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Radical and Rich

Feltrinelli

by Carlo Feltrinelli, translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwan
Harcourt, 344 pp., $30.00

1.

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 he had not yet given up on fiction. He defended the continued vitality of the novel against its detractors: “Living novels are the ones that capture changes in the world’s intellectual, aesthetic, or moral awareness, a new sensitivity,… or that explode the superstition about the unchanging identity of human nature.”1

It should not be thought that Feltrinelli was an idealist indifferent to the practical realities of commerce; he set up a chain of bookstores that were revolutionary in conception. Their design, their display techniques, and their use of debates and appearances by famous authors for promotion all set new standards in a trade which was still largely unequipped to deal with the mass market in Italy. Placed in strategic locations in the center of Italian cities, they became centers of civic sociability. The natural place to meet a friend in Bologna is still in front of the Feltrinelli bookstore, and this is not by chance; Feltrinelli and the city’s mayor, Renato Zangheri, spent a day searching for the most suitable site. Young people were lured in by jukeboxes, pinball machines, and the latest inventions of Carnaby Street: “Marilyn made up to resemble Mao, silver belts in the form of snakes, ties, grass-green miniskirts, mock-leopardskin hats.” Feltrinelli took a leading part in creating the new cultural exuberance of the Sixties.

Unfortunately, he also exemplified the decade’s most characteristic illusions. It was even more difficult to remain levelheaded in Italy than in the rest of Europe. The expectations for change aroused by the formation of the center-left coalition between the Christian Democrat and Socialist parties had been disappointed, and under the skillful but soporific guidance of the Christian Democratic leader Aldo Moro the country seemed condemned to political immobility. Then, between 1967 and 1969, a period in which nothing seemed to happen was succeeded by one in which everything seemed to be happening at once. Of course, in both cases, the appearance did not entirely reflect reality; but certainly protest achieved a new dynamism. In Italy Il Sessantotto (1968) was less sensational than the Parisian May in the short term, but much longer-lasting in its effects. The wave of cultural and political radicalism which it set off did not recede until after 1980. The autunno caldo (hot autumn) of 1969, which saw the greatest number of strikes since the war, raised hopes for a revolutionary alliance between students and the working class.

A violent response to this wave of radical protest was not long in coming. On December 12, 1969, a bomb exploded in a bank in Milan’s Piazza Fontana, killing sixteen people and injuring eighty-four. The police immediately accused anarchists of the crime. Feltrinelli was known to be under investigation and feared arrest. Although the case has never been officially solved, it seems fairly certain that the action was instead undertaken by a neo-Fascist group in collusion with elements of the Italian secret services, with the intention of spreading fear and laying the blame on the revolutionary left. The Piazza Fontana bombing was the event that inaugurated Italy’s “years of lead,” of escalating terrorism and counterterrorism. Between 1969 and 1974 the fear of a right-wing coup was widespread on the left, and it cannot be dismissed as paranoid.

One must remember that at this time Italy was the only functioning democracy in southern Europe; the neo-Fascist right in Italy had active help from the colonels in Greece and to a lesser extent from Franco’s Spain. On December 7, 1970, a small group led by Prince Valerio Borghese, a former Fascist war hero, actually took over the nerve center of the state, the Ministry of the Interior. But his coup was called off after he received a mysterious telephone call. Like the bombs, this and other conspiracies were part of the “strategy of tension” designed by shadowy right-wing plotters to keep the left in check, a strategy which had already been tried out in 1964 when the rumors of a coup to be carried out by the general of the Carabinieri (military police), General De Lorenzo, had been decisive in convincing the Socialists that they must moderate their demands for reform.

However, the fears of a coup only confirmed Feltrinelli’s revolutionary romanticism. Already inflamed by the example of Che Guevara and other third-world revolutionaries, Feltrinelli now saw himself as the leader of a new Resistance against Fascism. At the same time he could feel both that he was embracing a new, global revolutionary cause and that he was returning to the heroic era of the Italian partisans who had fought the Germans and their Italian Fascist satellites in the last years of World War II. A former Communist partisan, Giovanbatista Lazagna, cooperated with Feltrinelli in setting up the GAP (Gruppi di Azione Proletaria). The acronym itself was borrowed from the Resistance, when it denoted the Communist-led groups organized in the cities for sabotage, the assassination of Fascist officials, and urban guerrilla warfare. Although the actions of Feltrinelli’s GAP were ineffective, they were the first organized group of the left to advocate armed resistance and terrorism. They were a precursor of what came to be known as the partito armato (armed party), of which the Red Brigades were the most dangerous but not the only exponents. Although this is a story which still has many obscure aspects, it seems that Feltrinelli gave money to their founder, Renato Curcio, as well as to other violent revolutionaries. So it cannot be said that Feltrinelli’s espousal of armed struggle was without serious consequences.

In the years before he died, Feltrinelli retreated more and more into the life of a fugitive. He was fearful of being arrested or even killed. These fears were not fantastic. In the murky world of the Italian secret services and their contacts among the neo-Fascist paramilitary groups Feltrinelli was soon identified as a target of primary importance. He was both dangerous and vulnerable, and his wealth made him a good scapegoat. The police tried to associate him with the Piazza Fontana bombing. Later on, Marco Foscari, a neo-Fascist from an ancient Venetian family who lived near Feltrinelli’s Austrian country house, hatched a plot to kidnap him. Yet it is impossible to explain Feltrinelli’s behavior as having a rational purpose. Becoming a fugitive seems to have fulfilled a deep psychological need. He had tried to rid himself of the stigma of wealth through becoming a model member of the Communist Party, then through being a committed publisher, and finally by financing and organizing revolutionary groups.

Yet none of this was enough. The taint of money continued to pursue him. When he spoke to a student assembly in Rome, they shouted, “Give us the cash.” Only by acting out his imagined role of the revolutionary in full, by becoming a partisan on the mountains or by merging into the great mass of the metropolitan working class, could he hope to disguise his identity. Of course, this attempt was also bound to fail. Whether in an absurd Tyrolean disguise or in workers’ overalls, Feltrinelli was inevitably conspicuous. It is hard to believe that the secret services let him out of their sight for long, although the belief that they actually organized his death does not stand up to investigation. Feltrinelli was a man of practical as well as intellectual curiosity, and he became fatally proud of his ability in handling explosives. It is not too much to say, moreover, that he had an impulse to self-destruction. He appeared to his friends increasingly desperate, a lost soul, unwashed and in bad health.

2.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli had a privileged childhood, but also a peculiarly lonely and deprived one. Many of the contradictions of his character can plausibly be traced to his upbringing. His father, Carlo, one of the richest men in Italy, with a fortune valued at more than 800 million lire, then valued at over $50 million (from banking, timber, and real estate), died when he was only eight years old. His father could claim to be a victim of the Fascist regime, but for hardly creditable reasons. He fell into disgrace and had a fatal heart attack after it had been discovered that the family had defied Fascist exchange controls by holding large assets in Switzerland.

  1. 1

    It cannot be said that the publishers of the English version of Carlo Feltrinelli’s biography have lived up to the exacting standards of his father. The translation on the whole reads well, but it contains errors that should have been corrected. The translation of borsisti as “bursars” makes the Feltrinelli Institute sound like an Oxford college. A borsa is standard Italian for a scholarship or a research grant. More seriously, the English version omits large sections of the original text without any warning to the reader. Some of these omissions can be justified as containing material of lesser interest to an English-language audience; but others are important, such as the passage dealing with the attempted coup of Prince Borghese in December 1970. This makes Feltri-nelli’s obsession with the possibility of a coup appear less comprehensible.

    A sentence quoted from a conversation between the Italian Communist Matteo Secchia (the brother of the important PCI leader Pietro Secchia) and the undersecretary of the Soviet embassy has been isolated from its context. Secchia said, “Feltrinelli has yet to state that he wishes to leave the party, but he has stopped contributing funds.” The text of the entire passage makes it clear that Secchia’s chief concern was not with the drying-up of funds, but with the effect of Feltrinelli’s disaffection and probable breach with the Party in encouraging dissent.

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