After my review of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first novel, The Street Kids, I was offered the chance to read a novel about his last novel, Emanuele Trevi’s Something Written, also translated by Ann Goldstein. The novel is, I assume, largely autobiographical, telling of Trevi’s time working for the Pasolini Foundation in the early nineties, a story which sits alongside an extensive discussion of Pasolini’s final, unfinished novel, Petrolio, which was not published in Italian until 1992 (Pasolini was murdered in 1975). Trevi’s approach is clearly signposted in an epigraph from Pasolini describing Petrolio:
“It’s a novel but it’s not written the way real novels are written: its language is that of essays, of newspaper articles, of reviews, of private letters, even of poetry.”
The Pasolini Foundation is run by an actress who once worked with Pasolini, Laura Betti. Laura is known (affectionately would be putting it too strongly) as the Madwoman, a nickname no doubt influenced by her roles (she dubbed the voice of the Devil in The Exorcist into Italian) but also her behaviour:
“I sensed almost physically the animal hostility, the uncontrollable rage that flashed, like the zigzag lightning in a comic book, from behind the lenses of her big square sunglasses. The standard greetings immediately followed. ‘Good morning, little slut…’”
Despite his treatment, you sense that Trevi feels some admiration for her as the representative of a bygone age, a time of liberated behaviour and imagination, a contrast to the conventional eighties (in one wonderful scene, feeling slighted by a hotel, she urinates in the lift) In this she is like Pasolini, and Petrolio:
“…a mad, visionary work, outside the rules, revelatory… Petrolio is a savage beast. It’s an account of a process of knowledge and transformation. It’s a becoming aware of the world and an experiment on itself.”
When it is published in 1992 “such books are no longer being written. They are creations that have become incomprehensible to the over-whelming majority of the world.” Compared to Pasolini’s time, Trevi finds the literature of the nineties “impoverished.”
At this point, it might be worth saying a little more about Petrolio. Though it is both unfinished and with no linear structure anyway (Trevi at one point describes it as a “whirlpool” – before suggesting that water swirling in a toilet bowl might be a more apt description), it does centre on one/two characters called Carlo (a double – one lower and one upper-class). While upper-class Carlo achieves material success, lower-class Carlo is driven by sex – he seduces his mother, grandmother, and four sisters, and, when he turns into a woman (as both Carlos do) he has sex with twenty boys in a field. (This review from Fernanda Eberstadt in The New York Times in 1997, when it was translated into English by – you guessed it – Ann Goldstein, provides a good introduction).
I found Something Written fascinating: the autobiographical elements enhanced the criticism, and the criticism enhanced the autobiography. Trevi’s enthusiasm for both Pasolini and Petrolio exudes from every page. I say this not as a devotee, or even an advocate, of Pasolini – I am not now driven, or even tempted, to reach for Petrolio, which frankly sounds a bit of a mess and a bit of a chore. Trevi, however, is arguing for more than one unfinished book. When he describes the novel as ‘revelatory’ he means this literally. He describes the revelation which takes place within the novel, “of a taking possession of reality”:
“We can define quite clearly and concisely what the initiation will allow us to grasp: the game of hidden forces that rule the world.”
In this scene, Pasolini refers to the drug kykeon, used by the Greeks in initiation rituals at Eleusis. In Something Written’s final section Trevi goes to Eleusis (in 2011) in a chapter in which he discusses ‘vision’. Trevi’s defence of Petrolio is that art is visionary. This may open it up (like religion) to fakes and fraudsters, but if art is not allowing us to take possession of reality, one might question what its use is.