There may not be a word for “home” in French, philosophizes Twain in The Innocents Abroad, but “considering that they have the article itself in such an attractive aspect, they ought to manage to get along without the word.” Who has not seen semantic peculiarities insinuate themselves, with the facility of cognac taken on the terrace, into late-night arguments about ethnicity? Of course not all such revelations are up to the demands of morning logic. Just because the Russians have no word for “toes” does not mean that our foot fingers are more exquisitely shaped than yours, or that we have more of them. Still, it does seem to mean something.
The Germans, I am told, do not have a word for “efficient.” The reason behind this oddity, as all normal lazy people would be relieved to agree, is on the whole pretty clear. The Italians most definitely do not have the word “cheap” (they say “less expensive” or “economical”), and readers of my earlier letters may reflect that in the mind of a nation that has so attentively preserved the social harmonies of its borghesia, from the bass to the alt, nothing in this world really comes cheap.
The Russians say, “Fate is a turkey, and life’s worth a kopeck.” Our toes may not be lovelier, but if one wants to use language to pinpoint a national consciousness most hostile to French domesticity, or German efficiency, or Italian prosperity, one need look no further than the Russian word azart. It exists in English as “hazard” and in Italian as azzardo, but rather than describing the danger of the risk or the risk itself, our word describes the intoxication of the man who risks, the delirious state of mind of a giocatore d’azzardo, the gambler’s euphoria. As far as I know, no European language can express this nuance, a fact that really ought to lend some credence to the old story about Western materialism and the Russian soul.
Our intellectual attitude to material risk has not changed since Dostoyevsky. “However comical it may be that I should expect to get so much out of roulette,” he writes, “the routine opinion, accepted by everybody, that it is absurd and silly to expect anything at all from gambling seems to me even funnier.” Funny or chilling, but re-reading his letters recently, I was able to identify the prototype of the murder victim from Crime and Punishment in a German pawnbroker who offered him less for his watch than he had hoped to get. He needed the money to play, and his fantasy of killing the old hag right there and then became the spiritual engine of the novel.
Why am I saying all this? Ah, yes. Displacement. My Roman exile, gastronomy aside, is already making me see England as it never was. To put the matter more fancifully, it makes my memory paint situations and scenes which were undoubtedly episodic with the kind of improbably broad brush I have seen Italian house painters use, so that a minute into the job all that is left of a room is a Siberia of untraversed, powdery space and some moose hairs stuck to the surface. Imbiancare is the word, for those with an interest in comparative semantics. As in London, a half-empty bucket of whitewash is typically left behind, along with some crumpled dust-sheets.
I remember how people would ask me what I was writing, and naively I would tell them the truth. I am writing a book about chance, I would say. “What sort of chance?” they would press on, smelling blood. “Well, as in roulette,” I would stammer. Here I think they knew they had me in the palm of their hand, fidgeting like a maimed sparrow. What next, my fine-feathered friend, their dimming eyes seemed to say. Research into prostitution? A study of cocaine? A fresh look at petty thieving? Navrozov, Navrozov!
The expression “Russian roulette” has lodged itself in the hypocrite’s consciousness, and no sooner do I tell an American or an Englishman that I belong to Aspinalls than my dinner-party interlocutor’s eyes cloud over with the belief that he knows everything there is to know about me. Yet 99 times out of 100, he, my interlocutor, is a stockbroker or some other, even more delusional kind of market mooch, just the sort of man Burke had in mind when he wrote, with reference to John Law’s financial reformation of France:
Your legislators, in everything new, are the very first who have founded a commonwealth upon gaming, and infused this spirit into it as its vital breath. The great object in these politics is to metamorphose France from a great kingdom into one great play-table; to turn its inhabitants into a nation of gamesters; to make speculation as extensive as life; to mix it with all its concerns and to divert the whole of the hopes and fears of the people from their usual channels into the impulses, passions, and superstitions of those who live on chances.
By contrast, here in Rome my confession is treated as a professorial whim, and a very distinguished one at that. Ah, professore, you would rather not have the same wine today? You would rather spend the afternoon in the country, finding new stick insects for your private collection? Oh, I understand perfectly, professore. You wish to spend the evening playing a game of chance on the foggy banks of the Thames! May I book you the journey?
Italians respect intellectuals, provided they can afford the wine. Their respect, which is truly continental, is the sort of thing that is endlessly described in Nabokov’s emigre stories of Paris and Berlin: it is essentially the homage paid by an innkeeper to a guest whose eccentric ways are both valuable subjects of local gossip and welcome opportunities for enrichment in the community. The English, to say nothing of the Americans, have all but lost this notion of hospitality where intellectuals are concerned. Tell them you are writing about love, and they will think you a child molester. Say it’s money, and they will decide you are dangerously poor, but if it’s poverty that fascinates you, they will despise you as a shady moneybags with republican leanings. What can a writer legitimately say he is interested in, then? Small wonder there are so many biographies in the bookstores.
To escape the social consequences, one must have rank, accreditation, position. If I could announce, in an anglophone drawing-room, that I am a university professor, in all likelihood my Dangerfield-esque gripe would be no more, no matter how queer my actual or professed inclinations. Well, here in Italy nobody needs to announce that kind of thing. If you can pay for dinner, you are a professor.
Which brings me back to my feelings of displacement. Gastronomy and respect for intellectuals aside, I am obviously missing London with its 22 casinos. Rome has none. The other day, walking through a little piazza in the center of the city, I found myself in a small room packed with at least 500 people elbowing their way to happiness. “Que casino, ma guarda que casino!” one could hear exasperated cries here and there. With the stress on the middle syllable, unfortunately, meaning what bedlam. Bedlam, confusion, casino because the most unforgettable thimbleful of coffee in civilization is to be had in this room for about 60 cents, and it’s a sure bet, too.
Was I happy at the famous Caffe Sant’ Eustachio? No. The smoke of Tuscan cigars, the misleading semantics, the pushing crowd had awaked my appetite for the hazards of Mayfair, and I almost burst into sentimental tears from Dostoyevskian frustration. “Portatemi sulle rive brumose del Tamigi,” I wanted to thunder, whereupon all the imaginary innkeepers of Europe past and present would duly bow and, scurrying like mice through the stage set representing a crooked street, would run to book me an overpriced flight to Heathrow. “Stanotte voglio giocare d’azzardo!” I would bellow after them. Nothing but respect for the hero in my Italian melodrama.