- Biographies and Autobiographies in Modern Italy
Critical interest in biography and autobiography is here tightly focused on modern Italy—perhaps uncommonly so. Recent scholarship in the field generally has an Anglo-Saxon purview, despite the wealth of celebrated Italian autobiographies from Cellini, Vico, Da Ponte, Casanova, Goldoni, Gozzi, Alfieri, Garibaldi, and Pellico, to Saba, Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Morante Loy, and Sereni. The two linked genres of "life narrative" and "self narrative" explored here command greater attention—and greater shelf space—outside the Italian sphere than within. Yet, to quote to such illustrious commentators on genres as Verga and Croce, the former flatly asserted that autobiography was "repugnant to the Italian taste," while the latter countered that autobiography is history and history is autobiography, and that "the autobiographical reflex emerges in each stage of our lives, at every pause in our actions, as long as darkness gathers in us and forces us to seek the light, to acquire awareness and intelligence of what we have done and what has happened; and autobiography, in its literary form, corresponds to this perpetual ideal motion" (Boynton 291; Furnari Luvarà 31). [End Page 562]
Motion is one of the pleasing qualities of this volume, edited by Peter Hainsworth and Martin McLaughlin, professors of Italian at the University of Oxford. Ranging from the well known to the obscure, this book focuses ample chapters on discrete figures, tying them directly to their historical circumstances, and occasionally relating their lives, or works about their lives, to the theory of (self) narration.
Hainsworth and McLaughlin open the volume with a succinct, clear, and meaty disquisition on the nature of biography and autobiography. Their "Introduction" furnishes, in lively prose, an overview of the state of such writing in Italy, noting that biography in particular commands English and American practitioners of the highest order—E. H. Wilkins, Dennis Mack Smith, or John Woodhouse (to whom this volume is dedicated)—while the same cannot be said of scholars in Italy. Their volume, they assert, forges right ahead and "prefer[s] to concentrate on how [its] subjects respond to and are affected by the wider social and political history of [Italy], and at times play significant roles within it" (Hainsworth and McLaughlin 2).
Given this emphasis, it is fitting that the first section of the book, "General Issues and Signal Cases," presents chapters on Primo Levi and Eugenio Montale. Levi, as few other authors do, pulls together the many strands mentioned above—the political, the social, "self-construction," and the attention of contemporary biographers. It is to this last matter that Robert S. C. Gordon, a consistently eloquent analyst of Levi's works, turns his attention in "The Battle of the Biographers: Primo Levi and 'Life-Writing'." Gordon concentrates on two of the three massive biographies of Levi to appear in recent years—by Carole Angier and Ian Thomson, respectively—passing over Miriam Anissimov's earlier problematic work. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of the different aims, styles, and results of the two books, and a look at two "radically different practices of biography itself " (23). The companion piece in this section, Hainsworth's "The Public and the Private in Modern Italian Literature: The Case of Montale," reveals how those two facets of Montale's life kept "sliding apart or alternatively clashing with each other"—despite the poet's best efforts to the contrary (8). After an elegant six page historical and cultural excursus, the author turns to Montale's poetry as "an outstanding case of autobiographical writing." He proves—the inevitable "fictionalization" notwithstanding—that it is biographical writing, too, insofar as it "contains references, direct and indirect, to real people and places, [and] to public and private events that actually occurred" (15).
Part two of this volume, on "D'Annunzio and Other Fin de Siècle Figures," covers the poet from Pescara and Italo Svevo as well as the little known Enrico Nencioni ("An Italian Victorian") and Llewelyn Lloyd (a "Tuscan … [End Page 563] with [an] unlikely name...