Moussia 43 Antonini’s early years


Much is known about Giacomo Antonini also from Dutch sources. His biography is included in the ‘Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands’ (in an article written by Ronald Spoor) and he figures in recent biographies of many important pre-war Dutch authors, most of whom were his friends, such as Jan Slauerhoff, Eddy du Perron, Menno ter Braak, Jan Greshoff, Simon Vestdijk.

Until the early 1930s, he was an important contributor to several Dutch literary magazines (De Witte Mier, Den Gulden Winckel, Critisch Bulletin, Forum and Groot-Nederland, the latter a magazine for the common language area of The Netherlands and Flanders). From 1926 until 1928, he was literary correspondent in Rome for the important Amsterdam newspaper Het Algemeen Handelsblad.

From 1933 onwards, when his and Moussia’s apartment in Paris was a meeting place for Dutch authors,  he wrote articles about French, Italian and Russian literature in the  Dutch magazine Critisch Bulletin and several other Dutch periodicals. From 1936-1940 he was correspondent and  ‘forward observation post’ in Paris for the literary pages of the important Dutch newspapers Het Vaderland, De Groene, and De Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant.

In these newspapers, before the war, he wrote reviews of French literature and interviewed , amongst others, Paul Léautaud, Marcel Jouhandeau, Jean Paulhan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gertrude Stein, Robert Brasillach, Henry de Montherlant en André Malraux (who had dedicated his La Condition Humaine to their common  friend the Dutch writer Eddy du Perron). Even a few years before his death, he contributed some articles to a Dutch newspaper, one of which was an Hommage to his deceased friend, Reijnier Flaes, the Dutch writer F.C. Terborgh, who died in february 1981.

The magazine Den Gulden Winckel of September 1931 opened with a three-page article by Antonini, titled “New Italian Prose”, in which he discussed works by young italian authors, like Riccardo Bacchelli, Alessandro Bonsanti, Giovanna Manzini, Mario Soldati, and Giovanni Comisso. His commentary on Alberto Moravia is very balanced:

“In my opinion, the most important young writer is Alberto Moravia; we only have his debut novel “Gli Indifferenti” (1929, ‘Time of Indifference’) and some short stories published in magazines, but that is sufficient for the moment. His novels and his short stories reveal an extraordinary mastery of style and choice of theme. The publication of “Time of indifference” has upset many in Italy, the critics found the subject and the way it was treated ‘unsympathetic’, they reproached Moravia for being immoral and called him a ‘destructive spirit”.

I believe that today, this book would not have scandalised anyone in France or Germany. The raw and slightly awkward realism of Moravia resembles the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (German expression: The New Realism). His deliberate  indifference towards life would encounter more understanding in Germany than in Italy, where such a merciless depiction of bourgeois family life, rotten to the core, as we find in his book, is the opposite of all well-meaning but artificial attempts of the old-fashioned bourgeois morale, kept upright and defended in books and newspapers.”

How could it happen that an Italian became so close to the Dutch literary scene? Karin Antonini was the first to explain this to me, in 2001.

Count Giacomo Antonini was born on September 18, 1901 in Venice, in a ‘palazzo’ in the San Giobbe area, facing the ‘Canale di Cannaregio’, next to the ‘Tre Archi’ bridge. Today, this palazzo houses a hotel. His father was Count Alfredo Antonini (1876), descendant of an illustrious Venetian family. His mother was Augusta Roberta Kool (1863), descendant of a liberal Amsterdam patrician family. Count Alfredo was a handsome officer, retired,  of  the Bersaglieri. They married in 1899. Their first-born daughter Sofietje Elvira, died when she was two months old. Giacomo was born one year later, in 1902.

Augusta, thirteen years older than Alfredo, was the director of a Protestant boarding school in Venice. Speaking four languages, she had widely travelled and had lived in London from the age of 18, before she met Alfredo.

Alfredo was a real gentleman, elegant, generous, cultivated, intelligent. He and Augusta received illustrious persons in their soirées, like the German chancellor Bernhard von Bülow and the Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuijper. Alas, Alfredo had  a passion for women (who, in turn,  found him irresistible) and gambling.

In 1913, he had an affair with the wife of a French composer who managed to convince him to finance her husband’s opera with Augusta’s money. The opera flopped and Alfredo tried to recoup the loss of his wife’s money by gambling with the scant remainder of her fortune. This resulted in total failure and Augusta left for the Netherlands with her almost 13 year old son.

Alfredo also left Venice and went to Brussels, where he gave private Italian language lessons. It took him only a few months to start an affair with the wife of the man who had helped him to get him established and who furthermore had given him a room in their house. She was not his only mistress, and jealousy all around caused an enormous  scandal.

The family Kool decided that this was more than they could stomach. They paid Alfredo’s debts on condition that he  would go to the United States, never to come back. So he went. The records of Ellis Island show that he entered the United States on March 24, 1914 on the steamship Lapland coming from Antwerp. ‘Profession: Teacher’.

Karin told me that Giacomo never forgot his father, whom he admired in many ways and had given him an Italian identity. In 1927, Giacomo sent his father his first book, “Il Romanzo Contemporaneo in Italia , with the dedication: ‘To my beloved father who abandoned me”. This hurt the feelings of his  father who replied: “When you are older, you will understand”.

In turn, this hit Giacomo hard, because his first marriage, to Hetty Marx, had run into major difficulties almost from the start. He did not reply to his father, an omission he would regret all his life. In 1931, he received a letter from the United States, from a woman called Edna Ray Thomas. She wrote to him that his father had always loved him and that he had just died of cancer, penniless, in a New York hospital. She had him buried in the tomb of her family.

Back in Holland in 1914, Antonini’s mother became the Director of a Protestant hospital “Bethesda”, in Tiel, a small town 30 miles east of Arnhem. The almost thirteen-year old Giacomo was put in a boarding school in Doetinchem, just East of Arnhem, where he quickly learned Dutch; he was enrolled in the Gymnasium in Arnhem. Subsequently, he studied Italian and French under professor Romano Guarnieri in the University of Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, he lodged with his guardian, Tyo van Eeghen, a well-known Amsterdam patrician, which later caused Eddy du Perron to tease him, saying: “You say that you are Italian, but in my eyes you are just another patrician from one of those large canal houses on the Herengracht (the ‘Canal of the Gentlemen’).”

Romano Guarnieri put Giacomo in touch with the Dutch author  Jan Greshoff (1888-1972) , at that time Editor-in-Chief of the local newspaper Arnhemsche Courant, who gave him the chance, when he was not yet 22 years old, to publish in his literary magazine De Witte Mier (‘The White Ant”). It was the start of a friendship which would last until Greshoff’s death. Karin Antonini showed me a booklet by Greshoff, Dichters in het Koffijhuis (‘Poets in the Coffee House’), a collection of amusing stories on foreign authors with fictitious names,  published in 1925 under the pseudonym Otto P. Reijs, in which Greshoff had written: “to Gino, the most loyal of loyal friends.”

In 1924, Giacomo had to interrupt his studies in Amsterdam for a year, in order to fulfil his Italian military national service. He served in Venice, with the Reggimento Pontieri e Lagunari del Genio, the Italian sappers. At that time, many Italians saw Mussolini, in power since 1922, as the redeemer of Italy. So did Giacomo, who wholeheartedly  re-identified himself with his compatriots, after an absence of more than ten years.

A 1924 issue of De Witte Mier includes an article by him, titled “Benito Mussolini, the author”, in which he writes that Mussolini, “known in the Netherlands both as the ‘Duce’ who has completely renewed and rejuvenated Italy, and as the eminent statesman who brought Italy back to the front row of European nations “ had not forgotten his old love, literature.

After singing the praise of Mussolini’s journalistic efforts of the past, ‘his simple, angular and concise style’, he says that Mussolini belongs to a new generation of young persons who have had enough of literature as a separate entity within an ivory tower, and wish to see literature as part of every day life, as  the spiritual expression of what lives in the heart of the people, alive, thus creating invigorating interest and enthousiasm.

He ends the article with the following words about Mussolini: “He, by his seriousness, his austerity and his energy, is a personality of whom we, sons of Italy, may be justly proud. He has no need for praise and fame, he does not seek nor covet those. Is not his highest fame being a son, a really good son, of the old and now rejuvenated Italy?”

It is evident that young Giacomo himself, just having recovered the sense of Italian identity his father gave him, equally wished to see himself as a really good son of Italy. The following photograph was placed full page next to his article, with the  agreement of Greshoff who, during the early few years of Italian  fascism, also believed that Mussolini had saved Italy from chaos and poverty.

In 1931, Antonini had distanced himself a bit more from the regime, as we could already notice in his review of Moravia’s debut novel.

(to be continued)

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