– He wanted to call me, hold me, make me mortal. His will webbed with cracks. And he probed with the deepest nerve and wit—of which he had plenty. (Asymptote, 2017).
AS PUBLISHED AUTHOR
I was born on December 27, 1974 in Milan, Italy and the early determination to learn ancient Greek and Latin sent my parents to a minor crisis, which was peacefully assuaged once Dad found out that in those days urban classical high schools were quite the home for cigarettes, poor volleyball and punk bands, as well as a refuge for the upwardly mobile. (Now, as we all know, nobody even dreams of shifting social classes, and we all have quietly, obediently normalized an educational return to Ancien Régime conditions.) I was mediocre at first, stellar at last, but presumably only to the eyes of professors who were already disenchanted with their prospects and the rising tide of idiocy and conformism. The truth is that I became progressively absorbed into spiraling webs of knowledge which appeared to hold no end, but I never wore the increased ability to read Lucretius or Thucydides as a badge of distinction – this was always about making darkness visible, healing the mind, and being exactly where one would rather be. In fact, I remember preparing assignments or note-taking looking over a stripped-down and abandoned bulb factory, which suited me well, and riding the bus to school alongside the screaming inmates of the somber psychiatric hospital Paolo Pini, which despite a state-wide adoption of Franco Basaglia's theory pointing to lunatic asylums as misguided and obsolete, stayed open until 1999.
Another crisp, early memory is from 1982 and concerns news reporting from the Russian Politburo that Yuri Andropov's action showed little sign of being afraid of Leonid Brezhnev's wrath. His confidence in a bid for the office of the General Secretary was greeted by my relatives with foaming paranoia directed at the old valve TV screen in the living room. As a counterpoint, at around sixteen, I started attending the local communist cell of Corso Garibaldi, where an older fellow once lectured me on how, as he put it, the Chilean revolt was our country's best bet. I never figured out what he meant, except for the gravitas. What I took away was that Italian comrades were all like him: portly, bearded, generous, and almost completely incoherent.
In 1992, or perhaps 1993, I spent a month with my family on a Sicilian beach, swimming and reading Robert Musil's complete works along with the first three volumes of Proust's Recherche; as soon as the daily readings were over, or to escape the sun, I furiously scribbled ideas. The speed of all this was dizzying yet not sickening and it had a distinct sense of elation about it, too, since I was allowed to acquire the cable radio that could capture Swiss classical broadcasting, in which three big areas stood out: avant garde, Bartókian documents, Baroque music from far-sounding locales such as Ulm or Leipzig, and a piano archive with gems like Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Ravel. To the extent that anyone recollects when writing began in earnest, I have no doubt of where that origin lies for me.
Twenty odd years later I repeated the old Sicilian experiment, only this time with Dostoevsky (and mostly Bach for music). My wrestle with the St. Petersburg master yielded no notebook, but a diffuse, long-lasting marveling at how each paragraph sits at the edge of a gradual abandonment and how words – namely in The Possessed – act like wolves or pack animals, subsiding once it appears they got to know the place they were destined to. Meanwhile, both the Musil and the Proust manuscripts had long surpassed the 117-page mark. Neither makes too much sense to me now, but it is clear that the Proustian draft is vastly superior to the other, and I would rather not discover why.
On the subject of wonder and languages, by the time I was preparing to move to the U.S. for my doctoral work, in 2001, my French was sufficiently good to allow me to translate into Italian a monograph by Michel Jeanneret, Des mets et des mots. That manuscript was never published as planned, but it curiously allowed me to circumvent the exam requirements at my new academic institution; most of all, I loved the idea of channeling French in a theatrical and performative bottleneck which gave up inconsequential results. It seemed most perfect, though hopefully not as a diagram of my future as a writer. As between English and German, the choice was easy: Milanese readers flocked to the British Council for tea and newspapers, and to the Goethe Institute for massive, one-volume-fits-it-all editions of Hegel and the Frankfurt School. That is to say, if the language I am most comfortable with today is English is not out of sheer logistical needs, but because at some juncture of my life I fell in love with a distinct mid-Atlantic rhetoric, which I try to nourish on a daily basis. In fairness, I credit my Italian-American grandfather, Domenico, who left the U.S. for Italy in 1929 to escape the Great Depression, for opening a gateway, playing cards, and remaining a wonderfully perplexing figure.
In the summer of 2010, I received official confirmation from a governmental agency that I had been granted a Green Card, which put an end to a few years of nonsensical wanderings. I accepted that fatal phone call past midnight at the restaurant in front of the Opera House in Odessa, Ukraine, after a sold-out revival of Prince Igor, and as I looked over my platter of boiled apples and chicken livers, with a small vodka on the red checkered tablecloth, I couldn't possibly imagine a better way to have become a permanent North American resident.
Incidentally, that was the first time I visited the Black Sea and felt that a moment had arrived, for me, to take fiction seriously apart from everything going on in my scholarly career. More recently, I returned to the Black Sea area, crossing between Bulgaria and Greece on an old, diesel bus with a stray dog sleeping on the back seat and an amputee eating salami out of a hand-made knife–and this time around, what with neglect and the years passing, the urge to write was notably sharper.
Back in 2002 I officially became a published author with a book of Renaissance translations that came out in an almost clandestine fashion and represented the personal culmination of a desultory period in which I had lost my father to cancer, crossed the Atlantic for good, and worked odd ends as the editorial assistant of a celebrated literary magazine. The book came out in Tuscany and I remember taking a train to Perugia in Umbria because the local Feltrinelli assured me it stood on the main window. It was commercially unremarkable, and yet greeted with some flair on the national paper La Stampa. For some reasons, a lawyer from the Ligurian town of La Spezia wrote a passionate letter explaining how reading my work had greatly moved him; then again, attorneys over the world are strange professionals. Many hide the desire for redemption within the fold of their money-making; some are talented, too.
from my archive of nonfiction
A sample of pieces is available here.
FROM MY JOURNALISTIC OUTPUT
A sample is available here.
To be honest, the decade following my first book was a mix of false starts and aspirations that continued to be simultaneously galvanizing or threatening like a paper tiger. Like many, if not all, academics I also suffer from a deep ambivalence between my work as a scholar, which is getting busier and busier, and the personal necessity to have my skills as a writer recognized.
Besides, I relocated to N.Y. hoping to escape the aimless (but otherwise harsh) drift of the American Dream into xenophobia and the need to drive, but I unwillingly became a slave to the highway and I must confess I wasn't prepared to discover here the most provincial city I have ever lived in. I got close to some nice people who later disappeared – tenure-track hopefuls in the grip of politics they could not control, media-savvy hipsters with their grande latte and the box of organic vegetables they grow on a renovated Brooklyn dive from the 1930s, actresses and artists who moved to Hollywood looking for a steady job, or many more valiant minds who emigrated back to their home countries in search of something truly stimulating and peaceful.
I have never believed in the stereotype that Europe is beautiful even when it rains and the cats are out, but I have never quite understood what so many individuals are expecting to find on this side of things, and what are they wishing to let go. I know that outside of Alps and Carpathians I'm but a flower stem cut from the roots, and that includes writing as well. Perhaps, I am a typical New Yorker, after all, a gloss, as with the You know the type, which Mavis Gallant used brilliantly to articulate her short stories. But I am also an avid world traveler, both within and beyond my home library, and the oud I got from Istanbul.
In point of fact, of course, I have certain places I like, or return to in New York: the museums, if they are not promoting exhibits with simple highlights of themselves, the area around St. John the Divine, the programs at the Center for Jewish History, most of the Lower East Village, the Met, when it is not going fascist to please its donors or fully post-modern to cater to the liberal elites, and some parts of Tribeca or the seaport where on a lucky day you can still smell the dirt of wares. I just hate being sanitized by oligarchs and won't be found with a 100-dollar charge for a Broadway musical or a jazz concert of Wynton Marsalis with ten bars of trumpet solo and a couple of jokes.
In the midst of all this, I kept writing, trying to push my practice in some areas I never explored before. I sent a few articles or reports to the Sole 24 ore and the U.S. edition of Repubblica, I assembled a rather substantial body of nonfiction on East Central Europe, nonfiction being a genre which often struck me as a neglected jewel house for prose lovers and students, and I briefly dabbled in sports writing, covering tennis, cycling and football with a mock-erudite style that attracted some curiosity, but probably all for the wrong reason, so that I grew suspicious of this bizarre reception before I grew tired of the topic itself. Currently, I am working to expand my literary activity as a translator: beyond the chapter of Cesare Pavese that was recently anticipated on Asymptote, I acquired rights to do the whole book, and I also would like to create enough interest to produce the first, large English anthology of Scipio Slataper, a lyrical chronicler from turn-of-the-century Trieste.
Most engagingly, I am working on a historical novel largely set in the St. Petersburg of the 1910s, which focuses on Jews and Bolsheviks, classical composers like Prokofiev, tobacco-stained chess-masters, pioneer climatologists, and just how much dust can a bulb take before the final jolt that blasts it. I am confident I will finish it within a reasonable amount of time because, like someone who had puzzled over fatherhood, my experience with sixteenth-month-old Dario has made me at once sharper and more productive – as well as most cheerful.