Friday, September 21, 2012

Antonio Tabucchi Week: Piazza d'Italia

Antonio Tabucchi’s first novel, Piazza d’Italia (1975), paints a family portrait spanning nearly one hundred years of Italian history, from the country’s unification under Garibaldi through its early birth pangs, expanding colonial empire, passage through World War I, losses to emigration and influenza, Fascism, World War II, and finally its post-war emergence as a democratic republic, a vast historical panorama of a nation and family buffeted by the waves of great historical events, rendered in sumptuous detail with a penetrating, granular examination of every facet of Italian life, a sweeping depiction, extending nearly 200 pages, of-…

Okay, so I made up all that stuff about granular examination and sumptuous detail. This is, after all, Antonio Tabucchi, not some 19th century novelist who wouldn’t have dreamed of compacting so much time into so few pages. But there’s something winsome about Tabucchi’s restrained yet imaginative and engaging attempt to do this, and, as his first novel, Piazza d’Italia also sows some grains for what would emerge in his subsequent works. That Tabucchi choose to divide Piazza d’Italia into three sections – the “restored” subtitle of the 1993 French re-issue I read is “A Popular Tale in Three Times” - may suggest his own sense of the unwieldiness of the narrative’s temporal compression.

Piazza d’Italia’s “Three Times” correspond roughly to three generations of one libertarian, left-leaning family, whose surname is never provided as though to emphasize their representational aspect. The first section tells of a veteran of Garibaldi’s campaigns, the soldier Plinio (the names of many characters in Piazza Italia echo through Italian history, and the tradition of naming children after historical figures gets an amusing treatment when a misprint on a poster results in several children being named “Imberto” instead of “Umberto”). Plinio and his wife Esterina produce two sets of twins, one identical (the brothers Quarto and Volturno) and one fraternal (brother Garibaldo and sister Anita).  Hints of Tabucchi’s later manifestations of interest in the vagaries of identity are evident here, since not only do the twins allude to Italy’s origins in the Romulus and Remus myth and suggest continuity through time, but they also serve as a concatenation of identities within the family. Adding to this concentrate are multiple iterations of the name Garibaldo, including when the town hall denies Plinio his initial wish to name each of the identical twins Garibaldo, or a generation later when their brother Garibaldo’s son, yet another Volturno, discards his own name and adopts that of his father (there’s an indispensible family tree provided in an appendix). Moving gingerly from one generation to the next, Piazza d’Italia traverses Italian history, its events filtered through the Tuscan village of Borgo and marked in the town piazza by the serial replacement of the statue at its center to reflect whichever political figure is most popular at the time. The town’s first cinema also comes to play a starring role in marking later historical events, its ostensible function loaned out for speeches, rallies, and other gatherings having nothing to do with cinema, causing the poor population to wait repeatedly in vain for Giovanni Pastrone’s epic nationalist film Cabiria to finally reach the town. While the family’s men go off to fight or emigrate to the Americas or stay to combat fascism or drift into the deserts of Africa, its fierce and smart women form the moral center of Piazza d’Italia and play as active a political role, albeit often behind the scenes, as their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Some of the references to Italian particulars may be lost on non-Italian readers (just as Pereira Maintains, despite its setting in Salazar’s Portugal, was read by many in Italy as a warning of resurgent fascism under Berlusconi), but at least for historical background, endnotes help fill gaps in the reader’s knowledge.

Tabucchi’s preface to the reissue of Piazza d’Italia contains an admission that it’s the novel with which he realized he wanted to be a writer, as well as a melancholic, Tabucchi-esque musing on the identify of that other, younger Tabucchi who wrote it. For those familiar with Tabucchi’s work, Piazza d’Italia may seem almost quaint, and only hints at what makes his later works so notable, with their dreams and hallucinations, rich literary and cultural references, surprising shifts of identity and clever, meta-fictional conceits that display Tabucchi’s well-known obsession with Fernando Pessoa (those later works also demonstrate significantly pared-down historical scope, as though Tabucchi realized that beyond mere historical measure, an even greater expansiveness might be attained by exploring the multiplicities within an individual’s identity). Tabucchi gives us, in Piazza d’Italia, something more akin to Gabriel Garcia Marquez than to Pessoa, a linear history of three generations of a family set in a small town not unlike Macondo and told through anecdote and vignette, with a few lexical games, such as when the second generation children all refer to one another by their names spelled backwards, and sprinklings of magical and surreal elements, as when the town’s windows all loose themselves from their casements and, flapping their shutters, take to the sky. For me, the setting and period also call to mind Federico Fellini’s film “Amarcord,” with its similar intimacy, gentle humor, great humanism, and sense of distant events sending ripples through a small town, altering it temporarily yet lending it the aspect of some eternal witness. But the beginnings of Tabucchi’s later directions are evident in the confusion of identities, the historical repetitions and caprices of time, the determined, explicit political stance (perhaps because of Tabucchi’s strong opposition to fascism even in his own time, the novel’s scenes during Mussolini’s rule possess a particularly acute power), and above all, Tabucchi’s humor and playfulness, delight with language, confidence and clarity, and warmth of spirit. In other words, Piazza d’Italia is not a bad place to start for a great writer, or for those interested in getting to know him.

I read Piazza d’Italia for Antonio Tabucchi Week, graciously hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

¡Hooray for Hollywood!

The Twayne author series volume on Ramón Gómez de la Serna briefly describes his 1923 “Hollywood” novel Cinelandia as a somewhat disjointed effort that attempts to imitate cinematic techniques but “seems merely to play with its subject” and “fails to come off, for Ramón was writing about something he knew nothing about.” Having now read this deliriously delightful novel (in its French translation, Ciné-Ville), I believe this is a bit like faulting Jules Verne for having never visited the moon. Ciné-Ville may be many things, but its accuracy as a portrayal of Hollywood is rather beside the point. Ramón’s invented fantasy metropolis of Ciné-Ville, entirely consecrated to cinema, is about as much a faithful rendering of Hollywood as a typical Hollywood film is a faithful rendering of whatever inspired it.

Yet Ciné-Ville nonetheless manages to offer up a recognizable, indelible, and even - given that it was written before the genre of the “Hollywood novel” even existed – essential portrait of the whole rangelanda[i] of nascent Hollywood: its artifice, luminous leading ladies, suave leading men, grimacing villains (relegated to their own special class in the city of Ciné-Ville), tyrannical directors, droll fat men, fawning fanaticism over every latest ingénue, torrid off-screen dramas, serial marriages and divorces (mandatory in Ciné-Ville the morning following a marriage), wild cocktail parties, producers and stunt men, stardom-seeking pilgrims and the casting couches on which they land, takes and retakes, glycerin tears, cute fox terriers, and bleached-white smiles that reproduce along “kilometers of film.”

That Ciné-Ville is not intended as a literal portrait of Hollywood is evident from the first page, in which the city is described, as in a newsreel, as a special zone of film production with an outer appearance borrowed from all corners of the globe:

Ciné-Ville has the silhouette of Constantinople, all the while calling to mind Florence and New York. It contains within its limits not the vast totality of those cities, but a neighborhood borrowed from each. Ciné-Ville, Noah’s Ark of different architectures. Possessed of such immodesty that an exotic exhibitionism is unleashed even in its constructions, the Florentine Dome facing a Great Pagoda...Strange panorama of an immense Luna-Park…Approaching the city, one finds reproductions of buildings from around the world, a great museum collection…Arab architecture mingles with Scandinavian… All is strange, conveying an impression like those decorative vignettes that used to illustrate the headings in old magazines, cathedrals mixed among mosques among ancient villas...

The most prominent of Ciné-Ville’s outlandish edifices is its immense electrical generating plant, the world’s most powerful. Cleverly disguised as a cathedral, it also conveniently functions as a film backdrop. This factory produces the prodigious, blinding light that powers Ciné-Ville’s “fabulous center of superproduction”:   

From all sides hang great crystal chandeliers, fantasmic spidery arrays, immense batteries, casements of bulbs, whole plateaus of light, electric globes like those illuminating the dressed windows of the great department stores. A whole range of lights, sconces, magnificent new figurations pour blasts of light into the studios, vast luminous platters of cream. Mercury vapor lamps give one intramedullary injections. Any nuance of feeling seeks refuge in darkened screening rooms and somber hearts: the excess of light obliterates emotion. What miserable beings these are who thrive on the cold simulation of life, in full denial!

Though the novel consists primarily of discreet chapters each devoted to a facet of the world of movies but that accumulate to portray the whole, there are scraps of story in Ciné-Ville and a few recurring, albeit hastily-sketched characters who serve as little more than types to populate the landscape. The few threads that create anything resembling a plot first involve a newcomer to Ciné-Ville, Jacques Estruck, and his integration into this blithe city bathed in an “air of a Palm Sunday, even on Monday nights.” He is first tasked, as is everyone in Ciné-Ville, with choosing a screen name to replace his real one (Ramón’s choices for many of these names struck me as pitch-perfect: Venus d’Argent, Max York, Elsa Brothers, Cléo de Mérode, Edma Blake, Mac Porland, Julanne Barry, King Walter, Charles Wilh). Estruck’s story, like the few other mini-plots in Ciné-Ville, is entirely secondary to Ramón’s interest in capturing the whole emerging world of cinema, and Estruck disappears altogether when Ciné-Ville’s inhabitants, accompanied the novel’s omniscient narrator, abruptly swivel their focus in the direction of the cinema’s newest ingénue, Charlotte Bray, who sucks up all the attention in Ciné-Ville like a resplendent black hole. I’m hardly giving anything away by relating that Charlotte’s future in cinema is cut short by an unfortunate encounter obviously modeled on the Fatty Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal that obsessed Hollywood in the early 1920’s.

Ciné-Ville is pure Ramónismo – that term given for Gómez de la Serna’s singularly poetic, bravura style that weaves into the narrative multiple iterations of his famous “greguerías” – those condensed, humorous, impressionistic and metaphorical one-liners that here paint the contours of the city and its inhabitants. While Ciné-Ville possesses some narrative cohesion, Ramónismo is in full flower throughout, occasionally with self-reflexive humor. In a chapter entitled “The Perverse Child,” Ramón describes a spoiled child-actor who issues quotable, pithy pronouncements that seem parodies of Ramón’s own greguerías. Elsewhere in the novel, he appears to construct scenes expressly so he can fit in his greguerían conceits, such as an exchange between two window-shopping actresses, one of whom sees gloves as “an absolution” that allows one to “exchange one’s sins” and feel “like a virgin” each time one puts on a new pair, and her companion who wishes gemstones were soluble, so that she “could chew them, or throw them into champagne to let them melt like ice.”

At times these surrealistic elements blow up into whole, barmy, kooky anecdotes, as when as when a leading lady, in a jealous rage over her husband’s pursuit of a young actress, takes her revenge by starting a popular kissing school (the descriptions of various aspects of kissing and of what constitutes a good kiss are worth publication by themselves) or another sensation which grips the city when an actress' beauty mark is stolen by her brutish husband. On the day of the verdict for this theft, Ciné-Ville’s great fake moon glows above the city and carries, in empathetic approval, its own beauty mark. Many of Ciné-Ville’s pleasures derive from similarly poetic absurdities, yet, as in his stories, Ramón can transform a moment of absurdist levity into something wonderfully poignant or penetrating. Just when one suspects him of a certain facility and triviality, he manages a lyrical and profound moment that reveals an artist looking deeply and appreciatively at the world even as he’s reveling deliriously in it.

Far from “merely playing” with his subject, Ramón seems to be cavorting wildly, turning the full force of his observational powers towards the world of cinema. Ciné-Ville raises probing and prescient questions about film as art form and as popular medium, including its relation to the novel, confounding of illusion and reality, obsession with celebrity and denial of death (one of the more poetic motifs in the novel is its repeated suggestion of illusory intimations of immortality attained by the preservation of faces, gestures, and the presences of actors and actresses on celluloid). These observations range from charming perceptions about the capabilities of the new medium - such as noting that in cinema, the dead don’t get up after the applause - to predictions about its future.  Ciné-Ville may well contain one of the first literary references to television, as well as a prediction that film will one day be disseminated by “radio wave” and a particularly far-sighted speculation that it will one day be replaced by virtual reality, in a remarkable passage that goes a step further by anticipating virtual reality’s authoritarian aspects.

Despite this clairvoyance, one is never quite sure, in this impressionistic compendium and in the face of what obviously represents some skepticism regarding the art form that would dominate the century, exactly how Ramón feels about cinema. Though he’s undoubtedly awed by it, he seems almost afraid of its potential, piqued by its turn towards melodrama both on-screen and off, and mocking of the frivolity that accompanies it. A hint of this seems to be provided in a chapter entitled “Experimental Films,” in which Ramón describes a parallel, isolated and nearly forlorn “intimate studio” where the new medium of cinema is liberally tested and pushed to its very limits, just as he appears to be doing with literature, but in the end Ramón seems to toy equally with this more “serious” cinema, as is evident from the delightful titles of some of these imaginary experimental films: The Lost Hour, The Eyes of the Planets, Battle of the Glow-worms, Cabaret of the Dead.

I’d noted in my earlier post about Gómez de la Serna that he seems to view the world through a sort of telescoping, microscoping kaleidoscope. Ciné-Ville too left me with this impression of some mad, mechanical, scientific eye at work, its gaze going everywhere and seeming to treat everything it falls upon equally, whether material or human, which may explain the sketch-like quality of the characters. Yet at the same time, this “Ramónoscope” appears capable of strong emotion, as in an uproariously sarcastic treatment of self-appointed Hollywood censors or in a charged chapter entitled “The Blacks,” which evinces the worst stereotypes of Black actors in early Hollywood while simultaneously ferociously exposing Hollywood’s racism.

Screwy and bally-hooey, Ciné-Ville provides an invaluable portrait of cinema’s early years and a snapshot, as though frozen across time, of Hollywood’s excesses then and now. What most stuck me about Ciné-Ville was its modernity; apart from a handful of minor period details, Ciné-Ville could easily be mistaken for a contemporary novel. Ramón may never have visited the place – his knowledge of Hollywood may have been gleaned exclusively from the screen itself, and at a distance of some 10,000 kilometers – but his understanding of Hollywood dynamics still at work today and the great poetic humor he brings to his observations merit Ciné-Ville a revered place among the great novels of Hollywood. Exuberant, sparkling and with a depth of presence surpassing its playful exterior, this kid stays in the picture.

[i] A useful word invented by a friend during a tipsy, late-night conversation years ago to describe the ensemble of certain independent signifiers that, together, suggest an understandable whole, as, for example, one might say of a wagon wheel, a bleached cow skull, and a length of barbed wire that they constitute some of the rangelanda of the Old West.