obstacles, he develops an eye disease that will send him blind:

‘In this carnival of frustrations, Abel retreated into himself, into protective silence. He became sparse with his words and rarely expressed his opinion. In any case, decisions had always been made for him, and arguing with the decisions had been counterproductive. He felt no animosity towards anyone; it was simply the way things were, and he could only get used to it.’

In the story ‘Young Love’, fourteen-year-old Manuel lives off the glances he shares with a girl in his class, Amelia, an experience we can all remember, an intense crush that is made of projection and innocence. It is tender, fragile and perhaps, as in a story like ‘Cat People’, delusional. However, this is where Félix is elusive, uncanny, a little psychic even. For in ‘Young Love’, the beloved Amelia experiences the same feelings as Manuel:

‘But in her actions, there was a higher purpose than just giving a compliment. He had stirred feelings in her, well before her friends of the same age had begun to take an interest in boys. Initially, it was curiosity, as it seemed to her he avoided being noticed. Then, she liked the way he walked, his pleasant face, the soothing tone of his voice. He would not be much taller than her, which was fine. And he was given to speak when it mattered, unlike most other boys who talked all the time and said nothing.’

Through Manuel, the reader tenderly rediscovers these emotions, distilled by Félix into the speech of the heart and the speech of the body. The language is crisp, perhaps a nod to Hemmingway or Beckett, a modernist minimalism, clearly but gently delivering its knowledge of nostalgia and youth.

Another theme Félix explores is the village’s conservative, traditional beliefs. As in previous writing, he circles back around Catholic customs, sifting through that which is useful and discarding practices which bring added suffering. Many of Félix’s characters are children and adolescents who are still discovering their identities, questioning received practices and sloughing off or undermining customs and attitudes they have little evidence are true or good. When the judgement of the community is harsh, cruel, scapegoating or vilifying, Félix addresses these injustices.

This is Amelia, from ‘Young Love’, thinking to herself about not conforming to the society’s expectations:

‘She had her aunt to thank for it. ‘Desires, setbacks, confusion are part of life, and you must have a place to escape to in rough times,’ she had said to her once. She liked her aunt very much. A failed nun, a failed lover, now back home to stay was the adults’ description that Amelia was not supposed to hear.’

Félix subverts village prejudices with a clever, gentle humour, favouring the outsider, and turning them around, so a different aspect of their humanity is revealed.  But his characters never completely turn their backs upon what is known and supposedly fixed. Rather, they consider and question if a practice is useful, and try to discover why it is this way. If it is helpful, practical, and not harmful, his characters maintain the status quo.  Says Amadeo in ‘Sunday Lunch’:

‘I have no interest in the ideology of it. It is tradition that I respect.’

Félix’s characters all have a little of the Buddha in them. Or perhaps a Greek stoic. They accept suffering as a given, they quietly carry it with them, but they do not, I think add to it with guilt, hatred, cruelty, making their burdens heavier and more unpleasant. There is something deeply affirming about this. Félix takes pains to show his characters’ quiet desperation, made bearable by routine and ritual, acts of grace and kindness, and conviviality, the pleasures of sharing a meal:  

On the grinding stone, covered with a tablecloth, there was a wicker basket containing wine, cheese, bread, salami, tins of this and that. In one corner, there was a bed of hay and blankets, and in the other, there was wood ready for a small fire.

Félix is also very funny. In a sly and clever way, with various layers. This image here is typical of him, from the short story ‘Abel’s Journey’:

They were in bed, lying on their backs in matching white-and-blue-striped flannel pyjamas. Cristina had made them in the pattern of prison uniforms from a roll of cloth they had bought at a closing-down sale some years back. Half of the cloth was still on the roll, standing behind the door in her sewing room. Occasionally, it reminded them of ill-fated inmates serving long sentences.’

And another one, from the story ‘The Beehives’:

‘The queen bee had his respect – a life of responsibility and progeny. The humble worker bee has his affection – a brief life of relentless toil, beginning with cleaning out the cell where each is born. As for the drones, who only have to mate but otherwise never do a day’s work, he does not care for them.’

I sometimes think Félix the author is a philosopher, a psychologist even. He practises, in all of his characters, an unconditional love, an unconditional positive regard, and it is freeing, an opening up, rather than a shutting down, so his readers and characters can deeply explore that which most perturbs, confuses and draws them in. His narrators are humble and self-effacing, but his prose succeeds at the promise of the best literature: it shows us who we are, it underscores our common humanity, it is respectful, and perhaps, most of all – maybe this is just me, I am not sure – it brings incredible comfort and affirmation. This is what we do, this is who we are. This is. He does all the work for us, his wisdom presented like a lunch shared with friends, the wine cellared, the cheese matured, the bread leavened, the salami perfectly smoked. It awaits our enjoyment with a friend, cooked, prepared, served.

I cannot recommend more highly Félix’s beautiful collection of short stories, Young Love. Buy it, read it, tell your friends about it, introduce it to your reading groups, gift it for Christmas. You will be the better for it, I guarantee. In strange times, Félix’s prose comforts us, reminds us of our shared humanity, gives us permission to be what we are, flawed and human. And hope, in the texture, beauty, light, habits and connections of our day-to-day existence.  

For all this, I must add that there is something of an enigma, a central mystery at the heart of all of Félix’s works, and of Félix too. He shows us that while we are knowable in many ways, there are also parts of us all that are not, and that this is just the way it is.  

Congratulations, Félix!


 Melissa Ashley is the author of historical fiction The Bee and the Orange Tree and The Birdman’s Wifewhich won the Queensland Literary Awards Fiction Book Award and the ABA Nielsen Booksellers Choice Award.  She is passionate about uncovering stories of women in the arts and sciences whose lives and achievements have been forgotten. Melissa lives in Brisbane with her partner, the poet Brett Dionysius, and their two teenagers.