On March 16, 1972, readers in Italy and throughout the publishing world were shocked by the day’s headlines. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the internationally renowned publisher of Doctor Zhivago, had been found dead at the foot of an electricity pylon outside Milan. Was his death accidental, or was it murder?
No one knew the answer, and even now, people can only speculate as to what actually happened.
Carlo Feltrinelli, Giangiacomo’s son, was only 10 at the time. In this book he has undertaken the courageous task of writing his father’s biography, trying to understand both what happened that fatal day and in the years that led to it. The result is a fascinating attempt and an extraordinary story. But it is one that remains an enigma, to this very day.
As Carlo makes clear, he had the memories common to a child of his age, a handful of loving letters from his father, but not much else to go on. He had to undertake this difficult work in the same way any historian would have, reading through his father’s letters, interviewing those who knew him, finding a surprisingly large amount of government spying reports, both Italian and American. From these, he has woven an enthralling story, but one that ultimately leaves the reader as puzzled as Carlo presumably still is after all these years.
Feltrinelli was more than a publisher; he was the heir to a vast fortune and a lifelong communist, with a small “c.” Even in Italy, where many intellectuals and those better off found a home in the Communist Party, his life was exceptional. As a youngster, he rebelled against his conformist and conservative parents and ran away to join the Resistance in the last years of the war. He remained close to the Communist Party for many years, until the 1960s, when he moved far to its left. But during all this time, he still managed the family fortune, much to the irritation of the Italian right, and to the ceaseless curiosity of the government’s security agents.
Indeed, Carlo begins his book with a long and dutiful account of the family’s wealth. Starting with forests and paper mills, the Feltrinelli family wisely diversified, coming to own vast swaths of Roman real estate, power plants–ironically enough–and a whole range of manufacturing industries. Giangiacomo grew up with the assurance of the very wealthy, and Carlo is remarkably objective in quoting those who saw in his father a self-assured and arrogant man, one who brooked very little disagreement from those who worked for him, someone who did not hesitate to break into the locked offices of his chief editor, searching his files and desk before summarily firing him.
Feltrinelli’s life could simply have been that of a very wealthy man who decided to dabble in publishing. But reading Carlo’s account, one sees two disparate and contending strains in his father’s life, even though Giangiacomo felt that he had been able to bring them together.
After his early years of political activity, much of it devoted to setting up the internationally famous Feltrinelli archives of leftist thought, Giangiacomo decided to begin publishing in earnest in 1955. His list did not differ markedly from those of many of his competitors. The first books were Nehru’s autobiography, and Lord Russell’s The Scourge of the Swastika, a study of Nazi war crimes. At first Feltrinelli’s interests were relatively nonpolitical; he pioneered in the publishing of inexpensive paperbacks, sought to build a strong list in popular science and finally began acquiring bookstores. As if to prove that the rich can only get richer, Feltrinelli’s bookselling instincts proved remarkably strong, and today his son runs the country’s largest bookselling empire, the Feltrinelli stores, known for their cleverly chosen downtown locations and their strong basic stock. I remember walking around the center of Milan with Feltrinelli in the early 1960s, and his proudly showing me how they had made pedestrian surveys to see which locations had the heaviest traffic, then built their stores accordingly.