Wednesday, August 12, 2009

`Perhaps I Am Getting This Mixed Up with Gogol'

Belatedly, we celebrate the 99th birthday of the happily unclassifiable Aldo Buzzi, born in Como, Italy, on Aug. 10, 1910. Three of Buzzi’s books have been translated into English and all are worth searching out, reading and rereading: Journey to the Land of the Flies (1996), A Weakness for Almost Everything (1999) and The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets (2005). Buzzi is an essayist who saunters across time and space, a lover of arcane learning and intellectual backwaters, and a celebrator of the senses, most emphatically the palate. The first piece in Journey is a Buzzian ramble through 19th-century Russian literature, “Chekhov in Sondrio,” which he begins like this:

“In Milan many years ago, among the trees of our `Summer Garden,’ there was a Russian isba (a log house). I remember the great logs of dark wood, the veranda, where an old maidservant (perhaps I am getting this mixed up with Gogol) welcomed guests with a deep bow. It was not far from the zoo, where a Siberian wolf paced continually from one corner to the other of its cage, hoping obstinately to find a hole through which to go out into the steppe of Milan. A crow landed on the meadow and, as Chekhov says, `before planting itself on its feet, leaped a few times….’”

If you don’t keep reading after that taste, you and I have nothing to talk about. Buzzi is sometimes called a food writer and travel writer, but so was A.J. Liebling, and that tells us nothing about these essentially sui generis raconteurs in prose. Buzzi has no precise cognate among writers in English, though Charles Lamb and Patrick Leigh Fermor are helpfully suggestive, as is Liebling. All of these men worked outside the academy, reveled in their independence and knew something about life. Buzzi studied architecture in Milan, where he met the Romanian-born American artist Saul Steinberg, and worked for decades in the Italian film industry and as a publisher.

Prominent among Buzzi’s English-language advocates is James Marcus, proprietor of House of Mirth, who writes about him here, here and here. James has also translated a brief essay by Buzzi, “Key West,” about a visit with his old friend Steinberg. It appeared in the summer 2007 issue of Raritan and is not available online, but here’s an excerpt:

“I came late to writing, so now, despite my age, I can in a certain way consider myself a young writer, one who still learns by reading, not yet tired of learning. But nonetheless tired due to old age.”

And another:

“The restaurants are thronged, the candles lit on the tables. With the fork I push aside a quantity of diced papaya, jalapeño peppers, red peppers, mango, tomatoes, and several other unidentified items, and at the end I discover my fish. The tropical climate brings out a vein of coarse fantasy in the kitchen, producing dishes that suggest the monstrous flowers on the palm trees. `We’re eating parrots,’ says S.”

Happy birthday, Aldo, and thank you, James.


James Marcus said...

You're welcome as always, Patrick, and thanks for the link. I meant to write about my visit with Aldo a long time ago. But I'm a terrible dawdler. On the other hand, it helps to let things ferment. A happy summer to you, and enjoy those blueberries.

Nige said...

Thanks for the introduction, Patrick (and James). I see Amazon has The Perfect Egg at 1p - how could I resist?

James Marcus said...

That is a horribly reasonable price--grab it!

ken kurp said...

Horribly reasonable? I like it.

James Marcus said...

Horrible only because it's worth so much more. A journey through Aldo Buzzi's comical, curious, Epicurean universe? Priceless, as they say in the Visa commercial.

Fran Manushkin said...

I just bought it too. Thanks!