Today (the 1st of March) marks the centenary of the birth of Beppe Fenoglio, the Second World War partisan and fêted, but opinion-dividing, writer.
Almost 25 years ago I tried to read Fenoglio’s Johnny the Partisan. Everyone had told me this was one of the great Italian novels of the twentieth century, a war story that put him on a par with Giorgio Bassani (of ‘Finzi-Contini…’ fame) or the great Renata Viganò (another partisan).
But I couldn’t get past the first dozen pages. I disliked everything about it: ordered and edited after Fenoglio’s death at age 40, the prose was randomly oversalted with sentences in half-English. It was both jarring and dainty, and yielded – in the words of Fenoglio’s translater, Stuart Hood – ‘often embarrassing results’. To give a flavour, this is an early sentence from the novel (italicised words were in English in the Italian edition): ‘… a mountain of a man, a jelly, under the flagrant sentence of the flesh, squealed with fear, hand-menaced his wife who was adjusting the volume knob…’
Back then, feeling guilty for not liking the great Fenoglio, I confessed my struggles to Enrico, my wife’s intellectual and enjoyably caustic uncle. ‘Fenoglio?’ His head went back. ‘For goodness’ sake!’ he said as if I were wasting his time.
So I gave up on Fenoglio and kept my counsel when his name came up. I, after all, hadn’t got past the opening chapters. But I was oddly fascinated by his life. He was born in Alba, in the ‘Langhe’ the hilly, wine-growing area of Piemonte around Cuneo. The first-born son of a First World War veteran and his wife, Fenoglio grew up in a modest flat above the butchers shop his parents ran. There was, in the whole house, only one tap and one stove, both in the kitchen.
Fenoglio became the academic star of the town’s secondary school, but he had a speech impediment which blocked him when nervous in oral examinations. He often wrote his answers on a blackboard (although once, asked to write a eulogy of Mussolini’s March on Rome, he left the page completely blank). Fenoglio became fixated on English literature (especially its dramatists) and what he diagnosed as his ‘anglomania’ became ‘an expression of my desire for a different, better Italy’ (Primavera di Bellezza).
‘Bellezza’ and its opposite was one of Fenoglio’s recurrent themes. Fenoglio felt he was ugly, and he saw himself as a moody Cyrano de Bergerac, that famous letter-writer who saw young ladies fall for his more dashing, superficial peers. He could charm women with his eloquence and intelligence, but there are painful passages in most of his books (I’ve now read them) about the tortured, scowling writer listening to girls discuss his unattractiveness: ‘You’re ugly’, says Flavia to Milton in Una Questione Privata, ‘you have stupendous eyes, a beautiful mouth, a very beautiful hand, but overall you’re ugly.’ Fenoglio uses ‘beautiful’ – already a greatly devalued adjective in Italian literature due to over-usage – almost incessantly.
That self-perception of ugliness wasn’t misplaced. Italo Calvino described him as having ‘a face from a Western, a bit brutal and frowning, characteristics accentuated by a sad affliction of warts and excrescences on his cheeks and face.’ Calvino was Fenoglio’s first editor at Einaudi and saw very clearly Fenoglio’s weaknesses as a writer too, calling him ‘a bit irritating.’ He was, Calvino wrote directly and more bluntly to Fenoglio himself, ‘too ambitious,’ showing off an immature ‘pride in trying to say everything’. After the war, Fenoglio worked in the export office of a local wine firm. It was a job that gave him both the opportunity to use his English but also free time to write and moonlight.
It was the war, however, that gave Fenoglio his central theme. Fenoglio had avoided the draft when Germany took command of Italy after 8 September 1943 and he fled to the mountains he knew so well to fight in a monarchist partisan brigade (in the postwar referendum he voted to keep the monarchy). His experience of war gave his affected prose real sinew. He wrote and rewrote the same book: an English-obsessed partisan (‘Milton’ or ‘Johnny’) criss-crosses the hills of the Langhe on a mission which is often both military and romantic.
His best book, Una Questione Privata, tells the story of a pre-war love triangle between Milton, Flavia and Giorgio. Just as Milton discovers that (the much better-looking) Giorgio had been seeing Flavia before the war, Giorgio is taken prisoner by Fascist/Nazi troops. Milton has to find a live enemy combatant to propose a prisoner swap. There’s a tautness to the telling and a weary realism too. Very often the partisans were romanticised and idealised in Italian postwar literature, but in Fenoglio’s pages they are troubled, conflicted and, usually, simply hungry.
In many ways, one could argue that Fenoglio – who died of lung cancer in 1963 – was badly served by his posthumous editors. Finding two disordered versions of Johnny the Partisan among a stack of papers (and another version almost entirely in English) editors shuffled the pages into a novel and, understandably, presented it as Fenoglio’s great, last epic. But in many ways it was his first work – his juvenilia from the late 1940s – not a mature masterpiece: like many writers, he had been working on the same book for years, twisting it in his hands so much that it almost disintegrated. If his books overlap it’s because he took the best passages and characters from Johnny into his other (pre-death) publications. Johnny the Partisan, I only realised 25 years later, was the very worst place to approach Fenoglio’s writing.
But Fenoglio still makes me uncomfortable for other reasons. His use of English may appear fetishistic or effete, but I understand what he was doing. For those of us who live in another language, it’s almost impossible not to pepper our prose with foreign diction. It’s how we talk and think and it seems unnatural not to put that on the page. I know dropping Italian into every other sentence I write is one of my weaknesses as a writer: I do it not because I’m showing off, but because those are the words and sounds in my head. To see Fenoglio’s stylistic catastrophes makes me realise how deleterious that hybrid-diction can be.
But there’s something else too. For Fenoglio, English offered a linguistic resistance to Italian Fascism. As he himself half-acknowledged, it was a sort of fantasy, as fanciful as the idea that Flavia would ever succumb to Milton’s wordiness. That the two non-lovers listen to ‘Over the Rainbow’ reveals the fuzziness of the war story: English was the courier of his hopes for a better country. But a century after his birth, his fixed idea that the English-speaking world was always a beacon of freedom and good governance seems naïve and dated. Reading Fenoglio is painful now not just because of his prose but because, above all, he reveals the high esteem in which England and its outposts were once held.