Novel Thoughts: Sandro Veronesi - The Hummingbird (W&N 2022)
If I was asked to demonstrate the potential of the novel to someone who has never read one before, I might suggest The Hummingbird. This is the novel at full stretch. Veronesi, who has apparently published nine novels and won Italy’s biggest literary prize twice, uses a full range of narrative techniques to show-off what the form can do.
Here we find biographical writing, transcripts of phone calls, emails, cataloguing and listing, (and a refreshing lack of scene-making), all harnessed in short chapters to tell the story of a man who endures accidents and bereavement in search of meaning. The Hummingbird demonstrates a simple premise I always argue for: a novel can be defined as nothing more than a lengthy narrative blending fiction and fact – no stricter definition can capture its variety, and it is the sheer diversity of technique available to the novelist which ensures the form remains so vital. Veronesi constructs a prism of many facets, through which we view his protagonist like subjects moving around a scale-model, peering into the windows of a life and piecing together the full picture. Veronesi was a trained architect before he became a novelist, and two of his characters are architects and model-makers, while his protagonist is an ophthalmologist. Vision, perception and structure, are at the heart of this author’s technical thinking. It is a tribute to Veronesi’s experience and skill that this technique - hopscotching moments, dates, broken timelines and fragmentation - is pleasantly, productively confusing, rather than frustrating, just like the best postmodern architecture. In the opening chapters, a somewhat false sense of threat lures us into this complexity and promises a dramatic puzzle - a cheap trick, dropped when the book has taught us how to read it. Veronesi’s eloquent, psychological insights, along with the satisfying completeness of multiple vignettes, is enough to keep us there. Rather than feeling dragged down by the gravity of the heavy subject matter, Veronesi’s prose elevates. It is energetic, eloquent, funny, but always simple, and predominantly conversational and direct – a tone that works on the reader like the beating wings of the hummingbird keeping us in the air over all the chaos of life. Perhaps with such structural complexity, linguistic simplicity is key. Note how ‘difficult’ novels are often a result of employing more than one type of challenging complexity. Veronesi avoids this trap. One more idea is key to style - the discourse of psychology. The practice of psychotherapy plays not just a major (sometimes overbearing), role in the lives of the characters, but also in the tone of the narration. Interspersed with the literary evidence of life (the lists, emails and letters) the narrator’s biographical accounts rarely venture into scenes of action, but instead recount histories that sometimes read like narrative case-studies. Some readers may tire of characters who all have therapists, and seemingly few financial worries. But you will miss much if myopic envy or resentment gets in the way. Accept that we are firmly in the milieu of upper middle-class Italians here, and get on with it. In the wrong hands, how awful this could all be. How wonderful under Veronesi’s compassionate, generous but unflinching gaze.