The Strega Prize

This Thursday, July 3, a group of four hundred Italian women and men of letters will assign the Strega Prize, the most meaningful literary award in the country’s literary industry, if for no reason other than the extra couple of hundred thousand books that will be sold by the winning title. The voting and the announcement will take place in the nymphaeum of Villa Giulia, a Roman landmark built by Pope Julius III. On voting night, the interior of the splendid Renaissance building looks like a particularly elegant betting parlor, with a chalkboard listing votes for the five short-listed authors. On the table are mini-bottles of the saffron-yellow after-dinner liqueur that gives the prize its name and dark blue ashtrays emblazoned with the lovely art nouveau Strega trademark.

The betting parlor atmosphere is fitting. The politics behind the prize might have been dreamed up by, in Raymond Chandler’s phrase, “a very wicked Roman senator.” Lorenzo Pavolini, a noted Italian radio journalist and editor at Nuovi Argomenti, who was shortlisted for the Strega himself in 2010, remarked that he believed the prize to be controlled by a small group of elite publishers, “and sometimes, they even decide when to let another publisher win in order to assure that the prize remains credible.”

After the prize is assigned, the winner will set out on a succession of literary appearances at festivals in the Italian Alps and at the seaside, but that’s July. August, this being Italy, remains sacred, and then the award is officially presented in Rieti on September 3.

This year’s shortlist

Il desiderio di essere come tutti, The Desire to Be Like Everyone Else (Einaudi) by Francesco Piccolo, a fictional psychic autobiography of the past forty years of Italian life, broken down into two eras. The first is The Pure Life: [Italian Communist Party leader Enrico] Berlinguer and Me, followed by The Impure Life: Berlusconi and Me.

La vita in tempo di pace, Life in Peacetime (Ponte alle Grazie) by Francesco Pecoraro, a massive novel, the author’s first, even though he turns seventy this year. This too is an account of post-war Italy, which also turns seventy this year, the story of a nation and a human being as told through a quasi-biological viewfinder, as if our busy little activities were the pursuits of bacteria and bacilli.

Non dirmi che hai paura, Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid (Feltrinelli) by Giuseppe Catozzella, the nonfiction story of a young female Somali track-and-field star named Samia Yusuf Omar who competed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and then drowned in 2012 while trying to reach Italian shores in a quest to take part in the London Olympics.

Il padre infedele, The Unfaithful Father (Bompiani) by Antonio Scurati the fictional story of a successful chef and new father in a suddenly collapsing marriage, an observation of the mores and stylistic details of modern Italy, where stardom comes with a white toque, and fatherhood comes with a poorly translated and completely outdated instruction manual.

Lisario o il piacere infinito delle donne, Lisario or the Infinite Pleasure of Women (Mondadori) by Antonella Cilento. In this picaresque tale set in seventeenth-century Naples, a young sleeping beauty—literate and lovely—is awakened from a coma by a mountebank with probing fingers.

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National Etruscan Museum
Piazzale di Villa Giulia, 9,
Rome, Italy