Viola Di Grado tells the story of a suicide and what follows. She has given voice to an astonishing vision of life after life, portraying the awful longing and sense of loss that plague the dead, together with the solitude provoked by the impossibility of communicating. The afterlife itself is seen as a dark, seething place where one is preyed upon by the cruel and unrelenting elements

The Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado tr. Antony Shugaar (Europa, July 2015)

Viola Di Grado, Hollow Heart. Trans. by Antony Shugaar, Europa Editions, 2015.

story Hollow Heart

In this courageous, inventive, and intelligent novel, Viola di Grado tells the story of a suicide and what follows. She has given voice to an astonishing vision of life after life, portraying the awful longing and sense of loss that plague the dead, together with the solitude provoked by the impossibility of communicating. The afterlife itself is seen as a dark, seething place where one is preyed upon by the cruel and unrelenting elements. The Hollow Heart will frighten as it provokes, enlighten as it causes concern. If ever there were a novel that follows Kafka’s prescription for a book to be a frozen axe for the sea within us, it is The Hollow Heart.

In her second novel, The Hollow Heart, the London-based, Italian author Viola di Grado embraces the gothic and macabre with relish. The narrator, Dorotea Giglio, is dead at the age of 25. She has killed herself by slitting her wrists in her bath and she embarks on a swirling, luminous journey into the afterlife. That we are convinced by this is testament to the hypnotic and mesmerising quality of Di Grado’s writing.
Dorotea observes the gloomy machinations of death – rigor mortis, putrefaction, oblivion – with deadpan coolness. A disembodied ghost, no longer part of the world, she clings on, unwilling to let go of her former life. Images of insects creeping under pale skin and long hair bring to mind a morbid, distinctly female, romanticism of death and self-destruction.
This eerie romanticism is firmly rooted in a hyper-contemporary world. Her  ex-boyfriend dumped her “in seven hundred characters”. A corpse is “just right for stirring pity on social media” and death is consolidated by the erasing of her Facebook profile. There is an obsession with the surface and curation of images that trails back to memories of life with a dysfunctional mother using her as a photographic model as a child.
The plot spirals inwards, tightly wound, and there is a confessional earnestness which can be unsettling and verges on an over-exposure of the self. By page 16 we have been introduced to three abandonments. Father issues are displayed almost proudly. There is much talk of anti-depressants.
Ultimately, it is the writing that elevates this book. Quirky, crisp, with plenty of dark, clever humour: “My skeleton and I love each other. We’re in a kind of open relationship.” Peppered throughout are references to iconic female figures who form a constellation of dark angels responsible for guiding Dorotea towards suicide: Violet Trefusis, Amy Winehouse, Frieda Kahlo and Sinead O’Connor.
The novel is a fairy tale gone bad, with echoes of Angela Carter without the Postmodernism. At one point, Dorotea says of a programme flickering on the TV, “they were showing an American series with vampires or ghosts or young couples in love, it wasn’t clear yet”. The same can be said of The Hollow Heart. I am not sure if it is a literary young-adult novel wrapped in a ghost story, but in the end definitions don’t matter because the writing is pristine. Each sentence lures us further into the flies and blood-filled spirals of Di Grado’s dreamworld and, most importantly, we are willing to follow her. - Suzanne Joinson

Hollow Heart begins with the narrator's suicide. On 23 July 2011 Dorotea Giglio slits her wrists in the bathtub and bleeds out. For all her trouble, the finality one comes to expect with death is rather a let-down, as she lingers on in semi-spiritual form, able to continue walking and stalking the earth, albeit by and large unseen; her employer treats like her she's the same, but she's invisible for everyone else in her (former) life. Death has some odd effects: she finds herself illiterate but still able to write, for example. But she can and does drift around, not exactly haunting her old haunts but revisiting them -- while also keeping a close eye on the steady decomposition of her corporeal form (which fares as dead and buried bodies are supposed to, rotting slowly away).
       Dorotea describes the fairly depressing life she had: she never knew her father, and her mother struggled raising her alone. She was about to graduate with a degree in biology when she offed herself at age twenty-five. She'd been on anti-depressants, and she had an aunt, Lidia, who was also a young suicide. She had had a boyfriend, Lorenzo, but he broke up with her ("via text message" -- though the cad had at least gone the maximum ("before the double rate kicks in") seven hundred character length in his dumping text).
       The narrative jumps ahead four years, only to turn back and examine the past more closely, suggesting in part what led Dorotea to take her life. Then the present takes over again, year by year of those first dead years, some in more detail, some less (2014 is covered in half a page).
       As Dorotea notes:
     The newly dead, after all the thanatocentric advertising offered by religion and art, have enormous expectations concerning death, and I was no exception to the rule. 
       It turns out not to be quite as advertised, but Dorotea makes the adjustments and goes with the (odd) flow. She returns repeatedly to several places: home, Lorenzo's -- she still can't quite get over him --, and her physical form, keeping close tabs on its state of decomposition. She even finds friends to pass the time with:
     On January 4 I went to the cemetery with Euridice. After watching my decomposition for half an hour, she said: "I have to tell you something. I like your body. It's really lovely."
       (Euridice has her own ideas for what to do with the body, however, which is rather more than Dorotea can handle.)
       Dorotea finds she's: "the living proof that death is not a limit. I don't survive. I subvive." Di Grado spins a decent novel out of this unusual premise, using the strangeness of the situation (and imagining its details) well; her narrator's expression, in particular, is effective, as Dorotea doesn't seek sympathy or offer excuses or explanations, while also being confronted with a world that is largely both familiar and yet now entirely separate.
       Odd, and certainly bleak, Hollow Heart might beat too empty for many readers, but Di Grado shows enough skill here to make it worth a look. - M.A.Orthofer

If you believed Ferrante was the only female Italian author in town, think again – today’s post looks at another great writer, a name you might be hearing more about in the future.  Viola Di Grado’s debut novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, was published by Europa Editions a couple of years back to a fair bit of praise from online reviewers, even if it didn’t receive a lot of publicity in mainstream outlets.  Hopefully, this time around she’ll get a little more attention – it’s certainly a book that merits it.
Hollow Heart (translated by Antony Shugaar, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is just as strongly written as its predecessor, taking the black, manic tone of the earlier book and pushing it into a new territory – beyond the grave.  The novel begins with an end as Dorotea Giglio is introduced to the reader in dramatic fashion:
“In 2011, the world ended: I killed myself.”
p.11 (Europa Editions, 2015)
From here, you’d expect the book to backtrack and explain how she got to this point, and it does to some extent.  However, Dorotea is not a woman to let death get in her way, and the main focus of Hollow Heart is on what happens next, with the writer examining the topic of life after death, both above and below ground…
Anyone who has read Di Grados’ first novel will feel at home here in her dark story of an underworld which spends much of its time above the surface.  The first part, especially, contains breathless writing, aggressive, sweeping and angry – Dorotea’s voice is sardonic and biting, and wonderful throwaway lines abound:
“At the supermarket across the street I bought red plastic plates, red forks, red party cups, a bottle of cheap spumante, a frozen paella, and a bag of single-blade disposable razors.  There was a two-for-one sale, but I thought one death would be enough for me.” (pp.20/1)
This beginning of the book is a maelstrom of passionate outrage as the young woman attempts to come to terms with her life – and death.
Gradually, we are told how and why she got to this point, with a failed relationship and long-term depression pushing her towards an early grave.  It’s only later, though, that we learn (and see) that the mental illness she faced (and faces) is a family affair:
She went to bed.  I lay down next to her.  She turned over on her side, one hand under her right cheek.  I turned over on my side, one hand under my right cheek.
     Two hours later the phone rang.
     “Ciao, sweetheart, it’s Aunt Clara, can I talk to your mama?”
     “Ciao.  No, you can’t, she’s sleeping.”
     “Why didn’t you go to school today?”
     “I have to stay here to make sure Mama doesn’t die.”
     She decided to come over.  (p.43)
With a mother struggling to cope, Dorotea is forced to grow up quickly, and while she makes it to her mid-twenties, it’s a wonder that her departure didn’t happen earlier.
While Hollow Heart does explore Dorotea’s life, it’s her death that is the main focus of the novel, as she discovers that life really does go on.  She eventually becomes a part of a community of spirits, meeting more people and welcoming the recently departed to their new world (even if suicides are the social outcasts of the afterlife…).
The idea of life after death may be a cheering one, but in Di Grado’s mind it’s not as good as it sounds.  There’s nothing to do as you’re unable to feel – death is merely a continuation of life where you have become invisible to the living, ghosts consigned to the past:
“Here’s the worst thing about death: the inherent racism of the human language.  While the living gorge themselves on the present indicative, all we can hope for are moldy leftovers of the past tense.  If you want even the tiniest helping of a verb in the present tense, you must necessarily have the obscene badge of a beating heart pinned to your chest.” (p.75)
The only comfort is to be found in watching the living and taking vicarious pleasure in their miserable struggles…
…or in watching yourself…  You see, while the spirit remains, the body does not, and Dorotea takes great pleasure in observing the slow, steady decay of her earthly remains (deciding to keep a dispassionate – and somewhat disturbing – diary of her return to the earth).  It’s not only the body that decays, though.  As Dorotea’s mother grieves, the family house, too, falls slowly apart, adding to the filth and squalor pervading the book.
Hollow Heart is a heartbreaking story of the girl and then the woman, a poor soul tainted by her DNA, destined to kill herself, only to find that’s there’s more to come.  The book is very similar in many ways to Di Grado’s first novel, but perhaps even more depressing.  Where 70% Acrylic… maintains the rage throughout its long Leeds December, the initial anger and bile displayed in Hollow Heart slowly gives way to numbness.  In the end, Dorotea seems to (forgive the pun) give up the ghost…
Returning to my introduction, the Ferrante comparison may have been a little contrived, but there’s more linking the writers than gender, nationality and publisher.  Di Grado is from Catania in Sicily which, while further south than Naples, is still far away from the big, richer northern cities.  Both writers have examined difficult mother-daughter relationships in their works (compare Di Grado’s books with Ferrante’s Troubling Love or The Lost Daughter).  More importantly, though, both writers inject their work with emotion, their stories pushed along by anger and betrayal.  If you like Ferrante’s work (and many do), you could do worse than give her younger counterpart a try ;)
For me, Hollow Heart isn’t quite as good as 70% Acrylic 30 % Wool, but there’s no shame in that (I reread the earlier book after finishing this one and was blown away again).  With all the fuss about publishing female writers in the media recently, one of the areas overlooked was exactly who we should be reading.  Let me address that now – Ferrante is one, naturally, and Di Grado is certainly on that list too.  Off you go, then. -

In Viola di Grado’s second novel, a suicide victim narrates her short life and surprising afterlife.
Twenty-five-year-old Dorotea Giglio slit her wrists in the bathtub in July 2011 and expired in “a grim mojito of mint bubble bath and blood”. Over the next four years she chronicles her physical decomposition as well as her spirit’s enduring search for love. Flashbacks to childhood reveal that she never met her father and that her mother, a fashion photographer, struggled with depression. Indeed suicide runs in the family: Aunt Lidia walked into the river, à la Virginia Woolf, in 1970.
The border between life and death is permeable; Dorotea can interact with her corpse and people she once knew. She continues her former work and routines but most people experience her as a breath on the neck or a fragment of violin music. The only one who sees her is her elderly boss at a stationers. Meanwhile, the dead form a bizarre alternative community with macabre habits. Dorotea walks a dead foetus on a leash and she and her friends travel to London to see Amy Winehouse give a posthumous performance.
When Dorotea falls in love with new colleague Alberto, her emotions soar even though her physical heart has shrivelled: “Inside me, along with love, ammonia developed, and a swarm of larvae took up residence in my interior.” In alternately clinical and whimsical language, with fresh metaphors that have survived the translation from Italian by Antony Shugaar admirably, di Grado examines the secret sadness passed down through families. - Rebecca Foster
70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola Di Grado tr. Michael Reynolds (Europa, Oct. 2012)
Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. Trans. by Michael Reynolds, Europa Editions, 2012.

Camelia is a young Italian woman who lives with her mother in Leeds, a city where it is always December and winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before. She’s dropped out of university and translates instruction manuals for an Italian washing machine manufacturer; her mother, Livia Mega, once a renowned flautist, spends her days inside taking photographs of holes she finds in the house. Camelia and her mother communicate in a language of their own invention, in which words play no part. The lives of these two women have been undone by a calamity in their recent past, and there seems little or no possibility of ever finding their way back to a normal life. But one day Camelia meets Wen, a local shop owner. To win Camelia’s affections, Wen begins teaching her Chinese ideograms. Through this new language of signs and subtle variations Camelia learns to see the world anew and, in it, a chance for renewal. Stylistically innovative, linguistically thrilling, 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool announces the arrival of an exceptional new talent. A most unusual love story, one as unpredictable as the  human heart itself, 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool is funny at times, bittersweet at others. It will find admirers among readers of Karen Russell and Jennifer Egan.

Viola Di Grado's 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (translated by Michael Reynolds, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a wonderfully bizarre novel, one set in the English city of Leeds.  From the very start, the city plays a starring role in the story, mostly as a dark, depressing place, a town where it's always December and daylight is just a distant cultural memory.

Of course, we're not meant to take this literally (I think...) - this view of the city is an outward projection of the mental state of the main character, Camelia Mega.  Born in Italy and brought to Leeds at the age of seven, she is struggling to cope with the loss of her father (caught in flagrante with a lover - in a car crash) and her mother's retreat into an inner-world, one of denial and wordlessness.
Camelia seems set to follow her mother down the spiral when a chance encounter on the street with a young Chinese man, Wen, provides the impetus she needs to start living again.  In fact, Leeds even manages to get past December (eventually...).  A love story with a happy ending then?  You obviously don't know Viola Di Grado...
70% Acrylic 30% Wool is a fantastic book, a novel which defies simple clichéd explanations.  It gets its power from Di Grado's manipulation of language and the way in which she makes the ordinary bizarre, constantly leaving the reader grasping at thin air.  For me, this was a more personal reading than for most because I lived in Leeds for a few years, very close to the places Camelia describes; however, the Leeds of the novel is less that of my student years and more one of some post-apocalyptic nightmare.  As any self-respecting southerner will tell you, it's grim up north:

"It must have been seven in the morning but it was dark outside, like at any self-respecting hour of the day in Leeds.  They discriminate against daylight hours here, ghettoizing them behind curtains."p.19 (Europa Editions, 2013)
I don't think the city's tourist board will be hiring Di Grado as an ambassador any time soon...
Things start to get better though, when Camelia meets Wen, the manager of a clothes shop, and starts taking private Chinese lessons (let's ignore the fact that they met after he recognised her clothes as something he'd thrown out in the rubbish...).  Camelia had been planning to study Chinese at university before her father's death, and she soon gets swept up both with her studies, and her growing passion for the young teacher.  However, when Wen (no pun intended) fails to respond adequately to her advances, things start to get very messy.  Occasionally literally.
As you might imagine from the mixed linguistic background of the story, languages and words (or the absence thereof) play a major role in the novel.  Camelia becomes obsessed with Chinese characters, painting them on pieces of paper, plastering them across the walls of her home and tracing them manically onto her arms and legs while watching television.  Everything she sees is decoded in the form of the radicals of the characters, transformed from real objects into inky-black depictions.
Her journey into language contrasts with her mother's retreat into silence (the silence, at times, threatening to infect Camelia, forcing her to vomit up words...).  Having said that, languages do not necessarily require verbalisation, and mother and daughter somehow communicate very well with glances.  And, of course, there's always music:

"She stood up there, so red at the top of the steep narrow stairs, stairs rotten with dust, like an upside-down Tower of Babel that instead of multiplying languages had destroyed them all.  And all this, the elision of all languages, just to get to this moment, to her standing there mute and breathtaking as she always was after playing her favorite piece." (p.157)
Camelia, though, most definitely prefers words - and action...
I still don't think I've managed to quite get the idea of the novel across adequately - this book is ever so slightly twisted (in a good way, of course).  As well as the above, there'll be blood, sex, betrayal, mutilation of defenceless clothes and flowers, and symbolic references to holes.  And Leeds.  Lots of walking about the centre and student areas of Leeds.
Which brings me to the only bad thing I have to say about 70% Acrylic 30% Wool...  Michael Reynold's translation is a good one, a very good one in fact, but it's written in American English, and for me that detracted from the finished article a little.  I was just too close to the setting of the book to be able to gloss over some of the vocabulary choices, even if the style of the language isn't noticeably American.  The place I used to go and buy crisps at late at night is not a 'gas station'; the thing I used to walk on to uni most days (OK, some days) is not a 'sidewalk'; wherever Camelia found the clothes, I'm pretty certain it wasn't a 'dumpster'; oh, and while Leeds can be pretty bleak at times, it's definitely not 'gray'...
Rant over :)  This is a great book, and I really hope that more of Wunderkind Di Grado's work is available in English soon (my Italian ain't all it could be).  It's not always easy to get your head around, and understanding Camelia's actions can be a nightmare at times, but you should definitely take 70% Acrylic 30% Wool for a spin.  Definitely not one for delicates though ;) - Tony Malone

You can tell that Viola di Grado has a unique voice from the first line of her novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool: “One day it was still December.” If this line seems a little puzzling, the next one puts things in (ironic) perspective: “Especially in Leeds, where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before.” After having read this book, I hope I’ll never go to Leeds. Its constant grayness, cold rainy days, bland working class neighborhoods with dirty streets peppered with used condoms and vomit, which are depicted over and over throughout the novel, have made a lasting impression.
The narrator is a twenty-one-year-old girl who left Italy with her family when she was seven to move to Britain. The “Britishness” seeping from the novel is so overpowering that it’s easy to forget that the novel wasn’t originally written in English, but in Italian. Di Grado’s writing has an oddness that sounds, paradoxically, very English. It is odd in the way a surrealist painting is odd, and yet, one has a hard time thinking of the English version as a “translation.” This natural-sounding strangeness, for which we have to thank (at least in part) the translator, Michael Reynolds, is rooted in a vision of writing that comes from the fourth-century BCE Chinese Taoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, who, according to di Grado, believed that one had to “forget” language and not fall into the “fish-traps” of convention. In an email interview, di Grado explained: “One of the ways I did that was by operating a slight shift in meaning so that you recognize the word, but still feel like you need a sort of translation—that’s what many people told me about the language I use.” Intriguingly, Di Grado wrote her novel at the same age as her character, while living in Leeds as an exchange student in a big house she shared with twelve Russians!
In the middle of the night I would wake up and speak Italian. Since none of them spoke Italian, I’ll never know what I was saying. I think my core was trying to express itself, I think I felt caged. Living in a British environment made a difference: at some point, I would think a sentence in English and then translate it [into Italian], which is of course terrible, since being familiar with the language you’re writing in is essential.
There is no doubt that the most striking aspect of this novel is its style. But style here is not a mere ornament, as is often the case with many books focused on “craft.” Rather, the experience of language is at the core of the book—which is not to say that this is one of those books “about nothing.” The experience of language and of its absence—silence—are present here in many ways, beginning with the period of silent grieving after the narrator’s father’s death in a car accident. The narrator’s mother hasn’t spoken in months (or maybe years; we don’t know since it’s always “December”), and mother and daughter have developed a silent language: “She said the look, ‘Go ahead . . .’” The mother, who had been a beautiful, successful flute player, turns into a slob who spends her life unwashed and undressed until the day she begins a photography class in which she was enrolled by her daughter.
Camellia (the daughter-narrator) works as a freelance translator for an Italian washing machine company whose operating instructions often pop up within the narration, adding to the absurdity of it all. In the same interview, di Grado explained that she was interested in “the idea of applying the dumb, often surreal logic of these instruction manuals to life—one than is really messy. That’s what Camelia does, her life is a mess and this is one of her ways to clean it up through this distortion.” While Camellia is having sex with Jimmy, we can read these hilarious insertions: “During wash cycles the transparent porthole tends to heat up;” or: “Opening the porthole and placing clothes in . . .”
Jimmy is the mentally retarded brother of a young Chinese man, Wen, who works as a tailor in Camellia’s neighborhood and teaches her Chinese, a language that di Grado has studied herself. The reflections on various Chinese ideograms and the relationships between them are among the most intellectually stimulating parts of the novel, and they too are related to the narrator’s quest for a new language. In our interview, di Grado explained how studying Chinese and Japanese while writing a novel in Italian influenced her writing:
Learning languages that are so distant from mine has been essential for me to create a neutral space. These are ideographic languages, so by learning them I tried to treat Italian words as if they were ideographs—that is, words that have to be identified and recognized for their concept rather than from the immediacy of sound. I think ideographs have a more intimate connection with the world, and I wanted to give Italian words this intimacy, this power. It’s like taking their clothes off.
The relationship with Jimmy begins after Wen (who loves Camellia) refuses her sexual advances. In the end, the mystery of Wen’s refusal is solved, but a crime involving the mother’s new boyfriend (her photography instructor) gives the story an unexpected twist. The ending, as well as the protagonist’s sadomasochistic predispositions are reminiscent of Yoko Ogawa’s novels and female characters, who display the same paradoxical mixture of inner fragility and destructive tendencies toward themselves and the others. But the overall style of the novel, as well as di Grado’s style in real life (she is known for her extravagant fashion choices and her very dark lipstick) have an affinity with the Francophone Belgian writer, Amélie Nothomb, who, coincidentally, also knows Japanese. (As an aside, I should add that I saw Nothomb a few years ago at the Salon du livre in Paris, surrounded by body guards, wearing one of her huge hats, and having her hand kissed by a female admirer.) In our interview, Di Grado, who is an admirer of Nothomb, revealed that the Belgian writer has written her a generous letter about her novel.
Di Grado’s style, always ingenuous, moves between what could be called economically artful (“The blond woman in the film spoke rain and her mother . . . replied in rain”) and what to some may seem like hyper-hyperbolae (“Outside, the endless sadomasochism of the earth and sky, clouds lacerating innocent lawns with water”). Whatever the case, the style is a perfect match for the character’s inner turmoil. One of the novel’s greatest qualities is that the inner and outer worlds are a continuation of each other. The reader breaths the same air for the duration of the entire book, which makes it an emotionally challenging experience.
In a previous (video) interview, di Grado, elaborating on the fourth-century Chinese philosopher, had made the comment that literature is about destroying language and recreating it. It is a good description of what she does, and one of the best definitions of literary language I’ve come across. Not accidentally, Camellia is passionately destroying the “defective” garments she finds in the trash (thrown there by Wen) and then she pieces them together in new, unexpected configurations. Camellia seems to embody the author’s vision of language and the Japanese esthetic ideal of mono no ware, “born from the encounter of Buddhism and Shinto. It’s a literary ideal on which Heian period literature is based. It’s the sadness of things, the awareness that a thing’s closeness to death is the reason of its beauty.”
When asked about her writing process, di Grado compared the writer to a shaman:
“I think the writer is like a shaman. I begin with an image, an idea, and then, as the story unfolds, all the ideas come to me. My creative process is very chaotic and, like the shaman’s, it starts with a dream: I dream about the protagonist, and from that moment on I know the direction in some unconscious way. It’s like I know the direction inside the land of my unconscious in terms of where to go and where to pick things up.”
If creating means (symbolically) destroying the world in which we live and giving it a new shape, Viola di Grado is undoubtedly a true creator. I hope English-speaking readers will have access before long to her new books: a story about an egg ruling a country, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s egg Humpty Dumpty, and a novel (to be released in Italian this February) about a girl’s life after committing suicide. -

Reading a detailed chronicle of the decomposition of a human corpse might sound like a grim undertaking. And in an obvious way, it is. But Viola Di Grado’s charming prose romps through chthonic worlds of nibbling insects, ammoniac seepage and shattering depression, using language that is both glib and scrumptious. She is a maximalist; her books don’t tiptoe subtly around obliquely concealed themes. She writes about death and depression without pulling any punches. This could sound like a tormented teenager’s self-obsessed ravings or a dull necrophiliac litany, but Di Grado has an almost supernatural ability to know when enough is enough, and she again and again delivers sharp, gorgeous demonstrations that she can do bizarre and lovely things with words.
At the age of twenty-seven, Viola Di Grado already has a daunting display of feathers in her cap. At twenty-three, she won Italy’s prestigious Premio Campiello Opera Prima for her first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which later went on to be shortlisted for the Strega. She was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And, following the publication of her second novel, Hollow Heart, there is talk of a nomination for the Man Booker International in 2016. She’s often compared to Amélie Nothomb and Angela Carter, and her two novels have been ushered into successful English translations by Europa Editions. “Ferrante Fever” is sweeping through the international literary world initiating a upsurge of interest in Italian literature and Di Grado is there at the very front of the scene.
Di Grado’s first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, is the deceptively simple story of a young woman grieving the death of her father who died in flagrante delicto with an “English journalist.” The narrator, Camelia, has been miserably transplanted from Italy to Leeds, and she bemoans the city, its Englishness and its gray, gray weather. A typical description of the city: “Leeds is like one of those sadistic pet owners that waves a piece of meat in front of his dog and then gobbles it down himself.” The sun peeks out briefly and you race outdoors, but “… the sun has already disappeared, leaving the sky opaque and off-white, the color of a raw chicken thigh.” Camelia mopes aimlessly around the city, drops out of university and locks herself indoors with her wraith-like mother, who has stopped eating, bathing and speaking. Camelia feels her foreignness and her misery and laments her entire existence in paragraphs that are so gloomy and unrelenting they border on farce. Her desperate desire to see sunlight (a very real psychological need, as anyone who has spent time in the British Isles knows) grows increasingly entertaining the more she harps on about the unending grey: “It must have been seven in the morning but it was dark outside, like any self-respecting hour of the day in Leeds. They discriminate against daylight hours here, ghettoizing them behind curtains.” Camelia yearns for her sunny homeland, but very vaguely, because she is generally too unhappy to desire anything at all.
70% Acrylic 30% Wool, translated by Michael Reynolds, is itself filled with translations, lists of translations and variations on translations. After dropping out of university where she was studying Chinese, Camelia stumbles upon work translating how-to manuals for an Italian washing machine company. These notoriously bizarre industrial texts echo throughout her narrative: “Do not force the porthole open for any reason,” or “Before placing the clothes insides, check that there are no animals inside the barrel.” Camelia’s mother has not spoken a word since her husband died during an adulterous misadventure, and Camelia translates her blank silences into elaborately interpreted communiqués. Looks “say” things that only Camelia can understand: “(she) turned her head and spoke a gaze called Next time I promise!” Camelia falls in love with the man giving her extracurricular tutelage in Chinese ideograms, and passages of 70% Acrylic become caught up in whimsical juxtapositions of Chinese words that have the same written symbol but no obvious connection in English, words that Camelia explains share “keys”: Confucius and hole, heart and punish, name and darkness, garbage and inspire. Camelia gets most excited when generating her own word combinations, and as the operatic finale of the novel heads inexorably towards us, she tattoos her favorite creation on her own body in a predictable but satisfying scene.
Foreign languages appear to Camelia as things to be unlocked. Her Chinese “keys” give her insight into a language she seems at times desperate to absorb and master. As an Italian immigrant living in England, her existence is bilingual and fraught with the self-consciousness of someone who is always aware of her foreignness. Her English is frequently misunderstood, and she frequently misunderstands Chinese. The one person with whom she can share her mother tongue, her mother, has refused to speak with anyone for three years. Writers who live between multiple languages are often obsessed with this linguistic movement, with words and slips of meanings (Beckett being maybe the most dazzling example) and Di Grado plays with words and levels of meaning that travel across or get stopped at linguistic borders.
As Camelia retells a story told to her by her dead father, of a Japanese monk who tries to banish his ghosts by writing Chinese ideograms on his body, Camelia’s urgent obsession with writing in foreign languages reveals itself as necrotic fixation. The plot of the book starts and ends with a death, and remains more or less monomaniacally committed to death for the rest of it. The gothic, even emo, tone of the novel drives this home again and again: Camelia is always bleeding, dying, wishing herself dead, rotting and decaying in her linguistically reinforced fortress of solitude. At times this drama feels a little over the top; it can feel like too much youthful melodrama in the genre of “things that clinically depressed twenty year-olds write in their journals,” things like “I’ve divined the truth, I have: the English and the sun and the cars buried under all that white and the postmen and the dogs and the minutes and my pale face in the mirror are nothing more than passing incarnations of death.” Camelia’s father dies once, but she herself dies everyday, she is forever dying and the worst thing that might happen to her is that she won’t die. But even as the morbid litany continues, Di Grado wins you back, with lovely, taut, equally death-obsessed tidbits that charm: “The tongue is a witless crematorium that would like to share but instead destroys, like Edward Scissorhands’ blade-fingers that cut when they caress.” She always finds cleverness and humor just in time to derail her funereal inventories and transform them into endearing, almost aphoristic discoveries.
The hybridized fabric of the novel’s title is a clearly marked, unmistakable symbol, and is a perfect example of the tight literary world Di Grado has wrought in her first novel. Her hybrid acrylic/wool is echoed in Camelia’s Italian/English, in the Chinese ideograms that combine meanings together. Camelia fishes discarded clothing out of the dumpster, destroys them and recombines them into Frankenstein amalgamations again and again. Di Grado likes to play with repeated tropes: keys appear at crucial moments, in ideograms, as the keys to the flute, on a keyboard, to the house. Michael Reynolds has found some elegant ways to fold in these repeated symbols, preserving the nouns that mark the literary device. “Holes” are precisely located throughout the book, from holes in clothes, in photographs, in the ground, in the body, in the washing machine, in cinema, in the ideogram Camelia has tattooed on her body, telling us which symbols to pay attention to and creating an impression of careful technique. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is incredibly sculpted and tight, with carefully woven images and language that repeat in chiseled arcs, creating a rhythmic narrative that radiates with Di Grado’s mastery of craft.
If 70% Acrylic orbits around death, Hollow Heart fully inhabits it. The narrator of Hollow Heart, Dorotea Giglio, commits suicide in the first sentence: “In 2011 the world ended: I killed myself.” And things go downhill (and underground) from there. The story of the book is structured around the decomposition of Dorotea’s body, slowly rotting below decks while she haunts her mother and ex-boyfriend. She documents the slow disintegration of her physical self with elaborate, scientific tracts, laboriously recorded in a journal that she begins after her death. These passages are strange little prose-poems, written in Italics because “Italics see the dead.” The journal entries are gripping because of their gory detail:
9/17/2011: The anaerobic germs, born inside me, have grown by now.
9/18/2011: My body, especially my swollen, taut belly, is covered with blisters.
 9/24/2011: Some of the blisters have burst. Out comes hydrogen. Then nitrogen.
10/12/2011: My stomach has split open.
These grisly passages are essentially the plot of the book, the part of the narrative that is in motion, moving towards an ending. Everything else is frozen, but Dorotea’s festering body changes and transforms.
The project of translation that haunts her first novel is treated to a more theoretical, even metaphysical approach in Hollow Heart. In 70% Acrylic, different languages and cultures struggle to meet each other across vast divides; in Hollow Heart, the barrier is none other than death. The dead, in a genuinely distressing twist, lose their ability to read, but not to write. Dorotea can only scribble away her experiences, never read those of others. But because she is dead, her messages are rarely received. The dead, after all, can’t read, and the living can’t hear the dead.
None of my postmortem letters ever reached their intended recipients, at least not in the common understanding of the phrase, which implies that someone realizes that the letter has arrived. That’s because I myself am a letter that never reached its destination: the message of my body—with all its experiences and the things that it learned—remained buried underground, abandoned.
For Dorotea, her body is the interpreter, and she obsessively documents that body’s destruction beneath the squirming legs of insects, carefully listed in the order of their arrival on her corpse. This creates a world of unbearable solipsism, where Dorotea seems like the only thing that exists. The first sentence of the book, with its ending world, repeats itself in strangely discordant moments, where Dorotea insists that it’s not she that has ended, but everything else; her death is “a universal geological phenomenon.”
Viola Di Grado has created a stylized public personality to match her crafted literary aesthetic: she’s goth. She wears hoods and lace gloves and most notably, deep plum lipstick. In Hollow Heart, lipstick, the classic symbol of femininity, connects Dorotea to other generations of women, to her mothers and her aunts. They wear lipstick together, often the same shade, and resemble each other because of it. And lipstick becomes the medium for Dorotea’s one successful textual exchange with the living. She writes, “I’m still here” in lipstick in her mother’s bathroom, explaining,
I gave no credence to the rhetoric of an unbridgeable gap between the living and the dead. I didn’t entirely believe in the invisibility either. It struck me as a cinematic gimmick, perfect for Demi Moore moping around her apartment in overalls while her dead husband watches over her, unseen. What I needed was a solution, a translation, a way to go on being there. When my mother saw the message, she screamed.
In interviews, Di Grado has asserted that the hard-and-fast distinction between life and death is a Western prejudice, and part of what she hopes to do with her writing is break down that division. She believes that, “life and death are not events, but rather processes.” Her hyper-Gothic novels have a strange optimism, an almost willful aliveness even as they wallow in depression and the vicissitudes of flesh-eating beetles. In the world of Hollow Heart, death is something you can choose not to believe in. Death puts a stop to reading, but not writing, being seen but not seeing. It’s boring and inconvenient and regrettable, but you keep busy, you go on. While 70% Acrylic’s Camelia seems occasionally to be self-indulgent in her despair, it’s hard to fault Dorotea’s moping: she’s dead. And while Camelia’s story ends rather grimly after she murders her mother’s boyfriend and locks them both back into their shared madwoman’s attic, Dorotea finds herself united with her dead aunt, watching over her mother and her newborn baby niece, named after her. The novel told from the point of view of a corpse is, weirdly, more optimistic and encouraging than the novel with a living narrator.
Dorotea draws on a long line of tragic female figures, from her miserable mother and suicidal aunt, to Amy Winehouse (whose suicide occurs on the same day as Dorotea’s), Sinead O’Connor and Violet Trefusis. In one of the most charming scenes in Hollow Heart, Dorotea goes to London to celebrate her fourth death anniversary and attends an Amy Winehouse concert, performed by a dead Amy to an audience of the dead. At one point, Amy gives up performing and lies sprawled on the stage, just singing “Back to Black” as the theatre goes dark around them.
The sense of carefully structured motifs and repeating themes that holds 70% Acrylic so tightly together is just hinted at in Hollow Heart, as though they were training wheels that Di Grado now occasionally likes to revisit. Both novels contain holes, literally, but the symbolic holes that consistently appear in the first novel appear in the second only in wry, self-referential moments – Dorotea’s birth is the result of a hole in a condom, and she’s born and dies in a bathtub, but Di Grado leaves it there. Hollow Heart is freed from some of its author’s earlier formal restraints; having killed off her first-person narrator in the first sentence, Di Grado is allowed to play at being Virgil, shepherding us around her world of the dead. Unlike Camelia, Dorotea isn’t trying to learn or master anything; she has no projects beyond composing a thorough narrative of her own decomposition.
These two novels share their author but not the same translator. Both Michael Reynolds, who translated 70% Acrylic and Antony Shugaar, who translated Hollow Heart, have captured a remarkably similar voice and produced distinctive, quirky renditions of these texts. I imagine that Di Grado, who lives in England, wrote these books with at least a fleeting recognition that they would make their way into the English language; both novels seem at ease in English and not particularly marked by their Italian-ness.
Both novels share a Gothic obsession that, admittedly, some readers may find heavy-handed. Reading entire novels about cockroaches nibbling on your eyeballs, or about soaping down your mother’s sagging, flaccid skin while you slowly lose your mind during a bleak, never-ending English winter might not be a pastime for everyone. But if you can imagine those subjects rendered lovely and captivating by someone who has true talent, then reading 70% Acrylic 30% Wool and Hollow Heart becomes compulsively joyful. Di Grado plays an inventive, self-aware game with language that saturates her macabre landscapes, transforming them into darkly comical expositions of death and unhappiness. In Hollow Heart, Camelia writes about her expectations for the afterlife:
The newly dead, after all the thanatocentric advertising offered by religion and art, have enormous expectations concerning death, and I was no exception to the rule. That first day I anxiously awaited something extraordinary.
One of Di Grado’s most recent Facebook post shows her perched in the window of a castle, bedecked in a giant hat and purple-black lipstick, writing her third novel. I think we’re justified in awaiting something extraordinary. - Caite Dolan-Leach

“YOU WHO ARE still alive can choose to believe or not to believe in me,” the narrator of Hollow Heart says coolly, “just as I can choose to believe or not to believe in you.” She disdains being studied, “like insects trapped in a jar,” even as she craves it, telling the reader directly: “You're a psychoanalyst, and this bottle with the story of my death inside it has come to you.”
Viola Di Grado’s second novel tells the story of Dorotea Giglio, who, just before the start of the novel, slits her wrists in the bathtub (the same bathtub she had been born in 25 years earlier). The rest of the plot — insofar as there is one — follows her as she revisits the people and events that led her to that point, and gets to know some of her fellow dead. Gaps are filled in: Dorotea was dumped — by text message — by her boyfriend; she was on antidepressants; her father abandoned her at birth and her mother never recovered; an aunt, Lidia, had killed herself at a young age, too, though nobody ever spoke of it; Dorotea falls in love again, with a young (living) man, and feels momentarily revived. Chronology has little purchase here; history repeats itself as past and present come together in a danse macabre for the millenials.
A great deal of fuss has been made over Di Grado's age. Now 27, she was only 23 when she wrote 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which went on to win Italy's Premio Campiello Opera Prima, a prize that has launched the international careers of Alessandro Piperno (The Worst Intentions, 2005) and Paolo Giordano (The Solitude of Prime Numbers, 2008). Hollow Heart was published in Italy in 2013 and reached U.S. readers last month in an accomplished translation by Antony Shugaar. From the start, the press has been enthralled by Di Grado’s distinctive persona, a combination of defiant sound bites (“I don’t believe in influences”) and goth style (she is never seen without mulberry lip stain).
What is more surprising than her early success, however, is how fully she has already crafted her aesthetic. Reading the books one after the other, one notices how seamlessly they fit together, with 70% Acrylic appearing as a kind of pattern guiding the much finer lines of Hollow Heart. Both are concerned with the difficult coming of age of a female protagonist-narrator — Camelia in 70% Acrylic, and Dorotea in Hollow Heart — for whom growth is, in different ways, forestalled by death. The novels are in some ways two sides of the same cloth, inside-out versions of each other: where 70% Acrylic is set in wintry and “frigid” northern England, and builds toward death from a starting point of deep regression (itself caused by a death that precedes the narrative), Hollow Heart begins with a death and struggles to transcend it, unravelling in the “oozing” heat of southern Italy. As Dorotea, whose suicide comes just before the start of her tale, puts it (in a formulation that owes something to Sylvia Plath): “Ladies and gentlemen, don't leave: my death, underground, goes on and on and on.”
It is in the earlier novel — which charts the descent into madness of Camelia, a 20-year-old sinophile who has been orphaned by her father and neglected by her mother — that we see Di Grado pinning down themes and techniques to form the crude outlines of what, in Hollow Heart, emerges as a more refined Lacanian study of language and the unconscious. The story is a strange hodgepodge of macabre fabulism, domestic drama, and thwarted romance, held together by sardonic wit. When we encounter Camelia — who is, in a provocatively self-referential gesture, named after a flower — her development has been frozen by the betrayal and death of her father, whose body was discovered in a crashed car alongside that of a female colleague. It was he, a “tormented writer,” who had brought the family to England in the first place, and after his death, Camelia is left alone in a land whose inhabitants fail to understand her Italian accent, and indeed, anything about her. The grief of her mother Livia, meanwhile — whose name puts a Shakespearian twist on the author’s name game — is transmuted into an obsession with holes of all kinds (in upholstery, in Swiss cheese, in the damp ceiling of their squalid home), which she photographs with her Polaroid. Her preoccupation seeps into the consciousness of the next generation: “Babies too grow in a hole, and come out of one,” Camelia points out, while Dorotea knits her own creation myth around a “hole in the condom.” All these allusions twirl around the gaping hole of death.
The most pressing hole, however, is represented by the disavowal of language. Livia, rendered mute by trauma, has returned to a savage state, primitive, but paradoxically “ahead of me, on high, beyond language.” She uses a vocabulary of “looks” to communicate with her daughter, who inherits a violent aversion to the spoken word, causing her to leave “greenish dribbles in every corner of the room, dense disgorged letters of the Latin alphabet.” Bereft of mother and father tongues, what language can she use to capture her experience? “Like a gold prospector,” Camelia says, “I was panning for meaning.” Clothes, which she salvages from dumpsters and mutilates, can be “prostheses of meaning” — the uglier they are, the truer to life.
Camelia is drawn to the Chinese language, encountering in its multi-layered ideograms and subtly varying tones units of meaning as complex as reality itself: “Isn’t it absurd? I mean, depending on the tone you use, the word ‘ma’ can mean ‘mummy’ or ‘insult’ or ‘horse’ or ‘cannabis’!” She plasters the walls of her bedroom with ideograms as other teenagers would with posters of famous singers (ultimately, these idols, too, will fail her), and takes a job translating washing-machine manuals, mutilated snippets of which recur throughout the text, taking on ever-more warped resonances:
There are two possibilities at the end of the cycle:
Spin dry
No spin dry […]
There are two possibilities for ending the cycle:

In Hollow Heart, Di Grado elegantly and playfully thematizes the emptiness of unquestioned vessels of meaning (which is to say, words) with the story of a girl who has taken her own life before she has even really lived it. As the “hollowed-out branches” of her vascular system shut down and the rest of her body begins its drawn-out decomposition, Dorotea’s spirit lingers — she had not reckoned on that — “like a foul residue stuck to the bottom of the pan.” The novel falls somewhere between a final testament and a secret diary, in which Dorotea charts the slow unravelling of her body alongside her soul’s ongoing quest for definition.
Letters, either unsent or un-received, to the living or to the fellow dead, punctuate her narrative, and communication — or rather, its absence — remains Di Grado’s primary antagonist. Dorotea’s paternal loss is measured in terms of her ignorance of “the words he used most frequently.” The figure of the troubled writer recurs, too, with one character drowning herself and “taking all her adjectives with her.” The central question here is: how can Dorotea define herself in the present when language can only conceive of her in the past? Therein lies “the inherent racism of the human language.” “‘Remain’ is the key word, if words could still open doors,” she says elsewhere. “I write ‘remain’ in italics […] Italics are an alarm. They say: Be careful […] this is a word that’s not like other words.” (There is an additional twist: “since I died I’ve forgotten how to read… ” — it’s the kind of nightmarish detail perhaps only a lover of literature could think to add.) And so: “Never again words. Silence,” she says.
And yet words creep to the surface — as Camelia says in 70% Acrylic, words “are herd animals, they’re never alone” — except now they are transformed by their passage to the other side. In this, the narrator finds both pain — “Now that the living can no longer hear us, our words remain inside us, raw and misshapen, like steaks gone bad” — and pleasure — “We turn them over on our tongues, tirelessly, our carrion-words, until we finally make puns of them.” While there is solace in polyphony, it signals progress toward the high arts — poetry and music — as much as regression to the mellifluous babbling of a child.
Regardless, the present marches on, the narrator’s syntactical control seeming to slacken as her jaw, six feet under, is broken down by worms:
[T]here are still jellyfish, weeks, religions, city buses and post offices, concert tickets, clothes hangers, powdered chocolate, love letters, coffee umbrellas monkeys onionskin paper, sunglasses, elevators and weddings and hail, forks, store-windows mannequins and real people, people and clothing, wool socks, dogs and hospitals, doors, door handles, boots and pillows, glass, leather, plastic, blood, cartilage, gums.
Di Grado has said that she wants her writing to reacquaint the reader with death, and here, she has Dorotea spell it out: “I’m invisible: my body is taboo.” By taking a corpse — both supernatural and utterly urbane — as her protagonist, the author seeks to rehabilitate her subject; Dorotea embodies the symbiosis of life and death, her existence being a constant and visible negotiation between past and present, memory and creation. “It’s the death of billions of cells that make us individuals. All cells die that fail to find around themselves the molecular conditions necessary to repress their own self-destruction, and it is their death that sculpts our shape.”
And there is no end to it. Di Grado, ventriloquizing Dorotea, explores this notion at length: “When they’re alive, people are so free that they need boundaries. Both instinctively and culturally they identify boundaries with death […] They need that wall […] No one has the courage to imagine it doesn’t exist.” Such philosophizing is run though with pop references, including Sinéad O'Connor (who attempts suicide) and Amy Winehouse (who succeeds, and performs a literally haunting rendition of “Back to Black”), as well as a wealth of brand names, from Geox to Lacoste to YouTube. Timeless concerns are articulated within and bounded by our contemporary era.
Perhaps more smoothly than 70% Acrylic, Hollow Heart fits into a larger and increasingly unfashionable strand of women’s writing. “My pain is collective,” Dorotea says. “My pain is my mother’s pain, and the pain of her mother […] and the chain goes on without an articulation, without a break.” Di Grado herself belongs to a long line of interlinked writers, past and present, whose thoughts she spools and reworks: threads are taken from Amélie Nothomb (particularly in 70% Acrylic) and the écriture féminine of Hélène Cixous and her contemporaries, but also from Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Nietzsche. There is a certain circularity to her novels, in which all paths inevitably begin from and lead to holes, from cradle to grave. It’s a typically wry device which, in a way, turns the entire novel into a figurative void: by tracing a circle, we cut out a hole into which we might toss our own theories, listening for them to hit bottom in the hope that something true echoes back up to us.
But it is a reference to Violet Trefusis that, perhaps, lingers longest after reading these dazzling and original patchworks of linguistic freewheeling, emotional exposure and philosophical enquiry: “Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent.” - Thea Lenarduzzi

Interview with Viola Di Grado

Visual interview to Viola Di Grado

Last year, when she was just 23, Viola Di Grado published her fearless first novel, “70% Acrylic, 30% Wool” (Europa Editions, $16), which became a best seller in her native Italy and was short listed for the country’s top literary prize, the Strega. This rapid rise was mostly attributed to her shimmering prose. (One Italian critic compared it to “Oriental porcelain.”) But Di Grado also stood out for her strange personal style. She wears black lipstick, a sorceress hood and fingerless lace gloves. Recently, she said, she strung naked baby dolls into a necklace. “Everyone is kind of suspicious,” she said in a telephone interview from Rome. “But I’ve always dressed like this. In Sicily, where I grew up, I was constantly insulted for it. But that only made me want to do it more.” Di Grado’s writing is similarly defiant. Her novel — available next month in an English translation by Michael Reynolds — is set in Leeds, England, a “purulent freckle” of a city where the sky is “the color of a raw chicken thigh.” The heroine, the 20-year-old Camelia, is losing her mind. She has her reasons: Camelia’s father was killed in a car accident, and her musician mother has turned into a helpless, self-destructive mute. Mother and daughter communicate only through an invented language of glances, one of several linguistic quirks in this novel: others have to do with Chinese ideograms and a sickening affliction called “verbal anorexia.” While she briefly finds comfort in friendship, or in sex, Camelia is eventually consumed by her madness, and Di Grado seems to mock the reader for imagining a happier ending. “Use it to mop the bathroom, that story of yours, or I don’t know, to line the hamster’s cage,” she writes. Your comfort does not interest her. “If someone reads the book before bed and then can fall asleep, I think I failed,” Di Grado explains. “Literature has to make you stop sleeping.” -


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