Non-Fiction: on Italy and Cigarettes, a Poet in Stalin's World, and the Afterlife of Elvis

Fumo: Italy’s Love Affair with the Cigarette by Carl Ipsen (Stanford University Press)
Comrade Huppert: A Poet in Stalin’s World by George Huppert (Indiana University Press)
The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley by Ted Harrison (Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press)

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I decided to read Fumo, Carl Ipsen’s inquiry into cigarette smoking in Italy, because of my own long addiction to the poetry of Cesare Pavese, including his poem “Two Cigarettes” published in Turin in 1933. William Arrowsmith’s translation begins:

Every night is freedom: reflections on the pavement
in the streets which open wide, gleaming in the wind.
Hardly anyone around. Now everybody has a history, a face.
This late no one is tired: streetlights by the thousands shine
only for those who stop and rummage for a match.

The spurt of light vanishes from the face of the woman
who asked me for a match. The wind snuffs the flame.
Disappointed, the woman asks me for another,
which also goes out. The woman chuckles softly …”

This cinematic moment reminds me, as Ipsen observes, that cigarette smoking used to be critical to mediating tense sexual moments in films. Portraying the post-war revival of commerce, culture and personal life, Italian movies also established women as entrenched smokers with just as much at stake as men. In Antonioni’s La notte, Marcello Mastroianni’s “Giovanni” faces “Valentina” played by Monica Vitti:

Valentina: Do you have a cigarette?
Giovanni: I smoke cigars.
Valentina: Excuse me. I’ll go get mine.

IpsenCover.jpgItalian anxiety during the 1950s was unique in its local traumas, shaped by then recently deposed fascism, a Vatican exposed as morally empty, organized crime, government instability, rising socialism and civil unrest. A plume of cigarette smoke in Naples could suggest all of that turmoil. But Ipsen takes his cue from -- and acknowledges his debt to -- sociologists who have written more broadly and globally about tobacco and what its consumption tells us about everything from class structure to tax policies to sexuality. Fumo applies their techniques and findings to the modern history of Italy.

For instance, Richard Klein in Cigarettes Are Sublime (1993) suggested that “the introduction of tobacco into Europe in the sixteenth century corresponded with the arrival of the Age of Anxiety, the beginning of modern consciousness.” The implications of Columbus’ discoveries may have shaken the population of Genoa, but he returned home with tobacco, an antidote. About smoking in the United States, Allan Brandt in The Cigarette Century (2007) wrote, “It seems striking that a product of such little utility, ephemeral in its very nature, could be such an encompassing vehicle for understanding the past.”

Smoking_Benito_0.jpegIpsen’s perspective on Italian smoking trends covers “important cultural, social, and economic factors” similar to facts and behavior occurring elsewhere. But it’s a richly idiosyncratic story nonetheless, extending to contemporary attitudes about health risks. By mid-book, the reader is introduced to menefreghismo, a term derived from the phrase me ne frego or “I don’t give a shit,” an attitude that is less risk averse than the American view of smoking. Along the way, Ipsen illustrates the Italian perspective through its literature, art, journalism, advertising and entertainment. He includes a generous selection of – and comments insightfully on -- visual iconography to illuminate his sub-themes.

Smoking_PosterB.jpegIn 1962, the Italian parliament banned cigarette advertising. In 2005, smoking was prohibited in public places, including bars, restaurants and offices -- but not without creating a furor and outraged statements from prominent public personalities. Lucio Dalla and Mina, two of the country’s most beloved pop singers, had recorded a smoking anthem called “Fumo blu” in the mid-60’s and had “achieved mythical status” by the 2000s. In 2005, La Stampa published Mina’s essay, “Please Let Me Smoke in Peace”: “Enough with the anti-smoking terrorism! Otherwise we’ll have to follow the example of the American writer David Sedaris and move to Paris ‘in order to be able to smoke in peace.’ How well I understand that sentiment!”

In lieu of cigarettes, have we found anything else to mediate effectively between potential lovers? At least in “Two Cigarettes,” Pavese and the woman continue to smoke in peace. She tells him about a sailor she loved who gave her a scarf from Rio, now lost. She invites him to her room – she will show him a photo of the sailor. The poem ends:

Two butts on the pavement now. We look up at the sky.
That window at the top – the woman points – is ours. But
it isn’t heated. At night, in the wake of the passing liners,
a few lights shine or only the stars. Playfully,
arm in arm, we cross the pavement, each warming the other.

[Published May 14, 2016. 272 pages, 15 color plates, 31 b&w plates, $24.95 paperback]

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During the cold war, literary America eagerly canonized certain writers living in Eastern bloc countries who courted western audiences and seemed to reflect our humanistic values. Comrade Huppert by historian George Huppert offers us an entirely different literary life to consider – that of Hugo Huppert a poet and writer who lived most of his life as a Soviet functionary and who, during the last decades of his life, somehow managed his livelihood in the gray zone between east and west. The pattern of his life, much more than his literary accomplishments, is unique.

HuppertCover.jpgBorn in the Polish city of Bielsko-Biala, Huppert (1902-1982) today is best remembered in Europe for his translations of Mayakovsky into German. In 1974 at the age of 70, he began drafting his memoir in Vienna. Drawing from his Tagebücher, his lifelong diary, he produced a three-volume autobiography in German that George Huppert discovered three decades later at the University of Cincinnati library. Because the circumstances of Hugo’s life so dramatically reflect the violent upheavals of war, genocide, displacement, and ideological politics in the east, George decided to write Comrade Huppert: A Poet in Stalin’s World, a biography largely based on the memoir.

It is possible that the two Hupperts are related, a chance that must have tantalized George, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois who also was born in southern Poland near the Czech border in 1934. Here, I’ll use their first names to differentiate.

The addition of illuminating historical context to Hugo’s narrative is George’s most significant contribution. Hugo was born to a middle-class Jewish family in the Austrian empire’s Duchy of Silesia during a period of virulent anti-Semitism that had initially intensified in the 1880’s. By 1919, violent pogroms were flaring across Poland’s towns and cities. The next year, Hugo set off to Vienna to study, joining the Austrian Communist Party in 1920. Prominent leftist voices in the city included those of Victor Serge, Antonio Gramsci, and Leon Trotsky. Hugo’s girlfriend Emily (later his first wife) worked at the office of the Central Committee while Hugo earned a degree in political science.

In 1925 he went to Paris for post-doctoral work, returning to Vienna in 1927. When right-wing reactionaries gained strength and crushed the unions, Hugo went to Moscow with Emily and was hired as a foreign desk editor at the Marx-Engels Institute. By the mid-1930’s, he was a party member, a contributor to Izviestia, and a friend of Mayakovsky and Stanislaw Lec. He wrote, in German, a book celebrating industry at Siberian mines which was translated and published in New York in 1934.

But in 1938, he was thrown into one of Stalin’s prisons for one year. Someone informed on him, but perhaps for no reason other than his demeanor. On his release, he went right back to work, producing radio propaganda broadcast at advancing German troops (he had witnessed their approach to Lemberg). By 1944, he was private secretary to the prominent Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenberg – a model of the writer Hugo aspired to be. In 1945, he was in Budapest as the Red Army took control of the city.

HuppertBook.jpgThere was much more to come. But the chronology of events is just a part of his story. George’s book is attuned to Hugo’s personality and habits. The former, unsettled and aggrieved, hard to take (“he was not universally liked”); the latter marked by his addictive womanizing. Hugo’s story pivots between his employment and his aspirations as a writer, mainly disappointed. George takes little interest in his poetry and essays – they are barely quoted. As a result, we never get an adequate taste of his writing, either his literary output or his diary. It seems both a curious and unfortunate omission.

Hugo had a knack for getting into trouble with his Russian bosses. After committing a major protocol faux pas in Vienna in 1949 (yes, involving a woman), he ended up in Tbilisi where he translated the Georgian national poem into German. This triumph resulted in the restoration of his party membership and his return to Vienna. In 1964, East Germany (GDR) awarded him the Heinrich Heine Prize and in 1977 he received the Austrian Cross of Honor for Sciences and the Arts.

At one point in the late 1960s, he met Paul Celan who, like him, was writing in German. He asked Celan to sign one of his books – Celan refused to sign for “a Stalinist.” This also is the challenge to the reader of Comrade Huppert who may view him as a mere opportunist and blinkered Communist. As George Huppert proceeds to narrate Hugo's improbable survival, one realizes just how much lethal turmoil Hugo witnessed and managed to outlive.

[Published March 14, 2016. 176 pages, $24.00 hardcover]

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Patty Carroll, a photographer who shot many Elvis impersonators for her book Living the Life: The World of Elvis Tribute Artists, is convinced that imitating Elvis isn’t merely a matter of squeezing into a bell-bottomed jumpsuit. “They definitely feel a different kind of energy than in their everyday lives,” she says. “Being an Elvis impersonator is not something you start out to do, but something happens and you follow the calling.”

HarrisonCover.jpgAccording to a Yahoo Music site, there are about 85,000 Elvis impersonators in the world. They form a cadre in the afterlife of Elvis – which is to say that Elvis, unlike other dead mega-celebrities, has an afterlife that extends from the daily tours of Graceland to something called the Elvis Presley Holy Land Tour Experience in Israel (home to the largest Elvis statue in the world). Ted Harrison’s The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley considers many aspects of the afterlife, starting with the management of Presley’s assets after his death at age 42 in 1977.

When John Lennon died in 1980, he left an estate worth about $100 million. It had always been assumed that Elvis was the most richly paid entertainer in the world, yet his estate was worth just $7 million, including just $1 million in financial assets. Being Elvis was expensive and Colonel Parker gouged him for years. By 2004, Elvis Presley Enterprises [EPE], the marketing rights for which had changed hands several times, was valued at over $100 million through royalties, licensing, and Graceland ticket sales. Lisa Marie Presley has since sold off most of her stake in EPE but holds the deed to Graceland and Elvis’ personal effects.

Elvis_Lives.jpgAfter tracing the growth of the Elvis business, Harrison asks, “Why is Elvis still so influential?” Why are there official Presley fan clubs today in 31 countries? He never answers the question in depth, but moves on to consider the many ways in which The King is worshipped. In his introduction Harrison writes, “There is a strange, profound and otherworldly resonance to be discovered within the messianic and mythological elements of his legendary story.” In other words, Harrison perceives an archetypal substance in Elvis’ iconic status that especially appeals to certain born again types. He treats this effect as a fact, like the weather. In general, the narrative’s tonelessness creates a dilute view of his subject. Information piles up but soon begins to register as trivia rather than phenomena regarded critically, organically, and imaginatively.

Elvis_Reeses.jpegThe overall effect of The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley is dispiriting. In the end, it all comes down to private equity firms, nostalgia tours, conspiracy addicts and evangelical whack jobs. This is what a long demise looks like though you wouldn’t know it by reading Harrison’s neutrally pitched prose. If the afterlife of Presley includes people who actually listen to the music, he never tells us. But they must be out there enjoying “Elvis Radio” on SiriusXM.

ElvisJesus.jpgQuackery author Cinda Godfrey reminds us in The Elvis-Jesus Mystery that Jesus is the Son and Elvis recorded for Sun Records – don’t you see?! Meanwhile, in a final chapter Harrison considers those people who believe Elvis never died at all but went into hiding to achieve some other godly or patriotic purpose. Fake news stories about Elvis appearances continue to this day -- including a 2015 story featuring a dead homeless man in San Diego whose DNA was claimed to be an exact match to Elvis.

John Lennon took a more caustic view – he said Elvis died in 1957 when he was inducted into the U.S. Army.

[Published September 15, 2016. 256 pages, 30 halftones, $25.00 hardcover]