[NYRB Classics; 2023]
Tr. from the Italian by Howard Curtis
In the final years of the Second World War, the romantic partisan soldier Milton finds himself in his hometown of Alba, in the Italian province of Piedmont. He comes across the villa where his former love, Fulvia, lived before the war, where she would sometimes allow him to come and court her. Immediately his heart has “absconded in his body,” and when he enters the villa to find her, the housekeeper informs him that she has left for Turin—and that after Milton went away to war, Fulvia took solace in the arms of Milton’s best friend, Giorgio.
Milton, by all accounts, is not a great soldier. He has earned a reputation among his regiment of keeping his head during tense times, but the war is less his calling than his everyday reality. It’s unclear why Milton joined the partisan effort, but he seems far more passionate about translating English ballads and love songs into Italian for Fulvia. And the moment he hears the news about Fulvia and Giorgio, he withdraws from his partisan responsibilities, determined to go track down his friend—also a partisan soldier, stationed in a nearby village—to find out from him what really happened. “Nothing else matters to me anymore,” he thinks, standing in front of his commanding officer asking for a day’s leave. “All of a sudden, nothing matters. War, freedom, my comrades, the enemy. There’s only one truth now.”
Milton is the protagonist of Beppe Fenoglio’s A Private Affair, an account of partisan life in the Italian countryside, republished this March by New York Review Books. Fenoglio, like Milton, grew up in Alba; he was conscripted into the Italian army in 1943, while he was studying at the University of Turin, and later that year, the Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies that provoked a German invasion throughout the north of the country. They disbanded the Italian army and set up Mussolini as a puppet leader; twenty-one-year-old Fenoglio, who was attending an army officer training course at the time, joined the new partisan Resistance that formed in response. He was captured by the fascists and released in a prisoner exchange, and began writing novels after the war while working as a translator. His most famous works, including this novel, were published after his death in 1962.
Fenoglio wrote Milton’s story shortly before he died, revising it several times and entirely rewriting it twice. His editors wanted him to write the definitive partisan novel—a testimony of the war that could be used as an objective historical document—but he wrote to a colleague in 1960 that he had a different story in mind: an individual romance story, set not in the background of the war, but “in the thick of it.” Howard Curtis’s translation of the book uses an intense, deliberate tone, faithful more to the characters’ individual subjectivity than to sweeping scene-setting.
Milton becomes a different person after the news about Fulvia and Giorgio; his fellow soldiers hardly recognize him. “I’m sure it was something to do with his previous life,” thinks his partner, Ivan. “The life we live, the work we do, that’s more than enough to drive you crazy. Our previous lives can wait!” But for Milton, this is exactly what cannot wait; it’s the only thing that cannot wait. The war effort, the antifascist cause, all else can wait. “Look at me, Fulvia,” he says out loud, talking into the air. “Let me know it’s not true. I really need to know it’s not true.” Milton arrives at Giorgio’s posting and finds his friend missing, lost in a thick fog that prevents most of the characters for the remainder of the story from being able to see two feet in front of them; he stumbles around until a villager finally confirms that Giorgio was captured by a group of fascists.
Theirs has been a unique friendship; Giorgio, by all accounts, is a snob. He is more charming and handsome than Milton, a more interesting male friend, a better dancer. Milton’s only winning quality by comparison, at least in Fulvia’s eyes, is that he is “an ace at English.” (The three would often go out together, Milton watching while the other two danced, not minding, riding on the knowledge that it was Milton whom Fulvia came to when she wanted a poem by Robert Browning or a story by Edgar Allen Poe.) Giorgio hated his comrades in the resistance; he fit awkwardly into the partisan cause, refusing all gestures of camaraderie and all sense of the collective. But for whatever reason, he loved Milton; and Milton was the only member of their brigade who could tolerate Giorgio. “This is not for me. It’s really not my business,” Milton thinks, feeling “wretchedly inadequate” as he crosses an enemy base camp (the outskirts of a deserted village, down a steep vineyard slope) on his hunt for a fascist prisoner to exchange for his friend. “I only know one other person who’d feel as out of place here as me . . . and that’s Giorgio.”
Milton is indeed wretchedly inadequate for the partisan cause, and for the war in general; he has neither the physical capabilities nor the ideological commitment. But in Fenoglio’s telling, the war is less a shared political project than an unfortunate mess, and perhaps this sense of displacement even among one’s supposed comrades makes it difficult for Milton to resent Giorgio, who was notoriously stingy during the war shortages with cigarettes and even body heat, but who would still spoon (exclusively) Milton in his sleep. Throughout the story, there is a sense that all the characters have become utterly lost in the war, unable to see, literally and existentially; it becomes increasingly absurd to try and separate who is fighting whom. It was this reality that Fenoglio was trying to capture in his narrative of not only the romantic drama between Fulvia and Milton, but also the tragic friendship between Milton and Giorgio.
Milton traverses the countryside, looking for a fascist soldier to capture, encountering on the way other stories of everyday life under the shadow of war: drama between a married couple wreaked by a dressmaker living next door, abuses hurled by the wife of a fascist soldier who’s having her head shaved by a group of partisans. These tangential characters provide an essential backdrop: In Fenoglio’s narrative of war, everyone is equally dehumanized and every story equally absurd. Milton promises the villagers he meets that the partisans will kill every last fascist they are able to find and capture—but the reader knows he has no intention of doing so, nor any interest. Fenoglio’s earlier stories feature prison guards who are more interested in getting access to smuggled foreign cigarettes than in punishing the prisoners under their watch, partisan soldiers who beg their colleagues not to shoot a fascist prisoner because he has spent the last three days performing jokes for his captors and making them laugh till their sides hurt. His characters do not kill out of passion, but out of clumsiness. (Milton, after finally securing a fascist prisoner he intends to trade for Giorgio, ends up shooting him in the back by accident.)
“Bloody fascists!” says a little boy doing his homework in his grandmother’s shed, where Milton and a group of other partisans are hiding for the night. “Dirty fascists, dirty fascists,” sings a soldier in Giorgio’s regiment, calmly, “almost merrily,” while they take shelter in a peasant household. This is the way ideology is experienced—not diluted, but clarified—in Fenoglio’s stories. In his other fiction, antifascist soldiers are described as young and childish, irresponsible, often incompetent, living in squalid conditions, and rarely interested in actually defeating fascism, which seems to the soldiers to be more of a habit than a belief.
The Twenty-Three Days of the Town of Alba, Fenoglio’s first published work of fiction, was a collection of short stories featuring partisan soldiers, as most of Fenoglio’s works were. It was strongly criticized by the right, but even more so by the left: Italian partisans at the time were being hailed as national heroes, but Fenoglio refused to romanticize their cause. He was more interested in the ways in which their everyday lives were shaped by raids, roadblocks, bureaucratic glitches, their own jealousies or quarrels; by the fact that there was indeed a war with the fascists underway but that no one seemed to know what it was about or why it was important. “Do you feel like dying for an idea?” asks one of the characters of Fenoglio’s short stories. “I don’t.”
Though in A Private Affair, Milton’s incentive to keep going comes not from some idea of a socialist victory but from the promise of a reunion with Fulvia, he is definitely a product of the war; it makes him at once hysterical and bored. “Imagine the girls,” mourns the peasant informing Milton that Giorgio has probably been shot by the enemy. (Giorgio had a reputation of being a heartthrob.) “Don’t you understand,” Milton cries exasperatedly, “It’s gone on too long . . . we’ve got into the habit of dying,” and the girls have got in the habit “of seeing us dying!”
There is an obvious hopelessness to Milton’s deranged mission to rescue his friend, which he undertakes after refusing any backup or communication with his comrades. “We’re not in control of the war, the war’s in control of us,” he tells a peasant woman who begs him to spare his prisoners. Weakly singing a song he remembers translating for Fulvia, Milton forces his way through a dangerous thicket, continuing his descent through the countryside. “I can’t make it in these conditions, I can’t even try,” he thinks. “I almost hope I don’t get the opportunity.” And still he continues, because at that point he knows that if he died, it would be utterly pointless—as pointless as his life would be without an answer from Giorgio. Death in Fenoglio’s stories is not a heroic or noble sacrifice for the sake of the resistance, but a reminder that “the war’s in control of us,” that what happens to them is arbitrary and not a consequence of divine justice. According to Milton, he’s already—perhaps always—dying; they all are. When he finds Giorgio, he imagines, “he’ll have to tell me” the truth, “one dying man to another.”
Fenoglio categorically refused to write the ideologically committed partisan epic his editors wanted; he insisted that the war was an indescribably lonely experience, and the only way to live was to die reaching for a truth that really mattered, whatever that may be. When A Private Affair was published in 1963, it was roundly criticized for foregrounding the internal plot of a silly romance over the more traditional literature of chronological historical testimony, but this was not the first time critics took issue with Fenoglio’s work. Twenty-Three Days, in its portrayal of resistance fighters as petty, human, needlessly brutal, and not always aware of what they were fighting for, was not a good look for the left; they accused Fenoglio of being anti-resistance, of being willing to build too fascist-friendly an image of the partisans.
Fenoglio’s comrades resented his tendency to call it a “civil war” rather than the preferred “war of liberation.” A civil war revealed the truth that the Italians’ enemies were often other Italians, not just Germans; more importantly, that the soldiers didn’t always know what they were fighting for. This is why Milton is unique among his comrades: His determination and passion may be misguided, but he is not ambivalent. If the war is in charge of him, rather than the other way around, his mission to rescue his comrade-nemesis is a way to wrest some control over his life; he displays, in the words of Howard Curtis, the novel’s translator, a “purity of purpose” not unlike Fenoglio’s own purpose while trying to write the great partisan epic: “It is surely not too fanciful to see in Milton’s obsessive determination to get at the truth of his memories a reflection of Beppe Fenoglio’s endlessly repeated attempts, in book after book, to get ever closer to the truth about what he experienced in those grim days.”
In the war against fascism, and in the bleak everyday of these soldiers’ lives, this doggedness is refreshing: a glimpse towards the kind of future he is supposed to be fighting for, a life of love and literature. “Today, all of a sudden, he had become unavailable,” Milton realizes when he first hears the news about Fulvia and Giorgio, and vows to find his friend to learn the truth: “Only then, perhaps, would he again be capable of doing something for his comrades, against the Fascists, for freedom.”
Apoorva Tadepalli is a freelance writer living in Queens. She tweets at @storyshaped.
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