The long sandy road

Sometimes you get to know writers best in their minor works; a commissioned text can disclose more than an obsessively personal project. The Long Road of Sand is one of these revealing tangents in the complicated career of Pier Paolo Pasolini. In 1959 he was commissioned by a magazine called Successo (!!!) to take a road trip along the entire Italian coastline; his account was published across three issues, July, August, and September that year. The result is not journalism of the usual sort, but a sequence of imagist prose stanzas. And yet, as sharp, concise, and profoundly visual as Pasolini’s observations may be, my invocation of imagism might on one count give a mistaken impression: An imagist poem like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913) is typically a still. Neither Pasolini nor his imagery is ever still in The Long Road of Sand. In 1959, Pasolini’s first film, Accatone, was two years in the future, though he knew the film world, having collaborated with Fellini on the dialogue for Le notte di Cabiria. But he was already thinking through the eye of the movie camera. “A long tracking shot along the jetty in Lerici, under the hillside packed with houses, would make an entire film.” The book could easily become a script. I’d like to see how Pasolini would have filmed this, and with what foley sounds he would have produced for its resonant soundtrack: “With the bored, intense footfall the wooden clog makes, the morning’s first bathers head towards their cherished habits, while laborers work like black tortoises under a still-forgiving sun.” Pasolini can be a moralist in both the best and the worst sense of the word, but you always know, as it were physiognomically, whom and what he despises or not. On the book’s first page, he says of a police marshall at the border with France, “With the brevity of a thoughtful, slightly bitter host—though amused by the simplicity of life, which seems to me new and blocked—he ‘lets me see.’” Just so, Pasolini himself. I have always found Stephen Sartarelli’s translations to be splendid, and this one is no exception. The book also features atmospheric black-and-white photographs by Philippe Séclier, who retraced Pasolini’s route in 2005. I don’t know if the Italy he depicts really resembles the one the poet raced through in his Fiat 1100 in 1959, but it certainly reminds me of the one that first impressed itself on my imagination in 1981, which was, terrifyingly, closer in time to that of Pasolini’s writing than to mine today, the mythic Italy. Page 111 of this edition contains a beautiful misprint that I wish I’d invented for some high literary purpose: “sunset” has become “sunsent.” Alright, I’ll take it: if you care for this great poet, novelist, essayist, filmmaker, please read this sunsent book.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Long Road of Sand (2015) is published by Contrasto and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...