The Italian writer Sebastiano Vassalli, who has died aged 73, had a conflicted relationship with the world around him, distancing himself from it, yet obsessively chronicling and narrating it. He lived a solitary life, in an old parish house in the middle of rice fields in the Po valley outside Novara, between Milan and Turin. From this isolation, he typed feverishly on an old Olivetti typewriter — eschewing all newer forms of technology — sending off regular columns to Il Corriere della Sera and publishing, on average, a new book every year, among them more than 20 novels. His new novel, Io, Partenope I, Partenope , is due out later this year.
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The Italian writer Sebastiano Vassalli, who has died aged 73, had a conflicted relationship with the world around him, distancing himself from it, yet obsessively chronicling and narrating it. He lived a solitary life, in an old parish house in the middle of rice fields in the Po valley outside Novara, between Milan and Turin.
From this isolation, he typed feverishly on an old Olivetti typewriter — eschewing all newer forms of technology — sending off regular columns to Il Corriere della Sera and publishing, on average, a new book every year, among them more than 20 novels. His new novel, Io, Partenope I, Partenope , is due out later this year. Vassalli was a polemical voice, always ready to point out the dysfunctional nature of Italian society and to attack its sacred cows.
His contrary nature kept him at a distance from the literary scene — he refused most literary prizes since he judged their selection processes to be mafia-like — and inspired the direction of much of his work.
He wrote compulsively about the present even in historical novels, and through a wide range of genres he displayed his desire to engage fully and usefully with society. His efforts to find a meaningful way to intervene in the public domain helped to develop the role of the public intellectual in Italy. Born in Genoa, Sebastiano was abandoned to relatives in Novara by his Tuscan mother and Lombard father, by his own account in exchange for a few kilos of flour and some oil.
This early adversity contributed to shaping his view of humanity and the way in which people treat each other in general. In interviews and through his writings he would argue that hatred was the primary motivator of human society, and that this was perhaps not such a terrible thing. He attended the faculty of letters at the University of Milan and then worked as a schoolteacher in Novara, while his initial creative output was as a painter, producing work on the lines of Pop Art.
During his association with the neo-avant garde of the s, he produced a series of experimental works of prose and poetry. But he soon became disillusioned with what he considered the false poetics and empty rhetoric of the experimentalists and broke all ties with the group in a damning pamphlet, Arkadia , in which he compared the neo-avant garde to a mafia family. As a figure who was often out of step with his times, he criticised fundamental aspects of Italian society many years before a wider discussion of these matters took place.
After his acrimonious separation from the neo-avant garde, Vassalli turned to historical novels as a way of escaping the chatter of the present so as to represent it better. His meticulously researched biography of the early 20th-century poet Dino Campana, La Notte della Cometa The Night of the Comet, , sought to redeem Campana from what Vassalli believed to be the false and defamatory official version of his life.
His finest novel, which quickly became a bestseller in Italy, was La Chimera The Chimera, , which told the story of a 17th-century witch trial.
His deliberate provocations were often successful, perhaps explaining why he received relatively little critical attention. International recognition did arrive, however, following the translations of his books into many languages, and although after the success of La Chimera he refused most literary awards, in May this year he was chosen as one of five finalists for the Nobel prize for literature, and he was due to accept a lifetime achievement award in September from the Fondazione Il Campiello.
He formed a strong attachment to the city in which he grew up, and always lived in the area. He was widowed in and is survived by his second wife, and his son Ermes, adopted with his first wife.
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