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Sunday, November 1, 2015

William Demby: An African-American Writer in Rome

Carl Van Vechten portrait of William Demby
William Demby could be seen as just another--and perhaps lesser--writer caught under the spell of Rome, like Ralph Ellison and John Cheever.  I think he's much more than that, and that his reputation deserves to be resuscitated.

In brief, he was an African-American, raised--importantly--in his early years in Clarksburg, West Virginia, who, after serving in World War II, returned to Italy.  He married an Italian and lived in Rome until the mid-1960s.  Demby returned to the US for the 1963 March on Washington and then brought his wife and their son to live in the US.  By 1967 they were all back in Rome, but from then on he divided his time between the US and Italy.
Demby (left), soldier, World War II

In 1950, Demby published a very non-Italian novel, Beetlecreek, described accurately as "the powerful and impassioned novel of coming of age in a southern [US] town."  More about that later, since it has nothing to do with Rome, or the author's Italian residence at the time.

Demby followed up Beetlecreek 15 years later with The Catacombs, usually described as an experimental novel, and, yes, set in Rome, and a novel (as the bookjacket announces), even though its main character is William Demby as himself.

Most of the time Demby was in Rome he was assisting on screenplays, translating scripts, and otherwise participating in the Cinecittà filmmaking scene.  He worked for all the prominent directors of the time: Rossellini, Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni.
Demby acting in an Italian movie.

In The Catacombs his character notes there are very few (as in fewer than a 5) mixed-race couples then living in Rome.  The alter-ego character of the novel is a young African-American actress, Doris, who in the novel is the daughter (I don't know if there is a real daughter) of a very real first serious girlfriend and then second wife of Demby's, Barbara Morris (an NAACP lawyer).  Doris spends most of the novel in conflict over her blackness.  Her first job in Rome is as handmaiden to Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra in the 1963 blockbuster film of that name.

From the perspective of 50 years later, The Catacombs doesn't seem so experimental.  Yes, it incorporates the author as himself; it blurs the line between autobiography and fiction; it uses newspaper headlines freely.  In fact, the character's use of those headlines to show the world falling apart seems even truer today.  But the book also has a straightforward narrative and characters who are in many ways traditional.  In other words, it's a very readable book.

And The Catacombs ranges over Rome.  So if you love Rome and everything that touches it, you'll appreciate The Catacombs for that alone.  The novel opens in a "country trattoria" across from catacombs on via Appia Antica--then a rather rustic area.  I rather like Doris's opening shot to her soon-to-be paramour, the married Count: "What I mean is--if you really had to take me sightseeing--and the good Lord knows I have enough sightseeing to my credit to have earned at least five Mortician degrees--why bring me to the Catacombs?  Isn't there anything else to see in Rome besides churches and tombs?"  She picks up  the same theme later, "This is one hell of a country!  If it's not catacombs, it's Etruscan tombs--"  And the novel ends with the catacombs.

Among The Catacombs' other locations: Rosati's café on Piazza del Popolo, where Demby (the character) waits "for P. the director"; Piazza San Silvestro; Circolo degli' Artisti; Portico d'Ottavia; the Protestant Cemetery (for a burial); Café Canova; Hotel Russie; via della Conciliazione; St. Peter's; Santa Maria della Pace; Campo de' Fiori (and specifically the Giordano Bruno statue); the Verano Cemetery; Piazza Mazzini; via Margutta; Piazza di Spagna; via San Teodoro; via Babuino; via Bissolati; Palazzo delle Esposizioni; and "my Piemonte-Mazzini-bureaucraticsaur quarter of Rome [sounds like Prati to me]."  About via Giulia, our main character says: "I have never liked this street, though architecturally it is one of the most stately in Rome.  Somehow it evokes in my mind all that was cruel and futilely pompous in papal Rome....Via Giulia is Rome at its cynical worst." And, the chapters that are set on the beach are in nearby Ladispoli.

Demby's son, James Gabriele Demby,
reading from The Catacombs.
Demby says in The Catacombs that he began his narration on March 5, 1962, and he has almost completed it on March 5, 1964.  Events of the period are crucial to the novel, including the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963.  Demby is in line to view the Pope's body in St. Peter's and describes it in part as follows:  "slowly, like boarders in some enormous pensione shuffling through a drafty corridor in bathrobe and slippers, we move with uneasy unaccustomed reverence through the deceptive time-space dimensions of this Chiesa which is Rome."

We of RST have a particular connection to the span of Demby's novel since we were in Italy for 6 months of that time, and in Rome in late January 1963, with snow underfoot in the Forum.  As Demby the character says:  "It hasn't been this cold in Italy for over a century....Like a whispered blessing, snow for the first time in years falls on Rome.  This is the last day of January, January 31."
Stanford-in-Italy students in the Roman
Forum, January 1963.

There are, of course, many other observations of Rome and Romans in The Catacombs.  But the novel is above all a black man's coming to terms with his expatriation, and what follows is his repatriation (but it isn't ever complete, in fact).

It's a fasinating novel, of its time and worth reading.

June 11, 2015 AAR Roundtable on William Demby.
Left, James Gabriele Demby. Center, art historian and critic
 Christian Caliandro. Right, Silvia Lucchesi, Co-Founder and Director,
“Lo Schermo dell’Arte Film Festival” in Florence, 
ho conducted
the 2004 interview 
with Demby shown at the roundtable.

We were first made aware of Demby and his writing only through a roundtable last June at the American Academy in Rome, which included the showing of a revealing video interview of him. Also at the roundtable was his son, James Gabriele Demby, who is a musician and teacher in Italy.  The roundtable, part of AAR's "Nero su Bianco" ("Black on White") exhibit in 2014, was one of the best we've experienced there.  An obituary (Demby died at 90 on May 23, 2013 in Sag Harbor, NY, one of his homes), excellent article, and another video are available online.

I particularly like this cover of
And a postscript on Beetlecreek.  I found the novel gripping and fascinating.  In a 1967 paperback reprint, the Afterward by Herbert Hill damns it with faint praise:  "His [Demby's] limitation is that his ideas are not fully confronted.  In Beetlecreek he just misses making the leap into that place where great writing lies....[Demby] has written a unique tale with courage and honesty...[the]work of a neophyte writer...."  I think Beetlecreek is better than that.


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