Originally published in 1963 and today considered by some critics a landmark in twentieth-century, Italian literature, in English Luigi Meneghello’s memoir feels more like a duty than a delight to read.
Deliver Us by Luigi Meneghello. Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall. Northwestern University Press, World Classics, 358 pp., $19.95.
The Lord’s Prayer provides the title of this leisurely memoir/ethnography of a boy’s life in a small, provincial town is northeastern Italy in the 1920s. Libera nos a malo or “Deliver us from Evil” evokes both the all-pervasive Church and that other reigning power: Fascism. “Beware we are Fascists; down with the Communists,” he used to chant, jumping up and down on his parents’ bed. “What a good time we’re having . . . And we of the Fascio, we are the Members. Good words, these. Who knows what they’re supposed to mean.”
The late Luigi Meneghello soon became nonchalant about Catholicism, but he was a serious, Fascist youth who at 18 won a prize for a laudatory essay on Fascist Doctrine sponsored by the Italian government. In 1943 he served in the Italian Army. Yet when his unit disbanded before the end of the year, he joined the anti-Fascist partisans.
He is one of the few Italian writers, according to his excellent and informative translator Frederika Randall, to have written autobiographically about a Fascist education—in a book titled Fiori Italiani. He also wrote about his time as a partisan in I piccoli maestri, a book that was made into a 1998 film. Deliver Us was the first of Meneghello’s 18 books, published in 1963.
This volume does not take up either of these subjects. Rather it is a contemplative memoir written not to celebrate triumph or struggle but to commemorate a former way of life. Although he is a generation younger than I. B. Singer and Vladimir Nabokov, Meneghello’s dreamy memoir of childhood imbued with a now-extinct culture reminded me of Singer’s more compact A Little Boy in Search of Love and Nabokov’s Speak Memory.
Luigi Meneghello was born to a schoolteacher and an auto mechanic in 1922, the year of Mussolini’s march on Rome. He grew up, as Randall notes, “in a world in some ways closer to the peasant Italy of the Middle Ages than to the twenty-first century urban sprawl that characterizes the region today.” Catholicism was a factor in daily life as much as the weather—Meneghello begins his narrative with a description of a thunderstorm characteristic of the region that marks one of his periodic returns to the home in which he grew up. “The bathroom was unknown,” he writes, in one of his recurrent references to excretory matters. “When you were dirty you washed under the faucet in the courtyard, and in exceptional circumstances you had a bath in the tub in the laundry room.”
Meneghello left Malo when he was 25. He had met Katia Bleier, a Jewish Auschwitz survivor from Yugoslavia. They married and, in 1947, traveled together to England where the author became what he terms a “dispatriate.” Given an opportunity to do research at the University of Reading, he founded the university’s Department of Italian Studies and stayed, staying in touch with the companions of his youth with frequent visits.
Unless you’re an absolute devotee of all things Italian, Deliver Us—reportedly Meneghello’s “best-loved” book—is a very long slog and one that I would not have stuck with were I not interested in northeastern Italy and had I not been told that it was a classic of Italian literature. Without a strong narrative line, the text consists of short, personal vignettes and historical, anthropological, and linguistic musings that are sometimes engaging but lose much in translation.
One problem for a contemporary reader is that so much of Meneghello’s personal and ethnographic interests have, since 1963, been explored so extensively by others. Some details of Italian circle jerks and sexual confessions, marriages, affairs, and cuckoldings are picturesque at first. “My companions who stayed in Malo would get together in the pastures or on the slopes behind the creek and take part in clocked speed trials,” Meneghello writes in a characteristic passage. “Gastone always won. Ampelio, whose father would lock him up in his room to keep him from taking part in these contests, watched from his window, which looked out toward the creek, and did his best to participate from afar, although he was not in the running.”
Episodes like these must have read as highly provocative before Portnoy’s Complaint, but in 2011, episodes in the sexual lives of Gigi and Sandro and Bruno and Guido and the rest of the Compagnia soon become puerile and tiresome. The priests in Malo, too, seem old hat, because we’ve read so much more about them since 1963. And it’s unsatisfying to find the women—mothers, servants, girls, prospective wives—serving mostly as props rather than protagonists in Meneghello’s ethography. They are silent, largely uncharacterized, and lifeless.
Malo (population circa 6000 at the time of Meneghello’s youth) is situated northeast of Verona in the province of Vicenza. During Meneghello’s childhood, most people spoke in the Vicentino dialect, then Italian. Graduates of the liceo and fervent churchgoers were also quite familiar with Latin. One of the most intriguing threads of his memoir is Meneghello’s examination of the ways these three different ways of speaking permeate his society, binding it together as well as effecting subtle separations.
These linguistic reflections are, unfortunately, of limited interest to those of us who don’t have a firm grounding in Italian. Much of the rest of pre-war life in towns like Malo has been beautifully and extensively depicted by masters of the Italian cinema. Deliver Us is one of those books by an honorable and highly literate man that, in the end, feels more like a duty than a delight to read.
Helen Epstein is a student of memoir. Her books, including Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History, can be found here.