THE YOUNG BRIDE
by Alessandro Baricco
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 174 pages
reviewed by Melanie Erspamer
I am not sure I liked this book—since after all, I am currently on a plane flying back to Barcelona from Berlin (many of my syllogisms are in fact inscrutable).
That parenthetical gives a taste of an oft-repeated statement in The Young Bride, and the first sentence reveals the structure, or at least idea of structure, underlying the novel: two separate things, true or valid in themselves, but placed in a relationship with no logical basis.
The author of the novel, Alessandro Baricco, a popular Italian writer, director and performer, suggests that a world based around logic and sense ultimately will stifle us. It is in fact, what the narrator of the main story, the “author” (easy to conflate with Baricco, though we shouldn’t), desires to escape from. He does so by running to fantasy: a place gleefully empty of logic or sense. However this is not to suggest that it is a place of chaos or anarchy—in fact quite the opposite. Fantasy rather offers refuge from the chaos of everyday life through its own simple and overriding logic: repetition. At the end of the novel, the Young Bride realizes this for herself: “So now she knew that there are not many destinies but a single story, and that the only exact gesture is repetition.” This exact gesture of repetition guides the fantasy part of the novel, the main story concerning the Young Bride. It allows the Uncle to get away with sleeping non-stop and the Mother to keep saying those inscrutable syllogisms of hers (“I really would have no hesitation about being naked on the beach […] since I’ve always had a certain preference for the mountains”) as long as they both show up to breakfast on time each morning.
By the novel’s end, one is left wondering: what is The Young Bride exactly? A fantasy novel or not? Initially it certainly seems to be. Most of plot concerns the Family (no names are given as is acceptable for characters whose author willingly admits are fiction), a very wealthy business family from somewhere in Italy. From the regularity of each morning’s excessive breakfasts to the regular and inescapable fear of going to sleep each night, the Family’s life is saturated with ritual. The Son is in England doing business when the girl he decided to marry, the Young Bride, arrives on the family’s doorstep—at the time decided on three years ago.
It may seem a classic plot: the unchanging and absurd habits of a family are suddenly brought into question by the arrival of an outsider. But it is not really so—for although the Young Bride does see much of the absurdity in the Family’s way of living, she is often as absurd as they are, and if she brings a fresh eye, it is not one that by the end is capable of changing anything. Thus the true story behind the alluring fantasy concerns the writer of that fantasy, the character of the author. He tells us multiple times that his life is falling apart, intimating some future disaster (deathly illness?) that he never fully fleshes out. Writing his fantasy novel is the only thing he derives pleasure from, the only thing that keeps him busy. In it, he has control, in it, he can create a world with the regimentation, the predictable and thus manageable repetition, lacking in his own.
In doing this, Baricco ultimately yields to two tendencies: solipsism and cliché. He is self-conscious of yielding to both, and seems to be trying to use them for effect—yet he may not be self-aware enough to realize that even a purposeful lack of originality and a conscious arrogance can be tiresome. The solipsism stems from the novel’s dipping in and out between the fantasy story about the Young Bride on one hand and the author’s writing process and thoughts about all he’s telling on the other. The author’s continuous interventions in the telling of his fairy-tale seemingly establish that the figure that matters most to a story is its author, for a story ultimately resides within his head and reflects his needs and insecurities. Baricco clearly shows this at the end of the novel, when the author leaves his computer on a bus, thus losing his story, which was saved on the computer. But the author is not very bothered, for the story is all in his head, and he keeps writing it there. As he says, finding even a positive result of having to rewrite: “in the end, the only phrase that can accurately translate a writer’s particular intention is never just a sentence but the stratified sum of all the sentences he imagined before, then wrote, then remembered.”
It is a strange, almost Platonic view of a story as an abstract idea representing the author’s intention, which then the author must force into the rude concreteness of language—though as an abstract concept, a story can have many different linguistic “personas.” This interpretation seems to remove the key role the reader has in interpreting the textuality of a particular story, for the textuality is accidental and secondary to the author’s intention. The author of the Young Bride story certainly demonstrates this arrogant belief in his own supremacy, including at one point a series of four parentheticals one within the other (for no alternate purpose, seemingly, than to flaunt the fact that he as the author can go as off topic as he likes) that he mentions his editor will want to remove, though he already knows he will not. It is up to us readers, then, to ignore the author’s (and Baricco’s, one assumes, for he offers no external perspective on the author (perhaps in fact because the Author is God (excuse my parenthesis))) suggestions of the author as equivalent to authority and critique what he does write.
The second element that slips very consciously and yet too oppressively into Baricco’s novel is the use of cliché. After all, fantasies are often the origins and certainly the repositories of clichés, and the story’s focus on repetition suggests cliché can be a useful tool for creating structure and meaning. Thus it is no surprise that at the end of the novel, the Son, long-awaited after his mysterious disappearance, shows up to collect the Young Bride where she waits for him at a brothel. Still, throughout the novel I couldn’t help wishing that the continuous stream of clichés would at one point be broken, that there would be some greater point than the comfort of repetition and the truth in some oft-used sayings.
For instance one long tangent of the novel deals with the Mother’s unique and irresistible beauty. Anyone who sees her—or, specifically, glimpses her chest—is unable to live his life in the same way afterward. As a character, she is rather lost in her own world (demonstrated by her inscrutable syllogisms), a fact that would make her almost sad, but her complete desirability makes her a person to respect. She knows how to attract men, how to spellbind them simply by using her body, and for this she is an authority; in fact, when she instructs the Young Bride on how to make herself desirable, she suddenly starts talking in a way that makes more sense, in a way that shows she still has some self-control. When the Young Bride first enters the Mother’s room, the Mother speaks nonsense, as usual: “Well never have your hair combed by someone who has the power of speech, that’s obvious.” But as soon as the Young Bride declares she wants to learn to be beautiful, the Mother’s speech becomes coherent: “So, the sole purpose of putting up your hair, gathering it at the nape, is to take men’s breath away, to remind whoever is around at that moment, with the simple force of that gesture, that whatever they are doing at that moment is tremendously inadequate.” The temptation to indulge in the cliché of the woman so beautiful that any man who sees her can no longer return to his former life is one even García Márquez indulges (with Remedios la bella, in One Hundred Years of Solitude), but I believe it has grown quite tiresome.
Of course, such a cliché (as well as the quote above) also highlights the male gaze that defines the story. Baricco is writing about bodies and desire; the Young Bride in fact learns at one point that “it’s bodies that dictate life: the rest is a result.” If so, the role of the female body is to create desire, “to take men’s breath away.” While the male body can also impose itself on life—for instance, the Father has a heart made out of glass, meaning he can never grow over-excited—it is much more passive than the female one, which must be hidden, then discovered, then shown off, all to create pleasure in others—and although there are quite a few instances of homoeroticism (only among females though, because from where would the desire spring in a relationship between two males?), it is clear that the end of a female body is to attract males and give them pleasure. Hence the elevation of the brothel in the novel, and the elevation of the prostitutes as clever and resourceful, for, seemingly, it is only by using their bodies that women can control men and thus gain power.
One might want to view this as a criticism on Baricco’s part of our patriarchal society and the way it views women’s bodies, but in reality he hardly seems to be criticizing society, imagining instead an alternate society where the role of women’s bodies as pleasure-inducing is much more overt and accepted. The novel frequently dips into the first person, taking the perspective of various female characters—mostly the Young Bride, but also the Mother and Daughter at certain points—and in each these cases, one sees largely clever and interesting women, all however in agreement that creating desire in men is a worthwhile goal for women. This persistent male gaze shows the limits of solipsism: the author in the novel might think he can slip into the first person perspective of any character, understanding the way they think and what they want, but he is limited by his own body and perspective, and thus ends up creating characters that all conform to a single vision of the world, characters that are memorable but lacking in power as anything but fixtures in the story.
There are definitely highlights to The Young Bried. From its first sentence—“There are thirty-six stone steps to climb, and the old man climbs slowly, cautiously, almost as if he were collecting them, one by one, to drive them up to the second floor: he the shepherd, they meek animals”—the language is frequently beautiful. The dialogue is refreshing, for it is modern and not the archaic and pointless dialogue of older fairy-tales.
Yet there seems to be running through the book an arrogant confidence in an author’s ability, as if he is enough of a good writer to write whatever he wants, no matter if he overuses clichés or regularly goes on tangents, as long as he is aware of what he is doing. It might be true that an already famous author like Baricco can get away with writing whatever he wants and still get published, but that doesn’t mean we all have to applaud him for it.
Melanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations. In fall 2016 she is studying abroad in Barcelona.