A Man for the Hour

The Worm of Consciousness and Other Essays

by Nicola Chiaromonte, edited by Miriam Chiaromonte, introduction by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 270 pp., $10.00

Nicola Chiaromonte was born in southern Italy in 1901, and studied at the University of Rome. His true education, however, was of a different kind, the “real European education” of which Jan Kott has recently written. As an anti-Fascist he went into exile in Paris in 1934, where he was for a short while associated with nonviolent anarchist groups. In 1936 he flew with André Malraux’s Republican squadron in Spain, and appears as Scali in Malraux’s fictional account of the war, Man’s Hope. (Scali is the art-historian-turned-bomber who brings the works of Plato to the front.)1

When the Nazis invaded France Chiaromonte fled with his wife to the unoccupied south, where she died; from there he moved on to Algeria, where he befriended Camus. In 1941 he arrived in the United States, and here he remained for the duration of the war, eking out his living with essays for such journals as Partisan Review, Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and politics. In New York he met Meyer Schapiro, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, and others, as well as his second wife, who has edited the present volume. He returned to Italy in 1947 and became drama critic for the liberal weekly Il Mondo. Between 1956 and 1968 he edited the monthly Tempo Presente with Ignazio Silone. He delivered the Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton in 1966, about ideas of history in the modern novel. He died suddenly in Rome in 1972.

In his lifetime Chiaromonte published only two books—La Situazione Drammatica, a collection of his writings on the theater, and The Paradox of History, which unfortunately found no publisher in the United States and received only scant attention in England. The Worm of Consciousness should attract the serious attention that Chiaromonte deserves.

This impressive book brings together a selection of writings representative of his interests—the nature of political authority and modern freedom, the role of the intellectuals, mass culture and its wearing down of humanist character, Dante, Pirandello, the practice of criticism, the political theater, Gandhi, Simone Weil. Included as well are several memoirs, which most resemble Orwell’s in their mixture of personal modesty and assurance that the pulse of history beats through the author’s experience—the kind of reflections possible only in an age of mass politics, in which the humblest person can find himself caught up in world history. Chiaromonte’s essays are testimony to the impact of this century upon a mind of singular alertness and probity. They are, too, exquisitely written. Their plainness, economy, and self-discipline—qualities of style sorely absent from much critical writing now—recall the muted, precise beauty of a Morandi canvas.

Like his fellow Italian’s paintings, Chiaromonte’s essays are slow journeys toward the light, attempts to reestablish contact with things. “Far from longing for Heaven,” he writes, “I simply want to see things as they are.” Or, in The Paradox of History: “Some people cannot help seeing what is before their eyes; others must at all costs see what is not there.”…

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