Encyclopaedia Britannica defines the bystander effect as “the inhibiting influence of the presence of others on a person’s willingness to help someone in need.” A social psychological concept popularized in the 1960s and 70s, the bystander effect suggests that individuals are less likely to intervene in emergency situations where there are others present, as they assume someone else already has the problem well in hand. After all, no one would be standing around doing nothing if something needed to be done. Would they?
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to identify the rise of corrupt leaders, governments, and movements, and to insist that we would never allow such a thing to happen in the present. We flaunt #NeverAgain hashtags on social media and presume to know what we would do if confronted with such blatant tyranny. But tyranny is rarely so obvious, as evinced in Taras Grescoe’s Possess the Air, a nonfiction chronicle of the slow and steady permeation of Fascism through Mussolini’s Rome.
Detailing factors such as the complicity of the press, the insidious nature of propaganda, and the weaponization of community fears, Taras paints a portrait of a city, a nation, and a world that is not as removed from ours as we might like to think. As autocracy and rabid nationalism gain footholds around the globe, Possess the Air is a potent call to resist the temptation to be a bystander whenever and wherever totalitarianism threatens.
Our curiosity more piqued than sated by reviewer Joe Taylor’s starred review in the March/April issue of Foreword Reviews, we reached out to Biblioasis to arrange an interview between Joe and Taras.
Take it away, Joe.
Congratulations on Possess the Air, Taras. It is pure nonfiction, but I love that it touches all the storytelling bases. You handle the setting, Mussolini’s Rome, expertly, and you also have a good understanding of Rome’s architectural history. How did you come to know so much about Caput Mundi?
I’d like to be able to say my relatives live in the neighborhood of Trastevere, or that I’m in a long-term relationship with a Roman. The truth is, I’m one of those living clichés: an Italophile. (One who is acutely conscious, though, of how a lot of Italians roll their eyes when another foreigner starts raving about how much he or she loves gnocchi, gelato, and Michelangelo.) I first visited as a teenager, when the cruise ship my class was supposed to take around the Mediterranean was commandeered for the Falklands War, and we ended up doing a bus tour of major Italian cities. My love for Rome was cemented over 20 years ago when, going through a bad breakup in the depths of a Montreal winter, I was given an assignment to follow in Gregory Peck’s footsteps in the film Roman Holiday. Rome, even in February, was magical enough to snap me out of heartbreak and torpor. For that, I’m eternally grateful: it was the start of a relationship with the Urbs Aeterna that has kept me coming back and deepening my understanding of a city that is at once maddeningly messed up—one of the most popular Roman Twitter streams is Roma fa schifo, or “Rome sucks”—and eternally entrancing.
A focal point or center, both geographic and literary, is the American Academy and some of its notable alumnae, including Thornton Wilder, then a visiting student. The Academy’s perch on a hill overlooking Rome also suggests an American (including Canadian) perspective. How important is this Western connection to events in Fascist Italy?
Crucial. My work on Possess the Air began with a hunch that there were great stories to be found in the relationship visitors and expats had with Rome. I found plenty in the archives of the British School in Rome and the American Academy.
Foreigners—particularly Germans, Americans, and British—have adored Rome since at least the eighteenth century. When the Romantics were singing its praises, the city’s population had dropped to 100,000 from its height of 1.4 million under the Emperor Trajan. There were cows grazing in the Forum, and laundry hanging from the Tarpeian Rock. It’s understandable that the foreign attitude to the “greatness that was Rome,” as a kind of beautiful and primitive backwater, maddened Italians, particularly after the First World War, when the Futurists were singing the praises of mechanical progress and the Fascists, in their perverse way, were casting war as a salutary cleansing process for European civilization.
The foreign view of Rome as a lovely but dead city—and the Fascists’ disgust with this kind of scholarly condescension that they sensed emanating from the American Academy, the British School, the French Academy, Germany’s Archaeological Institute—played a big part in Mussolini’s determination to make the transformation of Rome into his greatest achievement. He sought to, and in a large part succeeded, turn Rome into this streamlined Neoclassical embodiment of his idea of the Third Rome—a twentieth-century version of the imperial capital, purged of atmospheric medieval and Renaissance neighborhoods, as it had been under Augustus. If too many parts of modern Rome resemble a theme-park ride of roads and ruins, it’s largely thanks to Il Duce’s makeover.
From a broader perspective, Mussolini was determined to Make Italy Great Again. Would-be authoritarians always draw on the frustrations of citizens, and their apparent longing for a past—and usually illusory—golden age which the strongman promises to revive. For the people of Italy, it was a seductive mission. It was one that did not end well, for them, the Fascists, or the world.
Anecdotes are another narrative feature that display deep knowledge of your subject. They often give the illusion that you are reporting as an eyewitness. How were you able to generate so much contextual detail?
One of the reasons I chose to write Possess the Air was that I was confident I could tell the story—that there was enough material to bring the events I describe vividly to life in a coherent nonfiction narrative. My last book, Shanghai Grand, told the story of pre-Revolutionary Shanghai through the experiences of The New Yorker writer Emily Hahn, who was an extravagant self-chronicler: she kept a record of her life in the letters she wrote home, in drafts of her articles and books, published and unpublished. Writing that book made me realize having a wide-awake eyewitness to history who is also a good writer is a huge advantage. In the case of Possess the Air, I knew that Lauro de Bosis was a compulsive letter-writer, and his friends and confidants—Thornton Wilder, Edgar and Lilian Mowrer, Ruth Draper, the archaeologist Gilbert Bagnani, the sculptor Nancy Cox McCormack—were also deeply committed to recording their experiences in post-WWI Italy. These were extraordinary people, and their memoirs, letters, and journals were rich enough in detail to let me recreate long-lost scenes with what I hope is novelistic verisimilitude.
I was acutely aware of the risks of coloring outside the lines—of straying, in the interests of a good story, from what the historical records actually tell us. So I plunged as deeply as I could into the records, watching newsreels from the Istituto Luce, listening to recorded speeches, consulting newspapers for weather reports and eyewitness accounts, and visiting archives in Canada, the United States, and Italy. The richest source I discovered was the Archivio Centrale dello Stato, the state archives in Rome, where Mussolini’s spies had done an enormous amount of my work for me by compiling information on Lauro and the other major figures in the story.
Most of all, though, I gave myself the time to wander Rome, to visit every site connected with the life of the characters in the story—from the still-existent restaurant where Sinclair Lewis first sampled fettuccine alfredo, to Mussolini’s first apartment in Rome on the Via Rasella, to the studios hidden in sixth-century city walls where Lauro entertained visitors.
Your book’s climax is a heroic act of defiant patriotism by the poet and playwright Lauro de Bosis, who died resisting Mussolini and urging his countrymen to non-violent resistance. How did you come upon his story? Do the people of Rome, of Italy, remember de Bosis today?
I first encountered Lauro’s name while reading Iris Origo’s extraordinary memoir A Need to Testify. (Origo was an Anglo-American expat who bore witness to the rise of Fascism from her farm in a Tuscan valley.) The fact that Lauro knew Thornton Wilder, and just about everybody else in the English-speaking expatriate community that centered on the American Academy, made him a natural focus for the narrative. Lauro’s courage and intelligence spoke to me, and when I learned he was a child of Rome, and his life was deeply entangled with the city’s history, I knew I’d found a story that would bring a lost city—Rome as it was before Mussolini and the Fascists remade it in their image—back to life.
The memory of Lauro’s flight lived for a long time in the European imagination. An RAF squadron was named after him, as was a battalion in the Spanish Civil War. While I met historians in Rome who knew of his “volo su Roma,” in the popular memory, Lauro and his feat are being forgotten. Though there are monuments to him in Rome, I discovered in my research that they are now subject to vandalism by neo-Fascists. Which is another reason I felt compelled to bring his story to a new generation of readers. We’ve got a lot to learn from those who resisted the rise of the first modern wave of authoritarianism. The past, as the scholar of Fascism Timothy Snyder has written, doesn’t repeat, but it does instruct—and we’ve got a lot to learn from what happened in Italy a hundred years ago.
The book details the complicity of the press, both domestic and foreign, to Fascist violence, to inflated economic claims, and to Mussolini’s attempts to suppress dissent. You tell the story of the “fearless muckraker” George Seldes, and you remark that Ernest Hemingway was not fooled by Mussolini. How did the dictator manage to prolong his abuses without creating an uprising and an international scandal?
Mussolini cut his teeth as a journalist—before becoming Il Duce he was the editor of the Socialist newspaper Avanti!—and he knew what made reporters tick. By the late twenties, half of the ministers in his government were former journalists. He knew he had to get the international media on his side to peddle the illusion that he’d made Italy a place where unemployment had been eliminated (it hadn’t) and the trains ran on time (outside a few major lines, they didn’t). At a time when the Depression was shaking confidence in capitalism, he bluffed reporters from the New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and other hugely influential outlets into painting a rosy picture of the country. This was key to getting what he really needed to establish Fascism and keep it afloat: namely massive loans, of up to $100 million, from Wall Street banks.
At the same time, he was cutting off all input into Italy, by an incredibly rigorous and successful censorship of the press. Which is where Lauro came in. After being made an unwitting tool of Fascist propaganda, when he signed on to lecture for the Italy America Society—funded, like the American Academy, by the Morgan Bank—on a tour that took him from Montreal to Berkeley, he decided to alert the people of Italy, who by the early 1930s were starved of news from outside, to how deeply they’d been bluffed by Il Duce.
These days, we live in a time where there seems to be far too much information—in this “fake news” era, many of us are confused about how to judge what is worthy of our confidence. Lauro was living in a time when people faced the opposite problem: the Fascists, as true totalitarians, had found a way to choke off information from the outside. Which is why Lauro’s actions as a leader of the anti-Fascist resistance were effective—and can still inspire to this day.
Today we are witnessing a return to autocratic rulers, extreme nationalism, and, some say, a disenchantment with democratic institutions as in the time of Hitler and Mussolini. In the US, fears about socialism could extend the presidency of Donald Trump another four years. Can you comment on these parallels? How is Lauro de Bosis relevant?
We’re living in a time when the strongman—the authoritarian, the autocrat, the dictator—is once again on the rise. Instead of radio and newsreels, the modern version of Mussolini is communicating through Twitter and cable-news networks. And people in the Western world once again seem willing to “voluntarily abandon free institutions”—which scholars agree is a crucial precondition of Fascism and authoritarianism. (I’m very much thinking of Trump and his disturbingly successful attacks on the free press, the judiciary, the rule of law, and all standards of decency, but also Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungary, and the figures of the xenophobic right on the rise in France, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Austria). I believe this is happening because the generation that remembers the sacrifices it took to defend these institutions—the generation that fought the Second World War, and oversaw the decades of peace and international cooperation that followed the war—is dying off.
When the Italian Fascists were seizing power through the use of violence, and Il Duce was giving that violence legitimacy by winking at the brutality invading everyday life, Lauro de Bosis chose to resist. He did it not in the name of Communism or Socialism, but in accordance with his own deep patriotism and love of liberty. His is the story of a principled individual who took a courageous stand for liberty, reason, and peace at a time when his fellow citizens seemed all too willing to embrace irrationality and belligerent nationalism.
That’s why I see Possess the Air as a story for our time: we need to refamiliarize ourselves with models—heroes out of the past—who show us how people of conscience reacted when the world seemed to be abandoning the unglamorous work of communication and cooperation in favor of pandering to prejudice and xenophobia.