First things first: this book—Federico F., Gianfranco Angelucci’s fictionalized rendition of the last several months of filmmaker Federico Fellini’s life—is an ugly book. I’m not talking about its contents, the plot that reveals itself through Oscar Rinaldi, a friend of Fellini, recounting to the narrator the novel’s events. Those events and the characters that make them happen I will come to in a moment. At first I want to describe the book itself, as an object. It is exceptionally ugly.
Typographically, two different and mutually antagonistic typefaces were chosen, one for the main text and the other for heads, interior chapter titles, and page numbers. The second, titling font is set, in headings, too close to the main text and in too large a size. Ditto for the page numbers. Proximity and bloat singly are problematic for type that is supposed to recede into the background, but even combined they are not necessarily ruinous for the typographic feel of a page. However, the titling font is either Mistral or a knock off; this choice of an obnoxious and flamboyant script font makes Federico F.’s heads and page numbers stand out from the page, and not with a silhouette striking for its beauty. (The choice of titling font, by the way, comes off as a last minute design choice, since it isn’t used on the cover—a perfectly innocuous italic, one that would have provided nondescript headers and numbering, is used there; had that font been used, I wouldn’t have been annoyed enough to grumble here.)
Compounded with the bad typography is the unfortunate cover. While it is certainly understandable, even justifiable, to want to use one of Fellini’s sketches (even though the book is, putatively, a fiction), the drawing the designer chose is unattractive. At a minimum the color of the cover itself should not have been white: a bit of contrast would have made the sketch pop out.
These concerns are irrelevant to the quality of the novel itself, I am well aware. But the text, any text, for that matter—how should readers approach it? Do they take its cloying, one-dimensional adulation of the (fictional) Fellini at face value? How do they decide whether it is worth their time to ponder, through interpretive labor, whether Rinaldi is in fact just an imaginative projection of Fellini-the-character’s desire? After all, such an act of reading takes time and will, and is akin to something like an act of faith: if the book’s not going to deliver something, you might as well save yourself the effort.
All the above weighs heavily on the text, which is provided in a wooden English translation courtesy of Giuseppe Natale. Turgid, wooden translations are fine, and even have their place—in technical manuals and philosophy, for instance—but generally, they do not well capture the spirit of a novel, even when the author self-describes as a writer of turgid prose, which Angelucci does (at least, he does in Natale’s translation!). It’s difficult for a person with my level of Italian to judge whether or not the translation here captures the original, but I am inclined to doubt that it does so in the particulars—there are too many glaring errors that even I can catch. Natale writes “perfect ear” when he means “perfect pitch,” for instance; the idiom in Italian, I gather, literally translates as such. Other examples pepper the text.
Taking the stiff translation and its errors and looking to the author’s afterword, you begin to question the choice in a translator. “Was it better,” Angelucci writes, “to have an English native [sic] speaker as a translator? Or was the exact opposite true?” We can surmise from the non-idiomatic and grammatically incorrect order of adjectives here that the worse choice was made.
And it is difficult not to see this choice as having been made in a sort of blindness to one’s own faults, that special characteristic of the untouchable ego of a megalomaniac, self-styled artist. Angelucci—I am not making a massive leap in seeing his ego—describes his writing in the following way: “I realize my Italian is quite elaborate, in an almost mannerist way. My luscious, sweeping literary style stems directly from the crowding of emotions.” Not the words of a writer anxious about the quality of his output. He adds, a bit later, that, “according to some critics, [his] style is mostly visual.”
Being mostly visual might have saved Angelucci’s book. If his images were as “luscious” and “sweeping” as he thinks they are, they would have survived a bad translator. Shoddy workmanship on the part of the book would not, to put it in Angeluccian stylings, have obscured the scintillating glimmer shot off the Promethean mind of that striking genius. But as anyone who takes the time to read this book will soon see, Angelucci’s images vacillate between the boring and the ridiculous. Take for instance the following description of a little bit of erotic fondling and foreplay that Rinaldi recounts. He’s been telling a lover a fairy tale while fingering her. In ever so sweeping and luscious style, Rinaldi notes that “By the end of the fairy tale, the petals of Else’s flower had opened to pleasure.”
Reading that, you sort of wish Angelucci’s editors had nipped his images in the bud. For all the “visuals” in his writing, Angelucci is sorely lacking in the ability to perceive. He does not notice anyone looking in any way outside a few exhausted tropes (breasts are melons, apples, or other succulent—right—fruits; events are described in overwrought mythological terms; etc.).
To return to what initially concerned me, if people read this book, they have to decide what to do with it. Does it sound like it’s worth making that decision?