COLUMN: VERGA AND ITALIAN MODERNISM

Updated May 03, 2020

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Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel, Il Gattopardo — made famous by the Italian director Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale — briefly established Lampedusa (1896-1957) as a major Italian writer. Set in Lampedusa’s native Sicily during the mid-19th century, it is written with meticulous care for details that bring that time to life, and is considered by some readers to be a masterpiece. It is certainly an admirable work, solid and traditional, but it is not an exceptional work of literature. It is simply not in the same league as Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed], the 1840 novel that set the standard for Italian fiction.

The eminence claimed for Lampedusa is based on referring to his novel as that by a Sicilian writing about Sicily, as if narrow nationalistic labelling gives a luminous glow to a work, which criterion unfortunately passes for serious critical perception among academics and impresses most general readers. Well, if such a criterion were of any consequence, there were two other Sicilians who preceded Lampedusa, whose work is part of the best modernist European literature: the playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) and the novelist Giovanni Verga (1840-1922).

Pirandello is well known and is there with his famous contemporaries, Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, and the other distinguished playwrights who came after them, such as Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. An evening at the theatre and one can claim to know a playwright’s work — who, after seeing a performance of Six Characters in Search of an Author, can ever forget Pirandello? By comparison, the fiction writer Verga is comparatively unknown, though he was first translated into English by D.H. Lawrence, the libretto of the famous opera Cavalleria rusticana was based on one of his stories and two of his novels, I Malavoglia (translated as The House by the Medlar Tree) and Mastro-Don Gesualdo, are masterpieces.

Lawrence’s translation of Verga’s stories, which in his preface he had called sketches “drawn from actual life”, was published as a book titled Short Sicilian Novels (reissued by Dedalus European Classics, London, 1984). Perhaps that parochial pigeonholing — which might have been intended to give them an exotic flavour to make them attractive but failed to do so — has contributed to their being neglected. But what publishers and academics never seem to understand is that a subject matter’s origin is an absolute irrelevance in one’s estimation of the quality of any creative work.

For example, Verga’s story ‘The Property’ is about a character named Mazzaro whose lifelong obsession has been an unquenchable lust to acquire more and more property, but his vast estate is a worthless acquisition at the end, given that he must die. The same idea occurs in a story by Leo Tolstoy, ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’, in which a man is offered the free possession of all the land that he can walk around between sunrise and sunset on the condition that, before the sun sets, he arrive at the very spot from where he began, or lose it all if he does not. As he walks, his greed to acquire more and more increases until, seeing the sun descending while he’s still walking, he needs to run to reach his starting point, which he does with increasing desperation, and just makes it as the sun sets. However, as he collapses to hold on to the final inch of land, he dies, so that all the land he needs is no more than what’s required for the grave in which he’s buried.

Tolstoy’s story has no more to do with Russia than Verga’s with Sicily. Each is about a particular character whose action can be observed as symbolic of the human race: the power of each story that excites the reader’s imagination is in its language, that is, in the intensity of its visual representation of reality. Each of Verga’s stories is a work of a fascinating imagination driven by original creativity. Even one about a donkey, ‘The Story of Saint Joseph’s Ass’, is an absolute delight.

Verga was writing when realism, as in the novels of Emile Zola, was the dominant form in artistic creation. He carefully studied the French, especially Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Zola, to prepare himself for a sequence of novels set in Sicily, not unlike Balzac’s novels grouped as The Human Comedy. But he did not live to continue the sequence after The House by the Medlar Tree and Mastro-Don Gesualdo. He took realism to a new level, calling it verismo, so perfectly conjoining form and subject matter that the reader observes only the truth of what Verga referred to as the human “struggle for existence.” English readers are fortunate to have not only Lawrence’s translation of Verga’s delightful early stories, but also superb renderings of The House by the Medlar Tree and Mastro-Don Gesualdo by Raymond Rosenthal and Giovanni Cecchetti respectively.

A fine modernist novelist himself, Rosenthal is also the translator of the great avant-garde genius Raymond Roussel, and his translation of The House by the Medlar Tree so totally absorbs the reader in the Sicilian villagers’ struggle for existence, that one’s senses and intellect experience nothing but their reality.

There’s no one character whom we can call the hero or heroine — as with Balzac’s Père Goriot, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Zola’s Nana — but, as in the real world around us, there is a community of interdependent neighbours with their several virtues and vices. The Malvoglia family is given a pivotal role, but the novel’s action continually shifts from one person or group to another. As Cecchetti points out, Verga’s “extraordinarily powerful works” result from his “amalgamating fact and vision and by pursuing his ideal of the oneness of form and subject matter.”

The focus of his verismo in The House by the Medlar Tree is on the truth of how life is lived in layers of communal groups, in which the individuals pursue their particular passions and ambitions or passively accept what fate heaps upon them. In Mastro-Don Gesualdo, the focus shifts to an individual from the working class: Gesualdo raises himself from his lowly origin by acquiring property and riches that enable him to marry into the aristocracy and become Don Gesualdo, but he’s never allowed to forget his background as a Mastro from the working class, so that he must endure the mocking irony of always being called ‘Mastro-Don’ Gesualdo.

Although he did not live to further his Balzacian ambition to create the Sicilian ‘Human Comedy’, yet with these two novels — which are both perfect examples of how what is drawn from a particular social group transcends that parochial reality to become a universal truth — Verga succeeded in raising the Italian novel to a high literary art. He is the precursor of the three prominent Italian fiction writers of the post-modern era—Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso and Fleur Jaeggy.

Ironically, the year he died — 1922 — coincides with the publication of the two great works that are the pillars of 20th century modernism: Ulysses by James Joyce and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. Yet now, nearly a hundred years later, we have yet to appreciate that Verga’s important contribution to that modernism had been made four decades earlier.

The columnist is a novelist, literary critic and Professor emeritus at the University of Texas. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 3rd, 2020