(Swans - October 18, 2010) Is the Californian writer John Fante relevant to Italian culture? Can an understanding of his literary fortune say something about the economic hard times of 2010?
This is one Italian writer's attempt, my own, at an answer.
John Fante was born more than a hundred and one years and some months ago in Denver, Colorado. We are late for the centenary celebrations just as he was late in finding his place in literature. He lived most of his life in Los Angeles, but his father had set out from Torricella Peligna in Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nick Fante found his way to Denver where he went to work as a bricklayer. The little Italian town in the Abruzzi Mountains has since made John Fante a local hero. But on the larger scene, John Fante's quasi-autobiographical novels and short stories did not bring him the renown and regular income every novelist craves. To support himself, he had to write screenplays for Hollywood. A fair deal, you might say, but John accepted it without enthusiasm. He was an American and so he had his dream. He loved to write and he dreamt of writing novels.
Above the north entrance of the Los Angeles Central Library on 5th Street you can read: Books alone are liberal and free -- they give to all who ask -- they emancipate all who serve them faithfully. The library was opened in 1925 and young Fante visited it often. But his own books hadn't given him what he asked them for. Life was not easy, neither for him nor for his literary alter ego, Arturo Bandini.
The title of the most famous of his novels -- a quotation from Knut Hamsun -- Ask the Dust (1939) seems to be an ironic answer to the generous promise above the library door. At the same time, "Ask the dust" sums up John Fante's literary aim: To look for what was alive in family relationships, religion, unsatisfying jobs, and daydreaming; then to gather and pack his findings into a novel good enough to win a place on a library shelf. Fante felt that a book worthy of being asked a question must have in the first place itself asked a question of the dust.
Italian literature has always been antiseptic and well-dusted. Politics, religion, and emotions are dangerous issues to be avoided, daily work is beyond the pale, sex is too personal a matter to write about. Even the immortals, Dante, Boccaccio, and Machiavelli, used a linguistic tool that was -- and now definitely is -- difficult to understand for ordinary people. It isn't at all strange that Italian readers, who are not legion, prefer foreign novelists.
John Fante, aka Arturo Bandini, is an American novelist. That's not put in question by the fact that he was the first son of an Italian immigrant, and that his father Nick was the model of one his more important characters, the bricklayer Svevo. John Fante couldn't read Italian and wrote in dusty English. He ignored his father's language, which, to be truthful, was an Abruzzi dialect, a world away from Dante's rhymes.
Italian readers empathize with his novels because they are centred on family doings. Even in translation, Italians delight in the freedom from stiff formality. While never widespread, Italian interest in Fante's work began early, and has continued with highs and lows into the present. It began with Elio Vittorini, a Sicilian writer, who in the late 1920s worked in north Italy as a bricklayer and afterward moved to Milan where he made a living from his writing, translations of English, and editorial work. Vittorini selected a chapter from Fante's first novel, Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), for his famous Americana. Valentino Bompiani published this anthology in 1941 despite objections by the Fascist authorities, who disapproved of Vittorini's enthusiasm for working class Americans. They also thought that writers like Faulkner or Fante himself didn't possess the proper credentials for making literature.
While I had almost completed my look into the reception of Fante's work in Italy, coincidence stepped in. Early one morning in Rome, on the bus I take every day to go to work, a man entered holding in his hand a copy of West of Rome. It's a John Fante volume that includes My Dog Stupid and the short story The Orgy. The new passenger was soon reading even though the bus was packed and, standing, he had to hold on to the support above him like most of us.
After a while I overcame my timidity and asked him why exactly he was reading Fante. He was kind enough to tell me and his kindness pervades what I'm writing here. Names and dates in my mind gave way to the words of the Reader on the bus. He told me he wasn't a Fante addict, but just someone who liked reading and frequented a bookshop near his home. He could spend up to an hour there leafing through books. He liked the jacket of Fante's West of Rome, picked it up, read a few pages, and decided to buy it.
The Reader in the bus (I was not so forward as to ask his name) said he hadn't liked school, and Italian was not his favourite subject in his years there. But now he read six or seven books a month. He liked novels like Fante's that were true stories, literature based on ordinary life. Strangely enough, he said, his passion did begin at school. The teacher read the class a Giovanni Verga short story, Rosso Malpelo, that moved him deeply: it was something real, something genuine. He went on to read just about anything. He recently went through all of the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer. These were the books and films his four nephews and teenagers around the world adore today, full of tender vampires, and romantic he-wolves, but devoid of hard truth.
The Reader stopped talking and gave himself to thought, looking blank-faced out of the bus window. A teacher at heart, I jumped in to fill the silence with information.
Giovanni Verga (Catania, Sicily 1840-1922) was one of the great Italian storytellers. John Fante read and loved him. (See Gian Gaspare Napolitano, L'abruzzese di Hollywood, postface, dated August 1957, to John Fante, Una moglie per Dino Rossi, Palermo, Sellerio, 1988, p. 197). The Reader certainly knew what he wanted and found it.
A couple of days before that morning bus ride, I phoned a friend of mine, Simone Caltabellota, who is an editor, a music producer, and a novelist. In the mid-1990s he advised Elido Fazi, the young publisher he worked for at the time, to buy the rights of some of Fante's works still unknown in Italy. Fazi took Simone's advice and made money with 1933 Was a Bad Year, West of Rome and Letters. Simone also advised Fazi to publish my first novel. Fazi did so and did not make money. But that's another story.
Simone told me that in the late 1970s Charles Bukowski became a literary idol in Italy, but it was John Fante who had been Bukowski's idol. Young readers like Simone who loved Bukowski were soon enamoured of Fante too. Simone said Fante's novels gave him a unique pleasure. He delighted in the humour and peculiar way of depicting real life. Fante was no revolutionary, but probably in the 1930s readers were still not prepared to understand him. Being an Italian-American didn't help him, of that Simone was sure. His novels were labelled "immigration literature," though their spirit was one hundred percent American. Simone believed that in a sense he owed Fante his career in the literary world. Many friends of his, who were writers too, like Manlio Cancogni or Sandro Veronesi, shared his passion for John Fante.
Simone agreed that he was one of the architects of Fante's fortune in Italy but was quick to credit others as well. He said that SugarCo published the Italian translation of Fante's last novel, Dreams for Bunker Hill (1982), immediately after the original, in 1983. The author died that year and his work was discovered anew. The first promoter of Fante in Italy was a young writer and talent scout, Pier Vittorio Tondelli (1955-1991). Francesco Durante and Maria Giulia Castagnone did fresh translations. (Vittorini had translated Ask the Dust in 1941 quite freely) But it was the new publishing house Marcos y Marcos in Milan that made the "Bandini trilogy" really famous in the 1990s. Simone added, however, that we shouldn't forget the French publisher Christian Bourgois (1933-2007), who in the 1980s published all of John Fante's work. At the moment, he felt, Fante was probably better known in France than in Italy or in the United States.
Simone Caltabellota was a well of stimulating information on the subject and added a last tidbit. The singer and poet Vinicio Capossela at the beginning of his career made a "Fante tour," reading the author's works to various audiences. Capossela was a son of Italian immigrants in Germany and felt close to Fante's world.
An idea took hold of me. In Italy John Fante signified "youth." When Italy felt it was in a phase of rebirth Fante's novels were read. In the early 1940s he was promoted by Vittorini, a reluctant Fascist then, soon to become a Communist and in 1951, a maverick. For him, Fante was the New Frontier of Realism. But readers were not ready. Vittorini's translation of Ask the Dust sold only seven hundred copies. In the 1980s Italy definitely felt "young." Tondelli was immersed in the myth of youth, (though it couldn't, alas, prevent his early death). Marcos y Marcos and later Fazi Editore were looking for foreign writers to help their young publishing houses gain momentum. All of Italy, roundabout 1989, felt it was making a fresh start. Fante's vitality -- his "hormones," according to Sandro Veronesi (1996, preface to the translation of 1933 Was a Bad Year) -- gave many Italian readers a vivid sense of life, crazy hope, laughter, compassion, and a sort of religious desperation.
I ask Simone if I were right, and he agreed with me. We knew better than to ask one another if Italy was presently at another beginning. Our conversation over, there was a question I wish I had asked. Why did Simone, just before leaving Fazi Editore, propose the publication of the Twilight Saga, a suggestion that turned out to be an incredibly rich parting gift? What could Stephenie Meyer's writing have to do with John Fante's?
The Reader on the bus put an end to his reflection and started to speak again:
When my father was a boy, he loved trucks. He became a truck driver. I loved videogames. Now I'm a computer consultant. That's to say our modest dreams came true in the main. They were dreams that reality could afford. Maybe that's why I like this book of Fante's. It deals in real life and talks about working people like us. But why should my nephews read it? There is little hope for them in the real world. If they want a job, they have to create it out of nothing. So they need fantasy, imagination without limit. That's why they prefer stories like Twilight, or Harry Potter. Their only hope is in magic. Reality has nothing to offer them.
I got his point.
Time for me to get off the bus.
I walk down the road brooding over the short course of 2010 Economics that the Reader gave me: Magic can bemuse us, but only reality extends our life.
I think of my bus ride as a lesson in Fantenomics.
Author's Note: Thanks to Simone Caltabellota for his courtesy, to Massimo Germinario for the books he lent me, and to the Reader (who really exists and whom I actually talked to on that bus).
Thanks to Peter Byrne for his invaluable co-operation.
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)