AN ITALIAN CRITIC once observed that Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) possessed an "inexhaustible vocation for scandal." The facts bear him out.
Poet, critic, novelist, world-famous filmmaker, actor and homosexual activist, Pasolini chalked up his first scandal with the publication in 1942 of Poesie a Casarsa, a collection of poetry in the language of his mother's native Friuli (the region northeast of Venice). By rejecting the artificial vocabulary characteristic of much Italian literature, Pasolini established himself -- at least to alert literati -- as a daring figure.
In 1949, the daring took on a new tinge. Charged with homosexual offenses against minors while teaching secondary school in northern Italy, he conceded the charges, defended them as a literary experiment in the manner of Andr,e Gide, and was expelled from the Italian Communist Party for "moral and political unworthiness." He immediately moved to Rome and launched a career of outraging the Italian artistic establishment on its home base.
His first slang-ridden novel about the subproletarian teen-agers of Rome's borgate, or shantytowns, Ragazzi di Vita (1955), brought an indictment for obscenity. A Violent Life (1959), his second and more traditional novel about Roman slum-dwellers, was summarily rejected by the judges of Italy's prestigious Strega Prize for obscenity. Two of his early films, Mamma Roma (1962) and Teorema (1968) were seized at the Venice Film Festival. A third, La Ricotta (1962) drew a conviction and four-month suspended sentence for "defaming thestate religion." His last film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), faced immediate seizure by the censors.
All in all, Pasolini endured some 30 legal trials in the course of his career. The career ended in November 1975 when a street hustler straight out of Ragazzi di Vita or A Violent Life -- a teen-ager Pasolini had picked up at Rome's Central train station -- murdered him and mutilated his body.
By the standards Pasolini set for himself, A Violent Life can seem an almost tepid contribution to his corpus. Despite the mild Strega controversy, it picked up a rival prize called the Cortone and didn't spur the police into action. Nonetheless, Carcanet deserves credit for bringing William Weaver's 1968 translation back into print. Like all Pasolini's early work, it does not merely tempt scandal but reports it -- in this case, the disgrace of Rome's slums in the postwar days of Italy's "economic miracle."
While Fellini was dazzling America with la dolce vita, Pasolini shocked Italy with l'amara vita -- the bitter life. At the time, Pasolini wrote under the pronounced influence of the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, who believed Marxist intellectuals had to win over popular culture in order to win over society. In A Violent Life, Pasolini gave it a shot with an accessible "progressive" novel.
Unlike Ragazzi di Vita, which lacks a strong central character or story, A Violent Life keeps its camera on one specimen named Tommaso Puzzilli -- a tough-guy teen member of the neofascist party. In the early sections of the novel, Pasolini establishes Tommaso's hoodlum credentials -- he robs a gas station with his hustler friends, curses every few sentences, turns occasional homosexual tricks, and comes on crudely to a neighborhood girl on their first date at the movies. Before long, he's serving time for murder.
But since A Violent Life marked Pasolini's attempt to write a properly didactic work of art, the mood inevitably changes. Tommaso catches tuberculosis and is hospitalized. Fellow patients raise his political consciousness. When he exits, he has come to understand the merits of the Left. By the novel's end, a flood threatens the shantytown, and Tommaso's reactions are no longer the surly ones we encountered at the beginning of the book. In his end -- as such progessive homilies require -- is his beginning.
Taken purely as a novel, A Violent Life suffers the fate most dialect novels do in translation. Pasolini saw the adoption of ordinary street language as one more way of rejecting the reigning petit-bourgeois mentality of Italy's literary world. In both Ragazzi di Vita and A Violent Life, he mixed the argot of the street kids he met while living in Ponte Mammolo, a slum outside Rome, with standard Italian, and the combination of his unconventional characters and fine ear helped make his reputation.
Weaver, who remains the preeminent translator of Italian fiction into English, unfortunately made a choice in his 1968 translation that does not hold up today. He decided to use the now-dated American street lingo of West Side Story for the language of Tommaso and his buddies. While there's no easy solution for translating dialect, Tommaso's Roman brethren shouldn't come off sounding as though they play stoopball with Leo Gorcey. But they do.
Moreover, Weaver seems to have gotten carried away by his use of American slang. In one case, he translates the same nasty Italian phrase three different ways. The result is that while Tommaso and company sound like repetitive street mumblers in Italian, they come off like caricatures in English -- drama school grads auditioning for the Dead End Kids by dropping every hip phrase that fits.
Despite that continuing drawback, however, A Violent Life retains a great deal of power because it relentlessly documents a world that became the author's fixation. Unlike Pasolini's early films in which the music of Bach or Vivaldi softens the landscape, A Violent Life lacks the esthetic self-indulgence that later overtook Pasolini the director. Foreshadowing his belief that the subproletariat enjoys a pre-industrial, pre-Christian moral purity superior to that of the middle classes -- a belief that informs the early films -- A Violent Life offers Pasolini at the peak of his proletarian worship.
IN THE MID-'60s, when directing became his chief artistic activity, Pasolini began to move away from his blanket faith in noble Roman savages, and to look for different tools with which to skewer the bourgeosie. The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) marked a move toward Catholic mysticism, and his so-called Trilogy of Life -- commercially successful renditions of The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and The Arabian Nights (1973) -- implicitly contrasted the carefree sexuality of its subjects with that of his Italian contemporaries.
By the year of his death, however, he had turned angrily against the image of the redeemable subproletariat he presented in A Violent Life. In an essay entitled "Rejection of the Trilogy of Life," he argued that Americanized pop culture and the consumer society had destroyed the pure consciousness of the subproletariat, leaving it fit to play only one role in society -- that of consumer. Salo, he wrote, was meant to express his disgust.
If it is difficult for Americans, and readers of A Violent Life, to quite understand Pasolini's enormous influence in Italy -- writers as mainstream as Moravia and Calvino considered him the major cultural force of his era -- it is because we have so few artists of his kind. Throw together Martin Scorsese's gritty cinematic realism, Sam Shepard's multi-media flexibility, Saul Bellow's philosophical learning, the streety boldness of black poets like Sonia Sanchez and the blithe sexual insouciance of Harvey Fierstein, and you might get some rough approximation of Pasolini.
But our popular culture icons -- our Steven Spielbergs -- devote most of their passion to giving the audience what it wants. Pasolini was a different sort of artist -- the kind who challenged a culture and demanded that it defend itself. At a time when the bulk of our writers and directors seem like so many well-dressed job applicants, ready to make any compromise for a safe spot in their fields, it is good to have his legacy on our minds.