John Fante's life in his letters

il Centro
Cultura & Società
16 november 1999

by Paolo Di Vincenzo

book cover Reading an author's correspondence may disappoint some of his readers, it may unveil some less pleasant side of the man behind the writer, but it is fundamental for a deeper knowledge not only of the author but also of his works. John Fante's "Letters (1932-1981)" arrive in Italy. Published by Fazi (502 pages, 35,000 Lire) the collection opens with an in-depth introduction by Seamus Cooney, who also edited the American edition dated 1991. Cooney immediately explains that those who already know Fante's works "should go to the letters straight away", while for those others an introduction is supplied. The letters were collected for years during almost all the life of this Italian-American writer of Abruzzese origin (there are frequent references to Abruzzi or Torricella Peligna - Torcelli he called it - where his father came from).

The letters go from 1932, when Fante was 23 years old, to 1981. A whole life (he died in 1983), a novel in itself still to be written. From his unmoving determination to be a writer, with a unique stubbornness (here maybe all his Abruzzese blood comes to the surface), to his final moments when Fante was by now blind and, owing to his diabetes, had lost both his legs. At the end of the volume there are some Appendixes: an exchange of letters with John Saroyan; his diary (actually a few pages from January 1940); a short report of his French experience under the title "The first time I saw Paris"; a long article by Ross Wills on the writer, published in 1941; a bibliography (with the original and the Italian editions) and a filmography. Another great resource in the book are the photographs from the Fante family albums. From the picture of his father Nick, who left Torricella Peligna to work as a mason in the States, to his much beloved mother, Mary, his wife Joyce, the four children, the Y-shaped home, which was the setting of "My dog stupid ", the dogs, the terrible pit-bull Rocco; and, of course, many of the author.

Of fundamental importance are Joyce Fante's comments, useful also at times to counterbalance John's statements. The difficult years. A great many letters are addressed to his mother, to whom he writes in the early Los Angeles periods (wonderfully described later in "Ask the Dust" or, after many years and under dictation to his wife since he was already blind, in "Dreams of Bunker Hill"), more often asking for money, a few dollars on which to go on, to pay the rent, to eat, always with the promise to send it back as soon as he has money of his own. The relationship with his mother was surely strong, and to her Fante tells all the details of his attempts to succeed as a writer, his hopes arising from his first works published in the press. But also his experiences at the midnight bath later reported in "Ask the Dust". Many letters, in the early Los Angeles years, are addressed to Carey McWilliams, a lawyer and writer who will be his friend up to the very end. His first successes. Fante's life, at least until the Fifties, was an alternation of successes and defeats. The former were connected to his scriptwriting activity for Hollywood, the latter to his true passion as a writer. And we see how in August 1934 he was able to write to his mother "I am enclosing a little surprise for you in the form of one hundred dollars". When we think that the ratio for the cost of living is 15-20 to one, this means almost 2000 dollars. In his career the much hated scriptwriting activity allowed him to enjoy a quite good standard of life, with a lot of money in his pockets, as recounted also by his wife Joyce. The peak was reached with "Full of life" which, made into a film, earned Fante also a nomination for an Oscar. Stars and vices.

Fante worked with many great names and with all the major cinema companies, from Warner to MGM. From Orson Welles, with whom he worked on some scriptwriting for RKO. And, in the last years of his life, with Francis Ford Coppola who - together with Bob Towne, another well-known and still today much requested script-writer in Hollywood - should have made a film from "The brotherhood of the grape" (in italian "La confraternita del Chianti"). But Fante also had some other vices: "gambling and golf", explains wife Joyce, "and they absorbed so much of his time and money that one often wonders what his priorities were. He spent literally years of his life at the gambling tables and on the golf greens".

English text edited by Albert Porreca