ince my early teens, I had free access to my father’s bookshelves. I have been an avid reader since childhood. My father kept feeding me books of fables and fairy tales, abridged editions of Italian and foreign masterpieces. The latter, children’s editions of “Treasure Island,” “Around the World in Eighty Days,” “White Fang,” “The Call of the Wild,” “The Ring of the Nibelung,” to quote just a few, were, of course, in Italian translation. As a young boy, I remember constantly standing on a chair and hunting for enticing titles in front of the walnut bookcase, its glass doors wide open.
My father was a keen reader of crime stories, so there were Italian translations (his knowledge of English stopped at a few greetings and some basic expressions) of books by Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Perry Mason stories by Erle Stanley Gardner, his favorite author of the genre. They were sitting on the shelves beside works by Archibald Cronin and, most of all, an array of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels, which he would read and re-read, chuckling to himself. After digesting accounts of gruesome homicides and meticulous investigations (I never succeeded in identifying the culprit until it was revealed in last page), I decided it was time to investigate the cause of my father’s humor when he sat down to read Wodehouse after dinner. And it was my turn to start chuckling to myself.
That was my first acquaintance with literature — strange that a young Italian’s first encounter with literature should be books in translation. One might ask whether, after being transported into another language, it could still be considered English literature. After I progressed further into the study of English, I discovered that some of the translations I had read well deserved to be ascribed to the category of rewritings of the original stories. It is widely known, for instance, that one of the best-known Italian translators, writer Elio Vittorini, had only a basic knowledge of English (which he had learned from a typographer who had worked for the U.S. Army during the war, and then during the occupation of Italy by the Allies). As the story goes, he would ask a professional translator, Lucia Rodocanachi, to make a word-for-word translation of a novel. He would later rewrite it in his own words. That is why, when in my early twenties I re-read John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat” in English (an Italian translation of which had been published, “signed” by Vittorini, in 1948), I had the clear impression of reading quite a different story. Lucia Rodocanachi was a “ghost” translator not only for Vittorini, but also for other eminent Italian writers who “signed” translations of American or English literary masterpieces for major Italian publishers. They got fame, honor, and money, while poor Rodocanachi was relegated to obscurity, with fees that rarely could make ends meet. None of her famous “clients” ever publicly acknowledged her strenuous work.
It was in 1968, at eighteen, during my first year at the Faculty of Foreign Languages of the University of Lecce, under the guidance of Professor Vanna Gentili, that my eyes and mind began to open to the treasures of English literature, from the Beowulf saga to modern times. That first year, Professor Gentili, a former student of eminent Professor Mario Praz and later one of his closest assistants, introduced her “Leccese” students to modern English narrative, with a series of lectures on “The condition of English youth in contemporary fiction.” She proposed we read and discuss Alan Sillitoe’s “The loneliness of the long distance runner” (1960) and “Saturday night and Sunday morning” (1958), and David Storey’s “This sporting life” (1960). Moreover, she managed to have film adaptations of the three literary works screened at a cinema in Lecce, in English, just for us students, an absolute novelty for a small university town like ours. They were stories of youth, rebellion, oppression, and disillusionment in post-war Britain, which disclosed the reality of everyday British life — quite different to the British life that we ordinarily saw portrayed at the cinema, on TV, and in glossy magazines.
Over the four-year course, Professor Gentili, who was born in Rome on September 15 1927, encouraged us to read as much we could in English, from Chaucer to Milton, from Dr. Johnson and Donne to Keats, from Yeats to T.S Eliot, from Defoe to Dickens, to John Osborne to the Angry Young Men. And, of course, Shakespeare! I still have a few collections of Shakespeare’s plays, published in the late sixties by Methuen and Cambridge University Press. The Cambridge University Shakespeare collections bear on their unmistakable red covers Picasso’s 1964 black ink sketch of the bard.
Professor Gentili would board a train from Rome to Lecce every week (she also taught at the Sapienza University and ended her academic career at the “Università Roma 3”). She would appear in the lecture hall, often breathless but always energetic and bubbling over with contagious enthusiasm, wrapped in an ample woolen overcoat, her fair wavy bob rearranged by the wind, and a bag full of books, which she would lend us, or she would leave on the shelves of her department rooms. We were always welcome to go in (the door was never locked) and sit down and read at the long table in the anteroom of her office.
During WWII, young Vanna, no more than a teenager at the time, had helped the Italian Resistance in the fight against the Nazis, acting as a “staffetta” (dispatch rider) on her bike. Around the end of the 1940s, she met the poet and translator Mario Socrate, who would become her husband and lifelong companion. They were both active in the Italian Communist Party (PCI). They left the PCI after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. However, she remained a communist for the rest her life. Always intellectually honest and daring, she was among the few Italian scholars to talk about Ezra Pound’s poetry, quite unpopular among Italian academics during those years.
I still treasure three of Vanna Gentili’s publications: a study of Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella” (1965), which rescued me with a providential illumination many years later when I translated a novel by the Australian writer Michael Wilding, and her superlative essay “Le figure della pazzia nel teatro elisabettiano” (1969), a fascinating analysis of figure of folly in Elizabethan theatre. I also have her excellent book on English grammar, which she co-wrote with Carlo Izzo.
Vanna Gentili loved English poetry (her Italian translation of T.S. Eliot’s “The love Song of J. Albert Prufrock” is outstanding), and she possessed the ability to instill this love in her students too. She had the sensibility of a poet, albeit with a taste for parody. In 1982, at the time of the “Calvi Affaire” (the Italian banker found dead, hanging under the Blackfriars Bridge in London), she wrote “Men and Bits of Paper,” modelled after T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”. It is a re-writing of the more famous poem in the form of parody. The desolate urban landscape described by Eliot is dominated by the presence of the lifeless body of the banker hanging from the bridge girders. As Giorgio Melchiori wrote in her obituary in “La Repubblica,” on November 23 1999, the day after Professor Gentili’s death, “what strikes most in the desolate ending of the poem (“it is nobody’s funeral, because there is no one to bury”) is its bitter validity in present times. Those verses are a reflection on the capacity of poetic language to give a permanent value to a news item: they are a lesson on the function of literature.”
Sometimes life changes thanks to a series of fortunate circumstances. In my case, it was when a small university, at the southern end of Italy, decided to hire, if only for a few years (conveniently at the right time for me), a charismatic and gentle mentor, to whom I will never be grateful enough.