Victor Fenech has been one of our leading authors since Malta’s Independence, and a very active member of Moviment Qawmien Letterarju, an association of young authors who in the late 1960s and in the ’70s did much to make a young Maltese literature grab the attention of all those longing for the growth of a Maltese culture and especially of a new Maltese literature reflecting our country’s new political status.
Even early in his literary career he was eager to have himself and fellow poets known in translation outside Malta: in 1968 he edited an issue of the international magazine Poet dedicated to Maltese poetry and including English versions of poems by Fenech himself and others.
Fenech was for much of his life a teacher and ultimately a headteacher in State schools, and went on educational courses a number of times, but he was and remains above all a book man, deeply interested as much in the physical shape of books as in their content. He knows much about the design and printing of books, has edited a number of books for some publishers, and above all, has seen that the books, including works by him, looked good and reflected or enhanced the works they contained.
He has always believed in teaming up with graphic artists to help him design his books, such as the poet/artist Mario Azzopardi in the 1960s and later others, particularly the very well-known artist Luciano Micallef. The latter, also a close friend, designed a number of books in collaboration with Fenech, most recently, in 2017, the very handsome Journey, in which Fenech’s English poetry and prose is splendidly complemented by Micallef’s colourful designs and gripping cover.
Younger readers will probably know little about Fenech’s very fruitful association with Rigby Graham, an English artist and author who specialised in producing poems and short prose scripts on broadsheets and little books produced in small but often very skilful private presses in Leicester, England.
Fenech produced a number of items in association with Graham and the printer Toni Savage, and notably an elegant slim hardbound volume of English poems by Fenech, London Pictures, and other Poems.
Throughout his career, Fenech has written English as well as Maltese verse, and always skilfully.
Charles Briffa, a University of Malta academic, has written a substantial book about Fenech, the value of which is considerable, as Briffa acknowledges the plentiful information on himself and on his writing passed on to him by Fenech.
Briffa’s Fl-Arena ta’ Moħħu: Victor Fenech, Esperimenti Stilistiċi u Protesta Soċjali, published by Horizons, includes a lengthy bibliography showing that over the years and over the decades, Fenech has been much written upon, both by newspaper reviewers and by academic critics, and works by him anthologised a number of times in anthologies like Linji Ġodda and Crosswinds.
The general reader will find himself at home in the chapter dedicated to Fenech’s biography which even those who, like me, have known Victor for half a century or more, will find very informative and often readable, though even here, Briffa allows the academic to take over a couple of times.
PS is a book no Fenech admirer should do without, especially as… it may be his last
The general reader will also read with some pleasure the chapter on Fenech’s activity for many years as author of books for children, books for which his standing is not far below that of the great master of our time, Trevor Zahra, and that on him as a man of books, producer and designer. As an editor of magazines, he will long be remembered for his excellent work on Il-Polz and on the magazine for schoolchildren, Sagħtar. I remember with pleasure being a fellow-editor with him of the tiny but elegant publication Poeżija, sadly short-lived, in the early 1970s.
Like most genuine authors, Fenech has never been satisfied with staying in one style or format. His prose is often admirable, and his verse has taken many forms and shapes; one remembers his poems on broadsheets in his ‘street literature’ period. His poems have been inspired by a broad spectrum of topics and ideas: his tender but rarely schmaltzy love poetry is not more striking than his indignant verse inspired by the political and social injustice prevailing in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, works in which the powerful style is as strong as the ideas they embody.
Fenech wishes to be remembered above all for his works of “poeproża”, which stylistically go beyond what we call poetic prose. I have never been quite sure, and remain a little unsure, of the precise identity of this form, though I believe that an important element is the frequent and often unexpected interchanges of poetic and prose rhythms.
Briffa writes at length on what he understands by “poeproża” but perhps Oliver Friggieri’s essay and study of it, published in Fenech’s 1979 volume F’Altamira: poeproża, may be more accessible to the general reader. The closest I have come to appreciating the identity of poeproża is in in Fenech’s poem Iż-Żabra (first published in Fenech’s Sangraal in 1987) which Briffa reproduces in its entirety on page 190 of his book.
His latest poems have just been published under the title PS, with the subtitle “il-muża mħallta”, drawing our attention to the different styles represented in the book: poems in traditional stanzas, haikus, visual poetry and poeproża. His style has remained pure and elegant in the traditional pieces, and in the visual poems his indignation with Maltese politics hits us through the type and colour as well as through his words.
He writes well on the doubts felt by the Christian as he gets closer to death: will he see God or find nothing beyond the grave? Two piece express a joyful belief as he contemplates the immensity of the universe, and I was much struck by one of the items of poeproża, Hekk nixtieqni mmur, in which he thinks he will complete his quest for the Sangraal (reminding us of his notable book so titled) and find himself in the bosom of the Primum Movens wherever He may be. Many of the several haikus are exquisite, and a few most memorable.
PS is a book no Fenech admirer should do without, especially as Fenech, in describing it as a “post scriptum”, may be telling us it is his last.
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