Someday I'm going to open a bookstore. My wife may force the issue. I have about 300 feet of bookshelves at home and about the same in my rural hideaway, and still I've got stacks on the windowsills and stacks on the floors and boxes in the basement and a pile next to the bed.
The entrance to our loft is in a room that's a combination dining room and library, and sometimes when people walk in they ask, "Wow, have you read all these?" Sometimes I tell the truth and say, "No, I've read most of them," but at others I can't help myself and say, "Yup."
Actually I have a lot of duplicates. Certain books I can't help buying if the price is right, or if they are a first edition or in good shape. I have six hardback copies of Andy Warhol's A, and seven of the 1933 limited edition of Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God, including the one that used to belong to his friend Roy Campbell (I admit I used to wonder if I could corner the market). I have a tough time passing up a Robert Benchley book in decent condition. I must have about ten Chips Off the Old Benchley, and a surprising number of After 1903—What?. The only one I don't have a bunch of is No Poems, one of my favorite titles. My wife catches me all the time buying books she knows I already have. It goes like this:
"Don't you already have that?"
"Why are you buying it again?"
"I thought I might give it to somebody."
I actually have given away several copies of Paradise by Donald Barthelme, but there seem to be a lot more where those came from.
Connecticut is a great place to buy books. The guy who plows my driveway went to Yale. So this weekend I went to the annual Sharon, Connecticut, book sale on the town green and walked away with bags of books, including: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (2); Anthony Summers's book on J. Edgar Hoover (with lots of pictures of the FBI director and his boyfriend); Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, by Mary McCarthy; Walter Terry's Ted Shawn: Father of American Dance; The Embezzler, by Louis Auchincloss; yet another copy of The Hat on the Bed by John O'Hara (a clean first edition for $1.50); an illustrated history of Japanese fans; and lots more. But when I got home I couldn't help picking up Memories of Mistresses: Reflections from a Life by Luigi Barzini, and then I couldn't put it down. I devoured about half of it by the end of the afternoon.
Luigi Barzini Jr. is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. His father, Luigi Sr., was a great Italian journalist, an editor of Corriere della Serra, and an adventurer whose most famous book, Peking to Paris, documented a 1907 motor race over that route, accompanying Prince Scipione Borghese. Luigi Jr. had an equally eventful life. He worked as a journalist throughout his career, and yet he managed to be taken seriously as a writer and a thinker (thinking of him keeps me going once in a while). Barzini was born in 1908. He studied at Columbia University and worked summers as a newspaperman in New York. On graduation he returned to Italy and broke in as a reporter for Corriere della Serra. He returned to the U.S. to cover the New Deal, the 1936 elections, and finally the mood of America before the war. He returned to Europe just before Hitler invaded Poland. He worked as a correspondent in London, then found himself jailed in Rome, having gotten on Mussolini's bad side, and finally he was exiled to the boondocks until Il Duce fell.
Barzini's most famous book is The Italians (1964), a rich cultural portrait of his people. Barzini is an intellectual and scholarly essayist, but he is always a delight to read, even in translation. As someone who writes regularly for translation I especially admire the universality of his language, his ability to entertain with artfully drawn imagery, and to turn elegant phrase that translate. The greatness of Barzini is that he entertains with scholarship and delights with insight. He is proof that the richest ideas can be expressed without jargon or complexity of language. He is a classicist. And his cultural history and criticism is always framed with that eternal perspective.
The title of this collection is a bit deceiving, in a cinematic sort of way. This isn't a book about mistresses, although there is an entertaining chapter on the type of woman who is not a wife and a mother. There are twenty-one other chapters having little, if anything, to do with that certain type of woman, except that they are jewels. "Italy and its Aristocracy" is an extraordinary, subtle argument for a certain kind of transcendental nobility that is unique in the world—drawing on extraordinary first-hand observations, including Barzini's relationship with the deposed king of Italy, Umberto II. And "Loners in the World" is a dead-on analysis of America from an outsider who's been on the inside. Barzini is a philosopher who begins his analysis from the outside in, like Oscar Wilde, starting with the obvious and discovering in it the truths hidden in plain sight. His views here, and in his two books concerning this country which he found both fascinating and exasperating, make him a sort of latter-day de Tocqueville mixed with Pliny the Younger.