During my college semester in Rome, I had a system for sightseeing: when I wanted somewhere to go, I opened a book by the Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, wrote down the first street name I encountered, and went there.
It was a study-abroad advertisement come true: like many students before me, I sought to immerse myself in a world that was not my own, only instead of enjoying Raphael frescoes I was taking bus routes to their squalid termini and wandering down seedy side streets until a man in a leather jacket stopped me and called me “cazzo di merda” (literally, “shit dick”).
Being insulted by strangers didn’t exactly match up with my ideal of cultural exchange, but I couldn’t stop myself. Every night I followed Pasolini to a new corner of the city, like one of the trams running down the grooves on the Via Prenestina.
Pasolini is known in the English-speaking world almost exclusively for his films, but in Italy he has also been canonized as a writer of poetry, fiction, art criticism and political polemic. While alive he was a celebrity, an object of fascination and revulsion for the public; since his death he has become a cult hero among the Italian left for championing the vanishing underclasses. His stories and poems are filled with urchins, farmhands and prostitutes, and his essays rail against the bourgeois consumerism that threatened to engulf them. Pasolini felt he shared with the dispossessed an addiction to life or, as he put it in one poem, “a desperate vitality.”
In 1992, Pantheon published Pasolini Requiem, a seven-hundred-page biography by Barth David Schwartz. The biography is the most definitive account of Pasolini’s life in any language, and a few years ago the University of Chicago Press decided to publish a revised edition, the original having gone out of print. Preparation for editing began in early 2014, but there was a hiccup: both Pantheon and the author had somehow lost their digital copies of the manuscript. Despite the availability of high-quality scanners at both presses, digitizing the book produced PDFs full of gaps and errors. The entire manuscript had to be retyped by hand. This task was assigned, as was only natural, to the poetry editor’s minimum-wage student assistant: me.