Balancing Memoir with the Rest

I’m finding that balancing the various aspects that I have set myself the task of writing can be one of the most interesting and fulfilling aspects of Sea of Intimacy. Memoir and travel can push things along but also become somewhat less substantial, while the more research-focused aspects of the book, such as cultural history and ecology, can get bogged down in details. I’m also keeping an eye on how to be consistent, not in a doctrinaire or predictable manner, but at least so that the book does not end up having strange bulges of content or style.

Here is an example from the start of what I believe is chapter three.

Like the disputed headwaters of the Danube, claimed by different isolated villages in the Swiss and Austrian Alps, the sources of the American branch of the Valentino clan are historically murky and of dubious authenticity. One spokesperson, an elder member of the Brunetti family, Vittorio by name, whose mother Giovanna was a Valentini from the original home village of Mola di Bari in the modern province of Puglia, Italy, once told me the story of an infant boy, Pietro, who died after an altercation between the eldest Valentini son and his step-father Vito-Nicola. A carriage, a whip brandished, a baby thrown or dropped after the startled horse bolted—all fine high-drama details sworn to by Vittorio, but uncorroborated by the historical record.

I have a half-dozen photographs from the time in question. On my first trip to the region, decades before I knew I would one day be writing this account, a cousin took me to a photography studio where I saw a number of postcards created at the turn of the twentieth century. Today I wonder who would have purchased such cards then and for what purpose—this out of the way village was not on any tourist itinerary at the time and was rather a point of egress than one of arrival—but I saw them as the epitome of local atmosphere and asked whether the proprietor could enlarge them for me. He could, he maintained, but the price would be steep. An avid tennis player and coach, he would require tennis balls, lots of them, in exchange. The balls were cheaper in America. We came to an agreement. I shipped the balls. He sent me the enlarged prints, three of which now hang on the wall of my study. Each is presented as if inspired by an old veduta, where the angle of perception and what it takes in is paramount.

And so from the spiaggia orientale, or eastern beach, we spy the central portion of town essentially from the south-east—the rocky coastline slips not just southward but also eastward here, dropping quickly into depths that the northern portions of the Adriatic can only envy. One picture shows a half-dozen men in baggy white shirts, long dark pants, and the wool caps that have been worn in the region since Ancient times and would become fashionable as the beret of the twentieth century. They are situated on and about their twenty-foot boats, which have been beached in what appears to be sand. The boats have no apparent rigging, only large oars that, judging by their size, it would take two men each to maneuver. Everyone appears to be busy with something. One stands off to the side, repairing a net, another crouches by the water, his back to the camera. A few look suspiciously in its direction. Behind them, the port is visible to the right, the Castello Angioino in the medieval heart of town to the far left. Built in the late thirteenth century according to a design by French architect Pierre d’Agincourt for Charles I of Anjou shortly after he had added “King of Albania” to his many titles, the castle has always struck me as strangely out of place in this sleepy setting. One of its central remaining exterior walls slopes menacingly towards the sea in two directions, while the spit of land between its sharp northern corner and the water’s edge feels narrow and constricting. Its front gate faces Dubrovnik across the way.

The second, labeled “Porto,” shows a group of boys, twice as many as there were sailors in the previous view, clambering every which way across four tied-up vessels and up on the pavement. They appear to be working the oars, pretending to throw nets (obviously put away for safe keeping). They are of various ages, five to twelve, as far as I can tell. Some are shoeless, naked to the waist, thoroughly brown even in black-and-white, and wearing shorts—which probably accounts for their looking like hooligans—while others are dressed in long-sleeved button-down white shirts and dark slacks. By contrast to their elders, none wears a hat. Two are foregrounded, both shirtless and shoeless, one sitting cross-legged, his arms rapped loosely around his bony knees, the finger and thumb of his right hand, secured around his left wrist, the other lying sideways on an overturned rowboat. Both are looking straight at the camera. I wonder if there might be some socio-economic distinctions to explore here, but I don’t know enough to delve in. I wonder too whether one of the boys photographed might not have become someone I would one day know, with a cocked fedora and pleated slacks that fell just so. This too is impossible to say for certain.

The landing in New York is the stuff of family legend, but firmer somehow, as appropriate for landings, and there is a paper trail, some of it now digitized. We know that then Giovanni Valentini, later John Valentino, arrived at Ellis Island for the first time in April of 1920, one of three Giovanni Valentinis recorded to have arrived in that year. One of these was forty-six years old, another nine, and the third eighteen. The eighteen-year-old was our guy. That his name had not yet been changed is clear from the available documents: Giovanni Valentini he was and Giovanni Valentini he would remain until sometime between then and 1925, when he applied to become an American citizen as John Valentino. The stories about the Ellis Island officials making a mistake are not borne out by the record. He was the one who changed his name, though why is not clear. His first son, christened Pietro, later popularly referred to as Pete, often wondered about the life Giovanni had left behind him in the old country, speculating—to the consternation of his two sisters—that Giovanni might have been running from something, the law maybe, or a local woman. Or a local woman with a baby. Or the policeman father of a local woman with a baby. Giovanni never let on.

From here I can slice a bit through the region’s rich history of mixings and crossings, reflect on the family nickname of skavatil (which I once thought was related to the word schiave (slave), whose connection to the words Slav and ciao I explore in Chapter Two, and once again closely observe what happens when my Asian partner and I appear together in this quiet provincial town, all while keeping the general emphasis on the virtue of mixture (see earlier post on “bastards”).

Family Humor

I’m proofing Kin, which has been slow going I’ll post separately about that and am finding myself laughing at many things that before I didn’t notice or don’t remember noticing as funny. Jergović’s humor is almost always rather dark, and I recall someone noting how frequently he found himself laughing while reading another of his books. At that point, I wondered if I was translating the same author or, a more scary thought for a translator, if I had missed something in my reading. But reading it all together has reassured me.

Below is an example, which uses the rather normal expression spavati kao zaklan, and then goes to town with it. Normally, the expression would just be rendered as “sleep like a log” or something similar in English, but here there’s quite a bit more. The scene unfolds as a Turkish caravan with a couple of Venetians and a Parisien are passing through Zagreb in the mid-nineteenth century on their way to Ottoman Sarajevo.

Ganimed slept like a slaughtered man, in a deep, rich feather bed prepared just for him. The rest, including Botta and Sarchione, slept on ordinary army straw, but for him, as a special guest, the feather bed had been prepared that was kept, cleaned, and aired out in case one day, God willing, some Viennese prince or Pest count might stop at Blind Marica’s. As it had been decades since any prince had been to Zagreb, let alone to their inn, they made use of the occasion to offer the feather bed to a guest worthy of such attention. And Ganimed appeared to be just such a personage: handsome and slender, with a lofty bearing like some Russian princeling. The truth was that the old woman and her young valet, with a mustache like that of the most refined postman, had not accorded this honor because of Ganimed but more for themselves and the story that they would tell for a long time thereafter, and which they would continue to live off until an actual prince might come, about the youth who was so handsome one could not look away.

He really did sleep “like a slaughtered man.” The valet, who had learned this strange local expression, told him he would sleep precisely so in their bed of goose down. Botta translated his words calmly. Ganimed was shocked, but this served as the inspiration for his self-portrait, surely the best known of Ganimed Troyanovsky’s drawings that have been preserved and about which we should say several words here, for later there will not be time.

The painting Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat was kept in the permanent exhibit of the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina until the war. For financial reasons, or as a consequence of the lack of public interest in art, the permanent exhibit was never shown in its entirety again after the war, and the gallery closed for good in 2012. Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat was kept all this time in a gallery storeroom and only displayed on two occasions to the public over the last twenty years. The first time was immediately after the war, in 1996, at the exhibit The Free-hand Sketch – Drawn and Painted Works of Well-Known Architects, which was held in Paris’s Museum of Architecture, and the second was when it was included in a small 2005 display of Ganimed Troyanovsky’s works in the foyer of the Vienna Opera House on the occasion of the building’s construction.

Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat is one of Ganimed’s most elaborate paintings, with a multitude of details amid the five colors of the brush strokes and a slight watercolor overlay. The setting…

There follows a wonderful ekphrasis of this delicate painting…