Sunday, March 7, 2010
Bitter Spring, with Susan Mitchell’s eye-catching nod-to-George-Salter cover
Bitter Spring is an excellent biography – agile, detailed, thoughtful and, while full of serious scholarship, a zip to read. (In January, it was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award.) Given Silone’s ultimate unknowableness – his wife Darina herself said that he “was – under certain aspects – a mystery even to me” – the fact that it doesn’t claim to be “the” biography but “a life” seems like the right approach to take. For me, some of the richest parts of the book come from Pugliese’s interviews with Darina who, lucky for us, lived until 2003. Pugliese was able to get amazing access to her, and some of her comments are almost embarrassing in their frankness. Reading the book, I somehow pictured Professor Pugliese buying armloads of fruit and flowers at the Campo de’ Fiori, in the shadow of the brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, to take across town to the widow Silone. (By the way, I’ve not met Professor Pugliese and I’d already read and enjoyed his book when he sent a comment to this blog.)
An amazing person and brilliant mind in her own right, Darina Laracy met Silone in Switzerland in 1941. Dublin-born, unhappily Catholic-school-educated – as a teenager she was busted by the mother superior for reading Pascal’s Pensées – ours is not to think – Laracy was seventeen years Silone’s junior, and in her mid-twenties when they met. She was a student of language, a seeker, a critic of “Irish parochialism,” and invariably described in terms such as “tall, handsome, auburn-haired and vivacious.” In Milan when Italy entered WWII, she was harassed by the Italian police and approached by the Gestapo and British military intelligence, both of which tried to press her into service as a spy. She was eventually expelled from Italy, and landed in Zurich, where Silone first saw her in a library.
Silone ends up inviting her to tea at the villa where he was staying; but when she shows up, instead of rushing down to meet her:
Silone made Darina wait for thirty minutes in the parlor; she passed time petting a large German shepherd guard dog. Silone, watching this scene, was entranced: the dog was usually ferocious around strangers. (Silone later confessed that he himself had at first been terrified of the dog.)
He sounds a little creepy, right? When he finally does show himself, in a blue velvet jacket (!), they have an awkward conversation and she volunteers her services for the Italian Resistance – which Silone really has no hook-up with at this point. He refuses her offer, conversation dies, and he gallantly asks her why she came if she has nothing to say. He ends up thinking she is a spy, while she ends up thinking Silone – whose book Fontamara she had “devoured in one sitting” as a seventeen-year-old back in Ireland – is a “frightful bore”:
“Better to read a writer,” she thought to herself as she left, “than to meet him.”
But something must have gone all right, because they end up marrying three years later. It’s abundantly clear that the marriage was not a very successful one:
Darina believed that Silone married her seeking happiness, but that, in the end, “he was not capable of finding happiness.” He was, she thought, suffering not only from depression but perhaps schizophrenia as well. At times, he could be “horrible,” even when not in a depression; “he had no talent at all for human relationships.” He could often be cruel, as when he would not permit her to renew her passport or when he was casual about his extramarital affairs. He sometimes told people, “I couldn’t leave the poor, mad thing.” With a frankness, and steely resolve in her voice, Darina admitted that her marriage to Silone was “difficult.”
Reading this was all very dispiriting to me; not only hearing how strange and cruel Silone was to his wife, but the chilling words, “he had no talent at all for human relationships” – human relationships being the thing the characters in his books so often seek. There is another particularly deflating couple of paragraphs in Pugliese’s chapter on Darina:
Silone and Darina had many differences. She had an innate love of animals. Silone, like many people from the countryside, had no particular love for animals, except donkeys, and refused her many requests for pets. It became a point of contention that Silone tried to defuse by sending her a photo of a teddy bear in March 1952 with the following on the reverse:
My best wishes for your birthday brought to you by this teddy bear. But, as you well know, he is mute, it’s only an image. If, though, you welcome him warmly and you look at him for a while, you will clearly feel that one ineffable thing [quell’unica cosa indicibile] that he is charged with making you understand.
It must have been some pretty cold comfort, getting not a live pet, nor an actual teddy bear, but a photo of a teddy bear as a birthday gift from your husband, with a note signed “Yours, I.S.” (it reminded me of a scene in the squirm-inducing film The Squid and the Whale, when the hideous writer-dad signs a book for his own son: “Best wishes, Bernard Berkman (Dad)”). Reading Silone’s note, it’s hard not to think that Silone sees himself as the teddy bear in the photo: mute, needing attention; with something to communicate if only you will give him the time! Perhaps like the character in Margery Williams' children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, he needs love to make him real. Unlike the Velveteen Rabbit, however, Silone did not seem to know how to deal with any sort of love.
Later in the chapter on Darina there is a jarring, tantalizing moment when Pugliese suddenly slips into the first person:
My first thought on entering the apartment on via Villa Ricotti to interview Darina Silone was that I was trespassing into Plato’s Cave. This feeling has haunted me for years as I sought to distinguish between “truth” and the shadows thrown upon the back wall of that cave. Not that I ever felt Darina Silone was insincere or seeking to hide embarrassing details of their life together: on the contrary, she was quite open in her remarks and willing to answer difficult questions. But I had a sense that memory here could be a tricky ally in writing a biography.
Certainly we should all know about the subjective nature of “truth” by now, having lived through post-modernism, but it’s refreshing to read these words in this era of dead certainties, where people seem increasingly allergic to ambiguity. More on this below, in talking about the caso Silone.
[On a sort of related note, right now I’m reading The Unredeemed Captive, John Demos’ account of an abduction in pre-Revolutionary America. This is a wonderful book – part adventure story, part scholar-detective document, part (do people still say this?) revisionist history. Demos writes delicious, compelling prose that rushes forth in highly textured detail; he can’t wait to tell you this story. (Also, he’s a big fan – like me, for better or worse – of the em dash.) The idea of hard-and-fast “fact” is destabilized right from the start, when Professor Demos leads off his preface with the question: “Where does the story begin?” and then answers this question with a series of sections starting “Perhaps it begins with…”, positing all the different factors that had a bearing on the French and Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts that led to the abduction.
Similar, in a way, is Luc Sante’s memoir The Factory of Facts, which has a thrilling, bravura opening chapter called “Résumé” in which Sante introduces a simple paragraph about the circumstances of his birth and early childhood and then repeats it, with increasingly odd factual and stylistic mutations, nine times.
The Factory of Facts, with its thematically perfect touch-me/buy-me/read-me-now jacket by Barbara de Wilde
Sante, who gets the Susan Sontag prize for having his finger in the pie of everything cool, of course wrote Low Life, a book with the purplest of prose but one very close to my heart. Every last New York hipster read this book when it came out in the 1990s. A story here! A few years ago when my husband Damian and I were getting our wedding bands in one of the jewelry exchanges on the Bowery, I noticed there was an old photo of the place, taken before the El was torn down, hanging in the stall. I admired it aloud to the nice man selling us the rings, a man who reminded me somewhat of a younger version of my Uncle Mim – he of the oddly missing fingers – and the fellow told me the store had been owned by his family for several generations. He had a great old-school accent and it was with this accent, not the kind you might find in, for example, the Brown University Modern Culture & Media Department, that he told me there was a great book about old New York, called Low Life – had I heard of it? And I thought, if Luc Sante knew a guy like you – the real McCoy – read his book, I bet he’d jump for joy.]
God help me for posting this, but this is in fact my uncle.
Getting back to Bitter Spring, and the section that jumps to first-person narration:
Darina had invited me for an interview with warm words of praise for my first book. Our first meeting in the Silone apartment in Rome, though, was not an overwhelming success. Silone’s dark study remained off-limits, a sort of sanctuary where I was not invited to venture. A surreptitious peek revealed it decorated with memento mori: there were photos of Romolo, Benedetto Croco, Martin Buber, Gaetano Salvemini on his deathbed, Lazar Shatzkin (a Russian Jewish friend who had committed suicide), Simone Weil, and Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection. When Darina asked whether I spoke French and I answered truthfully that I did not, I caught a glimpse of disappointment in her eyes.
And suddenly we are in something approaching Aspern Papers-like territory, with the author confessing to actually opening a door that had been closed to him. This moment is brief, however, since Darina appears to begin confiding in the author pretty quickly.
She comes across as a complex, moody person in the book; she also seems like she has nursed many wounds for many years and has just been waiting for this moment to talk about them. On one hand, she positioned herself to be the “custodian of [Silone’s] work and memory” after his death; and she also helped translate that work. “Yet in interviews,” Pugliese writes, “she could be frank and even a bit mischievous. Once, when commenting – not for the first time – on Silone’s resistance to learning English and his difficulty with the language, she said, ‘He had trouble understanding and pronouncing certain English words; words like truth, for example.’” At some point in life Darina seems to have located her spiritual home as India, and she traveled there and became friends with Indira Gandhi. “It was only after Silone’s death, which she somehow sensed as a belated gift of liberation, that she then threw herself into various political and cultural movements and repeatedly visited India.” One wonders, given a mind like hers, if she’d wanted to do other things – perhaps even write fiction herself – and the unliberated life she led with Silone made such an idea impossible.
When people wonder in print why there are so few great women writers/artists/composers – besides wanting to counter this tired question with many others, one of them being just who’s keeping score here? – I find it amazing that so few talk about the obvious: that it’s (still) usually the woman who runs the household, cooks the meals and, perhaps most time-consuming, strokes the ego of the man in her life. I had a friend years back who was an editor at Harper’s; one of her writers, a famous dude, was late in delivering something and she called him up. His wife was out, Famous Dude shrieked at her, and he was all in a tizzy – how was he supposed to get anything done? He had to take care of the kids and make the food and the phone kept ringing – just what did they expect of him? On the flip side of this coin, in a 2008 New Yorker Festival interview with Deborah Treisman, Alice Munro – one of my all-time favorite writers, praise her to the skies! – Munro said that when she first started publishing, a local paper ran a story about her with this headline: “Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories.”
My husband Damian, grilling up the tofu.
Darina Silone actually finished Silone’s last novel for him, a work published posthumously as Severina. Iris Origo calls the book a “patchwork,” and writes about it at some length in her Silone essay in A Need to Testify. The book was pieced together, “partly in Silone’s own words, partly in those which Darina used, during his illness, to bind together disconnected or incomplete passages” (the process is described in “The History of a Manuscript,” an explanatory section Darina added to the end of Severina – which I don’t think has been translated into English). Silone was very ill, and:
...he wanted desperately to finish [the book] and fortunately did not realize in his nursing home that he was suffering from agrafia – a disease described in a medical dictionary consulted by Darina as ‘an incapacity to express one’s thoughts in writing… The patient retains or recovers the capacity to form single letters or words, but – though he is not aware of this – their combination is meaningless.’ ‘In his last afternoon,’ Darina wrote, ‘he began to write in a great hurry, looking very happy. When, later on, I gathered up my courage and looked at those last pages, I found that he had recovered his own handwriting and the words were all legible…It was almost possible to catch their meaning. Unfortunately, only almost.’
And what a sad way for a writer to go out of this world.
Origo tells us that Darina used some passages from the first Italian edition of The Seed Beneath the Snow to flesh out some of the chapters, while “For Chapter 11 she invented – perhaps unnecessarily – a whole scene.” I find those words pretty tantalizing. Was Darina just suturing up gaps in the narrative; or was she making some point, evening some score? The scent of frustration runs through so much of Darina’s life, from stories about how annoyed she was with Silone for not acknowledging that she had introduced him to the work of Charles de Foucauld and Simone Weil, to her description of the apartment in Rome where they lived out their life together as a “poky, horrible little flat where no sunlight ever comes.” (They had been offered a better apartment by a government entity Silone was working with at the time, but Silone was “horrified when Darina pointed out the fine print in the original contract: After twenty years of paying a mortgage, they could own the property outright. ‘No, it’s impossible!’ Silone raged. ‘Me, a capitalist? Never!’”)
I found myself so engaged by Darina, in fact, that I ended up feeling someone should write a biography about her. Or perhaps Francine Prose will write a second volume of The Lives of the Muses – a pretty profoundly depressing book about (just to be a bit reductive here) men sucking the life out of the women who inspire them – and devote a chapter to Darina, and her influence on Silone’s writing. About such inspiration, Pugliese writes:
One scholar has detected a maturation and fuller development of his female characters between the three “Abruzzo” novels written before 1944 and their subsequent revisions after the war. In the postwar rewrites, the female protagonists are more developed, are more central to the plot, and have their own dynamic function lacking in the earlier version. One cannot help thinking that the indomitable personality of Darina Laracy might have had something to do with this fuller development.
Darina in Davos, young and happy.
The Caso Silone
Bitter Spring also provides a very even-handed exploration of the infamous, and still raging caso Silone.
I well remember the moment in 2000 when I opened The New Yorker and saw a picture of Silone, slumped in a café chair and looking like a defeated Maytag repairman. The title of the accompanying essay was “The Spy Who Failed,” and it was written by the well-respected journalist Alexander Stille. What on earth was going on here? When I got to the second paragraph of the essay, I slumped in my own chair as I read:
In recent years, however, researchers have begun to turn up documents in police archives which strongly suggest that Silone, in the decade before he became a writer, acted as an informant for the Fascist police.
The essay went on to discuss the “incriminating documents,” published in L’Informatore, a book written by Italian historians Dario Biocca and Mauro Canali, and how supporters of Silone refused to even read the documents: “‘I wouldn’t believe in the truth of these documents even if Silone rose from the tomb and confirmed them,’ Indro Montanelli, the highly respected editorialist for the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, has written.” By the end of the essay, however, I was convinced that Silone had been an informant, and I was too disgusted by my paisano hero being knocked off his pedestal to take in any of the nuances of Stille’s essay. I was even ticked off at Stille for writing the essay! (Among many other books, Stille wrote one of my all-time favorite books about Europe in the WWII era, Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism – an incredibly moving book that almost stops your heart at times, its chapters syncopating between families who had members who perished in the Holocaust, and families whose members had miraculous escapes.) Stille’s New Yorker essay, in an expanded form, provides the introduction for the Steerforth edition of the Abruzzo Trilogy, and so anyone who reads it will then read the books filtered through Stille’s conclusions about Silone’s guilt.
But after reading Bitter Spring, the issue seems much less easily put to bed. The spying charge is a questioning thread running through the entire book, and culminates in a final chapter, “Silvestri” (Silone’s apparent code name), which provides an exhaustive discussion of the caso Silone. It seems that for every incriminating “fact” there is its counteracting explanation. For one, Pugliese is not convinced that all the letters unearthed were written by Silone (or “Silvestri”); and the letters often have no addressee, and “might not be interpreted as spying reports.” Also, Biocca’s initial essay was published in a journal “founded by Renzo De Felice, the dean of historians of fascism, often accused of a ‘rehabilitation’ of Mussolini and his regime.” The central document, reproduced in full in Pugliese’s book and in a truncated form in the New Yorker essay, is heavy and strange. As Pugliese writes, for those convinced of Silone’s guilt it is the “smoking gun” while for those who believe in his innocence “it is proof of Silone’s moral crisis in attempting to mitigate [by acting as, or perhaps pretending to act as, a spy] the fate of his younger brother” – Romolo, who had been imprisoned for two years at the time the letter was written. In the letter, which was written to police official Guido Bellone, Silvestri is signing off; but signing off from exactly what is of course not clear. One of the most commented-upon sections is the following:
…I am writing this last letter so that you won’t prevent my plan, which will take place in two phases; first, eliminate from my life everything that is falsehood, duplicity, equivocation, mystery; second, begin a new life, on a new basis, in order to repair the wrongs that I have done, in order to redeem myself, to help the workers, the peasants (to whom I am tied with every fiber of my heart), and my country.
From here he would leave Italy for Switzerland, where he would go on to become Ignazio Silone, writer. The Silvestri chapter in Bitter Spring is fascinating and meticulous, and Pugliese leaves no stone unturned in trying to find answers. The play-by-play of reasons for and against is almost like watching a tennis match. He posits theories, unspools them, chases them down, ask questions; and ultimately leaves it to the reader to decide. In the end we are left with no definite answer, no final “truth.” The chapter ends:
Late in life, Silone intriguingly revealed in an interview that “there is a secret in my life; it is written between the lines of my novels.” Was he referring to his relationship with Bellone or something else entirely? With most of the protagonists in this most recent controversy long dead, we may never really untangle the mystery…. The answer – if there is one – lies, like Silone, somewhere in the no-man’s land between hagiography and the archives.
And so we finally leave my cugino del cuore, there in his grave on the hill of Pescina, just about an hour’s drive, if one takes the autostrada, from the place where my Abruzzese forebears hailed. (My favorite leg of the trip as provided by Yahoo Maps being: Make a Sharp Right Turn on STRADA FOSSO DELL'INFERNO.) Darina Laracy Silone is far away from the Ditch of Hell, however. At her request, after she died, Darina’s sisters scattered her ashes over the Irish Sea.