Friday, 22 June 2007

Unlikely, but an omen

Saw this late last night, and said: Thomas Coryat. He "named" the umbrella. Story tomorrow...actually: when Cremona stops siesta, which is two days

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Lodi is lovely - official

Afternoon in the Lodi Cathedral

Double or Quits

"We know more than we can use. Look at all this stuff I’ve got in my head: rockets and Venetian churches, David Bowie and Diderot, nuoc mam and Big Macs, sunglasses and orgasms. How many newspapers and magazines do you read? For me, they’re what candy of Quããludes or scream therapy are for my neighbours. I get my daily ration from the bilious Lincoln Brigade veteran who runs a tobacco shop on 110th street, not from the blind newsagent in the wooden pillbox on Broadway, who’s nearer my apartment.

And we don’t know nearly enough.”

Susan Sontag. “A Trip to China.”

The avant garde composer, John Cage, received a 25 year retrospective at the town hall in New York in 1958, the same year he was invited to Milan. He spent four months over the summer here, working on a piece called “Fontana Mix” and doing something really quite strange, even for the “Betwixt” panoply.

Reunited here with a once-estranged Peggy Guggenheim (who is coming shortly, of course) he also became a contestant on a television quiz show called “Lascia O Raddoppia” – that’s “Double or Nothing” to you and me. His topic was mushrooms. And for five weeks he was undefeated: earning a tidy $6000. Not bad for 1958.

“There was only one channel for TV so the whole country enjoyed it. I became very famous. When I would go for a walk with Peggy and all her dogs, people would point to me and her and she said, “I recognize you’re even more famous than I.”

A driver would be nice: Milan

Milan is big, the second city of Italy. The area around the station – a large area, all the way through half-developed Dante-hell close to Garibaldi to the so-so Corso Como, one of those hot spots, that’s not – is an Ektachrome vision of neo-realism. I see: theft, a bottle fight (nasty), street people everywhere, police at both of, hundred yards apart, McDonalds. Lesson: pay more, stay in the centre. But Milan is about global finance and fashion – that means expensive.

It is in Milan that Tom gets really going, squeezing more sights into a single day than Kate Moss could squeeze cat-walk shows. Tim Moore was going to leave pretty quick, but got fogged in (he travelled in November). Instead of leaving: “I bought a bus ticket from a man selling pornographic comic books at a roadside booth.” He describes sight-seeing quite well in his Milan pages…I took the metro.

The first English words I hear in Milano:
“I can’t decide, I think we should hire a driver for tomorrow.” The voice belongs to a six foot plus boy, about 18 or 19, with the Rupert Everett when “Another Country” public schoolboy. This boy is about 100lbs and has a military haircut. His two companions are similarly good-looking with Paolo Maldini long hair, and soft American accents.

“I don’t know, we can get to the castings by metro.”
“It’s not reliable enough.”
“Let’s get a driver.”
“We haven’t been cast yet…”

The English boy’s accent is betwixt Harrow, Heroin-chic, and Amy Winhouse: thus perfect for his career. All three are young male models, hustling for work in Milan. A short thunderstorm would wash all three away. I close in on my interview, but they vanish into the crowds. This is the Duomo station stop, leading out to a hugely impressive cathedral – it is big – and hugely impressive prices. This is where tourists and fashionistas can sink eight euros on a bottle of beer, or anything from twelve for a real drink. I go to the cathedral instead.

The next night the entire square is given over to a free concert, hundreds of thousands of people go to watch music, of some kind. Macy Gray and the woman from the Cranberries were there as well. I was fi-fishing: watched it on the television.

“The Cathedral Church is dedicated to our lady, which John Galeatius Duke of Milan caused to be built, anno 1386. This is an exceeding glorious and beautifull Church, as faire if not fairer then the Cathedral Church of Amiens, which I have before so much magnified. All this Church seemeth to be built with marble: herein are many notable things to be seene: in the Quire the bodies of many of the Vicounts of Milan….I ascended almost to the toppe of the Tower; wherehence I surveyed the whole citie round about, which yielded a most beautifull and delectable shew. There I observed the huge suburbs, which are as bigge a many a faire towne, and compassed about with ditches of water: there also I beheld a great part of Italy, together with the lofty Apennines; and they shewed me which way Rome, Venice, Naples, Florence, Genua, Ravenna, &c. lay. The territory of Lombardy, which I contemplated round about from this Tower, was so pleasant an object to mine eyes, being replenished with such unspeakable variety of all things, both for profite and pleasure, that is seemeth to me to be the very Elysian fields, so much decanted and celebrated by the verses of Poets, or the Tempe [general name for rural beauty] or Paradise of the World. For it is the fairest plaine, extended about some two hundred miles in length that ever I saw, or ever shall if I should travel over the whole habitable world: insomuch that I said to myselfe that his country was fitter to be an habitation for the immortall Gods than for mortall men…I saw the auncient Palace of the Viscounts of Milan…I went to the Library of Cardinall Borromaeus, which is an exceeding faire peece of workmanship, but it is not fully finished, so that there is not one booke in it, but it is said that it shall be shortly furnished….

…A certain merchant of Genua hath a very beautifull house in this City…There is a very magnificent Hospitall in this City, wherein there are an hundred and twelve chambers, and foure thousand poore people are relieved in the same. The yearlie revenues of it are said to be at least fifty thousand crownes.

…No City of Italy is furnished with more manuary arts then this, which it yeeldeth with as much excellency as any City of all Chrstendome, especially two, embroidering and making of hilts for swords and daggers. Their embroiders are very singular workemen, who worke much in gold and silver. Their cutlers [knife makers] that make hilts are more exquisite in that art then any that I ever saw…Also silkmen do abound here, which are esteemed so good that they are not inferior to any of the Christian world.

The Citadell is the fairest without any comparison that ever I saw, farre surpassing any one Citadell whatsoever in Europe….it seemeth rather a towne then a Citadell, being distinguished by many spacious and goodly greene courts…also in these courts as it were certaine market places, there are usually markets kept…The munition of the Citadell is so much…For a great part of Lombardy Westward belongeth to the Citadel, for the sustenation of the Presidiary souldiers, who are all Spaniards, being in number five hundred. …When I came forth of the Citadel, after I had surveyed all the principal places, a certain Spaniard imagining that I had beene a Flemming expressed many tokens of anger towards me, and lastly railed so extremely at me, that if I had not made haste out with my company, I was afread he would have flung a stone at my head, or otherwise offered some violence to me. There is such an extreme hatred betwixt the Milanois and the Spaniards, that neither the Milanois doe at any time come into the Citadel, nor the Spaniards into the City, but only in the evening.

….”it is thought there are not so few as three hundred thousand soules in this city. Thus much of Milan.

When Tom was here Milan, those Szfozas and Viscontis, was under the rule of the Spanish, who were not too popular. They kept themselves to the Citadell, but pointed their guns at the city; nowadays it is the fashion-conscious who point the finger, bereft of this year’s male look I retreat to Shakespeare. Cities like this, despite Tom’s engagement here, don’t bring me closer to him. I’ll write more on court and country soon.

Death in Milan (and Rome)

Luchino Visconti, auteur and film-maker, could have entered “Betwixt” in Paris, where, travelling, he met and worked with Jean Renoir on "Une partie de campagne" in 1936. His position as assistant helped by his boyfriend of the time, the German photographer, Horst, and Coco Chanel, another mate...

In 1941 Visconti began work on the production of his first film, Obsession. The film was based on “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain. The idea for the adaptation came from Renoir, and was aimed at righting a perceived romanticizing of the Italian people in domestic cinema up to that time.

“No men, not even Italian men, are plaster saints. Nor are women flowers of virtue. Yet go and find it in our films, if you can, a man who is a bastard or a woman who is a bit of a whore. In Italian films they’re all nice fellows, all honest, all above board.”

Scaramouche: “Cinema” 1941.

Cain’s novel was banned in Mussolini’s Italy, which added to the appeal of adapting it. Pavese, who we’ve met briefly in Turin, was one of many anti-fascists who saw American literature of the time as embodiment of the whole human condition. He had translated Faulkner, Steinbeck, Melville and Dos Passos. Pavese writes:

“America is not another country, a new beginning to History, but the gigantic stage, the giant screen on which, more frankly than anywhere else, our common tragedy is being played out.”

Visconti’s Obsession added a “Spaniard” – a not too oblique anti-fascist symbol (reminding audiences of the struggle in Spain against Franco).

Visoconti enters here because for centuries his family ruled Milan, in Tom’s time they had been replaced by the Szofsas. Luchino was a genuinely betwixt character, the aristocratic homosexual communist who is friends with Puccini, most of Europe’s nobility, and much of its cultural community. When, in the middle of planning Obsession Visconti’s father, the duke, died, Puccini was troubled. How could he, as a communist atheist composer, attend the funeral of such a symbol of old Italy?

De Santis writes:

“He [Puccini] returned from it with amazingly bizarre and luxurious tales, of people in medieval costumes, dwarfs swathed in red [hmm Don’t Look Now] music…”
This was 1941.

Of “Obsession” Visconti writes: “I am interested in the extreme situation, those instants when abnormal tension reveals the truth about human beings; I like to confront the characters and the story harshly, aggressively.”

That summer Visconti’s younger brother was killed fighting in El alamein. His older brother arrested for insulting Germans. He kept working. Obsession is a tough film, aggressively so. One critic writes:

“love and life are seen as curses, death omnipresent…[Obsession is] a slow carnal return to the sources of life, which are also the sources of death.”

“Obsession” was not screened until liberation in 1945. When it was Visconti was still “betwixt”, but he was established as not a dilettante film maker, but as potentially one of the great names in cinema. We will return to him in Venice, naturally; and in Germany too…

Midsummer Day - is it?

From that Italian mistranslation: Shakespeare in Lodi
Solstitial celebrations still centre upon 24 June, which is no longer the longest day of the year. The difference between the Julian calendar year (365.2500 days) and the tropical year (365.2422 days) moved the day associated with the actual astronomical solstice forward approximately three days every four centuries until Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar bringing the solstice to around 21 June.

Whatever: Shakespeare is Coming Soon

Males in Crisis 2

Heavyweight suitcase or Lightweight jacket: the decisions of Milano

NB.At the kiosk next to me here in Lodi a middle-aged man, like me, (except with double chin, goatee and capri pants) is listening to ear-bleeding levels of heavy metal whilst researching Soviet tanks from the 1950s. This crisis is spreading.

A mixed bag

All pix Vercelli

In the green, hilly, valley of Les Charmettes just outside Chambéry, Jean-Jacques Rousseau found another refuge, this time with Madame de Warens, the lover he named “maman.” His “rights of man” politics were dangerous personally – and socially – in many parts of Europe. So he escaped to Chambéry, and founded his ascetic vision of living.

"At this moment began the short happiness of my life,” he writes in book Six of the Confessions. “Those peaceful and rapid moments, which have given me a right to say, I have lived.”

Cities are often the locus of political dissent; retreat from the city for the dissenter and the radical thinker a common theme: in Shakespeare dissent is punished by exile to the “country”. And from Rousseau’s time, not to mention Roman or Greek civilisations, escape, or exile, nurturing time to think, to re-think, has been common.

Unlike Tom, who is captivated by cities – to think that Paris is only his “second”, Turin his “fourth” – and who responds to Milan with an inhuman gust of sight-seeing activity in short hours, brutal running around in punishing heat to catch this church and that arsenal, we tend to follow Rousseau’s way. Modern cities have largely lost that bohemian, intellectual, vigour which challenges and questions the way we are now, replacing it with temples to consumption: contemplative retreat is more likely in Les Charmettes than Les Halles.

There is no problem with this, but it does change the way we see cities, we can’t see them as Tom did: the Left Bank of Paris is now about Gucci, not Gramschi; the coffee-houses of the City of London no longer the locus for Sterne or Idlers or Addisons alongside the merchants and guilds, but men on mobiles shouting “but this is £500 million we are talking about.” In Tom’s time cities were run by courts, often autonomous of what we now call a country or a nation. But factions existed: mild dissent, a poorly judged joke in a Johnson play, might lead to prison. Power radiated out from a Ducal palace, a cathedral; there was a merchant’s area, a marketplace. You were “in” or “out” – or like Tom, and I suspect Ben Jonson and most of the writers, save Shakespeare, “betwixt”.

Cities did once – and will again - ferment a vision of social change in very different ways from the “change” in country regions (which is often about slow population shifts, movements for labour brought about by climate alterations, globalization, the opening up of markets, or the arrival of ski-resorts), but today cities are also harsher environments in which to comprehend and communicate, let alone formulate a new way (even a Third Way). Metaphorically, the endless construction works of the modern city make it harder see the “bigger picture”, let alone find the like-minded. That’s why the internet appeared to offer such metropolitan hope (among many kinds of social spaces) a decade or so ago. The court is still out of whether the webs “social networks” will bring us closer, or merely enable us as individuals to create imaginary worlds in which to swap MP3s, and defeat oppressive warlords with a magic spell …

Betwixt the choice and speed of Turin and, say, the patriarchal torpor of Breteuil in northern France, some large places (Lyon, Chambéry) do seem to find a balance between business, pleasure and civic responsibility, and in creating “nodal” points where communities can meet (of course in Tom’s time this was the provenance of the Church, primarily; though the theatre had its place). And some smaller towns find the balance beautifully (Lodi, Vercelli, Nevers) – but to the exclusion of “excitement”. Or change. And these latter ideas are central to our new conception of a “good life.” It must be fluid, mutable, and “improving”.

Turin was briefly the capital of Italy, ceding first to Florence and with 1848, Rome. It responded to the snub by investing heavily in industry, not so differently from Manchester or Liverpool in similar Victorian times. It grew away from Ducal patronage with democracy, and became the domain of the industrialists. It is not so surprising then to discover also that Turin was a centre of social unrest from the end of the nineteenth century: trade union activity, a strong local Communist party system, lead to many agitations; more recently the Red Brigade often targeted Turin. Turin-based writers such as Pavese, Calvino and his editor, Elio Vittorini, were all active communists; the latter gave up after the Hungarian uprising against the Russians in 1956. And though, as writers such as Imre Kertesz repeat even now, the practice of communism was totalitarian hell in most places, it is worth asking: do any of the egalitarian ideals of communism have a place now? In city, town or country? Last week BBC World suggested the last vestiges of communism were dead. But what now grows on the corpse of the Berlin Wall? “Democracy?” Well, that’s a word and idea which has all the hallmarks of our new modernity, being fluid, mutable, and “improving”, an antidote to “terror” and as vague now as it must have been in Tom’s day. I think this era will be remembered as a great baroque fantasy: a “Shortbus” trip in collective delusion.

Calvino lived in New York for a while, instinctively recognizing himself as a “new yorker” I use the lower case deliberately, in the old fashioned manhattan sense of the city being a cosmopolitan, thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, humanist place of the New School, Columbia, the UN; the city Hannah Arendt came to in 1945, writing a joyous paean to it and the American way, in her “On Revolution”, (see also much of the writing on “exile” of new yorker, Edward Said) rather than a watering hole for Wall Street – which it can seem these days. Though I don’t utterly buy that: for I too am a “new yorker”, and always will be. The myth is enough.

The Old new yorker myth is no different from Rousseau’s Charmettes, or “stylish” Milan, or “liberating” MySpace, or my current romantic views of small towns in France or Italy: the myth is enough to entice travel and to make a place come alive with its hauntings, and so excite thought. How strange (and somehow pleasing) that myth plays no part in the marketing of Vercelli, certainly not overtly.

In a courtyard just off the town’s grand Basilica is a small museum housing a number of wee treasures. Gorgeous chalices, grail-legend stuff: Indy Jones quality. And old. But it is the copy of a tenth century cross, (the original hangs in the Basillica), crafted in bronze and silver that mesmerizes.

“It’s older than my country,” says Philip. He is a twenty five year old Brazilian, currently staying in Vercelli after a year in grad-school here. “I want my Italian citizenship,” he says. “It might take another year. Until then I can’t work, and there is not enough work back home. So I just travel around. These are beautiful things, old. They remind me of history, civilized, history – for this country that’s still an immense thing.” So he wants to stay: we all want somewhere. Else. And a sense of continuity. Thus much of our paradox.

The real cross in the Basilica is the real deal. Its design is pre-Renaissance, pre middle ages: a product of the First Millennium. In the presence of a very human and very tortured Christ, whatever one thinks about God, something – an artistic sensibility, man’s long ability to record emotion - holds out a hand from a past 600 years before Tom Coryat : and in this moment Tom’s world seems suddenly modern. On the brink of Enlightenment, rationalism, science, revolutions, travel, the rise of the nation-state, the citizen, the “self” and the “end of history”...

Here there is the care and craft that is visible behind glass and crowds in any decent art museum, except that nobody, except local worshippers, are around. That the town’s layout is still essentially 15th century helps to burnish the mood of a touching out to a history older than hedge funds; that cars are left somewhere else does too. But finally there is the idea of this cross having moved so many local people, and visitors to Vercelli when it was the regional capital: it is a very modern, human, sensibility we are confronted with – except it is 1000 years old.

As is the second secret of Vercelli: a manuscript brought here under mysterious circumstances, perhaps by one of those “political” exiles, one of those who was forced to escape England – or perhaps it was a pilgrim trying to get to Rome. Nobody knows. The manuscript was 'discovered’ in the nineteenth century when a German, Friedrich Blume, who was looking for legal manuscripts, came across it by accident. I want to know more about the unknown traveller, and Friedrich Blume. It has been suggested that the 'compiler’ of this work was someone from a monastic setting who wanted to show his personal interest in “penitential and eschatological themes” and to glorify the ascetic way of life.

“I had always thought of English literature as the richest in the world; the discovery now of a secret chamber at the very threshold of that literature came to me as an additional gift. Personally, I knew that the adventure would be an endless one, and that I could go on studying Old English for the rest of my days."

Jorge Luis Borges The Aleph, and Other Stories

The manuscript, or the “Vercelli Book”, contains six poems and 23 prose homilies. It is thought it came to Vercelli in the twelth century, but the literature is far older. The six poems are Andreas, The Fates of the Apostles, the Soul and Body, the Dream of the Rood, Elene, and a fragment of a homiletic poem. It is one of the foundations of “Anglo-Saxon” studies.

The “Dream of the Rood” is one of the earliest Christian poems in the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature, and an intriguing example of the genre of dream poetry. Like all Old English poetry, it is written in alliterative verse. Rood is from the Anglo-Saxon rod "pole", specifically crucifix. Preserved in the 10th century in the Vercelli Book, the poem may be considerably older, even one of the oldest works of Old English literature.”

The narrator of the poem, known as a “scop”, tells of a dream in which he has a conversation with the wood of the “true” cross. Jesus is portrayed as a kind of warrior, who faces his death with warrior stoicism. The Cross “speaks” as if it were a member of Christ's apostles, and accepts its fate as “it” watches its Creator die. The Cross then “explains” that Christ's death was not a defeat but a victory.

“I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
until I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood:
"That was very long ago, I remember it still,
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,
ripped up by my roots. They seized me there, strong enemies,
made me a spectacle for themselves there, commanded me to
raise up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill,
enemies enough fastened me there. I saw then the Saviour of
mankind hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me.”

Modern version by Elaine Treharne, in the "Old and Middle English Anthology”.

This is 800 years before Wordsworth’s pantheism. Why this is interesting is three-fold: Old English poetry was about oral storytelling, an oral craft, and so in this written form, though far from “hearing” voices from the first millennium, it gives us an ear at the door. Sometimes, with Tom, it is easy to wish for just a few more moments at his door…The Dream shows us just a hint of worlds truly unimaginable compared with Tom’s.

Secondly, during the Reformation when monastic libraries were dispersed, “Anglo-saxon” manuscripts were collected by antiquarians and scholars, beginning the tradition that “books do furnish a room”. And thirdly – which brings us back to the end of cities’ hegemony and the arrival of the nation-states and “The Age of Empire” - because Old English was one of the first vernacular languages to be written down, nineteenth century scholars searching for the roots of European "national culture" (more on that in Germany, in August) took special interest in studying Anglo-Saxon literature, and Old English became a regular part of university curriculums.

In a way Ivo Guzzon, Legatore d’arte and a man of Vercelli, brings many of these ideas together. Something or someone must. In a side street, the via Borgogna, he hand-makes books. His tiny practice is a ground floor and a basement: inside are modern riches. His clients are from all over the world, and the prices “cost the world” he says. But they are beautiful, one-offs, “uniquo”. He shows me a book of poems about the Amazon made from Brazillian materials. Often the books are “spiritual” he says, “for collectors.” Somehow a line goes back to the original unknown man who brought a hand-written copy of Anglo-Saxon here. And yet these days Ivo is the radical, the extremist whose ideas challenge our notions of modern publishing.

At the very nice, rather chic, restaurant-bookstore in Vercelli where slick paperback versions of the classics, of Cervantes, Foucault and Calvino are displayed, I ask about the Pavese poem that is used in the tourist literature. The assistant Googles. Not in stock, she offers to order it.

“I’m only here a day.” I say
“Next time then.”

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Betwixt technology?

A vision of Venice to come perhaps? Oh, god. There I was saying technology could bring us together. This from the Sydney Morning Herald:

"PICTURE this. You're one of France's best-known living conceptual artists. You are 51 and visiting Berlin. Your mobile beeps; it's an email from your boyfriend. In a hideously self-absorbed message about human emotion, he dumps you electronically, saying it hurts him more than you. He signs off: "Take care of yourself." You're heartbroken. Then you think of its potential as art.

Sophie Calle has filled the French pavilion of the Venice Biennale with a praised exhibition about her emailed dumping letter. Over two years, she distributed the missive to 107 women professionals, photographed them reading it and invited them to analyse it, according to their job. The ex's grammar and syntax have been torn apart by a copy editor, his manners rubbished by an etiquette consultant and his lines pored over by Talmudic scholars. He has been reordered by a crossword-setter, evaluated by a judge, shot up by a markswoman, second-guessed by a chess player and performed by the actress Jeanne Moreau. A forensic psychiatrist decided he was a "twisted manipulator". The temple to a woman scorned is entitled Take Care of Yourself (Prenez soin de vois), immortalising lines that Calle, if she hadn't had recourse to the international art world, might have read again and again in tears.

"The idea came to me very quickly - two days after he sent it," she says. "I showed the email to a close friend asking her how to reply and she said she'd do this or that. The idea came to me to develop an investigation through various women's professional vocabulary."

More Sophie Calle in Venice...

The Discrete Charm of the Vercellese

In Vercelli, a secret jewel of Lombardy, Ferrari is a quite good Renaissance painter and Casanova runs the hardware store. “You are like a land no one has ever mentioned before,” Pavese wrote of the place and from the first minutes of arrival – early Sunday afternoon and nobody in sight – it is clear this will be special.

There don’t appear to be hotels, the streets are narrow, labyrinthine; above them the spires and domes of huge churches are flecked across the skyline. My first helper is an Italian Professor, in town for a conference on literature in the morning. In French: “On a Sunday, mid-afternoon. Let’s see how I can help you.” The Professor leads to a local, who sends me off. I find a lot of back streets and then two sisters, Andrea and Lilliana (in fact mother and daughter). They drive me to the edge of town. “You are lucky,” Andea says, “this is a small, closed, town. Not many speak English. I teach literature in Turin, and I went to England, with my ex-husband – in a green Rover car. A Rover, so English.”

Vercellis is old; old and beautiful. Old, beautiful and utterly resistant to tourism (apart from the best tourist literature I’ve ever seen, for free.) A town of instant paradox, the place Tom found the “fork”, which he took home and tried to market as best he could. It became one of this signature party pieces at court and social dinners. In fact it took another 100 or so years for the fork to catch on in England.

The designer "Bookies"

The literature describes Vercelli has having “almost persistent discretion” which is the case. That my stockpile of Vercelli photographs is negligible after the first day says something about the town’s ability to entice in a very slow way. Turin, after all, is where “slow food” started, despite the “other” Ferrari. Here is a maze of 14th and 15th century buildings, a wondrous many-styled Basilica, a synagogue, more churches than seem possible for this small place. There is money here somewhere.

Vercelli is the rice growing capital of Europe and the local risotto-style dishes are delicate and delicious. The travelogue vocabulary is hard to resist: Vercelli is that rarity, a destination that isn’t yet. The town that elicits the frown and “there’s nothing there” from the students in Turin, has culture, museums, winding romantic streets, shops with sofas to shame New Yorkers, a bookbinding phenomenon, and religious centres, with people in them – praying. In the Basilica, the Synagogue, the smaller churches…everywhere. Later they hit the bookmakers before dinner.

At eight in Piazza Cavour, the central square, where the ghost of Tom is all too easy to imagine, fiddling with his fork as he eats rice dishes, there is not an empty seat in any of the three cafés, despite the inevitable early evening thunderstorm. I am the only foreigner. It is as though a thoughtful casting director has been watching Minghela’s Talented Mister Ripley, and has relocated his extras to north-western Italy. I tell the waiter, dressed for a post-modern Cowboy themed nightclub, that it’s fantastic here.

“So sleepy,” he says, catching the eye of a local beauty. “We are a town of 40,000, nothing happens here. Now in Turin…”

Much more Vercelli to follow.

Self Portrait with Fabulous Furniture (Vercelli's little secret)

Nobel Laureate on "Europe"

From a new German-based magazine.

I may be reaching for harsh words, but I feel no need to apologise. It is my conviction that the moment for gravity, in the most literal sense, has arrived. When there is a need for genuine analysis of the facts in place of populist claptrap, legalistic high-mindedness and manipulated political passions. A lot is said nowadays about "old Europe," about traditions, about European culture, and there can be no doubt that the crisis, indeed division, to which we are witness across Europe is, in large part, cultural in nature. When we consider that during the twentieth century Europe was, after all, victorious over the twin totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and communism that threatened the most basic principles of its existence—indeed, it entered the new millennium under the very flag of that victory—we might feel that, all in all, there was cause to be content. On the other hand, it was on European soil that these totalitarian powers came into being; their roots took nurture from the poisoned soil of European culture; and it is highly questionable if European vitality would have been sufficient to vanquish them without assistance from the United States of America.

Nobel Prizewinner Imre Kertesz on the legacy of the last century and the challenges facing Europe in the next

Now this looks like an interesting addition to the European debate

The Stereophonics do the Italian Job

Oh, the joy of Repetitions

Turin and three writers

"We don't remember days; we remember moments."

Notebooks of Ceare Pavese, (28.7.1940)

Twenty years ago the chemist, memoirist, short story writer, novelist, essayist, Primo Levi committed suicide in Turin, the place of his birth.

His account of the year he was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, “If This is a Man” was rejected by Einaudi, the most prestigious publishing house in Turin. Eventually a far smaller house did publish, in November 1947, 60 years ago this year. Only 1,500 copies were sold. Eleven years later Einaudi eventually produced a revised work, which was translated into English in 1959…and so began the global journey of a great piece of literature that “bares testament” to the evil of the death camps.

The writing in “If This is a Man” is clear and precise, occasionally humourous. It isn’t written in hate but describes man’s capacity to oppress another with unflinching honesty. The fluent, positive and human qualities of Levi’s writings are not negated by the controversial circumstances of his death, though they do bring many questions. His life, and where it took him as a human being, remain inspiring. The powerful affirmation of life Levi describes when confronted by the systematic brutality of war, resonates today.

Freed on 27 January 1945, it took Levi nine months to return to Turin, his journey home by train with former Italian prisoners of war in Russia took him from Auschwitz in Poland, through Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany. A chemist by academic training, Levi combined science and literature for many years. His “The Periodic Table” a collection of short pieces – fiction and non-fiction – but related in some way to one of the chemical elements, was voted “the best science book ever written” at the Royal Institution in London, two years ago.

Levi died on April 11, 1987, when he fell from the interior landing of his third-story apartment in Turin. Elie Wiesel, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and himself a holocaust survivor, said: "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later." However, Levi left no suicide note, and no other obvious signs of an intent to take his own life; his remaining papers and the testimony for friends, suggest many plans for new projects.

The importance of Levi's manner of death is important though. If his work, personal and lucidly honest, is a powerful affirmation of life, is “suicide” a final comment on the validity of his message?

Street Song
Why be ashamed? When one has done time,

if they let one out, it's because like everybody else

who belongs to the streets, one has been in prison.
From morning till evening we wander the avenues

whether it's raining or a beautiful sun's showing its face.

It's a joy to meet on the avenues people who talk

and talking among ourselves, bump into girls.
It's a joy to wait and whistle at girls from doorways,

hug them on the streets and take them to movies 

and smoking in secret, lean on their beautiful knees.
It's a joy to talk and finger them laughing,
and at night in bed, feeling flung on one's neck

their two arms pulling you down, thinking of morning

when one is released from prison in the fresh sunlight.

From morning till evening wandering drunk
and watching laughing passersby enjoying everybody
— even ugly
people — just to feel themselves on the streets.

From morning till evening singing drunkenly
and meeting drunkards and starting discussions
that last a long time and make us thirsty. 

All these characters who go talking among themselves,
we want them with us at night, down in the trough,
and to hound them with our guitar
that skips drunkenly and cannot stay confined 

but throws the doors wide open to echo in the air —
outside water
or stars may rain down. It doesn't matter
if on the avenues at this hour no beautiful girls are strolling:
among us is one who laughs to himself
because he has also been released from prison tonight,
and with him, raising a ruckus and singing, we'll make it to morning.

Cesare Pavese

Translated by
Linh Dinh, a Vietnamese-American poet, fiction writer and translator.

For a short time in the early 1930s at the Massimo d'Azeglio, Liceo Classico, a secondary school specializing in the “classics”, Primo Levi was taught by Cesare Pavese, already an anti-Fascist (he was arrested in 1935), and later to become one of Italy's best-known novelists.

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pavese. As a young man he was an avid reader and interpreter of English fiction, writing his thesis at the University of Turin on the poetry of Walt Whitman and translating many American and British writers into Italian. Arrested for receiving letters from a political prisoner in Rome he was sent into "confino", internal exile in Southern Italy for a year. Returning to Turin he worked Einaud as an editor and translator.

The loner, through choice or circumstance is a frequent figure in Pavese’s work.
“His relationships with men and women tend to be temporary and superficial. He may wish to have more solidarity with other humans, but he often ends up betraying his ideals and friends; for example in The Prison, the political exile in a village in Southern Italy receives a note from another political confinato living nearby, who suggests a meeting. The protagonist rejects a show of solidarity and refuses to meet him. The title of the collection of the two novellas is Before the Cock Crows, a reference to Peter's betrayal of Christ.”

It is said that love frustrations and a political disillusionment with communism led him to his suicide, by an overdose of barbiturates in 1950 – the year in which he won the “Strega Prize” for 'La Bella Estate'’.
“It's not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You're the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs. What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn't serious.

So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter's night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn't published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.”

Chapter One, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller…

Born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, Italo Calvino spent his early years in Sanremo, on the Italian Riviera, He moved to Turin in 1941, “after a long hesitation over living there or in Milan. He often humorously described this choice, and used to describe Turin as ‘a city that is serious but sad.’ “ Wikipedia reports. He graduated from Turin's university with a thesis on Joseph Conrad and started working with the official Communist paper L'Unità; in 1957, disillusioned by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Calvino left the Italian Communist party, and his letter of resignation (soon famous) was published in L'Unità. In 1962.

In the 1950s he began to publish many works, fiction and non-fiction, perhaps the most famous, the “Italian Folktales”, an attempt to emulate the Brothers Grimm in producing a popular collection of Italian fairy tales for the general reader: it was the first comprehensive collection of Italian fairy tales.

The death of his editor, Elio Vittorini in 1966 (a contemporary of Cesare Pavese and an influential voice in the modernist school of novel writing. His best-known work is the anti-fascist novel "Conversations in Sicily", for which he was jailed when it was published in 1941) affected Calvino hugely and caused him to experience what has been defined as an "intellectual depression", which the writer himself described as an important passage in his life: "...I ceased to be young. Perhaps it's a metabolic process, something that comes with age, I'd been young for a long time, perhaps too long, suddenly I felt that I had to begin my old age, yes, old age, perhaps with the hope of prolonging it by beginning it early".

He began to visit Paris (where he was nicknamed L'ironique amusé), met Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and grew closer to the academic world, interests included classical studies (Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Giacomo Leopardi). He also wrote novels for Playboy's Italian edition).

In 1981 he was awarded the French Légion d'Honneur.

"Invisible Cities" was published in 1972 by Einaudi, a tale of magical realism that considers the imagination via the descriptions of cities by the narrator, Marco Polo.
“The book is framed as a conversation between the aging and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his empire, and Polo. The majority of the book consists of Polo's descriptions (1-3 pages each) of 55 cities. Short dialogues between the two characters are interspersed every five to ten cities and are used to discuss various ideas presented by the cities on a wide range of topics including linguistics and human nature.”

Invisible Cities is probably based, at some level on Il Milione, which we translate as The Travels of Marco Polo: the travelogue of the Mongol Empire was written in the 13th century, and shares with Invisible Cities

“the brief, often fantastic accounts of the cities he visits, accompanied by descriptions of the city's inhabitants, notable imports and exports, and whatever interesting tales Polo had heard about the region.”

I wonder if Tom had read it when he traveled. Or Laurence Sterne… In Milan now I keep thinking of Jim Hake's Turin show, "The Joy of Repetitions."

Vercelli: Tom Finds the Fork

Any town with newspaper cuttings of Hannah Arendt and James Bond in a shop window has to be good, and Vercelli is.

"I rod from Sian at about foure of the clocke in the morning, the fourteenth day of June being Tuesday, and to a faire city in Piemont called Vercellis, which is eighteen miles from Sian, betwixt ten and eleven of the clocke. This fourteenth day of June was S. John Baptists day in Italy, according to the new stile, which is never with us in England before the foure and twentieth of June. The day is very solemnely kept in all the Cities, Townes, and Parishes of Italy, but in some of the greater cities as Rome, Venice, Naples, Milan, Florence, &c. it is celebrated with very pompous and sumptuous solemnity. These shewes I them observed in Vercellis…accompanied with many singing boys, and men before them in surplices with burning tapers in their hands, and a great multitude of women and children behinde, which carried burning tapers also: they went all in couples very orderly. But I never saw in all my life such an ugly company of truls and sluts, as their women were. Withall there was an exceeding shooting of squibs [a common kind of firework] in every street where the Procession passed.

Just like that football

I observed a custome in many Townes and Cities of Italy, which did not a little displease me, that most their best meats which come to the table are sprinkled with cheese, which I love not so well as the Welchmen doe, whereby I was oftentimes constrained to leese my share of much good fare to my great discontentment.

In most of their Innes they have white canopies and curtains, made of needle work, which are edged with very faire bone-lace.

Here I wil mention a thing that might have been spoken before in discourse of the first Italian towne. I observed a custome in all those Italian cities and townes through the which I passed, that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither doe I thinke that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only Italy. The Italian and also most strangers that commorant in Italy, doe alwaies at their meales use a little forke when they cut their meat. For while with their knife which they hold in one hand they cut the meate out of the dish, they fasten their forke which they hold in their other hand upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitting in the company of any others at meale, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers from which all at the table doe cut, he will give occasion of offencec unto the company, as having transgressed the laws of good manners, in so much that for his error he shall be at least brow-beaten, if not reprehended in wordes. This forme of feeding I understand is generally used in all places of Italy, their forkes being for the most part made of yron or steele, and some of silver, but those are only used by Gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all mens fingers are not alike cleane. Hereupon I my selfe thought good to imitate the Italian fashion by this forked cutting of meate, not only the while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and oftentimes in England since I came home: being once quipped for that frequent using of my forke by a certain learned Gentleman, a familiar friend of mine, one M.Laurence Whitaker, who in his merry humour doubted not to call me at table Furcifer, only for using a forke at feeding, but for no other cause."

Italian wins Spanish Football championship...

Milan Fur update

"Flights going in and coming out of Milan's Linate airport were suspended for three hours Sunday so staff and volunteers could catch hares and rabbits, which have proliferated to such a degree that they've caused problems with takeoffs, landings and radar systems."

In a separate story: males are officially in crisis, says D&G.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Found on the Memory Stick

I am in places where churches are full, such as Vercelli today: this was in Nevers. Perhaps it features in the next Dan Brown.

Jewels e Jim

The Associazione Culturale Azimut is about promoting new art; I stumble across its latest show, “The Joy of Repetition” in the Piazza de Città. In fact I am returning from a forlorn and ‘mournful’ visit to the ‘multi-ethnic’ hot spots north of the market square, where there are many bars; me and a cat.

No people.

In the Piazza de Città there is jazz guitar, free Camparis, interesting art, a large crowd, outside in the square thunder and lightning: why not? Part of the joy of travel is precisely not the following of guidebooks, ticking off churches or buying postcards in the national or regional gallery. Armed with Tom’s places (thankfully, in some senses, Tom is hungover in Turin and has no ideas about it, sees nothing, as far as he writes), buzzing with memories to re-haunt – I should concentrate on Eco and Pavese, perhaps later…

“The Joy of Repetition” is about the relationship between the ‘serial nature’ of reproduced art, and a restating of a “forfeited individuality”. Sculpture largely, the show by Jim Hake, an American, is in complete contrast, an antithesis, to the techniques and modes I am using: copying of data, art; the shuffling of culture, words, images and sounds by digital means. The memory stick as geo-social GPS system.

If the lifestyle I follow on the journey is slow, following the – actually rather speedy, given his options – footsteps of Thomas Coryat, my creative lifestyle is hyper fast: see, write, cut, photograph, edit – post. An entire morning’s sensory experience reduced to 500 words, written at speed to a self-imposed set of blogger deadlines. A friend wrote in the second week of the journey to say he’d written 400 words in the time I’d posted about 4000. Then again, he writes for the New Yorker, where accuracy, depth, and the “right” words are everything. The blogging life imposes a different, guilty, time frame.

In “Loneliness & Time, British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century”, Mark Cocker, notes that Patrick Leigh Fermour, one of the “great” English travel writers, “could agonise for years over the mot juste…”. Fermour’s trilogy about walking across 1930s Europe was begun 25 years after the events. Which makes it art, I suppose.

“The Joy of Repetition” is the first solo show of the 41 year-old Jim Hake. He’s lived in Turin for eleven years with his Italian wife, Silvia. Time, the very time that the digital appears to efface, is a major element in Hake’s work: in process, in the methodology of creation, and finally in our reception of the finished items. Hake’s work asks us to consider “speed”, particularly those of us used to the “click to learn about Cesare Pavese” school of instant scholarship.

Isn’t blogging in fact the motor-biking of writing? Where journalism is the cycling, and Rousseau-esque hiking in the hills, the novel? Just a thought; passing around Jim’s show.

He was born in Baltimore, and followed a frequent pattern in American life, of changing city “once every two years for a decade or so…” He is used to impermanence, perhaps this drives the solidity of his work, and his like of staying in Turin now. “I’d already met my wife by graduate school [she is a cultural anthropologist, the one, Jim says, who makes him travel these days] and I thought: what shall I be, one of 100,000 artist graduates in the US, or an artist living in the Mecca of art, Italy? I had a very romantic vision about Italian art, working in Italy. Of course in reality it is the art restoration Mecca, about the past rather than now.”

Down the road is the Foundation Sandretti, glamorously run by a man who curated the last Venice Bienale. Almost every famous contemporary artist is likely to drop by: it being a nodal point where money, fashion, art and style crash together, like atoms at CERN.

“I’m out of that scene,” Jim says. “That’s not such an easy place. To begin with when I moved here, curators were happy to put me in group shows because of my name, it was chic. It wasn’t Italian. That’s what they like here, the foreign, it comes with the scene. It’s not an easy scene, it’s about power, fame and influence.”

Jim says the change in continents changed his art utterly. He’d been used to space, a “big house, a garden…openness.” In Turin it was an attic and “no money.” He taught sculpture, worked in restoration to pay the bills and get started. Now with two children, Noah and Gaia, he strives to develop his artistic concerns. The next show is Toronto. “My wife is the one who gets me to move, I need time, to be ‘in’ one place. She’s a cultural anthropologist, so it is her that takes me to Africa, to ‘see’ the world.”

When he arrived, “people told me I had to meet this English speaker or that, because then my Italian wasn’t very good. Now I sometimes stumble in English, like now, because I speak Italian almost always. So I met some “English speakers” and the thing is, just because they speak English, so what? The question is: are they nice people. That’s the ex-pat thing.”

In the catalogue to the show Diletta Benedetto says: “In Hake’s art, every repeated action provides us with an opportunity for investigating, discussing and approaching a truth, a truth that is ultimately a composite image…”

In the work, as in the experience of living “elsewhere”, it is evident that repetition is a very modern and widespread concern. When Thomas Coryat came to a town or City literally everything was new. Was he also, perhaps, the first Englishman (though not the last) to have a hangover in Turin? In 2007 it can seem that everything is about variation on repetition. My journey is repeating Tom’s; in turn it repeats the journey of Tim Moore, and of Chris, “the Peregrine of Odcombe” who made the journey two years ago. In turn, being a voluntary exile, as Jim has become (like Olen in Budapest), is in itself brimmed full of historical resonance: is this like Stein or Hemingway; am I inspired by my location, does it affect the concerns of my work? Is it just about, as the high-school graduates told me, imagining somewhere else as “better”? As Jim says, his rational for Italy was that it is the art Mecca. Certainly that was true in Tom’s time, but now that Mecca has shifted: to London and New York, perhaps. More realistically, it has shifted to the transient troubadours that inhabit art fairs to sell their artists’ work” Freeze or Basle, or wherever…there are hundreds of art fairs now.

In using the “model” of mechanical reproduction, variegated through the ultimately human process of finishing a piece, Jim considers not just art but the infinity of repetitions, in mood, moment and method, of travel itself.

This is one of the Google-Generation’s largest paradoxes, the more we can know, the more we realize it has been done before. The “Me” era, when Time magazine makes “us” the person of the year, is about our individual self-improvement, our “rights” as consumers in the marketplace, who must in order to stay sane, deny the self-evident truth that someone else has done it before. Until technology (and whatever social forces that emerge to encourage community, rather than singular “scared of other” or “too chic to bother”, estrangements) can help to provide us with a balance between the serial repetitions of life, and the unique human variations of ‘our’ life, then it is perhaps better to be like Tom in Turin: too hungover to experience anything.

Tom as Easyjetter. Never thought I’d see the day. Thanks Jim: for me anyway, the work makes sense.