“Not reading at all is better than reading certain books. I have always been wary of that marketing advertising books like milk, as in Fellini’s Dolce vita: ‘Read more books, books are good for you!’, and so on. Reading what? You can’t generalise. There is a moment in one’s life, however, when distinctions are of no use. It’s when a kid starts reading. We fall in love with reading before we fall in love with books: and it’s not useful, it’s not appropriate to demand a choice from a ten, eleven-year-old.”
These words (taken from a column of the Corriere della Sera) well represent Sebastiano Vassalli, who passed away last Sunday, 26 July at the age of 73. Vassalli was an incredibly prolific novelist. He gained notoriety in 1990 by winning the Strega prize with La chimera (741:39.c.95.156 and 9002.c.6082 for the translation into English by Patrick Creagh).
His interest did not always lie in traditional narrative: in the early 1960s he was part of the Neoavanguardia, an avant-garde literary movement and of the so-called Gruppo ’63 with other poets and writers firmly opposed to trends such as neorealism, and interested in pushing the boundaries of language and literary norms. In 1980, however, Vassalli published the novel Abitare il vento (C202.d.444), in 1982 Mareblù (741:35.d.95.276) and finally La notte della cometa: il romanzo di Dino Campana (741:79.c.95.12 and 741:79.c.95.53 for the translation into English by John Gatt), a novel on the life of the poet Dino Campana (1885-1932), clearly turning towards more traditional genres. Vassalli then published numerous historical novels, including his last book, Io Partenope, which is being published by Rizzoli and will be available next September. In the final remarks of this novel, (Corriere della Sera, 28/07/2015), Vassalli explains what was always behind his concern with history: “Italy is a patchwork of people and cultures: it does not emerge from a shared history, it does not have just one raison d’être, or, if it does (and sooner or later it inevitably will), it’s a compound of many”. His thoroughly researched novels are, as a result, evocative pieces of that patchwork. For example, his best known work, La chimera, not only engages with the story of Antonia, a young girl living in the north-eastern Italian countryside and accused of witchcraft at the end of the sixteenth century; Vassalli also creates a microcosm of characters around her, portraying daily life among more notorious historical facts. The UL holds many novels by Vassalli, for example:
Marco e Mattio (741:39.c.95.219), set in 18th century Veneto;
Il cigno (741:39.c.95.254), set in 19th century Sicily;
Un infinito numero (C200.d.5453), about Virgil, Mecenas and the Etruscan civilization;
Terre selvagge (C208.c.6198), on the Cimbri attacking the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC.
Almost by contrast with the variety of his stories, Vassalli was a very private person and lived in isolation in the countryside of Novara – much of what is known about his life is found in the interview Un nulla pieno di storie : ricordi e considerazioni di un viaggiatore nel tempo (C202.d.3044) published in 2010.
Finally, a less acknowledged side of Vassalli’s work is that of the lexicologist. The UL holds a copy of Il neoitaliano: le parole degli anni 80 (773.c.98.484 and 9000.e.242), a witty little dictionary of neologisms and idioms such as bambino in provetta, cattosocialista, duraniano, faccendiere, maradonite, sbattersi, vu’ cumprà, that Vassalli explains in relation to their social and political context. This too, after all, is a journey through a decade of Italian history.