[Reading time: 8 minutes]
The Puritan of Langhe
“Always on the tombstones I would just my name, the two dates that matter only, and the title of writer and partisan.”
According to Pietro Chiodi, philosopher and Italian patriot, Fenoglio would have
been a perfect soldier of Cromwell’s Army
“with the Bible in his rucksack and his rifle over his shoulder”.
A romantic love for lost England
Fenoglio never saw England, but he loved that country as a far and romantic love.
Probably he did not want to see England, because he knew that his England had disappeared already in his time: it was the England of XVII century, when the English Puritans fought for freedom in the civil war. As well as Puritans, Fenoglio’s
protagonists fight for the redemption of their country from oppression and moral misery.
The shadow of Tyranny
Born in Alba on March 1, 1922, Fenoglio spent his youth in the shadow of fascist dictatorship. Affected by a mild stuttering, he developed a solitary character.
Despite the humble condition of the parents (the father was a butcher, the mother a lavander) he was sent to study at high school. There, he soon became passionate about English literature, learning its language studying and translating the English classics of XVII century.
He studied in depth the Holy Bible and, in general, the Sacre Scritture, especially the Book of Apocalypse. He worked for the first translations of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton would also be the name of the protagonist of his novel “A Private Issue”, immortal portrait of Italian Resistance. In the same years he matured a strong anti-fascist conscience. He did not finish studies and he attended the course for military officers. After the armistice of September 8 1943, he joined the Resistance.
English language and Italian Resistance
The fascist dictatorship was quite hostile to the English Language, culture and literature, but it admitted English books with content not overtly political and supported sport, even if it had been an English invention. In this little space left by the regime some intellectuals found a refuge from the propaganda and the general conformism: the choice of English was also a political choice at that time. Although Fenoglio can’t be considered a writer politically engaged, he used English as a tool against every kind of authoritarianism and conformism, after the Liberation too.
His passion of English was also really useful to the antifascist brigades, because he kept the connection between them and the Allies’ command during the actions at the end of April 1945.
“I write first in English and then I translate in Italian” Fenoglio told this confidence to Italo Calvino in 1956. As I mentioned earlier, Fenoglio started his literary carer as a translator and he never stopped to translate from English to Italian, even when he wrote his novels: from this original way to write he created a new language, which was called “Fenenglish” by critics. This language contains neologisms to explain the meaning of some English words that are not in Italian, some words, propositions and quotes remain in English, others, as “patriots” (referring to partisans) or “republicans” (referring to fascists of Italian Social Republic) are a literal translation from English. In this process is not only Italian language to be changed, but also English language, which is mixed with jargon of the antifascist monarchist brigades and adapted to the Langhe’s reality and language. Furthermore, the English which was know by Fenoglio is not a contemporary English, but the English of XVII century, which he had learned reading the classic of English literature above mentioned. A fact that impressed the Allies’ officers with whom he maintained contacts during the war. From his English readings Fenoglio gained the fundamental part of his narrative style, as well as his philosophy of live, his vision of things. According to Calvino, “Fenenglish” is the only language able to tell the Fenoglio’s parable. He created it to transpose the historical event of Resistance in the eternity of epos with its universal values of heroism, sacrifice and loyalty, a Puritan epos, founded on austere worship of Liberty.
A proud loneliness
“And he thought maybe a partisan would be like him on the last hill, looking at the city and thinking about him and his news the night of the day of his death. Here is the important thing: that there should always be one.” (Beppe Fenoglio)
“A few honest men is better than numbers!” (Oliver Cromwell)
Loneliness is a relevant theme of Fenoglio’s production. His heroes are lone knights, always spiritually and often physically. This not only a metaphor of human condition, but also a reality for him. For his nonconformity to the dominant culture and religion, the remained fundamentally alone. He refused every kind of rhetoric and cliche, first he was an antifascist even during the apogee of the regime, then he refused to give a propagandist description of Resistance, staying alone into the field of the anti fascism Above all, his contemporaries rejected his style, declaring it too near to film style and politically “too American”, considering Fenoglio a bad and vulgar beginner. Furthermore, they could not accept his anti clericalism and his unconventional representation of women. Even Calvino, who defended Fenoglio publically for his style and ethical view, declared in a private letter to the writer Elio Vittorini that some points of the original Fenoglio’s tales “keep close to pornography”. Nevertheless, Beppe Fenoglio did not make public statements, but he preferred to speak by his books. Sometimes he suffered a partial censure by the publishing house Einaudi, but he never felt the requirement to justify himself. His austere worship of Liberty kept during Resistance was more important than company and public acceptance.
The End of Heroes
It is the fate of Moses not to enter the promised land where he led his people redeemed from slavery.
As the same way, it is the fate of Fenoglio’s protagonists not to see the Sun rise over the liberated Italy. It is true that Italian partisans were isolated after the Liberation, discriminated in jobs and marginalized in the affections. It is also true that the majority of them would never return to normal life, because too strong were the memories of war, too vulgar and ungrateful their homeland, for which they have fought and dead. Fenoglio himself even refused to be reintegrated in the new Italy. He refused to forget what it had been happened before. And he wrote just for testify the past, which never was passed. “I am the sparrow who will never fall. I’m the only sparrow!” said Johnny, his protagonist of his posthumous novel “Il partigiano Johnny” and his own literary image. Survive is always part of the implacable God’s plan, indeed it is almost a punishment to be still alive. Anyway, a mission. However, Beppe Fenoglio had an excellent knowledge of Bible and even a particular religious sensibility. It is this the most important point, as well as the Promised Land is close to Jews’ father to die in loneliness is the fate of heroes’ Italy. This was also the end of Fenoglio, killed by a cancer at the age of 41 years old, while Italy entered modernity, economic boom, urbanization, secularization. In the year of our Lord 1963, the rural civilization of Langhe, the one that had crossed fascism and the partisan struggle, had gone down. And with it, its bard. As according to his last wishes, his funerals were “lay, without flowers, without stops, without speaking” . In the land where he had lived all his life, with the border always marked by the dismal hills, there, he was buried.