Grazia Delleda’s After the Divorce (1902) is a novel written a lot like a lot of novels are written now. I would not have guessed it was so old. Information is handed out as needed, not all at once. The writer lingers on minor details. Not every dang thing is explained every dang time.
On the floor by the bed in the Porrus’ guest room a woman wept. She crouched, rocking her head on her arms, sobbing in utter despair. Her shapely figure, tightly laced into a yellow cotton bodice, rose and sank like a wave on the sea. (1)
Then a little bit of this and that in the room, a cricket, a bit of sky where “a single yellow star shone” – yellow again, too bad I didn’t keep an eye on that – and the sound of a horse’s hoof on the cobbles. The point of view is at some distance, impassive, willing to let the woman weep.
Soon enough – next paragraph, we get a name (Giovanna) and a place (Nuoro, the Sardinian town where the author was born). The characters, setting, and story fill out. Giovanna’s husband is on trial for murder. What will happen to her when he is sent away?
‘The new divorce law is going to be passed soon,’ Paolo said. ‘A woman whose husband is serving a long sentence can become free again.’ (8)
That short first chapter, along with the title of the novel, gives a pretty good idea about what goes on in After the Divorce.
Deledda wrote frequently about the Sardinian peasants from her home, and all of their trials, errors, bad luck, and superstitions. The husband here, for example, is not really defending himself from an accusation of murder because he feels he is being deservedly punished for marrying Giovanna in a civil ceremony, not in church. You idiot. Well, where would fiction be without such people?
Giovanni Verga’s dry stories of Sicilian peasants from twenty years earlier are a reference point, although to me this novel sounds nothing like Verga, even if Deledda shares his compassionate brutality, but is rather quite French. Zola, Flaubert, that crowd. A distant narrator, mostly limited third person moving easily among characters, details turned into motifs, metaphors mostly limited to the world of the characters, bursts of descriptive excess amidst the plainness:
The windows, whose stone sills burned in the sun, looked out over the whole village, blackish-brown, like a pile of spent charcoal, under its green veil of trees. Beyond lay the yellow plain and the great purple-grey sphinxes. In the burning afternoon silence, the incessant peal of the church bell sounded like the clang of a chisel working wearily away far-off in the centre of those mountains. (115)
Yellow again. I had not noticed that until I began assembling this post. Oh well. How I would like to visit Sardinia. I could visit the Museo Deleddiano.
I would read another Deledda novel. I will read etc. A priest names Elias Portolu is a minor character in After the Divorce. Her next novel, available in English, is titled Elias Portolu. Maybe I should try that one next.
Page numbers from the 1995 Northwestern University Press edition translated by Susan Ashe.