Wednesday, February 22, 2012

War Will Never Get in the Books

Beppe Fenoglio is almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, even to those who might have tried his countrymen and near contemporaries Pavese or Calvino. The fault (and it may be banal to say so, but the banality of it doesn’t make it any less true), lies with the reluctance of English-language publishers to publish work in translation and perhaps with the same inexplicable prejudice against simplicity, prevalent in literary circles, that has deprived English-language readers of the excellent work of the Catalan Josep Pla and the Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro. 

Fenoglio, who died of a respiratory ailment just days before he would have turned forty-two (one’s own age), fought in the partisan war of 1944–1945; much of his work draws on this experience. The story posted below was found only after his death; it was untitled (anepigraphic, if you want to get fancy) and very probably unfinished. Of himself Fenoglio once wrote, “Ho una strana potenza di parola [I have an odd power with words].” It’s no idle boast. 

I knew my buddy Jerry was writing about the war. Too often, I’d caught sight of him intent on writing, feverishly, sitting under a tree or leaning on a low wall; sometimes he would go on writing until dark, facing the last of the sunlight. 

He would write—picking up and discarding a huge number of pencils every five minutes—in little schoolboy notebooks. I figured he had to have filled at least a half a dozen of them, counting from when he had transferred to my unit, of course. Before, he was with Giorgione at the detachment in Castagnole. I knew, too, that he didn’t like the town: he didn’t like that it was on the plain, that it was split into two cores. He didn’t like that it had a train station (even though the line had been cut since the spring of ’44); he didn’t like the population; he didn’t even like the sound of the Castagnole bells.

I would see him write and had no doubt he was writing about the war. I remember that when I became convinced of it a phrase of Lawrence’s (the good one, the colonel) immediately came to mind: “. . . to pick some flowers . . .” But I concluded that I couldn’t—I really couldn’t—attribute it to him lightly. 

“It’s an idea,” I said to myself commentarily. “This stuff will sell afterwards. Publishers will be all over this stuff afterwards, for at least ten years. But will there be an afterwards for Jerry?”

And from out of the corner of my eye, and from afar, I watched him write in those little notebooks of his, and meanwhile I asked myself if Jerry would make it through the war. I was slightly moved and, at the same time, slightly irritated by this kid (short, a fairly big head with overly sparse and overly thin blond hair, a slightly skinny chest, and proportionally overdeveloped thighs) who wrote in such solitary fashion, so feverishly and absorbed, surrounded by the whirl of activity of his companions, rash, extroverted, and community-minded even in idleness. 

From a certain obstinacy of his and from a certain movement of his hands, I got the impression that he must have been mixing the writing with drawings and sketches—the profile of a buddy, a view of hills, the arrival of a truckload of ammunition—but I was wrong.

One evening I literally ran into him. I turned into the low road around Mango and nearly found him underfoot. He had actually sat down just to the side of the road, on the grass already damp, facing the last sunlight. 

Jerry shut his notebook with a slap, then uneasily opened it back up.

I sat down as far away as possible and offered him an open pack of Craven A

He said no with a hand still armed with a pencil.

“I like everything English—” 

“I know.”

“Except the tobacco. It almost makes me throw up. I don’t know why.” 

I had lit it.

“You writing about the war, eh, Jerry?” 

“Notes,” he said hurriedly.

“Notes on the war,” I suggested. 

“Of course,” he said a bit belligerently.

He had caught the vaguely ironic tone I was using and, oddly, was unable to put right. So, since I couldn’t manage anything other than a strained seriousness, I tried to make it at least nicely ironic. 

“And . . . are they working out?” I asked stupidly.

“You can’t say that about notes. They’re just notes.” 

He had gotten me, and for a second I took a drag on a Craven A.

“You know,” I said then, “what Walt Whitman said about war? He was talking about the War of Secession, but of course it goes for all wars.” 

His face, nearly blotted out by the darkness, was shining with curiosity.

“The real war will never get in the books,” I cited in English. 

“It’s true, very true,” he said. “I’m noticing it myself. It’s like emptying the sea with a little pail.”

Then, with apparent tension, he started. 

“What did you do in life?”

“I taught English language and literature.” 

“Ah,” he said rather bashfully.

It was getting cold. The cold, nearly liquid, was rising from the nearby ravine. 

“You’re doing it for publication, I hope?” I went on.

“I hope so,” he said with a kind of non-hope. 

“All the publishers will be interested in this kind of literature. And . . . will it be something purely factual or something . . . decidedly artistic?”

“Artistic . . . I hope,” he replied in that non-hope tone of his. “As factual documents, they’re not even worth my lugging them around with me.” 

He was talking about the notebooks: so there must have been several.

It was perfectly clear to me that our dialogue had a resolutely literary and insubstantial tone made up of courtesies on my part and [reticence] on Jerry’s. But it was to my liking: for months I had uttered only words that were not words but mud, blood and fire and flesh . . . since the day I’d gone for tea with Fulvia Pagani at her villa in the first spurs of the hills above Alba, occupied by 2,000 Fascists. 

I didn’t have the slightest desire to have a look at so much as a single page, yet you could see Jerry was tormented by the fear I would ask him to. I wanted to relieve him of that suffering, but I really didn’t know how to tell him so.

“Where does your diary start from?” 

“It’s not a diary!” he blurted out.

“Whatever it is. Where does it start?” 

“At the beginning. At my beginning.”

“When did you come?” 

“In June.”

“You chose well. Those were splendid months. We had an empire, you could say, and—” 

He cut me short almost angrily.

“Just a second. It’s true I came in summer, but for me there was trouble right away. I joined up the twenty-third of July and by the twenty-fourth my life was worth next to nothing. Don’t you remember what happened the twenty-fourth of July?” 

Just then I didn’t remember. So much had happened. . . .

“On the Bricco di Avene,” Jerry said to me.
It came back to me instantly. Orlando’s folly, seven or eight dead on our side, none on theirs.

“Ah, you were one of Orlando’s bunch?” I asked without real interest. 

“Right, one of that madman Orlando’s bunch! Will you go ahead and say I turned up at the right time again? A guy who shows up the twenty-third and the twenty-fourth finds himself up to his neck in one of the finest massacres—”


This time I interrupted.

“Still, it was even tougher later.” 

“Not for me,” he said. “I haven’t found myself with my back to the wall the way it was the twenty-fourth of July. But on the whole I admit that it got infinitely harder. For me, everything sprang, all the hard stuff, from taking Alba. It was there for the taking, but we should have resisted the temptation.”

“It was a mistake, and we’re not here to see if it was magnificent or not. I was one of the ones who said it was a mistake, but when I went in I got drunk with joy like everybody else, and I nearly cursed myself for having thought otherwise. And, what’s more, I even thought, despite all of the blindingly obvious evidence to the contrary, that we could hold it.” 

I stirred uneasily on the grass and resumed:

“But whether we’d taken it or whether we’d left it to that garrison of fools we still would have gotten that big November thrashing.” 

“True,” admitted Jerry.

“And so let’s be thankful we lost Alba,” I said. “Let’s thank the forces from Turin that kicked us out by coming from the river. If they hadn’t managed, we would have stayed in the city and the divisions that attacked us from the south would have been on us. And all of us, as many as we were, would have drowned in the Tanaro. Remember how high it was?” 

Jerry nodded deeply.

“As high water, it was terrifying. But as a protective barrier it was really comforting.” 

I smiled.

“Is the flood of the river in Alba in your diary?” 

“Of course.”

“That must be a good bit.” 

“I hope so.” 

“Well then,” I said conclusively, getting up.

That very evening Jerry came over to me at mess. There was a hellish clamor of voices, and Jerry couldn’t make himself understood in a normal voice. I saw in his eyes a plea for me to go out for a bit with him, but I’d had enough of literature, had enough of it for a while, and I didn’t do as he wanted me to, with no little callousness. So he was forced to explain himself loudly, and you could tell it was making him suffer. He had come to tell that if anything happened to him he had arranged for all of his notebooks to be handed over to me. I could do whatever I wanted with them, whatever I thought best . . . in his memory. That’s exactly what he said. I remember I thanked him as soberly as I could: I mentioned only that in the overall turmoil the arrangements he had made might come to nothing. But he answered me, with nearly fanatical certainty, that I would get the manuscripts without fail if. . . . I remember as well that I didn’t tell him that nothing would happen to him and that he would be going back to Turin with his rucksack crammed full with those notebooks. We had gone too far, too far, for that sort of reassurance.

He left me immediately afterwards. He had been seconded to the English mission, but he didn’t stay there more than a week. His written English was good, and he spoke it fairly well, but he didn’t understand it at all. After a week, Major Hope, tired of writing questions down for him on paper, sent him back to me. He was fairly humiliated, but I bucked him up easily. 

“Write about your experience with the English mission in a comic tone,” I told him, before assigning him to Diego’s platoon.

I next saw him dead, together with five others, on the Valdivilla road, at around three the afternoon of the twenty-fourth of February. I barely threw him a glance, saw he had been stripped of his English sealskin boots: nothing more, because I had to run after Diego, who wanted to kill himself. He blamed himself for everything. He had gone to set up an ambush and had himself been ambushed. And he had lost six men, the first of them Jerry. 

I remembered the notebooks only when we got back from burying him in the cemetery in Mango. I remembered them and waited for Jerry’s executor to turn up. I didn’t expect it to be one of his companions, since he had only superficial relationships with all of them, but neither was I expecting the person who, three days after the burial, showed up asking for me at the Mango command post.

It was a girl, eighteen maybe. She was so physically shattered she didn’t spark the interest of the men on duty. She was struggling to hold up a floppy rucksack. I knew her: it was Paola, the daughter at the farmstead where Jerry had spent the winter after the general dispersal and until the return to duty. Her relationship with Jerry must have very close, at least on her part. She had an entire speech ready, but not even the strength to begin it, so I spoke. I told her not about my talk with Jerry but about my talks with Jerry and about my interest in his affairs. All she did then was hand me the rucksack and leave, as shattered and as unobserved as she had come.
There were six notebooks, duly and tediously numbered. There were neither drawings nor sketches. The handwriting was very steady and clear, and I was astonished: remembering the frenzy Jerry wrote with, I’d been expecting to have to ruin my eyes. Instead, it looked liked the fair copy of a dictation taken by a schoolboy of firm and tireless hand.
Cover sheet to manuscript of "Partisan Notes, '44-'45"

I started the real reading at night. I was staying at an isolated farmstead a kilometer from town, in the direction of Alba. My hosts were well off, and I could accept, without too many scruples, the courtesies and kindnesses they were constantly showering me with. I had a good bed, I had to get harsh to forbid the woman from putting a bed warmer in it, and I had a large supply of candles. I could read for hours, without pangs of conscience.


  1. Although, like many people, I'd rather not hear too much about the war, it does one good to get a few clear personal accounts. Particularly in America, there seems to be little awareness of war trauma.

    My father served in the British Army in North Africa, Italy, Greece and the Middle East and never talked about it much. It made him a mental wreck, and he killed himself at age 50.

  2. I've heard people say (it may even be a cliché) that fathers are much less reticent about their wartime experiences with their grandchildren than with their children. But I don't suppose that with your father there was time to test the soundness of this bit of conventional wisdom.


  3. He would mention some of the lighter aspects occasionally. But one of his favorite phrases was "There but for the grace of God go I." He had been in some high-casualty situations, and in his later years he often said "I should have died in the war." His brother did.

    I think the hardest part for him was the transition to civilian life. He went directly from being a high school jock (rugby, swimming) to an enlisted soldier at 18. By age 23 he was a lieutenant with a war bride. His early years accustomed him to rapid success, and this was poor preparation for his life of drudgery as a breadwinner in postwar New York.

  4. Do you know even what units your father was with?

    La paga del sabato, one of Fenoglio's lesser books, but still a very enjoyable one, is about a young partisan leader who comes down out of the hills at the end of the war, moves back into his parents' house, gets his girlfriend pregnant, refuses the office job his father gets him at the local chocolate factory, and decides instead to go in with a few other former partisans to shake down former Fascists. I've often wondered if the book was wish fulfillment for Fenoglio (he was a clerk at a wholesaler or producer of wine and spirits after the war) or just an accurate depiction of the way some partisans made the transition to civilian life.

    One of the founding members of and largest donors to a "Beppe Fenoglio" non-profit association in his hometown is the Ferrero Foundation, a foundation run by the owners of the "chocolate factory" (Ferrero, makers of Tic Tac, Nutella, etc.) disdained by the main character of La paga del sabato.

  5. If Fenoglio became a hometown hero, it would be easy for Ferrero to overlook his past oblique criticisms of the company.

    My father was in the King's Dragoon Guards at the end of the war. I'd have to look up to see if he was in any other groups earlier. He's mentioned here: This is where he met my mother. I've always said if it hadn't been for Hitler I would never have been born.

  6. So in a civil war and then a colonial war, huh? Interesting.

  7. Yes, the Germans had already left Greece by the time the British arrived. The Greeks has a worse time under the communists. People were starving to death, and there were bodies on the streets. Then apparently the King's Dragoon Guards were sent to Palestine to keep law and order after the French left. My father used to say that of all the places he'd been, he'd like to go back to Beirut.