An Unlikely Family Romance

Alexander Stille
Alexander Stille’s parents, Elizabeth and Misha, in Europe, 1950s

One night in the early 1980s, the protean and immensely learned Italian journalist known to readers as Ugo Stille arrived at my door in Paris, followed by a stream of Portuguese curses echoing down the courtyard from the window of the concierge’s lodge. Misha, as Stille’s friends called him (though, like me, not many of them knew why), had been the American correspondent of Corriere della Sera for more than thirty years and was arguably its most respected writer. He lived in New York with his American wife, Elizabeth, and had stopped in Paris on his way home to her from a “command performance,” as he described it, at the paper’s Milan headquarters, where he had just managed to resist the blandishments of a board of directors determined to name him editor-in-chief—a job he reluctantly took a few years later. He had asked me to choose a restaurant where the food was good, the tourists scarce, and the privacy sufficient for a few hours of collegial gossip about all the interesting things we knew but couldn’t print.

Misha, at least to his friends, was a captivating man, and I had no idea what he could have done to enrage my concierge. Her name was Mme Goncalves, and at the time I was so taken with her eccentric but extremely acute outsider’s views on her adopted country and its persistent crises that I had started writing about her. People were curious. A reporter from one of the news magazines had rung her bell a few weeks earlier to ask if she “existed.” She had picked up her broom, her weapon of choice in matters of self-assertion, and literally swept him out of the porte cochere and onto the sidewalk. Misha—I should have guessed this—had asked her the same thing.

My concierge existed, but it turns out that Ugo Stille wasn’t so sure that he did. A few pages into The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, Alexander Stille’s artful and formidably researched reconstruction of the two worlds that had produced his parents and their angry, improbably enduring marriage, the Stilles go to a party, perhaps in Rome or Florence, and meet the Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi. Tabucchi is known not only for his fiction but for his masterly translations—most notably of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, a literary trickster who wrote under a dozen names and in a dozen distinct and utterly persuasive styles. Tabucchi is, as Alexander Stille notes, particularly drawn to writers like Pessoa—Borges and Pirandello among them—“who played with multiple identities and the fragile, fictional, and provisional nature of identity.”

The Stille whom Tabucchi reads in Corriere is “Ugo,” the famous foreign correspondent with the peculiar byline (stille means “silent” in German), and now he is meeting “Misha,” who, while undeniably the same person,…

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