World Literature

Mario Soldati

 

BORN: 1906, Turin, Italy

DIED: 1999, Lerici, Italy

NATIONALITY: Italian

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, drama

MAJOR WORKS:

America First Love (1935)

The Commander Comes to Dine (1950)

The Confession (1955)

The Real Silvestri (1960)

 

 

Mario Soldati. Slim Aarons / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Overview

Mario Soldati achieved success in various genres. As an essayist, he was engaging and provocative; he is best known as the author of America First Love, a collection of essays that has been reprinted six times since it was first published in 1935. As host of a television series that ran for two years, Voyage in the Po Valley in Search of Genuine Wines, (1955-1956), he became one of Italy’s most popular figures. When his other television series, In Search of Genuine Food, ended in 1959, he had the fame of a movie star. Soldati was also active in the motion picture industry as a director and critic, as well as a screenplay writer. His most successful movie was Little Old-Fashioned World. He wrote twelve novels, three of which were awarded major literary prizes. Six were best sellers. Soldati investigated the self in relation to inherited values and scrutinized good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, and truth and fraud to reveal the invalidity of absolute judgments.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Influenced by Jesuits and Art. Soldati was born in Turin on November 17, 1906, into an old and prosperous family that had been known in the city since the eighteenth century. He was educated at the Jesuit Istituto Sociale, the most fashionable private school in Turin at the time. When he expressed a desire to join the order of the Jesuits, he was told to contemplate the decision for a year—which was, as it turned out, time enough for him to change his mind. Although many of his characters rebel against the religious morality imparted by the Jesuits, Soldati spoke fondly of their moral integrity and intellectual rigor and remained grateful for their introducing him to Greek, Roman, and French culture. More important is the impression that his Jesuit teachers left on Soldati: The relentless probing in which he engaged in his works suggests the Jesuits’ style of argumentation, epitomized by their motto ‘‘Grant little; deny often; distinguish always.’’ Soldati earned a degree in art history at the University of Turin in 1927 and continued his studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Art History in Rome. He published his first volume of short stories, Salmace, in 1929.  That same year he left for the United States, having won a fellowship in art history at Columbia University. While there, he also served as an instructor. Unable to obtain a regular university teaching appointment, he returned to Italy in January 1931. In May of that year he married a former student, Marion Rieckelman. They had three children, but the marriage ended in 1934. Soldati visited the United States in 1932 and 1933; his experiences on these trips are related in his America First Love. In 1941, Soldati began a relationship with Giuliana Kel- lermann. They married and had three children. From 1946 to 1960, Soldati lived in Rome. In 1960, he and his family moved to Milan.

Success with Thrillers. In 1937, Soldati published his first novel, a psychological thriller titled The Truth About the Motta Case, as a serial in the literary magazine Omnibus; it appeared in book form in 1941. The mystery of Motta’s disappearance seems to unfold in the usual fashion of the whodunit, but the novel suddenly enters a world of fantasy, magic, and horror: The missing lawyer is living in the sea with an enormous, Felliniesque (as if from a Federico Fellini film of fantasy images) siren queen.

Seventeen years later, Soldati completed a second, more complex novel, The Capri Letters. It received the Strega Prize and became one of the first post-World War II best sellers in Italy, though many critics found the work’s intricacies, tricks, and surprises rather excessive.

Creating Across Genres. During the 1930s, Soldati began scripting scenarios for several of the most distinguished Italian directors, like Alessandro Blasetti and Mario Camerini. He then graduated to direction, serving as codirector with F. Ozep. However, after the success of his later 1930s fiction, he turned increasingly to fiction writing, publishing works like The Motta Affair. But Soldati did maintain his contacts with the film industry. As a film director he proved to be particularly good at handling adaptations of literary texts, especially those with a nostalgic bent. In the 1950s and 1960s, Soldati became very active in television and continued to pursue his writing and film career until his death in Italy in 1999.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Soldati's famous contemporaries include:

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): Argentine master of the tangled, surreal short story.

Federico Fellini (1920-1993): Italian director known for his experimental, avant-garde films, including Satyricon and 8½.

Italo Calvino (1923-1985): Italy's most translated fiction writer.

Sophia Loren (1934-): Famous Italian actress and international icon.

 

Works in Literary Context

Surreality of Language. In Soldati’s work, an intriguing mixture of the real and the surreal, the banal and the fantastic, the mundane and the bizarre, the pleasant and the horrific tantalizes the reader. This dynamic, stylistic layering explains why writer Italo Calvino, himself the creator of invisible cities and nonexistent knights, would express his appreciation of Lo smeraldo (The Emerald, 1974) on the dust jacket, but even the realist Pier Paolo Pasolini admired the work’s language, lack of ‘‘viscosita’’ (viscosity), and its ‘‘assoluta leggerezza’’ (absolute lightness).

Writing the Self. Much of Soldati’s writing appears to have a strong autobiographical dimension, as demonstrated in his early nonfiction work such as America First Love, as well as in a much later novel, The American Bride (1977). The former, rooted in the observations of his postgraduate years in the United States, sifts myth and reality through European conceptions of the American way of life. The American Bride, one of his last novels, reexplores some of the issues of cultural difference he had examined from various perspectives in a number of stories and is a sensitive account of irresolvable tensions and misunderstandings in a marital relationship. Themes rooted in childhood and adolescent experience, more particularly the personal and moral implications of a sexually repressive education, inform some of his best work. Translation of such experience into fictional terms is seen in The Jesuit Friend (1943) and The Confession.

Love and Lies. Many of Soldati’s works are concerned with self-deception in relationships. The tightly written novella The Real Silvestri juxtaposes the views held of a mutual friend by a middle-class lawyer and an attractive working-class woman. For the latter, Silvestri is a cheat and blackmailer, while the former remembers him only as the very model of kindness, consideration, and personal honesty. Gradually, the lawyer appreciates how impossibly idealized the memory of his friend was, but comes to understand and feel for him all the more by accepting his human flaws.

Although his plots can exploit the bizarre and the extraordinary, Soldati chronicles the human ordinariness in the romantic deceptions and misunderstandings of friendship, marriage, and other love relationships. Additionally, a strong element of the erotic permeates his work, the more powerful for never being overt or exploitative. This romantic, even titillating dimension, reinforced by the sure sense of the storyteller, helped to win him a wide readership in Italy and abroad.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Mario Soldati was known for including some surreal elements in his work. Here are some other works with surrealist touches.

8½ (1963), a film directed by Federico Fellini. Fellini's film consistently rates near the top of film critics's list of the best movies of all time. In the movie, a filmmaker struggles with a project, as dream and fantasy are interwoven with reality.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This novel chronicles the small village of Macondo for several generations via many bizarre hardships and miracles.

Volver (2006), a film by Pedro Almodovar. For most of this film, the main character suspects that her mother has come back from the dead.

 

Works in Critical Context

Overall Reception. Dubbed ‘‘one of the most gifted of all living Italian storytellers’’ in the Times Literary Supplement, Soldati, in his films as well as his writings, reveals a special talent for description and narrative. His writing did not appear in English translation until the publication of Dinner with the Commendatore in the early 1950s. The three stories in that book, wrote Charles J. Rolo of the New York Times Book Review, ‘‘are somewhat reminiscent of the long short stories of Somerset Maugham. While Soldati’s plots are not, perhaps, as arresting as Maugham’s, he deals more subtly with the mysteries of the human heart and mind.... This is storytelling in the great tradition.’’

The Real Silvestri. The Real Silvestri divided the critics. A few accused the author of artificiality: Carlo Bo, in his review for La stampa, felt compelled ‘‘to solve a difficult problem of a literary nature: up to what point is the writer sincere with himself; where does the game begin?’’ Emilio Cecchi, however, was among those who thought that this novel was one of Soldati’s most authentic works and that Aurora was one of his most genuine characters.

The Real Silvestri attacks fundamental problems of character, as a man learns from his dead friend’s mistress about his friend’s real personality. Notes Helene Cantarella in the New York Times Book Review, ‘‘This incisive study of adult personalities, with its skillful insights into the complexities and bitter ironies of adult emotional life, is the work of a mature mind. In its unusual amalgam of wry, sophisticated humor, brittle analysis, and elementary human compassion, it is Soldati at his best.’’ Alice Ellen Mayhew of Commonweal observed that The Real Silvestri, like Soldati’s other work, ‘‘suggests the trained, methodical, quick-clever eye of the cinema artist.... His style is naturalistic: the camera/narrator moves listlessly about among the characters. ...It is the problem, as well as the method, of The Real Silvestri, to discover the real motives of the characters.... [but] Soldati’s method breaks down in posturing and mannerism. ...The voices drone, the camera wanders, becomes silly and vague, the pictures blur off into placid idiocy.’’

The American Bride. Having lived and worked in the United States, Soldati had a special interest in encounters between American and Italian cultures and sensibilities. In his 1977 novel The American Bride, he writes about an Italian professor married to an American woman and about the professor’s affair with his wife’s Italian American friend. Anthony Thwaite of the U.K. Observer called The American Bride ‘‘a disappointment from one of the most senior and most respected Italian novelists.’’ Thwaite found the book lacked a ‘‘thorough sense of a particular world,’’ and he objected to what he called ‘‘a good deal of wooden authorial signalling ... and limp gestures toward emotion.’’ But Fantazzi, writing in World Literature Today, praised Soldati’s ‘‘subtle if not always profound psychology and ... cruel analysis of the fine distinction between sincerity and pretense.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read one of Soldati’s essays and then watch a film that Soldati directed. Write a brief, informal essay discussing how you see Soldati’s style of writing reflected in his directing style. Compare the essay with the film. Do they have a similar tone? Setting? Perspective?

2. With a classmate, discuss how Soldati distorts the traditional mystery in The Truth About the Motta Case.

3. Soldati often writes about romantic relationships with candor. Make a poster on which you chart a comparison between some of the marriages and relationships in The American Bride and The Real Silvestri. Be prepared to explain your findings to the class.

4. Using resources in your library or on the Internet, research magic realism. Write a report about the genre, using selections from Soldati as supporting examples.

5. Think about a Soldati book you are assigned and write an essay on how Soldati’s studies in visual art manifest in his writing and directing. Use examples from the text to support your idea.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bassani, Giorgio, Le parole preparate. Turin: Einaudi, 1966, pp. 127-33, 189-201.

Heiney, Donald, America in Modern Italian Literature. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1964, pp. 29-34, 187-201.

Siciliano, Enzo, Autobiografia letteraria. Milan: Garzanti, 1970, pp. 356-60.

Periodicals

Banti, Anna, ‘‘Soldati,’’ Paragone, 8 (August 1957): 94-96.

Cecchi, Emilio, ‘‘La narrativa di Mario Soldati,’’ in Letteratura italiana del Novecento, vol. 2 (Milan: Mondadori, 1972): 992-999.

Garboli, Cesare, ‘‘La Fortuna critica di Soldati,’’ in Opere. (Milan: Rizzoli, 1991): 883-920.

de Tommaso, Piero, ‘‘Mario Soldati,’’ in Letteratura italiana, I contemporanei, volume 3. (Milan: Marzorati, 1969): 495-513.

Verdino, S., ‘‘Nel mondo di Soldati,’’ Nuova corrente: Rivista di letteratura, 106 (July-December 1990): 215-48.