Picturing Harry Bernstein: Italian Novelist Ugo Barbara’s Bittersweet Goodbye
June 12, 2011
Last December, I received emails from Italian journalist and novelist Ugo Barbara, asking if I might put him in touch with author Harry Bernstein, whose life and work are profiled in What Should I Do With The Rest Of My Life?, and then from his 13-year-old daughter, who wrote: “Me and Dad decided to write to you ‘cause we really, really love Harry’s books and we are still surprised by the energy that such an old man can put in his work.”
“Dad reminded me that a couple of years ago he represented Harry in the final phase of one of the most important literary prizes in Italy: Bancarella. And while The Invisible Wall didn’t win, Mom told me that Daddy’s words about Harry’s work moved people to tears and were welcomed with 10 minutes of applause! I did my part too! For my summer homework I wrote a summary about The Invisible Wall and my teacher told to the class that she cried, too. There were no applause, but pretty good anyway, right?”
“At the moment I’m reading The Golden Willow and I’m looking forward to reading Rose’s adventures (in Harry’s next book), ‘cause I don’t know that much about her. Tell Harry to keep on writing, because I don’t want to feel as Holden says at the end of Catcher in the Rye: —“Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” And hug Harry for me: probably his most enthusiastic 13-year-old Italian fan!”
How could I resist? I put Barbara and his daughter in touch with Harrry immediately. A fast, sweet friendship, a publishing deal for Harry in Italy, and plans for a visit to New York ensued. Last week, Barbara, wrote the following online post:
I hoped one day to publish a photo of a spry old man and me on the porch of a house in Brooklyn. Around us: my family and the man’s daughter, all of us smiling, happy to finally have this long-awaited moment of being together.
The old man at the center is more than a little old. By the time the picture would have been taken, Harry Bernstein would have already been 101 years old for a few months. Close to him, you would also see Adreanne, his daughter, and my children, who devoured his novel, The Invisible Wall.
I will never publish that picture because it will never be taken. Just days after celebrating his birthday and less than three months before I could keep a promise to visit him, Harry is gone. He died late at night on June 3rd.
Yet I have that picture. It is as clear in my mind as if I had framed and shot it myself. In it, I am — or perhaps it’s a self-delusion — smiling on the other side of the lens, one hand resting on Harry’s shoulder.
My son’s face has the same expression of joy he had in a photo taken in January on the Paris Metro. He was then constantly immersed in reading the Wall. And he took every opportunity to pull it out of his pack and get lost in its pages: on line for tickets to La Villette; on the train to Disneyland; just returned to the hotel and exhausted in the evening. The picture I took that day pleased Harry when I sent it to him: my son looking into the camera and smiling as if looking directly at Harry, his book clearly visible in my boy’s hands.
It was my daughter who first suggested reading the Wall. “It’s sad, so devastating,” she had said, “but you will like it.” Then she and I began hunting everywhere to find Harry. We were eager to tell him how much we had liked his books.
I had been the first to learn about Harry, when Piemme asked me to present an award to this 97-year-old literary newcomer. After Harry and his book touched me, he touched my wife who passed it on to her parents, then mine, then ...
There is no one in the family now who has not read - and loved - Harry Bernstein and his history. I will always be grateful to ... Harry for offering me his friendship, and for the chance to have had time enough to exchange emails and receive the funny and moving ones he sent to my children, in the spirit of un ultranonno — a great uncle — even more than that of a successful writer.
Ugo Barbara works for AGI news agency in Rome and has published five novels, based on Italian social and political life, including: Il Corruttore; Le Mani Sugli Occhi and In Terra Consacrata, which was short-listed for the prestigious Strega Prize. Edizioni Piemme is Barbara’s publisher; it is expected to bring out Harry Bernstein’s fictional memoir What Happened to Rose in 2012.