Monica Sarsini was born in Florence, where she lives and teaches writing. She is also an artist who has shown her work in Italy and other countries. Libro Luminoso (Exit Edizioni, 1982) was followed by Crepacuore, Crepapelle and others. A collection of her work was published in English under the title of Eruptions (Italica Press, 1999).
Born into the upper strata of Milanese society, Antonia Pozzi (1912-1938) was educated at the University of Milan, where she studied with the influential philosopher Antonio Banfi. Pozzi’s privileged upbringing allowed her to become current with poets such as Eliot and Rilke in the original, but social and intellectual expectations were also a constraint, and she struggled to grow in confidence as an artist. In 1933, her family prohibited her from continuing to see Antonio Maria Cervi, her high school teacher of Latin and Greek fourteen years her senior, ending a six-year relationship. In December 1938, her health eroded by illness, and depressed by the pervasive effects of the increasingly oppressive Fascist regime, Pozzi ended her life by taking an overdose of barbiturates and putting herself to sleep in the snow beside the abbey of Chiaravalle in the newly industrialized outskirts of Milan, where she had been volunteering to help impoverished children. In her last letter to her parents, she explained that “part of my mortal desperation is due to the cruel oppression inflicted upon our faded youth.” She was only twenty-six, unpublished, and virtually unknown, but the notebooks she left behind were filled with terse poems of astonishing power. Her work was soon published with an admiring preface by Eugenio Montale, but the sensuality of many poems was erased in her father’s editing; the originals have since been recuperated. Pozzi is now placed by many alongside the greatest poets of her day. Her voice is solitary and unmistakable, offering an exceptionally open and intense dramatization of the crisis of the private, pacifist sphere in a time of rising ideological rigidity and aggression. Pozzi’s poems constitute a continuous yet tenuous barrier of hope, a “gentle offering” to the reader, witness to the poet’s “longing for light things.”
Valerio Magrelli was born in Rome in 1957. He is the author of four poetry collections and has received the Mondello Prize, the Viareggio Prize for Poetry, and the Montale Prize. He is a professor of French literature at the University of Cassino. His poems have been widely translated around the globe.
Antonia Arslan is a former professor of Italian modern and contemporary literature at the University of Padova. She is the author of innovative studies in nineteenth century Italian literature (Dame, droga e galline. Il romanzo popolare italiano fra Ottocento e Novecento) and the “submerged galaxy” of Italian women writers (Dame, galline e regine. La scrittura femminile italiana fra ‘800 e ‘900), and, with Gabriella Romani, the author of Writing to Delight: Italian Short Stories by Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. Through the poetry of the great Daniel Varujan (who died during the Armenian Genocide), which she translated with Chiara Haiganush Megighian and Alfred Hemmat Siraky, she rediscovered her profound and unexpressed Armenian identity. Since then she has written and edited scores of books and articles on the topic. Among them are her edition of a brief history of the Armenian Genocide (Claude Mutafian, Metz Yeghèrn. Il genocidio degli Armeni) and a collection of memoirs of the survivors of the Genocide who lived in Italy (Hushèr. La memoria. Voci italiane di sopravvissuti armeni). She wrote her first novel, La Masseria delle Allodole (Skylark Farm), because she could not help doing so. The characters, those people whose lives had been cut short, called to her. They wanted to be heard. She wrote her second novel, La Strada di Smirne, to continue their story.
Valeria Parrella was born in 1974 in the province of Naples. During the period in which she wrote and published her first stories, she was an Italian Sign Language interpreter and worked at the National Agency for the Protection and Assistance of the Deaf in Naples. Her first collection, Mosca più balena (Fly Plus Whale), from which the present story is taken, was published in 2003 and awarded, among many other prizes, the 2004 Premio Campiello for the best debut work of fiction. Her second collection, Per grazia ricevuta (For Grace Received), was one of five finalists for Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega (2005). The novella Il verdetto (The Verdict), recasting the story of Clytemnestra in contemporary Naples, appeared in 2007. Parrella’s first novel, Lo spazio bianco (The White Space) was published by Einaudi in 2008. For Grace Received is scheduled for publication this fall by Europa Editions as Parrella’s English-language debut.
Born Aldo Giurlani to a well-off Florentine mercantile family, Aldo Palazzeschi (1885-1974) was educated as an accountant and trained as an actor. The author of colloquial, absurdist free verse parables of urban-bourgeois life, his early work anticipated Dada and the Surrealists. His novels, particularly Il codice di Perelà (Perelà’s Code, 1911; translated as Man of Smoke) and Le sorelle Materassi (The Materassi Sisters, 1934), were hugely successful in their time. Palazzeschi’s first book of poetry, I cavalli bianchi (The White Horses), was published in 1905 by Cesare Blanc–the poet’s cat, also the publisher of Lanterna (1907) and Poemi (1909). The latter volume includes “Chi sono?” (“Who am I?”), a pointed rejection of the then-dominant D’Annunzian model of bardic national hero that is still among the best-known twentieth-century Italian poems (Chi sono? / Il saltimbanco dell’anima mia; Who am I? / The acrobat of my soul). This was followed in 1910 by L’Incendiario (The Arsonist), published by F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist press, Poesia, from which this selection of poems is taken. With its irreverence, biting parody, and blithe nonsense, The Arsonist resembles works of Apollinaire and Mayakovsky still to come. In a series of grotesque allegories depicting contemporary urban-bourgeois life as timid, conformist, and squalid, Palazzeschi broadens his antic vision in colloquial, dramatic episodes dictated by the “saltimbanco dell’anima mia” (acrobat of my soul) of his prior volume: an exemplary gadabout, ironic boulevardier, and armchair provocateur who guides the reader around the dystopia and eventually disappears into a dilapidated rural castle retreat with a fictive family menagerie. Palazzeschi was a pacifist and political agnostic, and his satire does not spare himself; the poet is portrayed as a poor dunce whose folly nevertheless exemplifies the (pyrrhic) perseverance of individualism in an atmosphere of stultifying conformity. In 1914, Palazzeschi turned away from the Futurist ideology of violence as necessary ‘purification’ (as war had been described in the 1909 Manifesto of Futurism), broke definitively with Marinetti and the Futurists, and took a rare stand in favor of ‘neutralism.’ The poems of this literary hero of the Futurists, whom Marinetti had acclaimed as possessing “a fierce, destructive irony,” are laced with a pungent, subversive humor.
Malaparte witnessed first hand the consolidation of Mussolini’s dictatorship in the critical years 1922-1925. Highly intelligent, he was also a literary artist of distinction with a talent, typical of Tuscan writers since Dante, for barbed invective. These qualities led him to challenge Mussolini to make good on his promises of reform in the years when an open debate was still possible. “It was not Mussolini who carried the Fascists to the Prime Ministership, but the Fascists who had carried Mussolini to power,” Malaparte thundered in 1924 in his newspaper, La conquista dello Stato. And, in the wake of his realization that Mussolinismo had triumphed over the kind of idealistic left-wing fascism he advocated, it was these same qualities that led him to write what the critic Giuseppe Pardini has labeled “one of the few strictly original products of fascist culture”: Don Camalèo: A Novel About a Chameleon.
The American reading public was first introduced to Malaparte in the aftermath of the Second World War when Kaputt appeared in English in 1946. At the time, interest in Malaparte in the States was such that his portrait appeared on the cover of The Saturday Review of Literature on November 14, 1946. Two other books by Malaparte would make their way into English in later years. But Kaputt, that long, rich and macabre mediation on the horrors of war, remains the single book for which Malaparte is chiefly remembered today.
Don Camalèo, written in 1926-27, like Kaputt, has a strange publishing history that Malaparte describes in the preface he wrote to the first integral edition of the work, which appeared in Italy in 1946 and which I have included here. At the time of the book’s publication, Malaparte was basking in the international success of Kaputt, but his reputation in Italy remained suspect. Publishing Don Camalèo thus served two purposes: it enabled Malaparte to offer his recently acquired immense readership yet another “new” novel at the same time as it bolstered his claim to have been part of a fronde within Fascism. Don Camalèo is also like Kaputt in that Malaparte relies upon a first person narrator modeled closely on himself, sharing his name and many of his biographical details, to shepherd the reader along the twists and turns of the story’s path. But there the similarities end. In lieu of a series of darkly surrealistic encounters with death, we find a spirited, fast-paced comedy in the form of an eighteenth-century roman philosophique by Voltaire or Diderot.
Malaparte wrote Don Camalèo to deny validity of the equation that fascism equaled Mussolini. At its most basic level, the novel is an anti-Mussolinian satire characterized from start to finish by the knowledge that the kind of revolutionary fascism that Malaparte and others had urged upon the regime since 1922 was dead and that Mussolini would do little more than mouth revolutionary platitudes as he maintained power by appeasing the reactionary elements that had always counted in Italian life. But the novel has a deeper side. Malaparte would later write: “It is not possible to draw a portrait of Mussolini, without drawing one, too, of the Italian people. His qualities and his defects are not his own. Rather they are the qualities and the defects of all Italians.” Accordingly, as it pokes fun at Mussolini, the reader also finds Don Camalèo cutting deeper to mock many of the centuries-old vices besetting the Italian people as embodied in a series of broadly drawn characters.
The initial chapter (of twenty-three), presented here in translation, with its semi-serious use of classical erudition concerning the nature of salamanders, basilisks, and chameleons, sets the tone for the peculiar kind of jocular satire that will characterize the novel as a whole.
In the second chapter, current events then heave into view as Malaparte describes what it was like to have observed the March on Rome in 1922. He then recalls how one day he was outdoors horseback-riding with Mussolini when a chameleon appeared out of nowhere. This animal ex machina is what launches the tale since before Malaparte can object, Mussolini has assigned him the task of raising the beast, certain in the knowledge that the chameleon will be able to adapt to Roman political society.
Malaparte entrusts the chameleon to a Panglossian tutor by the name of Sebastiano, whose methods and mentality symbolize the hidebound nature of traditional Italian culture. Following this initial education, Malaparte introduces the chameleon, who has learned to speak, into political society, where he learns the finely-honed Italian art of trasformismo—what today’s spin doctors would call “triangulation”: finding out what you need to say you will change in order to win support, and then maintaining the status quo. But by dint of spending time with Malaparte, the chameleon comes to believe in the Fascist Revolution. He takes to the street to protest the slow pace of reform and his popularity soars with the common people. Seeing this, Mussolini decides he has no choice but to invite the chameleon into his inner circle of advisors.
Malaparte cautions the chameleon: “Everyone knows that the Head of the October Revolution, like any good Italian, doesn’t love revolutionaries; in fact, it’s likely that he despises them.” And he adds: “It’s true that you’re a chameleon, but if you join Mussolini in power, you’ll change colors so furiously that you’ll die from all the effort.” But the chameleon accepts the invitation in the belief that he will make the Revolution live up to its promises. Sadly, the lizard’s proximity to Mussolini, day in and day out, in Parliament gradually causes his political positions to mutate yet again. When, in January 1925, Mussolini institutes his personal dictatorship and calls upon all good fascists to embrace order over the Revolution, the chameleon does likewise. The novel predates the Lateran Pact of 1929, but it is prophetic in that it depicts Mussolini introducing the chameleon to a certain Dr. Libero, a Jesuit, who inadvertently causes the animal to believe he is the Son of God by goading him into reading The Imitation of Christ. Things do not end well for the poor lizard at the book’s conclusion, which takes place in Saint Peter’s Cathedral.
In sum, then, there remain three compelling reasons for Don Camalèo to appear in English: to add to our historical knowledge of the period; to add to our knowledge of Malaparte’s literary career and strengths as a writer; and, for the sheer enjoyment to be had from this minor literary gem, once believed to have been lost.
Antonio Delfini was a writer and poet born in Disvetro di Cavezzo, Emilia-Romagna, in Northern Italy. In the 1930s, he started writing poems which blended fantasy, magic realism, and surrealism. He also wrote provincial stories, such as Ritorno in città (1931), Il ricordo della Basca (1938), and Il fanalino della Ballimonda (1940). Other works include Poesie della fine del mondo (1961) and Racconti (1963). His Diari, an autobiographical novel, was published in 1982.
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