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La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mindby Beppe Severgnini
Synopses & Reviews
You wont need luggage for this hypothetical and hilarious trip into the hearts and minds of Beppe Severgninis fellow Italians. In fact, Beppe would prefer if you left behind the baggage his crafty and elegant countrymen have smuggled into your subconscious. To get to his Italia, youll need to forget about your idealized notions of Italy. Although La Bella Figura will take you to legendary cities and scenic regions, your real destinations are the places where Italians are at their best, worst, and most authentic:
The highway: in America, a red light has only one possible interpretationStop! An Italian red light doesnt warn or order you as much as provide an invitation for reflection.
The airport: where Italians prove that one of their virtues (an appreciation for beauty) is really a vice. Who cares if the beautiful girls hawking cell phones in airport kiosks stick you with an outdated model? Thats the price of gazing upon perfection.
The small town: which demonstrates the Italian genius for pleasant living: “a congenial barber . . . a well-stocked newsstand . . . professionally made coffee and a proper pizza; bell towers we can recognize in the distance, and people with a kind word and a smile for everyone.”
The chaos of the roads, the anarchy of the office, the theatrical spirit of the hypermarkets, and garrulous train journeys; the sensory reassurance of a church and the importance of the beach; the solitude of the soccer stadium and the crowded Italian bedroom; the vertical fixations of the apartment building and the horizontal democracy of the eat-in kitchen. As you venture to these and many other locations rooted in the Italian psyche, you realize that Beppe has become your Dante and shown you a country that “has too much style to be hell” but is “too disorderly to be heaven.”
Ten days, thirty places. From north to south. From food to politics. From saintliness to sexuality. This ironic, methodical, and sentimental examination will help you understand why Italyas Beppe says“can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters or ten minutes.”
"Severgnini — Italian newspaper columnist and author of the pesce-out-of-water memoir Ciao, America! — must have wanted to emulate Luigi Barzini, author of the 1960s classic The Italians, in this somewhat tepid sociological look at his countrymen. Severgnini writes pleasantly enough (and Giles Watson's translation is smooth, for the most part), but his observations are anything but sharp. He organizes this overview as a kind of geographical 'tour,' with a chapter about car sex in Naples and another on the Italian countryside in Tuscany. Sweeping statements, such as 'Italians have the same relationship with food that some Amazonian people have with the clouds in the sky — one glance and we know what to expect,' abound, and they have the ring of truth, but they're rarely backed up by supporting anecdotes. In today's shrunken world, jokes about how Italians love to see half-naked women on television ('The new Italian icon is the Semi-Undressed Signorina') and abuse their cellphone privileges simply aren't new. The collection ends with the hoariest of devices: a letter from an imaginary American friend who has taken Severgnini's tour and reminisces about the beautiful 'girls' in a Milan disco. Barzini, too, often wrote in generalities, but he had the advantage of coming first." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"America first came into official contact with Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini several years ago, when he turned a one-year stint in the United States into 'Ciao, America!,' a delightful nibbling of the hand that was providing his material. A columnist for Corriere della Serra, one of Italy's largest-circulation dailies, Severgnini spent his American year right here in Washington (D.C.) — improbably... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) enough, three blocks from my house, which may have heightened my enjoyment of his forays into real estate and the upper reaches of Rockville (Md.) Pike. He wrote that book, 'Un Italiano in America,' for the Italian market, which made it a huge best-seller, and then issued it in English for the international market. After all, we enjoy laughing at ourselves and are as baffled as outsiders by our giant mattress sales and the plethora of breakfast cereals at the supermarket. And we enjoy the occasional bits of good news, such as Severgnini's take on the bureaucracy involved in getting a Social Security card or telephone service: 'Having trained on the Italian version (of bureaucracy), we feel like a matador faced with a milk cow. It's a pushover.' In half-a-dozen lighthearted books, Severgnini has also lampooned the English ('Inglesi'), the English language ('L'Inglese') and Italian tourists ('Italiani con Valigia') — as well as himself — so it seems a natural progression for him to attempt a luscious disquisition on the Italian national character some 40 years after Luigi Barzini's classic, 'The Italians.' Despite Barzini's attempts to disrupt all the cliches about Italians' charm, we Americans have clung to our notions about his countrymen, sometimes infantilizing them, seeing them as simpler than ourselves (when we're not seeing them as impossibly cunning), less plagued by modernity (despite the little cellulari that were pasted to their ears in the street long before it was the fashion here). But Severgnini seems determined to restore and psychologically update those charms and eccentricities, making them appeal to a generation of American travelers who feel they 'know' their Italian hosts. Presenting a 'field guide' to the mind, Italian or other, does not give the author a lot of room to move around in, so he offers a construct: Thirty places in 10 days. Sounds straightforward, but it's not. Severgnini's places are rather high-concept, including Malpensa, Milan's international airport; highways; restaurants; churches; the beach; and television. We bounce from Milan to Tuscany to Rome to Naples to Sardinia (plus an odd dip into Bahia, in Brazil), or at least that's what we're told — there's very little evidence of regional differences here. Before we launch ourselves, the author announces that 'Italy is far from hellish. It's got too much style. Neither is it heaven, of course, because it's too unruly. Let's just say that Italy is an offbeat purgatory, full of proud, tormented souls each of whom is convinced he or she has a hotline to the boss.' While you're still trying to figure out which country on the planet isn't filled with such souls, Severgnini takes it a step further: 'Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis,' referring, in case you skipped those art history classes, to the Renaissance painter and, in case you've been avoiding the news, to the recently defeated prime minister. Hmm, what about China — Qing dynasty porcelains and Tiananmen Square? The United States — the Bill of Rights and fried Twinkies? And so it goes, with the author so busy being droll that we sometimes lose his point entirely, struggling so hard to tread water amid his many metaphors that, well, I won't succumb to metaphor extension here — it's just exhausting after a while. (Just remember that, economically, Italy is like 'a Ferrari on the starting grid, its engine throbbing. But it's been there for a while now, and the race is already on the third lap.') Severgnini is at his best when he's delivering Italy in real context (you know, reporting) — about the role of Vespas in the postwar nation, about its contretemps with the European Union. But his neatly packaged apergus keep coming at us: 'In other words, if you want to understand Italy, forget the guidebooks. Study theology.' 'You've been to Italy when you know the result of the Juventus game, not before.' 'You'll have to understand the piazza if you want to find out what goes on inside an Italian's head.' 'The Italian mind is an exotic location that deserves a guided tour.' Every stop on our 10-day tour gets this kind of pronouncement: The airport: 'Malpensa encapsulates the nation.' OK, whatever. The coffee bar: 'Like an English club, an Italian bar is a place of long lingerings, yet it's also a place for swift passings-through, like a market in China.' Huh? 'It's a place where you can clinch a deal, sort out an evening, start a new working relationship, or end an affair over an espresso. Standing at the bar, usually. Vertical emotions hold no fears for Italians.' Double huh? The now-frenetic Italian weekend: 'A Po Valley skier rents a chalet in Switzerland and then commutes. Once, her ancestors made a similar trip, but they didn't have a ski rack on the roof of the car.' The latter sentence may be a reference to Italian laborers who had to sign on as guest workers in Switzerland for lack of work at home, but that's just a guess (and the use of the word 'ancestors' suggests Otzi, the Stone Age ice man found in the Italian Alps, not the Po Valley skier's Uncle Giuseppe). Am I silly to attempt such scrutiny of something that is obviously harmless entertainment? Perhaps. But it's annoying to try to read while alarm bells — Something's wrong! Something's wrong! — keep going off in your brain. And with 'La Bella Figura,' it gets very noisy in there indeed. Oh yes, the bella figura: For those who don't know, it means cutting a good figure. But we're assured that such an expression is uniquely Italian, that it's quite different from the plain old 'making a good impression.' If there's an overall criticism to be made of a book that does in fact have its entertaining moments, it's that the Italian mind we get trapped inside of for too long is the clever but not totally reliable one belonging to Beppe Severgnini. Nancy McKeon is acting Food editor of The Washington Post." Reviewed by Nancy McKeon, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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The book on perplexing Italians . . . Severgninis most systematic probe of the Italian psyche yet . . . A keen observer of human nature, (he watches) his compatriots with amused insight . . . Laugh-out-loud funny ("International Herald Tribune").
About the Author
beppe severgnini is a columnist for Italys largest circulation daily newspaper Corriere della Sera and covered Italy for The Economist from 1993 to 2003. He is the author of the international bestseller Ciao, America! He lives with his family in Crema, on the outskirts of Milan.
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