BOOK REVIEW / Confessions of a little Villon: 'The Letters of Pier Paolo Pasolini Vol I' - Nico Naldini, Tr. Stuart Hood: Quartet, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
Four hundred pages of text, with a 100-page introduction: the compilation, editing and translation of this first volume of Pasolini's Letters must have been a gigantic task. Whatever interest an English-speaking reader may have in Pasolini as a film-maker or novelist lies largely beyond the scope of the book: running from 1940 to 1954, the letters end before the publication of Ragazzi di Vita and well before Pasolini began to take a serious interest in cinema. Their author is a young poet, writing mainly in the northern dialect of Friuli, whose verse is illustrated only by the few examples he chose to send to his friends.

Publication and translation can thus only be justifed on two grounds: first, that Pasolini is a figure of such lasting significance that everything he produced is important (postcard to Franco Farolfi: 'Yesterday I wrote you a letter but I don't remember if I posted it . . . I am back in Bologna . . . A hug, Pier Paolo'); and second, that this early correspondence is vital to an understanding of the artist's intellectual and emotional development.

But from that point of view, letters may be deceptive in their apparent intimacy. Each is written for only one reader, but is none the less a performance for that one reader, revealing no more than the writer wants to reveal. Pasolini's early diaries, the Quaderni Rossi, are more personal than any of his letters, and Nico Naldini quotes from them at length in his introduction.

The inadequacy of the correspondence as anything but corroborative evidence is clearest when it comes to Pasolini's early sexual experiences and, in particular, the incident that led to his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1949 and the loss of his teaching post, following a charge of indecency and corrupting three local boys. A year earlier, he had written to Farolfi: 'I am definitely a little Villon or a little Rimbaud . . . For some years now my homosexuality has entered into my consciousness and my habits and is no longer Another within me . . . Do you accept me?'

This is, in fact, one of the few direct references to his sexuality in the letters (though the Quaderni, as one might expect, are full of them), and it was an important confession. When he writes to Farolfi again, to tell him about the disaster, he describes it as 'all a put-up job due to political reasons', but notes that Farolfi will not be surprised by the revelation because of what he knows from the earlier letter.

There is no cross-reference here (despite a proliferation of editorial footnotes elsewhere), although taken together the two letters tell a story. On the one hand, we have Pasolini consciously playing the poete maudit, trying to come to terms with himself and to reconcile his moral reservations about sex with his desire for a pagan immorality that would allow him to indulge his desires. On the other, there is a need to justify himself to his friend as the victim of a Catholic-Fascist conspiracy. The two letters reveal conflicts that were central to Pasolini's self-image and would later surface in his films; but they have to be unearthed. Not only is the sheer bulk of the Letters unhelpful to the reader who is not already an expert on Pasolini, but the critical apparatus is more casual than it at first seems - for example, indexing a poem (of 1946) and a short story (of 1953) as though they were one work, under their shared title, Lied.

Writing for an Italian readership, Naldini can hardly be blamed for not making concessions to an English one that may be unfamiliar with the cultural and political background to his long, year-by-year essay on Pasolini's upbringing, family and early life. His unwritten assumption, that Pasolini justifies this degree of attention, looks quite different in a British context.

But the real question is where on earth the publishers expect to find that English readership, or why they have chosen to make so few concessions to it; perhaps purchasers of later volumes, which will have more direct relevance to the films on which Pasolini's international reputation is based, will be anxious to acquire a full set. Meanwhile, this remains the handsomely produced and highly priced product of much labour: a fine folly.