Samantha Clark and and Francesco Erspamer
Italy boasts one of the richest literatures in the world, with a tradition dating from the thirteenth century and influencing the development of many genres, including narrative and lyrical poetry, the novella, the pastoral, drama, and opera—but not the novel. It is significant that the most acclaimed Italian novel, Alessandro Manzoni's I promessi sposi (1827, The Betrothed), inescapable reading in Italian schools, has attracted far less attention abroad than works by his contemporaries Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Nikolay Gogol, Charles Dickens, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, all of whom understood that narrative prose, unlike poetry, demanded a continuity and quantity of works, and not quality alone. Manzoni wrote and rewrote a single novel, succeeding in creating a masterpiece and a national treasure but failing to reach the critical mass that would have been needed to establish fiction as the dominant tool for expressing collective feelings and desires. It took almost fifty years before Giovanni Verga and Gabriele D'Annunzio, the greatest novelists of newly unified Italy, started ambitious cycles—end-of-the-century comédies humaines. Still, poetry remained Italy's most prestigious genre until WWII; and when narrative fiction took over, the vast majority of bestsellers were translations of stories imported from the U.S., Northern Europe, and South America. Italian literature's resistance to its democratization and commodification persisted until the last years of the twentieth century. It was Andrea Camilleri, an extremely prolific writer (unlike Manzoni), who finally legitimized mysteries (see DETECTIVE) and other forms of popular fiction, overcoming the scorn of critics and serious authors and providing the Italian novel with the full flexibility that it needed to give voice to a society in rapid transformation.
Love and Politics
Italians responded quickly to the first appearance of the novel. The translation of Miguel de Cervantes de Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) appeared in 1622: two years later Giovan Francesco Biondi published the first of a trilogy of heroic-gallant stories that wavered between the old aristocratic ethos and the bourgeois affirmation of ordinary life. Before the end of the century some two hundred novels had been printed, several of them with considerable success—Giovanni Ambrogio Marini's Colloandro fedele (1652) was still read in the second half of the 1800s. These early works intended to entertain their readers but at the same time to educate them. They proved a powerful tool to reach a larger audience and influence it in a subtler way than poetry or pamphlets. Well aware of that, the Church sent a clear signal: young Ferrante Pallavicino, prolific author of irreverent and libertine novels, was tricked into visiting a territory under Papal jurisdiction, brought to trial, and beheaded. It was bad enough to have blasphemous or heretic ideas, worse to promote them through the deceptive medium of fiction (see CENSORSHIP).
The rise of the Italian novel occurred only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a direct consequence of the Risorgimento (1815—70), the movement for the liberation and unification of Italy. Until then, Italy had remained a mosaic of small states, and lacked the new middle class that elsewhere recognized in the novel the genre best able to express its new interests and priorities. Ugo Foscolo found the formula for success: love and politics, a combination that has dominated Italian narrative ever since. His epistolary novel Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1798, Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis) tells the story of Jacopo's impossible passion for Teresa: ending tragically with the protagonist's suicide, it glorified sentiment over reason, beauty over profit, and idealism over compromise. Jacopo's inner feelings emerge from his personal letters, but his political commitment projects them onto the public sphere, integrating the bourgeois pursuits in the social and the private domains. The novel proved quite influential, and its solemn style and sublime content persuaded the cultural and academic establishment to fully accept it.
Manzoni was even more successful. He understood the urgency of giving Italian fiction a founding masterpiece and for more than twenty years attended to just that. Significantly, he chose to set his Promessi sposi in the seventeenth century, which had seen the birth of European modern fiction, and pretended to be the editor of an old manuscript—the novel that Italy had not had (see FRAME). As in Jacopo Ortis, the plot centers on a problematic love against the backdrop of social unrest and political tensions. There are numerous characters and many points of view: Promessi sposi is a grandiose and minutely detailed fresco of a period and an atmosphere painted from the perspective of the lower classes, of the powerless (see CLASS). However, Manzoni retains control of all aspects of the novel, carefully placing his story within a system of Catholic values and subjecting the thoughts and actions of his characters to the linguistic and conceptual filter of the narrating voice.
The fitting conclusion to this long phase of affirmation was the Confessioni di un Italiano (1857—58, Confessions of an Italian) by Ippolito Nievo, a fictional autobiography of a man born before the French Revolution and still alive on the brink of Italy's unification. Again, personal history and collective development of national identity are woven together, but Nievo also drew from realistic, fantastic, psychological, travel, and adventure narratives, producing a rich synthesis of traditions.
Realism and Insight
After Nievo, northern Italy saw a new literary movement grow during the 1860s—1880s. Called scapigliati (literally: disheveled), these young writers shifted their focus to the individual; they explored the belief that the human psyche is formed and influenced not only by social and visible forces, but by mysterious and even supernatural events. Fosca (1869, Passion), by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, is perhaps the best example of this type of novel. In it, a young soldier is stationed in an isolated village where he encounters the invalid daughter of his captain. Initially repulsed by her ugly looks, he nevertheless falls under her spell, they have a distressing love affair, and he subsequently succumbs to remorse and anxiety.
In 1881, two novels were published—I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar-Tree), by Giovanni Verga, and Malombra, by Antonio Fogazzaro—which captured the essence of the two major directions the Italian novel would take for the last decades of the century. I Malavoglia is considered the masterpiece of verismo (“verism”), with a remarkably dispassionate representation of the populace and their language. It renders a stark portrait of a family of fishermen who barely manage to subsist in the primitive and rigidly structured economy of their village, and was intended to be the start of a ciclo dei vinti (cycle of the losers), examining the human hunger for survival and progress. Mastro-don Gesualdo (1890), the second novel of Verga's projected cycle, tells the story of a self-made man who marries into an impoverished aristocratic family. Italian writers were beginning to embrace the potential of the novel to capture and shape the spirit of the times—an attitude that reveals a transition from considering literature as a product for the elite to a product for the masses.
While Verga examined the environment's influence on people, Malombra was a foray into the internal processes of the human mind and how it interprets its environment. Set in a castle in northern Italy, the novel tells the tale of Marina, a young woman who becomes obsessed with the spirit of one of her ancestors. Marina's interpretation of reality is guided by an aesthetic, rather than a moral code, and her lover, Corrado, feels marginalized because of an unusually high sensitivity to his instincts and feelings—typical themes of decadentismo (see DECADENT). Fogazzaro continued to explore the formation and deformation of the human character in his later novels, but Italian decadentismo found its most accomplished voice in Gabriele D'Annunzio.
D'Annunzio published his first novel, Il piacere (The Child of Pleasure), in 1889. Andrea Sperelli, the protagonist, feels that life is an artistic creation of one's own making. He lives in an exquisite home, really a museum, and collects love affairs much as he collects beautiful objects. His passion is for juxtaposing a variety of aesthetic stimuli in order to observe the effects on himself and on others. Il piacere is a celebration of artistic genius and its right to supersede bourgeois rationalism; it is also highly autobiographical. D'Annunzio lived his life very much along the lines of the characters of his many novels, conducting numerous affairs (including a relationship with famous actress Eleonora Duse) and fighting as a combat pilot during WW I.
Twentieth-century Italian novels express the combined influences of verismo and decadentismo. The former bequeaths a sensitivity to the influence of environmental forces on the individual and an openness to heroes from a broad range of social classes, while decadentismo passes on an obsession with the plasticity of identity and the roles played in this by the individual's conscious affections and unconscious drives. Writers influenced by global scientific and artistic developments struggled to reconcile the desire to find a clear position in the world with the idea that the self is a reflexive construct of the individual—not a fixed, objective entity. Their characters tend to be regular, middle-class figures, abandoning elitism and facilitating the democratization of the novel.
Luigi Pirandello is more celebrated for his work as a playwright, but Il Fu Mattia Pascal (1904, The Late Mattia Pascal) and Uno, nessuno e centomila (1926, One, No one and One Hundred Thousand) make clear that he was an impressive novelist as well. In Mattia Pascal a case of mistaken identity allows Mattia to literally re-create himself, but he eventually kills off his second self and returns home to end his years musing on his strange position as a man with both multiple identities and no identity. A sense of danger and uncertainty pervades Pirandello's novels (and many of his plays) as the protagonists struggle to keep utter nihilism at bay. Similarly, in the narrative of Federico Tozzi, the characters escape from a decaying world but remain trapped in their own fears, desires, and memories, blind to reality—as announced by the title of his most significant novel, Con gli occhi chiusi (1919, With Closed Eyes). The transition to modernity demands a price from its victims: a frightening discontinuity of thought and action, and of actions and results, that Tozzi conveys with stylistic expressionism and fragmented syntax.
Italian modernism reached its peak with Italo Svevo's La coscienzia di Zeno (1923, The Confessions of Zeno). Zeno, the protagonist, ostensibly starts writing his journal as an assignment from his psychoanalyst (see PSYCHOANALYTIC). He wants a diagnosis for his ailments: he is a hypochondriac, addicted to cigarettes, to women, and to his malady, and he suspects that the new science of psychology might be able to provide him with answers. Zeno's queries into the root of desire portray a figure on the brink of a new era, and the final image in the novel is of an apocalyptic explosion.
Family and Nostalgia
A personal identity crisis was not the only vector of development for the Italian novel in the new century. Italy was facing its first real industrialization, and internal emigration from south to north and from the countryside to urban centers began to have a major impact on social conditions and culture. The most important movement that sprang up during this period was futurism, which celebrated speed, youth, the machine, violence, and progress, and saw the future as radically different from the past. Predominantly a visual movement, futurism inspired formal experiments in writing, mostly in the form of poetry. One futurist novel stands out for its new approach to existential questions: Il codice di Perelà (1911, Man of Smoke), by Aldo Palazzeschi. The protagonist, Perelà, a being composed of smoke, descends to earth into a society filled with unseen voices. His difference from the others is immediately apparent and he is both attractive and dangerous to them, observing their world and its flaws from an utterly alien perspective.
The disruption of family tradition proved a popular theme in the early 1900s, when more women started to move out of the private sphere of the home. Grazia Deledda was awarded the 1926 Nobel Prize for literature for her exploration of themes of repressed love within the tight familial structures of Sardinian patriarchal society. However, the most significant feminist book of the time was Sibilla Aleramo's Una donna (1906, A Woman). In this autobiographical novel she described her painful decision to abandon her despotic and unfaithful husband in order to pursue an autonomous life as a journalist and intellectual, despite the fact that according to Italian family law such action meant losing custody of her child.
Most Italian literature from the 1930s—1950s deals directly with contemporary history: the two world wars and the fascist interval, during which many writers faced censorship. This resulted in delayed publication for many novels, such as Il garofano rosso (1948, Red Carnation) by Elio Vittorini, or forced publication abroad, as in the case of Fontamara (1931) by Ignazio Silone (pseud. of Secondino Tranquilli). The war theme developed into literature of the resistance (like Vittorini's Uomini e no, 1945; Men and Not Men) and, more explicitly, Neorealism, which stressed that the war experience was not the expertise of intellectuals and artists, but of every Italian, and highlighted the particular environments of different cities and landscapes. Cesare Pavese was one of the most important writers of this period, though only one of his novels—La casa in collina (1949, The House on the Hill)—deals directly with the war. A translator of contemporary American literature, he inspired and encouraged many younger writers, including Italo Calvino. Pavese's descriptions of the countryside in Paesi tuoi (1941, Your Villages) are some of the most haunting and evocative in the whole of Italian literature, and his last novel, La luna e i falò (1950, The Moon and the Bonfires), examines the human need to return to one's origins—and the hopelessness of a perfect return. Vittorini's Conversazione in Sicilia (1942, Conversations in Sicily) is the story of the same type of quest: upon receiving a letter from his father, a young man travels from the north to his native Sicily. A first-person narrative with a poetic, almost lyrical style, the novel expresses the collective need to come to terms with the wisdom of an ancient past.
Three writers dominated the Italian literary scene in the second half of the 1900s: Alberto Moravia, Calvino, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. They embodied three different conceptions of fiction, different styles, and also three opposing representations of Italian identity. Moravia had an incredibly productive writing career spanning seven decades. While still a teenager he wrote his debut novel and masterpiece, Gli indifferenti (1929, The Time of Indifference), in which a family's economic and moral collapse became an allegory of the discontent and degradation of the bourgeoisie. The plot is minimal: the action takes place over two days and the main event, an attempted murder with an unloaded gun, is an overt allusion to the disconnect between mind and reality.
For Moravia fiction was a means to investigate the role that money and sex play in our society, but for Calvino literature was not only a device but an end in itself. From his neorealist debut, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947, The Path to the Spider's Nest) the story of a young boy adopted by a band of partisans for a season in the mountains, Calvino manifests an extraordinary ability to capture his characters' moments of discovery. His sense of play and fancy, influenced perhaps by his work collecting folktales, matures in the trilogy I nostri antenati (Our Ancestors). In the first novel, Il visconte dimezzato (1952, The Cloven Viscount), a cannonball cleaves Calvino's hero into two opposing halves, the good and the bad. In the second, Il barone rampante (1957, The Baron in the Trees), he imagines an arboreal utopia, and in the third, Il cavaliere inesistente (1959, The Nonexistent Knight), he revisits Ludovico Ariosto's (1474—1533) sixteenth-century chivalric poem Orlando furioso, combining traditional characters with postmodern sensitivity. Experiments in form led him to Il castello dei destini incrociati (1973, The Castle of Crossed Destinies) and Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (1979, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler), later works in which the structure of the novel becomes the true—and only—content.
A counterpoint to this postmodern and ironic detachment from the burden and responsibility of mimesis is Pier Paolo Pasolini. Ragazzi di vita (1955, The Ragazzi) and Una vita violenta (1959, A Violent Life) describe the underclass inhabitants and habitats of postwar Rome, one of the key topics of neorealist literature and film, as an act of resistance against homogenization and standardization (the “genocide of cultures”). Pasolini then turned to cinema but came back to the novel in the last years of his life. His untimely death prevented him from completing his most ambitious work, Petrolio (2005), but the chapters and notes that he left (ed. and pub. 1992) reveal an extraordinary attempt to create an “open” novel, perpetually in progress—and his conviction that only fiction could expose the pervasive and protean essence of neo-capitalism (see METAFICTION).
Moravia's introspection, Calvino's formalism, and Pasolini's corporality are fused in the writing of Carlo Emilio Gadda. His two masterpieces, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1957, That Awful Mess on via Merulana) and La cognizione del dolore (1963, Acquainted with Grief), are founded on the principle that literature's primary scope is COGNITIVE. Only through language is it possible to interpret the world and comprehend its infinite complexity, hence Gadda's use of an emphatic, baroque style with continual variations of tone, including terms and structures from many different argots. Far from being a mere virtuoso of words, Gadda (who was trained and worked as an engineer) experimented with the limits of syntax and vocabulary, seeking a hidden order in the exuberant variety of nature.
Moravia died in 1990, five years after Calvino. The “long” generation that had broken out after WWII and included young authors (like Calvino) and already established ones (like Moravia) came abruptly to an end after half a century of hegemony. Suddenly there was room for new voices. As in the 1940s, most of the debuts were by young authors, eager to win acclaim but also to express their values and desires. The great commercial success, both in Italy and abroad, of Il nome della rosa (1980, The Name of the Rose) by Umberto Eco contributed to the explosion of new writers in the 1990s. It announced the commodification of the Italian novel: a single book could bring celebrity and wealth almost overnight. In the same year, Pier Vittorio Tondelli quickly established himself as the torchbearer of this generation. His first novel, Altri libertini (1980, Other Libertines), depicted new dreams, problems, and emotions of the young in their own jargon, and its homosexual themes—and the charges of obscenity brought against the author—helped make it a cult book (see QUEER). Tondelli used his success to promote other young writers editing the three anthologies Under 25. In his best novel, Camere separate (1989, Separate Rooms), the themes of death, loss, friendship, and diversity ultimately affirm literature's redemptive power. Loss and its consequences also drive the novels of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of a writer about whom very little is known. Ferrante's novels center around women—in I giorni dell'abbandono (2002, The Days of Abandonment), the protagonist goes through a harrowing mental breakdown in her apartment after her husband leaves her. Ferrante's L'amore molesto (1992, Troubling Love) and La figlia oscura (2006, The Lost Daughter) focus on mother—daughter relationships and the process of uncovering troubled memories.
Still, the writer who contributed most to the final evolution of Italian fiction is a coeval of Calvino and Pasolini, Andrea Camilleri. In 1994, aged almost 70, he published the first book about Commissario Montalbano, a police inspector in Vigàta, an imaginary Sicilian town. La forma dell'acqua (1994, The Shape of Water) was a national sensation, despite the fact that the text celebrates an extremely local culture, is laced with Sicilian dialect (incomprehensible to most Italians), and avoids graphic violence or sex. Camilleri's popularity continued to grow in the following years, book after book (almost twenty mysteries in the Montalbano series and at least as many historical novels), making him the bestselling Italian writer of all time and demonstrating that Italy could finally claim a “national-popular” literature—one that implies, as Antonio Gramsci (1891—1937) noted in the 1930s, that writers and people share the same conception of the world.
SEE ALSO: National Literature, Naturalism, Regional Novel, Surrealism/Avant Garde Novel.
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