Mystery in Milan

Mystery in Milan

On March 16, 1972, readers in Italy and throughout the publishing world were shocked by the day’s headlines.


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.

Feltrinelli was to show highly innovative talents as an entrepreneur. In the swinging ’60s, he was influenced by Carnaby Street and would bring back to his stores baskets of trendy doodads, shocking more traditional booksellers by his pop offerings. Carlo is clearly amused by his father’s daring: “Feltrinelli also ‘raided’ London; he came back with badges and all the latest gimmicks: Marilyn made up to resemble Mao, silver belts in the form of snakes, ties, grass-green miniskirts, mock-leopardskin hats. All this merchandise was dumped in large wickerwork baskets, as in the street markets, by the bookstore cashiers.” No one looking at his life at that point could have assumed that it would take such a different direction in the future.

But two major events changed Giangiacomo’s life, both as a publisher and as a political activist. The first, unexpectedly, was the receipt of a manuscript by a relatively little-known, though highly esteemed, Russian poet and essayist, Boris Pasternak. Feltrinelli, the communist, was to find himself in the unexpected role of taking on the Soviet Union’s government and cleverly discovering ways of fulfilling Pasternak’s desire to be published outside the USSR. It must be added that Feltrinelli’s loyalty to the Italian CP had been tried that very year by the party’s loyalty to the Soviet Union over its invasion of Hungary and the brutal suppression of the revolution there (the Italian party was later to become the most liberal of the world’s Communist parties). Feltrinelli protested but was not expelled. However, the coincidence of the Soviet attitude to Hungary and to its leading author must have had a strong effect on his thinking.

Publishing Doctor Zhivago transformed Feltrinelli from a small startup to a major figure in international publishing. Understandably, Carlo devotes a lengthy chapter to the whole story, giving us perhaps more than most readers would like to know about the ins and outs of the battle over the manuscript. Certainly, Pasternak’s own letters are fascinating, as is Feltrinelli’s determined outsmarting of the Soviet authorities. In retrospect, it seems incredible that the Russians should have been so heavy-handed, trying first of all to keep Pasternak from publishing the book, then forbidding him from receiving the Nobel Prize and, finally, imprisoning those closest to him after his death.

Shortly thereafter, Feltrinelli received a manuscript from another aging and relatively unknown author, Giuseppe di Lampedusa. While The Leopard did not sell the millions of copies that marked Pasternak’s success, it was–and is to this day–a stunning tour de force, and a novel that reinforced Giangiacomo’s standing throughout the world.

I should mention that my predecessors when I worked at Pantheon books, Kurt and Helen Wolff, were the American publishers of both of these books, and that the success of Doctor Zhivago transformed their firm as it had Giangiacomo’s. I remember going to the Frankfurt Book Fair for the first time in the early 1960s, with Bob Bernstein, the new president of Random House, and both of us wondering whether we would be able to get an appointment with the great Feltrinelli. We did so without difficulty, and began a relationship with Feltrinelli, the publisher, that was to last until the present time. Far from using his phenomenal successes to upstage his colleagues, Feltrinelli became increasingly involved in publishing books from abroad, coming to New York and finding many of the 1960s authors who were to become the rage in Europe. Feltrinelli published Wolfe and Baldwin, García Márquez and Fuentes. But he also published Althusser, Lévi-Strauss and Panofsky.

But while Feltrinelli’s battle with the Soviets marked a further distancing from the traditional Communist Party, it did not in any way mark a turn to the right. Indeed, his next moves were to push him increasingly leftward. Giangiacomo’s lists became increasingly political, and included many of the 1960s classics that were appearing in every country, but he decided to go further than his more timid colleagues, and was determined to add Castro to his list of authors. Carlo’s narrative is both detailed and amusing as we watch Giangiacomo’s unending frustration as he tries to beard the notoriously elusive Fidel in Havana. Since Giangiacomo’s time, innumerable publishers have made similar pilgrimages, welcomed and encouraged by Fidel, only to find themselves as frustrated as Feltrinelli eventually became. But Giangiacomo’s inability to breach Fidel’s defenses did not discourage him from becoming one of Castro’s most enthusiastic advocates. He would go on to publish not only Che Guevara but endless books about Latin American politics, becoming, in the eyes of the CIA, Fidel’s primary agent in Western Europe. Unfortunately, Carlo does not quote the documents in which the CIA determined this, since it seems highly unlikely that Feltrinelli did more than publish work that the spy agency considered subversive. By this time, not only the FBI and the CIA but the Italian Interior Ministry were keeping close tabs on Giangiacomo’s activities.

The 1960s were a heady time for all of Europe, and for a while, Giangiacomo must have felt that he was riding the wave of the future. But after the crescendo of 1968, things began to fall apart. The Russians successfully crushed the risings in Prague, de Gaulle was able to end what the French left thought would be a real revolution and the United States increasingly sought to put an end to Latin America’s forays into left-wing dissent and even revolution.

At this point, for reasons that no one to whom Carlo spoke can fully understand, Giangiacomo began to move much further to the left. To be sure, there were reasons to feel that the moderate reformist stance of the Italian Communist Party and its allies would lead nowhere. There were also fearsof increasing right-wing militancy; people spoke seriously of a possible rightist coup. Feltrinelli began to feel personally threatened, and he determined to seek an extreme revolutionary solution. His list became overwhelmingly political, and he published endless pamphlets that must have appealed to an ever-smaller audience. Influenced by Guevara’s hopes of encouraging revolutionary foci throughout the world, Giangiacomo began to pin his hopes on such unlikely places as Sardinia. He felt that the age-old traditions of local independence and even banditry there might lead to genuine revolutionary efforts. After all these years, Giangiacomo’s old friends and comrades are unwilling to condemn the course he took, but it is clear from the polite and elliptical quotes given to Carlo that they remain puzzled as to why Giangiacomo became a would-be terrorist. As one of them wrote, “I realized that Feltrinelli was going off the rails, that he had fallen in love with an analogy, that he no longer understood the value of cultural mediation, that he had exceeded his own role, that his impatience had won. He became hasty, slapdash, headstrong.” He was in fact more extreme than his own comrades, urging them to come armed to public meetings where they might confront fascist thugs, a move that others thought suicidal.

In the last years of his life, Giangiacomo was in hiding; he barely saw Carlo and rarely spoke to his colleagues. He moved in the shadow world of terrorists and plotters, becoming a character in a Conrad novel rather than the millionaire publisher that he had been. Carlo follows this trail in fascinating detail, but it is with the knowledge that we all share of how the story is to end. Here is Carlo’s own summation:

In 1969, some of Feltrinelli’s analyses no longer seemed to make sense. Perhaps he had been misled by impatience (political, personal), adventure, fanaticism, the allure of arms, an exaggerated desire for justice, vanity (is there audacity without vanity?), a sense of order and not disorder. There is no need to make posthumous excuses (moral, historical, or political); the words of Leo Valiani, one of the founding fathers of the republic, should suffice: “Feltrinelli acted in perfectly good faith and in a spirit of total disinterest, which deserve the maximum respect, in the course of his political and conspiratorial development, which led to the personal sacrifice of a man who believed in the imminence of a Fascist reaction in Italy.” So, it’s all clear. But why doesn’t it add up to me?

In these days of fascination with terrorists, we have become too facile in using religious and cultural differences as a way of explaining why people give up hope of democratic political change and decide instead on sabotage and armed opposition. There will probably be psychoanalysts who try to liken Giangiacomo’s spurned wealth to bin Laden’s, but clearly no one who knew him has any clear explanation of why he ended as he did. Part of Carlo’s impressive bravery in writing this story is that he does not give facile explanations but seeks to give the reader the evidence that he has been able to gather.

Carlo himself is now one of Italy’s most successful publishers. For years he concentrated on building up the bookstore chain that had been his father’s most profitable legacy. Now he has been able to buy up the rival Rizzoli chain and has established a remarkably strong base for the company’s publishing. His offices are the same as his father’s, in downtown Milan. I was there the other month, and felt that they had, in a touching way, become a kind of shrine to Giangiacomo. His portraits are everywhere; posters announcing a major exhibit in Switzerland that opened thirty years after his death cover the walls. Carlo has become very comfortable in his role as Giangiacomo’s publishing heir.

But the route must not have been an easy one. While he is careful not to talk about himself after his father’s death, he does let slip one comment. Referring to an old family friend, he mentions how helpful that person had been in seeing him through “his difficult years”–the 1970s and ’80s. That covers much of his youth and early manhood, but he keeps a discreet veil drawn over his own feelings and those of his mother.

Doubtless he is right. Giangiacomo’s story is a fascinating microcosm of the left in the 1960s and early ’70s, and a remarkable chapter in the history of publishing. It is also an inexplicable tragedy, one that Carlo Feltrinelli has treated with the utmost respect and objectivity.

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