Beppe Fenoglio is relatively unknown in the U.S. We are a trifle poorer because of that, at least to judge by A PRIVATE AFFAIR. Fenoglio, a native of Alba in the Langhe, was twenty when he joined partisan forces fighting against the German-backed Fascist troops of Mussolini in northern Italy. After WWII, Fenoglio divided his time between a conventional day job working for a wine company and writing at night. His literary work had two principal subjects: the Langhe (and its people) and the partisan warfare of 1943-1945.
Those two subjects also are at the fore in A PRIVATE AFFAIR, which was published in 1963, shortly after Fenoglio's death of lung cancer at age 40. It is short, only 140 pages, but it is an exceedingly fine novel, a masterpiece even (at least that is my initial impression). The protagonist (bearing the incongruous name of Milton) is, as Fenoglio had been, a soldier among the partisans. It is now November 1944, and he has spent a year in miserable conditions fighting a squalid war. Much of the time the enemy soldiers are fellow Italians (not Germans). Nor are the partisans united, divided as they are between "reds" (Communists) and "blues" (Bagdogliani, loyal to Marshal Bagdoglio who had deposed Mussolini and surrendered southern Italy to the invading Allies). For Milton and his comrades, it is a war of rain and mud, sleeping in cowsheds, enduring scabies, begging and scavenging for food, shivering in the rain, endless patrols, reprisals against villagers, prisoner exchanges and farmyard executions of prisoners, and yet more rain and mud.
A patrol assignment brings Milton back to the villa near Alba where his beloved Fulvia had lived before war turned normal life inside out. Milton worshipped Fulvia but whether his devotion had been reciprocated is doubtful. After a furtive conversation with the housekeeper of the villa, Milton sets out on a mission, a private affair, to find out whether or not a future with Fulvia (the only future worth living for, worth fighting for) is possible. When Milton leaves his brigade to pursue his private affair, his mission only leads him deeper into the quagmire of war. As it progresses, the novel picks up speed and momentum until it hurtles through the rain and mud to its uncertain fantastic conclusion.
Back in peace, when Milton was wooing Fulvia in his very sincere but ridiculous way, he gave her a recording of "Over the Rainbow". The first day they played it twenty-eight times. As Milton trudges off on his private affair, the words and music keep returning to him. "Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue / And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true."
A PRIVATE AFFAIR is one of the best anti-war novels I have ever read. It is poignant. It is well-crafted. It deserves to be read.