In our monthly series, ‘TBR: The Booker Revisited’, Lucy Scholes shines a spotlight on hidden gems from the Booker Library. This month it’s an author who was a ‘comparative unknown’ when nominated for her third novel
As the author of two previous novels - and four impressive works of non-fiction that use symbolism, iconography, fairy tales and myth to elucidate the cultural representation of women past and present - when Marina Warner’s third novel, The Lost Father was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1988, it was probably a stretch too far to describe her as an underdog. All the same, as an article in The Guardian put it, she was the ‘comparative unknown’ on what was a remarkably strong shortlist, sat alongside Salman Rushdie and Penelope Fitzgerald - both of whom had already won the prize - Bruce Chatwin, David Lodge and the man who eventually came out on top, Peter Carey.
In the years since, Warner’s reputation as a prolific and formidable writer and critic has gone from strength to strength. She’s a profoundly intelligent scholar who uses her extensive knowledge of lore, symbols and allegory to intuitively make sense of modern culture. She’s written on myriad subjects, from notable figures Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary through the works of Ovid, the Brothers Grimm and the stories of the Arabian Nights. And I’m not just talking about her non-fiction. She also uses her fiction to explore the subjects she’s fascinated by.
A lush and densely-drawn inter-generational saga about the mythology and mystery that defines an Italian family, The Lost Father was the novel that established Warner’s reputation as a writer who was equally skilled and as comfortable writing fiction as she was non-fiction. It won widespread critical praise even before the Booker shortlist was announced. It possesses all ‘the pleasures of a literary crossword puzzle’, declared The Guardian. ‘An ambitious novel of rare imaginative power,’ praised the Independent. ‘Marina Warner’s fiction has a slow, dreamy quality that is at once pleasurable and slightly sinister - as in those dreams where you’re mysteriously tethered to one spot, condemned to wander in circles,’ was Lorna Sage’s especially perceptive description in the TLS. Not only is The Lost Father circular in structure - it’s that most devilish of conceits; a novel within a novel - it’s a story about what it means to continually circle a particularly potent and redolent family legend.
Warner luxuriates in sensual, poeticised language that’s thick with tactile details and rich metaphors
The novel is narrated by Anna Collouthar, a 38-year-old, divorced mother of one who works as an archivist, curating children’s ephemera at a London museum. Anna’s family is originally from southern Italy; her mother, Fantina, is the youngest of four sisters, whose father, Davide Pittagora - the ‘lost’ patriarch of the book’s title - died in 1931, aged only 38. He was killed, Fantina believes, as the result of a duel, which he fought defending his sister’s honour. This, at least, is the story that Fantina passed down to her daughter, and with which the younger woman has become mildly obsessed. Utilising her skills as an archivist, Anna pieces together a story of Davide’s life from the narrative ephemera that’s outlived him; extracts from his diary, her mother’s recollections, and - where there’s nothing concrete to draw on - her own imagination. It’s this novel, which Anna titles The Duel, that makes up the bulk of The Lost Father.
Although she shifts back and forth between various moments in the family’s timeline, chronologically Anna’s tale begins in the early years of the 20th century, in Ninfania, an Adriatic province in southern Italy. It’s here that an ‘alliance’-cum-uneasy friendship is forged between two schoolboys, Davide and Tommaso, both of whom are outliers because they’re so much taller and physically well-developed than their classmates. We follow Tommaso’s entanglements with Davide’s sisters - the sensual and bold Rosalba falls in love with him, inveigling her sibling Caterina to act as her go-between - events that lead to the famed duel, during which Davide receives a bullet wound, an injury that he initially survives, but which leaves lead shot in his bloodstream, through which it winds its deadly path until it eventually kills him nearly two decades later.
During this time, though, he and his wife, Maria Filippa, join ‘the thousands in flight from the land of the olive and the grape, the sun, wine, music’, emigrating to America in search of a new and more prosperous life. Alas, it’s an enterprise that’s doomed from the get-go. Their beloved firstborn, a son named Pericle, dies during the crossing, after which the couple encounter only poverty and hardship on the streets of New York. Three daughters are born there - Immacolata, Talia and Lucia - but by the time Fantina arrives in 1922, the family has returned to Italy.
Although in certain ways, the novel very much feels like a product of a particular facet of feminist creativity of the late 1980s and early 90s - think of Angela Carter and A.S. Byatt, both of whom also played with ways of re-writing fairy tales in their fiction during this period - that Warner marries this element of the work with an equally keen interest in the often quite harsh reality of women’s lives is something that still speaks to readers today. If, for example, you’re a fan of Elena Ferrante’s famous Neapolitan novels - the final volume of which, The Story of the Lost Child, was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2016 - you’re sure to be equally entranced by The Lost Father. Warner’s evocative descriptions of the trials and tribulations that accost her female characters in rural Italy in the first half of the 20th century makes a wonderful companion piece to Ferrante’s quartet about two childhood friends who struggle to disentangle themselves from their violence and poverty into which they were born.
The myth that surrounds Davide is one of machismo, codes of honour and chivalry, but Warner is interested in the effect of these on her world of women; those to whom it falls ‘to surround the family with barriers against harm’. These women’s own lives, meanwhile, are still dictated by old superstition, tradition and religion. Yet in the background the century marches forward, as evidenced by Mussolini’s rise to power; not that Italy under the Leader offers them a brighter future. In one particularly memorable scene in which he visits the town where the now widowed Maria Filippa is living with her daughters, Warner terrifyingly entangles the threats of fascism, misogyny and sexual violence. Overwhelmed among the crush of the crowds, 11-year-old Fantina collapses in a dead faint. Seeing her struggling with her daughter’s heavy unconscious body, a man nearby offers Maria Filippa his help, but the way he eyes the girl’s ‘bare legs flopping inanimately’ unsettles her mother. ‘[H]er teeth [set] like a mother cat who finds an intruder by her new litter and spits,’ she waves him off, watching with horror as his eyes continue to linger on Fantina’s defenceless body.
Warner luxuriates in sensual, poeticised language that’s thick with tactile details and rich metaphors. When Tommaso returns home for Easter after a term of infantry service, he’s described as looking ‘like a puppet [who’s been] restrung at the toy hospital,’ his chest and thighs newly meaty, his body taut and pulled together. A baby’s ‘soft plump feet’ strapped up in buttoned shoes evoke an image of ‘napkins over hot bread rolls’. There’s the strong smell that Fantina remembers enveloping the apartment after her father dies as the women set about dyeing everything black. ‘They were heaping wood under the cauldron in the kitchen; the dye smelled of tar. They were putting our clothes in and Sabina was crying while she turned them round and round with a big wooden spoon,’ she tells her daughter.
The Lost Father was the novel that established Warner’s reputation as a writer who was equally skilled and as comfortable writing fiction as she was non-fiction.
I found myself re-reading The Lost Father last summer, enticed back into its intoxicating world thanks to Warner’s recent book, Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir. Although published 34 years apart, the two books are step-siblings of a sort. Following in Anna’s footsteps, in order to tell the story of the early years of her own parents’ marriage, Warner weaves together fact and fiction with invigorating and ingenuous effect. She had already filtered elements of her family history into The Lost Father. Fantina, for example, is based on Warner’s mother, Ilia. She too was the youngest of four fatherless sisters, who were living with their mother in the southern Italian city of Bari, when Esmond Warner - an officer in the British Army, 15 years her senior and already balding (‘plump and clumsy and mostly bald’ is how Anna describes her British father, ‘an officer with the Eighth Army’, in The Lost Father) - landed there in 1943. Esmond married the 21-year-old, dark-haired beauty, then sent her back to his parents in England to wait out the rest of the war in their stuffy Kensington mansion block flat. Sand-blown from fighting for so long in the desert campaign that he’d ‘begun to feel at home in North Africa’, when, after the war, Esmond was offered the opportunity of opening a branch of the British bookshop W.H. Smith in Cairo, he seized it with both hands. Warner’s childhood is spent gazing out across the city to the majestic pyramids on the horizon.
Warner began work on The Lost Father in the aftermath of her father’s death; Inventory of a Life Mislaid, meanwhile, was occasioned by the loss of her mother. In both though, it’s Ilia’s story that she’s drawn most strongly to, and that which she’s trying to make sense of. ‘I wanted to find out what my mother’s life in southern Italy was like - she was born the year Mussolini came to power,’ Warner told the Literary Review. The Lost Father, she continued, was ‘the result of trying to imagine what it was like to be a young woman under those conditions’. The ingenuity and the beauty of both books is that they’re simultaneously heady family romances and interrogations of the very idea of the family romance; of how a story, regardless of how much it’s based on fact or fiction, can hold tremendous power over the identities of those it involves, even at a remove.
Towards the end of Inventory of a Life Mislaid, Warner explains that the Egyptian pharaohs were traditionally buried with shabtis, ‘labourers of the other world, who work on behalf of the deceased to meet their needs and provide for their comforts during eternity’. This book, she explains, is her own attempt to be her mother’s shabti; ‘to witness the arc’ of Ilia’s life by telling her story, even if she’s had to make some of it up, complete with dialogue and interior thought, and scenes that she herself could never have actually seen. These she’s conjured up in her imagination instead, inspired by her own catalogue of family ephemera: Esmond’s Box Brownie camera, a pair of bespoke English brogues he had made for his new wife when she arrived in London, a pocket dictionary, King Faruq’s bookplate.
Ultimately it matters little whether what we’re reading is true in the strictest sense of the word; the story Warner tells is the one that’s shaped her identity as Esmond and Ilia’s child. As, at the very end of The Lost Father when Anna encounters a long since forgotten article from an old newspaper that casts the family legend in an entirely new light. Had she been in possession of this information from the beginning, we understand, The Duel would have been an entirely different story. But that would have meant that she would have been a different woman, too.
TBR: The Booker Revisited’ is an editorial partnership between The Booker Prize Foundation and Lit Hub.
Lucy Scholes is a critic based in London and Senior Editor at McNally Editions