Set in a deserted Rome during a hot and melancholy August, this 1973 novel now touted as a classic rehashes a familiar theme within Italian literature and film: a country and art of malaise. At turns beautiful and frustrating, it ultimately feels like a pastiche of the works it attempts to keep company with.
Last Summer in the City, a novel first published in 1973 by Gianfranco Calligarich and translated from the Italian for the first time by Howard Curtis, is a meditation on a certain kind of life that perhaps can only be lived in a city like Rome, as Calligarich writes, a city that is “not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved.” Calligarich recounts the story of Leo Gazzara, a young man on the cusp of thirty, who moves from Milan to Rome under the pretense of working as a journalist. It is immediately clear he is seeking something else. He has a troubled relationship with his family, his father in particular, and can’t ever manage to return home, not even for a short visit. He sees himself as different, a wanderer. Gazzara latches on to the more jet-set types around him, borrows their homes, their cars, their wine, their women, and leads a life of languor and indirection, seeking pleasure but never really accepting it as his own. As is mentioned at various times in the novel, he contents himself with others’ “leftovers.” Gazzara is listless, always hoping for and finding an adventure; but there is the overwhelming feeling of disappointment after the party is over much like in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Antonioni’s La Notte.
Last Summer in the City gives us an abandoned Rome, a city deserted and hot, in which its overgrowth is left to flourish and take over. These depictions of the Eternal City in August are strikingly accurate and visceral. (I can confirm this as I am writing from an empty piazza in Testaccio where everyone has left for the sea or the mountains and the wind is my only companion.) Calligarich gives us this version of the city beautifully, and Howard Curtis, the translator, brings this vision into English with great care and elegance. Gazzaro gives us this description of his last summer in the city:
And then came August, the black month. Under an oppressive sun, the city was deserted, the streets empty, the echoing cobbled squares covered in a layer of burning dust. Water was running low and the fountains were crumbling, showing all the signs of old age, with the cracks plastered over and tufts of yellowish grass sticking out. Cats hid in the shade of cars and only toward sunset did people start coming out of their homes to gather around the watermelon stands, waiting for the wind. According to the newspapers, it was the hottest summer in the past ten years.
A beautiful and true description of the lost feeling one has in the vast empty urban landscape. And this empty city reflects Gazzara’s relationship with those around him—friends as lonely and as lost as he is, wealthy artists with little integrity; Arianna, the woman he falls in love with but can never actually make the effort to love. He comments:
I thought about when I’d said good-bye to my father and when I’d said good-bye to Sant’Elia, and I thought about how all these farewells had changed my life. But it’s always like that, we are what we are not because of the people we’ve met but because of those we’ve left.
Gazzara is in a state of depression and indifference, he goes where the wind takes him, even when he might rather do something else. At turns the protagonist recalls a combination of a grown-up Holden Caulfield on holiday, filled with self-entitled suffering, and Ernest Hemingway himself in A Moveable Feast, day drinking and carousing—and this is where my feelings about the novel begin to feel muddled and even angry. André Aciman has written a generous introduction to the novel in which he compares it to other works that explore the decadence of Rome, mid- to late twentieth-century bourgeois life, and Italian culture; however, Last Summer in the City lacks the psychological development of Natalia Ginzburg’s characters, the self-awareness and irony of Alberto Moravia’s novels, and it certainly has none of the grotesque self-reflection found in the work of Paolo Sorrentino. Rather, Calligarich’s novel reads like an ode to a long-gone lifestyle (which was thankfully already on its way out when this novel was first published) and the translation reinforces this motif with Hemingwayesque short, terse sentences and Americanisms in speech:
She shrugged, left me high and dry, and walked into a store. I realized I would never love another woman in my entire life. I followed her in. […] We went through six or seven stores before she decided on a red dress with one hell of a price tag.
Anyone looking to feel transported linguistically in some way towards Italian—its high drama and flourishes—is likely to be disappointed by this work. Perhaps this is owing to the fact that the Italian original was heavily influenced, like much mid-twentiethcentury Italian fiction, by American prose style, or even imitation. Either way, the American sounds coming from the characters were disorienting and off-key.
The novel does reveal some particularities about the city of Rome—its moods, its welcome embrace, its timelessness and thus its indifference to its inhabitants. It also reveals certain class structures and relationships between Italians and the foreigners who pass time in the city. These observations are extremely vivid and on point and fifty years later still ring true:
We started strolling amid the market stalls. The market was bright and alive with cries—only the statue of Giordano Bruno was grim and silent, but he had his reasons. When we got to Ponte Sisto, Graziano didn’t want to cross the river because it would take him closer to his wife, who like all American women in search of local color was in Trastevere.
The possibility of running into someone you’d rather not see in a big city always remains a worry, an odd claustrophobic characteristic of cosmopolitan life. And Trastevere still remains the spot for Americans and other “expats” in Rome to discover “local color,” a passage in particular that made me laugh. The city is alive, a character, and signifies as such in myriad ways throughout the novel.
But all of the qualities of the city also come with its people and the relationships developed there within. I’m not by any means saying every novel needs to include the social dynamics of its time; however, we see nothing of the domestic terrorism happening in Italy in the 1970s, no interest in the political struggle, and certainly not even a hint of the feminisms developing at the time. Literature should add to the richness of our understanding of the world; literature in translation serves double duty on this account—and therefore it can doubly falter as well. In this novel we see a reduced and repeated theme within Italian literature and film: a country and art of malaise.
When so little fiction is translated, and then published by major houses, readers might ask: why this book? It touts itself as a classic, but in fact even its memorable passages feel somewhat derivative, like pastiches of the classics it attempts to keep company with. Translation is an inherently political undertaking, opening readers and writers to different versions of the world we share. This book had its pleasurable moments; however, in a culture where we are now attempting to make space for less heard voices, where the most privileged are being asked to keep quiet so more voices can be heard, we must also pay close attention to the works we translate and define as classics, or else we risk repeating and reinscribing worn-out or mistaken cultural norms and limiting our visions of both literature and the future.
© Allison Grimaldi-Donohue. All rights reserved.