Friday, January 29, 2010

‘Auntie Mame’ Prevails as Improbable Best Seller in Italian Market

From the NYTimes:

It’s been an unlikely best seller. First published 55 years ago in the United States, where it spawned a hit Broadway show and two movie adaptations, Patrick Dennis’s “Auntie Mame” has recently gained footing in the Italian literary firmament, becoming last year’s surprise hit.

Even after 15 reprints and sales of 280,000 copies since May (30,000 during the pre-Christmas rush), publishing pundits are still puzzling over the book’s popularity.

Perhaps no one is more surprised here than the book’s Italian publisher, Adelphi.

“We’re completely mystified,” said Matteo Codignola, the Adelphi editor who translated the novel. “We thought it would appeal to a certain kind of public, but we didn’t expect this.” On Sunday the novel ranked at 12 on the foreign fiction list of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. For many weeks last year it topped the general fiction list.

But in Italy, in fact, humorous books rarely make it onto the best-seller list.

“Being funny is not a compliment in Italy,” said Mr. Codignola. “Humor is seen as having little to do with life or death or astrophysics.”

Why a witty Depression era novel about a glamorous, free-spirited Manhattan socialite who teaches her orphaned nephew to live life to the fullest would touch a chord with Italians has been the matter of some debate in the national press.

“We ask ourselves why did this book have success in Italy, in 2009, when Auntie Mames have become nightmarish showgirls and female escorts, or business women without any sort of humor, charm or grace,” the literary critic Goffredo Fofi wrote in the Catholic daily L’Avvenire, in a bleak assessment of the female condition in Italy today. “Is it because we all sense this great need for likeable and non-conformist aunts and uncles in the face of the current conformism of vulgarity?” Or is the opposite true, “that the success of Auntie Mame is part of the great collective lie of national likeableness that Italians recite every day,” Mr. Fofi asked.

Others posited that in the midst of an economic crisis that has prompted comparisons with the Great Depression, a comic novel about a woman who triumphs over a financially adverse situation was sure to draw readers.

A headline about the book in Corriere della Sera read: “Laughter will save us from the crisis.”

The editorial alchemy that produces a best seller out of the thousands published each year has no real explanation. “Auntie Mame” had two previous Italian editions — in 1956 and in 1965 — that sold well enough but were not best sellers, Mr. Codignola said.

What may have helped bolster the book’s fortunes this time around is the fact that Adelphi has a highbrow — even snobby — cachet.

“It became a question of fashion and status symbol, granting readers of this undemanding book access to what is considered the stronghold of the Italian intelligentsia,” said Stefano Salis, who covers publishing for the economic daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

“It became very cool to have the book in your hands,” Mr. Salis said, adding that Adelphi cleverly upped the chic factor by choosing a stylish pink cover. Once the novel became fashionable — especially among women — he said, “You felt obliged to buy it.”

Mr. Salis said he doubted the novel would have been as popular had it been in the catalogue of a more mainstream publisher.

In one of the few critiques of the book, the editorialist Gad Lerner chastised Adelphi for affixing its “undisputable seal of approval” on the novel. Conscious that the Adelphi brand “ennobles everything it publishes,” Mr. Lerner accused Roberto Calasso, the director of Adelphi Edizioni, of taking advantage of this position to “propose a piece of nonsense like ‘Auntie Mame.’ ”

It is not a good sign of the times that Auntie Mame, “a feel-good farce that sold two million copies to traditionalist Americans of a long-ago conformist era has become the fashionable book of Italy in 2009, ” Mr. Lerner wrote. “I hope that if nothing else, the chic editor reinvests profits in more daring publications.”

Indeed when it first hit bookstores in 1955, Auntie Mame stayed on the best-seller list for more than 100 weeks. Though the author is listed as Patrick Dennis, who happens to be the protagonist, it was actually penned by Edward Everett Tanner III, an idiosyncratic social observer and satirist who wrote under several pseudonyms.

Mr. Tanner lived large. Born in Chicago in 1921, he served in World War II, married and had children but eventually left his wife after acknowledging his bisexuality. He wrote novels, traveled, moved to Mexico City, and spent the final period of his out-of-the-ordinary life in Palm Beach, where he worked as a butler. He died in 1976.

In the intervening decades, Mr. Tanner was “unjustly forgotten,” said Mr. Codignola. “He was courageous and authentic, and tried to do different things from the usual minestrone.”

Auntie Mame was his most successful book, and it translated well to the stage and screen too. Celebrated Hollywood Mames of the past include Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Ethel Merman and Christine Baraski.

Now an Italian version may be in the making.

After reading the book, “because it was the summer phenomenon,” the Italian director Luca Guadagnino, best known for his 2005 film “Melissa P,” set his heart on a film remake that would star the British actress Tilda Swinton in the title role.

“Our idea is not to do a period drama but to shift it from the 1929 crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Obama, it would still be very funny but also hip,” said Mr. Guadagnino, who directed Ms. Swinton in last year’s “I Am Love,” which will open in the United States in June. His agent has contacted Warner Brothers to discuss the film rights, he said.

Larger-than-life figures will always have their appeal, said Mr. Codignola in his office at Adelphi’s Milan headquarters. When Adelphi published Mordechai Richler’s “Barney’s Version” — the rollicking autobiography of the fictional Barney Panofsky — in 2000, it sold 400,000 copies.

And that may provide another explanation for the book’s success.

“People read the book and say ‘Auntie Mame’ is me,” said Mr. Codignola. “You’d be surprised how often I hear this from women who are not particularly sparkling or elegant. They say: I can’t understand how this man who lived 50 years ago was able to write about me.”

1 comment:

kp said...

LOVE Auntie Mame but Rosalind Russell is the only Mame in my book!!!