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January 25, 1987|William Murray

MEMORIES OF MISTRESSES by Luigi Barzini (Macmillan: $10.95; 256 pp.). The late Luigi Barzini was not only one of Italy's most astute and perceptive journalists, but a charming, witty and deeply cultured conversationalist. An hour spent in his company was always illuminating, and I often made it a point to look him up whenever I went back to Rome to write something of my own about goings-on in Italy. Barzini's best-known book, "The Italians," is still the most entertaining and truthful portrait of his native country I've ever read, which may be why many Italians don't like it. And although he was a political conservative, he could no more avoid speaking his mind on a variety of controversial topics than he could breathe, a quality that did not endear him either to the left or the right.

He was bilingual and wrote extremely well in Italian and English. This posthumous collection (Barzini died in 1984), consisting of 22 essays and reminiscences written over 30 years, is proof of that. The title of the book is misleading, since only one article deals--and very amusingly--with that subject, but publishers have to come up with something to titillate potential buyers, and a whiff of carnality never hurts. Some enterprising editor has also attempted to organize the book into various sections under such headings as "Mussolini Stops to Relieve Himself," but the reader can disregard such spurious meddling. He will find in these pages enough to delight him, especially discerning profiles of such internationally celebrated figures as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (the author of "The Leopard"), Curzio Malaparte and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the radical publisher who blew himself up in a bungled terrorist action some years ago.

There are also affectionate portraits of favorite places--Milan, Capri, Venice--and moving fragments on aspects of his personal life, including a heart attack he suffered through in 1960. One long piece, "Loners in the World," begins as a reminiscence of his early years as a student and cub reporter in the United States and develops into a stunning, sometimes painful essay on the American national character. Like all good journalists, Barzini at his best elevated the form into an art.

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