No bar to love

Christian Spurrier on the tragedy of Gramsci’s prison years as revealed in letters to his wife and sons (Guardian)

“When I see the actions and hear the words of men who have been in prison for five, eight or 10 years, when I observe the spiritual deformations they have undergone, it gives me a cold shiver and I begin to doubt my own power to watch over myself.” So wrote Antonio Gramsci to his Russian wife Julka, two years into the prison sentence that ended with his death in 1937. Gramsci’s subsequent fame rests on his prison notebooks – political essays on fascism and capitalism written while in Mussolini’s jails. But his letters, of which there were more than 500, tell the story behind that work. And they are a remarkable account of imprisonment.

Arrested on November 8, 1926, aged 35, Gramsci was a Sardinian-born journalist and agitator who had fought his way to the leadership of the Italian communist party. He was famous for his campaigning articles and had worked closely with Mussolini in the days when Il Duce was still a socialist and editor of the worker’s paper L’Avanti. Perhaps because of this, from the moment Mussolini seized power in 1922, Gramsci knew his position was precarious. Aged 35, he was arrested on November 8, 1926 despite parliamentary immunity and sent to the prison island of Ustica, where he expected to spend five years.

His letters from Ustica are combative, optimistic and full of fascination at the strange new world into which he had been flung. He recounts seeing a pig arrested and treated as a felon and being instructed in the rivalries of the Sicilian and Calabrian mafias. He told his mother: “I felt I was living in a fantastic novel.” To Julka, he wrote: “We two are still young enough to look forward to seeing our children grow up together.”

But at his trial in May 1928 Gramsci was given a 20-year sentence for trying to undermine the Italian state. With most of his family still in Sardinia and Julka back in Russia with their two sons, Gramsci realised that letters were now his only means of keeping a grip on what he called “the threads of life”. As he told Julka: “Every detail which I succeed in collecting of you and the children helps me to fit together a larger scale picture of what you are all doing.” He asked her to “write nothing but trivialities” and berated her if she failed to keep him up to date with such things as the current height and weight of his two sons. Even in his anger, his pain at being deprived of the banal routines of family life is evident.

In an effort to reciprocate, Gramsci made the best of what prison life and the censors permitted. When he started writing to his eldest son Delio in 1929, he invited the boy to compose “a long, long letter” and in return, promised to tell him about “a rose I planted and a lizard I want to train”.

Gramsci’s refusal to let imprisonment prevent him from being a husband and father is especially poignant given the nature of his relationships. Delio, his elder son, was only two-and-a-half when he was arrested, while his younger son, Giuliano, had not even been born. And while Julka, whom he met in 1922 at an international congress in Moscow, was highly intelligent and a gifted violinist, she was delicate and too neurotic and self-obsessed to be of any real support to him.

This did not stop Gramsci doting on her, as the passionate declarations of love throughout the letters testify, though he did make the occasional complaint. “How little she writes,” he protested to Tania, her sister, in 1927, “and how good she is at justifying herself.” In 1931, Julka experienced a kind of breakdown. When Gramsci wrote: “I believe I am responsible, at least in part, for these problems of yours,” he meant through the strain caused by his imprisonment. But whatever Julka’s troubles, there is unintentional humour in hearing a man, facing the prospect of no release before his health gives out, apologising for the inconvenience he has caused. And as he deteriorated, Julka’s failure to understand his predicament began to break his heart. “I am so isolated that your letters are like bread for the starving,” he wrote in 1936, “so why do you measure the ration out so cannily?”

That January, Julka had raised the possibility of travelling to Italy to see him. This prompted one of the most poetic and moving passages in the letters as he related his recent transfer to a prison hospital: “What a terrible feeling I had, after six years of looking at nothing but the same roofs, the same walls, the same grim faces, when I saw from the train that all the time, the vast world had continued to exist, with its meadows, its woods, its ordinary people, its gangs of little boys, certain trees and certain gardens. After so many years of a life swaddled in darkness and shabby miseries, after all this, it would do me good to be able to speak to you as one friend to another. If I say this, you mustn’t feel that some awful responsibility is weighing on you; all I’m thinking of is ordinary conversation, the kind one normally has between friends.”

It took Julka six months to write to say that she would not be coming. When Gramsci responded, it was to say, “I no longer know what to write to you.”

His efforts towards Delio and Giuliano were no less passionate, and no less frustrating. In May 1928, in the midst of his trial, he wrote: “I have just remembered that Delio will be four on 10 August and he is already big enough to receive a present that means something. Signora Pina has promised to send me the Meccano catalogue.” Throughout his sentence, Gramsci remained fascinated with his children’s progress, and obsessed with ensuring their intellects and imaginations were being stimulated and developed. He set them reading lists, swapped information about whales and elephants, wrote them bedtime stories and told them tales of his own childhood. “One autumn evening, it was already dark, but the countryside lay bathed in moonlight. I went with another boy into an orchard full of fruit trees,” he wrote to Delio in 1932. “We hid in a bush, facing the wind. All of a sudden, the hedgehogs came out of their holes. There were five of them, two big ones and three little ones. They made their way in single file towards the apple trees, rambled about in the grass for a while and then got down to work.”

When he started writing to his sons, he always signed off with a request for them to give their mother “a great big hug”. And each time he wrote to Julka, he begged for extra photographs of them, boasting proudly in 1928 that the inmates had made an exhibition of their children in the prison yard, and “Delio was much admired”. But as they grew older, the complaints he directed at Julka were also directed at them – why didn’t they write more often? Couldn’t they see how much the letters meant to him? Was the problem that they were lazy and lacked imagination, or did they no longer care?

To be fair to the boys, neither had any direct memories of their father and their strongest impression of him came from a poster on display in a Moscow park as a tribute to the enemies of fascism. It was only through this poster that the boys learned that he was in prison. Gramsci was appalled, especially as he had also been lied to, as a child, about his own father’s disappearance.

But when it suited him, Gramsci also lied. His sister-in-law only learned that he had been viciously beaten – by other political prisoners, for questioning Stalin’s execution of Zinoviev – from his guards. And he never let his mother know the extent of his physical decline. His family also chose not to tell him when she died in 1934, and for his last three years he addressed letters to her, believing she had made a full recovery from her final illness.

But however much Gramsci depended on correspondence, he was permitted only writing materials of the lowest quality and for limited hours. For the rest of his time, he had to find outlets for his prodigious intelligence. “Don’t think for a moment that I am not continuing to study or that I am dejected,” he insisted in 1931.

The idea of a more significant piece of work was first mentioned in a letter from early 1927. His initial ideas inclu-ded an essay on Pirandello and a history of Italian intellectuals. It is not clear whether Gramsci saw his notebooks as the fulfilment of those intentions, but it is certain he might never have persevered with anything had it not been for the efforts of Julka’s sister Tania Schudt. While Julka remained in Russia, Tania moved to Italy, ostensibly to study, but actually to support a man whose struggle she considered with religious admiration. From the moment he was incarcerated, Tania took charge of Gramsci’s affairs, ordering his books and organising his magazine subscriptions. She moved around the country to be near whichever prison he was in. She campaigned for an improvement to his conditions and formed committees to lobby for his release. She also saw it as her duty to convince Gramsci that he was a great man, the continuation of whose work mattered to humanity.

Tania’s ardour gave her a wildly romanticised vision of Gramsci’s position and this maddened him: “According to you I am a second Gandhi,” he wrote in 1930. “I can only tell you that I am eminently practical [and] that my practicality consists of this – knowing that if a man beats his head against the wall, it’s his head that breaks and not the wall.”

Her enthusiasm was also a source of trouble as much as assistance. After a visit in 1928, he wrote: “I am not allowed to have anything of my own. No suit of clothes, no overcoat, nothing, not even a Vaseline tin.” Every time Tania misjudged what the prison authorities considered a permissible gift or letter, Gramsci lost privileges, most painfully, the right to open and read his own mail.

If Tania was the unsung hero in the emergence of the notebooks, she was also his only advocate in the battle between the prison regime and his fragile health. Even in his youth, Gramsci had confronted tougher problems of this kind than most people do in old age. A servant girl dropped him when he was 18 months old, and he developed severe curvature of the spine. He never grew taller than five feet. His hunched and dwarfish appearance provoked horrific bullying at school and further health problems. And in 1902, even the comfort of relative prosperity was removed when his father – a local official – was imprisoned for supposed mismanagement of municipal finances, but actually for backing the wrong candidate in a local election.

At 11, Gramsci was sent to work at a local office, carrying huge ledgers that weighed more than he did. Describing the experience to Tania in a letter from 1932, he wrote: “Rarely have I known any but the more brutal sides of life, but I’ve always managed to get through for better or worse.” Yet, by 1926, the regime to deal with the back pain, neuralgia and stomach disorders that pursued him was said to include up to 50 self-administered injections a day.

It is not surprising that once in jail, his physical deterioration was immediate. Within two years he had lost all his teeth. Recurrent flu, TB, arteriosclerosis and Pott’s disease [of the spine] followed. Typically, he did not get depressed. “It’s true that I can’t dance on one leg,” he wrote to his mother in 1931, “but sometimes I’m amazed at myself in my own powers of resistance.”

Despite his fortitude, in late 1933, his health collapsed. On the advice of doctors – but only after much lobbying from Tania – he was moved to a prison clinic. As he was being transferred, his cell-mate, who had nursed him through many crises, stowed away his notebooks at the bottom of a trunk while Gramsci kept the guards distracted.

Over the next two years, Gramsci convalesced and his correspondence dwindled, but he continued to work as much as his health permitted and this is the time when most of his thoughts were gathered. He rallied briefly in late 1936, but was ill again by the beginning of the next year. In April 1937 he suffered the massive cerebral haemorrhage that killed him. His notes were smuggled out of hospital and as little as a month later, his comrade and fellow communist leader Carlo Togliatti was mooting publication. But it took 10 years for an edition to appear, perhaps due to the war and the unpopularity provoked by his criticisms of Stalin. By the late 50s, however, he was being acclaimed as a unique thinker to be considered alongside Marx and Lenin.

If that is true, then it is perhaps because it was not the production of a complete philosophy or the hastening of revolution that obsessed Gramsci, but the injustices of ordinary life, and the way they might be redressed. The answers for him lay as much in culture, humanity and compassion as they did in political theory. And while prison did not form that conviction, it tested it beyond what anyone should tolerate.

There can be no better evidence that his spirit triumphed than the last letter he sent Delio: “Darling Delio, I am feeling a little tired and can’t write much. But please write to me all the same and tell me everything at school that interests you. I think you must like history, as I liked it when I was your age, because it deals with living people, and everything that concerns people, as many people as possible, all people in the world, in so far as they unite together in society and work and struggle and make a bid for a better life. All that can’t fail to please you more than anything else, isn’t that right?” © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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