Leo Gazzara, the narrator of Gianfranco Calligarich’s scintillating novel Last Summer in the City—an Italian cult classic masterfully translated for the first time into English by the pro Howard Curtis—might be described as a Latin Holden Caulfield all grown up.
In the opening pages, Leo, cynical and despairing, turns 30, which means, of course, that life is over. The book is set in the height of summer in Rome in the early 1970s, and Leo, a writer who skipped the aspiring stage to embrace his inevitable failure, restlessly roams the sun-scorched city in his old Alfa Romeo.
The promotional materials for the novel, in fact, boldly compare Last Summer in the City, first published in 1973, to The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. In his rich introduction, author André Aciman (Call Me by Your Name) identifies Leo’s cinematic doppelgängers in Marcello of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Jep of Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza.
I might throw into the mix Michel from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Paul from Godard’s Contempt, and Joe from Roman Holiday. The novel is indeed very visual, and it is no surprise that Calligarich, now 74, is a screenwriter too.
Salinger to Sorrentino to Shakespeare
Literary references also abound in this short, eminently readable novel, the belletristic nobility sprinkled across its pages like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs. The obsessive citing of authors from Proust to Melville, Shakespeare to Chandler, Chekhov to Nabokov, and Homer to Borges is so integral to Leo’s existence that the pretentiousness of their constant utterance quickly becomes endearing.
If what, perhaps, drew the great postwar Italian author Natalia Ginzburg to this novel—she convinced the publishing house Garzanti to buy it after it was universally rejected—were the many Proustian associations (Ginzburg was “in love” with Proust and translated Swann’s Way), for me what delights is Calligarich’s near-perfect channeling of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled prose style.
Leo on leaving home: “But it’s always like that, we are what we are not because of the people we’ve met but because of those we’ve left.”
Leo on Rome: “The city was caressing us.”
Leo on love: “Her heels penetrated my heart.”
Leo on his fellow guests at a dinner party: “With their velvet trousers, woolen shirts, and heavy shoes, they made it clear that, yes, of course they knew perfectly well how things were outside, in that world full of rain and sordidness, but they also knew that a glass of Chivas Regal and a pleasant chat with friends would allow them to ignore the multitudes pressing against the walls.”
Leo on his Alfa Romeo: “It was as slow and noisy as a whale, and the birds in the trees fell silent as the car passed, as if a dark cloud had crossed the sky.”
Leo being more Chandler than Chandler in dissecting a woman’s smile: “It was a smile that isolated the person it was addressed to, raising him to heights he would never have suspected he could conquer. A smile like a blow to the head, in which only one thing remained unequivocal. That she didn’t give a damn about you.”
Despite the exquisite chatter surrounding Proust and decadence, Chandler and despair, the reigning voice in this novel is silence—what is not said between a father and a son, between a nation and its history, between the present and the past, between literature and readers. I imagine what actually moved Ginzburg was Calligarich’s extraordinary portrayal of this looming and pervasive muteness, the impressive and enduring denial in postwar Italy of the trauma caused by more than 20 years of Fascist rule.
The novel feels as relevant today as it ever was.
Early in the story, Leo describes his inability to communicate with his father: “He and I never talked.... The war had sent him a long way away without sparing him any of its well-known peculiarities…. In spite of his proud silence, it always seemed as if he was trying to make us forget something, perhaps the fact he’d come home a shattered man.”
Amnesia, a product of enforced silence, is another kind of tyranny, creating in us a generalized paralysis, an inability to move ahead, to see backward or forward. Calligarich embodies this societal affliction in the unique yet wholly familiar character Leo, who, when considering what to do with his life, says: “I decided to wait for something to happen. Like an aristocrat under siege.”
Jenny McPhee is a writer and translator, and the director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at New York University’s School of Professional Studies