Romano Bilenchi on Elio Vittorini

An Excerpt from Amici: Vittorini, Rosai e altri incontri

In 1934, I moved to Florence. I worked nights and had my whole afternoon free. Vittorini was just finishing his translation of Lawrence. He spent the first ten days of every month reading, studying, or writing whatever he liked, and spent the other days translating English and American authors; that's how he made a living. We'd see each other practically every afternoon, latish, and stroll through the city, talking about politics and the books we were reading. Then we'd go to the Giubbe Rosse, a café frequented mainly by contributors to Solaria and foreign writers and artists staying in Florence. I had started my career as a novelist in circles that were unfriendly to the Solarians, but over time my views had shifted and I was increasingly anxious to meet writers who were different from those I had read up till then, to evaluate their opinions, to get some idea of what was being produced outside of Italy. Before long I'd made friends with Montale, with Alessandro Bonsanti, with Arturo Loria. They alerted me to magazines, books, and movements that Vittorini, by this point focused on the English authors, was leaving behind; and from all of them I drew lessons and nourishment.

For a long time our lives ran smoothly, unchanging; the same walks, the same readings, the same women. We often said to each other that no one was better than we were at putting into practice that old Venetian proverb: "Better to let the house burn down than give up a habit."

Somewhere toward the end of 1935 or the beginning of 1936, Elio first met Vasco Pratolini (whom I'd met once as a boy) on Via Toscanella where he lived close to Rosai's house, and it must have been none other than Ottone [Rosai] who introduced us. Vittorini was impressed with the liveliness, the intelligence of the things that Vasco wrote, he'd sensed from the ideas set forth and those merely foreshadowed that this was a young man willing and able to head in the right direction, and he did everything and anything he could think of until he was finally able to meet him in person. This marked the beginning of a warm friendship that lasted until Elio's death. I seem to remember that they met between the first or the second of Pratolini's stays in the sanitarium. Elio patiently explained to Vasco what Fascism really was and that its only true alternative could be Communism. If I'm not mistaken, it was Vittorini who got Vasco's first story published. While Pratolini was in the sanitarium, now Sondalo, for the second time, he and Elio wrote each other every day.

When Vasco came back to Florence, after our usual daily walk Elio and I would go practically every afternoon to a little café called Da Tonino, located in Via Martelli and frequented by old magistrates, whores, and reporters. We'd sit at a table with Ottone Rosai, Bruno Rosai, Berto Ricci, Pratolini, Renzo Grazzini, Bruno Becchi, and a few others.


The friendship between me and Vittorini flourished especially in 1936 and the years that followed, as if a seed long buried underground had germinated more luxuriantly than one that grew and flowered more normally. From 1936 to 1938, except for his short trip to Sardinia—a journey he took as part of a group, as the prize for winning a literary competition—we were never far apart. Even during the summer he'd go to Bocca di Magra and I'd go to Forte dei Marmi, and we saw each other frequently. I remember that I cycled over to see him often with Silvio Guarnieri and his wife.

I'd gotten married and I lived in a house near Elio's, not much more than half a kilometer away. Not a day passed that I, after working until 5:30, didn't go by to get him, or else he would come to my house to take slow walks together around the Fortezza Da Basso and then go on to the Giubbe Rosse. Elio and I enjoyed talking with Montale, Tommaso Landolfi, and Antonio Delfini and every day we would meet someone new there: we met Camillo Sbarbaro, the painter Arturo Tosi, Giorgio Pasquali, and Gianfranco Contini. They all made for pleasurable company. I have a great debt of gratitude to Montale for what he taught me at the time, just as I profited from my friendships with Carlo Bo, Mario Luzi, and Leone Traverso.


Elio was generous and he also found joy in the accomplishments of others. He appreciated my short stories. He said that they were the Italian counterparts of certain American writers' and that it was important that I had achieved those results without knowing those writers, nor was he therefore ever willing to let me read them. I had taken a new and admirable path: I should continue under my own steam. One afternoon he came by to take me out for a cup of coffee. I was just starting to write Conservatorio di Santa Teresa. I asked him to wait a little while: I wanted to finish writing a sentence. There was a stack of pages on a table. Elio started reading them. "Why, this is a beautiful short story," he said. "I'm looking for a novel," I told him. "That was just a beginning, then I headed off in another direction." "These are important new developments for you, plus it's a finished story. There's a landscape here that didn't used to exist in you. I'll take it to Alessandro Bonsanti, for Letteratura," Elio said. "He needs short stories." "At least let me rewrite it," I said to him. "It's a first draft." "I know you," said Elio. "If you rewrite it, you'll transform it or you'll throw it away." He folded the pages, put them in his pocket, and added: "I won't give it back to you." He wouldn't even let me correct the galleys. That was "Anna e Bruno," and it was July of 1937.

Around then Landolfi, Vittorini, Delfini, and I decided to write a novel together. I was supposed to write the first chapter, Vittorini and Delfini would write two more, then Landolfi would write the ending. Each of us would narrate it in our own style, taking the plot of the book as far as he thought right, then the others would carry on from there. We came to an understanding and, at night, Delfini, Landolfi, and Vittorini would often come to see me at the newspaper to talk a little about the work in its broad outlines. I'd already started on it when, dining together one night, Delfini challenged Luzi to a duel because of some misunderstood phrase. I still have the written challenge: a few words scrawled on a scrap of paper. Landolfi, having fun at Delfini's expense, really wanted the duel to take place. But the brief incident didn't rise to the threshold of a duel, and Delfini's seconds, Montale and Sebastiano Timpanaro, wound up settling the matter with Luzi's seconds, Alessandro Parronchi and me, and all it took was a simple verbal clarification, as was only right. Both Delfini, in vengeance, and after him Landolfi, in a fit of rage at having missed the sight of "the soil of Florence drenched with the blood of that Emilian swine," withdrew from the project and the novel wasn't written.

Elio had a very particular concept of literature (entirely and inevitably directed toward a search for symbols, in spite of heroic attempts to set out in other directions) and he also had a very particular concept of literary history. Often he couldn't handle being contradicted. That may explain his rejection of Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard. Occasionally I'd hear someone ringing my doorbell. There I'd find a Brit or a Frenchman or an American sent to see me by Vittorini. They'd ask me to tell them about twentieth-century Italian fiction. "But didn't you ask Vittorini about that?" I would ask. They'd start laughing. "We talked about it for two hours," they would reply, "but then suddenly, as if someone had just called him to order, Vittorini fell silent. With a snicker he told us: 'Maybe I'm too sectarian and I have it all wrong. Go talk to my friend Bilenchi, he's more objective than I am and he can put matters into better historical context.'"


The war broke out in Spain; we feared for "the Reds" and we suffered as much as was possible. Vittorini and Pratolini wrote articles against Franco until they no longer could, signing them with their own first and last names or with pseudonyms: Abulfeda for Elio, Juvenilis and Kinopa for Vasco. We talked furiously about it every day, and Elio's thoughts went to Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Lenin. Then, as never before, it seemed clear to us that the only war worth fighting was a civil war. But Elio wasn't satisfied with writing and arguing about it. He and Vasco made up their minds to go and fight for the Spanish Republicans. They came up with a specific plan to leave the country. The Paris Expo had been announced. Pratolini, disguised behind the letterhead of Il Bargello, offered articles free of charge to Il Regime Fascista, the most impeccably credentialed publication in Italy; the paper's editors, taking on good faith any letter from the weekly publication of Florence's Fascist federation, issued to Vasco—though his name was unknown outside of Florence and he wasn't even enrolled in the newspaper guild—credentials as their foreign correspondent. This document soothed any and all doubts, and police headquarters issued Pratolini a passport. Vittorini applied for a passport in turn, but he was turned down. He went to see a functionary at police headquarters countless times, a certain Dottore Rosselli or Rossetti, I can't remember which, who was supposed to process that application and every time promised he'd take care of it and never did.

Vittorini told me about his plan too, and asked me if I wanted to go to Spain with him. I hated Franco as much as he did, I considered that to be a war worth fighting, but Elio's plan struck me as unattainable. We belonged to no anti-fascist organizations, we had no one to turn to; once we were in Spain, it would be hard to explain our struggle, how we had come to our ideals. Elio told me he was in touch with a few blue-collar workers, that he possessed the Paris address of a person who would help us on our journey into Spain. As the days passed, Elio became increasingly impatient and I clung more firmly to my views. By now it was clear that the democratic nations had betrayed the Republicans out of class interests. That war, possibly the last romantic war to be fought, was being transformed into a dress rehearsal for a looming world war that was going to involve Italy, too: Only then would the time come for us too to fight in our country.

I also went to Colle di Val d'Elsa to ask the advice of a friend who was a factory worker and a Communist. Plenty of his comrades, and he himself, would have liked to go to Spain, but the most important struggle for us Italians would begin here in Italy, and possibly sooner than later. Even as an act of propaganda, our effort wouldn't amount to much: We were little-known writers, complete nobodies outside of Italy. If we had been able to take with us a hundred or so young Fascists willing to announce to the world their dissent from the regime's policies, then our flight from Italy would take on a concrete significance. But to go to Spain, just two or three of us, wasn't worth it. The powerful resources of the Fascist propaganda machine would drown out our feeble voices.

Elio refused to admit defeat and even without a passport remained determined to go to Spain. He told me, one day, that during the summer he'd tried to make it to Corsica with the help of a few fishermen, I seem to remember they were from Bocca di Magra or one of the neighboring villages, but his plan had failed.

Right around that time Elio, Vasco, and I, by this point inseparable, began to read The Class Struggles in France and other writings by Marx that Vittorini had secretly borrowed from an official of the National Library. At the time, Signora Anita Mondolfo, later purged for racial reasons, was the director of the National Library, and I don't remember whether she too was a member of the group. Shortly thereafter, a friend of mine who was also a journalist brought me from Paris the fourteen volumes of Das Kapital in Molitor's translation as well as Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, and I've managed to hold onto this book. This friend worked at the same desk as me, he was a religious man, almost outspoken in his Catholic faith and, perhaps for that very reason, a true anti-fascist.


One afternoon Elio and I were summoned to police headquarters. A commissario, a short, stocky Sicilian who was very well mannered, first delivered a short lecture to both of us on how a good citizen should behave, then, with sigh after sigh, informed us that we had been overheard making the following statements: Fiume was Yugoslavian; General Franco was a subversive, a vulgar butcher and possibly worse than Hitler; Picasso was the greatest painter on earth; Croce was an illustrious thinker, the most important man in Italy. Those were all things that we really had said, Elio and I, alone, one Sunday morning when, in a break from our usual practice, we'd met at the café. It must have been a confidential informer who told the police, a waiter that we'd suspected for some time. Elio admitted to the commissario that he had expressed those opinions and also signed the interview transcript. When he was done, I was questioned next. After pointing out that I didn't care much about Benedetto Croce, that I didn't see a great difference between him and the political class that was governing Italy, because the liberty that he called for was an abstract liberty in the service of a small number of people who ran the economy and the government, not of the people as a whole, the exploited, I did admit having made the other statements attributed to me. At the outbreak of the war in Spain, I said, opinions about Franco had been exceedingly disparate. Some Fascist newspapers and magazines, including Critica fascista, edited by Giuseppe Bottai, had discussed the aggression of the military against the legitimate Spanish government—adducing numerous doubts and concerns—and the then vague possibility of an Italian military intervention in favor of Franco. To me, Franco was not a revolutionary but the grimmest reactionary on the face of the earth and had nothing to do with the Spanish people; he was a general who, in cahoots with the priests and the grand bourgeoisie, was trying to implement a coup against a non-Communist government, a government made up, in fact, of representatives of bourgeois parties.

The commissario wanted me to sign a transcript as well, but I refused. I sat down to wait. The man, stout and of average height, gazed at me sadly, repeating his request from time to time. Hanging on the wall behind him was a portrait of Mussolini. He turned around, pointed to it, and said to me: "This man has saved the fatherland." "If you say so," I replied. "What?" the commissario said, "do you deny that, do you even deny the fatherland?" I replied calmly that we understood the concept of the fatherland, but it seemed excessive to us that a fatherland, all fatherlands, should stand in the way of the tranquility of human beings. As for Picasso, last of all, that was an aesthetic opinion and I didn't have to answer to anyone about that. We didn't talk about Fiume.

I waited curiously to see how this strange episode would end, thinking that a similar scene had played out before the gaze—childish, ironic, and at the same time wise—of Vittorini. After two hours, I lost my patience. I told the commissario either to arrest me or let me go. He said nothing. Then I asked for permission to phone my wife to tell her I'd be late and my lawyer to inform him of the imbroglio into which I'd fallen. "Who is your lawyer?" the commissario asked me. "Giorgio Querci." He was a first-rate lawyer, known widely as a liberal and an anti-fascist. The scene took on pathos. The commissario, deeply moved now, almost with tears in his eyes, opened a cabinet and pointed to a stack of files contained in folders of various colors. "You see," he exclaimed, "these are all anti-fascists. If you start in too, professor, what will become of us then?" After that, he let me go and said farewell with a handshake.

Elio and I had arranged to meet in a small café on Via dell'Ariento. Just a short while before, the policeman had said the same words to him, pulled the same moves, including the wave of the hand toward Mussolini and opening the cabinet door. We were excited and at the same time worried. We tried to reconstruct what had led up to this episode. The previous Sunday, when we had talked about politics, he and I had been alone. The phrases that the commissario had confronted me with were crumbs of a longer discussion, gathered by someone who had probably overheard us as he moved from one table to another. We were imprudent and had been unable to keep our voices low. We also joked a little about the commissario himself and the way he acted. Vittorini was very calm, wholly absorbed, like me, in behaving in a way that would get us out of this alive. We would need to act with cunning, pretend to be Fascists when we were with fanatical and untrustworthy people, and be wary of everyone save for a few friends.

But then Elio thought back on what had happened and, still disappointed that he hadn't managed to reach Spain, spent the next few days in the throes of a furor. He lit into himself, and into me, denouncing his and our overweening ambition. "Just think," he said, "young men like us now are in prison or fighting, and we aren't doing anything practical." In vain, I told him that each of us are born as they are and not as they wish they were, that our path would have more twists and turns, but that if we persisted in our beliefs and our studies, there would be a tomorrow for us as well. "Whores is what we are," Elio said. "We're just a couple of whores. I published an article in Il Bargello entitled 'The Real Culture Is Popular Culture,' and Mussolini, having read and approved it, took it as the basis for establishing the Ministry of Popular Culture. We're just a little red flower in the buttonhole of our master's jacket."

Finally, without a word to anyone, Vittorini resigned from the Fascist Party. He went in to the Montemaggi neighborhood office where he was registered and, saying that he could no longer even formally appear to be a supporter of a regime that relied on spies and the police, he turned in his membership card. Proceedings were begun at once to send him into domestic exile. It was Gioacchino Contri who intervened to save Elio—Contri was a mild-mannered, intelligent man who understood the problems afflicting young people, pushing them to reach outside the narrow boundaries of the political space assigned to them in that period. Contri wrote a letter to Guido Buffarini Guidi, Minister of the Interior, whom he'd known in Pisa as far back as the earliest years of the Fascist movement. This warded off police proceedings against Elio. Contri also insisted that Vittorini—who was very poor and depended in part on the money he managed to scrape together with his articles for Il Bargello to support his wife and two children—go on writing for the newspaper of the Fascist federation, though perhaps under a false byline. Elio gratefully accepted and signed his articles with the same pseudonym, Abulfeda, that he had used other times. Particularly when there was a thorny subject under discussion, all three of us would write the piece together: Elio, Vasco, and me. Contri had given Vittorini complete freedom to pick his topics and develop them as he pleased. To pay for these articles, Contri showed them as having been written by Vasco or by other contributors occasionally published in the magazine, such as Margherita Fasolo and Elsa Bergamaschi, who then turned the money over to Elio.

translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar