Last Act in Urbino, by Paolo Volponi

The most prestigious literary prize in Italy is the Premio Strega. As Wikipedia points out, it’s been won by Cesare Pavese (1950), Alberto Moravia (1952), Giorgio Bassani (1956), Elsa Morante (1957), Dino Buzzati (1958), Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1959), Natalia Ginzburg (1963), Tommaso Landolfi (1975), Primo Levi (1979), Umberto Eco (1981), Gesualdo Bufalino (1988) and Claudio Magris (1997) – there you go, pretty much everyone you’ve heard of in Italian literature in the second half of c20th – except Italo Calvino.

Only one writer has ever won it twice, his name is Paolo Volponi.

Volponi doesn’t merit an English Wikipedia page (the Italian page, you’ll notice, is quite long). Amazon would suggest he’s had four novels translated into English, three of them in the late 1960s (which was the last period anyone English-speaking was really interested in matters European) and Last Act in Urbino (Il sipario ducale), published in 1995 by Italica Press, who specialise in things Italian. The novel Volponi himself considered his most important, Corporale, has never been translated into English.

Volponi wrote Last Act in Urbino after Corporale, and – as quoted in my edition – had this to say about it: “I wrote Il sipario ducale between ’74 and ’75, in less than a year [he’d taken 9 years over Corporale], in reaction to the rather cold reception of Corporale on the part of the critics. I wrote it as if to say: You want a simple novel? a novel as novel? Well here it is all ready.” – This comes through in some of the early passages, where he very sarcastically points up his exact meaning or intention, just in case a critic might have missed the point or found it all a bit obscure. Needless to say, though – and though I don’t have a “difficult” Volponi novel to measure it against – Last Act in Urbino isn’t a “simple novel”. (Didn’t I start it some time last year?).

Here is an Obooki-ish plot-summary: A man and his wife, old anarchists from the Spanish Civil War, worry about the way the modern Italy Republic is headed, their thoughts concentrated after a recent terrorist outrage which is now being blamed on “anarchists”; meanwhile, a young aristocrat, Count Oddino Oddo-Semproni, head of a decaying and powerless house, is discovering his ancestral dominion and its limits. These two plots slowly converge into one single one: that the city of Urbino, with the Oddino at its head, will withdraw from the Italian Republic and declare independence.

It’s a marvellously, densely written work, with some wonderful individual scenes. I’m particularly fond of a scene in which Oddino has an orgy in a whorehouse, the whole of which is a metaphor for Italian history of the period of the risorgimento. My reservations though are perhaps around the politics: Volponi – or at least, his central character- gets a bit carried away in his anarchistic ideas on the evils and the overthrow of the Italian Republic.

Why then is Volponi so unknown? – We have the usual few reasons:

  • His work is difficult.
  • His work is imbued with Italian politics of the last 200 years, and would be hard to understand without a knowledge of this.
  • His politics are not in favour.

But mostly, I’d hazard, the first two.

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4 thoughts on “Last Act in Urbino, by Paolo Volponi

  1. I see his (apparently) earlier novel The Memorandum is fairly widely available – even Book Depository has it. Noted.

  2. Yes, I was thinking of getting it, but I hesitate strangely about buying things off the Book Depository (though I did buy something off them last week, but excused myself because it was a present) – and, in my book-buying terms, it’s expensive. I’m presuming it’s a reprint of the late 60s edition of the same.

  3. That’s fair enough. I used to soothe myself with the knowledge that Book Depository at least “wasn’t Amazon”: alas, now even that fig-leaf is unavailable to me.

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