July 3, 2013

1963. The Man in the Piazza

Review of Main Street, Italy by Irving Levine
Rome in the 1960s. Photo by Bruno Barbey (source)

From The Saturday Review, December 28, 1963, p. 36:

The Man in the Piazza


Main Street, Italy, by Irving R. Levine (Doubleday. 542 pp. $6.50) examines the well-stuffed hut down-at-heel Mediterranean hoot-land of the 1960s and its reluctance to enter the age of the Sputnik, the graduated income tax, and canned pasta. Bill Downs has spent the last twenty-five years as a newspaper, magazine, and radio-TV reporter, mostly for CBS News overseas. His last foreign assignment was in Rome. 

The craft of today's foreign correspondent demands that he become an instant historian. If this is a rather dismaying concept, then brace yourself: the advent of Telstar and other communications techniques are putting new pressures on the world's news media and their reporters overseas. History is getting more "instant" every day.

In the process of their reporting, the foreign correspondents have produced their own journalistic library—most of it pretty perishable stuff—in which newsmen and women seek to freeze a few days or decades between a book's title and its conclusion, trying to tell how it was and why.

Irving R. Levine of NBC News writes about his Mediterranean assignment in this genre. His Main Street, Italy is a compendium of what every well-informed correspondent should know if he is suddenly called upon to "wing" a bit of instant history, whether it be the fall of a coalition government, a policy change in the Vatican, or a juicy international tax scandal. What the book lacks in organization of subject matter it makes up for in the proliferous facts that crowd its pages.

In his opening chapters, Mr. Levine announces his intention to write "a kind of primer" of everyday life in Italy. He fails in this because he never makes up his mind whose everyday life—the native's or the expatriate's. He warns that it's "imprudent to generalize about Italians," and then proceeds to do so with annoying frequency; e.g., "Italians are mercenary, they can be extremely contentious and seldom are greatly dedicated to keeping their word." "One explanation of overdeveloped Italian pride is that Italians really suffer from a national inferiority complex."

The author makes it clear that he is no sentimental sucker for the historic beauty left by the Romans (although, he admits, "the only complaint that one who lives in Piazza Navona can have is that he can never again experience the thrill of seeing it for the first time."). Neither will he be taken in by the irresponsible charm of the indolent natives (a donkey-riding farmer once demanded 1,000 here for the taking of his photograph but accepted half that amount, thus saving NBC News about eighty cents in production expenses).

Levine generally tries to maintain an impersonal "objectivity" about the passionate peninsula; but occasionally he sounds like a nagging housewife when he discusses Italian shopping habits, espresso coffee, or the touchy matter of bribery at the Vatican (the customary payoff to set up a television camera in St. Peter's Square is "transparent financial corruption...of a petty nature and is probably unknown to the Pope and other high dignitaries.").

Both the strength and weakness of Main Street, Italy is the deluge of statistics and percentages. Levine's prodigious research serves him well when he discards his primer approach and does a hard-hitting, scholarly job on the confusing history of postwar Italian politics and the even more confusing economy. He sorts out the spectrum of the nation's multiple party system lucidly, and provides a masterful explanation of the opportunities and dangers of l'apertura a sinistra—the controversial "opening to the left" that is still under assessment and dispute. His penetrating surveys of Italian commerce, labor, banking, and the private and government monopolies that control the bulk of the national economy will produce ideological shudders in both the NAM and the Politburo. And any American planning on an extended sabbatical in sunny Italy should read Levine on taxes, housing, leases, and apartments, and hire a good lawyer immediately on arrival.

The major contradictions of postwar Italian society-the paradox of burgeoning Communism in a Catholic state and the anticlerical political paganism that flourishes in the shadows of the Cathedrals of the Mother Church-are here exhumed and exposed as ably as has been done by the scores of other experts and scholars who have attempted to solve the puzzle. But, like the mysteries of Rome's apartment portieri and the Etruscans, they remain generally incomprehensible. Perhaps the answers lie buried in the unpredictable Italian anima, which, as any old Moscow hand like Levine knows, is brother to the impenetrable Russian soul.

Main Street, Italy is at its best when the author allows his sense of humor to come through or when he gets down to on-the-spot reporting. His question-and-answer record of an interview with a middle-aged ex-Fascist army veteran reveals more about Italy than most of the authorities quoted elsewhere, beginning with the Caesars.