One of the great values of this brief but highly readable earlier diary is that it was written when the direction of history—whether there would be a war and how it would turn out—was far less clear. As a result, it more accurately represents the moral and political complexity of Italian life under Fascism. The people Origo encounters represent a much broader range of views: from convinced anti-Fascists to unquestioning Fascists who repeat phrases like 'A good Italian’s duty now is to have no opinions.' Most occupy a swampy middle ground ... A journal kept in the middle of tumultuous events makes us realize how wrong most people, including many intelligent and well-informed people, can be about the import of events that, with the benefit of hindsight, now seems obvious ... Much of Origo’s mental energy is spent trying to make sense of what’s happening, by hunting down foreign newspapers, piecing together accounts of events from different sources, trying to read between the lines of official statements ... In one very powerful passage, the day before Mussolini’s official declaration of war, Origo poses a question that seems deeply important in this time of resurgent nationalism: 'Is it possible to move a country to war, against its historical traditions, against the natural instincts and character of the majority of its inhabitants, and very possibly against its own interests? Apparently it is possible.'
Born in 1902 into circumstances of almost unimaginable privilege, Iris Origo, née Cutting, grew up in Fiesole and Florence, the daughter of an Anglo-Irish noblewoman and an American millionaire. But the shy, warmhearted young woman eschewed high society and decided early on to devote herself to writing, especially to the art of biography ... she is now best known for the diary titled War in Val d’Orcia, which she composed in 1943-44 during the Allied invasion of Italy and the fierce Nazi resistance to it. The manuscript, not originally intended for publication, Origo buried in a tin box in her garden for fear of its discovery by the Germans. After the war, when it was published, it received an enthusiastic response from readers ... Iris Origo died in 1988, but it has long been known that she kept another journal, this one about the run-up to World War II. Only recently published, as A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, it is couched in a similar unselfconscious style.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a better time to read A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary , 1939–1940, by Iris Origo, which is being published this week by New York Review Books. And, if there ever is a better time, it won’t be one we want to live in. Trenchant, intelligent, and written with a cool head, the book records the months before Italy’s descent into the Second World War, when Mussolini’s relationship with Hitler was being presented to the Italian public via a campaign of misinformation, what we would now call fake news ... I read this little book with an escalating sense of anxiety. We know what will happen in Italy, and what the war will bring, but Origo, of course, does not. By the end of these pages, my heart was in my mouth. To read it is to witness the slide of a country into tyranny and chaos. It does not feel unfamiliar.