December 2022 Open Book Group –  The Lovers by Paolo Cognetti

Welcome to Coral, Louise, and Lesley. Thank you to Rob for moderating The Lovers by Paolo Cognetti.

Paolo Cognetti was born in Milan in 1978. Cognetti has had a successful career as a documentary filmmaker. His writing success is more recent – his first novel prize-winning Eight Mountains was published in 2016 and was followed by The Lovers in 2021. Cognetti divides his time between Milan and his cabin 6,000 ft up in the Italian Alps where he spends several months of the year alone.In The Lovers, we meet Fausto who has just moved to Fontana Fredda–Cold Fountain–a small, remote village high in the Italian Alps. He has left Milan and an old love behind. Out of the way and off the beaten path, Fontana Fredda is a town that operates by its own rules, sense of time, and movement of seasons. Its citizens lead quiet but complex lives–and Fausto is attracted to that contrast. There’s Santorso, the former forest ranger who prefers the company of wolves to humans. Babette, the elegant ex-urbanite who, after a brief fling with a mountain man, opened a restaurant where Fausto works as a line cook, catering to visiting skiers. It is there he meets Silvia, the new waitress. Young, cheerful, with the air of a world traveller, the two quickly become friends, and so much more.

When winter ends, Fausto and Silvia part ways, and return to their old lives to tie up loose ends. Fausto eventually returns to Fontana Fredda to find Silvia, only to learn that she has found a summer job at Quintino Sella refuge on a nearby glacier. There, among Italy’s peaceful and picturesque nature, Silvia meets a Nepalese mountain guide who introduces her to the enigmatic teachings of the Buddha. Meanwhile, Fausto finds work cooking for a crew of lumberjacks and makes regular visits to Silvia.With the turn of seasons, Fausto and Silvia’s relationship is profoundly changed and must face decisions for the future.

 Tempted by the thought of Christmas cake on offer 20 OBGers gathered for the last meeting of the year. As always with a large group, there was a variety of responses to the novel.

 We noted that while it is not an autobiography it is deeply autobiographical. Fausto is escaping Milan. He aspires to be a writer and has already had a book published. This genre has been termed autofiction where the author presents their direct experience in a fictionalised form.

 Many expressed their delight at Cognetti’s poetic descriptions of the mountains, their clear air, ancient trees, and lone wolves. Trees and wolves are consistently personified throughout the story. Trees, like some people, are fixed to places placing down strong roots. Wolves on the other hand are always moving seeking adventure and happiness elsewhere. There is a reference in the novel to an Ernest Hemingway short story In Another Country. We noted that in the postscript the translator suggests that Cognetti is emulating Hemingway’s famously terse prose. Perhaps to underline the fact that elaborate, and self-consciously ornate language is inappropriate when describing the simple majesty of the mountains? We noted too that the preference for brevity is reflected in the structure of the novel. It is composed of 36 chapters, most of which are only 4, 5 or 6 pages in length. Tellingly the novel covers a full year, the complete natural cycle of the seasons.

 There were different views about Fausto and Silvia’s love affair. It was a holiday romance. Fausto was 40 years old, and Silvia was 27. They were at different stages of their life. Fausto was wanting to settle down while Silvia, after her summer climbing the glacier, had more adventures to come before she sought stability in a relationship. Few of us were romantic enough to think it would last, though Cognetti did leave the possibility open in the final chapter. One member commented that she had not been emotionally invested in the two of them. It had clouded her reading experience. This did not concern others. They argued Fausto, Silvia and the other villagers Babette and mountain man Santorso were impermanent players circling the mountain. Fleeting holiday romances would be long gone and forgotten compared to the scenery around them.

 One member suggested taking a fresh look at the title. It could be construed in another manner. The mountain was the focus of the various protagonist’s affection. They were all The Lovers of the mountain. We thought this was an interesting and plausible twist. It would bring all the characters in the novel into stronger prominence. Note to self, must text Cognetti with that idea in the New Year.

 Several members recalled their mountaineering experiences in Nepal. Cognetti’s description of Silvia climbing up the glacier with her Nepali guide, Pasang, rang true. Like Silvia, the only thing they concentrated on is putting one foot in front of the other in deep snow while struggling to breathe at altitude. One member opined that the most memorable scene in the novel was when Silvia descended from the tranquillity of the mountain to be assaulted by the chaos of noise and smells in the village

 We noted that for Cognetti where a snowflake lands is a metaphor for fate. A difference of a few millimetres determined whether the contents of an individual snowflake travelled West to end up as part of the Rhone river in France or travelled East to contribute to the Po river in Italy.

 We enjoyed the literary references peppered throughout the text. As well as Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast Cognetti quoted her novel Out of Africa. One member pointed out how Fausto’s erotic washing of Silvia’s long black hair was directly taken from a scene in that novel. Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines was referenced to challenge the lumberjacks destroying the forest. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild was evoked in his descriptions of the wolves.

 One member argued that the essence of The Lovers is that we must always strive to be who we are.

 For the detractors it was an easy, quick, unmemorable read of 215 pages. Its brevity was gratefully received after Amor Trowls’ 600-page tomb last month.

Read The Lovers to breathe in the clean mountain air and confirm our need for human connection and mutual support.

Our next OBG meeting will be on Tuesday 14th February 2023. We will discuss The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. Maggie Scott will moderate.

Thank you for your support over the past year. In 2023 OBG continue to bring you satisfying reading and great discussions.

 All the best for the holiday season.

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