“My very early life seems like a parody of a Freudian Oedipal case study: I tried to kill my father and marry my mother,” intimates Alexander Stille in “The Force of Things,” a memoir laced with ill feelings for his father, an American correspondent for a major Italian newspaper. Analysis of the family’s conflict overshadows a larger story about blending cultures in America.
Stille’s father began his journalistic career in Italy under Mussolini. He wrote for an intellectual magazine, Oggi, under the pseudonym Ugo Stille, to conceal his Russian Jewish name, Mikhail Kamenetzki. The family had fled Soviet Russia in 1921 and settled in Italy where they became relatively well-off, even with the advent of Fascism. The author’s grandfather, Ilya Kamenetzki, was a dentist, a profession that made him indispensable under any regime. His patients included relatives of major Italian Fascists and a mistress of prominent writer and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio, who gave him a protective letter.
But after the 1938 Racial Manifesto, the Kamenetzki family became “stateless citizen[s] of the Jewish race,” banned from practicing professions. In September 1941, obtaining American immigration visas despite onerous bureaucratic obstacles, they made a fortunate escape that would have been impossible months later, when America declared war on the Axis. The author’s father, now Michael Ugo Stille, was drafted into the US Army, deployed to North Africa, and ended up in Italy, assembling anti-Fascist news broadcasts.
After the war, Ugo Stille became the sole US correspondent for Milan’s reputable newspaper Corriere della Sera and eventually its editor-in-chief. For decades, he reported on American life from his New York apartment, cluttered with newspapers, magazines, and a library of 10,000 volumes. The mess annoyed the author’s mother, born Elizabeth Bogert, who led an epic war for order. A daughter of a Chicago law professor, Elizabeth came “from a midwestern white Anglo-Saxon Protestant” background. Her secure, high-status world collided with her husband’s Eastern-European, Italian-speaking Jewish ancestry, “a much more operatic culture in which people’s yelling . . . was considered fairly normal.”
The two worlds never merged: Elizabeth’s milieu was anti-Semitic, and although she rebelled against it, she never really escaped her roots. What Stille calls “the force of things” are cultural behaviors imprinted in us, impossible to overcome. During their marriage of over 40 years, the parents fought an unwinnable war, which scarred the psyches of their two children.
As the author begins to cover this domestic conflict, the larger world disappears, and the reader becomes trapped in petty disputes and the claustrophobic fear of Stille’s childhood. The author has unwisely chosen to settle scores with his father, described as a brusque man of volcanic temper whom Stille holds responsible for his mother’s unhappiness. The reader gets a vivid but repulsive portrait of Ugo Stille, whose full legacy is never coherently discussed.
The author is fascinated with his family’s attachment to things. The grandparents’ clock and furniture were carried from Russia to Italy and then to New York, despite cataclysmic events. Aunt Lally suffers from compulsive hoarding; her apartment, where many of these items end up, becomes the author’s “archeological dig.” Here, after months of searching, he finds D’Annunzio’s protective letter to his grandfather.
Like Aunt Lally’s apartment, Stille’s narrative is clogged with superfluous detail: The author cannot decide what to keep and what to throw away. He is a lazy writer (a quality he attributes to his father who had worked on a couch in his pajamas). Lack of research is apparent in his mother’s story, drawn mostly from interviews of her when she was already diagnosed with six brain tumors. In 1928, the Bogerts socialized with “Nobel Prize winners” in Chicago, none of whom is identified.
The memoir is marred with carelessness. At one point Stille writes, “[T]he Great Depression made a great impression on the family immediately.” In fact, the impact was minimal: The family could fall back on Bogert’s professorial salary. Stille calls his maternal grandmother a pioneer in organic farming, while all farming in 1930s and 1940s was organic. Weak narrative, repetitions, mistakes in Soviet history, and a tendency to overwrite make the memoir a tedious read.
Stille’s true passion is Italy, of which he has written several books, including “Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism.’’ Fascination with his father’s profession and background, despite his personal dislike of him, is what Stille is trying to fathom with Freud’s help. Although determined never to replicate his father, he became a journalist covering Italy’s past and present.
The self-absorbed author has composed his memoir on a psychotherapist’s couch to rid himself of emotional baggage. The day he sent this manuscript to the publisher he had dreamt of committing a murder. In a way, he succeeded in “killing” his father (who had died from a heart condition in 1995) by portraying him negatively, but memoirs should be written to revive people and events.
Alexandra Popoff is the author of “Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography” and “The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants.” She is writing a book about Tolstoy’s liaison with his disciple, Vladimir Chertkov.