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Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita.

Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita. By Carlo Levi. (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2004. Pp. xxxvii, 280. $24.95.)

Gigliola De Donato, Luisa Montevecchi, and Giulio Ferroni have rescued some of the most insightful and entertaining writings of the famous Italian intellectual Carlo Levi from archival obscurity with their well-organized anthology, Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita. Levi is best known for his novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, published in 1945, but these thirty-three short essays were written in the two decades after that success. After World War II, Rome was changing into a standard modern city, losing its familiar charms, eccentrics, and traditions. Placed in chronological order, Levi's fragments read like a nostalgic travelogue, hoping that the glimpses and vestiges of its ancient, medieval, and baroque cultures could survive Italy's fitful emergence as an industrial democracy.

Like most socialists of his day, Levi had little love for the dehumanizing effects of predatory capitalism and professional efficiency, both vaunting a civil servant who gardened instead of showing up to a meaningless job and then celebrating the clothes moths that fed upon the city's genteel decay. He is predictably most sympathetic to the indigenous working class and street people of Rome, but he gives these characters a complexity that is never condescending or boring. For example, in "The Power of the Poor," he relates his encounters with a homeless petty thief, who keeps pestering Levi not only for money but also for their camaraderie as magnets for bad luck. This seemingly minor villain ends up as "the compassionate fellow sufferer" (94). In "Brigands and Peasants," he admires the peasant Antonio and his links to an older organic society. Never leaving his deep rural connections far behind, Antonio becomes a waiter in Rome, who then is conned by criminals posing as policemen. This seemingly unhappy situation exposes the natural confidence and cleverness of Antonio, who would never be appreciated by the fawning luigini or yes-men of officialdom, the real brigands of the short story and of the entire array of typescripts. More a free-thinker, like fellow countryman Gramsci, than a gray Soviet apparatchik, Levi's brand of Left-wing populism lets him appreciate the individual--the writer who would rather watch soccer than talk shop, groups of women workers who don colorful rather than professional attire, traffic policemen who moonlight as painters of peaceful domestic scenes--without embracing American-style individualism. One drawback to the collection is that some themes such as the holiday festivals repeat over and over again, but the repetition, however cumbersome for readers, shows the depth of Levi's passion about his city and his attachment to it. Unfortunately for Levi, la Dolce Vita was more fleeting by the early 1960s because of an accelerated modernization; the arrival of the Hilton chain and the mammoth buses vomiting forth hordes of tourists on package schedules seemed to him to be just the most egregious symptoms of its loss forever. Perhaps that is why he wanted to capture that sweet life before it completely disappeared. Thanks to some enterprising scholars, this collection makes these snapshots available to both general readers and graduate students specializing in postwar Italy.

Charles H. Ford

Norfolk State University
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Author:Ford, Charles H.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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