Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (tr. Howard Curtis) 

The publication history of this terrific novella by the Italian novelist and screenwriter Gianfranco Calligarich is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Written when Calligarich was in his twenties, the book struggled to find a publisher until it dropped into the hands of the renowned novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg – a writer currently enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity due to the recent reissues from Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Ginzburg was so enthused by Calligarich’s novella that she persuaded an Italian publishing house to issue it in 1973, resulting in both critical and commercial success.

However, not long after, the book slipped out of print, taking on the status of a cult classic amongst those in the know. Following a couple of revivals in the 2010s, Last Summer in the City is now available to read in English for the first time, courtesy of the translator Howard Curtis and Picador Books. It’s a wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair.

Last Summer is narrated by Leo Gazzara, a thirty-year-old man from Milan who has come to Rome as a correspondent for a medical-literary magazine. When the publication folds, he finds himself drifting around the city, shuttling from one cheap hotel to another, picking up a little freelance work here and there when he needs money to get by. Having eschewed the usual trappings of respectability revered by his older sisters, Leo often relies on the generosity of others, feeding on their ‘leftovers’ in more ways than one. So when two relatively wealthy friends move to Mexico City for a year or two, Leo agrees to house-sit their apartment, providing him with a comfortable place to live as he meanders around Rome.

His life is a somewhat shallow, disorganised one as he drifts from one woman to another, one bar to another, one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. Alongside lassitude, alcohol is another demon for Leo, blurring his senses as he tries to kick the habit. Interestingly, Calligarich often depicts Leo in the morning after the night before, a leisurely time of day that our protagonist enjoys – after all, he has long been a magnet for women.

I slept until late morning, when I woke up to an empty apartment. I found coffee already made, along with a note. Stay as long as you like. I thought about it, as I lay in a bathtub filled with warm water, I thought about whether to stay or not, until I realised that the only thing I could do now was leave and never come back. And so, like so many other times, for the last time I got out of her bath, dried myself, finished the coffee, and left, firmly closing the door behind me. (p. 98)

One evening, at a party hosted by friends, Leo meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye. After the soiree breaks up, Leo and Arianne drive through the city, flirting with one another, stopping for warm brioche at a bakery and driving to the sea before dawn. It’s the start of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. 

It was the hour when anyone who’s been on his feet all night demands something hot in his stomach, the hour when hands search for each other under the sheets as dreams become more vivid, the hour when the newspapers smell of ink and the first sounds of day start to creep out like an advanced guard. It was dawn, and all that reminded of the night were two shadows under the eyes of this strange girl by my side. (pp. 36–37)

Right from the very start, there is a sense of fatalism about this story, a feeling that Leo and Arianna’s relationship is doomed almost as soon as it gets underway. Here we see two disaffected, damaged souls, unmoored and adrift, never quite connecting with one another as they blow hot and cold. For instance, when Leo thinks he is falling in love with Arianna, she refuses to hear it, silencing his declarations of emotion and affection. Similarly, there are times when Leo rejects Arianna, preferring instead to retreat into his loneliness and anger.

This capricious, volatile quality also applies to their other relationships, particularly the one between Arianna and her rather jealous sister, Eva – a bond characterised by frequent quarrels and overly dramatic flounces, particularly from Arianna. 

Rome is almost a character in itself here – the city is home to the transient, the people that pass through, often searching for something new or different, even if they cannot define what that ‘something’ might be. Calligarich’s depictions of Rome are seductive and glamorous at times, especially at night. And yet, there’s something brittle and all-consuming about the capital, too – a darkness or destructive note that must be respected and borne in mind. Rome is a place that feeds a person’s needs and disaffections – by turns, charming, tolerating and spurning its inhabitants in response to the prevailing mood.  

…Rome by her very nature has a particular intoxication that wipes out memory. She’s not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved. […] If she’s loved, she’ll give herself to you whichever way you want her, all you need to do is go with the flow and you’ll be within reach of the happiness you deserve. You’ll have summer evenings glittering with lights, vibrant spring mornings, café tablecloths ruffled by the wind like girls’ skirts, keen winters, and endless autumns, when she’ll seem vulnerable, sick, weary, swollen with shredded leaves that are silent underfoot. […] In this way you too, waiting day after day, will become part of her. You too will nourish the city. Until one sunny day, sniffing the wind from the sea and looking up at the sky, you’ll realize there’s nothing left to wait for. (pp. 7–8)

Calligarich’s prose is gorgeous and evocative, adding a sense of beauty to Leo’s loneliness and despair. There are times when the novella is infused with a sense of yearning for the past, a nostalgia for something that was lost or never fully attained. Calligarich’s portrayal of Leo’s father is especially poignant – a silent, orderly man who returned shattered from the War.

In summary, Last Summer in the City is a beautiful, melancholic story of a man lost and adrift in Rome. Here we have a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair, of two flawed, damaged individuals unable to connect – ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso-shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

31 thoughts on “Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (tr. Howard Curtis) 

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oddly enough, it seems to have slipped under the radar somewhat compared to rediscovered gems from other publishers such as Penguin and Faber. Or maybe I just haven’t seen the reviews?

      I’d been meaning to buy it for ages, ever since the hardback came out last year, but when I saw the paperback a few weeks ago it acted as a reminder. Well worth your time, Marina, especially given the novella’s filmic qualities…

      Reply
  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Well, Jacquiwine, you’ve done it again! Another for the TBR list (between you & Kaggsy, I’ll soon have to move out of my house, as there won’t be room to walk!) The poetic language (those quotes are amazing); the Roman setting and a doomed love affair, steeped in melancholy and lost chances — what’s not to like?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Naturally, I’m delighted to hear that you like the sound of this one, although your wallet and TBR might not thank me for it!

      The quotes are gorgeous, aren’t they? So evocative. In fact, I’m amazed that it’s only just been translated into English, some 50 years on from its original release. Now I’m left wondering whether any of his other novels will make it into English. Even if they’re only half as good as this one, I’d probably read them for the quality of the prose alone…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, they do. I think they have a page on their website where you can suggest a book for consideration. That’s a really good idea, so I shall follow it up!

          Reply
  2. Julé Cunningham

    That is gorgeous prose, the book would be worth picking up just to luxuriate in it. And it sounds as though it could be made into a really wonderful film especially one with a top-notch cinematographer to capture Rome.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! Luxuriate is a great way of describing it – the equivalent of slipping into a gorgeous bath, just like the one Leo takes in his lover’s apartment the morning after the night before…

      Either Paolo Sorrentino or Luca Guadagnino would be best placed to film it. In fact, Sorrentino has form in this area with La Grande Bellezza, an evocative film that owes a debt to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in more ways than one!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui and those quotes are gorgeous – what wonderful writing! I’d missed this one but it does sound up my street – and yours too, with its filmic qualities. Can’t believe it’s not been translated until now!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! It’s hard to believe that this is the first time Calligarich has been translated into English, especially given the quality of his writing. I’m so glad I picked this one up. It’s just the kind of prose style and ambience I enjoy.

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    Wonderful writing I could almost see it all, and agree it would make a wonderful film. Daunt books are amazing in the writers they ring to light. And Alfred Hayes? I’ve haven’t read him either.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very filmic. You can sense there’s a screenwriter here as the scenes are conveyed so vividly.

      As for Alfred Hayes, he’s well worth seeking out – another author who also wrote/adapted books for the screen (including the screenplay for Fritz Lang’s film ‘Human Desire’, loosely based on Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine). Some of Hayes’ books are still in print with NYRB Classics and Penguin Modern Classics – four of them in total, I think, all quite short. He’s been described as the poet of doomed love, a very apt description indeed. (I’ve reviewed a few of his books if you’re ever interested in checking him out )

      Reply
  5. Jane

    lost in Rome with a warm brioche and driving to the sea, this just sounds perfect reading especially since there’s an air of melancholy. I love your description of Rome Jacqui, ‘brittle’ is such a good word.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. It’s such an evocative passage, isn’t it? The way it draws on multiple senses to create the scene is very impressive, e.g. the sound of the sea, the taste of the warm brioche and the multitude of visual images we see through the characters’ eyes. It all comes across so vividly to the reader.

      Reply
  6. madamebibilophile

    Leo doesn’t sound very appealing so I wasn’t sure this was for me, but the quotes are just stunning! This sounds such an intense, beautiful read, it’s surprising it’s been neglected for so long.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very surprising. And you’re right about Leo – while he’s not very likeable, he does come across as entirely believable, especially given the context of the Italian milieu of that period. Definitely worth considering for the quality of the writing alone!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Brilliant! Yes, I think you’re right about the shades of Moravia here, particularly something like Contempt. Was that the novel Jean-Luc Godard filmed as Le Mepris? I think that’s correct based on the title…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fabulous! I genuinely think you’ll like this one. The writing alone makes it a cut above the norm – and there’s the evocative Italian setting, of course.

      Good point about Howard Curtis, too. I just looked back at my index to see what else I’ve read by him, and the list includes novels by Simenon, Marco Malvaldi and Jean-Claude Izzo (the Marseilles Trilogy, which I picked up following your reviews). That’s a strong line-up!

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    This sounds like a beautifullly atmospheric novella, I can see why you were drawn to it. I enjoy reading about slightly lost, flawed characters, they are often so much more interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. Somehow the fatalistic side of Leo’s character seems to fit with the Roman setting so well. It’s a great match, adding to the novella’s melancholic mood.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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