A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Giovanni Guareschi (1908-1968) is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for his stories about the village priest Don Camillo and his rival, the Communist mayor Peppone. His prolific output encompasses political satire, humour, journalism and some very touching chronicles of family life. He was also a cartoonist, with a distinctive and elegant style which could be turned to deadly satirical effect. Today, his children Alberto and Carlotta carry on his legacy. In 1987 they founded the Club dei Ventitré, which promotes the study and understanding of their father’s works. Alberto and Carlotta kindly agreed to talk to me about their father’s work, even though my Italian is minimal at best; Alberto’s daughter Maddelena relayed my questions in Italian. Their answers have been translated by Alan Perry of Gettysburg University, who was immensely helpful in facilitating the interview. (Alan is a Guareschi specialist and you can see something of his perspective on Don Camillo here.)
Don Camillo’s little world is firmly located in the Po Valley of the post-war years, and the stories are rife in political, historical and cultural references. In your opinion, what makes your father’s work — which is, in some respects, very much of its time — appeal to such a wide audience across the world?
The secret of the world-wide success of our father’s works is certainly due to the fact that he always kept human beings at the center of every aspect of his tales. All of his characters are in search of interacting on a human plane above and beyond any ideology. Don Camillo and Peppone see things from opposite perspectives, but when their own folk find themselves in trouble, they come to each other’s side for the good of their community. We think that this aspiration toward a common good is universal
The Little World may be remote, but it’s far from sleepy. Political tensions in Italy and beyond, the aftermath of World War II and the inner dynamics of the Catholic Church all play a role in the stories, together with a sometimes (literally) explosive combination of human passions, allegiances and rivalries. Is the Little World purely a fictional representation of its time, or did Guareschi draw on particular people as he created his characters?
The Little World is not a literary fiction, and the 346 tales of the series are ‘true.’ This is the secret of all of our father’s works since he followed, in literature, the advice that Giuseppe Verdi used to give to young musicians, that is, “to invent the truth.” In his tales our father described people that he really knew: Don Camillo, Peppone, the elderly teacher, Smilzo, etcetera. He related facts that were tied to events that really took place in Italy and abroad. He described locales that he saw and emotions that he himself felt. . . His ‘true’ works are not tied to any trend, and thus they reach beyond the parameters of time and space.
Generations have now grown up watching the film adaptations of the stories, starring Fernandel as Don Camillo and Gino Cervi as Peppone. Of course, each film incorporates a number of stories. In your opinion, how well did the Little World translate to film? Was Guareschi actively involved in the adaptation?
Our father’s choice regarding the tales he wanted to be represented in the screenplays of the films with Fernandel and Cervi kept in particular consideration cinematic necessities, and the basis of each screenplay was always geared toward humor. The producers, fearing that his humor could not be understood by everyone (an absolutely bogus point if true humor is employed), assigned him two official screenplay writers who tremendously modified the scripts. They transformed his humor into the type of comedy found in Oliver and Hardy, rendering his work mundane. Our father, who was not happy with the modifications that the producer and directors had imposed, officially refused to recognize three of the screenplays as his own. It’s necessary to recognize, however, that these films, even if unfaithful to his tales, are beautiful and still please audiences — even the youngest of spectators – – thanks to the values the films contain and the excellent acting of Fernandel and Cervi.
What was it like to grow up with an author in the house?
Our father was a dad in the fullest sense. He was always present in important moments of our lives. He never behaved as an “author” but as a true father.
What inspired you to become such active guardians of your father’s literary legacy?
When our father died we received an important and unique spiritual inheritance. His readers, in fact, have poured out upon us the esteem that they had for him. This regard has drawn us to dedicate ourselves to his memory in order to try to be worthy of this important inheritance.
Of course, the Don Camillo stories are only part of Giovanni Guareschi’s literary output. (As you can tell from my questions, the Little World is what I know best.) If I may ask, do you have a favourite work among his other writings? What would you recommend to us here at Vulpes Libris?
The most important of our father’s books is, without a doubt, Il diario clandestino that Frances Frenaye translated into English and Farrar Straus published in 1958 as My Secret Diary (now out of print). It contains a collection of his tales and reflections, written while in German POW camps from 1943 to 1945, that he would read to his forlorn companions as he went from various barracks to barracks. Through these efforts, he helped his buddies to refrain from being overwhelmed by desperation. He kept them holding on to life with hope in Divine Providence and the desire to return to their families that awaited them at home. In reading this book, it seems that we can see an x-ray of his soul.
Many thanks to Alberto and Carlotta for speaking to us here at Vulpes Libris, and to Alan and Maddelena for their invaluable help. You can find more information about Guareschi and the Club dei Ventitré at www.giovanniguareschi.com. A less recent but very useful resource in English, including authorised reprints of many of the stories and sketches, is here.
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