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Lisa St. Aubin de Teran Biography

london cape lydia mezzanotte

Nationality: British. Born: Lisa Rynveld, London, 1953. Education: Attended school in London. Career: Farmer of sugar cane, avocados, pears, and sheep, Venezuela, 1972-78. Since 1972, writer. Awards: Somerset Maugham award, 1983, for The Long Way Home; John Llewellyn Rhys memorial prize, 1983, for Slow Train to Milan; Eric Gregory award, 1983, for poetry. Agent: A.M. Heath, 79 St. Martins Lane, London WC2N 4AA, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Keepers of the House. London, Cape, 1982; as The Long Way Home, New York, Harper and Row, and London, Cape, 1983.

The Slow Train to Milan. London, Cape, and New York, Harper andRow, 1983.

The Tiger. London, Cape, 1984.

The Bay of Silence. London, Cape, 1986.

Black Idol. London, Cape, 1987.

Joanna. London, Virago, 1990; New York, Carroll and Graf, 1991.

Nocturne. London, Hamilton, 1992; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

The Palace. London, Macmillan, 1997, Hopewell, New Jersey, EccoPress, 1999.

Short Stories

The Marble Mountain and Other Stories. London, Cape, 1989.

Southpaw: Short Stories. London, Virago Press, 1999.

Poetry

The Streak. Knotting, Martin Booth, 1980.

The High Place. London, Cape, 1985.

Other

Off the Rails: Memoirs of a Train Addict. London, Bloomsbury, 1989.

Landscape in Italy, with photographs by John Ferro Sims . London, Pavilion, 1989.

Venice: The Four Seasons, with photographs by Mick Lindberg. London, Pavilion, and New York, Clarkson Potter, 1992.

A Valley in Italy: Confessions of a House Addict. London, Hamilton, 1994; published as A Valley in Italy: The Many Seasons of a Villa in Umbria, New York, HarperCollins, 1994.

The Hacienda: A Memoir. Boston, Little Brown, 1997.

Editor, Indiscreet Journeys: Stories of Women on the Road. London, Virago, 1989; Boston, Faber, 1990.

* * *

Much of Lisa St. Aubin de Teran's early work was autobiographical, and chronologically the fictionalized events of Keepers of the House, although published first, followed her second novel, The Slow Train to Milan. St. Aubin de Teran is unusual for an English writer in setting her fiction abroad, often in Italy and South America. Her extraordinary sense of place, perhaps more obviously than her characterization, has made her work distinguished and memorable.

Little happens in Keepers of the House, which concerns the final decay of an old farmhouse, La Bebella, near Venezuela. The second last survivor of the Beltrán family, Diego, has married Lydia, an Englishwoman. They return to La Bebella, where years of drought and disease have gradually driven the servants away. Previously uncommunicative by nature, Diego slips into a deep depression and becomes a hermit-like recluse. Lydia has to manage the dilapidated farm and the uncertain avocado and sugar crops, despite being nearly defeated by the effect of the death of her newborn son. Lydia is sustained by Benito, an old retainer who relates to her two centuries of Beltrán family history. These exotic legends of this once powerful family are a rare imaginative achievement, and such writing has earned St. Aubin de Teran the accolade of the English Márquez. One learns little of Lydia or Diego, who is eventually paralyzed by a stroke; as in much of St. Aubin de Teran's writing, the past matters more than the present. The carefully detailed descriptive passages evoke a sympathy for the long-dead characters and their struggles. When the barren lands yield nothing more, Lydia abandons La Bebella when Benito dies, carrying her invalid husband to a jeep, to escape to a place of safety. Lydia, once again pregnant, has inherited a knowledge she can pass to her child. Only Diego's cousin, Christebal Beltrán, aged about 112, remains as a sentinel watching over the deserted valley.

The Slow Train to Milan has no plot, only a series of rather fantastic episodes about political exiles from South America on the run in Europe. The tone of the novel is casual, from the rapid marriage of Lisaveta, the sixteen-year-old narrator, to César, an amiable if self-centered eccentric. He and his exiled friends, Otto and Elias, are mysterious figures who shuffle aimlessly with Lisaveta between cities living in borrowed accommodations, pawning valuables for survival when their money runs outs, and fluctuating between the extremes of poverty and luxury. The uncomplaining, adventurous Lisaveta, though curious about her husband's past and his friends, rarely questions them and is content to be part of their unsettled existence, much of it spent on "the slow train to Milan." The novel depends on the atmosphere of the innumerable contrasting places the travelers visit and people they encounter and the tension created by the constant fear that these exiles will be caught. The narrator identifies herself at least partly with St. Aubin de Teran and Lydia, remarking that she later grew avocados with her husband in the Andes.

The autobiographical element is less marked in Tiger, where the dominating character is Misia Schmutter, a murderous despot and head of her family, and her grandson, Lucien, whose course of life she influences even from beyond the grave. Nocturne is, perhaps, more plausible; it is a triumph of characterization and evocation of place. The setting is mainly in San Severino, a peasant village in Italy in the first decade of this century; this is where Alessandro Mezzanotte is born and lives until he dies. From the age of fifteen, Mezzanotte is obsessively in love with Valentina, a young gypsy who is part of a traveling fair. For some years he is compelled to travel from San Severino to be wherever the fair is, although his love is scorned by both families. Forced to be in Mussolini's army, Mezzanotte, previously handsome, is blinded and facially scarred and loses an arm when hit by a shell; he is pensioned off. His name, translating as "Midnight," suggests his fate is preordained. However, his solitary life for the next fifty years is endurable because of his unshakable belief that Valentina will come to him, even in old age. Near the end of his life, Mezzanotte is looked after by a young army conscript, Stefano, whose own troubled life and character are deeply affected by the old man, who unburdens his secrets on the soldier. When Mezzanotte dies, Stefano finds Valentina's last letters, which the blind man could not read. To save his sanity, Mezzanotte had been told the reverse of Valentina's intentions. Unable to cope with his appearance, she had, in fact, finally written to say she had discarded Mezzanotte for someone else. Nocturne is poignant and haunting and is a further indication that St. Aubin de Teran has still much to say as a distinctive writer.

—Geoffrey Elborn

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