Posted by: roamingolivia | March 2, 2010

Book review: La Bella Figura

I’ve been reading this book for the whole time I have been here, off and on, which is about 11 days. You might be wondering if it is a really long book, but there are two reasons it took me a while to finish it.

First, I had DVDs of the first two seasons of Mad Men, and I have watched both already. I also read another book that will not be reviewed here because it’s not about Italy, but you can read more about it (including my review) here.

Second, this book is really annoying. Yes, I realise this is not really the way to get everyone interested in what I am going to say next. I also realise that this author can Google this, but he’s famous and will have better things to do.

I should preface the following comments with the admission that I dislike most travel literature. I really want to read it and to like it, but I hate the tone of the authors. They seem so smug, and usually the book is more about them than about the place – how can it be anything else? You’re passing through (see, e.g., You Shall Know Our Velocity for more on this idea). (It is ironic that I have had not one but two travel blogs in my life, and I am aware of that.) Because I do not like travel literature, it was always unlikely that I would like staying-at-home memoirs, but I didn’t know that.

This book has convinced me that what I really dislike are books about places and countries and entire groups of people, written with almost no historical information and not much you can store away as real knowledge. It’s just an amusing rant from someone who often writes as if he’s sitting in the local pub with me, trying hard to say the things that he thinks the expats will find hilarious.

When written about others’ countries, even ones I have visited, I get annoyed. I was annoyed with this book, which self-identifies with the natives (he’s Italian). This book is essentially a breath-taking tour of Italy/Italia (your Italy is not our Italia), using approximately one cliched observation per few paragraphs. Sometimes the observations are really interesting – particularly when he is getting into what school is like, or why people vote, and the good things about the culture. But then he throws in a cliche or worthlessly flippant comment at the end of the paragraph, and I flinch.

Here’s one of the better parts, though:

Consider this bank clerk. His window is a confessional. That’s the secret weapon of traditional banks against internet banking. For customers, a weekly hello is personalised service. The clerk in his cubicle has a name, a receding hairline and a family. This is reassuring, even in a big city like Rome. …

I’ve already told you about the Italian love of personalised treatment. The bank is a good example but it’s not the only one. There’s a young man with a bandaged foot. He twisted his ankle playing football, he is saying. Before going to hospital, he rang a friend and asked her if she knew anyone in the orthopaedic ward. Is he just another queue jumper trying to get round the waiting list? No, he wasn’t asking his friend for special treatment. He simply thought that if he knew someone in the orthopaedic ward, the tisted ankle would be a more marginal, easily managed affair: ‘in the family’, as it were. By knowing someone, even a friend of a friend, no matter if it’s a doctor or a nurse, the patient feels he is a special case.

That’s one of the best parts.

The worst (although there are several contenders) is the appendix, when he writes a fake letter to himself as if it were from an English reader of this book, writing to Beppe himself, summarising what he learned.

I suspect there are better books that summarise Italian culture from an insider’s point of view, and if you’re interested in that, then find one that does it with good writing. That might be hard, however. Mr. Severgnini includes lots of quotes from other books that do similar things to his (that is, summarise an entire country with a smattering of cliches), and I am concerned that this style might dominate the literature on the country.

Maybe Italy lends itself to cliches. See? I’m doing it already.

(That last line is a joke, meant to immitate the flippant comment at the end of a serious discussion, a tool used repeatedly in this book.)



  1. really? a fake letter to himself? that’s absurdly egotistical.

  2. Martin Amis can go one better, he actually writes himself into Money as an author the protagonist meets.

    I think generalisations about nations are pretty lazy, but I don’t think you can blame people from indulging in them from time to time. A whole book though…

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