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Italy, a land of beauty and overpowering ugliness

Italy is a country that has often fascinated British writers. Here are my recommendations for the best books on Italy and the Italians

By on Tuesday, 15 November 2011

I have just written an article for the print version of the paper – which will appear on Friday – and in the course of it thought it would be a good idea to pass on a few recommendations of books about Italy. A good book about Italy is always something to treasure, and here are a few that I have found informative and enjoyable.

When it comes to guidebooks about Rome, Augustus Hare is the unrivalled master, as I have observed before now.

The standard analysis of Italian society used to be Luigi Barzini’s The Italians, first published in 1964. It is a wonderful book and still worth reading for its powerful insight into the national character. Barzini had an interesting life: a distinguished journalist who saw action in China before the War, he was later sent into internal exile by Mussolini, and after the War became a member of the Italian parliament. His is the essential insider’s account, tempered by a knowledge of the world beyond Italy as well. In this book he predicts that Italy will never legalise divorce, as to do so would be to destroy the foundation of the nation. Well, he was wrong about that.

Several people have taken up where Barzini left off. I would greatly recommend the work of Charles Richards entitled The New Italians, which dates from 1995. Richards used to be the Independent’s Rome correspondent, and he is particularly enlightening on the curse of organised crime in the south of Italy, as well as the menace posed by the separatist Northern League. Richards takes the view that Italians are hard working and inventive people, but that they encounter a cumbersome and inefficient bureaucracy at almost every turn, something that all who have lived in Italy will acknowledge with a wry smile.

Also dating from the same time as Charles Richards’ book is a volume by Matt Frei, the television journalist, which is entitled Italy: the Unfinished Revolution. Frei’s book is surprisingly frank about the odore di mafia (the whiff of Mafia involvement) that hung around several high ranking Christian Democrat politicians. Both Frei and Richards were writing at the time when Italy seemed to be changing and for the better: the old system was collapsing, and the pentapartito  – the five party coalition that had run the country for so long – losing its grip on power. Berlusconi was then just emerging onto the scene. Those hopes are now long gone, alas.

For the definitive account so far of what Berlusconi means, one must read Tobias Jones who has written the Dark Heart of Italy , dating to 2005, but yet to be bettered in my opinion. Mr Jones regularly contributes to the Guardian on Italian matters. He is always worth reading. To my mind he captures the terrible contradiction at the heart of Italy, understanding both its beauty and its overpowering ugliness.

When it comes to fiction, frankly I would give the much recommend and somewhat highbrow Tim Parks a miss, and settle for the late Michael Dibdin whose early death was such a great loss to literature. He is the inventor of the sleuth Aurelio Zen, and the Zen novels are a wonderful way in to appreciating the frustrations of Italian life and the way that corruption and the tentacles of organised crime have affected Italian society at all levels.