Chapter 3  Nino Frank and the enemies of "900"

Before launching his magazine, Bontempelli seems not to have canvassed the opinions of established Italian writers and critics about the idea of an Italian journal written in French. More seriously, when asking Curzio Malaparte of the publishing house La Voce to be his co-director he persuaded him that they would reach a wider audience with a French language magazine, but avoided all mention of its cultural focus and of the political implications of wooing a European avant-garde in Paris. These omissions created a fatal flaw, which in the end would destroy the project – as well as leaving Nino Frank high and dry, without employment, in France. Malaparte, an enthusiastic supporter of fascism, was one of the men whose influence would eventually bring down "900". The other, who showed his hand earlier with extraordinary spite, was Giuseppe Ungaretti.

Ungaretti versus Bontempelli


Giuseppe Ungaretti

Ungaretti was born in Egypt, to Italian parents, and spent two years in Paris, before the 1914-18 war, before he ever lived in Italy. He fell in love with the literary circle of Apollinaire and his friends, and returned to Paris after the war. As a poet and critic, equally fluent in Italian and French, he saw himself as the perfect intermediary between the two countries and, in particular, well qualified to advise French editors and publishers on the 'right' kinds of Italian authors to publish in translation. His conception of the ideal Italian literature, especially poetry, was that it should be classical and beautiful to read or hear, following well-trodden narrative paths. Bontempelli's view of the importance of content over form, and deliberate search for the strange and fantastical, was anathema to him.

He had managed to persuade Jean Paulhan at the Nouvelle Revue Française (the most important French literary journal), and Benjamin Crémieux at Commerce, to follow his advice in all things Italian, and did his best to crush all approaches made to them. But the passion he felt led him to go far beyond civilized criticism. Thus an early interest shown in Bontempelli's work by the NRF was viciously attacked, in a letter to Paulhan:

Bontempelli has made it known that "the Parisian publisher NRF announces Une âme dans un bar for the collection Une œuvre, un portrait." That's a great service the NRF is rendering to Italian letters – you're plunging us up to the neck in the shit of the arrivistes.1 | original text

In a further letter in May, it was evident that not only had Paulhan ultimately rejected Bontempelli's novella, he had persuaded Crémieux to do the same, and Ungaretti was gloatingly triumphant:

I am delighted, and all those who believe in nobility feel the same, that Commerce has not agreed to be an accomplice to the low manœuvres of this gentleman. Thank you for helping me! He must know that I've had something to do with this failure of his. He'll hate me even more. He'll try to cause me more trouble. People will end by forgetting him. I'm very happy.2 | orig

Nino wrote in July to warn Massimo that Paulhan had admitted Ungaretti's influence in preventing his success in France, but also to say that he had been spreading poison around Paris about all the younger Italian authors:

Paulhan gave me Ungaretti's name. I've got the proof in my hands that Ungaretti, who had come to Paris to [honour] Italy, has spoken ill of everybody (apart from Cardarelli). Tell Bragaglia, Alvaro, Vergani, all of them are included. You've failed with Commerce and NRF because of Ungaretti. Soupault...has fallen out with Ungaretti because he badmouthed you and Alvaro.3 | orig

When Bontempelli announced his plans for "900", Ungaretti also had another weapon. In 1919, Giovanni Papini and Ardengo Soffici had edited a shortlived journal in French called La vraie Italie, to try to encourage dialogue between Italy and France. Bontempelli and Ungaretti were both featured in its pages, but Bontempelli was not convinced by the idea of writing in French, and had publicly ridiculed both the idea and the quality of the French translations. Now Ungaretti felt justified in ridiculing Bontempelli for proposing the same idea. He spoke to his friends Soffici, now at Il Tevere, and Giuseppe Raimondi at L'Italiano, and both men attacked the idea of Bontempelli's new revue:

Any Italian work of art which is translatable is one which is not Italian, is formed from a way of thinking which is internationalist, Jewish, liberal-bolshevik, decadent, etc., and its form and language is volapuk or esperanto. But if all poetic Italian literature is sublime it is precisely because it is untranslatable – like Fascism! ... Soffici.

Bontempelli is producing a revue, they say, in French, which will come out in the autumn if all goes well, and meanwhile he's marching out to conquer literary France. At this point may we be permitted to add: but which France? This comes from the fact – and we believe we're not mistaken – that the two most important revues in that country, "La Nouvelle Revue Française" and "Commerce", although repeatedly pestered by the zealous "Massim", refused his writings. Raimondi.4 | orig

Ungaretti wrote gleefully to Paulhan:

About Nino Frank, Vergani, Bontempelli and company a terrible note will be posted in a journal. (26 July)
It was a friend who, at my request, wrote the note against Bontempelli. (Early August)5 | orig

Bontempelli could not ignore these blatant attacks. In early August, beside himself with fury, he came up to Ungaretti in the literary "terza saletta" of the Caffè Aragno, in Rome, and hit him. As was still not uncommon in Italy at the time, Ungaretti challenged him to a duel, and they fought in shirtsleeves in the garden of Pirandello's villa. In the third attack, Ungaretti received a small graze on the arm, the duel was stopped and they shook hands in what passed (temporarily) for a reconciliation. In Ungaretti's own words to Raimondi:

Encounter at the Aragno with Bontempelli. He came at me to hit me. A furious exchange of fists and blows, tables overturned, plates and glasses broken, etc. I sent seconds on my behalf – I needn't have done, there were witnesses, and in the end it was my choice – the duel, my injury, reconciliations.6 | orig

This rather ridiculous spat between two (supposedly) mature men created waves of interest and amusement in both Rome and Paris, and was arguably useful publicity for the new revue.

The undignified attacks on Bontempelli's journal and his supporters would continue throughout the life of the publication. But in the first months these were pinpricks, compared with the disagreement which developed inside the journal itself – still well before the launch of the first issue – between Bontempelli and his co-director, Curzio Malaparte, and created much more serious doubts in France.

Bontempelli versus Malaparte


Curzio Malaparte

When Massimo wrote to Nino to tell him of his idea for "900", he had already found his publisher: La Voce, in Rome, run by "my friend Suckert". What he seems not to have realised was how far apart he and his "friend" were in their political and literary aims. Curzio Malaparte was born Kurt Erich Suckert, of a German father and Italian mother. He was born in Tuscany, he served in the Italian army in the 1914-18 War, and he felt himself to be 100% Italian. He joined the Fascist Party in 1920, took part in Mussolini's March on Rome in September 1922, and was a fierce defender of Italian national pride. He began to take the name Curzio Malaparte in his writings, and from the end of 1925 insisted on being known by this name.

Bontempelli had planned to use Malaparte as a figurehead, in much the same way as his country representatives. But there was no chance that his co-director, himself a prolific writer and politically committed journalist, would not wish to exert an influence on the content and positioning of the journal. Bontempelli's error seems to have been to ignore his representations, especially since, as he wrote in an unpublished report written in January 1927, "the literary hostility of Malaparte towards "900" began straight after the first discussions in the press after the announcement of the revue", Malaparte at once trying to intervene in its literary direction.7 | orig

Matters came to a head on 1st August, when Malaparte gave an interview to the Fiera letteraria in which he emphasised the Italian credentials of the new journal, in particular its nationalist approach. It was a long interview, and it caused fury among the supporters of "900" in France. Malaparte needed to defend – especially to Italian critics – the decision to publish in French, which he had approved, agreeing with Bontempelli that the journal would reach a wider audience in French than in Italian. The strength of the negative response at home, however, allied with his own convictions, led him in the interview to try to reassure his Italian critics that the controlling voice would be that of Italian nationalism, i.e. fascism:

The task of the revue "900" will be to present to foreigners, translated into a language accessible to two-thirds of the educated classes, worldwide, the best as yet unpublished stories in modern Italian literature: preferably those which best represent the spirit of our new age. To those who reproach us for paying homage to the French language, it is legitimate to reply that their arguments do not warrant being taken seriously, and that it does not mean that we are paying homage to the language of Anatole France if we consider and use it as the purely mechanical instrument of our artistic cultural propaganda.

He went on to list as likely contributors the main established Italian writers of the day – many of whose views were in direct opposition to those of Bontempelli – and suggested that the translations into French for the revue would deliberately draw attention to the debt owed to Italian by French literary writing:

We shall translate extracts from our most significant writers, like Baldini, Emilio Cecchi, Cardarelli, Soffici, Bontempelli, Linati, Viani, Solari, Barilli, etc., into a French which is full of italianisms, like the magnificent classical "italianizing" French prose of the sixteenth century.8 | orig

The Italian literary press had formed itself into two opposing camps, designating themselves Strapaese (traditional, national, grounded in the countryside) and Stracittà (modern, urban, international). By 1926, the adherents of Strapaese had persuaded themselves that they were the patriots, in tune with fascism, and that Stracittà was verging on disloyalty to Mussolini and indeed to Italy. And now Malaparte began to side firmly with Strapaese, in direct opposition to Bontempelli.9

In the next issue of the Fiera, Bontempelli – especially furious because he was not even mentioned in the interview, except as a contributor – replied:

The journal described, in its spirit, its positioning, the names it mentions, seems very different from the one I had announced with the same it must be another journal entirely.10 | orig

On 23rd August Malaparte wrote Bontempelli a mild warning, not unreasonably in view of the hostility already building in the powerful Strapaese camp:

Try not to give "900" an excessively personal character; people are accusing you of wanting to give it an arbitrarily Bontempellian character; but if this exists it will appear of its own accord, one day and in the fullness of time, without stating it as a principle.11 | orig

But Bontempelli was not to be appeased, and anyway suspected Malaparte of being behind many of the newspaper attacks. It is difficult to know which of the two founders was more to blame in the early months: certainly they seem to have carried on a dialogue of the deaf. What we can say is that by January 1927 they were completely at loggerheads, and this had serious financial and administrative implications for the revue.

Doubts in Paris

If "900" was to succeed as a progressive international project – its whole raison d'être – internal quarrels at home were insignificant compared with reactions in Paris. There would be neither avant-garde contributors nor enthusiastic readers if it were a narrow, nationalistic Italian publication. The potential readership was left-leaning and anti-authoritarian, and simply would not tolerate fascist ideas.

Very quickly the interview with Malaparte reached the Nouvelles littéraires, until now the staunchest allies and promoters of the revue. On 21st August the paper published the interview almost in full under the title 'Fascisme et littérature', accompanied by a critical commentary. In the closing paragraphs the hope was voiced that Bontempelli did not share the ideas of his editor:

We know and appreciate too well our friend Bontempelli, the most "European" of Italian writers, to believe it for a moment. Indeed, if Novecento ["900"] became what Mr. Suckert announces it to be, we wonder what rôle Pierre Mac Orlan could have in directing it.

We must avoid taking too seriously Mr. Suckert's declarations. They are for "internal use", they aim to reassure the touchy nationalism of his compatriots.12 | orig

Worse, on 27th August Paris-Soir picked up the interview (almost certainly from the Nouvelles littéraires, since the French translation is identical), and declared: "We now know: this will be the official organ of fascist propaganda in France."13 | orig

It fell to Nino to try to smooth matters in Paris. He wrote immediately to the Nouvelles littéraires quoting Bontempelli's reply to the Fiera, and then to Paris-Soir, emphasising that:

"900" will not be in any way "the official organ of fascist propaganda in France", but a strictly literary revue about which only Massimo Bontempelli and myself, as regional editor, can speak with authority...The first number, to appear on 21st September, will publish pieces by Philippe Soupault and Ivan Goll, who are not fascists as far as I know.14 | orig

In striking this sarcastic note, he was hoping to reassure not only Paris-Soir, but also Soupault and Goll, who had expressed serious disquiet, throwing doubt on their continued commitment to the journal; both did in fact feature in the first number when it appeared.

Even more seriously, however, Adrienne Monnier wrote threatening to withdraw the collaboration of James Joyce:

In my position as representative of the literary interests of James Joyce in France – where he has always had so flattering a reception – I think it prudent, before I send you the promised fragment of Ulysses, to wait until M. Bontempelli has replied to the Nouvelles littéraires in a manner likely to reassure us for the future.15 | orig

She appeared to be mollified by Nino's disclaimers in the two journals, though he wrote to Massimo on 27th August:

All right, Suckert is a fine fellow, but he could never have hoped to cause so many complications with so few words. Now I'm having to patch everything up,16 | orig

and, in exasperation, on 1st September:

That damned Suckert couldn't have done better if he wanted to wreck "900". For a few days everything was poisonous...In three months' time maybe we'll thank Suckert for the publicity, once we are sure "900" will succeed. But for now, frankly, couldn't he have thought a bit more before he spoke?17 | orig

Although the journalists at the Nouvelles littéraires had persuaded themselves that what Malaparte had said to placate the Italian press did not necessarily represent his own attitude, it seems that – since from this point on he effectively ceased to co-operate with Bontempelli – it had in fact dawned on him that to support the direction taken by "900" would mean going against the emphasis on Italian nationalism which underlay both his own belief and the demands of Mussolini's fascism. However, his interventions were halted for the time being, when Bontempelli went to see Mussolini and obtained his personal approval for the launch of the journal:

His Excellency Mussolini listened with great attention and interest to Bontempelli's detailed explanation, and has declared that he approves all the aims of "900".18 | orig

The launch went ahead – late, but with marked success, in spite of continued attacks in the Italian press. Frank kept urging Bontempelli to hammer home the message that the journal was entirely literary, totally a-political; but in the Italy of the first years of Mussolini's dictatorship, those who were not actively with fascism were considered to be against it. Much later Corrado Alvaro, Nino Frank's opposite number in Rome, who had suffered similar attacks, admitted in an interview that they had been naïve to cherish "the illusion that culture could function outside politics".19

In Paris Jean Paulhan, seemingly distressed by Ungaretti's continuing attacks, promised Nino Frank that he would attempt to achieve a reconciliation and, more significantly, gave Benjamin Crémieux an official commission to review "900" in the Nouvelle Revue Française.20 The latter's review (already mentioned in the previous chapter) was broadly favourable: although not totally convinced by the quality of some of the Italian contributions, Crémieux was generous in his acknowledgment of the importance of the experiment:

This massive assembly of names and minds is of great importance. Young writers in Italy were lacking reference points. Here is one...The essential for the moment in Italy, above all, is to bring some energy back into literary life.21 | orig

Crémieux was generally acknowledged to be one of the two Frenchmen best qualified to write on Italian letters – the other was Valéry Larbaud – and to obtain acceptance in established literary circles it was vital to have his approval.

There was only one major disappointment. André Breton and Louis Aragon had set their minds against "900", as soon as they heard that contributors would be paid. Since most literary magazines in Paris (including their own Révolution surréaliste) could not afford to pay for articles, they concluded that it must be a fascist revue, and in October Aragon wrote in Clarté:

We don't doubt for a moment that we are talking about a revue paid for from the coffers of the State, supported by fascist banks, with the aim of purely and simply spreading pan-Italian propaganda.22 | orig

The antagonism of Aragon and Breton led to a serious row with Philippe Soupault and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, who had agreed to provide stories for the revue, and the Italian press took pleasure in announcing (not entirely correctly) that the two writers had been expelled from the Surrealists.23

'Goût d'égout' by Nino Frank

The letters between Frank and Bontempelli which have been preserved and published in the book Lettere a "900", referenced frequently in this text, provide a clear picture of developments over the next year. The editorial organisation of the revue continued to the planned timetable, and contributions for the second issue and promises for the third began to arrive before publication of the first. In time for the second issue, Nino found time to complete a short story entitled 'Goût d'égout'. Both Bontempelli and Max Jacob praised it, Jacob admiring its poetic style and calling it "tout à fait remarquable". At first sight it is an inconsequential fantasy, using as its framework Ponson du Terrail's nineteenth century series about the dastardly criminal Rocambole. But Nino Frank was a follower of Dada, translator of Jarry and Ribemont-Dessaignes, and of Le Rire jaune of Pierre Mac Orlan. He would be eager to give his story contemporary resonance, and the subtitle 'Pastiche et pamphlet' points to a modern parable.

The story concerns Lagnel, a lonely and lowly railway official, assistant head of the lampstore, whose home is an abandoned second-class carriage in the sidings. He suffers from a great sorrow and an obsessive desire for revenge over the incompetence, years ago, of a driver who allowed his train to run into another, jumping off it himself at the last minute: the result was the death of all Lagnel's family. Since then, his only pleasure has been in decoding word-games, and what we read in this story will not be exactly as it seems. His own name is significant - Lagnel, the lamb, the meek victim of a horrible event - and behind him is the darkness of a suffering Europe, still reeling from a dreadful, incompetent War.

The narrative takes place over a sinister black night, when strange characters appear to Lagnel – part ghosts, part figures from a nightmare, part real? The first to appear is a needy, ingratiating Jew, insubstantial as a ghost, the wandering "martyr levantin" seeking a safe haven in Europe. But almost at once he and Lagnel are menaced by a gunman, and we recognise the pastiche of Ponson du Terrail:

'Hands up!'...
The newcomer took off his hat, ripped off his false beard, his false moustache, his false pupils. He had no eyes. He was gnashing his teeth.
Lagnel recognised the driver who had sent his wife and children to their death, the driver who had disappeared from the condemned train.
'I am Rocambole.24 | orig

Even though the gangster has been unmasked and horribly mutilated, he is recognisable as the instigator of the massacre - of Lagnel's family, of Europe. The trio, moving aimlessly through the sinister night, are joined by the one-eyed negro saxophonist Ménélik. The contrast could not be greater with the triumphant Ethiopian emperors whose name he bears; but this sorry character is a reminder of unceasing meddling in Africa, where at this very moment (1926) Libya is the latest victim of another European robber baron: the dictator Mussolini.

The four men develop an uneasy solidarity, until they are bowled over by a vision of modern feminity: a slender, androgynous figure appears walking along in front of them, unreachable, untouchable. Her name, Elyane, goes back to antiquity, but it is also the name of the heroine of the recent novel Madame ne veut pas d'enfant (Clément Vautel, 1924), who "has that figure that is à la mode: nothing in front and not much behind. That's what's wanted now, it seems!" The final certainty - that it is men who rule - has been shattered, and these characters are drawn forward as if in a trance by the woman and left devastated when she vanishes as suddenly as she appeared.

There is a final explosive scene in the station bar, with a further mysterious character - a once famous Corsican bandit, now close to death but still feared. In reality, in 1926 the organised mafia of Corsican bandits in southern France is becoming a real threat: to France, and to European stability.25 | orig In a prefiguring of disasters to come, the villain Rocambole fires at the bandit, but the well-meaning barman deflects his aim, and the bullet kills the Jew, the eternal victim. The reader is left to read what he will into the story.

In addition to Dada, there are clear stylistic and narrative influences from writers Frank admired: Mac Orlan's frightening "fantastique social" of the night and its unfathomable violence; Bontempelli's "magic realist" universe with its own laws and especially the ever present mysterious, unreachable woman. But the young man who had first discovered France through 'Arsène Lupin' was also fascinated by that hero's predecessors and the "fantastique" in its wider sense, and chose to disguise his parable behind the tradition of 'Rocambole'.

CLICK HERE for the full text of this story, in the original French

Mounting difficulties

From the moment the bills started to come in, the financial situation of the magazine was dire. By October 1926 Frank was writing to implore Bontempelli to release funds for the French contributors, who were complaining that they had not been paid, and to pay his own expenses. It was evident from Bontempelli's replies that La Voce, the publishers, were finding excuses to avoid paying for as long as possible, and on 6th December, when he admitted to Nino that his debts had reached 40,000 lire, it became obvious that he had been paying all costs out of his own pocket.26

A letter from Nino to Pierre Mac Orlan, sent just before Christmas, demonstrates the financial loss for the contributors caused by the delay: articles were commissioned in lire, and the lira was losing value against the franc:

I've been holding this letter from La Voce for a month and a half, dated even further back: at that point, 250 lire would have been worth 380 francs. Today, they are only worth 280 francs, and I hope the exchange rate won't go on falling too far. Bontempelli writes that they haven't been able to send the money yet because of the restrictions recently introduced by Mussolini on sending money abroad.27 | orig

By early January, the enmity between Bontempelli and Suckert was such that Bontempelli thought it prudent to write a report detailing Suckert's attempts to torpedo the whole enterprise, although it seems that this report was merely lodged among his own papers.28 By the end of February, he was still paying for everything himself, and it was clear that the arrangement with the publisher could not continue. He wrote to Nino:

You ask me to send you 650 lire for the French contributions to the second issue: instead, I've sent you 1000, plus 100 for your expenses. As you see, you can't complain. (I'm still the one risking everything, as since I've known La Voce – in April – I haven't received even 5 cents. Have you?)

With La Voce – that is with your friend Suckert – we are at daggers drawn; he is waging war on "900", as well as boycotting the revue administratively – and is looking for ways to hurt me by killing it off. But I'm on my guard, and only want him to step aside so that I can work with others who are not such bastards.29 | orig

The hatred which had developed between the two men would be poisonous for the revue, which did eventually change publisher, but not until a later issue.

By early 1927 Bontempelli and Frank had been organising the launch and continued running of the revue for almost a year, each in isolation, 1500 kilometres apart. From their letters there is no indication that they met at all – rather the reverse, with first one then the other saying 'When are you coming here?' The post was slow and unreliable, and Bontempelli especially was travelling between Milan and Rome and giving various addresses where he could be reached. In addition to the problems with money, there were difficulties with contributors and with publishers.

With the second issue, Nino was becoming seriously worried about the quality of "900": translations into French were poor and often incorrect, illustrations were not all to a high standard – in short, he was concerned for his own reputation in France, as well as that of the journal and the experiment of producing it in French.30  By March he was even more worried, as apparently Pierre Mac Orlan was not at all convinced about its likely success, especially with the Italian and French publishers at loggerheads: "Mac Orlan is losing all faith in "900". He is very sceptical when he talks about it...La Voce are writing idiotic letters to Crès, and Crès - naturally enough - is sabotaging things."31 | orig

All the same, Mac Orlan wrote a poetic and very generous – and incidentally politically profoundly pessimistic – critique heralding the third issue, which appeared in Les Nouvelles littéraires on 2nd April. It emphasised the European core of the revue, and was undoubtedly influential in maintaining interest and confidence in it in France:

Bontempelli, in his studio on the Viale Giulio Cesare, tunes up, on this instrument which he has constructed and which he seeks to perfect, the few free thoughts which are still drifting above Europe like unemployed clouds.

"900" is not a political revue for this reason: that there is no freedom of thought in politics. It is a social revue, because in this century men are even more mysterious than the fury of nature and more moving than the moaning of the wind, which hides everything under its brutal melancholy.

..."900" with its melancholy jazz-bands, the voice of Cendrars, of Gomez de la Serna, of Mac Almon, of Ehrenbourg penetrate my mind, with the funeral processions, the images, the despairs and hopes of the masses of Europe.32 | orig

But this same third issue would be the one which would attract the most vicious hostility in the Italian press, centring on the Russian writer Ilya Ehrenbourg.

Ilya Ehrenbourg, friendly nemesis

Bontempelli had declared from the start that he needed contributors, and representatives on the editorial Board, from across Europe and America. Thus it was important for Soviet Russia to be represented, and an obvious candidate - proposed by Ivan Goll - was Ehrenbourg, conveniently living in Paris and with a growing reputation there as a satirical journalist and modernist writer. It was agreed that he should be on the Board from the third issue, for which he would also write a short story.

The editors of the magazine emphasised ceaselessly that their concern was with literary and artistic culture, and not at all with politics. Unfortunately, their readers in Italy and France held definite and opposing political views - in Italy, fascist, and in Paris radically leftwing - and were liable to place a political interpretation on the choice of contributors, however anodyne the contributions. It was virtually impossible to please both extremes. Bontempelli knew well that the arrival of Ehrenbourg could cause him problems in Italy. As early as December 1926 he wrote to Nino:

You were quite right not to announce Ehrenbourg's participation in advance. I've already been attacked about including various foreign names, but I just tell them it's already been done: I have to present the smallest thing as a fait accompli.33 | orig

Indeed, Ehrenbourg soon showed himself to be difficult (or determined to protect his position in Russia). He insisted on having a statement included at the front of the third issue, to the effect that his collaboration was purely literary and did not imply agreement with Bontempelli's stated aims for the journal, nor with any political views which might be expressed there. It was perhaps provocative - and certainly seemed so to the Italian opponents of "900" - that the crime story he wrote was set in Venice ('Le café Florian'), ridiculed a barely-disguised Italian blackshirt and featured mysterious graffiti on the factory walls of Murano:

No matter how he fought against [the desecration of] the walls, the long walls of the factories, he invariably found them branded with a double "V.V", i.e. 'Vive'...Can it be that the terrifying Mongol, tucked up in his icy lair in Red Square, still continues to rule the world?

The slogan 'Vive Lenin' had been appearing on Italian walls ever since 1917 - the Bolshevik threat feared by Fascism - and the meaning was clear to all.34 | orig

If Bontempelli and Frank had been able to discuss face-to-face the acceptability of this story, rather than having to rely on letters, they might well have concluded that two slaps in the face to the Italian establishment in a single brief text would be a greater risk than the possible loss of Ehrenbourg's collaboration. As it was, over the following year opinion in Italy grew increasingly hostile, and Ehrenbourg's presence was a key factor in the eventual retrenchment of the magazine, to lose all internationalism and become a purely domestic Italian-language publication based in Italy (1928-1929).

The final straw

For the present, in spite of all the problems, Bontempelli and Frank worked together harmoniously, neither expressing criticism of the other's efforts. Then a seemingly trivial episode led to the first signs of discord between them. Nino had become friendly with Alberto Savinio (the younger brother of Giorgio de Chirico) in Paris, and wrote in March to say that he would like to contribute to "900". Unfortunately, Savinio and Bontempelli, previously close friends, had fallen out violently over some (undisclosed) personal matter and were no longer on speaking terms. Bontempelli replied to say that he did not trust Savinio, and did not want to get involved with him:

Between ourselves, I have known Savinio to be disloyal and unpredictably malicious: I would not like to have him under my feet in "900", so be very distant with him.35 | orig

Nino did not pursue the matter, but spent more and more time with Savinio, describing him later in his memoirs as: "my inseparable partner, more than my partner, my alter ego, more than my alter ego, the second head of a single two-headed body, the monstrous body of defiance incarnate".36 | orig After many months in a foreign, though friendly, environment, it was natural for him to enjoy the friendship of an Italian writer, a few years older and more experienced than himself. Both were in Rome in the summer of 1927, and were seen about town together – but Nino neglected to turn up at the offices of "900", as he was expected to do. Possibly Savinio did advise him to resign if he had lost faith in the revue and was not even receiving his expenses; but probably Frank himself had tired of working very hard – sacrificing his own creative writing – for no money and endless brickbats from the Italian press, for a journal which appeared to have been doomed through Italian illwill. He must have hesitated to tell his editor in person, and written instead (a letter which has been lost), as Bontempelli replied – in anger and sorrow – on 21st October:

I am sending you the 180 lire (which no-one will repay me). I am not angry that you ask me for it, but that you wrote to me that for these delays in paying you such small amounts you don't want to work on "900" any more...I was very upset did not want to see me or the other people from "900" who were expecting you, and all this to go running round Rome with the most poisonous of my detractors. Tell me frankly whether that disgraceful character [Savinio] under whose power you have fallen here in Rome has persuaded you to turn your back on our undertaking, Bontempelli37 | orig

but nonetheless concluded with a plea to him to return. Corrado Alvaro, the assistant editor in Rome, also sent a pleading letter:

You are right in saying that ["900"] is at death's door, but it will probably revive with the new administration...But I do advise you to keep on giving your help to Bontempelli. The revue has enough enemies without you backing out, and then again, even taking into account its failings, it continues to be an important venture. Alvaro38 | orig

But before Nino could be persuaded to return, he himself unwittingly ensured that his collaboration would no longer be acceptable in Italy. The journal Comœdia asked him for an interview with Pierre Lagarde as part of a series on the cultural relationship of Italy and France. This followed interviews with a number of writers who all expressed cautiously nationalistic views, and he took serious issue with one of them: that given by Malaparte on 8th November, and entitled 'Curzio Malaparte, ou le super-nationaliste devant le problème franco-italien'. Malaparte had bluntly placed himself on the side of the nationalists, and against the editors of "900", the journal of which he was the co-director and publisher:

We [Strapaese] want to continue the romantic experience of the nineteenth century, and move towards modernism along the path of tradition, to arrive at a type of modern art wholly removed from French modernism. Stracittà want to imitate the European manner, to adopt a type which already exists...We are fighting against all those who imitate contemporary French literature.39 | orig

Nino, whose passionate ambition was to bring French literature to the Italians, and Italian literature to the French, was offended at the implication that "900" was simply a pale echo of a French journal, and insisted that Italian writers were looking to Paris as the centre of a broader European movement, and for inspiration in finding their own directions:

The revue Novecento always aimed to be an active European revue. In it Bontempelli has given young Italians the opportunity for free expression of their own personality. Malaparte who, I am sure, has never read a line of Paul Morand, of James Joyce or Mac Orlan – on whom he does not hesitate to pour scorn – claims that our twentieth century movement is a pale imitation of these writers. He is wrong and can't possibly judge. These young Italians have the uncertainties of their age. They are searching. What right has M. Curzio Malaparte to assert that what they are looking for cannot be part of Italian literature?...We want to create our own [tradition], not remain attached like Strapaese to Leopardi, Foscolo or others, to the impotence of the past.40 | orig

In his excitement, he devoted a large part of his commentary to personal attacks on Malaparte, together with a sweeping analysis (prompted no doubt by the interviewer's questioning) of Mussolini's attempts to unify Italy. Malaparte took serious offence at the personal attacks, and was able to use the rather clumsy comments on Mussolini to accuse him of antifascism and make sure the Corriere della Sera dispensed with his services. A private letter sent to him by Malaparte on 28th November completed the rift between them:

I had promised Fracchia to leave you in peace, as long as you didn't cause me trouble. It's your fault, dear boy. It upsets me greatly; but I don't know what to do about you. You can be sure I wouldn't have made you my business if you hadn't forced me to it. And from now on, you take good care not to tangle with me, even privately, in speech or writing. Agreed?
My dear Frank, please believe in my cordial animosity.
Your affectionate Malaparte41 | orig

The irony was that Giorgio de Chirico had contributed a sketch of Frank for his interview, and Lagarde was so pleased with the controversy being stirred up by the diverging views of his Italian authors that he decided to include a discussion with him on Italian painting. De Chirico had voluntarily chosen to live in France, and anyway was already successful and could say what he liked. He waded into the situation of painting in Italy far more critically than Nino in relation to writing:

In Italy there is no modern art movement. Neither dealers nor galleries. Modern Italian painting does not exist. Only Modigliani and I; but we are almost French...As a painter and a modern thinker, I feel more at ease in France than in Italy. I reproach Italy for taking an attitude of incomprehension towards the modern movement...Personally, I like the most advanced and the newest of things. So it's particularly in relation to my own taste that I consider of zero value the Italian painting of today. Great painters? I don't see any.42 | orig

The fascist papers in Italy were furious, urging that he be banned from the Venice Exhibition, and drawing attention to his non-Italian (Greek) heritage. But they had no power to harm him. Nino, on the other hand, found himself very much alone in France, with no work in sight for the following year. He would be dubbed antifascist by the Italian establishment, and even advised by his friends not to set foot in Italy. He had joined in the game of polemics of the Italian literary establishment, partly out of loyalty to his mentor, Bontempelli, and partly in response to insults and extended unpleasantness suffered by himself. What he had not considered was that a 23-year old was not permitted to answer back.

In fact, history was on his side. As freedom of speech effectively disappeared in Italy, many Italian intellectuals moved to France or America, and those who remained at home and spoke out against Mussolini and fascism found themselves sent into exile in remote corners of Italy. In a supreme irony, in 1933 Malaparte himself was sent far away to the Aeolian island of Lipari, because he would no longer support fascism.

The next chapter will describe how French friends rallied round Nino Frank, so that he was able to start a new career in French journalism.

All translations from European texts are my own.

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