Franco Magnani and JG Ballard

Franco Magnani was the subject of a fascinating essay in Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars. Magnani grew up in the Tuscan village of Pontito, from which he and all the other villagers were evicted by the Nazis in 1943.

Later in life, while working as a cook in San Francisco’s North Beach, Magnani had a neurological crisis and began obessively to produce paintings of Pontito.

I thought of one of these paintings, “Pontito Preserved for Eternity in Infinite Space,” when I read about Bessel A. van der Kolk’s characterisation of traumatic memories as “unassimilated scraps of overwhelming experiences,” in Paul Crosthwaite’s essay on war trauma and narrative organisation in Ballard’s fiction.

Today, Magnani still lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and still makes Pontito the subject of many of his paintings. This is his website. Sacks wrote of Magnani’s work, “There us something of a desolate, a postnuclear, quality, But there is also a deeper, more spiritual stillness. One cannot help feeling that something is strange here, that what is being recalled is not the actuality of childhood, as with Proust, but a denying and transfiguring vision of childhood.”

I want to connect this with the use JG Ballard makes in his fiction of Lunghua camp, where he was interned by the Japanese. Sacks calls Magnani’s Pontito “a Pontito at peace, suspended in a timeless ‘once,’ the ‘once’ of allegory, fantasy, myth and fairy tale,” and asks of Magnani, “What was it that served to transform his memories – to remove them from the sphere of the personal, the trial, the temporal, and bring them into the realm of the universal, the sacred?”

Memorists may seek to fit their past and their present into a story arc, but sometimes the past resists assimilation. You can’t go home again — or to quote the title of a young adult novel by S.E. Hinton that I read when I was a young adult, That Was Then, This is Now — or in the words of Ratz the barman, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, “Night City is not a place one returns to, artiste.”
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