Monday, October 6, 2014

Dianne Hales' "La Bella Figura": Book Review

Dianne Hales blends her personal story of her love affair with Italian into an engaging, informative presentation. A quarter-century of studying it and traveling to its homeland combines with her efforts in Marin County and San Francisco to learn more, and to practice, and to finally start to think and act her way into a language that ranks fourth worldwide in foreign study. Not for its numbers, for it is only spoken by 65 million natives, but for its impact upon so much that makes life worth living, it has value.

She makes her point early on. "English, like a big black Magic Marker, declares itself in bold statements and blunt talk. Italian's sleek, fine-pointed quill twirls into delicate curlicues and dramatic flourishes." She advances her claims for its impressive impact. "While other tongues do little more than speak, this lyrical language thrills the ear, beguiles the mind, captivates the heart, enraptures the soul, and comes closer than any other idiom to expressing the essence of what it means to be human." (15-16)

Her chapters range widely, yet share a common theme. While Dante's elevation of his Tuscan dialect to national fame ensured its prominence as the literary criterion, Hales reminds us that other factors also helped promote a shared Italian lingo in a nation unable, for centuries, to unite politically. The academy of La Crusca, the "three crowns" of not only Dante but his comrades Boccaccio and Petrarch, the civilizing mission of Italian itself all gain credit in engaging discussions. Hales tells a clever anecdote about George Eliot on her honeymoon, to show Dante's power, and she has an eye for the telling vignette throughout her book, as she integrates scholarship into a popularized presentation.

Renaissance art gains a cogent look, and Hales sums up a lot of names and productions without falling into lecture mode. Similarly, as someone with near total ignorance of opera, I learned about its ability (as with Dante's verse) to enter into the popular register so intimately, within daily conversation. Cuisine also helps bring Italians closer, and the many linguistic decorations from food and its varieties enter into small talk intricately. Film also brought together the postwar nation as New Wave; Hales celebrates the legacy of Marcello Mastrioanni. So does love, and sex, and the chapter on "la parolacce" delves into the more vulgar, subtle versions of conversation as insult, boasts, or both.

Near the end of this lively 2009 narrative, Hales cites Ernst Pulgram, who in "The Tongues of Italy" argued that the Romans and their descendents ruled the Western world three times: in law and government, in religion, and in art. The fourth, Pulgram and Hales agree, remains a triumph today: the language. This book satisfies, although if Hales had provided an index and suggestions for beginners, these might have enhanced its utility. I wanted a book complementing my studies in French and how one man struggled with it, William Alexander's "Flirting With French" (2014). This introduction to the contexts in which Italian began and thrives was exactly the one I needed, to nudge me towards Italian's charm. While the hard work of learning it awaits, and this is a guide to its social aspects and cultural formation rather than a how-to reference, you will glean what a textbook omits. (Author's website. 10-2-14: my review #2000 at Amazon US)


Vilges Suola said...

"English, like a big black Magic Marker, declares itself in bold statements and blunt talk. Italian's sleek, fine-pointed quill twirls into delicate curlicues and dramatic flourishes."

What an incredibly stupid statement. Anyone who wants to be blunt can be blunt, whatever language he is speaking. How the society he lives in receives bluntness is another matter. British politeness is notorious for provoking misunderstanding: very far from declaring itself with bold statements, British English phrases commands as requests and criticisms as advice. Except when it doesn't. In this, it is like any other language. What you say and how you say it depends on context.

'Twirls, curlicues and dramatic flourishes', God bless and save us... What on earth could these be? We have noun phrases, verb phrases, adjuncts, etc., but twirls? Curlicues? Flourishes?

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Well, VS, I guess she and I are big blunt 'Muricans rather than delicate Englishers? I suppose to defend Hales slightly, she's getting at the nuances Italian conveys or hints at, given it like Romance languages lacks the range and vocabulary English marshals or "borrowed." She does articulate well in one chapter how layered meanings of "cazzo" (as in "dick") can be in context. Yes, we can use the f-word similarly, but she'd counter we Anglophones lack by our linguistic bluffness the delicacy of our Italianate brethren even when cursing, swearing, seducing.

To use another analogy, I still write with a fountain pen, despite cursive being eliminated now from elementary education here. So, the grace some of us seek to preserve may endure despite the instrument.