Giovanni Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree (1881).
This novel was kinda hard. I rarely say that. Verga sets up a Sicilian family, not exactly poor – they own a boat and the house seen in the English title – and proceeds to systematically grind them to powder. Unpleasant in its way, but not what I mean by difficult. I mean Verga made me work a little bit. The tough part comes in Chapter 2, when, after the short introduction of the Malivoglia family in the first chapter, Verga plunges into the village, introducing dozens of intertwined characters, little tags or relations or something to give poor me a hope of remembering them, if there were not so many at once.
Since Don Franco was an educated person he read the newspaper and made the others read it too; and he also had the History of the French Revolution, which he kept handy under the glass mortar, and so, to kill time, he quarreled all day long with Don Giammaria, the parish priest, and they both made themselves sick with bile, but they couldn’t have lived through a day without seeing each other. (18)
Pretty good in isolation, but a couple of lines later add in “Don Michele, the sergeant of the customs guard… and also Don Silvestro, the town clerk” plus “the Mangiacarrube girl, one of those girls who sit at the window, as brazen as they come” (20) and then “La Zuppidda, the wife of Mastro Turi, the caulker, suddenly popped up” (21). Two pages earlier I had been told, by other characters, that Don Silvestro is interested in La Zuppidda’s daughter, but has been refused, “’[w]hich means that Mastro Turi Zuppiddo prefers the eggs of his own hens,’ Master ‘Ntoni replied” (19). Several characters have multiple names, too. The edition I read has a Cast of Characters at the beginning, thank goodness.
Many readers say they like novels, as opposed to short stories, because novels are “immersive.” They should love The House by the Medlar Tree. Kersplash! Maybe that is not whatthey mean by “immersive.”
“Don Giammaria is having fried spaghetti for dinner tonight,” Piedipapera declared, sniffing in the direction of the parish house windows.
Don Giammaria, passing by on his way home, greeted all of them, even Piedipapera, because, times being what they were, you had to keep on the good side of even such troublemakers; and Piedipapera, whose mouth was still watering, shouted after him: “Say, Don Giammaria, fried spaghetti tonight, eh!”
“Hear that! Even what I eat!” Don Giammaria muttered through his teeth. “They even spy on God’s servants to count every mouthful they take!” (28)
A few more lines with the priest, not a particularly important character in the novel, and Verga hops to another character. Verga is going to give everyone’s point of view, maybe just for a line, just a single thought, which as here is not really about spaghetti but is rather a comment, usually somehow resentful, about some other character. Verga’s Sicilians are not exactly models of solidarity.
“I’m very glad about it,” said Uncle Crocifisso, who’d also come to watch, his hands clasped behind his back. “We’re Christians, and one must be happy over other people’s good fortune. The proverb says: ‘Wish your neighbor well, because you too will profit.’” (56)
This particular character is a monster, and thus the perfect character for this speech. The terrible irony is that in Verga’s world, this sort of sentiment has to be spoken aloud. People have to be reminded of it. And even then, they don’t mean it.
I read the Raymond Rosenthal translation. It is, Giovanni Cecchetti writes, the first English translation of the complete text. Earlier versions (by Mary Craig and Eric Mosbacher) cut a fifth of the text for the usual prudish reasons, so avoid those.