Edward Ashe on Norman Thomas di Giovanni

On the day of the funeral of Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Edward Ashe offers some reflections on the writer and translator. 

Years ago I remember writing a Londoners Diary piece for the London Evening Standard which mentioned the editor, translator, novelist and stickler for grammar, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. In an effort to save space my boss asked "why don't you cut out his middle name?" It wasn't his middle name, I explained, he doesn't have one.   

Norman Thomas was his first name; his namesake was the noted American socialist Norman Thomas, from whom di Giovanni treasured a letter written to his father on the occasion of his son's birth in 1933.  

I mention this incident because it expresses a characteristic that defined di Giovanni; his pursuit of accuracy, with the facts, but particularly in written expression. It is a quality that seems especially poignant in this era of fake news and lazy journalism. By many eminent agents and publishers di Giovanni was considered one of most incisive editors in the business. A great many contemporary writers will remember with thanks his painstaking efforts to hone their prose, however maddening and frustrating they might have found the process at the time and boy could it be maddening ...  

His initial step into the limelight came from working with Jorge Luis Borges in the 1960's in Buenos Aires, where the two of them set about translating much of Borges's early work into English and where di Giovanni subsequently encouraged the eminent Argentine writer to produce fresh work for The New Yorker, written in collaboration.  

In the late 1960's Borges ran the main library of the Argentine capital and had become such a revered institution himself that, according to di Giovanni, he was loath to produce new work lest he besmirch his literary reputation with inferior late additions. It was a bizarre state of affairs, itself worthy of a surreal Borges short story.     

Those submissions to The New Yorker, written in collaboration with di Giovanni in the early 1970's, went on to introduce Borges to a whole new English audience which put Argentina on the literary map and formed the basis of the movement we know now as magic realism; exemplified by writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel Angel Asturias, Isabelle Allende, Salmon Rushdie and many others. In those years Borges even became cool thanks to his new found readership; in the 1970 film Performance, directed by Donald Cammell, Mick Jagger appears clutching a book featuring a portrait of Borges on the cover.   

It is unlikely Borges could have achieved any of this without the dedicated assistance and collaboration of Norman Thomas di Giovanni.   

He was born, the first of two children, in Newton, Massachusetts and he was brought up in a suburb of Boston called Thompsonville during the height of the depression. The second last time I saw di Giovanni he told me that the fact checker employed to investigate a magazine article di Giovanni had written, had told him Thompsonville did not exist. It would seem the writer's connection to the strange world of magic realism, where fables meet facts, began at birth. No wonder he was destined to encounter the master of the genre. In fact, Thompsonville did exist. At the time it was a very poor place, too insubstantial perhaps to feature on maps. It was populated mainly with Italian immigrants from the Abruzzi region where di Giovanni's grandfather had been born and his father had lived until having to flee Mussolini's Facists in the early 1920's. Di Giovanni once told me that for the first few years of his life he assumed the language of America was Italian or, rather, Aquilano - an Abruzzese dialect because that was the only language spoken in Thompsonville.  

Many years later he was to establish a strong connection with the Abruzzi and his father's village Sant'Eusanio Forconese, where he eventually bought a house. His article My Father's Village written for Departures paints a vivid picture of this ancient place and its resilient people perched high in the Apennines.   

Graduating from Antioch College in 1955 di Giovanni published his first translations, the poems of Jorge Guilen, in Cantico in 1965 after gradually making a name for himself in the world of translation and editing. In 1967 di Giovanni was  invited to deliver the Eliot Norton lecture at Harvard. Here he encountered Borges and not long after, Borges invited di Giovanni to work with him in Argentina with a view to translating much of Borges's short stories into English. The process of this collaboration are described with warmth, wit, and, as usual, an attention to detail in di Giovanni's book The Lesson of the Master, published in 2003 as well as in Georgie and Elsa, 2014 which I reviewed positively at the time.  

The writer Adolfo Bioy Casares once told di Giovanni to be careful or he'd be known only as Borges' translator and it can't be denied that to a certain extent that is exactly what happened. During a literary fight that started immediately after Borges' death in 1986, in which various factions battled over the question of which translations into English should be considered definitive, the writer, Paul Theroux, threw his hat into the ring with the words "You are Borges" in reference to di Giovanni's work.  With such encomiums it's little wonder that di Giovanni came to think of his connection with Borges as something of a millstone. To cap it all di Giovanni was honoured with The Order of May - an honour exclusively awarded to distinguished foreigners, the highest honour that a foreign civilian can be bestowed by the Argentine government, for his services to Argentine writing. His friend, the Spanish translator and poet Marcial Souto always remembered to address di Giovanni "Commendador", something that never ceased to tickle di Giovanni's sense of irony given his inherited hostility toward privilege and titles.   

In fact di Giovanni was not only Borges. Apart from writing several of his own books, including Novocente, based on the Bertolucci film 1900, he also edited countless novels, poems and produced programmes for the BBC. Together with his partner Susan Ashe, di Giovanni published translations, including Hand-in-Hand Alongside the Track and Celeste Goes Dancing. He even appears in the movie The Plague, directed by Luis Puenzo where he plays a bad tempered motorist, a part for which many of his friend would say he was "type cast".  The poet Francis Spencer described to me recently di Giovanni hunched concentratedly over one of Francis's hard wrought verses. After an age di Giovanni finally raised his head and bellowed,  "Francis where are your commas?"  

Beyond writing and translating Norman Thomas was also a keen gardener and an enthusiastic builder. Both activities were a healthy antidote to the many hours he spent in front of computer screens unscrambling other people's prose. He made close friends amongst the building fraternity of his adoptive Hampshire, often working hands on in laying paving and building walls for private customers in and around the New Forest.    

His name will always strike fear in the hearts of writers tempted to misplace a comma or forget an apostrophe and he will be remembered with much love by a great many people, particularly in the UK, Italy and Argentina. He is survived by his ex-wife Heather, their two children, Tom and Derek, and his long-time partner Susan Ashe.

Norman Thomas di Giovanni - Born Newton, Massachusetts USA, 3rd October 1933, died 16th February 2017, Bournemouth hospital UK, aged 83.