The afterlife of Italian poet, novelist, critic and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini brings to mind some familiar lines from Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”: “Time that is intolerant/Of the brave and innocent…/Worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives…”
Time has doted on Pasolini’s friends, countrymen and sometime antagonists Eugenio Montale and Italo Calvino but has neglected the once equally celebrated Pier Paolo. His films have never gone into full eclipse, but his poems, fiction, screenplays, literary criticism and political commentary, which engaged all literate Europe during his lifetime, have seldom traveled across the Atlantic.
“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” Auden continued, addressing Yeats. Though the young Pasolini worshiped language, mad and ineffably wicked Italy eventually hurt him into idiosyncratic politics and extravagant rhetoric. He adopted one medium after another, fascinated at first by new formal possibilities and soon distracted into perfervid polemic. His preaching was sometimes inspired; it was also, inevitably, timebound. He was braver and more innocent than Montale, Calvino or virtually anyone else among his contemporaries. But political passion overwhelmed aesthetic concentration, and so, outside Italy at any rate, he has forfeited literary immortality.
Pasolini was born in 1922 in Bologna. The family spent summers with relatives at Casarsa, in Italy’s northeastern corner. The local peasantry spoke an ancient dialect, Friulian, in which Pasolini wrote his first poems. Interest in dialects was reviving in mid-twentieth-century Italy, and Pasolini became one of the foremost practitioners and critics of Italian dialect poetry.
After the Second World War, with a degree from the University of Bologna, the beginnings of a literary reputation and a secure job teaching secondary school, Pasolini was happy with provincial life. But for the first of many times, his uncontainable sexuality landed him al brodo–in the soup. Accused of having sex with teenage boys–his lifelong, unashamed practice–he was expelled from the Communist Party and forced to resign from public school teaching.
Self-exiled to the anonymity of Rome, he spent the first months of the 1950s as a walker in the city, discovering the slum districts and absorbing romanesco, the Roman dialect. Though his work–teaching private school and freelance writing–was poorly paid and exhausting, his passion for the life and, above all, the ragazzi, or young men, of the Roman streets was inexhaustible. By the end of the decade, his novels (The Ragazzi and A Violent Life) and his first film (Accatone), full of vivid sex, colorful and often incomprehensible slang, and a murderous poverty that belied postwar Italy’s “economic miracle,” catapulted him into national prominence, while The Ashes of Gramsci (1957), an anguished meditation in verse on the Italian condition, was hailed by Calvino as “one of the most important facts of Italian postwar literature and certainly the most important in the field of poetry.” It was also in these years that Pasolini began writing sketches about Roman life, now collected in Stories From the City of God, in a new translation by Marina Harss.