Novels, Italian Style

The Smile on the Face of the Lion

by P.M. Pasinetti
Random House, 341 pp., $5.95

My Troubles Began

by Paolo Volponi
Grossman, 231 pp., $5.00

Why shouldn’t the first serious bilingual novels about the international high life of post-war Italy be written by a Venetian aristocrat teaching comparative literature at U.C.L.A.? It seems eminently reasonable. Italophilia of recent decades has had an endearingly promiscuous quality—owing in varying degrees to the glamor of international chic, the lingering post-fascist euphoria, to the extreme dullness of the old Italian artistocracy, composed as it is of bits and pieces of England, France, and now America—so that gifted aristrocrats like P. M. Pasinetti are obliged to make their careers from the ground up. Some evocations of Venice in Pasinetti’s first novel, Venetian Red, are as fruity as anything in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria books, yet Pasinetti, the jacket says, “was born and grew up in Venice, where his father was a prominent physician and his mother belonged to the Ciardi family of Painters.” After college at Padua, he did highbrow journalism, worked on screenplays for Antonioni and Rossi, studied at Oxford and Berlin, taught in Germany and Sweden before settling at U.C.L.A. where he is also an editor of the excellent Italian Quarterly.

Obviously these imposing data belong to the legend-building apparatus we have become so used to. His publishers are forgiven for preening themselves over matters that clearly impress the novelist himself, are as essential to his work as Byron’s legend was to Byron—a barely suppressed excitement at having escaped the sort of gloomy, neurotic semi-exile that seemed to be the fate of most earlier modern Italian novelists. In one of his warmest apostrophes to his native city, he calls Venice “uninhabitable”—not, of course, for the reason that Sicily became uninhabitable for a long stretch of Verga’s life, but because of the unbearable restlessness the international bel mondo creates in Venice for anyone who accidentally belongs there. As a professor of World Literature (sic) in California, Pasinetti now can safely confront this fashionable world which, in its heights and depths, he is convinced, is terrified of mere fashion, as devoted to simple ideas of pure goodness as any monk in the Fioretti of St. Francis.

Venetian Red, often charming incidentally, is nearly ruined by matching a good theme to the wrong occasion. The times are the immediate pre-war fascist years, but Pasinetti’s real concern, as the new book make much clearer, is the two kinds of aristocracy, natural and conventional, their possible contrasts and conjunction. In Venetian Red this theme is almost buried under a static political fury. (The word fascism is never mentioned, nor any of its figures.) The good artistic Partibons are consequently much too good and appreciative of themselves, perhaps because they seem to have little to oppose to fascism except their abstract qualities. The central figure, a mysteriously fabulous émigré uncle, Marco Partibon, is absent for most of the book, and when he finally appears and gives us a chapter-long italicized excerpt from his journal, alas, he sounds (like Pursewarden …

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