Massimo Bacigalupo. AngloLiguria. Da Byron a Hemingway. Genoa: Il canneto editore, 2017.
review by Sean Mark
Last December in Paris, I attended a two-day conference on experimental Italian cinema of the sixties and seventies. The panels were devoted largely to the Cooperativa Cinema Indipendente, a Rome-based film co-operative, which sprang up in the second half of the sixties, and congregated a handful of experimental or underground filmmakers. Massimo Bacigalupo was one of the collective’s founders; and one of the conference highlights was a screening of his first short film, Quasi una tangente [Almost a Tangent], which harks back to 1966, and won the Montecatini film festival of that year. Set mostly in Rapallo, Bacigalupo’s hometown on Italy’s Ligurian coast, the film is an accomplished reflection on the dizzying excitement of cinema – its rush of invention buoyed by a soundtrack of Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Leaving behind the bedroom interior in which the film begins – a copy of Confucius to Cummings, beside Finnegans Wake, hinting at the director’s other interests – the camera guides us, via a high-school classroom, in a breathless, point-of-view tour of the seaside surroundings: a stream-of-consciousness valediction to an adolescence in the provinces. Three years before, Bacigalupo had appeared as a character of Guy Davenport’s "Ithaka," which notes his interest in experimental cinema; around that time, too, Bacigalupo showed a bemused Pound films by Stan Brakhage, whose Metaphors on Vision he would translate into Italian. Needless to say, Bacigalupo’s work took another tangent: ten years and six films later, he finished a thesis in New York on Pound’s late poetry – and for very many scholars, since the publication of his Forméd Trace in 1980, his writings have been absolutely seminal in the study of Pound’s work.
Bacigalupo’s latest book, AngloLiguria (Genoa: Il canneto editore, 2017), is a follow-up to his Grotta Byron: Luoghi e libri (2001), and follows in its tracks. The book assembles forty-one short texts written over the past fifteen years, alongside a rich compendium of photographs (mostly taken by the author), notes, references and addenda. The pieces are animated and extemporaneous: portraits, reviews, commentaries, anecdotes, reflections, occasional writings that bring together a host of Anglophone writers – stretching from Byron, via Yeats and Eliot, to Seamus Heaney – who visited, lived in or engaged with Liguria, its languages and landscapes.
The book’s epigraph – "Near twenty years ago in Genoa / Where we were lodgers at the Pegasus" – is taken from The Taming of the Shrew; and the reference to Shakespeare’s fictive hotel is testament to the city’s significance at the time, as a hub of tourism and trade. Fittingly, the first of AngloLiguria’s four sections develops around the Croce di Malta – a real Genoese hotel, now defunct – to discuss eighteenth and nineteenth-century tourism in the region: alongside Stendhal and Giuseppe Verdi, guests included Fenimore Cooper, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens (who spent a whole year in Genoa), and Henry James. (In 2005, after some detective work, Bacigalupo successfully located the spot where the hotel once stood, and a plaque now marks the spot.) The book’s second section aligns two revered American publishers (Laughlin and Galassi, and their Ligurian connections) with major figures of Anglo-American literature, such as Lowell, Bishop, Spender and Joyce, and its Italian translators and scholars, such as Fernanda Pivano and Guido Fink. The third part is devoted specifically to the Tigullio Gulf, its literary visitors and voices; the fourth, which focuses on poetic translation, provides insight into Bacigalupo’s own work (he has brought, amongst others, Stevens, Pound and Wordsworth into Italian), as well as that of some of his colleagues (including a fascinating piece on Mary de Rachewiltz’s Italian versions of the Cantos).
For Poundians, there is much of interest here. The pages devoted, for example, to Pound and the nautilus, a marine mollusc, are intriguing, and contextualise lines from the early forties which made their way into the Posthumous Cantos (p. 61): "But here in Tigullio / emerald over sapphire / april birds thru the stillness / when the fig swells in a fortnight / a far clack of bamboo poles shaking down olives / and the nautile swept in under the cliff, floating reef, / washed in like lavender blossoms / then stink in the sunlight." It takes the author a personal epiphany – of "large heaps of small organisms vaguely similar to jellyfish," and their sharp smell in the sun – to understand this particular Ligurian reference, which recurs, once again with the emerald, in the Pisan Cantos. Bacigalupo also devotes pieces to the 2005 EPIC in Rapallo, to Pound’s Ligurian itineraries, and his “discovery” of Vivaldi. For Pound, Bacigalupo writes, Liguria was “an Eden,” of which he “simply registers the enchanted world of natural events, colours, sounds, smells.” This attachment to the land is an enduring one; to praise Brancusi’s studio, he calls it “the most refreshing place in post-war Paris,” where you could “take your mind and have it sluiced clean, like you can get in the Gulf of Tigullio on a June day on a bathing raft with the sun on the lantern sails” (32).
Alongside the Ligurian echoes that haunt these works, which Bacigalupo has long traced and explored, on occasion the Anglo-American presence is itself inscribed onto the landscape – as, for example, with the Grotta Byron. Lord Byron was renowned to be a strong swimmer, and local lore alleges that he swam the gulf, from Portovenere to Lerici – a feat that endowed the grotto with his name, and was commemorated with a plaque: “This grotto / which inspired Lord Byron / in the sublime poem The Corsair/ records the immortal poet / who / as a daring swimmer / from Portovenere to Lerici / defied the waves of the sea” (38). Henry James was comprehensibly sceptical, and in Italian Hours dismisses the plaque as “plebeian.” Years later, however, Pound liked the story and re-appropriated the myth in an unpublished 1935 draft of the Seven Lakes canto, in which he quotes the plaque and contests James’s “inaccurate manner” of relating the deed, “or at least without explaining the details” (41). In James’s ironic detachment, and Pound’s celebration of a fellow poet’s act of athletic defiance, Bacigalupo reads a reflection of divergent poetics. The Byronic presence in the gulf is, in any case, questionable at best, as the poet spent, in all likelihood, only four febrile days at Lerici in 1822, where he was taken ill on his way to Genoa; what interests Bacigalupo more is the symbolism wrapped up in the place – a relay passed down through the ages, as Heaney, who spoke memorably on Pound at the Dublin EPIC in 2015, is portrayed, pages later, with his hand on the grotto’s gate (147).
Other absorbing pieces touch on Bishop and Lowell’s letters, or the composition of the latter’s “Sailing Home from Rapallo” (1954), with its remarkable lines: “When I embarked from Italy with my Mother’s body, / the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova / was breaking into fiery flower.” Bacigalupo reads the misleading title (the Lowells departed from Genoa) as a reference to Pound, holed up in St Elizabeths at the time, and his lingering, almost metonymic presence in the coastal region. Or Virginia Woolf, who, in one visit to Fascist Italy, which she didn’t like “one bit,” described the gulf where Shelley drowned (“rolled round with pearls”) as “the best death bed I’ve ever seen” (47). Ernest Hemingway also makes several appearances, and is depicted looking pensive on the book’s front cover in a portrait by Henry Strater painted in Rapallo in 1923 – the same year Hemingway published “Cat in the Rain,” which, written in Rapallo, is about a couple of young American tourists on a rainy holiday there. Allen Ginsberg is remembered in a first-hand account of a performance in Genoa in 1979, when his metrical diagnostic of the trochaic “heart beat” of Blake’s “Tyger Tyger” was rendered a “hard beat” in Fernanda Pivano’s on-the-spot translation. (It was Pivano, whom Bacigalupo here amicably dubs “Signora America” for her work in the field, who was instrumental in popularising Beat poetry in Italy.) Given Bacigalupo’s experience and engagement in the region (organising the Genoa poetry festival, for example, and bringing there a number of these poets and writers), we perceive his presence throughout these pieces variously as protagonist, biographer, observer, scholar and raconteur – as depositary, in all these guises, of local literary memory.
The force and poise of Bacigalupo’s writing instil AngloLiguria with traces of these writers, animate these encounters and bring them to life. Always highly readable, the book skirts the temptation to lapse into the excessively journalistic or anecdotic, upholding the standards of inquiry and rigour that characterise Bacigalupo’s more stringently academic work. For both the scholar and the general reader, there is plenty of interest in this original book, which takes the form of a curious scholarly scrapbook. AngloLiguria’s strength lies in its ability to chronicle how Liguria is perceived and absorbed by the Anglo-American writers who sojourned there; but also how these literary figures, and the mythologies that surround them, helped shape the landscape itself – its toponymies, cultural histories, and particular psychogeography. In its search for the genius loci, the poetic source of inspiration, the book aptly reflects this dual point of inquiry: Bacigalupo’s erudition as a literary historian is evident throughout the work, which draws on decades of learning, as is the precision of his textual and philological insight, which, with its meticulous eye for detail, illumines the close readings (in which, I think, Bacigalupo is at his best).
Though the book’s composite, polymathic structure can, at times, leave us curious to learn more about one of its many subjects, it is precisely in its choral nature, as an ensemble of snapshots, that it is so effective. Indeed, in bringing together such disparate sources and materials, the collection of texts helps piece together an "Angloligurian" form: the subject matter and style, we might imagine, of a translingual maritime prosopopoeia – how, in other words, the Ligurian sea spoke, across the centuries, to and through this array of foreign writers. Throughout his career – from first putting Rapallo onscreen, to the Eliot Society meeting there in 2016 – Bacigalupo has continued to bring the world to Liguria, and Liguria to the world. And of these spaces and places – at the tangent of cultures, language and text – he is our guide, the keeper of the key.