THE light novel is rarer than it used to be. Crime has driven it to the fringes of the market. Yet it was once common, and many light novels were bestsellers: Three Men in a Boat and The Diary of a Nobody, for instance.
by Alessandro Gallenzi
Alma Books, 249pp, £11.99
A couple of generations ago, Roger Longrigg and H E Bates in his Larkins novels, were masters of the genre, accomplished, witty and light-hearted. I suppose George MacDonald Fraser’s magnificent Flashman series belongs in the category of novels written primarily to amuse. Inter Rail is a light novel, an accomplished one and all the more welcome for being unfashionable.
The author, Alessandro Gallenzi, is a publisher, and a literary one, founder of the Hesperus Press, Alma Books and Alma Classics; he is also now head of (John) Calder Publications. In addition, he is a poet, playwright and a prize-winning translator. An early version of Inter Rail was written in his native Italian. That was translated into English by Andrew Brown, but the translation was never published. Now Gallenzi has produced his own English version, retaining, he says, “many of his” (Brown’s) jokes and inventive turns of phrase.” This was worth doing. Inter Rail is delightful, frothy and sweet as a well-sugared cappuccino. It slips down a treat.
Francesco, a young Italian student from Genzano, a small town in the Castelli, the hills outside Rome, sets off inter-railing. (These were the days when the European inter-rail pass was available only to those under 21.) On the train to Germany he is picked up by a middle-aged man, a Corsican called Pierre. It’s not a matter of sex. As Pierre puts it, “I’m not suggesting we play naked Twister in the shower”. Pierre is a con-man, crook and fantasist. He is also great fun. He lives high, even when his credit cards are blocked, writes novels and drives a Maserati frighteningly fast. No wonder Francesco is hooked as for a few weeks they drift in and out of each other’s life.
Inbetween his adventures with Pierre, Francesco does the usual student inter-railing things, takes a train on a whim, meets acquaintances who become instant friends, dosses down in student flats, drinks a lot, drugs a bit, and has encounters with lovely girls.
Gallenzi recaptures the exhilaration of those years when for the first time young people in the western world could enjoy, whatever their background, the freedom of irresponsibility and of a future that seemed to have no horizons.
It is Pierre, though, who dominates the novel as he dominated Francesco’s life for these weeks. Soon it becomes clear that he is a man on the run – not only from creditors but from three wives, at least one of whom has employed detectives to keep track of him. Pierre, however, is a master escapologist. Even when his car is clamped in London, he frees it in one bound with an audacity that many motorists must envy.
After an interlude in Monte Carlo, Pierre and Francesco are back in Rome – improbably, Pierre has a launch of a new novel to attend in a bookshop in the Corso. By now Francesco has been put wise by one of the wives to Pierre’s transgressions, but still finds him irresistible; there is a splendid episode in Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli.
Apart from Pierre’s escapades, this last part of the novel rings true to life, when we meet Francesco’s parents – his morose, unemployed father, sitting in dirty vest and trousers in the flat he never leaves and grumbling about his children, and the put-upon mother, who nevertheless produces a marvellous meal for her son’s strange friend, after assuring Francesco that there will be only spaghetti. The family scenes are a lovely piece of observation, or perhaps memory.
Happily, since this kind of light novel is a species of fairy-tale, all will end well, with Pierre slipping the chains in which wives and detectives have sought to bind him, to pursue his errant and inventive career who knows where, and the sweet innocent Francesco united with the loveliest and nicest of the nice and lovely girls he has encountered on his journeying.
Twenty years later, married and with a family, he looks back on the young man he was, and wonders how different his life might have been if he had taken another of the many different trains he might have taken when he went inter-railing. Well, we all wonder sometimes about the paths not taken and what gave our life the pattern it has fallen into. There’s a sense, I suppose, in which Alessandro Gallenzi’s title is a metaphor for the chances of this experience we call life. Be that as it may, this is an essentially happy novel, one to make you smile.
For older readers it also offers an opportunity to indulge in nostalgia for the irresponsibility of days when anything and everything seemed possible.
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