Professor Luca Somigli on Augusto De Angelis

Augusto_De_Angelis_215x300Luca Somigli is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the European avant-garde and Italian genre fiction. His publications include Legitimizing the Artist. Manifesto Writing and European Modernism, 1885-1915 (2003), the monograph Valerio Evangelisti (2007) on Italy’s foremost writer of science-fiction, and essays on various aspects and figures of Italian modernism and detective fiction. His co-edited volumes include Italian Modernism: Italian Culture between Decadentism and Avant-Garde with Mario Moroni (2004), L’arte del saltimbanco. Aldo Palazzeschi tra due avanguardie with Gino Tellini (2008), and ‘Neoavanguardia’: Italian Experimental Literature and Arts in the 1960s with Moroni and Paolo Chirumbolo (2010). In 2005 he edited a special issue of the journal Symposium on the Italian giallo.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Somigli about the work of Italian mystery writer Augusto De Angelis (pictured left) and his relationship to the Fascist regime.

Augusto De Angelis (1888-1944) has been called the father of the Italian mystery novel. How do scholars of the genre view him?

Although De Angelis was not the first Italian writer to practice detective fiction, he certainly was the first to see its potential as more than mere entertainment, and to attempt to go beyond the stereotypical situations and settings to which readers of translations of foreign mysteries had become accustomed. It’s worth pointing out that he wrote his mysteries over a relatively short time-span, from 1935 to 1943.

Interestingly, this is also a crucial period for the history of the genre as a whole: it is both the heyday of (mostly) British “golden age” detective fiction, with its view that a detective novel is first and foremost an intellectual puzzle, and the decade that sees the rise of the American noir, which challenged the British model in all respects. To give you a couple of dates, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, to my mind the best example of “golden age” detective fiction, came out in 1934, while Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” which put the final nail in the coffin of the now stale puzzle formula and theorized detective fiction as a branch of the (American) realist novel was published in 1944.

As I said, De Angelis’s gialli came out during this rather remarkable decade. I honestly don’t know how much he was aware of these developments, but I would suggest that in his own fiction he was working through precisely this debate; that is, he started with a formulaic approach to the genre inherited from the then dominant puzzle mystery, and then attempted to transform it so that it could in fact become a means to explore the social and psychological consequences of crime and its investigation. De Angelis was very much interested in the “atmosphere” – the socio-psychological environment – in which the crimes he depicts are committed (and in this an important source of influence was also Georges Simenon, whose Maigret’s mysteries were quite popular in Italy).

Because of the general perception among Italian readers and writers of the time that detective fiction was basically an “imported” genre, in many gialli of the 1930s there is an atmosphere of artificiality that at times borders on or crosses right into parody (I am thinking of authors like Arturo Lanocita or Alessandro Varaldo). Even the author considered by many the other “master” of early Italian detective fiction along with De Angelis, Ezio D’Errico, preferred to set his novels in a highly stylized and artificial Paris (his openly acknowledged model was Simenon).

In a famous essay, Chesterton said that the detective novel is the popular genre that expresses the “poetry of modern life,” of life in that quintessential modern environment that is the city. In his best novels De Angelis managed to transcend the limitations imposed by Fascist censorship and by the general discredit of genre fiction among critics of the time to produce novels that live up to Chesterton’s standard, that evoke the complexity and mystery of life (and death) in a modern metropolis. His Milan is the first truly noir Italian city, and De Vincenzi is our guide through its “dark side.”

De Angelis is most known for his character Inspector Carlo De Vincenzi. How does De Vincenzi compare to other fictional inspectors of the era?

I would say that De Vincenzi is the most convincing of the fictional inspectors of the 1930s Italian giallo – at least, he is the one that seems to be taken more seriously by his author. He is a complex figure, a poet and intellectual, quite different from the “thinking machine” detective of which Sherlock Holmes is the undisputed archetype, but also from the ham-fisted hardboiled P.I. that would become popular after the war. The character of whom he reminds me the most in the Anglo-American mystery canon is P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.

The Fascist Ministry of Popular Culture (Minculpop) censored and subsequently banned mystery novels. Why did the Fascists object to the genre?

There were a few reasons why Fascism had problems with detective fiction. In the first place, the regime aimed at creating an image of Italy as free of crime and, in general, of the social problems of modern democracies. Journalistic reporting on crime was heavily censored and centrally managed, for instance. Thus, even fictional depictions of crime threatened to shake that reassuring image. Of course, as long as detective novels came from abroad and in fact depicted all kinds of criminal and violent acts as occurring in other countries, there was no problem. But as more Italian writers began to turn to the genre (encouraged, ironically, by a policy imposed by the regime itself that required publishers to reserve at least 15% of their production to Italian authors!), then detective fiction had to be regulated more carefully. Some writers simply set their novels abroad, as in the case of D’Errico, while others had to accept all kinds of ludicrous restrictions, including ensuring that the criminal was not Italian (the number of foreigners in Italian detective novels of the late 1930s is astounding!). This affected the translation of foreign novels as well, by the way. Alberto Tedeschi, who directed the Gialli Mondadori from 1933 until his death in 1979, remarked on several occasions that often suicides had to be turned into unfortunate, and unlikely, accidents because suicide was a forbidden topic, at least in popular literature. Other fascist critics saw detective fiction as an incitement to and glorification of crime. However, I think there was another reason why the detective novel was seen as a threat of sorts by the regime: it presented Italian readers with forms of investigation and of the administration of justice that were quite different from those of fascist Italy, and that placed more responsibility in the hands of individuals rather than the State (private investigators, popular juries, etc.). In other words, the giallo allowed Italian readers to imagine another kind of policing and another kind of justice, and, more in general, another kind of relationship between citizen and State.

Minculpop imprisoned De Angelis in 1943 because of some anti-Fascist articles he wrote for the “Gazzetta del Popolo.” Is there any evidence to indicate that his imprisonment was also related to his mystery novels?

I am not an expert on De Angelis’s biography, but I don’t think so. In a sense, he was a victim of the de facto civil war into which Italy was plunged after the armistice with the allies on September 8, 1943. The North was under the control of Germany, Italy’s ally until that day, and Mussolini – who had been ousted as Prime Minister and arrested on July 25th – was set up as the leader of the newly-minted “Repubblica Sociale Italiana,” better known as “Repubblica di Salò,” in effect a German puppet state. Many of those who in the North had voiced their anti-fascism after Mussolini’s fall were arrested or went into hiding and joined the anti-fascist resistance. De Angelis was among the former, and even though the immediate cause of his death was a severe beating from a fascist thug after his release, a contributing factor was certainly the fact that he had been seriously weakened by the several months of imprisonment he endured.

In what ways did De Angelis express his anti-Fascism through his mystery novels?

I am not so sure that we can speak so much of anti-fascism in De Angelis’s novels, as perhaps of “a-fascism,” that is, of indifference to the regime – which, frankly, is how far an Italian writer could go at the time without facing censorship and worse. Even Il candeliere a sette fiamme, perhaps his best-known novel, which famously features Jewish characters and even made references to Jewish settlements in Palestine, is less obviously political than might seem at first glance if one keeps in mind that it came out in 1936, before the enactment of the anti-semitic “racial laws” in 1938-39. As some critics have suggested, his opposition to the cultural politics of fascism can be rather inferred from small but telling details, such as De Vincenzi’s references to authors that were viewed with suspicion during the fascist ventennio, for instance Freud and Oscar Wilde.

De Angelis almost never used dialect in his writing. How would you describe his language?

The fascist regime was quite hostile to dialects, which it considered an obstacle to the formation of a national identity. In the popular fiction of the 1930s, dialect, if used at all, was used mostly for comic effect or for “local colour.”  I don’t think that De Angelis, like most of his colleagues, would have seen any particular advantages to using dialect in his fiction. Like many journalists of his time, he had a strong classical background. His prose can be as direct and effective as that of an investigative journalist, but it can also be nuanced and evocative, especially when it comes to describing the atmosphere and the places in which his novels are set.

What would you say is De Angelis’s literary legacy?

Since his death, there have been occasional, brief resurgences of interest in De Angelis’s fiction, most significantly in the mid-1970s when a series of TV adaptations of his novels, starring the great actor Paolo Stoppa as De Vincenzi, enjoyed a certain degree of success (although Stoppa looked nothing like the character as De Angelis describes him!). Most of his novels were unavailable until very recently, with the notable exception of the three collected in a volume edited by Oreste del Buono in 1963, and even after a decade or so of reprints by publisher Sellerio some are still out of print. As a result, De Angelis remains very much a “niche” author to this day. I would say that his legacy is indirect: he was the first to attempt to realize the potential of detective fiction as a branch of the realist novel, and as such he is very much the forefather of all those contemporary practitioners of the genre that consider detective fiction as the new “social novel.”

Note: I would like to thank Dr. Somigli for graciously granting me this interview. For more information on Augusto De Angelis, please see my post on Il candeliere a sette fiamme (The Candelabrum with Seven Flames).

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