My year of reading began January 1 with Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries, the gift of an elderly artist neighbor whose adventures would provide more-than-ample material for her own volume of observation and documentation. I mention Brown’s empty-calorie chronicle not to recommend it, though as a record of 1980s-style excess—in magazine publishing, finance, and real estate—it unintentionally confirms that greed, in fact, is not good. Rather, I mention it because it was only the first of many diaries and diary-like works I would read in 2018. Herewith a carefully selected trio.
In her two-part An Italian War Diary (NYRB Classics, $17.95, 320 pp.), Iris Origo writes plainly and powerfully and very little about herself—even though she would have made a fascinating subject. Daughter of a British aristocrat mother and a rich American father, she married an Italian and lived on a Tuscan estate, and her connections (from Virginia Woolf to the U.S. ambassador in Rome, who also happened to be her godfather) provided entrée into both the literary and diplomatic realms. She had love affairs and lost an infant child to meningitis. These facts get glancing mention at most. Origo’s diaries are simply what their titles state: clear, dispassionate recounting of the months leading up to Italy’s alliance with Germany in World War II (A Chill in the Air: 1939–1940) and the years of German occupation and Allied bombing that followed (War in Val d’Orcia: 1943–1944).
Like many native Italians, Origo herself was at first optimistic about Mussolini, but she soon turned skeptical. A July 1939 entry, in which she paraphrases an aristocrat friend who is “whole-heartedly but not wholly uncritically loyal” to il Duce, seems to convey her own growing distaste:
[The count] emphasizes one trait which strikes everyone who has ever worked with Mussolini: his unbounded, almost undisguised, utterly cynical contempt for his own human instruments. Except for his brother and perhaps his daughter, there is no human being in the world whom he loves and trusts. He believes in the ability of his son-in-law; he does not trust him. A sentimentalist about ‘the people’ en masse, he is completely cynical about all individuals, and measures them only by the use he can put them to…. Yet so great is his personal ascendancy that his underlings—knowing they themselves will be kicked away as soon as they cease to be useful—still retain their personal devotion to him.
A sense of foreboding permeates Origo’s first volume, heightened by our knowledge that Italy will soon, in fact, ally itself with Hitler. Never mind that the majority of ordinary Italians have no desire to fight alongside Germany, their recent enemy; the pro-war press and politicians present the alliance as the only way to throw off “the yoke of Anglo-French domination of the Mediterranean.” The spirit of the Risorgimento is “in the Italian blood,” Origo writes, “and if they can be made to see this war as part of the same struggle they will fight.”
She takes no pleasure in her prediction. “Is it possible,” she writes in the first volume, “to move a country to war against its historical traditions, against the natural instincts and characters of the majority of its inhabitants, and very possibly against its own instincts? Apparently it is…” She looks back on this observation in her second volume, only now in the context of the choice having gone disastrously wrong for Italy. Her Tuscan estate has become a sanctuary not only for refugees fleeing Allied bombing, but also for deserters, escaped prisoners of war, and endangered partisans. As Germany’s occupying forces creep closer, this humane and highly literary reflection becomes a page-turning account of life during wartime, culminating in a dramatically reported flight to safety under heavy fire, across an exposed plain, with dozens of refugee children in tow. Ultimately, from her detailing of the anxious run-up to the conflict to her sober descriptions of the devastation in its aftermath, Origo has left something more than a diary: it’s a document that compels us to remember the human wages of war, and to remain skeptical in the face of those who insist on its necessity.
Geoff Dyer compels us to consider an entirely different set of questions in Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (Vintage, $14.66, 240 pp.). Such as: Why are we drawn to a work of art? What is the purpose of criticism? Is there any point to existence? And why would an author devote more than two hundred pages to contemplating a relatively unknown cinematic masterpiece by a director many ordinary filmgoers are probably not familiar with?