Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Chill in the Air

Pushkin Press is today publishing a recently uncovered diary written by the celebrated English biographer Iris Origo - A Chill in the Air. While this new diary was kept during the early years of the Second World War, her only other diary, first published 70 years ago, was written during the last years of the war - see La Foce is liberated. Pushkin Press says A Chill in the Air is a ‘sad and gripping account of the grim absurdities that Italy and the world underwent as war became increasingly unavoidable’.

Iris Margaret Cutting was born in 1902, the child of an Anglo-Irish mother and a rich American father. She was educated privately in Florence, Italy, and, with inherited wealth, spent much time in her youth travelling. She married an Italian nobleman, Antonio Origo, and together they developed a rundown farming estate, La Foce, some 150km north of Rome. They had one son who died young of meningitis, and two daughters. In the 1930s, Origo turned to writing, publishing biographies of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and Cola di Rienzo, a fourteenth century Roman politician.

During the war, the family stayed at La Foce where they secretly took in refugee children and helped escaping Allied prisoners. After the war, Origo lived in both Rome and La Foce, and she continued writing biographies but also autobiographical books - the first of which was a diary: War in Val d’Orcia (Jonathan Cape, 1947, but reissued in 1999 by Allison & Busby). Indeed, this has become the most admired of all of her books. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died in 1988.

Today, Pushkin Press has published A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-1940, complete with an introduction by biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett, and an afterword by Origo’s granddaughter Katia Lysy. Hughes-Hallett explains that there is very little of a personal nature in the diary. Rather, she says, it is ‘a curious mixture of news - both fake and genuine - rumour, comment and observation’, with radio broadcasts being a focus of many entries. Indeed, this diary style in war time of monitoring the news rather than one’s own personal life was very common, and, in fact, is similar to another recent release by Pushkin Press - Astrid Lindgren’s A World Gone Mad - see Let there be peace.

The publisher has included, at the very end of the diary entries, a note by Origo on why the diary stops when it does: ‘This diary was interrupted at this point by the birth of my daughter on August 1st. In the autumn I decided, having a wonderful Swiss nanny to help me with my baby, that inaction was no longer bearable. Surely there must be some work, directed towards the relief of suffering rather than any war aim, which even I, an Anglo-American and a non-Fascist, could find to do? In the autumn of 1940 I began to work in the Prisoner’s Branch of the Italian Red Cross - and until the spring of 1943 had no more time for writing.’

And further explanation is found in Katia Lysy’s afterword. She says that her grandmother never intended to publish any of her diaries, but was persuaded to do so with the War in Val d’Orcia because ‘she strongly believed the rest of the world should hear the other side of the story - how ordinary Italians in a remote Tuscan valley suffered the consequences of war and did not hesitate to rescue and shelter their fellow human beings at great personal risk.’ However, Lysy speculates, she must have considered her pre-war journal to be of little interest to others when compared to the later ‘world-shattering events’. In the 1980s, an Italian editor encouraged Origo to edit the earlier diary for publication, but with her health declining she never took on the task. The diary was only re-found much more recently - ‘in a promising-looking brown box bearing the legend “Unpublished” in my grandmother’s familiar scrawl’ - during a search for family photographs. And so, finally, 70 years after the first, Pushkin is publishing this second diary - as part of the ‘Iris Origo revival, following the republication of four of her books earlier this year.’

Here are three short extracts from the new book (with thanks to Pushkin Press).

5 July 1939
‘Yesterday, driving through Scandicci (where there is a large home for permanently disabled soldiers) I met, in his wheelchair, one of the most terrible “grands mutiles” of the 1914-18 war that I have ever seen. Both legs gone, blind, and most horribly disfigured - and still alive, after twenty years.
And in 1959?’

7 June 1940
‘Still no definite news. But the first outward signs of war reach our valley. In the early morning 35 bombers heading South fly over us, and in the afternoon about 50 military lorries, bound for the aviation camp at Castiglion del Lago, drive up the road from Rome. The peasants look up as they hear the rumble, say resignedly Ci siamo - and get back, while they can, to their hay.

The radio starts atrocity stories about the behaviour of the Allied troops in Belgium, including a detailed story of the “massacre” by French officers of some innocent Italian miners, and the statement that 1500 Belgian refugees have been murdered deliberately by British bombardments on the Belgian frontier. Such stories, however, don’t as yet go down well. Even two boys of 16 and 18, who are staying here, merely shrug and say disgustedly: “Who do they expect to believe it?” ’

3 July 1940
‘My first air raid last night. The sirens began just after midnight; I was still awake and was joined by William Phillips [her godfather, and US ambassador to Italy]. We sat talking pleasantly in the dark for about one hour, heard one distant burst of fire and then the all-clear signal. Altogether a singularly unalarming experience, except apparently to the lions in the Zoo, who went on roaring all night. But, as the first wail of the sirens was heard, my thoughts went to England and France.’

No comments: