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A tribute to his 'sad and frenetic light'

Feltrinelli: A Story of Riches, Revolution and Violent Death, Carlo Feltrinelli , Translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwan, Harcourt: 344 pp., $30

October 20, 2002|Lesley Chamberlain | Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "Nietzsche in Turin" and "The Secret Artist: A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud."

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, international publisher of enormous inherited wealth, a socialite, womanizer and radical anti-capitalist political crusader, was, after nearly three years underground, one of Italy's most wanted men in 1972, the year of his death. Still troubled by its wartime Fascist past, the country was in the grip of paranoia erupting in violence on both left and right. Feltrinelli, in hiding, making bombs, felt he was at war. When he died in a bungled attempt to blow up a Milan electricity pylon, his 10-year-old son was left with a clutch of letters and memories of hugs enjoyed against the pressure of time and political infamy.

One reason why "Feltrinelli," Carlo's tribute to his father, is such an engrossing story is that his father's character and motives never become quite clear, even to those closest to him. The man who published daring sex books, posed for Vogue, then suddenly changed in his 40s -- in one phase wearing orange trousers before finally letting his health go and becoming a tramp -- was always a nonconformist and remains a mystery.

But this thrilling biography is also a fine, unsentimental book that captures an era we forget to our peril. As Carlo Feltrinelli says at the conclusion, communism was not only about the East and did not end on Dec. 25, 1989, with the execution of former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. Communism has died many deaths over the last three decades, and if it is dead, then it has taken immeasurable quantities of commitment, hope, love and hatred with it. Feltrinelli's involvement in the fate of that idea was one of the most passionate.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was born in 1926 into a family that, in less than two generations, had risen from near-poverty to become one of the wealthiest commercial families in Italy. His father died when he was 9, and his mother married a man unsuitable as a stepfather and not the best investment as a husband either. Luigi Barzini Jr. was a bossy sybarite who played at espionage, harshly punished his stepson and generally wasted his life in the shadow of a distinguished journalist father.

Giangiacomo was lonely. Both he and his sister Antonella married quickly to escape the family. And escape had surely much to do with Feltrinelli's communist politics from the age of 16. The proximity of his mother to King Victor Emmanuel III repelled him. A few years into the Italian republic, he avenged the use of the family home as one of dictator Benito Mussolini's last hide-outs by holding a summer camp for Marxist comrades there. As Giangiacomo later portrayed it, and as his son agrees, his one social and emotional outlet as a boy was to befriend the gardeners on the estate, and from this he dated his solidarity with the working class. His sense that "ordinary people" were exploited by the capitalist system gave shape to his hatred of his own origins.

Carlo begins his father's tale by expressing admiration for his grandmother Giannalisa, though it is a barbed tribute to her toughness and impatience that she startled even her chauffeur by shooting a roe deer from the back seat of her Rolls-Royce. Giannalisa was so incensed by her teenage son's politics that she arranged for four bogus soldiers to search the house, where he had illegal weapons, and frighten him into flight abroad. When she went to live in Brazil, her son returned. At her son's funeral, Giannalisa appeared in dark glasses and a black veil and told journalists that at last her burden was lifted.

Feltrinelli made the first of his four marriages to a Communist activist and immersed himself in the classic Marxist literature that structured his otherwise unimpressive intellectualizing. He was always more of a businessman and a man of action than a thinker, but he had a Marxist conscience. In Milan, where he founded a publishing house, he early on created the Feltrinelli library, which made classic Socialist texts available, ideally for workers' study. Many of the library's first editions, sought out personally by Feltrinelli in trips across Europe, were later coveted by an envious Moscow.

In that library, he built a shrine to his self-taught achievement, and vanity and self-justification certainly played their parts in his life. After he fell out with the Communists over the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he went his own way as an anti-capitalist, pro-worker utopian. What made his stance possible and admirable to many, even to those who were suspicious of his origins, was not only that he had the money to finance real campaigns to pursue socialist change but also that he was prepared to spend it.

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