Writing Against Oblivion

Even while writing about the mafia, life under fascism, and Silvio Berlusconi, the underlying theme of Alexander Stille's journalism has been about collective memory and how we conserve the past. With his recently published family memoir, The Force of Things, Stille has created one of the great cultural and social histories of the twentieth century.

Chris Frey is a five-time National Magazine Award-winner, has contributed to the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Azure, Maisonneuve, and CBC Radio, and is...

The New York City-born Alexander Stille is best-known as a chronicler of modern Italian politics and society, both as a regular contributor to The New Yorker and through the books Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism, Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, and The Sack of Rome, a unsparing look at the rise of Silvio Berlusconi. He is also the author of one of the best books yet written on the effects of globalization and accelerated technological change, The Future of The Past—an investigation into attempts at preserving the world’s greatest cultural legacies, from Somalia’s tradition of oral poetry to the archeological heritages of China and Sicily.

With his latest book, The Force of Things, Stille returns to the subject of collective memory by writing a family memoir of his parents’ unlikely, difficult marriage, and the turbulent century that shaped them. His father, the revered Italian journalist Ugo Stille, longtime U.S. correspondent for Milan’s Corriere della Sera, was born in Moscow in 1919 to Jewish parents at the height of the Russian Civil War. The family soon fled for Italy, where they prospered until the rise of fascism and the introduction of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic race laws. They narrowly escaped the Holocaust when, in 1941, they were able to secure visas for the United States just before the doors shut.

As the daughter of a law professor at the University of Chicago, Stille’s mother came from more conventionally WASP, Midwestern origins. It’s a credit to his historical imagination and skills at documentary that Stille succeeds in making her family’s story equally compelling. As he describes it, “One evening in May 1948, my mother went to a party in New York with her first husband and left it with her second, my father.” But what begins as a whirlwind, torrid romance between opposites quickly disintegrates into a frustrated, bickering marriage best defined by its parties’ incompatibility. Stille’s telling is a masterpiece of narrative construction, deftly braiding the intimate details of their lives and backgrounds with the panoramic sweep of the 20th century’s many political and cultural upheavals.

I spoke with Stille over the course of almost two hours at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto. The 56-year-old had just arrived from New York, where he lives with his son Samuel and teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism. His wife, the poet Lexi Rudnitsky, died in 2005 of cardiac arrest at the age of 32. Her poem “What Stays With You” was published posthumously in The New Yorker, its epigraph by Walt Whitman anticipating the themes of The Force of Things:

What stays with you latest and deepest? Of curious panics
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

Stille has cutting blue eyes, short graying hair, and a handsome countenance that betrays his Russian roots. He was dressed almost entirely in black; outside, it was a gloomy April afternoon, rain ping-ponging the windowpanes. Which proved a perfect setting for digression filled chat about the challenges of writing his family’s history, the problems of preserving our collective memory during an era of accelerated change, and Silvio Berlusconi as the epitome of postmodern politics.


How much did you poke around the attic of the family history when you were young? When did it become a subject of interest for you?

One of the themes of the book is how my father really didn’t talk to us about his past, our Italian and Jewish background, and yet even when I was a child I sensed there was something important there that wasn’t being discussed. It was conspicuous by its absence. It really wasn’t until I was a teenager, when you begin to really think and read for yourself, start to have the tools to be inquisitive, that I got interested. I began studying Italian on my own as a means of gaining access to some of that world, and then travelled to Italy almost by accident, when I was 20.

It was this wonderful discovery of a world that my father had left behind, and I was at an age when I could start to appreciate it. So I made a point of going back there to live, and become fluent in the language. I never fully broke through my father’s great resistance to talking about his past. When I wrote my first book, Benevolence and Betrayal, which was about five Italian-Jewish families [who lived through fascism], it was a kind of clandestine attempt to get at that story by dealing with other people’s stories in hopes that my father would open up and talk about ours, which mostly failed.

It was a great project, strangers were willing to tell me their most difficult and painful experiences, but my father was not. But I did learn a lot about the context, and I also began poking around the archives for what was available about our family, which did produce some scraps of information. I began talking a lot with my father’s sister, my aunt, who was very valuable and open about all of that stuff. When I think about this project I realize that I had been chipping away at it for more than twenty years. I wasn’t aware I was actually working on it but I was.

Then at what point did it become, “Okay, this is a book.”

It really wasn’t until probably the summer of 2006. I had finished my Berlusconi book and I was teaching at the Columbia Journalism School, so I had the summers off. I had time, and I had this box of material that I had been adding to over many years. I had a small child to look after so I couldn’t do the kind of adventurous travel and reporting I had done in the past. It was just the right time to work on it, and I think it was also the right distance at that point. My mother had been dead for thirteen years and my father had been dead for eleven. It was close enough but far enough away for me to be able to have the right kind of mental distance to able to write about it in the spirit that I wanted to.

Though your father remained reticent until the end, you had quite detailed conversations with your mother.

I didn’t know quite what I was doing, but I knew at some point I did want to write about her and her family’s history. I did actually sit down with her and a tape recorder for many days, and get as much history from her as I possibly could. I didn’t really have a project at that point, but journalism is a kind of disease—where you turn everything into a journalistic project.

My odd instinct, when I was confronted with the figure of my dying mother, although she ended up living for longer than we expected, was to interview her. It was a way of communicating during a very difficult, complicated moment. It was very obvious that she was dying but we couldn’t say those words. So creating the artificial situation of the interview allowed us to talk about very deep and important things, without saying directly, “Look, we don’t have very much time and there are important things we need to discuss, so let’s do it.” That was somehow just too devastating to say. Whereas to say, “Oh, I really want to interview you about your family because there is a lot there that I don’t know and I’ve done a lot of work on the other side of the family so let’s talk about yours.” That was just a more palatable way to frame the discussion, and it was the fiction that allowed us to have these very complicated but very meaningful conversations.

She comes across as incredibly eloquent.

Very eloquent and shockingly candid. She also, poor thing, was on cortisone at the time, so I got more candor than I had really bargained on. I didn’t put it in the book because it wasn’t relevant, but she gave me a detailed description of my own birth, which was the kind of thing that a friend who had just delivered a couple weeks before might give you. The situation in the delivery room, the pain, the smell—clearly these drugs had an effect of bringing up all sorts of memories that were stored deep in her mind. It was a remarkable experience interviewing her.

When you compare the rough outlines of the family histories it’s your father’s Russian-Italian-Jewish side, with all the traumas they experienced, that on the surface seems more dramatic or literary. But based on the process of discovery you went through, it turns out that your mother’s family history, from the American Midwest, is equally rich.

One of the things that was fun for me as a writer doing this project was the narrative challenge. My father’s family had more of the obvious elements that would make for a dramatic story. Their story intersects with a lot of the big historical events of the twentieth century—the Russian Revolution, fascism, racial persecutions, World War II, the Holocaust. It was pretty clear that you could make that a dramatically compelling story. So I worried whether my mother and her family’s story could hold up the other half of the roof, so to speak.

I was lucky in that in addition to the interviews with my mother I came upon this big stash of her correspondence that went back thirty years. So I had a lot of that rich texture of daily life that we often lack. And one of the things that became apparent is how her and her mother’s story was about the life of women before feminism—a less told story but a very important one. You realize how much solidarity there was among women who were having to make very difficult adjustments.

They were women who had very little power in their marriages, both my grandmother and mother, and in different ways, were typical of a certain generation of women who did not think that they could do important things in the world in their own right. They would instead channel those things through the men that they married. The idea was that if you were an idealistic, intelligent, well-educated woman you find a man who represented the ideals that you admired, and then live out those goals of yours through the actions of that man.

Of course it proved to be a very dubious and often bad deal because the man had different ideas about how he wanted to spend his life than fulfilling this woman’s ideals. My grandfather was very different from my grandmother, and my father was very different from my mother, and so it led to a lot of unhappiness because these men just weren’t doing what these women wanted them to do. My grandmother was very idealistic and political while my grandfather was a law professor and much more prudent and cautious.

It led to very paradoxical things, like this grandmother of mine was a president of the Illinois League of Women Voters and a very formidable person in her own right who had a real political consciousness and ideas of wanting to act in the world. But she didn’t earn any money of her own, so that when her mother became sick and she wanted to go visit her back east, she had to ask her husband for the train fare and he wouldn’t give it to her. So she had to use the nickels she saved up from her domestic economy and took the bus, that kind of thing.

That sort of detail gives you a feeling for what it meant to be a woman in that age. One of the things that was neat for me in recovering this correspondence, was you can see my mother and her mother comparing notes and commiserating with each other about the difficulties of making adjustments within their marriages. Getting that kind of detail and texture of life, of women living within the constraints of a marriage in which they had limited power, was very, very interesting to me. It helps to give a kind of solidity to that side of the story and allows it to hold up the other half of the roof, so to speak.

What makes the book so compelling is how these two strands, your mother’s and father’s families, make a kind a portrait across the breadth of twentieth century America. You have the persecuted, intellectual, European Jew on the one hand, and this self-made Midwestern American family, informed by a kind of frontier ethic. Then over the course of the twentieth century, there are all these different intersection points with what’s happening in the culture, whether it’s proto-feminism and agrarian utopianism, or the mid-century avant-garde that was in part the product of European Jews arriving en masse after the war. Were you self-conscious of that, the way the two strands of the family kind of added up to a portrait of America?

That was my justification for writing this book. I didn’t want to write a navel gazing memoir. I had to ask myself when I was undertaking this project, why should someone not related to me or a good friend of mine want to read about the peculiarities of my rather odd family. As somebody who has dealt with historical subjects and politics, I looked for that bigger dimension in the story. And I did see in this marriage a kind of micro-history of a larger moment. A cross pollination in which a substantial chunk of European intelligentsia is forced out of Europe because of Hitler and Mussolini and finds refuge in the States and other countries willing to take them in. This has a huge impact on American life and almost every field in the US—from psychology, economics and sociology, to movies and art—is changed by this wave of wild, crazy people coming in.

America was quite receptive to this wave of people. For example, in the middle of the Depression, even when there was very little money, a bunch of Chicago industrialists had the very peculiar idea of re-founding the Bahaus in Chicago. And so they start this crazy school and my grandmother, who was a respectable housewife and wife of a law professor, decides to yank her daughter out of a respectable Ivy League college, Cornell, and put her there. There is a sense in this Midwestern world that there’s another world out there, and we need to know about it.

Then my mother, who had been attending grand fraternity and sorority parties at Cornell and had very little idea of a world outside of it, is bowled over by this new world and these people who know about Russian Formalism and constructivism and the Blue Rider school in Germany, and communism, socialism, fascism, anarchism—all the isms of the twentieth century. She’s introduced to this very compelling world of ideas and art that seems vastly more interesting than the narrow world of polo-playing undergraduates that she had experienced at that point. It changed her whole world and made her receptive to meeting my father.

How easy was it for you to write about your family with the detachment that you do? There is your Aunt Lally, for instance, who comes across as a very eccentric, almost comical character. You address the book’s coda to her concerns about the way in which you’ve portrayed her; there’s a nightmare scene in which you find a man’s sawed off head under the rug of your hotel room, and are horrified to realize people will assume you are the killer.

I think it’s true of any writing project that finding the right tone or voice is half the battle. Because of the time that had passed after my parents died I found it fairly natural to inhabit a particular voice or attitude toward the characters who were not only characters but also living, breathing people. Which was a slightly ironic distance from them, because my parents were complicated people and at times they both amused and horrified me. My father could be incredibly exasperating but he was also somebody who enjoyed telling funny stories, and my aunt was an extremely eccentric person—I couldn’t treat that too solemnly.

For her it was really difficult because in effect I turn her into a tragicomic character in this book, which is how I saw her. Of course, she didn’t see herself that way, she had a very heroic idea of herself.

[pagebreak]How did having written and researched a book like The Future of the Past inform your approach to writing a family history or memoir?

A lot of my work has been obsessed with the past, and conserving the past in some sort of way. In the case of The Future of the Past it is projected outward into the world, and looking at it as a problem of collective memory and what we lose in a period of accelerated change. But I think those preoccupations are also highly personal. For me, The Force of Things was an attempt at creating a bulwark against oblivion for these stories.

When my mother died, I remember having a terrible sense of sadness that this person who was to me enormously vivid and real had led an entirely private life. Someone who had not tried to leave their mark in the world, but simply tried to be a good friend, a good mother, a good sister, a good cousin. That just sort of vanishes, which is of course true of most lives. That struck me with enormous poignancy, that life could just evaporate like a fog in sunlight. So to some degree, writing a book like this was an attempt to preserve my own little private universe.

In the concluding chapter of Future of the Past, you parse through how fast-changing technology and media are threats to historical memory and participatory democracy. But you also point out that human nature doesn’t necessarily change fundamentally, that there is still the craving for human contact. It’s now more than ten years since that book was published—some might argue that people are more atomized than they’ve ever been before, that perhaps there is some change in our basic nature.

How one maintains a certain cultural cohesion and sense of identity moving into a world that functions according to very different principles remains an active problem, and how one metabolizes that kind of change is intensely interesting to me.

Obviously there is some data to suggest that the Internet-dominated world we live in is a more isolated one. But at the same time, one of the things that has emerged from all these happiness studies in the past decade is that people, including economists, are seriously studying what is it that makes people satisfied in their lives. And the most robust finding of all is that people’s contact with other people is the thing that gives meaning to people’s lives, and makes the biggest difference in terms of whether or not they are satisfied and happy.

At the same time, one of the equally robust findings is that television is one of the greatest atomizers in terms of how people do spend their time, and whether they spend it alone or with others. But that craving for human contact is clearly as real as ever.

One of the observations you made in Future of the Past is how despite living in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, where developments far away can affect our lives—economically, politically, even our sense of security—the mainstream media pays ever less attention what is going on in the rest of the world, unless there is some sort of disaster or scandal. Arguably it’s only become worse since you wrote the book, as newspapers and television broadcasters have shuttered bureaus, and generally cut back what they spend on international reporting. There are, of course, economic reasons for this as the news industry struggles with a tectonic shift in technology and consumer habits. Perhaps social media has filled some of that gap. But on the whole, we may get foreign news faster, but it’s lost a lot of depth.

There is a lot of evidence to back that up. When people consult their websites, they are far more likely to look for news about their local community, which is perfectly comprehensible. So in theory, you can read English-language newspapers from Thailand and Nigeria, but no one does except for State department official or the British foreign office.

Weirdly, we’ve fallen back on ourselves to a greater degree in the globalized world. And then the devastating economic effects of the digitalization of mainstream media have meant that they’ve closed foreign bureaus left, right, and centre. And so there is just less information coming out of other places through traditional sources. Of course there is citizen journalism and people tweeting and some of that is even valuable and not to be dismissed. But it is one of the odd, paradoxical effects of globalization that it has not necessarily made us more deeply interconnected in terms of information. We are in some ways more provincial than ever, with exceptions.

Facebook, which didn’t exist when I wrote the book, does create arenas in which people can be connected over long distances, and I communicate with more people overseas than I did at that time. But the overall effect is mostly teenagers communicating with other teenagers from their local high school—that’s the way it generally works.

Another thing that connects The Future of the Past with the new book is their views of history—your father used to talk about the force of things to mean the underlying forces of historical change that transcend us, which as individuals we cannot control, and that gave you the name for the memoir. Yet, I happened to be reading your Berlusconi book, The Sack of Rome, as I was making my way through The Force of Things, and I got the sense that perhaps Berlusconi is that rare contemporary character who actually does shape history—he’s made up history as he goes along, largely through his dominance of the media.

Yes, in a way he is the antithesis of all that. Given the revival he is having in Italy, I would not be shocked if he managed to win the next elections after a very brief legislature of the current parliament. I suppose he represents an element of modern or postmodern culture that is all in the now and is all about perception. That there is actually no real memory there at all, if not it’s been completely invented and made up to the needs of the present. He makes up stories, invents bogus histories, and the adage by which he lives is: if something hasn’t appeared on television, it doesn’t exist. Not an idea, or a person, or an event.

The thing that made him interesting to me is that for all of his grotesqueness, he is the most postmodern politician of our day. He has, without reading a word of Pierre Bourdieu, actually put the society of the spectacle into practice. It’s fascinating to observe, but it is very antithetical to the ethos of what post-enlightenment thinking up to the late twentieth century culture was all about. You study history to learn from it and to make things better, which seems sort of quaint.

A progressive view of history.

That now seems very old fashioned but is the culture that some of us grew up with.

You wrote a new preface for a later paperback edition of Sack of Rome, revisiting what had happened with Berlusconi since the book first came out. Given Berlusconi’s longevity, I’m wondering whether it’s a subject you feel doomed to keep coming back to.

Well, it is really weird because so much has still been happening on that front. I had hoped that in writing the Berlusconi book I would free myself of my Berlusconi obsession, expel all of it, put it in between book covers and then move on to other subjects. But then he kind of pursues you both as a subject, either illegally or journalistically, and just continues persisting in this extraordinary way. I remember when he resigned in late November of 2011, an American friend of mine sent me an e-mail saying, “So, is this the ding-dong the witch is dead moment for the wizard?” I said, “No, no, you have the wrong movie, think The Terminator.” Imagine this cyborg emerging from the flames even if it has only one arm.

After the recent elections in February, in which a resurgent Berlusconi fared far better than expected, you wrote an item for The New Yorker blog. Most of the post-election analysis was of the “comedian and the clown” sort, in reference to the success of comedian Beppe Grillo and the disgraced but persistent Berlusconi. Such pieces tended to regard the results with dismissive bemusement. In your piece, however, you argued that perhaps Italy’s parliament is not much more bizarre or dysfunctional than the US congress, even suggesting Italian politics has in some sense been innovative.

Italy does have this strange history of being a laboratory of political innovation, though sometimes not particularly good political innovation. The mafia has its origin in Italy, anarchism was possibly as strong in Italy as anywhere, fascism has its origin in Italy, left-wing terrorism was most virulent in Europe in Italy, and now we have the curious Berlusconi phenomenon which was in some ways very emblematic of a post-Berlin Wall, post-ideological society in which a TV company could become the most important entity in the country.

Now we have this curious phenomenon of Beppe Grillo, the former comedian who creates a party through the Internet. What unites these different things is that Italy has had the peculiar fate of being a weak democracy. A democracy where the central state doesn’t work particularly well, and as a result allows certain things to ferment that in other societies would be snuffed out.

So things that are fermenting in the common culture end up reaching a full-blown maturity in Italy, whereas you only see these phenomena in more peripheral ways in other societies. Fascism succeeded in Italy because the democratic order was weak and based on a very slender foundation. So that is kind of a model. The Berlusconi phenomenon would never have happened in a society with stronger independent institutions, people would’ve said “Wait a second, you can’t own the three largest TV stations in the country, not sell them, then go into politics and use them as a political machine.” Most countries would have prevented that from happening. Of course, the importance of money and television and celebrity in contemporary life is present everywhere, but it was allowed to concentrate in a way that wouldn’t have been permissible elsewhere.

You’ve been back living in the States for some time now and you have a young son—are you able to follow Italian politics as much as you’d like to?

Well, in some cases more than I’d like to. I’ve been trying to get free of it and I don’t manage to. I still go there three or four times a year at least, and I read the papers all the time and I have Italian friends who commiserate with me about the situation there.

But I sometimes really wish that I had never… I think my interest in Italian politics is a bit like contracting malaria at a young age, it’s in your bloodstream for the rest of your life and it only appears when it becomes more or less virulent. But in some ways it seems like a more odd and irrelevant preoccupation because the country is really taking a strange turn. In fact, next year I am taking a year off from teaching and I am going to France with the hopes of…

Not crossing the border?

The problem is that I’m sure I’ll get sucked back into it. But I’d like to actually think about somebody else’s problems for a moment. Which are probably as frustrating and intractable to the French as Italian problems are to the Italians, but at least they’ll be somewhat different. I may learn some new things.

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Chris Frey is a five-time National Magazine Award-winner, has contributed to the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Azure, Maisonneuve, and CBC Radio, and is the Toronto correspondent for Monocle magazine.