'At one with the typewriter': Françoise Sagan
A 16-year-old John Rosselli at Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, 1943.
It's more than 60 years now since John Rosselli, the gifted Anglo-Italian historian and musicologist who "brought his intellectual substance to the Guardian", wrote in what was then called the Manchester Guardian about enjoying "a long, almost untroubled love affair with the typewriter". His typewriter was, according to Rosselli, the one notable exception in a life of mishaps with machines as he struggled through a "mechanical jungle". Rosselli said he had "shared a feeling" with the French writer Françoise Sagan (1935-2004, real name Françoise Quoirez) the "charming little monster" who had "wished to feel at one with the machine".
How little has changed in the past six decades! Rosselli's relatively smooth experiences with his typewriter had given him false hope. "The typewriter seems to promise that … I may yet reach a haven at the centre of the mechanical jungle," he wrote. He had grasped that whatever faults the typewriter might have, they were not essential to the machine, but irritants that were "by the way". Through the typewriter, he had over-optimistically come to a "glimpse of what might be" in an advanced mechanical jungle. His dream of a future filled with inscrutable but neutral machines, silent and passive, has in truth come to nothing. "At the back of my mind lurks the image of a world where machines, faultless and amenable every one, will purringly save all that they are meant to of labour and strain." No such luck, old chap! The incomprehensible and hostile are still in charge. In this household, at least, we have difficulties with things as basic as the television remote control, let alone the intricacies of iPhones, tablets and laptops. What makes the motors in our cars tick is an abiding mystery, and even the dials on the oven can confuse me. As for the dishwasher and washing machine ... well, perhaps they don't quite remain objects which evoke some trepidation, but there was a time ...
By 1958, John Rosselli had suffered years of corresponding problems - that is, with machines of an earlier age. I might hazard a guess that some of his woes were caused by Rosselli losing his father, the hero of the Italian anti-Fascist Resistance Carlo Rosselli, at such an early age. The day after John's 10th birthday, June 9, 1937, Carlo* and his brother Nello were gunned down by "cagoulards", militants of La Cagoule, the secret services of the French Fascist regime, on the orders of Mussolini through Galeazzo Ciano. It's by growing up with handyperson parents that children learn had to attach the correct wires to electrical plugs, and to mend leaking taps. I'm familiar with this process; because I did everything myself, unaided, my own sons are hopeless at this sort of thing.
John Rosselli's younger sister, the great avant-garde poet Amelia Rosselli (1930-96), had shared with her brother a love of typewriters. In Amelia's case, she felt she liked to type as if playing a musical instrument, a "typing Chopin". Amelia composed her poetry on a typewriter, in particular for what has been described as her "harmonious dissonances" from the metric spaces [Spazi Metrici], the metrical experimentation and intertextuality of her poems. In Spazi Metrici (1962), Amelia wrote, "In laying out the first line of the poem I definitively fixed the width of the framework, both spatial and temporal; the subsequent verses had to be adapted to the same degree, to identical formulation."
In a letter to John in October 1979, Amelia wrote, "I am writing to you on my not brand new writing machine, bought more than a year ago; it has the faculty of not tiring anything but the back, while neck bothers simply completely disappear, it being heavily sprung (that is of stronger touch, or heavier). I happened to buy it second hand, and it turned out to be a sort of tank from East Germany made they say about 50 years ago. So I type and type on, with great progress to my mind at least, since whatever work comes through is no longer a big worry as to arthritis etc."
The first edition of her Serie Ospedaleria (1969) was printed using a monospace font which resembled a typewriter typeface. It "was the only edition published during Rosselli's lifetime in which she was able to realise her graphic vision for the page. The edition is printed ... to reproduce the visual effect of a typewritten page, wherein each letter occupies an equal space and carries an equal visual 'weight'."
Amelia, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, committed suicide by jumping from her fifth floor apartment window near Rome's Piazza Navona, tragically acting out a play her grandmother had written 90 years earlier, in 1906, L'idea fissa (The Fixed Idea), about a young person who has a dual personality.
Amelia Rosselli's typing
John and Amelia were the grandchildren of Giuseppe Rosselli, a musicologist. and Amelia Pincherle Rosselli (1870-1954, right), a Venetian Jewish feminist, playwright and translator who came from a family prominent in the Florentine Risorgimento. An aunt of the novelist Alberto Moravia (1907-1990, born Alberto Pincherle, image below), Amelia Pincherle married into wealth from the Rosselli family ownership of mercury mines in southern Tuscany. John and Amelia's mother was the former Marion Cave (1896-1949, left, with John as a baby), who was born into a Quaker family in Riseley, Bedfordshire, the daughter of an active socialist and herself a committed socialist.
John and Amelia with Carlo and Nello Rosselli
As for John (in reality Giovanni, and nicknamed "Mirtillino"), he died in Cambridge, England, at the age of 73, on January 16. 2001. He first met his father, at three months, in a prison in Savona. John grew up in Paris among the political exiles and intellectual grand bourgeois. When France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, Marion Rosselli took her children to England and, after a few months, the United States. In 1942 John went to Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, then Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, where he took a BA in humanities, was assistant editor of the college newspaper, acted in plays reviewed by W.H. Auden (then a Swarthmore teacher), met a Baltimore Quaker, Nicky Farrar, whom he was to marry a decade later after her divorce from her first husband, and, in 1946, graduated summa cum laude.
John at Swarthmore College, 1946
After the war John returned to England to be with his seriously ill mother. Upon Marion's death in 1949, Amelia suffered a nervous breakdown. John served in the British army - as a sergeant at the port of Trieste - and, after demobilisation, studied for a PhD at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University. His thesis, "Lord William Bentinck and the British Occupation of Sicily, 1811-1814", won the Thirlwall Prize and was published in 1956. By then John had already become a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, as a leader writer in 1951, and was also literary editor from 1953-56. When the Guardian moved to London in 1956, so too did John, as deputy London editor. In 1962 he became features editor.
In the autumn of 1964 John left newspaper work to teach political and cultural history at the then new University of Sussex, ending up as dean of English and American studies from 1983-85. In his third and final phase of life he became a historian of opera. His wife died in 1989 and John moved to a village south of Siena in 1995, and later to Florence.
*Carlo Rosselli (1899-1937) was a Italian political leader, journalist and historian as well as anti-fascist activist. He developed a theory of reformist, non-Marxist Socialism, inspired by the British Labour movement, that he described as "liberal Socialism". After a daring escape from a Fascist prison in 1929, Carlo made his way to Paris and founded the anti-fascist militant movement Giustizia e Libertà, and in 1936 fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.