Thirty years after his death, the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli remains an enigma. In some ways, the sensitive, detailed biography written by his son makes the enigma appear still more perplexing. The Feltrinelli who is most securely embedded in the collective memory is the would-be revolutionary and terrorist, a figure both tragic and absurd, who blew himself up while trying to destroy an electricity pylon in a Milan suburb. Even if he had succeeded, a temporary interruption in Milan’s electricity supply hardly seems like a very convincing demonstration of revolutionary ideals.
Feltrinelli was both richer and more radical than anyone else on the fashionable left. How could one take seriously a figure who at the same time issued an ultrarevolutionary manifesto and appeared in Italian Vogue modeling fur coats for men? Yet there was much more to Feltrinelli than this kind of exhibitionism. He inherited from his father, a Milanese tycoon, not only his enormous wealth but considerable business ability, and he put this in the service of a cultural mission that he interpreted with daring, originality, and imagination.
A number of exceptionally talented publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Vito Laterza, and Adriano Olivetti, among others—did much to shape the contours of a new and more modern Italian culture in the late 1950s and the 1960s (not coincidentally, the high years of the Italian economic miracle). But Feltrinelli was distinguished from his Italian peers by his panache and his willingness to take risks. Although for years he had been a loyal and obedient member of the Italian Communist Party, he challenged pro-Soviet orthodoxy by publishing Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago in 1957. In a more subtle way, he defied the pieties of “progressive” culture by accepting the writer Giorgio Bassani’s advice to publish a work by an unknown Sicilian aristocrat, Giuseppe di Lampedusa. His novel, The Leopard, had previously been turned down by Einaudi, thanks to the negative opinion of the Marxist writer Elio Vittorini.
Dr. Zhivago and The Leopard, apart from their enduring literary value, were the two most extraordinary publishing successes of their day; they proved the hitherto unexpected existence of a large mass market for serious literature in Italy. 156,000 copies of Dr. Zhivago had been sold in Italy alone by 1960.
It was Feltrinelli, too, who took the lead in the discovery of Latin American literature. I can remember the excitement of first reading Borges’s Aleph in a Feltrinelli paperback. Later on, he became the publisher of Asturias, Vargas Llosa, and García Márquez. Naturally, he championed sexual as well as political liberation, defying censorship to publish Henry Miller. The statement of his aims as a publisher, which he wrote in a 1968 article, seems frank and intelligent. He explained that he did not want to compete with the “behemoths” of publishing with “half a million titles” and “a dozen low-quality magazines,” but to restore the “morality” of the business by publishing books which were “necessary.” These already included the writings of Che Guevara, but …