By JOHN MARTIN
On Nov. 16 the Library, in cooperation with the Italian Embassy and the Italian Cultural Institute, continued its new European literature series with an evening reception and reading by Enzo Siciliano, a writer, critic, director and journalist who has played a major role in contemporary Italian culture. The series, a yearlong program begun by the member states of the European Union and the European Commission in Washington, introduces American audiences to the work of the foremost contemporary European writers.
Carol Armbruster, the French-Italian area specialist in the European Division, organized the event for the Library.
The range and quality of Mr. Siciliano's works have garnered worldwide attention. Since 1963, he has published several novels and collections of short stories and essays. His biographies include Vita di Pasolini (1976), a pathbreaking study of the life of the influential Italian filmmaker and post-World War II cultural icon Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975). He has also written historical fictions, including Morte di Caravaggio, a short story set in the last days of the great 16th century Italian painter (1573-1610), and, recently, I bei momenti (Mondadori, 1997), a novel about the widow and family of Mozart after the death of the famous composer.
Mr. Siciliano has been president of RAI, the Italian National Broadcasting Corporation, and co-editor of the influential literary periodical, Nuovi Argomenti. He created and directed a film based on his early novel, La Coppia (1966), which opened at the 1969 Venice Film Festival, and is currently director of the prominent Gabinetto scientifico letterario G.P. Vieusseux in Florence. Despite his diverse accomplishments, Mr. Siciliano, speaking in Italian, told the audience that he is "simply a writer of stories," and offered his observations on the writer's craft.
The writer's main dilemma is that words are abstractions; thus, they ultimately fall short of expressing the artist's vision. "What we write we intend to write," he said, quoting Nietzsche, "but our purpose is not always clear." But even as they wrestle with words to express chosen themes, writers of importance must reach the point where they break through the characters, vehicles for their own ideas, and become part of the great psychological ocean, which Joseph Conrad said we all know, but do not understand.
After opening remarks by Giuseppe Perrone, the Italian cultural attaché, and Prosser Gifford, Director of the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs, Mr. Siciliano read in Italian selected passages from I bei momenti. In the book, he uses cinematic techniques, such as the flashback, to probe the character's inner consciousness and to suggest the imperfect nature of memory. Constanze, Mozart's widow, determines to make her husband's genius understood, to the world and to herself. She is also preoccupied with the dead composer's plainly romantic relationship with his sister, Aloisia, the resentment borne her by her brother-in-law and the creative consumption that in life separated the artist from herself. The work takes its title from an opening verse sung by the Countess in Figaro, "Where have the moments gone of goodness and pleasure?" Published in 1997, the novel received the 1998 Strega prize.
Local actress Melissa O'Connor then read from Caravaggio's Death, the title piece in a new collection of Mr. Siciliano's short stories. The work tells the story of the tempestuous painter's final days. Slowly dying from fever, the protagonist recalls his life in fitful bouts of memory, all the while hoping for the papal pardon that will free him from exile on a murder charge and allow him to return to Rome. The promised delivery never materializes, and the artist dies, sick and alone, on a beach in Tuscany. Caravaggio's Death and Other Stories (Legas, 1997; J. Douglas Campbell and Leonard G. Sbrocchi, transltrs.) is the first collection of Mr. Siciliano's short stories made available in English.
Mr. Siciliano said he researches his historical fictions, but deliberately offered no proof or disclaimers about the factual accuracy of the historical lives portrayed in his literature. "A novelist is always inventing the truth, the real," he said, "His books are fictions, but they are true."
Mr. Martin is in the Copyright Office.