Friday began with a funeral and ended with a suicide. The funeral was that of a friend’s father, and of a friend’s father-in-law, but also, and more simply, of a friend. His name was Luciano Barca. I first met him almost thirty years ago, when he was in his sixties. He had just returned from an intensive course in beginner’s English in Oxford, already an unusual thing for a man of his age to do, and didn’t want to forget what he’d learnt. Normally, I avoided private lessons if I could – there’s a forced intimacy about them that I don’t enjoy or, if I do enjoy it, an economic element that makes me feel uncomfortable –, but everything I’d heard about Luciano – partisan, journalist, communist senator, one of Berlinguer’s closest collaborators, acquiantance of Pasolini – made me keen to meet him. For our first lesson I went to his flat near Villa Ada, in one of those comfortable, slightly anonymous apartment blocks, with trees and cars and graffiti around it, that populate that side of Rome. The flat was large, but the only room I really saw must have been the living room, and it was the sort of living room one would expect people like Luciano and his wife to have. Lived in, comfortable, unlike so many middle-class homes in Italy, with too many books, and newspapers, and pictures on the walls. There must have been a television, but I don’t remember one, and music in some form. What I remember is starting the sort of lesson I would normally do with a person after a single crash course in English, some basic communication exercises – I think I’d taken along a course book just in case – and feeling Luciano’s frustration. In more than twenty years of teaching I’d never experienced such a will, not to learn, but to get beyond learning, the rote and routine of learning, to actually make sense in a way that mattered, to be understood and to understand. It’s a truism that teachers learn as much from their students as they teach, but Luciano showed me how that might be more than a truism – might actually be true. There was an urgency about his will to know, and a curiosity to discover what I might know, a curiosity that matched and stimulated my own. I don’t know how we did what we did with the English Luciano had, how we talked about politics and history and art and literature. I suspect I may have allowed more Italian than I should have done. But how could I not have done? To have deprived Luciano of the opportunity to communicate fully and myself of the chance to play a part in this, this extraordinary will to learn and to share, for some notion of professional correctness would have been madness; worse, it would have deprived me of the opportunity to know as fully as one can – in a series of one-hour lessons one summer more than two decades ago now – a man whose passion for the world has remained with me, marked me, changed me for the better. I remember our talking about the notion of a social wage and disagreeing about its usefulness – me for, he against – and thinking that this was how one should talk about issues, as though the issue was what mattered rather than some notion of who might be right, of who might ‘win’. Too often the word integrity is used as though it were a synonym of honesty rather than completeness. Luciano was certainly, and perhaps primarily, an honest man, but he was also a complete man, in his imperfect, incomplete, entirely human way, a man who enlivened the world with his attention and enthusiasm, who turned his gaze outwards and in doing so illuminated what lay around him. He will be missed, awfully, by those closest to him, but everyone who knew him will share, to a lesser degree, that loss.
The suicide, or probable suicide, occurred near Naples, in a place called Falciano. We wouldn’t have known about it if our train hadn’t been heading for Naples, and had to stop, for an indefinite period of time according to the announcement, while an investigation was conducted into the person’s death. We were lucky, a train heading south arrived soon after and we were able to finish our journey, but I had time while we were waiting to think about how different two lives, and deaths, might be. Luciano’s death was unexpected, cruelly so, but how rich his life had been and how strong his presence still, in the hearts of those who knew him, in the words he left us, in books and articles, the final ones written with the help of his grandson, Nicky. I don’t know what drove the man or woman who died on the railway lines outside Falciano to choose to die in such a way, but it’s hard to contemplate how different two lives, and deaths, can be, how fully – how integrally – Luciano lived and how empty this other person’s life must have seemed to the person who lived it. It’s a different, and worse, kind of sadness to think – as surely Luciano never did – that a human life means nothing.