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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Alain Elkann

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To purchase Envy

Title: Envy
Author: Alain Elkann
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 125 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Envy - US
Envy - UK
Envy - Canada
Envy - India
L'envie - France
L'invidia - Italia
  • Italian title: L'invidia
  • Translated by Alastair McEwen

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Our Assessment:

B : curious psychological study of an obsession

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
il Giornale . 4/12/2006 Vittorio Sgarbi
New Statesman . 10/4/2008 Lewis Jones
TLS . 29/2/2008 Nora Mahony

  From the Reviews:
  • "Forse il vizio vero di Elkann non è l’invidia, ma la vanità. L’amara consapevolezza che tutte le nostre azioni sono volte alla ricerca del successo, della gloria. Come è di ogni scrittore, da Leopardi a Moravia." - Vittorio Sgarbi, il Giornale

  • "So Envy is a novel -- or novella (125 airy pages, admirably translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen and handsomely produced by the Pushkin Press) -- about the possibility of a novel that remains unwritten, which is about as postmodern as it gets. It's all a tease -- of the painter and his lawyers, of the reader, and of the author himself. (...) (I)f Envy is deliberately insubstantial, it is also elegant, witty and provocative." - Lewis Jones, New Statesman

  • "As reinvented here, none of the relationships sparks any emotional connection to the reader. (..) In the end, however, he erects the scaffolding of a thorough examination of collector's envy, but goes no further." - Nora Mahony, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Envy Giacomo Longhi finds himself obsessed by the Lucian Freud-like painter Julian Sax, and the novella is an account of his obsession and of his trying to come to terms with it. A key perhaps lies in the first, very short chapter, where he mentions the first time he sees Julian Sax, having dinner with someone, where he notices: "how the two men seem satisfied to be in each other's company." Longhi clearly wants to be in this type of relationship, to bask, as it were, in a sort of approval of another; no doubt in part he become obsessed specifically with Sax because Sax rejects all his advances.
       It isn't necessarily personal: repeatedly Longhi is reminded that Sax is completely devoted to his work and thinks of little else and hence has no time for such frivolous things as interviews (as Longhi figures his best chance to meet the master is to interview him). But Longhi actually runs into Sax repeatedly, seeing him eating with his family -- and even getting interviewed by someone else. Longhi doesn't exactly stalk the painter, but he goes considerably out of his way to possibly run into him -- yet can't take those final steps and just introduce himself.
       Ultimately, Longhi seems as fascinated by his own obsession as he is with Sax. He tries to figure out what is causing him to act this way, and also how he can deal with it. Eventually he tries to re-work it in the form of a work of fiction -- a work that, as he describes it, is very different from this factual account.
       Sax's very inaccessibility -- even as it is (at least here) very much also of Longhi's own making (he has numerous opportunities to just go up to the man and have his say) -- is part of his appeal to Longhi. As is the fact that he thinks Sax is master of a métier that still matters, while his only talents can never get him as far:

     To be considered a great writer, as Sax is considered a great artist, I would have to follow his example: renounce my Italian culture, go to live in London or New York, become English or American, and get myself accepted in the English-speaking literary world. But that world doesn't exist anymore, great writers and great publishers don't exist anymore, literary society doesn't exist anymore, and literature isn't fashionable anymore; the visual, plastic arts, the world of museums, art galleries, the great auctions, are at the centre of attention and attract large sums of money. This is why Sax is inaccessible. [...] Sax fascinates me because he is a part of an extinct race, that of the great personalities.
       Much of the book is spent trying to figure out what kind of person Sax is. Longhi is awed by his larger-than-life personality -- and especially the way he treats others, fascinated by someone one moment, and yet easily dismissing them in the next. This power and attitude -- especially towards and over women -- is clearly also something that Longhi envies:
That is why I envy Sax. Through his work he can dominate any woman: the most cultured, or the coarsest, who on seeing herself portrayed reacts with either love or hate, but in both cases feels mastered and flattered. Literature today no longer has that power.
       Longhi's wife and daughter also play a significant role in the novel, and Longhi worries about the effect Sax has on them too. (Complicating matters, there's clearly a strongly autobiographical element to the novel, with Longhi's wife's name -- Rossa -- similar to that of the Rosi Elkann whom the author thanks in the acknowledgements for staying "lovingly at my side throughout the writing of the book".)
       Envy is almost bursting with potential, and the outline of the progression of the obsession and how Longhi deals with it looks promising and effective. The encounters Longhi has -- with Sax, and with all the others around him --, too, are an adequate foundation, and his ruminations on Sax and why exactly he is so obsessed with him are generally quite interesting, as is much of his self-analysis. And yet the mix, as presented, proves surprisingly awkward. There's never quite enough, with too much of the book like those situations where Longhi is in Sax's proximity yet unable to take the next and obvious step and simply go up to the man. Which makes for an ultimately frustrating read.

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Envy: Reviews: Other books by Alain Elkann under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Alain Elkann was born in 1950.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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