Translated by Luigi Bonaffini
with an introduction by Paolo Lagazzi
Cover painting: Attilio Bertolucci by Carlo Mattioli.
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ATTILIO BERTOLUCCI (1911-2000) is one of the major Italian poets of the 20th century. His work is noted for its directness, narrative interest and marked departure from the hermetic tradition of his day. Born in Parma, he began writing early and published Sirio [Sirius], a collection of twenty-seven poems set in his native region, at the age of 18. From 1931 to 1935, he studied law at the University of Parma, meanwhile publishing another collection, Fuochi in novembre [Fires in November], in 1934. From 1935 to 1938, he completed studies at the University of Bologna, after which he began teaching art history, all the while writing and contributing poems to literary journals. Moving to Rome in 1951, he published La capanna indiana [The Indian Hut], which won the prestigeous Premio Viareggio the same year. His next book of poetry, Viaggio d'inverno [Winter Voyage], appeared in 1971. Beginning in 1975, he headed the literary review Nuovi Argomenti [New Arguments], together with Enzo Siciliano and Alberto Moravia.
The narrative poem La camera da letto [The Bedroom] appeared in 1984. Revised and expanded in 1988, it won the author a second Premio Viareggio and became his best-known work, so popular that Bertolucci once read it to television viewers in a seven-hour broadcast. Divided into forty-six cantos, it chronicles the history of his family in verse, tracing events both large and small across seven generations.
Bertolucci's other books of poetry are La lucertola di Casarola [The Lizard of Casarola] and Opere [Works], both in 1997. Bertolucci also wrote literary criticism and translated from French and Englishworks by Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence and others. His sons Bernardo and Giuseppe are famous film directors.
LUIGI BONAFFINI has translated numerous books by Italian and dialect poets, including Dino Campana, Mario Luzi and Paolo Pasolini, and has edited five trilingual anthologies of dialect poetry. He is the editor of Journal of Italian Translation.
PAOLO LAGAZZI is a literary and social critic who has published widely in both academic and popular journals. Born in Parma and educated at the University of Bologna, he met Attilio Bertolucci in the 1970s and became his lifelong friend and protégé. In addition to a prize-winning book on Bertolucci, he has written on Joseph Conrad, Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Malamud and many other twentieth-century writers.
"Nothing of time's essence escapes or is neglected by the author's ravenous sensibility, no less active in recording the multiple places in which existence rests (the city and the countryside, the sea and the plane, the Po river and the Maremma) in an exuberant display of forms, lights, perspectives, tonalities."
"The Bedroom is a sort of a multi-novel, or a distillation of very diverse narrative forms and intuitions: a Bildungsroman and fairytale, an epoch novel, a novel-chronicle, a dramatic novel and a picaresque novel. An experimental work in the most authentic sense of the word, The Bedroom has enriched Bertolucci's creative journey with an absolute originality and, by opening poetry to the sweep of the novel, has set a style in Italy, offering many poets tired of the residual effects of Symbolism and anxious to find the wide scope of the epic, an extraordinary alternative model, an obligatory point of reference."
~Paolo Lagazzi, from the Introduction.
"In The Bedroom, diversification is characterized by rhythmic unpredictability, an extremely changeable verse of every size, never bound to any preconceived metrical pattern, that blends memory and imagination in each passage of the book. If the notion of a narrative poem forms a subtle thread that unites the various 'sequences,' as the author calls the poetic units in each chapter containing a single narrative experience, the task of poetry is instead to enrich and brighten the texture of every line, making it memorable and unique... English speakers reading the translation are asked, as are Italian speakers reading the original poem, to find their way through the sinuous and ever fascinating spirals of Bertolucci's syntax, with the assurance that the journey will be a rewarding one, filled with many surprises..."
~Luigi Bonaffini, from the Translator's Note.
The beginning of Canto XXIII
Don Attilio muore. Il bel volto fiero
aureolato di sanguisughe, I ricci
madidi, l'occhio nero ostile... Non
lo asciano vedere al figlioccio
che porta il suo nome, ne
potrebbe essere turbato anche se ormai
I diciassette stanno per farsi
diciotto mentre ottobre si disfa
in questa plaga mediana fra Po
e Appennino in cui si apre Parma come un fiore,
una rosa gialla primamente guastata da nebbie e da vespe.
A Montebello spira già l'aria rigida
degli ottocento metri che a don Attilio collaudò occa e cuore
nell'infanzia cacciatrice pescatrice morditrice
di pomi esprimenti un succo chiaro,
aspro ma poi, dolce, salubre e vincitore. Fu
un angelo custode di grande
pazienza e persuasione a sviarlo
dal dominio familiare di boschi e improvvisi,
rari terreni coltivi, ben esposti e dunque
dorati, accarezzati dallo sguardo, cari più della vita,
fu un angelo travestito da contadinello montanaro
(un figlio di mezzadro un po' piùgrande)
a portarlo sulla rotabile per una
quasi ininterrotta discesa conducente al piano.
È da supporre che gli eburnei, stremati
religiosi preposti al governo del seminario
parmense stupissero di quel nuovo venuto,
insolito per censo e per sangue, entrambi
in eccesso per quella destinazione. Ma
finito il tempo degli scoiattoli e delle nocciole,
scaduto il sonno dei sensi, che cosa
restava se non seguire una maestà
controriformisti riscattati da licheni e da muschi?
la via della'arruolamento a scarsa mercede,
del ghiaccio e della ruggine, della fiamma eretta?
Don Attilio is dying. The handsome proud face
haloed with leeches, his curls
soaked, the black eye hostile... They won't let
his godson who bears his name see him, he
could be troubled by it even if now
his seventeen years are about to become
eighteen while October comes
in this area halfway between the Po
and Apennines where Parma opens like a flower,
a yellow rose ruined mainly by fogs and wasps.
In Montebello one already finds the rigid air
eight hundred meters up that tested don Attilo's bones and heart
in his childhood of hunting fishing biting
fruits that gave a clear juice,
sharp but then sweet, healthful and winning. It was
a guardian angel of great
patience and persuasion that led him
from the familiar sphere of forests and unexpected,
rare cultivated fields, well exposed and thus
golden, caressed by the eyes, dearer than life,
it was an angel disguised as a young mountain farmer
(the son of a sharecropper somewhat older than him)
who took him on the carriage road for
an almost uninterrupted descent into the plain.
One can assume that the ivory-white, burned-out
clergymen put in charge of the seminary
in Parma were surprised by the newcomer,
unusual for wealth and blood, both
excessive for that destination. But once
the time for squirrels and hazelnuts was over,
the slumber of the senses ended, what
was left but to follow one wayside shrine
after another - counter-reformation
standards redeemed by lichens and mosses -
the road of enlistment at bargain rates,
of ice and rust, of the upright flame?
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