In one of his later essays, Giovannino Guareschi explains that, as an author, he’d created two sets of characters: one “for outside stories, for export” and another “for the inside stories.” The first group, we know well; it comprises Don Camillo, Peppone, and the other denizens of the Little World. The second group is perhaps less well-known among Guareschi readers in English, but not for real lack of opportunity to meet its members. For they are the author’s own family, and they are featured in three collections of stories and essays published in English in 1953, 1966, and 1970, respectively.
Guareschi’s classic family stories are like snapshots or slices of life, where said life is lived in the developing Italy of the 1950’s. In these tales, we encounter a stylized version of the Guareschi family. And, while one can’t know how typical the real Guareschis were of Italian families at that time, the literary Guareschis are offered as a kind of middle-class Everyfamily with whom we are all invited to identify. They face the problems that bourgeois Western families generally faced at mid-20th-century (such as adjusting to post-war prosperity and the various burgeoning technologies), as well as the usual challenges that confront and have confronted families of every class in every era (you know: budgeting resources, settling sibling rivalries, aging gracefully, making sense of one’s spouse, educating the children).
The Guareschis live in the country, but journalist Dad has an identity in the city — and somehow, the tone of the tales manages to split the difference, making for an almost suburban feel. As for the composition of the family, it’s straight from Central Casting: that ’50s sitcom set-up of Working Father, Housewife Mother, and matched set (one boy, one girl) of precocious primary school-aged children. There’s even a dog! All that said, the characters’ personalities (and I have this on the authority of the grown-up Guareschi children) are not completely contrived; they are based on those of the real family members, while the vignettes contained in the family stories also represent real events in the Guareschis’ life — though of course they are recounted with the usual liberties taken by a humor columnist.
The House That Nino Built, by Giovanni Guareschi.
Copyright Giovanni Guareschi, 1953. Translated by Frances Frenaye. NEW YORK: Farrar, Strauss, and Young; 1953. Published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz, 1953.
The first of GG’s autobiographical collections to appear, The House That Nino Built came out during the initial flush of the author’s success in English. Two Don Camillo books had already been released (the first debuting as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection!), the man and his mustaches had just been the subject of a splashy Life magazine profile by Winthrop Sargeant, and now here was an opportunity for Guareschi’s new Anglophone public to see another side of his work.
The “Nino” of the book’s title is, of course, Giovannino Guareschi himself, hapless head (ostensibly, at least) of a household which also includes dizzy wife Margherita (whose lopsided logic frequently confounds her more down-to-earth hubby, but whose apparent helplessness hides a rich interior life), serious son Albertino (observant and not easily impressed, he makes his few words count), headstrong daughter Carlotta (formidably worthy of her nickname, “the Duchess”), and dog Hamlet. The book’s individual chapters, as in the case of Don Camillo, are basically self-contained episodes, and each is accompanied by a little drawing (presumably by GG) like the one above.
In its day, some American reviewers described this book as an Italian Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, and, insofar as that suggests gentle humor about middle-class family life, I think it’s fair. For a more contemporary analogue, think maybe Calvin Trillin, or someone like Peter McKay.
More about The House That Nino Built next time. . .