I have here beside me the second edition of a collection of Sicilian fiction writer Giovanni Verga stories, The Sea-Wolf and Other Stories, as translated by Giovanni Cecchetti. This book is superb but long out of print, now a priceless cultural relic. Can you believe that a university library let me walk out the door with it?
The Penguin collection that is in print has lots of overlap with The Sea-Wolf, and I am sure it is fine. Then there are the D. H. Lawrence translations of Verga’s original collections, Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories and Little Novels of Sicily. The former has the same title as the Penguin and has become rare (although there is a more recent translation); the latter is easy to find, and I enjoyed it a lot myself. These two collections hold the core Verga stories, the masterpieces, “Rosso Malpelo” and “Malaria” and “Property” and so on. Great, great stories.
This is Cecchetti on Lawrence:
Lawrence did not know Italian sufficiently well, nor did he have enough time to do justice to the original. As a result his Verga is full of oddities. He misunderstood or misread many Italian words, so that “a picnic in the country” became “the ringing of the bells,” a fiancée” became a “wife,” a “mother” a “midwife,” a “hard bed on the ground” a “hard biscuit”… (the list goes on for a while, p. xxii)
A hard biscuit! I didn’t notice anything like this, which is embarrassing. Perhaps I just put it down to Lawrence being an oddball. Well, read Lawrence’s Verga in the appropriate spirit.
Cecchetti does something curious and almost destructive. He ends his collection with an 1874 story, “The Mark X,” that is “an example of the author’s early writing” (xxi) and is also terrible, a cheap French knockoff shifted to Milan. A beautiful woman in a mask, instant love, tuberculosis. A few years later Maupassant was going to churn out superior versions of these by the cartload.
I assume Cecchetti thought it was more shocking to put this exemplary story at the end of the book rather than in its chronological place. It is shocking. Soon after writing this story, Verga began to develop a new style and new subject: stories of hard-scrabble Sicilian peasant life told in a distant manner, made highly ironic because of the distance, a chronicle of misery told without judgment or sometimes almost with approval. The fluff about chasing consumptive beauties around La Scala disappears.
Verga did turn his attention back to Milan, but it was to apply the new style to Milanese misery, like the 1884 “Temptation” where three ordinary fellows are step by step led to a terrible crime. Led by what or whom is the central, frightening question. Or the 1883 “Buddies,” a battle from the soldiers point of view, which may hint at Verga’s debt to Stendhal:
There Gallorini was hit. A bullet broke his arm. Malerba wanted to help him.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, leave me alone?” (231)
Awfully plain, but plain is not the way I remember his best stories.
It is strange that Verga wrote his great Sicilian tales, two novels and two books of stories, while living in Milan, and stranger that after a decade of them he returned to Sicily and gave up writing. He would live for another thirty years.