Howard Jacobson: Why choose between the mind and the flesh? In Italy, you can have both

For four days, Mantova is given over to inordinately elegant women who go nowhere without a book
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The Independent Online

Just back from the Mantova Literary Festival, in love, as you'd expect, with all things Italian. The Mantova Literary Festival is reminiscent of the Hay Festival, which is not surprising since its padrino – as he was described to me by Italians – is Peter Florence, who turned Hay into the literary wonder of the world. In both places flags flutter, crowds of knowledgeable readers stream from one snowy pavilion to another, and writers enjoy the brief sensation of importance – competitors in a medieval tournament, come to demonstrate not only their wordsmanship but their love of virtue.

The difference being that Hay is as wet as its name suggests, and Mantova as sweltering as its does. I have grown fond of the persistent drip of Hay, the sensation of rain coming to meet you both ways – from the sky and from the earth – and the exhilaration of waiting for the tent in which you're appearing to loose its moorings and fly off on the wind, bearing you and your audience up and away into the Welsh empyrean, you forever speaking, they forever listening. (Yes, yes.) But, ah reader, the palaces, the towers, the sizzling cobbled piazzas, the salami and the gran padano of Mantova!

Climate, food and architecture aside, what is alluring about Mantova is the sense, however fleeting or even illusory, of intellectual community. Out of festival, Mantova is a sedate, commercial town, but for four days it is given over to men who look like Primo Levi, bespectacled and bearded, with the sad, dancing eyes of thinkers, and to inordinately elegant woman who go nowhere without a book. There are such women in this country, of course, though it is usually books or elegance; rarely will you find an Englishwoman who can dress and read. Or an Englishman, for that matter. With us it as though we must always sacrifice one to the other – if we live in the mind we cannot live in the flesh. Whence this dualism, I do not know. But we pay a high price for it: our dressing lacks high seriousness, and our writing lacks worldly elegance. It is incorrect to call us a nation of shopkeepers. We are – when we are not throwing up in Soho – a nation of country clergymen.

We are dualistic in other ways, too, that Italians are not. We divide young from old. It is hard to avoid the impression at some English literary festivals that the entire phenomenon is dependent on early retirement. It's literature or gardening. If Mantova truly gives a clue to the makeup of the Italian reading public, then they are all doing it. People bring their children along. Some even bring their dogs. And the dogs listen. Certainly, I have never read to an audience at once so attentive and so youthful. The one thing this column has never been is ageist: youthist maybe, ageist never. But it is something, if only occasionally, to see the bright expressions of the young fixed on you while you speak. Is it possible that their very presence rejuvenates one's thoughts? That was how it felt, anyhow. As though I was speaking into the grandly resonating spaces of the future.

You can try an idea or two in Italy as well. They have a taste for abstraction. Here, it's get on with the bloody story. There, they know the story serves a higher end. In Italy, novelists and philosophers inhabit the same territory.

Books apart, this easy mingling of what we keep separate – ideas, generations – is a pleasure to behold and be an honourary part of wherever one is, in restaurants, in street cafés, or simply out walking. I watch older men – fathers, uncles, family friends – making a fuss of children in a way that is no longer permissible in this country. In England I am frightened to look at a child. On my own I keep my head down in case there's a child in the vicinity I haven't even noticed. A man can be unconsciously a paedophile now. And even when I am out with my wife I am careful to be seen hanging on to her in any situation which could be construed as compromising – ie doing anything anywhere. Is there a more exquisitely melancholy sound than that of children playing in a schoolyard? Once upon a time I would stop and listen when I passed a school, wanting to hear again the child I never quite was; today I close my ears and quicken my step. What, be found loitering outside a school gate with tears running down my face? "I am trying to hear again the child I never quite was, officer." You get 10 years for that.

But a man can make a fool of himself falling in love with another culture. The delightfully intelligent young Italians I encountered were pleased I was having a good time but they wanted me to know they were not as enamoured of their country as I was. Had I not read the papers? Even as they had been strolling through the Mantovan sunshine with their books, the Italian Foreign Minister was speaking at a ceremony in Rome marking the 65th anniversary of the surrender of the Fascist government to the Allies, demanding that the Italian soldiers who fought on the side of Nazi Germany be remembered with respect. For they, too, were patriots who died "defending their country". This, when the Mayor of Rome is himself re-evaluating Italy's fascist past, insisting that fascism is not, when looked at all round, "an absolute evil". That senior Italian politicians hold such opinions and are not afraid to voice them is only part of what is causing concern. Where is the opposition to their views? Who in the Italian government is speaking up with any effectiveness against them? And is anybody in the outside world taking notice?

Not much, I'd say, now I'm home. I've seen no big story in our newspapers. It's almost as though we expect some vague, nostalgic form of Italian fascism to go on recurring. Maybe we think it goes with the very virtues I've been describing – the Italian's intellectual excitability, his susceptibility to ideas. Why don't we do fascism? Because we're pragmatists and because it rains a lot. So is that it? Are we safe from extremism because we dress badly and don't take books too seriously?

English or Italian, it might be that our virtues are our flaws and vice versa. So we need both Hay and Mantova. In the meantime it would be wise to keep an eye on the fascists. We've tolerated them as over-expressive, over-dressed but harmless contintentals once before.