Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Re-introducing Giovanni Verga - to myself, I guess - a “hard bed on the ground” became a “hard biscuit”

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.


  1. Deadulus Books has several translations, modern ones I think; do you know them?

  2. One of the Dedalus collections is hidden in that link, which goes to the Argumentative Old Git. Most of the others are novels, which I have not read. This one has the story "Temptation" I mention above, and in fact features it on the cover. That cover is shudderingly awful, moreso knowing the story.

    Some of their translations are more contemporary, and some are D. H. Lawrence.

  3. I've often wondered about the university libraries and the casual way one can borrow (walk out the door) these 'cultural relics.'
    I've been looking at Verga so thanks for the D.H. Lawrence heads-up/warning.

  4. "the olive trees instead of 'fading gradually in the twilight,' 'fumed upon the twilight'"... What could Lawrence have though that meant?

  5. When it comes to Maupassant, I have my doubts about his superiority. Maupassant has always given me the impression of being like the son of high school football coach Flaubert, who's assigned to his kid the role of quarterback, regardless of merit. Borges once said that, compared to the complex short stories written by Kipling (or was it Henry James?), Maupassant's tales were like something written by a child, IIRC.

  6. Well, superior to this Verga story! Which is really a ripoff of Dumas fils, not Maupassant. But Maupassant gives the general idea.

    When I read 70 or 80 Maupassant stories a a few years ago, I was a little surprised that so many of them, ones that had been specially picked by anthologists and translators, were throwaways.

  7. You're going to quote some more of Verga's prose, aren't you? Yes, yes, Himadri quotes him, but still.

  8. Quote more, very funny, very, very funny. What you have here is a throat clearing post meant more to generate another post which if I am lucky will contain some actual thought or criticism and at the least some good prose written by someone else.

    Maybe someday I should just post the word "ahem" repeated 500 times.

    1. No, this is a good post! The Lawrence stuff is delightful and funny. One is tempted to translate his work into bad Italian. Those sorts of anecdotes are pure gold, man.

    2. Eh, it's okay. I do love the Lawrence stuff. If you only could have seen my eyes goggle out when I read that passage. If only I could have seen it, come to think of it. I should film myself reading and post the results on Youtube. That has to be as interesting as watching people takes books out of a box.

  9. I've been waiting for you to return to Verga, so yay. I have heard from translators that D. H. Lawrence took quite a few liberties with Verga, but that didn't stop me from enjoying Little Novels. Apparently, he must have tried his pal Constance Garnett's approach of just barreling through like an express train and making up stuff where problematic words appeared.

    I plan to go over this afternoon to raid my library's cultural relics, assuming they have an available copy of the Cecchitti or at least of the Penguin.

  10. Yes, get a book with "Rosso Malpelo" in it, that's what you want. That's what I will write about if'n I can find the energy.

  11. In the collections available please don’t overlook "Liberty". Verga in plain speech writes about an event that happened in Bronte at the arrival of “The Thousand” that presages what's in store for Sicily and the rest of the Mezzogiorno as a result to the unification of Italy.

  12. sorry about the typo . . ".result of" not "result to".

  13. I glimpsed at "Liberty" a couple of years ago. It's another great one. Your word "presages" is helpful - the line from Verga to Sciascia is clearest in "Liberty."

  14. Lawrence really was an oddball, wasn't he? If he made mistakes as glaring as those cited in your post, one does wonder to what extent he could have appreciated Verga, having read him only in the language he so imperfectly understood. And to set out to translate from a language so imperfectlyunderstood seems like madness! I may seek out some of Lawrence's translations - but mainly to enhance my understanding of Lawrence rather than that of Verga.

    Lawrence also translated Ivan Bunin's "The Gentleman from San Francisco". I don't think Lawrence knew much Russian, if any at all, but at least in this venture he worked with S. S. Koteliansky. Even so, I think I prefer more modern versions of Bunin.

  15. I think reading his Verga did help me with Lawrence, actually. Increased my sympathy. We both like Verga! Although I do not like Verga enough to try to translate him by means of an English-Italian dictionary.