In an irritating but inevitable Wuthering Expectations first, I missed a post because, staggered by illness, I was too weak to write or even read. Evidence suggests I am again capable of writing, although I suspect I am still too weak to think.
I have no complaints, though, since I was not afflicted with typhoid, or worse, the malaria, as are so many of the Sicilians Giovanni Verga writes about in his comic 1883 masterpiece Little Novels of Sicily:
And truly the malaria gets into you with the bread you eat, or if you open your mouth to speak as you walk, suffocating in the dust and sun of the roads, and you feel your knees give way beneath you, or you sink discouraged on the saddle as your mule ambles along, with its head down. (“Malaria”)
They had it rough, those Sicilians back then, before the big wave of American emigration. “During the ‘fifties and ‘sixties,” writes translator D. H. Lawrence in his introduction to the book, “Sicily is said to have been the poorest place in Europe: absolutely penniless.” I might want a qualifier or two to remove that “is said,” but they would be reasonable qualifiers.
Verga, in a long career, wrote other books about other walks of life, sentimental romances and so on, but it is his cluster of books about Sicilian peasants that have lasted, both in Italy and abroad: The House by the Medlar Tree (1881), Mastro Don Gesualdo (1889), and more short stories, including “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1880), the source of the opera (I have not read any of these, not yet). The advocacy and skillful translations of Lawrence have surely helped keep Verga alive, up to a point, in English. Stylistically, I do not see all that much in common with Lawrence, but all of the misery and brutality and hopelessness likely reminded him of home. Zola is another connection that seems more theoretical than stylistic.
Now, Chekhov, that one I can hear, even though the two authors worked without knowledge of each other. Facing similar problems, they developed similar tools: distant narrators, a sense of ironic comedy in the face of the most horrifying tragedy, and a sparse use of fancy language. Verga has a touch of Sholem Aleichem in him too, when he gets close to his characters:
Only one thing grieved him, and that was that he was beginning to get old, and he had to leave the earth there behind him. This was an injustice on God’s part, that after having slaved one’s life away getting property together, when you’ve got it, and you’d like some more, you have to leave it behind you. And he remained for hours sitting on a small basket, with his chin in his hands, looking at his vineyards growing green beneath his eyes, and his fields of ripe wheat waving like a sea, and the olive groves veiling the mountains like a mist, and if a half-naked boy passed in front of him, bent under his load like a tired ass, he threw his stick at his legs, out of envy, and muttered: “Look at him with his length of days in front of him ; him who’s got nothing to bless himself with!” (“Property”)
Verga has his own tricks, though, some good, good tricks, which if I am lucky I will write about later. I used the word “comic” up above and will perhaps return to it if I ever get my thinking cap on straight again.