Posts Tagged ‘Pier Paolo Pasolini’

Something Written

September 24, 2016


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.

The Street Kids

August 31, 2016

street kids

Pier Paolo Pasolini is perhaps best known as a film director, but he also wrote a number of novels, as well as poetry and plays. The Street Kids is a new translation, by Anne Goldstein, of his first novel, Ragazza di vita, originally published in 1955 and previously translated as The Ragazzi. It’s a story of adolescents and young men struggling to survive in post-war Rome which caused a scandal on publication for its honest portrayal of the ‘underclass’ – the Trainspotting of its day.

It also shares with Trainspotting its episodic nature. Riccetto is the unifying character, with others coming and going, and not all surviving until the novel’s conclusion. The first chapter provides a good example of this. Chronologically first – it begins with mention of Riccetto’s first communion – it presents us with a picture of a country with little to offer where survival day-to-day:

“At the market there was nothing, not even a cabbage stalk. The crowd began to move through the warehouses, under the shed roofs, into the stores, because it wouldn’t stand for coming away empty-handed.”

Finding a cellar with tyres, tarpaulins and cheeses, the crowd surge through the door, Riccetto and his friend Marcello included, “swallowed up by the suck of the crowd and their feet barely touching the ground.” Marcelo manages to stuff some tyres in a sack – jumping over the corpse of a woman killed in the crush – but loses them later to the police. This struggle to stay alive by any means possible, however, is contrasted (as it is throughout) with the joy of youth: one moment they are stealing a manhole cover, the next swimming and bathing in the sun. The chapter ends with the boys on a boat which they have somehow raised the money to rent. Riccetto spots a swallow thrashing in the water and dives in to rescue it:

“’It’s all wet,’ he said after a while, ‘Let’s wait for it to dry off.’ It didn’t take long; in five minutes it was flying off among its companions, over the Tiber, and Riccetto could no longer distinguish it from the others.”

It is this lyrical ending which gives the chapter the shape of a short story, and also indicates that Pasolini will present his characters in three dimensions, not simply as hard men and hooligans.

Money is a constant obsession, and what can be done with it is measured exactly:

“Riccetto had just a few cents left, enough to buy two or three cigarettes and take the tram.”

At one point he uses the last of his money to buy a tram ticket so he can steal a woman’s purse form her bag. With money in his pocket he feels like a king:

“Riccetto sang… at the top of his lungs, completely reconciled with life, full of great plans for the near future, and touching the cash in his pocket: cash which is the source of every pleasure and every satisfaction in this filthy world.”

As in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, poverty means every coin is counted and every moment of sufficiency regarded as great wealth.

Though Riccetto grows older, this is not a coming of age story, or one where character development is Pasolini’s primary concern: in a sense his characters have must survive first, and develop later. Even when Riccetto becomes engaged it is suggested that his maturity is to some extent superficial, “content to play the part of a serious youth,” though perhaps also indicating a longing to do more than simply live of the streets. Life, however, is precarious, as is perhaps best demonstrated by the final chapter when another boy, Genesio decides to swim across a river, but gets into difficulties on the return journey:

“Genesio no longer put up any resistance, poor boy, and flung his arms around, still not asking for help. Every so often he sank under the surface of the current and then re-emerged a little further down.”

From the woman killed in the crush to find food to the boy swept away by the current, the novel’s characters live their lives under threat, knowing that one wrong step might mean the end.

The Street Kids is not only a vivid historical document, but a valuable reminder that war and its aftermath are merciless, and that we should be careful not to condemn its survivors. At the same time, it also radiates a love of life, a joy in simple pleasures, which we might also learn from.