by Carlo Feltrinelli translated by Alistair McEwan
Harcourt. 344 pp. $30.00
“A story of riches, revolution, and violent death”—so reads the subtitle on the cover of what purports to be a biography of the late Italian publisher and political radical Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. The author is Feltrinelli’s son, who was a small boy in 1972 when his father was accidentally killed as he tried to blow up an electrical pylon in an act of sabotage, and this volume is obviously intended as a gesture of filial piety and justification. Instead, it inadvertently pulls aside the curtain on a postwar Italian intellectual culture that, to say the least, does not fare well under scrutiny.
The Feltrinellis had been a wealthy dynasty for several generations before Giangiacomo came along. Starting in timber, they had branched out into the electricity business, banking, and other lucrative enterprises. At all times, they had maintained excellent relations with the government of the day, including Mussolini’s—at least until 1935, when Giangiacomo’s grandfather was accused of irregularities, probably amounting to nothing more than a failure to bribe the right people, and died of a heart attack before he could be brought to justice.
Giangiacomo was raised in an extremely privileged household in Milan. His parents divorced early, and his mother remarried a young journalist by the name of Luigi Barzini who was to become famous on both sides of the Atlantic. (In this country, Barzini is best known as the author of the 1964 tour de force, The Italians.) But neither mother nor stepfather was to the young man’s taste. At the earliest opportunity, he escaped to join the partisans in the final days of World War II, making contacts that would serve him well over the next several decades. He entered the Italian Communist party (PCI) through, as the Spanish say, the front door.
Feltrinelli brought to the party not only a proper service record, and not only a distinguished family name, but two other assets. One was his immense wealth, which in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s helped to finance as much of the party’s deficits as Moscow chose not to pick up. The other was his genius for organization. He gave the party and its operatives a firm foothold in the publishing house that he created under the family name in 1954 and that soon blossomed into an empire. He also established and financed a kind of institute for the training of new cadres of Communist intellectuals and activists.
Everything seemed to be moving along swimmingly until a manuscript arrived in his office in the mid-1950’s from a relatively unknown Russian writer named Boris Pasternak. It speaks volumes about the leanings of intellectual life in postwar Italy that Feltrinelli was quickly able to find someone who could read Russian and offer an evaluation. No less swiftly, this reader reported that, in Dr. Zhivago, Feltrinelli had the makings of an international best-seller. The only problem was that the book had yet to receive approval for publication in the Soviet Union.
As is well known, it never did. Eventually, Feltrinelli decided to go ahead with an Italian edition despite the pleas of Moscow’s local cultural agents and their minions that he desist. The book’s reception was as anticipated, but the episode led to Feltrinelli’s expulsion from the PCI—with the result that in some circles he would be forever branded as a “rightwinger.” Even so, his relationship with the party throughout the rest of the 1950’s and the first half of the 1960’s was far from being merely platonic.
Then came the glorious year of 1968. With the rise of the New Left, Feltrinelli was afforded the opportunity to ride another putative wave of the future, this time without having to submit to the discipline of a Leninist party. Although somewhat older than most of the young rebels who threw the various centers of Western Europe into an emotional uproar in the ensuing years, he was excellently positioned to assume a sort of leadership role. He also managed to make quite a bit of money from the sudden interest in third-world revolutionary literature, and even undertook repeated pilgrimages to Cuba to try to work with Fidel Castro on the latter’s autobiography, a project that came to nothing.
But Feltrinelli’s most important involvement during those years was with Italian left-wing formations of a more violent sort, including the Red Brigades (the group that in 1978 would kidnap and murder the former prime minister, Aldo Moro). In this last phase of his life, he adopted the ideology of “direct action” and himself became something of a leftist gangster. It was in connection with these terrorist activities that he planted the bomb that caused his untimely end.
Although the story of Feltrinelli’s life sounds dramatic enough, Feltrinelli is actually rather tedious and slow-going. This may be owing in part to Carlo Feltrinelli’s unfortunate decision to reproduce his father’s letters almost in their entirety. These reveal a man at once neurotic, self-important, self-indulgent, and at times emotionally confused. One’s sympathies, however, are inevitably constrained by the knowledge that, even at his worst moments, there was never a lack of luxury in his life, not to mention attractive women, some of them his wives.
Then, too, there is Carlo Feltrinelli’s own schematic and conspiratorial view of postwar Italian history, according to which everyone who was not a Communist, fellow-traveler, or New Left militant had to have been some kind of fascist or crypto-fascist. The fact that the country failed to elect a Communist prime minister in the decades immediately after the war had nothing to do (in his judgment) with the preferences of ordinary Italians but was attributable solely to the evil machinations of President Eisenhower’s ambassador, Clare Boothe Luce, in league with the CIA and the repressive Italian police. The Marshall Plan is not mentioned once in this book—itself a noteworthy omission in a narrative that unfolds against the backdrop of Italy’s economic development after 1946. Nor is anything said, on the other side, about the mafia-like practices of the Italian labor movement, which among other shakedown tactics used to force employers to pay the salaries of union militants who never showed up for work. (They were too busy organizing strikes and attending meetings in Cuba or Algeria.) Not surprisingly, the author’s knowledge of U.S. history is shakier still; he seems unaware, for example, of the overwhelming weight of evidence condemning the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and his chronologies are consistently wrong.
Carlo Feltrinelli today directs the publishing company and bookstores started by his father, and seems in every respect to be a faithful legatee of his outlook and ideas. But what his book reveals above all is the degree to which the intellectual class to which they have both belonged, once among Europe’s most important, has become utterly unserious and irresponsible. Concerning Italian culture generally, it also serves up a banquet of evidence substantiating the charges against it of corruption and bad faith leveled by Oriana Fallaci in her recent The Rage and the Pride1 Considering the debt owed by humanity to earlier generations of Italian writers, thinkers, and publishers, this is a tragic comment on a once great civilization.
1 See Christopher Caldwell’s “The Fallaci Affair” in the October 2002 COMMENTARY.