Mamma Mia, So Middle-Class - Spear's Magazine

Mamma Mia, So Middle-Class

From his Sicilian retreat, London exile Andrei Navrozov despairs of Italy’s impossibly bourgeois manners and morals

From his Sicilian retreat, London exile Andrei Navrozov despairs of Italy’s impossibly bourgeois manners and morals

The neighbour’s house sported a prato inglese that required ostentatious watering at the crack of dawn, and by the reassuring suppleness of the English lawn beneath our feet we all knew that our host was a gentleman, not some television mogul from Cinecittà out of Rome whom, of a morning, one would be embarrassed to see on the beach in an argument with a Ukrainian girl in tears over a broken promise.

No, this was Sabaudia, where Count Volpi di Misurata let me have his summer house for a couple of weeks, and there I was, a foreign body, a foreign nobody really, at the house of the neighbour I had not met, at a party where the lawn was pure William Wordsworth and the drinks plentiful, though not so plentiful, of course, as to cast a vulgar shadow of American-style bonhomie on the host’s reputation as a gentleman.

A girl I chatted up seemed susceptible enough, and nearly ten years on I remember my peroration. I had asked her if she’d ever had cucumbers with honey. Then it started. ‘What is it with you Italians,’ I said.

‘Why are you always so proper when it comes to social expression? Why is your friendly banter a Russian’s idea of what goes on in a mortuary? Why is it that if I come up to an English girl and say, “Do you come here often?” she will think I’m a moron, but when I come up to you and say, “Do you like cucumbers with honey?” you think I’m a lunatic? You want me to ask if you come here often, don’t you? You crave the reassurance of a cliché, you long for the sweet dulcimer of bourgeois propriety. Have you no intellectual shame? Just look at this parody of a lawn! You insist on gentility you can actually poke at with your toe.’

Unaccountably, she laughed. It was only later that I understood why. She was the wife of one of the Princes Torlonia, scions of the Roman banking family whose money is still extant and whose papal title is drier than most on the membership roster of the Circolo della Caccia.

Though herself middle-class by birth, she could afford to laugh at Italian society, middle-class to the marrow of its funny bone. A subsequent turn of fate was still more illuminating.

Some years later she left her husband and ran off with a penniless photographer friend of mine, a Russian roué who immediately made her pregnant. She has had the child, and now lives in a small flat in the centre of Rome, discussing life’s eventualities with her decorously scandalised parents in Parioli and a Greek chorus of equally respectable girlfriends. She no longer laughs at my tirades. Italian society, for her, is no longer a joke.

There is only one class in Italy, the middle. From the men in orange repairing a drain just beyond my window in Borgo Vecchio to the cream of local society on the opening night at the Teatro Massimo, everyone is, and is happy being, a bourgeois. ‘Well, that’s Sicily,’ a scoffer may intervene.

Yet I have spent the better part of 20 years in Italy, with residences in Rome, in Florence, in Venice; I have done the writer’s tours of duty in Naples, in Sardinia and in the Dolomites; I have made the idler’s forays to the Argentario peninsula, the fancy emerald isles of the Bay, the aperitivo terraces of social skiing and climbing; and I can tell you from observation and experience that the scoffer is in all likelihood an Englishman who is thinking of buying a hillside villa in Tuscany.

The Palermo labourer has a green salad with his midday meal. In Venice the longshoreman, eating his lunch in the Da Marissa working men’s canteen in Tre Archi, will order a plate of fruit before he takes his coffee.

In Rome a motorcycle repairman may think his repast incomplete if it has not been followed with a little cheese. Imagine the reaction of the man’s social counterparts in Berlin, Chicago or Manchester, to say nothing of Warsaw or Kiev. Forever thence the full force of peer opprobrium, and phrases like frigging salad, what kind of man and goddamn faggot, would be his lot wherever he went.

His wife would probably leave him: ‘My mom she knew straight off he was kind of weird.’ The barmaid would titter every time he ordered a beer: ‘You sure you wouldn’t rather a pink lemonade?’

At the upper end of the social spectrum, it is the poverty of the national language that suborns the Italian mindset, conditioning the aspirant grandee much as the sophistication of the cuisine conditions the most abject of proletarians. Like food, language is a school of life, a straightjacket of spontaneity, a denominator of class and a regulator of conduct.

And the fact is that standard Italian is an artificial language – a little like the ancient Hebrew resurrected in Israel or the Arabic coiné that enables a Lebanese to communicate with a Moroccan – a 100-year-old, Tuscan-based Esperanto that would have never gained national acceptance had it not been for state schooling, for radio, television and film, and for their precursor, the operas of Giuseppe Verdi.

A mere century ago, a Friulian could communicate with a Milanese no better than a Spaniard could with a Frenchman; today, a Palermitan can still easily identify a stranger from Messina by a few words of spoken Sicilian; and, if there is now in Italy a repository of sensibility or attitude which is not inherently middle-class, then it is to the vanishing vocabularies of regional dialects one must look to find it.

Standard Italian has reduced communication to an exchange of cartoon bubbles, life to a series of ritualistic actions, thought to a tireless search for the kind of ideas an American newspaper editor would term appropriate.

The aristocracy of Europe, historically, valued its independence of mind as it valued its right to bear arms; the lower classes, likewise, were jealous in their defence of what lares and penates had been handed them by their ancestors; only the bourgeoisie, as a newly emergent stratum, was keen to trade individual liberty for the common mean and to exchange tradition for the freedom of trade.
 
In Italy after the Unification, though most glaringly in the post-war RAI epoch, the bourgeois tendency to commonness reached Walpurgisnacht proportions, as the old peasant values of somnolent contentment, familiar propinquity and voracious indolence were quietly elevated to the status of new social goals.

Tomasi di Lampedusa’s view of revolution as a dream of the idle has been writ large on modern Italy ever since.

This is why the kitchens of Rome’s haughtiest clubs, the Caccia and the Scacchi, make some of the best food in town, challenged only by long-haul lorry drivers’ pit stops along the Via Aurelia motorway.

Imagine White’s competing with Nobu morsel for morsel, or a London taxi-drivers’ retreat like the Stock Pot obscuring the gastronomic achievements of the Connaught and the Savoy Grill. The better the club the worse the food, as the saying goes, and by that upper-class reckoning Italy is a very bad club indeed.

The conversation at table, needless to say, is much the same along the 1,000-mile-long stretch of the Aurelia as in Largo Fontanella Borghese – lifeless pabulum, formulaic pleasantries, plastic opinion – unless the plebeians, like the patricians, find themselves among their regional compatriots, drop the pretence of being a people, and lapse into their native dialect.

Ever since my first sojourn in Italy, I resolved not to make friends with Italians who only spoke the national language, with the incidental result that I know very few women. Yet, Ampezzan or Venexian, Napulitan or Palermitan, sometimes princes, but more likely paupers, they tell me things I haven’t just read in the Corriere della Sera.

Better still, they have a sense of humour, a faculty the middle classes everywhere have difficulty mastering.

Though bourgeois in form, considering its sweeping universality and its appetite for social levelling, the belated Italian revolution, unlike its counterparts elsewhere in Europe or the US, was peasant in content. And only a boor would argue that a manual labourer eating a green salad, or a descendant of a Doge of Venice sharing recipes on television is as perverse or distasteful a notion as a cook’s son becoming Prime Minister.
 
Only an innocent who never sat through an English club dinner would insist that lifeless conversation is worse than cracker crumbling, or that no pleasantries is better than formulaic ones.

For the net result of the bourgeois revolution in Italy is that, while the middle is the one class she has, it is the only middle class on earth with a human face. Today, this is the chief aesthetic reason for living in ‘the paradise of exiles and the retreat of pariahs’ that Italy was to the generation of Keats and Shelley.

The average Englishman knows nothing of this, however. He is drawn to Italy by vague fantasies of aristocratic splendour, by Umbrian villas drowning in grapevines and wild boar shoots in the Maremma, much as the benighted Italian bourgeois salivates at the thought of tartan and Piccadilly.

Having suffocated their respective aristocracies with taxes, television and the Philistine tattle of democracy, the middle classes everywhere are condemned to thinking that the prato is more inglese, nobler and greener, on the other side of the fence.

As well as cheaper, of course, because equal to the centripetal feelings of envy (‘God, those English really know how to do a funeral,’ said the cleaning woman in a Porto Ercole hotel as she leaned on her mop before the television set broadcasting the final denouement in the fairy tale of the People’s Princess) are the centrifugal feelings of condescension (‘What, eight thousand euros a square metre? That’s five thousand pounds! I can get something in Belgravia for that kind of money,’ said the French entrepreneur, resident in Britain for tax reasons, when shown a dilapidated palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice).

However inebriated he is with images of milords in striped silk cravats and porcelain-complexioned beauties in riding costume, a cup of dishwater coffee that a Parma pig would refuse at £3.50 will usually sober the Italian visitor to London.

Similarly, the dawning reality of Machiavellian mosquitoes, dysfunctional swimming pools and incomprehensible customs and language, of deserted streets surrendered at the stroke of noon to the scorching sun and expensive girlfriends’ heels broken on ancient cobblestones, puts pay to the Englishman’s dream of integrating himself, even within the temporal scope of a ‘villa holiday’ or some other genteel monstrosity out of the back pages of Tatler, into Italian life on the cheap.

People – and I’m not so generous of spirit as to include in this category North American ants swarming Florence and Perugia in the guise of students, or North European locusts alighting from tourist coaches by the temples of Agrigento and carpeting Piazza Navona at lunchtime – come to Italy for the wrong reasons. Compared with the Maldives, to say nothing of Wiltshire, it’s an indifferent place to visit.

The only way to appreciate this country is to live here and become an Italian, a bourgeois in one’s pleasantries and a peasant in one’s pleasures. As for the temples and the piazzas, the frescoes and the canals, the history and the culture, all that has been reproduced and described in numerous books available at the London Library for the moderate price of an annual membership.

Let the New Jersey academic tell you that you must see things with your own eyes, and you can mumble in reply that Gibbon, who wrote the greatest history of Rome and left us the best explanation of why the Continent is the way it is, hardly ever visited Italy. Ogling is the quintessential philistine pastime.

When Lord Byron settled in the Palazzo Mocenigo, where I later followed him, he had not come to Venice to gawp and to explore, but to eat, to swim, to flirt, to write and to secure a refuge.

What are those peasant pleasures, then, those vaunted hereditaments of a foreigner reckless enough to go native? What compensates the exile for the sadness over losing one’s country, for the trouble of learning a new language, for the pain of initial isolation and the fear of eventual rejection or disappointment? Wine, women and song, I suppose you’d call them, but let me try and put it another way.

I had fallen in love with Italy because it was my twin, my mirror image, my other half. Just like me, it wanted to have its torta della nonna and eat it too. On the one hand, its soul strove to arrest the erosion of society by progressive, that is to say materialistic, fictions; on the other, its body wanted its showgirls spangled in sequins, cash on the barrel and price no object.

Alone in Europe, it was unbowed before the triumphal progress of American futurism; yet the hot water taps in the Hotel Inghilterra worked a treat. It put the highest premium in Europe on the fetishes of femininity; yet the longing for an American-style, sex-and-shopping phantasmagoria was never a prime mover of social organisation.

Neighbour and friend, love and family, food and music were still the resources of emotional satisfaction, long outmoded elsewhere, on which it drew. The face of its common man had never become the Orwellian pig snout of a dispossessed nobleman’s nightmare, while the figure of its woman was still less common.

The cornucopia of Italian life, exuberant mother-of-pearl against the dun of pay-as-you-go rationing prevalent in the rest of Europe, had a distinctly feminine form and colouring, with shoulders like freshly baked loaves, hips like Arezzo hams, bellies like forme di mozzarella, lips like white Muscat raisins of Pantelleria, breasts like persimmons, eyes like night over Naples, accents like song; whereupon tumbled out the apricots and the early medlars, the swollen pomegranates, the dusty Verona plums and Sardinian figs.

And yet the woman whose shape it bore forth was first and foremost a daughter, a wife, or a sister; not a mercenary, a barterer, or a hawker; and as unlikely to be defined in terms of the merchandise on display as a child of affectionate parents would be, in their eyes, defined by his social skills or his future earning capacity.

Here beauty was sovereign. Bello, said the middle-aged, balding accountant in a green barbour, fondling an electrical insulator of white industrial porcelain in the confusion of a street market as though it were an ancient amphora. Bella, said the society hostess of somebody’s daughter, tall, thin, with sparkling green eyes, engaged to a third-division footballer.

So said the passer-by as he stopped to examine the content of a fisherman’s bucket by the bank of a muddy and slow-flowing stream. So said the bridegroom on seeing his bride in white. So said the sky, the dirt and the Alpine snow in March, so said the rough sea in Advent and the grass at Easter.

Grapes and olives, almonds and lemons. No, they were not the same God-made things as turnips and potatoes. They had been made by another, a better God, or at least by God in a better mood.

And equally, the God-made people who watched the almond and the lemon blossom, ripen and bear fruit, who saw the olive pressed and the grape harvested, were not the same people who glanced, through grimy windows of passing trains and sooty miles of habitual indifference, at fields of something or other, most likely coleseed rape, enlivened by an occasional silo or water tower: Marx’s people, Adam Smith’s, nobody’s.

They lured prepubescent girls into basements, and nobody was surprised. They ate food from tins, and nobody was the wiser. Beauty, to them, was an abstraction, only exceeded in scope by that of life. Their alienation from reality, in its conception, in its fruition, and in all its intermediate phases, was very nearly absolute.

Such were my first feelings about Italy and the world I had left behind. It was as though the sun of civilisation would still shed the occasional life-giving ray upon this land after it had all but set elsewhere, plunging the earth in primordial gloom.

Twenty years on, after my having had to retreat ever further from American-style progress dogging the United States of Europe, lately to the very backwoods of Sicily, these feelings have not changed.

But unless one is of a mind to escape from Versailles, one can hardly appreciate Walden; unless, consciously and constitutionally, one is an exile from the future, one can hardly benefit from the protection afforded by the Italian present; unless what one craves are aristocratic humanity, bourgeois ordinariness and peasant naturalness, it makes no sense to turn one’s back on the first world to which the catwalks of Milan seem to connect the blessed ‘Third World’ of Italy.

Such is the caveat I bequeath to the man with a covetous eye on a little village in Tuscany, and may the untamed mosquitoes of the Maremma marshlands make it the place of his vague and hesitant dreams.



 

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