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Finally, an intelligent book on Italy!
on August 20, 2001
The world is full of books on Italy. Unfortunately, a lot of these are written by foreigners whose well-meaning observations are usually pretty mundane and often the product of some Summer holiday spent in Tuscany. Discussing the national character is not common in Italy (except of course when it's done with the ritual pessimism).
Given the small number of books on the subject, Barzini's book has much to recommend it. For starters, it was written by an actual Italian and concentrates on what makes Italians "tick" rather than on the more traveloguey aspects of the matter. Other writers have tried this, notably Tim Parks but Barzini attempts to explain Italy rather then merely observing it.
Although this could be a reasonably dry subject, the book is written in a fun, somewhat raffish style which never really drags. The author spent a lot of his time in the USA and many of his observations are interesting from an typically anglo saxon point of view.
To be fair, I DO have some reservations about this book. The main problem is that, having been written in 1964 the text is somewhat dated. The Italy described by Barzini is one of poverty and illiteracy and these days that world has (thankfully) faded pretty much from the picture. You can see a bit of Barzini's Italy in 1950s/60s Hollywood films such as "The Roman Holidays" and "It Happened in Naples". As another reviewer has pointed out, customs have also changed. Divorce, which Barzini found unthinkable, has been legal in italy for quite a long time.
On the other hand, a lot of his observations remain true and accurate. It takes a good long time for national character to change and a lot of what Barzini described still peeps out from behind modern day Italy. I think that the best way to read this book is not so much with a grain of salt, but rather with a large glass of water in order to dilute the author's conclusions a little.
The *substance* of the book is still accurate, it's just a little faded with time.