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Ice-cream with the Anti-Christ

NIETZSCHE IN TURIN by Leslie Chamberlain, Quartet pounds 10
THEY SAY that Friedrich Nietzsche, the self-proclaimed Anti-Christ, went mad in Turin. A few days after Christmas in 1889 the philosopher was seen to rush out of his lodgings and tearfully embrace a cart-horse. Nietzsche had been deteriorating for the last six years. His work, which amounted to a full-scale war on contemporary morality, had exploded into unintelligible jottings. One night in Turin the landlord's daughter had heard an unholy ruckus coming out of Nietzsche's room; peering through the keyhole, she saw a man prancing naked in a solitary Dionysian rite; Nietzsche had finally taken leave of his senses.

Several writers have found Nietzsche's encounter with the horse extremely moving and symbolic. Milan Kundera imagined that the Anti-Christ had asked the poor nag to forgive Descartes for believing animals have no souls. In fact it seems likely that Nietzsche was suffering from syphilis; the spirochaetes were making a sponge of his brain, and prompting his off- beat behaviour.

In this fascinating study of the philosopher's last days, Lesley Chamberlain attributes an unearthly quality to the Italian city. The Piedmontese poet Cesare Pavese took his life in Turin, as did Primo Levi. Before either of them, Emilio Salgari (Italy's best-selling author of adventure stories) had disembowelled himself in the green Turin hills. The city is famously symmetrical in design - all streets intersect at right-angles - but this geometry need not square with rational behaviour. Many of De Chirico's surrealist landscapes, with their sinister broken statues and endless colonnades, are portraits of Turin.

By the time Nietzsche arrived there in April 1888, he had already formulated his most esoteric doctrines: "eternal recurrence", "will-to-power", "master and slave morality", "the transvaluation of values". Much of this would appeal to the Nazi race-engineers. Yet Turin seemed to bring out the gentle side of Nietzsche and there is a surprising lack of bitterness in his letters home. From his lodgings in Piazza Carlo Alberto, Nietzsche had a fine view of the Alps and it was a five-minute walk to the opera house. Bizet's Carmen, a thoroughly unWagnerian work, sent Nietzsche into raptures and he saw it no less than 14 times (was this perhaps a sign that all was not well?). He ate ice cream in the gilded cafes along Via Po and marvelled at the city's spacious squares with their 10,860 yards of symmetrical arcades which "shelter you against all weathers".

Lesley Chamberlain exonerates Nietzsche from charges of proto-Nazism or nihilism. The German undermined Western philosophy in order to give his age new values, and did so in a glancing, impressionistic prose which now looks startlingly modern. Chamberlain is good on Nietzsche's feud with Richard Wagner (whose operas he regarded as a vulgar display of Teutonic chauvinism), and she illuminates his massive effect on contemporary music. The atonal rawness of Schoenberg was like the discord of a soon-to-be- shattered Europe foreseen by Nietzsche.

In Turin the philosopher completed his crowning opus, Ecce Homo. He nicknamed the city's one extravagant landmark - the knitting-needle spire of an abandoned synagogue - after this book. According to occultists, Turin forms a magic triangle with Lyons and Prague. Did Nietzsche know of the city's renown as a centre of the supernatural? "Evenings on the Po Bridge: superb! Beyond Good and Evil!" he enthused. Nietzsche now saw himself as the reincarnation of Voltaire, Napoleon and even his arch-enemy Wagner.

What did the Turinese make of this strange, half-blind creature with a walrus moustache? Sadly, it seems that Nietzsche passed through their city more or less unnoticed. After his encounter with the horse, he was sedated and despatched to a clinic in Basel, apparently still wearing his landlord's mitre-shaped night- cap. Nietzsche in Turin provides an excellent primer on the crackpot philosopher. It is entertaining and meticulously researched, and incidentally gives a precise portrait of one of the stranger European cities.