11/19/2013 01:59 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

William Weaver's Eco Chamber

William Weaver, the American dean of modern Italian literature, died last Tuesday in Rhinebeck, New York. Weaver ('Bill' to friends) was a musicologist and cineaste as well as a translator, a man whose close and passing acquaintances included virtually every literary luminary of post-war Italy and whose voice was recognized by thousands of loyal listeners of the Metropolitan Opera's radio broadcasts in the 1970s.

But I knew him as a shadow. As a man whose presence was outlined on dozens of great novels, but whose substance was hidden by the stroke that left him unable to tell his own story. After half a century of unceasing travel, translation and story-telling, the last years of Bill Weaver's life hardly counted. He spent his days in bed, questioning his surroundings. He could not easily speak. He had given new voice to a generation of writers, but he died mute.

It was, as his nephew noted in an obituary in the New York Times "a brutal piece of irony."


First drawn to Italy as an ambulance driver during World War II, Weaver returned after graduating from Princeton and became an informal cultural ambassador for Americans in pursuit of La Dolce Vita. He socialized with Vittorio De Sica, squired Eleanora Duse, and once noted that he learned from Pier Paolo Pasolini "how poor American obscenities are."

In a short memoir titled A Tent in the World, Weaver recalled the collision of a young man's romantic notions with the reality of war-battered Naples upon arrival in 1947: "the situation I had intended to master mastered me." His intention, he recalled, was to "perfect his Italian, meet famous writers, have a dazzling love affair, and write a novel."

Over the next fifty years, he did all that and more: he also won the National Book Award and several PEN awards for translation; picked up a few more languages and a couple honorary degrees; and became, in the words of Leon Botstein, director of the American Symphony Opera, "truly the opera's greatest and most distinguished enthusiast."

When I visited Weaver's house on the campus of Bard College several years ago, I found a signed portrait of Maria Callas. On the reverse side was a typed transcript from a conversation between the two which was broadcast during an intermission at the Met. There was a moment when the diva pointed out a disagreement between the two over the use of musical breaks in some opera:

Callas -- Of course, Mr. Weaver, you have the right to disagree...
Weaver -- I may have the right, madam. But I don't have the nerve.

That was false modesty. Weaver was indeed nervy, and a bit mischievous. "No angel," winked his friend Paula Fox. A former student, the scholar Kristina Olson, has written a tribute to her teacher, a man who also gave her away at her wedding. She remembers students welcomed to his home with the offer of a glass of wine "no matter what our age because, as Bill said, he was not a fascist." She writes that

"to know Bill was to know Elsa Morante, Italo Calvino, Alberto Moravia, and Carlo Emilo Gadda ... to know of their culinary habits, their living quarters, their erotic exploits."

The adult Weaver had mastered the art of personable, unaffected, witty, cultural erudition. I believe that that is the art he had always intended to master.


As a young aspiring writer in Rome in the early 1950s, Weaver joined a literary coterie who, under the patronage of a "New England-born Roman princess" and the editorial director of Georgio Bassani, published an international review called Botteghe Oscura. This was the genesis of Weaver's career as a translator. He abandoned his first and only novel, which, he wrote in an afterward to A Tent in This World "involved a murder, an unnamed island, an unhappy marriage, some colorful tourists and a certain amount of soul-searching. It bored me then and it went on to bore a dozen editors..." and settled into a long and fruitful profession. His translations of Pirandello, Moravia, Levi, Calvino and Eco helped secure Italian fiction in the modern canon for American readers.

Weaver left his urban digs in Rome after a decade and bought a farmhouse in Tuscany. Other artists, including the painter Floriano Vecchi and the musicologist Andrew Porter had already settled in the village of Monte San Sevino, and became close friends. The writers Hortense Calisher and Paula Fox were frequent visitors. The music historian Claire Brook remembered long nights of great meals and high spirits at the home of a man who made "long and meaningful friendships."

The day I met Weaver at Bard College in New York, he was in bed, where he spent the last decade of his life. His partner, a Japanese artist with a history of mental illness, made us spaghetti and poured us champagne. I could sense that Weaver enjoyed the bedside meal, unaware, maybe, that despite the linen napkins and fresh parmesan, there was something missing from our shared lunch. His voice.


Weaver left his beloved Monte San Sevino in the 1990s, when he accepted an invitation to teach at Bard College. He had other offers, Bard President, Leon Botstein told me, but was won over by the Hudson Valley college's musical life and preference for faculty "from the world of letters, not trained in the formal academy." Weaver, with no formal training either in music nor in translation, was nonetheless a preeminent expert in both. "He was enormously generous to his students," said Botstein.

"He was 69 when he arrived but was the youngest at heart. He was an enthusiastic breath of fresh air, he lit up the campus like a beacon."

I sought him out at Bard because I wanted to know more about Carlos Emilio Gadda, the hermetic author whose masterpiece, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana had electrified me. But by the time I left, I had forgotten about Gadda. I wanted to know more about William Weaver.

I spent the next months tracking down his last acquaintances and his former colleagues and students. They all recalled a man of unending stories, but they could not do them justice. Most had not seen him since his stroke. Not because of his physical decline, but because of the decline of his unstable partner - the same Japanese man who had welcomed me on my first visit and poured us champagne. Kazuo Nakajima was erratic and paranoid. On my next visit he chased me from the porch and implied I was a devil. It was the treatment that Weaver's friends were accustomed to.


It was Weaver's nephew, John Poulton, who informed me of his death. Poulton had read the story I wrote about my fascination with his uncle. "You are the first person I've called," he said.

He had caught me in the car; I was in northern Virginia, not fifty miles from Weaver's childhood home, a mountain retreat in the Blue Ride Mountains with the delightful name Gooney Lodge. I very nearly took a detour after I hung up the phone. Then I realized that my visit to the place some years ago had already accomplished all it could. I had realized then, while digging through archives in the town of Front Royal, that, as much as I would have liked to meet the Bill Weaver who once described himself as "a personable, well-educated youth... with an insatiable curiosity... who had long since lost his Southern accent, but never his Southern sociability," I never would.

I have to be content with my own conjured image of a man in full, confirmed by those who remember him. A man who for all his life was surrounded by friends, devoted to his lovers, and, later, adored by his students. A man gifted with powers of language inherent to a renowned translator, but for whom, in the twilight of his life, all that had faded away. The books and letters, the friends and family, even the long-time partner whose mental decline following Weaver's own had become another formidable obstacle -- they were all gone.

I recalled the afternoon I had spent at his bedside. I remembered the bookshelves, filled with reminders of his packed and peopled past: the postcards that fell from old libretti, the letters stashed into manuscripts. Scant remnants of long-gone conversations filtered back to me from my eavesdropping: the herbs go from triumph to triumph, see you at Toby's... Tokyo was fraught, but all is peaceful now ... I'm mulling over another project, tell you about it in April. They reminded me of the name Weaver gave his beloved home in Monte San Sevino after the success of The Name of the Rose allowed him to renovate: he called it his Eco Chamber.