on The Young Bride, a novel by Alessandro Baricco, trans. by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
Alessandro Baricco’s thirteenth novel, The Young Bride, is spoken by the title character, now 53 and experiencing a “sudden disintegration” and “an uncontrolled collapse of my personal life.” But this is no illness narrative. Baricco (b. 1958 in Turin) is a psyche-comedic writer, inventive in his methods, sly in his intentions, and attuned to the recurring power of myth and the classical advantages of the fable.
The Bride begins by recalling her arrival at “the house” as an eighteen-year old engaged to the Son of a wealthy Family who dwells there, comprising the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Uncle, waited on by the servant Modesto. But the Son, having gone to England on business, has disappeared. The Bride decides to wait for him. The Family conducts itself strictly by way of rituals – “breakfasts” last until 3:00 pm as guests come and go, the night time is feared, expressions of sadness are avoided, books and reading are discouraged, and every sentence is spoken with great refinement to maintain order and dispel any hint of disorder.
The Young Bride is obsessed with the condition imagined in the following lines by the poet Aleksander Wat: “The fall of a child … / The levitation of a poet.” This is a gorgeously exacting erotic novel in which gestures and touches trigger a shivery, nascent knowledge in both girl and reader – and continue to provoke the teller who seems to exist under the spell of her own story. As the Bride, she falls out of innocence into her body. As a novelist, now her profession, she falls into her words. But the first fall necessitates an atypical form of telling:
I more or less change the narrative voice, for reasons that at the moment seem to me exquisitely technical, or at most blandly aesthetic, with the obvious result of complicating the life of the reader; that in itself is negligible, yet it has an irritating effect of virtuosity that at first I even tried to fight, before surrendering to the evidence that I simply couldn’t hear those sentences unless they slipped out that way, as if the solid basis of a clear and distinct narrative voice were something that I no longer believed in, or that that become impossible for me to appreciate. A fiction for which I’d lost the necessary innocence.
The Bride reflects on circumstances that remain enigmatic, thus somewhat unformed or protean in form, thus “intended to make us lose our minds.” Yet everything is clearly seen, every phrase sounds essential. There is also the Bride’s own distant family, a grandmother who warned her not to engage sexually but also told her, quite mysteriously, that the Bride’s mouth would offer her a power in the future. And the Bride’s father, a speculator who emigrates to Argentina and whose desperate figure teems in the Bride’s mind. The innocence may be tattered, but the trusting childlikeness of her unpredictable phrasing (her trust in us as listeners) is unbroken.
The Young Bride arranges a constellation of forces laid upon the body of the Bride, forces now embodied in her memory and in her magnetic accounting. With humor and a genius for sinuous monologue, Baricco entices us into the story of how each of us comes into the body. Composed of telling incidents, quirky anecdote, and antic runs of micro-story and description, Baricco's novel allows language to tumble and find a way to land on its feet.
In the House, the Bride sometimes believes that “faithfulness was maintained to a protocol whose rationale, if it existed, was rooted in a past that could no longer provide explanations.” At other times, the past explains – as when the Bride speaks of the many loves of the Mother, a woman so overwhelmingly desirable that men once collapsed after brushing up against her. The Bride notes that the Mother is a surreptitious reader of Baudelaire and had told the Bride that love “was rather an animal thing, which had to do with the salvation of bodies. She told me that if only you avoid giving too sentimental a meaning to what you’re doing, then every details becomes a secret to extort, and every corner of the body an irresistible call.” There is the Uncle, a narcoleptic who sleeps for stretches but snaps out of it to resume any conversation at hand. He, too, comes to signify part of the body-drama. There is the Daughter, sharing secrets: "She explained to me that it's a subtle contagion, and she showed me how in every gesture,in every word, fathers and mothers are merely handing down a fear." Finally, there is the absent Son who ships various objects back to the House from wherever he is.
The Bride is not so concerned with either explaining or reflecting credit on herself. Both Baricco and she are more invested in allowing the reader to experience the density of a mind rather than consolation. It is not an orderly telling by conventional plotty standards, thus seemingly at odds with the singular passion of the House and Family. The Bride does not hesitate to portray the more fatuous, odd, nonsensical, or robotic aspects of the Family. But it’s an ambush: Baricco uses our habitual responses to satire to undercut our expectations and to draw closer to the Family’s dire agenda.
Both timeless and artistically contemporary, The Young Bride in its own book-body enacts the movement between desire and despair – and the effort to achieve a balance between them while sensing "a defining infamy" in everything human. The allure of this lively, fanciful and entertaining narrative allows Baricco, who studied philosophy, an occasional opportunity to let the Bride speak more generally: “We have an incredible force with which we give meaning to things, to places, to everything: and yet we can‘t secure anything, it all goes back to neutral right away – borrowed objects, fleeting ideas, feels as fragile as crystal. Even bodies: unpredictable.”
[Published July 19, 2016. 174 pages, $16.00 paperback]