Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author James Murphy's Notes on Nicola Morelli Berengo

Biography | Cattolicissimo trio composed of mother father beloved son. God, why doesn’t the English language have an equivalent for –issimo?


Incidental beginnings: the mother (1951) broke off from her Milanese family in the early Seventies, got married rashly and in absence of her parents, by religious rite, for the sake of controversy, asking a cousin to be her best man. She has been living in Rome with her husband ‘in exile’, as if in a colony, as if in Africa. Nicola’s father (1948) was raised by a single mother, and lived with her in the council estate where they shot Una Giornata Particolare with Marcello Mastroianni and Sofia Loren.


Nico’s first eight years of life: he lives with his father, mother and paternal grandmother.


The father had attended seminary. Then studied architecture. Fatti di Valle Giulia (the Italian equivalent of May 1968 in France): the father does not partake, because of his cousin – who he is not really in touch with – who is a Carabiniere. On the matter, Nicola quotes from a Pasolini poem, which is also often quoted by his father (remember to ask which one).


The father leaves university. Joins the Navy for his compulsory military service.


He goes back to uni with a newfound interest in ships and submarines, which will affect his creative production via the dissemination of portholes everywhere in his projects, even on the dividing walls between two rooms, which is unpalatable to the Berengo family, as well as slanted perspectives and sequences of rooms with no connecting corridors.


He is a solitary youth; he spends his life putting The Way of a Pilgrim into practice, repeating to himself over and over (when he is angered by the endless queue at the post office; when his mother’s dinner is yet again tasteless; when he inadvertently tears up the wrong drawing) Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.


Despite his marriage he keeps his boyish good looks. He becomes morbidly enamoured with his son. He doesn’t want him to become sophisticated. During a catechism lesson when Nico is eight years old, his father taps into his own reference material, teaching him the Russian Pilgrim’s prayer. The son seems to instinctively understand the concept of asking for mercy and doesn’t ask the question that he would ask if this were a TV sketch about religion: ‘Why do I have to ask God for mercy?’ Instead, one morning as they’re walking to school, he asks his father: ‘Do you have mercy on me?’


Nico lives in Rome until third grade, never meeting his maternal grandparents; ironically, he thinks they are ill: ‘When are we seeing the nonni materni?’ ‘They are ill.’ ‘But what razza of illness do they have?’  Little Nicola has an extensive vocabulary. He is a devoted child, keen on chatting to adults. He kisses the ladies’ hands: he’s learnt it from the movies. He rarely has a babysitter, so his father brings him along to work dinners and to the cinema. His parents think it’s okay to joke about the fight with his grandparents in front of their son. His maternal grandparents were upset by his mother’s abrupt departure from Milan, and so she had stopped calling them.


Their house was small. They taught him the song ‘Era una casa molto carina / senza soffitto senza cucina / non si poteva andare a letto / perché non c’era il gabinetto’ (‘It was a really lovely house / it had no ceiling or kitchen / you couldn’t go to bed / because there was no bathroom there’). Upper-middle-class mother, from a family of intellectuals and entrepreneurs with connections to the publishing world. A father who was kick-starting his career. One, very serious, practical-minded grandmother. Coming from well-to-do family means that he has no practical sense, his frugal upbringing that he can never fully relax. Later, when his father’s company starts renovating the mansions of a number of Middle Eastern millionaires, Nico says that he ‘won’t ever be able to fully enjoy his wealth.’ (I’m not sure what he’s talking about. His home is his kingdom and he doesn’t have to worry about money as his father provides full financial support. He tries to make this whole predicament of his look good. I’d like to talk to Daria about it. Can I write to Daria saying I’m just taking some notes? Dangerous. But I’ll have to meet her at some point.)


In 1983 his mother finally makes up with her parents: it’s the architect’s idea – it isn’t clear why he has to wait a decade. It’s as if architect Morelli wanted to be able to dominate his wife for ten years, then give her back to her rightful owners, like Hong Kong to the Chinese.


‘Your grandparents are better now. They’re not rabid anymore.’


‘They were rabid because they were angry?’


‘No. They were rabid because they had rabies. Look it up in your Treccani.’ (The encyclopedia was a present from an ‘uncle’ of architect Morelli; Mrs Morelli ‘ironed his shirts’. Look up Viale Gorizia, via Nomentana on Streetview.)


‘You never said they had rabies.’


‘You know, when you get older you get all sorts of illnesses at the same time, because the body weakens. For example: you play football right after lunch; Daddy doesn’t, because he struggles to digest his food, and Grampa doesn’t play football at all.’


‘Ah!’ said Nicolino, pretending to understand. ‘That must mean he really struggles to digest his food.’


Little Lord Nicolino.


is the author of The Story of My Purity (Penguin). He has written for a number of Italian publications, as well as for Rolling Stone and GQ, and has translated into Italian the works of Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dave Eggers, Will Eisner, and more. He lives in Rome.



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