Celebrity

I’ve been thinking about celebrity these past few days. Not the kind that ‘iconises’ and manipulates and destroys, Michael Jackson style; something much smaller, even laughably so, and closer to home. You may have noticed a few posts down that a local paper decided I was worth a page of its time. Latina Oggi sells around 9,000 copies a day, so it’s hardly life-changing to be interviewed by it, even if you do make the second page of the home-town edition. As I said before, I knew nothing about the article until I was stopped by my local newsagent, who thanked me. What for? I asked. For the interview? What interview? And so on. I bought a couple of copies and came home to read it. It was based on a piece I wrote about Fondi last year for the Sunday Telegraph and whatever information the journalist had managed to glean from the net. There were some pretty dreadful translations in it, the kind people produce when they concentrate so much on understanding the other language they forget their own: ‘orange-coloured trees’ for ‘orange trees’; ‘fruit shops’ for ‘local fruit’. There were one or two moments of pure invention, such as that I’ve written for TV (I wish) or that I was spotted in the main street by a group of young people who recognised me as ‘their favourite author’ – unlikely at the best of times, and particularly so in Italy, where nothing of mine, apart from two poems over twenty years ago, has ever been published. Still, on the whole, I was pleased with and amused by the attention and thought the whole idea of an ‘interview’ conducted without my knowedge or agreement a bit of harmless fun. This continued over the following days, when people I knew stopped me in the street to thank me, as the newsagent had done, for having spoken well of Fondi at a time when most references to the town link it, with some justice, to the Mafia. And, really, that was it. Until I had dinner with some friends last Saturday.


There were four guests, two Italian, two English. The English friends, like me, have both lived here in Italy for several decades, and the language of the table was Italian. We’d all had a fair bit to drink by the time the article was mentioned. One of our English friends – Jane – hadn’t seen it, so it was duly produced and read out, to general hilarity. At the end, though, Roberto – a film and TV director – asked me what I was going to do about the mistakes in it. Initially, I thought he was joking. But he was quite serious. It had never occurred to me that the article had any weight beyond the ephemeral fact of its local publication. He was startled. You work in communication, he said. You know full well that sooner or later someone will google you and find this article and assume that everything in it is true. They’ll do that anyway, I said. But I also said that no serious journalist would regard as authoritative an article that talked about orange-coloured trees. Don’t be naive, he said. Besides, this article has appeared in a paper with a specific readership (local, right of centre) and purpose (to make Fondi look good as it’s battered by accusations of Mafia infiltration), neither of which you’d normally consider sympathetic. People will assume you’ve given this piece the thumbs-up knowing its context, he said, and Renata, who also writes for TV, agreed. Suddenly, my harmless bit of fun began to look less harmless. But I don’t care one jot about local opinion, I protested. Besides, I added, adopting the classic Billie Bunter line of defence, everyone likes it. But you’re public now, Roberto said, whether you like it or not. You need to be able to control what’s said about you. But it’s only a local paper, I insisted. Everyone will have forgotten about it in a week’s time. Not if they google your name and Fondi, Roberto and Renata said. My English friends disagreed, taking my line that it didn’t matter. And of course they were wrong and Roberto and Renata were right. Type in Charles Lambert and Fondi and the article is the first thing to appear, in Italian, and the fifth overall. It exists. It claims to be an interview, or to be based on an interview, with me. It represents me in a way over which I have no control. It’s canonical.

And it occurred to me later, as I thought about why, despite this, I still didn’t want to write to Latina Oggi and complain about the inaccuracies and the downright lies, that my reluctance wasn’t just to do with a feeling that I’d be letting down all those people who’d been so pleased to see someone say a few good things about their town, in which I happen to live and about which I happened to write an article, to raise my profile, a year ago. That feeling was certainly present, and it may have been what persuaded at least one of my two English friends, Sally, who also lives here in Fondi, to think it better not to react. It marked an acceptance that we, as foreigners in a small town, necessarily value, or should value. Because isn’t that the charm of small foreign towns – that they eventually succumb to us? But my line of argument at dinner was that I didn’t want to correct the article because I didn’t care what people thought about me, because Fondi is not my town, and because I neither have nor want to have a town that’s mine. And that’s much closer to the truth.

The more I think about it the more I realise that what split the table into two along essentially nationalist lines is that for me, and for my English friends, what Italian journalists write in their papers isn’t quite real, just as bad language in Italian isn’t quite real – the weight of it eludes us. This is partly the result of the objective shoddiness of much Italian journalism, but it goes deeper than that. Italian papers are as unreal and inessential to us as they are real, and essential, and capable of bearing and creating value, to our Italian friends. I’m not sure what this says about celebrity, but it seems to have the same ironic relationship to the phenomenon as whoever it was called their band Big in Japan. As if it mattered.
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2 Responses to Celebrity

  1. This is fascinating, Charles — and I smell a story in it, if nothing else! What it reminds me of is this: A few weeks ago, a young Italian friend came to visit and brought me his poetry manuscript. As we sat in our courtyard, he read it out to me. Some of the poems were good, mostly not. One was really quite fine. He wanted my advice about where to get them published. “If I knew anything about how to get published,” I thought, “I’d be getting my own work published,” and of course I know less than nothing about how the publishing industry works in Italy, where there seem to be thousands of small presses, most of them one- or two-person labors of love and many of which publish books that are not only bad but preternaturally ugly. So I gave him a little advice about using the internet, and even FB, to search for small presses and about how to prepare a book proposal for submitting his Ms. Very quickly, the conversation took an alarming (for me) turn in which he began to rave about how he didn’t want to be “ettichettato” by publishing his book with a leftist press or a right-wing press or a religious press (some of the poems talk about God in a respectful, but hardly what I’d call “religious,” way), and I thought: “Do Italians really pay attention to the politics of a press, even a tiny little press that publishes poems? Does someone actually keep track so they can punish you, later on, if you submit something to them from the wrong side of the political spectrum?” At the time, I was fairly dismissive of my friend, arguing that he’d be damned lucky to get anyone to publish poems and ought to be glad of it if it happened. But later I doubted myself. It would never have occurred to me to wonder whether a US or British press was left or right; I mean, I’d look at what they published, in a general way, so I wouldn’t send stories about dogs to an editor who only publishes books about cats (si fa per dire), but beyond that… Now I realize it’s an example of what you said so well: I have a hard time taking any of this very seriously. Ditto for your Fondi story (and I’d have been on the side of the table that said “it doesn’t matter”). I mean, I find Italy to be a place where you simply never know why you have success or failure, because there could be (but that doesn’t mean there necessarily are) any number of forces working behind the scenes to your advantage or to your detriment. M tells me stories from his university that make me blanche: decades-old feuds that continue to have an impact on who gets tenure or even (in a recent example) is allowed to call the technician to repair the air conditioner, and enmities seem to be passed from generation to generation like peerages. So I suppose I could imagine that having said good things about Fondi could in some way create a perception in someone’s mind that you were a fellow traveler of the Destra, but beyond that it’s hard for me to imagine what real-world consequences such a perception could possibly ever have (still, if the capo dei capi stops by to thank you, maybe it’d be a good idea to move). I think Roberto is wrong, though. There is no controlling what others say or think about you – that’s an Italian fantasy, and it’s why, so often, no one says anything about anything. Anyway, fantastic. Now go write the story or I might just steal the idea from you! (By the way, the verification word is "essen" — hast du gegessen?

  2. Yes, it's the idea of control, isn't it? And the idea that everything we do might weaken the control we have over what we do and who we are, which makes our belonging to some group or our being labelled in some way so important. I read an extraordinary – to me – comment in today's Repubblica about someone who'd put his name to an amendment to a law (I can't for the life of me remember which one). The 'interviewer' asked him if he belonged to Comunione e Liberazione. No, no, he said, he'd been elected as part of the 'quota Gelmini'. The idea that people of power (and, God help us, that includes Maria Stella Gelmini, wet nurse to Papi Silvio) should have their acolytes certainly isn't new, but that the process should be institutionalised in such a blasé and unashamed way must be peculiar to Italy and perhaps one or two ex-USSR satellite states.Thank you, by the way, for such a stimulating comment, Wendell. I think you deserve the story!

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