Giovanni Papini (1881-1956) argued that Italians are less suited temperamentally to writing novels than to writing poetry, essays, and biographies. Certainly, the art of storytelling has long been esteemed in Italy; Baldassare Castiglione, in Il cortegiano (1528; The Book of the Courtier, 1561), listed it as one of the attributes of the perfect gentleman. It was simply the length of the fictional narrative that Italians were slow to elaborate. This lack of experimental spirit probably had more to do with historical factors—such as illiteracy, lack of a unified country, and the persistent questione della lingua controversy— than with temperament.
Besides drawing upon the novellino (storybook) tradition of Giovanni Boccaccio, Franco Sacchetti, Matteo Bandello, and many other early Italian writers, wouldbe Italian novelists of the nineteenth century looked to the narrative-in-verse genre of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea (1797; Herman and Dorothea, 1801), and to the novels and verse of Sir Walter Scott. In Scott, especially, Italians saw the possibility of using adventurous tales of a more substantial length to publicize their cause of political unification.
Giovanni Berchet (1783-1851), whose famous Lettera semiseria di Grisostomo al suo figliuolo (1816; semiserious letter from Grisostomo to his son) was conceived in support of Madame de Staël’s recommendation that Italians imitate the new Romantic tendencies of the German writers, himself contributed a major work to the narrative-in-verse genre with his anti-British I profughi di Parga (1823; the refugees of Parga). Tommaso Grossi (1790-1853), who wrote Romantic novellas in octaves, bridged the gap between the verse novel and the prose novel in 1834 when he published Marco Visconti (1834; Marco Visconti: A Romance of the Fourteenth Century, 1907), set in Lombardy in the fourteenth century.
The year 1827 was a milestone in the development of the novel in Italy. In that year the following novels were published: Il castello di Trezzo (the castle of Trezzo), by Giambattista Bazzoni (1803-1850); Sibilla Odaleta by the “Italian Sir Walter Scott,” Carlo Varese (1793- 1866); La battaglia di Benevento (Manfred: Or, The Battle of Benevento, 1875), by Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi (1804-1873); and I promessi sposi (The Betrothed 1828), by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). The historical novel became so fashionable in subsequent years that Manzoni himself felt compelled, out of his respect for the incontrovertible facts of history, to decry its further cultivation as a genre in his nonfiction work Del romanzo storico (1845; on the historical novel).
Like most of the other Italian novelists of this period, Manzoni was Milanese; his grandfather was the humanitarian criminologist Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), whose treatise Dei delitti e delle pene (1764; On Crimes and Punishments, 1767) is credited with eliminating from European criminal law the use of torture. Manzoni’s mother, Giulia Beccaria, separated from his father, and, in 1805, the future novelist went to live with her in Paris, where his friendship with Claude Fauriel brought him under the influence of the Romantic movement. Manzoni’s wife’s conversion from Calvinism to Roman Catholicism was soon followed by his own, and it was still under the influence of his conversion that he began work on his masterpiece, The Betrothed. The impulse to write a historical novel came mainly from his reading of Scott, but his idea for the plot came from a proclamation that he happened to read regarding forced or prevented marriages, issued in 1627 by the Spanish governor of Lombardy.
Although Manzoni finished writing the novel in 1823, its publication was not complete until 1827. Displeased with his style, Manzoni began a thorough revision and visited Florence “to wash his rags” in the Arno River and thereby increase his sensitivity to the Tuscan literary standard, which would thirty years later become the language of a united Italy. The revised edition, greatly improved in style and in lexical choice but hardly changed at all in content, was published in parts between 1840 and 1842. Writing within a tradition that emphasized the pompous and academic rhetoric of the medieval and Renaissance masters, Manzoni—with a superb ear for dialogue— achieved a remarkable reconciliation between the spoken and the written language as the vehicle for his narrative. Joining the questione della lingua controversy that has plagued Italy since the time of Dante Alighieri, Manzoni argued to the end of his life that Italian writers should conform to the contemporary usage of cultured Florentines.
The Betrothed takes place in Lombardy between 1628 and 1631; the protagonists, the humble silk-weavers Renzo and Lucia, are already betrothed when the story opens. Lucia has attracted the attention of the unscrupulous Don Rodrigo, who is determined to have her. His henchmen prevent the village priest from performing the marriage, and for their own safety, the two are separated (Renzo is sent to Milan, Lucia to Monza). Throughout the rest of the novel, the reader lives, suffers, and hopes with the ill-starred couple at the mercy of the whims of the rich and powerful and menaced by war, famine, and plague. Manzoni depicts his large cast of characters with a gentle humor that stems from his own delight in the variations of the human personality. As a fictional creation, Renzo is thoroughly convincing; Lucia, however, is more a Romantic period piece than a typical peasant girl.
Although The Betrothed was widely read and translated, it failed to win an important place in the gallery of Western literary achievements. Manzoni failed to assimilate fully his historical material; many of his pages are unadulterated history, some encumbered by lengthy quotations from documents and others footnoted with references to actual historical texts.
Manzoni’s ever-present Catholicism is perhaps another factor that accounts for his novel’s lack of worldwide popularity. The glow of his religious belief, which allows the unfortunate couple to persevere against all odds and serves to counterbalance the dark, cruel world that they must inhabit, does not communicate itself well to many modern readers. Alberto Moravia observed that Manzoni had to choose the seventeenth century as the setting for his novel precisely because that was the last time that Catholic belief was strong, even in Italy. Renzo and Lucia survive because they are sheltered by a magical and encompassing Providence. Providence is what moves the hardened brigand L’Innominato (“The Unnamed”) to pity when he hears the supplications of Lucia; Providence is responsible for striking Don Rodrigo dead with plague; and Providence is what makes an eventual reunion of the lovers possible.
Manzoni’s son-in-law, Massimo D’Azeglio (1798- 1866), a member of an aristocratic Piedmontese family who became an important figure in the Risorgimento, wrote historical novels to inspire Italians with pride in their past. Ettore Fieramosca (1833; English translation, 1854) takes its title from a famous challenge made by thirteen Italian knights at Barletta to a like number of French knights, as recorded by Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) in his Storia d’Italia (1561-1564; The Historie of Guicciardin, 1579; better known as The History of Italy, 1753-1756), to which plot D’Azeglio added the story of a despondent protagonist who commits suicide. Another of D’Azeglio’s novels, Niccolò dei Lapi (1841; English translation, 1860), follows the siege of Florence in 1530 and the fortunes of a republican family; this same siege was used in the title of a novel by Guerrazzi, L’assedio di Firenze (1836; the siege of Florence).
The novel from the era between Manzoni and Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) that is most esteemed today is Le confessioni di un ottuagenario (1867; partially translated as The Castle of Fratta, 1954), by the Paduan journalist and poet Ippolito Nievo (1831-1861). Nievo’s narrator, Carlo Altoviti, is an octogenarian who, though Venetian, wishes to die an Italian. The old man tells his story from before the time of the French Revolution; his youthful love affair with Pisana at the Castle of Fratta is the portion of this very long and sometimes digressive novel that was excerpted and translated into English. Nievo, a colonel in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Thousand fighting against the Bourbons, died the untimely victim of a shipwreck in the Tyrrhenian Sea at the age of thirty.
The Sicilian Luigi Capuana (1839-1915) did much to incorporate the precepts of French naturalism into Italian literature. Capuana saw the novel as a purely scientific study and as a means to social progress. With great versatility, he wrote short stories, children’s books, criticism, and plays in Sicilian dialect; he was a birdwatcher, teacher, folklorist, and twice mayor of his native town of Mineo in Sicily. Capuana’s novel, Giacinta (1879), one of the first realistic novels written in Italian, is marred by an incongruous emphasis on the occult. In Il profumo (1890; perfume), Capuana explored an abnormal erotic situation. His most lasting work is Il marchese di Roccaverdina (1901; the marquis of Roccaverdina), a detective novel of sorts about a Sicilian landowner and his murdered agent. Capuana’s characterization of Agrippina Solmi, the landowner’s humble peasant mistress, elicited high critical praise, notably from Benedetto Croce. Capuana’s influence on Italian fiction, however, stems not from his novels (he never got beyond a dependence on gimmicky, weird effects) but rather from his short stories and from his influence on his friend, Verga.
Verga, who is accorded the honor of following Manzoni in the hierarchy of Italian novelists, left Sicily and, following the example of Manzoni, went to Florence in 1865 to perfect his Italian. In Florence, he acquired instant fame for Storia di una capinera (1871; Sparrow: The Story of a Songbird, 1994), about a young nun in love. There followed four more similarly sentimental novels before he found his true métier, depicting the world of the Sicilian peasant, in the short story “Nedda” (1874; English translation, 1893). The characters that began to interest Verga in this new, more mature period of his career were poor people, farm workers, or fishermen, and he describes them sparely, without authorial introduction or commentary. Readers ofVerga, like readers of William Faulkner, are offered a fictional world that they must interpret for themselves.
While it is true that for Verga the author’s lot is to record and not to judge, Verga’s fiction nevertheless pulsates with the compassion that he dared not put into words. His attitude toward the precarious existence of his beleaguered peasants, so completely at the mercy of natural forces that remain indifferent to the concerns of humans, is reminiscent of the poetic stance of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). Whereas the ultimate reality had been for Manzoni a boundless Catholic faith, it was for Verga a fatal inevitability, contingent upon circumstances and conditioned somewhat by economic security.
In the six years after helping to found Verismo, or Verism (the Italian literary movement that partakes of both realism and naturalism), Verga wrote short stories and one minor novel but was concerned mainly with the preparation of his greatest work, I malavoglia (1881; The House by the Medlar Tree). The good-hearted but frugal grandfather, Master ’Ntoni, watches his brood of grandchildren grow up to disappoint his fondest dreams of prosperity for the family. Nature is at its harshest in a storm at sea that destroys a boatload of lupine purchased on credit and in a cholera epidemic that takes its toll on members of his family. To pay for the lost cargo of lupine, the family must give up their beloved house by the medlar tree. When the grandfather hears that his oldest grandson and namesake has been brought to trial for smuggling, he has a stroke and dies. A younger grandson, Alessi, Verga’s symbol of faith in traditional hard work, is able to buy back the house by the medlar tree, and the novel ends with the suggestion that, despite the reversals of fortune, once again the Malavoglia may be as “numerous as the stones on the old Trezza road.”
Even before the publication of this novel, Verga had conceived the idea—probably inspired by Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola—of composing a cycle of five novels entitled La marea (the tide) or I vinti (the doomed), which would study successive stages in the human struggle for material security. The House by the Medlar Tree was to be the first of the cycle, depicting the struggle for minimal needs alone, but only one of the four projected novels was finished—Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889, the epic of a self-made man who lusts insatiably after greater and greater wealth and who, as a result of his greed, must die alone.
Although it was Capuana who influenced Verga to write in the manner of Zola and Gustave Flaubert, Verga had always been a pessimist and did not require a model on which to base his gloom. Although he is seen as the verista par excellence of Italian fiction, he was not dogmatic about his literary ideas. His greatest achievement was to “invent” a language that, while not employing the Sicilian dialect that his peasant characters would naturally speak, echoed their dialect in its phrasing, cadences, simplicity, and repetitions. This echoing of the Sicilian dialect in standard Italian is perceived even in portions of Verga’s fiction that are not written in direct discourse. His style is laconic and inherently tragic in its intensity, yet in its selectivity it is also poetic.
One of Verga’s closest friends, Federico De Roberto (1861-1927), was born in Naples but grew up in Sicily and considered himself Sicilian. Torn between Verga’s regionalism and the emphasis on the psychological analysis of author Paul Bourget (1852-1935), he abandoned the peasant world of his early fiction for a more complex middle- and upper-class cast of characters. De Roberto’s masterpiece I vicerè (1894; The Viceroys, 1962) is a historical and psychological study of three generations of the aristocratic Uzeda family, as well as a bitterly ironic indictment of politicians. According to Sergio Pacifici, there is enough packed into this sweeping novel to satisfy all tastes: a Manzonian taste for miniature biographies that probe psychology, Verga’s emphasis on economic causes of people’s fate, the psychological approach of Bourget and Capuana, the scientific approach of Zola, the regional approach of Verismo, and the stylistic clarity of Flaubert.
Despite its poverty and backward social conditions, Naples during the second half of the nineteenth century was a center of literary creativity, producing significant works of criticism (by Croce and Francesco De Sanctis), philosophy (by Croce and Bertrando Spaventa), poetry (by Salvatore Di Giacomo), and theater (by Roberto Bracco). It was in Naples that Greek-born Matilde Serao (1856-1927), of mixed Italian and Greek parentage, chose to make her home, depicting it realistically in her fiction. Fiction for Serao was not so much an art form as a mission, and the effect of Zola’s naturalism is evident from her first works. The heroes of her fiction are lowly slum dwellers, and she is at her best describing the hopes and broken dreams of children and the emotions of women who are betrayed in love. Her best work is Il paese di Cuccagna (1890; The Land of Cockayne, 1901), a study of the lottery and the evil effects that it wreaks on all classes of society. The precision of her Neopolitan settings and her keen powers of empathy for the poor is marred by excessive sentimentality, a lack of unity, and occasional grammatical carelessness.
Despite the inevitable recognition of Verga’s genius, for a quarter century following the publication of Daniele Cortis (1885; English translation, 1887), it was the Vicenzan Antonio Fogazzaro (1842-1911) who was viewed as the heir presumptive of Manzoni in the line of Italian novelists. Fogazzaro remains a good example of how desperately the Italian bourgeoisie tried to believe during a time in the post-Risorgimento period when belief was seriously questioned. Since Fogazzaro deals exclusively with the social class to which he so comfortably belonged and seemed impervious to the socioeconomic problems of his recently unified country and the misery in which the majority of his compatriots lived, his books have less relevance to the majority of readers today than they did to a minority during the time they were written.
Content to perpetuate the traditional prose style of Manzoni, Fogazzaro employs a lofty vocabulary that could now be considered decadent. He was, nevertheless, the first major novelist to incorporate dialect into his literary Italian; this earned for him the censure of many critics. In the manner of Scott’s introduction of “braid Scots” into portions of his novels dealing with Scottish life, Fogazzaro availed himself of Lombard, Venetian, Tuscan (with its guttural gorgia, or burr), Roman, and Sicilian words and accents to render character more faithfully. His forte was characterization rather than plot, and he was noted for the skill with which he captured the natural beauty of the Italian lake region.
Fogazzaro’s masterpiece, Piccolo mondo antico (1896; The Patriot, 1907), depicts the idealized little world of the late Risorgimento and is a love story, as are many of Fogazzaro’s plots. Through his protagonists, Franco and Luisa Maironi, the author explores two opposing views of life: the religious view of Franco and the skepticism of Luisa. When their child Obretta is drowned, the disconsolate mother dabbles in spiritualism; Fogazzaro, like Capuana, was interested in the occult, although not enough to classify him as a decadent author. The novel ends happily as Luisa conceives another child, Piero. Fogazzaro’s next two novels concern Piero’s development through his worldly stage (Piccolo mondo Moderno, 1900; The Man of the World, 1907) into his spiritual stage (Il santo, 1905; The Saint, 1906). After Piero becomes a lay brother in the latter novel, he assumes the name Benedetto and ultimately takes on the pope himself, lecturing the sympathetic but virtually powerless pontiff on the four “evil spirits” that infect the Church—falsehood, greed, immobility, and clericalism.
Leila (1910; English translation, 1910), the last novel of the Piero Maironi tetralogy and Fogazzaro’s swan song, addresses the question of what can be done now that all the proposed solutions have been rejected. Like Luisa, Leila represents the skeptical nature of Italian immoralism. She eventually marries Massimo Alberti, a favorite disciple of Benedetto “the Saint” who, after his own disillusionment with the Church, takes refuge in the pure altruism of his medical practice. While sadly accepting the official decision of the Church, Fogazzaro can only recommend the diverting solace of humanitarianism.
Fogazzaro was caught in the middle: His ideas about church reform brought charges of Protestantism from the papal contingent, and his novel The Saint, soon followed by Leila, was placed on the Index, the Catholic Church’s list of banned books; his sympathy with the less radical aspect of socialism, however, was not Marxist enough to please the Marxists. Besides a greater openness within the Church itself, Fogazzaro advocated a stricter application of Christian morality to everyday life. If Italians of subsequent generations were indifferent to the issue of church reform, the issue later regained some of its former immediacy, and the novels of Fogazzaro managed to retain a reading public through the generations. Films and television dramatizations were made from some of his novels, and the future novelist Mario Soldati (1906-1999) wrote the screenplay for a 1941 film version of Fogazzaro’s Piccolo mondo antico.
Another contender for second place in the literary hierarchy after Manzoni, one whose reputation declined even more sharply than Fogazzaro’s, is Edmondo De Amicis (1846-1908), born in Oneglia in Liguria on the Italian Riviera. Indeed, in his treatise L’idioma gentile (1905; pure language), which reaffirms the superiority of the Florentine dialect, he stands out as a staunch Manzonian, at least in linguistic matters. Educated for the army, De Amicis fought in the Battle of Custozza (1866), which established Italy as a kingdom. His first book of sketches, the short-story collection La Vita militare (1868; Military Life in Italy, 1882), was based on his military experience. He was a great traveler and a prolific writer of travel books, about foreign countries (Morocco, Spain, Holland), foreign cities (London and Paris), and even remote regions within Italy (Basilicata).
De Amicis’s best short-fiction work, immensely successful but hopelessly sentimental by today’s standards, is Cuore (1886; The Heart of a Boy, 1895), a series of sketches describing the life of a twelve-year-old boy attending the Turin public school system. The book was used in Italian schools until the advent of Fascism and was long a favorite for teaching Italian in the United States. Despite the disrepute into which his sentimentalism fell (a contemporary dubbed him Edmondo the Languorous), one cannot but admire De Amicis’s conviction that there is something wondrous and lovable in every child. Nor was De Amicis indifferent to the social ills of his day; in 1891, he became a socialist. His long novel Sull’oceano (1889; On Blue Water, 1897), no more than a mere string of anecdotes, is devoted to the ordeal of illiterate emigrants as they make their interminable ocean crossing from Italy to a new life in the New World. In a subsequent novel, Il romanzo d’un maestro (1890; The Romance of a Schoolmaster, 1892), which deals with the idealism of a young schoolteacher pitted against uninspired politicians and supervisors, De Amicis showed the same lack of constructive ability, and in his final years, which were saddened by the suicide of his son, he turned his attention to linguistic matters.
Another novelist noted for his strong moral sense and his compassion for his fellow humans is the Milanese Emilio De Marchi (1851-1901), who has also been compared to Manzoni but who lacks much of the latter’s stylistic elegance and religious feeling. Nevertheless, Sergio Pacifici suggests that a reevaluation of De Marchi’s contribution to Italian literature is in order, noting with optimism that in 1994 a film was made of his detective novel about a murdered priest, Il cappello del prete (1888; the priest’s hat).
Avoiding all mention of contemporary events, De Marchi was committed to depicting the sad reality of the monotonous bourgeois life led by some Italians, and for this reason, he has been compared to the French naturalists. His most accomplished novel is Demetrio Pianelli (1890), about a simple office clerk who is transformed, through a series of reversals, from an unheroic, retiring type of individual into a caring individual who learns to give without thought of reward (for example, he arranges the marriage of his widowed sister-in-law, Beatrice, to a wealthy relative, even though he himself is enamored of Beatrice).
The Early Twentieth Century
The leading novelist of the first decades of the twentieth century was the Sardinian Grazia Deledda (1871- 1936), who became the second woman and the second Italian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1926).Bythe time of her marriage in 1900 and her subsequent removal from Sardinia to Rome, she had already published several collections of essays. Inasmuch as the best of her twenty-five novels are set in Sardinia and depict the primitive conditions of the island, Deledda is classified as a regionalist writer.
Deledda’s characters struggle against their primitive background, as in Elias Portolu (1903; English translation, 1992), in which the hero, returning from imprisonment for a crime he did not commit, falls in love with his brother’s fiancé and, in desperation, is forced to become a priest. Le colpe altrui (1914; the faults of others), a novel of tragic perplexities in which good and evil seem to be enmeshed and whose conclusion recognizes the inevitability of evil, is a plea for mutual forgiveness. La madre (1920; The Mother, 1923, 1974; also known as The Woman and the Priest, 1922) is the bitter tale of a mother who strives to make her son—a priest—forget the woman he loves. At the moment of crisis, when the priest seems about to be exposed by his mistress before his congregation, the mother dies, and her son knows instantly that the “shock of that same grief, that same terror which he had been enabled to overcome,” was responsible for her death. The entire plot unfolds within the space of two days, and the story is told chiefly in the mother’s emotional reactions to the situation.
After 1920, Deledda abandoned the Sardinian background, and her last novels show the influence of Fyodor Dostoevski. Despite her prolonged use of the Sardinian setting, she is more complex than the average regionalist realist writer; her concerns are, rather, the struggle between good and evil and the temptation of sensual love. In the words of the Swedish Academy, she was honored “for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general.”
Deledda enjoyed something of an international revival when she and her works were subjects of a wave of critical articles and books and several of her works were translated into English: for example, Canne al vento (1913; Reeds in the Wind, 1999), La chiesa della solitudine (1936; The Church of Solitude, 2002), and Cosima (1937; English translation, 1988). A full-length critical biography in English, Grazia Deledda: A Legendary Life, by Martha King, was published in 2005.
One of the most widely discussed writers of all of Italian literature, Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), versatile, prolific, and charismatic, is generally dealt with in Italian literary histories more as a poet and as a dramatist than as a novelist, though his fiction was undeniably popular. In fact, D’Annunzio turned from poetry to fiction because he believed that the novel was the genre of the future.
D’Annunzio was a sensualist in the tradition of the Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Oscar Wilde, and the Romantic novels that he wrote represent a break both with Verismo and with the historical novel. The scientific and sociological preoccupations of the veristi are replaced in D’Annunzio by a realism of the senses. Pathological psychology, such a noticeable feature of Capuana’s short stories, is present in D’Annunzio as well. For example, Tullio, in L’innocente (1892; The Intruder, 1898), fantasizes about making love to a woman while she is ill—but his novels are weak on plot and characterization. D’Annunzio himself is his own main character, and all of his novels involve a strikingly joyless search for pleasure; his strength lies in his sensitivity to the musical potential of combinations of words.
Il piacere (1889; The Child of Pleasure, 1898) is the story of Andrea Spinelli, who is saturated with art, “demanding only experience and more experience of the sharpest kind to feed it,” and who moves in a world of duels, fox hunts, and intrigue. D’Annunzio’s next attempt at the novel, The Intruder, is a psychological study of a Nietzschean Superman, Tullio Hermil, who conspires with his wife to murder her son born of an extramarital indiscretion. Finding this novel “the least D’Annunzian” of D’Annunzio’s novels, Luchino Visconti more than eighty years later made a film of The Intruder (1975). To accommodate contemporary realism, Visconti felt it necessary to make only one change in his script: Whereas D’Annunzio allowed Tullio to survive the murder “at a level of experience beyond conventional standards of good and evil,” Visconti has Tullio commit suicide.
Less pretentious, more unified, and possibly D’Annunzio’s best novel is Il trionfo della morte (1894; The Triumph of Death, 1896), in which Giorgio Aurispa loves a woman so intensely that he feels he must destroy her. This novel particularly benefits from its vivid sense of the primitive quality of life in D’Annunzio’s native Abruzzi region. Il fuoco (1900; The Flame of Life, 1900), which baldly details the liaison between a young poet and an older actress, was based on the author’s own affair with Eleanora Duse. The descriptions of Venice in this novel are noted by the Encyclopedia Britannica (1956) as “perhaps the most ardent glorification of a city existing in any language.” A master of embellishment, D’Annunzio is remembered in the annals of Italian fiction primarily for the decorative effect of what he wrote rather than for its content.
Although D’Annunzio fancied himself the mentor and soothsayer of Benito Mussolini, and indeed he contributed to Fascism the famous war cry Eja, Eja, allala and was responsible for the militia uniform with the tasseled cap, the thrill of literary creation was always more important to D’Annunzio than groveling for power. In the late twentieth century, there was a minor reassessment of D’Annunzio as a writer, and he was noted for his influence on Stefan George, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Heinrich Mann, and Henry de Montherlant; one scholar, Jackson I. Cope, argued that D’Annunzio influenced the young James Joyce (see Joyce’s Cities: Archaeologies of the Soul, 1981).
A novelist who wrote in the same vein as D’Annunzio is Alfredo Oriani (1852-1909), a Decadent vulgarian later lionized by the Fascists. Born in Faenza, this tireless writer of novels, plays, and political commentary began as a verista and was greatly influenced by French journalism and parliamentary oratory. When he abjured the excesses of the Decadents, it was to embrace the excesses of colonial messianism. Many of his ideals are found in what is considered his best novel, La disfatta (1896; the defeat), the drama of a scholar and the woman whom he loves and eventually marries. As he sees his son and his friends die and fails to win recognition for his scholarly pursuits, he comes to the disconsolate realization that his life is empty and that his defeat consists in his failure to move onward with life. Oriani’s characterizations are effective, and the many ideas that crowd his novels are at least vitally represented, but he stands out more as an intuitive thinker of Hegelian stripe than as a novelist.
As D’Annunzio’s novels were being hailed in their French translations as proof of a Latin Renaissance, one writer who found D’Annunzian conventions congenial and faithfully echoed them in her early stories of unhappy heroines is the feminist writer Sibilla Aleramo (1876-1960). Born Rina Faccio in Alessandria of bourgeois parents, she was often drawn to men—and women—of artistic temperament, and the life she lived is in itself suitable for a novel. Her first novel, Il passaggio (1919; the passage) was based on her year-long relationship with Lina Poletti (1885-1971), one of the first women in modern Italy to live openly as a lesbian. When a young poet forty years her junior came to interview the sixty-year-old Aleramo about her liaison with the poet Dino Campana (1885-1932), the subject of the young poet’s university thesis, he himself became involved in a decade-long liaison with the older woman.
Although D’Annunzio dubbed Aleramo his “attentive sister” and she herself was dubbed a female D’Annunzio, her D’Annunzian stance was significantly tempered by her encounter with the sociology of Guglielmo Ferrero (1871-1942). In 1906, she wrote Una donna (1906; A Woman, 1908), a lightly fictionalized memoir hailed immediately as an international classic and taken as a proclamation that women are human beings entitled to fulfill their ideals. Although she was one of the few courageous intellectuals who dared to sign Benedetto Croce’s anti-Fascist manifesto, she eventually supported Mussolini and said she envied D’Annunzio for having been spared the horror of witnessing the outcome of Fascism. Still later, however, she became a militant communist and read from her poetry at proletarian rallies.
Although originally an admirer of D’Annunzio and, like D’Annunzio, sympathetic with Fascism, the Sicilian Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) managed to break free of D’Annunzian influence. In 1929, before the Italian Academy, Pirandello boldly took his revenge for a full thirty years of fame that D’Annunzio had usurped from him by broadly categorizing human types as either superficial “spinners of words” or more productive “spinners of things.” It was the theater in which Pirandello excelled and for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1934, but he was also a master of the novella. He began his literary career as a poet and, at the urging of the ever-influential Capuana, applied himself to long fiction in 1893, the year he returned from his philological studies in Germany.
Pirandello wrote several novels, the third of which, Il fu Mattia Pascal (1904; The Late Mattia Pascal, 1923), a significant influence on the teatro grottesco of Luigi Chiarelli (1880-1947), is his most acclaimed novel. Tired of his marriage and his job as a librarian, Pascal uses a false newspaper report of his suicide as an excuse to flee and assume a new identity. Assuming this new identity, however, is impossible, because he lacks proper identification, and when he decides to return home, he finds that because his wife has remarried, he has lost his old identity as well. Pirandello’s powerful sense of irony, evident here as well as in his drama, derives from Ludovico Ariosto and Niccolò Machiavelli and was tempered by Verga’s vision of humanity (although Pirandello abhorred being called a verista) as a world of vanquished souls bound together in a religion of compassion. This novel stands thematically at a point midway between Pirandello’s early emphasis on humans as a type within society and his later emphasis on the inner nature of humans, and structurally between the novels emphasizing plot and setting and those that abandon external reality to explore the characters’ inner reality.
In an age of D’Annunzian rhetoric that followed a period of brutally candid Verismo, the uncomplicated storytelling of the conservative Romagnol Alfredo Panzini (1863-1939) must have been welcomed by more than a few readers. Although he had a fine sense of balance, tempering his criticism with humor, Panzini was a thoroughly bourgeois writer, unmoved by the wretchedness of the masses, and while he could represent pathos, he could not depict tragedy. Io cerco moglie (1920; Wanted—A Wife, 1921), his only novel translated into English, purports to analyze different kinds of women but reveals the author’s conviction that there are only two: those a man falls in love with and those a man marries. His best novel, La madonna di mamà (1916; the madonna-mother), traditional in every sense, elaborates the theme of a young man’s move from the country to the city and turns into a war novel with crepuscular overtones.
Marino Moretti (1885-1979), one of the original three poets to whose work the gifted critic, novelist, and playwright Giuseppe Borgese (1882-1952) first applied the term crepuscolari (twilight poets) in 1910, was also a novelist and, like Panzini, from Romagna. Moretti’s fiction is meditative, Catholic in the tradition of Manzoni, and particularly effective when dealing with the melancholy nature of the humble characters for whom Moretti cherished a special love. His peasants are from his native Romagna, a region with a long history of violence and sensuality capable of producing within a single generation the likes of Mussolini and Giovanni Pascoli. The gallery of Moretti’s characters, who suffer but do not despair, is remarkably large, and he is particularly effective in his portrayal of women characters, as in Il sole del sabato (1916; the sun of the Sabbath).
Sometimes classified together as Tuscan storytellers par excellence are Enrico Pea (1881-1953), Bruno Cicognani (1879-1971), and Aldo Palazzeschi (1885- 1974). As a result of having had little formal education and an early period spent living in Egypt, Pea was freer than most of his contemporaries from hampering literary conventions. He wrote from personal rather than intellectual or literary experience, and his books (for example, Moscardino, 1922) create a fable-like atmosphere that depends little on structure or chronology.
More intellectual is Cicognani, a Florentine lawyer who used his daily practice for human observation and, like Pea, worked outside the literary mainstream. His first novel, La crittogama (1908; the cryptogram), was written under the influence of D’Annunzio, while La velia (1923; the shrike) is an Italian version of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886). Although his portraits of immoral women place him with the French naturalists and his cultivation of Florence as his setting links him with Verismo, the psychological dimension he gives to his characters aspires to universality.
Palazzeschi, born Aldo Giurlani and an only child of bourgeois parents, first turned to poetry and participated in both the Futurist and the crepuscular movements. His first novel, dispensing with plot, dramatic action, and dialogue, was the epistolary Riflessi (1908), about a love affair between a Roman prince, Valentino Core, and a young Briton, John More. In order that the relationship remain pure and perfect (and therefore socially acceptable), any depiction of bodily contact is scrupulously avoided; the prince writes Johnny daily letters until one day the prince mysteriously vanishes, apparently a suicide. The decadence of its setting and language is reminiscent of D’Annunzio; this influence persists in the futuristic Il codice di Perelà: Romanzo futurista (1911; Perelà: The Man of Smoke, 1936)
There is, however, the flavor of Manzoni in Palazzeschi’s Sorelle Materassi (1934; The Sisters Materassi, 1953), a tableau of Tuscan life during the 1930’s depicting the relationship of two lonely women with their orphaned adolescent nephew, Remo, who brings warmth into their empty house but takes advantage of them financially. As a narrator, Palazzeschi is sympathetic but aloof, and his gentle laughter is the only judgment that he makes on the all-too-human folly of his characters. The contrast between the misguided dreams of the young and the materially adequate but spiritually deficient ambience that they must inhabit reappears as the theme of his less successful later novels, I fratelli Cuccoli (1948; the Cuccoli brothers) and Roma (1953; English translation, 1965).
Another Tuscan writer, Federigo Tozzi (1883-1920), whose abrasive genius contrasts with the traditional emphasis on il bello stile (beautiful style), underwent a reevaluation during the postwar period and became ranked by Alberto Moravia in fourth place among Italian novelists, after Manzoni, Italo Svevo, and Verga. The product of an unhappy childhood, Tozzi wrote tragic and autobiographical fiction, tempered only by a trace of Dostoevskian compassion. Like his mentor Verga, he was interested in the effect of property on people’s lives; material wealth for Tozzi was an obstacle to be overcome. In Il podere (1921; the farm), remarkable for its suffusion of tragedy rather than for its plot, Remigio returns home to take over the management of a farm from his dying father, a return that for Tozzi betokens a retrogression and a setting forth on the road toward death.
The novel Tre croci (1920; Three Crosses, 1921) takes its title from the graves of the three brothers whose lack of moral fortitude leads to their successive catastrophes. The brothers inherit a bookstore from their father. Business is bad, so they borrow money, eventually become involved in fraud, and nevertheless continue to waste money that they do not have on gormandizing. The portraits of the three, with their idiosyncrasies, fears, temper tantrums, and gluttony, are studies of unusual depth. The author’s own untimely death deprived him of seeing either of these novels in print, but overdue recognition is granted him as a forerunner of Franz Kafka and existentialism.
Farther removed from the mainstream than even Tozzi is Svevo (1861-1928), literally Italo the Swabian, the pen name of Aron Hector Schmitz. Born in Trieste of Jewish parents, his father was of German-Italian parentage and his mother a native Triestine. Svevo’s father sent him to Germany to perfect his German, which was vital to the boy’s future in what was then the Austro-Hungarian port city of Trieste. He was an Italian citizen only for the last decade of his life.
Although he always yearned to be a writer, Svevo’s literary success was hampered first by economic necessity and then, after the appearance of Una vita (1892; A Life, 1963) and Senilità (1898; As a Man Grows Older, 1932; also known as Emilio’s Carnival, 2001), by public indifference. For the next quarter of a century, Svevo did not publish, although he did continue to write. His friendship with James Joyce led eventually to the publication of his third novel, La coscienza di Zeno (1923; Confessions of Zeno, 1930; also known as Zeno’s Conscience, 2001), which became popular in France and only later in Italy.
Svevo’s antiacademic writing style—dry, too close to the Triestine dialect, and perhaps influenced by the author’s greater fluency in German—alienated many critics, although those readers nourished on Verga and Tozzi admired him. His helpless characters are intelligent anomalies, portrayed in the first two novels with the objectivity of the French naturalists. A Life is about the insincerity of Alfonso Nitti’s love affair with his employer’s daughter and his humdrum white-collar life, and it ends with an official communication announcing Nitti’s suicide. As a Man Grows Older, an improvement in subtlety and psychological penetration, is about Emilio Brentani, who falls in love with a prostitute and achieves senility at the age of thirty-five when his dying sister tells him the truth about his lover. After Svevo discovered Sigmund Freud, around 1912, he used the idea of psychoanalysis in the writing of Confessions of Zeno. The morbid Zeno Cosini seeks his salvation through psychoanalysis, recounting his life supposedly to find the origin of his smoking habit, as well as his innumerable other psychosomatic diseases, and thereby exposing his contradictory ideas and desires.
As a pro-Italian Austro-Hungarian subject, a Jew, a businessman who liked literature, and a pacifist during World War I, Svevo lived as an outsider prone to the pleasures of introspection. His novels project an absurdist world where people are prevented by their spinelessness and other foibles from assuming the responsibility for theirownweakness and are unable to share happiness or sorrow with others. To probe this sorry state, Svevo analyzes human consciousness (the Italian coscienza of his title suggests both “consciousness” and “conscience”), and because his work provides such a detailed look at the contradictions between reality and personality (Zeno habitually says the opposite of what he thinks and does the opposite of what he wants to do), Svevo has a modern flavor for the contemporary reader.
The founding of the journal La voce (1908), which provided a much-needed forum for serious writing by many gifted writers, foreshadowed both the Hermetic (obscurantist) tradition in poetry and the journal La ronda (1919-1923), which championed a reactionary return to classic tradition, emphasizing clear style, wellconstructed syntax, and literary vocabulary. The versatile Riccardo Bacchelli (1891-1985) was the only one of the rondisti to make his imprint on the novel, and this he did with his two-thousand-page historical epic, Il mulino del Po (1938-1940; The Mill on the Po, 1950). It follows successive generations of the Scacerni family, from the time of Napoleon to the end of World War I. Political events are not important to Bacchelli per se, but rather as they affect the lives of his characters. In his many, diverse attempts at the novel and other forms of narrative, in which he was only cautiously experimental, he followed the formalism of Manzoni and, like Fogazzaro, dignified his own robust sensuality under a veil of Catholic unction.
In 1926, the gifted Massimo Bontempelli (1878- 1960) and Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957) attacked the aesthetic formalism of the rondisti as well as the popular realism (which scored its final triumph in Deledda’s Nobel Prize of 1926) by founding the review “900,” Cahiers d’Italie et d’Europe, also known as Il novecento (the twentieth century). Although short-lived, the review attempted, by publishing its material in French, to expose Italians to the influences of French and Continental literature. Bontempelli was a critic, playwright, aphorist, novelist, and short-story writer as well as an editor. His literary creed was “to clothe in a smile the most sorrowful things and with wonderment the most common things” in order to evoke the surreal inherent in the real. Four of his novels have been translated into English: La scacchiera davanti allo specchio (1922; The Chess Set in the Mirror, 2007); Il figlio di due madri (1929; The Boy with Two Mothers, 2000); Vita emorte di Adria e dei suoi figli (1930; The Life and Death of Adria and Her Children, 2000); and L’amante fidele (1953; The Faithful Lover, 2007).
The younger Malaparte, pen name of Kurt Erich Suckert, was the son of a German father and an Italian mother and was born in Prato. Controversial and contradictory, he wrote his best book, Kaputt (1944; English translation, 1946), while confined to Finland after he had angered the Nazi command. Kaputt is an apocalyptic vision of Europe crumbling under the violence of war. Later in 1944, his experiences as Italian liaison officer with the Allies in Naples offered the material for his most controversial novel, La pelle (1949; The Skin, 1952), whose Surrealism was mistaken for documentary realism. Both novels were international best sellers. The comparison with D’Annunzio is inescapable, but as Luigi Barzini points out, while D’Annunzio was both admired and loathed by his outstanding contemporaries, Malaparte managed to strike only the obscurest of his contemporaries as irritating or charming.
The founding of the Florentine review Solaria in 1926 represented an attempt to reconcile the stylisticsoriented rondisti with the current dedicated to modern European trends responsible for Bontempelli’s Il novecento. Solaria was pledged to introducing Italians to such modern figures as Kafka, Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, and Joyce and to refurbishing the images of such underrated Italian authors as Svevo and Tozzi, to whom they dedicated special commemorative issues. The solariani did not oppose regionalism: It was their successful blend of regional and universal concerns that gave rise to the work of Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini, Ignazio Silone, Carlo Levi, Vasco Pratolini, Vitaliano Brancati, Corrado Alvaro, and Giorgio Bassani. Solaria, however, had a formidable enemy in Fascism; the solariani were called “Jew-lovers” for their devotion to the likes of Kafka and Svevo, and by 1937, they were forced to close their doors.
Vittorini (1908-1966), from a middle-class Sicilian family of Syracuse, left home in 1928 with his wife, Rosa Maria, the sister of poet Salvatore Quasimodo, to settle in Gorizia in northeastern Italy. His contribution to Italian intellectual life figures more in terms of his work as literary critic and organizer than in his narrative output, and he became a sort of Italian Jean-Paul Sartre, dispensing theories about the necessity of updating literature.
Vittorini’s first short story appeared in Solaria in 1929, and soon he began working for the periodical as a proofreader and office assistant. In 1933, he published his first translation, of D. H. Lawrence’s St. Mawr: Together with the Princess of 1925. In February of 1933, Solaria began serializing Vittorini’s own novel Il garofano rosso (1948; The Red Carnation, 1952). Because the novel explored the fascination that Fascism held for young people, especially emphasizing the sexualsadistic element, the censors stopped its publication after the third installment, and Vittorini, in the wake of interest in American literature stimulated by the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Sinclair Lewis in 1930, continued his work on translations of Edgar Allan Poe, Faulkner, William Saroyan, and Erskine Caldwell.
Vittorini’s masterpiece, Conversazione in Sicilia (1941; In Sicily, 1948; also known as Conversation in Sicily), was confiscated by the censors but reprinted in 1942. It was immediately praised for its lyric beauty, its innovative style, and its emotional impact; later, Italo Calvino (1923-1985) would call it the basis for modern Italian literature. The story of thirty-year-old Silvestro as he travels from the north back to Sicily to see his mother and the conversations he has with various people are converted by Vittorini into a rare allegory on the need to rekindle hope in freedom and justice. The book circulated in French and German translations in Nazigoverned countries and was a great inspiration in those dark days of oppression.
In 1943, Vittorini joined the Resistance movement, was jailed, and used the experience for Uomini e no (1945; Men and Not Men, 1985), the story of a Resistance group and a work that was immediately hailed as a wartime classic and the cornerstone of the neorealistic movement (although Vittorini himself denied the neorealism of the book). A few years later, Vittorini wrote Le donne di Messina (1949, 1964; Women of Messina, 1973), whose first edition was a wordy novel seven hundred pages long. It involves a group of displaced people (many of whom are from the Sicilian city of Messina, which has risen phoenixlike from its ashes many times in its history) who resettle an abandoned village. It is the story of a society that is reborn, but Vittorini was always dissatisfied with the novel.
Vittorini believed that Italians had more in common with Americans than they had with Italian life of Manzoni’s era, and he demanded that authors be more responsive to contemporary sensibility than the Italian literary idols of the past, such as D’Annunzio and Croce. He accused authors who persisted in writing from the omniscient point of view of catering to the “mystic enjoyment” of a reactionary reading public, and he rejected his own novel Women of Messina because it smacked of the nineteenth century. This explains his disapproval of Verga and why, as an editor, he rejected Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il gattopardo (1958; The Leopard, 1960) as typifying an obsolete literature that barred the way for works of more responsible and revolutionary conception. Long novels he felt were passé, and literature as a system of representing relations with the modern world must not fail to incorporate the newest technological changes. He fiercely defended science in the hope that humans could someday come to win control over the machines that are understood so little.
Vittorini founded and directed the I gettoni (literally “gambling chips”) series for Einaudi, which published first works by such budding authors as Mario Tobino, Carlo Cassola, Giovanni Arpino, and Calvino. Vittorini also founded and served as editor of the controversial and short-lived periodical Il politecnico, which he intended to serve as a vehicle for former Fascists to shrive themselves of their wartime complicity. He also established the avant-garde periodical Il menabò, and just before he died in 1966, he was trying to organize “Gulliver,” an international periodical.
“Neorealism” is the blanket term applied to the socially aware postwar movement in literature, the fine arts, and cinema. It was probably most successful in the great films in the decade following the war when directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti were producing some of the most original films in the Western world. Factors contributing to this heightened sensibility were the anti-Fascist struggle, the postwar social and political struggle within Italy, and the spread of Marxism arising from the rediscovery of the works of Antonio Gramsci. In their concern for the condition of the common people, many writers (including some northern Italians such as Pavese and Levi), freed of the bonds of Fascist censorship, came to refocus on the plight of the Italian South in the tradition of Verga, Capuana, Serao, and Di Giacomo. The poor South (called the mezzogiorno) is a special enigma to the Italian nation. Because southern Italians are admittedly a frugal and hardworking people at the mercy of an inhospitable terrain and the feudal legacy of the latifundium, or landed estate, it would seem reasonable that with proper guidance they could be made into an asset instead of a liability for the country.
At this time, a great number of Italian writers arose to place the urgent problems of the South squarely in view of the Italian reading public. The three southern writers chosen by Sergio Pacifici as typical of three different tendencies within the category of the “southern novel” are Corrado Alvaro (1895 or 1896-1956),Vitaliano Brancati (1907-1954), and Lampedusa (1896-1957).
The Calabrian Alvaro grew up under the styleconscious influence of La ronda, which gave to his style a complexity and richness that does not quite qualify as neorealism. His fiction is reminiscent of Verga in its emphasis on a cruel destiny, in his distance from his characters, and in his sense of irony; his masterpiece Gente in Aspromonte (1930; Revolt in Aspromonte, 1962), which elaborates the difficult life led by a family of Calabrian shepherds and their struggle to survive the reversals that ultimately obliterate their modest dreams, resembles The House by the Medlar Tree. By the beginning of World War II, Alvaro had produced twelve volumes of fiction, ten of nonfiction, three of poetry, two plays, and translations from English, Russian, and Greek. After the war, he wrote a trilogy of Rinaldo Diacono novels—of which L’età breve (1946; the brief age) was the only one published in its finished form—that focus on Italian bourgeois society under Fascism and after the war through the eyes of a young, urbanized, transplanted southerner who longs for his native land, which he has idealized beyond recognition.
Unlike Alvaro, who created a world full of dramatic tension, the Sicilian Brancati employed a more comic approach to portray southern Italian morals and manners. Writing in reaction to D’Annunzio’s glorification of sexual freedom, Brancati satirized in Don Giovanni in Sicilia (1941; Don Juan in Sicily) gallismo, the aggressive eroticism of southern males who are reared in a matriarchal society only ostensibly ruled by men, where honor consists of saving face and morality consists of conformity. Originally a Fascist, Brancati was disabused of his early loyalties when he migrated to the mainland and made the salutary acquaintance of Giuseppe Borgese and Croce. Because neither Alvaro nor Brancati proposed any radical solutions to the plight of the mezzogiorno, neither received more than a passing recognition from the Marxist-oriented criticism of modern Italy.
A literary anomaly—it is the only novel that is frankly decadent to appear in the postwar period—but undeniably one of the most extraordinary and most writtenabout books of modern Italian literature is Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Despite his international education and his love of literatures other than Italian (he especially liked William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann), Lampedusa felt so thoroughly Sicilian that it was about Sicily that he felt compelled to write.
The odyssey of Lampedusa’s manuscript is remarkable; in 1957, the year of his death, he submitted the manuscript to Mondadori of Milan and to Einaudi of Turin, two of the most prestigious publishing houses in Italy, headed respectively by Vittorio Sereni and Elio Vittorini. The book was rejected by both, and after Lampedusa’s death, his widow gave Elena Croce (the daughter of Benedetto Croce) a handwritten copy of the manuscript. She passed it on to Giorgio Bassani, a senior consulting editor at Feltrinelli of Milan; this time the novel was accepted.
Lampedusa’s “leopard,” named for the proud beast emblazoned on the family coat of arms, is Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, modeled on the author’s own great grandfather, an enlightened despot who ruled over vast estates on the eve of Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily. Too intelligent to resist the inevitable future but reluctant to join the present, he views the fall of the Bourbon monarchy with “historic nausea,” as well as a strange equanimity, for in Lampedusa’s frankly pessimistic representation of Don Fabrizio’s world, despite the appearance of change, nothing really changes.
The novel Fontomara (1930, 1933, revised 1958; English translation, 1934, revised 1960), is a forerunner of this trend to enlighten readers about the poor conditions in the South. Its author, Ignazio Silone (1900- 1978), the pen name of Secondo Tranquilli, here undertook to communicate to the free world from his exile in Switzerland the totalitarian repression of Fascism, which served only to compound the misery of the southern Italian cafoni (peasants). Nothing is going to change, according to Silone, unless the cafoni can unite their forces to create change. Fontamara, however, is not quite a realistic novel, for its peasants are idealized and its Fascists are caricatured. Pane e vino (1937, revised as Vino e Pane, 1955; first pb. as Brot und Wein, 1936; Bread and Wine) and Il seme sotto la neve (1942; first pb. as Der Samen unterm Schnee, 1941; The Seed Beneath the Snow, 1942) are set in the same barren land of the Abruzzi and chronicle the life of Pietro Spina, a revolutionary disguised as a priest who rediscovers a renewed way of life tending the soil of his homeland but who eventually dies for another man’s crime. Silone invests in his character Spina his own transformation from communist to primitive Christian socialist. Strangely enough, Silone is morewidely known in the United States than in Italy.
Like Silone, Carlo Levi (1902-1975) was an intellectual in exile when he wrote about the condition of southern Italian peasants. More for his anti-Fascist sentiments than for being a Jew, Levi, a painter and physician, was sent to a small town twenty miles from the nearest railroad station in remote and impoverished Basilicata in the instep of the Italian boot. Here, for the first time, Levi did not feel the sting of racial prejudice, for “his” peasants, as he came to call them, did not know what a Jew was. The title of his masterpiece, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945; Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, 1947), refers to the peasants’ belief that they were bypassed by Christianity and even by civilization: “Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason nor history.”
The book, which depicts a people so worn down by the gratuitous insults of life and nature that Mussolini’s Fascism is hardly a matter of importance to them, ends when the author is freed by a political amnesty in 1936. It was written eight years later while Levi was living in Florence as a hunted member of the Resistance; it was published after the war and immediately became an international best seller. The spirit of Levi’s moving diarynovel set the tone for much of the truth-seeking neorealism that was to follow, and it also marks the beginning of a new vogue for the subgenre of books that combine travel and observation, such as Carlo Bernari’s Il gigante Cina (1957; gigantic China), Alberto Moravia’s La rivoluzione culturale in Cina (1967; The Red Book and the Great Wall, 1968), and Levi’s own book on the Soviet Union, Il futuro ha un cuore antico: Viaggio nell’Unione Sovietica (1956; the future has an ancient heart).
Francesco Jovine (1902-1950) conjured up his own brand of poetic realism describing the peasants of his native Molise region. His best novel, Le terre del Sacramento (1950; the estate in Abruzzi), is the epic of a depressed people who succeed in occupying uncultivated land. At the center of this peasant insurrection against the privileges of the ruling class is Luca Marano, who was called one of the most felicitous creations of contemporary Italian fiction.
The northerner Giovanni Arpino (1927-1987), who normally depicts the Piedmontese countryside in his fiction, employed a southern setting to expose the absurdity of the practice of the southern vendetta in Un delitto d’onore (1961; A Crime of Honor, 1963). In a small town south of Naples, a leading citizen murders his wife when a doctor certifies that she was not a virgin at the time of their marriage. The narrative is permeated with black irony but is also remarkable for the author’s understanding of the traditions involved.
Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989), whom Luigi Barzini considers “perhaps one of the best of all” contemporary Italian writers, evokes the Sicilian mentality. The author of a number of scholarly works on Sicilian history, Sciascia is primarily concerned in his fiction with exposing the crimes of the Italian Mafia and the strict primitive adherence of Sicilians to omertà (the code of silence). Sciascia’s novels are generally classified as mysteries in the United States. As Herbert Mitgang observes of A ciascuno il suo (1966; A Man’s Blessing, 1968; also known as To Each His Own), Sciascia’s murder stories exemplify the gemlike difference between a simple mystery and a work of fiction that does not depend upon a tidy solution for its vitality.
Sardinia, which is considered part of the Italian South, is portrayed by Giuseppe Dessí (1909-1977), a follower of Solaria and a reader of Proust and Mann with a lyric gift for blending autobiographical detail with regional realism, especially evident in Michele Boschino (1942). Paese d’ombre (1972; the forests of Norbio), perhaps a little too dependent on the Sardinian ambience for an American audience, is the life story of Angelo Uras and his anger at the wanton destruction of the magnificent forests of Norbio, sacrificed to fuel the insatiable furnaces of technology.
The teeming metropolis of Naples is the preferred subject matter of Neopolitan novelists Carlo Bernari (1909-1992), one of the forerunners of neorealism with his Tre operai (1934; three factory workers), which deals with the urban proletariat of his native city; Michele Prisco (1920-2003); and Domenico Rea (1921-1994). Prisco and Rea both write short stories as well as novels; Prisco is fond of describing the aristocracy and the petite bourgeoisie, whereas Rea is more interested in the tragicomic condition of the common people.
Depicting the southernmost province of Calabria are Fortunato Seminara (1903-1984), who probes the psychological motives for the archaic social structures of the area, and Saverio Strati (1924-2014)), who creates a world of day laborers, coal miners, and masons who dream of emigration to more civilized and charitable lands to escape the squalor of their lives and who sometimes return empty-handed to Calabria after an odyssey abroad. Prisco, Rea, Seminara, and Strati are not wellknown in the United States, which is lamentable—and ironic, because a majority of Italian Americans have their roots in precisely the areas of Italy that these authors describe.
A northern writer who wrote his first novel while a political exile in Calabria is the Piedmontese Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), whose short novels constitute, according to Italo Calvino, the “most dense, dramatic, and homogeneous narrative cycle” of modern Italian literature. Although his fiction was a major influence upon neorealism, his novels cannot be said to be realistic, for he is not as much interested in the outside world as he is in how his characters come to terms with their world.
Pavese, who was asthmatic, was judged unfit for military service and for the same reason could not participate in the guerrilla warfare of the Resistance movement. A reading of his diary through the war years reveals only a few offhand references to the war and a lack of involvement for which he would later be criticized. Pavese was a major interpreter of American and English letters for Italians, translating works by Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and Daniel Defoe, among others; he admired F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway so much that he claimed he did not dare to translate them. He worked as an editor for Einaudi, the publishing house that he had helped to found in Turin.
A sensitive man who believed that life was not worth living unless for the sake of others, Pavese nevertheless found it difficult to relate to other people. Despite his belief that the advance of civilization rested on men overcoming their misogyny, he was obsessed by his love for individual women and ended his life by his own hand, recognizing that he was sexually hopeless. He came to the novel from poetry, which he freed from formal metrical requirements, emphasizing rhythm and synthesis and preoccupied with the problem of solitude.
Like Elio Vittorini, Pavese wished to infuse new vitality into what he perceived as a tired tradition by the introduction of American literature and by making technical innovations, which for Pavese involved mixing local dialect with literary Italian, and experimentation with ungrammatical, unliterary language. (He was fascinated by the American slang in the novels he translated.)
Using the “return of the wanderer to his homeland” theme elaborated into such a powerful allegory by Vittorini, Pavese wrote La luna e I falò (1950; The Moon and the Bonfire, 1952), emphasizing memory as a key to understanding past experiences, which can in turn be prodded by immersing again in the past (hence, Pavese’s realism). His character, Anguilla (“eel” in Italian, referring to the eel’s characteristic return to its birthplace), returns to his mountain village after an absence of twenty years in America (which he characterizes as an illusory heaven, a land where, like the moon of Pavese’s title, there is nothing, no real women and no wine), re-creates his idyllic past and then suffers the anguish of seeing these memories disintegrate in the present. Although he finds that nothing has really changed, he does become reconciled to what he perceives as his own destiny, his own identification with the people of his homeland and with the natural forces (the mountains) that shaped them all.
Pavese’s women characters are more convincing than his men; this is particularly evident in Tra donne sole (1949; Among Women Only, 1953), set in the world of haute couture. The Rosetta of this novel, like Rosalba in Il diavolo sulle colline (1949; The Devil in the Hills, 1954), finds suicide the only escape—a solution to which Pavese himself resorted on August 27, 1950.
The Resistance novel treats an area of such overwhelming and specialized interest to Italian readers that some critics have attempted to call it a subgenre of the novel. The Resistance novel, however, does not admit of a facile definition, especially considering that for many who use the term, it is generously applied even to those novels of wartime or postwar activity by or about those who were not even sympathetic to the Resistance movement.
British and American critics understandably exclude from the category such novels as Tiro al piccione (1953; The Day of the Lion, 1954), by Giose Rimanelli (1926-2018), or Il cielo è rosso (1947; The Sky Is Red, 1948), by Giuseppe Berto (1914-1978). The former, a sympathetic presentation of the losing side and based on the author’s own experiences, depicts a rebellious adolescent’s escape from the boredom of his southern Italian village to join the bedraggled Fascist army and his subsequent emergence from the ruins able to accept the future. The latter, written about four adolescents who come together after their families have been killed and form a nucleus of life amid the ruins of 1943 to 1944, was conceived while the author was in a prison camp in Hereford, Texas; its style was even affected by some of the American authors that Berto read while in prison (for example, John Steinbeck, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway).
The first of what are unequivocally called Resistance novels by British and American standards is Vittorini’s Men and Not Men, which employs the 1944-1945 struggle of a group of Milanese partisans to suggest that World War II was a conflict between men and “nonmen.” Vittorini portrays his Nazis and Fascists as either stupid, unfeeling automatons or sadists, and his anti- Fascists as simple people who react with human sensitivity. Vittorini’s protagonist is identified only by his code name N2; the other characters are not well drawn, and the dialogue, which reveals the influence but not the skill of Hemingway, is repetitive and banal.
Two years later, Italo Calvino published Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947, 1957, 1965; The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1956). It deals with a partisan movement originating in the mountains around Genoa and has as its hero an unloved orphan boy named Pin who finds in the partisans with whom he associates a camaraderie new to him. Although the partisans offer Pin at least the hope of redemption, Calvino is careful not to idealize his characters, who remain ordinary, even shocking in their crudity.
Renata Viganò (1900-1976), born in Bologna and a prolific writer of short stories, enshrined the touching heroism of her communist peasant woman protagonist in L’Agnese va a morire (1954; Agnese goes to her death). In a narrative unencumbered by speculation and rhetoric, Agnese, whose aged husband has been carried off to a German work camp, where he perishes, performs faithfully the instructions of the partisans with whom she works until she is killed in an encounter with an enraged German soldier.
The Resistance novels of Pavese, Carlo Cassola (1917-1987), and Mario Tobino (1910-1991) are more complicated and reflect more on the failures of the movement than do Vittorini, Calvino, or Viganò. In Pavese’s La casa in collina (1949; The House on the Hill, 1956), his introspective and alienated protagonist Corrado cynically observes that all humans, unless they throw bombs or otherwise risk their lives in combat, are Fascists. Fausto e Anna (1952; Fausto and Anna, 1960), by Roman author Cassola, active in the Resistance fighting in Tuscany and later a schoolteacher, spans a period of eight years and of all the Resistance novels portrays most successfully the tension of those years. The joyful disbanding of the partisans of Cassola’s novel betokens a return to a normality that does not promise to be better than before. Fausto, previously devoted both to Anna and to the Communist Party, loses both of them by the end of the novel.
Like Pavese’s Corrado, the Tuscan Tobino is unstinting in his accusation in his Il clandestino (1962; The Underground, 1966, 1967) that the vast majority of Italians were Fascists and that it was precisely these people who were responsible for the war. In this novel, Tobino gives a collective character to the Resistance movement and deprives his story of a single protagonist. Despite an overpopulated cast of characters, what emerges from the novel is a remarkably complete picture of the Resistance period. Like Cassola, however, Tobino is not sanguine about a renewal or a restructuring of Italian society.
L’ombra delle colline (1964; shadow on the hills), by Giovanni Arpino (1927-1987), presents a protagonist who returns to the Langhe Hills in Piedmont years after he has worked with the Resistance there as a youth. In this novel, there is the wistfulness about the lost ideals of the Resistance, the sad acceptance of the status quo, and the conflict between myth and history that had tortured Pavese.
Resistance novels continued to be written, most notably by Beppe Fenoglio (1922-1963), who seems to have intended to produce a panoramic cycle of the Italian civil war from September, 1943, through April, 1945. Fenoglio, who was born in Alba and spent his entire life in the Langhe region of the Piedmont, was an Anglophile who made extensive use of English words and phrases in his novels and translated a variety of English works, including Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). His lightly fictionalized autobiographical hero appears first as an officer cadet in Rome in Primavera di bellezza (1959; spring of beauty) and continues through Il partigiano Johnny (1968; Johnny the Partisan, 1995); finally, the former partisan’s readjustment to civilian life is examined in La paga del sabato (1969; Saturday’s wages). Fenoglio’s World War II novel, La trappola amorosa (1988), was translated into English as A Private Affair in 2007.
Of the northern Italian writers who partook of the vogue of neorealism, perhaps the Florentine Vasco Pratolini (1913-1991) is the most typical; certainly he is one of the most prolific. His realism, as opposed to the Verismo of Verga, does not emphasize folklore and local color per se but rather uses the setting as a backdrop for a drama of ordinary human emotion. Neither does Pratolini strive to be scientifically objective or shrink from intervening to plead the case of one of his characters, if necessary. Pratolini’s masterpiece is Cronache di poveri amanti (1947; A Tale of Poor Lovers, 1949), which Frank Rosengarten considers a Resistance novel because it depicts so graphically a microcosm of the Italian world (in the mid-1920’s) on the eve of political tyranny.
The postwar works of the Vicenzan Guido Piovene (1907-1974) are sometimes classed as neorealistic despite their overtones of D’Annunzian decadence. Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), born in Bologna, came to the novel from poetry and abandoned the novel for film; he also made his mark on literary history as a critic. Because literary language is a reflection of the ruling classes so distasteful to Pasolini’s Marxism, he rejected it; with the scholarship of a philologist, he followed the example of Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893-1973) and employed the crude dialect of the Roman undesirables for much of his first two novels, Ragazzi di vita (1955; The Ragazzi, 1968) and Una vita violenta (1959; A Violent Life, 1978).
Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000) was a chronicler of Ferrara who created vulnerable characters such as Jews and gays and examines them in times of stress. Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962; The Garden of the Finzi- Continis, 1965), made even more popular by Vittoria De Sica’s 1970 film, is a pathetic story of a wealthy Jewish family whose members live impervious to the growing turmoil outside their garden walls, which will lead to their own persecution. The novella Gli occhiali d’oro (1958; The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, 1960; revised as The Gold-Rimmed Eyeglasses, 1975) is the no less pathetic story of a gay doctor eventually forced to commit suicide; the story is narrated by a sympathetic young Jew who is growing more and more aware of the anti- Semitism that he himself must inevitably face.
Writing during these years with the spirit of an avant gardista was Dino Buzzati (1906-1972), who was born in Belluno. Best known for his short fiction, Buzzati was a journalist and an editor by profession and a gifted painter as well as a writer. In 1940, he published an allegorical novel reminiscent of Franz Kafka, Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartar Steppe, 1952). His more conventional Un amore (1963; A Love Affair, 1964) is about a dignified middle-aged man in love with a shameless prostitute. Although Buzzati filled his fiction with historical characters, this was not, in the words of Sergio Pacifici, to encourage realism, but “simply to heighten the irony of a world teetering on the brink of madness.”
Another author of this period who does not conform to neorealism is Gadda, a civil engineer born in Milan of an Italian father and a German mother; he is the author of the Italian equivalent of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Written in a mixture of standard Italian and Roman dialect with liberal admixtures of Milanese, Venetian, and Neapolitan dialects, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1957; That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, 1965), seems to be a detective story, but it soon becomes clear that Gadda is more interested in the welter of possibly sapphic, or lesbian, relationships that could have provided the motive than he is in solving the crime itself.
In a separate category are several authors whose works are substantially more popular in the United States than in Italy. Giovanni Guareschi (1908-1968), born near Parma and a prisoner of the Germans from 1943 to 1945, was a sort of James Thurber who illustrated his own works. By confining himself to whimsy, Guareschi managed to publish books under Fascism even before he emerged in his true light as a political satirist with his Don Camillo sketches (Mondo piccolo: Don Camillo, 1948; The Little World of Don Camillo, 1950), which satirize extremists of both the Left and the Right.
Another contemporary author less esteemed in Italy than abroad is Carlo Coccioli (1920-2003), a participant in the Resistance. Influenced by modern French authors, he typified, according to Thomas F. Staley, the postexistential novelist who tried to integrate existential thought with unorthodox Christian idealism. His Il cielo e la terra(1950; Heaven and Earth, 1952) is a controversial novel about a priest who gathers strength as he struggles with the many conflicts of life. Beginning in 1955, Coccioli, following an Italian tradition that extends from Marco Polo to Giovanni Papini and Gabriele D’Annunzio, chose to write in French rather than in Italian.
Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), the son of a Jewish agnostic from Venice and a Catholic mother, is without question the dominant figure of postwar fiction. His first novel, Gli indifferenti (1929; The Indifferent Ones, 1932; also known as The Time of Indifference, 1953), was published at his own expense and was an instant success. It was rightly interpreted as an indictment of the bourgeoisie and an exposé of the corrupt social situation that allowed Fascism to develop. This novel, which remains one of his most important works, contains most of the themes seen in his later works and would be his last explicitly ideological novel until Il conformista (1951; The Conformist, 1951). The novel was made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1969.
While it is often claimed that Moravia is a founder of neorealism (because of his reportorial scrutiny applied to the hypocrisies of the middle classes), such a claim conflicts with his undeniably strong existentialism. If La ciociara (1957; Two Women, 1958) can be called neorealistic because of setting, characterization, subject, and a certain idealism represented by its protagonist, his next novel La noia (1960; The Empty Canvas, 1961), must be recognized for its return to a philosophical, almost Sartrean emphasis.
Seeking to avoid Mussolini’s censors, Moravia turned to indirect modes of expression, cloaking his stories in satire and Surrealism; nevertheless, La mascherata (1941; The Fancy Dress Party, 1952) was personally censored by Mussolini, and by 1943, Moravia was forced to flee his home in Rome with his wife, novelist Elsa Morante (1912-1985). The couple spent nine months hiding with peasants and living in a pigsty; the experience strengthened Moravia’s tendencies toward Marxism and inspired Two Women (made into a film by Vittorio De Sica in 1960, starring Sophia Loren), about a mother and daughter’s struggle to survive wartime violence.
When Moravia’s characters seek reality, they usually embark on their search through sexuality, which, according to Moravia, replaced love in the modern world; because an estranged man can find a moment’s solace with a prostitute, some of Moravia’s most sympathetic characters are prostitutes. (As a result of his treatment of sexual matters, the Catholic Church, in 1952, placed all of his books on its Index of prohibited works.) This is not to say that this search for sexual satisfaction has even a chance of being successful; the sexual act itself is perceived by Moravia as ugly and unnatural, and the typical Moravian character who is searching for happiness through sex meets with nothing more than failure.
Moravia is not a structural innovator, nor is he fancy with words, nor does he waste time. Wishing to expose for his readers hidden realities, which he attempts to isolate for them, Moravia’s aims as a storyteller are openly didactic. Unlike most Italian novelists of the middle class, who prefer to write about the working class, Moravia is fascinated by the mores of his own class. His clinical method of analyzing character may have been inherited from Italo Svevo, and his works are saturated with passages and situations absorbed from his prodigious reading of the classics of other generations and literatures.
By the late 1950’s, most everything that could be said about the wretchedness of the lower classes in Italy had been said, and a literary backlash inevitably occurred. While some awaited the appearance of a second D’Annunzio, there came to the attention of the public the ironic Calvino, with his love of fantasy from earlier centuries. Calvino, born in Cuba of Italian parents and already famous for his somewhat fablelike The Path to the Nest of Spiders, turned to the Renaissance and to his favorite poet, Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), for inspiration; like Ariosto, the author of Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591), Calvino uses his fanciful narration to convey an implicit moral. His trilogy comprising Il visconte dimezzato (1952; The Cloven Viscount, 1962), Il barone rampante (1957; The Baron in the Trees, 1959), and Il cavaliere inesistente (1959; The Non-existent Knight, 1962) was also issued in a single volume as I nostri antenati (1960; Our Ancestors, 1980).
Also a folklorist, Calvino produced a monumental anthology of Italian fairy tales (Fiabe italiane: Raccolte della tradizione popolare durante gli ultimi cento anni e transcritte in lingua dai vari dialetti, 1956; partially translated as Italian Fables, 1959, and completed as Italian Folktales, 1980) and turned to science fiction in Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968), a collection of stories depicting a world peopled by ciphers and essences. His Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981) became one of the best-known postmodern works of metafiction and helped make Calvino the most-translated Italian writer at the time of his death.
Like Calvino, the Sicilian Ercole Patti (1904-1976) worked in a surrealistic medium. His last novel, Gli ospiti di quel castello (1974; the guests of that castle), tells the story of a twenty-three-year-old man who suddenly finds himself forty years older. Also breaking away from realism in a quest for hallucinatory memories of the past is Elsa Morante (1918-1985). Her masterpiece, L’isola di Arturo (1957; Arturo’s Island, 1959), is the haunting recollection of a lonely adolescence rudely punctuated by a boy’s awareness of his infatuation with his young stepmother and of the fact that his father is gay. Morante’s language is musical, rich, and allusive, and her imagery is poetic. Her long-awaited La Storia (1974; History: A Novel, 1977) is an allegory with appeal to both Christian and Marxist readers. Set in Rome during World War II, the novel portrays death and violence as dominating human experience.
In addition to Morante, there is Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991), the daughter of a Jewish biology professor and a Gentile mother. Married to Russian expatriate Leone Ginzburg, who was murdered by the Nazis after his arrest for editing an anti-Fascist newspaper, Ginzburg writes prose of unsentimental reminiscence, observation, and invention, often autobiographical and exhibiting a Hemingwayesque precision. Several of her works have been translated into English. Her Lessico famigliare (1963; Family Sayings, 1967; also known as The Things We Il menabò,Used to Say) is a recollection of her childhood and early adulthood and a portrait of Italy between the wars. La città e la casa (1984; The City and the House, 1987) is an epistolary novel depicting the rich variety of characters living in Rome.
The periodical Il menabò, founded by Vittorini and Calvino in 1959, especially encouraged writers who sought to analyze the phenomenon of Italian industrialization. Depicting the effect of technology upon humanity is the primary interest of such novelists as the Roman Ottiero Ottieri (1924-2002), Paolo Volponi (1924-1994), from Urbino, and Luciano Bianciardi (1922-1971), from Grosseto. Bianciardi, who coauthored the social inquiry I minatori della maremma (1956; the miners of Maremma), also wrote La vita agra (1962; La Vita Agra = It’s a Hard Life, 1965), about the anxiety that develops in an idealistic intellectual who comes to the city with a revolutionary mission and is defeated by the daily grind of making a living.
Lucio Mastronardi (1930-1979), born near Milan, wrote in the experimentalist tradition of Gadda and Pasolini, drawing heavily on the Milanese and Neapolitan dialects. He was interested in the southern Italian who goes north for economic reasons and meets with undisguised prejudice from the northerners, especially in Il meridionale di Vigevano (1964; the southerner of Vigevano).
Also interested in the plight of the southern Italian who finds him- or herself at the mercy of the northern cities is Giovanni Testori (1923-1993), who applies his vigorous religious belief to social problems. His fivevolume cycle I segreti di Milano (the secrets of Milan) contains his novel Il fabbricone (1961; The House in Milan, 1962), a proletarian version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1595-1596), and the stories of Il ponte della Ghisolfa (1958; the bridge on the River Ghisolfa), which inspired Luchino Visconti’s film Rocco e suoi fratelli (1960; Rocco and His Brothers, 1960). The film portrays the disintegration of a southern family upon contact with the industrial North. Testori’s experimental fiction moves between French, English, and the Lombardy dialect spoken in northern Italy.
The zeal fostered by neorealism for examining situations with reportorial accuracy persisted into the 1960’s— for example, in the social criticism of Sicilian social reformer Danilo Dolci (1924-1997) and the controversial theater criticism of enfant terrible Alberto Arbasino (1930-2020), who is also the author of the best-selling novel Super-Eliogabalo (1969; super-Heliogabalus), which explores self-destructive power. Mario Soldati (1906-1999), a journalist and fiction writer best known for directing films, had his first success in long fiction with Le lettere da Capri (1954; The Capri Letters, 1956), a study of a poorly matched American couple in Alliedoccupied Rome. A sort of Henry James in reverse, Soldati was fascinated by Americans; in 1935, he wrote America primo amore (America, first love), a novelist’s sort of travel book destined to be influential in forming the Italian conception of the United States during those years. In La confessione (1955; The Confession, 1958), Soldati explores a young man’s odyssey from the proscriptions of his Jesuit upbringing to homosexuality, and in La busta arancione (1966; The Orange Envelope, 1969), he depicts the friction of a destructive mother-son relationship.
In 1960, the most aggressive adherent of neorealism was Pasolini, who pronounced the demise of neorealism in verse that parodied Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears./ I have come to bury Italian realism, not to praise it.” Recalling the glorious genesis of neorealism in the light of the Resistance, Pasolini blames Lampedusa, the neo-experimentalists, and his own erstwhile friend Carlo Cassola for dealing the deathblows. The term “neoexperimentalist”— which, in the words of Olga Ragusa, refers here to the expressionistic rather than the mimetic subversive use of language in the creation of poetry— was sanctified to use by Pasolini himself and was the term adopted by the avant-garde writers who riotously convened in Palermo in 1963 and subsequently called themselves the Gruppo 63.
These writers argued that literature is essentially antirational, and they heartily rejected literary works that imitated or mirrored reality. Thus, while they accepted Gadda, Svevo, and Pirandello, they rejected Moravia, Pasolini, Bassani, Cassola, and most of the other Italian authors. Nevertheless, many of the writers belonging to the Gruppo 63 had different responses to and personal ways of experiencing the criticism they were transferring to Italy’s recent narrative past. Most of the discussions took place in the monthly journal Quindici, which appeared inRomein 1967. Very soon the Gruppo 63 was declared finished, and the focus became the political activity surrounding the 1968 movement. Quindici itself was short-lived, and the critic and writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016), a member of the Gruppo 63, defined the question of whether literature should be devoted to direct political action. He proposed the criticism of culture as the only direction to take. The lively debate created a variety of literary productions that followed different routes: Some authors continued with neorealism, while others preferred a more experimental technique. Individual creativity offered various solutions, generating a profusion of interesting novels that are difficult to situate in precise categories.
Among those who pursued neorealistic models was Cassola, who was able to combine that vein with an existential motif that distinguishes his works from neorealism. After his most important novel, La ragazza di Bube (1960; Bebo’s Girl, 1962), he wrote L’antagonista (1976; the antagonist), La disavventura (1977; the misfortune), and Un uomo solo (1978; a lonely man). Despite the criticism of him by the Gruppo 63, his novels achieved a distinct public success.
Writers often mixed the realistic flavor and the description of everyday life with an emphasis on universal human values and feelings. This was the case, for example, with Giorgio Saviane (1916-2000), who devoted most of his books to an attentive analysis of peasant culture in the Veneto region and to the values that surrounded it, particularly its religion and sense of sin. These reverberate in many of his books: Il papa (1963; The Finger in the Candle Flame, 1964), the famous Eutanasìa di un amore (1976; euthanasia of a love affair), and Getsèmani (1980; Gethsemane). More part of subaltern culture is Gavino Ledda (born 1938), whose widely read Padre Padrone (1975; my father, my master) recounts the narrative autobiography of a shepherd in Sardinia and who grew up under the care of a traditionally authoritarian father, the last surviving example of the disappearing patriarchal culture of the island.
The Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-first Centuries
such as the Neapolitan Michele Prisco, on the other hand, although starting in the area of neorealistic regionalism and later analyzing the static cultural situation, arrive at a novel centered on psychological analysis and introspection of characters. These themes are revealed by Prisco in Una spirale di nebbia (1966; A Spiral of Mist, 1969), which examines the decay of a bourgeois marriage; I cieli della sera (1970; evening skies); Gli ermellini neri (1975; black ermines); and Le parole del silenzio (1981; the words of silence).
Another novelist who cannot be neglected is Primo Levi (1919-1987), who became immediately famous with the publication after World War II of his nonfiction work Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959; revised as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, 1961). Levi’s autobiographical first novel, La tregua (1963; The Reawakening, 1965), narrates the adventures and the return home of a group of young men after they are liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. Se non ora, quando? (1982; If Not Now, When?, 1985) is also based on the postwar chronicles of Jewish partisans fighting for the rediscovery of their dignity. Jewish characters are also at the center of his last book, a nonfiction work called I sommersi e I salvati (1986; The Drowned and the Saved, 1988).
Among the women writers who in the 1970’s and 1980’s made everyday life and everyday people the centers of their narratives was Lalla Romano (1906-2001), who won the Strega Prize with Le parole tra noi leggere (1969; light words between us). Written like a journal, this novel analyzes with psychological detail the relationship between mother and son. It began a series of narratives, which from L’ospite (1973; the guest) to Ho sognato l’ospedale (1995; I dreamt about the hospital) became increasingly dramatic. Her semiautobiographical La penombra che abbiamo attraversato (1964) was published in English translation as The Penumbra in 1999.
Quite different is the writing of Piero Chiara (1913- 1986), who instead of simply describing the quiet bourgeois life of the Lago Maggiore, especially that of Luino, reverses narrative traditions with his highly sarcastic tone, sometimes reaching the grotesque. This is evident in Il piatto piange (1962; the kitty is short), Il balordo (1967; the fool), La stanza del Vescovo (1976; the bishop’s room), Il cappotto di astrakhan (1978; the Astrakhan coat), and Una spina nel cuore (1979; a thorn in the heart).
Although the description of ordinary life dominated Italian novels of the 1970’s, the ideological novel was not completely abandoned; some writers who pursued it found international fame. Oriana Fallaci (1929-2006), in her more successful stories, chooses a mixture of journalistic narrative and polemical prose to engage either in the issue of abortion, in Lettera a un bambino mai nato (1975; Letter to a Child Never Born, 1976), or in the biography of young Greek dissident Alexandros Panagulis, in Un Uomo (1979; A Man, 1980). Niente e così sia (1969; Nothing, and So Be It, 1972) engages in the political events connected with the Vietnam War, while Insciallah (1990; Inshallah, 1992) translates into fiction stories about oppression in Beirut. Un cappello pieno di ciliege (2008) is a historical novel about Fallaci’s ancestors.
Another genre, the detective novel, grew in popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s in a very peculiar way. The detective novel assumed characteristic national forms and themes in the giallo all’italiana. It is important to study this genre’s evolution in this period to understand its future implications in the novels of Umberto Eco. Following the tradition of Sciascia, Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) puts a fragile and sentimental detective in charge of investigating the mediocre criminality of Milan (I milanesi ammazzano di sabato, 1969; the Milanese kill on Saturday). What is at stake in Scerbanenco’s novels is not the aristocratic murder of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories but the violence and the frustration of crime among the lower classes.
Carlo Fruttero (born 1926) and Franco Lucentini (1920-2002) exploited literary consumerism by creating novels that would easily attract readers. In their cowritten novels, such as La donna della domenica (1972; The Sunday Woman, 1973), Ache punto è la notte (1979; at what stage is the night?), and Enigma in luogo di mare (1991; An Enigma by the Sea, 1994), murder is central, but the detective novel plot is enriched by anumber of characters with peculiarities and problems. The team’s last novel together (both also wrote separately) was I nottambuli (2002).
This genre reached one of its most interesting peaks with Eco’s best seller Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983), which sold about fifty million copies around the world. Eco explained the formidable success of the book by attributing it to the formula he used, that of the detective novel imbued with historical facts and erudite citations, creating a postmodern mixture that attracted readers of every nationality. William of Baskerville, the astute detective and semiotician of The Name of the Rose, in the end fails to solve the murders he was hired to investigate, while the murderer kills himself and burns the building—the library—at the center of the diabolic plot.
Eco demonstrated with his four following novels that The Name of the Rose had not been a fluke. With Il pendolo di Foucault (1988; Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989), Eco returns to the detective novel, but this time he sets the action in the Italian cultural sphere of the 1980’s and surrounds the murders with the aura of conspiracy inherent in the actions of secret orders such as those of the Templars and the Rosicrucians. In L’isola del giorno prima (1994; The Island of the Day Before, 1995), Eco abandons the detective genre in favor of historical fiction, following Manzoni’s legacy but portraying the state of mind, memories, and hallucinations of a young man shipwrecked just off an island in the seventeenth century. Roberto, longing to reach the island that stretches in front of him but unable to swim, dreams and creates possible worlds in which his fantasies and fears are played out, including his desperate love for the beautiful Signora. In La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (2004; The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: An Illustrated Novel, 2005), the main character is an antiquarian book dealer who loses his memory.
No writer of Eco’s generation equaled his international success, but the productions of different kinds of novels in the late twentieth century enriched the Italian literary sphere. Gesualdo Bufalino’s Diceria dell’untore (1981; The Plague-Sower, 1988) achieved much popular and critical success. Bufalino (1920-1996) was unknown at the time his book was published and was already past sixty years old, but the way in which his book narrates the events surrounding war victims who are enmeshed in the degradation of a sanatorium in Sicily is fresh. Bufalino’s admirable style, sometimes elaborate, sometimes crystal clear, always has the effect of a personal and precious testimony of human debasement. Although still admirable, his later books, Museo d’ombre (1982; museum of shadows), Argo il cieco: Owero, I sogni della memoria (1984; Blind Argus: Or, The Fables of Memory, 1988), and Tommaso e il fotografo cieco (1996; Thomas and the Blind Photographer, 2000), did not enjoy the same level of success.
Alberto Bevilacqua (1934-2013) is another writer and film director who became extremely popular in Italy in the second half of the twentieth century. Although his writing style was often under attack, he first was noted in the 1960’s with the novels La Califfa (1965; Califfa, 1969) and the Campiello Prize-winning Questa specie d’amore (1966; this type of love). Enriched by flashbacks, memories, anticipations, and dreamlike events, Bevilacqua’s novels sometimes appear verbose and excessive. When he writes about his hometown, Parma, however, he achieves his most sincere results, as in La festa parmigiana (1980; celebration in Parma), Curioso delle donne (1983; curious about women), or Donna delle meraviglie (1984; the woman of wonders).
Two novelists very different from Bevilacqua are Giuseppe Pontiggia (1934-2003) and Ferdinando Camon (born 1935). Pontiggia relates a journalistic account of the events of contemporary times in a clean and readable style, but not without interpreting and situating the stories in a dreamlike zone, as in Il giocatore invisibile (1978; The Invisible Player, 1988), Il raggio d’ombra (1983; ray of shadow) and La grande sera (1989; Born Twice, 2003), winner of the prestigious Strega Prize. Camon, on the other hand, began by writing about the people of his own area, the Veneto region, and linguistically reproduced the musicality of their way of speaking. His fictional memoirs form a trilogy: Il quinto stato, (1970; The Fifth Estate, 1987), La vita eterna (1972; Life Everlasting, 1987), Un altare per la madre (1978; Memorial, 1983). He later moved to the realistic novel, turning his analysis to introspective and psychological aspects of relationships, as in La malattia chiamata uomo (1981; The Sickness Called Man, 1992), La donna dei fili (1986; the woman of threads), and Il canto delle balere (1989; the whales’ song).
Women also became more prominent as writers in the last decades of the twentieth century. Many, following the legacy of Sibilla Aleramo, chose to focus on the rights of women through the heroines of their novels. Dacia Maraini (born 1936), inspired by history and historical figures to critique the condition of women, made her debut in the 1960’s with the novels La vacanza (1962; The Holiday, 1966), L’età del malessere (1963; The Age of Malaise, 1963), and A memoria (1967; by heart). She is best known, however, for her novels Storia di Piera (1980; story of Piera) and, especially, La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria (1990; The Silent Duchess, 1993), which won the Campiello Prize. She won the 1999 Strega Prize for Buio (1999; Darkness, 2002), a collection of short stories. She was both a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature (2012).
Another feminist writer is Gina Lagorio (1922-2005). After La spiaggia del lupo (1977; the wolf beach), in which she followed the itinerary of a young woman toward emancipation, she published Tosca dei gatti (1983; Tosca of the cats). In this novel, Lagorio portrays the loneliness of a common middle-aged widow, whose heroism consists of her being able to evoke the best qualities in the people who surround her; she is similar to Michele, the main character of Lagorio’s next novel, Golfo del paradiso (1987; the gulf of paradise). Like Maraini, Lagorio turns to history in search of exemplary heroines. In Tra le mura stellate (1991; within starred walls), for example, she remembers Countess Lara, also a writer; in Il bastardo (1996; the bastard), Lagorio relates the love affairs and the vicissitudes of Don Emanuel of Savoy.
Isabella Bossi Fedrigotti (born 1948) found in her family’s home a wealth of historical documents referring to the Italian Risorgimento and used them as sources for her novels. Amore mio uccidi Garibaldi (1980; my love, kill Garibaldi) and Casa di guerra (1983; house of war) are directly inspired by her interest in historiography. She achieved national fame with Di buona famiglia (1991; of a good family), winner of the Campiello Prize, in which two sisters from high society spend their time imagining opposite lives. Fedrigotti has published eleven books, including Il primo figlio (2008). Other popular women novelists include Francesca Duranti (born 1935), also a winner of the Campiello Prize, for Effetti personali (1988; Personal Effects, 1993); Paola Capriolo (born 1962), whose novels include Vissi d’amore (1992; Floria Tosca, 1997), La spettatrice (1995; The Woman Watching, 1998), and L’amico invisibile (2006); and Susanna Tamaro (born 1957), whose Va’dove ti porta il cuore (1994; Follow Your Heart, 1994) was an international best seller and the single best-selling Italian book of the twentieth century. A sequel, Ascolta la mia voce (listen to my voice), was published in 2006.
Countless Italian novelists critique—and have critiqued— society, often through developing in their stories a nostalgia for a lost age. Carlo Sgorlon (1930-2009) shows that in a computer age, human beings have an even greater need to narrate and listen to stories. In Il trono di legno (1973; The Wooden Throne, 1988), he explores the value of writing, and his writing vocation, through the stories of an old carpenter. In Gli dei torneranno (1977; the gods will come back) his focus is on the courageous people (to which he belongs) of the Friuli region in northern Italy, who react to natural disasters with a peculiar strength. In later novels, including La conchiglia di Anataj (1983; Anataj’s seashell), L’armata dei fiumi perduti (1985; Army of the Lost Rivers, 1998), and Il caldèras (1988; the coppersmith), he writes about the victims of history who have been cheated and beguiled by society. In Il regno dell’uomo (1994; the kingdom of man) and La malga di Sîr (1997; the “malga” of Sîr), Sgorlon focuses once again on the everyday lives of the common people of Friuli.
The same belief in the capacity of literature to restore lost values is shared by Raffaele Crovi (1934-2007). Crovi passes from the political interests manifested in his first novel, Il franco tiratore (1968; the sniper), to the denunciation of technology in Il mondo nudo (1975; the naked world), and finally arrives at descriptions of his own personal experiences and the formulation of his creed in his next two novels, La convivenza (1985; living together) and Le parole del padre (1991; the words of the father).
Giorgio Montefoschi (born 1946) prefers to transfigure reality in a dreamlike atmosphere. In La terza donna (1984; the third woman) and La felicità coniugale (1982; happiness in marriage), he takes on the fundamentally abstract concepts of love, time, and existence; he also examines interpersonal relations, especially between husband and wife. Other works include La sposa (2003; the bride), winner of the Mondello Prize, and Le due ragazze con gli occhi verdi (2009; the two girls with green eyes).
In Da Verga a Eco (1989), a study of contemporary Italian novels, Angela Ferraro identifies writers whose fiction implicitly denies the possibility of narration. That is, they wish to deconstruct the novel, choosing to reveal secret narrative mechanisms by showing the contradictions and the inconsistencies of stories. Among these writers is Luigi Malerba (1927-2008), who in Salto mortale (1968; What Is This Buzzing, Do You Hear It Too?, 1969) chooses the detective novel format but subverts it by manifesting different points of view and multiple narrators: The detective, the murderer, and the suspects are all named Giuseppe. Similarly, in Il pianeta azzurro (1986; blue planet), three different narrators recount the same story, but they continuously contradict themselves.
Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012) belongs to this same group of writers of metafiction. His Notturno indiano (1984; Indian Nocturne, 1988) presents a narrator occupied in his search for a lost (or nonexistent) friend. Two discourses are revealed in which the roles are inverted, and the friend searches for the narrator. This disrupts all literary conventions, resulting in the disenchantment of the reader. The same technique is used in Tabucchi’s next novel, Il filo dell’orizzonte (1986; The Edge of the Horizon, 1990), in which linear narration becomes circular; the detective strongly resembles the murdered victim discovered in the beginning of the book. Tabucchi won the Compiella Prize for Sostiene Pereira: Una testimonianza (1994; Pereira Declares: A Testimony, 1995), a thriller about a newspaperman working under Fascism. His other works available in English translation include Si sta facendo sempre più tardi: Romanzo in forma di lettere (2001; It’s Getting Later All the Time, 2006) and Requiem: Uma alucinação (in Portuguese, 1991; in Italian as Requiem: Un’allucinazione, 1992; Requiem: A Hallucination, 1994).
Italian novels of the late twentieth and early twentyfirst centuries reflect on the nature of the text. They also are intent on the implicit deconstruction of the subject. The challenge to narrative structure and the fragmentation of the individual subject do not seem to impair the ongoing proliferation of themes in these novels. On the contrary, modern Italian authors reveal creative ways of approaching the loss of tradition and an optimistic view of the subject’s possibilities.
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