- Villains Between History and LiteratureThe Year in Italy
Two villains, a dictator and a book thief, made their way into popular biographical books published in Italy this past year. They drag along with them a third "villain," the author who dares to cross boundaries between narrative fields: a novelist who writes a history book, and a biographer who leans toward fiction. They represent three very different ways of playing with the fine line between ethics and immorality, legitimacy and illegitimacy, reality and imagination. This dangerous game proves to be a raw topic in Italy, and it is the core of this review essay.1
The dictator is Benito Mussolini, the protagonist of the biographical novel, M: Il figlio del secolo (2018) by Antonio Scurati. It won the prestigious Premio Strega, and sold more than 120,000 copies. Mussolini is an evil figure of Italian history who established an alliance with Adolf Hitler and drew Italy into the disaster of World War II. This is the first biographical novel dedicated to his life, and the first installation of a planned trilogy.
The book thief is still living: Marino Massimo De Caro, an international criminal who managed to be nominated director of the historical Girolamini Library in Naples, only to rob it of hundreds of its most precious manuscripts and ancient volumes that had been preserved there for centuries. This criminal and forger is the protagonist of the biography written by Sergio Luzzatto, Max Fox o le relazioni pericolose (2019).
The "villains" are the narrators of these two biographical books who have dared to step onto turf that is not their own. Antonio Scurati is a professor of creative writing who more than once has stretched his interest to historical themes, and Sergio Luzzatto is a historian who leaves the safe field of decades past to venture into the slippery roads of the "history of the present."
Fiction and Nonfiction
The debate between these two narrative fields, fiction and nonfiction, is not new in Italian literary history, and the publication of these two books rekindles it. In fact, it [End Page 101] is perhaps one of the most interesting and genuinely Italian conundrums. It reached its peak in the nineteenth century, when the father of Italian national literature, Alessandro Manzoni, a devout Catholic and an admirer of the historical novels fashioned by Sir Walter Scott in England, tried to resist the temptation of fiction. Manzoni wrote the seminal historical novel, I promessi sposi. After Italy's unification, this work gave the state its national language and generations of students their compulsory summer readings. However, Manzoni was tormented by the dangers of invention, because for him it reeked of falsity and lies. He had to write an entire essay in self-defense to conciliate the diametrical extremes of truth and fiction: the fiction that enticed him as a novelist, and the truth that handcuffed him as a moralist.
In his apologetic 1845 essay "Del romanzo storico e, in genere, de i componimenti misti di storia e d'invenzione," Manzoni surmised that history and poetry can coexist because they complement each other. History deals with facts, while poetry deals with the internal dimension of individuals, taking account of the emotions that motivate events. The "vero storico" (historical reality) is the job of the historian, while the "vero poetico" (poetic reality) is the job of the poet or novelist. The middle way is the "verosimile": what could have happened. Manzoni formulated an unforgettable metaphor to explain the common ground between historiography and literature. While a history book is a geographical map that highlights rivers, mountain ranges, and main streets, a historical novel is a topographical chart that pinpoints even more details: the minor elevations, the names of small villages, isolated homes, courts, and lanes. This is a great metaphor to describe the recent biographical books on Mussolini and Max Fox. Manzoni ended up abjuring the theoretical weakness that inspired his novel and returning to the orthodoxy of a clear separation between history and invention, refusing any further contamination.
Qualms like this have been put to rest once and for all by the American historical theorist Hayden White. In Metahistory: The Historical...