Friday, March 13, 2015

Giovanni Verga's success

How funny.   Tim Parks has just written a blog post about writers who are “stifled by success,” and his primary exhibit is Giovanni Verga.  As usual with Parks’s essays, and with Wuthering Expectations, the more I look at the actual logic and evidence of the argument the more the blog post falls apart, presumably because it was written in great haste.  I know what that looks like, I tell you.

So let’s not look too closely except to pick out some interesting bits.  The two Sicilian novels, The House by the Medlar Tree (1881) and Mastro Don-Gesualdo (1889), which I have not read, are “overly long, muddled works,” damaged by Verga’s misunderstanding of his own achievement, which was the “apparently collective narrative voice” and protagonists who “accept and even engineer their own downfalls because… they have completely internalized society’s judgment… and see nothing strange in their ‘punishment.’”  Which is just what I have been saying about Verga, either this week or when I wrote about him a couple of years ago.

I will read at least one of the novels this year, to see for myself, but I have wondered how Verga’s innovations could work over a lengthier text.  I can imagine the distant, “objective” voice becoming monotonous, or the parade of misery becoming numbing if not too much too bear.  The best places to see that “collective” narrative voice, for example, are in ten page stories like “Malaria,” “Property,” or “Freedom,” which do not appear to have central characters or even plots.  No, “Freedom” has a strong plot – revolution, murder, and a trial – “The judges dozed behind the lenses of their glasses, which froze your heart”.

 Cecchetti includes two longer stories, “Ieli” (1880) and “Black Bread”  (1882) that are about forty pages each.  They both depend more heavily on stories of troubled marriages, on adultery.  They need a little more melodrama to move the story along.

Otherwise, though, “Ieli” is a perfect companion for “Rosso Malpelo.”  The title character is an uneducated boy like Malpelo, but he herds horses and lives outdoors, not in a sandpit.  His life is only ordinarily miserable, not an extreme test case.  He has friends; he marries.  Yet a key moment of his life parallels Malpelo’s.  Leading his herd to a fair at night, one of Ieli’s favorites falls.

As Stellato remained alone in the ravine, waiting for somebody to come and skin him, his eyes still wide open and his four legs stretched out – lucky he, who at last didn’t suffer any more.  Ieli, now that he had seen how the factor had aimed at the colt and fired the shot in cold blood while the poor animal turned his head painfully as if he were human, stopped crying and sat there on a stone, staring fixedly at Stellato until the men came to get the hide.

Ieli remembers the dead horse once more, in a context that links it to the woman he loves and eventually marries.  Although the horse does not reappear, the theme is moved forward in other ways  through the last few sentences of the story.

Parks says that “growing wealthy from his sales,” Verga began to misunderstand his art, thinking he was doing Zola-like anthropology (which is of course not what Zola was actually doing, but certainly what he claimed he was doing, separate argument, never mind).  Cecchetti says that “the only work of his that became widely known was ‘Cavalleria Rusticana,’ thanks to the theater version and to Mascagni’s opera,” and that “[f]ame was to come to Verga after World War I” (xx).  Cecchetti always writes about Verga’s as if he is working on artistic problems, while Parks emphasizes money and status.  Somewhere in between, maybe?  Both?  I do not know.  At this point, the art if all that is left.


  1. Funny that Parks would see the longer works (of which I've read I Malavoglia) as "overly long" and "muddled." I would not have thought that without having read "Rosso Malpelo" today, but it is striking how Verga is able to pack almost as much into that one brief story as he is into a novel 10 or 12 times its length. That's not necessarily a knock on the novel, which is also extraordinary, in part because it submerges the reader in that world without the breathing space of the short form. But one needn't worry too much, I think, about the "parade of misery" becoming numbing or unbearable; Verga's irony - his art - just keeps lifting the narrative up.

  2. "Overly long" and "muddled" when compared to "Rosso Malpelo" hardly seems like a fair comparison, does it? And the comparison can't be to Zola. No shortage of muddle there, some of it deliberate.

    Well, I will try the novel soon. I would guess my thoughts will be more like yours.