BOOK REVIEW / Maverick movie-maker schooled in scandal: 'Theorem' - Pier Paolo Pasolini trs Stuart Hood: Quartet, 6.95 pounds ; 'The Letters of Pier Paolo Pasolini Vol 1 1940-1954' - trs Stuart Hood: Quartet, 25 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I RECALL, while watching Pasolini's film Theorem in a Left Bank art cinema in Paris, after the Mona Lisa-like celestial played by Terence Stamp had systematically bedded the father, mother, son, daughter and maid of an affluent Milanese family, hearing a derisive cry from the stalls: 'Et le chien?'

Now, practically a quarter of a century later, when Theorem and to a degree even its director have been forgotten in this country, Quartet has published the novel that he wrote in tandem with the film (it's not, therefore, what is called a novelisation), along with the first volume of his Letters, a hefty 526-page doorstop that takes us no further than 1954, when Pasolini was just 32. As Jack Benny used to quip when presenting himself on television, there will now be a 10-second pause for everyone to say 'Who cares?'

And yet, Pasolini in his lifetime was an indispensable figure, the very last of a now perhaps extinct species. One of Theorem's chapters is titled 'The Definition of Oneself as the Instrument of Scandal', and, although it refers to the fiction's unnamed and angelic protagonist, it's hard not to read a displaced first person into the ambiguous neutrality of 'oneself'. In modern bourgeois democracies the word 'scandal' has long since fallen into disuse (in the sense that the premiere of The Rite of Spring was a scandal, meaning a 'secular blasphemy'), and it was Pasolini's particular vocation, as Marxist maverick, dandy, poet, polemicist, film-maker and of course homosexual, to rehabilitate the word for the Sixties and Seventies.

PPP (as he became familiarly known) was the artist as Calchas - an enemy in the Greek and Trojan camps alike, as distrusted by the mainstream Left as he was abominated by the Right. Non-partisanship, after all, is the very essence of scandal, and he was anything but partisan. The Vatican that actually awarded him a prize for his respectful Gospel According to Saint Matthew would fulminate against the Christian iconography in Theorem; whereas, in more subtle France, those intellectuals who had supported him throughout his career were to denounce his last and most notorious film, Salo (a version of 120 Days of Sodom updated to the Fascist era) as an abject betrayal of de Sade's anarchic spirit.

Theorem may thus most usefully be read as an allegory of the ecumenical scandal that Pasolini personified, a demonstration (in the mathematical style) of the disruptive and revolutionary force of Eros, whose party was the only one of which, ultimately to his own cost, Pasolini became a card-bearing member. And, maybe not so paradoxically, the written text, which sits rather uningratiatingly on the page and reads not unlike a screen treatment waiting to be 'fleshed out', is actually rather more persuasive than was the seductive but faintly ludicrous film. Liberated from the cinema's obstinate materiality and in particular from the Swinging London associations which have continued to cling to Terence Stamp, Pasolini's exquisite ET becomes what he probably always intended it to be: a bland meteor, a mere datum of desire.

As for the collected Letters, which come complete with solid critical apparatus (including a 99- page introduction) and are decently translated (as is Theorem) by Stuart Hood, this is a wholly admirable initiative on the part of Quartet. I wish I could find it more than admirable. Even for devotees of Pasolini, however, it all makes for somewhat ungrateful reading. In the youthful poet's preoccupation with various regional dialects, his few minor wartime misfortunes (about which he is not especially enlightening), his first confident overtures to the literary world of postwar Italy and even the candid acknowledgment of his sexuality there is much to fascinate a specialist; but for this lay admirer, at least, it constituted an overload of information that no longer seemed terribly relevant.

Ostensibly, there is nothing more personal than a letter and nothing less personal than a theorem. And yet.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments