2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I did not leave my summer reading to chance. I actually went to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore to pick out this little book, much like I’d done a few years ago when I struck gold with George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.” The catchy cover, featuring a stylish Latin Lover lying on the saddle of his Vespa grabbed me. I remembered Bill Emmott referring to Severgnini’s work in his “Good Italy, Bad Italy” so I figured I had a winner in my hands.
Turns out that books about countries like Greece, Spain and Italy are best left to English writers who can clearly see everything that’s wrong, but can’t help falling in love with everything that’s right. What we have here is pretty much the converse. An Italian explains to us that everything is actually fine if we look at it from his angle. He takes you through the logic of running a red light, the fine art of drinking without getting drunk and the right way to go about sex tourism, which of course is the Italian way.
Italian school is apparently quite awesome too. There’s no such thing as private school apparently, which means the smart poor kids can bag the daughter of the industrialist all while becoming true Italians in this cauldron of identity formation. The fact that it’s been half a century since the Nobel was awarded to a scientific discovery that took place in Italy is a small price to pay for this privilege, no doubt. Severgnini addresses the minor issue of Italy’s current economic and social malaise by explaining that Italy’s been around for a couple thousand years and has always found a way around its problems, so if you want to find out how they get out of the current bind all you have to do is wait for it and cheer them on when they do.
So as a reader I’m left with a dilemma. Perhaps this is all tongue-in-cheek and the sarcasm was lost in the translation from Italian to English. On the other hand, the English of the translation is impeccable, witty and crisp. Could the translator have missed the actual mood of the book? And would the author, formerly of the Economist, not have noticed?
I don’t want to totally trash the book, I learned tons from it, the author is most evidently well-read and he often does succeed in entertaining. And it’s about Italy, the most magical place on Earth.
But I must say I don’t get it. I don’t get the main idea, I don’t get why it’s structured like a tour of ten locations (the effort to discuss them, rather than some other way Italians are awesome –did you know ALL of them are amazing cooks?—is minimal and regardless manages to appear contrived) and I really don’t get at all who he thinks is the audience.
Probably other smug Italians like himself.
History in the 8 years since this was published has not been kind to them. But here’s to hoping the other types prevail. The passionate, the modest, the generous and the welcoming Italians you meet everywhere around this amazing country.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 23 February 2008
While this book claims to be a "hilarious tour of Italy", and that it covers "thirty places in ten days", and while its table of contents contains titles such as "day two: in Milan", "Day seven: in Naples", "Day eight: in Sardinia", giving the impression that the author is covering all these places, the content barely contains ANYTHING at all related to them, suggesting the author has not left his seat nor even had the grace to research his destinations in "google earth".
At the start of every chapter supposed to cover one destination or the other, the author sometimes mentions a few very general things about it, without any "commitment" to a concrete description of anything, and, after which, he launches into talking about topics such as cars parked in a certain way, how italians regard this or that, italian attitudes and beliefs towards something or the other, etc..etc.. The repetition of the name of a specific destination in the first pages of "its relevant chapter" seems to serve the sole purpose of make-believe that the author is talking about that particular destination, while he is, in fact, talking about very general things that could apply anywhere in Italy!
The fact is, this book is NOT about any of the destinations it promises to portray, it is about the author's view of Italians. Why he packaged the book as to pretend it tours the country north to south, is open to conjecture. My guess would have been, "either he is not very clear in the head, or, he is deliberately misleading"; however, reading on the back cover that he has worked as a columnist for places like the newspaper "corriere della sera" and "the economist" eliminates the "not-clear-in-the-head" bit. He is simply misleading. His book is the equivalent, in the writing world, of the "tourist menu", which, anyone who has been a tourist knows, is usually a rip-off.
Had the author been HONEST about his intentions and not pretended the book was something it wasn't, I'd have given it two stars. Apparently, the "tour of Italy" pitch held the promise to sell more. That such a "tour" did not exist, did not seem to perturb his conscience one bit, apparently, he trusts his own powers of bluff too much and the intelligence of the readers too little to believe that they will actually notice there was no tour.
Taking inspiration from his writing, in his referencing of certain practices as manifestations of "the italian mentality", I'd venture to say that his bluff is probably testimony to the magnitude of his mother's faith in him, and how that affected his faculties of judgement with regards to everybody else. Or, maybe there is no inflated faith in his own powers, but that he just doesn't care, as long as the book sells. Certainly writing headings that promise coverage of all the mouth-watering destinations of Italy would sell, and, who cares that the product does not deliver once the money is had?
This is worse than a "tourist menu", it is the equivalent of ordering a plate and get something completely different in its place, only after having paid in advance with no money back guarrantee.
Then, a word to his "sense of humour": it is SO forced that it can easily bring about adverse side-effects to the reader. Had the author let go of what seems like a compulsion to be funny, maybe he'd have actually managed to hit on something funny every now and then, as it is, there is nothing at all "natural" about his "humour", you can feel the effort reeking off his lines, an effort that is infectious and exhausting, resulting in the very opposite effect of what natural humour would have produced. There is a very clear self-consciousness about his "jokes", you could almost see between the lines the words "see how funny I am? See how smart I am?" (Yet another symptom of the power of MAMMA's faith in her son?)
The most annoying bit, however, was an alleged "letter from Britain" on the last pages of this book, supposedly from "British friends" with whom the author "toured those ten days", and who are making remarks about all the gems of insight and wisdom he imparted upon them throughout "the tour". By some fascinating "coincidence", both the writing style of his "British friends" and "their" sense of humour are the exact laboured ones as his, even the range of vocabulary and expressions are the same...hmmmm.... readers are not supposed to notice that either...
Ah well, I guess it all fits now, imaginary friends go on imaginary tours, which we, in turn, are supposed to imagine...
The book's intended market are italian airport shops, promising a "piece of Italy" to visitors who crave more, but where what they actually get is the worst of what Italy sometimes offers its countless lovers, the "no-promises-shall-be-kept" bit.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 24 February 2014
Every so often since the 1990s the journalist Beppe Severgnini publishes a volume of his latest destination he has lived and worked in, and has it translated into various tongues. La Bella Figura (2008), a 10 day journey inside the Italian mind and down the length of his home land, is in its present format quite different. It is aimed at English speaking Italophiles wishing plausible answers to complex questions, something a self proclaimed Italian Anglophile feels he can provide.
It is an attempt to demonstrate that the foreigner's image of Italy is very different from the real Italia of the natives. In a nutshell, "Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages such as hills in the sunset, olive groves and raven haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. In Italia you go round and round in circles for years. Which, of course, is great fun."
Excellent start and intention: it is much more than pizza, Mafia, corruption of public administration, Berlusconi and his bunga bunga parties, and of over paid football and film stars clad in Armani, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, as featured in the columns of world press.
Though focusing on certain key tourist hot spots since the past Grand Tours of the rich: Milan, Florence and Tuscany, Rome, and Naples, Severgnini's ten chapter day tome is not a traditional tourist guide. As in earlier works he uses a day or a place to examine and explain customs, habits, behaviours and mannerisms of his people: the noise in an Italian airport, at stadia, the purpose of long distance rail travel, the innuendoes of night life, the language and unwritten rules of headlights and motoring, the Italian piazza, the garden - ie where Italians act in public as animals at the zoo, and then compares that with the closed, private world of the changing bambini-less Italian family, and introduces us to "mammismo", mother-fixated over-grown children, a unique sacrosanct national institution, which recently Cristina Odone of the Telegraph (17.02.14), an Italian living in the UK, sagely distinguished with our less developed, mild version of "mummy's boy" . Severgnini also takes one to less known areas: the island of Sardinia, and to his own much loved home town of Crema, close to Milan, to emphasize that Italia is still a young nation of 100 different, distinct, and very proud centres, proud of their histories, where the NGA should know that the warm hearted barber and friendly kiosk attendant might still be more reliable sources of local events and gossip than expensive satellite surveillance equipment.
At the end Severgnini's British guests sent back an end of trip SWOT report split between the Italian positives and negatives: the strengths, "G"s for genius, guts, gusto, and generosity, and the weaknesses, "I"s, intelligence, intuition, intention, and intimacy: among which includes the country's refusal to change and drift towards modern innovative initiatives, such as e-commerce, and whenever they are accused of a vice rather than trying to remedy the fact they do nothing, justifying their failing as something not unique.
A country, the author notes, which proudly had Botticelli amongst its greats, has recently had Berlusconi, an industrialist who like a captain of a ship promised to lead his country into safe havens, but instead behaved like an African despot, made his life, and his own cabin comfortable, and left the rest to swim to the rocks or fight off the sharks.
Until his book appeared the people, like the dying Venetian maritime Republic in the eighteenth century, could fall back on living for the day, on good food, on hedonism at religious, sporting, and TV leg show carnivals, with the good weather keeping up the depressed spirits for eight months of the year. It was the same foreigners' mythical search for buried treasure of Italy and finding Italia; the hopes of the locals with the realities, discovering they are living in a hellish heaven, or of a hell colonised by angelic souls - Severgnini stops mid way to please the one and only, himself, as an "offbeat purgatory", and gets a laugh, too!
As an Italian, was the comment that going round the maze-like world a real fulfilling experience? Surely not. Maybe for a sociologist, or a journalist like himself it is diverting, because it is part of his bread and butter; it is also part of the self, Italian me first, syndrome, that he criticises about Berlusconi, and admits it is rare when Italians come together as one - when the Azzurri beat the best on the soccer field, or when with "uncivil civic spirit" motorists flash their headlights to warn others that the police are around the corner making checks.
A book can be praised / criticized for what it has, just as it can for what it leaves out. It was commented, even if in passing, that Italians are not racist. They have realised almost after 40 years that they can be patriotic and nationalists, without being Fascists. Even before the world financial crisis racism and chauvinism were slowly moving their ugly heads above the parapet, and since the growth of youth unemployment feelings have hardened. The image of the young Italian on the front cover, confidently lying across his Vespa like a Greek god, is now a little dated.
True, one or two generations ago Italians exported immigrants, but the country has never witnessed, much less experienced a multi-coloured invasion as they have had in the last 15 years of different coloured faces (Africans, Chinese, and Indians), whites (Albanians, Macedonians, Rumanians), and nomads (Roms). In the case of the Chinese, not only are they replacing old local skilled artisans in the main shoe, clothes, leather workshops of Tuscany, manufacturing cheaper identical products, they are actually taking over shops in many main provincial centres, whereas lists of bankruptcies of small and medium companies, the traditional dynamic power of the economy, as well as suicides of failing local managers, have been doubling since 2010. Locals, as in Greece, are falling prey to frightened extremist voices; young graduates, like their unskilled grandparents, are now forced to take their chances by flying out to other lands.
In 2008 Severgnini believed Italy did not have a role model like Columbus leading all to a new promised land. Now that person may have appeared in a puff of smoke, as Pope Francis. It will, however, take more than a puff, a Francis, or a swallow to make a summer, or simply first having a will and then finding a way to change the vices of an ingenious, perfect, chosen race in order to fuse the vision of Italy with Italia. One past foreign visitor to the country, I recall, used to say he liked Italy, but pity about the Italians, as if he could distinguish the people from their culture.
Beppe Severgnini's words will inform the less informed outsiders. They won't convince all his people who may feel that as an Anglophile he is behaving like a smart alec, an Italophobe, and laughing at them at their expense. More so, as he knows what Italians are missing, he leaves one to guess his real preferences. Neither will he convince English speaking ex-pats in the know, much less those like the present reviewer with roots in the two countries.
As his previous volumes, La Bella Figura is well written, informative, a little over-witty in parts, and a little too harsh in others, but may leave the locals and those like myself asking was it a study of the country by an Italian, or the journey of one among the crowds of millions of Italians. It is, indeed, a face of millions, or the one and only right one. A good product makes a bella figura - the joy of all Italians, a poor one -the unmentionable brutta figura, is best forgotten.