Nichols, an English journalist in the Rome office of La Stampa, is an affectionate, shrewd observer of Italian politics and culture. His last book, The Politics of the Vatican (1967) vivisected the Papacy; this one goes a long way toward demythologizing Italy's secular institutions. Nichols begins with the idea that Italy is a state divided between the fierce conservatism of the Mediterranean -- agricultural, fatalistic and violent, and the challenge of Western Europe, progressive, industrial and liberal. To be sure, it's a cleavage as old as the Risorgimento, but one which still cripples Italian governments. ""Very little counts for less in Italy than the State,"" Nichols muses; Italian life is still essentially familial, communal, regional. The south, especially, harbors a longstanding and not unjustified grudge for its ""ruination and neglect at the hands of the north,"" but throughout the country the administrative machine, unreformed since Fascist times, is regarded with suspicion as an obstructive if not malevolent force blocking much needed judicial and educational reforms. Both the ruling Christian Democrats and the Communists, who are the chief opposition, are largely immobilized by internal factional struggles, local loyalties and vested privileges. The result is that the business of government goes on at an exalted rhetorical level, dangerously removed from popular grievances. But Nichols is not all politics -- he touches on everything from the Italian male's Casanova affectations and the brouhaha over the new divorce law to the unique character of Rome, Florence or Naples, to the Mafia, the student revolts, the banditry of Sardinia and the new industrial proletariat of the northern slums. A fond and perceptive exploration, equally valuable for prospective tourists or serious students of postwar Italy's social transformations.