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Due nomi per Charlie.

Memory and history, family and community, the triumphs and disappointments of ordinary existences in extraordinary times - these are some of the topics explored by Alberto Vigevani in Due nomi per Charlie, a portrait of the life of one man and the generation to which he belongs. As in other novels and memoirs by this author, those whose private histories are lovingly remembered here (bonta or "kindness," is a recurring term and an important moral value throughout) are all members of what Vigevani calls the "tribe" of upper-class, cultured Milanese Jews. The tightly knit group of friends and in-laws, rivals and lovers, poseurs and authentically creative intellectuals and artists who people its pages came reluctantly of age during the (as they believed) Fascist interregnum. Those who survived the succeeding period of dislocation, destruction, and tragedy did so only to arrive bewildered and impoverished in a postwar Italy bereft of the certainties of earlier times and with only the shreds of previous civilities still in place.

"Two Names for Charlie" pretends to trace the marital, economic, sentimental, and artistic vicissitudes of the narrator's cousin "Charlie" and his wife "Lisbeth," a couple who have jettisoned their too-prosaic Italian names of Dante and Luisa in favor of more with-it and tendentiously anti-Fascist anglophilic appellations. The book's true focus, however, is the sensibility of the narrator himself, who offers us the lives, loves, and occasional lunacies of Charlie and especially Lisbeth, not for the intrinsic revelations they may provide but as objects of a regret-tinged fascination that it has been Charlie and not the narrator who has shared Lisbeth's most intimate moments.

A roman a clef - apparently - whose walk-ons from the smart world of Milanese intellectual and artistic life will likely be recognized by informed readers even when not identified by name, Vigevani's narrative is remarkable for its dignified irony. The octogenarian author depicts life's smaller quarrels, secondary absurdities, and minor achievements with a forgiving and comprehending detachment that is marvelously reinforced by his composed and unflappably elegant writing. Both the slender story and the admirable prose with which it is somewhat dreamily recounted would seem to testify that what survives even such major horrors as Fascism, racial intolerance, invasion, and war is a sense of civilized behavior secure enough of its own fundamental rightness to pardon without condoning and eulogize without sentimentalizing - or at least without sentimentalizing beyond the prerogatives that age may justly claim in regard to what have surely been some of the more troubling and least heroic years of the century now drawing to a close.

Charles Klopp Ohio State University
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Author:Klopp, Charles
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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