Sometimes I think about my final year history teacher, and how nice it would be to bump into him in a random piazza somewhere in Italy. Russel Staiff was one of those stand out teachers who take their students far beyond the standard textbook. We started our final year of European history with a screening of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet followed by a Mediterranean feast, and in the months that followed threw ourselves head first into Renaissance painting, architecture and the stories of the Italian cultural rebirth. We were meant to study the Reformation as well, but from what I remember we sort of glossed over that bit.
Later on I took cinema studies at university and lost myself in the fountains of Fellini and the dusty streets of the neo-realists, while at home I sat on the couch with my parents for the weekly episodes of Ispettore Montalbano as he raced around Sicily in a battered Fiat solving crimes set in crumbling villas and seaside trattorias. Italy imagined through page and screen.
When I arrived in Italy I discovered that behind the impeccably produced Montalbano television series stood the highly respected Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, a crime writer with decades of novels behind him, many written in Sicilian dialect with a highly intellectual way of inventing a story with a healthy dose of the real world. I started reading the Camilleri novels in English (they are exceptionally well translated), before graduating to the original language, with all the quirks of the Sicilian dialect, happy to race over the unfamiliar words with the pace of the plot.
Other authors followed and books slowly filled in the patchwork of themes that fascinate me about contemporary Italy. Challenging stereotypes and providing historic background to why things as they are. There were highlights and revelations, and the idea behind this reading list was to share the volumes that I am always banging on about as fascinating Italophile reading. They are in no particular order.
Elsa Morante. History
If one was to read only one book on this list, this would be it. Storia in Italian means both ‘history’ and ‘story’, and this book is both. The story of a woman born in the south of Italy into a partly Jewish family, which when she moves to Rome becomes a kind of mirror onto Rome during the second world war. Elsa Morrante lived in Testaccio for part of her life, a plaque marks the building where she lived in Via Amerigo Vespucci.
Andrea Camilleri. August Heat. The Patience of a Spider. Paper Moon to name but a few.
Camilleri, author, screen writer and director, was born in Sicily but has lived most of his life in Rome. He started writing the Montalbano novels in the 1980’s and reading through the decades – the latest, La rete di protezione was published in 2017 at the fine age of 92 – is like flicking through a box of newspaper cuttings from the same period. Camilleri writes fiction, but doesn’t hide from socio-political truths. Fabulous holiday reading.
Carlo Levi. Christ Stopped at Eboli
My good friend and regular literary trader Jamie Kowalcyzk (we still swap books even though she now lives back in Chicago) gave me this book. Her words were just ‘why has it taken me so long to read this’. Essential reading if you are visiting the south.
Alice Lecesse Powers (editor). Italy in Mind. A collection of short stories.
There are some beauties in here. Particularly Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever, first published in the 1930’s and a marvellous portrait of the city as a destination for well heeled Americans.
Italo Calvino. If on a Winters Night a Traveller.
I first picked up this book because I liked the idea of a train journey to an unknown place on a misty winter’s night. A completely post modern puzzle of a story; wonderful.
Elena Ferrante. The My Brilliant Friend series.
I resisted jumping on this band wagon for a couple of years, until summer 2017 came along and presented me with ample reading time by the lake and in the hammock at Lubriano, and this brilliant novelist – whomever he or she is – gave me an excuse not to talk to anyone for days on end. Read them, because however flawed the characters may be, the stories within the story of a friendship are still a refection of post war Italy in many forms.
Tobias Jones. The Dark Heart of Italy.
My brother-in-law gave me this volume to read before I moved to Italy in 2005 and I have to give it credit for painting in the background to 20th century Italian political landscape for me. It delves into so much more than phenomenons like Berlusconi and the mafia, explaining how the Italian communist party and the country’s fascist past are part of the contemporary political scene.
Katja Mieir. Across the Big Blue Sea.
This book is part of my list because it talks about today’s Italy and how a country where people emigrated has became a country where people migrate. The wondrous tale of a year in a Tuscan refugee home, which, more than being just an insight into Italy’s struggle to cope with the immigration crisis and the reasons that people are fleeing, is the full of individual stories that rocket along with the pace of a good thriller.
Iris Origo. War in Val d’Orcia, an Italian War Diary 1943-1944.
If you have driven the roads of the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany, amongst the bleak hillsides made beautiful by lone lines of cypress trees, where the rough turned earth of recently ploughed fields belies the easy charm of the renovated villas dotted over the hills, this is a must read. Iris Origo writes wonderfully of the final years of the second world war, championing the Italian resistance movement, the relationship between the uncompromising courage of ordinary Italians in helping the allies, and filling in yet another piece in the patchwork of what Italy is today.