The neighbor’s house sported a prato inglese that required ostentatious watering at the crack of dawn, and by the reassuring suppleness of the English lawn beneath our feet we all knew that our host was a gentleman, not some television mogul from Cinecittà out of Rome whom, of a morning, one would be embarrassed to see on the beach in an argument with a Ukrainian girl in tears over a broken promise. No, this was Sabaudia, where Count Volpi di Misurata let me have his summer house for a couple of weeks, and there I was, a foreign body, a foreign nobody really, at the house of the neighbor I had not met, at a party where the lawn was pure William Wordsworth and the drinks plentiful, though not so plentiful, of course, as to cast a vulgar shadow of American-style bonhomie on the host’s reputation as a gentleman.
A girl I chatted up seemed susceptible enough, and nearly ten years on I remember my peroration. I had asked her if she’d ever tasted cucumbers with honey. Then it started. “What is it with you Italians,” I said. “Why are you always so proper when it comes to social expression? Why is your friendly banter a Russian’s idea of what goes on in a mortuary? Why is it that if I come up to an English girl and say, ‘Do you come here often?’ she will think I’m a moron, but when I come up to you and say, ‘Do you like cucumbers with honey?’ you think I’m a lunatic? You want me to ask if you come here often, don’t you? You crave the reassurance of a cliché, you long for the sweet dulcimer of bourgeois propriety. Have you no intellectual shame? Just look at this parody of a lawn! You insist on gentility you can actually poke at with your toe.” Unaccountably, she laughed.
It was only later that I understood why. She was the wife of one of the princes Torlonia, scions of the Roman banking family whose money is still extant and whose papal title is drier than most on the membership roster of the Circolo della Caccia. Though middle-class by birth, she could afford to laugh at Italian society, middle-class to the marrow of its funny bone. A subsequent turn of fate was still more illuminating. Years later she left her husband and ran off with a penniless photographer friend of mine, a Russian roué who immediately made her pregnant. She has had the child and now lives in a small flat in the center of Rome, discussing life’s eventualities with her decorously scandalized parents in Parioli and a Greek chorus of equally respectable girlfriends. She no longer laughs at my tirades. Italian society, for her, is no longer a joke.
There is really only one class in Italy, the middle. From the men in orange repairing a drain just beyond my window in Borgo Vecchio to the cream of local society on the opening night at the Teatro Massimo, everyone is, and is happy being, a bourgeois. “Well, that’s Sicily,” a scoffer may intervene. Yet I have spent the better part of 20 years in Italy, with residences in Rome, in Florence, in Venice; I have done the writer’s tours of duty in Naples, in Sardinia, and in the Dolomites; I have made the idler’s forays to the Argentario peninsula, the fancy emerald isles of the Bay, the aperitivo terraces of social skiing and climbing; and I can tell you from observation and experience that the scoffer is in all likelihood an Englishman who is thinking of buying a hillside villa in Tuscany.
The Palermo laborer has a green salad with his midday meal. In Venice the longshoreman, eating his lunch in the “Da Marissa” working men’s canteen in Tre Archi, will order a plate of fruit before he takes his coffee. In Rome a motorcycle repairman may think his repast incomplete if it has not been followed with a little cheese. Imagine the reaction of the man’s social counterparts in Berlin, Chicago, or Manchester, to say nothing of Warsaw or Kiev. Forever thence the full force of peer opprobrium, and phrases like frigging salad, what kind of man, and goddamn faggot would be his lot wherever he went. His wife would probably leave him: “My mom knew straight off he was kind of weird.” The barmaid would titter every time he ordered a beer: “You sure you wouldn’t rather a pink lemonade?”
At the upper end of the social spectrum, it is the poverty of the national language that suborns the Italian mind-set, conditioning the aspirant grandee much as the sophistication of the cuisine conditions the most abject of proletarians. Like food, language is a school of life, a straightjacket to spontaneity, a denominator of class and a regulator of conduct. If there is now in Italy a repository of sensibility or attitude not inherently middle class, it is to the vanishing vocabularies of regional dialects one must look to find it.
Standard Italian has reduced communication to an exchange of cartoon bubbles, life to a series of ritualistic actions, thought to a tireless search for the kind of ideas an American newspaper editor would term appropriate. The aristocracy of Europe, historically, valued its independence of mind as it valued its right to bear arms; the lower classes, likewise, were jealous in their defense of what lares and penates had been handed them by their ancestors; only the bourgeoisie, as a newly emergent stratum, was keen to trade individual liberty for the common mean and to exchange tradition for the freedom of trade.
Tomasi di Lampedusa’s view of revolution as a dream of the idle has been writ large on modern Italy ever since. That her middle class is the only one in Europe with a distinctively human face is another, longer and happier, story.