Holy Friday – Third hour

Dearest Pavese,

I am writing to you while a lazy but redeeming rain has been falling for two hours, the kind that wets the soul and dries the conscience. That sweet rain that irrigates the green meadows of eternity, as can be read on some tombstones in American cemeteries.

I have here in front of me a black and white photographic portrait of you, faded by time or, who knows, maybe by oblivion, that right to be forgotten that she also sought, on the evening of August 27th, 1950, retreating to a small hotel room to never leave again. Your face is tired and scared. Your forty-two years do not seem like youth but, rather, a resigned and tired old age, the irreversible kind or, even worse, the kind that has seen irreversibility and has given up on it.

I want to tell you how I met you.

I had read your translations when I was young. Melville, of course, but also Gertrude Stein, which Ella was able to render with rare talent and mastery.

In the summer, one of those torrid summers in which even moving was an obstacle, I found myself in Livorno, a guest of some brothers. I had the opportunity to meet, rather than get to know, a young and thin professor, whose clean-shaven face seemed to nail him to the appearance of an eternal boy, even though he had, by then, certainly passed the halfway point of our life’s journey.

I spoke to him about you, about your translations, a subject in which my interlocutor seemed to be particularly at ease with him.

He had a mixture of scientific humility and extreme presumption of his knowledge.

He told me that he had studied philology and linguistics and that for him philology was almost a political choice. He convinced me that the translation of a novel is itself a novel, and that the novel, as it is translated, is different from the original. He carried with him a square plastic bag, which contained a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Symphony N. 25 by Mozart, conducted by Karl Böhm. I told him that it was an excellent version and that he treasured it, and in response he gave it to me as a gift. He said that access to culture should be for everyone and for everyone.

I have never seen so much generosity and haughtiness at the same time in only one person. In the good sense of the word, he was a young man with a huge heart. Yet, when he spoke, he seemed to take the stage. He told me, without any ill-concealed and hateful satisfaction, that his favorite pupil had lived all her life with the reflection of his youthful translation of an American book of poetry, and then dedicated herself, with much more modest results, to praising groups of drunk men of letters and porn addicts, whom she would have rightly despised. Not that he was wrong, of course, but why did he necessarily have to choose this resounding and haughty way of expressing himself?

The unfortunate man, whose name escapes me, and it is only a good thing, had written only one story about him in his lifetime. He told me that he had written it down, in an almost definitive version, in almost half an hour, but that he had been correcting it, polishing it and emending it for years, before deciding to publish it, to make it go, as he said, “for its way”, bad or good.

The volume, if we want to call it a volume, I found it for a bite of bread the next day at the American Market of that city, teeming with an extensive plurality of religions, but endowed with a single political faith, as well as a provocative and perpetually intrusive language.

However, I remember very well the title of the story, despite my memory, once agile and elastic, failing me on more than one occasion. “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae”. It told the story of a child hospitalized who falls in love – platonically, of course – with a girl older than him, met during the evening prayer of the Ave. And that feeling so clean and clear, which probably not even the protagonist was capable of, one night later he would no longer find it. That much loved little girl was lost, forever.

If I think of you, of your life, of the image of you that I have in front of me, I see you as a defenseless child.

You too, dear Pavese, have known human, earthly love, the same that I have sublimated by dedicating myself to theological studies. Yet you still waited for that person who deluded yourself into thinking corresponded to you, even when you knew, in your heart, that you would never return.

You see, Pavese, we should never choose who we love, we must choose who loves us. Who we love betrays us, it is Judas Iscariot who runs away with the bag of thirty pieces of silver, maybe to go and spend it who knows where and who knows with who else, maybe to give us a kiss and then hang himself from a sycamore tree. I loved God more than anything else, with that same infantile and crystalline love of the child in the story I am telling you about, and I was betrayed by it.

It is said that if God gives a burden he also gives help to carry it, but these are things that are commonly said. Love, especially divine love, is not made to unite, but to separate. How can God, whom I have loved above all, do this to me? Should not it be the one to choose us, rather than us falling madly in love with it, with the certainty of inevitably being rejected? And how can those who ask us to forgive arbitrarily remove us from forgiveness and deprive us of any return to life?

You wrote that “You don’t kill yourself for the love of a woman. You kill yourself because a love, any love, reveals us in our nakedness, misery, defenselessness”. And this is how it feels when faced with the irreversible, with what can never again be as it was before: naked, miserable, helpless. Betrayal strips us and we, naked like Adam, feel ashamed but cannot escape, even in the grip of the most atrocious among the torments.

Then, and is not this the hour of our death and our desolation? Physical death, do you say? Oh, dear Pavese, it is very little if it reminds you of “Madame Bovary”.

It is civil death that is unbearable for us. The same civil death that has been imposed on us and that we must accept, welcome, make our own and even cultivate and love, as the most precious legacy that the object of our love, be it human or divine in nature, has left us dooming us to abandonment and our own absence.

And then it takes time and love, the same ones that neither you nor I know how to find within ourselves. Helpless and humiliated. Love denies us as people, even before scratching us inside with its hooked nails to make our insides bleed. And we die slowly, bled out of amazement.

And so, what we are left with, as we leave, is to ask not to gossip too much.

I ask you to accept the pain of a man who dies together with his God and who here declares himself very devoted to him.