Peter Byrne: Everywhere Tales, 2018, Lecce, Edizioni Grifo, 515 pages, ISBN 9788869941542
It is not every day that a book by an American writer is published here in the Salento, and in English. Especially if it is fiction. Essays, yes, a certain number of them appear every year, mainly the work of scholars and academics from the local University. Everywhere Tales by the Lecce-based, American academic, journalist and writer Peter Byrne offers the Anglophone and the Anglophile, both in Italy and abroad, a delightful collection of twenty-five shorter items and two longish plays.
Peter Byrne was born in Chicago in 1929 and lived his early life in the years of the Great Depression, the hardships of which were masterfully described by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men, 1937, and The Grapes of Wrath, 1939. These were also the last years of Prohibition and of the decline of Al Capone’s supremacy in the Chicago criminal world.
At nineteen, Peter left to study in Canada, ending at Laval University in Quebec City. He traveled back and forth to Europe by boat, a ten-day trip when the going was good. In the 1950s he was in Montreal. It was a time of political and social change in the French-speaking province of Quebec, ‘la révolution tranquille.’ The Catholic Church had assumed an overbearing power, controlling all aspects of public and much of private life in a way that was not dissimilar to the Ireland of those days or, as Peter felt, like the Church of Generalísimo Franco’s Spain. However, as the decade unfolded, a strong wind of change swept Quebec. It began with ‘Le Refus Global,’ the manifesto of a group of socially-minded artists, and was a foretaste of the tumult of the 1960s that would rock the West.
Thanks to Canadian citizenship, which he had acquired, and the then close political links between Canada and Great Britain, Peter was able to take up residence in London without restrictions. He married there, fathered two children and worked for the international telephone service. He would quite soon divorce and marry again, this time to a woman who was a figure in the fashion industry in London and Paris. He began his doctorate at the Sorbonne that would center on the friendship between the writer George Sand, Giuseppe Mazzini and the renegade priest, Félicité Lamennais.
In France he met members of the Philosophy Faculty of Lecce University, now the University of Salento. At the time the Faculty of Philosophy of the University was very active on the European cultural scene and very open to foreign collaboration. Roger Dadoun, for example, the French philosopher, psychoanalyst, and art critic worked regularly with the Lecce philosophers. Peter, in these years, would scour Paris used-book shops for material concerning his research, and his considerable collection of books would later find its way to the Faculty Library. The subject of his thesis chimed with work being done at the Faculty of Philosophy and, after congenial contact with Salento scholars in France, he was invited to teach at the Lecce Faculty. He afterward taught English at the same university, before moving to the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice and to the University of Bari. In Venice he made a friend of Bernard Hickey who was well established there as a professor.
In Lecce, having divorced a second time, Peter met Gabriella Miccoli who would become, as it were, his longterm wife. She was a teacher employed at Italian Schools abroad for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At times she would be attached to Italian consulates as consultant for language and educational matters. Her work took Gabriella to posts in various corners of the world, from Vancouver, on the Pacific Coast of Canada, to a five-year sojourn in Bulgaria and a seven-year stay in Istanbul “The change from Sofia to Istanbul,” Peter says, “was like a pardon from prison and removal to a magical megacity where the impression was of being for the first time at the very center of the world.”
Peter followed Gabriella’s peregrinations, teaching English, editing and translating. By the time the couple settled down in Lecce for good in 2005, he was a prolific contributor to an online American magazine. Many of his wanderings would find their way into the stories and plays collected in Everywhere Tales. ‘Fathers,’ for instance, was inspired by the change of regime he witnessed in Bulgaria where a state-run economy, assisted by Soviet Russia, abruptly adopted a western European model. For several years the fraught transition left a large part of the population in poverty and misery. The dialogue between the Italian son-in-law and his Bulgarian mother-in-law shows how differently Communism was seen in Western Europe and behind the former Iron Curtain. In France, Spain and Italy Euro-Communism was not a dirty word, while to the east those who had known ‘Real Socialism’ tried hard to forget it.
Reading Hemingway’s novels and short stories was a sort of rite of passage for Peter’s generation and, I think, for all generations until the late 1980s. When I was young—and I was born in 1950—reading Hemingway, but also Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald and others of, as Gertrude Stein had it, the “lost generation,” was one of the things you did on ‘coming of age,’ together with getting a driving license as soon as possible. No modern writer can say that he or she escaped the influence of these luminaries of American fiction. From this point of view, ‘Green Dogs on the Spianada’ is an ironic retelling of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa. It’s the story of a big game hunt by a “barrel-chested man,” of course called “Papa,” and a woman with a pith helmet, maybe his daughter, but maybe not, since Hemingway favored young girls, though this one resembles none of the goddesses with long, tanned legs he befriended. The setting is different and far from any African savanna. Their hunting grounds are the streets and alleys around the Esplanade in Kerkira, Corfu, and their prey the stray dogs of the island’s capital. In the end, no creature perishes, because the only one stalked so carefully, turns out to be very elusive as well as doggy in the extreme. The satire is pervasive, but not acid, almost affectionate, as it becomes homage to a great master.
The brief ‘Cleverworm' reminded me of something read in childhood, perhaps Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Elephant’s Child.’ But while Kipling saved the young pachyderm, Peter’s worm meets a dark end. One of the most surprising stories, especially for a Leccese reader, is ‘The Sucking Horse.’ A Vancouver couple, Jim and Madge, embark on the quest for a carving or bas-relief in a Lecce church. A picture of it in a guidebook caught their attention. The objet d’art was reportedly housed between Piazza Sant’Oronzo and the Castello in St. Joseph’s Church. Strangely, it portrays a woman breastfeeding a horse, and just as strangely, notwithstanding their meticulous search of the church, Jim and Madge are unable to find it. The truculent sexton on duty does not wish them well. They never set eyes on “the sucking horse” and fly back home after a visit to the local cemetery that, full of visitors in their Sunday best, strikes them more like “a civic opera house or a live theatre” than a burial ground. The story is instructive in that it gives some idea of what Lecce inspires in the minds of foreign tourists, with all its baroque display extending well into the city of the dead.
Of the 515 pages I was most struck by the two full-length plays, ‘Weed’ and ‘Great Fire.’ ‘Weed’ was inspired by the actual visit to Chicago of a renowned British journalist, W. T. Stead, who would write a book entitled If Christ Came to Chicago. In the play, Mr. Brown, a detective, timid but with a sterling character, is hired by a Mr. Hamilton to watch the movements of the enquiring British journalist, I. S. Weed, who arrived late at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, found it already being dismantled, is shocked by the ways of the city and decides to prolong his stay to reform them, “rallying prominent Chicago citizens around him.” Hamilton also asks for the assistance of Eva, a stunning society matron of whom he is a hopeless suitor. Eva is supposed to help Brown in his inquiry but ends up teaching him the facts of life. When I. S. Weed, perhaps weary of trying to amend the incorrigible Chicagoans, decides to direct his efforts to New York, Eva and Brown follow him, so that “Brownie” may continue his “education.” The play emphasizes the clash between two different mentalities: the American, always on the move, always building, pulling down and rebuilding, and the British, or European, more keen to preserve what has been built, even if it was only for a World Fair. In fact, the London Crystal Palace, built for the first Great Exhibition of 1851, remained a leading landmark of the city until 1936, when it was destroyed by a devastating fire. The Paris Tour Eiffel is still towering there.
‘Great Fire’ is an imaginary chronicle of the conflagration that in 1871 reduced to cinders nine square kilometers of “the golden-crowned, glorious Chicago.” The three acts of the play take place in a single room, the office of Jack, a sub-editor of a Chicago newspaper who remains sitting at his desk, while his legmen, and a legwoman, Marge, who happens to be his lover, enter and exit from the scene, each time reporting the latest news of the fire ravaging the city from west to east and then north along Lake Michigan. While the fire rages and the high flames can be seen from the window, Jack continues writing and revising, almost in real time, the coverage of the apocalyptic combustion, reciting while writing, so that the style moves back and forth from the conversational to the editorial. Peter is a master of dialogue and at his best in the plays. ‘Great Fire’ shows how legends were born about the 1871 Chicago disaster. It was stubbornly believed that the fire spread from a cowshed where a kerosene lantern had been overturned by a nervous cow being milked by a drunken Mrs. Kate O’Leary. The tale appeared in the newspapers and, though Mrs. O’Leary categorically denied the rumor, she was persecuted ever after as an example of Irish drunken incompetence, at the time seen as the source of all evil on North American soil. That was before the mass arrival of the Italians, of course. Twenty-five years after the fire, journalist Michael Ahern revealed that he, with two colleagues, had “concocted the story of the cow kicking over the lamp.”