In the London of the early sixties, the youngsters onto whom nlr had devolved in 1962 found a convivial interlocutor in Giorgio Fanti, correspondent for Paese Sera in Britain at the time. It may have been he who first brought Tom Nairn and myself together, though it could also have been Ralph Miliband, a common friend. Fanti had been in the city for a couple of years, a notably alert, effervescent and sociable figure, of much greater culture than most journalists. Within the pci he belonged, so far as we could tell, to the right of the Party, and was certainly to the right of ourselves, or of Ralph. Noting his differences with Miliband on the Labour Party in his introduction to the special number of Il Contemporaneo, he would offer a more positive assessment of the national strengths of Labourism, taking issue with nlr, and of the novel merits of Harold Wilson as a politician in 1965.footnote1 The following year Fanti was transferred to Paris, and we lost touch with him. By then his brother Guido, two years younger, was a prominent figure in Italy, elected Mayor of the Communist showcase of Bologna in 1966, rising to President of the Emilia-Romagna region in 1970, and thereafter Deputy, Senator, Euro-Deputy and member of the Direzione of the pci: a leading light of its ruling group as the Party moved farther to the right. It seemed reasonable to associate the pair.

The pci changed its name and split in 1991. Its successor formations—initially the pds, then ds, then pd—never approached the pci’s organizational and electoral success, shrinking over time in size and influence, and eventually abandoning any reference to the left even in name. By the new century, the Italian Communism in which the Fanti brothers were formed no longer existed. After it had passed away, Giorgio Fanti published a memoir, its title in translation Badges in the Buttonhole: Misadventures of a Survivor of Two Ideologies.footnote2 There had been a left in the pci, which created the journal Il Manifesto and was expelled from the Party in 1969; from two of its women leaders, Rossana Rossanda and Luciana Castellina, came impressive memoirs, each later than Fanti’s.footnote3 Rossanda’s account of the first forty-five years of her life is a work of such calm moral intelligence and depth of political understanding, about herself and others, that with it she joins the company of Beauvoir, Weil and Arendt in an earlier generation. In literary terms, La ragazza del secolo scorso is arguably a better and more affecting work, displaying a wider sense of humanity and lived history, than any close counterpart they produced. Castellina’s recollection of her past is more classically autobiographical and ends much earlier, when she was nineteen, still a student, having joined the Communist Party just a few months before the crushing blow of its electoral defeat in 1948. Based on the diary she kept from the age of fourteen, La scoperta del mundo has a freshness and honesty all its own. It opens on 25 July 1943 with Castellina playing tennis on the Adriatic with Mussolini’s daughter Anna Maria, a classmate. The game is suddenly brought to a halt as news of the Duce’s arrest in Rome reaches Anna Maria’s guards, who whisk her away. From the opposite wing of the pci, Fanti’s memoir is unmistakably a document of the first sex, and in form and tone quite different from either of these accounts of a life in fascist and post-fascist Italy. But ingeniously designed and undeniably vivid, it is an arresting work in its own right.

Three atypical choices distinguish the composition of I distintivi all’occhiello from the run of the genre. The first is its handling of time. Fanti’s narrative, though perfectly accessible, is not chronological, moving back and forth without warning between episodes distributed over half a century, requiring some background knowledge to grasp its logic. The second is its presentation of self. There is no use of the first person: Fanti takes his distance from the subject of the story by referring to himself throughout simply by the initial F. The third is perhaps the most striking. A great deal of the tale takes the form of exchanges between F. and others, not in oratio obliqua, but as direct speech—conversations and arguments that can proceed in the liveliest fashion for pages on end, as if they were recorded verbatim. No memory, of course, recaptures words spoken at this length decades—even years or months—earlier, with any precision. These dialogues are inventions, not recollections, by Fanti—founded, certainly, on what he heard, or wanted to have heard, in interactions of the past, transformed with great verve into talk delivering the meanings and lessons of the plot, in an act of creation similar to that of the classical novel of ideas.

The complexity of the memoir lies in the contrasting strands from which it is woven: the personal history of Fanti’s family, how he related to and rebelled against it; of his own marriage and what ensued from it; the trajectory of his career, from the Resistance to Party work in Bologna and Rome, to expatriate posting in England and France; and the winding political twists and fortunes of the pci and what succeeded it, in Italy and in the world. Rossanda’s masterpiece deals with each of these strands—personal, intellectual, socio-political—as well, though the proportions and the compass of the accounts differ. Her book, double the length and half the time-span of Fanti’s, says much less about her marriage and what followed it, discretion prevailing. Fanti’s report of his home life is more emotional. His narrative begins:

To die at dawn, for F., was a literary image. He had seen Le jour se lève, read some books. Then came the dawn of 10 August 1948, when his father died exactly three years after the marriage his parents had opposed. He changed his mind. He understood the power of the metaphor, why dawn is one of the appointments preferred when the moment arrives to leave the scene.

He told his mother and brother to get some rest and kept solitary vigil at his father’s death agony. But when it was over, he didn’t feel alone. He felt he had won his contest with his father, who had been a fascist, taking part in the March on Rome; became a dreamer who loved Hölderlin, a painter who wrote stories in the newspaper, a pianist overflowing at the keyboard, a composer of songs—‘who remained, every time, irremediably a dilettante’. The passage continues:

He was severe with his father. He had become a communist, been a partisan. Had sought in the severity of the discipline of philosophy a safeguard from paternal amateurism. Yet philosophy was still a unitary attempt at an explanation of the world . . . He had not even begun to perceive that the trade which circumstances would impose on him, journalism, was at bottom the epitome, the triumph of what he most wanted to avoid, dilettantism. Journalists are servitors of the message conveyed by the media. So, a dilettante, like his father. Perhaps worse, without his style, the snobbery of a gentleman in spats of the early thirties . . . Later he would learn, coming to London, that for a gentleman amateurism was a rule of life. A guarantee, for others, of independence and uprightness. Until that special anthropological type, when the world changed, became completely extinct.