Vasco Pratolini: Cronaca familiare (Two Brothers; Family Chronicle)
Autobiographical novels, particularly when they are simply the story of a family without much else going on, can be very boring but Pratolini is such a fine writer that this story of his family or, in particular, of his relationship with his brother, is a masterpiece. The story starts a few weeks after the birth of his brother, Dante, when young Vasco is five years old. Their mother dies, apparently of meningitis as a result of the Spanish flu epidemic that took place at the end of World War I. However, Vasco partially blames his brother for the death of their mother. Young Vasco is brought up by his grandparents. However, young Dante is adopted by the major-domo of an English lord who has settled in Italy and he is brought up in the Villa Rosa. The major-domo is married with two grown-up sons of his own but decides to adopt the blond, blue-eyed boy, who is very different in appearance from his older brother.
While growing up, the two boys do see each other. Vasco visits the Villa Rosa and, of course, Dante, now renamed Ferruccio as Dante is deemed vulgar, visits his grandparents. However, there is no love lost between the two, with the sensitive Dante despising his rougher brother. This is a relatively short book and we quickly cut to a later period. Vasco is now studying (he is learning French, for example, by reading de Musset!) and wants to become a journalist. One evening, while he is at home in his flat, reading by candlelight (he hasn’t paid his rent and the landlady has not paid the electricity bill), Ferruccio turns up, having had a row with his adoptive father (about a girl) and comes to stay with his brother. From that time, the brothers become much closer, particularly when Ferruccio contracts a strange illness but also before that, however, with their concern for their aging grandmother, their attempted memories of their mother and Vasco’s big brother need to protect his little brother who is ill-equipped to deal with the world, particularly after being injured in the war.
But Ferruccio becomes ill. It is the end of the war and the doctors are unable to diagnose what is wrong or to help him. Vasco, who is trying to also look after their grandmother, tries to make his brother’s final days easier (for example, he searches all over Florence for his brother’s favourite orange marmalade, only finding it the day of Ferruccio’s death). The two brothers do become closer but sadly Ferruccio dies. Pratolini has left us a first-class memoir of the relationship.
First published 1947 by Vallechi
First English translation 1962 by Orion Press (Two Brothers); 1988 by Italica Press (Family Chronicle)