Glancing at the Italian best-seller list, an American reader might imagine himself back at home, seeing such familiar names as Ken Follett, Harold Robbins, Sydney Sheldon, Erica Jong, Mario Puzo and Robert Ludlum. A few years ago, the situation started to become embarrassing: Foreigners were pushing Italy's best-known novelists to the bottom of the list. The newspapers created a separate category for "foreign fiction," giving Italian authors their own list over which they reign supreme.
But the large number of American and English books can create a deceptive impression of similarity. Frequently, the American books popular in Italy tell us more about Italy than they do about the United States. The Beat Generation, which American young people left behind years ago on their way to business school, still enjoys enormous popularity in Italy.
The most famous modern American poet is not Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams but Allen Ginsberg (whose activities are still closely chronicled in the Italian press). Probably the most famous contemporary American fiction writer in Italy is Charles Bukowski, who in this country is known as a poet with a small cult following in what remains of the American counterculture. An Italian director even made a movie of one of Bukowski's books of stories, "Tales of Ordinary Madness."
Recent books which tap into the "On the Road" tradition, such as "Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Persig, and "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat Moon, find a ready audience in Italy, while writers from mainstream America, such as John Updike, John Cheever are little known.
Younger Italian writers have found success following in the tradition of William Burroughs, Kerouac and Bukowski, publishing autobiographical tales about drifters and heroin addicts.
The mythology of the American counterculture represents a dream of reckless freedom especially appealing to young Italians, who feel cramped geographically, socially and economically.
Italians also have different ideas about serious literature than we do. The biggest boom in recent years has been the rediscovery of a series of Austrian writers active between World War I and World War II, such as Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus. These writers, who described the decline and fall of Austro-Hungarian civilization, are widely considered in Italy among the greatest of the 20th Century. Roth, who died in 1939 and is virtually unknown in the United States, is a best seller in Italy. So is Elias Canetti, whose selection for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981 baffled most Americans. Canetti, a Bulgarian who grew up in Vienna and writes in German, is perhaps the lone living descendant of this Austro-Hungarian literary tradition.
For Americans, who are used to seeing new books displace "old" ones in the space of about six months, it is refreshing to find that in Italy, books originally published decades ago frequently outsell all but a handful of newly published books. Classic Italian authors such as Ignazio Silone, Luigi Pirandello and Italo Svevo regularly make the best-seller list.
The continuing success of past authors can also be interpreted in another manner, however, as a sign that Italian literature is living off past laurels.
Probably the two biggest events of 1985 in the Italian book world were the deaths of internationally famous novelists Italo Calvino and Elsa Morante. In an outpouring of public sentiment, their books, old and new, suddenly rocketed up the best-seller list. The deaths of Calvino and Morante symbolized the beginning of the end of the generation that grew up out of the resistance to fascism, and whose authors such as Cesare Pavese, Eugenio Montale, Alberto Moravia, Giorgio Bassani and Pier Paolo Pasolini are either old or dead.
The generation of Italians now in their 30s and 40s does not appear to have yet produced writers of the same caliber, although they have attempted to follow in the tradition of the serious literary novel. Italians, for some reason, have not learned the knack of writing good popular fiction in genres such as science fiction, the spy thriller and the historical saga. As a rule, Italian novelists prefer to attempt serious books good or bad rather than turn their hand to literary entertainment.
Italy has produced few good writers of detective stories. Puzzled by the problem, Italian intellectuals held a conference to discuss it. The most intriguing theory to emerge from the panel was the hypothesis that Italy was infertile ground for the detective story because the country's own political life was itself a kind of mystery novel. The would-be Italian detective novelist must compete with daily events, the mystery of the latest financial scandal, terrorist bombing, Mafia feud, government bribe, or secret political deal which outdo all but the most imaginative detective plots.