Based on memory, parental revelations, published material and uncovered correspondence, New Yorker and New York Times contributor Stille (The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi, 2006, etc.) considers his forebears.
The author’s mother, Elizabeth, was a bright, pretty girl, a bit flighty in her youth. Her father was a self-made, well-regarded, WASP-y law professor. Stille’s grandfather was a clever, philandering dentist, and his name, Kamenetzki in the Russian shtetl, became Cammenschi in prewar Italy. The family immigrated to New York when Mussolini enacted anti-Jewish racial laws. After service in Italy during the war, their son, Mikhail (Misha to the family), found his calling as the American correspondent for the leading Italian newspaper. His pen name, “Stille,” became the family name. At a party (for Truman Capote), Elizabeth encountered Misha (aka Ugo Stille), prompting her to leave her feckless husband for her new, sophisticated suitor. The author examines the relationship between these charming and brainy people from disparate upbringings, noting how she was neat and organized, while he was irascible and sloppy. There were sexual tensions in their world of literati and hipsters, and Elizabeth struggled mightily with her decision to stay in the marriage, which often descended into separations. The author presents a history of considerable scope, exploring in the process the relationship between life and literature: “Life is infinitely complex and messy, and literature works the opposite way: through the distilling and fixing of things into a limited number of words and pages that then (one hopes) takes on a life and meaning of its own.” Though Stille’s rare stabs at humor may be a bit wan, he depicts the histrionic partners in a truly mixed marriage with sharp insight and affection.
A memorable study in contrasts, recounted with understanding and verve.