The Smile on the Face of the Lion
My Troubles Began
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 in Durrell) very much like all the others. Life has taught him one maxim—not gestures, but actions—yet his absenteeism seems not to have been fruitful in much more than gesture. We are left with scathing denunciations of the proto-fascist arrivisti Fassola family on the one hand, charming first-hand celebrations of Venice and Venetia on the other. In effect—a familiar pattern in Venetian history—the Partibons, inwardly seething, sat this battle out.
But under the stalemate one enjoys some sharp observation, a good sense of social bio-morphology. All this is considerably more effective in The Smile on the Face of the Lion (La Confusione in Italian), especially in the fine opening chapters. Pasinetti is still working from a model, this time Ford’s Parade’s End, but his deviations from Ford are as interesting as his borrowings. For Christopher Tietjens we have a fresh new fabulous Partibon uncle, Bernardo; huge, bearish, boyish, talented, disorganized, emotional, and overwhelmingly moral by the standards of high chic which he tolerates like “someone living in the third person” with the “happy psychology of the bastard.” A successful art-dealer and decorator in the United States (Tietjens was an expert on antiques), Bernardo returns to Italy to call a “family summit conference.” (Pasinetti winces at these vulgarisms but is never shy of using them.) His foil is the ravishingly unhappy Genziana Horst, wonderfully named—modelled half on Sylvia Tietjens and half on Fellini’s delectable Anouk Aimée. With the awful Fassolas of Venetian Red either tamed or usefully married to Partibon satellites, a sinister new character named Ugo Debaldè, is invented, an impregnably obtuse vulgarian blandly pushing his frightful charities in vague cahoots with the Vatican. “Debaldè will bury us all,” a despairing Bernardo muses at the end. Venice has closed ranks, the Partibon quality is actively dominant again but also more mysterious than in Venetian Red, potentially more destructive. Bernardo’s hectic goodness has terrible consequences. New careers to separate them a little further from everyone’s self-serving flattery would seem the Partibon’s next concern.
The moral syncopations of expensive glamor, high good health, and success are rendered in a worldly-wise vocabulary. “Italians have no Protestantism,” says a Partibon country cousin, “perhaps because each has his own particular protest—homemade, as it were. His own particular form of communication with God. A handy little God, actually.” When Pasinetti’s own happy psychology acquires more concentration and relief, his novels may come to look less like charming bastards.
Paolo Volponi’s Memoriale was welcomed enthusiastically by the more disaffected Italian novelist-critics. Italo Calvino, one of the least coercible, praised its “rich, wholly invented writing, with surprises that keep one’s attention alert and aroused in every line.” Moravia wrote of “an unpredictability in Volponi’s style, something fresh and fountain-like, that gives a writer the greatest satisfaction in reading him.” Now that we have it in a generally transparent, if sometimes awkward, translation by Belén Sevareid, I am more confident of my ability to appreciate it than to persuade Americans, apart from addicted Italianists and interested sociologists, to read it. Impressive it certainly is, a major text in modern Italian industrial psychology and sociology, written with a dark, systematic economy so alien to most of our fictional prejudices that even at its modern best, in Kafka, it is likely to win more respect than affection over here. Volponi is considerably more a naturalist than Kafka, but only because he has so well absorbed the Kafkaesque spirit and used it as a modern Italian Kafka would and should, to attack the new north-Italian phenomenon of neocapitalismo (welfare industrialism) that is fantastic enough in itself not to need much additional fantasy from a good novelist.
My Troubles Began celebrates the moment of delayed adolescence, before social or sexual life have really begun, common to poor young men in small factory towns of the North—a condition familiar to readers of Pavese, charged with throttled energies, resentment and poetic self-consciousness. A Chirico effect of warm and breathing but rigorous abstraction is aimed at. A truly heroic sobriety, in fact, and a reckless deliberation are demanded of this kind of novelist who puts everything into his language, so as not to write merely another filmscript for Antonioni. The novel begins at Christmas, 1945, with the young narrator just released from a German prison camp and about to enter a large factory making unspecified machines outside a small town near Turin. For company in his free time he has only an unresponsive mother and a few animals at his small family house a short train ride from the factory. His “troubles”—tuberculosis and galloping schizophrenia, as it turns out, not to mention a complete temperamental unfitness for factory life—are introduced in the first line and very freely used as an element of composition that might fairly be called black on black. Not that the factory isn’t drawn with exquisite veristic detail and furnished with a broad enough variety of human types who respond variously and convincingly to the hero’s plight, but the steady pressure of his revolt, despair and final fury heighten the natural surrealism of the place until it becomes, without much fantasizing, a near-perfect fusion, in a lower, softer key, of The Castle and The Trial.
Remember that these were the earliest days of neocapitalismo, before the founding of Adriano Olivetti’s model communities, his magazine Communità, and the other admirable Olivetti projects. Volponi’s time and ground are so well chosen, his sense of average experience so keen, that no crude label like “protest novel” will fit. Careerism was rampant in 1945; it is more than plausible that factory doctors might have used a young worker’s TB as a means of advancement for themselves. No doubt some still do. The remote, neurotic old director, Professor Ratto-Ferrua, who takes the youngsters up as an absorbing case in social engineering, is utterly plausible. The narrator’s unchurchly Christian yearnings are also true to life; Pavese himself had them to the end, his Communism notwithstanding.
Now, by all means, one misses jolly women, wit, comedy, movement; the good old hackneyed gioia di vivere of the poor. Volponi is unlikely to win any of the seasonal prizes established by wine merchants, publishers, or chambers of commerce. This is strong dark stuff, brewed from pure essences of Piedmontese gloom. But no more than Svevo’s heroes is Volponi’s really a poor fish. He is rather a particularly gifted and stubborn spokesman for the old European humanistic mind, hurling against the raw new industrialism every humane and poetic objection that Svevo leveled against the bourgeois dullness of Trieste. There is, finally, a deep humor in it, as of a single joke 231 pages long, the point of which isn’t clear until the last word. Plainly this young man should not have gone to work in a factory.