Saturday, October 4, 2014

Beppe Severgnini's "La Bella Figura": Book Review

This Italian columnist examines the "sophisticated exhibitionism" endemic to his nation's attitudes. In short chapters, organized on the clever conceit of a ten-day sightseeing excursion, each day with three stops, he takes the reader around the Italian mind, and a bit of its landscape and sights. We learn about the past and present, sure. But Severgnini's humorous but heartfelt attention remains focused on the crucial, subtle differences between what we visitors interpret and what natives such as himself discern as harsh truths underlying the stereotypes, the quick impressions, the calculated charms. 

The format of his brief entries recalls earlier journalists who used the newspaper column as a feuilleton to entertain the reader, while providing a gentle dose of wisdom or insight along with wit. The brevity of this style, on the other hand, can reveal its shortcomings. He wants to provoke laughs and knowing nods, but it needs more profundity. As "a field guide to the Italian mind," while this lacks the depth of more serious reports such as Tobias Jones' "The Dark Heart of Italy" (2003) or "The Italians" by John Hooper (2015), it does have the advantage, as Severgnini strives to attain, of balancing "love with interest"; in his first chapter, the author distinguishes modern accounts as either "chronicles of a love affair, or diaries of disappointment." The love affairs tend to be American women "who display love without interest" as they gush over a "seasonal Eden." British men "show interest without love" as they castigate the feckless populace "governed by a public administration from hell." Instead, Severgnini presents "an offbeat purgatory" able to churn out "both Botticellis and Berlusconis." (3) His 2005 book, translated smoothly by Giles Watson, as these phrases show, sparkles with journalistic flair and style, but it skirts superficiality.

When explaining the power of the family to slow maturity among its coddled children, enable nepotism to clog their hiring and delay any firing, this book works well. Similarly, it documents how the national mood endures to cut "la bella figura" in public so confidently, despite increasing traffic, economic stagnation, unresolved immigration, and economic malaise. This spirit inspires Severgnini to take comfort in this anarchic civility, with annoying but endearing pride. But this book falls short when it tries to examine Botticelli's power on display, or the reason Berlusconi's takeover of the media and then his nation succeeded. Severgnini sidles into discussions of sexuality, feminism, Catholicism (I like how this book cites not only Updike, Orson Welles, and Thomas Aquinas, but also Yogi Bear), and suburban sprawl, but whenever he begins to open up promising directions demanding investigation, he steps aside and rushes on, as if his word count reached, whirling to another topic. 

So, while I did enjoy this casual but heartfelt series of reflections, I closed this with the sense one might have after conversing with an intelligent local, perfectly bilingual (thanks to translation here), who had much to hold forth on, but who, the morning after, left not as much to ponder as the previous night's discussions might have led one to expect. Yet, I did turn the pages with pleasure, and the flow of information proves easygoing. I recommend this book with some reservation. I'd supplement it with fellow journalist Hooper's post-Berlusconi report, even if he's one of those proper "British men.
(Amazon US 9-28-14)

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