Written by Mark Thompson (trans.) Umberto Saba
Review by Edward James

Ernesto is a thinly disguised memoir in which the Italian poet Umberto Saba describes a few months in his adolescence when he first discovered sex, homosexual and heterosexual. The setting is Trieste at the end of the 19th century, when it was one of the leading cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The book was written in 1953 but not published until 1975, long after the author’s death.

Surprisingly for a novel, the translator, Mark Thompson, has added 50 pages of notes, amounting to a quarter of the entire book. Perhaps he felt they were necessary for English readers to follow the story, although it is lucid and simple and needs no help in understanding it. Do read the notes, however, for they are interesting in themselves and cover a broad range of topics.

Thompson also includes a chapter about Saba, which reproduces several of his letters, one of them a fantasy letter from ‘Ernesto’, dated 1899, addressed to an Italian poet of the 1950s, in which Ernesto discusses some of the poems which Saba has told him he would one day write. In other words, Saba has travelled back in time to confront his younger self, who travels forward in time to speak to one of Saba’s friends. Get your head round that!

A frank and enjoyable coming-of-age story.