Pre-Mussolini, most Italians couldn’t understand each other

Towards the end of Dandelions, Thea Lenarduzzi’s imaginative and deeply affecting memoir, the author quotes her grandmother’s remark that there are tante Italie – many Italys. ‘Mine is different to hers, which is different to my mother’s, which is different to my father’s, and so on down the queue,’ she writes. These Italys – of fascismo, of Garibaldi, of emigrants living in Sheffield and Manchester, of 31 dialects – are not far-flung historical oddities confined to documentaries or textbooks but are, in Lenarduzzi’s account, the patchwork story of one family. Sitting at her Nonna’s (grandmother’s)table with ‘the blinds pulled down against the morning sun and the rest of the family

Do Russians support Putin’s war?

Everyone is calling the conflict in Ukraine Putin’s war and insisting that it has nothing to do with the Russians themselves. The nightmare would end – they tell us – if only Vladimir Putin were to disappear in a coup. They used to say the same thing not only about Adolf Hitler but also Benito Mussolini. Yet both the Fuhrer and the Duce would have been as powerless as the speakers at Hyde Park Corner if they had not enjoyed the willing consent of a critical mass of Germans and Italians. Meanwhile devout Catholics like my Italian wife recite Psalm 109 – the one used to curse the outstandingly evil

The joy of French car boot sales

Every Saturday morning Michael rises at four and drives down to the Côte d’Azur to the Magic World car boot sale. He goes early to see the bric-à-brac unloaded in order to pounce on any interesting old bottles, which he collects. His collection of 18th-century champagne bottles is probably second to none. While hunting bottles, he might also impulsively buy something that tickles his fancy. His knowledge of old things is wide and deep and occasionally he unearths something that would make an Antiques Roadshow crowd gasp with avarice. Then he goes for a swim in the Mediterranean. He’s back at home by ten. Last month he came back with

The horrors of 1922 included atrocities, assassinations and the rise of Mussolini

Sixty years ago the Daily Express ran a regular feature entitled ‘Just Fancy That!’ Each short segment highlighted some strange coincidence or weird incident that would hook readers’ interests. Human oddities, unlucky mischances, freaks of nature and improbable statistics were dealt out every day. It made for easy reading, but sometimes gave pause for thought. Nick Rennison has adapted the ‘Just Fancy That!’ formula to make a handy book for the bedside table in the visitors’ bedroom. In crisp and evocative snatches, he gives monthly summaries of global events, domestic episodes, newspaper sensations, sporting triumphs and cultural acclaim during 1922. He writes in the friendly tone, tinged with the sense

Dark days in the Balkans: life under Enver Hoxha and beyond

For many in the West, Albania remains as remote and shadowy as the fictional Syldavia of the Tintin comics. The country came into existence only in 1912, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Its first ruler, King Zog, was ousted by Mussolini when he invaded in 1939. Hitler used Albania as a springboard for the Nazi invasion of Greece. The national resistance against Italy and Germany was led by the Albanian partisan supremo Enver Hoxha (pronounced ‘Hodger’). After expelling the hated occupiers, in 1946 the artful Hoxha proclaimed himself head of a newborn socialist republic. With his dangerous wife Nexhmije (the ‘Lady Macbeth of the Balkans’) he turned Albania

Churchill did admire Mussolini

In his ruthless demolition of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s new Churchill biography in last week’s Spectator, the historian Andrew Roberts pours scorn on the ‘insinuation that Churchill had fascist leanings in the 1920s’ as it is not supported by ‘any actual evidence (for there is none)’. Well, however justified his hatchet job of Wheatcroft’s book is in general, Roberts is deeply mistaken about Churchill and fascism. Like so many in the 1920s and well into the 1930s, from all sides of the political divide, Churchill was a fervent admirer of the former revolutionary socialist Benito Mussolini and the fascist movement which he founded in 1919. Fascism was a nationalist rather than internationalist

Italians believe the coronavirus outbreak shows their superiority

During times of contagion, you begin to understand why fascist salutes were once so popular. The foot-tap is replacing the handshake in parts of China. Here in Italy, which has far more cases of coronavirus than any countries except China, Iran and South Korea, a left-wing government is telling Italians not to shake hands. It reminds me of 1922, when Mussolini came to power after the first world war had killed 20 million and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 at least as many again. The Duce replaced the handshake with the Roman salute. The handshake, according to fascist ideology, had to go because it was unhygienic and bourgeois. The

Repo women

Aren’t you getting a little sick of the white cube? I am. I realised how sick last week after blundering around White Cube Bermondsey, where the walls are so pristine no label is allowed to sully them, struggling to work out what I was looking at. I was reduced to photographing the works in order and tracing my itinerary in ink on the ground plan — shoot first, ask questions later — and even then I had to keep getting the attendants to tell me where exactly on the plan I was. One of them admired my wiggly drawing. Well, it was a surrealist exhibition. Dreamers Awake sets out to

In defiance of Il Duce

The details of Mussolini’s fascism are perhaps not quite as familiar in this country as they might be. Even quite well-meaning people have a tendency to treat him as, in part, a joke. Just how horrible the period was needs to be explained with reference to individual lives. Caroline Moorehead’s book about the Rosselli family, who were central to the principled resistance, has a valuable and sobering subject. They were intellectual and idealistic Jews. The matriarch, Amelia, from an eminent Venetian family, had married a clever and dissolute man. They had three sons together before Amelia had enough of his philandering, and left him with the children. She settled in

Nazis and the dark arts

When he came to power Hitler had a dowser scour the Reich Chancellery for cancerous ‘death rays’. Before flying to Scotland Rudolf Hess had his horoscope drawn up by a personal astrologer. Himmler backed research on the Holy Grail and medieval devil worship (‘Luciferism’) and sent an SS expedition by the explorer Dr Ernst Schafer to Tibet in 1938 to investigate the ancient Indo-German ‘Aryan’ origins of Buddhism. Himmler also founded the SS Witches Division, which collected evidence in eastern Europe in the second world war that Teutonic ‘wise women’ had been persecuted and burnt in a Jewish-Catholic Inquisition plot against volkisch German culture and blood. In 1939 Goebbles sat

On the make

Rudolfo Paolozzi was a great maker. In the summer, he worked almost without stopping in the family’s ice-cream shop, making gallon after gallon of vanilla custard. In the slack winter months, when the shop made its money on cigarettes and sweets, he built radios from odds and sods. It was on one of these homemade radios that he heard Mussolini’s declaration, on 10 June 1940, that Italy, the country he had left for Scotland 20 years before, had entered the war. That night a mob attacked the ice-cream shop at 10 Albert Street, off Leith Walk in Edinburgh. The family lived above the shop and later, Rudolfo’s son Eduardo, then

Umberto Eco really tries our patience

Colonna, the protagonist of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, is the first to admit he is a loser. A middle-aged literary nègre, he dreams of writing his own book, but can’t break the habit of alluding to others’ work: he even refers to himself as a ‘man without qualities’. One day in 1992, he is commissioned to ghostwrite a memoir about a newspaper being launched in Milan. Domani (‘Tomorrow’) will never be published: a tycoon who finances it plans to use it as a blackmail tool in his shady dealings. The proposed title of the memoir, Domani: Yesterday, sets the tone for this pacy book that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Double thinking, double lives

This hefty volume is misleadingly titled. It is not an escapist sort of travel book, ushering the visitor around the homelands and houses of the Italian literati. It is a selection of the author’s previous literary articles, mostly book reviews for the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, and believe me it is hardly a sunshine ramble or a splash in the pool. On the contrary, it is an immensely learned, elegantly written rehearsal of the significance of 23 Italian writers, from Dante in the 13th century to Antonio Tabucchi in our own, and as such it amounts I think to an assessment of the

A passion for men and intrigue

Moura Budberg (1892–1974) had an extraordinary life. She was born in the Poltava region of Ukraine, and as a young woman she danced at the Sanssouci Palace at Potsdam with the Russian Tsar and the German Kaiser. In her twenties by 1917, she had a well-placed aristocratic husband, two children and several fine homes in different countries. This might have been enough for most of us, but for Moura it was merely a preamble — we are only on page 15. Revolution, espionage, embezzlement, murder, executions, plenty of intimacy and arrests by several different nations take us through a few more chapters. She surges on, driven by her twin passions

Be different, be original: that’s what makes a popular politician

I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like being a political leader. I find this difficult because I would be so utterly ill suited to the role. I’m too lazy, too disorganised and too undisciplined to be remotely credible at it. But the area in which I would fail most completely would be in the projection of a suitable image. Not only would I be incapable of saying the right things at the right time; I don’t have the appearance or bearing or dress sense to convey calm, self-confidence and authority. I suppose you could say much the same of Adolf Hitler were it not for his gift

Ezra Pound – the fascist years

‘There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?/ They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb, /Jumbled boulder and weed’, was Basil Bunting’s 1949 opinion of Pound’s Cantos; but as the sometime friend of Pound continued: ‘There they are, you will have to go a long way round / If you want to avoid them.’ This judgment has proved wise. Here we are in 2014, not avoiding one of the most contentious figures in 20th-century literature: poet, midwife of Eliot’s The Waste Land, economist, translator, committed Fascist, anti-Semite, avid supporter of James Joyce and Mussolini, later alleged traitor to the United States of America and —

A Hello! magazine history of Venice

When Napoleon Bonaparte captured Venice in 1797, he extinguished what had been the most successful regime in the history of the western world. The Venetian Republic had lasted over 1,000 years — longer than ancient Rome — without a revolution, a coup d’état or a successful foreign invasion.  Yet after 1797 it was never to be independent again: it was given to Austria, taken back by France, allotted once more to Austria and finally, in 1866, handed over to the young Kingdom of Italy. Most visitors to Venice are interested in its distant past, in the struggles to build a city on the mudbanks, in the glories of its gothic

Soldier, poet, lover, spy: just the man to translate Proust

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s Englishing of Proust — widely and immediately agreed to be one of the greatest literary translations of all time — very nearly didn’t happen. Scott Moncrieff only suggested the project to his publisher after they rejected a collection of satirical squibs in verse (sample: ‘Sir Philip Sassoon is the Member for Hythe;/ He is opulent, generous, swarthy and lithe.’). Like any good hack, he had another suggestion up his sleeve: there was this character Proust just starting to be published — making a bit of noise in France. Constable didn’t immediately see the value: ‘They replied that they did not see much use in publishing a

The Italians who won the war – against us

Italy entered the second world war in circumstances very similar to those in which it signed up for the first. Its leaders waited for nine months after the outbreak until they thought they had identified the winner and extracted promises of territorial rewards. In 1915 they guessed rightly and attacked Austria, their formal ally for the past 33 years, and they seemed to have chosen correctly again in June 1940, when France was already beaten and the British had evacuated Dunkirk. Italy’s new enemies were even older allies than Austria. Without the military aid of the French and the diplomatic support of Britain, Italy would never have become unified between

Churchill was as mad as a badger. We should all be thankful

Land sakes! Another book about Winston Churchill? Really? Give us a break, the average reader may think. Actually though, as title and subtitle suggest, this isn’t just another biographical study. It’s at once odder and more conventional than that. More conventional because, in some ways, it is just another biographical study. Odder because — instead of being a straightforward discussion of Churchill’s literary work — it sees literature as the key to his biography. More than that, its author seems to think he has hit on a ‘new methodology’ in which ‘we can write political history as literary history’. Well, perhaps. At one end of that notion is the banality