‘Auntie Mame’ turns 55, becomes Italy’s hot book

By Elisabetta Povoledo
International Herald Tribune / February 7, 2010

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ROME - It’s been an unlikely bestseller. 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.’’ Recently 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 bestseller list.

“Being funny is not a compliment in Italy,’’ said 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.’’

Some posited that in the midst of an economic crisis, a comic novel about a woman who triumphs over a financially adverse situation was sure to draw readers.

The editorial alchemy that produces a bestseller out of the thousands published each year has no real explanation. “Auntie Mame’’ had two Italian editions - in 1956 and in 1965 - that sold well enough but were not bestsellers, 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,’’ Salis said, adding that Adelphi cleverly upped the chic factor by choosing a stylish pink cover.