Italian readers have, in recent weeks, been consistently second in the highly prestigious league table of readers of “Balkan and Carpathian Musings” (surpassed, it has to be said by far, by Russians). As it happens ,we shall be spending several weeks in Italy from mid March – first 5 days in Rome, then ditto in Naples and, then more than a week in Palermo, using the Italian trains to make the connections from Rome. I will, therefore, just miss the elections - which I am, however, following on such sources as Prospect and Jacobin magazines.
Our purpose, however, is to savour the country’s landscape and (past) glories – although La Bella Lingua – my love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language has whetted my appetite for learning at least a few words of the language.
Italy has of course, over the ages, attracted some superb writers (let alone artists) to visit and wonder at its history, paintings, sculptures and buildings – writers whose journeys and commentaries are recalled, for example, in Sicily – a literary guide for travellers. Although I’m not quite sure what such knowledge adds to our appreciation of Italian vistas, I do appreciate book lists and, therefore, pass on this list of the “top 10 books about Italy” which includes a couple I own - The Oxford Companion to Italian Food; and Peter Robb’s “Midnight in Sicily”.
I have, over time, accumulated a nice little library of books about the country and made a special journey a couple of weeks ago to my snow-bound mountain house to retrieve it. It includes titles such as – John Berendt’s naughty exposure of Venice society in the late 1990s - The City of Falling Angels; and The Dark Heart of Italy; by Tobias Jones – whose elegant text tries to capture the essence of the country and the way it has become politicised.
Two more detailed and brilliantly-written studies I brought down for rereading are The Pursuit of Italy – the pursuit of a land, its regions and their peoples; by biographer David Gilmour (2011); and Italy and its Discontents 1980-2001Paul Ginsborg (2002) whose focus on the family, civil society and the state uses a range of contemporary local sources not normally seen in such books…….Ginsborg has lived in Italy as a Professor of history for some 30 years and gives us with this offering probably the most incisive and encyclopedic take on the country. There can be few other English-language analyses of foreign countries to rival this one!
Resident for almost 30 years, translator Tim Parks’ Italian Ways- off and on the rails between Milan and Palermo (2014) is highly readable - as well as useful for those venturing on its trains.
Two people who hail from Australia have produced 3 books which give us not only cultural insights but the very tastes, sounds and smells of the country -
Street Fight in Naples – a city’s unseen history; Peter Robb
Rome – a cultural, visual and personal history; Robert Hughes (2011) – art critics are usually the worst of writers but Hughes’s prose was, by contrast, electrifying . Sadly now deceased, this book of his brings the city alive……
John Dickie’s Mafia Republic - Italy’s Criminal Curse is a lively read – but the one book of my batch which really disappointed me was the florid Naples Declared – a walk around the bay; by Benjamin Taylor who has a nervous tic of throwing in comparisons with North American sites……
Latinist Mary Beard, on the other hand, has given us very recently SPQR – a history of ancient Rome; which brought to mind Robert Harris’s novels about Roman figures (particularly Cicero) and intrigues - “Imperium”, “Lustrum” and “Pompeii”. And, speaking of novels, I’m glad to see that the English editions of Albert Moravia’s novels are once again (thanks to NYRB) easily available. I always appreciated his modernist touch (and his naughty book “The Two of Us”)
Of course I have several generic travel guides – 2 for Naples, the DK Eyewitness one and the TimeOut City Guide; and the DK Eyewitness Guide to Sicily – but these rely on visuals and tips about accommodation, eating and travel which rapidly date
But the best briefing about the country freely available – thanks to the London Review of Books – are the writings of the incomparable Perry Anderson who has written, over the years, no fewer than four major and incisive commentaries on Italian society -
Land without Prejudice (2002)
An Invertebrate Left (2009)
An Entire Order (2009)
The Italian Disaster (2014)
What is Missing?
I’ve sent away for The Italians by John Hooper (produced in 2016 by the Economist’s correspondent in Italy) which I think is the only major title currently missing from my library. It will be interesting to see how much it builds on Ginsborg's unparalleled analysis.....
I also like the sound of A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks. Thanks to Vlad and the newly re-opened English Bookshop – the smallest Carturesti bookstore – these 2 titles should be with me by the start of March…
I’m not a great reader of novels – The Leopard sits forlornly unopened on my shelves but this list of Italian novels tells me I should read Ferrante if I am spending some days in Naples…..