Fran Lebowitz. La vita è qualcosa da fare quando non si riesce a dormire [Life is something to do when you can’t get to sleep]. Bompiani, 2021. Translated and edited by Giulio D’Antona. Introduction by Simonetta Sciandivasci. ISBN: 978-88-301-0470-9. pp. 309. € 19,00. All quotes in English are from The Fran Lebowitz Reader (Vintage Books, 1994).
This May, Bompiani has published a collection of essays in Italian by Fran Lebowitz – a well-known American writer who lives in New York – in the Amletica leggera series, conceived by Umberto Eco in 1967 for humorous books by authors such as Woody Allen, Enzo Jannacci, and Charles Schulz. La vita è qualcosa da fare quando non si riesce a dormire (Life is something to do when you can’t get to sleep, a turn of phrase in The Fran Lebowitz Reader, cited as FLR at p. 107 and in Bompiani at p. 85) is a selection of essays from two collections by Fran Lebowitz (Social Studies, Random House, 1981, and Metropolitan Life, Dutton, 1978). The texts are presented in Italian translation and accompanied by an introduction by Simonetta Sciandivasci and two interviews: in Italian translation, one by James Linville and George Plimpton, Fran Lebowitz: A Humorist At Work published in 1993 in The Paris Review and another, collected by Giulio D’Antona on January 18, 2021, Biden è più vecchio di me (Biden is older than me).
Fran Lebowitz is one of the best-known American humorists, both for her books and her public speaking on current affairs, life in New York, and also on literary texts, at universities, museums, and institutions such as the New York Public Library, where she interviewed Nobel laureate Toni Morrison in 2008. Lebowitz has written for many years in various publications, contributing to Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The New York Times with interviews, articles on current affairs, and interviews (collected and dictated). For instance, in 1987 she authored a remarkable article in The New York Times on AIDS and the artistic community (“The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community”). A frequenter of the New York high society, Lebowitz was also nominated in the Best-Dressed List of Vanity Fair in 2006. Her three books have obtained reviews, citations, and recommendations especially in The New York Times; they include an especially beautiful children’s book, Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (Knopf, 1994). Lebowitz has recently been discussed internationally because of Pretend It’s a City, Martin Scorsese’s seven-episode Netflix television series in 2021, which follows another documentary, Public Speaking, by the same director, released in 2010.
Fran Lebowitz is a prominent figure in the panorama of contemporary literature and art for the intellectual vivacity of her work and the significant acquaintances that have had an impact on her writing. In her twenties, Lebowitz worked for Changes, a magazine founded by Susan Graham Ungaro, wife of jazz musician Charles Mingus. She wrote for Mademoiselle and Interview (when Lebowitz showed up at the Interview offices, Andy Warhol immediately hired her), where she first collaborated with The Best of the Worst column followed by I Cover The Waterfront, a title for which she received inspiration by Tennessee Williams. The films initially commented by Lebowitz were those produced by American International Pictures (A.I.P.), the so-called B series films Quentin Tarantino is fond of). Then, the content moved to an analysis of American society with various short essays that converged in Metropolitan Life and Social Studies.
Over the years, Lebowitz has created a relevant and well-rounded path for her writing that includes her books and important interviews dictated for Vanity Fair in 1997 and 1998: Fran Lebowitz on Age, Fran Lebowitz on Race, Fran Lebowitz on Money, starting with Fran Lebowitz on Sin for Vogue in 1986. Fran Lebowitz’s bibliography includes a remarkable list of interviews with authors such as Marc Balet, David Bowie, Francesco Clemente, and Lisa Robinson; the renowned editor André Talley Leon also wrote an article in Vogue about her, to name just one of the many personalities of art, literature, fashion, music who have analyzed her work and public presence. Lebowitz has often mentioned not writing enough and having a writer’s block. Her bibliography and public interventions nonetheless reveal a remarkable art of managing words and communication. In the interview published in The Paris Review, Lebowitz explains that she is interested in the habits of writers, such as how many words a day they write (p. 252). Furthermore, she reports when, on a visit to Sotheby’s, she explained to those who showed her a Mark Twain manuscript that the numbers indicated on the pages corresponded to the number of words written each day, as if the writer wanted to understand how his writing was proceeding.
In the Italian selection published this year by Bompiani, which brings together the most significant essays from the two books (collected in 1994 as The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Vintage Books), the direct and determined tone of Lebowitz’s writing is maintained. Her narrative voice is kept in the choice of texts, which seems to be guided in part by their translatability. Lebowitz’s talent is in the New York yet universal tone of her narrative. In English, the precise verbal rhythm reproduces the writer’s narrating voice. Her books should be considered modern style manuals, where the issue of good manners in democracy is addressed from the first texts:
‘acceptable behavior’ […] demands, for instance, that the general public refrain from starting trends, overcoming inhibitions, or developing hidden talents” (FLR, p. 8; Bompiani, p. 17).
It follows that
Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort. If you have a burning restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass. Your life story would not make a good book. Do not even try (FLR, p. 12; Bompiani, p. 21).
In a few words, Lebowitz has drawn the portrait of a good part of the steady writers, because as she commented in the interview with Toni Morrison included in Pretend It’s a City, the “common reader,” that is the typical reader, has been replaced by the “common writer,” where the term “common,” referring to writers, contains a wordplay with common or banal.
Many episodes in Fran Lebowitz’s book are noteworthy, as for instance the considerations on people who like sports, with whom the author claims not to share anything:
When it comes to sports I am not particularly interested. Generally speaking, I look upon them as dangerous and tiring activities performed by people with whom I share nothing except the right to trial by jury (FLR, p. 22; Bompiani, p. 34).
There are, however, several contests in which I do engage and not, I might add, without a certain degree of competence. […] 1. Ordering in Some Breakfast; 2. Picking Up the Mail; 3. Going Out for Cigarettes; 4. Meeting for a Drink. As you can see, these are largely urban activities and, as such, not ordinarily regarded with much respect by sports enthusiasts. Nevertheless, they all require skill, stamina, and courage. Ant they all have their penalties and their rewards (FLR, pp. 22-23; Bompiani, pp. 34-35).
The center of these writings are the author’s ironic maxims concerning the habits of city life. For instance,
People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first to have thought of adding fresh lime juice to scalloped potatoes try to understand that there must be a reason for this (FLR, p. 114; Bompiani, p. 91).
The book also offers thoughts on cinema, for example on Rome and Fellini:
Rome is a very loony city in every respect. One needs but spend an hour or two there to realize that Fellini makes documentaries (FLR, p. 70; Bompiani, p. 56).
The punchline follows immediately:
[if films were really] of such a high and serious nature, can you possibly entertain even the slightest notion that they would show them in a place that sold Orange Crush and Jujubes? (FLR, p. 212; Bompiani, p. 166).
Fran Lebowitz is a remarkable figure, capable of creating a fan base without ever having wanted to, capable of attracting important filmmakers and publishers even though she is not an active media personality and for almost thirty years has only published articles that she has not collected yet in volume. Her main job seems to be not so much to be a critic but that of criticizing everything you can and more than you can, but this too would be a limiting vision (even if that aspect of her is the one that emerges most in the Scorsese series). In fact, she has serious things to say on serious topics, but to grasp them one needs to bypass the barrier of her stern irony. This book is the first opportunity for the Italian reader to get close to her brilliant humor.