Chapter 4:  Nino Frank and Les Nouvelles littéraires; and two published stories

Fading hope

How different the outlook must have seemed to Nino Frank as 1928 dawned, from the glittering prospects of New Year 1926: Paris, city of dreams, had become a place of refuge, but also of exile. Overnight almost, he had lost his paid work, for the Corriere della Sera and the Fiera Letteraria, and had no immediate hope of finding a replacement.

At first, the setback must have seemed a temporary one. Frank had been a serious and prolific contributor to both these Italian papers, with almost weekly articles informing the Italian literary readership of the latest developments in Paris: articles on subjects ranging from Paul Valéry to Jean Cocteau, from the Ballets Russes to the Revue Nègre. He had contacts with Italian publishers, with a number of books already in print or in preparation. His ostracism had been engineered essentially by one person, Curzio Malaparte, and he believed that he had friends in Italy who would help him to find a new employer. He was quickly disabused.

Two letters from one of his closest colleagues and friends, Corrado Alvaro, give a clear indication of the problem: in the first one, fear of being associated with an anti-fascist scandal:

As you are a friend of Italian literature and of Italy herself, it won't be long before you'll be able to try to find work again with newspapers here, but for now I advise you to be prudent and not cause people to talk about you, and be very cautious about how you approach the papers.1 | original text

In the second, clear relief that Frank had found a job in Paris, albeit with a French paper, thus releasing Alvaro from any feeling of responsibility, and allowing him to sound blandly supportive:

I'm glad to hear that you've found a job. I always look at what you're writing in the Nouvelles littéraires...It hasn't been any effort for me to remain your friend. We've known each other a long time, I know you're a good chap, that you've done a lot for Italian literature abroad, and that you're a friend of Italy whatever the 'men of letters' who are not your friends claim about you.2 | orig

Two letters in April 1928 from G.B.Angioletti, now joint editor of the Fiera Letteraria with Malaparte, demonstrate clearly that the animosity between Frank and Malaparte was in fact the central issue, and that the young man had seriously underestimated the extent of Malaparte's influence. Only the most abject prostration before the altar of fascism could - perhaps - lead to Frank's reinstatement; but he remained firmly convinced that he was the injured party:

You need to know that Malaparte wrote the most violent polemic against you for the Fiera. I didn't want to publish it, and had a serious argument with Malaparte; we had a long correspondence about your attitude. As a result, the polemic will not be published; but Malaparte does not want any attacks from you, even indirect ones. He also considers deliberate silence to be an attack; and he's not wrong there. So now I too suggest you adopt a calmer attitude. (1.4.28)

and following what must have been an angry reply from Frank,

It seems to me that I spoke plainly to you. And it will be your fault if by persisting in this attitude you lose the last friend you have in Italy. (10.4.28)3 | orig

Only in Florence, at the journal Solaria, were the editors - Alberto Carocci and Giansiro Ferrata - sympathetic and happy to have his occasional collaboration. But they did not need a regular contributor in Paris. The only solution was to try to find work in French journals.

Help from Pierre Mac Orlan

il-cantoNino had been in regular touch with Mac Orlan, both on behalf of "900" and to inform him of progress on various translations into Italian. In 1926, he published an abbreviated version of La Casa del Ritorno Impossibile [La Maison du retour écœurant] in the literary magazine Novella4 . During 1927, Il Canto dell'Equipaggio, the translation of Le Chant de l'Equipage, was published, complete with a long and thoughtful critique by Nino of the author's works to date. Here is his brief summing-up of the atmosphere of Mac Orlan's books:

The strangest of atmospheres: the smell of tar, of smoke and a burning sun; rain falls - then the humid heat sets the blood racing; the sea is calm; there is a caterwaul of singing and someone is drunk; the women are often stupid, they talk little but stare with watchful eyes; and always the heady perfume of poisonous plants, and the voice of the harsh, violent wind, and perhaps - underlying it all - the smoking of opium...An adventurous atmosphere, heavy with regrets and brutality; within it, live men who are free and a bit mad - but square-shouldered, solid. Just so, square-shouldered: there is no romanticism in these books, everything is carefully weighed up; the art of the author harmonises and reins in fantasy.5 | orig

He had been working tirelessly to spread awareness of the writer in Italy, and his last article for the Corriere della Sera, on 20 December 1927, was a review of Mac Orlan's most recent book, La Seine. Again, his review plunged straight into the atmosphere of Mac Orlan's private world. It brought out the importance of the river - and river scenes - to Mac Orlan, emphasising both the personal pleasure he took in watching the Seine, especially its industrial banks where Eau de Javel and Citroën cars were created, and the inspiration he found in it for his maritime stories:

Mac Orlan seeks out the colours of poetry: in the quarter of the wine sellers and in the Jardin des Plantes, where the locomotives come to drink at the waters of the river and the apes, at night, locked up in their cages, squeal at the flickering lights of the Seine; on the two islands, ships eternally at anchor, most fragile of masterpieces formed from the secretions of long, exhausted centuries...But he draws his greatest pleasure from evoking the quays of Passy and Javel, of the Pont Mirabeau where Apollinaire watched the Seine flow to the glorious rhythm of his poetry, centre of a workers' universe, sordid, cosmopolitan, Parisian, where every day a new adventure takes shape, unknown to the world, but possessing more poetry than many famous lives.6 | orig

Now, uncertain where to turn, it was natural for Nino to seek help from him again, as he had in the early days of "900". And again, without hesitation, Mac Orlan helped him. As he wrote many years later in 10.7.2:

I remember another generous act of friendship: after my exclusion from Italy, when I was tramping the famous cobblestones of Paris, Mac Orlan, who had a weekly column on books and gramophone records in the magazine Vu, invented some temporary difficulties so that for a few weeks I could write the column in his place.7 | orig

The payment cannot have been great; what was striking was the spontaneous generosity of Mac Orlan.

But the main breakthrough came through Georges Charensol at Les Nouvelles littéraires - originally introduced to Nino through Mac Orlan, and possibly nudged by him again. For some time Nino had written a small, sporadic column on Italian life and letters in this journal, and its editors had also been among the most loyal supporters of "900". Now the experiment was agreed of giving him a substantial weekly column, entitled 'Malles et valises' ['Trunks and suitcases'], in which he would interview famous personalities travelling to or through Paris. The column ran from April to October 1928, giving him a much-needed lifeline, but also crystallising his talent as a writer of word-portraits.

'Malles et valises'

As described in an earlier chapter (Nino Frank and the Italian journal "900"), he had begun to write these portraits for "900"; and he had continued to do so in his humorous columns for the Fiera Letteraria, under the pseudonym 'Bébé Cadum'. Now, though, it would become a serious weapon in his armoury as a journalist, to the extent that quotations from his portraits and character-sketches appear to this day, to illustrate accounts by more recent writers of between-wars Paris. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, he interviewed most of the important players in the literary, artistic and cinema worlds living or working in Paris, delighting contemporaries and later readers with vivid personal impressions and insights.

Later, in a radio interview, he explained what had spurred him on in this daunting task, of telephoning important personalities to ask for interviews and no doubt often meeting with reluctance or outright rebuffs. He had always been fascinated to know more about the creative writers and artists whose works he admired, and this gave him a first introduction to them, in fortunate cases leading on to friendship:

For me journalism was basically a way of getting to know people I wanted to know - writers, painters, musicians. The number of interviews and portraits I managed to fit in at that time was really rather extraordinary, now I come to think of it.8 | orig

It is impossible in brief quotations from this series of articles to give a rounded idea of the author's purpose and method; but the full texts in the Nouvelles littéraires can be read at the British Library, London, or the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Below are a few examples, to give a preliminary impression.

Italo Svevo

The series was heralded in March by an interview, much admired by James Joyce, with the Trieste writer Italo Svevo, on the occasion of a special lunch of the Pen Club in Paris to honour Svevo's work. As in previous articles in Italian papers, and as would become the pattern for the 'Malles et valises' series, Frank first gave a brief physical/psychological word-sketch of his subject, and then went on to discuss the author's latest work or preoccupations. Thus, he began:

A man of 67 years, who walks slowly, head bent, a big smile on his face, his eyes twinkling with malice and vivacity. He talks carefully, as if he were weighing each of his words in turn. His good nature, his innocent vanity, his kindness - you are afraid of them, for you sense that they hide so many ulterior thoughts, ulterior feelings as it were, waiting to show themselves at the first sign of conflict. How complicated they must be, the mental convolutions of this man, whose soul is a well of memories, of names, of reflexes, of numbers.

Then he went on to discuss Svevo's latest work, Zeno. Here is an excerpt, in which he challenges the claim (by Benjamin Crémieux and others) that there are strong similarities between Svevo and the French writer Proust:

... Zeno, true "recherche du temps perdu", based on a Freudian theme, with a precisely described introspection and meticulous attention to detail which have led some critics to compare Svevo to Proust. Yet the two works are very different: in Svevo (who is less "cosmic") humour never loses its place, and his minutely detailed analyses have nothing in common with the stylistic complexity of Proust, which flows from a poetic impulse. Proust has a lyric or even epic temperament. Svevo belongs to the family of Goldoni - a dramatist.9 | orig

Jean Cocteau

Naturally enough, when the opportunity arose, Nino interviewed his friends. Cocteau had just returned from Villefranche, in the South of France, so was an obvious candidate. Nino had written notes on him a number of times before, as witness his comments in the Fiera Letteraria in 1926:

At lunch with Cocteau. He announces that France disgusts him, and he wants to escape away from it all. But he does not want to travel. So, he'll go and live in a monastery. And, obviously, he won't write any more. So that'll be another farce... Cocteau needs movement: suppose he gets to a monastery, how could he possibly live there? And Cocteau will never confess the truth: that for the last 32 years he's been waiting for the end of the world.10 | orig

The 1928 article shows a direct progression in Cocteau's declared intention to turn away from the world:

For the last few years the work of M. Jean Cocteau has been nothing but a strange, despairing conference with death, a tragic to-and-fro between serenity and mystery. Opéra is the last phase the poet has reached. He welcomes us in his study, almost devoid now of human feeling and where he no longer seems to belong: his gaze constantly shifting, he smiles with the sad bewilderment of a man who has "come back from the other side".

In the interview, Cocteau declares that he has been burying himself in Villefranche to escape from the demands made on him - but is unable to resist boasting about his international fame:

Everywhere people ask me to go and give lectures, in Moscow, in Spain, in America: they offered me excellent terms, and even announced that I was off to Hollywood. I considered it: but it wasn't my path, you mustn't tangle up the threads of destiny! I wouldn't be able to stand the Americans: they have made themselves a false image of me, they would imagine they were being given a false Cocteau. I shall stay in France and let my legend travel for me. I'm losing money, but I don't need it.

Then out of the blue, in a bizarre non sequitur, he presents what might seem for this aesthete an incongruous picture of his pride in the speed of his car:

I had a little car, and I souped up the engine; how I adore seeing the fury of 'sportsmen' [in English, in the text], when they see a Citroën overtaking a racing car.11 | orig

This is a portrait of the poet constantly searching, constantly looking for escape - cerebral, spiritual, or in shocking those around him.

As a brief cross-section of international opinion in 1928, and for what these conversations reveal about views in Paris concerning other parts of the world, quotations from three more interviews are included below.

François Mauriac

First, the usual brief description of the man and his surroundings, to set the scene:

In a large house in Passy, on the top floor: an apartment filled with sunlight, a 'no man's land' [in English, in the text] separating the barbarians from the man of talent. You keep climbing, to a little study at the top of the tower. Books, a portrait of Rimbaud, the sun. M. François Mauriac is tall and thin, his movements are sudden and nervous like a cat's, his smile goes from ear to ear; on his high smooth forehead, when he frowns the only wrinkles you see are at the bridge of his nose, but they are deep and bitter, and give the lie to the even flow of his voice.

Then, Mauriac's description of his visit to Tunis, and the interest among Muslims in his Catholic faith: the impression of a coming-together of faiths, not the increasing divergence of the present day:

I had acquired the reputation of being a great Christian, a rather annoying reputation; I was concerned about it, but I would never have imagined that it would enable me to get closer to the Islamic world, which is what excited me the most there and left me with the most rewarding memories. I had arrived in Tunis right in the middle of Ramadan. I was struck by the strength and vitality of religion among the Mohammedans. You only have to mention religion to a Mohammedan to get his interest. My reputation as a Catholic novelist enabled me to have frequent discussions with Sufi mystics who talk to you with great erudition about Jean de la Croix or Saint François de Sales [sixteenth century Catholic mystics].12 | orig

Ilya Ehrenbourg

First, the Russian is characterised by his debt to Voltaire [his novel Julio Jurenito to Candide], and by his country's psychological distance from the West:

It would be hard to pinpoint what lurks behind the sarcastic humour of Ilya Ehrenbourg: this spiritual son of Voltaire is much more Russian than he looks, as he reveals from time to time by a word that transports you far away, or a strange, bitter look.

Then, Ehrenbourg's recent experience of Berlin - viewed through Russian eyes - is striking, in this year before the Wall Street Crash when he perceived Germany to be getting back on its feet, but in an uneasily feverish atmosphere:

a great construction boom turning Berlin into a city which is a model of our times. Tempelhof aerodrome, the new workers' quarter, the technical installations of the Babelsberg film studios, this Hollywood in Europe, all of this shows the will to construct and the ability to do so. The fever of German intellectuals, the eagerness with which they scoop up the spiritual movements of their neighbours, make Germany feel like a large transit station where everyone is waiting for their connection to arrive. In our age of earthquakes, this is an honourable enough occupation.13 | orig

Scott Fitzgerald

The interview with Fitzgerald shows the American writer at his most francophile, both in enjoying the time he spends in France:

At the age of 31, this thin blond boy, with piercing eyes and an infectious childlike laugh, is one of the authors most in vogue on the other side of the Ocean: he confirms this but cares little about it, and declares that he prefers his holiday months in France to his mansion in Delaware,

and in his belief that French writers, especially Proust, have been a powerful influence on the best young American talent:

The influence of French writers in America is very important: most of all Proust, whose complete works are being translated. Sodom and Gomorrah has just been published in a private edition, because publishers were afraid of the public. That doesn't stop writers like Hemingway, Cummings, Thornton Wilder especially, the author of The Bridge of San-Luis Rey, who will shortly be arriving in Europe with his friend Gene Tunney [the boxer] - our most original young writers - from accepting utterly the importance of Proust. Gide, who had a great success with his Vatican Cellars, seems to us less impressive since the publication of The Counterfeiters; he has become the victim of the snobs, who have not dared to touch Proust.14 | orig

During the same visit, Fitzgerald and Frank also spent a Sunday afternoon trying to find a drink of whisky in Paris, obliged finally to track one down at the Ritz, very dead at this time on a Sunday. Frank, a wine drinker, had never tried whisky, and the encounter is described amusingly in his book of memoirs, Le Bruit parmi le vent:

In the [Ritz] bar plunged in semi-darkness, there was only one customer, a sad fat man dozing, who started up and put his cigar back in his mouth, unlit: an American, most probably, who, just like our chauffeur, seemed to have lived through the worst bombardments of battle. The barman, impassive in his white coat, another who had seen it all before, poured out for us at the bar the drinks anticipated all afternoon; the whisky seemed peculiar to me, smelling a bit like a stinkbug, with no promise of Paradise, but nice and soft in colour. Scott Fitzgerald paced up and down, glass in hand, shifting nervously from one foot to the other: a messenger boy came and glanced at him, ironically I thought, exchanged a knowing look with the barman, then disappeared. As for the fat man, he made a vain attempt to relight his cigar, then, his capacity for astonishment exhausted, fell asleep again.15 | orig

These columns in the Nouvelles littéraires were stimulating, provided introductions to many important writers of the 1920s, and were invaluable in establishing him as a French magazine journalist. But his most important - and gratifying - achievement in 1928 was to see published, in Italian journals, two of his own short stories.

Stories by Nino Frank

'Il Mantello Rosso' ['The Red Cloak']

This story already existed in draft in 1926, when Bontempelli chose in preference 'Goût d'égout' for the second issue of "900", promising the other for later. It is not difficult to see why: 'Il mantello rosso' was a very evident experiment in the 'magic realism' content and style of the master, and he probably preferred to avoid too close a comparison. But now, in August 1928, with Nino expelled from "900" and the revue relaunched as an Italian-language magazine, he fulfilled his delayed promise to print the story (albeit translated into Italian by another hand, from the original French!).

The plot concerns a voluptuous young widow in a village in the Austrian Tyrol who marries an elderly ex-Colonel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, partly because of his bourgeois standing but especially because of his dress uniform with its splendid red cloak, which he allows her to wear. Unfortunately, it had not occurred to her before the wedding that when this elderly husband goes to bed, it will be to sleep:

He climbed between the blankets, grunting like a satisfied old cat and smiling paternally at his wife. She undressed, staring in disbelief: when all she had on was her nightshirt, the colonel was already snoring. She thumped down on the bed with the violence of a hammer blow: the colonel was not crushed, but gazed at her momentarily with the wide-eyed look of a frightened bureaucrat. He slept, the smile on his lips that of a man at peace; while Didy, chilled with foreboding, was afraid to close her eyes.16 | orig


Rudolph Valentino

The next day, horrified and angry at her mistake in marrying him, she goes walking in order to calm down, wearing the red cloak. She arrives at the next village, Mariahilfe17 , where there is a cinema: she has never been to a cinema. To give herself courage she drinks a bottle of red wine at the inn, and steals a knife, for protection. She buys a ticket for a front-row seat, sees on the screen Rudolph Valentino suffering from unrequited love, and suffers with him. But then he comes OUT of the screen, towards her, and she flees in terror back to the inn. He follows her, in black and white contrast to her scarlet cloak, "like a lamb". Suddenly her husband appears, she drops the knife and he stabs Valentino several times in the back. They wrap the body, the knife and other evidence in the red cloak, "this cloak which had been touched by an emperor and three archdukes". Now they are happy again - or are they? He suddenly remembers the red cloak - "my poor red cloak". She is adamant that it was hers - after all, she married him for it - but the colonel continues to bemoan its passing: "A pity, it was such a splendid garment." And then the final chilling line, "And for this the colonel will never forgive Didy."

The story, then, is a riff on the relationship betweens dreams and truth, desire and reality, on the possible terrible consequences of acts of mauvaise foi; and on the cinema as a vicarious experience, a safeguard, but perhaps sometimes a trigger, for real-life resentments and tragic acts. At the time, to have the on-screen character, the object of desire, step right out of the screen, was a highly original way of dealing with the magical link between the screen world and the real world. (Woody Allen would later use this theme in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).)18 As a child, Nino had been a privileged observer in his local cinema in Barletta, part-owned by his father; aged 8 or 9, he soon tired of watching the constant parade of glamorous divas on the screen, and joined the projectionist in his box, fascinated to know what exactly was going on:

Always trying to outdo everyone, for a long time I concentrated on deciphering what was being projected not on the screen, but via the cone of light which issued from the projectionist's cabin and then became riveted on the square of white canvas. I had understood that in this strange dust there were hooked atoms of characters and landscapes, trying desperately to find each other and form into clusters, before arriving on the screen. So I got used to imagining what can't be seen.19 | orig

It also carries a wider symbolism, very pertinent at a time when there was a growing cultural split in Europe - and especially in Italy - between the conservative voices urging a 'return to order' after the chaos of the 1914-18 war, and the iconoclastic modern writers and artists who challenged and subverted all the certainties of the past. In this story, for the time being the old order seems to triumph, but only at the expense of burying its own past glory together with the upstart it has destroyed, and sowing new seeds of discord between old and young.

CLICK HERE for the full text of this story, in the original Italian

'Samuele Pallas e la sua felicità'
['The ecstasy of Samuel Pallas']

In 1927 Frank was already working on this short story in French, with the working title 'Emmanuel Borgue et son remords'. But his friend Alberto Carocci at Solaria, one of the few remaining loyal to him, was keen to publish it in his journal, where it appeared, in Italian, in autumn 1928. Carocci wanted him to use his own name, but Frank - concerned for the future of both his friend and the journal - insisted on signing 'Enrico Rossi' (like 'John Smith' in English, a name which would be recognised as a disguise).

On the surface, this story is deceptively simple, the description of the last hours of a solitary middle-aged man with a weak heart. Samuele Pallas, the protagonist, is well aware that he cuts a ridiculous figure, wearing outdated sidewhiskers to balance his bald pink head. He has cut himself off from all contacts, except for brief meetings in the hall with his landlady, whom he refuses to allow into his rooms. He sleeps badly, and is too lethargic in the mornings to wash properly, in the cold water. His heart is "feverish, uneven" and he has "renounced all the joys of life".

Now suddenly, one cold morning in early spring, he hears a noise in the next room; his heart seems to explode, as if struck by a hammer, followed by the feeling that his soul is fluttering "back and forth like the gold-leaf in an electroscope". Then "his heart split open, like the hull of a ship in its death-throes: he felt a flame in his chest, across his lungs". All these signs of a heart attack hit him before he opens the door; when he does, he sees a large white bird - "a stork, or something similar". He dashes out of the room and out of his flat, cutting short the landlady's questions as he crosses the hall.

He dare not return till far into the night, and when he does the bird is still there, motionless as before. Eventually, exhausted, he falls asleep with the bird in the room.

Over the next days, he tries to care for the bird, gives it meat which uneaten goes bad, and his heart pounds again. "The poor man could not get his breath under the weight of his heart, which felt as if it was hard, leaden, a dirty brick colour - exactly like this piece of rancid meat." Suddenly he loses his head and picks up a pistol he keeps for a possible suicide attempt. He shoots, and the beautiful bird collapses, its long neck sinking to the ground, and red blood begins to stain the white feathers. He staggers to the window and hurls the heavy corpse out, as if it were his own heart. Now nothing is left:

He has killed everything. It is over.
He turns to the wall.
And he dies, instantly, silently.
His heart.20 | orig

Clearly this story can be described as "magic realism". It works on two levels: the whole encounter with the bird may be the nightmare of a man who has entered his death-throes, with the realism of the heart pains juxtaposed to the magic of the fluttering heart as an imaginary bird. But a much deeper symbolism is also present - indeed, multiple symbolisms concerning birds and death. The most obvious is the white stork, named in the story: throughout its geographical range, this bird has been held to be sacred and to bring luck and fertility to human communities; it is a cardinal sin to kill one, and brings instant retribution. Further, the arrival of a bird at a sick-bed is an omen of death; and in some religions the soul of a person flies away in the form of a bird. The author has taken all these strands and woven them into a moving representation of the experience of a man undergoing a heart attack, up to the moment of death. The story is dramatic, the metaphor convincing and the outcome shocking.

However, Frank was introducing a further layer of significance, which would have been evident to perceptive readers at the time, but is largely lost to us today. In 1928, as described earlier in this chapter, the Trieste writer Italo Svevo had been greeted as an inspiring writer of "interior" novels and short stories. He had partricularly impressed James Joyce, French literary critics, and in Italy Eugenio Montale. Frank was an admirer of his work, and in the character of his protagonist in this story he nods to Svevo's Zeno (in La Coscienza di Zeno) and to the ineptitude ('inettitudine') and sickness ('malattia') which prevent Zeno, and characters in Svevo's earlier books, from leading a full life. It is not only his bad heart which has brought Samuele Pallas to such an empty, miserable life: it is something profoundly negative in his character, which may also be partly responsible for his untimely end.

By the time this story came out Svevo had also met an untimely end, following a car crash. It stands as a tribute to him, together with a special issue of Solaria the following spring.

CLICK HERE for the full text of this story, in the original Italian

Farewell to Italy

These minor triumphs in Italy were not enough, however. In spite of repeated requests to friends, there was no way back for Frank into the Italian literary scene. After publishing his story in Solaria under a pseudonym to avoid embarrassing his friends at the journal, he worked very hard to obtain contributions to the special number of Solaria in memory of Italo Svevo (notably from James Joyce and Valéry Larbaud), but was not able to contribute on his own account because of the blacklisting.

In the end, in an article 'Dernières nouvelles d'Italie' in the 'Lettres italiennes' section of the Revue Nouvelle of October 1928, he lost all patience - much as he had in Comœdia the previous year. He started with an acid description of Italian Fascism:

In Italy, it is 'picturesque'; the Italians find it very appealing, and they are right: this local, fascist colour, a mixture of the peplum of Raymond Duncan and the Neapolitan camorra, of the commedia dell'arte and the most inaccurate Americanism, sincere mysticism and a mania for contradiction, if it appears to us a bit too ridiculous, nonetheless it stirs hundreds of thousands of young men in black shirts. As for the rest of the population...Go and look closely at them.

All grave, enthusiastic. Fascist salute. Portrait of Mussolini. Hymnns and fasces. And this, from morning to night, as soon as they are in the presence of someone they distrust. There's nothing amusing about it; a salute which is not fascist enough, a refrain forgotten, a lapse in continuity for one second in the necessary enthusiasm, and you run the risk of spending five years on the [Aeolian] Isles.21 | orig

He went on to explain that it was necessary to give a general picture of the state of Italian society in order to indicate the reasons for (in his opinion) a current drought in interesting and inspiring works coming out of Italy. However, conservative Italian writers - in the majority, under Fascism - were extremely offended to see this young Swiss insulting Italian society, as well as denigrating their work.

With this article, he effectively ensured his permanent exclusion from Italy for more than a decade. Tommaso Sillani, the director of La Rassegna Italiana politica, letteraria e artistica, wrote a denunciation of Frank in the December issue of that journal, and 'invited' all Italian writers to sign up to it. Only Bontempelli and Barilli, established and confident in their own right, dared to refuse. It is a measure of the fear among writers that Alvaro, one of his closest friends, wrote that he "deplored the gross error of Nino Frank", while Eugenio Montale, after effectively being forced to sign, wrote (under a disguised name) to Frank:

When I was in Rome, I got an outright ukase, and I didn't really have a choice (you know that)...Have you the impression that it is possible to write directly to you without being read by the censor? Make a note of my address, but destroy this letter, and above all don't talk about this to anyone: it could get us into serious trouble...
Affectionately, Your Arsenio.22 | orig

Happily, the end of 1928 saw two new opportunities for him in Paris: the beginnings of a career in cinema journalism with the magazine Pour Vous, and the launch of a new literary journal, Bifur, for which he would be able to put into practice again the skills he had learnt at "900". The next chapter discusses these two new ventures.

All translations from European texts are my own.

[CLICK HERE to open notes in a new window]


1Lettere a "900", letter 23 from Alvaro to Frank, 16.12.27, pp.36-7.

2Lettere a "900", letter 26 from Alvaro to Frank, 25.7.28, p.40.

3Unpublished letters from Angioletti to Frank, held at the Archivio of the Università della Sapienza, Rome.

4Nino Frank, translation of Pierre Mac Orlan, La Casa del Ritorno Impossibile [La Maison du retour écœurant], Novella, rivista letteraria, May and June 1926, pp.274 on; pp.324 on.

5Nino Frank, Preface and translation of Pierre Mac Orlan, Il Canto dell'Equipaggio [Le Chant de l'Equipage] (Milan: Alpes, 1927), p.14.

6Nino Frank, 'Mac Orlan in aiuto dalla Senna', Corriere della Sera, 20.12.27, p.5.

7Nino Frank, 10.7.2 et autres portraits (Paris: Maurice Nadeau, 1983), p.25.

8Nino Frank, 'Les rêves perdus de Nino Frank', programme on France Inter, 6.7.64.

9Nino Frank, 'Le meilleur romancier italien d'aujourd'hui: Italo Svevo de Trieste', Nouvelles littéraires, 17.3.28, p.8.

10Nino Frank (as Bébé Cadum), 'Meridiano di Parigi', Fiera Letteraria, 8.8.26, p.5.

11Nino Frank, 'Retour de Villefranche: Jean Cocteau', Les Nouvelles littéraires, 14.4.28, p.6.

12Nino Frank, 'Retour de Tunis: François Mauriac', Les Nouvelles littéraires, 5.5.28, p.5.

13Nino Frank, 'Retour d'Allemagne: Ilya Ehrenbourg', Les Nouvelles littéraires, 19.5.28, p.4.

14Nino Frank, 'Delaware-Paris: Scott Fitzgerald', Les Nouvelles littéraires, 25.8.28, p.4.

15Nino Frank, 'Premier whisky', Le Bruit parmi le vent (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1968), p.65.

16Nino Frank, 'Il Mantello Rosso', "900", Nuova Serie, no.2, 1.8.28, pp.61-66.

17The choice of the name 'Mariahilfe' appears to be a direct reference to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to the 'Madonna and Child' painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which was thought to have protected the people in the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. Miraculous powers were attributed to it, and it became a cult still celebrated today in the Eastern countries of the old Empire. As a child, Frank visited Vienna with his parents, and feasted his eyes on the splendid uniforms of the Imperial Guard. He must also have noticed the street and district names containing 'Mariahilf', and possibly saw the copy of this painting in the Mariahilf church. The Madonna wears a dramatic red cloak.

18Also, René Clair, who wrote the original script for Prix de Beauté (1930), included a disturbing final scene in which the heroine, Louise Brooks, is shown singing on the screen at the moment when her slighted lover shoots her dead in the auditorium, as she watches the performance.

19Nino Frank, Petit Cinéma sentimental (Paris: La Nouvelle Edition, 1950), p.21.

20Nino Frank, 'Samuele Pallas e la sua felicità', Solaria, Anno III, Sept./Oct. 1928.

21Nino Frank, 'Dernières nouvelles d'Italie', Revue Nouvelle, no.42, October 1928, pp.155-158. The Aeolian Isles off the coast of Sicily, especially Lipari, were used as a place of political exile under the Roman Empire and again under Mussolini.

22Eugenio Montale to Nino Frank, 31.1.29. Montale was so fearful that he signed his letter only 'Arsenio', the title of his famous poem. Reproduced in: Nino Frank, 'Eugenio Montale, une correspondance', Nouvelle Revue Française, vol.422, 1.3.88, p.126.

Original quotations from which translations taken

(numbers match relevant endnotes)

1 Siccome tu sei un amico della letteratura italiana e dell'Italia, non passerà molto tempo che potrai ritentare di lavorare per i giornali di qui, ma per ora ti consiglio di essere prudente e di non far parlare sul conto tuo facendo i tuoi passi molto cautamente presso i giornali.

2Mi fa piacere che tu ti sia messo a posto. Qui vedo sempre quello che scrivi in Nouvelles littéraires...Non ho fatto nessuno sforzo a restarti amico. Ci conosciamo da molto tempo, so che sei un bravo uomo, che hai fatto molto per la letteratura italiana all'estero, che sei un amico dell'Italia malgrado quello che ti vogliono attribuire i letterati che non ti sono amici.

3Devi dunque sapere che Malaparte aveva scritto per la Fiera un corsivo violentissimo contro di te. Io non ho voluto pubblicarlo, et sono stato a lungo in polemica con Malaparte; abbiamo, per lettera, discusso molto sul tuo atteggiamento. La conclusione è che il corsivo non sarà più pubblicato; ma Malaparte non vuole attacchi, anche indiretti, da parte tua. Egli considera attacco anche il silenzio premeditato; e non ha torto...Ora però anch'io ti invito ad un atteggiamento più sereno.
...Mi pare di averti parlato chiaro. E sarà colpa tua se, persistendo nel tuo atteggiamento, avrai perso l'ultimo amico che ti rimaneva in Italia.

5 Ecco, l'atmosfera. Stranissima: odor di catrame, di fumo e sole che brucia; la pioggia cade - e poi la caldura turba il sangue; il mare è calmo; si canta stonando, e qualcuno è ubriaco; le donne, spesso stupide, parlono poco ma hanno occhi attenti; e sempre, che stordisce, un profumo di fiori amari, e la voce del vento brusco e aspro, e forse - là dentro - si fuma l'oppio...Atmosfera avventurosa, greve di rimpianti e di brutalità; in essa vivono uomini liberi, bislacchi - ma dalle spalle quadre. Ecco, le spalle quadre: cioè, niente romanticismi in questi libri; tutto ben dosato; l'arte dell'autore armonizza e frena la fantasia.

6 Mac Orlan cerca i colori della poesia: nel quartiere del Mercato dei vini e del Jardin des Plantes, ove le locomotive vengono ad abbeverarsi di acqua di fiume, e le scimmie chiuse nelle gabbie stridono, a notte, verso le luci malferme della Senna; su le due isole, navi eternamente all'ancora, fragilissimi capolavori formati dalle secrezioni di lunghi secoli esausti...Ma tutto il suo piacere Mac Orlan vuol trarlo dalla rievocazione delle sponde di Pavoy e di Javel, di quel ponte Mirabeau donde Apollinaire guardava scorrere la Senna col bel ritmo delle sue poesie, centro di un universo popolare e lurido, cosmopolita e parigino, ove si forma e nasce senza rumore, ogni giorno, l'avventura che nessuno conosce, ma che possiede maggior lirismo di molte vite esemplari.

7Je sais de lui encore un geste d'amitié généreuse: ma rupture avec l'Italie consommée et comme je gigotais sur le fameux pavé de Paris, Mac Orlan, qui assurait dans Vu une chronique hebdomadaire de livres et disques, se découvrit des empêchements pour que je tienne, l'espace de quelques semaines, la rubrique à sa place.

8Le journalisme me servait essentiellement pour connaître des gens - des écrivains, des peintres, des musiciens - que je voulais connaître. Le nombre d'interviews et de portraits que j'ai pu faire à cette époque est vraiment assez extraordinaire, quand j'y pense.

9Un homme de soixante-sept ans, qui marche doucement, la tête lourde, un grand sourire sur toute sa figure, les yeux pleins de malignité et de vivacité. Il parle avec circonspection, on dirait qu'il fait le tour de chacun de ses mots. Sa bonhomie, son innocente vanité, sa gentillesse, on en a peur, car on sent qu'elles cachent tant d'arrière-pensées, d'arrière-sentiments, pour ainsi dire, prêts à se réveiller au premier heurt. Qu'elles doivent être compliquées, les circonvolutions cérébrales de cet homme, dont l'âme est un puits de souvenirs, de noms, de réflexes, de nombres....
...Zéno, véritable "recherche du temps perdu", qui part d'un thème freudien, et dont l'introspection précise, la minutie des détails, ont permis à quelques critiques de rapprocher le nom de Svevo de celui de Proust. Et pourtant les deux œuvres sont bien différentes: chez Svevo (qui est moins "cosmique") l'humour ne perd jamais ses droits, et ses analyses minutieuses n'ont rien de commun avec la complexité stylistique de Proust qui découle d'impulsions poétiques. Proust est un tempérament lyrique ou plutôt épique. Svevo est de la famille de Goldoni, un dramatique.

10A colazione con Cocteau. Annunzia che la Francia lo disgusta, e che vuol scapper lontano. Ma non vuol viaggiare. Ecco, andrà a vivere in un monastero. E, beninteso, non scriverà più. Cioè, forse, un altra commedia...Ha bisogno di movimento, Cocteau: come farebbe a vivere, puta caso, in un monastero? E mai Cocteau confessa la verità: che da trentadue anni ch'è al mondo sta aspettando la fine dell'universo..

11 Depuis quelques années l'œuvre de M. Jean Cocteau n'est plus qu'un colloque étrange et désespéré avec la mort, un jeu de balançoire tragique entre la sérénité et le mystère. Opéra en est la dernière manche, que gagne le poète. Il nous accueille dans sa chambre de travail qui n'a presque plus rien d'humain et qui ne parvient plus à le fixer: ses regards en vrille sourient avec une naïveté triste d'homme "qui en revient".
...On me demande partout d'aller faire des conférences, à Moscou, en Espagne, en Amérique: on me faisait des conditions excellentes, on a même annoncé que j'allais partir pour Hollywood. J'ai réfléchi - ce n'était pas ma route, il ne faut pas embrouiller les fils du destin. Je ne pourrais pas supporter les Américains: ils se sont fait de moi une image fausse, ils s'imagineraient qu'on leur livre un faux Cocteau. Je reste en France et je consens que ma légende voyage pour moi. Je perds de l'argent, mais je n'en ai pas besoin...J'avais une petite voiture, j'ai truqué le moteur: j'adore l'ahurissement des sportsmen qui voient une Citroën filer plus vite qu'une auto de course...

12 Dans une grande maison de Passy, au dernier étage: un appartement ensoleillé, no man's land qui sépare les barbares de l'homme de talent. On monte encore: comme la cime d'une tour, une petite chambre de travail. Des livres, un portrait de Rimbaud, le soleil. M. François Mauriac est grand et mince, il a les gestes brusques et énervés des félins, il sourit de toute sa figure coupante; sur son grand front serein, quand il fronce les sourcils, on ne voit de rides qu'à la racine du nez, mais elles sont profondes et amères, et elles illuminent sa voix glissante.
...On m'avait fait une renommée de grand chrétien, renommée assez gênante: je m'en préoccupais, mais je n'aurais jamais imaginé qu'elle me permettrait de connaître de près le monde islamique, qui est ce qui m'a passionné le plus là-bas et ce dont je garde le souvenir le plus attachant. J'étais arrivé à Tunis au beau milieu du Ramadan. La force, la vitalité de la religion parmi les mahomédans, m'ont frappé. Il suffit que l'on parle religion avec un mahométan pour l'intéresser. Ma renommée de romancier catholique m'a permis de m'entretenir fréquemment avec des soufs, des mystiques qui vous parlent avec science de saint Jean de la Croix ou de saint François de Sales.

13Il serait ardu de préciser ce qui se cache derrière l'humour sarcastique de Ilya Ehrenbourg: ce petit-fils de Voltaire est beaucoup plus russe qu'il n'en a l'air, et il le révèle, de temps en temps, par un mot qui porte loin ou par un regard étrange et au demeurant assez amer.
...un grand travail constructif qui fait de Berlin une ville-type de notre époque. L'aérodrome de Tempelhof, le nouveau quartier ouvrier, les installations techniques des studios de Babelsberg, ce Hollywood européen, tout cela montre la volonté et la capacité de construire. La fièvre de l'Allemagne intellectuelle, l'avidité avec laquelle sont recueillis les mouvements spirituels des peuples voisins, font que l'Allemagne ressemble à une grande gare de transit où tous les gens attendent leur correspondance. Dans notre époque de tremblements de terre c'est une occupation assez honorable.

14A trente et un ans, ce garçon mince et blond, aux yeux qui piquent, au rire enfantin, est l'un des auteurs les plus en vogue de l'autre côté de l'Océan: il le constate mais n'en a cure, et avoue préférer au château qu'il possède dans le Delaware, ses mois de vacances en France.
...L'influence des écrivains français en Amérique est très grande: au tout premier plan Proust, dont on est en train de traduire l'œuvre complet. Sodome et Gomorrhe vient d'être publié en édition privée, parce qu'on a eu peur du public. Cela n'empêche pas des écrivains comme Hemingway, Cummings, Thornton Wilder surtout, l'auteur de The bridge of San-Luis Rey, qui va arriver en Europe avec son ami Gene Tunney, d'être les plus originaux parmi les jeunes, d'accepter intégralement le passage de Proust. Gide qui connut un très grand succès avec ses Caves du Vatican, nous paraît affaibli depuis la publication des Faux monnayeurs; il est actuellement la proie des snobs, qui en échange n'ont pas osé toucher à Proust.

15 Dans le bar plongé dans la pénombre, il n'y avait qu'un client, un triste obèse sommeillant, qui sursauta et remit son cigare éteint à la bouche: un Américain vraisemblablement, et qui, aussi bien que notre chauffeur, paraissait avoir survécu à la canonnade de la guerre. Impassible dans sa veste blanche, encore un qui en avait vu bien d'autres, le barman nous versa, au comptoir, les boissons promises depuis le commencement de l'après-midi: le whisky me parut singulier, sentant un peu la punaise, ne révélant nul paradis, mais d'une couleur tendre. Scott Fitzgerald arpentait le local, le verre à la main, en se dandinant: un chasseur vint jeter un coup d'œil, qui me sembla ironique, puis, après un regard d'entente au barman, disparut. Quant à l'obèse, il fit un vain essai de rallumer son cigare, puis, tout ébaubissement disparu, s'assoupit derechef.

16Si ficcò tra le coperte, grugnendo come un vecchio gatto soddisfatto e sorridendo paternamente alla moglie. Ella si spogliò cogli occhi sgranati: quando non le restava che la camicia il marito già russava. Cadde sul letto con la violenza di una mazzatta: il colonnello non fu schiacciato, ma le gettò, un istante, dei grandi sguardi da burocrate spaventato. Egli dormiva col sorriso della pace sulle labbra; e tuttavia Didy in preda al gelo, aveva paura di serrar gli occhi.

19Cherchant toujours à faire mieux que tout le monde, je m'efforçai, pendant longtemps, de distinguer la projection non pas sur l'écran, mais à travers le cône de lumière qui, issu de la cabine de l'opérateur, allait se river au carré de toile blanche. J'avais compris que, dans cettre poussière étrange, les atomes crochus des personnages et des paysages se cherchaient désespérément, afin de s'agglomérer avant leur arrivée sur l'écran. Ainsi m'accoutumai-je à imaginer ce que l'on ne peut pas voir.

20 sua anima oscillare come la foglia d'oro dell'elettroscopio.
...Gli s'apriva il cuore, come lo scafo d'un vascello in agonia: sentì in petto, fra i polmoni, una fiamma. pover'uomo mancava il fiato sotto il peso del suo cuore, che sentiva coriaceo, greve, color di terracotta sporca, - proprio come quel pezzo di carne rancida.
...Ha ucciso tutto. È finita. Si volta verso il muro. E a un tratto muore, silenziosamente. Il cuore.

21 En Italie c'est "pittoresque"; les Italiens trouvent que c'est très joli, ils ont raison: cette couleur locale et fasciste, mélange du péplum de Raymond Duncan et de la camorra napolitaine, de la commedia dell'arte et de l'américanisme le plus inexact, de mysticisme sincère et de manie de contradiction, s'il nous paraît à nous un peu trop bouffon, il n'en émeut pas moins quelques centaines de milliers de jeunes hommes aux chemises noires. Quant au reste de la population...Allez-y voir de près.
Tous graves, enthousiastes. Salut fasciste. Portrait de Mussolini. Hymnes et faisceaux. Et cela du matin au soir, dès qu'ils sont en présence de quelqu'un dont ils se méfient. Ce n'est pas du tout comique; un salut qui ne soit pas fasciste, un refrain oublié, une solution de continuité d'une seconde dans l'enthousiasme de rigueur, et on court le risque d'aller passer cinq ans aux Îles.

22Alors que j'étais à Rome, j'ai reçu un franc oukase, et je n'ai guère eu...à choisir (tu le sais)...As-tu l'impression que l'on puisse t'écrire directement sans être lu par la censure? Prends note de mon adresse, mais détruis cette lettre, et surtout n'en parle à personne: ce serait s'exposer à de graves ennuis.
Affectueusement, je t'embrasse. Ton Arsenio.