Despite its initial success upon publication (at Natalia Ginzburg’s insistence) in 1973, Calligarich’s novel has long traveled under the radar as a cult classic, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the opposite of a winner — in fact, the book is about a total loser, a near-perfect example of that Italian type, the sfigato. Leo, in that uncomfortable territory around his 30th year, moves from his native Milan down to Rome. There he works for a “medical-literary” paper until its aristocratic patron goes bankrupt, and Leo’s meetings with the old count lose their remaining veneer of professionalism and become roving conversations about the frivolous things — horses and romance and social hijinks — that still delight the titled gentry. Leo is himself a self-styled aristocrat, though born into the wrong class: when asked where he would like to have been born, he replies, “In Vienna before the end of the empire.” He turns down a new job writing copy for a pharmaceutical trade paper because it sounds like too much work. He decides to wait for something else, “[l]ike an aristocrat under siege.”
And so, he goes to the seaside and sits and reads. It’s the first swing of a pendulum that oscillates throughout the book: from Rome to the seaside, from the seaside to Rome. Despite his penury, this city — warm and ancient — is the only place he can live. His opening paean to the city stands up to any of its countless predecessors, ancient and modern, and I can’t resist quoting it at length:
Rome was our city, she tolerated us, flattered us, and even I ended up realizing that in spite of the sporadic work, the weeks when I went hungry, the damp, dark hotel rooms with their yellowing furniture squeaking as if killed and desiccated by some obscure liver disease, I couldn’t live anywhere else. And yet, when I think back on those years, I have clear memories of a small number of places, a small number of events, because Rome by her very nature has a particular intoxication that wipes out memory. She’s not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved. That’s the only entrance toll you’ll have to pay from wherever you’ve come, from the green, hilly roads of the south, or the straight, seesawing roads of the north, or the depths of your own soul. If she’s loved, she’ll give herself to you whichever way you want her, all you need to do is go with the flow and you’ll be within reach of the happiness you deserve. You’ll have summer evenings glittering with lights, vibrant spring mornings, café tablecloths ruffled by the wind like girls’ skirts, keen winters, and endless autumns, where she’ll seem vulnerable, sick, weary, swollen with shredded leaves that are silent underfoot. You’ll have dazzling white steps, noisy fountains, ruined temples, and the nocturnal silence of the dispossessed, until time loses all meaning, apart from the banal aim of keeping the clock hands turning. In this way you too, waiting day after day, will become part of her. You too will nourish the city. Until one sunny day, sniffing the wind from the sea and looking up at the sky, you’ll realize there’s nothing left to wait for.
A couple of Leo’s friends do manage to “get the hell out,” and they help him leave his hotel and move into their apartment on Monte Mario. They also sell him their old Alfa Romeo for a pittance. And so Leo’s new life starts with the first of the many leftovers — in Italian, avanzi — that he lives on. He starts working nights in the copy department of a sports newspaper, and he quits drinking. Unlike the protagonists of similar books, he does not try to write a novel: he seems content enough with transcribing dictated articles about soccer or tennis, satisfied with secondhand writing, too.
Leo’s slow absorption into the city is halted, at least briefly, when he visits a friend’s house one rainy evening and meets a woman named Arianna. “I remember that day’s rain very well,” he writes. “A spring rain falling intermittently on a forgetful, surprised city and filling it with scents that became ever more fragrant after every shower. So much so that there isn’t another day in my life as rich in scents as the one on which this story began.” This Proustian signal warms us up for Arianna. She doesn’t say a word to Leo until, pushed together by a mutual friend, they’re driving home together around 3:00 a.m.; scrounging around the back seat of her car for a lighter, Leo finds a bottle of cheap perfume and a copy of Swann’s Way.
Arianna claims that Proust is her favorite author, though Leo notices that the book seems untouched. And despite her wish to be born in Combray, Arianna is less the kind of person who lives through memories and more the kind who makes them. For one, she does not go to bed early: “She knew the night like the back of her hand,” and at probably around four o’clock takes Leo to her favorite bakery for a brioche. As they stand outside on the pavement, munching their fresh pastries, Leo asks, “Are you looking for a loose paving stone?” (He wouldn’t be the first guy who tried to get laid by citing Proust.) “There’d be no point,” she replies. “Madeleines aren’t the way they used to be.” Nothing is the way it used to be, Leo replies.
The past is overwhelming in Rome — a city, Leo later notes, where craftsman don’t seem to build but rather “always looked as if they were repairing something.” As Arianna suggests, even remembering can sometimes seem futile. She studies architecture with the plan of returning to her native Venice to help save the sinking city from the sea. But, living in a slightly happier version of Leo’s own inertia, she instead spends her days going swimming and hanging out with her sister and their little clan, complete with a TV director always trying to get Leo a job, a left-wing journalist, a lanky model, a mysterious Russian, “an impoverished noblewoman in love with an Alitalia pilot nobody had ever seen,” and a middle-aged tennis player who really used to be quite good. It’s a microcosm of la dolce vita, which, in the economic and political turmoil of the 1970s, had begun to fray around the edges.
Leo and Arianna begin to see each other, but if they feel passion, it’s less in the colloquial than in the strict sense, for they are not happy. She comes to his house, and they try to make love. But despite his longing for “that all-consuming warmth that would have spread from my belly through my body so that in the end I’d be able to reach her,” Leo says, “I was ice cold, inert, filled with sadness.”
Leo takes refuge from the world with his best friend, Graziano, a hopeless drunk who, though unhappily married to an American millionaire, prefers to eat leftovers. He has talked of writing a novel, but when we meet him, he’s officially given it up. There’s no point. “Is there anything you feel part of?” he asks Leo, holding a beer in one hand and a scotch in the other. “No, there isn’t,” Leo replies. “And you know why there isn’t? Because we belong to an extinct species. We happen to still be alive, that’s all.” Around them people live their normal, bourgeois lives, while Leo and Graziano are alone together. They decide to make a Western about a man killing his father and call it The Last of the Mohicans.
Come summer, things get better with Arianna. They go to the sea and read; they seem also to consummate their relationship. Leo finally takes his friend up on his offer of a job and tries to work in TV, because he’s “tired of leftovers,” but of course he fails in the Tati-esque Rai headquarters, where, on his first day, he ends up caring for a catastrophically drunk old executive as he throws up his guts in the bathroom. He quits the job, of course. Arianna didn’t like the idea of him working in TV but also isn’t impressed when she discovers that he’s not a real journalist (“It isn’t exactly Proust,” she remarks of the articles he transcribes). And so, inevitably, Leo ends up back with Graziano in the Piazza Navona where, sitting on the rim of the central fountain (the one designed by Bernini), they drink. “From the last of the Mohicans,” Leo toasts. “Yes,” replies Graziano, “from the last and most fucked-up of the Mohicans.”
“Fucked-up” — like “leftover” — is a term that Leo and Graziano use again and again in the novel. It’s Howard Curtis’s way of rendering the untranslatable sfinocchiato, which you won’t find in any dictionary. None of my Italian friends knew what it meant with any precision, except that it has a close family relation to sfigato. Sfinocchiato comes, from what I can deduce, from the word finocchio, a slur that Curtis gives as “faggot,” and one that Graziano repeats as he considers his professed inability to perform his connubial duties with his wife — the alleged source of so many of his problems. “If I were a fag [un finocchio], I’d fall in love with you,” Graziano jokes. “Wouldn’t we make a lovely couple?” Considering his inability to perform, he asks, “Am I turning gay [un finocchio]? Sometimes I think I am and I’m scared of turning gay.” In his drunken state, it’s hard to judge his tone. He continues, “Why don’t you turn gay [un finocchio] too? You can do it for a friend. What do you have to lose? We’ll turn gay and then at least we’ll be something. This way, what are we now? We’re nothing, not even fags.” Niente siamo, neanche finocchi — Leo’s homophobia here is a cry for help, a cry for existential solace that might come by embracing what we might call a queer-er view of the world, one focused less on the future, on reproduction, on perpetuation, and more on the present moment. Yet, in spite of Graziano’s wife’s doubts, this solution is not available to them.
Leo and Graziano are sfinocchiati, and so are many other things in Last Summer in the City, from beat-up trams to unproductive days to a botched production of Three Sisters Leo sees one evening. Everything is fucked up in this ancient city. Or maybe it would be better rendered as “queer” — a term not quite as vulgar but perhaps a bit truer to the way that being sfinocchiato has to do with one’s relationship to the mainstream, to progress, to futurity, to creation and procreation.
As the novel progresses, and Leo wanders ever further from something like a meaningful life, he takes the overnight train to Milan to see his family. But when he sees his parents from afar, he decides not to bother them. “The sadness only hit me when the train pulled out and I realized that if it had headed in another direction, any direction, it would have been all the same to me.” After all, all roads lead to Rome, the beginning and end of it all, life’s cradle and its grave.
Max Norman has written for newyorker.com, PublicBooks, Literary Review, and Apollo Magazine, among others.