Senior Service 
by Carlo Feltrinelli, translated by Alastair McEwen.
Granta, 464 pp., £20, November 2001, 1 86207 456 9
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A bearded man lies flat on his back, arms wide apart, in a field. He has one leg. Nearby, some wires hang from the base of an electricity pylon, to which a box seems to be attached. The man is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, 46 years old, a political militant, publisher and millionaire. The photo was taken on 15 March 1972. For more than two years Feltrinelli had been on the run from the Italian authorities. His death made headlines around the world. Many claimed that he had been murdered; others denounced him as a terrorist. The headline on the front page of Potere Operaio (‘Workers’ Power’) announced: ‘A Revolutionary Has Fallen’. Carlo Feltrinelli’s book is an attempt to explain how his father, a member of one of the richest families in Italy, ended up in that field, next to that pylon; but Carlo was ten when his father died, and it is evident that he is also working through difficult and fragmentary memories of an absent, neglectful and very famous father.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was born in 1926. The Feltrinellis had made their fortune supplying timber to the building trade, and then moved into banking. Giangiacomo had a bizarre childhood: his eccentric mother, Giannalisa, would not let him go to school, but flitted around Europe from society event to society event with her children, occasionally remembering to talk to her son or check on his ‘progress’. After the death of Giangiacomo’s father, Giannalisa married Luigi Barzini, the son of a famous journalist also called Luigi Barzini. He and Giangiacomo didn’t get on and in 1944, at the age of 17, Feltrinelli ran away to join the anti-Fascist Resistance. Later, he claimed that his first contact with socialist ideas had come from talking to his mother’s gardeners. Whatever the truth of that, his experience in the Resistance made a lasting impression. The only male heir to the Feltrinelli fortune had become a Communist, to the dismay of his mother and the company’s shareholders. Giannalisa, desperate to scare her son away from Communism, got him arrested on a false charge in Milan, which frightened Giangiacomo enough to make him leave Italy for a while, but only confirmed him in his political convictions. Soon, Feltrinelli was moving in the highest Communist circles; he was friends with Palmiro Togliatti (the PCI leader) and close to the Party hierarchy in Milan. He was fêted, in part, because of his financial clout. His son claims that Alberganti, the PCI Secretary in Milan, used to go to Feltrinelli for cash when he didn’t have enough to pay the Party workers.

In the early 1950s Feltrinelli decided that he wanted to create a large working-class library and cultural centre, containing all the key texts of Marxist and trade-union history. Although there were already signs that he would have difficulty toeing the Party line, he arranged, with the agreement of Togliatti – the PCI tried to control the whole operation – to travel across Europe putting together his extraordinary collection. The Fondazione Feltrinelli, as it is now called, is a small but lovely library a hundred yards from La Scala in Milan. It holds some 300,000 books and 30,000 periodicals; and like thousands of other scholars, I have spent many hours there, consulting the massive range of newspapers, original documents and journals. The Institute (as it was originally known) also brought together a variety of scholars to discuss the history of the Italian and international working classes. Major figures on the Italian Left, such as Angelo Tasca, a companion of Gramsci in Turin in the early 1920s, and Pietro Secchia, the hard man of the PCI in the 1940s and 1950s, left their papers and even their libraries to the Institute.

Having founded this resource for the socialist movement, Feltrinelli set his sights on a wider public. In the mid-1950s, on the eve of Italy’s ‘economic miracle’, he set up a publishing house and began to gather around him an eclectic group of writers, translators, editors, cultural commentators and political activists. The atmosphere in the offices was one of ideological fervour, but Feltrinelli was run as a hard-nosed business enterprise. (Luciano Bianciardi wrote a satire of life there, entitled Il lavoro culturale – ‘Cultural Work’.) Nor was it ever simply a publishing house for the PCI. The first books it put out would be typical of the firm throughout its history: Nehru’s Autobiography (Feltrinelli was an early convert to ‘Thirdworldism’) and Lord Russell of Liverpool’s The Scourge of the Swastika. The books were boldly designed and aggressively marketed. Local politicians and Party activists were invited to suggest sites for bookshops across Italy; and there would in time be branches in Pisa, in Milan (on Via Manzoni, opposite the Feltrinelli library and office), in Genoa, in Florence and, later, in Rome and Bologna.

In 1956, Feltrinelli became involved in the ‘case’ which made his name, and his publishing house’s fortune. A PCI cultural attaché and publisher, Sergio D’Angelo, who had been employed as a talent scout for a publishing house in the USSR, told him about a novel called Doctor Zhivago and its author’s struggles to get it published in the USSR. Feltrinelli quickly realised that if he got the book out in Italy within 30 days of its publication in the Soviet Union, he would own the world rights (copyright didn’t exist under the Soviet system). A long and tortuous correspondence followed – Carlo Feltrinelli calls it a ‘novel within a novel’. Pasternak entrusted his work to Feltrinelli (the pair never met) but the Soviets were anxious to block publication. They put pressure on the PCI to put pressure on Feltrinelli, who resisted. Letters flowed back and forth, some forged, some genuine and some forced out of Pasternak under the threat of arrest. In Milan, Feltrinelli was confused, but continued to press for quick publication. He also had to deal with a number of money-grubbing hangers-on, whom Pasternak had entrusted with key rights and contractual responsibilities. But he refused to give up, and when it finally became clear that the book would never appear in the USSR, Feltrinelli went ahead. Doctor Zhivago was published in 1957, was an immediate bestseller – ‘the first great bestseller in the history of contemporary publishing’ – and caused a scandal. The PCI was furious and Feltrinelli began to move further away from the Party, a process already set in train by the tumult of 1956. In 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize. Feltrinelli had made his name in spectacular fashion, but at the cost of isolation from official Communism. He had been able to help Pasternak financially, but could do nothing to ease his position in the USSR. Three years after Doctor Zhivago appeared, Pasternak died, and both his common-law wife and her daughter were sent to labour camps, where they remained until 1964.

Pasternak was not Feltrinelli’s only success. A number of other authors were discovered, translated for the first time or given a late chance by Feltrinelli. Lampedusa’s Leopard was another bestseller. Henry Miller was published in Italy for the first time, challenging Italian censorship laws, as were such Italian writers as Giovanni Testori, who wrote visionary, poetic novels set in the Milanese industrial suburbs, and Carlo Cassola, whose novels, set in Tuscany, went back to the period of the Resistance. The company also published many innovative historical, sociological and anthropological works, taking advantage of the new market created by the expansion of schools and universities. Feltrinelli’s bookshops also broke the rules: they held meetings and book sales, they staged happenings. Feltrinelli even installed a jukebox and a pinball machine in his shop in Rome (pinball machines were associated with hooliganism in the early 1960s and were briefly banned by the Christian Democrat Government).

Meanwhile, he was moving further and further away from traditional Communism, towards Thirdworldism. This led to an interest in Cuba, which he visited for the first time in 1959. He soon became a close friend of Castro’s (he was even allowed to criticise Fidel’s policies on gay rights and intellectual freedom). The pair talked for hours (or Feltrinelli listened – ‘our hero talks all the time,’ he wrote, ‘to interrupt him you have to shout’), taking time off only for a quick game of basketball. Under the guise of writing a book about Castro, or with Castro (no book ever appeared), Feltrinelli made frequent trips to Cuba. He became a marked man; the CIA especially found his allegiances difficult to understand given that the Pasternak affair had been a great coup for the anti-Communist West. Many of the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding his life (and death) originate in this period, and revolve around his relationship with Cuba.

In 1967 he followed Che Guevara to Bolivia, and got himself arrested by the Bolivian authorities. By now he was practically a household name in Italy. More seriously, he was a hate figure for the Far Right and those in the secret services who were plotting a repeat in Italy of what had happened in Greece – a quasi-military coup staged in response to an act of violence that could be blamed on the Left. This ‘strategy of tension’, launched in the late 1960s, assigned Feltrinelli the role of No. 1 scapegoat. He realised what was going on, however, long before anyone else, and warned his friends that a coup was in the offing. He also started to contemplate resistance – armed resistance – and made contact with World War Two partisans across Italy, setting up a network of safe houses, sympathisers and communication lines. Arms were bought; preparations were made. Then his worst fears were realised. On 12 December 1969 a huge bomb exploded in a bank in the centre of Milan killing 16 people and injuring 84. The Piazza Fontana massacre, carried out by Italian neo-fascists and planned by the security services and Nato agents, was the most dramatic act of the ‘strategy of tension’; it was intended to facilitate the arrest of a number of anarchists and of Feltrinelli himself (evidence was planted at his country villa).

Things went wrong with the plan right from the start. The workers’ movement stood firm, turning out in force for an extraordinary silent demonstration on the day of the victims’ funerals. One of the anarchists died after ‘falling’ from a fourth-floor window while in police custody in Milan, causing a public outcry. The case of Pietro Valpreda, another anarchist, who spent three years in jail without trial, became a cause célèbre: he was finally acquitted only in 1981. And Feltrinelli refused to play the fall-guy. On the night of the bomb, he visited one of the leaders of the partisans, Cino Moscatelli, in Tuscany; and on hearing of the massacre he went into hiding. His analysis of the massacre was confirmed by the Italian courts last July, 32 years and eight trials on from the original event.

For two and a half years, Feltrinelli moved between Prague, Milan, Genoa, Austria and Switzerland, negotiated with other groups on the Far Left, interrupted TV broadcasts by using radio transmitters, and organised attacks, some symbolic, some not, on the property of known fascists and fat cats. The publishing house went into crisis without its charismatic leader, but, in any case, he was ready to publish anything so long as it made money – the business, he told his employees in Milan, was simply ‘an instrument of the class struggle’.

His rhetoric meanwhile became more and more extreme. In this, he was influenced by other armed groups, especially the Red Brigades, who began to use violence from about 1971, mainly in or around Milan. Feltrinelli’s ideas were much closer to those of the wartime partisans (his organisation was called the GAP: Groups of Armed Partisans), combined with a heavy dose of Latin American romanticism. But the reality was bleak: he was isolated, even within his own movement; and his death, probably the result of an accident rather than a conspiracy to kill him, was a symbol not just of his defeat, but of the pointlessness of armed struggle in Italy in the 1970s.

Senior Service is personal, stylish, often funny and packed with new information, especially on the Pasternak affair. (The details are told here for the first time, using letters found in Feltrinelli’s safe.) But it is also a book about Italy, about the Italian Left, about the insane plotting and violence of the Italian Right, and about the extraordinary literary blossoming of the 1950s and 1960s. A capitalist who became a member of the Resistance and then a Communist before taking up the cause of the Third World, a champion of Che Guevara, of violent revolution and of the new entrepreneurial spirit, Feltrinelli embodied the history of those years. But his son hasn’t written a history book, and Giangiacomo is also seen from his son’s point of view. His letters to Carlo are strange: ‘I tried to explain to you, some time ago, how the world, and Italy too, is divided into two kinds of persons, into two classes . . . your dad is on the workers’ side, even though he has money.’ Feltrinelli seems to have become increasingly unhinged as the 1960s wore on, and many of his ideas were fairly absurd – thinking that fruitful comparison could be drawn between Cuba and Sardinia is one instance. His anxiety about his own situation was, however, completely rational.

Carlo Feltrinelli has chosen not to dwell on his father’s four marriages and numerous love affairs (‘affairs of the heart deserve a minimum of discretion’), perhaps out of kindness to his mother, Feltrinelli’s third wife, Inge, who took over the business and continues to run it (she is described as ‘a blend of Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron’). Inge’s suffering when Feltrinelli went underground is vividly recounted, however. Sibilla, the young fourth wife who lived in a ménage à trois with Inge and Giangiacomo, is also treated with some affection. Feltrinelli’s enemies, from the Far Right to the PCI itself, complained of his ‘degenerate’ and decadent lifestyle. Only the rich and famous could remarry in those days: divorce was still illegal in Italy. The usual method was an annulment abroad, often under the pretext of the husband’s impotence – hence the title of a vicious pamphlet from the early 1970s, Feltrinelli: Impotent Revolutionary. Other biographies have told Feltrinelli’s story in more detail, but none has come closer to him. Carlo’s pain at his father’s abandonment of his family is tempered by pride in his extraordinary courage, energy and achievement.

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