The Library Thing I Tim Bazzett

 January 13, 2022

Young Love & Other Stories

Tim Bazzett

It’s probably been a few years since I’ve read any Hemingway, but every time I read something by Felix Calvino, I think of old’ Ernie. Because his influence is so strong it shows through in Calvino’s stories. From the first pages of YOUNG LOVE & OTHER STORIES, in “Sunday Lunch,” for example, with its “cooking that smells so good … Stewed partridge with herbs and new potatoes … [and] chopping parsley with a large knife,” I was taken back to the Nick Adams stories in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and Nick pitching his camp near a trout stream and preparing an onion sandwich with thick slices of bread. Granted, the Galician village in the northwest corner of Spain is a long way from upper Michigan, but the ‘flavor’ and the plain, spare language are very similar.

Felix Calvino is an Australian, but he emigrated there from Galicia via England more than fifty years ago, and it always amazes me that his prose, so starkly honed to perfection, is written in what is his third language, because Galician dialect is more like Portuguese than Spanish (his second language, learned in school), and then to master English in this way, as an adult, well, it simply boggles my mind. Think Nabokov, maybe, who learned to write in English, after he was already an accomplished writer in his native Russian. Or the Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who recently began writing in Italian simply because she fell in love with the language.

YOUNG LOVE & OTHER STORIES is Calvino’s fourth book, following two other story collections, A HATFUL OF CHERRIES and SO MUCH SMOKE, and a novella, ALFONSO. I’ve read them all and they are, quite simply, the finest examples of pure storytelling one might ever encounter. In this newest collection, Calvino has chosen to focus on a few of the denizens of one tiny Galician village in the era of Franco. The first story, “Sunday Lunch,” sets the scene in the final years of the village, when there are only three people left, all septuagenarians, survivors who have become casual friends, meeting weekly –

“It had started with coffee, bread and cheese following the burial of Generosa several years earlier, the last village woman but for Avelina. They had taken turns doing the cooking until Amadeo said that cooking relaxed him. Manuel contributed fresh bread and game, and Avelina brought homemade biscuits, trout and eel when in season.”

And then, suddenly, there were only the two men, coping calmly and sadly with the task of burying Avelina, and worrying about the propriety of how to wash and prepare her body, something that had always been a task for the women. As they go about wrapping the corpse, digging the grave and building a coffin, both Manuel and Amadeo are lost in their own thoughts, remembering past wakes and the unusual history of Avelina, who had endured a forced marriage and a long widowhood, managing quite well on her own. They use a wheelbarrow to transport the body to the cemetery at the other end of town, and build the coffin at graveside of scrap lumber. They remember to bring ropes to lower the box into the grave, but forget to bring more nails for securing the lid. But they agree it is a “barbaric” custom, so they covered the unsecured lid with only partially filled shovels, “deposited with extreme care, as if not to awaken Avelina.”

In the title story, “Young Love,” we are taken back to Manuel’s boyhood, his friendship with Carlos, and his long, nearly mute courting of Amelia (who likes him because of his quietness), first in the schoolroom and then after they have left school. This is indeed a story of “young love,” in the sweetness and innocence of the couple, filled with those inner insecure feelings of “does he/she really love me?” as well as all the inner turmoil of sexual awakening. And in a long sequence about a wedding attended in a nearby village, we learn that the young men are leaving the region because there are “no women of marriageable age” and fewer babies being born each year, which perhaps explains Manuel’s nearly deserted village of sixty years later.

“Abel’s Journey” is perhaps the most absorbing of the six connected stories here, and the longest, at more than fifty pages. Abel is an orphan, passed from family to family for the first twelve years of his life, used mostly as a farmhand and cowherd, until he comes to the home of Antonio and Cristina and their two children, where he is finally well-treated and accepted as “part of the family.” But he continues to wonder about his own unknown mother. He falls in love with Rosalia who emigrates to Australia, then with Pilar, and then he is off to the Army for his national service, traveling across Spain to a training camp near Zargoza. There he makes a good friend in Jose, who helps him to learn who his mother was and what happened to her. But then, upon his return home to Antonio and Cristina’s farm, preparing to marry Pilar, he learns he is losing his sight.

Throughout Abel’s story he continuously falls back on a gallery of scenes from his life, mental pictures and images he can call up at will. I could relate easily to this, as I too have a “scene gallery” from the various stages of my life, images that never fade. These images become more important as we age and physical strength and abilities begin to fade. Calvino and I are the same age. Judging from the stories here, we both understand well the changes that age can bring – friends die, priorities change, and memories become so important. I was pleased to note that there was a dog in many of these stories. Manuel has had several dogs in his lifetime, all named Mateo, after one of the Apostles. There is a Mateo in the first story here, and another Mateo in the last, a puppy. Dogs and old men. I get it, Felix. I love my dogs too. And I loved the stories here. I wish I were a little better at explaining why they move me so, but, well, they just do. The language here is so exact, so spare, so beautiful. The characters are so real, so perfectly realized, so very human. My very highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVE