Il Verme Disicio

The library at the Ex-Sala Borsa is one of Bologna’s great treasures. It is a “real” library, by which I mean only that it resembles the American system of organizing libraries closely enough that I feel at home there and am, in fits and starts, actually learning to use it. For starters, the Biblioteca Sala Borsa is open to the public, which is a leap forward in the European concept of the library, and its card catalog is fully computerized (though the coding and numbering system is, let’s just say, whimsical).

The Biblioteca, moreover, disports itself across several floors: in poorly lit caverns of shelves; tiny reading areas; forgotten banks of carrels; humid underground vaults; bright display areas; reference desks staffed by sour women with delicate chain-link lanyards on their eyeglasses; worn couches; dusty metal corbels that ring with their comforting, familiar pitch as books slide across them; wooden carts that stand kitty-corner in the middle of the aisles; ranks of Dewey decimal numbers that come to a halt in the middle of a series, only to pick up again a hundred meters further on; computer stations stowed in barely accessible corners—in short, it is a perfect library. The girl (or interchangeable boy) who checks out my books slides my library card across the bar-code reader, scans my choices, demagnetizes the spines of the books, and hands everything back to me without speaking or even once looking up from the book she is reading, pressing it flat against the counter with her free hand and clutching a blue ink pen between her fingers like a cigarette.

“Classic” British literature is separated from American literature and both are separated from everything else; all that is “modern” is lumped together on a separate floor, the languages democratically shoulder-to-shoulder, in the “narrativa contemporanea” section, where Margaret Atwood, Amos Oz, Jumpha Lahiri, and V.S. Naipaul touch their hats across the racks to Patricia Cornwell, Michael Crichton, Wilbur Smith, and Banana Yoshimoto (oddly—though perhaps it’s odd only to me—she’s big-time popular in Italy).

So much is interesting here—in no small part simply because it is different. To start with, there’s the presence of a vast complement of foreign authors translated into Italian (including an entire canon’s worth of Asian, African, and Muslim literature) whose work will never appear in English; the fact that thousands of books originally published in English are available in Italian translation, from literature to (let’s call it) light reading—I don’t know how else you could kindly describe Sophie Kinsella—whereas contemporary Italian literature is unavailable in English. Thus, if you want to read the complete oeuvre of Stephen King in Italian, you can name your poison; but if you don’t read Italian and want to know what Tamarro or Ammaniti or Tabucchi are writing, you’re out of luck. As an objective matter, of course, there are fewer Italian-to-English translations than the reverse. That partly explains it, but only partly.

It’s important to say that the Biblioteca Sala Borsa is housed in the same enormous palazzo as the Libreria Sala Borsa, one of the nicest bookstores I’ve visited in Italy (not only because the floor is glass and a Roman archaeological excavation is visible beneath it,

but especially because The Evil that has infected every single clerk at every single Feltrinelli in Italy has so far been held abroad from the Sala Borsa), and that the Biblioteca Sala Borsa has an enormous section of contemporary literature in English and in English translation. Why, one wonders, hasn’t a copy of each of those books been donated to the library?

In any case, at the Biblioteca Sala Borsa, if one wants to read in English—and I have been famished lately for English—one takes potluck. All in all, it’s a strange and idiosyncratic collection. Thus, on my first day as a library-card holder, I came home with Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’ Own, and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Flesh and Blood, I discovered to my immense sorrow, was familiar after the first couple of chapters; consulting my Lifetime Reading List, I realized that I’d read it in the 1990s. (To be precise, the LRL now stands at a hardly impressive 386 titles, so it’s really only a list of the books I can remember reading as an adult and excludes hundreds of titles I read as a boy and adolescent, including the entire Bobbsey Twins, Boxcar Children, and Encyclopedia Brown series, along with who-know-how-many books about horses).

The Good Soldier was another failure; mine, I suppose I should hedge my bets by saying. This is at least the third time I’ve tried to read The Good Soldier because I keep being convinced that it must be an important novel, and each time I can’t get past the first seven pages. It reminds me constantly of The Great Gatsby, another novel that I find essentially pointless, but if you don’t believe me, take the opinion of Jane Smiley, who wields more clout in such matters:

There are lots of supposed great novels that I just can’t enjoy—The Great Gatsby is one. I have a ‘reason’—it is that none of the characters or themes or incidents seems to be to be developed—rather, Fitzgerald seems to be talking about them at length, but more as a way of exercising his eloquence than as a way of exploring or revealing the situation.

Exactly. Ford is taking exercise. He tells you in the first line that “this is the saddest story I have ever heard,” and more-or-less expects you to agree. And then he goes off talking. Too, there’s my problem with both novels: that I can’t get very excited about the tragic things that happen to wealthy, bored, nihilistic white folks. (Ford’s narrator describes himself as “American millionaire.”)

Of the three, then, A Room of One’s Own was the success. The edition I found at the Biblioteca Sala Borsa included a facing translation in Italian, and so I was able to let my eyes wander occasionally to the right-side page and be convinced, over and over, that Maria Antonietta Saracino had done a marvelous job of rendering Woolf.

Here, Woolf is brilliant, unconfined, confident in her subject, dazzling in her conclusions, revolutionary—given the times (the book is based on her lectures in October 1928, a few months before my mother’s birth, at Newnham and Girton colleges).

Look at this passage, where Woolf is describing her first attempts to knit her thinking together on the subject of the lectures, “Women and Fiction”:

So I went back to my inn, and as I walked through the dark streets I pondered … what effect poverty has on the mind; … and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer, I thought at least that it was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it into the hedge. (A Room of One’s Own/Una stanza tutta per sé. Turin: Einaudi, 1995, p. 48.)

And she is, simultaneously and occasionally, loopy and unhinged, digressive and even absurd, though it’s difficult to know how her efforts at irony and (I think it’s meant to be) wry humor were taken by her audience seventy-eight years ago this month. But there is an undeniable weight in what she says and a kind of palpable locomotive energy that surges forward sometimes almost manically, and you couldn’t help but think about her, saying and saying and saying, here where you’d only just encountered Ford, who was fifty-five at the time of Woolf’s lectures and eleven years away from his own death, saying and saying and saying, and be struck by a clear sense of the difference between what was born out of passion and conviction and what was fathered instead in ease and romantic pessimism. Woolf remains alive for me. I have difficulty imagining that Ford ever could be.

October 26, 2006 — P.S. Big thanks to Isa Zani, the best proofreader I know (in English or Italian), who pointed out that Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own and not A Room with a View, demonstrating once again the truth of Charlie Brown’s famous dictum: “I’m never quite so stupid as when I’m trying to be smart.”

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Posted on 24 October 2006, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. >I’m pissed, pissed, pissed that no one has yet to offer commentary on your observations. It’s been weeks already and surely your thoughts regarding the libraries of Italy, with all their wonders and discoveries, are worthy of some sort of feedback.Ironic-Here, I’ve had the pleasure of fielding not one but two calls from the Sheriff’s wife regarding the Pend Oreille County Library Board. Apparently the baptist church and a women’s circle that she claims membership in, has way too much time on their hands. These women have decided in their wisdom that computers in our library pose a moral threat to our safe little mountain community. They wish to eliminate them. I seem to have become an obstacle to this simple problem of literary and electronic pest control. In America. thought and access to the outside world is considered dangerous. In your corner of the world, it seems access to culture, thought, and the rest of the planet is considered a birthright.I realize that it’s often very hip, and an easy mark to dis on Americans and our hopelessly inward vision. We are a slow moving target, what with our reality shows and game shows and people magazine. So yeah, it’s already been said so many times.But Wendell, your beautiful and humously written essay, tips those scales even further out of balance.

  2. >Oh gosh darn it. So much to address, so little time in zone of the computer to handle. If that makes no sense at all, you are doing fine and handling Italy. I’ve been here for ten years and am desperately trying to LEAVE.Ford Maddox Ford. In my library for eons. Never made it past the 8th page. Same reasons you state but it makes me feel quite inadequate. In the same way I cannot read William Faulkner without giggling. I LOVE the card catalogue in the Milan library. It makes one take time, it makes one feel like one should be writing longhand and not on a computer. It makes me feel dusty and 19th century.Your writing on libraries is LOVELY. I’ll be back. Time is up and I must relinquish my rights to the computer and go put Gramma Josephina back in the outhouse where she can pluck chickens.The ‘Other Italy’ is where I live. Milano. Home of Armani suits and shallow progressives. Frances Mayes, she was on the committee that rejected my application to the Creative Writing Program at SF State. And she’s WAY richer than me. And her husband is known as “The Hunky Poet” which he is because I saw him at a reading. I’m not bitter. Just a tad bit wilted.

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