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The Money Changer and his Wife, at Palazzo Strozzi

Does anything demand more attention than money? Eyes, hands, shoulders and elbows all gravitate towards a pile of coins. But the money-changers are no longer grotesques; the wife is as pretty as she is rapt. Nothing is more ordinary, the painter acknowledges, than our relating to one another through money. Above and between their intent faces, the candle has gone out.

Cosa esige più attenzione dei soldi? Occhi, mani, spalle e gomiti sono tutti orientati verso un mucchio di monete. Ma i cambiavalute non sono più grotteschi; la moglie è tanto bella quanto assorta. Non v’è cosa più ordinaria, attesta l’artista, del nostro relazionarci agli altri tramite il denaro. Le mani sono tese e avide. In mezzo all’uomo e alla moglie, la candela si è spenta.

Mussolini – Act One

In 1915 while serving in the army on the high mountain front, Mussolini wrote a war diary, a sort of early modern blog, to be published in instalments in Milan. Here is an entry.
“Today is Christmas. Yes, Christmas day. Today our hearts are hard and dry as these rocky craters. Modern civilisation has “mechanised us.” The war has pushed this “mechanisation” of European society to the limit. Twenty-five years ago I was a headstrong, violent little boy. Some of my class-mates still bear the scars of the stones I threw at them. Instinctively nomadic, I would go off from morning till night, along the river, stealing birds’ nests and fruit. I went to church. The Christmases of those years are still vivid in my mind. There were very few people who didn’t go to church on Christmas day: my father and a couple of others. The trees and hawthorns along the road to San Cassiano were stiff and white with hoarfrost. It was cold. The first masses were for the early risers, the old women. When we saw them coming back, it was our turn. I remember: I followed my mother. In the church there were lots of lights and, in the middle of the altar, in a small cradle decorated with flowers, the Babe born in the night. Everything was picturesque and fed my imagination. Only the smell of the incense upset me so much that sometimes I would feel unbearably sick. At last the organ blared out and the ceremony was over. The crowd swarmed out. Along the road, people chattered happily. Come midday, the traditional, delicious cappelletti di Romagna steamed on the table. How many years, how many centuries have passed since then? Canon-fire recalls me to reality. It’s Christmas at war.” Continue reading


Before Blair, Benito Mussolini also proclaimed a Third Way. The expression is dense with implication. It describes a world divided into two camps who squander their energies in sterile conflict. The Third Way denounces the perversity of that dynamic and suggests that the terms of the argument between the camps are false; it’s time to move on.
Almost without our noticing, a subtle hierarchy is established. Of the other two ways – socialism, capitalism – we are not told which is the first and which the second. It hardly matters. They are on the same, lower level, they create and exasperate each other in futile and mulish opposition, not unlike those married couples who are forever at loggerheads.
The Third Way is different. We know it is number three. It is not involved in a head-on collision with either of the others. It is new. Anyone persisting in the old battles, the old rhetoric has lost touch with history. The third way is progress, the youngster’s world not the parents’. Giovinezza, (Youth) Fascism’s hymn was entitled. Continue reading


Fifteen love.
This is it, the decisive game. Mick serving for the set. And I’m already down. I hate losing!
Just turned fourteen, Michele is already taller than me, and heavier. No doubt handsomer. Yep, he’s overtaken me in all kinds of ways. He can duck me in the swimming pool. But he still hasn’t beaten me at tennis!
He throws the ball up in the air and serves, hard and long.
Too long.
Not that I’m any good at tennis. I only started a couple of years back. In fact we’re both pretty useless. But since I’m not growing six inches a year, with all the clumsiness that entails, I’ve always been able to creep through. The first few games are even-Stevens, then around three-all he collapses and I forge ahead.
But today things are going the other way. Continue reading

Reggina Remembered – an extract

“Bastardi, merda,” the crowd are shouting as I climb the stairs of the stadium. An hour before kick off, the stands are already full, except, that is, for the small section reserved for ‘guests’. The Verona boys are just arriving. Less than a hundred I’d say, a poor showing, but then the journey is sixteen hours by train. The crowd greet them with monkey grunts, then a thunderous chant that’s new to me: “Uccidere, uccidere!!” Kill. Kill.
It’s a quaint little stadium, housing perhaps twenty-five or thirty thousand. From the stairs, you can look out to the idyllic sea. “Kill, Kill!” Since Reggina play in claret, there’s a disturbingly dark red look to the sea of bodies. “Kill, kill!” The Brigate Gialloblù make their inevitable gestures in response. I can just make out Fondo and a couple of the others. They hang up their old banners. Then Pastorello appears with Foschi, Agnolin and the bodyguards. Immediately, the crowd responds with a shriek. “Fuori!” they begin. Out! “Fuori, fuori!” Then, “Ladro!” Thief. Even the people in the VIP section are screaming and making gestures. Corrado Ferlaino vice-president of Napoli has come along with his wife to support Reggina. They too are shouting: “Fuori. Fuori. Ladro!” Betraying no emotion, Pastorello takes his seat. My respect for him rises enormously. The bodyguards are stationed one each end of his row of seats. Continue reading

The Mezzanine

As a novel-reader I’m a lover of plot and character, of the idea that a number of people are interacting in ways that makes each more believable and pushes the whole group towards some sort of crisis. And I like a book with some weight and sadness in it, to feel that the pleasure of the story-telling is making it easier for me to contemplate some of the difficult stuff in life.
So it wasn’t easy back in 1990 to get me to read a novel that Salman Rushdie had described as a “funny book” about things like “shoe-laces, drinking straws and ear plugs.” To make matters worse, Nicholson Baker had a reputation for being ‘clever’. I opened The Mezzanine with the utmost scepticism. Continue reading


Go magical Hellas!


“Dagliela!” shouts the girl behind me. “Pass it to him.” She’s on her feet screaming. “Dagliela BENE!”
On the pitch Martino Melis lifts his head. But he can’t hear her. She’s only one voice. Thousands of others are chanting: “Su Verona, su Verona, dai, dai!” Melis is dithering again.
“Ma DAgliela!” she weeps. “Dagliela bene!” Give it to him right!
Too late Melis sees the opening and passes. The ball runs long. The girl collapses in disappointment. A moment later she begins again: “Pull him down! Pull the bastard down, Dio povero!” She’s suffering. Mazzola can’t hear. “O mongolo,” comes the familiar call from a few rows further back, “O fenomeno, go back to cloud cuckoo land!”
On The Wall, as Sunday’s game approaches, the exhortations flow thick and fast:
Why do people write messages to those they know are not going to read them? Why do people shout at players who they know can’t hear?
“Shoot, shoot, shoot, porca miseria!” The girl’s on her feet again. “Shoot now!” But never for a moment does she imagine that Bonazzoli can hear her. She knows his world is quite separate. What is going on? Continue reading

Reggina at home, from A Season with Verona


The game is at 8 pm. I wait out the last hour in the bar Bentegodi where a particularly heavy-weight thug whom I have never seen before is drinking heavily. “Where are they hiding those five thousand filthy terroni?” he demands. His pretty girlfriend hangs uncertainly on his arm. “Wait till I get my hands on them.”
Standing right beside him, I remark: “Bet there won’t be more than a thousand.”
At once he picks up my accent, but is too drunk to place it.
“De che rassa sito?” he demands in dialect. What race are you? It’s the urgent question that underlies the game, the season, everything. “De che rassa sito?” he repeats, belligerent.
“Do I look Calabrian?” I ask.
His girlfriend pulls him away. Already, shamefully, I’m hoping Reggina will not be fielding any blacks. Despite the ban on bottled drinks, I pick up two bottles of beer from the fridge.
As the game kicks off, the evening is scorching, the sun still fierce and blindingly low. The sud is milling with flags, booming with noise. The ritual insults are exchanged with the Reggina fans, who apparently pulled the emergency cord on their train and tried to load their pockets with stones from between the sleepers. Someone has a banner “DIO NON SALVI LA REGGINA.” God, don’t save the Queen. Continue reading

A Chorus of Cruelty, on Giovanni Verga

‘Cruelty,’ wrote Emil Cioran, ‘is a sign of election, at least in literature. The more talented a writer is, the more ingeni¬ously he puts his characters in situations from which there is no escape; he persecutes them, he tyrannizes them, he traps them in dead ends, he forces them to run the whole gamut of their agony.’
Of no writer could this provocative intuition be more true than the great Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga. Yet eighty years after his death the author of the Cavalleria rusticana continues to be presented to the public as first and foremost a humanist worthily celebrating the passions of the ordinary man and drawing attention to his difficult lot through well-documented description of changing social conditions. G. H. McWilliam concludes the introduction to his new translation of Verga’s Sicilian novellas thus:

‘Verga’s great merit lies in his ability to arouse compassion whilst avoiding completely all traces of sentimentality, and this is because he presents life as it is, free from the distortions of idealistic perspec¬tives. His narratives are an unfailing source of interest, not only to those who care about good literature, but also to the historian, for whom his novels and short stories provide an invaluable record of social conditions at a critical stage of modern Italian history.’

Reading such reassuring words one is bound to ask whether there mightn’t be some taboo that prevents us from saying what it really is that draws us so powerfully to this man’s violent and irretrievably pessimistic stories. Continue reading

Art and Eschatology

Eschatology is enjoying a heyday.
Global warming, global terrorism, food crises, water crises, oil conflicts, culture wars, have all intensified the impression that human ‘civilization’ is accelerating towards self destruction. These are circumstances in which art and artists tend to get political or, alternatively, resign themselves to insignificance.
In literature, the phenomenon is exacerbated by the difficulty many people have reading for anything beyond content and immediately communicated emotion. As Borges once remarked, since most critics have little sense of the aesthetic, they have to find other criteria for judging a book, political persuasion being the most obvious; it is almost a rule that the big literary prizes go to those writers involved in a political struggle or simply siding with the victims in the world’s upheavals. Indeed, a political ‘alibi’ of this kind seems almost essential for a ‘serious’ novelist nowadays.
At such a moment, it may be worth looking at the work of a man who had a rather unusual take on the relationship between art and politics, who saw the two as intimately related and mutually conditioning, art being allowed a certain, perhaps even pervasive influence, but not in the crass sense of grinding a political axe, or even exploring controversial situations; on the contrary, art might be most ‘useful’ when, to all intents and purposes, most ‘irrelevant’. Continue reading