Giorgio Scerbanenco

Urban Space, Violence and Gender Identity in Post-War Italian Crime Fiction

by Marco Paoli (Author)
©2016 Thesis 239 Pages
Series: Moving Texts / Testi mobili, Volume 8


The works of Giorgio Scerbanenco repeatedly articulate and explore the implications of new forms of criminality that emerged in Italy’s post-war transformation towards its «economic miracle». An indepth analysis of Scerbanenco’s Duca Lamberti series constitutes the critical focus of this study, and in particular the psychological resonances of the role played by the author’s controversial representation of the urban space, its violence, (in)justice and gender roles. In what way do these elements heighten and/or exaggerate the nature of the criminal acts and the reader’s experience? This study therefore investigates a reader’s potential response to the content, the settings, and, above all, the characters Scerbanenco portrays in these four novels.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface by Cecilia Scerbanenco
  • Introduction
  • Crime Fiction and the Question of Literary Genre
  • Italian Crime Fiction from its Origins to the 1960s
  • Giorgio Scerbanenco: From giallo to noir
  • The Arthur Jelling series
  • Evolution of Crime in Italy’s Post-war Period
  • The Duca Lamberti Series
  • Chapter 1. Urban Environments and Crime
  • Criminal Metamorphoses in the Urban Space
  • Urban Space through Symbols
  • Chapter 2. Violence, Justice and Moral (Dis)Orientation
  • Violence as a Principle for Moral Evaluation
  • Moral (Dis)Orientation: The Justifiable Act of Violence
  • Chapter 3. Female Characters and Gender Identity
  • Controlled Unconventional Female Characters
  • The Economic Miracle: a Collective Cultural Trauma
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← 8 | 9 →Acknowledgements

This book would never have appeared without the emotional, moral and financial support of the University of Liverpool, the University of Salford and my Ph.D. thesis supervisors, Gillian Ania and William Hope, who have been a continual source of support, providing constructive ideas, help, advice and criticism. Their intellectual influence on my work has been key from the very beginning of this project. I wish to record my thanks to Jennifer Burns and Danielle Hipkins for their advice and criticism on the occasion of my Ph.D. examination, which took place in January 2010. Thanks are also due to anonymous reviewers and Claire Taylor, for their comments on the first draft of this book, and to Cecilia Scerbanenco for sharing valuable information about her father. I would also like to thank my colleagues at the University of Liverpool for their companionship and patience during my periods of physical and mental absence in the preparation of this manuscript. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →Preface

Il destino di mettersi a narrare gli era nato di colpo leggendo un romanzo. A un certo punto vi descriveva l’ultimo incontro tra due maturi amanti: lei capace d’ingannarsi ancora sull’amore di lui (…); lui deciso come non mai a lasciarla. Quella gioia illusoria della donna e la crudele contraddizione della realtà emozionarono Scerbanenco. Gli parve che proprio in quel rapporto stesse un poco l’intera sostanza della vita.

This paragraph is part of an interview by Oreste del Buono, published in 1953 in the Italian magazine Oggi. My father, Giorgio Scerbanenco, roots his desire to write – to narrate – in the complexity of human beings, and in the contradictions of our emotions and lives. I have rarely found a better description of his work than in these few lines.

Contradiction and complexity are the key aspects to my father’s writing, style and personality. Nevertheless, Scerbanenco has been too often judged ‘too simple’. This has been said of both his characters and his prose. So, when I read Marco Paoli’s work, I particularly enjoyed it because I discovered that we share the same critical approach with regard to my father’s work.

Over the last ten years, I have tried to collect all my father’s works. This has given me a quite clear view of how complex and contradictory his life had been: both professionally and personally. He was born into an intellectual family during the Belle Époque. Following the violent death of his aristocratic father during the Russian Revolution, Scerbanenco found himself destitute in a poverty-stricken, interwar Europe. This was followed by the Ventennio, then Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship and then by the Second World War. Bizarrely enough, my father benefitted from some aspects of the cultural milieu of the period such as Futurism, the work of D’Annunzio and the style of the Avant-garde. However, Scerbanenco opposed the Fascist regime through his love for a Jewish girl, who was forced to leave Italy. During the war, Scerbanenco found himself imprisoned in a refugee camp in Switzerland where, via another girlfriend – a stunning, Californian beauty – he had contacts with the Allied Intelligence Bureau and was asked to prepare a speech for the Italian Resistance fighters. Back in Milan, he experienced both the euphoria of the post-war ← 11 | 12 →period and the intolerant bigotry of Italy in the 1950s. During these years of what appeared to be great professional success, he endured a very painful and difficult private life. In the 1960s, everything changed again: a completely new society emerged which was more akin to my father’s true soul.

He made his first steps as a journalist in Mussolini’s Italy, and wrote heterogeneous novels and original radio plays in the 1930s and 1940s. He then became the successful creator and editor of two best-selling Italian women magazines, in addition to becoming one of the most important writers of romantic novels and short stories of the 1950s. Furthermore, under the noms de plume of Valentino and Adrian, Scerbanenco became a confidant for his readers’ private secrets and sorrows over a period of more than twenty years.

Only at the end of this journey, when at last successful and free from financial fears and duties, was my father able to write about what he really liked most. And since my father loved Kant and Dostoyevsky, what literary genre would suit him better than ‘noir’? I don’t know why, although I suspect it was owing to misogyny: women’s fiction was perceived as irrelevant, and consequently, the writers of such prose were considered similarly. However, many critics will only consider and analyse Scerbanenco’s latter works, ignoring the striking similarities that Duca Lamberti shares with his creator’s past actions, especially in relation to Scerbanenco’s long-lasting employment as an ‘agony-aunt’, as Marco Paoli has pointed out.

The letters he received depicted the difficult situation for women in Italy which prevailed until the end of the 1960s: divorce was illegal; laws regarding family duties were very strict and oppressive etc. So, Scerbanenco’s characters were abandoned wives; young women who had been seduced or raped; illegitimate daughters (yes, this was still signed on official documents in Italy in the 1960s), who couldn’t find a place in society; women ready to sell themselves for a meal or a fur coat; and indeed, a few teenagers unsure of which Tom, Dick or Harry they should marry. Perhaps it is because of the readers’ letters (in spite of his nineteenth-century idea of women) that my father wrote and understood that this society was a man’s society, unsuitable for women. Thus his female characters are always striving against social conventions, which are described by him as real, uncompromising cages. Such a clear, painful perception of women and society can seldom be found in the work of other writers, whether they are male or female. Perhaps only in the work of philosopher Simone Weil can it be located.

← 12 | 13 →My father had a very traditional vision of women. Many times, in his correspondence with readers, he wrote that femininity meant submission to men; genuine submission. He pronounced as unfeminine those women who were not so male-oriented, or who felt themselves to be intellectually equal, or indeed superior to men. But his life proved that such opinions were not so straightforward. Scerbanenco grew up in a large, matriarchal family, surrounded by an army of female cousins, who exhibited every shade of femininity: from the wicked to the most timid, but who all made an appearance, many years afterward, in some of his short stories. He had a very difficult relationship with his mother who was romantic, fascinating and rebellious, but who had no practical or maternal sense whatsoever. Maybe his traditional ideas were a way of defending himself from all these women, as well as from his love for them and, as Freud teaches, his mother.

It is still surprising and moving to meet elderly ladies who remember reading my father’s works when they were young having waited impatiently for the new weekly episode; having stolen a forbidden magazine from a drawer belonging to either their mother or elder sister. They seem to understand the truth and love my father poured into his writing, the close tie between the author and his readers which, as Marco Paoli underlines, is one of the main elements of my father’s success, along with a veritable propensity for time-travel, with which he navigated the various age groups, levels of society and conventions that he experienced throughout his life.

Cecilia Scerbanenco ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →Introduction

Giorgio Scerbanenco is one of Italy’s most prolific twentieth-century writers, but he has rarely attracted the degree of critical attention that has been afforded to his contemporaries, despite a stylistically rich and generically diverse exploration of popular literature, including crime fiction (giallo), science fiction (fantascienza) and romantic fiction (romanzi rosa). In fact, it is arguably Scerbanenco’s versatility as a popular fiction writer that has marginalized him from mainstream critical analysis which, especially in the Italian academic context, has focused almost exclusively on literary and stylistics themes and ignored any connection between literature and its socio-historical context. In addition, by denying the literary status to popular fiction, based on the gap between letteratura (highbrow literature) and paraletteratura (lowbrow literature), the Italian academic and literary establishment have ignored and marginalized popular fiction writers, including Scerbanenco. As Giuliana Pieri puts it, “this attitude changed very little in the following decades [from the 1970s on] when Italian critics still seemed to view the giallo in terms of literature versus popular literature binary, with the implicit denial of proper literary status to the latter” (Pieri, 2011: 2). In this respect, Gian Paolo Giudicetti has argued that:

[…] articoli e convegni sul poliziesco italiano si succedono, sufficientemente da tramutare in assurdo il topos, ancora ripetuto in interventi sul tema, nel quale i saggisti, a inizio del loro discorso, lamentano la vetusta resistenza della critica italiana al poliziesco, una critica che si ostinerebbe a considerare la letteratura di genere come una letteratura bassa. Nella realtà, al di fuori cioè della retorica, si constata piuttosto l’errore inverso, quello di aver abdicato all’ambizione di valutare esteticamente le opere odierne, rinuncia che ha per conseguenza l’appiattimento dei valori o la sparizione dell’idea di una letteratura alta che si distingue dallo scartafaccio, e l’incomprensione, perciò, di ciò che rende letteratura la letteratura. […] La critica […] si sta rivelando sagace nel descrivere la filiazione del genere, e ha riconosciuto in Scerbanenco uno scrittore essenziale per la trasformazione del poliziesco italiano. (Giudicetti, 2009: 147f)

To a certain extent, Giudicetti’s consideration reflects the current internationally positive trend of literary criticism in the Italian crime fiction context, which is arguably connected to the fact that ← 15 | 16 →the American and British academics have embraced crime fiction and more widely popular culture as a valid area of study for more than half a century, as we shall see. Today, studies of Italian crime fiction form a specific area of literary criticism. However, it could equally be argued that Scerbanenco remains one of the authors who has suffered, and is still suffering today from this general labelling attitude, owing mainly to the prejudice and snobbery of the Italian critics, as scholar Giuseppe Petronio claimed.1 This point has recently been reiterated by Roberto Pirani, who, in his introduction to Scerbanenco, riflessioni scoperte proposte per un centenario 1911/2011, observes:

Sciorinato a proposito e a sproposito, esaltato e mitizzato, il nome di questo autore è tuttavia circondato da una serie incredibile di equivoci, di travisamenti, di clichés, di caratterizzazioni inconsistenti, che pure sembrano ormai imperiture, come scolpite nel marmo […] Di fatto, al di sotto degli elogi e degli allori, persiste l’atteggiamento snobistico, che non ritiene dovuto a uno scrittore di noir e di narrative rosa, per quanto eccellente in questi generi, quell’approccio critico e scientifico, che è naturale nello studio di qualsiasi artista. Su Scerbanenco si riversa quindi una somma di incomprensioni e di travisamenti, di giudizi aprioristici e supponenti, che si erge come un immane macigno. (Pirani, 2011: 3)

Pirani’s point still remains a crucial one, which deserves to be re-explored and clarified, and at the same time it will provide a suitable introduction to an analytical and detailed critical study of Scerbanenco’s works, and in particular, of his Duca Lamberti series, the main focus of this investigation.

Crime Fiction and the Question of Literary Genre

In Western countries, from the earliest examples of crime novels in the nineteenth century, a dichotomic perspective on the place ← 16 | 17 →of crime fiction in the literary context started to develop, creating a separation between highbrow literature and lowbrow literature, or letteratura and paraletteratura as I prefer to call it, in line with Giuseppe Petronio the latter being undervalued and generally played down.2 Many literary critics and authors have discussed the canonization of crime fiction3 and expressed their views on this gap between letteratura and paraletteratura, which are pertinent to this study, and will now be briefly outlined.

From the beginning of the 20th century to the early 1940s, as Heta Pyrhönen explains, the first critical discussions of the genre mainly focused on plot structure and narrative strategies of the typical detective novel, the so-called whodunit, which, internationally, was the major generic form at the time. In general terms, early critics, who were mainly authors of detective fiction such as Howard Haycraft, Dorothy L. Sayers and S.S. van Dine, argued that


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Urban space Crime in Italy post-war period Italian Crime Fiction violence and gender in Giorgio Scerbanenco's crime fiction of the post-war period
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 239 pp., 3 graphs, 1 table

Biographical notes

Marco Paoli (Author)

Dr Marco Paoli is a lecturer in Italian Studies and Head of Italian at the University of Liverpool. His main areas of research are Italian crime fiction and Italian cinema. He is particularly interested in the Italian economic miracle and its influence on crime as reflected in Italian literature and cinema of the post war period. He has published studies on, among others, Carlo Lizzani, Fernando Di Leo, Paolo Virzì and Giorgio Scerbanenco.