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Monday, November 17, 2014

John Fante: an American writer in Rome, in the 1950s



Italian-American writer John Fante [1909, near Chieti - 1983] was in Rome in the summer of 1957, and again in 1960, on the latter occasion for a stint as a screenwriter with Italian film mogul Dino de Laurentiis.


Although his work was never broadly popular in the United States, at the time of his Rome trip he had written several novels that had been greeted with some measure of critical approval, including Wait Until Spring, Bandini [1938] and Ask the Dust [1938], as well as a well-received book of short stories, Dago Red [1940].  H.L. Mencken, the mercurial editor of the influential journal American Mercury, was a mentor, friend, and life-long correspondent, as was Carey McWilliams, author of Factories in the Field and Ill Fares the Land,
whose elegant, poetic prose and commitment to America's rural underclass was a feature of his widely admired books,


Fante lived most of his life in or around Los Angeles, and Hollywood was an ever-present temptation, especially for a writer whose novels didn't sell very well.  Yet he had always considered the screenplay inferior to the novel--and the short story--and despite dabbling for brief periods in screenwriting over the years, he had for the most part resisted the allure of the silver screen.  His reluctance diminished somewhat as he aged, and in the 1950s and 1960s he authored a number of screenplays, including Walk on the Wild Side [1962], from the Nelson Algren novel.  That one was actually made into a film.  His favorite novelists were Steinbeck, Hemingway, James T. Farrell and, among Italian writers, Ignazio Silone. 

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1957, the film Full of Life made Fante a valued Hollywood commodity, and its success was influential in getting him film work abroad, first in Naples and Rome in 1957, then in Paris, and finally in Rome in 1960.  His 1957 project was a script for a Columbia Pictures comedy, The Roses, set in Naples and to star Jack Lemmon.  On that trip, he reached Rome on July 27 and made his way to via Veneto's Hotel Excelsior, once the headquarters of the German occupation during the war.  That evening he wrote to his wife, Joyce: "I don't know what to say about Rome that might give a strong impression.  I have already seen it too much in films. I do like its free-bouncing atmosphere, the fact that now, at 2 in the morning the streets are filled with people walking slowly God knows where, and little Fiats whizzing along crazily at frightening speeds,  No headlights are allowed at night, just those dim little parking lights--no horns either, and I even doubt that there are special traffic laws.  You just do the best you can, in a car or walking." 
At home in Los Angeles

Via Veneto, he continued, "is jammed with tables and chairs, people sitting, talking, drinking.  There is a heavy inroad of tourists that somehow spoils the original vitality."  Fante had recently visited Copenhagen, and he comments in this letter about that city's cleanliness.  "I think if a loose piece of paper fell  into the street the mayor would lose his job....The Romans are not so clean, but they seem considerably more sophisticated.  Nobody really cares about anything in Rome--I gathered this right away." 


In August 1957, in another letter to Joyce, this one from Naples, he wrote that he had been informed that "I have quite a literary reputation in Italy, especially in Rome, that Wait Until Spring  has gone into a new edition there, and that people like Ask the Dust best of my books."  He had been interviewed by one of the Rome dailies.  These Rome contacts paid off.  Within a few years later he was at work in Rome on a De Laurentiis project: a script about Navarra, King of Naples. 

Fante, left, with Charles Bukowski, an admirer
He was staying on the Residence Palace Hotel, at via Archimede 69.  "Honey," he wrote to Joyce,   "everything is madness.  I hate this hotel and will be out soon.  I am rested now, but trip was beastly.  Imagine traveling in one plane with 130 Italians.  They scared hell out of me from the moment of departure in New York.  My God, how they wailed, wept, flung arms around friends and relatives down to see them off.  I got the awful feeling we were all doomed." 


Fante had dinner with the film's director, a man named Coletti.  "He is a pleasant, not profound man," wrote Fante.  "He drives one of the biggest cars in Rome--a white 1956 Olds 88 convertible.  Lots of streets are too small for it.  We went to the Coliseum at midnight in the moonlight and looked down upon it, and Coletti muttered a lot of clichés about all that blood, and the poor martyrs, etc.  It is a frightful hole."

"This is a lousy hotel," he went on.  "Nice, clean, etc, but full of fat Catholic broads all fired up about touring the Vatican.  Strictly American, but, naturally the management won't serve American coffee, though 95 percent of the guests are from the states."

"Maybe I'm not wildly enthusiastic about Rome but I do like it.  There is something here--people call it 'the color of Rome'--a gold-on-red tint implanted in buildings that gives it an almost suffocatingly beautiful aspect.  This, coupled with the constant presence of green in trees, shrubs, vines evokes some lovely sights, specially in a background of Roman ruins.  Certainly it is more beautiful than Paris--and now that I've said it, I'll say no more." 

By the middle of August he had settled into a room at via Rusticucci 14, only meters from the Vatican.  "Life in Rome so far has been a journey through the stomach," he wrote.  God, how we eat.  No denying I've gained weight...."  He and his son Nick, who had joined him, were enjoying the city's eateries.  "In this area of the Vatican there are dozens and dozens of small trattoria, or little cafes where the food is exquisite.  We plan to try them all out."
About a month later, he was critical of the fare:  "It is very hard to eat correctly here.  They will sneak oil into your food, and they can't understand how anyone can do without it and try to prove you wrong."  And "you have no idea of how often I find my coffee sweetened to the waiter's taste.  They just do it their way.  You have to stand guard over your soup like a cop, lest a waiter charge you and submerge the soup in cheese."

Fante found it hard to sleep.  "The place is terribly noisy everywhere and one must get used to it.  As for all that I have seen, I have not quite reacted to anything.  I get the odd feeling of walking through post-cards--a one dimensional contact with the past.  None of it moves me with any force.  But the sky is always exquisite, dazzling white clouds rolling past.  The nights are warm and eerily unreal, almost too perfect.  I would say this is a more beautiful city than Paris, but somehow it is not charged with the electricity of Paris.  It is useless to try and see everything.  I am told it is the job of the lifetime and I believe it." 

He was unimpressed by the Vatican.  "The ridiculous thing about the experience is that one walks away not particularly astonished.  It has been over-sold.  Whole armies of priests and nuns find it enormously delightful, but just plain culpable Christians failed to respond in kind."

Fante was never at a loss for words, and his letters home contain still more about Rome and Italy.  Here's a final excerpt:  "Incidentally, if you never hear more from me on this subject, blame the Italians.  They are simply not reliable.  They make dates, promises, avowals, and you never hear from them again.  It has happened to me often in my short stay here." 

Bill


[These excerpts are from John Fante, Selected Letters, 1931-1981, ed. Seamus Cooney [Harper Collins, 1991.]



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