«I grew up in a time when criticism was almost everything. Today it is almost nothing”, writes Alfonso Berardinelli in his “Antinomie” – subtitle Literature, intellectuals, ideas, InShibbolet is the publisher in a series explicitly dedicated to literary criticism and essayism – and it does not seem like a provocation: Berardinelli has always been tormented by the theme of the responsibility and function of intellectuals, of reading as a cognitive and moral activity.
Not that he regrets those times, he adds, however: because if up until the 1960s criticism could not yet be confused with academic study, nor with the theory or science of literature, then, he maintains, it was no longer the case. Since then, reading has become more of a risk than ever, precisely because the figure of the critical essayist, the one who puts himself, his own experience and even his own personal history into play when dealing with a text, well, has become irritating.
Already Henry Fielding, jokingly, defined critics as “defamers of books” in “Tom Jones”; today, however, there is no doubt that, we read in “Antinomie”, «criticism is not only annoying (which also happened in the past), but it seems almost inconceivable; little less than an abuse.”
Do you exaggerate? Leads? Not so. Berardinelli embodies the figure of the intellectual who through reading takes on a critique of culture, that is, who first of all reads his own world through the prism of literature – resisting the marginalization of which he is the object.
And precisely for this reason it escapes the rules not only of the cultural market or of the Academy, which demands a value-free and ultimately almost always useless “scientificity”, but also of literary society.
Hard job: consequently he is often considered a sapper; a few years ago, due to some of his opinions on Umberto Eco (whom he doesn’t particularly respect), he received a definition worthy of Fielding: hooligan critic, in an article by Javier Cercas in the “Pais”. He replied calmly, reminding the Spanish writer that much of modern literature was built on idiosyncrasies, refusals, aversions, intolerances; and the long essay written then in the magazine (we are in 2019) is re-proposed together with many others in this very book, indeed it has its own centrality: because it seems like a personal case (in any case the two met for a conference and fraternized without problems ), and it isn’t. He is precisely about antinomies, or the need to be critical.
When you read Berardinelli, an essayist of very pleasant prose, sometimes luciferian, sometimes moving and always intelligent, you don’t necessarily agree with him; but his statements open up new problems, they always reveal something unexpected or unpredictable about an author: above all, it goes without saying, the most biting ones.
An exemplary case is that of Italo Calvino, with whom Berardinelli has always had an “antinomic” relationship, defining him several times as “a perfect minor writer”, that is, someone who stays (prudently) on the margins; and causing some scandal, of course. Now, however, a not uninteresting passage appears in the letters that Calvino wrote between ’62 and ’63 to Esther Judith Singer, a love dialogue that ends with marriage in Cuba. Mondadori has just published them with the title “Letters to Chichita”, edited by her daughter, Giovanna.
The writer talks about himself, his work, his days at Einaudi or at his desk at home in Turin, Rome, Sanremo. In January ’63, he tells her that he has finally finished The Scrutineer’s Day, and is copying it and correcting it amidst a thousand uncertainties. He explains the reason: «my dream was to be a minor author of the 20th century (author’s italics) and instead with this thing that I have written it either doesn’t work, or if it works I can no longer be a minor author, and so I betrayed myself.”
There is evidently also some irony. Or as Berardinelli would say, of the antinomy