Thursday, June 21, 2007

Another Novel On Growing Up

Growing up is never easy

I have mentioned in the more recent posts on this blog that I wished to review some books on childhood and growing up. In this post I should like to briefly review another small but beautifully written book on this subject. The novel in question is Portofino by the American author and film-maker Frank Schaeffer.

Above all this is a hilariously funny book, but like all good books it has a serious message. It is a story which recounts a boy’s struggle to grow in a repressive family atmosphere. This boy’s name is Calvin Becker, 11 years old, and he is the son of an embarrassingly over-zealous American missionary couple who are strong evangelicals. The Becker family holidays every year on the Italian Riviera in the small resort of Portofino. Calvin’s father, even on holidays, seems to be always in a bad mood, and his mother is forever attempting to convert the “pagans” she meets on the beach. Needless to say, both these facts drive the young boy crazy. His sister Janet is far too much similar to her mother, and she keeps a ski sweater and a miniature bible in her suitcase because you never know when the Russians might invade and pack you off to Siberia. Here, then you have the setting of the novel, right during the era of The Cold War. In fact, the year is 1962 and the country is Italy.

As a matter of fact, Frank Schaeffer wrote three semi-biographical novels about growing up in a fundamentalist missionary family and they are respectively Portofino (1992), Saving Grandma (1999)and Zermatt (2003). I have only read the first of these, and certainly intend buying the other two to finish the tale of his growing through his adolescent years. Here is what Frank says about these novels in a recent interview on his own website : “In 1947 my mother and father moved to Europe. They were American Protestant, Reformed, Calvinist missionaries. I was thus part of an experiment in radical Christian living "by faith alone" in the commune of L'abri in Switzerland where I grew up. I've been exploring this childhood in my semi-biographical novels of the Calvin Becker Trilogy---Portofino, Zermatt and Saving Grandma. I guess that they are what the Times of London called them, "Cross-cultural comedies" and "coming of age stories." But perhaps what they are really about is what children face in households where their families are dedicated to some cause, be it fundamentalist Christianity, or left wing messianic politics. Even as children we find ways to challenge the orthodoxy that surrounds us...”

That’s what I love about Portofino, that is, the ways young Calvin Becker finds ways to challenge the crushing orthodoxy and stiffling atmosphere in which he is forced to live. Young Calvin is fed the party line that he is part of “the anointed” or “select few,” yet he is beginning to learn that he is just an ordinary everyday young boy full of all the frailties and weaknesses of every other human being. In this novel, Calvin lies about his father’s profession and tells people in Portofino that his father is actually a teacher. These are the marvellously astute words young Calvin uses of himself: "Some kids I met told lies to be special. I told lies to be normal."

Calvin lives for the family's annual summer vacation in Italy where he can escape to the sea, the eccentric locals, and the taunting blond Jennifer, the daughter of a wealthy English family who stays at the same pensione.

I always read the first 2 or 3 pages of any novel I buy just to sample the style. If I’m captivated by the style, then I’ll buy it. I think the opening of this small novel is marvelously clear: “The first glimpse of the Mediterranean was always turquoise. ‘A turquoise bracelet studded with diamonds,’ my sister Janet said. I had two sisters: Janet, my angry fifteen-year-old sister, and Rachel, who was meek and thirteen.” (p. 11) The narrative continues in such a clear, crisp and at times clipped style. It flows with energy and power, and sweeps the reader along like a boat in a rather fast stream.

Here, again we witness Schaeffer’s humour when Calvin’s mother lectures the eleven-year-old boy on personal hygiene: “‘You should wash under the little protective flap of skin God created to keep your Little Thing clean.’ When my ‘Little Thing’ was ‘naughty,’ it would stand up. It was part of ‘God’s beautiful gift that you must save to unwrap at Christmas – Marriage,’ as Mom would say.” (p.14) The laughs continue like this almost from page to page. The style is fluent, precise and apt and always clear. Calvin witnesses a lot including a slight love affair between his mother and one of his father’s clerical students – a love affair which thankfully never really took off. All of this is grist to young Calvin’s mill – the realization of the sheer frailty of the so-called “elect” or select few, or of the so-called “saved.” Then, there is the funny episode of his Dad pulling the porcelain toilet tank down on his head in one of his moods when he flushed the loo. When Schaeffer writes about one of his dad’s moods he always capitalizes the “m” to make his point.

Perhaps the most moving and poignant moment in the book is when young Calvin is leathered or strapped with a belt by his father – some nine times. Finally, there are some nasty scenes between his mother and father and their eventually moving reconciliation. The novel finishes on a positive note with the young boy finding a hairbrush containing two long blonde hairs from his sweet-heart’s hair – Jennifer whom he had adored from afar and whom he had helped when she had cut her foot. We see young Calvin fleeing out the door and heading off with his contraband neatly hidden in a bath towel.

In short, this novel is a good read – 7 out of 10. The above photograph is one of me as a young student - 19 or 20 - when I was reading a book on Shakespeare's plays for an essay at college.

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