Poetry of Robert Fisher
line decor
  HOME  ::     POEMS ::     STORIES ::    CONTACT :: 
line decor

The Archangel’s Trumpet
A Memoir
Francesco Caporali

By Robert L. Fisher



One would have said that, as in certain Last Judgments of the Middle Ages, her head alone was emerging from the tomb, awaiting in its sleep the
Archangel’s trumpet.

Marcel Proust, The Captive, Chapter Three “The Flight of Albertine"


          Ludovico Ariosto devoted a quarter century to his masterpiece, not only revising the manuscript on his incessant diplomatic journeys across Italy, but also leaving his work in progress open on a table in a room at his home on the Via Mirasole in Ferrara, so that visitors, if they wished, could emend the text as they saw fit.
          I admire Ariosto’s humility and envy him his helpful friends who took an interest in his work. How wonderful it is to have Michael’s memories and thoughts providing an account that is almost in complementary distribution to the one set forth here: when I was away from Francesco, Michael was with him; and when Michael was away, I was with Francesco. I am embarking on this memoir without any of my subject’s correspondence, indeed without even a sample of his handwriting; without the benefit of interviewing his parents, without recordings of his voice or without what is now virtually ubiquitous, video tapes of him. Luckily I have obtained a great deal of information, particularly about his last days, from his sister, Linda, and from talking with his cousin.


Year book photo.

  All I had in 2005 was one photo of him copied from his high school yearbook in his senior year in 1960, and memories of the sound of his voice and of our many long conversations, detailed memories of his appearance and expressions, especially of how he smiled and carried himself, and of how he walked or the passionate, serious way he played the piano. The photo I had gotten by phoning the public library that served that region and asking if they had yearbooks for a certain high school. They did and for a small fee photocopied Francesco’s picture and mailed it to me.
          I went to the New Kensington newspaper, whose offices were in a dumpy building in that industrial strip of factories and railroads that skirts the Allegheny River. The clerks found Francesco’s obituary and from that information I was able to locate some of his family. But it was my sister who was most valuable as a sleuth – her friends had given her the nickname of “Nancy Drew”. One day as we drove down the depressing hill from the cemetery where Francesco is buried, she had an inspiration. Let’s stop in that little Italian grocery store and ask if there are any Caporalis near here. They look like they’ve been in business at that location forever.” We did just that, and to my surprise, but not to my sister’s, they did indeed know the Caporali clan, and even remembered Francesco. Two blocks away lived his cousin, an electrician. We went to his house and it was immediately evident that the poor man thought we were from the police or some government agency. We managed to overcome that and gained admittance. We saw photos of Francesco and his family on a sideboard in the living room. I felt sorry for this man; it was obvious that he had a difficult life and had had to battle his demons. But he lit up at once when we told him of our old friendship with Francesco.
          “He was a special person. One time he was in the Hill District with a sack over his shoulder. He was on the way to the laundry. Some tough guys stopped him and wanted to rob him. He showed them how little he had, but added they were welcome to it.” The tough guys ended up by insisting Francesco keep whatever he had and sent him on his way unharmed. That was pure Francesco: the St. Francis who could charm beasts with the force of his goodness. This incident also reminds me of one of Francesco’s bons mots: “The choice is to live in the city and face real danger, or live in the suburbs and face death by boredom.”
          His cousin also told us that Francesco had once been in a terrible automobile accident, in the days before seat belts were mandatory. His head hit the windshield with horrible force, and he required dozens of stitches to close the wound. His sister, Linda, told me that she had asked a brain specialist if the trauma from this wound had somehow caused a weakness that led to the tumor. He said there were no data to prove this supposition, but it seemed reasonable to believe that the trauma could have been a preconditioning factor.
          From Francesco’s cousin I found out how to get in touch with his sister, Linda, who now lives in Florida. She supplied these photos

Francesco 1971 Francesco with his family.

Robert Fisher with Michael's family Florence Francesco at Michael's home.

          The lower left picture barely shows Michael at the left margin; Linda, Francesco’s sister; Lili, my girlfriend; me, talking to Michael’s two sons, Sasha and Kiril.
          The second photo on the left is Florence; and on the right, Francesco in 1971. Photo on the lower left: a musical soirée at Michael’s home: Michael in standing in the back row, with Francesco and Michael’s father in the front row seated. Both Francesco and Michael’s father are staring off into some other reality. Photo on the lower right: Francesco with family members.
          The cause of the blinding headaches Francesco had been experiencing was cancerous brain tumors. The surgeons found that the tumors were inoperable, since they were imbedded in nerve tissue that controlled vital functions. Even if Francesco had somehow survived he would have been severely brain damaged, probably paralyzed and unable to speak or comprehend. Although Florence held his hand and rubbed his wrists during his coma, Francesco never regained consciousness and died a day or two after the operation.
          From the cousin came information about Francesco’s funeral. His body had been held up in Italy due to endless red tape, and by the time it had been released it had to some extent deteriorated. His family nevertheless arranged for an open casket, but since Francesco had undergone brain surgery and a further autopsy, the top of his head was wrapped in a type of turban. In addition, a translucent veil covered the opening of the casket. Personally I would not have had the strength to bear that sight, and for once I counted myself fortunate in having been absent, twelve thousand miles away in Australia.
           One photo and many memories, and my visits to his grave, beside his father’s, and in 2006 his mother’s, on a hilltop above the Allegheny River, overlooking the moribund industrial wasteland and little riverine communities, now thinly populated with white-haired retirees, which in his youth were more vital and bustling. How it pains me to see him buried so far from the soft hills of his beloved Tuscany.


On a Hill above the Allegheny

The sun spilled the last of its summer silver
Upon the waters of the Allegheny,
And the wind spoke of autumn, making the river shiver
And the sailboats quake at their moorings.
The wind tested the leaves in the green forests
That hang from the valley walls
And some leaves twirled earthward and the birds took note.
An island: its toy village of cottages and lanes
That halt at the shore, where driftwood fossilizes in the mud
And remembers steamboats paddling to the Ohio.
Across the narrow channel a few streets and dismal houses,
Grey and dingy from the soot of vanished foundries,
A strangled zone between cliffside and river,
A long brushstroke in sepia
Bordering the tightening upper reaches of the Allegheny.
A faint rumble everywhere —
Trains of black tank cars squealing toward a distant maw,
A forge pounding and crushing metal.
Cranes rattling their cables and hooks the size of a man,
Conveyor belts and idling machines unseen
In the welter of iron beams and corrugated rooves.
No one about but the childless elderly.

The hill is steep and the rumbling river smalls below.
It is a road haphazardly patched, ever rising
Past dreary bungalows and peeling clapboard,
Chainlink fences enclosing
Overgrown concrete and collapsing factories,
Until at last the Union Cemetery on a knoll,
Its tombs crowning the silent peak.

Your grave is by the roadside, beside your father
For whom you were named —
He blue-collar Frank and you refined Francis.
My heart sinks — how could they have laid you to rest here,
In this squalor and decay?
Across the river you roamed the hillside forests,
Nearly impenetrable in summer,
Tramping alone, alone, alone through the bracken.
What angel blown off course deposited you
In this uncomprehending family,
This community which took three steps back at your approach?

I am here today to breathe in your soul and carry you home in my lungs.
I have measured precisely these hills and forests of your youth,
And matched them to a valley in Umbria.
I have added a waterfall that becomes a curtain of spray
And behind the spray I have placed a mystery for you to ponder,
A cave, which you may fill with Cardinal Spada’s fabulous wealth,
Or with bears and bats, or dwarves hammering glowing iron on black anvils.

I have decided you are an oak and have exhaled your spirit into this sapling.
Grow slow, grow strong and strew acorns for the wild boar.
I will visit you often and water you in droughts
And put out the flames when you are struck by lightning.
My knees creak as I kneel to tend the soil
And my hands are spotted and lined as they prune your shoots.
I concentrate on the music of Scarlatti and Mozart,
Almost sweating blood,
Then you appear and we converse.
I swoon from the effort,
But in my hand is an artifact,
A scrap of handwriting,
A bookmark, a paper sack of pine nuts,
And my gaze drifts to the waterfall now dark,
Where I imagine I see torchlight and hear madrigals.


Francesco's Grave

 Proust said of our memories of the dead, “It is perhaps in the same way that a sort of cutting taken from one person and grafted on to the heart of another continues to carry its existence even when the person from whom it had been detached has perished.” This memoir is that cutting grafted on to my heart.
          I first met Francesco in 1965, introduced to him by his roommate, Michael, with whom he shared the upper storey of a rambling old house perched on the edge of Panther Hollow, the ravine that winds through Schenley Park, just a few blocks from the University of Pittsburgh. Nearby was Forbes Field, that humane stadium, clinging for its life to the cliff, ancient home of the Pirates, itself now a fading memory. On recent trips to Pittsburgh I have tried to drive around that old neighborhood to see if I could locate that house, but not only has Forbes Field long been demolished and carted away, but the neighborhood around it, never a savory one, has become a rabbit warren of dead ends and one-way streets and streets interrupted with tiny, dusty parks. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, as remote as imaginable from the shabby neighborhood of working-class families typical of Pittsburgh in our day.
          The flat was that characteristic mess that only college students can make: mattresses strewn on the floor, they themselves strewn with tangled sheets, books and papers, old underwear, leftover food, and in the shafts of dazzling sunlight, sleeping bodies.
          Francesco, despite the noon hour, was just awakening. He was a tall man, about six foot three, dark brown hair and a straight mustache that gave him a European air. His thick glasses with black frames, so oblivious of style, marked him as an intellectual. His voice was deep and rich, like a radio announcer’s, and full of calm confidence. Within a moment of meeting him I noted his most characteristic expression: the slightly upturned corner of his mouth, a little accentuated by the parallel line of the mustache, denoting an amused observation of the human animal, not judgmental, but rather tolerant and melancholy.
One day in Toronto Francesco said, “You know, I think cheerfulness is the greatest human virtue.” Perhaps temperamentally he was inclined to silence and, and as Kenneth Clark, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of mankind, an assessment I think Francesco would have thought was an understatement, yet he made a great effort to be cheerful. I may have told him about the ending of that wonderful book about the future, Olaf Stapleton’s Last and First Men (1930), in which future humans, after many triumphs and disasters, great advances in science and genetic engineering, were now confined to either of the two poles, because the sun had become unstable and its radiation had made most of the earth uninhabitable. Yet in this dire moment, it was the young who were unfailingly cheerful and who never lost hope. Depressed people usually score higher on tests that measure one’s grasp of reality. As an exceptionally intelligent man, Francesco must have clearly seen the human condition for what it is, and perhaps marveled at the optimism that drives ordinary people to go to work everyday, to find pleasure in their families and face the problems and worries of survival. Here I think Francesco had made a brave resolve that ran counter to his nature and to his analysis of life.
          He was required to hand in a major paper for his bachelor’s degree in Italian literature, but seemed strangely ambivalent about pursuing the project. Some time later, in the same flat, he told me he had finished his paper. He pointed to a thick paper lying on the old-fashioned marble mantle above the nonfunctioning fireplace.
          “But I don’t know…why bother handing it in?” he said with a shrug.
          “All you have to do is walk across the street and give it to the professor.”
          “Maybe, I don’t know…”
          “If you want, I’ll take it over for you!”
          “Thanks, but no, don’t bother.”
          At the time I didn’t know I was talking to a saint, an unworldly man with no desire to fit in career paths, advancement, reputation and consumerism. I don’t know if he ever handed that paper in. But not long after, whenever anyone asked him what he did for a living he would reply, “I’m in the third year of my retirement.”Saints can be maddening, for their devotion to honesty prevents them from playing along with the lies the rest of us continually tell each other to keep society functioning from day to day. For example, in grade school he would tell his mother he couldn’t bear to go to school that day, and his mother consented to let him stay home for what is known as a “mental health” day. The next day his mother wrote the teacher the pro forma note: “Please excuse Francis [it was we who nicknamed him Francesco] for being absent yesterday, as he had a cold.” Francesco refused to accept this note. “I wasn’t sick, I just didn’t feel like going to school.” Then a struggle would ensue between the worldly wise and the scrupulous, his poor mother begging him to look the other way and he insisting on puncturing hypocrisy.
          When I went out to visit the family homestead in Brackenridge, the little town on the opposite bank of the Allegheny from where he is buried, I used to wonder how this exceptional infant had emerged, like a butterfly from the caterpillar’s chrysalis, from this community of mill workers and housewives, of high school football games and bars with their exhaust fans exhaling the congealed smell of beer, sweat and cigarettes out onto the broken sidewalks. Before entering his house he would tell us, “Act as eccentric as possible.”
          Francesco collected eccentrics, both literary and real. One of his favorite books was Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics. On one of his sojourns to Italy he attached himself to an odd couple, a wealthy woman d’un certain âge and her lover, an IRA gunman. One day the woman was insufferable, complaining about the Irishman, criticizing and abusing him, becoming more and more hysterical. Suddenly the IRA man got up from his seat and cold-cocked her. He then picked up her limp form and as he carried her upstairs to the bedroom, he said over his shoulder, “She just wanted me to fuck her.”
          At Berlitz in Toronto where he taught Italian, one of his students was an Armenian from Istanbul, one of many who had felt uncomfortable enough in Turkey to emigrate. He left behind his property and most of his capital, but he started over, flourished and grew rich, then gambled away his money on some deal or other than went sour, picked himself up and gained another fortune, winning and losing fortunes but never daunted.The more eccentric a book the better. That first year that he and I and Michael were together in Toronto, in the early ’seventies, he was reading an odd book with the title Musrum, by Eric Thacker and Anthony Earnshaw (1968), a distortion of the word “mushroom”. He particularly liked the phrase “his apologetic teeth”. I told him about a French book I had read in Berkeley, Locus Solus, by Raymond Roussel, about the tour of a weird garden an eighteenth-century host gives his dinner guest. I loved the book and told Francesco about the strange exhibits in the garden — the mosaic made of extracted teeth; the head of Danton, preserved in a pool, and which, when stimulated electrically, gave one of his famous orations, silently of course, but with Danton’s dramatic facial expressions. He especially liked the exhibit that prompted the story of Pizzighini, the evil dwarf. We both thought how exactly right the name Pizzighini was. One of my happiest memories is when I was able to present him with a French edition of the book. When he took it out of the bag and saw the title he gave a cry of delight like a kid at Christmas and held the book in both hands, tightly as if it was going to run away, and held it up to his forehead I wish I had dedicated myself to giving him such moments daily.
           The other home-grown eccentrics were the Collinses, a family that lived on a farm near Brackenridge. As Michael put it, “There philosophy about how to raise children is to give them food and a horse.” They were utterly unflappable. One day, Francesco told me, a little boy, their son, looking serious in that way little boys do, announced, “Mom, I’m going to go upstairs to my room and jump up and down on the bed until the plaster comes down.” His mom said, “That’s nice, dear.” Another time, the two-year-old got into a fifty-pound sack of sugar and was building castles in the middle of the kitchen floor. The mother picked up the child, dusted him off, and calmly began putting the sugar, a cup at a time, back into the sack. Nary a curse, nary a tear. The Collinses had a passion for collecting bells and edited a club newsletter. I visited them with Francesco and my roommate from UCLA, with whom I was making a grand tour of America that summer of 1967. They began explaining the history of bells and taking us through the farmhouse which had more bells than any museum, showing us some blackened with age, other tiny as sleigh bells, others as big as the Liberty Bell, all of them scattered about the house in every room, on every floor.  At the end of the tour, we returned to the starting point in the living room, or perhaps parlour is a better word, and it was then that we realized we had lost John, my college roommate. But there he was, sound asleep, a few feet from the entrance. The Collinses took this all in stride

         One eccentric Francesco and I soon discovered we had in common was a genuine sadist, our Classical Greek professor. A dapper, more-English-than-the-English classicist from Belgium. To borrow from Monty Python, a true Phlegm. How he tormented us and humiliated us, how we endured his pompous tirades. Francesco never had trouble with him because he was a star pupil. In fact, he invited Francesco for dinner. While the men were in the living room discussing Greek philosophy, his rather beautiful wife was cooking a turkey in the kitchen. She came in for a moment to say hello, then everyone smelled smoke. “Oh, Marc, the turkey’s burning!” His reaction was to take a deep breath and exhale a sigh of exasperation and shout, “Stop being an hysterical woman and turn off the oven!” I liked the “an”. I saw the same exasperated sigh another time, in class, when playing the role of Mr. Know-It-All, he was expounding on English words that derived from Greek kryptós ‘secret, hidden’. He told us we had missed one derivative of this root and that was ‘krypton’. He asked one of the modern Greeks in the class to explain what it was, since that student was majoring in chemistry. He didn’t know at first, but then his face lit up. “Oh, I know! It’s the planet Superman was born on.”
          One thing we did learn from our study of Greek was the expression Ò :¥<…Ò ‘on the one hand…on the other”. And many times Francesco expressed the two sides of an argument using this Greek phrase.
          Another side of Francesco was his talent for criticism and accuracy. He was always able to put his finger on the weaknesses and strengths of not only an argument but also of a work of art or a musical performance. He had high standards, and a word of praise from him was therefore all the more impressive, as when he said one day after we had viewed Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai, “That must be the most perfect film ever made.” When something was exceptionally good he was generous with his praise, as he was of Kenneth Clark’s series Civilisation. He and Michael and I enthused over it many times, both the television series and the book. We all admired Clark’s writing and his refined estheticsm. But this talent for criticism had it unforgiving, almost harsh side. Once, when he was living in Toronto, I saw him mailing a thick letter to his mother. “I’m including my own letter and returning the letter she wrote with her errors corrected in red.”
          He was serious. In grammar, at least, wrong was wrong and should be corrected. I wondered if his mother’s feelings were hurt. Or did she want to improve her grammar and was grateful for the opportunity? Of what use to her was flawless grammar?It was rare indeed that I ever heard Francesco swear, quite a remarkable accomplishment for a Pittsburgher, for we grew up in a city of heavy industry and blue collar ethos. The strongest condemnations I ever heard from him were Dickensian: once after being annoyed by some rule-obsessed librarian, he said to me with obvious frustration, “I’ve always thought librarians were a subspecies of human.” And once he referred to a woman as a “frump”, which sent me to the dictionary for the exact meaning of this old-fashioned word.
          In all the time I knew him only rarely did our conversations drift to the world of pop culture, and certainly never on the subject of music. But one exceptional piece of pop culture did grab his attention and made him laugh heartily, and that was the savage illustrated satire of Robert Crumb. I had brought from Berkeley Crumb’s underground comics, especially Zap, with its stories of Mr. Natural (Francesco’s alter ego in a way, the same combination of sage living in monastic simplicity and sensualist indulging in, or fantasizing about, every physical pleasure), Flakey Foont, and that masterpiece, “Whiteman Meets Big Foot”. Occasionally he would quote a line from Crumb’s dialogue (we all admired his ear for common speech), as when Flakey Foont offered Mr. Natural a slice of pizza, and Mr. Natural said dismissively, “I don’t eat that shit.”

          Francesco once told Michael, “You and Fisher are always looking for the woman,” obviously implying that such a creature was a romantic illusion. When I told him I was going to get married, he said, with some impatience, “That’s so unnecessary.” I was a little crestfallen that he wasn’t offering me the standard congratulations, and not a little disturbed that he understood something about the human condition that I didn’t. But that was Francesco: his path sometimes went along the bank of the mainstream, but suddenly it would veer off into the forest, far from the view of us flowing with the mass of humanity. He saw through hypocrisy, and indeed had no patience for it. Once when the subject of virginity came up he said with contempt, “All that fuss over that little membrane.”
          That first year I saw Francesco regularly. I asked him how he had learned Italian. “I won a full scholarship to attend courses for one year in Perugia. I went to the first class, then never showed up again. No one ever said anything. I rented a room in an Etruscan arch, over a bordello. For that year I pretty much enjoyed life, almost like an orgy .”I had some trouble imagining this austere, monkish man, this tireless reader, this serious autodidact, wallowing in the fleshpots of Italy. “I’d love to dress in beautiful clothes, but only if I had a valet who would take care of them.”
          When he was living in Toronto he would shop for food in Kensington Market, where he chanced upon halvah and decided to try it. He would unwrap the brick of halvah with its dark swirls and strong scent of sesame. His knife cut a thin slice. “I have to limit myself to a thin slice or I would eat the whole thing in one sitting.” But as he cut the friable confection, sizeable fragments would break off, like a hillside crumbling into the sea.  “Well, since it broke off it doesn’t count, so I can eat it. Oh, look, another piece broke off! And over here this piece looks like it’s going to fall off any second.” And thus he rationalized himself deeper into the halvah.
          Decades later, in 2002, when I did visit Perugia and walked the streets he must have walked and gazed at the Etruscan arches, trying to divine which one he had lived in, I wrote this poem:


Autumn mornings, early,
Francesco hovers above the ploughed fields,
Above the just-turned earth,
In a mist, rolling like a heavy liquid.

‘I loved the dark hills of Umbria,’ says the mist,
‘Dark with oak and the smoke of forgotten tribes.
Boar and acorns at the heart of things.’

One day I saw him as sunlight
Cladding a Tuscan hill in hammered gold.
He painted a villa in pastels,
Then dappled my table through the grape leaves.
The message read,
‘I have three years to live.’

Sometimes he appears as himself:Tall, regal posture, mustache, wry smile,
Observing this ship of fools
From the bus station at Fiesole.
Someone asks him the time,
Then he turns a corner where no one is about
And vanishes.

I wanted to hate Perugia,
Its steepness and winding antiquities,
To single out for hate the Etruscan arches

--I saw you smiling from one —
I was jealous that those grey cobbles
And old trees and shadows and rooftops
Had a year of your soul —
Decaying leaves and roasting chestnuts,
Espresso and stolen umbrellas,
Snow and draughts, long scarves over suit coats,
Easter and flowering hillsides.

Once at the Galleria in Milan
I saw him a full head above the crowd,
A beige corduroy jacket,
But he turned down a side street.
At the corner, a maze of slinking alleys, empty.

The old men gossiping in the tiny piazza
In Ploaghe, in Sardinia,
Point across the cork trees and vineyards:
‘He took the ferry to the Continent just yesterday,’
And return to the hot bricks and laugh at a private joke.
A grandmother in black remembers the passenger,
Spending a few days exploring the pinnacle:
‘He left this for you, signore,’ and she hands me
A wand cut from an oak struck by lightning.
My fingers run over the incised letters:
Etruscan, perhaps a prayer, or a question for an oracle.

At my feet the waterfall plunges into the green spray,
Behind me the wand planted in a clearing,
And somewhere in the dark hills of Umbria
Is his voice singing.
I can catch the words when the wind is right.

          Francesco used to chide me for being such an admirer of the French Enlightenment. I always wanted to imitate Voltaire and Diderot, their way of writing, their clarity. He said I was “excessively devoted to reason”. Although, as I have explained above, Francesco saw through people and their motives, saw through the hypocrisy of society and the falseness of religion, he nevertheless had inherited many of the ideals of Romanticism. He loved being in nature, and in Brackenridge spent many hours exploring the forest, even in winter, which had the advantage, he said, of making progress easier since so much of the undergrowth was absent. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison he had taken courses in botany and in Fiesole had planted and tended a garden. There he had taken a peach stone, buried it and nurtured it. Over the years it has flourished, as a monument to his love of life. He told me he liked to walk around au naturel in his apartment. And he was fascinated by stories of shamans, particularly by the books of the mysterious Carlos Castaneda. Francesco would eagerly tell me about the scene in which one day Castaneda saw his teacher, the Yaqui brujo, Don Juan, in Mexico City, dressed elegantly, while Don Juan was at the same time back in the mountains of Mexico. Don Juan’s power of bilocation intrigued Francesco.
          I told Francesco that Castaneda was a graduate student at UCLA at the same time I was, and that I had met one of his fellow anthropology graduate students in a French class. He said Castaneda was rarely around and very evasive about his field work, about its exact location, in fact about any details. The rumor was that much of his field notes was bogus. Francesco and I more or less were in agreement with Octavio Paz, who said that he didn’t care if his books were fiction: it was the greatest fiction he had ever read. The world of unseen powers, of a hidden reality, of occult knowledge held a strong appeal to Francesco, and certainly was consonant with his attraction to the eccentric and exotic.

          Needless to say, Francesco was a tireless and close reader. One day I went to visit him at the rooms he rented on a side street just west of the University of Toronto. There was a table with a lamp, a straight-back chair, an old-fashioned wardrobe, and everywhere books, mostly the Penguin Classics with their black covers, on philosophy and classical Greek and Roman literature. I asked him if he had any light reading, but he just smiled, a little proud of his austere, disciplined life. It was really a monk’s cell. Nothing in that room went beyond the most basic needs − no radio, no telephone, no TV certainly. There may have been a clock. He obviously liked the lack of distraction, the austerity, the focus on learning and creating, the simplification of one’s life and the rejection consumerism. But he told me something quite poignant: “Sometimes I go for days without speaking.” He said this matter-of-factly, but I felt ashamed of not visiting him on a regular basis, and wasting my time on what I had sadly come to realize was not the woman.
           Another writer that Francesco held in high esteem, and not least for his magical realism, was Jorge Luis Borges. As Michael put it so well, Borges had his finger on something quite disturbing about the universe. Francesco enjoyed the fading of the line between reality and the some other reality that manifested itself only in glimpses.
          He read, almost as a clinical description, Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. This shared with the Don Juan books the subject of psychotropic drugs (which to my knowledge Francesco had never taken, despite their prevalence in the ’sixties). Perhaps what drew him to this account was the fact that de Quincy had dropped out of society and gone beyond the pale, into a strange counterculture.
          Francesco was enthralled with Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, as was Michael, who read it straight through over the course of several days, pausing only to eat and get some sleep. The book is, as one professor of English described it, a rich diet, not something you would eat everyday, but only once in a great while. I hadn’t read it, so I had the pleasure of hearing about developments in the book as Francesco read them. Of course, the setting in the exotic world of pre-War Alexandria, the rich cast of eccentrics, like Scobey with his “tendencies”, and the outrageous high jinks like the homunculus that escaped from his bell-jar, amused Francesco no end.
          Francesco was in love with Italy, and the Mediterranean generally. He had been practically everywhere in Italy, even to Sardinia and Sicily. The only foreign languages he ever studied were Latin and its Romance descendants, including Rumanian, which he dallied with for a while. For some time he had a pen pal somewhere in Central America and was regularly composing letters in Spanish. Once he told me that he never comprehended Latin until he became fluent in Italian. He was good friends with one of the French teachers at Berlitz, and we used to try our best to conduct intelligent conversations with her in her language.
          The Italian book I remember him discussing as he read it was Tomaso di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which brought back images of Sicily from his explorations there. The other book in a Romance language that deeply affected Francesco was Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. He read it not long before his last trip to Italy. He told me that when he read descriptions of Como, he had put the book down and walked around the room, so great was his excitement, before he could continue reading.
          Even in poetry his tastes were Mediterranean, for he was an admirer of the Alexandrian, C. P. Cavafy. Cavafy is almost a character in The Alexandria Quartet, since he is often quoted there.
          The only Asian literature I remember him reading, and strictly speaking it’s Dutch, not Asian, is the series of Chinese mystery stories written by Robert van Gulik, the Judge Dee novels. Van Gulik was not only a career diplomat but also a respected sinologist, whose command of both Mandarin and Classical Chinese was excellent, not to mention his mastery of calligraphy and the Ming style of illustration. He wrote several learned monographs, one on sex life in ancient China (which had to be published in Latin to appease the prudes), the gibbon in Chinese literature and treatises on the methods of criminal detection. Francesco would smile and say, dreamily, “Judge Dee and his wives…”, referring to the Judge’s polygyny.
          An echt Asian book he read, at my behest, was The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima. I regretted this recommendation, since it was based on a hasty assessment after reading the lyrical opening. As Francesco pointed out, the novella quickly went down hill from there, being rather sick and implausible.
          Another book Francesco spoke about, and which I did not read until thirty years later, was Jerzy Kosinsky’s The Painted Bird (1965). Like Castaneda’s book, controversy and accusations of falsehood plagued the book’s success. The main criticism was that Kosinsky led the reader to believe that this tale of persecution, torment and terror was an autobiography. Later he claimed it was really a compilation of various incidents from the lives of Holocaust survivors he had met. Francesco found it incredible that people could be so consistently, unrelievedly cruel to one boy. I didn’t find that part beyond the realm of possibility. (A lot of the controversy was fueled by wounded narcissism on the part of the Polish government and much of its populace.) In any event, it is an extremely upsetting book, all the more so for its vividness and detail, and if it is a composite of the experiences of many survivors, it is nonetheless an extraordinary witness to the Holocaust.                    

š œ 

          If we think of our life as a work in progress — as Joyce called Ulysses when he published excerpts from it in a literary journal —, if we think of our life as a painting or a musical composition or an architectural structure, then in old age we could look back on it and judge its beauty, its integrity, its soundness. If Francesco were alive today he would be sixty-five. I am certain that he would look back on a life lived according to his principles, especially the principle of freedom, for I have never known a man who was so devoted to principle and reason. He would have looked back on an authentic life, true to who he was as a person.
          But sometimes I wonder about Francesco at sixty-five: when we are young we are indifferent to comfort; adventure and exploration count for far more. We stay at youth hostels and live out of a knapsack. We live in furnished rooms near the university. For rent and food we survive on part-time jobs, at the coffee shop, at the florist’s, at the dry cleaner’s, or giving guitar lessons or, as Francesco did, English lessons or Italian lessons or playing the piano for a ballet school. We acquire nothing, we move at a moment’s notice. Our neighbors and neighborhoods are ever changing, yet all are members of a youthful, nomadic tribe of discoverers, or at any rate, misfits in a consumer society. The emphasis is on not being tied down, on being free to pursue our interests and curiosity, and on being unconventional generally. We shop at the health food stores — where some of us work —, we frequent the foreign film theaters, stay up all hours, ride bicycles everywhere, and our bookcases are made from concrete block and boards.
          Francesco died at thirty-three, a tall, strong man, and except for that stealthy tumor, in excellent health. He was teaching English at Berlitz in Florence, most likely without the proper visa, then later playing piano for a ballet school, and enjoying the sights and sounds and people drawn to Tuscany. But he had a woman, very like himself, artistic, a dancer, and very much in love with him. Would they have married and had children? If so, that would have radically changed his carefree bohemian life: the pressure to earn a reasonable income; the worries and tribulations of parenthood; the conflict caused by the demands of children on our time, which we wish to dedicate to intellectual and artistic development.
          Even if they had remained childless, there is still the weight of the years, which brings with it fatigue and the desire for comfort. We no longer have the vigor to fight cranky landlords and dismal flats and hot water that runs out and toilets that back up and the stolen bicycle and the increasing indifference, if not hostility, of society towards fringe people. Someone on the fringe today has a harder life than the same person in the ’sixties and ’seventies. Work is harder to find, housing in the downtown areas of big cities is much more expensive. The Greenwich Village of the Beatniks has been replaced with the Greenwich Village of the Yuppies.
          Perhaps at sixty-five Francesco would be thinking about the lack of a pension in his old age, about ending up alone in a dismal garret, about the steep cost of autonomy. In one of his stories Somerset Maugham tells us of a man who worked in an office in London. He hated the boring routine, the soul-destroying work, the daily grind of crowded underground trains, the trudging through rain and gloom, the tyranny of managers, the exhaustion awaiting him at day’s end. He decided to take all his savings, invest them in such a way that he would be provided with a modest annuity. He knew the annuity would end one day, but he told himself he would quietly commit suicide rather than return to the misery of London’s working class. He moved to a tropical island where he spent his days in leisure in the sun. He became a local character, a fixture of the landscape. One day he received a notice that his annuity was about to end. Stoically he prepared for his death by asphyxiation. He burned charcoal and sealed up his room. But he did a poor job of it and enough oxygen remained in the room to keep him alive, yet not enough to prevent him from sustaining permanent brain damage. Now the demented man haunted the forests with animal-like cries and hoots of laughter. Maugham’s story always disturbed me, almost as if it were a cautionary tale of the lazy-ant-versus-the-industrious-ant ilk. In the event, Francesco was wiser than he knew in taking retirement in youth and worrying about old age if and when it arrived.
          We will never know what he would be thinking today. He is forever frozen in time as that dignified young man going his own way, savoring life, accepting poverty in exchange for freedom.